Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

The Self-Reflection Deficit

One of the most distressing things about current American culture – or perhaps I should say the most depressing thing – is the complete and utterly bipartisan inability of so many people in public life to look into the mirror and see themselves.

Call it the self-reflection deficit. Even though we don’t see it around much any more, you must remember self-reflection and its well-know bias for truth and personal responsibility.

Clinton Global Initiative Brings Business And World Leaders Together“I gotta pay our bills,” says Bill Clinton about his post-presidential life as the best-paid saxophone player from Hope, Arkansas. Clinton made the comment when asked whether he would continue gathering up six figure checks making speeches while his wife runs for president. Clinton shows no sign that he appreciates, even a little, the conflicts swirling around him, his wife and their foundation thanks to his talking, apparently to almost anyone with a big bank account for big checks.

Payin’ the Bills in Clintonland…

Clinton had to have made his recent “pay the bills” comment knowing that he and Hillary would soon have to report the obscene cash haul – $25 million just since January 2014 – the two have raked in for standing behind a podium. The Associated Press also reported that Bill, that talkin’ fool, banked $50 million more for the speeches he made while Hillary was the country’s chief diplomat. Apparently a good deal of the cash came from well-healed individuals who just might have wanted to influence the former president’s wife. Go figure. Did I mention that Hillary’s State Department vetted all those speeches and, gosh, didn’t see a problem.

With income like that its hard to fathom the kinds of bills the Clintons “gotta pay,” but one certainly hopes that charging all those expenses on a platinum credit card that gives them airline miles, or at least points toward gas purchases.

But here’s where the self-reflection comes to play. Most folks would say to the Clintons, “if you can make that kind of dough just talking go for it, but don’t insult our intelligence by dismissing legitimate questions about how it looks and whether it’s just unseemly or something a good deal worse.”

The Clintons display one the worst characteristics of too many non-self-reflective people in public life, they apparently think – at least in their own minds – that if they’re well intentioned enough and stand for all the right things then, hey, what’s the beef about twenty-five or fifty million dollars to make up for having left the White House, as Hill said, “dead broke?” Bill says his foundation did nothing “knowingly inappropriate,” but that depends, I guess, on the definition of “inappropriate.”

Americans, being a generally forgiving bunch, don’t begrudge the Clintons making a nice or even an extravagant living. However, they shouldn’t be surprised that we do resent the smugness that goes with public figures dismissing questions about all that cash, while they fail to reflect on why we think they just don’t get it.

Ignoring the Obvious…

The self-reflection deficit has been fully in evidence around Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush, as well. Bush had a perfectly awful few days with his shifting answers to a simple and predictable question about whether he would have authorized the 2003 invasion of Iraq in light of “knowing what we know now.” Bush has a dynasty problem – Hillary Clinton does as well – that he continues to try and finesse rather than address. Whether he likes it or not – not would be my guess – voters want to know where and how he differs with his dad and older brother. As good a place as any to begin those questions is with the disastrous Iraq war that brother W. launched; arguably the worst foreign policy mistake since, well, in a long, long time.

George, George and Jeb.

George, George and Jeb.

As Maureen Dowd points out, Bush is the son and brother of two former presidents, but wants to pretend that George H.W. and W. are just family and he loves his family. Well, of course he does, but he’s not running for president to preside over Bush family Thanksgiving dinners. His judgment and – that word again – reflection over the mistakes of the past will tell us a great deal about how he’ll approach the job if he succeeds in getting the Lincoln Bedroom back in the family. Jeb can no more separate his presidential ambitions from his relative’s records than John Quincy Adams or Robert Kennedy could from theirs. That Bush is even trying, and with the flimsy explanation that he doesn’t like to answer hypotheticals and he loves the two Georges, is not only proof of a lack of self-reflection, but also a likely losing political strategy.

You almost want to grab the former Florida governor by the lapels, turn him toward a mirror and demand he decide what he really believes about the family business he hopes to continue. After all, as Dowd wrote in a recent column, “Jeb hasn’t even been asked any questions yet about W.’s dark contributions on waterboarding, the deficit and the near-total collapse of the American economy.” He will.

Will Jeb be self-aware enough to self-reflect on what he really believes? You can still love your brother and think he was a fool.

The Well-Know Bias: Truth…

Has Dick Retired the No Self-Reflection Trophy?

Has Dick Retired the No Self-Reflection Trophy?

Speaking of Iraq, former Vice President Dick Cheney may have retired the no self-reflection trophy with his inability or unwillingness to own up to any mistakes related to the Bush Administration’s various wars, detentions and tortures. Despite the mounting volumes detailing Cheney’s cynical merchandising of dubious intelligence, just to cite one example, the old cynic regularly emerges from his undisclosed location to hold forth on what he sees as the vast mistakes of the current administration, while refusing to accept even a whiff of responsibility for the steaming pile he and his boss left for Barack Obama.

History, with a bias for facts and responsibility, will sort all this out and Cheney will forever be regarded as among the principal responsible parties for a multitude of great mistakes, including invading Iraq on sexed up intelligence. He deserves it. Even Robert McNamera, a Cheney-like character from an earlier generation, finally confronted his personal and professional shortcomings, characteristics that everyone else had long ago identified. Don’t hold your breath waiting for that level of self-awareness from Cheney. Self-assured he most certainly is, but then again self-reflection requires character.

The no self-reflection caucus has a lot of members, including professional blowhards like Donald Trump and failures in both business and politics like former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.

One gets the impression that a guy like The Donald considers self-reflection to mean thinking deeply about how wonderful he is and concluding after further consideration that he is even more impressive. Ms. Fiorina, who made a big splash at the recent Iowa GOP cattle call for the eight hundred and some people running for president, apparently thinks having once met Vladimir Putin qualifies as foreign policy experience and getting fired in one of the highest profile corporate dismissals in recent history, not to mention getting wiped out in a California Senate race, are resume builders on the path to the Oval Office.

