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Two Outliers With Big Followings

salingerSalinger and Zinn: American Originals…And More

J.D. Salinger (left) might have become the greatest American writer of the post-war period, but opted out of fame and as the New York Times notes became “the Garbo of letters.” Salinger died yesterday, a mystery man to the end, with his masterpiece The Catcher in the Rye rolling on and on, discovered by each new generation; immensely popular and controversial.

The leftist historian, teacher and activist Howard Zinn also died this week, content to the end to tell the American story through the eyes of “little people” he long contended had been left out of most history books. Zinn’s million-selling A People’s History was a surprise and runaway best seller; immensely popular and controversial.

Zinn shrugged off criticism that his approach to history was more polemic than fact, once telling an interviewer: “If you look at history from the perspective of the slaughtered and mutilated, it’s a different story.”

Salinger, the famous recluse, pursued his craft in just as individual a manner. His reputation established, he moved to New Hampshire to live the life his great character Holden Caulfield hoped for, building: “a little cabin somewhere with the dough I made and live there for the rest of my life,” away from “any goddam stupid conversation with anybody.”

A People’s History and The Catcher in the Rye…true American classics from two American originals.

An Election That Matters

Scott BrownWhy Scott Brown Won…

Great piece in the Boston Globe today on why Massachusetts’ voters made the decisions they made recently; putting a Republican, Scott Brown, in the Senate for the first time since 1972. The analysis, based on Election Day polling by respected Democratic pollster Peter Hart, is worth reading in the context of the president’s State of the Union tonight. That speech, in many ways, will be read as a response to the Senate contest in the Bay State.

Here is one telling paragraph: “Still the economy, stupid. The economy, not health care, drove the vote. Among those who felt the economy was doing well, (Who are those people?) [Martha] Coakley won 52-to-43 percent. For those who said the economy was not good or poor, Brown won 56-to-39 percent.”

Those findings confirm the oldest rule in politics: when the economy is sick, politicians – particularly those seen as most in charge – get the flu.

Many Democrats would like to be able to respond to the current political turmoil by saying “we inherited all this,” but that referendum was held a year ago November. George W. Bush is a fading memory and voters are telling national Democrats one unmistakable message: “it’s the economy stupid and you guys have been in charge.”

We’ll see fairly soon, I suspect, whether anyone is really listening and, if they are, whether they can articulate a program that starts to make more sense to the worried American voter. My sense is there is political danger for anyone right now who comes across as looking less than completely serious about the economic challenge.

Links here will take you deeper into some of Hart’s polling or an interesting new survey from National Public Radio.

The Press on the Press

white houseThe Tyranny of the 24 Hour News Cycle

Barack Obama faces another huge speech this week – the State of the Union is Wednesday – so standby for the predictable narrative that the president has, pick your version, “hit a home run” or “done himself no good politically” with the high profile appearance before Congress.

Under either scenario, the buzz will dissipate quickly with the pundits and cable bloviators moving on to something else by about Thursday afternoon. Such is the nature of the 24 hour news cycle. The current White House approach to dealing with the new reality of speed, speed and change the subject – and they obviously have some work to do – is contained in a fine piece by the New Yorker’s media critic Ken Auletta. Auletta’s piece is required reading for political junkies or anyone who wants to try and understand the culture of the news business these days.

Here’s the money quote: “The news cycle is getting shorter – to the point that there is no pause, only the constancy of the Web and the endless argument of cable. This creates pressure to entertain or perish, which has fed the press’s dominant bias: not pro-liberal or pro-conservative but pro-conflict.”

The perceived need for speed has driven even the better Washington reporters to adopt a daily approach to journalism that makes all of them into 21st Century versions of the old fashioned, story-a-minute, green eyeshade wearing re-write man. In fact, NBC’s Chuck Todd tells Auletta, “we’re all wire-service reporters now.”

One telling observation in Auletta’s piece is the comment from presidential historian Michael Beschloss who recounts that when the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961 John Kennedy was on vacation. “For six days, no one pressed him hard for a reaction,” Beschloss says. Obama stayed quiet for three days following the attempted Detroit airline bombing – he was on Christmas vacation in Hawaii – and was widely attacked for his slow response.

