Home » 2011 » June

What Next

Idaho’s Battle Over Education Reform

There was never a real chance that supporters of a recall of Idaho’s Superintendent of Public Instruction would be able to collect the nearly 160,000 valid signatures needed to force a recall of the controversial superintendent. Now that the recall effort is officially dead, the question becomes whether opponents of Tom Luna’s education reform ideas can keep the public concern – even anger – at a level sufficient to make a 2012 referendum, already qualified for the ballot, successful?

I’d argue the failure of the recall is a significant strategic setback for those who think Idaho’s education policy is headed in the wrong direction. The decision to mount the recall was, with perfect hindsight, a miscalculation that will now be portrayed as a sign of weakness.

Recall organizers, like Jim Allen in Pocatello, claim a moral victory with the recall effort despite not putting the superintendent’s job on the line.

“We’re not here whining and crying because it didn’t happen. We wanted to send a message and I think we succeeded in doing that,” Allen said.

We’ll see, but moral victories never win elections.

For his part, Luna said recall backers have made the issues surrounding education reform “personal,” while he’s focused on implementing the laws. After upsetting the status quo, the superintendent now is the status quo and so far he seems to be doing a credible job of playing both offense and defense. Luna is turning out to be, whatever you think of his policies, one of the more media savvy Idaho politicians in a long time.

If opponents of what Luna engineered in this year’s Idaho Legislature hope to overturn those laws next year they’ll need three things that may be hard to manufacture: money, a really compelling message and a level of public outrage that can be maintained for the next 17 months.

Recall opponents spent little money gathering signatures over the last few week – there are conflicting stories as to how short they fell – and they never came up with a consistent message about why what Luna and legislative Republicans have done is so harmful. They’ll need to do a lot better in the months ahead and history would indicate that they will need serious money to run a real campaign.

You can take it to the bank that the pro-reform forces will be organized, disciplined and well-financed.

In his statement in the wake of the recall failure, Republican Party chairman Norm Semanko seemed to indicate that he wants the continuing debate to stay focused on what became the GOP talking points during the 2011 legislature, namely curbing the union power of teachers.

Semanko said, in part, the efforts to place “Union interests ahead of the true recipients of public education, the students, have failed in Idaho.” That line of argument, coupled with a desire to control spending on education, essentially carried the day for the reform efforts during the legislative session.

The challenge for those who succeeded in putting the reform package on the ballot next year is to have the resources, the discipline and ability to make the referendum about something more fundamental – the future of education in Idaho. They may well have passion on their side, but they’ll need a strategy and money to overturn what is now the status quo in Idaho education.

A month can be a long time in politics. Seventeen months can be a life time.


A Moveable Feast

An Antidote to “Freedom Fries…”

One of the sweetest scenes in Woody Allen’s charming new film “Midnight in Paris,” involves the main character, played by Owen Wilson, walking the streets of the great city in the company of the stunning Marion Cotillard.

Wilson’s character, American screenwriter Gil Pender who struggles to write his novel, has been magically transported back in time to 1920’s Paris where he encounters a cast of celebrated writers and artists, including Hemingway, Picasso, Scott Fitzgerald and Matisse. Cotillard’s character, Adriana, has been keeping company with Picasso and is a stand-in for the painter’s many mistresses.

Gil, big surprising, is quite smitten with Adriana and can think of nothing better – OK, maybe one thing better – than walking the romantic streets of Paris at night with her. I identify.

Say what you will about France and the French, if you’ve been to Paris it is difficult not to conclude that it is the world’s most beautiful big city. Allen obviously believes so and his camera lavishes attention on the city that Hemingway called “a moveable feast.”

James Thurber was in Paris at about the time Allen’s movie is set and he captured the essence of the city pretty well when he said “the whole of Paris is a vast university of Art, Literature and Music…it is worth anyone’s while to dally here for years. Paris is a seminar, a post-graduate course in Everything.”

Unlike most American cities, maybe with the exception of San Francisco and a few others, Paris is a city for walking. You can actually walk almost everywhere. From Notre Dame to the Eiffel Tower is a good hike, but you can stop for a coffee or a beer on the way. (And, no the fake Eiffel in Las Vegas does not hold a candle to the real thing.) Along the way, you can walk by the river, through majestic parks and, if you are paying attention, you may just feel history under your feet.

I completely enjoyed Woody Allen’s light little romp back in time – Kathy Bates was superb portraying Gertrude Stein – but the movie is really a 90 minute love letter to Paris; the city of light and love; marvelous food and memory.