In Oregon, heads are still shaking over former Governor John Kitzhaber’s inability to self-reflect on the shenanigans of the even more non-self-reflecting fiancé who forced him out of public life just weeks after he won a fourth term.

BradyProfessional sports and the media have their share of incredibly well paid humans who refuse to self-reflect. Talented and supremely unaware quarterback Tom Brady refused to cooperate with the NFL investigation of his under-inflated footballs, then lawyers up to challenge the findings.

Often there isn’t much naval gazing in journalism either. Judith Miller still hasn’t fessed up to blowing her New York Times reporting of Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction and actually has a new book attempting to explain away some of the worst reporting on the run-up to the war.

Brian Williams apparently thinks he might one day return to the NBC anchor desk after making up war news about himself. Williams, not unlike Jeb Bush, tried to over explain what is pretty clearly a series of tall tales that reflect no reflection, but likely much more. Even some of those we count on to call B.S. on the non-self-reflectors can’t find it in themselves to gaze in the mirror.

Paging O’Reilly and Stephanopoulos…

Modern Survival Skills: Never Admit Anything…

We could go on and on, sadly, but you get the drift. When thinking about the unremitting lack of self-awareness in so many people in public life, I find myself longing for the kind of brutal justice British politics extracts from those who fail. Tradition and reality demands that British pols that screw up must self-reflect very quickly.

British Labour Party leader Ed Milaband lost – badly lost – the recent election. Milaband resigned the next morning. No time for fussing with a post-election “mistakes were made” plea that things will be different next time. Miliband went from “the next prime minister” to “Ed who?” in the time it takes to change your socks. Period. End of story. “Ed who” is now presumably self-reflecting in an undisclosed location.

More and more people in public life seem to have decided that the essential requirement of survival in the age of the ten-second sound bite and the twenty-four hour news cycle is to never, ever admit uncertainty or acknowledge that careful and nuanced consideration, including knowing yourself, is the essence of leadership. Above all they never, heaven forbid, ever acknowledge a mistake, even the smallest one.

The modern poll-tested, cable television survival skills demand a willing suspension of any degree of self-reflection, since consideration of one’s actions – real consideration – inevitably demands admission of some error. No one is perfect, as they say, but many these days think they must act as though they are. There is no substitute for “perfection” and certainty of self. Self-reflection is for sissies, or losers.

But, as our Mom’s told us, the admission of mistakes, or even the awareness that things might have been done better, is also the only possible path to getting better. Know yourself and you know what you need to work on.

I’d like to see Mom’s kind of candidate on the ballot. Someone willing to struggle with facts. Someone who understands that we are all a bundle of contradictions. Someone who admits they have something to learn. Someone who sees the world from the inside out. Someone big enough and secure enough to confront mistakes. Someone real.

Wouldn’t that be something to reflect upon.

 

Advise and Consent…

Years ago I enjoyed a delightful series of conversations with John Corlett, a true old-school newspaper reporter in Idaho who could recall political anecdotes with the sharpness that a gambler brings to counting cards in a Las Vegas casino. John’s career spanned a good part of the last century, from Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency to Ronald Reagan’s. He covered political conventions, wrote about statesmen and scalawags and he relished sharing his storehouse of memories every bit as much as I enjoyed hearing those memories.

Judge Chase Clark

Judge Chase Clark

One of many stories I remember involved former Idaho Governor and U.S. District Judge Chase Clark, the father-in-law of Senator Frank Church. Clark was part of a genuine Idaho political dynasty that featured two governors and a congressman who later became a U.S. Senator. Church married into the dynasty when he wed Bethine, the politically astute daughter of Chase Clark. The Clarks were mostly Democrats, but for bipartisan flavor the family also includes the remarkable Nancy Clark Reynolds, the Congressman’s daughter, and a Ronald Reagan confidante and D.C. power player.

Chase Clark ran for re-election as Idaho governor in 1942 and narrowly lost a re-match election with former Governor C.A. Bottolfson, the man Clark defeated in 1940. But 1942 was a Republican year, the country was at war, Roosevelt was in the second year of his third term and voters everywhere seemed to hanker for change. Corlett remembered that Democrat Clark considered his re-election chances to be less than stellar under those circumstances; so much so that Clark seems to have taken steps to create for himself a soft landing should the election turn out badly from his point of view.

As returns trickled in on election night 1942 it soon became clear that the governor’s race in Idaho would be a cliffhanger. Bottolfson eventually won by 434 votes out of more than 144,000 cast.

The Governor Who Wanted to Lose…

Late on election night as Corlett monitored the vote counting and tried to determine who was winning the very tight contest his phone rang. Governor Clark was on the other end of the line. “John,” he said, “it’s time for you to call the election for Bottolfson.”

Corlett could hardly believe what he was hearing. The incumbent Democrat was effectively conceding the election and doing so hours before it would become clear who the real winner might be. The curious phone call only made sense a few weeks later when Roosevelt announced Clark’s appointment to fill a vacancy on the federal bench in Idaho. A little over a month after leaving office in January 1943, Clark was nominated for the judgeship. He was confirmed by the Senate fifteen days later and served on the federal bench until his death in 1966.

Franklin Roosevelt

Franklin Roosevelt

Corlett was convinced that Clark had made a deal with Roosevelt before the election in 1942, a deal to have the president appoint him to the court should he lose, and John believed Clark actually wanted to lose, maybe even planned to lose. For Corlett, Clark’s election night telephone call concession was a political smoking gun. The governor wanted to be a federal judge a good deal more than he wanted to be a governor.

The life tenure of a federal judicial position (assuming good behavior) is just one attractive aspect of the job. The pay isn’t shabby, the working conditions are typically first rate and the retirement benefits quite nice thank you. As they say, “it’s indoor work with no heavy lifting,” unless you consider hours of sitting, listening, reading and writing strenuous. Done correctly, however, the job really should be demanding. It requires a certain temperament and a scholarly demeanor, experience, perspective, learning in the law and an abiding sense of fairness. It helps, as well, to be a real person with an ego in check, someone who is not overly impressed when everyone refers to you as “your honor.”

