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Wise Guys

simpsonDebt and Taxes, Cuts and Clowns

Al Simpson, the former Republican Senator from Cody, Wyoming, is one of an increasingly rare breed in American public life. He actually thinks that once in a while our political system must try and mobilize in order to address a real problem; a real problem like the out of control deficit.

Talk to almost any thinking person in Washington, Republican or Democrat, and they will privately say what most folks in the country instinctively know. We’re broke. The deficit is a huge and growing danger. The Chinese hold our debt. Spending, particularly on entitlements, is out of control. In Al Simpson speak, the country is “going to the bow-wows.”

There are only two options and they must work together. Spending must be cut and taxes must be raised. Yet for the political right raising taxes is the third rail of American politics; a touch brings certain political death. Resisting spending cuts is every bit as much liberal orthodoxy. Still, every serious person in politics, business and the media knows both ends need to come to the middle, yet the political gridlock of Washington allows no one to move and few have the courage to talk seriously about the problems.

The old line about what constitutes a political gaffe comes to mind: in Washington, a gaffe occurs when a politician speaks the truth.

Enter Al Simpson. The tall, bald guy has a grand sense of humor. He speaks his mind. He cracks wise. He pokes big egos. He’s not afraid to commit a gaffe. The hard right hates him.

“He’s old and grumpy, and he doesn’t like the Reagan Republican Party,” according to Grover Norquist one of the influential leaders of the no taxes, never, no how crowd.

[Norquist, by the way, has a selective memory about the Reagan record. Reagan both cut and raised taxes during his two terms. Al Simpson would remember that bit of trivia, but clearly that story line doesn’t fit with the conventional wisdom of the right or left and that is part of the problem.]

Simpson was profiled in the New York Times last week because – what was he thinking – he agreed to co-chair the bipartisan commission appointed by President Obama to recommend actions to reduce the federal deficit. Simpson is already sharpening up his tongue, saying he knows he’ll catch hell from “Rush babe” and others who “babble into the vapors” while whistling past the deficit grave yard.

The political left won’t get serious either, vowing to defend to the death sacred cow spending programs. If you need any more proof of the dysfunction in Washington, I would note that Democrats and Republicans couldn’t even agree on forming the deficit commission. Obama launched it with an executive order after Senate Republicans balked. At the same time, so called “progressives,” including people who ought to know better, initially refused to sign up. Some, meanwhile, have come around.

The Concord Coalition is a sober and respected advocate for doing what needs to be done to get the deficit under control. As the Coalition, chaired by former Senators Warren Rudman and Bob Kerrey, a Republican and a Democrat, points out, both parties have made this mess.

“Consider what has happened over the last decade,” the Coalition says on its website. “In January 2001, Congress had a very nice ‘problem’ on its hands: what to do with a projected 10-year budget surplus of $5.6 trillion. At that time, the projected surplus for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2009 was a mind-boggling $710 billion.”

What really happened in the last decade, of course, created the mess: big tax cuts, big spending increases, two wars fought on credit, a great recession and bam – fiscal chaos.

Again, the Concord Coalition: “In 2009, for example, Congress spent $826 billion more on programs than had been projected in 2001. Taxes were cut by $363 billion. Additional debt service stemming from these legislated changes cost $225 billion. That comes to a negative impact of $1.4 trillion. In other words, the $1.4 trillion deficit in 2009 can be entirely attributed to the $1.4 trillion of legislation enacted by Congress since January 2001.”

Republicans controlled the Congress for part of that time, Democrats part of the time. A Republican was in the White House, a Democrat is there now. Everybody is responsible, but will anyone do anything?

The witty and wise Christopher Buckley doesn’t think so. He notes that the recommendations of Blue Ribbon Commissions collect dust on shelves all over Washington. The last big commission – The Iraq Study Group – recommended an exit from Iraq and, as Buckley says, “What happened? The surge.”

