Home » 2011 » April

Rope a Dope

Ali, FDR and Barack

OK, I never thought I’d find a connection among the “greatest” heavyweight of all time, Franklin Roosevelt and the man now in the White House and officially certified as a resident of the United States, but bear with me.

Throughout his remarkable career Muhammad Ali struggled to be accepted for what he was – a consummate professional, a remarkably intelligent, one-of-a-kind man; an African-American with a gift for language who also challenged all kinds of conventional thinking.

Ali, a convert to the Muslim faith, was a man with a foreign name and remarkable championship skills; a man who made a principled stand against an awful war and paid dearly for it, a champion never accepted by many Americans as “legitimate.”  But, through it all, he could proudly claim to be “the greatest.”

It’s not bragging, they say, if you can do it and Ali could.

I watched the great champion in an old, black and white interview with Howard Cosell last night as he correctly analyzed himself as both loved and hated, misunderstood, undervalued, misrepresented and, well, just not one of us. He knows us better than we know him.

Elected to the presidency four times, father of Social Security, architect of victory in World War II, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was never considered legitimate by some of his persistent critics. The narrative of illegitimacy dogged him in each of his four elections to the presidency.

FDR was – take your pick – a “traitor to his class,” as historian H.W. Brands described him in his fine biography or more nefariously the architect of a vast Jewish conspiracy. As another Roosevelt historian has described the myth makers, they were convinced FDR was out “to betray the United States into the clutches of international conspirators who were plotting a world state under Jewish domination.” In other words, Franklin Roosevelt, the Dutch-American born of aristocratic parents of the Hudson River Valley was secretly a “Jew,” presiding over an administration dominated by an  “invisible Jewish leadership.” In other words – he was illegitimate.

And…the current president, a man besieged until yesterday by many who considered his very birth in the United States illegitimate. Obama, the editor of the Harvard Law Review (that is generally considered a pretty big deal), who a “carnival barker” reality television host can wonder how he ever got into the such an establishment Ivy League bastion.

To some Americans, Barack Obama can never be “legitimate,” just as the great boxer or the greatest president of the 20th Century can’t possibly be legitimate. Accomplishment is simply not enough.

Ali was a “draft dodger,” a “loud mouth” and not even a good boxer. Roosevelt was a Jew, a “cripple” and “mentally ill.” Obama must be a Muslim, and couldn’t have gotten into Harvard on his own. He’s just not a real American. He can’t be “one of us.”

Stay tuned. The production of the president’s birth certificate won’t silence some of the doubters. Even as Obama played rope a dope with the birthers, daffy Donald Trump still said he would need to check the veracity of the document. It just may be illegitimate. The Idaho Falls Post-Register quotes a guy in an eastern Idaho diner wondering if Obama released his paperwork “for political reasons or did he manufacture one?” After all, he had two years to produce the document and “I’m just asking,” the guy says.

As silly as political discourse has become in America, and with too much of the media lacking a filter to shut off the loud mouth de jour, there is something more troubling at play here. The something is deeply engrained in the political DNA of Americans.

For the haters of Roosevelt it wasn’t enough to oppose his policies, he had to be, at a time when anti-Semitism was hardly in the closet, exposed as a secret Jew. He must have been something sinister. He had to be unlike us, illegitimate. Google “was FDR a Jew” and you’ll find them. Like the poor, such folks will always be with us.

For Ali and Barack, it is the differences that count – the names, the color, the background. Accomplishment in the ring or on the Harvard Law Review or in the United States Senate or with the Nobel Peace Prize couldn’t possibly be legit. There must be some other explanation. These guys are different, foreign, not like the rest of us…illegitimate.

Remember all that talk a while back about a post-racial America. Not so fast apparently. I hope I live long enough to see it, but I’m certainly not counting on it.


All Politics

Stranger Than Fiction

Turns out Donald Trump’s checkered past is almost as interesting as his current foray into Republican presidential politics.

Trump has given a lot more money in political contributions to Democrats than Republicans, made a big contribution to Rahm Emmanuel’s Chicago mayoral campaign and volunteered to the Obama White House that he was just the guy to run the clean-up in the Gulf of Mexcio after the BP oil spill. Trump continues his daily media tour and, like moths to a flame, the cable shows and the mainstream media can’t get enough of it. Reminds me of the car wreck that you know you should avoid, but you can’t help yourself.

