Archive for April, 2010

The Great Twain

TwainClothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society. - Mark Twain

Of all the incredibly funny things he said, that is my single favorite Mark Twain quote. I smile every time I see it.

April has been Mark Twain month. I’ve seen articles about his death 100 years ago this month. His love of baseball. He was an investor in the Hartford Dark Blues, a team that folded after one season. The local newspaper said his investment in the shaky enterprise had firmly established his reputation as a humorist. Ouch.

There are an embarrassment of new books about Twain. Stories about the fabulous house, now a museum, he built in Hartford. Controversy over naming a cove on Lake Tahoe after him. And always the quotes.

“I am only human,” he said, “although I regret it.”

No less a writer than Ernest Hemingway said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn…”

One of the best new books is Mark Twain: Man in White by Michael Shelden. Shelden tells the story of Twain’s last years as a celebrity and how he came to wear the snow white suits we now identify as part of his “brand.” I have been reading the book and completely enjoying the story of a man of immense talent, big ego, huge humor and breathtaking originality. Shelden makes the case that Twain managed his own image as carefully as his prose.

My friends at the Idaho Humanities Council are devoting their summer institute for Idaho teachers to Why Mark Twain Still Matters. Watch for more information on public events during the week-long event in July.

Before Mark Twain there never was anything like him and there hasn’t been since. He may have been the ultimate American original. Go read him again and read about him. You’ll be better for it and, as Mom would say, “it will be good for you,” but most of all it will be great fun.

Much of what Mark Twain said more than a hundred years ago still seems relevant, like this which wasn’t said, but might have been, about Washington, D.C. and Goldman Sachs.

“The political and commercial morals of the United States are not merely food for laughter, they are an entire banquet.”

Oh, yes, Twain coined the term “Gilded Age” when talking about the economic excesses of the late 1800′s. The guy has been dead for a century, but he’s as fresh as this morning’s headlines.

Immigration Politics

immigrationA Short-term Bounce, Bad Long-term Politics

No matter your feelings regarding the merits of a single state – Arizona – taking action on immigration, there can be no doubt that what the state legislature and governor have done in the land of the Grand Canyon has set off another raging national debate. Boycotts are threatened. Lawsuits are planned.

Makes you wonder, as Linda Greenhouse wrote, what the ol’ libertarian Barry Goldwater would have thought about a bill that requires police to ask a person they only suspect of immigration violations for their papers.

The Arizona law has also, I suspect, firmly cemented the partisanship of immigration politics to the long-term detriment of the GOP.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who signed the controversial legislation, had hardly gotten her pen back in her pocket before some of the more strategic thinkers in the Republican Party – Jeb Bush a Floridian and Karl Rove a Texan – declared Arizona’s sweeping immigration legislation a big political mistake. The GOP’s U.S. Senate hope in Florida almost immediately put distant between the Arizona action and his candidacy. With a name like Marco Rubio that may not really be a big surprise, but it does signal a Republican problem.

Here’s why these Republican luminaries are worried. The demographics of America continue to change – and rapidly. According to the Pew Center’s profile of the nation’s Hispanic population, Hispanics now comprise at least 10% of the population in Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Utah. In Nevada, Hispanics make up 26% of the population. In Arizona, the number is 30% and in California its 37%. No wonder Meg Whitman, the California GOP gubernatorial candidate, immediately said there are better ways to address the issue than the Arizona approach.

The median age of the Hispanic population in Idaho is 22 and other states are slightly above or below that number. The median age of native born Hispanics in Idaho is 15. Ninety percent of young Hispanics in Arizona are U.S. citizens. Do the political math. The Hispanic population is growing. These are young families and in a decade or so they will be voting in much larger numbers than today.

The immigration legislation in Arizona may crystallize what is potentially a very tight race between Brewer and state Attorney General Terry Goddard, a Democrat. Depending upon the poll and the day, the lead in race is in constant flux. The debate in the great Southwest could also sharpen the partisan divide nationally as Democrats generally oppose the Arizona effort. By contrast, the GOP is all over the map.

For a long time the conventional political wisdom about this issue has held that the only real risk for a candidate was being too soft on immigration and that may hold for a while, but it is hard to argue with the numbers and the trends. If Democrats want a comeback strategy in a place like ruby red Idaho, they best start with understanding the demographics and aspirations of the growing Hispanic population. These Americans – and a generation of new voters – are up for grabs and Republicans, in Arizona at least, have sent a message – they’re not interested.

Democrats best get out the clip boards and start walking the neighborhood. Arizona just handed them an opportunity to organize, organize and organize. They don’t need to be in favor of anything except fairness and equal opportunity, old American values that will appeal to the fastest growing group of Americans.

