Home » 2010 » July

Things of the Past

FDRThe Internet Isn’t the Same

In 1943, Franklin Roosevelt made the long, dangerous journey to Tehran for a wartime conference with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. En route he stopped over in Cairo to huddle with the British Prime Minister and Chiang Kai-shek. The president also did a little sightseeing as he noted in a letter to his long-time assistant Grace Tully.

FDR wrote that he had made friends with the Sphinx and, like every president before or since, concluded that “Congress should know her.”

The lighthearted, intimate letter to Tully is among a new treasure of letters to, from, and about a president that is the subject of a massive collection of books, but about whom we seem to only want to know more. The National Archives gained possession of the 5,000 rarely or never before seen letters, notes and scraps and they most surely will add to the already rich trove of material about the president recently voted the nation’s greatest by a group of more than 200 scholars of the presidency.

“You actually see F.D.R.’s thought process,” Robert W. Clark, supervisory archivist of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, N.Y., told the New York Times.

“(FDR) never wrote memoirs, he wasn’t a reflective kind of guy. This shows him instinctively making decisions that he knew would be for the betterment of the country and the world,” Clark said.

Roosevelt conceived of the modern presidential library and the building and grounds at his home along the Hudson north of New York City is a national treasure. FDR, even without his own diary or memoirs, knew the value of keeping and using an archive. His notion was that all of his principal aides would house their papers at Hyde Park and many did. The collection of materials squirreled away by FDR’s devoted assistant Grace Tully will add to the richness of what has long existed.

The materials include a letter from Benito Mussolini, pre-war musings from Joseph P. Kennedy about the war in Europe and the documents that coordinated the logistics for Roosevelt’s meeting on the day he died with his one-time mistress.

You wonder what the Internet age is doing to this kind of material. Actually, I don’t wonder, I know. The nature of the nation’s historical record has already changed dramatically. Politicians don’t write letters any more. Practically speaking you can’t get a piece of mail into the White House or a Congressional office. All business is done on the phone or my email.

Still, one hopes that George W. Bush’s or Barack Obama’s version of Grace Tully – every politician worth a darn has a Grace Tully – is slipping a few choice notes and letters into a “confidential file” that one day scholars and the rest of us will get to see.

As the FDR archivist says, such things show us how leaders reason, worry and joke. The dry, factual record is only part of the story. History – and our country’s story – lives in the small, intimate details.

The Understudy

batistaThe Anti-Strasburg

Everyone showed up last night at National’s Park in the center of our political universe – Washington, D.C. – to see a star perform, but the understudy got the call and ended up taking the bows.

Talk about a no-win situation. It was like the hot and sticky sell-out crowd of 40,043 bought standing room only tickets to see a Broadway show with a big name star. Instead they got the kid from summer stock. The fickle faithful were expecting something magical; think Yul Brenner strutting his stuff in The King and I. Instead they got a skinny, ex-Mariner who has rarely strutted much stuff and has often had to slink off the stage under fire.

Its not very generous to boo a guy, as many of the Stephen Strasburg-crazed D.C. baseball fans did last night, who scattered three singles, struck out six and didn’t gave up a run in five innings, while shutting down the division leader. Understudies get no respect.

When Miguel Batista took the mound for his on-field warm-up last night, the guy next to me said what 40,042 other baseball fans were thinking: “where’s the kid, where’s Strasburg?”

Strasburg, who has been the talk of baseball since joining the Nationals earlier this season “couldn’t get loose” before the game and the general manager nixed his appearance. His understudy was ready.

Batista, having gotten the call fifteen minutes before game time, obviously knew his part.

“Imagine, if you go there to see Miss Universe,” he said after the game, “and you end up having Miss Iowa, you might get those kind of boos. But it’s OK. They had to understand that as an organization we have to make sure the kid is fine.”

Miss Iowa showed some class, got a 3-0 win and, after an MRI, it looks like the kid is fine.

One of the great things about sports is the “on any given day” factor. Last night was Miguel Batista’s given day. I admit to being one of the 40,000-plus who panted into the ball yard last night yearning to marvel at the 98 mile an hour fastball and the devastating curve of the young guy who has captivated the baseball world since the Nationals brought him up to the show earlier this season. Instead, I witnessed something even better, a 39-year old pitcher in the twilight of a mediocre career rising to the moment.

