Home » 2013 » January

The Glamour Of It

I have spent a lot of years getting on and off airplanes. I’m not in the million mile category to be sure, but the airlines – generally – like my business because I have a few hundred thousand miles of air travel under my seat. I’m what the guidebooks call “a seasoned traveler.” And as a seasoned traveler, I’m growing more and more nostalgic for the days when boarding an airplane was an adventure in upscale travel as opposed to a claustrophobic endurance match. My several hundred thousand miles have taught me a few things.

I learned long ago, for example, to never check a piece of luggage. Why risk it? And, with reductions in staffing for airlines and at most airports, it takes for ever to retrieve an article from the gentle apparatus that carries your roller bag from plane to passenger. Like I said, why risk it? If you want to only carry on, however, you have to be on your toes. Overhead bin space goes fast in the era of airlines charging for checked luggage. You had best find a way to get into an early boarding group or face trying to stuff you bag into an overhead that is already filed with shopping bags, fly rods, coats, car seats and the occasional violin or frighteningly large stuffed animal owned by the little girl crying uncontrollably across the aisle from where you were hoping to read a good book and take a nap.

As for seats, I’m an aisle guy. You do have to get up a few times during a long flight to allow the passenger(s) sitting next to you get out for the bathroom, but the aisle is still the way to go. (Do be careful of the person – at least one on every flight – who slings a backpack over his shoulder that is large enough to outfit an entire Everett expedition. These folks are typically oblivious of that fact that their backpack is swinging wildly from side to side as they struggle to the back of the plane, bringing concussion-inducing blows to aisle seat sitters. You’ve been warned.)

Security lines increasingly demand a strategy, as well. Avoid at all cost the person who obviously has not flown in the post-9-11 era. You can spot them. They’re drinking out of a Big Gulp cup and cleaning their nails with a pocket knife. “What,” they’ll say, “I can’t take this through security? When did that happen?”

I particularly love the members of the traveling public who wait for 15 minutes in a long line without any preparation for what happens when it’s their turn to enter the metal detector. These are the folks who suddenly realize as they approach the check point with 80 people behind them that they have their entire coin collection in their inside coat pocket.  Or they belatedly discover that those pesky “liquids, not to exceed three ounces” are carefully and securely packed in the bottom of a bag filled with enough corn chips to put Tostido’s out of business. “They must be in here somewhere? When did this happen?” I recently observed a woman with the largest bottle of hair conditioner I have ever seen arguing about whether “this tiny little thing” violated the three ounce rule. That bottle not only violated the rule, it was enough conditioner to supply perfectly conditioned hair to most of the western hemisphere for a year.

In the old days air travel had a certain glamour. The plates were china and the little tablecloths were, well there were little tablecloths in the ancient and glamorous days of air travel. People actually dressed well to board an airplane. Those days are gone. Flip flops and tank tops are the norm these days. If you are lucky you might spot a guy in a jacket and tie or a woman in a nice pant suit on your flight, but more likely you’ll see ball caps turned backward, baggy cargo shorts and tee shirts that were new when Jimmy Carter was in the White House. As David Sedaris once wrote in a side-splittingly funny New Yorker piece, many air travelers today look like they came directly to the boarding gate after washing shoe polish off a pig.

Not completely sure that the United States faces an obesity crisis – you obviously haven’t been in an airplane recently. As more and more airlines utilize smaller, regional jets – CJ’s they’re called in the business for the Canadian origin of their birth – the seats get smaller and smaller and the aisles narrower and narrower. At the same time the passengers get bigger and bigger. It used to be a rare event to see a particularly large person request a “seat belt extender,” but such requests, in my informal surveys, are more and more common. The CJ’s present problems for normal sized passengers, too. I sat next to a fellow on a recent flight who, while not out of shape or overweight was just a big guy. I lost the quiet, but intense 90 minute fight for a small piece of the arm rest. The bruises are healing nicely.

Some political commentators claim that the real economic and social divide in our society is between those Americans in the “top 1%” who control such a significant portion of the nation’s wealth and, well, the rest of us. I’m in sympathy with the argument, but I’m here to tell you the economic and social divide is even greater between business class and coach. Once in a while my miles get me “up front” in the rarefied air of First Class. It’s the difference between a Lexus and Yugo. Hot and cold running drinks, real and mostly edible food, leg room and a flight attendant who isn’t just moonlighting from her regular job as a private prison guard.

The glamour of business travel, the glamour of any travel other than riding “up front” on an international flight, is lamentably a thing of the past. As gone as when Rick puts Ilsa on that plane leaving Casablanca for Lisbon. Remember how glamorous Ingrid Bergman looked in those closing scenes from the great movie? Paul Henreid was dashing in suit, tie and fedora. Those folks were dressed for serious travel. They were going someplace.

But come to think of it in Casablanca Ilsa Lund and Victor Laszio were just fleeing the Nazis, not doing something really stressful like washing shoe polish off of a pig.


The Last Great Senate

When then-Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker was at the zenith of his political power and influence in Washington it was said that if his Senate colleagues were charged with secretly selecting a president they would have chosen Baker. He was that respected on both sides of the political aisle.

Baker was a moderate Republican when the GOP had such a thing and his influence on the Senate and American politics from the 1960’s to the 1990’s was significant. He was both minority and majority leader, could have been on the Supreme Court had he wanted the appointment and after the Senate served as Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff and later as ambassador to Japan.