Idaho’s Next Judge…

I remembered the old John Corlett tale recently as I read the news of the unfolding and very secret process being managed by Idaho’s two Republican United States senators to fill the vacant judgeship on the federal district court in Idaho. As the Spokesman-Review’s Betsy Russell first reported, Senators Mike Crapo and Jim Risch have been quietly – very quietly – interviewing prospective candidates for the federal court position, but, as Russell also reported, two of the most obvious women candidates have not been interviewed, at least not yet.

The senators subsequently released a short statement to the effect that the confidential process was in everyone’s best interest and that men as well as women would be considered. Russell also reported that the current process is a dramatic departure from that used the last time Idaho had a federal court vacancy. In 1995, with Democrat Bill Clinton in the White House, Republican Senators Larry Craig and Dirk Kempthorne created a nine-member bipartisan panel made up of five Democrats and four Republicans. The partisan split was in deference to fact that Democrat Clinton would make the appointment. That process ultimately produced three stellar candidates, including current federal District Judge Lynn Winmill, who was nominated and confirmed and continues to serve with great distinction.

Judge Edward Lodge

Judge Edward Lodge

Crapo and Risch could have adopted a similar approach when respected Judge Edward Lodge announced his decision to move to “senior status” in September of last year. That they did not, and that only in the last few days has there been any news about the judicial position, might indicate that the senators aren’t really much focused on producing a candidate that will be both acceptable to them and to the person who under the Constitution actually makes the appointment, Barack Obama.

While its clear under the Constitution that the president “shall nominate, and, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint” federal judges, it is an unwritten fact of life in the United States Senate that no nominee gets approved by the Senate unless the senators of the state involved green light the appointment. This is particularly true when the Senate is controlled, as it now is, by one party while the other party holds the White House.

This political reality cries out, if indeed Idaho’s senators really want to see a judicial appointment while Barack Obama is still in office, for something like the bipartisan approach Craig and Kempthorne employed twenty years ago. It is entirely conceivable that the process now being used will produce a candidate that will turn out to be unacceptable to the White House and that may be what the senators truly desire. In the hardball of Senate politics the Idaho Republicans may have decided, as an Arizona Congressman actually said recently, that Obama should have not more appointments approved – period.

Idaho’s senators may have simply made the political calculation that they will “run out the clock,” while betting that a Republican wins the White House in 2016. Under this scenario Crapo and Risch will have teed up the candidate they want for early consideration by President Jeb Bush, Scott Walker or someone else.

With no more than seventy working days remaining on this year’s Senate calendar and with the Senate surely going into paralysis mode next year with a presidential election looming time will soon dictate whether an Idaho appointment is even possible. Even if Crapo and Risch were to produce a candidate relatively soon the White House and FBI vetting process could take months and extend into next year’s presidential morass. For the two senators this approach could neatly, if unfairly, place the blame for failing to fill the vacancy on the president’s desk.

The statement from Crapo and Risch last week made much of the need for an “entirely confidential” process. But it’s worth asking why? At least two widely mentioned, not particularly political and eminently qualified female candidates – U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson and federal Magistrate Candy Dale – have publicly acknowledge their interest in the appointment. Idaho, of course, is unique in that the state has never had a woman federal district judge. One suspects it is the senators insisting on the confidentially, since applying to become a federal judge, even if you are not selected, is hardly something most Idaho lawyers would hide under a bushel. Merely applying puts one in rare company.

One can certainly understand senatorial prerogatives and the Constitution wisely provides for “advice and consent” from the Senate, but a vacant federal judgeship that comes around maybe once in a generation really doesn’t belong exclusively to two U.S. senators or even to a president. The important job belongs to Idaho and given the nature of Idaho and national politics shouts out for a high degree of transparency.

Advise and Consent…Not So Much…

As this process stumbles forward the White House might consider these political facts:

Attorney General Loretta Lynch

Attorney General Loretta Lynch

Idaho’s two senators recently voted against the confirmation of a highly qualified African-American woman to become the first ever attorney general. They based their votes on the fact that Loretta Lynch, a seasoned federal prosecutor, merely said that she agreed with her boss, the president, on his immigration actions; actions admittedly controversial, but also currently under judicial review. Such conservative Senate stalwarts as Mitch McConnell, Orrin Hatch and Jeff Flake voted to confirm Lynch as attorney general, but not Crapo and Risch.

Additionally, from health care to Iran, Idaho’s senators have opposed virtually all of Obama’s policy actions. They regularly lambast the administration for everything from underfunding the Idaho National Laboratory to over regulating Main Street businesses. Obama’s budgets, they have said repeatedly, are awful, his foreign policy a disaster and the president regularly engages in extra-constitutional behavior. Little wonder then that Idaho’s senators, as reliably opposed to anything the White House proposes as any two senators in the nation, have shown so little interest in actually working with the president on the rare Idaho judicial appointment.

What Would FDR Do…

As the old story about Judge Clark in the 1940’s proves, being appointed a federal judge is a highly desirable job. Franklin Roosevelt placed the just defeated Chase Clark on the federal bench in 1942 without, near as I can tell, much if any involvement by Idaho’s two senators at the time.

Senator D. Worth Clark

Senator D. Worth Clark

In fact it’s very likely that Roosevelt could have cared less about the opinion of Senator D. Worth Clark, Chase’s nephew and Nancy Clark Reynold’s father, since Worth Clark was an outspoken opponent of FDR’s foreign policy. Coming as it did from a member of his own party, Roosevelt bitterly resented Clark’s harsh isolationist critique and let it be known that he did.

Senator John W. Thomas, a Republican, who was appointed to replace William Borah when he died in 1940, was, with the exception of foreign policy, philosophically far removed from the man he replaced. Roosevelt both liked and respected Borah even though the two men clashed on many things and had Borah, a long-time member of the Judiciary Committee, lived he certainly would have had a say in filling the Idaho judgeship. With a war to run it’s not hard to speculate that the opinions of Clark and Thomas counted for next to nothing in Roosevelt’s White House. While the Senate did “advise and consent” on Judge Clark, it can safely be said that Idaho’s two senators had very little to say about his appointment.

