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Dumbing Down

How Print Journalism Survives…or Not

Fascinating piece by the Public Editor of The New York Times this past weekend taking the gray lady to task for not preserving “its dignified brand,” while covering popular culture.

Arthur Brisbane wrote, “The culture is headed for the curb, and The New York Times is on the story.” Brisbane went on from his exalted perch as “the readers’ representative” – the watchdog of the watchdog if you will – to criticize the Times for running three pieces in five days, two book reviews and a feature, on “The Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt.”

For the culturally unhip that is the title of a new memoir about, I gather, a New York guy who wears women’s clothes and confuses and confounds his family and friends. One of the Times reviews called it “vaguely sad.” The Public Editor was suggesting that such a book, with a $750,000 advance to the author one Jon-Jon Goulian, is certainly news, but perhaps the newspaper of record had overplayed the whole thing just a tad.

OK, OK, NPR reviewed it, too – “very funny but frustratingly shallow.”

Brisbane’s larger point, I think, and a fundamental point for mainstream journalism in an age of shrinking newsrooms and circulation. is a question as old as the craft: do we give the reader what they want or do we give ’em what we think they need?

Somewhere, I suspect, some people are making a lot of money telling newspaper executives what to do to re-imagine the content and financial model for old paper on the front step. The Times recently put a tentative toe in the pay wall water and its website is a must visit for news junkies even if it messes with its brand by writing silly pop culture pieces that are better left to the Huffington Post.

The old Seattle P-I went out of business some time back as a cut-down-trees product and is now entirely online and mostly local. One of the more intriguing experiments is unfolding in Tampa where Gannett is testing “hyperlocal” content in a series of new websites.

My own bias, as the last guy on the planet who will relinquish his grip on old-style newsprint, is for local news organizations to try their own versionof the Gannett Tampa model. Go even more local.

An old journalism prof told me once, admittedly this is ancient history – BC (before computers) – “that people like to see names in the paper.” He meant that readers want to read about their neighbors, their kids, people they know, their community. Such stuff has long been the content staple of good weekly papers

If I were editor for a day – or a month – at a small to mid-sized paper, I’d junk the daily national and international news, or perhaps run just a few headlines, and put all the newsroom resources on the community. Go back to covering the school board meetings. Report on what’s new at the Saturday market. More local culture, more local politics, more of everything local. I’d localize national and international stories more in the interest of getting local folks to comment on the news. I’d take a page from the Times and create a local Bill Cunningham, the photographer who rides the streets of Gotham on his bicycle recording the look and rhythm of the city.

Sounds easy and I know it’s not. It requires boots on the ground and reporters and editors completely invested and interested in their place. But this much is true, I can get the national political news, and do, from lots of sources all day long and into the night. We have many fewer options to find out what’s going on close to home.

The headline on the Times Public Editor piece this weekend was “Loitering on the Fringes.” Here’s hoping that struggling newspapers strike the right balance on the old “what they want and what they need” question and give us more of what answers both questions – more local content. More coverage where we live and most of us don’t live on the fringe.

By the way, Publisher’s Weekly said of that book the Times has given so much attention to: “Through all his flashy attempts to grab the reader’s attention, Goulian’s story never seems interesting or serious enough to deserve it.” If that blurb is true – who cares about this slice of pop culture?

Not interesting, not serious, not exactly the standard definition of news in The New York Times or elsewhere. In every town the school board still makes news.



“Go Talk to Tiffany’s”

Any candidate who says those words on national television is, by definition, in the deep do-do. Newt Gingrich used the “go talk to Tiffany’s” line in his Face the Nation interview last Sunday with the dean of D.C. television Bob Schieffer.

Schieffer, an old school reporter if there is such a thing, was like a dog with a bone wanting to know about what he called this “bizarre” story of the former speaker of the house and his wife owing between $250,000 and $500,000 to the tony jewelry retailer Tiffany’s. (The company has a great website, by the way.)

“What did you buy?” Schieffer asked the obviously flustered Gingrich. Gingrich never answered the question saying it was a matter “of his private life” and suggested multi-thousand dollar charge accounts at Tiffany’s are something every Joe Six Pack has.

The Schieffer-Gingrich interview was one of the most uncomfortable TV encounters I’ve seen in a while, and with the newly minted Republican presidential candidate refusing to respond to questions about his line of credit with Tiffany’s, its hard not to see this little glimpse into the candidate’s private life assuming a defining role in his effort to re-introduce himself to GOP primary voters. Coming on the heels of Newt’s comments about GOP plans to “reform” Medicare, Tiffany’s could be the bling that takes down the campaign.

His admirers, and there are many, say that the former speaker is a “brilliant” guy, a policy wonk, a big thinker. Maybe. If he were as smart as they say, he would have had a better answer for Bob Schieffer and he would never have dismissed the question with “go talk to Tiffany’s.”

