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Age Wins…

Jamie Moyer, the 49 year old left-hander who is now throwing his junk for the Colorado Rockies, recently became the oldest pitcher to ever win a major league game. Moyer may be the baseball personification of the old line that “age and treachery will always overcome youth and skill.”

Moyer faced 25 year old Pittsburgh Pirate standout Andrew McCutchen three times Tuesday night. Moyer was pitching in the Majors before McCutchen was born and the kid never reached base against the old man. McCutchen couldn’t believe it.

“I can’t believe he got me out,” McCutchen told the Associated Press. “You know he has nothing to throw by you, but he just nitpicks.” No, actually Andrew, he pitches – well – and has for a long, long time.

An admiring Hall of Famer and former Moyer teammate, Goose Gossage, said it well: “He throws slow, slower and slowest. How else would you describe it?”

Moyer is an inspiration to aging jocks everywhere. I’ve probably seen him pitch more games in person than any other pitcher of his – or my generation – and like most fans I’ve sat in the stands thinking “even I could hit this guy.” Nope.

Moyer’s fastball screeches in at a top speed of 79 miles an hour. Goose Gossage brought it closer to 100, but it’s really not the speed that matters with the cagey Moyer. It’s the competitiveness, the smarts and the experience that matter. Moyer has taken care of himself, been a student of his craft and, no big surprise, has learned a lot in 25 years with nine different teams.

And, aging jocks take notice, a 79 mile an hour fastball is still beyond the reach of most people. Don’t believe me? The Fort Myers Miracle, the Minnesota Twins affiliate in the Florida State League, are running a promotion where a fan can win a ticket to a future game if they can top 79 on a radar gun. More than 80 folks spent a buck a piece the other night to crank up three pitches in hopes to throwing harder than the ancient Moyer. No one did. One frustrated pitcher spent $50 on the promotion and no doubt left with a sore arm, heckling from his buddies and a hole in his wallet.

Moyer is proof that age is, in many respects, a state of mind. Winston Churchill was 65 when he became Prime Minister of Great Britain and 77 when he took over the second time. Christopher Plummer won as Oscar at 82 and the great Jack Nicklaus was 46 when he won the Masters. Experience and perspective matter in so many ways. It helps to hit the exercise bike, too.

Moyer says the key for him is how he feels the day after he pitches. Considering the typical aches and pains most of us start to feel on the long side of 40, it’s hard to imagine rolling out of the sack at age 49 the morning after throwing 100 pitches. My back hurts just thinking about it.

Think you can hit a Moyer fastball? Most of us would be lucky to foul one of his pitches off. Think you can throw a Moyer fastball? Not gonna happen for most. At the ripe old age of 49, Jamie Moyer gives all of us cause to marvel at those who play the boys game so well when the arrival of the AARP card is just around the corner. Age and treachery, indeed. But don’t count out experience and desire, important ingredients for success at any age.



An Old Notion Relevant Again

On the downhill side of the Gilded Age in American political and business life – that would have been in the late 1800’s – progressive reformers from Theodore Roosevelt to Woodrow Wilson to Louis Brandeis found fault with the idea and reality of a concentration of economic power.

Brandeis, a great legal advocate before he went on the U.S. Supreme Court in 1916, described the threat of economic concentration by a single, simple word “bigness.” Brandeis entitled one of his greatest works, published in 1913, Other People’s Money and one chapter in that book was called “The Curse of Bigness.”

“Size, we are told, is not a crime,” Brandeis wrote, “But size may, at least, become noxious by reason of the means through which it was attained or the uses to which it is put. And it is size attained by combination, instead of natural growth, which has contributed so largely to our financial concentration.”

Today it is almost an article of faith that “bigger is better,” but the early 20th Century focus on means and uses of economic concentration are just as relevant today as when Woodrow Wilson was in the White House.

Our political and regulatory system seems unable to address the “too big to fail” syndrome and the human abuses that can follow. Much of corporate America seems one big merger followed by another and meanwhile, Walmart, one of the biggest of the bigs, seems to be engulfed by a major foreign bribery scandal in Mexico, Rupert Murdoch’s vast media empire is now defending its political clout in Great Britain as Murdoch execs fend off criminal charges for violating privacy. Criminal charges have been leveled against a BP engineer involved in the Gulf oil spill. You could go on, but the situation is clear – too big to fail can also be too good to be true.