A fine recent book on the Senate during Baker’s hay day makes the case that the senator from Tennessee was one of the century’s great legislators and led “the Republicans at a time when, for some members of his caucus, compromise was beginning to be a dirty word.”

The book , The Last Great Senate, is Ira Shapiro’s first-hand history of the Senate in the 1970’s before the pivotal election of 1980 – the election of Ronald Reagan and the defeat of many Senate liberals – ushered in a new era in American and senatorial politics. Shapiro, a staffer to several Senate Democrats in this period, nonetheless makes Baker one of the heroes of his book by recalling his essential role in the Watergate hearings, as well as Baker’s support for the Panama Canal treaties and his generous and non-partisan backing of Jimmy Carter during the Iran hostage crisis.

Shapiro makes a compelling case that the rapid increase in partisanship in the Senate after 1980 – the year Senate lions like Idaho’s Frank Church, Washington’s Warren Magnuson and South Dakota’s George McGovern lost – continues to this day.

There are many reasons why “the world’s greatest delibrative body” has become a place where compromise rarely exists and where partisan showmanship reigns nearly every day. Shapiro sums it up this way: “It is more difficult to be a senator today than it was in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The increasingly vitriolic political culture, fueled by a twenty-four-hour news cycle, the endless pressure to raise money, the proliferation of lobbyists and demanding organized interests are all well known, and they take a toll. But all those factors make it more essential that our country has a Senate of men and women who bring wisdom, judgment, experience, and independence to their work, along with an understanding that the Senate must be able to take collective action in the national interest.”

Pick out a roster of the Senate in the 1970’s and read the names – Republicans like Dole of Kansas, Hatfield of Oregon, Goldwater of Arizona and McClure of Idaho and Democrats like Jackson of Washington, Mansfield of Montana, Bayh of Indiana and Hart of Michigan – and recall that the United States Senate used to work.

As the Washington Post noted in its favorable review of Shapiro’s book, “Senators are politicians with the most monumental political ambitions, and they operate in a political environment that reflects how much the country has changed — in some ways, not for the better. The fault is not in the Senate but in the country itself.”

Indeed. James Madison’s view of the Senate as described in Federalist 62 would be a body defined by “senatorial trust” requiring a “great extent of information and stability of character.” I suspect most members of the Senate today chafe at the characterization that they live in a world of political dysfunction, but perhaps they do precisely because voters seem barely willing to tolerate the need for Senators, from both parties, to embrace “senatorial trust” and work together, really work together, to address, and occasionally solve, big national problems.


Second Terms

Second terms are difficult.

Woodrow Wilson won the narrowest of re-elections in 1916 on a promise that he “kept us out of war” and promptly got the country into World War I. Grant’s second term was a mess of scandal and mismanagement that has forever tarnished his reputation. Reagan had Iran-Contra, Clinton had Monica and, in what was really his second term, Truman had Korea.

One of the great cautionary tales of the American presidency was Franklin Roosevelt’s second term. After winning a stunning landslide re-election, FDR squandered his massive goodwill with an audacious plan to expand the Supreme Court. Rebuffed on that hubristic notion, Roosevelt doubled down and attempted to “purge” fellow Democrats who the president thought too conservative. Every one of them survived and after 1937 Roosevelt never again commanded a working majority in the Congress for his domestic agenda. Had Roosevelt’s presidency ended after two terms, and had he been denied a chance to lead the nation during World War II, we might remember him today as a president who badly overreached in his second term and failed miserably.

Second terms are difficult. The very attributes that make a president feel comfortable in his second act are the ones that all too often get them in trouble – too much confidence, too much insulation from the rest of the world, a since of pride (hubris?) that the re-elected president has succeeded and his foes have not. Pride does goeth before a fall. Second terms are also marked by exhaustion, by staff members who get to thinking more about themselves than the job or the boss and by an almost inevitable running out of steam.

Barack Obama’s full-throated defense of political liberalism in his second inaugural address will be celebrated by many who have wondered if the cerebral college professor and community organizer is really committed to the progressive agenda. Wonder no more. However, great political speeches – and his will, I predict, go down in history as a great inaugural speech – require great political implementation if the ideas they embody are to be more than historical footnotes.

The real challenge for the president in his second term, more than avoiding scandal and overreach, is how he will apply the grease of political action to the sticky gears of political Washington. Since everyone has an opinion: here is a modest, yet attainable second term agenda for a president who has already past the rest of being transformative.

In a Nixon-goes-to-China way, Obama has a unique opportunity to be the American president who crafts a comprehensive reform of the big three entitlement programs – Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security – in a way that secures the essential national safety net for at least a generation. Talk about a legacy. Obama, because he truly believes in these programs, can be the transformative guy who makes them work far into the future. He’ll need to offend some of his friends, but what’s the presidency for anyway? Obama can stitch together a grand bargain – budget reductions, entitlement reforms, revenue, the whole ball of wax – if he wants, but he’ll need to bargain and trade. The question is whether he’s willing and able to go big and try to secure a truly historic deal.

On climate change, the president can merely order the EPA to aggressively regulate greenhouse gases and avoid a huge and eventually pointless fight with Congress and the energy industry. At the same time, the president can get his new Secretary of State working harder on meaningful international agreements. Obama also needs a sharp, politically effective EPA Administrator. How about bringing former New Jersey Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman to EPA?