A friend once told me that the part of politics he most enjoyed was “watching a candidate implode.” A bit cynical perhaps, but such implosion moments are very revealing. Remember the John Edwards $400 haircut? Or the fact that John McCain couldn’t recall how many houses he owned. Or George H.W. Bush in 1992 being amazed in a mock up of a grocery checkout line, obviously for the first time, to see the scanner technology that most of us take for granted several times a week.

In and of themselves such seemingly unimportant trivia, the candidates think, should pile up on the shoulder of the road to the White House. Trouble is they never do. Even accounting for the media pile on effect with a story like Gingrich’s expensive tastes at Tiffany’s, such stories are singularly important for the unscripted glimpse they provide behind the Oz-like curtain of the modern presidential campaign. Such stories also show the power of one incident to drive a story line – a negative story line – for days.

Since the Schieffer interview and the ever growing attention on Tiffany’s charge accounts as a campaign issue, a new poll shows Gingrich sinking with GOP voters. You might say he’s dropping like the Hope Diamond in a rain bucket. Another story links a former Gingrich aide to Tiffany’s lobbying operations at a time when Mrs. G. was a House staffer.

TIME magazine has a slide show of Calista Gingrich’s jewelry and one enterprising reporter went back and checked Gingrich’s published works for references to Tiffany’s. Hint: there are quite a number. And, for the truly uninformed about just how big jewelry store charge accounts work, the Washington Post rides to the rescue with a “fact check” piece that concludes Gingrich’s comment that this is all just routine don’t quite pass the smell test. Pile on, indeed.

There was a reason that Abraham Lincoln didn’t shy away from publicizing the fact that he was “born in a log cabin.” From Andrew Jackson to James A. Garfield, the log cabin was a potent symbol that candidates for the White House were in touch with the voters. Politicians always strive to be seen as “one of us,” but to be successful they must also be authentic or, at least, appear to be authentic.

Franklin Roosevelt came from great family wealth, as did John Kennedy. Neither one of them tried to hide that fact, but by the same token they didn’t try to be something they weren’t. The times were much different when those two sons of fortune occupied the White House, but I suspect even FDR and JFK would have had some explaining to do had it been revealed they had credit lines at Tiffany’s.

Curious thing about the American presidency, we expect these men – I chose that word advisedly – to be superhuman problem solvers, able to leap tall buildings, but we also expect them to be able to keep track of their houses, keep their haircuts affordable and window shop at Tiffany’s.

When we find out that they really aren’t at all like us, well, we do the natural thing – we conclude that guy isn’t authentic and that conclusion is deadly in politics.

Saying “go talk to Tiffany’s” is a bit like telling a reporter (or a voter) to “go pound sand” or go, well, you you know where.

I’ll bet you a peek in a Tiffany display case that before Newt Gingrich is done with this campaign – and that looks like it will happen sooner rather than later – we’ll know the answer to Bob Schieffer’s simple and completely predictable question, “What did you buy?” Stay tuned.


On Being Unique

OK, That’s Different

KNOW anyone who wears white suits these days? The signature white suit was adopted rather late in his life by the great writer and humorist Mark Twain as part of his “brand.” It was part of what made Mark Twain, well, Mark Twain.

In his enjoyable book, Mark Twain: Man in White, Richard Shelton tells the delightful story of Twain showing up on a December day for a Congressional hearing in Washington wearing a snow white suit, shirt, tie and shoes.

Twain’s friend William Dean Howells said: “Nothing could have been more dramatic than the gesture with which he flung off his long loose overcoat, and stood forth in white from his feet to the crown of his silvery head.” Just what Twain intended.

With tongue firmly in cheek Twain said of his sartorial choices: “You see, when a man gets to be 71, as I am, the world begins to look somber and dark. I believe we should do all we can to brighten things up and make ourselves look cheerful. You can’t do that by wearing black, funereal clothes.And why shouldn’t a man wear white? It betokens purity and innocence.”

It also betokens being known for something even if you lack the talent to pen a Huckleberry Finn.

Needless to say, few of us – none of us – are Mark Twain. That mold was broken, but there is a good deal to be said for “being known for something.”

I frequently sit in my office and talk to young folks just embarking on their careers. They ask for, and I routinely grant, an “informational interview.” These young folks typically want to know about our business, my career path and, of course, how they break the barrier and land that first real job.

Having done this interview many, many times over many years, I’ve come to regard two questions as essential. If the aspiring professional can answer them, I have all the time in the world for them. If they don’t have an answer, I politely suggest they need to think some more and come back another time because I probably can’t help them.

First question: what are you really good at doing? I think the simple, one word answer is best, but I usually get something like, “Well, “I’m a very good team player.” Or, “I’m a good, fast learner.”

I’d prefer an answer like, “I’m good with the short irons.” Or, “I can write well and fast.”

Second question: Who are you? It’s not a trick question, either. I want to know – and young folks often don’t know – just how to describe themselves. I’m looking for insight in what they are all about, what they care about. You tell me “I’m a history buff who loves movies” or “I’m a sports fan who really understands social media,” I now know something about you. I’m particularly not interested in talking to the person that they think I want to take to. I want to talk to them – the real person.

