Home » 2009 » November

Winston’s Birthday

churchillThe Boneless Wonder…

Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was born on this day in 1874.

The world has not been the same since.

In any one of a half dozen fields – the military, literature, history, painting, lecturing, acting (?) – Churchill could have become an international celebrity, acknowledged for his remarkable talents. Thank goodness he chose politics.

For two years running now, I have had the genuine pleasure of attending the annual Chartwell Society dinner at the elegant Arlington Club in downtown Portland, Oregon. The dinner has been organized for 17 years by a group of Oregon Churchillians who gather to remember the great man’s life and legacy. Of course, true to Churchill’s memory, they also enjoy cocktails – or Winston’s favorite Pol Roger champagne – good roast beef and fine French wine. The whole affair is conducted amid much talk of the man who gave Britain her roar during the awful days of World War II.

Unfortunately, recent changes in Oregon law prevented the standard after dinner cigar at the recent Chartwell Society gala. Winston would not have approved. Generally, he favored a Romeo y Julietta; Cuban, of course and in the size he made famous. One of his cigars, reportedly partially consumed at the Casablanca conference in 1943, was recently valued at 800 pounds.

I had the honor of delivering one of the toasts during the Chartwell Society dinner, a toast to Churchill’s wartime friend Franklin Roosevelt. I believe theirs was the most consequential friendship of the 20th Century.

The Chartwell dinner gets me thinking about the remarkable accomplishments of Churchill and, in fairness, also his rather remarkable failures.

Decidedly on the plus side of his legacy is the fact that he provided the vocabulary and the courage needed for Britain to hang on against the Germans in 1940 and 1941 while the United States remained a largely isolationist nation. He forged a great alliance with Roosevelt that still resonates with us today.

Churchill is also remembered for engineering the disastrous British expedition to the Dardanelles in 1915 that ultimately forced his resignation as First Lord of the Admiralty. Winston was a man of action and ideas. Some of his actions and ideas were great, many others were not. Still, perhaps the greatest lesson of Churchill’s long and fascinating life was his determination to always carry on.

He famously said: “When you are going through Hell, keep on going.” He did.

When Churchill returned to lead the British Navy in 1939 – remember he had been forced to resign from the same post 24 years earlier – he was, at age 65, widely considered the right man at the right time, in fact the only man for the job. He went to his old office in the Admiralty Building and found the same charts and maps that he had left there nearly a quarter century before. To mark his return, a signal was flashed to the fleet – “Winston’s back!” Who says there are no second acts in political life? Churchill had a second, third and fourth life. He always kept on going.

Churchill will be long remembered for his remarkable ability to inspire with the written and spoken word. He was an elegant, earthy, inspirational, funny and profound speaker, and, take note today’s politicos, his remarkable way with words – something he worked very hard to master – was a talent that contributed directly to his political success.

One of my favorite stories involves Churchill’s critique of Labour Party Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, a dour Scotsman who Winston believed was a weak leader. During a parliamentary debate he painted an unforgettable word portrait of MacDonald, who was seated across the floor in the House of Commons:

“I remember when I was a child, being taken to the celebrated Barnum’s Circus, which contained an exhibition of freaks and monstrosities, but the exhibit on the program which I most desired to see was the one described as ‘The Boneless Wonder.’ My parents judged that the spectacle would be too demoralizing and revolting for my youthful eyes and I have waited fifty years to see The Boneless Wonder siting on the Treasury Bench.”

You can almost hear the laughter, see the nodding heads and know that the victim of the wit and cutting put down had no possible recourse. What does one say to being called The Boneless Wonder?

One of the greatest resources for all things Churchill is the Churchill Centre which sponsors an annual conference in the United States and vigorously defends the old boy’s reputation. The scholarly analysis of Churchill’s role in two world wars and the post-war world of the 1950’s and 1960’s continues unabated. My guess is that he will be written about as long as the history of the English speaking people is recorded.

Like all great men – and women – Winston Churchill was far from perfect. He was however a remarkable leader at the very moment the world needed him the most. We should remember his birthday every year.