OK you say, but I don’t really like the French that much. Remember what James Baldwin said:  “It is perfectly possible to be enamoured of Paris while remaining totally indifferent or even hostile to the French.”

See the movie and fall in love with the great city for the first time or the hundredth.




The Man the White House Must Fear

Nothing, ever – nothing – is certain in politics. A candidate or officeholder can literally go from hero to zero in the length of time it takes to send a tweet or jackknife a trailer behind the SUV you have apparently just stolen. There are no sure things. Nothing is ever pre-determined in politics. The game must be played, the votes cast and counted. Hero to zero avoided.

So, with the acknowledgement that Barack Obama shouldn’t, and by most accounts isn’t, taking a second term for granted next year, the president must have taken some cold comfort from the fact that, until yesterday, the likely GOP field confronting him was not comprised of political world or incumbent beaters.

The guy that I’m betting the White House fears the most formally got into the race yesterday. Jon Huntsman, the former Governor of Utah and U.S. Ambassador to China, is all that the rest of the field isn’t – moderate, interesting, possessed of humor and good looks and projecting something like charisma. Every four years, the GOP looks for a candidate that reminds us of Ronald Reagan. Huntsman comes pretty close. He even chose Reagan’s 1980 backdrop, the Statue of Liberty, to launch his campaign.

The question, of course, is whether the “moderate” Huntsman is too middle-of-the-road to compete effectively for the generally very conservative voters in Republican primaries in places like New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida. That bell has yet to ring. Stay tuned.

However here’s why, I think, Obama should fear Jon Huntsman and why conservative GOP primary voters ought to give the guy a hard first, second and third look.

1) Huntsman can credibly make the case that he is a pro-business, fiscal conservative. As governor of Utah he has a jobs record to tout. Under his watch Utah did smart and responsible things with public investments and still maintained an attractive climate for business. The economy and jobs will, after all, be what the 2012 election is all about.

2) Huntsman’s more-moderate-than-most positions on many social issues – he said yesterday he would “respect” New York’s gay marriage law – will diminish him in the eyes of many GOP voters, but not among many independents and genuine moderates in both parties. He’s walking a fine line here, but if he can walk it he may be able to appeal across the ideological divide on social issues. Reagan did the same for his two terms.

3) Huntsman’s personality, his smile, charm and rugged good looks might just help make him a contender. While the other Mormon in the race, Mitt Romney, looks like the little figure of a groom on the top of an old fashioned wedding cake, Huntsman moves, talks and acts like he might actually have a personality. (Romney’s too earnest by half style has already been laughed at on Saturday Night Live.) I will always maintain that a great percentage of voters size up the candidates not on the basis of their policy positions, but on the gut-level reaction to what they see in the individual. Do they seem genuine? Are they optimistic? Are they likeable? On that basis alone, Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale never had a chance against Reagan and John McCain was a born loser against Obama. Don’t discount the “I like the looks of this guy” as a real factor.

4) Huntsman does not appear to start the campaign with a potentially fatal flaw. That may be damning the guy with faint praise, but he doesn’t start with Romney’s health care baggage around his neck or Gingrich’s staff defections or Ron Paul’s nuttiness or Michelle Bachman’s shrillness or Tim Pawlenty’s lack of charisma and message. In short, much like Obama in 2008, Huntsman is a blank canvas onto which interested voters can sketch their perfect candidate. Even conceding Huntsman lack of name recognition, no one else in the GOP field starts with the advantage of not being almost completely defined before the race even begins.

I could be back here in six months writing about the presidential campaign flame out of the former governor of Utah and, if so, I’ll eat the crow. But, I’m betting if Barack Obama didn’t sleep well last night it wasn’t the Afghan draw down he was tossing and turning over, it was Jon Huntsman as his opponent a year from now.


No Crimes

The Vertiginous Tangle

As St. John’s University law professor Michael Perino explains in his superb book on the 1933 congressional investigation into the stock market crash and the following Great Depression; that highly charged and much publicized probe was essential to making sense of the country’s worst financial meltdown.

Without that investigation of earlier day Wall Street greed and corruption – the investigation pinpointed the lack of effective oversight and regulation of the economy – we might never have had an accounting of what went wrong and who was to blame. We also may not have seen the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission, federal deposit insurance and banking regulation.