Answers to those questions tell me – and the world – something about the person. In a way, it is the beginning of their personal brand.

Barry Salzbergis the CEO of Deloitte LLP and soon to be the global CEO of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu the international accounting and consulting firm. Salzberg told the New York Times recently that he tells his young colleagues to “brand yourself.”

“Make sure people know who you are and that you stand for who you are. Be unique about something. Be a specialist in something.”

I think it is great advice designed to set one apart the sameness of the crowd. The world is full of generic answers. The football coach whose only comment is a variation on the theme “if we can stay healthy, we should be OK this season.” Or the candidate who says in response to the most asked question in politics, “why are you running,” well, “because I have a strong desire to serve the public.”

Horse pucky. I like coaches like former Montana Tech football coach Bob Green who once said his team played like we “just got off Willie Nelson’s tour bus.” Or the politician like former Sen. Bob Dole who once said as he watched former presidents Carter, Ford and Nixon standing together: “There they are. See no evil, hear no evil, and…evil.” You don’t forget those guys.

Few of us would feel comfortable wearing a white suit as part of our personal brand – it occurs to me that the writer Tom Wolfe does – but we can intentionally adopt a brand that can “make sure people know” who we are.

I can only guess at how the great Man in White would answer my two simple questions. No generic answers from him, I’m confident.

The world is full of people in plain packages. It’s no crime, and quite an advantage, to stand out with distinction in a crowded world. It just might get you noticed. It just might get you hired. It’s certainly more fun.



I Thought the Guy Was a Kenyan

The problem with some people is that when they aren’t drunk, they’re sober.”

– William Butler Yeats

When Barack Obama stood before a crowd estimated at 50,000 last night in Dublin, he introduced himself to the adoring Irish crowd as: “Barack Obama, of the Moneygall O’Bamas. I am here to find the apostrophe that we lost along the way. Tá áthas orm bheith in Éirinn.”

Obama has proven again, as John McCain’s campaign attempted, unsuccessfully, to use against him in 2008, that he is the “biggest celebrity in the world.” True enough, but the Irish have long proven they love the American president, whomever he happens to be.

Just behind the main entrance to the building that houses the Irish Dial, is a lovely room festooned with photos of the American presidents who have visited Ireland. John Kennedy, of course, and Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and now the distant son of Moneygall.

I love Ireland – the people, the landscape, the literature, the history, well some of the history, anyway. But most of all, as I have enjoyed the coverage of Obama and Michelle sipping a Guinness in a pub in Moneygall, I like the notion that everyone has some of the Irish in them.

It can’t hurt the president’s standing with Irish-American and Catholic voters that he was welcomed like a rock star – the Kenyan Bono? – in the old sod. While the stout sipping photo op got most of the play, the best photo I saw was of Obama hoisting high a darling, red haired Irish lass of maybe three or four. She displayed classic smiling Irish eyes as the black/white/Irish/Indonesian/Kenyan/Christian/Muslim president beamed back at her.

These pictures, the lost apostrophe in Obama and the obvious respect and affection an American president commands in a country hard pressed to recover from its disastrous real estate implosion and still hardened by religious troubles, must be hard to swallow for the birther crowd. Some folks – Jerome Corsi for instance – have made an industry of advancing the line that Obama just “isn’t one of us.”

Trouble is, for most of the world, Obama is one of them. Just ask the crowd in Dublin or that adorable Irish redhead. Here’s a bet: you’ll see those pictures again; during the campaign, in a commercial.

The Irish Times summed up the president’s visit, coming as it did on the heels of the visit of the Queen of England, with this: “Obama’s eloquence, self-deprecating humour, and patent empathy turned what otherwise might have been seen as pro forma diplomatic expressions of goodwill and shameless stroking of the national ego, into something heartwarming and inspiring.”

Any self-respecting, world-wide celebrity should hope for such reviews.


Education Reform?

Idahoans Aren’t Convinced

New statewide opinion research finds Idahoans distinctly unsure that the educational reform efforts that dominated the state legislative session this year will help Idaho students be better prepared for learning beyond high school and to enter the workforce.

My public affairs firm teamed up with respected pollster Greg Strimple and the Idaho Business Review to conduct a 400 sample survey in late April that was aimed at understanding more about where the Idaho economy may be headed and the priorities voters attach to various issues. The poll has a +/- of 4.9%.

(Strimple served as Sen. John McCain’s pollster in the last presidential election and works nationally for major clients like AT&T, the National Football League and GE. He lives in Boise.)

In a previous post, I noted the wide demographic splits that characterize attitudes about the economy in Idaho. In a nutshell, many older, less well-off, and less educated Idahoans are pretty content with the Idaho they have long known, including an economy dominated by agriculture and the state’s natural resources. A younger, better educated group thinks about the future economy quite differently. They believe innovation, education and technology hold the keys to the future.

We asked a series of questions in our survey about education, including a basic question about education reform: “In your opinion, will the recent education reforms passed by the state legislature make students better prepared to enter college and the workforce, less prepared, or make no difference?”