Remembering Ed Stimpson – Update

StimpsonA Class Act, A True Citizen

At a time when coarseness and disrespect seems to be the norm in our civic and political dialogue, Ed Stimpson was from an older and better school. He was a gentlemen first and an involved citizen always.

Ed died on Wednesday after a tough, courageous battle with lung cancer. The unfairness of his death at 75 made all the more hard to take by the fact that the lanky aviation expert was never a smoker. Life treats the good guys just as roughly as the rest of us.

[After posting this Friday, I came across a fine tribute to Ed from an old friend in Washington State.]

The Associated Press described Ed as an “aviation advocate” and he was that for certain. He was the first president of the General Aviation Manufactures Association and was appointed by President Bill Clinton, with the rank of ambassador, to represent the United States on the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization. That group, based in Montreal, makes the rules for aviation world-wide. George W. Bush kept Ed on in the position and he served until 2004. He was recognized internationally for his leadership and he and his equally civic-minded partner, Dorothy, made quite the pair. It is hard to imagine another couple so engaged and so willing to play a role in making their town, their state and their world a better place.

Stimpson received the Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy in 1998 for his public service contributions to aviation, an honor he shared with Charles A. Lindbergh, World War II pilot Lt. Gen. James H. Doolittle and Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong. Fast company. To know Ed was to understand how at home he was in such company.

The National Business Aviation Associated called him an industry icon. Aviation Week said the “tall, quiet, elegant and effective” Stimpson was one of the industry’s most respected voices in Washington, D.C.

I first met Ed and Dottie Stimpson 20 years ago when they arrived in Boise – Ed was working for the old Morrison-Knudsen Corp. – and together they immediately became involved leaders in civic and political life. Dottie almost singlehandlely created the thriving City Club of Boise and the couple has been recognized for their many contributions to a civil society and for creating opportunities for young people. Countless political candidates and even a budding environmental writer, then-Senator Al Gore, benefited from the elegant receptions held over the years in the Stimpson home.

My wife, Pat, and I also benefited on several occasions from Ed’s ability to grill a mean lamb chop, keep the glasses full and the conversation rolling. No visit with Ed and Dottie was ever complete without updates on the latest books, the next trip or the most recent campaign. Like everyone who knew him, I’ll miss Ed for many, many reasons. We should all hope to leave such a legacy: gentleman, elegant, effective, a completely decent man who made a real difference.

Yeats’ famous quote seems particularly appropriate: “Think where man’s glory begins and ends, and say my glory was I had such friends…”

Ed Stimpson was simply one of the good guys.

The First Thanksgiving

Lincoln President Lincoln’s Proclamation

Secretary of State William Seward drafted Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation in 1863 establishing the last Thursday of November as a national day of thanksgiving and praise “to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

Seward’s prose was not nearly as poetic as Lincoln’s, but the fact that the president and his chief advisers could look to the Almighty and give thanks in the middle of an awful civil war is most assuredly a testament to their ultimate faith in the grand experiment called The United States of America.

The full Lincoln proclamation is here.

A happy and blessed Thanksgiving. And, thanks for visiting The Johnson Post.

Good News for Thanksgiving

basque wineLeave it to the Basques…

Been wondering if there is any good news in the world? Wonder no more.

Just in time for the Thanksgiving dinner comes new evidence – from the Basque region of Spain – that alcohol, wine, beer, whatever, in moderate daily amounts is good for the heart.

As the Independent reported: “The results showed that those who drank a little – a glass of wine or a bottle of beer every other day – had a 35 per cent lower risk of a heart attack than those who never drank. Moderate drinkers, consuming up to a couple of glasses of wine a day or a couple of pints of ordinary bitter, had a 54 per cent lower risk.”

As anyone knows who has traveled in the Basque region straddling the Spanish and French border along the Pyrenees, the Basques are great cooks and informed imbibers. The hospitality is legendary.

British scientists, of course, discounted the study, but what do they know. A glass of good red wine and a few tasty tapas in a bar in San Sebastian or Bilbao may just be one of the most civilized and stress reducing activities I can think of. Talk about good for the heart.