The constant news cycle is a fact of political life. No wonder most politicians govern from a constant crouch, ready to leap this way or that in response to the latest “urgent” breaking news.

Speed kills whether you’re a mongoose taking on a cobra or a White House press secretary taking on, well, you get the analogy.

Associated Press culture writer Ted Anthony has a separate take on the impact of the 24 hour news culture and the response to the awful disaster in Haiti. With frustration mounting that relief efforts are taking too long, Anthony asks: “Are the expectations of the virtual world colliding with the reality of the physical one?”

The answer, of course, is “you betcha.” Disaster aid in the virtual world of cable news does seem too slow, even with U.S. airborne troops and Marines involved, guys who just happen to be the world’s masters at logistics and rapid deployment.

Not much wonder that the American public chaffs about the slow economic recovery, the time it takes Congress to pass a health insurance bill, or the slogging process of figuring out a new strategy in Afghanistan. These days instant gratification is just not fast enough.

Weekend Potpourri

IHRCA Save – Maybe – for the Human Rights Commission…and Other Odds and Ends

Some news on Friday that may give Idaho Human Rights advocates hope that the Idaho Legislature will craft a workable path forward for the 40-year-old Idaho Human Rights Commission.

The devil will be in the details, but the Commission may find a soft landing at the Idaho Department of Labor and legislators praised the efforts of Labor’s Roger Madsen for working with the Commission’s Director Pam Parks to create a sustainable budget solution. As noted here earlier, there was statewide push back to an Otter Administration plan to phase out state funding for the Commission that enforces non-discrimination laws and advocates for human and civil rights.

Long-time Coeur d’Alene human rights advocate Tony Stewart made the obvious point, if the Labor-Human Rights Commission lash-up can work it will have to ensure the Commission’s long-time independence and visibility. Stewart also points out that hate crimes and examples of racial intolerance appear to be on the rise again in Idaho. Stay tuned.

Too Big To Fail…

In the fall of 2008, after the national and world economy came within inches – or hours – of a complete financial collapse, Rep. Barney Frank, the acerbic chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, was interviewed on 60 Minutes.

“The problem in politics is this,” Frank said. “You don’t get any credit for disaster averted. Going to the voters and saying, ‘Boy, things really suck, but you know what: If it wasn’t for me, they would suck worse.’ That is not a platform on which anybody has ever gotten elected in the history of the world.”

New York Times reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin uses Frank’s quote near the end of his masterful, encyclopedic account of the financial crisis that precipitated the Great Recession. The book – Too Big To Fail – is, at the same time, a great piece of documentary reporting, a story of human folly, greed and crisis management on a vast scale, and a profoundly cautionary tale about how remarkably close the world came to what then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said would be “a depression deeper than the Great Depression.”

There are few, if any heroes in Sorkin’s account – Paulson comes closest for his constant focus during the crisis and his willingness to make tough decisions quickly – and the book liberally assesses the blame.

Sorkin summed it up this way [the editorial comments are mine]: “The seeds of disaster had been planted years earlier with such measures as: the deregulation of the banks in the late 1990s [a move that received bipartisan support in Congress and endorsement from Bill Clinton], the push to increase home ownership [a Clinton and Bush legacy]; lax mortgage standards [poor business practices by many banks]; historically low interest rates, which created a liquidity bubble [part of Alan Greenspan’s tenure at the Fed] and the system of Wall Street compensation that rewarded short-term risk taking [mark this down to old fashioned greed]. They all came together to create the perfect storm.”

Sorkin has written an important book. I hope it is being read in Washington.

The Rest of the Story…

Fascinating story in the Washington Post yesterday about the long-time friendship between the popular radio broadcaster Paul Harvey and the director of the FBI for most of the 20th Century J. Edgar Hoover.

The Post obtained 1,400 pages of FBI files that show that Harvey often submitted scripts to Hoover for approval and comment and the creepy FBI director showered the broadcaster with effusive praise. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the story, and any number of other documented accounts of Hoover’s relationship with politicians and celebrities, is that the top G-man from the 1920’s to the 1970’s spent so much of his time on this kind of thing.