Idahoans in our survey were almost equally split: 24.5% said the Luna efforts would make students better prepared, 27.3% said less prepared, 28% said the reforms would have no difference. The rest didn’t know or declined to answer.

Looking more deeply into the internal numbers reveals that the level of division about the effectiveness of the reforms in terms of student preparedness cuts across virtually every demographic and ideological boundary. Even the most conservative folks we surveyed are split on whether the reforms will better prepare kids for more school and future work.

In fact in no demographic group – males, females, very conservative people, younger folks or older, etc. – does the reform package command a 50% majority who are convinced it will make students better prepared.

Perhaps this has something to do with the tone of the legislative debate around school reform. As the debate unfolded from January to April it was, by and large, a back-and-forth about teachers and money. That debate continues on an almost daily basis with Luna recently warning educators to be careful about mixing politics and school business and teachers accusing the superintendent of violating ethics rules. The entire conversation around education reform has been much less about student outcomes, including particularly what Idahoans might reasonably expect following such a long and difficult debate around a subject they obviously care a great deal about, and more about ending tenure and using more computers in classrooms.

And there is more: Idahoans who say they prefer a future economy focused on exporting goods and services, encourging innovation and fostering an entreperneurial culture are the most skeptical of Superintendent Luna’s reform package. This group thinks, by a 2 to 1 margin, that the reforms will result in students less well prepared for further education and future work.

We also asked our survey group to identify the initiatives “most important to helping Idaho’s economy grow and create new jobs?”

Providing better K-12 education and increasing the number of students that pursue higher education was the top choice of 43% of respondents. A favorable tax and regulatory policy was second with 21%.

We also asked what “government policies” are most important “to helping Idaho’s economy grow and create new jobs?”

Perhaps not surprisingly, nearly 32% of respondents said attracting new businesses and promoting job creation through incentives was the top policy priority. Developing a more highly trained workforce was second at 29%.

Our survey shows that Idahoans believe education policy is important to economic growth and job creation. Many may also think reforms will save money, curb the influence of the teachers union and emphasize technology in classroom, but they aren’t convinced – at least not yet – that students are going to benefit as they prepare for post-secondary education and a life-time of work.

Meanwhile, the long-shot effort to recall the state superintendent continues, as does the substantially easier job of obtaining the signatures that could force a referendum vote on the education package in the fall of 2012.



Yesterday’s Candidate, Today’s Campaign

A good deal of the analysis of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s less-that-successful first days on the presidential campaign trail have focused on Newt’s “lack of message discipline” and whether the freewheeling former college professor can control his basic instinct to talk too much.

I think there may be something else at play that makes Gingrich’s race for the GOP nomination even more problematic. He is really yesterday’s kind of candidate trying to find his footing in today’s kind of campaign.

Political consultant Mark McKinnon said it well: “Elections are about the future, not the past. And Newt is anchored to another era.”

Jon Stewart wasn’t so kind. Newt is trying to hard to be cool, but his hash tags won’t get him there, Stewart said, in a savage take down of the old Gingrich.

Gingrich, his critics love to point out, has never been elected to anything – not including being elected by House Republicans as their leader – other than to represent a congressional district in Georgia. The last time he was on any ballot was 1998. Politics and campaigns have changed dramatically in the dozen years since Gingrich traded the daily inside game of Congress for the controlled environment of a Fox TV studio or the command and control of a hotel ballroom podium.

Even a guy who has been around as long as Gingrich needs to learn the rythem and the ropes of the modern campaign. It is a whole new ballgame out there.

When Gingrich last ran for anything Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder, was 14 and still four years from Harvard. Twitter was nearly a decade away and YouTube wasn’t even an idea. Gingrich’s real problem isn’t just discipline, its age and agility.

Case in point. TIME reports that the Obama White House is doubling down on social media as it prepares for re-election.

In a story entitled, “Can they win one tweet at a time,” Michael Scherer writes: “When Barack Obama traveled to Texas this month to talk immigration, David Plouffe, his top message guru, decided to stay home and watch Twitter instead. While Obama spoke, Plouffe sat before two flat-screen televisions in the White House complex. One showed live footage of Obama in El Paso. The other flickered with a lightning-quick vertical ticker tape of people tweeting with the #immigration hashtag, reacting line by line to the President in real time. ‘I find it useful,’ Plouffe says, ‘to see what’s penetrating.'”

Gingrich must have thought he was out on the cutting edge by announcing his candidacy the other day via Twitter, but he may be confusing the tactics of social media with the mindset of a cutting edge campaign.

Gingrich made his now classic comment – “I don’t think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering” – to NBC’s David Gregory last Sunday morning. By Monday morning the pundits were chewing him up and by Tuesday, too slow for a modern campaign, he had started to address the criticism fellow Republicans were flinging his way.

Democrats wasted no time in producing the standard YouTube video – Litmus Test – dissecting Newt’s comments. Meanwhile, the candidate was in Iowa getting pelted with a bag of glitter with one crusty Iowan, captured on video, telling him to get out of the race before he made a bigger fool of himself.

