Baseball, Baucus, Politics, U.S. Senate

It Gets Worse

Congress – Not the People’s Choice

Has there even been a time when the United States Congress ranked lower with the American public or when dysfunction more profoundly gripped the institution? Hardly.

University of Tennessee historian Daniel Feller says we need to go all the way back to before the Civil War to find a Congress quite so much at war with itself as today’s bunch. Feller is among a group of historians that NPR surveyed to determine if the current Congress is just bad or among the worst in the nation’s history. Historically bad is, according to the historian, the correct answer.

Professor Feller cites the Reconstruction period immediately after the Civil War when Andrew Johnson struggled, with little success, to replace Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson’s fight with Congress over the League of Nations and Harry Truman’s battles with the “do nothing 80th Congress” as historic examples of when a president and a Congress were deeply divided. Still, Feller told NPR, “None of those involved the level of conflict within Congress itself that we see today.”

Just this week came further evidence that Congressional dysfunction and serial partisanship has claimed another victim. Nebraska’s conservative Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson, already the subject of intense negative attacks in his state, opted to quit rather than fight for another term. While coverage of Nelson’s decision has focused on the undeniable fact that Senate D’s will now be even harder pressed to hold the Senate next year, the real story here is the crumbling of the institution.

As Politicos Mike Allen reported in his newsletter, quoting an email from a Senate insider, “The retirement is a reflection of the growing polarization of the body. Nelson could work with anybody in the senate. Either side. His growing frustration with the domination of partisanship within the body lead to this decision. He blames both sides for letting things get out of hand and he often laments the willingness of anyone to really focus on the issues and develop a bipartisan solution anymore. Not since he put together the judicial nominations agreement in 2005 has there been any bipartisan accomplishments in the Senate. Since then a Fat Tuesday parade of exits have left moderate dealmakers like Nelson on the sidelines. Lott, Chafee, Breaux, etc. all left for the same reason. There is no comity to be found in the upper chamber anymore. … [T]he tea saucer is losing more of its cooling element and is becoming indistinguishable from the tea pot.”

Ben Nelson wasn’t a great senator, but then few in the Senate today would qualify to carry Robert Taft’s or Mike Mansfield’s briefcase. Nelson was a person, by political necessity and personal inclination, able to work across the partisan divide. But, there is no place for such people in today’s Senate.

It make me, an amateur historian of the Senate and its quirky ways, wonder what motivates people to reach the near absolute top of the American political system – the Senate – and then spend most of their time there trying to make certain the institution cannot function?

The late Sen. Robert Byrd revered the Senate as an institution. Byrd studied the history, knew the rules, understood what the Senate was designed to be and had to struggle to be. He even wrote a massive history of the institution that is remarkable for its lack of partisanship and its appreciation of compromise.

The retirement of Ben Nelson, whether or not his brand of conservative, Midwestern politics was your cup of tea, does mark yet another rubbing out of a “moderate.” As Jon Avlon notes in a piece at The Daily Beast, “at a time when our politics is looking like a cult, there is no tolerance for principled dissent. Dissent is disloyalty and punishable by either the threat of excommunication or electoral execution.”

Two things need to change. Those in the Senate – there must be a few – with some respect and understanding for the institution’s role in our democracy need to begin, through action and word, to restore a sense of civility and common purpose and voters need to quit rewarding people with high public office who seem to merely want to destroy the other side rather than work on the real problems of the nation.


2012 Election, Minnick

Who Wrote That

Politicians Run From Their Words

Imagine this scene: It’s May 14, 1940 and Winston Churchill has just walked off the floor of the House of Commons and is surrounded by a gaggle of jousting British journalists.

“Mr. Prime Minister, the opposition has been extremely critical of your speech yesterday in which you said: ‘We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.’ Did you really mean to make such a pessimistic assessment and is your policy merely ‘victory…victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be?’ Do you really stand by those words, Mr. Prime Minister?”

In an alternative reality – maybe – we can imagine the great British Lion disavowing his famoous words and saying, as presidential candidate Ron Paul did recently about some writings that appeared in newsletters under his name, “I never read [or said] that stuff.”

The Paul excuse, lame and unbelievable at the same time, has been used to cover racist and anti-Semitic rants that the Texas Congressman now says were never his views and must have been the shoddy work of someone else that just happened to have access to his newsletters and could publish under his name without his approval.

As the old line goes, “I was born at night, but not last night.”

Churchill, even had he wanted to, couldn’t disavow his words because he wrote them himself, but in the Internet age a candidate like Paul or Newt Gingrich can merely try to duck a past statement with, “Hey, that must have been written by some staffer and obviously it doesn’t represent my views.” Don’t buy it.

Gingrich latest explaining is his praise for Mitt Romney’s health care plans. Back in 2006, Newt said in one of his newsletters, “We agree entirely with Governor Romney and Massachusetts legislators that our goal should be 100% insurance coverage for all Americans. Individuals without coverage often do not receive quality medical attention on par with those who do have insurance. We also believe strongly that personal responsibility is vital to creating a 21st Century Intelligent Health System. Individuals who can afford to purchase health insurance and simply choose not to place an unnecessary burden on a system that is on the verge of collapse; these free-riders undermine the entire health system by placing the onus of responsibility on taxpayers.”