I have had a couple of opportunities, while doing research, to examine FBI files. There are, for example, pages of FBI reports in the Franklin Roosevelt archives at Hyde Park, New York. The files, mostly centered on FDR’s political opponents, often consist of material that reads a bit like a teenagers diary – raw gossip, material culled from widely available newspaper accounts and the musings of informants. In other words, it is mostly useless chatter and often, well, creepy seems to describe it pretty well.

I’m sure the FBI is devoting its time to more essential duties in the age of global terrorism, but some of the agency’s history – confirmed again by Paul Harvey, of all people – makes you wonder about the rest of the story.

Good day…and a good weekend.

Speaking Out For Human Rights

human rightsBipartisan Group – Business, Political, Religious Leaders – Urge Legislators to Sustain Idaho Commission

Dick Hackborn isn’t exactly a household name in his hometown of Boise, Idaho. Mention his name, however, in a room full of technology industry folks and most would quickly acknowledge that Hackborn has been one of the giants of the industry. He’s the guy who built – invented even – Hewlett Packard’s wildly successful printer business.

After nearly 50 years at H-P, while in his retirement, Hackborn served on the company’s board, including a short stint as Chairman. According to the informed financial press, Hackborn played a key role in ending Carly Fiorina’s less than spectacular tenure as H-P’s CEO.

The obvious point: Hackborn knows his way around business and, while he typically maintains a low profile in Idaho, he has always been an unflinching advocate for diversity in the work place and for human rights. When Hackborn was approached last week to sign on to an “open letter” to the Idaho Legislature urging continued funding of the state’s Human Rights Commission he immediately said yes.

The same can be said of Greg Carr, the Idaho Falls native, who made his fortune with Boston Technology and later served as chairman of Prodigy, an early global Internet provider. Carr has lived out his concern for human rights with the creation of the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard. His work in Africa has been featured on 60 Minutes. Carr supported creation of the Anne Frank Memorial in Boise and put up the bucks to purchase the former Aryan Nations compound near Hayden Lake, Idaho. That ground, once home to hate, the very antithesis of human rights, is now dedicated to human rights.

Carr’s name is on the “open letter” along with Dick Hackborn.

Savvy business people don’t need much prompting to make the connection between equality and diversity in the work place and business success in a global economy. Both Hackborn and Carr harbor deep commitments to human rights, but they also know that their support – Hewlett Packard has long been a leader in this area – puts out the welcome mat to a skilled, diverse work force.

Former Boise H-P executives Don Curtis and Rich Raimondi and their wives also signed the letter to the legislature.

For 40 years, the Idaho Human Rights Commission has been the focus – often thanks to the moral leadership of past directors Marilyn Shuler and Leslie Goddard and current director Pam Parks – for acting on the belief that human rights are a genuine priority in Idaho.

Unfortunately, Idaho isn’t all that far removed from the awful public image that haunted the state when the Rev. Richard Butler and his self-proclaimed Aryna Nations white supremacists gained international attention, while preaching a gospel of hate and camping out in northern Idaho.

The Twin Falls Times-News editorialized on all this yesterday. The paper noted that the white supremacists are “mostly gone now, but their stigma endures. We can see the headlines across the country now: “Idaho joins Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi in nixing rights commission.”

Former Democratic Governors Cecil D. Andrus and John V. Evans remember those days battling the Aryan Nations, as does former GOP Lt. Governor David H. Leroy. They all signed the letter, as did more than 50 other religious, human rights, business and political leaders.

The Times-News editorial yesterday also made a point that Dick Hackborn or Greg Carr would likely embrace: “Why does [Idaho’s image] matter? It matters because the standard in the private sector nowadays is zero tolerance of anything that hints of racism. Companies make decisions about whether to invest, expand or relocate expecting their employees will be treated equally under the law.”

That, in a nutshell, is the massive job of the tiny Idaho Human Rights Commission.

The Commission’s total state support is less than $600,000 – .00025 percent of the total state budget, less than 50 cents per Idahoan. A pretty good value to continue to have a daily, statewide moral and legal focus on issues that really matter to our culture and our economy.

Heck Of A Job Brownie

mcfarlandHas There Ever Been A Bigger Upset?

It is hard to find in the recent history of the U.S. Senate a bigger upset than the game changer in Massachusetts yesterday. Republican Scott Brown came from behind to thump Democrat Martha Coakley and give the Bay State a GOP Senator for the first time since 1972. We’ll be sorting out the long-term implications, I suspect, for a long, long time.