That said, I’m pulling for Simpson and his Democratic co-chair, former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles. For certain, Simpson will need his sense of humor to sustain him as he picks his way through this thankless thicket. Al once said, “In your country club, your church and business, about 15 percent of the people are screwballs, light weights and boobs and you would not want those people unrepresented in Congress.”

If Simpson’s percentage figure is right, here’s hoping he can appeal to enough of the remaining 85 percent to get serious about this huge national crisis. If not, bring on the bow-wows.

Stewart Udall

One of the Great Conservation Secretaries

When the history is written of conservation politics in the 20th Century, I’m sure four Secretaries of the Interior will figure prominently. Stewart Udall, who died last Saturday, will certainly be on the list.

As the New York Times noted, Udall’s record of engineering new National Parks is undeniable. He had a major hand in creating the North Cascades in Washington, the spectacular Canyonlands in Utah and the National Seashore on Cape Cod during the eight years he served under John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. The Wilderness Act was passed on his watch.

The Udall family statement, issued by New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall, noted that his father was the last surviving member of President Kennedy’s original Cabinet.

I’ve always loved the story of how Udall engineered naming RFK Stadium in Washington. Udall figured out how to outfox Lyndon Johnson. Few people can claim that distinction. Jeff Shesol tells the story in his fine book – Mutual Contempt – which deals with the complicated and toxic relationship between LBJ and Bobby Kennedy.

Shesol told C-Span’s Brian Lamb on Booknotes that naming the stadium after the assassinated former Attorney General did not originate with Udall, but the Secretary quickly embraced the notion when it was suggested to him by Kennedy partisans. LBJ actually hoped that the relatively new stadium, called DC Stadium prior to 1969, might be renamed to honor him.

As Shesol said:

“Because the stadium was built on national park land – the Anacostia Park…the secretary of the interior, with a quick dash of his pen, could rename the stadium without having to ask the president’s permission. And so they conspired to do this and they also conspired to do it on the very last day of the Johnson presidency so that the president could not countermand the order. So Udall went ahead and did this and Johnson was, of course, outraged, but there was nothing he could do. It had already been announced and leaked to the press.”

The Los Angeles Times obit noted that Udall, who was 90 at the time of his death, had just a few years ago “trekked with a grandson 7,000 feet up Bright Angel Trail, from the floor of the Grand Canyon to the South Rim. He refused a National Park Service offer of a mule. His family ‘wouldn’t have liked it if I hadn’t made it,’ he noted, ‘but what a way to go.’ Upon completing his ascent, he headed straight into the bar at the Tovar Lodge and ordered a martini.”

Stewart Udall will be remembered as one of the greats. I’d nominate three others to join him as the Interior greats of the 20th Century:

New Deal-era Secretary Harold Ickes created the modern Interior Department and defined the job that he served in longer than anyone. Ickes was a fascinating character and a major political figure in the first half of the last century.

I’m biased, but I think my old boss, Cecil Andrus, who pulled off the greatest conservation accomplishment of all time with the Alaska Lands legislation and engineered 11th hour protections of several rivers in California on the last day of the Carter Administration, is certainly in the same company with Ickes and Udall.

And my list would include Bruce Babbitt, an often unpopular secretary in the West, who nevertheless brought a conservation ethic back to Interior after the less than distinguished conservation tenure of the Reagan and first Bush Administrations.

Ickes, Andrus, Babbitt and Udall. I’d like to have dinner and a martini and talk a little conservation politics with those four guys.

Six Degrees of Separation

BerezkhovThe Day I Met Stalin’s Interpreter

My old friend and former business partner Chris Carlson has a belief about meeting a total stranger. Chris contends that if you talk long enough and ask enough questions about the stranger’s friends, family, job and geography you’ll discover some person you both know. I’ve seen him do it and I’m a believer. It is a small world.

It has been said that we are all connected to everyone else by no more than “six degrees of separation” and often it’s really only one or two degrees of separation.