Strasburg has been getting more ink – and hype – inside the Beltway than a ban on earmarks and maybe he deserves it. (The Beltway’s “must read” political writer, Mike Allen of Politico, featured the Strasburg Scratch in his morning email along with the news that White House stars Robert Gibbs and David Axelrod where among the disappointed 40,043.)

But last night, at least for a few precious innings, a guy who hadn’t won a game since George W. Bush was in the White House made a statement.

I know, I know, the last minute substitution was no doubt a prudent precaution to protect a franchise player with a long career ahead of him, but who can’t get loose in 90 degree weather with 85 percent humidity? That guy next to me, even with a couple of beers, could have gone three innings in that heat. With water – or was it beer – dripping down my forehead, I had to wonder if a 17-year-old Bob Feller ever had trouble “getting loose?”

The 40,043 were reminded last night that “baseball is a business” and there is no effective liability reform that can protect against a young and sore arm. Still, I hope someone bought Miguel Batista a steak and a beer after the game. I have a feeling he was pretty lose last night.

The understudy pulled it off. And, you gotta love that.

I Am Love

i_am_love_posterHere’s a Movie for the Summer

Family, food, fabrics, footwear. Set it all in Milan in a fabulous villa – the Medicis would kill (maybe they did) for this place – and stir in an outstanding performance by Academy Award winner Tilda Swinton and you got yourself a summer feast. It’s called I Am Love and it is one of the better movies I’ve seen in a while.

Oh, I forgot to mention the love affairs, corporate intrigue and shocking death.

The Recchi family is wealthy – boy are they wealthy – and mother Emma (the Swinton role) is obviously the stabilizing glue in this group. Still Emma, even though she is the core of the family, seems strangely remote. It could be because she is a Russian-born transplant brought to one of the fashion capitals of the world, Milan, and married into a family with more money than good sense. She says at one point that when she came to Italy she ceased being Russian. Nonetheless, she’s made her peace, it seems, with her bloodless businessman of a husband and presides over the family household staff and fabulous dinners with elegance and grace. Until.

Until, that is, she falls completely, and with shocking speed, under the spell of her son’s close friend, an ambitious chef who dreams of opening his own restaurant. It’s hard to believe that a scene with a young cook showing an older woman how to use a torch to brown food could be, well, erotic, but you need to see it.

Before you can say “three minute egg” Emma has tossed her Ferragamo’s and shed her classy outfits to roll around in the grass with Antonio.

The New York Times review said: “By the end of this often soaringly beautiful melodrama, which closes with a funeral, Emma’s face will have crumpled into a ruin. But it will also be fully alive, having been granted, like Pygmalion’s statue, the breath of life.”

The film is in Italian and Russian and should further establish Tilda Swinton as a major, major talent. The love scenes and party scenes are pretty good and the food wasn’t bad, either.

Hoarding Cash

moneySo Much Cash, So Little Investment

You don’t have to read the Wall Street Journal every day to know that the economy is barely struggling out of the Great Recession. Unemployment bumps along at just under 10 percent and some in the Congress debate whether extending benefits to the job seekers might actually encourage the out of work to stay on the sofa. In Idaho, the governor tells state employees that they best keep their expectations in check. Better times aren’t around the corner anytime soon.

Yet, somebody is making out in this rotten economy. The federal pay czar – yes, we have one – recently called the $2 billion the biggest of the big banks paid in bonuses in late 2008 and 2009 “ill-advised,” but all he could do was hold a news conference and point that out. Reforming big bank incentives seems not to be in the cards. These same banks, most recipients of TARP funds we all provided, are still reluctant to lend significant money, but they seem to have no reluctance to make money, stack it up in the vault and hand it out in multi-million dollar bonuses.

Meantime, its estimated that Fortune 500 companies are sitting on something north of $1.8 trillion in cash. As Bruce Stokes pointed out recently in a piece for the National Journal, only corporate America has the financial wherewithal to get the fragile economy moving, yet the money seems to be going under the mattress and into obscene bonuses rather than into jobs, R&D and acquisitions. Stokes suggests taxing excess corporate cash. I’ll not hold my breath on that idea, but there is ample evidence the cash hoarding is hurting the recovery.

Economic analysts Yves Smith and Rob Parenteau contend part of the reason for the corporate cash accumulation is the short-term nature of corporate thinking. CEO’s and their boards have become obsessed with quarterly earnings reports and the fact that Wall Street analysts and big investors reward or punish those who hit or miss those every three month targets.

