Let’s Play Two

Oh the irony. It just ain’t fair.

As the paralyzing cold of January gives way to the anticipation of warm sun and pitchers and catchers reporting in a few weeks, and just as the wise the guys of winter pick next October’s World Series winner – oh the bitter irony, some actually pick the Cubs to win – Ernie dies.ernie-banks

Ernie Banks, Mr. Cub, the greatest Cub in that lousy losing franchise’s pathetic history is gone. I thought he would live forever. If anyone should have Ernie should have.

It would just be like the baseball Gods to finally – after a short interval of 107 years – permit the Cubs to win the World Series this year. We know that it will have to be a matter of divine intervention when it does happen. The Cubs, with more than a century of championship futility blowing in their faces like a stiff wind off Lake Michigan, can’t possibly do it with mere players on the field. A good general manager in a luxury suite won’t get it done. And inept owners like the Ricketts family can’t possibly make it happen. Blame poor Steve Bartman all you want. It’s a sure thing. God will have to intervene for the Cubs to win. I hope she is listening.

Who among us who love the great game would deny that its time for Wrigley to host a World Series? Long-suffering Cub fans deserve to have something to do during the playoffs. “Wait until next year” is the baseball equivalent of “mistakes were made.” It’s old and worn out. But, oh the irony if – OK, when – it happens the greatest Cub of all will have to watch on the ultimate satellite TV hook-up. Mr. Cub is gone.

Ernie Banks died, one must surmise, with a smile on his mug. He was probably thinking about stepping in against Bob Gibson, looking for a fastball and planning to drive it into the ivy. Ernie, it seemed, President-Barack-Obama-awards-Baseball-Hall-of-Famer-Ernie-Banks2never had a bad day. During a long and illustrious career that began in the Negro Leagues he hit 512 of them out of ballparks. He was the best power hitting shortstop to ever play the game. He signed autographs. He charmed crusty writers. That White Sox fan in the White House gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He deserved it.

Ernie really did say on a hot afternoon during another long hot summer at Wrigley that it was such a nice day that they oughtta play two. No one plays doubleheaders anymore. Ernie would have played a twin bill every day and then hung around for extra batting practice and to take a few more ground balls.

Just as the Cubs are looking better Mr. Cub has left for the ultimate spring training.

When he checked in up there – Ernie was always early – he probably showed St. Peter his highly polished spikes, pumped his left hand into the pocket of his glove, offered the old gatekeeper an autograph and asked where he could suit up.

If heaven really exists, it must be like Wrigley on a long, bright summer afternoon. The sky is deep blue. The clouds are fluffy and white. The breeze is cool. The seats are filled with smiling folks and the organ music is loud and just a little off key. Four of five guys dressed in red and white striped shirts and wearing straw boaters are playing ragtime in the concourse under the grandstand. Everything is green and there are no owner’s boxes and no obstructed views. The hot dogs and mustard are plentiful, the peanuts are fresh, the beer is cold and it’s all free in this heaven.

Ernie will trot out to short, shouting encouragement to his teammates. Is that Joe Cronin at second? Gehrig at first? Ernie shouts to the pitcher – today its Lefty Grove – and says, “Groove it, Lefty. This guy’s got nothing.” Honus Wagner steps in and smiles. Musial is on deck, smiling. Everyone is smiling. Even Ty Cobb in center is smiling. Joe Jackson is smiling in left. Ernie knows he didn’t do it. The umps are smiling. Ernie is smiling. Of course, Ernie is always smiling.

If there is a God, Ernie is working on her. “It’s about time,” he’ll says. “Like George Will said, everyone can have a bad century. Don’t you think it’s about time? Wrigley is such a nice place in the fall. Maybe we should play two.”

She’s smiling. It might work. How do you say no to Ernie Banks?  When the Cubs do make it, credit Ernie.

Study History

“Study history, study history,” Winston Churchill said long ago . “In history lies all the secrets of statecraft.”

I was reminded of those wise words from the 06n25churchill-382089great man recently during the latest dust up concerning the state of Idaho, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and two former Idaho governors.

I’ll leave it to the former governors, Phil Batt and Cecil D. Andrus, to press their case as to why top Idaho officials are mistaken in granting DOE a second “waiver” permitting shipments of commercial spent nuclear fuel (SNF) to the Idaho National Laboratory (INL). My perspective, as Churchill  would suggest, is to remind us of the “history” behind the current and historical controversies. The two former governors share a lot of history with the Department of Energy.

Full disclosure requires that I mention for anyone who doesn’t know that I worked for Cece Andrus years ago, covered both men as a reporter, admire them greatly and consider both among the very best public officials Idaho has ever produced. Rather than a defense of their recent objections I offer some history that helps explain, I think, why Batt and Andrus feel as they do.

Begin at the beginning…

Senator-Harry-S.-TrumanTruman’s initial effort to find out what was going on in great secrecy at Hanford was politely rebuffed by Secretary of War Henry Stimson. Truman persisted, going so far as to send a committee investigator to the Hanford site. His investigator was turned away. As Truman biographer David McCullough has written in his extraordinary book Truman, the feisty Missourian grew annoyed at the stonewalling and became determined to press hard for answers about what his government was doing. Stimson, now annoyed himself, refused to tell the senator anything while writing in his diary, “Truman is a nuisance and a petty and untrustworthy man. He talks smoothly but acts meanly.” Truman would not learn about the Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb until he had been President of the United States for twenty days.

