Archive for September, 2009

Forrest Church

ForrestEloquence in Politics and Religion

Forrest Church, who died last week at 61, could, with his writings and sermons, be both strikingly eloquent and stunningly insightful. In that regard, he was clearly his father’s son.

It is a rare thing in public life these days to read the words or hear the voice of a truly eloquent thinker and writer. The late Idaho Senator – Frank Church – was that rare breed and so was his Unitarian minister son.

Back in January 1984, with his father dying of cancer, Forrest spoke to his Church of All Souls congregation in New York City about death and life.

He said that day that naturally all of us are afraid of death because “death is the ultimate mystery. But there is a way to counter this fear. We can live in such a way that our lives will prove to be worth dying for. It lies in our courage to love. Our courage to risk. Our courage to lose. Many people have said it in many different ways. The opposite of love is not hate. It is fear.”

Forrest Church was a man of religion and, importantly, a thinker about theology and all its mystery and uncertainty. He sought to make people think, not just believe. Forrest was also a skilled historian whose books on the basics of the American system, including freedom of speech, civil liberties and religion should be required reading for anyone who wants to struggle to undersand where we came from and where we might be going. A good collection of his writings can be found here.

In an Easter sermon in 2008, while battling his own cancer, Church said: “We all are children of God. We all are sinners. We all can be forgiven if we will refrain from harsh judgment. Love casts out fear. God is love. And only love remains. Only the love we give away.”

Both father – the Senator was 59 – and son died much too young, but what lives they lived.

Mistrusting the Government

ReaganOne Election Does Not “Change” the Country

Barack Obama has taken some grief, particularly among liberal Democrats, for making the observation (and repeating it) that Ronald Reagan’s two terms in the White House fundamentally “changed the trajectory” of the country in ways that Bill Clinton’s two terms, for example, did not.

Candidate Obama got into one of those pointless (but totally consuming, made for the media) debates with Hillary Clinton last year when he said that Reagan, “put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.” Clinton charged Obama with “admiring Reagan” and wondered how any self respecting Democrat could possibly say something even halfway flattering about the GOP’s favorite icon.

Obama’s obviously accurate analysis – Reagan did change the country – reminds me of the old line that in Washington, D.C. the definition of a gaffe is when a politician speaks the truth.

Writer and historian Matthew Dallek (a former Dick Gephardt speech writer and son of presidential historian Robert Dallek) has a great take at Politico on Obama’s own challenge in “changing the trajectory” of the country and rolling back “the culture of Reaganism” that he sees as “a remarkably resilient political force in late 2009.”

Matthew Dallek is a perceptive and not uncritical student of Reagan. He has written a fine book about Reagan’s first election victory - the California governorship in 1966.

There has long been – and remains – a healthy skepticism in America about government and about the whole notion of “change.” Even the great presidents, widely admired as agents of change – Lincoln, Jackson, FDR, to name three – didn’t find the job to be easy and all encountered tremendous resistence. So it goes with the current occupant of the White House.

News You May Have Missed

newspapersA (Random) Round-Up…

W. Horace Carter was hardly a household name. He should have been, at least for journalists and civil libertarians.

Carter won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 for his crusading, small-town newspaper editorials against the Ku Klux Klan. He wrote more than 100 stories and editorials about the Klan and his reporting lead to countless arrests and convictions for violations of civil rights. Gutsy stuff in Tabor City, North Carolina when Jim Crow still ruled the south. Carter’s recent obit in the New York Times is a fitting testament to the power of the press in the hands of a person determined to shine a bright light on injustice.

Packwood the Candid

Back in the day, Oregon Senator Bob Packwood held enormous regional and national power. The Northwest delegation at one time – Jackson and Magnuson of Washington, Church and McClure from Idaho, Hatfield and Packwood or Oregon – were as influential a half dozen as existed in the U.S. Senate. Packwood’s fall – he resigned amid scandal in 1995 – was dramatic, but he re-invented himself as a very successful lobbyist (all those years on the Finance Committee) and recently gave a fascinating interview to Willamette Week. Must reading for any political junkie.