I can think of only one race – a 1952 contest in Arizona – that might rival Brown’s victory in terms of an historic upset that carried broad national implications.

Democratic Senator Ernest McFarland (that’s him on the left above) was the Senate Majority Leader in 1952 and seeking a third term. Arizona in those days was a dependable Democratic state and McFarland, a popular figure with a record of accomplishment, including creating the G.I. Bill of Rights, should have won in a walk. He didn’t.

The national economy was soft, U.S. troops were bogged down in a stalemate in Korea, Joe McCarthy was hunting Communists and President Harry Truman’s approval ratings were in the ditch. Arizona Republicans seized the moment and put forth a handsome, articulate, well heeled haberdasher by the name of Barry Goldwater.

“I had no business beating Ernest McFarland, and I knew that from the day I started,” Goldwater said years later, “but old Mac just thought he had it in the bag and just didn’t come home [enough]. I could never have been elected if it hadn’t been for Democrats…I’d still be selling pants.”

Goldwater’s defeat of the sitting Senate Majority Leader was, in the view of McFarland’s biographer, “a harbinger of a new conservative and urban Republican agenda in the politically changing West.” But there was even more to the upset, including the fact that Arizona shed the one-party label.

McFarland’s loss also contributed to Republicans capturing the Senate majority in 1952. The great Robert Taft became Majority Leader and a still young first-termer from Texas by the name of Lyndon Johnson got his chance to lead Senate Democrats. Goldwater, of course, went on to a long Senate career and his own presidential run in 1964.

McFarland took the loss hard, but recovered to have his own second and third acts in Arizona political life. After losing the Senate seat, McFarland won the governorship twice, lost a Senate rematch with Goldwater, then served as Chief Justice of the Arizona Supreme Court.

Barry Goldwater’s win in 1952, like Scott Brown’s in 2010, sent huge ripples through American politics, ripples that can still be felt.

Now, the political speculation will focus on other shoes falling. I’m guessing Harry Reid, the current and beleaguered Senate Majority Leader, fighting for his own political survival in Nevada, knows all about Ernest McFarland and a remarkable political upset back in 1952.

The Big Man In The Big Sky

schweitzerSchweitzer Does It His Way

While most of the nation’s governors have been serving up heaping helpings of bad news in the form of reductions in education spending, layoffs, furloughs and such, Montana’s Brian Schweitzer continues to blaze his own popular, political trail. While it may be too much to call the Big Man in the Big Sky a political original, the Treasure State Democrat continues to be one of the most talented political actors anywhere.

Schweitzer understands intuitively that effective politics often involves effective theater, particularly when the show involves the ability to pick the right fight. At the presidential level, Ronald Reagan and his advisers understood this basic reality. Remember Reagan’s “I am paying for this microphone Mr. Green!” moment during the 1980 New Hampshire GOP primary?

The Great Communicator understood that politics is performance, even as Democrats derided the one-time B-movie actor as nothing more than, well, an actor.

Elsewhere in the Northwest, Cecil Andrus in Idaho and Tom McCall in Oregon were masters of the art of picking an issue that kept them defined as “outsiders” while appealing broadly to their voters. Andrus took on the federal government over nuclear waste storage and McCall opposed storing deadly nerve gas at the Umatilla depot. Wildly popular stands that defined each governor as a crusader and populist. Andrus has joked during his long political career about being able to “throw an instant fit” to make a bigger political point, grab public attention and earn support.

Schweitzer’s most recent “political fit” generated headlines when the governor showed up at a Bozeman City Commission meeting – when is the last time a governor did that – and gave the city’s leading lights a drubbing before the public and the press. The issue was a decision by Bozeman city fathers to spend 50 grand in stimulus money on reconditioning tennis courts. Schweitzer told them spending the money on water treatment facilities made more sense. Wonder where the voters are on that one?

For students of political theater, the Associated Press account of the meeting is all the proof one needs that the bolo tie, cowboy boot wearing governor is in his element when he’s at center stage orchestrating a good ol’ political fight. Part of Schweitzer’s public appeal is that he appears to enjoy the battle so much.