Gingrich’s spokesman said, drum roll please, “the Newt Notes essay wasn’t written by Mr. Gingrich himself.”

Here is a practical lesson in Politics 101. In every political office and campaign I’ve ever worked in, been close to or observed from afar, the candidate – or on a rare occasion an extremely trusted staffer – signs off on everything that is written down and committed to a speech draft. There is no margin of error on such statements, particularly since they now find an instant home on the Internet and can easily come back to haunt. That’s how it works.

Of course most politicians don’t write their own press releases and speeches, although they once did, but rather they have their people handle that time consuming labor. Still no candidate worth his or her salt would trust an unnamed, unsupervised staffer to issue statements in his or her name without first granting a sign-off. That simple fact of political and campaign life makes the Paul and Gingrich “I didn’t write it” defense indefensible.

The Republican primary season has been a rolling exercise in disavowing past stands. Nothing wrong in my book with a principled evolution of political positions. No less a politician than Abraham Lincoln went from a position of tolerating slavery in the interest of preserving the Union, and figuring that the practice would eventually wither and die, to issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. Like Churchill, Lincoln didn’t try to disavow previous statements since he had written them and he had the integrity to explain the evolution.

It’s OK to change positions in politics, but not OK to disavow statements made in publications that you actually control. It’s not really a question of authorship. It is a question of character.

“I never read that stuff” just doesn’t fly. It doesn’t even flap its wings.

An honest answer when confronted with a past statement that is, in the immortal words of Nixon Press Secretary Ron Ziegler, “no longer operative,” would be along the lines uttered by the legendary Earl Long, the one-time Governor of Louisiana. Confronted by an aide with the fact that a campaign promise made to his supporters would not be fulfilled, Uncle Earl honestly told the aide to tell those supporters the truth.

“Tell ’em I lied,” he said.



Christmas, Egypt

Christmas Memories

‘Tis the Season

Long ago I ceased being focused on what some nice spouse, relative or friend would place under the tree with my name attached. As much as I appreciate the generosity and the thought, Christmas has become for me a season of memory more than gifts and I find myself increasingly transported back to cold winter days where the thoughts are warm and inviting.

I was lucky enough to once spend Christmas in Paris and the City of Light did not disappoint. Christmas Day Mass at Notre-Dame – the Cardinal presiding and the music spectacular – followed by lunch in a memorable cafe on the Ile St. Louis. What a day. What a Christmas.

Forty years on I can now smile, sort of, about the hard court mishap that found this committed but awkward second-stringer tripping over his own feet, falling across the back of South Dakota’s best high school basketball player and knocking out my front teeth. It happened on Christmas evening as we practiced for a holiday tournament. Of course, my sympathetic Dad had to remark during the emergency trip to the dentist, “All he wants for Christmas is his two front teeth.” True story.

Speaking of Dad, he often told us the story of a very early Christmas memory of his when he and his brothers found an orange, a brilliant, colorful, tasty orange, in their Christmas stockings along with some hard candy and nuts. A juicy orange in December in Nebraska was, apparently, a very rare and big deal and that lovely memory stuck with him forever.

One Christmas, my father surprised Mom with several very suggestive pieces of, well, underwear. I was too young to know that it was called lingerie. Dad had hidden the various items under sofa cushions and behind the curtains. Mom had, in essence, a Christmas bra and panties scavenger hunt for which she was initially more than a bit embarrassed. Before long, she got into the spirit and would take her time finding the next unmentionable as the old man smiled in anticipation. It’s one of the earliest recognitions I had that my parents really were engaged in a serious love affair.

I’ve been asking friends to remember the best Christmas gift they ever received and the best gift they ever gave. It’s a great question that almost always elicits a big smile, a fun story and a warm memory.

I gave my Dad a box of really cheap cigars one Christmas. Really cheap. I still don’t know what possessed me. He never smoked cigars. He accepted them graciously and, I suspect, quietly sent them to the back yard trash with all the used Christmas wrapping.

Twice in recent years I’ve spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at the marvelous old National Park Service lodge on the south rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. What a place. Big fire roaring in the lobby fireplace, the canyon an unbelievable sight always, but extra special when the red and yellow landscape is dusted with a sprinkle of snow. It’s as if a light dusting of confectioner’s sugar had been spread over one of the Earth’s most awe inspiring places.

So, I’ll celebrate Christmas this year with a head and heart full of memory of friends and family and with a knowable of what I have to be very thankful for. I’ll watch Bing Crosby sing his famous song in Holiday Inn. I’ll put another log on the fire and watch Cary Grant help David Niven find the real meaning of Christmas in The Bishop’s Wife and wince at Chevy Chase’s disappointment when his Christmas bonus is a membership in the Jelly of the Month Club.

And, as night settles around, I’ll read again – as I have a hundred times – Joyce’s great story of Christmas – The Dead – with its haunting and magical last lines, “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

Christmas is memory. Here’s to a happy one for you and yours.