Tweeting to Sacramento

Still not convinced that the “new media” is changing politics? Check out this posting from the L.A. Times “Top of the Ticket” blog. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, one of many candidates for governor, has a million followers. Ironically, another Sacramento hopefull, eBay founder Meg Whitman, is hardly in the game.

Light Rail – the Phoenix Story

I confess to not understanding the reluctance of some folks, in the west particularly, to embrace the need for rail (and light rail) transportation alternatives. The rail debate has raged in Phoenix for years, but now with a 20 mile line connecting Tempe and downtown Phoenix the ridership is exceeding expectations and seems to be helping the desert capitol of the southwest with economic development.

Elsewhere in the west, Salt Lake City and Portland are clearly ahead of the game when it comes to rail transit. The rest of the west is waiting – for what? Lower gas prices?

And Finally…

In one of the great dissents in Supreme Court history, Justice Louis Brandeis objected to warrantless wiretapping by the government. The case was decided in 1928, proving – if nothing else – that nothing ever seems to change.

In his dissent, the great justice penned one of the memorable lines in American jurisprudence. “The greatest dangers to liberty,” Brandeis wrote, “lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.”

Melvin Urofsky, the editor of Brandeis’ papers, has produced a new and timely biography of the fascinating judge and he makes the case that, “no justice of the 20th century had a greater impact on American constitutional jurisprudence.” Good reading. Good history.

Honoring Sustainability

Lava Lake LandLava Lake Land and Livestock Claims Andrus Award

Former Idaho Governor and Secretary of the Interior Cecil D. Andrus has devoted his life of public service to finding the delicate sweet spot between a robust economy that produces good jobs and the conservation of the land, air and water that make so much of the western United States such a special place.

Fifteen years ago, Andrus, fresh from his last of four terms as Idaho governor, had a major hand in helping launch Sustainable Northwest, a regional non-profit dedicated to helping nurture local collaboration aimed at sustainable economic development that fits with a conservation ethic. It is a terrific organization that has done much good work.

This Thursday night in Portland, Sustainable Northwest presents its annual awards – named after Andrus – to, among others, Hailey, Idaho’s Lava Lake Land and Livestock. Lava Lake produces – I’m biased, but I know my my lamb chops – the best grass-fed, organic lamb you can find anywhere. The ranch is the foothills of Idaho’s Pioneer Mountains just southeast of Sun Valley.

The ranch will be honored for its national leadership in sustainable agriculture and landscape scale conservation. Worthy recipients, great product, good for the economy and the environment.

Poverty in Idaho

That Could Be MeFood Stamp Usage, Crisis Assistance Stretch Providers; Families Try to Cope

Boise State Radio, the NPR station covering much of southern Idaho, has produced a remarkable series of stories this week focused on how the nation’s economic trials have impacted Idahoans.

It is the kind of journalism we sadly see too little of these days – no shrill political debate, none of the simple slogans that often tend to simplify an issue to the point of distortion. The station’s news staff has touched a raw nerve with this material – a young woman talking about not wanting to use food stamps, but having no choice and homeless families out of work and nearly out of hope.

The series – That Could Be Me – is available on line, at a website that lists a number of resources for those folks who often get attention only when unemployment numbers or food stamps usage is reported.

[Full disclosure: the station asked me to moderate a roundtable discussion with various providers and others who are trying to offer services and make sense of the enormous increase in poverty over the last year. The roundtable discussion airs several times over the next few days. It was a sobering experience to begin to understand the impact of what is happening.]

The 149,000 Idahoans using food stamps right now – that’s a 40% increase – aren’t welfare queens or shirkers, they are parents who have lost a job and in many cases have had to seek assistance for the first time in their lives. At the same time, public sector assistance has been stretched to the point of breaking and great organizations like the Salvation Army and Genesis World Mission lack the resources to fill the growing gap, much as they try.