Idaho Sen. Frank Church – he served in the Senate from 1957-1981 – is remembered today primarily for his headline generating investigation of the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1970’s, but Church always considered another of his Senate investigations equally, if not more, important. As chairman of a subcommittee on multinational corporations in 1973, Church delved deeply into the practices, some of them corrupt, of some of the biggest, most powerful companies in the world.

Church’s work cast light on International Telephone & Telegraph’s involvement in the fall and murder of Chilean President Salvador Allende and Lockheed was exposed for its role in a bribery scandal in Japan. Lockheed’s CEO at the time admitted to spending millions on bribes to foreign officials and a Japanese prime minister went to jail in the resulting scandal. The entire chain of events led to passage of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in 1977, the U.S. law that Walmart may find itself on the wrong side of today.

Frank Church discovered in that long ago investigation that human nature, driven by an imperative to constantly expand and concentrate economic power has its dark side. In such a world corners get trimmed, ends justify means and we experience an Enron or we end up bailing out a financial institution that can only justify its continued existence because it’s too big to fail.

A thinking man’s conservative, New York Times columnist David Brooks, had a fascinating column this week in which, in a way, he came at this bigness issue from a novel angle. Brooks’ point was that a blind focus on destroying the competition – Brandeis might have termed it how businesses become always bigger – is the flip side of a lack of innovation. When the focus is on constantly and relentlessly growing, creativity goes begging. The need to be bigger inevitably trumps everything, including finding a better way to make a widget.

Brandeis argued a hundred years ago – his was the age of Standard Oil and the House of Morgan – that eventually bigness, that which “is attendant of excessive size,” is inefficient. Eventually, he wrote, “Decentralization will begin. The liberated smaller units will find no difficulty in financing their needs without bowing the knee to money lords. And a long step will have been taken toward attainment of the New Freedom [a reference to Wilson-era reforms in banking and business.]

It may well be in this age of globalization with a bank in Rhode Island tied to the fate of a housing development in Ireland that there is no going back from bigness, but there may be more than nostalgia in longing for a simpler, smaller time.

Frank Church, a liberal Democrat, helped expose the evils of bigness and concentrated power in the 1970’s, just as his role model in the Senate, William E. Borah, had done in the 1930’s. Borah, a Republican progressive, hated bigness, monopoly and concentration of power. He championed small business and decentralization and once said, “When you have destroyed small business, you have destroyed our towns and our country life, and you have guaranteed and made permanent the concentration of economic power, [which in turn ensures] the concentration of political power.  Monopoly and bureaucracy are twin whelps from the same kennel.”

I don’t know about you, but I long for a political leader willing to call bluff on concentrated power. Bigger isn’t always better, it may just be bigger.


Once it Worked

The Last Great Senate

Given today’s persistent gridlock in Congress, it’s easy to forget that the United States Senate was once a place where bipartisan lawmaking actually occurred on a fairly regular basis and not that long ago.

A fine new book – The Last Great Senate by Ira Shapiro – remembers a Senate full of great and gifted legislators, including Washington State’s Scoop Jackson, pictured nearby. Shapiro, a former trade official in the Clinton Administration and Senate staffer, makes a compelling case that the U.S. Senate in the 1960’s and 1970’s was a great place. A roll call of the great ones of that period, Scoop included, reads like a roster of some of the institutions very best.

Mansfield from Montana, Baker from Tennessee, Church from Idaho and Hatfield from Oregon. And there were more, Javits of New York, Rudman of New Hampshire, Byrd of West Virginia, Cooper of Kentucky and Case of New Jersey. Most are lost to memory now, but the Senate they occupied was a far different place than today’s where party leaders seem only to traffic in partisan sound bites and elbow each other for each day’s tactical political advantage.

Writing last week in the Seattle Times, Shapiro remembered the great Scoop as a fully formed, well informed and well intentioned Senator.