Air Travel, Books

Good Reads

Ten Books to End the Year

Still looking for a last minute gift idea? How about a book? It has been a good year for good books.

In no particular order, here are ten that I found memorable during 2011.

1. Train Dreams by Dennis Johnson. This thin, but deeply satisfying little novella is set in northern Idaho and truly captures the mood of the landscape as it must have been in 1920. Johnson’s writing is haunting, spare and beautiful. This is a book that will stick with you.

2. Jack Kennedy by Chris Matthews. The MSNBC host hasn’t written the great biography of the martyred president, but he has written a warm and insightful book about politics and the impact one man can have on the country. A must read for a political junkie.

3. The Killing of Crazy Horse by Thomas Powers. The best single book I’ve ever read about the long, twilight struggle of Native Americans against the relentless westward pressure of white society. The great Sioux warrior is at the center of Powers’ narrative, but this book has the broad sweep of history about it and the story is wonderfully well told.

4. To End All Wars by Adam Hochchild. This is a marvelous account of the First World War told from the perspective of those who opposed the war in Great Britain. You may find, as I did, that you put this book down with a sinking feeling in pit of your stomach. The war that still shapes our world was both tragic and pointless.

5. Midnight Rising by Tony Horowitz. Horowitz, a marvelous storyteller, sets out to rescue the abolitionist firebrand John Brown from the caricature shelf of history. Horowitz puts flesh on Brown’s story and helps us understand why people followed him all the way to the gallows. You’ll come away thinking that the Civil War really began with Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry.

6. Arguably by Christopher Hitchens. This book is a collection of mostly short essays, reviews and columns by the late writer. Hitchens’ depth and range is evidence from first page to last in a big door stop of a book. The writing is superb, the connections remarkable, the sadness that the man is gone hangs on every page of this remarkable collection.

7. In the Garden of the Beasts by Erik Larson. This is the story of the improbable ambassadorship of William Dodd, a university history professor who ended up in Berlin in the 1930’s to witness and report on the consolidation of power by Hitler and his Nazi henchmen. Dodd was little supported by the striped pant set, the career State Department bureaucrats, by enjoyed the confidence of Franklin Roosevelt. You may find yourself scratching your head about the antics of Dodd’s round heeled daughter who at one time or another was engaging in love affairs with a Nazi, a Russian spy and the occasional U.S. and other visitor to Berlin, a place that was a true garden of the beasts.

8. A. J. Liebling: The Sweet Science and Other Writings. Liebling was one of the great reporters of his generation, but mostly unknown now to anyone under 50. This Library of America collection of his writings is a feast of great prose, especially so the pieces on Paris and the scoundrel governor of Louisiana Earl Long.

9. The New Deal: A Modern History by Michael Hiltzik. A financial columnist for the Los Angeles Times, Hiltzik has produced a fresh, critical and highly readable review of the Depression era and the political and policy response of Roosevelt and others. Hiltzik doesn’t stretch to make the point, but skillfully draws the unmistakable parallels that exist from FDR’s administration to Barack Obama’s.

10. And, no list of mine is complete without at least one baseball book. You can do much worse than The House That Ruth Built by Robert Weintraub. The book tells the story of the characters who once owned the New York Yankees (or perhaps more correctly the story of the earliest characters who have always owned the most storied franchise in baseball). The book focuses on 1923 and how the “the big ballpark in the Bronx” came to be just as the Great Ruth hit his stride. Makes me long for spring.

Happy reading and Happy Christmas.


Afghanistan, Journalism

Ten I’d Like to See

Editor for a Day

I’m a news junkie. I consume newspapers, radio, television, the Internet, blogs and more like some folks consume cans of Coke or bags of salted peanuts. I’m addicted to news.

My much better half once clipped a Charles Schultz “Peanuts” cartoon from the Sunday paper and had it framed for me. In the cartoon Snoopy is seen with a significant number of papers under his arm (leg?) and Charlie Brown remarks that he’s always buying all the out of town papers. That’s me.

So, as a year-end wish, I’d like to put on my green eye shade for a moment, the kind an old-time editor might have worn, and suggest ten stories I’d like to see someone write.

1. Who has survived the housing bubble? I keep hearing stories about the massive inventory of built housing in Ada and Canyon Counties in Idaho, but I wonder how the developers, builders, architects, etc. manage to hang on? Is the housing situation improving? How much inventory is there? Who has weathered this awful story…and who hasn’t?

2. What’s happening to the Idaho timber industry? Twenty or more years ago every Idaho politician spoke of the staples of the Idaho economy as being timber, agriculture and mining. Political battles were fought over allowable harvest levels in Idaho’s national forests. Potlatch and Boise Cascade carried real economic and political clout. Additional formal wilderness designation was held hostage to the need for access to new raw materials. Agriculture is still big, mining – particularly gold exploration is booming – but what about the timber industry? The industry’s once-powerful trade group disbanded last year. What has happened to jobs, companies and how big (or small) is the once mighty industry?