In a perfect world, all our politicians would be brilliant policy wonks and the best ideas would always win out, but that is most definitely not the real world. Democrats, in particular, often seem to ignore or undervalued the fact that politics is fundamentally about the ability to communicate in a compelling, real way. It also helps to be able to see a good fight that is worth the picking.

Like him or not, you have to agree Montana’s Brian Schweitzer is a Democratic exception. He gets it.

A Day for Human Rights

kingRemembering From Whence We Came…

It hasn’t been all that many years ago that Idaho was one of the last states to embrace an official celebration of human rights in connection with Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday. Repeated efforts to establish a state holiday failed in the Idaho Legislature before legislation was finally approved in 1990.

It is important to remember some of the context of those times. The white supremacist Aryan Nations still held court in northern Idaho and the state was regularly depicted in the national media as a haven for the group’s perverted notions of racial superiority. Their annual parades, even when dwarfed in size by those opposing their message of hate, received extensive media attention. Major employers struggled to recruit people of color to live and work in Idaho. Despite having one of the strongest malicious harassment laws in the nation, Idaho’s image was hurting.

I’m convinced the decision to create a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Human Rights Day in Idaho was a major catalyst in changing the then-prevailing perception.

With the inspired leadership of then-Human Rights Commission Executive Director Marilyn Shuler, human rights activists in northern Idaho and then-Governor Cecil Andrus, the holiday honoring Dr. King came to be 20 years ago – long overdue, but finally in place.

Fast forward to 2010 where the Idaho Legislature now considers a proposal to eliminate state funding for the Idaho Human Rights Commission, an agency that has protected the rights of Idaho workers and employers for more than four decades by leveling the field for both. The Commission has been in many, many ways, the focus in Idaho for a common sense, practical approach to human rights and dignity for all. It is a tiny agency with a huge mission, a mission just as important now as it was in 1990, or when it was created more than 40 years ago.

We’ve all heard of the philosopher George Santayana’s famous observation that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Yet, it seems a constant challenge for our public policymakers to remember from whence we came. As our attention spans grow shorter, our memories do as well.

Idaho’s human rights history has traveled a well-worn and rocky path that has steadily – at least since the mid-1980’s – lifted us higher and higher. Republicans like former Governor Phil Batt and current Supreme Court Justice Jim Jones took the issues very seriously back then, as did Democrats like Andrus and Governor John Evans. But it is not a given that we will keep on climbing. A new generation of leaders will need to step forward and keep pushing.

We would do well to consider the message – both practical and symbolic – sent by Idaho if the state appears to be devaluing the work of the Idaho Human Rights Commission. Enforcement of federal anti-discrimination laws won’t go away. Rather the federal government will enforce the law in Idaho if the state is left with a less than adequate effort of its own.

All too obviously, much work remains to realize Dr. King’s dream and live out his courage even as his words speak to us as powerfully as ever:

“Many people fear nothing more terribly than to take a position which stands out sharply and clearly from prevailing opinion. The tendency of most is to adopt a view that is so ambiguous that it will include everything and so popular that it will include everybody. Not a few men who cherish lofty and noble ideals hide them under a bushel for fear of being called different.”

We are not condemned to repeat the past, we need only to remember it.

Like Father, Like Son

churchIdaho Friends, Family Celebrate Forrest Church

It has been 26 years since the death of Idaho’s acclaimed United States Senator Frank Church, but as I listened to the tributes for his acclaimed son on Saturday those years melted away and memory rushed back.

Forrest Church was described during his memorial service at Boise State University as one of the most important theological thinkers of the last half of the 20th Century. His pulpit at All Souls Church in Manhattan was a place were the public intellectual, the political son, regularly confronted the messy reality of a troubled world. Church’s major contribution as a religious leader was, as many have noted since his death, to help us focus on the good in the midst of the world’s reality.

So, being called a great thinker about life, death and religion is an entirely appropriate epitaph and true enough in Church’s case, but Forrest, who died in September after a prolonged illness, was also his father’s son – a complicated, eloquent man deeply committed to social justice and aware enough of himself to be comfortable with unanswerable questions.