“Jackson was also a master legislator,” Shapiro wrote, “able to reach principled compromises to further the national interest. During the late 1970s, as energy dependence became a central concern for America, Jackson was the chairman of the newly formed Senate Energy Committee. Jackson loathed President Jimmy Carter (the feeling was mutual), who had defeated him for the Democratic nomination in 1976. Jackson doubted Carter’s readiness to be president and also disagreed with the thrust of his energy proposals, believing them to be too generous to the oil and gas industries.

“Yet, despite all these factors, and even while leading the fight against Carter’s effort to negotiate the SALT II arms-control agreement with the Soviet Union, Jackson worked tirelessly for three long years to produce a national energy policy. He respected the presidency, if not the president, and saw the need to forge compromises between consumer and producer interests, and the various regions of our country.”

Talk privately to any thinking member of Congress and they will tell you that the country faces serious challenges that aren’t difficult to identify. We must gain control of fiscal policy and the tax code is a mess and must be reformed for reasons of both fairness and increased revenue. We face serious competitive issues that are only met by world-class trade, education and infrastructure investment. Immigration policy must be re-structured and – brace yourselves – even gun violence in America must be addressed.

The problems are readily apparent, what is failing is our institutions, beginning with the federal legislature and particularly the United States Senate. Gone is the sense that a six-year Senate term gives 100 elite Americans a license to operate just a little above the partisan hustle. For the better part of three decades, as Shapiro’s must read book makes clear, many of the nation’s most pressing problems have gone begging, while the Senate has fallen into a frozen, partisan swamp of inaction.

It would be comforting to think that the institution can reform itself from within and regain some of its historic luster, but in today’s Twitter-infused partisanship that is probably asking too much. The fault, dear friends is not in the Senate, really, but in ourselves. We settle for gridlock rather than demand a Senate of Scoop Jacksons.


Rolling the Vice

Who Will Mitt Pick?

There is an old truism in politics that holds that one can go from hero to zero just like that – meaning quick, very quick. The reverse is also true. Struggling front runner becomes nominee literally overnight  and our incredibly short political attention span moves on to the next decision.

Three weeks ago the pundits were wondering if Mitt Romney could beat Rick Santorum on Santorum’s  home turf in Pennsylvania. Today they’re suggesting he select, take your pick, Condi Rice, Rob Portman, Marco Rubio or half a dozen others, as the perfect running mate. For the GOP candidate the focus has shifted and now American voters, to the extent they are paying attention, can assess Romney’s real ability as a CEO. Can he pick the right person for his Number Two? History would tell us there are no perfect running mates, but Romney’s pick, whomever it turns out to be, will be sliced and diced to the last soundbite for hints of whether he has done what few would be presidents have ever done – pick the absolutely right person.

In 1964, in part to counter his ultra-conservative, southwestern cowboy, bomb throwing (or dropping) image, Republican nominee Barry Goldwater selected a little-know northeastern, GOP establishment Congressman named William E. Miller to run with him as vice president. We know how that turned out. Miller is now best remembered as the star of an American Express commercial that asked “do you know who I am?” Most people didn’t. Give yourself extra credit if you know the answer to the political Jeopardy question – Who was Bill Miller?

The conventional wisdom holds that the second spot on the ticket is all about  “balance” – regional, ethnic, religious or ideological – and while such reasoning has factored into vice picks historically, the more common consideration is more personal and practical and often turns a mirror on the candidate rather than focusing a spotlight on the running mate.

The balance arguement put Lyndon Johnson on the Democratic ticket in 1960. John Kennedy absolutely had to carry Texas and Lyndon delivered. Franklin Roosevelt put Texas Congressman John Nance Garner on the ticket in 1932 less for regional balance than to remove Garner as a rival in the Democratic nominating process. Garner swung his convention delegates to FDR in exchange for a spot on the ticket. In 1948 Harry Truman picked Alben Barkley, another trivia question who actually was vice president, mostly because he felt comfortable with the older Barkley who was the Senate majority leader.

The desire not to be in any way overshadowed probably led George H.W. Bush to make one of the truly curious selections in modern times in 1988 when little-know Dan Quayle, a very junior, deer-in-the-headlights senator from Indiana, joined the GOP ticket. The same could be said of Richard Nixon’s pick of Spiro Agnew in 1968, although Nixon knew the former Maryland governor was capable of  carrying out the attack dog role that typically falls to the second fiddle.