As McCullough writes regarding the development of an atomic weapon, “In less than three years the United States has spent $2 billion, which was not the least of the hidden truths, and, one way or the other, 200,000 people had been involved, only a few having more than a vague idea of what it was about. That the diligent chairman of the Truman Committee had known so little was a clear measure of how extremely effective security had been.” McCullough notes that neither General Douglas MacArthur or Admiral Chester A. Nimitz “or a host of others in high command” knew what was going on.

As I said, the nuclear age was born in secrecy without even the most basic degree of oversight. War time security certainly demanded a high degree of secrecy around the Manhattan Project, but in hindsight it seems impossible to justify that such a massive undertaking with such world-changing consequences should have been conducted completely in the dark. A bomb was born along the Hanford Reach of the Columbia in the 1940’s, but so too was a culture. Remnants of that old culture of secrecy, fueled by a belief that only a handful of highly trained people can know what’s best for the country and that pesky oversight is a “nuisance,” survived long into the Cold War.

For decades as the U.S. nuclear weapons program developed, the arid high desert in eastern Idaho became the home for much of the detritus of wipp01the nuclear age. Much of the weapons production was done at the Rocky Flats DOE site just north of Denver, Colorado. Tools, protective clothing and other materials contaminated during the weapons production process was routinely sent to Idaho for “disposal.” In the early days, the
disposal was something less than “state of the art” with flimsy boxes dumped in ditches scratched out of the desert soil and covered over. Later the material was packed in 55 gallon drums and stacked more safely on pads. The nuclear junk, often referred to as transuranic or TRU waste, piled up in Idaho for years.

Seeking Answers…

When then-Governor Andrus started asking questions in the 1970’s about why any waste was being “stored” in Idaho above the vast Snake River Aquifer he was told that the “storage” was “interim” pending the development of a suitable permanent repository. Andrus exchanged correspondence with the director of what was then called the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), a forerunner of the current Dix Lee RayDepartment of Energy. The AEC was run at the time by a pugnacious, opinionated woman named Dixie Lee Ray, a marine biologist by training and an unabashed champion of nuclear energy. Ms. Ray, whose personality and to be truthful physical appearance, resembled a bulldog, later served one contentious term as governor of Washington. Her toxic spats with the Olympia press corps were legendary in those days. She named the pigs she kept at her Fox Island farm after individual Statehouse reporters. You get the idea. Dixie Lee Ray was one of those smart people who knew what was best for the country.

Shortly before Andrus went off to Washington to serve as Secretary of the Interior in Jimmy Carter’s Cabinet, Dixie Lee Ray wrote the governor that the AEC had a plan to dispose of the waste material stored in Idaho and it would be “removed by the end of the decade.” Usually public officials don’t make such certain claims unless they are sure they can follow through, or they are merely dissembling. Andrus assumed the best regarding the assurances from the head of the AEC even though he had crossed swords with federal officials in the early 1970’s when Idaho turned up on a short list of states being considered as national waste disposal sites. Andrus convened a “blue ribbon commission” at the time, which not surprisingly made the case that eastern Idaho – in large part because of the aquifer and active seismic activity – was a horrible place to dispose of waste. Seeds of distrust were deeply planted.

It’s worth a short digression here to note that the historical lack of oversight of DOE and its predecessor agencies has been a completely bi-partisan failing. Democrats and Republicans in Congress and in Idaho, as well as presidents of both parties, largely let the nation’s nuclear policy, including what to do with all the waste material, basically become an issue that was out of sight and therefore out of mind. It has long been an article of faith in Idaho politics that any statewide candidate had to embrace the state’s DOE site and welcome virtually any decision DOE made regarding the facility. Idaho is far from unique in this regard. The same dynamic exists in other states like Washington or South Carolina were a big DOE influence is felt in the economy. To use Tip O’Neill’s famous phrase, the DOE jobs and budgets make all politics local. That is both understandable as politics and regrettable as public policy. It’s far easier, of course, to praise the economics and avoid the oversight. As an historical matter this really only started to change in the 1980’s.

Creating a New Agency…

One of Jimmy Carter’s lasting legacies was to propose and sign into law the legislation creating of the U.S. Department of Energy which took place in August 1977 early in Carter’s administration. As DOE notes on its website, “The Department of Energy Organization Act of 1977 created one the most james-schlesinger-dies-665x385interesting and diverse agencies in the Federal government.” The scope of the DOE mission from weapons to waste, from research to reactor safety is about as “diverse” as any in the federal government. Carter made the new expansive agency even more interesting by putting the arrogant, pugnacious empire builder James Schlesinger in charge as the first secretary. It wasn’t one of Carter’s better personnel decisions.

Schlesinger, an economist by training, cut his political teeth in the Nixon Administration as a budget official and for a brief time as director of the Central Intelligence Agency before Nixon moved him to the Department of Defense. When Gerald Ford became president Schlesinger stayed on, but Ford – a better judge of character than Nixon – quickly came to dislike him.