For those of us who have it pretty good in this awful economy – a job with benefits, a comfortable safe place to live, never a wonder about where the next meal will come from – BSU Radio’s series is an uncomfortable wake up call. Thousands and thousands of our neighbors are really hurting. They need to be brought into the sunlight of public attention, not left in the often forgotten shadows of grinding poverty. This reporting does just that.

BSU Radio News Director Elizabeth Duncan and her team have given us all the evidence we need to realize that we all have a responsibility in this time of national trial.

All of the panelists who participated in the roundtable agreed, all of us need to know more about what living with poverty means, how it can impact an entire generation of children, how government budgets are woefully inadequate, how the very fabric of a community is frayed. This series is a good start. It will sober you up to the reality of a life of poverty in Idaho.

Remembering a Press Secretary

powellJody Powell…Advisor and Spokesman

The death this week of Carter Administration press secretary Jody Powell got me thinking about how he (and Jimmy Carter) fashioned the all important White House job.

Say what you will about the Carter Administration (I believe history will treat the one-term Georgian better than many contemporaries) Powell played the high profile role of press secretary just about right, I think. He was the rare press secretary who successfully mixed the duties of trusted advisor to the president with the ringmaster role of daily care and feeding of the White House press corps.

Franklin Roosevelt and his “secretary” Steve Early, invented the modern White House press operation and Powell played very much the same role in working with his president as Early did with FDR. (By the way, there is a fine recent book about Early and the key role he played – virtually deputy president to FDR – called The Making of FDR : The Story of Stephen T. Early, America’s First Modern Press Secretary.)

Current White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs seems to have the same portfolio – advisor and spokesman. It is a much different approach, and a better approach I think, than either of the Presidents Bush used or than Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton employed.

In the Steve Early, Jody Powell, Robert Gibbs model, the press secretary serves as advisor first, presidential flack second. The Clinton and Bush models seemed at times to be designed to make certain the press secretary knew as little as possible in the interest of never being able to really speak with authority for the president.

My long-time friend and business partner, Chris Carlson, knew and worked with Jody Powell during the Carter presidency. Chris ran the public affairs shop at the Department of the Interior for then-Secretary Cecil Andrus.

I asked him for a couple of anecdotes about Powell, the irreverent Georgia boy who with Hamilton Jordan, helped engineer Carter’s improbable presidential campaign in 1976.

“Yes, they had an irreverent attitude towards the ways of D.C., as did my then boss the incoming administration’s new Interior Secretary. Like Secretary Andrus, both Jordan and Jody actually placed their own phone calls rather than play the D.C. game of having a secretary place the call and see whose boss acknowledged the pecking order by getting on the phone first.

“Powell had little time for such games, and though he had a temper he also had a great sense of humor, could laugh at himself, the pretensions of the press and the absurdities of power politics. In the four years of the Carter Presidency he somehow managed to keep that sense of humor and he also recognized and respected what an asset Governor Andrus was to the President.


“When one of the most critical decisions involving Interior’s future had to be made, and Secretary Andrus had to go meet with the president and the inner circle of advisors – the Georgia mafia – to tell them the president’s long cherished goal of creating a new Department of Natural Resources had to be abandoned for lack of key political support, it was Jody Powell who weighed in first behind the secretary’s political judgment and helped to persuade a dubious president to see the wisdom of cutting his losses.

“Bottom line, Jody Powell was that rarity of rarities in D.C., a self-effacing, decent person who radiated intelligence and integrity, did a difficult job well and succeeded in part because of his basic decency and humanity. There aren’t many like him.”


As the New York Times noted in his obituary: “Mr. Powell had honed his style years before, when Mr. Carter was governor. Responding to a critic who accused his boss of “communistic” tactics against opponents of the busing used to desegregate schools, Mr. Powell wrote that one of a governor’s burdens was having to read ‘barely legible letters from morons.’

“’I respectfully suggest that you take two running jumps and go straight to hell,’ he continued.”

I can assure you that is something every press secretary has wanted to say.