Meanwhile, Nate Silver, the number crunching polling guru at the New York Times, has an interesting analysis of polling on the “birther” question even as the White House produces the long-sought document.

Sounds as though the Queen of England, and perhaps the future King, subscribe to the old political maxim “don’t get mad, get even.” The last two British prime ministers – Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – aren’t on the invite list for the event of the decade in Britain – the Royal Wedding. 

The Telegaph calls it a “snub of historic proportions.” Apparently, Her Majesty never developed a liking for the last two Labour PM’s and harbors a distaste for Blair’s wife. She never curtsied. And William has never forgiven Blair for his grandstanding at the time of his mother’s death. Get even time – royally.

My other favorite political story of the day is the continuing post mortum on Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s decision not to enter the GOP presidential field. Granting Barbour’s immense network of contacts, his fundraising ability, his political experience, etc., I could never see him winning either the nomination or the presidency.

Still, his fling with the idea has cast a light on what it takes to run. Barbour called it a “ten year commitment” to the exclusion of virtually all else. One needs a lot of passion, ego and ambition to embark on that journey.

Barbour now has time on his hands, Trump’s birther issue is gone in a flash – maybe they can fill in for Blair and Brown on Friday. Just a thought.



Weekend Potpourri

Odds and Ends on Easter Weekend

Need a movie recommendation this weekend? Join Elwood P. Dowd and his buddy, Harvey, the invisible – except to Elwood – 6’3″ rabbit. The film was one of Jimmy Stewart’s favorites and, no, Harvey wasn’t an Easter bunny.

Good reads this weekend:

The Los Angeles Times has a piece about the uncharacteristically adult like behavior of the “gang of six” U.S. Senators who are trying to craft a true bipartisan approach to the budget. The “gang” includes Idaho’s Mike Crapo.

The extremely well-reviewed new bio of Malcolm X is on my bed side table. This review makes me anxious to get after it.

And this book I can unequivocally recommend – Unbrokenby Laura Hillenbrand, the author of the acclaimed book Seabiscuit. It is an absolutely riveting account of the combat and POW experiences of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic track star, who somehow was able to overcome his completely dehumanizing experience in a Japanese prisoner of war camp and go on to lead a fascinating life. You won’t be able to put it down.

Can’t say I’ve spent much time following the imminent nupitals of the British royals, but the announcement of the champagne they are serving got me to pay attention.  “Pol Roger,” the Decanter.com website says will be served and it, “has a long and honourable association with the British aristocracy. It was the favourite Champagne of Sir Winston Churchill, and in 1984 Pol Roger created the Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill in his honour.”

Good stuff…fit for a future King and Queen. No word if Sir Winston’s favorite Romeo y Julieta will also be available. I’m guessing not. A shame.



Isn’t it Time?

Former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn recently made their second trip to Cuba. Carter also went in 2002. Both trips, undertaken as a private citizen (but no former president is really a private citizen), were designed to try and move U.S – Cuba relations in a more positive direction.

Predictably, Carter was immediately denounced as a “shill for Castro” and an apologist for the Cuba government. Such criticism seems to roll of the former president’s back like water off a duck and Carter’s report on the visit, posted at the Carter Center website, paints a much different picture of what he did and said in Havana. Here’s the concluding paragraph of his trip summary:

“Both privately and publicly I continued to call for the end of our economic blockade against the Cuban people, the lifting of all travel, trade, and financial restraints, the release of Alan Gross [a jailed U.S. contractor] and the Cuban Five [Cuban dissidents], an end to U.S. policy that Cuba promotes terrorism, for freedom of speech, assembly, and travel in Cuba, and the establishment of full relations between our two countries. At the airport, Raul [Castro, the Cuba president] told the press, ‘I agree with everything that President Carter said.'”

For 50 years the United States has had an embargo against Cuba. During the Bush Administration and for most of that 50 years, it has been extremely difficult, even illegal, to travel to Cuba. Trade has been strictly banned. The Obama Administration has relaxed the travel rules some, but the chance that the two countries might actually get on a path to more normal relations remains wrapped around the axle of south Florida politics. The Cuba-American community there, largely Republican voters, remains a potent political force and last I checked Florida still played an outsized role in presidential politics. For years the political facts of life in one state have largely dictated the nation’s policy toward Cuba.