As the Washington Post noted in Schlesinger’s obituary last year: “His aloof, arrogant manner,” as Ford described it, was off putting to the president. “I never could be sure he was leveling with me,” Ford told historian Walter Isaacson, and soon he was gone.

Schlesinger, a Republican, then supported Ronald Reagan against Ford in james-r-schlesinger-1976 and when Reagan lost the nomination Schlesinger switched sides to support Carter and become his energy adviser. On such turns of history are historically bad appointments made. The pipe smoking Schlesinger, a man steeped in the petty intrigues of Washington and the culture of secrecy at the CIA and the Pentagon, was just the man not to take a fledging Department of Energy into a new era of transparency and public accountability.

Andrus, I should note, observed a good deal of the creation of the new agency from a front row seat in the Carter Cabinet. The Interior Department had to assist with the birthing of DOE by transferring personnel and programs, including the northwest’s great legacy of the New Deal the Bonneville Power Administration, to the new Department of Energy.

Fast forward to 1987 and Andrus’ return to the Idaho Statehouse. During his first visit after returning to the  governorship to what was then called the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, Andrus began asking questions, the same kind of questions he had asked in the 1970’s about that old Rocky Flats waste. Recall that he had been promised by Dixie Lee Ray that the TRU waste would be leaving Idaho “by the end of the decade” – the decade of the 1970’s – and now it was a good ten years later. In fact, the waste wasn’t leaving, but was continuing to accumulate due primarily to DOE’s inability to jump the regulatory hurdles required to open a permanent disposal site in New Mexico. The delays in opening the so called WIPP site in New Mexico involved both mismanagement and a lack of national will. DOE couldn’t get on the same page with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the project faltered for years and years.

Andrus went to New Mexico to see for himself and understand the delays. It’s fair to say he came away frustrated and feeling deceived by old promises not kept. Upon returning to Idaho he wrote a famous letter to then Energy Secretary James Watkins, a imperious four-star Navy Admiral accustomed to giving orders but out of his depth when it came to pulling and hauling the vast DOE bureaucracy into action. Andrus informed the admiral’s DOE that he was stopping shipments of Rocky Flats waste pending progress on the New Mexico site and later took similar action to halt shipment to Idaho of spent reactor fuel from the U.S Navy’s nuclear fleet. DOE had the responsibility of permanently disposing of that material, as well. Spent commercial waste from a nuclear power plant in Colorado was next and eventually action in federal court in Idaho.

The Andrus actions were both unprecedented and politically controversial. When Navy spent fuel started piling up at the Bremerton Navy Yard, Democratic Congressman Norm Dicks, a burly former football player who represented the area in Congress, howled and threatened. Virginia Senator John Warner said the governor a tiny western state was impacted national security by causing the undesirable spent fuel to sit in a port in Warner’s home state. Idaho Senator Larry Craig blasted the actions as damaging to INEL and some predicted the demise of the facility.

The national failures of nuclear waste policy rather suddenly became a issue no longer out of sight, but on the pages of the New York Times. The politicians, like Dicks and Warner, who wanted waste out of their states and in remote Idaho had to confront troubling and thorny issues. Those who blasted Andrus for threatening the Idaho facility soon found that sensible approaches to waste management trumped political bombast.

And apparently Idahoans understood what Andrus was doing, as well as what was at stake for Idaho and the nation. He was overwhelming re-elected in 1990. Shortly thereafter he was appointed to head, along with Minnesota Attorney General Skip Humphrey, a joint effort of the nation’s governors and attorneys generals to create a better regulatory scheme for federal facilities, including those operated by DOE and the Defense Department. Congress passed the Federal Facilities Compliance Act in 1992 as a direct result of the Andrus-Humphrey work and thanks to the personal interest of then-Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell.

rocky-flats-2As the Environmental Protection Agency notes on its website the federal facilities law required federal agencies to do something they had not been compelled to do before – observe federal, state and local laws related to hazardous materials. The law also waived federal “sovereign immunity” allowing the government to be taken to court over compliance issues.

 Andrus continued to shadow box DOE throughout his final term as governor, all the while maintaining that the agency born in secrecy and charged with such an expansive mandate could only be compelled to keep commitments through legally binding agreements. He persisted in making the case that Idaho was not a suitable place to store, even temporarily, nuclear materials. Promises, he had learned, were not enough.

Governor Batt, who succeeded Andrus in the Governor’s Office in 1995, took up the cause where his predecessor left off. Through hard work that featured several showdowns with DOE and the brass hats who ran the nuclear navy, Batt fashioned a legally binding settlement agreement with DOE. The agreement specified deadlines for waste disposal and treatment and detailed fines that might be levied on DOE. Like Andrus’ earlier actions the Batt Agreement was controversial and eventually became a ballot issue in 1996. Some thought Batt had given way too much, others thought his demands on DOE would harm the Idaho lab. But the governor had skillfully negotiated a unique deal for Idaho – deadlines and penalties – and once the issues were debated Idaho voters backed their governor and his agreement, which has now been in effect for nearly 20 years.