Gingrich is the 21st Century equivalent of those pre-20th Century candidates who campaigned by never moving from the front porch of their homes. His mindset is 1998, while the rest of the political world is operating in cyberspace in 2011.

A true test of leadership is the ability to react effectively in a crisis, avoid the human inclination to blame someone else for your mistakes and reset the discussion. Newt and his handlers should have known his incendiary comments on Meet the Press would require immediate damage control. His spokesman should have refrained from one of the longest, bitterest denunciations of the media I’ve seen in a while and he should have tried something to change the arc of his story.

He did none of that and on the Thursday after he laid his egg on national television the Gingrich story, and particularly the video from his interview with Gregory, was still all over the air and the Internet.

There is a mindset in military history referred to as the tendency of leaders to “fight the last war.” It happens in politics, too, but those kinds of campaigns tend to end in the cold and snow of a February night in New Hampshire. We’ll see if Gingrich last that long and whether he can learn quickly to adapt to the kind of daily politics he’s never really played.

TIMEnotes in its piece on David Plouffe, Obama’s social media guru, that he just sometimes “creates his own news. For the recent White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Plouffe’s team created a fake movie trailer in the spirit of the Oscar-winning film The King’s Speech, hoping it might go viral. The YouTube video of Obama’s remarks has already been watched more than 8 million times, a bigger audience than that of most nightly network newscasts. “People saw that and said, ‘I am going to share it with my family and friends,'” Plouffe says proudly. “You have to find ways to compound what you are doing.”

Or…to counteract what you’ve messed up.

Mark McKinnon gets almost the last word on yesterday’s candidate. Newt Gingrich has earned, McKinnon says, a spot in the “hall of fame for disastrous political launches.”

Meanwhile, Gingrich is booked on at least one weekend talk show already. Good strategy. Keep this great week going a little longer.



One of the Greats Passes

Just when it seems that spring may final have come, it turns out to be a sad, sad day. The Great Killebrew is gone.

I’ve always been a Minnesota Twins fan. I grew up listening to Twins games on WCCO radio in the Midwest. Brought to you, of course, from“the land of sky blue waters” by Hamms…the beer refreshing.”

Harmon was a boyhood idol. My first real baseball cap was a dark blue Twins model. My first major league game was bat day at old Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington. When I moved to Idaho long years ago, I actually had my first opportunity to talk with Harmon and he turned out to be just what you got on the field and at the plate: a pro and a nice guy, and those words don’t always fit in the same sentence when the subject is a professional athlete.

Killebrew was the kind of guy who would gladly stand in an airport and patiently answer questions about his career, who he hated to face and how he was doing. He never seemed hurried, just a really nice Hall of Famer from Payette with a big smile and big biceps.

Legend has it that Idaho Sen. Herman Welker, also from Payette, tipped the Washington Senators to the fact that a strong kid in Idaho was worth a look. Welker wasn’t a great or even a very good senator, but he was right about Harmon.

Welker pestered Clark Griffith, the Senators’ owner, until Griffith sent his scouting director to Payette, a little farm town hard along the Oregon border in southwestern Idaho. Harmon told the guy he was going to play football and baseball for the Oregon Ducks, but when the Senators’ scouting director (that could refer to Welker or the team) saw the 17-year old hit one 435 feet out of the park and into a “beet field, not a potato” field, Killebrew turned pro.

In the many, many remembrances that are sure to come in the days following his untimely death at 74 from cancer, most will recall that he hit is 573 home runs when a player did it legitimately. By my count, at least four guys who have passed Harmon on the all-time home run list did it with the aid of something other than a diet of Idaho potatoes.

Killebrew was old school, a gentleman, a pro, a nice guy. Jorge Posada, who knows better, melted down the other night and took himself out of the Yankee line-up rather than bat in the nine hole. Can’t imagine Harmon ever, ever pulling such a stunt. Too much class.

One manager said Harmon could hit a ball out of any park “including Yellowstone.” And no less an authority than the great Al Kaline said of Killebrew, “he’s one of the great hitters of all time.” He was…and a really, really nice guy, too.

Not surprisingly, Killebrew handled the end of his life with the same grace and dignity with which he played the great game. He simply announced a few days ago that he was ending his cancer treatment to enter hospice care and, like one of his mammoth blasts at old Tiger Stadium or Fenway, he soared away a class act to the end.

This old Twins fan is going to remember him as long as I can read a box score. Harmon Killebrew was one of the all-time greats.


No Little Plans

What Next for Boise?

An election that is normally an afterthought for most residents of Idaho’s capitol city takes place Tuesday and, while the five people who run the Greater Boise Auditorium District (GBAD) are not likely to dramatically alter the development arc of Boise anytime soon, the higher than normal visibility attending the race will be a signal of some kind about Boise’s future.

And, the signal, I dare say, is not over a fairly petty issue of how to fund the city’s convention and visitors bureau, which has become a distracting sideshow obscuring the much bigger fish that should be frying in Boise. GBAD runs the state’s premier meeting and convention space and has been struggling for years to determine how to expand.