This then is the story of my, dare I say it, one degree of separation with Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler and most of the other leading figures of World War II.

As I mentioned in a recent post, I have been enjoying a fine new book about the historic and controversial Big Three conference of Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin at Yalta in 1945. The man who served as an interpreter for Stalin and Russian Foreign Minister Viacheslav Molotov – the Molotov Cocktail was named after him – was quoted in the book. I met and interviewed the interpreter for Stalin and Molotov in Moscow in 1984. As I look back on that encounter, it feels like my own first hand brush with the history and personalities that shaped the 20th Century.

Valentin Berezhkov – that’s his photo at the top of this post – had quite a life and I’m confident my interview wasn’t on his Top Ten list of big events. In addition to providing translation services for Stalin at the wartime conferences with Roosevelt and Churchill, Berezhkov was present when Molotov and German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop – that’s the Ribbentrop who was executed after the Nuremberg war crimes trials – signed the Soviet-Nazi non-aggression pact in Berlin in 1941. That infamous deal divided Poland between the Russians and the Germans and cleared the way for Hitler to invade Poland and begin World War II. Later, when Hitler invaded Russia, Berezkhov burned papers at the Russian embassy in Berlin before the SS broke in and kept him captive until he could be exchanged for German diplomats who had been trapped in Moscow when war broke out.

Later in his life, Berezhkov was a writer and diplomat. He served in Washington and was often a spokesman for the Kremlin on a whole range of political, diplomatic and historical issues. He left Russia in 1991 and re-settled in California where he taught at Occidental College. Berezhkov died in 1998.

In 1984, I had the remarkable opportunity to make a reporting trip to the Soviet Union. My Idaho Public Television colleague at the time, Peter Morrill, now the general manager of Idaho PTV, and I accompanied a group of Idahoans on a “people to people” exchange. We spent more than two weeks in Moscow, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Minsk and Vilnius in Lithuania. The film Peter shot and the interviews we conducted were shaped into two documentaries. During the course of that remarkable trip – quite the adventure for an aspiring young reporter from Idaho – we spent an hour in the Russian capitol with Valentin Berezhkov. I still have his business card.

I confess to not understanding much about Berezhkov’s importance or personal story at the time of that interview. We had asked to speak with someone who could talk about the Russian experience during “The Great Patriotic War.” Our Soviet-era handlers offered him up and he spoke with authority and vividly about the horrible suffering of Russian civilians during the war. He treated us with genuine respect and kindness and seemed to take the rookies from Idaho seriously. I remember wondering just how much of what he told us was pure Soviet propaganda, carefully scripted for the rubes from the West.

When I read the new book on Yalta, and saw the reference to his role in the history of World War II, it all came together. This guy was an eyewitness to some of the greatest history of the 20th Century. He participated in some of the pivotal events that shaped the modern world. I wish now that I had been smart enough to ask him more and better questions.

In Berezhkov’s memoir, published in 1994, he recalled shaking hands with Hitler at the Fuehrer’s office in Berlin in 1940. ”His palm was cold and damp,” he wrote in the book, ”giving me an unpleasant sensation, as if I were touching a reptile.”

As the Independent noted in his obituary, during his translating career, Berezhkov, “to his continuing wonderment, met the entire Soviet leadership – and other world leaders as well, including Adolf Hitler, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee.”

In his memoir – At Stalin’s Side – Berezhkov writes with critical insight about how his own life spanned the century from the Bolshevik Revolution to “the disappearance of the great empire in which I lived all my life.” He acknowledges the great tragedies and the awesome failures of communism, but also remembers the sense of hope that existed before what he calls the ultimately “doomed” experiment of communism came crashing down. Late in his remarkable life, he wished for a democratic future for Russia and that his own grandson will enjoy a better life.

I am glad I met and talked, even for a few minutes, to an eyewitness to the history that fascinates me; the history that I can only read about. I’m also glad to know that Hitler handshake was unpleasant. After all, I shook the hand that shook that hand. Small world, indeed.