Toast the Basques. They know how to live. I personally think the study is brilliant.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Dithering on War

george marshallWhen Politicians Overrule Their Generals

News today that President Obama is set to announce his Afghanistan strategy next week. He certainly has been getting a lot of advice and he is reportedly irate over the leaks.

The debate over Obama’s deliberation has been fascinating and strikes me in the main as being almost totally lacking in historical context. The president’s critics have suggested he should just adopt the recommendations of his generals and be done with it. Former Vice President Cheney persists in criticizing the president for “dithering” over the decision and many members of Congress argue that he should take the advice of the “generals on the ground.”

These critics have either not read our history or have chosen to ignore what has happened many times in the past. So, a little history and perspective on presidential decisions about war.

Obama’s critics should know that presidents decide strategy, informed, of course, by military and other advice, but the buck stops – and should – at the president’s desk. Sometimes presidents have even said “no” to their generals and it has been a good thing. I have no idea what the president will decide in Afghanistan, but history, all the way back to Commander-in-Chief Abraham Lincoln, tells us that political leaders questioning, probing and even overruling their military advisers is the American way.

George C. Marshall (left), one of the country’s greatest military and political leaders, was Franklin Roosevelt’s chief military advisor during World War II. He knew something about being overruled by a civilian.

FDR Overruled His Generals, Truman and Kennedy, too, and Lincoln Should Have

In the early stages of U.S. involvement in World War II, the American high command lead by Chief of Staff Marshall pressed hard for an early invasion of Europe to be accomplished by Allied landings on the French coast. The British, unlike the Americans, having experienced the full force of German military might and having by 1942 been expelled from the continent three times – Dunkirk, Norway and Greece – resisted an invasion in 1942 or even 1943.

Winston Churchill warned the Americans that a military disaster on the French coast was the “only way in which we could possibly lose this war.” The British advocated a less risky, but more time consuming strategy that included as a first step an Allied invasion of North Africa.

Still, Marshall and others, including Dwight Eisenhower, pushed Franklin Roosevelt to adopt a plan to invade France as soon as possible. The military high command considered North Africa a sideshow. Roosevelt “dithered” over a decision much to the dismay of Eisenhower who argued “we’ve got to go to Europe and fight.”

As Rick Atkinson masterfully recounts in his Pulitzer Prize winning book “An Army at Dawn,” FDR summoned his lieutenants to the White House at 8:30 in the evening of July 30, 1942. Roosevelt announced, as commander-in-chief, that he had made his strategic decision and it was final. The United States would adopt the British strategy and invade North Africa.

As Atkinson has written: “The president made the most profound American strategic decision of the European war in direct contravention of his generals and admirals. He had cast his lot with the British rather than his countrymen.”

British historian Andrew Roberts details in his book “Masters and Commanders,” that all of FDR’s top advisors “Marshall, [Secretary of War Henry] Stimson, Eisenhower, [Secretary of State Cordell] Hull and [Marshall’s chief deputy General Thomas] Handy…preferred the ‘Ulysses S. Grant’ view” that fighting the Nazis “should be done with a full frontal assault on Germany via France as early as possible.”

FDR considered those views and rejected them in favor of Churchill’s and the British high command’s “soft underbelly of Europe” strategy that would eventually involve invasions of Sicily and Italy before the invasion of France. History has vindicated that decision. Most historians now agree that an invasion of France much earlier than 1944 would have risked a military disaster.

Roosevelt must have been thankful to not have to put up with Dick Cheney-type criticism while he made his commander-in-chief decision. All of his deliberations were conducted in strict secrecy and in 1942 military and civilian advisers did not leak. When all the advice was weighed and sifted, FDR had the confidence and courage to overrule his military advisers.

Other presidents have done the same.

During the Korean War, Harry Truman overruled and eventually fired Douglas MacArthur for the general’s insubordination in questioning Truman’s strategy of not carrying the war directly on to Chinese territory.