The hero of Perino’s book is a short, stocky, blunt spoken, cigar smoking Italian-American named Ferdinand Pecora. Dubbed The Hellhound of Wall Street – also the title of Perino’s book – for his tenacious pursuit of the truth about the events that precipitated the Great Depression, Pecora is the kind of investigator that has been unfortunately missing in the aftermath of the most recent economic meltdown.

The feisty little lawyer preferred simple, blunt questions and wouldn’t let witnesses retreat into the fog of insider language. He focused on right and wrong and making certain the public understood what the “respected” Wall Street figures had been up to in the pursuit of greed.

With no updated version of the tough, demanding investigation Pecora led during the Depression we may never have a complete accounting of what brought the U.S. economy to its knees in late 2008.

As Perino told NPR’s Robert Siegel last October, Pecora uncovered the scandalous practices of Wall Street bankers like Charles Mitchell, president of National City Bank, a financial institution we now know as Citibank.

Mitchell, in the wild pursuit of money for himself and profits for his bank, pushed ever riskier investments in the late 1920’s. Eventually Mitchell’s financial house of cards came tumbling down. Here’s part of the exchange between Perino and Siegel:

SIEGEL: You write in the book, that the officers of Citibank – this was how Pecora saw it – were paid potentially enormous amounts, only if they were able to sell vast amounts of securities. And since they did not bear the cost of securities that went down in value, they had incentives to sell as many securities as possible.

This sounds awfully familiar.

Prof. PERINO: It does sound awfully familiar. And if you read those hearing transcripts from 75 years ago, there’s an eerie ring to all of them.

Mitchell had built up a huge network for selling to middle-class securities. But with a huge network came a huge overhead. And he was constantly cajoling and berating his salesmen to make more securities. He actually said that the bank manufactured securities. And with Mitchell constantly at their backs, and the prospects for good securities sort of waning as time went by, they went and sold more and more shoddy securities; the bonds of sketchy South American countries and various other enterprises that were almost bound to fail.

SIEGEL: Very reminiscent of what happened in the mortgage market in recent years.

Prof. PERINO: Extremely reminiscent. I mean we have fancier terms for it now. We call them Collateralized Debt Obligations and other things, but basically it boils down to the same thing.

So…where is the Ferdinand Pecora of the 2008 meltdown? Why are most of the Wall Street banking titans who were on the job when the economy was, by many accounts, within hours of total collapse still on the job? Why have none of the speculators who helped create and profit from the “housing bubble” become the kind of notorious household name that Charles Mitchell became in 1933?

New York Times columnist David Brooks suggested a reason in a recent column. “Washington is home to a vertiginous tangle of industry associations, activist groups, think tanks and communications shops,” Brooks wrote. “These forces have overwhelmed the government that was originally conceived by the founders.

“The final message is that members of the leadership class have done nothing to police themselves. The Wall Street-Industry-Regulator-Lobbyist tangle is even more deeply enmeshed.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Gretchen Morgenson and financial analyst Joshua Rosner are even more pointed in their scathing indictment of the people behind the mortgage crisis. The American economy, they write in their book Reckless Endangerment, was “almost wrecked by a crowd of self-interested, politically influential and arrogant people who have not been held accountable for their actions.”

Meanwhile, as the Times recently reported, the banking regulation that was passed in the wake of the meltdown is mired in controversy with many rules required to implement the enormously complicated and, by many accounts, less-than-effective Dodd-Frank legislation still in limbo. The consumer protection agency created by that legislation remains leaderless.

Rather than chastened by the role the biggest of the big banks played in driving the economy into a ditch, celebrity bankers like JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon seem emboldened. Dimon recently got into a very public spat with Federal Reserve Board chairman Ben Bernacke when the Wall Street banker suggested that efforts to regulate big bank practices have gone too far. Dimon said because of the new regulations banks are reluctant to lend money and that may actually be hurting the economic recovery.

That sounds like the guy who killed his parents and seeks mercy from the court because he’s suddenly an orphan. Still, Dimon is, by most accounts, among the best, most ethical of the really big bank operators. And maybe he’s worth every penny of his compensation – nearly $21 million last year – but while the economy continues to struggle, he and the elite .01 percent of the U.S. economy continue to wallow along in the style in which they have become accustom.

At times it seems we haven’t learned anything at all from those wild days in late 2008 when John McCain was suspending his presidential campaign to deal with the financial crisis and then-Treasury Sec. Hank Paulson was getting down on one knee to beg Nancy Pelosi to pass bailout legislation. Paulson was so stressed about the fate of the economy during this period that he had to excuse himself from meetings to dry heave.