Did Joe Biden help Barack Obama win in 2008? Or did Dick Cheney deliver for George W. Bush in 2000? Each may have helped the presidential candidate assume a veneer of foreign policy experience, but for the most part neither pick did any harm to the candidate’s electoral prospects, which in the end is the most reasonable criteria for the second pick.

John McCain may have had no choice but to roll the vice and pick Sarah Palin in 2008, a decision that looks in retrospect as reckless now as was unconventional at the time. Palin, I would argue, did do harm, because her choice by the supposedly mature, sensible McCain reflected badly on his judgment. I’m guessing Romney, the buttoned-down, data-driven former CEO won’t make that mistake. He’ll go safe and sober and hope to do no harm.

 Ohio Sen. Rob Portman would be safe and sober and Romney needs to win Ohio. If Romney is going to run his campaign based upon the twin pillars of his corporate experience and his allegation that the incumbent just isn’t up to the job, then he best use the vice presidential selection process as if he were picking a vice president at Bain Capital. Flash and dash isn’t what he needs, competence is. Romney needs a veep who helps build the CEO-brand, since that is the rationale he has adopted for his campaign.

In rare ocassions in American political history a vice president has helped win an election. More often the best they do is to accomplish the minimum, they do no harm. And – remember William E. Miller –  in the best case the vice presidential candidate doesn’t become the answer to a trivia question.


Keep Calm

And Carry On…

I just bought a nifty coffee mug emblazoned with the five words – Keep Calm and Carry On. (It seemed like the right kind of mantra at home and the office!)

After the second cup from the handsome mug, I got to wondering about the origins of that phrase. Turns out the British government during some of the toughest days of the Second World War commissioned a limited series of posters aimed at keeping the British upper lip adequately stiff.

The “Keep Calm” poster was the third of the trio and would have been rolled out only under the most dire circumstances, like the Nazis invading across the English Channel. While the other posters – Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution, Will Bring Us Victory and Freedom is in Peril, Defend it With All Your Might – were widely used to buck up the hard pressed population of the Empire, the Keep Calm slogan was never used publicly.

The third poster disappeared for years until discovered, wouldn’t you know, by a used bookstore owner in a box of old books in his shop in the north of England.

Bookstore owner Stuart Manley told the Guardian that he originally thought the poster was, “a big piece of paper folded up at the bottom [of a box]. I opened it out, and I thought, wow. That’s quite something. I showed it to Mary, and she agreed. So we framed it and put it up on the bookshop wall. And that’s where it all started.”

The British version of the public television series Antiques Roadshow recently featured a woman who had been given 15 of the original posters by her father. It was estimated the posters – maybe the largest stash of originals – are worth several thousand pounds.

Now the slogan – approp in almost any circumstance and really great simple, positive messaging – has a whole new lease on life. In many ways, its the perfect melding of message, design, simplicity and elegance and you see the wording everywhere, on coffee mugs, tee shirts, wallpaper, posters, even in parody.

My favorite parody, complete with an image right out of the old Hitchcock film North by Northwest, is “Keep Calm and Cary Grant.”

Here is a link to a neat little video history of the posters. Keep Calm, an iconic image from the darkest days of the 20th Century and a testament to how something classic never goes out of style.


Weekend Reads

Robert Caro, Jerry Kramer and More

There is a fascinating piece planned for publication Sunday, and already online, in The New York Times on legendary Lyndon Johnson biographer Robert Caro. Caro is about to release volume four of his projected five volume bio of LBJ. To date he has produced 3,388 fascinating pages.

Caro’s work is one of the greatest studies ever of the accumulation and use of political power. The piece also has great insights into the author’s methods, which could properly be described as “old school.” He dresses for work every day in jacket and tie, for example. Great piece.

Northwest Nazarene University political scientist Steve Shaw and one of his colleagues, English Department Chair Darrin Grinder, have just released an important new book that I highly recommend. The Idaho Statesman’s Dan Popkey wrote about the book – “The Presidents and Their Faith” – earlier this week. From Jefferson’s own version of the Gospels to Woodrow Wilson’s Presbyterian minister father to Richard Nixon’s Quaker roots, Shaw and Grinder give us wonderful mini-portraits of 43 presidents and their personal and political faith. With so much talk of politics and religion, the book couldn’t be timelier. Highly recommended.