Perhaps in the current case Mr. Obama ought to engage in some of that dictatorial activity he is so often accused of and go ahead and appoint one of the highly qualified and non-political women candidates to the federal bench. Let Idaho’s senators explain why a sitting U.S. attorney already confirmed by the Senate, or a federal magistrate vetted by her peers, or any number of other qualified women aren’t acceptable. The way things look today President Obama has nothing too lose as the clock winds down on his term and he confronts a judicial selection in Idaho vetted and suggested by two senators who can hardly mention his name without a sneer.

Barack Obama might enjoy, just as Franklin Roosevelt often did, seeing some of his greatest opponents in the Senate squirm just a little. At the very least, Mr. Obama could go down in history as the first president who tried to appoint the first women to the federal bench in Idaho.

 

The Senator from McCook

I took a political pilgrimage last week to an out-of-the-way little town in my native state.

I’ve taken similar trips in the past to Mount Vernon and Hyde Park, to Independence, Missouri and once to Dixville Notch, New Hampshire, which every four years casts the first-in-the-nation votes for president.McCook My pilgrimage to tiny, remote McCook, Nebraska in Red Willow County, hard by the Republican River and a short drive north of the Kansas border was as meaningful as any I have ever taken.

McCook is the hometown of one of the greatest political figures of the 20th Century, a man – a senator, a statesman, an ideal politician that most Americans have long forgotten, or worse, never heard of. I went to McCook to see George William Norris’ town, his home and to remember why he deserves to be considered among a very small handful of the greatest of American politicians.

McCook is where Norris first got elected as a local judge and where Norris - MIcfriends continued to call him “Judge” long after he had become one of the most influential senators in American history. Judge Norris went to the United States Congress for five terms early in the 20th Century and eventually in 1912 to the U.S. Senate for five more terms.

Norris retired to McCook – it was decidedly not his idea – in 1943 after losing a re-election that, at age 81, he might well have been advised to avoid. But unlike most politicians who lose and are forgotten, Norris’ reputation should only have risen after 1942, but that is not the way things work in the brutal, forgetful world of American politics. George Norris is mostly forgotten these days even in his hometown and sadly, almost completely forgotten in the “what have you done for me today” world of contemporary political importance.

Still, any member of the current Congress would kill for the Norris record of real accomplishment.

George Norris at site of Norris Dam.

George Norris at site of Norris Dam.

Twice Norris passed legislation to create public ownership of the hydropower resources in the Tennessee River valley only to see Republican presidents – leaders of his own party – kill the idea. When Franklin Roosevelt came to power in 1933, Norris’ vision of a Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) finally had a champion in the White House and the money was appropriated to construct Norris Dam and bring electricity to a vast swath of the American South. George Norris was the father of TVA and in many ways the father of public power in the American West.

When FDR ran for president in 1932, four percent of Nebraska’s farms had electricity. By the time his Nebraska constituents ignored Norris’ accomplishments and sent him into retirement in 1942 that number had increased to more than forty percent. George Norris was the father of the Rural Electric Administration – the REA – which he considered his most important accomplishment.

During his long career George Norris opposed U.S. entry into World War I, convinced it was a war forced on the country by greedy capitalists. Vilified for what many considered his “unpatriotic” stand, Norris came home to Nebraska, stood before the voters and said simply: “I have come home to tell you the truth.” Undoubtedly, many of his constituents still opposed his position, but his straightforward explanation of his action marked him as a man of great integrity and courage.

Norris conceived of the “unicameral,” single house, non-partisan legislature in Nebraska and campaigned across the state to ensure that the idea was approved at the ballot box by Nebraskans in 1934. Nebraska is still the only state in the country with the unique unicameral legislature. Norris argued for the idea as being more democratic than a system that allowed lawmakers to hide behind the “actions of the other house” and that gave special interests more avenues to influence legislation. It has been a noble experiment that others states might well consider.

In an earlier era when Wall Street and big bankers also dominated American politics, Norris took on the interests of greed and bigness and prevailed. He created a massive chart – the Norris spider – to illustrate to the Senate the vast web of financial interests that controlled everything from electricity to railroads, from oil wells to credit. Long before there was an Elizabeth Warren there was a George Norris.

Norris broke with his own party time and again on matters of principle and pragmatism most famously when he lead the 1910 revolt against the dictatorial rule of Republican House Speaker “Uncle Joe” Cannon. Norris rounded up the bi-partisan votes to strip Cannon of the ability to use the Rules Committee as his own personal tool to control the House of Representatives. Norris also broke GOP ranks in 1928 and again in 1932 to endorse Democratic presidential candidates. When Norris determined that Roosevelt deserved a second term in 1936, he ran for re-election in Nebraska as an independent and won.

When Norris lost his bid for a sixth senate term in 1942 to a Republican non-entity by the name of Kenneth Wherry, a former undertaker, he did something that no politician does any more – he went home to McCook to the house he and his wife had owned for Norris - Homedecades. He died in that house in 1944 never completely reconciled to having been turned out of office by his Nebraska neighbors.

The Norris house is preserved today as a Nebraska historical landmark complete with most of the furnishings that graced the modest two-story frame structure when the great man lived there. His books are in the bookcases. His plaque of appreciation from the TVA is prominently displayed. His 1937 Buick still sits in the garage. I think we may have been the only visitors of the day when we showed up last Friday afternoon.

In 1956 when a young Senator John F. Kennedy – with the help of his Nebraskan-born aide Theodore Sorensen – wrote his Pulitzer Prize winning Profiles in Courage, he included a chapter on George Norris, emphasizing Norris’ independence and willingness to fight for unpopular causes.