As the state Department of Environmental Quality notes on its website, when the Batt Agreement was signed: “there were 261 metric tons of heavy metal from spent fuel, 65,000 cubic meters of stored transuranic wastes, another 62,000 cubic meters of buried transuranic waste, approximately 2 million gallons of high-level liquid waste and 3,700 cubic meters of calcined (dried liquid) waste already stored at the INL when Governor Batt took office. Until the Settlement Agreement there was no legally binding commitment to remove any of this waste from Idaho until Governor Batt reached his agreement with federal officials.”

The current Idaho controversy has been sparked by a second “waiver” to this agreement. The waiver allows commercial spent nuclear fuel to come to Idaho for research purposes and, one assumes, storage for some period. The state says the “waiver” will only go into effect when DOE comes up with a new plan to meet milestones spelled out in the Batt Agreement, but, of course, those are milestones the agency has already missed. 

It is only right and fair to acknowledge that the Department of Energy has made great progress over the last decade or so on many waste issues in Idaho and elsewhere in the DOE complex. Thousands of dedicated people are working diligently to deal with environmental problems that literally date back to Harry Truman. Not surprisingly the massive effort is far from completed and remains both complex and extraordinarily expensive. The New Mexico site that had accepted significant amounts of the old Rocky Flats waste, for example, has been forced to indefinitely suspended shipments following an accident involving a breech of a waste drum. The Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper reported last week that the re-opening of the facility is “months behind schedule.” Obviously this impacts some of the material still in Idaho.

Additionally, the national plan to dispose of commercial reactor spent fuel, some of which will likely come again to Idaho under the agreed to yucca_tunnel0901waiver, has been stuck in neutral since the Obama Administration stopped work on the proposed Yucca Mountain disposal site in Nevada. Republicans in Congress are hoping to put the site back on the table, but for political reasons alone this seems unlikely any time soon.

The current Idaho controversy over waiving provisions of an agreement mandated by a federal court has been easily dismissed by some as simply not a big deal. Considered in isolation it might not be a big deal. But when you study the history and understand that the terms of Phil Batt’s agreement with DOE extend for 20 more years, and that Idaho meanwhile remains host to very significant amounts of material that should be disposed of some place else, the current controversy is more easily seen as part of a storyline that goes back a long, long way. This story will also continue long after many of us are gone.

The nation’s nuclear history is riddled with controversy and certainly a historic lack of planning for waste disposal. The history is also unfortunately wrapped in the legacy of an entire industry born in secrecy, which until relatively recently was unburdened by anything resembling vigorous oversight. It is a simple fact that Republican and Democratic administrations in Washington have been confounded by nuclear waste problems for generations and policy makers remain confounded today.

Churchill was right – in the study of history are all the secrets of statecraft. In the current case, one secret might be to clutch a hard fought and legally binding agreement close to the vest against all efforts to modify it, even a little. Given the long history and the timelines that extend far into the future the integrity of Idaho’s agreement with the Department of Energy will prove to be mighty important over the next 20 years. The state’s decades of experience with the DOE and the waste that hardly anyone believes should be in Idaho also helps explain why the two former governors – a Republican and a Democrat – so adamantly oppose modifications to the 1995 agreement.

DOE Secretaries come and go. Governors do, too. Legal agreements, as long as they are enforced, don’t.

Not the Party of Lincoln

130205_abraham_lincoln_ap_605_605Abraham Lincoln is the one American president everyone claims, well almost everyone. Lincoln is the model of principled leader, the shrewd strategist navigating through the most severe crisis the nation has ever faced. His writing skills astound. His humor, much of it self deprecating, was a marvel. I can make the case that Lincoln invented the role of commander-in-chief and despite his lack of education in military matters he became a better strategist than any of his generals, including Grant.

Lincoln’s Social and Economic Policy

In one year of his presidency, 1862, Lincoln signed four nation changing acts. One was the Homestead Act, a massive transfer of wealth to thousands of Americans who, without the chance to own and live off the their own land, had little hope of improving their economic status. One of the beneficiaries of was my grandfather, a poor Missouri boy who staked out his homestead in the sand hill country of western Nebraska just after the turn of the 20th Century. He proved up his place and got married to a woman whose husband had abandoned her leaving my grandmother with two young sons to raise on her own. Their marriage produced my dad who would admire to the end of his days the grit and determination of his own father in carving a life out of the land. My grandfather later owned a successful business, became the mayor of his adopted home town and gave his own sons, including my dad, a big leg up on life. It all started with Mr. Lincoln signing that Homestead Act in 1862.

That same year, 1862, the president also put his A. Lincoln on the Morrill Act creating the great system of public higher education – Land_grant_college_stampthe land grant colleges – that helped further transform the country and cemented the idea that everyone had a chance to attain an education and acquire a profession. I graduated from a land grant college, so too members of my family.

In 1862 Lincoln also authorized the transcontinental railroad, a massive windfall for a handful of already very wealthy railroad barons, but also a massive public works project that created wealth from the bottom up as well as from the top down. Many of those who benefited from the homesteads and the education and the railroads were immigrants, Irish and German, Swede and Finn. All came to America looking for opportunity and many finding it thanks to enlightened Republican-inspired public policy created, hard to believe, in the middle of a great civil war. All told the social and economic policy made during that one year of Lincoln’s presidency transformed America.

The fourth great accomplishment of 1862 was, of course, the Emancipation Proclamation, an audacious expansion of presidential power that Lincoln’s many critics condemned as executive overreach. One wonders if that executive order will stand the test of time?