Insightful piece in The Atlantic by staff writer Conor Friedersdorf that explains why national Republicans have spent 20 years searching for the next Ronald Reagan and haven’t found him.

“Today, would be Reagans with less charisma, less executive experience and less time spent honing their thinking and communication skills are somehow expecting to succeed even as they operate in a less advantageous political environment. Of course it isn’t happening. And it’s no wonder conservatives are divided in who they support.”

And finally, I am very aware (and happy) that baseball is back in action. My Giants open today in the city by the bay. But, the best sports book I’ve read in a while is an older book, published in 1968, Instant Replay by Green Bay Packer great and University of Idaho grad Jerry Kramer. The New York Times called Kramer’s book the “best behind the scene glimpse of pro football ever produced.”

Some think the book’s candor has contributed to Kramer being passed over for the NFL Hall of Fame. If so, that’s ridiculous. Kramer is the most deserving NFL player not in the Hall and that oversight, at long last, should be corrected. Get a copy of the book and read it. It’s great.


Stupid Times Three

Ozzie, Commies and Stay at Home Moms

Bad luck like stupid comments seems to come in threes.

Ozzie Guillen, the mouth-running, currently suspended manager of the Miami Marlins baseball team is at once the most politically incorrect man in America and the luckiest. He desperately needed to get off the front pages after taking Miami’s re-branded team, cozy in its new stadium, and running his mouth straight into south Florida’s visceral hatred of Fidel Castro.

Ozzie says his comments in Spanish praising Fidel lost something in translation, but what Guillen really mangled with his ill-considered comments about the country’s least favorite commie was an old and simple rule. Loud mouth baseball managers really should never comment on anything other than what happens between the lines. Danger lurks out there beyond the friendly confines – remember Marge Schott – where men play the boys game.

But thanks to cable television, just as it looked like Ozzie might still pay for his Fidel praising with his job, two other stupid comments make Ozzie seem so last season.

Enter Republican Rep. Allen West of Florida – what is it with Florida, anyway – and Democratic political operative and CNN talking head Hilary Rosen. Consider them the duo with the crazy opinions today. Ozzie Guillen must be smiling as he sits out his suspension somewhere. Nothing spikes a stupid political comment like another stupid political comment.

In West’s case it was the astounding contention that a majority of the Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives – West said 78 to 81 members to be imprecise – are communists or socialists. And Rosen popped off on cable to the effect that Mitt Romney’s obviously smart and appealing wife had never worked a day in her life.

Two things, I think, are at play from Guillen to West to Rosen, and no that is not a double play combination. The first is the modern media age’s unrelenting pursuit of opinion as opposed to fact. Everyone is expected to have an opinion on absolutely everyone and everything and be prepared to offer it up at the drop of a question. It has become socially unacceptable to say, “Geez, I don’t know that I have anything to say about that subject.” Or even this: “You know, that’s really a silly question and I chose not to respond to silly questions.”

The other problem is a growing inability on the part of many in public life to tell one of their friends that they are just flat wrong. This has become a particular problem for politicians. Congressman West made his silly comment – opinion devoid of fact really – at some type of a friendly town hall meeting. The question that prompted his opinion came from the audience and, I’m guessing here, he wanted to play to the crowd so he answered in a way that he thought the crowd would appreciate. Maybe West believes what he said, too, but he was clearly playing to the crowd. He might have simply said in response to a silly question, “That is a silly question” and moved on. Rather he offered the alternative, an ill-considered opinion that helped move Ozzie off the front page.

Same with Rosen. She was trying to make the point that the Romney’s aren’t like most Americans who worry about mortgage payments and buying groceries, but she couldn’t stop there. Opinions being the coin of the talking head realm, she couldn’t resist offering a further opinion about Ann Romney. Not having a “real job” would, by the way, be news to any woman who has raised five sons and been a partner to a corporate CEO and a governor. The comment was, well, stupid, but Rosen was behaving the way a partisan TV talking head is expected to behave. She has to have a million of them, opinions that is.