Nevertheless, by almost any measure our Cuban policy has run its course, and not just because I’d like to buy an extremely expensive Cuba cigar in the United States. At one time, post-Bay of Pigs and post-Cuban missile crisis it was easy to make the argument that Fidel Castro’s island regime was settling in to become a genuine threat to U.S. and Latin American security. Cuba did meddle in revolutions in far away places, like Angola, but today there is much reason to acknowledge that the Cuba-Soviet relationship was never as seamless as we feared nor was Castro, the socialist revolutionary, as effective as we might have thought. Cuba’s economy struggles today and the embargo, rather than bringing down Castro, has hurt the Cuban people and given the regime its anti-American reason d’etre.

Here’s the analogy that works for me. We’ve had 50 years of deadlock and non-engagement with Cuba, a country 90 miles from our shores, while halfway around the world, thanks originally to Nixon and Kissinger, we have engaged the Chinese and, I would argue, slowly, but steadily, helped bring a measure of the free market and openness in that communist country. We may have gone too far. The Chinese now threaten our economic leadership in the world. At the same time, we engage Vietnam, a country in which we fought a long and bloody war, with trade and diplomacy. We have an unsteady, but absolutely necessary relationship with Putin, the old KGB chief, in Russia. But nothing of any substance with Cuba.

Idaho and other Pacific Northwest conservatives, guys like Sen. Mike Crapo and Gov. Butch Otter, have long pushed for more trade opportunities with Cuba, the Castro brothers notwithstanding. In February 2008, Crapo signed a bipartisan letter to the Bush Administration, asking for a rethinking of U.S. policy in light of the resignation of Fidel Castro.

“Our current policy deprives the United States of influence in Cuba,” Crapo wrote, “including the opportunity to promote principles that advance democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.  By restricting the ability of Americans to travel freely to Cuba, we limit contact and communication on the part of families, civil society, and government.  Likewise, by restricting the ability of our farmers, ranchers, and businesses to trade with Cuba, the United States has made itself irrelevant in Cuba’s growing economy, allowing Cuba to build economic partnerships elsewhere.”

Cuba presents a “Nixon goes to China” moment. Relaxing trade restrictions and putting the countries on a path to more normal relations, requires conservative, trade-oriented Republicans, like Crapo, to keep pushing.

In a 2005 report, the libertarian-leaning CATO Institute, labeled our country’s Cuba policy “four decades of failure.” CATO’s trade policy director Daniel Griswold wrote: “The most powerful force for change in Cuba will not be more sanctions, but more daily interaction with free people bearing dollars and new ideas.” Indeed.

World-class cigars aside, Cuba can’t have much to sell to us. They import most of their food and manufactured goods. By contrast, we have everything the Cubans need from automobiles to high rise resort hotels, from Idaho potatoes to Washington apples. Continuing sanctions is simply a huge missed opportunity.

Jimmy Carter left office in 1981 with a 34% approval rating. His tenure remains controversial, but his standing in the history books aside, Carter has quietly and effectively been a model “ex-president.” His selfless work in Africa to end disease, his election monitoring around the world and his advocacy for women continue to be impressive. As one of the few Americans to engage at the highest levels with Cuba’s political elite, with dissidents, artists and religious leaders, he deserves a fair hearing on Cuba.

Pure south Florida politics aside, when Jimmy Carter and Mike Crapo are on the same page about Cuba, everyone should be listening.


Say It Ain’t So

Where is Landis When We Need Him?

I’m not sure what to be more shocked about this morning: the breaking news that long-suffering Chicago Cubs fans may have to endure more ridicule or that the quietly inept Commissioner of Major League baseball has stepped in to bail out another of baseball’s loudly inept owners.

The story out of Chicago that the 1918 Cubs may have been the World Series throwing inspiration for the 1919 White Sox is, still and all, based on speculation. The Dodger meltdown is all too real. Old documents have turned up that suggest that White Sox players, pitcher Eddie Cicotte particularly, may have been inspired by the Cubs taking a dive against the Boston Red Sox in the 1918 series. Cicotte is hardly a character witness. He was banned from baseball for life by then-Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis for cavorting with gamblers and, very likely, conspiring to lose the 1919 series to the Cincinnati Reds.