John Kennedy rejected the advice of his generals to attack Soviet missile sites in Cuba during that crisis and opted instead to negotiate back from the brink of nuclear war.

Perhaps our greatest president – and greatest military strategist in the White House – Abraham Lincoln, experimented with general after general until finding one he could trust. In hindsight, Lincoln gave too much deference early in the Civil War to the views of his generals, particularly the disastrous George McClellan.

When McClellan hatched his ill-considered plan to capture Richmond by moving the Union Army up the Yorktown peninsula in 1862, Lincoln knew that McClellan was pursuing the wrong objective. His real aim should have been to engage and destroy the Confederate Army, but Lincoln, still an unsure commander-in-chief, reluctantly gave into McClellan’s strategy. The outcome was a series of bloody Union defeats and eventual retreat. Lincoln should have overruled his general, but he did gain confidence in his own judgment and worked hard to avoid future mistakes.

Lyndon Johnson also did not overrule his advisers. One wonders how history would be different had LBJ trusted his instincts and resisted the military and political pressure he felt to escalate the Vietnam conflict.

Johnson was captured on tape worrying out loud about his Vietnam decision: “I don’t think it’s worth fighting for and I don’t think we can get out. And it’s just the biggest damned mess that I ever saw.”

Obama’s decision about Afghanistan, just like George W. Bush’s decision to go into Iraq or LBJ’s into Vietnam, will determine the future direction of his presidency. Of course, Obama must – as FDR, Truman and JFK did, consider the full and frank views of his military advisers. They are the experts and their views deserve great deference. However, our history shows that the generals aren’t always right.

As another president famously said, Obama is the decider. We don’t remember that Generals Marshall and Eisenhower were wrong about North Africa, we do remember that Lyndon Johnson’s presidency died along with tens of thousands of Americans and Vietnamese in Southeast Asia.

Such decisions are how young presidents become old men.

The Choice

yeats The Greatest Poet…

For me the answer is easy – W.B. Yeats.

In December 1923, nearly 86 years ago, Yeats won the Nobel Prize for literature and made much of the fact that the recognition came shortly after Ireland had gained independence. His recognition, Yeats contended, was an acknowledgement of the quality of Irish literature. Perhaps, but Yeats was an immense talent. In fact, his greatest work – lyrical, beautiful poetry – came after he received the big prize that had been awarded largely for his work as a playwright.

One of my favorites poems is called The Choice:

The intellect of man is forced to choose Perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
When all that story’s finished, what’s the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity an empty purse,
Or the day’s vanity, the night’s remorse.

I also like Yeats because he was a man of the world, indeed he served in the Irish Senate where he became a major voice celebrating Irish culture.

Pour a little Irish whiskey on a cold November night and open Yeats’ collected works. You’ll find some magic.

Like Father and Son

BaucusBig Weekend for Baucus and Messina

The Washington Post has a great piece today on Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus of Montana and his former top aide Jim Messina. Messina (left), a former Idahoan, is now White House Deputy Chief of Staff.

The piece is worth a read for several reasons, not least because it illustrates a fundamental rule of politics: personal relationships really matter. As the Senate, home of arcane rules and bound by tradition and history, inches toward critical votes on health care legislation, its worth remembering that the place is often all about “the inside game” conducted out of the glare of C-SPAN cameras.

Critics often demean the relationship side of politics and, of course, that kind of influence can be abused. Still in the best sense – in the human sense – being an insider simply means one has accumulated a lifetime of trust and confidence with lots of people. Politics, and particularly the rough and tumble of a political campaign, breeds a rare kind of relationship that is hard to describe, but impossible to diminish. Most people I know in politics cherish these personal relationships more than they do any sense of power or impact that might flow from them.

In simple terms, the world – and politics – operates on the basis of personal relationships. Or put another way, in politics and life you come to trust people who over a long period of time have proven to be honest, loyal, hard workers who care about the same things you care about.

The Baucus – Messina bond is one of the more important relationships in Washington these days. It is a fascinating study in how Washington works – and always has worked.

