Archive for October, 2009

Weekend Potpourri

In No Particular Order

Crapo Draws “Opponent”

Idaho Senator Mike Crapo, occupying (and defending in 2010) what is perhaps the safest seat in the Senate, has an opponent. Sort of.

Betsy Russell in the Spokesman-Review has the story of a New York resident – always a part of a winning political resume in Idaho – announcing that he’ll take on the two term GOP incumbent. Other than not living in the state, the new challenger may have other issues with Idaho voters. He’s never been west of Buffalo, for example. And not Buffalo, Wyoming, either

Here is a key paragraph from Betsy’s story: “(William) Bryk, for his part, has run for offices including district attorney, state legislature, city council and Congress, but has never been elected. He ran for Congress as a Democrat in 1980; and eight years after his New Hampshire win on the GOP ticket in 2000, ran again for vice president there as a Democrat, and lost.”

Last time, Crapo gathered in 99% of the vote against various write-ins. I think you can safely keep this one in the “leans overwhelmingly GOP” column.

A Udall Comes Out for Nuclear Power

Here is a man-bites-dog story from Colorado.

Democratic Senator Mark Udall delivered a speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate this week saying it was time for the nation to reconsider nuclear power. Udall said he hoped new nuclear facilities could be constructed over the next decade and then added: “For some, news that a Udall is speaking favorably about nuclear power will come as a stark – and perhaps unpleasant – surprise.” Udall’s father – Mo – the great Arizona congressman, campaigned for the White House in 1976 in opposition to nuclear power.

There was immediate speculation that Udall’s stance would draw serious environmental push back, but his positioning on the issue could also have a “Nixon goes to China” quality in that it may prompt other Democrats with environmental credentials to re-examine long held positions on nuclear power.

The Times on “The Big Burn”

New York Times on-line columnist Tim Egan – his new book is called “The Big Burn” – will be featured in the Sunday Times Book Review. The Times offers a generally strong review, something the book deserves as I’ve noted here before, but it wouldn’t be the Times if the review didn’t offer a bit of snark, even for one of its own. Egan was also a great interview this week on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terri Gross.

Afghanistan Policy

Everyone it seems has advice for the president on Afghanistan. Two thoughtful pieces over the last few days are worth a view: Christopher Buckley cites the reasoning of a former Marine-turned-State Department official, Matthew P. Hoh, who resigned recently over the Afghan war and Ted Sorensen, the former JFK speechwriter, offers up what may be the worst possible analogy for Obama – Afghanistan is already his Vietnam.

A Great Humanities Event

On Thursday, the Idaho Humanities Council’s 13th annual Distinguished Lecture was delivered by the superb Lincoln scholar, Harold Holzer. Holzer’s talk focused on how every president, since at least Teddy Roosevelt, has appropriated Lincoln – his words and deeds – to fit their own needs and circumstances, often unfairly.

Republicans naturally claim the political Lincoln, but Holzer’s survey made the case that Democrats, starting with Woodrow Wilson and continuing to Barack Obama, make some legitimate claims on the great president, as well.

Lincoln’s legacy clearly weaves through the political reality of the two major parties swapping positions and geography over the last century. FDR largely took the African-American vote, that had been solidly GOP since the Civil War, to the Democratic Party during the New Deal and Richard Nixon broke up the “solid south” after Lyndon Johnson picked up the mantle of civil rights in the 1960’s.

Holzer diplomatically took a pass when asked if Lincoln were alive today would he be a Republican or a Democrat. He did point out that Lincoln was a fan of big public works projects and he did push a civil rights agenda. The interesting thing to consider is that through the evolution of the two major parties since Lincoln’s day, the great president’s priorities still stay in the mainstream of American political thought.

Holzer, author of 34 books, including an award winning book about Lincoln’s coming to national prominence by virtue of his speech at Cooper Union in New York in 1860, has also had a major hand in a grand Lincoln exhibit at the New York Historical Society.

Harold Holzer is a really nice fellow and a very engaging speaker. If you get a chance to hear him talk on Lincoln and the presidency – do it.