Professional baseball realized it had a problem in the wake of the “Black Sox” scandal and turned to a crusty Chicago federal judge, Landis, to assume dictatorial powers over the game in the interest of restoring integrity to the national past time.

Landis was selected by the owners – baseball had millionaire owners then, too – but he operated more as a policeman than a hand maiden. With two major National League franchises – the Mets and the Dodgers – now operating under serious financial clouds and with Roger Clemens about to follow Barry Bonds into steroid never-never land, baseball could use a commissioner who was less dedicated to holding the coats of the game’s owners than in establishing fundamental standards of conduct that, Landis-like, really protect the integrity of the enterprise.

Gamblers once spread around money to try and fix the World Series and Judge Landis drew a sharp line in the infield dirt by declaring that gambling was off limits to anyone involved in the game. Just ask Pete Rose if that precedent is as good today as it was in 1920.

Today’s baseball gamblers are guys like Frank McCourt who ran one of the great brands in sports into the ditch after using enormously leveraged money to buy the Dodgers and Fred Wilpon, the Mets principle owner, who once counted Bernie Madoff as both close friend and financial advisor.

Given the continued drug cheating and financial incompetency in baseball, a real commissioner would lay down the law, not just try to pick up the pieces. The way to keep the modern day gamblers out of the game is not to let them in the first place and, when they screw up, quickly show them the door. Baseball ownership has always been a closed shop for too many guys operating on too much leveraged money who enjoy the vanity of owning the owner’s box. All their money, their messy divorces and their felonious financial advisors aside, the game still belongs to the fans in the seats.

A real commissioner would spend more time worrying about the best interest of the folks who buy the tickets rather than the interest of some rich guy who isn’t smart enough to make money on a baseball team in Los Angeles or New York.

Landis is remembered for banning the eight White Sox players in 1920 and altogether he banned more than twenty players for gambling, selling stolen cars and other sins that brought disrespect to the game. He also banned one owner – William B. Cox of the Philadelphia Phillies – for betting on his own team. Cox remains the only owner ever banned for life.

It’s time to send some more owners to the showers – permanently. Landis knew the score. He reportedly told players, “Don’t go to those owners if you get into trouble, come to me. I’m your friend. They’re no good.”

Spoken like a real commissioner.


Mayor Annoyed

The Best Politician You Never Heard Of

If you’ve ever been to the ballpark in Baltimore – Oriole Park at Camden Yards – and loved it as I have, you have William Donald Schaefer to thank. Or maybe you’ve been able to wander around the gorgeous Inner Harbor in Baltimore and visit the stunning National Aquarium. All the work of Don Schaefer.

In one of the best political profiles ever written, Richard Ben Cramer, called Schaefer, who died on Monday at age 89, Mayor Annoyed. Annoyed because things didn’t happen fast enough in his city, annoyed because greedy developers (and NFL owners) refused to see things his way and annoyed because nitwit reporters tweaked him for his temper and his very old school ways.

He never quit working. Schaefer became legendary for driving around the city at all hours stopping his Buick to check on an abandoned building, talk to some guy on the street or pick up a pile of trash. The mayor, and later the governor, always had work to do.

For 15 years, Schaefer was the mayor of Baltimore and then spent two terms as governor and more time as Maryland’s controller. He never married. Politics was his mistress. He was a builder, a boss, a bully, a booster and, as the Baltimore Sun said in his stunningly interesting obituary, “the dominate figure in Maryland politics over the last half century.”

Don Schaefer was the model of the modern, big city mayor.

Schaefer, often referred to as the “Governor of Baltimore” after he moved to Annapolis, hated that the Baltimore Colts NFL team had left his beloved city. As governor, he was determined to do what it took to get a team back and to keep the Orioles in town. That included making peace with his legislative critics to ensure a $280 million stadium deal was approved. It was and Camden Yards is part of his monument.

As the Sun’s Michael Dresser wrote in his obit: “[Schaefer’s] style in dealing with legislators was cunningly flexible. With strong personalities he would pitch fits punctuated by profanity and obscene gestures before coming to a compromise. With others he played on their sympathies and made them feel so bad about hurting him that they went along.”