The stakes for Boise in Tuesday election and beyond, it seems to me, boil down to two very different options: does Boise move boldly ahead with a new wave of public and private investment similar to what took place in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s or does Idaho’s largest city become content to settle in as simply a nice place in the west, but without quite the guts to become a great place?

When I came to Boise a long time ago, the fall of 1975, the city was a sleepy state capitol with a decaying downtown and some modest aspirations. When I think of the changes in the intervening 35 years, beyond the obvious population growth and a general move to the suburbs, I think of what has happened to make the city a better, more attractive place not only to live and work, but a place able to attract significant new growth and investment. Hardly anyone who lives in Boise would say it’s not a nice place. A good parks system, a fantastic river (and mostly underappreciated greenbelt), a mostly attractive and engaging downtown, open space in the foothills for hiking, biking and dogs. For many, the outdoors defines the place and that’s great as far as it goes. But truly great cities are also investment magnets. Bricks and mortar, innovation and aspiration count for a lot in great cities.

I reflect on what wasn’t here when I arrived: the Morrison Center, a world-class concert and performance venue built in 1984; the Boise State Pavilion (I still have trouble with the Taco Bell label) built in 1982, a space that regularly hosts concerts and NCAA basketball; and  the Boise Centre, the state’s largest convention and meeting space built in 1990 and where, because of its popularity and utility, it is increasingly difficult to secure a date for your local, not to mention out-of-town event. Beyond these three essential public facilities, not much in the way of public investment (outside the Boise State campus) has taken place in Boise in 35 years.

In terms of private investment, the last major construction downtown, not counting condo development, was the Banner Bank Building, completed in 2007 just before the economy nosedived, and BoDo, the south of downtown shopping, eating and entertainment center. Of the other, newer downtown buildings, the Wells Fargo Building at 9th and Main is of 1988 vintage, the U.S, Bank Plaza dates to 1978, while the Grove Hotel and Qwest Arena came along in 200o. Currently, when thinking about big privately funded civic projects, only the Simplot family’s JUMP project is actually on the drawing board.

I have this notion, reinforced by a little travel, that great cities are defined by great public buildings and venues. If that is true, with the obvious exception of the marvelously renovated Idaho Capitol Building, Boise is still a bit of a cow town.

[I’ll offer up all my disclaimers here: I chair the city’s library board, am a 16 year season ticket holder to the Boise Hawks, just joined the board of the Downtown Boise Association and have worked in the past for the auditorium district and the city. In short, I have lots of connections to Boise, care about the place and my bias here is pretty obvious – Boise has a chance to be an even better place, if it wants. But, it has to want.]

The city’s main public library is squeezed into a re-purposed plumbing supply warehouse. While the city deserves great praise for adding neighborhood libraries in recent years, there can be little debate that Boise needs a bigger, vital, new main library; a public center of the community that makes a statement about the city, its values, its energy and its aspirations.

The Boise Centre may be among the best operated meeting facilities in the country and regularly meets or exceeds its financial targets, but its not of a size to attract major national meetings, trade shows and conventions.

Prior to 1975, Boise hadn’t had minor league baseball in a long time. For two years the Oakland A’s had a Northwest League team here, followed by the unaffliated Boise Buckskins in 1978. In those days baseball was played at a high school field where fans weren’t able to hoist a beer. Imagine.

Aging and increasingly inadequate Memorial Stadium was built when baseball returned in the late 1980’s and it has neither the amenities nor the seats to be considered anywhere close to the class of the league. Securing a long-term future for minor league baseball in Boise simply requires a better ballpark and it ought to be part of a larger effort to revitalize an entire neighborhood.

Just to be clear, minor league baseball teams are moving all the time. The Yakima Bears, another Northwest League team, said last week they want to move to as yet unbuilt ballpark in Vancouver, Washington. The deal will require money from the club owners, the corporate community and the country. As one baseball backer in Vancouver told the Columbian, “This is just a huge opportunity for this community. This is how communities get on the map. This is how communities grow.” Indeed.

Think about a Boise of 2015 or so with a new main library on par with Salt Lake City or Nashville. A world-class convention venue to attract big events and big money. Expanding the existing Boise Centre or building a new facility is about as close to a “build it and they will come” proposition as exists. And then add a near downtown ballpark – Oklahoma City has one for example, as does Reno – and configure it to host minor league soccer, high school football and – one day – AAA baseball and Boise starts to act like a bigger league city.

Sound fanciful? It wouldn’t be easy and will take some urban courage. The business community will have to think bigger than it normally does and so will local elected officials. The state legislature has decided that Idaho cities can’t be trusted with the usual tools of urban economic development like local option taxation or transit funding, so a carefully drawn strategy will be required.

The Morrison Center required a public-private partnership to become reality. When I first came to town a fight was brewing over where to locate the building, but leadership and aspiration won out and a great site was chosen along the river. Can you imagine the excellent Boise Philharmonic playing these days in the Boise High School auditorium? Boise wouldn’t be Boise without the Morrison Center.