So, as author Steve Rushin has pointed out, I am myself dangerously close to failing to practice what I preach against since – hold on – I’m having an opinion. Rushin calls such behavior a sequel to the movie Blowhard, which I confess I have never had the pleasure of seeing. The sequel, however, would be called Blowhard 2 – Blow Harder.

I long for the moment when some talking head or politician or sports figure just doesn’t go there. And it’s not about political correctness or free speech. My mother would have called it good manners. I can almost hear her, “You don’t have to comment on everything,” she would say. “Did it ever occur to you that other people may not care what you have to say.”

I’ll bet Ozzie’s mom told him something similar and he just forgot. And that’s my opinion and I’m sticking with it, while searching for that movie sequel on DVD – Blow Harder.


No. 500

A Milestone…Yea, Right…

This is my 500th blog posting since starting The Johnson Post in July 2009. It’s been fun and educational and has kept me, more or less, from incessant barking. 

Thanks for reading and here’s hoping you’ll indulge me a brief look back over my blogging shoulder.

What I’ve learned through 500 posts:

Number One is the power of this still wondrous Al Gore invention – the Internet. I know, I know, Al Gore didn’t invent the Internet; he just played the inventor in a presidential campaign. Seriously, the power and reach of the Internet – for good or bad, or both – really came hope to me when I posted a piece from Buenos Aires in 2010 where I attempted a somewhat tongue-in-cheek take on the never ending controversy between Argentina and Great Britain over the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic.

Early the next day my e-mail inbox was smoldering with a testy response from a fellow in not so jolly old England who took me squarely to task for suggesting that the windswept Malvinas, as the Argentines call the Falklands, are just not worth the trouble. To say that he thought I was misinformed would be a very nice way of putting it. How he found my musings I can only guess, but I certainly got his attention.

I’ve also learned that many readers are generous with praise and encouragement, elements that are as vital as oxygen to any writer. Everyone, I’ve also learned over and over, needs an editor. Mine have been kind and helpful – and necessary. Thanks.

Mostly I’ve learned that writing is necessary, fulfilling and affirming. Some people need to sing – not my niche – others need to run or read or listen to music. I need to write. If you have the itch to write, I highly recommend that you scratch. Your outlet need not be a blog, but might be a journal or long letters to friends and relatives. We need more letters and writers, so open that laptop.

I have many thanks to extend on crossing over this personal blogging milestone. To those who read these thoughts daily or take the time to catch up once in a while – a big thank you. One starts such an endeavor not knowing if anyone will notice much less care. To those who have stuck with The Post – thanks and thanks some more.

Thanks as well to friends who circulate the posts when they deem them worthy. The serial blogger Dave Oliveria at his Huckleberries Online blog has been particularly generous in helping enlarge my audience.

Thanks to my professional colleagues, as well, for both encouraging and tolerating my wandering into the blogging weeds. Some of them even read from the weeds, which is also nice. For this political, baseball, history, book and movie junkie, the chance to offer opinions and observations on all those subjects and actually have some loyal readers is, well, just a whole lot of fun.

Writing The Johnson Post has been fun – really fun. I feel like I’m just getting started. Thanks for reading.


Gender Chasm

Mad Men Attitudes and 21st Century Politics

By every measure it seems clear that Ann Romney has the smarts, style and personal qualities to be a very popular and successful First Lady. But as good a surrogate as she can be for husband Mitt, it will be her husband’s name and not hers on the November ballot, which simply means she can help his campaign not carry it.

Ann Romney’s notable attempts to “humanize” her husband and at the same time close the Romney and Republican Party gender chasm may help at the margins, but most likely not enough to erase one of the two really serious demographic challenges confronting the almost certain GOP nominee. The candidate and his party must engage in that heavy lifting.

Let’s start with the obvious: if you need a conscious strategy to “humanize” a real person, you have a real problem. Last week the Romney campaign rolled out an online video of the genuinely appealing Ann reminiscing about raising her five sons, as well as Mitt who she said was often the “sixth son.” The video was a not very well disguised effort to address some of the important political news of the week, President Obama’s lead over Romney in new a poll conducted in key swing states. That nearly double digit lead is now in place largely thanks to Romney’s collapsing support among women.