All that was less than three years ago, but eons in Beltway time and with distractions like Anthony Weiner and Sarah Palin why worry about really complicated, important stuff like the cause of the worst economic crisis since Charles Mitchell was scamming folks in the 1920’s?

Ferdinand Pecora took names and people went to jail as a result of his investigation in 1933. Most Washington politicians now couldn’t tell us what went wrong in ’08. They’re too balled up in the vertiginous tangle.

But, understandably perhaps, the ultra-rich Wall Street crowd needs a little diversion as the New York Times reported Sunday in a Style section piece on the latest, most exclusive Big Apple private club – The Core.

As Guy Trebay wrote, the club “is open to all — or at least, in an essential way, to all those in the top 1 percent of United States households: families with earnings the Tax Policy Center estimates will be $3,061,546 on average this year for a family of four, as well as those from an even more-elevated category that the nonpartisan, nonprofit group calls the ‘ultra rich.’

“The estimated income this year for households occupying that particular niche — a mere 0.1 percent of all United States households — will be $13,719,746, according to the Tax Policy Center.

“’The fat-cat hedge fund guys love the place,” said Richard David Story, the editor of Departures, the glossy travel magazine distributed to holders of American Express Platinum and Centurion cards. ‘These guys take their heartbeats per minute as seriously as they take their investment portfolios.’ As putative fat cats, the club’s members, of which there are now 1,500, are presumably undaunted by the club’s $50,000 initiation and $15,000 annual fees.”

When Ferdinand Pecora laid bare the abuses of Wall Street in the early 1930’s, the U.S. Senate paid him the princely sum of $255 a month for his efforts. His efforts brought down the men who broought down the U.S. economy and ushered in sensible regulation. What a wise investment that was.

As Perino notes in the conclusion of his book on the investigator and his investigation: “Nearly eighty years ago, in the depths of the worst economic crisis in the country’s history, Ferdinand Pecora showed what a well-run and well-researched Washington investigation could accomplish, and although congressional hearings often descend into bluster and posturing, the Pecora hearings remain a model to which future investigations can aspire. All they need is a Hellhound.”

 The similarities between the two financial meltdowns 80 years apart are striking. The contrast in how the political and economic elites have handled the two events is just as striking.  It’s almost enough to give you the dry heaves.



“When I was a boy of fourteen , my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by how much he had learned in seven years.” – attributed to Mark Twain.

Hugh Billingsly (aka Ward Cleaver) must be smiling that knowing smile somewhere this weekend. He learned a lot as Wally and the Beav were growing up. Such is the lot of dads.

Mark Twain may or may not have ever uttered that quote, but my dad used to love to repeat it followed by a twinkle and a little laugh. I think now he must have been signaling my brother and me that “you boys will understand one day…” Yup, dad was right again.

My dad never played golf. He wasn’t a hunter or fisherman. He didn’t shop well. He tended to the yard. He painted things. He played catch pretty much whenever called upon. He always flipped the car keys your way at the drop of a hat. He could fix most anything, a trait he did not, unfortunately, pass along to me. I don’t think he ever went to the garage for a tool. That was work for a son, which is why I hate to this day to go to the garage for a tool that I probably won’t be very good at using. He knew about cars and airplanes and, I realize now, women. He was old school with women, particularly with mom. He’d stand when a woman entered the room. He’d take his hat off in an elevator, and he always wore a hat. He would hold a door and offer a compliment, easily and genuinely.

He loved jokes. I repeat them today even as I recall thinking they were corny or silly when he first told them and then repeated them again and again. My favorite one is, nope, I can’t repeat it on a family blog. Dad could give a great speech, tell a great story and make a great point. He loved Will Rogers and could quote the great cowboy humorist. He wasn’t very political, just very practical. Everyone, I mean everyone, liked dad.

Dad loved baseball and was very fond of the St. Louis Cardinals. He once saw them play two World Series games and loved to tell that story. Dad loved to read and almost anything; magazines, books, newspapers, the backs of menus. He liked his VO with just a little water. Wasn’t much of a beer drinker. Wasn’t fond of many foods, but for reasons that still escape me loved my mother’s meatloaf. And saltine crackers. He liked his steak very, very well done. I remember cringing when he’d tell a waiter to “bring me the charred remains” of  a once tender New York steak.