3. Speaking of wilderness, that is where the Idaho Democratic Party has wandered for the last 15 years. With the exception of a one-term congressman and a superintendent of public instruction, the party that once held the governorship for 24 straight years seems a political afterthought. Does any Democratic leader have a plan to help the party return to relevance? Who might be a serious candidate for a serious office in 2014? Or, has Idaho become what Alabama was in the 1930’s – a one-party state for as far as the mind can see?

4. Speaking of politics, I’d be curious – and other Idaho news consumers would be, as well, I think – as to what the state’s all-GOP congressional delegation thinks of the current state of presidential politics. Several of the state’s Republican leaders have endorsed Mitt Romney, but I don’t see anything about what they make of the current campaign. I know these guys, serious politicians all, are following the debates and watching the polls. I’d like to know what they think about the campaign.

5. Idaho undertook massive changes in public education over the last two years, including for the first time actual year over year reductions in spending. School districts have downsized staff, changed schedules and eliminated programs. Who has been hurt? How many teachers have left the state and why?

6. Another education money story I’d like to see fleshed out is what the impact of legislative action on public school spending has been for local property taxpayers. There have been levy elections designed to raise money from property taxpayers to replace money – sales and income tax dollars – that has shrunk at the state level. The Boise district will ask voters to approve a levy in March. Some numbers reporting on what has happened could be enlightening.

7. One of the expected big battles of the 2012 Idaho legislature will center on whether the state will create a state-based health insurance exchange” as required by the unpopular Affordable Care Act– Obamacare in the parlance of those who most dislike the law. Idaho legislators voted against the exchange idea last year, but Gov. Butch Otter finally used an executive order to facilitate work on the exchange in the interim. Soon, the legislature will be asked to authorize the creation of an exchange and spend money on setting it up. Here’s a comparison I’d like to see: Utah, a state every bit as conservative as Idaho, already has an exchange in place. How did that happen? What is different in Utah as opposed to Idaho? Conservative Republicans run both states, but have come to apparently very different conclusions on this important issue. [Full disclosure: I serve on the board of a health insurance company that supports – as I do – creating a state-based exchange.]

8. The most vocal opposition to creating an Idaho exchange comes from the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a conservative, free-market think tank, and its director, a former reporter and GOP staffer, Wayne Hoffman. Hoffman is a very effective advocate. Many legislators listen when he speaks. Good for him. What lawmakers, the public and the media don’t know is who bankrolls his efforts. It continues to be a valid question and a potentially important story with impacts for Idaho’s public policy and politics.

9. Washington State voters recently voted – with healthy encouragement from Costco, the big retailer – to get the state out of the liquor business. States where liquor is controlled, purchased by the state and sold in state-owned and operated liquor stores, is a relic of the country’s post-Prohibition days in the 1930’s. Given Idaho’s historic inclination, when given a choice, to favor the private sector over the public, just how does the state maintaining a liquor monopoly fit? It is often argued that the status quo helps discourage consumption. But is that true? Would a change cost the state money or make it money? An enterprising reporter ought to be able to figure that out? Right next door Washington will be testing many of the assumptions long-held in Idaho.

10. And…I’m curious about the impact on the state’s unemployment rate over the last 18 months or so of the downsizing local and state governments have engaged in. Just how many positions have been eliminated in the tough budget environment? What has been the impact on both those people and public services? Maybe it’s good, maybe not. It’s an important story that hasn’t been much reported.

There you have it…ten stories I’d love to read in 2012.


2012 Election, Baseball, Minnick, Politics

Dark Horse

Could It Happen Again?

The well-quoted Larry Sabato, the political guru at the University of Virginia, has begun talking openly about the possibility that the Republican presidential primary field may not be as complete as many have thought. Sabato suggests that the post-Super Tuesday calendar, when 59% of all the GOP’s convention delegates will be selected, makes it possible – if not likely – that a “dark horse” can still enter the race late and scramble the nomination math, maybe even winning a “brokered” convention.

If so, it would be the first time since 1940 that a late arriving potential president came out of left – or maybe right – field to capture a major party nomination for the White House. That guy, Wendell Willkie, was barely on the political radar screen early in 1940 and came from far back in the field to win the GOP nomination on the sixth ballot at the party’s Philadelphia convention.

In a Gallup Poll in May of 1940, Willkie hardly registered as a serious contender. A former Democrat, who had supported Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, Willkie was an afterthought in a field led by New York prosecutor Thomas Dewey and United States Senators Robert Taft of Ohio and Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan. In that Gallup Poll Dewey enjoyed the support of 67% of those polled. Less than two months later, with France having fallen to Hitler’s army and war seeming more and more likely, Willkie was the GOP candidate charged with the task of depriving Roosevelt of an unprecedented third term. In part, Willkie won the nomination because he refused to be pigeon holed into the GOP’s traditional isolationist foreign policy, the position that Dewey, Taft and Vandenberg espoused, and because he was, more or less, a fresh face who was seen as someone able to take the fight to Roosevelt.