A Passion For Anonymity

FDRWhen the Staff Becomes the Story

What we now think of as the modern White House staff dates back to the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Before FDR – Woodrow Wilson, for example – presidents had a White House staff that basically included a secretary to handle correspondence and scheduling and maybe a typist or stenographer. Roosevelt changed all that just as he changed almost everything about the modern presidency and the operation of the White House.

When fear was expressed that FDR was engaging in executive empire building by expanding the White House bureaucracy, he famously responded that his assistants would be characterized by a “passion for anonymity.” What happened to that idea?

I’d be the first to concede that the demands of the 21st Century White House, at least in some respects, pale in comparison to those of FDR’s day. FDR didn’t have to deal with the 24 hour news cycle and most everything moved more slowly. Still, Roosevelt battled a depression and won a war with a handful of personal staffers who for the most part didn’t become household names or the subject of long profiles in the New York Times. There wasn’t a Rahm Emanuel or Karl Rove in the group.

I got to thinking about this while reading what was, at least for political junkies, the admittedly fascinating piece on Emanuel in last week’s Times Magazine. If the piece was intended to restore a certain calm to the No Drama Obama operation and tamp down the storyline that the president’s Chief of Staff is – take your pick – tired, discouraged, out of sorts or sync with his boss, too visible, too overbearing, a lightening rod, etc., it doesn’t seem to have worked.

Emanuel has been the subject of a Letterman Top 10 List, countless stories and even a sole-subject blog Rahmblr. The Rahmblr will be profiled, along with his brother, on “60 Minutes” on Sunday. Can you say overexposed?

I’m admittedly from the old school. FDR had it right. In my old school view, political aides, generally speaking, best serve the boss when they aren’t always part of the story. While there is something to be said for a political aide taking the arrows for the boss when the going gets tough, there is not much to be said for political staffers becoming the story.

After a campaign in 2008 where turmoil among Hillary Clinton’s staff and John McCain’s advisers seemed to define the out-of-control nature of both their campaigns, I had a naive notion that an Obama White House might not succumb to the usual inside the beltway fixation on who is doing what to whom among the president’s closest advisers. Naive indeed.

Political operations are unique beasts organizationally and culturally. There is nothing quite like them. Nonetheless, in at least one way, a political operation, be it the white hot White House or some backwater congressional office, are like corporate boardrooms or big league baseball locker rooms. When the antics of the CEO’s underlings or the third baseman’s relationship with the shortstop start to get more attention than the substance of the business or the score of the game, then the boss or the manager usually has a big problem.

Considering the qualities and intelligence of the people involved, it is amazing to me that Clinton and McCain didn’t immediately put a stop to the dysfunction in their staffs during the last campaign. Their failure to do so speaks volumes about their own management and leadership abilities. Stay tuned to see if Obama tolerates more of what seems to be the building drama in his organization.

I think I know what FDR might have done. He had a few trusted advisers – Louis Howe, Steve Early and Harry Hopkins, for instance – but he never let any one adviser totally dominate the administration or his thinking. He kept his own counsel, often not sharing his thinking while keeping his own staff guessing and agile, and he made sure that he, and he alone, made the big decisions.

A little more anonymity, and frankly modesty, from people who haven’t been elected to anything would be a good thing.

My old boss, Cece Andrus, the only fellow elected governor of Idaho four times and someone, as even his detractors admit, who knew how to work the levers and make decisions, used to remind his Statehouse staffers – me included – that “there are lots of names on doors around here, but only one name on the ballot.” In other words, I’m the boss and you work for me. Keep your head and your profile down and tend to business.

Words to govern by.