In an engaging and provocative new book – To Make Men Free – Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson tells the story of the creation of the Republican Party – Lincoln’s party – as an activist, results oriented movement that was determined to support “a la-la-ca-0919-heather-cox-richardson-087-jpg-20140924strong and growing middle class, whose members had fought to defend the government during the war and now used government money and owned government bonds, paid government taxes and attended government-funded colleges, and gave their wholehearted allegiance to the nation.” Oh, yes, Lincoln’s Republican Party also championed immigration.

It is a curious twist of history that the Republican Party of Lincoln, a party that began as a champion of the middle class and freed the slaves, now so closely identifies with the most privileged among us, while catering to older, white voters, many in the south. Democrats have undergone their own evolution, as well, transforming a white, southern-dominated party that once stood mostly for state’s rights and private privilege into a party that embraced civil rights and now commands the allegiance of America’s growing minority population.

As the Los Angeles Times noted in it’s review of To Make Men Free, “Richardson traces the [Republican] transformation from an egalitarian and broad-minded coalition into a narrow and disappearing one, increasingly trapped in a demographic isolation booth of its own making.” Richardson argues the Republican transformation from Lincoln’s party to the Tea Party has hardly been a straight line progression. Theodore Roosevelt with his efforts to cut monopoly down to size and Dwight Eisenhower with tax policy and the interstate highway system were other Republican presidents who tried to return the party to its founding principles. Those efforts did not last and now the GOP has fully embraced a philosophy that is almost entirely based on opposition to the current man in the White House and tax cuts mostly designed to benefit the Koch Brothers class. One doubts whether Republican icons like T.R. and Ike could get out of an Iowa caucus these days. They simply stood for too much that is foreign to today’s Republican Party.

And…Then There Was Immigration

Now that Barack Obama has finally pulled the pin on the immigration grenade and rolled it across the table to Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, the country’s poisonous partisanship instantly became even more toxic. As is usually the case with this president he did a masterfully inept job of setting up the showdown.

Six months ago Obama might have given his GOP adversaries a public deadline for legislative action and framed the debate in simple, stark terms. Congressional Republicans have a chance to prove, Obama might have said, that they are not completely captured by the xenophobia of their most radical elements. He could have added the hope that Republicans would chose carefully their approach and then stumped the country for a specific proposal. Of course I know the Senate long ago passed a bipartisan immigration bill, but that recent history is lost on all but the most inside players. Obama’s approach to both teeing up and framing the issue and the predictable Republican reaction just doubles down on do nothing. The political environment grows more heavily seasoned with rancor that breeds hatred.

While Obama remains a maddeningly aloof personality who displays a persistent unwillingness to engage in the grubby details of politics, it is also true that the modern Republican Party has been captured, as Heather Cox Richardson says, by its no-to-everything base and can “no longer engage with the reality of actual governance.”

Obama, one suspects, will ultimately win the immigration fight. Facts, logic and demographics are on his side, not to mention an American tradition of fairness and justice. But in the meantime the senseless and petty partisanship rolls on. Congressman Raul Labrador suggests a government shutdown “lite” that would stop confirmation of any Obama appointees and slash some budgets. Others whisper impeachment and House Republicans have sued the president.

The incoming Senate Majority Leader says the new Republican Congress will consider a range of alternatives to deal with the president’s unprecedented power grab, which is not, of course, unprecedented at all. Here’s an idea for Senator McConnell who promises “forceful action” – how about you all pass a bill to fix the immigration mess. What a novel idea. Lawmakers legislating. Almost Lincolnesque.

The Winner Is…

How far we have come, or perhaps fallen.

The Republican romp across the electoral map yesterday may or may not prove to be a defining moment in the “re-branding” of the national GOP in advance of the 2016 presidential election to which all eyes now turn, but it most assuredly marks the first national election where the candidates – Republican and Democratic – lost control of their campaigns to the growing forces of dark money, secretly spent.

Barack ObamaThe 2014 mid-terms will be dissected by pundits to assess the real message of the dispiriting campaigns. Surely the president’s vast unpopularity is a big part of the story, so too the fact that Republican Senate candidates generally won in states where Mitt Romney ran well two years ago. Barack Obama long ago lost control of his presidency thanks to inattention, missteps, lack of political skill, or just a remarkable inability to turn clumsy GOP roadblocks into hurdles that he could clear. It’s also obvious that America was not quite ready yet for “post-racial” politics after Obama’s stunning election in 2008. In fact, part of Obama’s legacy may turn out to be that he finally helped complete Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” of making all the states of the old Confederacy the most dependable part of the Republican base.

Still the real and lasting import of 2014 is hidden right in plan sight on our televisions – the attack ads, the depressing repetition of half-truth and distortion that is the uncontested central feature of our politics. Of course, all the distressing multi-billion dollar sleaze is financed by more money than ever before from fewer and fewer sources about whose motives we can only make educated and cynical guesses.

Back to the Future…

I’m betting not one American in million has heard of William Scott Vare of Pennsylvania, but the pudgy machine politician of the WilliamVareearly 20th Century makes as good an object lesson as any over which to scratch our heads and wonder again what’s happening as a result of the pernicious influence of money – really vast amounts of money – in our politics.