The country is already moving in the direction Obama stressed in the human and civil rights portions of his speech yesterday. Younger Americans, those under 35 say, don’t need to be convinced that the country’s civil rights agenda should be expanded more broadly to include gays. As Martin Luther King, Jr. (and others) have famously said, and Obama clearly knows, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” Obama stands on the right side of history here and those who oppose him will find the country steadily moving away from them. He merely needs to continue to give voice and direction to the movement.

By the same token, given enough presidential attention, the country will move, perhaps not fast enough for some of us, but move nonetheless, on guns. Obama can influence this debate, as he already has, by focusing on the moral dimension of the country’s culture of violence. He is again on the right side of history.

On immigration reform Obama needs a Republican ally. The element of surprise in politics is badly underrated. Obama could surprise, and advance his own agenda, by offering to work directly with, say Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, to fix one issue that most sensible Republicans now know is going to continue to keep them from winning national elections. Obama has absolutely nothing to lose by reaching out to scared Republicans on this issue. He’s got them right where he wants them.

Part of the historic difficulty with a second term is that something unexpected always turns up. FDR had to move the country from isolation to international engagement as World War II began. Truman had to fire Douglas MacArthur. Nixon had to confront the White House taping system. Andrew Jackson had to confront the nullification crisis. And like most presidents in a second term, Thomas Jefferson was often pre-occupied with foreign affairs.

One reason, I suspect, that so many of his political opponents dislike Barack Obama so much is that they know, deep down, that he is indeed a transformational figure; one of those once-in-a-generation figures who changes politics and public understanding in lasting ways. Perhaps he is even, as some suggest, the Reagan of the left for the 21st Century. In any event, his place in history is secure as the first African-American elected not once, but twice to the highest office in the land. But the difficult second term will determine much more – whether he was merely the first or whether he’ll be among the great.


Grace and Grit

You have to admit there is a certain rich irony in the sad fact that two of baseball’s all-time greats – Stan Musial and Earl Weaver – died the same weekend that the sports and popular culture world is still trying to process the misdeeds, misdirection and misfires of Lance Armstrong and Manti T’eo.

Stan the Man, maybe the most talented nice guy to ever lace up a pair of spikes, and The Duke of Earl, one of the most competitive and successful managers in the history of the game, could not have been more different from one another or less like those who will forever be remembered for Oprah’s confessional and the bizarre cloak of hoax that a great university has thrown around it’s star linebacker. The two old Hall of Famers go out like the pros they were, individual, real guys remembered by fans and opponents for their accomplishments not their embellishments. 

Musial, the quiet, funny competitor who labored his entire career largely out of the media glare in St. Louis, has never gotten his due as among a handful of the game’s greats. Stan died as he lived, respected, even revered, as a good and decent fellow. Weaver, the profane, pint-sized dirt kicker who once said he hoped to be remembered as “a sore loser” will be remembered for more than that and not because he was perfect. He wasn’t, but he was the real deal.

“Despite his salty, inventively profane diatribes,” the Washington Post wrote in a swell tribute, “Mr. Weaver considered himself a practicing Christian. Nonetheless, Pat Kelly, on Orioles outfielder who later became an evangelist, once asked Mr. Weaver why he didn’t join players at chapel meetings.

“Don’t you want to walk with the Lord?”Kelly reportedly asked.

“I’d rather walk with the bases loaded,” Mr. Weaver replied.

Weaver will be remembered for his umpire baiting – he was thrown out of two games before the first pitch was thrown – and his priceless one-liners. If you can stand the language, check out a classic Earl tirade on YouTube. He tells the umpire who tosses him, “You’re here for only one reason – to ___ us!”

The Earl of Baltimore once said when one of the Oriole’s truly fine pitchers Mike Cuellar lost his stuff, “I gave Cuellar more chances than my first wife.” Like Musial, Weaver was a winner in the old fashioned way with hard work, commitment and fierce determination.

Musial’s statistics speak for themselves. In 22 years in the majors, Musial failed to hit .300 just four times. In 1949, he came within one home run of leading the National League in hits, doubles, triples – and homers. Next to his accomplishments on the field what comes through in George Vecsey’s fine 2011 unauthorized biography of Musial is what a completely decent guy he was.

In 1952 and 1956 Musial had supported the Republican moderate Dwight Eisenhower for president, but in 1960 he went all in for John F. Kennedy. The two elegant guys met on a street corner in Milwaukee in the fall of 1959. Kennedy reportedly said, “They tell me you’re too old to play ball and I’m too young to be president, but maybe we can fool them.” They did. JFK went to the White House, Stan the Man to the Hall of Fame. You might say they both won on the first ballot.

Musial went on a week-long, eight state barnstorming tour for Kennedy at the very end of the very tight 1960 campaign. It must have been as good a campaign swing as there ever was. Actress Angie Dickinson, novelist James Michener, future Supreme Court Justice Byron (Whizzer) White and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. joined Ethel and Joan Kennedy and the Cardinal slugger on the trip to rally support for JFK in generally tough country for Democrats – Nebraska, Colorado, Utah and Idaho included.

Dickinson remembered getting booed and having things thrown at her in the red states of 1960, but also that Musial was “always funny…the life of the party…such a dear guy.”

In Vescey’s book, Michener remembers the group’s stop at a Boise country club – it must have been Hillcrest – “where the well-turned-out ‘bridge-playing’ women would not even acknowledge the Democratic celebrities.”

Writing in the New York Times, Vescey reminds us that during the era of the late DiMaggio and Williams, the early Mays and Aaron, Stan Musial was voted by LIFE magazine as the greatest player of the post-war period.