He detested Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke, who Schaefer thought, correctly no doubt, was keeping an NFL team from returning to Baltimore. He had a long-running feud with his successor as governor, Parris Glendenning, once saying of the man who replaced him, also a Democrat, “I will not have any disparaging remarks about him except I hate him. That’s putting it mildly.” He was so independent he endorsed George H.W. Bush and once had dinner with Ronald Reagan and the next day blasted his policies.

America was once blessed with flamboyant, outspoken, get it done today mayors. Guys like James Michael Curley in Boston and Jimmy Walker and Fiorello La Guardia  in New York and Richard J. Daley in Chicago. Controversy stuck to them, ambition defined them and the little people loved them. Don Schaefer was cut of the same cloth. These guys built great cities.

I had the pleasure of observing Gov. Schaefer a few times during meetings of the National Governors Association in the late 1980’s. Let’s say he did not suffer fools well.

One night I got on the elevator in the Hyatt on Capitol Hill just as the governor was returning, all by himself, from the obligatory black tie dinner at the White House. How was the dinner, I asked, hoping for a little State Dining Room gossip.

Schaefer reached up, pulled on one end of his bow tie to loosen it and offered his assessment of an evening at the White House. “The food was pretty good, but otherwise it was a damn waste of time.” As the elevator stopped on his floor, he said, “good night, I got work to do.”

I remembered that ocassion while reading Cramer’s great 1984 Esquire magazine profile of Mayor Annoyed. Cramer describes Schaefer’s penchant for issuing “action memos” demanding that his staff immediately address some city problem. “Broken pavement at 1700 Carey for TWO MONTHS,” for example.

He once sent an action memo that read simply: “There is an abandoned car…but I’m not telling you where it is.” City crews, Cramer wrote, ran around for a week “like hungry gerbils” trying to find that car. “They must have towed five hundred cars.”

Like the man said, he had work to do. What a character.


The Great Divide

An Uber Gilded Age

A friend of mine has always said he never feels more patriotic than on the day he files his tax return and most years ships off a check to Uncle Sam.

Most Americans, I suspect, consider the tax obligation a necessary duty of citizenship. They may not like it much, but financing our government – yours and mine – is a fundamental obligation of citizens in a democracy. We band together to do for ourselves the things we can’t do alone – national defense, highways, airports, education and care for the poor and lame. That’s government and taking care to maintain it is patriotic no matter what the tax protests say.

Where the social compact starts to fray, however, is at the point where you and I pay and someone else doesn’t. The Washington-based Tax Policy Center says nearly 50% of Americans pay no income tax at all. They either have too little income to qualify or they qualify in our ridiculously complicated tax system for enough exemptions, credits and deductions to avoid any liability.

Little wonder that taxes and sending spark such political outrage. Half of the country, understandably including the poorest Americans, paying no federal tax with increasingly a tiny handful of the richest citizens controlling an ever expanding share of the wealth and also paying little or no taxes.

As Catherine Rampell pointed out recently in a New York Times piece, “the top 1 percent of earners receive about a fifth of all American income; on the other hand, the top 1 percent of Americans by net worth hold about a third of American wealth.” During the so called Gilded Age of the 1890’s, wealth distribution in the United States was not as out of whack as it is today.

Writing in the May issue of Vanity Fair, Nobel Prize economist Joseph Stiglitz says: “In terms of income inequality, America lags behind any country in old Europe.  Among our closest counterparts are Russia with its oligarchs and Iran. While many of the old centers of inequality in Latin America, such as Brazil, have been striving in recent years, rather successfully, to improve the plight of the poor and reduce gaps in income, America has allowed inequality to grow.”

Couple those statistics with the almost daily news that top corporate CEO’s, even in firms still struggling with the recession, are raking in big bonuses and pulling down big pay raises.

The only thing that seems to impact behavior at this rarified level is sunlight. After the outcry over the news that GE, with U.S. profits of $5.1 billion in 2010, paid no taxes, but rather received a $3.2 billion refund, the company has been forced to place further restrictions on the compensation of CEO Jeffrey Immelt.

In the now classic Hollywood portrayal of the ruthless characters on Wall Street, Michael Douglas, playing that Godfather of Greed Gordon Gekko is asked, “how much is enough?”

His answer: “It’s not a question of enough, pal. It’s a zero sum game, somebody wins, somebody loses. Money itself isn’t lost or made, it’s simply transferred from one perception to another.”