“To show short-term profits,” Smith and Parenteau wrote recently in a New York Times piece, “they avoid investing in future growth. To develop new products, buy new equipment or expand geographically, an enterprise has to spend money — on marketing research, product design, prototype development, legal expenses associated with patents, lining up contractors and so on.”

My thoughtful Montana friend, Pat Williams, the former Congressman who now teaches at the University of Montana, had a great piece last week that got me thinking about what only business can do in tough times like these.

Pat, recalling a tough 1950’s economic downturn when he was just a kid, remembered that his mother and dad actually made the decision to invest into a down economy on the main street of Butte, Montana.

In a piece that appeared in a number of Montana papers, Pat wrote: “I remember Dad telling our customers and insisting to his fellow small business friends along Park Street, ‘Now is the right time.’ His logic was that building contractors needed work, Butte’s people wanted jobs, the appearance of downtown was important, and, he insisted, interest rates were only going up. He firmly believed that one invested in one’s self by investing in your customers and your city.”

It may be the toughest thing to do in a tough economy to make an investment decision. The safe path is to keep the cash in the bank, avoid risk and ride it out. History rewards the successful risk taker, but then again why risk it?

The economy needs a positive jolt. It’s time to start investing for the long-term. Its time for a glass half full attitude. Henry Ford, Bill Gates and Hewlett and Packard did not built empires by not investing in their customers and cities.

When Pat Williams’ folks invested in the remodel of their Butte restaurant back in the 1950’s a curious thing happened.

“Following the completion of that new, expensive store front,” Williams wrote, “we had a significant increase in customers saying thanks by enjoying a steak dinner, buying a box of candy, or simply throwing a dime on the counter for an extra cup of coffee.”

Funny thing how the economy responds to the notion that things really can get better. Maybe it really is less about economic theory and more about human nature. It is time to take some measured risk. Goodness knows, there is a lot of room on the upside.

Dan Schorr

schorrGiving Them What They Need

Every once in a while someone will ask me if I miss the old days when I had access to an audience through a television set. I usually make some flip remark about how things have changed a lot since the “days of black and white TV.”

Truth be told, I do miss it, but what I miss is so long gone as to be an historic relic. The TV news of CBS from the 1950’s to the 1970’s – an era defined, in part, by Dan Schorr – is what I really miss.

There was once a running debate in many TV newsrooms and, once in a while, even in the general manager’s suite about the real purpose of news on the tube. In simplest form, the debate boiled down to two choices. Do you give the audience what they seem to want? Or, do you give them what, in the opinion of experienced journalists, they need to know?

Dan Schorr was clearly in the “need to know” camp. His death on Friday does mark the passing of an era. He is the last direct connection to Edward R. Murrow, the broadcast journalist whose standards once, but no more, defined excellence in the broadcast trade.

I was never a particular fan of Schorr’s commentary on NPR. Late in his long life he too often seemed the master of conventional wisdom. He was rarely a man – or a reporter – of nuance and nuance and a lack of convention, I think, makes better commentary. What impresses me about Schorr’s long career was his fierce devotion to the serious business of government, politics and foreign affairs. He undoubtedly thought he knew, based on serious study and hard work, what we needed to know about and he regularly served up the serious stuff.

As Michael Tomasky wrote at the Guardian, “Schorr comes from a time and culture, CBS News in the 1950s, when putting news on television was considered such a civic trust and responsibility that the news division didn’t even have to make a profit.”

I’ve always loved the dictum at the old CBS News that a news program wasn’t ever called a “news program” or a “news show.” News was delivered in the form of a “broadcast,” a term reserved for serious information, seriously delivered. A show, on the other hand, starred Lucille Ball.

There was no perfect age of television news and it is a mistake to be too sentimental about the “good old days,” but there was a seriousness of purpose and a sense of civic responsibility in the days when names like Cronkite, Sevareid, Huntley, Smith and Schorr dominated the credits. Today’s hot-blooded shouters, the Olbermanns and the O’Reillys, couldn’t carry the microphone stands of those earlier pros.

Daniel Schorr represented one of the last links to that old, give them what they need to know tradition. The old TV newsroom debate, I fear, died long before the old Nixon enemy passed this week.