Remembering a Good Ol’ Boy

kingBruce King…The Genuine Article

It is a cliche to say it, but they don’t make ’em like former New Mexico Governor Bruce King any more. King died last week at the age of 85.

Folksy, plain spoken, a back slapping, hand pumping cowboy politician, King was a middle of the road Democrat and was elected governor three times in non-consecutive terms – 1970, 1978 and 1990.

Current Governor Bill Richardson said of King, “He was as genuine and colorful as his cowboy boots. I can just hear him say `mighty fine’ as he shook another hand.”

King’s career was that of an increasingly rare breed in American politics – a personality above all, a real person without pretense who never met a stranger. You certainly knew he was in the room. I saw him in action many times at meetings where governors would gather. I introduced myself one time and never had to again. He remembered.

Bill Clinton, then Arkansas governor, said he always tried to sit near King at governors’ meetings “knowing if I did I’d get a laugh and a lesson in life and politics.”

King was also known for his occasional ability to mangle the English language, a characteristic that no doubt endeared him even more to the speak plain caucus in New Mexico. He once said of a dubious proposal that it “would open a whole box of Pandora’s.”

The Santa Fe New Mexican called King the state’s “most loved leader and friendliest dignitary.”

My old boss, Cecil Andrus, had to call King once to remind him that only potatoes grown in Idaho could be called “Idaho potatoes.” Apparently someone in New Mexico was using “grown in Idaho” potato sacks to repackage New Mexico potatoes. Bruce took care of it.

In a story that may well have been apocryphal, but sure sounds like Bruce King, the governor was once asked his position on the controversial Waste Isolation Pilot Project, the so called WIPP Site, near Carlsbad. The massive Department of Energy project, years in construction, created a vast underground burial site encased in an ancient salt deposit where certain types of nuclear waste material is sent to slowly shed its radioactivity.

King allegedly said, in his twangy New Mexico voice, “Half of my constituents support the WIPP Site and half of my constituents oppose the WIPP Site and I’m with my constituents.”

We could use a few more Bruce Kings – the best kind of good ol’ boy.

A Robust and Complicated Debate

OaksRexburg Speech Sparks, Well, Sparks

LDS Church Apostle Dallin Oaks gave a speech a while back at the church’s growing and impressive school at Rexburg – BYU Idaho – that received some spirited attention in religious and civil rights circles and, considering the subject – same sex unions – not surprisingly, the speech generated some controversy.

The subject has become, I think, a very difficult one for the media to handle and typically historical perspective is lacking. Framing the issue as one involving a question of conflicting rights, however, requires a certain willingness to grapple with the American experience regarding religious expression and the struggle for equality.

Dallin Oaks didn’t start this debate, but his speech in Rexburg may have sharpened it.

Oaks is an impressive fellow. He taught law at the University of Chicago, served as president of Brigham Young University, was a Utah Supreme Court judge, and now serves on the Church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. In Republican administrations, Oaks has been considered a potential U. S. Supreme Court nominee.

The subject of his Rexburg speech was religious freedom and the intimidation of members of the LDS faith that Oaks believes has come about as a result of the church’s opposition to same sex marriage proposals in California. In casting his concerns in terms of religious freedom, he incensed some by drawing parallels with the 1960’s civil rights movement.

“The extent and nature of religious devotion in this nation is changing,” said Oaks. “The tide of public opinion in favor of religion is receding, and this probably portends public pressures for laws that will impinge on religious freedom.”

As the Salt Lake Tribune reported, the LDS Church urged its “followers to donate money and time to pass Prop 8, the successful ballot measure that eliminated the right of same-sex couples to wed in California. Afterward protests, including several near LDS temples, erupted along with boycotts of business owners who donated to Prop 8 and even some vandalism of LDS meetinghouses.”

Oaks said, “In their effect [these actions] are like the well-known and widely condemned voter intimidation of blacks in the South that produced corrective federal civil rights legislation.”

Jeanetta Williams, president of the NAACP’s Salt Lake branch (and a former Idahoan), told the Tribune there is “no comparison” between what members of the LDS faith have endured and what civil rights advocates suffered.