I really didn’t mind sending in the tax return (and the check). I just hope Gordon Gekko sent one, too.

But, then again, greed knows no shame, or it seems, any limits.


A “Businessman” for President

The last time one of the two major parties nominated a real businessman for president was more than 70 years ago. It was 1940, the world was on the verge of another war and the Great Depression still lingered. The GOP turned to Wall Street for a candidate who lost in an Electoral College landslide. No business candidate, who hasn’t been elected to something, has won a major party nomination since.

If Donald Trump is really serious about winning the GOP nomination next year, he’ll need to overcome a lot of history. Business people don’t get nominated for president.

Politico reports today that Trump is serious. He’s been interviewing campaign staff and media consultants. (He needs a media consultant? This guy is living proof that the most dangerous place in America is the area between Donald Trump and a television camera.)

Even as Karl Rove, the last GOP operative to actually win a tough national election, disses Trump, the polls show that his wacky attention on the so called “birther” issue has gotten him attention if not serious credibility.

Trump also has to overcome, well, the sense that he’s just playing all this for the PR involved. And there are the jokes. On the NPR quiz show Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me that aired last weekend, one of the panelists made a crack about Trump’s famous hair style suggesting it was some kind of animal. David Letterman said, “The White House is saying Donald Trump has ‘zero percent chance’ of being elected. Isn’t that a little high?”

In politics, the old saying goes, it’s OK if they’re laughing with you, not so good if they’re laughing at you.

But back to Trump’s one potential strength as a serious candidate – his business credentials. If he really starts to gain traction we’ll hear a good deal more about whether he has really been a success, but let’s grant that he can make a plausible case for his leadership and business acumen. Does it help him? I’d argue no.

In 1940, Republicans were desperate to find a credible candidate to stop Franklin Roosevelt’s quest for an unprecedented third term in the White House. The leading GOP candidates in 1940 were two venerable U.S. Senators, Arthur Vandenberg and Robert Taft, and the 37-year old New York District Attorney, Thomas E. Dewey. None of these capable men really excited the party, which surprisingly turned instead to a Wall Street energy executive named Wendell Willkie.

Willkie was a first-time candidate having never run for anything. In his delightful book about Willkie’s dark horse nomination and campaign – Five Days in Philadelphia – Charles Peters quotes one of Willkie’s friends as saying: “He was a big, shambling, rumpled, overweight, carelessly dressed man, and he radiated a stunning combination of intellect and homely warmth.” In other words, not Donald Trump.

What Willkie lacked in political experience he made up for in personality and a personal style that was genuine. Up from humble beginnings in Indiana, Willkie became a lawyer and by 1940 had risen through the ranks to become the top guy at Commonwealth and Southern, one of the nation’s major utility holding companies. Democrats derisively dismissed Willkie’s personal story by characterizing him as “the barefoot boy from Wall Street.”

Willkie ran a more than credible campaign against Roosevelt, but with war underway in Europe the country was not ready to turn the White House over to an inexperienced utility executive, even a charming one. Willkie’s respected running mate was the great Oregon Sen. Charles McNary, but even McNary couldn’t help the ticket carry Oregon.

Considering the times, and even granting Willkie’s attractiveness, it’s hard to believe that in 1940 – or 2012 – that voters would elect a energy company CEO to run the country. Perhaps about as likely as electing a real estate developer turned reality television show host.

Trump’s best option would seem to be a third-party bid, ala Ross Perot. Perot parlayed his quirky straight talk into nearly 19% of the popular vote in 1992. Arguably, he made Bill Clinton president. Trump could also be a spoiler, but not a contender.

Generally speaking successful business people over estimate the value voters place on business success and they undervalue the soft skills – personality, humor, a genuine liking for people – that are essential to a successful candidate. Politics isn’t business and the skills for success in one field don’t always translate to the other.

Donald Trump can command a lot of attention, as he is currently doing, but he can’t, I suspect, stand the intense scrutiny he will get if he really becomes a candidate. The hair and wife jokes will continue and when next year rolls around, Republicans will do as they have since 1944. They’ll nominate a candidate with public sector skills and experience.

Wendell Willkie was the last serious “business candidate” to run for president. Donald Trump isn’t Wendell Willkie.