Mad Men

Mad MenI Know What I’ll Be Doing Sunday Night

I admit I have been a late adopter of the wondrous world of Mad Men, the AMC Sunday night show that has done so much for the early 1960’s. Some of my colleagues started telling me about how great the show was and I finally went back to the first three seasons, thanks to NetFlix, and got completely hooked. The series starts its fourth season Sunday and by all accounts it continues to be correctly called the “best thing on TV.”

For the uninitiated, like me until a few months ago, the storyline unfolds in a Madison Avenue ad agency in the 1960’s. A superb ensemble cast is pitch perfect in portraying the intelligence, competitiveness, class and crassness of beautiful people without a lot of balance, at times, but with plenty of booze all the time.

As Slate notes about the new season: “Ad man Don Draper (Jon Hamm) raided the crumbling Sterling Cooper for its top talent and set out to launch Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, a fledgling enterprise that should be fertile ground for the show’s strengths: office politics, office romance, and the socio-politico-historical hoo-hah Matthew Weiner brilliantly wrings from each Draper pitch.”

The series is particularly good at capturing the details of the smoking 60’s; secretaries with big hair and big – er, typewriters. The ad men are slicked back, three-Martini guys who engage in verbal towel snapping when they aren’t eyeing up the “new girl” in the secretarial pool.

The Wall Street Journal’s Dorothy Rabinowitz praises the cast as, “smart, they’re self-seeking, they’re recognizably human. They’re also overweight or undertailored, dowdy, faintly unkempt—but for John Slattery’s Roger Sterling and Mr. Hamm. It’s never less than enthralling to watch this cast at work, not least Vincent Kartheiser as Peter Campbell—a seemingly slick operator whose every urgent flicker of the eye suggests something deeper.”

No one can call January Jones’ character, the ice queen Betty Draper, “faintly unkempt.” If anything you keep waiting for one of those blond hairs to slip out of place, knowing it might cause a breakdown. Jones plays her role – now Draper’s ex-wife – so well you think that any moment the volcano inside Betty is about to blow.

I have no idea what life was like in a Manhattan ad firm in 1964, which is where we pick up these folks in the new season, but I’m betting the series makers have it pretty close to right. Double martinis, big marketing budgets, demanding clients, tight dresses and Mad Men on the make. This is good, really good, television.


Looting the Silver Valley

historic miningA Tory Money Man’s Connections to Idaho

How does an ultra-wealthy financial backer of new British Prime Minister David Cameron connect to the dusty miners in the nearby photo? In a word the connection is – money, and lots of it.

From the 1880’s forward, a narrow valley along the Coeur d’Alene River in far northern Idaho has produced more than a billion ounces of silver, not to mention tons of zinc and lead. Idaho’s Silver Valley at one time produced more than half of the nation’s silver and was the richest mining district in the world.

Like most of the world’s mining districts, the Silver Valley has long been a landscape of equal parts hope and hopelessness. For years, while the mines produced tremendous wealth, the pay was good and the jobs plentiful. Not many worried that the old Bunker Hill smelter was pumping out a vile mixture of lead and other bad stuff that killed off trees and tainted the soil.

As Idaho Public Television noted in an episode on the Silver Valley a while back, lead poisoning – long before the EPA or Superfund legislation – was a serious problem for smelter workers. “One early attempt to cure lead poisoning, called the Clague Process, passed an electric current through a miner’s body while his hands and feet were immersed in water. The Bunker Hill Company hospital used this method for several years, but it ultimately proved totally ineffective.”

In 1973, a fire at the smelter’s bag house removed the protection that had existed preventing high concentrations of lead from getting into the air and, in turn, in the soil, water and blood stream. The Bunker Hill ownership operated the facility for almost a year without adequate filtration in place and that, in part, helps explain why a 21 square mile area of the Valley is now one of the largest Superfund sites in the country.

Now to David Rowland. David Rowland? Who’s he?

Rowland is, according to the Daily Mail in London, the man David Cameron has tapped to become the Tory Party treasurer come October. He is also one of the wealthiest men in Britain; a man who apparently dodged UK taxes for some years by living on the Island of Guernsey before resurfacing last year to contribute millions of pounds to the Conservative Party in Britain. It just so happens that Rowland was also once the CEO of Gulf Resources, the company many in the Superfund encumbered Silver Valley of northern Idaho believe looted that company and reneged on clean-up commitments that should have legitimately been his responsibility.

