Archive for July, 2009

Remembering Frank McCourt

Frank McCourt“…Worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”

Frank McCourt, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his unforgettable memoir about growing up poor, Irish and Catholic in Limrick, died of cancer on July 19 at age 78.

McCourt’s book – Angela’s Ashes – is one of only two books I have read (Mitch Albom’s Tuesday with Morrie is the other) where I found myself both laughing out loud and tearing up all in the space of a single page. Albom has written a moving tribute to McCourt where he remembers his friend as “wickedly intelligent.”

I can identify with that. I spent a truly unforgettable day with McCourt back in the fall of 2002 when the Idaho Humanities Council - a truly wonderful organization and reoccuring gift to Idaho – brought him to Boise for the Council’s annual Distinguished Lecture in the Humanities.

McCourt participated in a lunch for friends of the Council at the private The Arid Club in Boise. He was impressed with the fancy lunch and the good conversation, but really enjoyed more than anything, I believe, an hour long stop we made at Capitol High School to visit with teachers and students. Frank McCourt spent years teaching in the New York public schools before he became an overnight sensation with the publication of Angela’s Ashes. He took command of the classroom at the high school, his Irish humor (frequently more than a little randy) and charm in full flower. Most of all I remember his care with the kids and his interest in what they were reading and writing.

Asked once about the most difficult aspect of teaching, McCourt said:

“Energy and patience. The gap between the adult and the kid is so great. You have to go where they are and have compassion.”

Frank McCourt struck me as being like that one special teacher most of us were lucky enough to have in our lives. He is the teacher you never forget.

The haunting, yet funny lines from the opening page of Angela’s Ashes keep coming back:

When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”

McCourt’s obit in the New York Times is worth a look. And, if you haven’t read Angela’s Ashes, hurry and find a copy.

Being an Irishman, Frank McCourt was known to enjoy a bit of the whiskey. As I recall, he favored Bushmill’s Black. Remembering the teacher and author seems reason enough to pour a little taste.

Cronkite…Broadcast Journalism’s Gold Standard

Cronkite This photo, Walter Cronkite announcing the death of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963, is probably how many of us will remember the quintessential CBS anchor.

It’s been noted extensively since Cronkite’s recent death at age 92, that he was a “working reporter” even as he became “the most trusted man in America” and largely invented the role of “anchorman.” As a former TV reporter, who lived for the excitement of live, election night coverage, I still marvel at Cronkite’s ability to maintain poise and deliver serious content while anchoring coverage of a space mission or a raucous political convention.

Among the many tributes I’ve seen since Cronkite’s death, two stand out.

My colleague, John MacDonald, a former Associated Press editor and reporter, served up as nice a rememberance of as any I have read: http://www.newwest.net/topic/article/walter_cronkite_eyes/C559/L559/

And Pat Murphy, a former editor of the Arizona Republic, who now lives in the Wood River Valley in Idaho where he writes for the Idaho Mountain Express, had a wonderful piece about Cronkite and a dinner any of us would have enjoyed attending. http://www.mtexpress.com/index2.php?ID=2005127038

At his best, and Cronkite was frequently at his best with coverage of Vietnam and civil rights, he demanded that his “correspondents” (a revered titled at CBS) challenge the dinnertime viewer. Were, as Pat Murphy suggests, the network news divisions given a half hour every night to report what “viewers wanted to hear” or what “they needed to know?”

It was Cronkite’s considered judgment – the editorial judgment of an old United Press International (UPI) reporter – that determined the story content of the nightly “broadcast” The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite was never a “news program” or “show.” Playing the role of Managing Editor, Cronkite served up what we needed to know as opposed to what might have gone down easier with a TV dinner.

Cronkite’s broadcast anchored a different time, before 24-hour news cycles and endless “talking heads” on cable. It is a time long gone and Cronkite’s passing begs the question: can any reporter or news organization command such respect again? More importantly, perhaps, do we news consumers care any more about Cronkite’s type of content? Do we want journalism to challenge us…or give us an escape from what we really need to know?

In a 1996 inteview with the Newseum, Cronkite was asked about his regrets. Not surprisingly he had some: http://www.newseum.org/news/news.aspx?item=nh_CRON090714_2

It is a cliche that the old UPI man would have abhorred, but we’ll not see his like again.