The courts will eventually decide whether Arizona’s law is, as Rove suggested, fraught with Constitutional problems. The court of Hispanic public opinion may already be set to render a verdict that is fraught with real long-term political problems for Republicans.

A Reputation in Tatters

ambroseAmbrose Accused of Faking It

I’ve always had a soft spot for Stephen Ambrose the author of Undaunted Courage, the book that did more than anything, I think, to bring Lewis and Clark back from the dusty corners of American and Western history.

I have a vivid memory of visiting Ambrose at his summer place in Helena, Montana some years ago. It was a treat to be invited into his “office” – if I remember correctly a converted garage – where he wrote and where a photo of Dwight D. Eisenhower hung prominently on the wall.

Ambrose was a little on the gruff side, outspoken, but still gracious. He signed a couple of his books for me that day. At least, that’s how I remember it going. Then again, maybe I embellished the memory a little in the interest of making the experience a bit more, well, interesting.

I’ve been questioning my own memory about that meeting since I read, with more than a touch of sorrow, Richard Rayner’s piece in The New Yorker making a very solid case that Ambrose fabricated (embellished, made up, lied about) the level of interaction he had with Eisenhower during the time he was writing the general-president’s biography. Until now, the Ambrose works on Eisenhower have been considered the definitive story of Ike’s military and political career. No more.

Rayner documents, with the help of the meticulous records Ike’s assistants kept, of the very limited amount of time the historian spent with the former president in the 1960′s. Ambrose claimed hundreds of hours. The records show maybe five hours. The documentary evidence even calls into question Ambrose’s oft told story about how he came to write about Eisenhower.

As a result, as James Palmer notes, “everything Ambrose claimed Eisenhower said, including quotes that have often been used by other historians, must now be taken as false.”

Those who occasionally check in at this spot know that I am passionate about history. I have come to really disdain what some have called the American propensity for “historical amnesia.” It is a big part – and I don’t believe I overstate the case – of the reason our politics, our political discourse and our understanding of why things are as they are seems so limited so much of the time. A lack of historical perspective failed to inform the country about the dangers of going into Iraq, it recently led a governor of Virginia to proclaim Confederate History Month and forget to mention slavery, it permits a clown like Glenn Beck to get away with equating the Catholic (and other religions) tradition of social justice with “socialism.”

For the most part, Americans don’t know their history. So when popular historians like Stephen Ambrose find a wide following – he sold over 5 million books – a history buff can only rejoice that more people are paying attention. Except, what happens when the work of a popular historian is cast into serious doubt? And, not for the first time, regrettably.

In his OregonLive.com blog, Steve Duin recalls other of Ambrose’s misdeeds and the latest episode calls up his run-in with plagiarism related to his book about bomber crews in Europe during World War II. It is not a pretty record and his reputation as an historian, as they say, lays in tatters.

I have most of the books Ambrose wrote about Eisenhower. Until a couple of days ago, I thought of them as little temples to the times of a very important American. Now I’ll never think of those books the same way again. I’ll remember the kindness of their author, to be sure, but I’ll wonder what compelled him to mix fiction with history, particularly when the true story is so very interesting.

Winston Churchill famously quipped that history would be “kind” to him because he “intended to write it.” And, so he did producing one of the first and most voluminous histories of World War II.

Still, I can read Churchill knowing that what is on the page has been written by a participant in the great events; a participant colored by all his bias and desire to create a legacy and defend his actions. That doesn’t make Churchill’s version of history “bad” history, or less interesting, or without merit. You just know what you’re reading.

I used to read Stephen Ambrose’s words, naively it turns out, as the work of a keen, uninvolved, but still passionate, academically trained searcher for the “truth” in history. No more and that is a real shame.

Put a Clinton on the Court

Nope, Not Hillary…Bill

I know, I know, the 42nd President of the United States of America totes around just a little baggage – that whole impeachment thing – but appointing him to the Supreme Court may not be as crazy as it seems at first blush.

Consider four reasons why it would make sense for Barack Obama to put the former president where no former president has been since Warren Harding put William Howard Taft on the court in 1921.