As the newspaper noted in a July 10, 2010 story: “Rowland found himself embroiled in the (Silver Valley clean up) dispute in February 1989 when his UK property company Inoco, which was controlled by a family trust, bought Gulf Resources which took over ownership of the (Bunker Hill) smelter plant.

He immediately sparked huge political opposition when he attempted to move ownership of some of the company’s assets to the tax haven of Bermuda – which would have prevented them being used to finance the environmental clean-up.

“The move was blocked by the U.S. Justice Department.

“Mr Rowland then, through Gulf, sunk $120 million in a property deal in New Zealand, thus putting those funds beyond the reach of the U.S. authorities.

“Gulf also attempted a hostile takeover of an Australian mining company which would have taken even more money away from the clean-up.”

Former Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus was concerned at the time, and still believes today, that Gulf Resources intentionally took money out of the company – by one claim Rowland pocketed $100 million himself – to make sure the money couldn’t find its way into the Silver Valley clean up.

“I think the scoundrels looted the company,” Andrus said recently.

Katherine Aiken, the distinguished and scholarly dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Idaho, is the historical authority on the Silver Valley. Her history of the Bunker Hill – Idaho’s Bunker Hill: The Rise and Fall of a Great Mining Company, 1885-1981is required reading for anyone wanting to understand the history and importance of the area.

Dr. Aiken told the Daily Mail: “When Mr. Rowland left Gulf Resources, the money was gone, which is why so many people went to court to try to get some back. People in (Silver Valley) bars curse when David Rowland’s name is mentioned. Gulf Resources was the villain here.”

Rowland denies he or Gulf Resources did anything wrong. They’ll never buy that line in Kellogg or Smelterville.

Perhaps it is true that money can’t buy happiness, but in large enough bundles money can buy a way out of costly troubles and into political connections.

For David Rowland who, anyway you slice it, left a lot of unfinished business in northern Idaho, three million pounds contributed to the British Conservative Party can obviously buy, if not happiness, at least a selective memory regarding his business dealings 20-plus years ago in a place called the Silver Valley.

Rowland’s net worth is estimated at $730 million pounds. Even ten percent of that would go a long way in the Valley.


An Earlier “Tea Party”

American Liberty LeagueLessons from the 1930’s

Both Barack Obama and Franklin Roosevelt began their presidency by inheriting a country in economic meltdown. Both were Washington, D.C. outsiders who had mobilized broad, new coalitions in order to reach the White House. Both achieved dramatic legislative successes in their first two years in office. Both engendered tremendous right of center opposition bordering on genuine hatred.

Obama spawned the Tea Party movement in 2009. FDR provided the catalyst for something called the American Liberty League in 1934. The two movements, separated by more than 75 years, have as much in common as the circumstances of the Obama and Roosevelt presidencies. The language each used – focused on the Constitution the Founders envisioned, the threat to the country from “socialist” policies, and the insidious hand of big government – is nearly interchangeable, at times eerily so.

In their book – All But the People – George Wolfskill and John Hudson described the leaders of the anti-FDR Liberty League as focused on the Constitution and private property and convinced that the country was bound for socialism or fascism, or both.

In the mid-1930’s, leaders of the Liberty League were convinced that FDR was trampling on the Constitution and, as Wolfskill and Hudson wrote in their 1969 book, the country was “on the brink of chaos, threatened by bankruptcy, socialism, dictatorship, and tyranny” there is a “trend toward Fascist control” of the economy and on top of all that the banking industry had been taken over by the federal government.

One Tea Party website today says: “In this current day and age of politics many of (our) freedoms and liberties have come under attack, and are in danger of being taken away altogether. The Constitution of the United States, which is the definitive document that governs all of America, is routinely violated, disregarded, and trampled on by the very persons we have elected to defend and uphold it.”

New Deal historian David Woolner has written: “In hundreds of published pamphlets, the (Liberty) League often sent mixed or contradictory messages, variously accusing the New Deal of being inspired by fascism, socialism or communism, and the President’s leadership of being so strong that it was tantamount to the establishment of a dictatorship, or so weak that he rendered himself unable to ward off the sinister influence of his socialistic advisers.”

Hard times – in 1934 or 2010 – engender uncertainty and, yes, some chaos. It has happened before in our history. One thing that is different from FDR’s day to ours is that the Democratic president in 1934 had no hesitancy to take on those who came at him. The country didn’t dissolve, despite the overheated rhetoric, into “socialism” or “fascism” and the Constitution has survived. FDR fought back against his critics and, even with a new wave of New Deal revisionism underway, has been vindicated by history.