Dad was a member of the so called “greatest generation,” but he wouldn’t have thought of referring to himself that way. The war and the Depression were the life changing events in his too brief life. I wish I would have been smart enough, when he was getting much smarter as I aged from 14 to 21, to ask him more about it. He didn’t say much, but he knew a lot. He was among the smartest guys I have ever know. It’s taken me a good part of my life to figure that out.

He loved his own dad, I think, the way I love him. Much to my regret, I never knew my grandfather, but know enough to know what I missed. I think about and miss both of those good old guys this weekend as I watch a little baseball, read a little, try to find the right company to tell that story of his and stay away from the garage.

Happy Fathers Day.

James and Jeter

A Contrast in Class

I woke up this morning thinking of writing something about the GOP debate last night in New Hampshire. But that encounter, featuring seven Republican contenders, was so completely predictable that a little LeBron James analysis seems more urgent today. After all, the next NBA season will be upon us before the next New Hampshire primary. First things first.

I confess that the last time I was really interested in a National Basketball Association final, Larry Bird was still playing. I really only paid close attention, season-long attention, to pro basketball when the great Elgin Baylor was captain of the Lakers. Back then both the pants and the shots were shorter. While mom and dad assumed I was fast asleep, I can still remember turning the radio down very low and listening to Chick Hearn’s call of a late west coast Laker game from the “fab-u-lous Forum in Inglewood…”

So, for me this year’s playoffs where not a case of eagerly waiting for the great egos from South Beach to get their just desserts at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks. I really hadn’t been paying attention and came to membership in the “I really don’t care much for LeBron” crowd late in the game, er, late in the playoffs. And, apparently like millions of fans, I enjoyed the outcome immensely.

On the intense stage of a championship, regardless of the sport, it is one of life’s guilty little pleasures to watch the most hyped guy, the guy with all the press, all the cash and all the big talk, fall flat on his face. LeBron James certainly didn’t disappoint. And, as if to further cement his well-earned reputation for lacking in class, he handled defeat with, well, not a lot of it. Class that is.

Let the jokes begin: “LeBron will never make change for you as he never has the fourth quarter.” Or, “The reason why LeBron skipped college was to avoid the finals.”

The governor of Ohio, LeBron’s home state and the place he “abandoned” in order to bring a championship to Miami, actually issued a proclamation praising the “loyalty, integrity and teamwork” of the team from Dallas. Give LeBron this much: he united most of the country behind a team from Texas, no small accomplishment.

Now for something entirely different – Derek Jeter.

Loyal readers know that I have no love lost for the New York Yankees. Being a Yankee fan is too easy, too predictable. Sure it’s the greatest franchise in baseball history, but Microsoft is the greatest franchise in software. Where’s the romance in that?

Still, sometime soon the Yankee captain, a sure fire Hall of Famer, will enter elite company when he slaps his 3,000 career hit. He’s currently six hits shot of the magic mark. I’ll be rooting for him, despite the pinstripes. Derek Jeter is the antithesis of a guy like LeBron James. He’s played his entire career in New York, the media capitol of the world, and has found a way to not be a constant feature in the tabloids. He survived and thrived through the Steinbrenner years. He’s played along side the not so loved Alex Rodriguez and projected a certain calm professionalism that then A-Rod or a LeBron can only dream about. Of course, Jeter has his detractors, but mostly because he’s a Yankee and not becuse he’s a chump.

So, why is Jeter a widely beloved figure in New York and beyond and also widely recognized as both a consummate pro and a genuinely nice guy, while disliking King James is the national religion of sports fans?

Some would argue, Buzz Bissinger, for instance, that LeBron hatred as gone too far, but “the chosen one” just keeps bringing it on himself. James repeatedly violates the first rule of public relations: quit digging when you’re in a hole. Just a small flash of humility, a warm word for the great play of Dirk Nowitzki, maybe even staying out of the spotlight for a while, would start to alter the LeBron storyline, but of such basic common sense the very wealthy and very sure of himself young man seems entirely incapable. 

LeBron James will never be a fan favorite. Too late for that. He might still be a respected super star, but not if he spends his NBA career behaving like Barry Bonds in short pants. Sports fan don’t like LeBron James for a reason, just like they like Derek Jeter for a reason.

One of these great athletes gets it. The other hasn’t a clue. One guy is self aware, the other self centered. And that, as they say, is the difference in having folks root for you to reach a hollowed mark and being made fun of by the governor of Ohio.




How Educated are State Legislators?