  1. Obama needs a politician as much as a judge. Since he announced his retirement, much of the commentary about the long and distinquished career of Justice John Paul Stevens has focused on his remarkable ability to work the inside game on the Court, create a majority from time-to-time, provide intellectual leadership and craft the brilliant dissent that might eventually lead to a majority. Even his worst detractors would have to admit that Bill Clinton is a great politician; the smoozer in chief. You can just see him walking over the Justice Anthony Kennedy’s chambers and working his magic. Obama needs a person with Clinton’s political and personal skills to try and replace Stevens.
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  3. Clinton is a still young 64. If he lays off the cheeseburgers, he could spend a decade or more on the Court and be a huge player from the first day. We have no real tradition in America of getting value out of former presidents. We should. They leave office and are left to their own devices to find a way to put all the experience gained in the Oval Office to beneficial use. As a country, we invested a lot in the guy. Might as well get our money’s worth.
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  5. Obama will want to appoint a liberal to the court, but must be careful not to appoint too much of a liberal. Clinton would bring to the confirmation process a legitimate resume as a centrist, but with a liberal’s instinct for social justice and real sensitivity to race and class. The guy is a moderate southern liberal to the soles of his big feet. Obama would get his liberal without the obvious confirmation battle that would come by naming some liberal Appeals Court judge with a long paper trail. In spite of Monica, Clinton is emminently confirmable. Is the GOP senate really going to filibuster a guy who was the only Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt elected to two terms? His favorability late last year was 64%, a darn sight better than anyone else in public life these days. Added plus: the confirmation hearing will be must watch TV. I can’t wait for the questions from Jeff Sessions and Orrin Hatch.
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  7. Finally, being on the Court would be good for the guy and good for his wife. Clinton has established his foundation and done good work on AIDS prevention and other issues, but his portfolio as a former president is limited. Being the new guy, the new intellectual heft on the Court, might give him real purpose. Add to that the fact that more even than now, with Hillary at the State Department, he would need to mind his P’s and Q’s. Purpose for him, room for his wife. A twofer.

I’m betting Bill Clinton has never thought of Will Taft as a role model, but he should. Taft, the former president, became a hugely influential member of the Court. Of course, Taft had the advantage of being Chief Justice, but do you think for a minute that current Chief John Roberts wouldn’t be taken aback – intimidated even – by Justice Bill Clinton, every bit his intellectual equal, sitting in conference with him. It might be enough to open the Court to C-SPAN. With his political knowledge, international reach and good ol’ boy smarts, Clinton will quickly become the intellectual force in the Committee of Nine that is the Supremes.

I won’t be holding my breath for this appointment to happen, and its much more likely that a Clinton on the Court would be named Hillary, but if Obama really wants to make his mark on the Supreme Court for a long time to come, he won’t find a bigger or more effective justice than Elvis, the former president that is.

The Creative Economy

General-George-CusterWhat is it About Montana?

A few years ago North Dakota erected some clever signs at its border with Montana. One sign advised anyone headed west to remember what happened to a certain long haired cavalry commander who left North Dakota in 1876 and ended up in a sorry state on the banks of the Little Big Horn in Montana.

With all due respect to North Dakota, given a choice, does Montana sound like a lot more interesting place – to visit, to live, to work?

George Custer didn’t live to contemplate what I think of, and many others think of, as the allure of Montana. It has always fascinated me that the land of the Big Sky has a certain “brand” that states like Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado – not to mention North Dakota – never seem able to match. Maybe its because Montana has been building the brand since that fateful day in June of 1876 when the tourist from North Dakota misjudged his welcoming committee.

I got to thinking about what the Montana “brand” means to the economics and, perhaps more importantly, the image of the state while reflecting on two recent pieces of information.

The first was a program at Boise’s City Club a while back that focused on the “creative economy,” often identified as the critical mass in an area of artists, cultural non-profits and cutting edge businesses. Amoung the laments before the City Club was that 30-to 45-year olds are in danger of – or actually are – picking up and leaving Idaho, while an emphasis on developing home-grown entrepreneurs is waning.

When I first came to Idaho nearly 35 years ago, the Boise economy was largely defined by three amazing, home grown success stories. Harry Morrison had started his construction company – Morrison-Knudsen - in Idaho and shaped t into a world-wide powerhouse that pushed the dirt and poured the concrete to construct Hoover Dam and built a good deal of the American military infrastructure in South Vietnam, among many other big projects. In much the same time frame, Boise Cascade went from a small regional timber products concern to a major national player in the wood and paper industry. Joe Albertson pioneered the modern super market from the ground up with his first store in Boise’s North End and went on to build a national brand.

All three of those home-grown companies are still around, but in much different form than just a few years ago and none has the power or influence in the local economy that the old M-K, the old Boise Cascade and the old Albertsons had. The transformation of those three companies makes one wonder where the next great home-grown business will come from? I wonder particularly were the next great business will come from if we’re failing short, as many smart folks think we are, in encouraging a “creative economy.”