“Lukasz Musial, a Polish immigrant who worked in the zinc mills, was never comfortable in this new land,” Vescey said, “but his son, sweet and athletic, found mentors, men who taught him how to dress and shake hands and look people in the eye. He wanted to have a good life. In later years, he wore suits and ties and read The Wall Street Journal in his office at Stan & Biggie’s Restaurant. Musial wanted to be a businessman, not a figurehead.

“He knew the cuts of meat the way he knew the repertory of Robin Roberts (10 homers) [Don] Newcombe (11) and Warren Spahn (17, the most.) Those pitchers loved him, by the way.”

The Duke of Earl and Stan the Man. Just when you think it’s no longer possible to look up to anyone in sports, when the current crop disappoints and frustrates time and again, you have to pause and say – they weren’t all that way. Even the pitchers will miss Stan and the umps will tip their caps to Earl.


For ‘Em, Or Agin ‘Em

Normally there is something to be said for consistency in politics. No one likes a flip flopper. Just ask Mitt Romney. And when it comes to consistency, blind, unyielding, not one inch consistency, no one does it better than the National Rifle Association – the NRA.

As it has accumulated political power over the last 25 years and become the most feared lobby in the country, the NRA has been nothing if not brutally consistent. For the NRA there is no room for compromise on guns and gun issues – none. If you’re in public office you are either for the NRA down the line or you are soft on the Second Amendment and not to be trusted with public responsibilities and very likely a one of those willing to standby when the government comes for the guns.

Maybe, just maybe, in light of the horrors of Sandy Hook Elementary where some of the six-year-olds suffered 11 gunshot wounds, the NRA’s brutal commitment to consistency has, at last, become a liability.

My one direct and personal engagement with the NRA’s brand of no prisoners, no negotiation politics dates back to 1986 and the moment has left a deep and jagged scar where I once naively thought actions and intentions meant more than blind allegiance to an NRA that has clearly become little more than a front group for gun manufacturers.

For those old enough to remember the 1986 race for governor of Idaho was a tough, competitive and ultimately extremely close election. As a newcomer to politics – I’d covered the business, but not been of the business – the campaign and election were a graduate education in bare knuckles, character assault and, with regard to the NRA, old-fashioned smear politics. The candidates were my boss, Cecil D. Andrus, a Democrat and as big a hunter, sportsman and gun owner as anyone I have ever known and then-Lt. Governor David H. Leroy, a young man definitely on the rise in Idaho GOP politics. Andrus had an edge with experience – he’d twice been elected governor and served in the Carter cabinet – and he spent most of the campaign emphasizing his desire to boost economic development and improve schools. Leroy, who had already been a successful statewide candidate as both Lt. Governor and Attorney General, was smart, ambitious, both well-spoken and well-funded, and determined.

The candidates and their campaigns displayed many differences, one being that in a state where hunting and fishing defined many voters’ weekends, Dave Leroy wasn’t really a hunting and fishing guy. Andrus was and still is. Enter the gun lobby.

The NRA came close – very close – to playing the spoiler in that 1986 race and, as they are wont to do, they entered the contest at the absolute 11th hour with what seemed then, and still seems, a blatantly dishonest smear.

As I look back on the race, with some years of accumulated political experience, I can see clearly now that the campaign was a see-saw affair throughout the summer and into the fall. I distinctly remember a weekend of panic in October when Andrus quietly and determinedly disappeared from the campaign hustings for three long days in order to disappear deep into the Idaho hill for his annual elk hunt. I lived in fear that some enterprising reporter would demand an interview or insist on knowing why the candidate wasn’t campaigning given how close the race had become. Knowing now what I didn’t fully appreciate then, I should have issued a statement announcing that in keeping with annual tradition the Democratic candidate for governor was, for the next few days, only making campaign appearances at his elk camp.

Andrus had not missed an Idaho elk hunt for years and nothing, not even Dave Leroy breathing down his neck, would keep him out of the hills. He’s been known to joke – yes he filled his tag last fall – that with a full freezer and a little luck he might make it through another winter. (I called the former governor yesterday to check my recollection of the NRA’s involvement in the ’86 race and it took him a while to get back to me. He was in a goose pit most of the day.)

Some people live for work, or boats, or football, or skiing, or book collecting. Andrus lives for his hunting and is proud of his gun collection, but that didn’t keep the all-knowing, all-powerful NRA from branding him as “soft” on the Second Amendment doing so at a stage in a political campaign where he barely had time to refute such lunacy.

One of the major gun-related issues at the time involved a robust national debate over the legality of so called “cop killer bullets,” Teflon-coated ammunition that it was said could penetrate a bullet-proof vest, the kind of body armor police officers had begun to routinely wear. In responding to the NRA’s always over simplified and overly dramatic candidate questionnaire, the once and future governor allowed that he hadn’t much use for Teflon-coated bullets or rapid fire assault rifles for that matter. He would later joke that he had never “seen an elk wearing a bullet-proof vest,” but such a policy position, even one coming from a life-long hunter, gun owner and supporter of the Second Amendment was heresy to the “our way or the highway” crowd at the NRA.

On the final weekend of the 1986 campaign, anti-Andrus NRA propaganda started appearing in Idaho mailboxes. Radio ads told Idaho hunters that the hunter-governor had earned a “D” rating from the gun lobby and the political operatives at the NRA had endorsed his non-hunter opponent. I spent that last weekend of that campaign writing and slapping together response ads attempting to refute the smear. In the days before email and the Internet, getting a radio ad on the air on the Saturday before an election was no mean feat, but we did it and by a narrow margin Andrus won the election.