Roosevelt seemed to almost relish the battle with his opponents. He attacked the Liberty League as agents of Wall Street and he termed his well-funded opponents as the “malefactors of great wealth” who did not care about those less fortunate. When FDR ran for re-election in 1936 he famously said: “Never before in all our history have these forces (the anti-New Deal, Roosevelt forces) been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me – and I welcome their hatred.” Talk about a bring ’em on statement.

New Deal scholar Woolner noted recently, “President Obama has chosen not to take on the Tea Party with anything like the same rhetorical conviction, preferring to take a more reasoned as opposed to emotional approach to a remarkably similar anti-government backlash in a time of crisis. This might be more in keeping with his style of governance, but it may be a decision he will live to regret come November.”

Two lessons here. One, politics is a contact sport. If you are not pushing back on your opponents, you are most often loosing ground. Two, Americans reward conviction, not process.

Obama has a narrowing window to recast the last year or so as being about what FDR said in 1934, getting the country on sound footing and taking care of those Americans who don’t need a handout, but a hand up. Roosevelt vigorously defended his activist government as what was needed when the country faced enormous economic and social challenges.

Obama’s term so far has often been defined by “process” – the legislative process to write a health care bill, the process to find a path forward in Afghanistan, the process to cap an oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. Process isn’t politics. Emotion and conviction are.

Harry Truman said “the only thing new in this world is the history you don’t know.”

Franklin Roosevelt’s response to the American Liberty League in 1934 offers a playbook for the current president. Has he read the history?


Weekend Potpourri

Jerry BrownJerry Brown, Raul Labrador and the Boss

Politics is a fascinating business. Many of us – me included – bemoan the ungodly length and expense of the campaigns of our political process, but you have to admit this much: a long, grueling campaign can provide a glimpse of the real character of the candidates.

Take Jerry Brown, for instance. Brown may be in the midst of making one of the classic mistakes in politics – assuming too much. The San Francisco Chronicle has an interesting story on Brown’s troubles connecting with folks who don’t remember him from his earlier days as governor of the ungovernable nation of California. Brown is hazy on policy specifics, its said, and his claim to be the candidate of experience rings hollow for those under 40 who just don’t know what this old guy is all about.

A couple of years in politics in a long, long time. A decade or more is a lifetime. Jerry Brown is finding, as I’ve noted before here, that a comeback in politics is darn tough. Newer voters don’t know you, many of those who do know you wonder if you have any new ideas and, of course, your enemies seem to be the only voters with really long memories.

Polls and Money in Idaho’s First

Raul Labrador, the GOP candidate in Idaho’s First Congressional District, did something unusual this week – he touted a poll that showed him ten points behind incumbent Democratic Congressman Walt Minnick. Candidates tend to tout polls that show them in the lead or, at least, within striking distance.

Labrador’s pollster, the respected Oregonian Bob Moore, did note in the release on his research that the challenger’s challenge is to become as well known and as well liked as Minnick.

The real news in Bob’s survey, seems to me, is that Minnick is “personally well liked” by 52% of the voters polled in the First District. His negative score was 21%. Right now, any incumbent will take those numbers to the bank and Minnick has. The other major news in this race this week is that Minnick has a million bucks in the bank. Labrador has less than $69,000. That won’t buy much name recognition for a challenger who needs to become better known.

So Long to the Boss…

When I heard on Tuesday that long-time New York Yankee owner George Steinbrenner had died, I have to admit my first reaction was – just like “the Boss” to die the morning of the Major League All-Star game. What timing. His bigger than life story would dominate the mid-summer classic and overshadow a rare National League win. It could have been the storyline of a Seinfeld episode.

I come genetically by my dislike for the Bronx Bombers. My Dad taught me a good deal of what I know about the great game and his genes held the DNA of a Yankee hater. It would only follow that I’d never have much use for George and his antics.

I remember quizzing Dad about some of the all-time greats of the game. I asked about DiMaggio who, Dad admitted, was a “great player, but also a #@&* Yankee.” Enough said.

Still, as George departs for whatever rewards await a Major League baseball team owner, we need to give the ol’ boy his due. Steinbrenner burnished one of the greatest “brands” in sports, maybe in business – period. He insisted in perfection. OK, perhaps boorishly at times, but he hated not to win and found anything but winning unacceptable.