I know a handful of smart and aggressive young Idaho entrepreneur’s in the high tech world Idaho, but many of them will tell you they fear Idaho may not be the place where a new Micron, the last really big home-grown business, gets its start. The outlook is cloudy for a number of reasons.

Idaho has whacked its support for education at every level over the last two years. College is costing more and more and we don’t seem to be producing the workforce we need for a 21st Century economy. Idaho high school dropout rates and the number of young kids headed to post-secondary education is abysmal. As the Idaho Statesman reported yesterday the dropout numbers may be even more dismal – by double – than previously thought.

Bob Lokken, who built a successful high tech business in Boise and sold it to Microsoft, asked at that recent City Club event, “What if we took all the money we spend on K through 12 and create an information-age school system, not one that continues to make a labor pool for an industrial-age economy?” Good idea, but Idaho hasn’t even had a serious debate about what kind of education system we want – or need – for more than a decade. Building a 21st Century creative economy without a genuine strategy – a strategy that really engages the education establishment, business and those young entrepreneurs – is a bound to be about as successful as Custer’s trip into Montana. So, Idaho’s creative economy seems, at best, stuck in neutral.

Which brings me back to the Big Sky state and the second data point. The data came to me in the form of a special four page advertising section on – you got it – Montana that appeared recently in The New Yorker magazine. Before you dismiss an advertisement about Montana in the elitist New Yorker as self-serving fluff, consider the Montana message.

The Montana advertisement – really more an essay than an ad – was all about the creative economy. The piece quotes 20-year Montana resident Walter Kirn - he wrote the novel that became the hit movie Up in the Air – and Alex Smith, a film director, who will be making a film this summer based on a novel by Jim Welch - another Montanan – about life on an Indian reservation.

Montana officials say the piece was aimed primarily at encouraging tourism, but I think it works on a deeper level. It says, in effect: Montana values creativity, smart people like it here and we welcome such things.

The ad, or whatever it is, continues: “Montana captivates the imagination of remarkably imaginative people – writers, yes, but actors, directors, musicians, painters, sculptors – not because of what’s so obviously here or not here. Rather, creative people keep finding themselves amid unplanned moments of clarity that resound through their lives.”

That, my friends, is the language of brand building; not to mention the language of a creative economy of the 21st Century.

The Montana New Yorker piece ends with “few states have their own literature; Montana’s runs broad and deep, reaching far beyond familiar titles like the Big Sky, The Horse Whisperer and A River Runs Through It and into the lives of its people.”

Any ad guy, particularly one with a well-considered point of view, sort of like Don Draper in Mad Men, will tell you that a brand can’t last if its built on spin. It must be authentic and it must be true. Montana, I think, has an authentic brand.

Like Idaho and most other states, Montana also has big troubles with budgets, schools are hurting. What might be different, and it might explain why Montana is perceived differently – why the brand works – is that deep down in the land of the Big Sky they get the fact that captivating the imagination of deeply creative people is the economic road map into the 21st Century.

The Boys of Polyester

jackie brownHideous Baseball Uniforms

When it comes to baseball, I’m a traditionalist. Some of the most appealing aspects of the great game are its traditions. It’s been said that if a veteran of the Civil War could return for a day, go to Wrigley Field or Fenway and watch a game, he would immediately know what was going on. The game doesn’t change much, but when it does it is usually change for the worse.

I have never liked the designated hitter rule. Pitchers ought to go to bat. I’d be happy bringing back a 154 game season. With all the playoffs games that are needed now, the current season is too long and besides a return to a shorter season would make all the older records more relevant. I don’t like the trend of players wearing their pants so long they drag in the dirt. Whatever happened to stirrup socks, anyway? And while we’re at it, put a gentle but unmistakable bend in the bill of that cap young man. What gives with these young players that don’t shape the bill of a baseball cap?

Tradition = baseball.

The regard for tradition and history really took a beating in the 1970′s and early ’80′s when most teams went in the bag for truly hideous uniforms in gaudy colors. It amounted to a nationwide outbreak of polyester. The picture above is of Indians’ pitcher Jackie Brown - remember him – in the 1977 Cleveland uniform. It almost hurts to look at that thing. Brown’s career record in seven seasons was 47-55, but, hey, he got to wear that great uniform in whatever color that is.

A friend sent me the link to pictures and commentary on “10 pleasingly hideous baseball cards from the 1970′s.” Check it out…but not if you have a queasy stomach!

If you can look at the Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers or Oscar Gamble cards without a snicker, you’re a stronger person that me. Now that I think of it, bring back flannel.

Have a good weekend.