I’ve always taken some satisfaction in knowing – Idaho is a small state – that many Idahoans who might have been inclined to vote in that election solely on the basis of gun issues had firsthand knowledge that their once and future governor actually owned and used guns. In this case the NRA’s smear didn’t work, but it left an impression. These guys don’t know the meaning of nuance and they are blindly partisan. You’re either for ’em, or agin ’em.

In the years since, the NRA has, if anything, become even more dogmatic, shriller and less open to any discussion of policy. As we now see, even in the wake of the first grade massacre in Connecticut and even given the stark realization that more than 1,000 Americans have died at the barrel of gun just in the days since Sandy Hook, the NRA tolerates no deviation from its hard line in the dust. The suggestion that constraints on military-style weapons and high capacity magazines or that national firearms policy might include sensible background checks on gun buyers brings the immediate charge that the sacred Second is being trampled, the president ought to be impeached and the “jack booted thugs” are coming to take the guns. It’s a level of political paranoia and fear mongering completely devoid of reality and on par with theories that the moon landing was faked or that an American president was born in Kenya.

The Andrus Idaho experience nearly 30 years ago, as bitter as the taste remains, actually seems pretty tame compared to the NRA’s response to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary. The NRA leadership seems to believe that it can just ignore a moral issue that requires sober, reasoned, civilized response. Time will tell whether the real sportsmen who climb into Idaho’s hills every fall and crouch in goose pits in sub-freezing weather will continue to agree.

Americans have a way of coming around to change policy and even change society in ways that once seemed impossible. Moral questions from ending slavery to establishing child labor laws to ensuring voting rights of African-Americans took years – even generations – to be addressed and some of society’s big challenges clearly remain. But perhaps, just perhaps, a civilized, moral nation can come to the realization that a constructive debate about how to try and prevent a future Sandy Hook is a mighty low threshold for a decent people to step across.

The most feared lobby in Washington did not become so feared by being constructive, reasonable, rational or fair. The NRA amassed power the old fashioned way using the same kind of intimidation and arrogance that it accuses its opponents – and even its opponent’s children – of practicing.

Emerson famously said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” The NRA’s foolish consistency in the awful aftermath of the assault gun murders of 20 innocent children does not yet mark the end of the gun lobby hold on our politics, but it may – just may – mark the beginning of the end.


True Confessions

It’s hard to tell who gets the most out of Lance Armstrong’s true confessions – the disgraced former Tour de France champion or the one-time champ of daytime TV, Oprah Winfrey. To say that the two seem to be made for each other is like saying bicycles have tires.

Just review the run-up to the already celebrated interview that hasn’t even aired yet. First, its leaked to the New York Times days ago that Armstrong is going to come clean – pardon the pun – after years of denying what everyone knows, that he is a serial (cyclical?) cheater. That scoop is followed immediately by vehement denials by unnamed sources “close to Armstrong.” The plot thickens.

Finally, Winfrey – her struggling cable channel looking about as successful as Al Gore’s did before Al Jazerra came calling – says she’ll sit down with Lance for the big interview. The content, we now learn, is so compelling that Oprah has decided it needs to be spread across two – count ’em – two nights of TV. But, before the klieg lights could cool word leaks that, yes, Lance has confessed. How could he not confess – tearfully, perhaps – sitting on the American family sofa in Oprah’s living room?

Then the interviewer, the most accomplished sports interlocutor since, say Brent Musburger – hold on – speaks on CBS This Morning! Yes, Lance did confess! Film on Thursday. Stay tuned.

Was he contrite? Well, Oprah says, I’ll leave that to the viewers. And, by the way, he really, really surprised me with the way he handled the interview. And, did I mention, its so darn good “my team” decided we needed to spread out of the goodness over two nights.

One of the best lines on all this comes from Dave Zirin writing in The Nation: “(Armstrong) is attempting to use the forgiving, New Age, healing glow of Oprah to please multiple masters with a mix of candor, charm, and puppy dog sympathy. There is a slight flaw however in this plan, which would challenge the smoothest of operators: that’s the stubborn fact that Lance Armstrong is also a person who makes Rahm Emanuel look like Tickle Me Elmo.”

In one respect, Armstrong and his lawyers are engaged in a brilliant piece of damage and mind control. In the age of Twitter, by the time the damn interview airs this week Lance’s confession will be like yesterday’s garbage – take it to the curb, we’re done with it.

This is, of course, what the cycling cheater had in mind all along. No sense confronting the people Armstrong has defamed or the real reporters he has mislead while repeatedly, vehemently and righteously putting himself above his sport and anything approaching a shred of sportsmanship, not to say honor.

In the curious world in which we live some cheaters – Pete Rose and Barry Bonds come to mind – are consigned to the dust bin where failed heroes go to sulk. Others, if they have the moxie, are given a second or third act. Lance Armstrong is using his Oprah moment in just as cold and calculating a manner as when he engaged in one of the greatest sports cheating scandals of all time.

Stay tuned, after the confession comes the phase where Lance will turn state’s evidence and in the blinding white light of rehabilitation cast himself not as the guy who forever tainted an entire sport, but as the guy who now comes to clean it up.

Oprah should know, it’s tough to be contrite when you’re calculating. Tickle Me Elmo is giggling somewhere.