YOUNG-JFKA year later the U.S. Senate created a special committee – Kennedy was named chairman – to recommend five “great” former senators who would be recognized for their accomplishments. Kennedy’s committee labored for months to define senatorial “greatness” and eventually enlisted the help of 160 historians to advise them. The historians produced a list of 65 candidates. Kennedy joked that picking five senators from such a long list of worthies made choosing new members of the Baseball Hall of Fame look easy by comparison.

The scholar’s top choice was Norris. It wasn’t even close. The Nebraskan came in ahead of Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay, which you might think would have settled the matter. But members of the Kennedy committee had agreed among themselves that their recommendations must be unanimous. New Hampshire Republican Styles Bridges, who had served with Norris and didn’t appreciate his political independence as much as the group of historians did, black balled his consideration. Nebraska’s two Republican senators at the time also rebelled at any honor for Norris and as a result he was left off the list of all-time Senate greats.

[The list, by the way, included Webster, Calhoun, Clay, Robert Taft and Robert La Follette, Sr. In 2004, Senators Arthur Vandenberg and Robert Wagner were similarly recognized.]Norris - Time

Settling political scores is, of course, something politicians do, but the petty slight of George Norris, a product of small-town, rural Nebraska, who left a huge mark on American life, is a long ago error that should be corrected. Regardless of our personal politics, we should celebrate greatness in our political leaders. Lord knows there is little enough of it these days.

My pilgrimage to McCook convinced me all over again that while true political greatness is indeed a rare thing, George W. Norris had it. It was a moving and very special experience to step back into his world and know that such men once sat in the United States Senate.

 

The Most Important Election…

There is a wide-open field on the Republican side for the presidential nomination, with at least a half dozen serious contenders, while the lame duck Democrat in the White House, one of the most polarizing american-politicsfigures in modern American politics, struggles with foreign policy challenges which have emboldened his fierce critics in both parties and submerged his domestic agenda. The foreign policy challenges involve questions about the effectiveness of military aid in bloody conflicts that may, or may not, involve strategic American interests, as well as the proper response to brutal foreign dictators determined to expand their influence in central Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

The incumbent in the White House, elected with promises of “hope and change,” has lost his once large majorities in both houses of Congress and, while he remains a profoundly talented communicator and is still popular with many voters, others have grown tired of his aloof manner and the fact that he surrounds himself with a tiny corps of advisors who tend to shut off competing points of view. Even his wife can be a polarizing figure with some criticizing everything from her priorities to her wardrobe.

A fragile economic recovery continues to sputter along, while memories remain fresh of an economic collapse that rivals anything that has happened in three-quarters of a century. Half the country blames Wall Street, eastern bankers and the well-heeled for the economic troubles, while the other half laments excessive regulation, increasing debt and bloated federal government that is constantly expanding its role in American life. The country is deeply divided by race, class and religious differences.

The year is…2016? No…actually 1940.

The Most Important Election in Our Lifetime…Not Really…

Lincoln and McClellan

Lincoln and McClellan

The claim heard every four years that “this is the most important election in our lifetime (or in our history), it is, of course, nonsense. We don’t have “critical elections” every four years, but in fact have really only had a handful of truly “critical” elections in our history. In my view the two most important were 1864, when Abraham Lincoln defeated George McClellan thereby ensuring that the great Civil War would be fought to its ultimate end and achieve its ultimate goal, the abolition of slavery, and 1940 when Franklin D. Roosevelt broke with long-established political tradition and sought and won a third term. Roosevelt’s election, although it would have been hard to see clearly at the time, sealed the involvement of the United States in World War II and ultimately led to the defeat of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan.

Those two elections (you could add 1860 to the list, as well) had serious consequences that still echo today, the 1940 election particularly since it does have many parallels with what voters will face when they make a choice about the White House in 2016.

Arguably the field for the Republican nomination hasn’t been so completely wide open since 1940. In that election, as today, the GOP was a divided party between its more establishment wing – represented by New Yorker Thomas Dewey – and an insurgent element represented by the party’s eventual nominee in 1940, Indiana-born, former Democrat Wendell Willkie, a true dark horse candidate. The party was also split into isolationist and internationalist camps, with Willkie the leader of the later and Senators Robert Taft of Ohio and Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan leading the Midwestern, isolationist element.

As Many GOP Contenders as 2016…

1940 GOP Convention Ticket

1940 GOP Convention Ticket

Ten Republican candidates that year captured at least twenty-eight convention votes, with Dewey leading on the first ballot with 360 votes, still far below the number he would need to win the nomination. The Republican candidates, not unlike today, were a broad and opportunistic bunch ranging from names lost to history – the governor of South Dakota Harland Bushland, for example – to shades of the past like former President Herbert Hoover who amazingly thought he was a viable candidate eight years after losing in a landslide to Roosevelt in 1932.

Thomas Dewey

Thomas Dewey

Dewey lost support on every subsequent ballot, while Willkie and Taft steadily picked up steam. As Charles Peters has written: “To Republicans who liked Franklin Roosevelt’s sympathy for the allies but had a low opinion of his economic policy, Willkie began to look like an interesting presidential possibility. This group was not large in early 1940, but it was highly influential,” not unlike the “establishment wing” of the GOP today, which is tentatively coalescing behind Jeb Bush.

Finally on the sixth ballot Willkie commanded the votes needed to win the nomination and face the man who was the real issue in 1940 – Roosevelt.

By the time the Democrats convened for their convention in Chicago on July 15, 1940 (the Republicans met in Philadelphia in June), few besides FDR knew his intentions with regard to the “no third term” tradition. I’m convinced Roosevelt had decided much earlier to seek another terms, but the master political strategist wanted it to appear that his party was “drafting” him rather than as if he was actively seeking the nomination again.

Eleanor Roosevelt Addresses 1940 Convention

Eleanor Roosevelt Addresses 1940 Convention

Roosevelt dispatched his very politically astute wife, Eleanor, to Chicago to subtly, but unmistakably make the case for her husband. It worked and the Democratic Party rushed to embrace FDR – again. This whole story is wonderfully told in Charles Peters’ fine book Five Days in Philadelphia: The Amazing ‘We Want Willkie!’ Convention of 1940 and How It Freed FDR to Save the Western World.