Before Franklin Roosevelt’s revolution reordered the nation’s political map in the 1930’s, Pennsylvania was a dependably Republican state dominated by old style machine politics. The GOP machine chose the candidates, lined up the money, managed the voting and sent its favorites to Harrisburg and Washington. In 1926 it was William Vare’s turn to reach the big time. Vare had spent most of his life moving through the chairs of Pennsylvania politics – Philadelphia city jobs, recorder of deeds, state legislature, then Congress. He was the Republican candidate for the Senate in 1926 when the odor of corruption hanging around him finally wafted into the U.S. Senate.

1101330227_400In a wonderful little essay on the Vare case, the Senate historian says that Mississippi Democratic Senator Pat Harrison took to the Senate floor in 1926 to denounce the influence of vast money involved in the primary election won by Vare in Pennsylvania. “Harrison pointed to reports that a staggering $2 to $5 million had been poured into the campaign and reminded his colleagues that in an earlier election a far smaller amount expended by Michigan’s Truman Newberry had been labeled excessive.” Imagine that. In 1926 the U.S. Senate actually debated whether too much money in a Senate race was a bad thing.

Not only that but after a series of Senate investigations stretching over more than three years, William Scott Vare was denied his seat in the Senate when a strong bi-partisan majority – 66 to 15 – determined that Vare’s vast expenditures from dubious sources were “harmful to the dignity and honor of the Senate.” These were the days before there was much of any type of campaign finance disclosure, but the Senate did determine, big surprise, that most of the money spent in Pennsylvania came from a handful of extremely wealthy individuals, including the Bill Gates of his day Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon. Imagine that. The Senate actually once policed its own membership when presented with proof that one member had simply spent too much money to secure his election.

A Cancer on Democracy…

One gets the sense that American’s instinctively know that vast, unregulated amounts of money, secretly contributed and used almost exclusively to pummel one candidate or the other is the main ingredient in our politics of cynicism, dysfunction and hyper-partisanship. The numbers back up what instinct suggests:

The recent election involved the expenditure of more than $4 billion, much of it untraceable as to source. The North Carolina Senate race became the nation’s most expensive with $65 million spent. In Arizona, which had an open gubernatorial seat, the outside, “dark” money swamped what the two principle candidates were able to raise and spend. One Arizona reporter said trying to unravel the Andrew-Melonstrands of money resembled “a Russian nesting doll” where every disclosure leads to another mystery.

As if we didn’t already know that a handful of modern day oligarchs – the Andrew Mellon’s of the 21st Century – have come to dominate American politics, the Brookings Institution has produced a helpful guide to the guilty – the U.S. Billionaires Political Power Index. The Index is led by the Koch Brothers, Michael Bloomberg, Tom Steyer, Sheldon Adelson and on and on. The Koch boys spent $240 million this go round, Bloomberg about $50 million, Steyer about $55 million. Look at the list, see who these folks are supporting and draw your own conclusions about who is shaping American politics and policy.

Republicans had a big day Tuesday and Democrats took a real whipping, but the real winner was money. It may take a few more election cycles for public disgust at all this excess to finally begin to register, but it will happen. Just as William Vare perverted American democracy with vast amounts of money in the 1920’s and Richard Nixon used his secret stashes of campaign cash to try to keep the Watergate burglars from talking in the 1970’s, too much money in politics eventually leads to scandal. It will happen again, perhaps already has happened and we just don’t know yet.

In the post-Watergate period of American politics there were two schools of thought about political money. One view held that the amounts and sources of money should be heavily regulated to prevent politicians from being too beholden to any one source of campaign cash. The other view held that the amounts of money weren’t a problem as long as there was real transparency about where the money came from and how it was spent. Now post-Citizens United the U.S. Supreme Court has left us with neither approach – no limits and no disclosure – and Mitch McConnell can celebrate both his rise to majority leader and the triumph of the kind of unregulated political money that he has long championed.

Rather than limits and sunlight controlling political money the American democracy increasingly resembles Putin’s Russia or a Central American banana republic where a few really, really rich people lavish their money on candidates and causes.

Some will argue that American democracy is so resilient that it can withstand the corrupting nature of too much money from too few people, and one hopes against all evidence of how human nature works that such might be the case. What the system cannot survive, however, is a growing belief among the voters that their individual role in the process is being systematically replaced by the ability of a few billionaires to write massive checks to advance their own narrow, special and personal interests. That is not democracy, but we are about to see what it does to democracy.

 

The Value of Team

Loyal readers know that I am a long-time fan of the San Francisco Giants. I’m hard pressed to identify why precisely I have been190px-San_Francisco_Giants_Logo.svg following the Giants since the days of Mays and McCovey, Marichal and Cepeda, but I have. They are my team and with the events of last night – if you missed it a 3-2 Game 7 win in the World Series – I may just make it through the winter.

There was much to like about the just completed World Series: two wild card teams playing for the big rings, a team in the Kansas City Royals who electrified their town and region and came darn close to a championship, two old school managers, some great pitching and some marvelous defense. While I’m glad my squad won, I love baseball and it was a good series to remind us again why we love the great game.