At that Philadelphia convention in late June 1940 – the fascinating political story is beautifully told in Charles Peters’ fine book Five Days in Philadelphia– Willkie trailed on the first ballot, but systematically gathered strength as the delegates kept on voting. Republicans convinced themselves that the Indiana-born, utility executive – FDR’s acerbic Interior Secretary Harold Ickes called Willkie “the barefoot boy from Wall Street” – was the party’s strongest possible candidate.

By October of 1940 Roosevelt’s advisers had become very concerned that the articulate Willkie, who was at the same time both charmingly rumpled and ruggedly handsome, had closed the gap and just might prevent a third FDR term. The threat of Willkie’s growing strength as election day approached prompted Roosevelt to make his famous pledge that American boys would not be sent into a foreign war. FDR, benefiting from the “don’t change horses in the middle of the stream” message, won the election with just under 55% of the vote. Willkie carried only 10 states his home state of Indiana included, as well as Michigan and the big farm states of Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas.

Is another Republican dark horse possible next? Sure, but not likely. The testing that occurs as part of the primary slog has become the established way to narrow the field and select the last man – or woman – standing. Still, the up-one-day, down-the-next quality of the Republican campaign so far leaves a door open, narrowly, to a late arriving contender. 

As one of Sabato’s columnists said recently, “Should Mitt Romney stumble badly in the January events in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, another establishment Republican could enter the race in early February and still compete directly in states with at least 1,200 of the 2,282 or so GOP delegates. Many of them will be up for grabs after April 1 when statewide winner-take-all is possible.

“Similarly, should non-Romney alternatives led by Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry fall flat in the January contests, there would be time for the conservative wing of the party to find a new champion to carry its banner through the bulk of the primary season.”

So, who might it be should it come to be? Not likely a Willkie-like business person who had never sought political office before. We know Donald Trump and The Donald is no Wendell Willkie. It would have to be someone with broad appeal to both the conservative and more establishment wings of the GOP and someone, like Willkie, who had appeal to moderates and independents, with a real chance – better than the established field – to beat the incumbent. Is Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels listening? The last dark horse was also a Hoosier.


2012 Election, Baseball, Minnick, Pete Seeger, Politics, Romney

Like Father…

 Mitt’s Brainwashed Moment

It is not much talked about in the current Republican Party primary frenzy, but Mitt Romney’s father, George, the one-time Governor of Michigan, was once a serious candidate for president of the United States. One short television interview – the senior Romney’s “brainwashing” moment – killed his campaign really before it even had a chance to get started. Son Mitt may have become a chip off the old block with his own brainwashed moment, his offer to bet Texas Gov. Rick Perry $10,000 in last night’s GOP debate in Iowa.

The two comments by the Romneys, father and son, made 44 years apart, can prove to be the kind of defining moments in political campaigns from which there is no recovery. Mitt Romney’s comment apparently went off the charts on Twitter and was viral on YouTube. The chattering classes this morning on the Sunday shows – the Sabbath Gasbags in Calvin Trillin’s wonderful phrase – couldn’t get enough of pointing out how an offhand offer to bet $10,000 was further proof of how the multi-millionaire candidate is out of touch with most Americans. Romney rival Jon Huntsman launched a new website – $1oK Bet – featuring, among other things, much of the negative press about the debate bet and an old photo of Romney from his consulting days with dollar bills floating around him.

Most of us have said, “I’ll bet you $10,” or “what do you say we have a little wager on that,” but to propose a $10,000 bet just seemed what it was – tone deaf, outsized and memorable.

George Romney’s defining moment came during an interview with Detroit’s WKVD TV on August 31, 1967. Romney, re-elected easily as governor in 1966, was in the exploratory phase of his presidential campaign when he sat down with interviewer Lou Gordon. Romney, not unlike allegations of flip flopping aimed at his son, was asked about what appeared to be his change of position on United States involvement in Vietnam. The elder Romney’s inept answer that he had “been brainwashed” by American generals and diplomatic staff during a 1965 trip to Vietnam, but had shaken off that alleged indoctrination to come to his 1967 view that the war had been a mistake that the U.S. should have avoided, became a major story.

TIME magazine immediately called him the “brainwashed Republican.” Romney went on to launch his presidential campaign in November of 1967, but the brainwashing comment stuck. You know a few words have defined your life when they make it into your obituary, as “brainwashed” did in George Romney’s when he died in 1995. Romney never recovered from the remark, which seen today was clearly made in such an offhand manner as to be almost missed and, indeed, the interviewer never followed up.  Romney’s candidacy came to an end after the New Hampshire primary in 1968 when he was crushed by Richard Nixon. We’ll see soon enough of son Mitt’s $10,000 bet gaffe sticks as powerfully.

For the senior Romney the brainwashing remark illustrated what many came to regard as a fact – the guy just wasn’t ready for prime time. The great journalist Theodore White remembered Romney as an honest and decent guy just “not cut out to be president of the United States.” A fellow Republican governor, Jim Rhodes of Ohio, was less kind. He said, “Watching George Romney run for the presidency was like watching a duck make love to a football.”