FDR of course, went on to win the pivotal election of 1940, a rare election in American political history that turned primarily on foreign policy issues. Remarkably, both candidates endorsed the creation of a peace time draft in the middle of the campaign and Roosevelt and Willkie differed only in the most nuanced ways over the big question of whether and how the United States would provide aid to Britain as it struggled to hold off a Nazi invasion and eventually return to the offense against Hitler.

The 1940 campaign, like most political campaigns, had its share of pettiness and overheated rhetoric. Roosevelt was denounced as a “warmonger” and a dictator who would do anything to prolong his willkie buttonhold over the country’s politics. Willkie, a wealthy utility executive who made much of his small-town Indiana upbringing, was derided as “the barefoot boy from Wall Street,” so dubbed by Roosevelt’s Interior Secretary Harold Ickes. It was an open secret that Willkie had a long-time romantic relationship with a woman not his wife, but Roosevelt and the Democrats dare not raise the issue for fear that the “marriage of convenience” between FDR and Eleanor, not to mention the president’s own indiscretions, might become an issue. This would not be a John Edwards or Gary Hart campaign.

The 1940 campaign did involve two talented and serious candidates who openly discussed the big issues of the day and once the voters had spoken, Roosevelt and Willkie put aside personal animosities and linked arms for the good of the country – and the world.

Barack Obama won’t be running for a third term next year. Republicans made certain that would never happen when they recaptured control of the Congress after World War II and adopted the 22nd amendment to the Constitution, but Democrats will be, in effect, seeking a third term with presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton carrying the party banner.

Perhaps all – or almost all – politicians tend to look better in hindsight than they do when they are grubbing for votes, but it would be hard to argue that any of the contenders in either party today could hold their own on a stage with the major party nominees in that pivotal year of 1940.

The stakes were very high that year and Americans had their pick between two serious, quality candidates. Here’s hoping history repeats next year. Looking at the field I have my doubts.

Reader’s Note: 

There are at least three other recent fine books about the election of 1940 – Richard Moe’s Roosevelt’s Second Act, Susan Dunn’s 1940 – FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler: The Election Amid the Storm and Lynne Olson’s Those Angry Days. All are highly recommended as great political history.

 

Harry Reid’s Senate Legacy

Having lost the majority after the 2014 election, suffering a gruesome injury that nearly cost him sight in one eye, and facing gty_harry_reid_press_conference_glasses_jc_150224_16x9_992another bruising re-election campaign in Nevada, it’s not a huge surprise that 75-year old Senator Harry Reid, a fixture in Senate leadership for more than a decade, decided that he will hang it up when his term ends next year.

As a young man Reid was a decent boxer and throwing punches with wild abandon is an appropriate metaphor for Reid’s pugnacious tenure as a Senate leader. Reid has been an unapologetic boxerpartisan. He has made it his personal cause to expose the Koch brothers influence on American politics and Reid accused Mitt Romney, with no real evidence, of paying no taxes during the last presidential campaign. That attack line alone messed up a week of Romney’s campaign.

Reid is also something of a political contradiction. A practicing Mormon, Reid has been a huge champion of Nevada’s glittering gaming industry. His LDS faith certainly didn’t keep him from savaging fellow Mormon Romney in a fashion that made Barack Obama’s attack lines seem tame by comparison. Reid has also championed the mining industry inside a political party where digging things up is considered bad form. All politics is local, after all, and gambling and mining make Nevada go and as for Reid’s brand of politics – once a brawler, always a brawler.

Charisma challenged, not an eloquent speaker, never one to frequent the Sunday morning green rooms that are the natural habitat of Washington’s gasbags, Reid is in many ways a throwback, an often parochial senator from Nevada who will also leave a substantial mark on American political history. His fighting instincts, as well as the political times, made Reid one of the most partisan Senate leaders in a long, long time and he certainly deserves a big dose of responsibility for the toxic levels of American political discourse. Reid has both lamented and contributed to the new norm – the politics of obstruction.

Still, love him or hate him – and there are many in both camps – Reid will, I believe, figure prominently in Senate history both for his longevity in leadership and, love it or hate it, for at least five things that might not have happened without him.

The Power of Harry…

First, without Reid’s statewide political organization it is questionable that Obama would have carried Nevada in 2008 and 2012. Look at the Nevada map. It is mostly red, but Reid’s political influence rests heavy in the state’s population200px-Nevada_presidential_election_results_2012.svg centers – Las Vegas and Reno. These cities and their suburbs are where Reid has won his elections in Nevada and where Obama won, as well. In the currency of electoral politics, Harry Reid delivered Nevada for the Democratic presidential candidate – twice.

Without Reid serving as “master of the Senate” in 2009, it’s hard to believe Obama could have rounded up enough votes to pass the controversial $787 billion stimulus legislation – remember it took three Republican votes. Not a single House Republican voted for the stimulus bill, but somehow Reid crafted a degree of bi-partisanship to ensure that the legislation reached Obama’s desk.

Reid’s fingerprints are all over passage of the even more controversial Affordable Care Act (ACA). Without Harry Reid it’s unlikely that the sweeping health insurance reform legislation would have happened, since passage required that he hold every single Democratic vote in the Senate. The legislation may eventually be considered along side Social Security as a great legislative triumph or it may be shot down by the Supreme Court. Either way Harry Reid was a principle architect and that legislation alone likely cost him his job as majority leader.

Reid will also be remembered for finally taking the historic step to end the Senate filibuster, alg-reid-sotomayor-jpginvoking the “nuclear option,” regarding most presidential appointments, particularly including federal judges. As a result, Obama has very quietly reduced the backlog of vacancies on the federal bench, including filling empty seats on the influential federal circuit court for the District of Columbia. That court, considered second only to the Supreme Court in importance, has shifted under Obama from being dominated by the appointees of Republican presidents to one with a majority of judges selected by Democrats. Reid certainly also gets some of the credit for ensuring that two more women were confirmed to the Supreme Court.