I’ve been following this Giants bunch even more closely than normal this year. The MLB app for your iPhone lets you listen to the radio broadcast of any game and I have been through all the ups and many downs of this Giants’ season, as broadcaster Jon Miller would say, “on the radio…”

My comments about the Giants are based on watching – or listening – to the evolution of a team that, let’s be honest, had little right to expect to win it all – again. Like all teams the Giants had injuries, tough breaks and a monumental losing stretch in mid-season that might have doomed many other teams. Some how this team kept scratching and winning.

World Series - Kansas City Royals v San Francisco Giants - Game FiveI have absolutely nothing original to say about Madison Bumgarner’s historic pitching performance in Game 7 and I’ll leave it to others to proclaim the franchise located South of Market as “a dynasty.” My thoughts on this first day until pitchers and catchers report turn to that one word: team.

In a game that seems fixated most of the time on individual performance: earned run averages, batting averages, on base percentages and some of the new metrics I can’t explain to my wife, I love that the new World Champions really seem like a team in a game that often celebrates the individual.

Taking nothing from the World Series MVP, who will be mentioned all his days for his 2014 Series performance, I revel in the small things that teams do that make for success. A young second baseman who few had heard of in August turns a spectacular double play at a pivotal moment. A defensive left fielder not hitting much above his weight makes a key catch. A wacky journeyman DH with enough hair and tattoos to star in a Harley commercial understands that his role as a teammate is to hit a fly ball to the outfield that scores a run and later take an outside pitch to right field to score another. An even wackier right fielder – what is with those Hunter Pencepants Hunter Pence – brings a head-long infectious enthusiasm, not to mention intensity, to everything he does and you can’t escape the fact that it rubs off on his locker room pals.

During one sweet moment in the game the camera caught Bumgarner in, what for him, was an unusual spot – siting in the bullpen between a couple of his relief pitching teammates. Starting pitchers don’t sit in the bullpen very often – maybe only in the World Series – and Bumgarner was there, of course, to do precisely what he ended up doing in the World Series. But before any of that, the star ace put his arm around the guy to his left, I think it was relief specialist Jean Machi, and just kind of casually patted him on the back. It didn’t appear that words were exchanged, just a knowing pat on the back of a teammate. It was non-verbal communication that said more than words, including that we’re in this together – the biggest big game pitcher and the guy they send in to get one out and then send to the shower.

I’m as cynical as the next guy about the big salaries and the even bigger egos in professional sports and I hesitate to make too much of isolated gestures and small, even routine events, but I think I detect in the San Francisco Giants what every corporate manager or Marine Corps platoon leader strives to create and sustain: teamwork. Teams need leaders, of course, and the Giants have their share – Manager Bruce Bochy, catcher Buster Posey and the wacky and wonderful Hunter Pence. But all leaders know you can’t lead well if your team doesn’t first want to be a team and doesn’t understand the power involved in being good teammates. Being part of a good team covers a multitude of individual shortcomings and that, I think, is why the Giants went all the way.

From the office conference room to the neighborhood Little League there is absolutely no substitute for team. A few good teammates can make the best player look and be even better. Unless your game is chess, we all need teammates. It makes the game more fun and enhances dramatically the chances that you will win all the marbles. Just ask the World Champion San Francisco Giants.

An Election About…

One of the tightest gubernatorial races in the country is unfolding in Wisconsin where I’ve spent the last several days. The yard signs are as thick as the autumn leaves and, while the outcome of the National League Championship Series was most appealing – my favorites won – the inane television commercials from incumbent Gov. Scott Walker and his challenger Mary Burke made me long to26446948.sf get back to Joe Buck’s inane play-by-play.

The race here has come down to whether Walker’s policies favor the “wealthy” or whether Burke is just another liberal Democrat. I’d say “yes” and “probably,” although neither label says much about what the candidates would do about Wisconsin’s crumbling highway infrastructure or rapidly rising college tuition. The race has also featured ethics complaints, an old email about Burke, and charges of plagiarism, which has become the new communism in American politics. But, hey, it’s a dead heat!

Meanwhile, in wacky Florida, a little fan – not that kind of fan – starred in the most recent gubernatorial debate. I’m old enough to remember Ronald Reagan grabbing a microphone in New Hampshire and saying something about how he bought the darn thing. I wanted XXX cbs4fanphotoCharlie Crist to tell Gov. Rick Scott the same. “Gov. Scott, I bought this fan…” At least we know how Crist stays so crisp in hot, muggy Florida. I’m left to wonder if carrying a little portable fan with you everywhere you go is a sign of intelligence or, well, something else. Right now put me down as leaning toward the fan.

Back in the great Northwest, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber has a gender gap problem. In the reverse of most candidates, Kitzhaber needs a gap. He needs to put some space between himself and his fiance who has been serving as Oregon’s First Lady, while also being the Wife-in-Waiting and a private consultant on the side with, ahem, particular access to the top levels of state government. Here come the conflict of interest allegations that, even if Kitzhaber wins a fourth term, will play out for many months. It’s complicated, but so is Oregon. Kitzhaber’s opponent is a hard right state legislator who normally wouldn’t be caught dead in Portland’s chic and lefty Pearl District – and won’t get many votes there – and is therefore unlikely to beat the beat up governor, but stranger things have happened. For the most part other issues important to Oregon are now floating down the Columbia. Roll on…

In Idaho, a hard right governor is in trouble with his own party for a variety of reasons, including new revelations that his staff negotiated the fine points of a controversial settlement with the state’s former private prison operator who has been a major contributor to the governor’s campaigns. On at least two recent occasions the governor has said he knew nothing, nothing about the deal his top staffers helped create.