Eighty Years Ago Today

Panic on Wall Street“Black Tuesday” Marked Slide Into Great Depression

There is some modestly good economic news this morning in contrast to this day 80 years ago when crowds gathered on Wall Street in New York sensing the economic worst had happened.

Third quarter GNP growth was at a healthy 3.5% indicating to some that the recession is definitely over and, according to the Washington Post, the stimulus efforts are having the desired impact.

Predicting the economy is, however, somewhat akin to predicting post-season baseball performance. I figured Phillies’ lefthander Cliff Lee would pitch a strong World Series opener last night, but hardly expected him to dominate the fearsome Yankee line-up. On a cold, rainy night in the Bronx, Cliff Lee was simply splendid and his one nine inning performance may – no firm prediction – have reset the Series.

So, in case you are tempted to assume an attitude of irrational exuberance over the apparently improving economic numbers, consider the following quote from the very smart financier Bernard Baruch. By 1900, at age 30, Baruch had a sterling Wall Street reputation and a million bucks – a lot of money back in the day.

Two weeks after “Black Tuesday” in 1929, Baruch consoled his friend Winston Churchill with an encouraging note. The future British Prime Minister had taken a bath in the market meltdown and Baruch, counselor to presidents and prime ministers, wrote in a cablegram to Churchill: “Financial storm definitely passed.”

That was November 15, 1929.

So much for predictions. The Great Depression would last another decade. My fearless prediction: recovery to continue, slow and steady, but don’t bet on it.

Dithering or a Strategy?

A Lesson from History

Within the stark building that houses the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa – perhaps the most anti-war war museum I’ve ever visited – is a relatively small exhibit devoted to one of the greatest blunders of the Second World War – the 6,000 man raid on the French port city of Dieppe in 1942.

Canadian bravery on the beaches of Dieppe is celebrated in the exhibit, not so the nearly criminal decision making that brought about the disaster.

As the photo nearby gruesomely explains, the Dieppe Raid – poorly conceived, horribly lacking from a strategy and planning perspective, and in no way adequately supported by naval and air forces – cost the lives of more than 1,000 brave Canadian infantrymen and British Marines in the space of a few short hours. Another 2,300 men were captured on the beaches in front of Dieppe and hundreds more of the wounded were evacuated back to England. The then-new British tank, the Churchill, saw action for the first time at Dieppe and most of the armor was left burning and destroyed as the survivors fought desperately to shed their weapons, get back to landing craft and escape across the English Channel.

In the annals of historic military disasters, Dieppe ranks high – or, perhaps, low.

What didn’t go wrong at Dieppe was the bravery of the mostly Canadian troops who went ashore at first light on the 19th of August. What did go wrong was the planning, larded with hubris, that marked virtually every step on the way to the death of so many of those brave men. No historian of the Raid has ever questioned the courage and resolve of the Canadians and to this day Dieppe conjures up a particularly melancholy memory among those who remember the sacrifice. Those who conceived and ordered the Raid have, in the fullness of time, been found wanting at every turn.

As historian Robin Neillands has written in his story of the raid: “If common sense had ruled the day rather than hubris,the Raid would either have been cancelled or the plans drastically revised. It was not one of those operations that begin well and then deteriorate. It failed from the very first moment the troops stepped ashore and got worse thereafter.”

Only later, as Neillands points out, was the Dieppe adventure justified – by Lord Louis Mountbatten, among others – as a trial run for the Normandy invasion in 1944. In none of the pre-Raid discussions had that rationale ever emerged as a reason for landing at Dieppe. Only later did it also become clear that virtually all of the assumptions made by the planners of the Raid were wrong. They underestimated German military strength and capability. They casually rejected what turned out to be the absolute necessity of naval and air support for the landings. And, amazingly, very senior British and Canadian military men and their civilian bosses dismissed the complexity of getting men and equipment both on and off a beach, under intense enemy fire, and all in the space of one high tide.