Perhaps he can’t take the World Series victories with him, but Steinbrenner – I hope – enjoyed them while he could. We will not, I suspect, see another like him. God rest his soul and go Red Sox.

Last Call

prohibitionThe Rule of Unintended Consequences

Most students of 20th Century American history know that the 18th Amendment to the Constitution – Prohibition – helped spawn the rise of organized crime. Al Capone, Mayer Lansky and Lucky Luciano, not to mention a host of lesser crooks and thugs, owed their spectacular rise to the misguided reformers of the 1920’s who thought they could put the Constitution between a thirsty citizen and a bottle of rye.

But until I popped open Daniel Okrent’s fascinating new book – Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition – did I realize that so much else has resulted from the great experiment to do away with booze in America.

Take, for example, the rise of the now ubiquitous Walgreen’s Drugstore. You can find a Walgreen’s on every other corner in many U.S. cities today and we can thank Prohibition for that. Okrent notes that Chicago-based Charles Walgreen had built his “chain from nine locations in 1916 to twenty just four years later.” Family history says it was the introduction of the Walgreen’s milkshake that drove the chain’s remarkable growth spurt in the 1920’s, but it wasn’t milkshakes alone that allowed Walgreen to operate 525 stores by the end of the decade.

Physicians prescribing “medicinal” alcohol had a lot to do with the rise of the drugstore chain. Doctors typically charged two bucks for a script for a pint of whiskey and the local pharmacist filled the order. That must have been almost as good as a modern day Viagra concession.

Prohibition also sped the evolution of the speedboat, something like the kind George H.W. Bush ran aground yesterday on the Maine Coast. Rum runners needed the extra horsepower to outrun the Coast Guard along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Many of the big names in today’s California wine industry – Mondavi, Beaulieu, Wente – thrived during the 1920’s thanks to the dramatic increase in the consumption of “sacramental” wine. Jewish “wine congregations” suddenly appeared around the country.

Okrent also makes an effective case that modern coalition politics can trace its dry roots to Prohibition. A motley and unlikely crew of anti-booze zealots, women’s suffrage advocates, progressive reformers in favor of an income tax and even the Ku Klux Klan, came together to convince the Congress, and then most state legislatures, to end the liquor trade.

We know how this story ends. It didn’t work. Yet both political parties and politicians as diverse as William Jennings Bryan, Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding went along with a national wave that, while politically expedient was also really stupid.

Okrent – he is the former Public Editor of the New York Times – writes with genuine insight based on exhaustive research. He quotes the Mayor of Boise and bar owners in Butte; the Governor of Utah and the sheriff of King County, Washington and paints wonderful portraits of the cast of characters that drove the politics and the policy.

George Will recently called Okrent’s book “darkly hilarious” and it is downright laugh out loud funny at times. One big-time bootlegger in New York was so impressed with the closing arguments of the prosecutor who was trying to put him in jail that he told the lawyer, “I almost think I should be convicted.”

Will also said, and its true, that Prohibition was doomed from the start.

“After 13 years, Prohibition, by then reduced to an alliance between evangelical Christians and criminals, was washed away by “social nullification” – a tide of alcohol – and by the exertions of wealthy people like Pierre du Pont who hoped that the return of liquor taxes would be accompanied by lower income taxes. (They were.) Ex-bootleggers found new business opportunities in the southern Nevada desert. And in the Second World War, draft boards exempted brewery workers as essential to the war effort.”

By 1932, the fizz had gone completely out of Prohibition and Franklin Roosevelt, in the political parlance of the time a “dry-wet” – he supported Prohibition, but also enjoyed a martini (with entirely too much vermouth, according to contemporaries) – could openly call for repeal. The photo at the top of this post is of the caustic columnist H.L. Mencken drinking to the end of Prohibition in his hometown of Baltimore, a place that never, even remotely, took to the notion of no booze. Mencken pronounced his first drink – make that legal drink – “pretty good – not bad at all.”

Prohibition, like so much of our history, is a cautionary tale. Excess in almost everything is a bad idea. It is hard – impossible maybe – to redirect basic human instinct; harder yet to ban a substance that many enjoy responsibily and fundamentally think should be no one’s business save their own. Prohibition proves that there are limits to what governments can do.

Last Call, a good summer read, full of insight into American politics and culture, is – pardon the pun – spirited. It might even go a bit better with a drink of something. You choose.