“I don’t see where the LDS Church has been denied any of their rights,” she said. “What the gay and lesbian communities are fighting for, that is a civil-rights issue.”

This is a fascinating and important discussion because it brings at least two fundamental American values – religious freedom (and religious expression, however it is defined) into conflict with a claim of a basic civil liberty. The conflict is as old as the republic and as fresh as the morning headlines. It is also a study in how an issue can be framed and packaged for public and media consumption – my religious expression versus your civil rights.

I’m reminded of the thoughtful writing of Professor Martin Marty, a Lutheran pastor and a teacher and scholar at the University of Chicago School of Divinity. Marty has written of Abraham Lincoln’s willingness to invoke the Almighty in his political discourse. In fact, Lincoln – not a church joiner – may have spoken of God more often in his public discourse and writing than any other president.

Marty’s essay about Lincoln and religion notes that the 16th president wrote in 1864 to the Baptist Home Mission Society thanking the religious group for its support of his anti-slavery and Emancipation policies.

As Professor Marty has noted: “Of course, clergy in the South were claiming the same quality of biblical warrants for their pro-slavery, pro-secession, pro-Confederacy causes, and Lincoln had to deride them for that. Only a year or two before, he wrote the Society:

“‘Those professedly holy men of the South, met in the semblance of prayer and devotion, and, in the name of Him who said ‘As ye would all men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them’ appealed to the Christian world to aid them in doing to a whole race of men, as they would have no man do unto themselves, and thus, to my thinking, they contemned and insulted God and His church, far more than did Satan when he tempted the Saviour with the Kingdoms of the earth. The devils [sic] attempt was no more false, and far less hypocritical.”

Then, as Marty says, after having identified the South and its clergy with the satanic and the devilish, Lincoln qualified his point: “But let me forbear, remembering it is also written, ‘Judge not, lest ye be judged.’”

Ironically, Marty notes, Lincoln had just judged in the interest of pressing a political, indeed civil rights, point. As I said, this is an old debate and a complicated one in that American rights regarding religion and civil rights, at least the perception of those rights by some, can be in sharp conflict.

For what it’s worth, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has a recent survey that says support is growing among Americans for civil unions, but same-sex marriage is still opposed by a majority of Americans.

As this debate moves forward, and it will move forward, both sides will likely continue to attempt to cast the issue in terms of its own concept of “civil rights.”

Without a grand compromise that balances conflicting rights, as Lincoln might have said, both sides can’t be right.

An Idaho Treasure

ShulerMarilyn Shuler – Great Citizen

The wonderful Marilyn Shuler will be honored this weekend with the Light of Philanthropy Award presented annually by St. Luke’s Hospital.

It is difficult to believe there could be a more worthy recipient.

For years, Marilyn Shuler was the face of human rights in Idaho as she led the state’s Human Rights Commission with a quiet grace and a steely commitment to dignity all enforced with the rule of law.

I had the rare pleasure of working closely with Marilyn during my time in Idaho state government. She was a role model, a powerful leader and a true moral force for good. One of my proudest moments was having a very small hand – Marilyn had a very big hand – in creating the holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Idaho.

Sadly, Idaho was one of the last states to recognize the remarkable accomplishments of Dr. King, but perhaps even more importantly to honor a society’s commitment to human rights. It would never have happened without Marilyn’s unflinching courage in overcoming the hidebound opposition to honoring Dr. King and then-Governor Cecil Andrus’ determination to not allow the state to suffer a black eye by failing to publicly embrace a just and overdue cause.

Beyond her singular successful career devoted to the human rights of others, Marilyn also served with distinction on the Boise School Board, helped manage public employees retirement dollars and guided the creation of the Anne Frank Memorial in Boise. That is a decidedly partial list of accomplishments. Along the way, she touched a million lives.

Every once in a while you see that someone is receiving the kind of public recognition they really deserve. This is such a moment.

Dr. King once said: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘what are you doing for others?'”

Marilyn Shuler has answered that question with a lifetime of service to others. She is an Idaho treasure.