The real danger for Republicans may be that the Trump sideshow, currently fascinating the media, drains oxygen from the real GOP candidates who are trying to get organized. On the other hand, the candidates who could win the nomination may benefit from the contrast to Trump. None of them is a much divorced, windy, publicity addicted, weird haired, Manhattan real estate developer given to wearing pink neckties. No one has ever had that profile and been elected either.



Is There a Lesson Here?

For the first time ever the United States Congress is acting to legislatively remove a species from the protection of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). That action, contained in the big budget bill negotiated last week by the president and congressional leaders, has bipartisan support. Idaho’s Mike Simpson, a Republican, joined with Montana’s Jon Tester, a Democrat, to attach the wolf delisting provision to the budget bill.

The entire debate about wolves, dating all the way back to then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt’s speeches during the Clinton Administration, may be an object lesson in what happens when common sense packs up and leaves the room.

This has been about the most polarized policy/political issue in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming as we’ve seen in a long, long time. Few involved haven’t been tainted by the emotions, legal and political posturing and insistence on an “I win therefore you must lose” approach. What has been missing is one word – balance. Or maybe two words – common sense.

Ironically perhaps one of the more sensible voices in the overheated wolf debate has been that of now-retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wolf expert Carter Niemeier, an unapologetic wolf advocate, who has written a book about his experiences dealing with what he has called the polarizers at both ends of the debate.

Niemeier takes the sensible approach that wolves are here to stay, but they also need to be managed.

“A hunting season will take some of the pressure off wolves,” he told the Missoulian recently. “Sportsmen will be able to do what they think they can do about controlling numbers. The uniqueness will eventually wear off.”

“How many wolf pelts does anyone need to hang on their wall?” he asked.

Niemeier adds, “There are so many wolves now that poaching would never harm them. They are here to stay.”

Idaho Statesman environmental reporter Rocky Barker neatly summed up how national environmental groups mishandled, misread and ultimately misfired in their handling of the wolf issue.

“If you came up with a scenario to undercut the machinations of national environmental groups you couldn’t have done better than the real events. First, they won a lawsuit that they could not defend politically. Then they tried to get a do-over with a settlement that handed power to the very states they had been saying could not be trusted to manage wolves,” Barker wrote this week.

“Needless to say many of the people who gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to these groups because they love wolves are unhappy and some feel betrayed.”

With the Simpson-Tester rider sure to pass in the “must pass” budget bill, environmental leaders were left to complain that the legislative delisting undermines the scientific integrity of the ESA. But wolves have always been more about politics than science and the wolf advocates got beat playing both politics and public relations. In the end, if this mess opens the door to more congressional meddling with endangered species, the no compromise wolf advocates may have themselves to blame.

With Sen. Tester facing an extremely tough re-election next year and Rep. Simpson, as he frequently does, playing the common sense card at the very time Idaho legislators were passing a bill declaring a wolf emergency, it’s not surprising that these two wily politicians did what legislators do. They fixed a political and policy problem. Both had substantial motivation, especially Tester. His likely opponent in next year’s Montana senate race is Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg who has championed legislation to delist wolves everywhere in the lower 48.

Reasonable voices that might have long ago settled all this with compromise and common sense, as Carter Niemeier suggests, left this debate a long, long time ago. Not surprisingly the courts proved to be a singularly inappropriate place to hash out what had become a red hot, emotional and political issue.

I find myself hopelessly in the middle when it comes to wolves. I like the idea that wolves roam the Idaho backcountry as they once did. I also think their numbers should have been rigorously controlled at the state level much earlier. I also think no one really calculated whether the food supply a growing population would need could be readily available. As a result, I think the too large populations have caused significant damage to livestock and wildlife populations. I think ranchers need to be compensated for loses and hunters deserve thriving elk populations. I don’t think wolves, properly managed, present much threat to people.

As I said, I’m a squishy moderate. I see all the arguments.

It’s probably hopeless naive of me, but I wish a few folks early on could have found a sensible way to reintroduce, manage the populations, stay out of court, defuse the polarization and move on.

One way or another, I guess we now have.

A footnote:

While the legislative delisting of wolves is a first, it’s not the first, nor will it be the last, congressional intervention on ESA issues. In 1979, Congress acted to exempt the Tellico Dam project in Tennessee from provisions of the ESA. Much of the debate involved the cost-benefit of Tellico versus the survival of a tiny fish, the snail darter. For a time, the fish became a useful tool to stop the questionable dam and promoted amendments to the ESA, including the creation of a seven-member Cabinet level committee, dubbed the God Squad, with authority to exempt a federal agency from provisions of the Act.