What was fundamentally wrong at Dieppe – and to draw the historical parallel to the current debate about the next steps in Afghanistan – was a sound, achievable objective. The Raid had no real purpose. At a time when British troops had suffered setback after setback, and before American GI’s were engaged in combat anywhere, the Raid would apparently prove that offensive action against the German Army was possible. As a result, the effort to put Allied troops on a French beach took on a life – and death – of its own as political and military leaders made the worst possible mistakes. They assumed that in war the best will happened and they planned for the obvious, not the possible. In the end, the planners of the Dieppe Raid failed, at any point, to stop, question, assess and ask the awkward question – including the most basic question – what are we trying to accomplish?

It is difficult to tell from the news coverage of the current Afghanistan strategy review – coverage heavily influenced by political calculations from the White House, the Congress and the last administration, particularly Dick Cheney – what is really being considered. Is our Afghan mission to destroy Al-Qaeda (and capture or kill the elusive Bin Laden), are we trying to defeat the Taliban, are we trying to prop up and then reform a corrupt Afghan regime, or are we trying to bring a 21st Century democracy to a tribal nation that, by most accounts, has never had a stable central government?

Not unlike the questions that should have confronted those who conceived the Raid on Dieppe in 1942, the questions in Washington today are simple to ask, but very hard to answer: What are we trying to accomplish and what must be done to realistically achieve success?

None of this is to question the bravery or commitment of the soldiers, airmen and Marines deployed – and likely deployed in the future – to Afghanistan. The troops will try to do whatever is asked of them without question. Leaders must have the wisdom and cold-eyed clarity to ask them to achieve objectives that really are possible and not based on fuzzy strategy or mere wishful thinking.

The great military historian B.H. Liddell Hart once wrote: “Throwing good money after bad is foolish. But to throw away men’s lives where there is no reasonable chance of advantage is criminal.”

With due respect to the former vice president, trying to get a strategy right is hardly dithering. In fact, it is altogether fitting and proper to question, debate and analyze before committing men and women to battle, or continuing battle. If there is any enduring lesson from the last half century of American military deployments it must be that asking and answering the “what are we really trying to do” question is essential.

After the Dieppe Raid had come to a disastrous end after just a few hours on the killing ground of that narrow French beach, a German interrogator said to one of the Canadian prisoners: “Too big for a raid, too small for an invasion…what were you trying to do?”

That is a very good question – always – when American troops are sent to war. What are we trying to do? A little dithering (or thinking) in the interest of developing a real strategy – a strategy with a chance to realistically succeed – can be a very good thing. Let’s hope we get it right.

Establishing a Vision

ArizonaArizona Seeks Better Jobs, Environmental Protection

A fascinating series of stories in the venerable Arizona Daily Star, the Tucson paper, reporting on a massive statewide public opinion survey conducted by the Gallup organization and commissioned by the Center for the Future of Arizona.

The survey effort is designed to build upon a statewide visioning exercise and has resulted in an impressive action report – The Arizona We Want.

As the Star reported: “‘Most states don’t tend to have a vision,’ said Lattie Coor, chairman and CEO of The Center for the Future of Arizona and Arizona State University president emeritus. ‘The Arizona We Want’ report was released this month.”

Perhaps it is no big surprise that quality, 21st Century jobs topped the list of Arizona priorities, followed by protecting the state’s natural wonders and improving opportunities for young people.

Like most of the rest of the West, Arizona’s political leadership is locked in a prolonged battle over budget cutting and fiscal priorities. The state has a huge deficit to address and a legislature not often on the same page with the governor. So, it is also not surprising that the Gallup survey finds that folks in Arizona have lost confidence in their political leadership. A remarkable finding: only 10% of those surveyed, and it was a huge sample of 3,600 interviews, expressed confidence that the state’s political leadership would look out for their interests.

An old saying comes to mind: If you don’t know where you’re going any road will get you there.

Some in Arizona are trying to determine where the state is going. At least that much is encouraging.

A Long, Slow Recovery

Idaho Struggles to Regain Economic Footing

Years ago when Idaho’s economy was built around timber, mining and agriculture, the state tended to come late to a recession and leave early. No more apparently.

At the annual Idaho housing conference, organized by the Idaho Housing and Finance Association, the state’s top economist, Mike Ferguson, predicted an agonizingly slow recovery in Idaho. Ferguson opining that it could be a year from now before the Idaho economy really starts to feel like it is growing even modestly.