Knowing When to Quit

richardsonOur Culture of Non-Resignation

Elliot Richardson was the Attorney General of the United States when he resigned in 1973 rather than carry out an order he couldn’t agree with. Richardson, who looked (that’s him to the left) every inch a pillar of the GOP, eastern political establishment, was ordered by Richard Nixon to fire the special Watergate prosecutor. Richardson refused to carry out the presidential order and resigned – on principle. His deputy, William Ruckelshaus, also refused and he also resigned – on principle. The third ranking official at the Justice Department, Robert Bork, eventually fired Archibald Cox in a famous episode that came to be known as “the Saturday Night Massacre.”

The resignations of Richardson and Ruckelshaus were seismic in their impact, in part, because the principled act of resignation is so rare in our political culture. I wonder why?

In countries with a parliamentary system – Britain and Canada, for example – it is not uncommon, indeed it is expected, that when a politician loses a major policy debate, faces a loss of confidence, reaches a breaking point on policy, or is engulfed in scandal, they resign. Scandals in the British House of Commons involving members expenses have contributed to the substantial political troubles of the ruling Labour Party. If Labour loses the upcoming elections in Britain, some might consider that punishment enough for the string of ethical transgressions. Still, a number of British ministers and even the Speaker of the Commons have resigned related to the scandal. It is part of the political culture in a parliamentary democracy.

In fact, the propensity of British politicians to resign over scandal caused the Independent a while back to question whether resignations had become too common. Needless to say, that is not a problem here.

With the notable exceptions – thank goodness – of the truly weird Rep. Eric Massa and former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, the rule in American politics seems to be to hang on against all odds and the culture of not knowing when to quit is a bipartisan phenomenon.

South Carolina’s embattled GOP Gov. Mark Sanford has been twisting in the winds of scandal for months now, while the state’s political structure heaved under the on-going discussion of whether Sanford ought to be impeached. Sanford appears to be the last to realize that his “hike on the Appalachian Trail” – really a visit to his girl friend Buenos Aires – long ago rendered him ineffective and unable to do his job. The principled path would have been to accept that reality, resign, move on and work on rehabilitation. In such circumstances a decision to exit signals a strength of character; not a show of weakness. Still, it happens so rarely.

Democratic politicians in New York, most notably the Gov. David Paterson and Rep. Charles Rangel, are caught up in scandals. Quitting doesn’t seem to be an option for either man. The former governor of Illinois embarrassed himself and his state for weeks before being impeached and apparently never considered stepping down.

United States Senators routinely hang on in the face of scandal. Ted Stevens and Larry Craig come to mind. Even as Sen. David Vitter leads in the polls in Louisiana, a “porn star” is threatening to trivialize that state’s senate race by entering the contest and keeping Vitter’s admission of “serious sins” front and center in the current campaign. Just yesterday, a Las Vegas television station broke the news of a slew of subpoenas issued in a Justice Department ethics investigation involving Sen. John Ensign.

The rarity of a high profile political resignation due to scandal makes Bob Packwood’s exit from the Senate in 1995 and the departure of Harrison Williams in 1982 really stand out. Both resigned before the Senate could vote, almost certainly, to expel them. It wasn’t all that obvious at the time, but Packwood’s resignation proved to be the first step toward his rehabilitation. Williams spent three years in prison.

In 1915, then-Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan resigned to protest President Woodrow Wilson’s actions following the sinking by a German submarine of the passenger ship Lusitania. Bryan’s actions, principled in that he had been the foremost voice in the Wilson Administration in favor of U.S. neutrality in World War I, allowed him to credibly and aggressively speak out, which he did, as the president moved to support British and French war efforts.

Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, resigned in 1980 over his opposition to the rescue mission designed to free the U.S. hostages held in Iran. Vance voiced his opposition to the effort on the grounds that it would likely fail, which it did and disastrously so, and then – after the fact – he resigned. It was an act of courage and principle.