The worst kind of political gaffe usually isn’t mangling a fact or even changing a position. Rather what really hurts – and really sticks – are words that seem to reinforce an opinion that is already starting to settle. The conventional wisdom on Mitt Romney is that he’s cold, above it all, a serial position changer, prickly and rich. Spontaneously betting a rival $10,000 when challenged on changing a position is just the kind of inept and telling moment that sunk his old man’s presidential campaign.

The younger Romney is going to have a few tough days as he tries to fashion an effective comeback to his ackward debate comment; the kind of effective comeback that his father was never able to pull off.


2012 Election, Minnick


James G. Blaine to Newt Gingrich

I admit that I wrote off Newt Gingrich months ago. I thought the Tiffany line of credit, the lack of attention to actually doing the hard work of building a political organization, the incredibly inflated ego and the baggage would doom the former Speaker.

Pundit Mark Shields summed up Newt’s baggage problem last week when he said Gingrich “has more skeltons than the Harvard Medical School lab.”

But, what do I know? Gingrich, seemingly against all odds, leads the pack heading into the first real test – and I don’t mean the Donald Trump debate – the Iowa caucus followed immediately by the New Hampshire primary.

It got me wondering if there has ever been a candidacy – or a candidate – even remotely like Newt Gingrich? Consider a few telling details.

Even has he assumes frontrunner status, Gingrich is obviously on the outs with many, many Republicans. From George Will to Meghan McCain, the “establishment” GOP loathes the guy. George Will paraphrases an old GOP icon, John Foster Dulles, in describing Newt:  He’s a bull who carries around his own china shop.

Or this telling detail: Mitt Romney, the once presumed man to beat, has accumulated endorsements from 55 current members of Congress. Gingrich has seven current members signed on his team. The people who know this guy best like him the least.

Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter, Peggy Noonan calls Gingrich a “human hand grenade” and “a trouble magnet.” Gingrich, she says, is “a starter of fights that need not be fought. He is the first modern potential president about whom there is too much information.”

So, back to the question: are there any historical parallels? Is Newt a complete one-off? Interesting, I think not.

From the mid-1860’s until the 1890’s, there was a colorful, somewhat Gingirch-like character that repeatedly entered and exited American political life. Congressman, Senator, Secretary of State and ultimately presidential candidate James G. Blaine of Maine. Never heard of him? The guy was Speaker of the House and lost the presidency in 1884 to a deeply flawed Democratic opponent, Grover Cleveland.

Blaine’s candidacy – actually there were several candidacies – divided the Republican Party. The Mainer had been an enthusiastic founder of the GOP and a Lincoln man, but when he finally won the nomination in 1884, he couldn’t rally Republican support and that fact allowed Cleveland to become the lone Democrat able to ne elected president between 1856 and 1912.

Like Gingrich, “Slippery Jim” Blaine was a gifted communicator and, also like Newt, scandal seemed to follow him like a shadow. Accused of corruption related to the western expansion of the railroads, Blaine’s opponents – Republicans included – took to calling him “the Contential liar from the state of Maine.”

Defending Blaine, a supporter said, in language that might remind us of Gingrich’s stormy Congressional tenure, “James G. Blaine marched down the halls of the American Congress and threw his shining lance full and fair against the brazen foreheads of the defamers of his country and the maligners of his honor.”

Still, Blaine lost the election of 1884 – one of the closest in American history – because he lost New York state by just over 1,000 votes. The loss is generally attributed to Blaine sitting idly by while a fire and brimstone Protestant minister lashed the Democrats as the party of “Rum, Romanism and Rebellion” – references to, well, drink, Catholic support and the still bitter wounds over the Civil War. Failure to repudiate that infamous remark probably cost Blaine enough votes in then-Republican New York state to lose him the election.

Historical parallels are never perfect, but they can be instructive. In that long ago election of 1884, Blaine was a deeply flawed candidate with some nonetheless attractive attributes. He’d work his way up the system, he was a fighter and a good talker, but hardly a choice his party or the country could easily embrace. Dogged by scandal, he lost to a Democratic candidate who had been accused of, among other things, fathering a child out of wedlock. Politics were rough in those days, as well.

If Gingrich does manage to capture the Republican nomination next year it will constitute one of the most remarkable and audacious political turn arounds in American history. It may also prove, as Jim Blaine’s candidacy did in 1884, that winning a nomination, while pulling around a wagon full of baggage and in the face of so much opposition from your own party, is merely a prelude to ultimate defeat, even when you are facing a very weak opponent.

Next time, some lessons from the last truly “dark horse” candidate nominated by the Republicans. Is it still too late for a Wendell Willkie?


American Presidents, Baseball, Britain, Dallek, Election of 1944, John Kennedy, Johnson, Obama, Politics, Reagan


Enduring Legacy and Debate

The abbreviated presidency and unfinished life of John Fitzgerald Kennedy is, 48 years after his murder in Dallas, one enduring subject in our politics that can launch a thousand debates.

Was Kennedy a mediocre, adequate or great president?  Is the “myth” of Camelot or the “substance” of a star crossed and tragic tenure just so much rosy memory or was Kennedy’s short presidency a grand testament to a simpler, elegant, even better time?