Just Say No to Yucca Mountain…

MOUNTAIN YUCCA NUCLEAR WASTE FACILITY NEVADA DESERT WEST DUMP GOVERNMENT FUEL SPENT TUNNELFinally, when tallying Reid’s legacy it’s impossible not to note his singular role in putting sand in the gears of national nuclear waste policy. Reid has fiercely opposed the long-time federal government plan to develop a high-level nuclear waste disposal site at Yucca Mountain north of Las Vegas. His unrelenting opposition helped convince the Obama Administration to quit work on the project, leaving the nation without any plan to dispose of the vast amounts of nuclear waste that remain scattered around the country.

A Limited Number of Great Leaders…

I would argue that since the post was formally established in the 1920’s there have been very few truly great and effective Senate leaders. Any list of “masters of the Senate” must, of course, include Lyndon Johnson whose bigger-than-life style and mastery of the personal politics of the institution in the 1950’s have never been matched.

Montana’s Mike Mansfield, still the longest serving majority leader, would be on any list of greats and for reasons opposite those that put Johnson is on the list. Where Lyndon bullied, blustered and begged senators to his will, Mansfield was the quite behind the scenes conciliator. Johnson would assault his colleagues with the full on “Johnson treatment.” A flurry of words would lbj1accompany Lyndon’s hands tugging on the lapels of a suspect’s suit, while he leaned in and physically overpowered another of his victims. As the photo makes clear he even used “the treatment” on a young John Kennedy and a stunned Scoop Jackson.

Mansfield, in contrast, puffed on his pipe, listened and tried to work things out. More often than not he succeeded, so much so that upon his death one of the Senate’s most erasable partisans, Alaska’s Ted Stevens, told me that Democrat Mansfield was the best leader the Senate had ever seen.

Considering the often ugly and almost completely unproductive Senate we see today we can fondly remember Republican leaders like Bob Dole and Howard Baker, partisans with an ability to make a deal. In the 1930’s Franklin Roosevelt depended on Joe Robinson of Arkansas to get most of his New Deal through the Senate and Robinson, always a loyal Democrat also revered by his Republican colleagues, obliged. Oregon’s Charles McNary, never in the majority, was thoughtful, cool and respected by his Senate colleagues. In many ways McNary was a model senatorial leader, particularly one having to operate in the minority.

1101640710_400The “wizard of ooze,” Republican Everett Dirksen of Illinois, critical to passage of historic civil rights legislation in the 1960’s, and Democrat Robert Byrd, passionate in his love of the Senate as an institution, clearly rank in the top tier of Senate leaders. But beyond that short list the pickings are pretty thin, which is why the frequently controversial Harry Reid – love him or hate him – and his accomplishments – love them or hate them – will likely ensure that he finds a place of permanent importance in the history of successful leaders of the United States Senate.

Harry Reid has been a political fighter with all the charm of an ill-tempered bull dog. His partisanship clearly contributed to the current do-nothing U.S. Senate where he has been the perfect foil to the equally charmless and partisan Mitch McConnell. Reid could put his foot in it Joe Biden-style, once calling New York Senator Kristen Gillibrand “the hottest senator” and candidate Obama “light skinned.” When asked about regrets he might harbor in his fight with the Brothers Koch, Reid simply said: “Romney didn’t win did he?”

In the age of poll tested, bland candidates who measure every word and fret over every action, political junkies are going to miss the old boxer from Searchlight, Nevada. He took a few punches, landed a few himself, and never committed the unpardonable political sin of being dull. Fighters rarely are.

The Appearance of Influence

       “…this Court now concludes that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption. That speakers may have influence over or access to elected officials does not mean that those officials are corrupt. And the appearance of influence or access will not cause the electorate to lose faith in this democracy. “ – Justice Anthony Kennedy in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, 2010.

Generally speaking there are two types of political scandal: the sex scandal and the money scandal.

The first type of scandal, perhaps for obvious reasons, gets more attention from public and press. Think of Bill Clinton and the blue dress, Mark lewinsky-beretSanford hiking the Appalachian Trail all the way to his Argentine mistress, General David Petraeus going all in with his biographer (and sharing much more than pillow talk) and, of course, the continuing saga of former Senator Larry Craig’s wide stance in the Minneapolis airport. One could go on and on – Packwood, Weiner, Edwards – it is a long, long and bipartisan list.

The other type of scandal – the money scandal – is generally less memorable, but also more important. Political sex sells and fuels late night comedy. Political money merely corrupts. Like political sex scandals, political money scandals are a bipartisan problem and unlike what Justice Kennedy naively (or cynically) wrote in that Supreme Court decision, vastly expanded access to money and private influence in our politics has, and will continue to erode “faith in this democracy.”

Several recent cases still in the news make the point: Illinois Representative Aaron Schock, former Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber, would-be president Hillary Clinton and Senator Robert Menendez or, if you prefer, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey are in the top-of-mind scandal class. (It probably goes without saying that in any list of political scandals involving money, New Jersey is routinely entitled to two mentions.)

Schock is the junior Republican from Peoria who first came to national prominence when a Washington Post story reported on the elaborate SchockDownton Abbey-like redecorating of his Capitol Hill office, a real estate makeover that likely constituted an illegal gift. It didn’t take long for the deep red walls and Edwardian touches to gave way to more important insights into Schock’s extensive connections to his wealthy donors. As the Post reported recently, the Congressman’s Lord Grantham moment “prompted a flurry of stories about his use of private charter planes that he says are to get around his district, concert ticket purchases, trips overseas and other forms of travel.” Expensive tastes are hardly an indictable offense, but failing to report gifts from donors or using their airplanes improperly may well be and Schock has now announced his resignation, likely just before his indictment.

There have been so many twists and turns to the sad and bizarre Kitzhaber saga in Oregon that is has become difficult to keep track of all of them, but it seems clear that an underlying theme in the tangled web that drove the four-time elected governor from office was…wait for it…money.