War and Congress

Burton K. Wheeler was a Democrat who served as United States Senator from Montana from 1922-1946. His career, as he acknowledged in his memoir, was full of controversy. Among other things, Wheeler was indicted on corruption charges and fought with powerful interests ranging from the mining companies in his adopted state to Franklin Roosevelt, a man he had once enthusiastically endorsed for president.

The FBI followed him, particularly after he criticized Roosevelt’s foreign policy prior to American entry into World War II. His patriotism was assaulted. He was deemed a Nazi sympathizer by some. He helped stop Roosevelt’s Supreme Court power play in 1937 and championed important legislation impacting utility companies and Native Americans. If you are defined in politics by your enemies, Wheeler had many. His friends included Charles Lindbergh, William E. Borah, Joe Kennedy, Huey Long and Harry Truman. He was considered a serious presidential contender in 1940. FDR put an end to that with his third term.

Wheeler’s kind of senator really doesn’t exist anymore. Senators of his generation were, of course, from their respective states, but they represented more than local interests. Wheeler and Borah and Robert Wagner and Pat Harrison, who I wrote about recently, were national legislators and the Senate was their stage. Wheeler walked that stage most prominently in 1941 when Americans were profoundly divided over how far the nation should go to provide aid to Great Britain during some of the darkest days in the history of western civilization. Wheeler battled, as he called them, “the warmongers” who he thought were altogether too eager to get the country involved in another European war.

Wheeler lost this “great debate,” the U.S. did come to the aid of the battered Brits, Japan attacked in Hawaii and the Montana senator eventually lost his seat in the Senate. This is a story I’ve tried to tell in the most recent issue of Montana – the Magazine of Western History, the respected history journal published by the Montana Historical Society.

At first blush Wheeler’s fight for non-intervention in 1941 seems like ancient history. Americans fought the good and necessary war to stop fascism and the Greatest Generation is justly celebrated. But, like so much of our history, the fight over American foreign policy prior to Pearl Harbor has a relevance that echoes down to us more than 70 years later as the morning headlines tell of President Obama’s parley in the Oval Office with Hamid Karzai.

We are apparently at the end of the beginning of our longest war. Americans have been fighting and dying in the mountains and deserts and streets of Afghanistan for nearly a dozen years. As we prepare to leave that “graveyard of empires” (leave more or less) the question is begged – have we accomplished what we intended?  And when we are gone will we leave behind such a corrupt, incompetent government that the Taliban and assorted other bad guys will again quickly take charge?

Before 1941, when Montana’s Wheeler and others raised their objection to an interventionist foreign policy, the United States was comfortable with a modest role in the world. The county was stunned by the violence and by what seemed at the time to be the ultimate futility of the Great War. During the 1920’s and 1930’s Americans embraced their traditional attitude of remaining aloof from European disputes, gladly eschewed any ambition to supplant the British as the world’s policeman and the country happily retreated behind two deep oceans. After 1941, hardened by the trials of another world war and the threat of Communist expansionism, Americans embraced a national security state and we have never really looked back.

Today, as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders points out, the United States spends more on its military than the rest of the world’s nations combined and we’ve tripled defense spending since the mid-1990’s. Despite the sobering experience of Vietnam, we rather casually, at least by 1941 standards, deploy our troops around the world with certain belief that such power can impact all events. Americans have been camped in Europe since 1945 – 80,000 are still deployed – protecting our NATO allies who increasing reduce their own military outlays.

After a nine year war in Iraq, a dozen years in Afghanistan, with deployments and bases from Australia to Turkey, and given the need to confront a national fiscal crisis one might think that America’s aggressively interventionist foreign policy would be at the center of Washington’s debates, but no. Once the U.S. Senate had such debates; debates that engaged the American public and where Congress asserted its Constitutional responsibility to actually declare war. But even after September 11 the national foreign policy “debate’ has more often been about the need to expand and deploy American power, rather than how to make it more effective. The current shaky state of the nation’s budget would seem reason enough to really have a foreign and defense policy debate again, but even more importantly Americans and their leaders should, with cold and calculating focus, assess our role in the world.

George W. Bush once famously advocated a “humble” foreign policy and disowned “nation building.” Bush’s rhetoric, of course, hardly matched his policy and a dozen years later, with little debate and perhaps even less sober reflection, we wind down a war that likely will again offer new proof of the limits of American power.

Montana’s Wheeler lost his seat in the U.S. Senate in 1946 largely because he was deemed out of touch with the post-war world. His old-fashioned attitudes about expressing American power were out of fashion. But were they? At least he forced a debate; a debate similar to the one that we need again today.


Father Riffle

     It is no secret that my Catholic Church has suffered – continues to suffer – through an enormous leadership crisis. The Church’s child sexual abuse scandal remains an open wound largely because too many top leaders continue to treat it as a public relations problem rather than a profound moral failing of an entirely male dominated organization. And don’t get me started on the silly fight that the bishops of the Church have picked with the nuns, those saints on earth who in many many cases remain closer to the folks in the pews than any bishop.

All this makes the passing last week of Father Donald Riffle, a retired priest in the Diocese of Boise all the sadder. Father Riffle was there is no other way to put it, a remarkable fellow – pastoral, principled a man with a message and a wicked sense of humor who profoundly influenced so many folks fortunate enough to stumble into his path.