Both these men died young and from cancer. The Senator was 59. Forrest died on September 24th, the day after his 61st birthday. In life they shared much, but perhaps nothing more important than the grace and dignity with which they left. In his last days, Forrest Church recorded a long series of interviews with AARP reflecting on life and appreciation, religion and death. The series of interviews is available here and well worth your time.

Forrest was, like his father, a profound and gifted writer. He produced 25 books in 25 years, but he may never have written anything as touching as the eulogy for the Senator – his father – which, upon re-reading, seems like it might have been written for him.

On that April day in the crowded Cathedral of the Rockies in Boise in 1984, Forrest spoke these words:

“In so many wondrous ways, my father taught us how to live…he also taught us how to die. I have never seen a or known a man who was less afraid of death. If religion is our human respnse to the dual reality of being alive and having to die, my father, from a very early age, was touched with natural grace. Because my father was not afraid to die, he was not afraid to live. He did not spend his life, as so many of us do, little by little until he was gone. He gave it away to others. He invested it in things that would ennoble and outlast him.

“In his life, my father was a bit like the day star, rising early to prominence, brilliant in the dusk and against the darkness, showing other stars the way. When it came time for him to go, when his precious flame flickered, he was ready. Peacefully, naturally, with serenity and grace, he returned his light unto the eternal horizon. Like the day star, my father went out with the dawn.”

We are fortunate, indeed, to have been touched by both of these remarkable people – sons of Idaho and men for the world.

Killing Off Big Bird…

big birdIt Has Been Tried Before

Idaho Governor Butch Otter proposed in his State of the State speech this week a four year phase out of state support for Idaho Public Television. Otter’s proposal would eventually eliminate the $1.7 million the system now receives and uses primarily to support its services statewide.

Combined with other holdbacks, the reduction will be more like 33% in the first year.

Otter’s idea has received extensive media attention and, in an irony too rich not to mention, the governor’s speech containing the proposal was carried statewide only on, you got it, Idaho Public Television. Here’s guessing the public pushback is just beginning.

In an editorial, the Times-News made a practical political point that legislators may really want to ponder: “There are few more respected institutions in Idaho than IPTV. It’s beloved by every Idaho parent with a 4-year-old – even if those 4-year-olds have long since grown up.”

The governor and his advisers have said that public TV should hustle up private and corporate support to keep going, but that seems very unlikely given two hard facts.

One, the folks who run Idaho Public Television have mastered the art of looking under ever rock in Idaho for support. They run a lean, mean operation that makes the absolutely most of the checks they collect from Idahoans. In fact, compared to peer operations – states with state licensed systems – Idaho already out performs in the private fundraising arena.

Two, the worst hard times in anyone’s memory hardly seem like a realistic time to tell a state operation that has been around for 40 years to rattle the tin cup more loudly. Every non-profit I know, even the most popular – and public TV is popular – is hurting in this economic environment.

[Full disclosure: I worked for Idaho public television for about eight years back in the 1970’s and 1980’s, I recently joined the Friends of Public TV Board and I have many long-time friends in the operation. I am not an unbiased observer.]

I do know, from having the weird experience of reporting on the decision, that public television funding was eliminated back in 1981. That, too, was a time of severe budget constraint and legislators were looking under rocks. Part of the discussion then, as now, was also ideological. Some lawmakers, including then-Senator Dave Little of Emmett, the chair of the Senate Finance Committee and father of the current Lt. Governor, simply didn’t think the state belonged in the “government TV” business.

Legislators came to rethink – and some, perhaps to regret – the “unfunding” and state support was partially restored a year later. Also in 1982, the legislature mandated a statewide merger of services that created the streamlined, efficient system that exists today.

Personal opinion: I don’t believe Idaho Public TV can survive in anything like its current form, covering virtually every corner of the state, with the kind of Idaho-specific programming and reach without state support. It simply won’t happen.

This discussion is really about whether statewide public television service and programming will continue – period. Removing state funding will also serve to squander the substantial investment Idaho taxpayers have already made in a more-or-less state of the art delivery system. As a very practical matter, translators will sit unused on many mountain tops.

The state is big enough – no statewide newspaper, two time zones, diverse political and social culture – that public TV here, in more than any state I know, pulls the population together. It’s been a bargain for 40 years and will be a bargain this year and next and beyond, even at twice the price.