The Chronicle of Higher Education is out with fascinating new research about the educational attainment of all of the country’s 7,000 state legislators.

Key nuggets in the report: while only about 28% of adult Americans have an undergraduate degree, in no state – New Hampshire is dead last as a percentage – do less than 53% of legislators have a degree. It also doesn’t make much difference to a legislator’s support for higher education where they went to college and most, like most college going Americans, went to a public school.

The Chronicle also ranks the most and least educated state legislatures. If you think your elected officials have to be the best (or the worst), you can now confirm or deny that opinion. By the measure of having earned at least a bachelor’s degree, California has the most educated legislature with nearly 90% of lawmakers have a degree. Oregon checks in at 84.5%, Utah is nearly 80%, Washington at nearly 75%, Idaho just over 73% and Montana, Nevada and Wyoming are all in the mid-60% range. The Chronicle’s profiles of each state are fascinating including detail on the schools where most lawmakers attended and how many stayed home for college and how many went out of state.

The Chronicle says: “Like most American students, the vast majority of state legislators went to public colleges. And most of them stayed close to home. In Louisiana, four out of five legislators never went to college outside the state. Across the nation, many lawmakers attended community colleges. Over all, about one in four don’t have bachelor’s degrees.”

This finding will send a shudder down the back of any president of a public college or university: support for higher education budgets seems to have very little to do with where lawmakers went to school.

More than a third of South Carolina’s state legislators went to the University of South Carolina, but it hasn’t stopped them from cutting the university’s budget by 25% over the last five years.

As Utah’s Commissioner of Higher Education William A. Sederburg told the Chronicle: “My conclusion is that higher education has won the academic argument with policy makers. However, we haven’t been able to convert the academic argument into political action. The big question is, Why not? One Utah legislator answered that he simply doesn’t hear from constituents about supporting higher education, because they’re more concerned with roads, unemployment, and taxes.”

All this insight from the Chronicle just makes the dilemma swamping higher education all the more obvious. Shrinking state budgets have forced colleges to turn to higher tuition and fees in a wicked race to keep current. Meanwhile, financial aid is dwindling, with loans picking up the slack. As one observer noted recently, it is not inconceivable that today’s college students will be paying off loans when their kids are in school.

Obviously – and the Chronicle research supports this – there are a lot of smart lawmakers in state capitols. Yet, all these college grads turned state legislators seem, through their votes at least, to devalue the very higher education that most of them have used to help get ahead in life. I continue to wonder how we build the 21st Century economy we say we want, and create the next big wave of good jobs, without a national commitment to invest more and more wisely in higher education.


Doing Well and Good

One Impressive Guy

Bill Neukom, now the managing general partner and CEO of my beloved San Francisco Giants, seems like one of those guys who has led ten great lives while the rest of us struggle to manage just one.

Perhaps best known as the most famous in-house lawyer in American business, Neukom started working at Microsoft when the software giant had a dozen employees. He stayed for 25 years and, as he modestly told a recent gathering of lawyers in Sun Valley, Idaho where he has a home, his bushel basket was positioned properly under the Microsoft tree as the stock options just kept falling. He made a bundle and is now reinvesting it in some handsome and useful ways.

Obviously, he bought into the Giants ownershipand has had an influential hand in strengthening the front office and building a scrappy team, including many cast offs, that won a World Series last year. But, that is hardly the sum of what Neukom has been spending his money on.

He donated $20 million for a new law school building at Stanford, his law school alma mater. (The Seattle Times couldn’t resist pointing out, Microsoft anti-trust decrees notwithstanding, that Attorney General Eric Holder participated in the dedication ceremony for the William H. Neukom Building in Palo Alto.)

Neukom has also used his family foundation to underwrite the critically important work of an organization you may not have heard of, but eventually will – the World Justice Project.

WJP is dedicated to leading “a global, multidisciplinary effort to strengthen the rule of law for the development of communities of opportunity and equity.” A noble sounding mission that basically boils down to this: most of the rest of the world does not embrace nor have the tradition of a justice system that is based on well-defined rules, established and transparent practices and real accountability.

Neukom, who conceived of and founded the World Justice Project while he was president of the American Bar Association (another of his many lives), simply says without adherence to what lawyers call “the rule of law” people and institutions in the developing world will never have the opportunity and equality that all of us deserve.