Would Kennedy have avoided Vietnam or would his hawkish anti-Communism have taken us precisely where Lyndon Johnson eventually did? And just who was Kennedy? Was he the pampered, womanizing son of vast wealth who floated through his 1,000 days with little to show for it or was he the tough, demanding, even brutally efficient Irish-Catholic intellectual who overcame debilitating health problems to be the cool head in the room handling the Cuban Missile Crisis?

Since everyone seems to have a Kennedy opinion these days, I’ll offer my own: Kennedy was all of the above and, curiously, the complexity of the man, the inability to fit him neatly into a liberal box, the roguish charm masking a unrelenting ambition make him all the more interesting. Like all truly fascinating people, Jack Kennedy was many men – all touched by unthinkable tragedy – and that, I believe, is why the fascination with him never seems to diminish.

The Kennedy Cult

Ross Douthat, the young conservative columnist for the New York Times set off the most recent round of Kennedy introspection with a piece entitled “The Enduring Cult of Kennedy.” Douthat set out to debunk three of what he sees as the most offensive Kennedy “myths” – that JFK was a good president who, had he lived, might have been a great one; that he would have kept us from the awful Vietnam disaster and that Kennedy governed during a time of vitriolic right wing hatred of everything he did and stood for.

Summing up, Douthat wrote of Kennedy: “We confuse charisma with competence, rhetoric with results, celebrity with genuine achievement. We find convenient scapegoats for national tragedies, and let our personal icons escape the blame.”

Kennedy’s best and most even handed biographer, Robert Dallek, felt compelled to respond to Douthat’s “anti-Kennedy overkill” with a letter to the editor.  Dallek’s book – An Unfinished Life – was the first to report in detail on Kennedy’s health problems and remains the best and most comprehensive story of the man.

“No serious historian,” Dallek wrote to the Times, “would suggest that John F. Kennedy’s unfinished presidency deserves to be ranked with those of Washington, Lincoln or Franklin D. Roosevelt. But he deserves better than Mr. Douthat gives him.”

Dallek has written elegantly and convincingly about why it is that Kennedy’s reputation still soars and Ronald Reagan’s, as well. Dallek argues it has less to do with bills passed or wars won than with the sense of hope and possibility both men brought to the bully pulpit of the White House.

“What gives Kennedy and Reagan such a strong hold on American imaginations is not what they did but what they said and still stand for,” Dallek wrote recently. “Both presidents are remembered as optimists promising better futures. Kennedy had the New Frontier; for Reagan, it was Morning in America. Both remain inspirational voices that in a time of doubt give people hope. And when you put either man alongside Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, they seem especially appealing.”

“The national embrace of Kennedy and Reagan is at one with the attraction to nostrums,” Dallek wrote. “All we need is the right man with the right formula and all will be well again. If only it were that easy.”


For as long as we debate the legacy of Vietnam there will questions of whether Kennedy, had he lived to be re-elected in 1964, would have been smart enough to keep the U.S. commitment to southeast Asia in check. The late Idaho Sen. Frank Church was convinced, as he told me in the late 1970’s, that Kennedy would never have committed U.S. ground troops in the way Johnson did. Church’s opinion was also held by Robert McNamara and Theodore Sorensen, among many others.

Truth be told there is no way of knowing what he would have done, but the lessons he learned from both the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the missile crisis surely had an impact on Kennedy who may have been, in terms of American and world history, the best read president since Teddy Roosevelt.

Best Sellers

Kennedy is also the subject of two current best sellers by Stephen King and Chris Matthews. King’s massive new book titled simply 11/22/63 imagines what might have been – the Kennedy assassination foiled by a time traveler. Matthews’ book – Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero – is an unabashed valentine to a kind of political leader that Matthews argues no longer seems to exist.

As to the times when Kennedy governed, Frank Rich’s recent piece in New York Magazine draws parallels between 1963 and 2011. “What defines the Kennedy legacy today,” Rich writes, “is less the fallen president’s short, often admirable life than the particular strain of virulent hatred that helped bring him down. After JFK was killed, that hate went into only temporary hiding. It has been a growth industry ever since and has been flourishing in the Obama years. There are plenty of comparisons to be made between the two men, but the most telling is the vitriol that engulfed both their presidencies.”

Rich has been defending his piece against, among others Ross Douthat. Rich’s “delusional” piece, in the view of another conservative commentator, uses “tortured logic” to show that “President Kennedy was a victim of hatred coming from the far right.” Lee Harvey Oswald was, of course, to the extent he had a political philosophy, more a Communist sympathizer than a John Bircher.

Still what really struck me in reading Rich’s take on 1963 were the selection of letters to the editor of the Dallas Morning News printed over the weeks before Kennedy made his fateful trip to Texas 48 Novembers ago.

A letter writer from Wichita Falls wrote in 1963: “The Kennedy regime tends to lead toward socialism, as shown in its soft policies regarding the Cuban situation and its constant concessions to the Soviet Union in nuclear-test-ban-treaty negotiations. The many failures of the administration are clearly shown to the public. The inefficiency of its policies has lost America prestige and has weakened our bonds with the major European countries.