To borrow a popular culture reference, this situation is a little like running the completely buttoned down 1960’s ad executive Don Draper from television’s popular period piece Mad Men for president in 2012. Handsome, out of touch Don just wouldn’t make it as a 2012 candidate and, while Romney may not have Draper’s various addiction problems, he acts like a guy from the 60’s who will never open up and will certainly never get in touch with his feminine side. Romney seems most of the time like a man transported through time to a place far, far away. He’s a 1960’s man in a 21st Century campaign. You can’t humanize that.

In last week’s USA Today/Gallup Poll of swing states, President Obama led Romney 51-42 among registered voters, and remember this research was conducted in places like Ohio, Florida, Virginia and Iowa were our national elections are decided.

“The biggest change from previous polls,” USA Today reported, “came among women under 50. In mid-February, just under half of those voters supported Obama. Now more than six in 10 do while Romney’s support among them has dropped by 14 points, to 30%. The president leads him 2-1 in this group.”

[Romney’s other potentially fatal demographic flaw is with Hispanic voters, but that’s a column for another day.]

From Rush Limbaugh to state legislatures, the Republican brand with women is tarnished, perhaps irrevocably in this election cycle. Frank Rich, writing in New York Magazine, dates the pivotal moment of the GOP collapse among women to what seemed at the time to be a completely off-the-wall question during a GOP debate early this year in New Hampshire. You may remember that George Stephanopoulos of ABC News asked Romney if he shared his opponent Rick Santorum’s view that “states have the right to ban contraception.”

Romney ridiculed the question, the audience booed George and most of us chalked it up to Stephanopoulos getting too little sleep because of his early morning TV duties.

But, as Rich notes, Santorum’s birth control views just made him “an advance man for a rancorous national brawl about to ambush an unsuspecting America that thought women’s access to birth control had been resolved by the ­Supreme Court almost a half century ago.”

Meanwhile in state legislatures from Virginia to Idaho, anti-abortion themed legislation requiring women to undergo an ultrasound procedure as part of the visit to a physician prior to being able to access abortion services immediately became a potent symbol for what Democrats have begun to call “a war on women.” Whether its a war of not, the backlash over the ultrasound proposals was immediate and stunning in its intensity. After passing mandatory ultrasound legislation in the Idaho State Senate, legislative Republicans in the even more conservative Idaho House of Representatives heard from their constituents – their female Republican constituents – and suddenly discovered that the best place for the ultrasound legislation was in the bottom of a committee chairman’s desk drawer.

From personal experience I can attest to the fact that last time Idaho had a high-profile debate about abortion that carried with it national overtones – that was 1990 when then-Gov. Cecil D. Andrus vetoed legislation that was not only harshly anti-female, but would have sent the state into years of litigation – the incumbent governor’s re-election was secured when he stood solidly against nationally-inspired legislation that was properly seen by women – and many men – as draconian. Conservative women flocked to Andrus, I’m convince not just because of his courageous veto, but because he displayed both toughness and compassion. In other words, the issue was a test of character. Andrus passed the test and voters – women included – could warmly relate to such attributes, which explains why Romney and the GOP are hurting with women.

Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, you may remember, lost her party’s nomination in 2010 to a Tea Party-backed opponent. She then mounted an nearly unprecedented write-in campaign in the general election that returned her to the Senate. Murkowski is what passes for a moderate in the national GOP these days and comments she made last week in her state place a stark frame around the problem Romney must fix if he hopes to win the White House in November.

“I think what you’re sensing is a fear, a concern that women feel threatened, that a long settled issue might not be settled,” Murkowski said on a radio talk show in Homer, Alaska last week. As the Homer News reported, “[Murkowski] cited things like conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh’s remarks about a female Georgetown University law student, which Murkowski called ‘offensive, horribly offensive.'”

“To have those kind of slurs against a woman … you had candidates who want to be our president not say, ‘That’s wrong. That’s offensive.’ They did not condemn the rhetoric,” Murkowski said.

The paper continued, “From her perspective as a Republican, Murkowski said she can’t understand why some in her party have raised reproductive rights as an issue.”

“It makes no sense to make this attack on women,” she said. “If you don’t feel this is an attack, you need to go home and talk to your wife and your daughters.”