The World Justice Project has developed a Rule of Law Index that evaluates countries around the world and the degree to which they respect the rule of law. For example, the Philippines ranked poorly, while Singapore ranked very high. Many of the lowest marks, perhaps not surprisingly, go to countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

In addition to establishing an objective database on the level of adherence to the rule of law, the Index has generated substantial international media interest like this line from the Jordan Times: “The index ranked Jordan 15th for clear, publicized and stable laws, essential for security and investment. However, in terms of promoting greater transparency, there is room for improvement.”

Neukom and his associates have importantly cast a very bright light on a fundamental human right that most Americans (too easily perhaps) simply take for granted. The U.S. justice system, don’t get me wrong, is far from perfect, but the western notion of how courts and judges, legislatures and the media should operate, is still a model for much of the rest of the world.

Thanks to Bill Neukom, serious work is underway to move the needle on this fundamentally important issue.

When I had the opportunity to hear Neukom speak recently, I was struck by his passion for the organization he has created, but also by one personal thing he said. The money he made at Microsoft, he said, “isn’t my money.” He meant, I think, that he felt a motivation greater than many of us do to give something back. He’s living proof that you can do well and do good.

Neukom is nearly as passionate about the ball club. He’s hands on, extraordinarily knowledgeable and, after last year’s surprising World Series win, willing to concede that magic must always be laced with hard work in order to win it all. He calls himself a “lucky guy.”

“How would I describe the guy that can fire me?” former Giant player and broadcast Duane Kuiper told the San Francisco Chronicle on opening day in April. “Let’s see, one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met, very handsome, one of the most intelligent guys I’ve ever known. You see where this is going.”

Yup. However, in the case of Bill Neukom, super lawyer, philanthropist, baseball guy, rule of law advocate, it’s also all true.


JFK…What If

Said Death Would Protect Legacy

John Kennedy’s best biographer made a startling revelation recently that was both ominous and eerie and says a good deal about Kennedy’s appreciation of how history works.

Robert Dallak, author of An Unfinished Life, the best book on the 35th president, gave a speech recently in Ireland where he said Jackie Kennedy was told by her husband a year before his death that his assassination would protect his legacy. “If someone is going to kill me,” Kennedy told his wife, “it should happen now.”

The Kennedy comment is contained in an oral history interview that Mrs. Kennedy did in 1964 with historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.  The comment came shortly after Kennedy’s success defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis. Jackie Kennedy sat for a series of seven interviews that have been held all these years under lock and key. The material will finally be made public in September and will be featured in an ABC broadcast.

According to Dallek, Kennedy had one of Abraham Lincoln’s great biographers, David Herbert Donald, to the White House for a lecture. Kennedy asked the distinguished historian whether Lincoln would be as fondly remembered today if he had not been shot and killed by John Wilkes Booth as his second term was just beginning.

Donald said no. In all likelihood, Donald said, had he lived, Lincoln would have become caught up in the messy and protracted fights over Reconstruction, the post-Civil War period where southern states were brought back into the Union and bitter battles raged over civil rights. As a result, Lincoln’s reputation as a great war leader may well have suffered. Kennedy, reflecting on that “what if” of history, then told his wife if someone was going to kill him, they best do it soon as his legacy would be more secure.

A few months later, Kennedy died at the hands of Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas, Texas. Kennedy, therefore, is remembered as the glamorous and martyred young president who blundered into the Bay of Pigs, but took responsibility for the mess, who served as the cool head in the room during the Cuban Missile Crisis and expressed grave doubts about American involvement in Vietnam even as he sent U.S. advisers there.

So, what if? How would we think about JFK today had he lived to defeat Barry Goldwater in 1964 and serve out a second term? Would he have avoided the quagmire in southeast Asia? Liberated from re-election pressures, would Kennedy have stood up to the “domino theorists” who argued, mostly successfully, that the U.S. had to make a stand against Communist expansion in Indochina or the entire region would fall under influence of Moscow?

Would Kennedy have been as successful – or as committed – as Lyndon Johnson was in passing civil rights legislation? Would Kennedy have found a way to rapprochement with Castro? He loved his cigars, after all. And what of the Soviet Union? After taking the measure of Khrushchev during the Cuban crisis, would JFK have been able to cut a nuclear arms deal with the blustery, but very smart, Soviet leader?

And there is the second term factor. Generally second terms in the White House are susceptible to fatigue, drift and an almost inevitable diminishment of presidential power, no matter who is in the office. Would JFK have had a successful second term? He might well have beaten Goldwater badly, as Johnson eventually did in ’64, and had a mandate to act on a broad range of issues, or he might have squandered a big mandate and his popularity, as Franklin Roosevelt did after his big re-election victory in 1936.