Riffle died January 3, 2013 while in Hawaii, a place I think he considered a bit of heaven on earth. Before his health began to slip he would joke about his regular pilgrimages to the land of sun and balmy breezes to play golf. For many years in an around his beloved golf he took good care of the faithful at Boise’s St. John’s Cathedral. Most Catholics considered Riffle’s homilies better – and his jokes spicier – than they had any right to expect from a Church that places a premium on doctrine often at the expense of a coherent message to its people. Riffle always had a message. I never saw him use a note, an index card or a script. He’d walk down from his chair at the appointed time, place his glasses gently on the alter and talk directly to me and to the several hundred folks who it often seemed came mostly to hear him preach. The guy was a remarkable communicator and one of the best speakers I have ever heard. After a Riffle homily, I’ve often thought that the Church should have set him up as a homily coach for young priests. Father Don was the best.

Father Riffle also had a remarkable facility for remembering names and after a service he would stand at the door shaking hands, hugging and calling everyone – everyone – by their first names. I remember when our oldest son was in grade school and would accompany us to Mass, Riffle would thank him for bringing the old folks to Church. He had a soft heart for Bishop Kelly High School and the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. He was known to cut the Mass short if an important football game might conflict with an overly long service.

It’s worth a confession to admit that a major reason I converted to the Catholic faith many years ago is because of Don Riffle. He was skeptical at first that I was serious and I think always harbored a little doubt that a former Methodist could really make it. Yet his was a warm, but challenging kind of faith. The kind of faith that acknowledged that for most of us every day is a struggle but that you must keep trying.

Don Riffle also taught me an enduring lesson about the power of the Catholic bureaucracy. Over breakfast many, many years ago, I was lamenting how some now forgotten issue was being handle in the dim and mysterious recesses of that bureaucracy. He smiled and essentially said to forget about trying to change such worldly things in a mammoth and often out of touch organization. Your job, he said, was to attend to the little things we can impact like an envelope in the collection basket, a box of groceries for a family down on its luck at Thanksgiving and our own daily interaction with all the other souls we come across who are, like us, struggling quietly along. The Catholic Church, a mirror to the rest of our society perhaps, is a flawed and all too human institution. It disappoints as well as elevates but at its best it bestows upon the believers a sense that we were put here for reasons bigger and more important than ourselves. Don Riffle’s life as a priest gives us reason to believe that God can do wonders here on earth and Riffle would remind us to be open to the possibilities.

There is a golf game somewhere today where every drive ends in the fairway. All the birdie putts drop and the temperature never demands a sweater. Bets are being placed on the Irish-Alabama game and no one will lose. People are smiling and the libations are tasty. I haven’t a clue what heaven is like, but I’m confident the quality of the humor and the level of the conversation is a whole lot better there today.


Mr. Speaker

It is said in politics that if you are attempting to kill the king you had better kill the king. But when it comes to “kings of the House of Representatives” even a serious wound may prove fatal.

John Boehner survived his re-election as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday – barely – but if history is any guide Boehner’s grip on power is now truly tenuous and his time swinging the big gavel may be short.

New York Times numbers guru Nate Silver makes the case that Boehner’s near repudiation by the disenchanted in his own party, including Idaho’s Raul Labrador, may well be unprecedented in modern times. According to Silver, no Speaker dating back to the tenure of Washington’s Tom Foley in the 102 Congress has had as many defectors in his own party as Boehner did yesterday. Not even the GOP revolt against Newt Gingrich in 1997 matches the level of party disenchantment with Boehner.

Gingrich’s troubles – personal and political – lead to disastrous mid-term election results for Republicans in 1998 and he resigned. Prior to Newt you have to go all the way back to Speaker Joseph Gurney Cannon in 1910 to find a Speaker that endured a similar revolt and again the precedent for Boehner isn’t all that good.

Up until 1910 Cannon was arguably the most powerful Speaker of the House ever. Uncle Joe, as he was not so affectionately known, had his power broken by a revolt of progressive Republicans in his own party and Democrats. In those days the Speaker also chaired the House Rules Committee and made committee assignments. Cannon – one of the House office buildings bears his name – was ruthless in exercising all that power. The anti-Cannon revolt changed the rules and, while Cannon survived as Speaker, he influence diminished rapidly and his autocratic ways helped contribute to a Democratic takeover of the House in the next election.

Eventually even the Wall Street Journal had enough of Joe Cannon saying in an editorial, “He is out of date, not because he is no longer young, but because he has ceased to be representative. He has stood between the people and too many things that they wanted and ought to have, and the fact that he has stood off some things they ought not to have won’t save him.”

Incidentally, the revolt against Cannon was was plotted by then-Rep. George W. Norris of Nebraska. The political courage and independence Norris displayed – he was later a distinguished U.S. Senator –  caused John F. Kennedy to feature the Nebraskan as one of his “Profiles in Courage.”

But back to the current Speaker. What does Boehner do now? Does he attempt to placate the faction that nearly showed him the door and fight to death with Barack Obama over a debt ceiling increase? Or, does Boehner look at the history of Speakers who have sparked a revolt and conclude that his days are numbered?

If Boehner studies the history of the House, particularly the Gingrich and Cannon revolts, he might decide to thumb his nose at the dissidents and conclude that he has a very narrow window in which to try to do a really big and historic budget, tax reform and entitlement deal with Obama. With the short term deal to avoid the “fiscal cliff,” Boehner has shown that he’s willing to discard the idea that only legislation that can pass with GOP votes will make it to the House floor. Ironically his weakened position within his own party may make it more possible for Boehner to do a big deal with Democrats.