“Any person who supports John Kennedy in 1964 not only is illiterate of the means of democracy but is supporting a truly socialistic regime.”

And this from a Kennedy opponent from Waco, who referred to the president as “One-Term John,” a politician so unpopular in “Central Texas that in the past three weeks I have had only one customer threaten to cease doing business with me because of remarks made concerning the dynasty and its accomplishments.

“In fact, I now expect business to pick up as the full impact of the truth finally makes its impression upon the party faithful who heretofore could neither see, hear, nor speak of the evils in a socialistic dictatorship until the confrontation by Gov. Wallace of naked federal power and encroachment upon state and individual rights at Tuscaloosa, Ala.”

The last reference, of course, was to Kennedy’s efforts to enforce federal law and permit two black students to enroll – over the schoolhouse door protests of Gov. George Wallace – at the University of Alabama.

(Kennedy’s role – some would say Kennedy’s reluctance – to push harder on civil rights is still regularly debated, as Ross Douthat and others have noted. Yet, appreciating Kennedy’s well-developed sense of humor, it’s easy to believe that he would appreciate the irony of the Crimson Tide’s quest for a national football title riding on the broad shoulders of team that in 2011 starts only five white players.)

The letters make a striking point. The hatred for John Kennedy, like Obama, was real and the misrepresentation of his views – JFK was no more a socialist than Obama – was palpable. A moderately dispassionate conservative today, one who dislikes everything Obama has done, would have to admit that those letters to a Dallas newspaper nearly a half century ago bares an eerie resemblance to today’s doings on FOX News.

The Kennedy Cult, or whatever you care to call it, persists because his presidency – both style and substance – still matters. It’s impact survives through generations. We don’t have great debates about the Cult of Warren Harding or William Henry Harrison because they did not help define a generation or bring a particular power of personality and passion to our politics. Few presidents have. Kennedy did.

We will be debating the importance of Kennedy – or Reagan for that matter – for as long as we care about what can occasionally be the uplifting quality of our politics. As Bob Dallek says, and this is particularly true at a time when our politics seem so polarized and unproductive, we hanker for the “right man (or woman) with the right formula.” If only it were that easy.


Perhaps the true enduring legacy of a John Kennedy is really much less complicated than it might appear. At his core Kennedy was serious and incredibly ambitious. He had an approach to the job of being a senator and a president. He was a genuine and talented student of history. He wrote and spoke well. He was curious and tough as a politician and demanding as a boss. Matthews relates the story of Kennedy firing a long-time friend who he came to believe wasn’t doing his job well enough. At the same time he inspired tremendous loyalty and great affection and still does.

In short, the Kennedy legacy is one of leadership lifted by inspiration. The guy had it and we still gravitate to it and that is the real Cult of Kennedy.


Air Travel, Baseball, Books, Giffords, Humanities, Politics

Calvin Trillin

Deadline Poet, Funny Guy, Serious Reporter

Calvin Trillin has covered the civil rights movement, produced some of the best long form journalism in recent times for The New Yorker, and written about food, travel and politics.

And oh, yes, he just may be the funniest guy in print in America. He’s coming to Boise next week.

Here is one of Trillin’s latest “Deadline Poems” from the Nation magazine.

Newt’s Surge

The pundits all can confidently speak

Of Gingrich as the flavor of the week.

The people who want anyone but Mitt

Now say, in desperation, Newt is it.

Yes, Newt’s astute – a crafty wheeler-dealer.

His baggage, though, would fill an eighteen-wheeler –

Affairs and ethics problems and, to boot,

His mouth is something often he’ll shoot.

And if he’s scratched because he lacks decorum?

What happens then? Get ready, Rick Santorum.


Trillin will present the Idaho Humanities Council’s 15th annual Distinguished Lecture in the Humanities on December 8 at the Boise Centre. Tickets are still available.

Trillin’s humor may be his trademark, but his body of work is truly impressive, including one of his U.S. Journal pieces for the New Yorker written from Boise in 1979. His little book on his late wife – About Alice – will have you laughing on one page and tearing up on the next. It is one of the sweetest pieces of writing you will ever hope to read.

Trillin relates the story of first meeting Alice at a party and pursuing her to another party days later.

“At the second party, I did get to talk to her quite a lot. … Recalling that party in later years, Alice would sometimes say, ‘You have never again been as funny as you were that night.’

“ ‘You mean I peaked in December of 1963?’ I’d say, 20 or even 30 years later.

“ ‘I’m afraid so.’ ”

Many of Trillin’s essays on food are classics of the genre. He once said: “The most remarkable thing about my mother is that for thirty years she served the family nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found.”

He completely subscribes to the sensible notion that the higher the restuarant the more mediocre and costly the food. “I never eat in a restaurant that’s over a hundred feet off the ground and won’t stand still,” he says.

Trillin was Johnny Carson’s guest 30 times on the old Tonight Show and he’s a semi-regular now on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show.

If you want some fun in the company of an American original, order up a dose of Calvin Trillin next week. His latest book – Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin– is a collection of pieces dating back 40 years. It’s funny, profound, literary – all quite like Calvin Trillin.