Then-Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus chaired the first God Squad to assess whether the dam should be exempt from ESA requirements. The committee was unanimous in denying the exemption on economic rather than environmental grounds. Andrus said at the time, “I hate to see the snail darter get the credit for stopping a project that was ill-conceived and uneconomic in the first place.”

But, with snail darters and wolves, Congress had the last word when legislation was approved not to delist the snail darter, but to exempt Tellico from the Act.

Ironically, then-Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker invoked wolves in his floor debate arguing for the exemption.

“Now seriously Mr. President,” Baker said, “the snail darter has become an unfortunate example of environmental extremism, and this kind of extremism, if rewarded and allowed to persist, will spell the doom to the environmental protection movement in this country more surely and more quickly than anything else.

“We who voted for the Endangered Species Act with the honest intentions of protecting such glories of nature as the wolf, the eagle, and other treasures have found that extremists with wholly different motives are using this noble act for meanly obstructive ends.”

Some debates just never end.

Baseball in 1921

 Yankees, Giants and New York Baseball

The late, great Baseball Commissioner Bart Giamatti once said one of the important things he learned by working on the inside of baseball was “the enormous grip this game has on people…it goes way down deep.”

I learned that lesson all over again reading a wonderful new baseball book telling the story of how the game came to be defined in 1921 as a New York game – the Yankees and Giants faced off in the 1921 World Series – and how that spectacular rivalry helped the great game bounce back from the Black Sox Scandal of 1919.

As the Los Angeles Times said in a recent review of 1921 – The Yankees, the Giants and the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York, “1921 was a transitional one. The nation had only recently emerged from the horrors of World War I. Prohibition was in place, although that didn’t stop Ruth and company from indulging. And why not? Ruth was widely regarded as baseball’s savior for restoring the credibility and allure of the national pastime in the aftermath of the 1919 Black Sox gambling scandal, in which members of the Chicago White Sox took money to throw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. By 1921, he was the game’s pre-eminent superstar, acquiring an agent — the ubiquitous Christy Walsh — and igniting the first home-run boom.”

For a baseball junkie – and someone who loves history – 1921 is a great retreat into the formative days of the game so many of us enjoy today. And that is the value of a fine book like this – it connects my history (and yours, perhaps) to the game our fathers also loved.

My dad, a knowledgeable baseball fan, used to talk about the great Yankee teams of the 1920’s and 1930’s. No Yankee fan he, his admiration was for the franchise’s success and for the supporting cast around Ruth and Gehrig and later DiMaggio. He admired a Yankee outfielder by name of Bob Meusel, a guy with a lifetime .309 batting average, 156 career home runs and more than a thousand RBI’s. Meusel played only 11 seasons, all but one for the Yankees and often hit fifth in the line-up behind Ruth and Gehrig.

In 1921, Meusel hit .321, had 24 homers (Ruth hit a remarkable 59) and drove in 135 runs. Meusel and his brother Emil (nicknamed Irish), played against each other in the World Series that year. In 1921, these guys – and their substantial accomplishments – come alive and I can almost hear my dad, the baseball fan, weaving a story about the “old days” in baseball. A wonderful aspect of the game is that the history of baseball really allows us to appreciate an entirely different era.

Baseball in New York in 1921, with writers like Damon Runyon and Heywood Broun doing the daily reporting, was something special. (Runyon once wrote, “The race may not always be to the swift nor the victory to the strong, but that’s how you bet.”) Ruth appropriately received a lot of newspaper ink, but so too did the managers of the Yankees – Miller Huggins – and the Giants – John McGraw.

After the Yankees came on late in the session to win the American League pennant, Runyon wrote of Huggins, who rarely received the credit he was due for the success of this heavy hitters and slick pitchers, “the little manager of the New York club, tramped across the yard in the wake of his men, his head bowed in characteristic attitude. In happiness or sorrow Huggins is ever something a picture of dejection. The crowd cheered him as his familiar Charley Chapin feet lugged his small body along, and Huggins had to keep doffing his cap.”

Good book about great characters and the American game in a very interesting time.