So, while national unemployment numbers released last week should be confirming the GOP’s laser-like focus on the economy as the on issue that really threatens the White House incumbent, the campaign narrative for a solid week has been “war on women” and his party’s and Romney’s gender gap.

Here, I think, is the larger context for November: I tend to buy President Obama’s assertion last week that women simply don’t vote as some monolithic block that is up for grabs for a skillful candidate who appeals to the magic mix of “women’s issues.”

When it comes to politics, women are discerning voters – period. What the toxic issues mix has done to Romney and the GOP is to provide for many women – and men – a lens through which it’s possible to get a definitive glimpse of “the unzipped” Mitt, as wife Ann might say. Had Romney even a little finesse in handling these gender bending issues – think of his stumbling answer to whether Augusta National ought to allow women members or his tepid reaction to Limbaugh’s sexist bashing of an outspoken female law student – he could send all voters, particularly women, a message that he gets real life beyond his private equity experience and Ann’s two Cadillacs.

Still, rather that providing the cause of the gender chasm, the “women’s issues” mix really provides a footnote for reference on Romney’s real problem with discerning voters – they just aren’t into him. As conservative columnist Kathleen Parker wrote recently, “It is entirely possible that women simply aren’t that into Mitt. He’s just not their kind of guy. Health care, taxes, budgets, debt ceilings, capacity utilization, Chinese currency: so important. But at the end of the day — does he have “it”?

Parker goes on to say, “His wife says he does, but then she knows the unzipped Mitt. The question for American women is, do they really want to go there?”

In politics, of course, issues do matter, but discerning voters can sift the issues for what really matters; indications of character and connection. They may not want the candidates unzipped, but most voters do want to support candidates with whom they are comfortable, with whom they can – here’s that magic political word – connect.

Women are sending a pretty simple message: If there is no connection, there will be no Romney election.  



A Simple Story of a Battle

April 6, 1862 – 150 years ago today – Americans came to understand that their Civil War would be not be over easily or soon. Edward Ayers, a fine historian of the war, has written that the battle near Shiloh Meeting House in Tennessee changed everything about the war.

“Thousands of men with little training and no experience in war were thrown against one another in days of inexpressible suffering and waste,” Ayers writes. When the two armies disengaged, 23,000 Americans were dead, more in a few hours than in all the wars the nation had fought to that point.

Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant “won” the battle, but the slaughter that went with the victory – 13,000 of his soldiers died – brought demands on Abraham Lincoln that Grant be removed from command. Lincoln refused, famously saying he could not spare Grant because “he fights.”

“Up to the battle of Shiloh,” Grant would later write, “I as well as thousands of other citizens believed that the rebellion against the Government would collapse suddenly and soon [if] a decisive victory could be gained over any of its armies. [But after Shiloh,] I gave up all idea of saving the Union except by complete conquest.”

As horrible as Shiloh had been, Grant began to make his reputation as a fighting general on April 6, 1862. He had been initially surprised by a Confederate attack, but by force of will and battlefield smarts he recovered. The southern army left the field and suffered a grievous loss with the death of perhaps its best solider Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston. I’ve always wondered how history might have turned out differently had the events at Shiloh been reversed and Grant died on the battlefield and Johnston lived on to command increasingly important Confederate armies.

The 19th Century writer Ambrose Bierce, one of the great writers about the conflict, captured the awful essence of Shiloh in his enduring essay “What I Saw at Shiloh.” The first line of Bierce’s story was “this is a simple story of a battle,” but, of course, it was very far from simple. The last line of his essay told the real story.

“Give me but one touch of thine artist hand upon the dull canvas of the Present; gild for but one moment the drear and somber scenes of to-day, and I will willingly surrender an other life than the one that I should have thrown away at Shiloh.”

The sesquicentennial of the horrible war gives us reason to think again about the legacy of the American Civil War and reassess the conflicts lasting meaning. The awful bloody reality of the war that never ends truly became clear to Americans on a Sunday in April 1862 – 150 years ago today.


The Vermont Humanities Council is producing a marvelous weekly piece on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. I salute them for the effort and for the rich content this week on the Battle of Shiloh.