One wonders what the impact would have been in the darkest days of American involvement in Vietnam had a high official of the Johnson Administration – we know a number were quietly voicing skepticism over the course of the war – had resigned on the principle that they could no longer serve in a government with which they so profoundly disagreed. We now know that Robert McNamera harbored grave doubts about the country’s Vietnam policy, but unfortunately, another principle – political loyalty or maybe it was a lack of courage – kept him quiet. The one-time whiz kid spent his last years trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to explain himself.

Bryan and Vance, Richardson and Ruckelshaus. Their resignations were based on policy and principle and each is remembered today for an act of ethical courage. History has treated each well, but still such resignations are as rare as bipartisanship in Washington. Resigning in the midst of scandal remains just as rare in our politics

Who knows, a little more responsibility in the form of a quick resignation and exit from the political stage just might help rebuild voter confidence. That’s something the country could use about now. Quitting and leaving can truly display that there is something more important in public life than clinging to a job as long as possible, no matter the personal, political or policy cost.

In some cases the well-timed resignation also can preserve the chance for a comeback. It’s hard to envision a comeback for Eric Massa, but Spitzer is certainly trying and don’t bet against it.

Americans are usually a pretty forgiving bunch. Stay tuned for the second act in the Tiger Woods saga as proof of that American attribute. It is human nature to give the wayward a second chance, but only if responsibility is taken, the offender gets off the front page and out of the way and works hard to re-establish credibility.

More politicians, for purposes of principle and rehabilitation, should try it. Americans would come to expect and appreciate such acts of public acknowledgment, as the British have for years, and, who knows, there might be more honor and character in our politics. But, like the return of bipartisanship, I’ll not hold my breath.

Hard Times in Ireland

st. patrickRotten Economy, Sex Scandals…At Least There’s Yeats and Whiskey

St. Patrick’s Day has always been a bigger production in places like Boston, Chicago and Butte than in Dublin, Cork and Dingle. Good thing. There isn’t a lot to celebrate this St. Patty’s Day on the ol’ sod. The Celtic Tiger has become the sick kitten of the EU. Unemployment has soared, bankruptcy has flourished and real estate has tanked. No potato blight yet, thank goodness.

Additionally, the Irish Catholic Church is reeling from yet another clergy sex abuse scandal. The Irish Times called this week for the resignation of the Cardinal who, it is said, should have reported the 20-plus year old incidents to the authorities, well, 20 years ago. Predictably, Cardinal Sean Brady said he would not resign unless asked to do so by the Pope. Meanwhile, the Pope is expected any day to speak out on the Irish scandal, while he fends off questions about the growing sex abuse scandal that occurred during his time in Germany. Did you follow that?

Meanwhile, in the midst of a crisis over the Euro and the continuing fallout over the collapse of the Irish real estate bubble, an Irish writer, Ann Marie Hourihane, makes the case that ol’ St. Pat himself has fallen on hard times.

The old boy, she writes, “invested heavily in property during the boom, buying houses and apartments not only in Ireland but also in Wales, Brittany and even Scotland…(and) recently St. Patrick has had trouble sleeping. The crozier is in hock. It is an ignominious position for a saint who has worked so hard for, and been worked so hard by, his country.

“It’s not that St Patrick objects to us being poor – again. He loved us most during the centuries in which we were destitute, badly fed and flirting with cannibalism. As far as any patron saint who takes the long view is concerned, things have just about returned to normal.”

There you have it.

Even Guinness – remember, “It’s Good For You” – is facing new competition in, of all places, Britain where a cross between lager and bitter – black lager – grows in popularity. Talk about a scandal.

Nonetheless, amid the gloom, I’ll celebrate all things Irish today with a dram of Jameson (or Powers or Red Breast) and think particularly of the great Irish writers – Yeats, Wilde, Joyce, Beckett, Heaney, Shaw and one recent worthy, John Banfield. Thank God for the Irish writers.

I’ll also remember, apropos to the times perhaps, this great line from the great Yeats: “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”

Well said and so very Irish. On March 17th, we can all, at the very least, wish to be Irish. Happy St. Patrick’s Day.