The ghost of Uncle Joe Cannon must be watching all this with interest.



A New Year

Faced with a difficult re-election campaign in 1940 – he was after all seeking an unprecedented third term – Franklin D. Roosevelt did the politically unthinkable. He named two extremely prominent Republicans to his Cabinet.

One appointee, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, (that’s him with Gen. George Marshall) had actually served as Secretary of State in the Cabinet of Republican Herbert Hoover as well as serving previously as Secretary of War under Republican William Howard Taft. Stimson was an absolute pillar of the GOP establishment.

The other GOP appointee, Navy Secretary Frank Knox, had been the Republican vice presidential candidate on the ticket that ran against FDR just four years earlier. Roosevelt thumped the GOP ticket in 1936, but the move to bring Knox into the administration was a significant gesture with lasting political and policy implications. Think about Barack Obama finding a Cabinet spot for Sarah Palin. OK, bad example.

Nevertheless, talk about bipartisanship.

Roosevelt, a master political manipulator, sprung his bipartisan surprise on the country just days before the 1940 Democratic convention. Many of the party faithful were stunned and when they thought about it outraged. How could a sharply partisan Democrat on the eve of a national election turn two of the most important Cabinet jobs over to two such partisan Republicans, many Roosevelt allies wanted to know?

The answer was pretty simple. Roosevelt needed bipartisan cover to begin to get the United States on more of a war footing. He needed Republican support to institute the first peace time draft in the nation’s history and  to find a way to aid Great Britain in its desperate fight against Nazi Germany. Stimson and Knox were well-known “interventionists” who FDR could count on to battle for the president’s foreign policy priorities even in the face of their partisan backgrounds.

President Obama would be wise to do something similar at the dawn of his second term as he looks to replaces Leon Panetta at the Defense Department and Timothy Geithner at Treasury, among others.

By all accounts Obama has been thinking about former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel for the Pentagon job, but Hagel is already proving to be a lightening rod, primarily for comments he made years ago about an openly gay ambassador nominee in the Clinton Administration. Still, a bipartisan group of former National Security Advisers have endorsed a Hagel nomination. Hagel’s gaffe found insulting by the LGBT community, in my view, should not disqualify him. He’s a budget hawk at a time when the Pentagon budget needs to shrink and history will treat him well for opposing the invasion of Iraq. Hagel is just the kind of Republican Obama needs.

Treasury speculation centers on current White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew, who enjoys the president’s confidence – a not unimportant fact – but really gets Obama nothing politically.

Two of the biggest challenges the president faces in a second term involve putting the nation’s fiscal house in better shape and facing down a Congress, including Republicans and Democrats, who will not want to really take on military spending as a key element in addressing the first issue.

Obama could really use hard-headed, pragmatic Republicans in the key Defense and Treasury spots to serve as the point of the spear in the coming budget battles. It’s time for the buttoned down White House to think outside the typical Beltway Box.

How about retiring GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine at Treasury? She’s a veteran of the Finance Committee and a senior member of the Taxation subcommittee. She’s smart, moderate and candid and its past time a woman ran Treasury.

Or, really unset the apple cart and nominate former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson as Treasury Secretary. The press would love it, Republicans would have to go along, Democrats would be skeptical and the American public – not to mention Wall Street – would see in such a pick that Obama is serious about a fiscal house cleaning. Simpson is 81 and may only want to serve for more than a year or 18 months, but that about the time available in a second term for Obama to get something big done. The outspoken Simpson would help him.

John Kennedy needed the same kind of Treasury help in 1961 and turned to a Republican Wall Street insider C. Douglas Dillon. Harry Truman was smart enough to bring Herbert Hoover back to the White House to advise him on post-World War II relief and eventually government re-organization. That unlikely collaboration resulted in a deep and genuine friendship. The great Lincoln went outside his party to put Andrew Johnson on his second term ticket in the interest of national – or at least northern – unity.

As Obama thinks about a 2013 cabinet, he would be well advised to think of political people – Republicans and Democrats – who are “of politics” but not “in politics.” People like former Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith fit that bill or former Utah Governors Mike Leavitt and Jon Huntsman. Leavitt was a Mitt Romney partisan and is a health care expert who would have immediate credibility on issues like Medicare spending and reform. Huntsman has already served as Obama’s ambassador to China and it’s clear that his moderate views would have made him a better GOP candidate last year than Romney. Having him inside the Obama tent again in some significant role would be a master stroke.

Or, how about a truly gutsy and game changing pick – former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush? Give the smartest of the Bush clan the Pentagon job with a mandate to right-size the American military for the threats of the 21st Century. I can hear the chuckling. Why would Bush, a future GOP presidential candidate, do that? He probably wouldn’t, which makes the offer even more intriguing. Let him say no to the president. No harm and much benefit in asking.

In a second term, Obama will find that his window to accomplish anything important will close very, very quickly. He can buy himself more time, more public good will and both intrigue and frustrate his opponents in both parties by wrapping a genuine cloak of bipartisanship around his shoulders.

By inviting some very high profile Republicans to the Cabinet table Obama is sure to set off Democratic grumbling. Who cares. Republicans will fume because they will know deep down that Obama has outfoxed them again. Let them vote against a couple of GOP nominees. The public, hungering for bipartisan acts, would love it and the benefits will last for the rest of the president’s term.

A couple of high profile, gutsy, unexpected Cabinet appointees would be a great way for Barack Obama to start the New Year.