Other participants in a panel on issues and trends in Idaho – Bob Uhlenkott and Randy Schroll of the Idaho departments of Labor and Commerce, respectively, and health insurance industry watcher Elwood Cleaver – generally agreed. Slow recovery is the expectation and unemployment could go higher. Idaho’s current unemployment rates slumps at 8.9%.

Brad Carlson at the Idaho Business Review has another estimate of the not exactly gloomy, but still very measured outlook.

Ferguson, the long-time state economist, made a telling point when he said that Idaho’s economy has suffered more than might once have been the case during the current downturn thanks to Micron downsizing in the high tech sector, Albertson’s (now Supervalu) headquarters departure from Boise and the demise of the much touted, but now bankrupt resort at Tamarack.

The increased diversification of the Idaho economy since the 1970’s has been a good thing, but at the cost perhaps of having the state’s economy behave more like the rest of the nation when a slide begins.

Always looking for a silver lining, I would note one minor growth area in the Idaho economy. The No. 1 Idaho wolf tag has sold to a North Carolina bidder for $8,000. I wonder, does that qualify as foreign investment?

The Big Burn

The Big Burn by Tim EganPositive Notices Roll in for Egan’s Latest

As I noted in this space a while back, Tim Egan’s new book – The Big Burn - is a winner both as western (especially Idaho) history and as a cautionary tale about natural resource policy.

Publisher’s Weekly gave the book a starred review and Kirkus said it is a must for any “green bookshelf.”

Egan’s work deserves a wide audience and appears to be getting one based upon accolades so far.

The Seattle Times said: “The Big Burn shows off Egan’s writerly skills and will bring attention to both how the Northwest was won — with big timber at the front — as well as the current debate over fire prevention in the wilderness.”

The Washington Times, a newspaper not likely to embrace much of what Egan writes in his New York Times column, nonetheless loved his book: “Not since David McCullough’s 1968 The Johnstown Flood grabbed readers and hurled them down the narrow Conemaugh Valley to certain doom can I remember a natural-disaster yarn that yanks one by the back of the neck face to face with horror the way Timothy Egan’s The Big Burn brings the great Western fire of 1910 over the mountain to destroy the town of Wallace, Idaho.”

The Oregonian’s review focused on the heroes of Egan’s story: “Timothy Egan loves the story of Ed Pulaski and tells it with relish, gesturing with his arms and lowering his voice to imitate Pulaski. He also loves the story of Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, the future president and the first chief of the Forest Service, stripping to their underwear and wrestling to seal their friendship in 1899.”

The Idaho Statesman’s Rocky Barker has a good piece on the book and, like me, loves the story of forester Pulaski who left his family during the worst of the great fire to march back into the woods to help his trapped firefighters.

In a long essay on the first chief of the Forest Service, Pennsylvanian Gifford Pinchot, who plays a center role in The Big Burn, the Philadelphia Inquirer said: “Central to Egan’s story are the nation’s forests themselves. And Pinchot’s efforts to conserve them.”

And, the Christian Science Monitor says: “What makes The Big Burn particularly impressive is Egan’s skill as an equal-opportunity storyteller. By this I mean that he recounts the stories of men and women completely unknown to most of us with the same fervor he uses to report the stories of historic figures.”

For Idaho history buffs, Egan’s book also resurrects one of the state’s true political characters, Senator Weldon Heyburn, who has mostly been forgotten.

The Twin Falls Times-News notes that the mean-spirited Heyburn was a “hard man to like” and that, “In his hometown of Wallace, the U.S. senator from Idaho once stopped a visiting band in mid-performance and ran it out of town because he didn’t like a tune it was playing.”

Heyburn State Park near Plummer, Idaho – the oldest park in the Northwest – is named after the Senator. After you read Tim Egan’s book, you may well conclude that renaming the park to honor Ed Pulaski would make some sense.

The Big Burn is as good a piece of northwest political, cultural and public policy history – all in the wrappings of an adventure story – as we’ve seen in a long time.

Go read it.