Governors, of course, arechrischristie_ap_img expected to know everything until they don’t know anything. Paging John Kitzhaber! Is Chris Christie in the house? Andrew Cuomo…paging Andrew Cuomo! Governor, any insight into neutering your own state ethics commission?

Let’s call it the silence of the lames.

A remarkable feature of the Idaho election this year is that several dominate party Republicans candidates – I’m not even counting Gov. Butch Otter – are remarkable for the simple fact that they are so clearly inappropriate for the jobs they seek. The GOP candidate for state school superintendent hasn’t voted in 15 of the last 17 elections and before she (surprisingly) won her party’s nomination no one outside of her school district had ever heard of her. She now says she wants to give back for missing all those chances to participate in the democratic process. You can’t make this stuff up.

The Republican candidate for Secretary of State was so disliked by many in his own party that he was voted out of office as Speaker of the state House of Representatives, in part for his inept handling of various ethics issues involving his friends. He’ll be a credible referee of fair elections, right? The incumbent GOP candidate for state treasurer is so unknown to voters that jokes have been made about putting his photo on milk cartons. The real question in his race, however, centers on handling of various state investment accounts. The answer apparently is that he hasn’t exactly been Warren Buffett when it comes to managing state money. You’d likely fire your broker for less, but hey its only a few million in public money. He’s only the state treasurer, after all. Whomever he is.

And where are the “responsible” voices in the state’s ruling political class about such obviously flawed candidates? Is that the wind I hear?

In early November, if history is a guide, somewhere south of 40 percent of American voters will troop to the polls and elect a new, probably more Republican House of Representatives and turn the U.S. Senate over to the Republicans, as well. The lame duck in the White House will be even lamer and the divided government that does nothing – and that American voters say they hate – will have a a two-year mandate to do more of the same.

As Tim Egan noted recently, we hate the Congress – or you might substitute the state legislature or your county commissioner – so let’s have a heaping helping of more of the same. “How else to explain,” Egan writes, “the confit of conventional wisdom showing that voters are poised to give Republicans control of the Senate, and increase their hold on the House, even though a majority of Americans oppose nearly everything the G.O.P. stands for?

“The message is: We hate you for your inaction, your partisanship, your nut-job conspiracy theories; now do more of the same. Democracy — nobody ever said it made sense. Of course, November’s election will be a protest vote against the man who isn’t on the ballot, a way to make a lame duck president even lamer in his final two years.”

Mid-term elections, even more than those elections when we select a president, have become about nothing. If anything, in the age of Super PAC’s, when a handful of the nation’s oligarchs essentially create their own version of political parties, the campaigns have become more vacuous, more irrelevant to the nation’s real problems, and more likely to turn off a sizable majority of American voters.

As the New York Times reports: “In 2010, the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court effectively blew apart the McCain-Feingold restrictions on outside groups and their use of corporate and labor money in elections. That same year, a related ruling from a lower court made it easier for wealthy individuals to finance those groups to the bottom of their bank accounts if they so chose. What followed has been the most unbridled spending in elections since before Watergate. In 2000, outside groups spent $52 million on campaigns, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. By 2012, that number had increased to $1 billion.”

Elections are more and more about less and less, unless you talk money and then it’s the sky is the limit. A few enormously wealthy – not just rich, but oh-my-gosh really, really loaded – people are defining the nation’s political agenda, mostly for their own purpose and benefit, and issues like a better educated work force, a shrinking middle class, and the age old bugaboo of race and class are left to, well, they are just left.

I’m not one who finds a way to blame Barack Obama for everything from Ebola to the missing whack job in North Korea, but on one important count the President is responsible for at least some of the political malaise that Americans in the 21st Century have Theodore_Roosevelt_laughing3-e1316002011942-390x300started to accept as our fate. The recent Ken Burns’ documentary on PBS on the remarkable Roosevelts reminds us that the presidency, in good times and bad, is a bully pulpit where a leader – paging Teddy Roosevelt! – can help establish a national tone, a sense of urgency and, yes, a collective sense of responsibility for our shared fate.

Our national tone is now largely defined by Koch brother’s money or the latest flavor of the day from the political left. The nation turns it’s lonely eyes to Fox News or Jon Stewart. Charlie Crist’s fan aimed at his, er, pant legs becomes a defining moment. We want a leader to speak honestly and candidly about real things. We get the will-she or won’t-she from Hillary.

What might politics in 2014 be like if Butch Otter in Idaho or John Kitzhaber in Oregon or a Boehner or a Barack just said: “You know, I screwed up here. I didn’t handle it well. We really need to get on with the people’s pressing concerns.” I suspect we’ll never know.

If politics just becomes about winning an election by pandering to the lowest common fear and loathing in the electorate we get elections like the mid-terms of 2014. It’s the Seinfeld Show reduced to politics – a show about nothing.