The Boise Centre was years in the making, but imagine Boise without it today. No big charity auctions and no 700 person crowds to hear a big name speakers at an Idaho Humanities Council dinner. No Taco Bell Arena?  You’d eventually get use to driving to Salt Lake to see an NCAA tournament game or to Portland to see an Elton John in concert. The next wave of public and private investment in Boise is long overdue, but will it happen? Big projects require leadership, excitement and momentum. We shall see.

There is a strange dichotomy in Boise and Idaho, as illustrated by some recent polling my firm (Gallatin Public Affairs) undertook with pollster Greg Strimple and the Idaho Business Review. The state is split, and in some ways Boise seems split as well, between folks who are pretty comfortable with life as it has traditionally been in Idaho and those who have greater aspirations. Maybe that first group decided there was just too much growth in the last two decades of the last century and they now feel more comfortable with the notion that nothing much needs to happen in the foreseeable future. These folks, and every town has them, will likely write the letters to the editor insisting Boise isn’t big enough, or wealthy enough or smart enough to pull off a big plan that builds for a bigger future. Many in this group are in what one columnist has called the BANANA Brigade – Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything.

We’ve already seen this group put the kibosh on serious planning for an urban street car system, for example, which to visitors from Salt Lake or Portland simply makes no sense whatsoever. If we started the planning tomorrow for a new interurban light rail system (we had one of those once long ago) linking Caldwell, Nampa, Meridian and Boise, with extensions to the airport, Boise State and the North and East Ends, we might be able to break ground in 15 years. It takes that long, just ask Seattle. Yet, beyond a handful of forward thinking elected officials there is no consensus for such ambition and certainly no community will.  With four buck a gallon gasoline, ask folks in the Portland area if they made a good decision to build their light rail and street car system back in 1978?

The other group in our population, and I count myself in this number, wonder where the good jobs of the future are going to come from without this type of long-term strategic investment? With a knowledge based economy becoming ever more important and with smart young people taking their ideas and their businesses where they want to live, cities like Boise will need to compete anew for their attention or be content to see them take their energy and ambition somewhere else. Lots of other places as diverse as Oklahoma City and Asheville, North Carolina and as different as Tucson and Austin are in the hunt for a piece of the new economy and the workers of the future. Will Boise decide to really compete?

A new main library, a bigger and better convention center and a multi-purpose stadium aren’t the be-all and end-all in the race to compete, but each would signal a level of ambition and aspiration that would help brand Boise as a western city of the future and not just a very nice place with limited aspirations.

A year ago, former three-term Seattle Mayor Charley Royer was the keynoter for the Downtown Boise Association annual meeting held, of course, at the Boise Centre. Royer presided over Seattle from the late 1970’s to the mid-1980’s and left office hailed as one of America’s best mayors. Royer made a quip during his speech a year ago that has stuck with me. He was referring, of course, to his city – Seattle – but it is a remark that may fit Boise just as well.

“In Seattle,” Royer said, “we do process well. We can chew, but we can’t swallow.” Chewing, to invoke Charley’s metaphor, is what Boise has been doing for some time.

The great urban planner and architect Daniel Burnham offered the correct prescription a century ago, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work.”


The Veto

The Final Vote

The presidential or gubernatorial veto may be the single biggest political club our nation’s executives can swing. The House and the Senate at the federal and state level can consider, debate and pass legislation, but it still must come to the executive for the final vote. The way this considerable power has been wielded in Montana and Idaho lately is a real study in contrasting political styles.

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, he of the bolo tie, has been swinging the decisive veto club with abandon over the last few days. As of a couple of days ago Schweitzer, a Democrat, had vetoed more than 50 bills approved by the Republican controlled Montana Legislature. Schweitzer has generated many headlines for vetoing, among others, legislation dealing with concealed weapons, medical marijuana, abortion, federal health care, mining with cyanide and employment taxation. Schweitzer, a clever and confident politician if ever there was one, seems to revel in casting the final vote and he has used ever occasion to bash the legislature.

Across the Bitterroots in Idaho meanwhile, Republican Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, with an overwhelmingly GOP legislature, drew headlines for his one and only veto of the just completed session. Otter spread red ink on a bill dealing with state efforts to establish exchanges under the federal health insurance reform legislation, but he immediately issued an executive order restoring much of what had been in the vetoed bill. Few Republicans, publicly at least, said anything about the governor’s actions and the House Democratic leader actually praised the governor’s approach.

Otter administered his one veto of the 2011 session quietly and moved instantly to placate supporters with his executive order. while Schweitzer has been known to use a branding iron in front of the television cameras to mark up bills he doesn’t like. No kidding.

As CBS reported, Schweitzer recently “stood in front of the state capitol” in Helena, “and put the bills, one by one, on display. He then used a hot brand on each one, lighting the paper on fire and burning the word “VETO” into the wooden plank behind the bill.”

If the guv considered the bill frivolous, he used a “calf brand.”