Unfortunately, that’s the way it is.

Supreme Appointments…Then and Now

BORAHWelcome to The Johnson Post…

I’ll hope from time to time to offer some historical context and perspective on Idaho and regional issues and personalities.

Please let me know what you think and check back often.

No better place to begin than the current Supreme Court confirmation story and a little historical context concerning a great Senator from Idaho – William E. Borah.

It appears all but certain that Judge Sonia Sotomayor will be confirmed as only the third woman and the first Hispanic to sit on the Supreme Court of the United States. Even given the attention paid to the Judge’s “wise Latina” comment, the hearings lacked much drama or controversy. As Frank Rich noted (http://www.nytimes.com/opinion) the drama “tanked faster” than Fred Thompson’s presidential campaign.

Prior to the onset of the modern Supreme Court confirmation ritual, the advise and consent responsibilities of the United States Senate were usually handled in a much quieter way than we have come to expect. Drama was the exception to be sure.

Borah: A Champion of Quality Nominees

For example, one of Idaho’s greatest political figures, Senator William E. Borah, had a major and frequently behind the scenes hand in influencing a number of Supreme Court appointments during his 30-plus years in the Senate. Two appointments he championed in the 1930’s rank today as among the greatest Supreme Court justices ever.

For more on Borah: http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=B000634

In 1932, as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Borah lobbied hard for the nomination of the chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals Benjamin N. Cardozo. Cardozo was a brilliant legal scholar and widely respected leader of what was at the time the most important state court in the country. President Herbert Hoover was initially reluctant to name Cardozo, in part, because New York was already represented on the court and Cardozo, like Associate Justice Louis Brandeis, was Jewish. (Some Hoover advisors apparently counseled against two Jews on the court.)

For more on Cardozo: http://www.oyez.org/justices/benjamin_n_cardozo

None of these calculations mattered in the least to Borah who went to the White House to personally make his case for Cardozo to the president. “Cardozo belongs to Idaho as much as he does to New York,” Borah told Hoover.

Hoover listened to the sale pitch and handed the Idaho Senator a list of names he had under consideration for the high court. Borah read the list and took note of Cardozo’s name at the very bottom. “Your list is alright,” Borah said, “but you handed it to me upside down.”

Hoover always maintained that he alone came to the decision to appoint the eminent Cardozo to the Supreme Court, but its hard to believe that the forceful advocacy of the powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hadn’t carried a little weight. By most every standard, Benjamin N. Cardozo ranks as one of the greatest justices in the history of the Supreme Court.

A few years later, in 1937, Borah staunchly backed the Supreme Court confirmation of the Democratic Senator from Alabama Hugo L. Black.

For more on Black: http://www.oyez.org/justices/hugo_l_black

Franklin D. Roosevelt had appointed Black, a down-the-line New Dealer, in the immediate wake of his failed plan to enlarge the Supreme Court. Black was one of only 20 senators who held out to the very end in favor of Roosevelt’s “court packing.” Many Senators, Democrats included, saw Black as less than qualified – he’d been a police court judge in Birmingham – and deemed his nomination an effort by FDR to rub salt in the court packing wounds. Borah saw something else in Black’s qualifications and took to the Senate floor to defend the Democrat against allegations that Black had not really disavowed his one-time membership in the Ku Klux Klan. One wag said, as Black headed for the Supreme Court, that “he didn’t need new robes, he could just dye the old ones.”

Hugo Black survived that early controversy and over 34 distinguished years on the Supreme Court gained a reputation as a great defender of the First Amendment.

Borah was a power in the Senate at a time when interest group politics barely, if at all, entered the debate around a nominee for the Supreme Court. When Borah helped influence the nomination and confirmation of two of the great justices of the 20th Century, judicial philosophy, while important, was relatively less important than judicial scholarship or raw intelligence.

The Supreme Court confirmation process was a good deal different in the 1930’s than what we saw unfold between Judiciary Committee Senators and Judge Sotomayor. It’s worth remembering that the quieter, more low key process typical in Borah’s era did produce a Cardozo and a Black.

Not a bad outcome.