This much is known. John Kennedy had a deep appreciation of history. We now know his Pulitzer Prize winning Profiles in Courage benefited greatly from the deft wordsmithing of the late Ted Sorensen, but that hardly diminishes the reality of Kennedy’s understanding and insight into the wonderful political stories contained in his book. I’ve also always thought it interesting and telling that JFK had Schlesinger, a historian of the presidency, as a White House insider.

In surveys done in 2010, a third of Americans rank Kennedy as a “great president” and the vast majority says he was above average. The professional historians ranked him sixth in presidential leadership just ahead of Jefferson. Interestingly, Kennedy was the only president in the Top 10 ranked by historians who was elected only once.

As Bob Dallek has said: “For style and for creating a mood of optimism and hope — Kennedy on that count is as effective as any president the country has had in its history. The question for me is, 100 years from now, will he be remembered? … “

“At the moment, he does have this astonishing hold on the public mind.”

 Kennedy, it seems, also had an ability to visualize his own legacy.


The Value of Nothing

Libraries Aren’t Dying, Just Starving

You only need to stroll by the New York Public Library building on 5th Avenue in the big city to know that serious business is done here. The main New York Public Library is a beautiful, iconic building – two handsome lions stand guard out front – that opened in 1911, almost exactly 100 years ago.

Best of all, virtually everything is free. The NYPL notes on its website that the only price of admission if curiosity. Of course, taxpayers support libraries, but the value of the investment pays off to an individual a thousand fold over, or maybe a thousand thousand fold.

Unfortunately, the public library, the great leveler of a society that is increasingly made up of haves and have nots, is having less and less to work with. One of the great myths about libraries, expressed primarily by penny-pinching politicians and folks who never set foot in a library, is that the Internet is making libraries obsolete. It’s a foolish notion on par with thinking that computers can somehow replace teachers or smart librarians.

Yet, even the venerable NYPL is staring down a potential $40 million budget cut that could keep the doors closed three days out of seven.

This devaluing of libraries seems to be a occurring world-wide and it is definitely a step backwards. In England a debate has been raging for weeks about proposed cuts to the library system there. Writing in the Guardian, Robert McCrum, calls the proposed cuts “a thoughtless cultural crime whose after-effects will linger for decades.”

In a piece both celebrating the 100th anniversary of the NYPL and lamenting the real and potential reduction in support of libraries, Laura Miller writes, “Not everything we need or want to know about the world can be transmitted via a screen, and not every experience can be digitized.”

Libraries are valuable for many, many reasons, not least for the sanctuary, solitude and security they provide. In most American communities the library is the safest, most egalitarian place you can visit. Moms bring kids. Grandpas bring grand kids. High school kids bring dates. Old guys read the papers. Young girls study. People lose themselves in books and magazines and folks queue up to get on a computer or, increasingly, check out an e-book.

I’ll get some debate on this assertion, but Boise High School in the north end of Idaho’s capitol city in about the best high school in Idaho and one of the best in the country, yet prize winning writer Tony Doerr found that the Boise High library, smack dab in the middle of a very good school, is depending on donations and fundraising in order to have any new money this year.

 Doerr wrote Sunday in the New York Times, that his mom, a school teacher, introduced him to the magic of libraries. “Thanks to her, in my imagination libraries were little holy lands, as integral to a school as functioning toilets, or lockers, or bad pizza. They were a place where a child could learn that books could be mind-blowing, unpredictable, bawdy and frightening, that books could break down the divisions between nations, between foundations of thought, and between fantasy and reality.”

When societies seek to control ideas – think Nazi Germany – they come after the books. When societies are unthinking about ideas and how knowledge is accumulated and used, they ignore or diminish libraries. Libraries are, quite simply, the repositories of human knowledge. There is no substitute for them. Sure you can find a lot of stuff on the Internet, but you won’t ever find the spirit and soul of a library.

The great writer Umberto Eco says this in the recently published This is Not the End of the Book, “a library is not necessarily made up of books that we’ve read, or even that we will eventually read. They should be the books that we can read. Or that we may read. Even if we never do.”

Exactly. Libraries are neither obsolete nor too expensive. They are, unfortunately, victims of too many folks who, in the words of the old saying, know the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

The next time you hear a politician saying that no one uses libraries any more, ask to see his library card.