George Washington, generally not the flamboyant type, issued the first presidential veto in 1792. George W. Bush made modern presidential history by not vetoing anything during his first five years in office. Bill Clinton, by contrast left office have used the veto 37 times. Barack Obama has issued two vetoes.

Franklin Roosevelt is the all-time champion vetoer at the federal level. He issued 635 during his three-plus terms. Grover Cleveland was no slouch, either. He killed a total of 584 bills in two terms. Thomas Jefferson, by contrast, never vetoed a bill in eight years.

Governors and presidents, as a general rule, hate to have vetoes overridden. It’s seen as a mark of political weakness. But even the powerful FDR was overridden nine times, while the lowly Andrew Johnson holds the all-time record for having the Congress reject his veto. Congress did it 15 times to Andy.

The veto can be both a blunt instrument and a subtle tool used to punish, reward, make a political statement or chart a policy course. Often it is all of the above.

There could hardly be more contrast between the approach Schweitzer has taken and the line Otter had walked. Is one approach more politically or publicly effective than the other? The verdict on that may have to wait for another legislative session for as much as governors and presidents hate to be overridden, legislators hate to see their handiwork vetoed.

Most of the time, however, the final vote is the final vote whether its done quietly or with a smokin’ hot branding iron.


The GOP Field

The Weakest Field Since 1940?

John Weaver, an experienced GOP political operative and former top advisor to John McCain, says his party’s presidential field is “the weakest Republican field since Wendell Willkie won the nomination on the sixth ballot in 1940.”

Weaver is an student of political history and he may be right about the strength of the GOP field, but he is also advising former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, so a skeptic might accuse him of diminishing the entire field to make his “outsider” – an outsider not unlike Willkie – look more electable.

Willkie, a progressive – today he’d be an unnominatable Republican moderate – was an Elwood, Indiana native, a lawyer and a Wall Street utility executive. (Well, one out of three ain’t bad when you are trying to deny Franklin Roosevelt an unprecedented third term.) Willkie was the ultimate dark horse in 1940; not much of a candidate – he had once been a registered Democrat – but he was an impressive man. He had the misfortune of running in a year when the only real issues were the war in Europe and FDR’s try for a third term.

One keen observer of the 1940 election, Democratic National Chairman Edward J. Flynn, told Willkie’s biographer, Steve Neal, that “one of the main reasons for Willkie’s defeat was the lack of support given him by regular Republican organizations. The organizations certainly did not want him to be nominated…unquestionably they left the convention with no kindly spirit toward their candidate.”

Flynn, an old political pro, said Willkie made a classic mistake in 1940 – he ignored or rejected his base. “He took every opportunity the could,” Flynn said, “to insult directly or indirectly the politicians of the Republican party. That course of action never wins an election, and it can certainly help to lose one.”

Willkie was caught between an old-line Republican party in 1940 that wanted desperately to repundiate Roosevelt’s New Deal, but also had to deal with public anxiety about the worsening world situation. France collapsed under the Nazi onslaught during the summer of this long ago election year. Britain turned to Winston Churchill to try and avoid the same fate. The country adopted, with Willkie’s full support, the first peace time draft in its history even as Americans were torn between FDR’s policy of creeping intervention in the European war and a burning desire to simply stay out of another world war.

With opinion polls showing Willkie closing on Roosevelt, FDR uttered a few words on the last weekend of the campaign in Boston that would haunt the rest of his career: “I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again; your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” It was a coldly calculated statement on Roosevelt’s part designed to reassure skittish voters worried about war and it worked.

FDR won 55% of the vote and an Electoral College landslide of 449 to Willkie’s 82. Willkie won his home state of Indiana and just nine other mostly Midwest and western states.

As losing presidential candidates go, Wendell Willkie has been treated pretty well by history. Although he made sharply partisan attacks on Roosevelt during the campaign he was not a red meat candidate. He even later admitted that some of his attacks were launched against the incumbent because politics demanded such things and he enthusiastically embraced FDR’s foreign policy after the election.

The current restiveness among many Republicans about the strength of the GOP field may – big qualifier – may provide an opportunity for a completely fresh face in 2012, the kind of fresh face that Willkie presented in 1940. That said, the timing and nature of modern campaigns makes it seem nearly impossible that a candidate who has gotten organized and out of the gate within the next couple of months could possibly win enough early primaries to capture the nomination. Willkie won the nomination at the 1940 convention when delegates just couldn’t warm to the more conventional GOP canddiates, including Robert A. Taft, Thomas E. Dewey and Arthur Vandenberg.

Amazingly Willkie only switched his formal party affiliation from Democrat to Republican in January of 1940 and he still got the nomination. Not likely such a thing could happen today and a brokered convention any more is virtually out of the question.

Hardly a dark horse, but certainly a fresh face compared to Huckabee, Romney, Gingrich and company, former Gov. Huntsman has now made his own conversion. He quit working for the Obama Administration more than a year before the nominating convention. In the weakest field in 70 years, is he the fresh face of 2012?