Kitzhaber’s fiancée seems to have been obsessed by making money and oblivious to how her public role created conflicts, or worse, for the couple. In another case, as reported by Willamette Week, Kitzhaber courted one of his biggest campaign donors, a developer who had given candidate Kitzhaber more than $65,000 since 2010, by attending a “summit” organized by the donor, who incidentally regularly complained to the governor about state environmental regulators. As the paper noted following the “summit,” which Kitzhaber had flown to on the donor’s private plane, the then-governor “asked a fundraising consultant how much money [the big donor] had given his re-election campaign so he could hit up another summit attendee…for the same amount.”

The Hillary Clinton case is even more obtuse, but no less troubling, involving Clinton the Secretary of State, Clinton the world famous mover and shaker of the Clinton family foundation (which has received millions from corporate and foreign sources) and coming to a campaign trail near you soon, Clinton the presidential candidate. If you think the recent flap over Hillary’s emails (particularly the ones that have been destroyed) doesn’tReadyPoster involve the intersection of her official work at the State Department and her work, as well as her husband’s and daughter’s, with the high flying Clinton foundation, and now the need to raise a billion dollars or so to run for the White House, well I have some aluminum siding I’d like you to consider.

A CBS New investigation found that one donor to the Clinton Foundation, “Rilin Enterprises – pledged $2 million in 2013…The company is a privately-held Chinese construction and trade conglomerate and run by billionaire Wang Wenliang, who is also a delegate to the Chinese parliament…The firm owns a strategic port along the border with North Korea and was also one of the contractors that built the Chinese embassy in Washington. That contract is a direct tie to the Chinese government.” We haven’t heard the last of these kinds of stories and she hasn’t even announced.

Senator Menendez’s scandal seems to involve more garden-variety type corruption – doing big favors for a big donor. For months the Justice Department has been looking into the connection between the Soprano State senator and a wealthy South Florida eye doctor, Salomon Melgen, who clearly loves Menendez. As Slate has noted, the doc and his family “gave $33,700 to Menendez’s 2012 re-election campaign, as well as $60,400 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee while Menendez served as its chairman during the 2010 election cycle. But the biggest contribution by far was a series of three payments totaling $700,000 that Melgen’s business gave in 2012 to Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC that in turn shoveled nearly $600,000 toward Menendez’s re-election that year. Melgen also paid for two free trips that Menendez took in 2010 to Melgen’s seaside mansion in the Dominican Republic,” a gift that Menendez did not initially disclose, but for which he later paid $58,500 to reimburse.

And what did the donor get beside the stimulating company of a United States Senator? “In recent years,” Slate reports, “Menendez repeatedly interceded on Melgen’s behalf in a dispute with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services over allegations that Melgen had overbilled Medicare for millions of dollars for injections he was performing on patients with macular degeneration. Menendez has also been pressing on Melgen’s behalf to help him see through a deal he has to sell port-screening equipment to the Dominican government.”

The latest Chris Christie greasiness in New Jersey rings of the kind of thing that the notorious Boss Tweed did across the Hudson more than a century ago – hand out tax breaks, contracts and other goodies to the politically well-connected and then sit back and reap the rewards. As the Associated Press reported this week, on Governor Christie’s watch, “New Jersey has authorized more than $2 billion in economic development tax breaks since 2014, often to corporations with notable political connections. One grant went to a developer who owes millions of dollars on an unpaid state loan.”

Christie’s administration lavished more than $600 million in tax breaks on Camden, New Jersey, (population 77,000) an amount four times the city’s annual budget. As AP notes, “As money has flowed to development in Camden, some trickled back into politics. Camden tax incentive recipients donated more than $150,000 to the Republican Governors Association during the time Christie ran it. But no donations are as notable as those from Pennsylvania developer Israel Roizman. Last February, the state awarded tax incentives worth $13.4 million to Broadway Associates 2010 LLC, a real estate development company he controls. The project in question: refurbishing 175 low-income housing units that deteriorated under two decades of Roizman’s ownership.”

It turns out Roizman – and here is proof that the acrid stench of corruption smells of bipartisanship – was a big “bundler” of campaign cash for Barack Obama, but also thoughtfully “donated $10,000 to the Christie-led [Republican] governors association in late 2013, a few months before receiving his tax breaks. Last year, he gave the group the same amount.” Meanwhile, the developer owes the New Jersey housing agency “$6.2 million in unpaid loans on another Camden housing project.”

There may be perfectly simple explanations for all these unrelated cases and it would not be correct to say the corrosive Citizens United decision alone ushered in a new era of corruption in our politics. The country’s convoluted campaign finance apparatus is so complex that it has spawned an entire industry of lawyers and consultants who make it their life’s work to navigate the system.

Still, to believe that cases like Schock, Kitzhaber, Clinton, Menendez, Christie and many others can be innocently explained away, one must accept Thomas Nastthe idea that really wealthy people give money to political candidates simply out of the goodness of their hearts or because of their passionate belief in the candidate or the cause. (Some do, of course, but their commitment could be demonstrated just as fervently by a check for a thousand dollars as it is by donating what for many Americans would be a sizeable bank account.) At the same time the innocent explanation of a situation involving money and politics that also has “the appearance of corruption” demands embracing the idea that candidates, particularly when they are recipients of really, really big checks and personal favors from donors, are totally immune to the concept of quid pro quo. There are many honest politicians, but we don’t make laws – nor did we once limit campaign contributions – because of the honest people.

Political corruption has existed since Caesar and human nature being what it is there will always be some fast buck artist angling for some favor from some powerful person. But with the adoption of the philosophy, sanctioned by the United States Supreme Court, that anything goes when it comes to money and politics we can expect Justice Kennedy to more-and-more be feasting on his words.

Unlimited, largely unregulated money in politics does give rise to both the appearance and the reality of corruption. The excesses will only grow worse over time in direct proportion to the electorate’s loss of faith in this democracy. Makes you long for a good political sex scandal.