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Forecasting the Future

Interior ReportA View of Public Land Policy…50 Years Ago

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

Fifty years ago last Friday – August 27, 1960 – near the end of the Eisenhower Administration, then-Secretary of the Interior Fred Seaton wrote to the President to transmit a report entitled Project Twenty-Twelve. The report was an effort by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to look at its programs fifty years into the future – 2012.

Perhaps Eisenhower conjured up his famous quote about plans and planning when Seaton presented the document; a government report by an agency that had only been around officially since 1946 and was struggling to define its identity.

More likely, I suspect, Ike slipped out the back door of the Oval Office, putter in hand, to visit his private putting green and didn’t give the BLM document a second thought. Then again, one likes to think that the former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, known to be handy with a fly rod, would have taken at least a passing interest in predictions about the future of America’s natural landscape.

In any event, Project Twenty-Twelve, like so many government reports, found a home on a shelf gathering dust. Still the impressive effort at forecasting what the future might hold did lay the foundation for the relatively young agency. BLM was created by the great Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes who combined Interior’s General Land Office with the department’s Grazing Service.

Given the 50th anniversary of the official release of the report, its worth revisiting what they saw in the land management crystal ball as they tried to envisioned the early 21st Century. Credit for unearthing the old report goes to a group of Idaho BLM retirees who, while sitting around at lunch a while back remembered the effort and the document was recently unearthed in BLM archives in Phoenix.

Credit also to the University of Michigan Library which digitized the report in December 2009 and made the full work available on line.

With thanks to my friend and former Andrus Administration colleague, Andy Brunelle, who has a both fine eye for history and an encyclopedic understanding of public lands issues, for both pointing out the existance of the report and helping form some observations that both look back and forward 50 years.

Compared to a modern day Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) the 2012 report was mercifully brief. It includes a nice, short section on the history of the public domain lands and recounts how the federal government gave away lands for 150 years before turning away from that policy in the mid-20th Century. The 1976 passage of
Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) finally brought the public land disposal era to an end.

The second chapter of the forecast provided a broad look at the future. The United States, according to those looking forward a half century, was projected to double in population to 360 million by 2012. We have actually grown a little more slowly, with the current population standing at about 310 million.

The BLM forecasters said in 1960 that the nation would use more than 30 billion cubic feet of wood annually. We are a little over 20 billion now.

While guessing too high on those measures, the report also included a Bureau of Mines projection that the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2012 would stand at $2.4 trillion. The GDP stood at about $500 billion in 1959. Today’s GDP is somewhere around $15 trillion, but in inflation-adjusted terms, and when compared to 1959, the 50 year old guess is actually quite close to what was predicted – $2.4 trillion.

Visits to National Parks, National Forests, BLM lands and state parks were projected to grow from 400 million visits in 1960 to 1.7 billion visits by 2010. It is impossible to compare those guesses to current numbers because the way the agencies monitor visits has changed. This much can be said, however. The percentage of population engaged in outdoor recreation has doubled since 1965 and the amount of time people engage in outdoor recreation has also doubled.

So with population increasing in that period from 180 million to 310 million, Americans are spending twice as much time engaged in outdoor recreation as they were nearly 50 years ago. No wonder its difficult to find a good campsite.

The BLM forecasters also predicted dramatic scientific and technological advances from research and development that would have special impact on BLM programs and operations.

In 1960, the agency forecast widespread application of mechanization and automation in industries dependent on minerals, wood and other raw materials from public lands administered by BLM. This prediction seems spot on since, particularly in the 1980’s, Idaho and other resource states witnessed widespread sawmill modernization that, while making the wood products industry much more productive, also had the unfortunate side effect of the loss of thousands of jobs that were the backbone of many rural communities in the West.

The report forecast water treatment of saline and brackish waters for agriculture and domestic use. This prediction is certainly true as it relates to the vast increase over 50 years in sophisticated community waste water treatment, much of it driven by the Clean Water Act. The prediction has proven to be less valid when agriculture polluted run-off is involved. And, the ocean has not become a major water source, but stay tuned.

BLM forecast fifty years ago the development of transportation systems and facilities for rapid movement of large numbers of people from urban areas to and from rural recreation sites. The Interstate Highway System we now take for granted has helped this prediction to be realized, but we also bought into urban sprawl, exurbs and, in recent years, a welcome trend for some to move back into central cities in places like Portland, Salt Lake City and, to some degree, Boise. I’m betting, as the report forecast, that we see more and more “car free” National Parks in the future with visitors arriving by the shuttles that now move people at Zion and Yosemite.

The agency also forecast improved techniques and facilities for protecting public lands and resources from damaged due to fire, insects, diseases, or other hazards.

Certainly fire protection programs have been greatly improved since the authors of the BLM report thought about the future, but Mother Nature has also responded by producing larger, more intense wildfires. This is the “paradox of success” defined at a 2004 Andrus Center for Public Policy conference on the history and future of the Forest Service.

Critics of the BLM have often referred to the agency at the Bureau of Livestock and Mining – much more true in 1960 than today – and the 1960 report does devote a great deal of attention to the condition of grazing lands as well as an assessment of the mineral estate at that time. Much less attention was focused on forest resources or recreation.

Other parts of the forecast provide a program-by-program discussion of current efforts and how over a fifty year time frame BLM programs will continue to work. This section of the report will likely only be of interest to a BLM alum or a wild land ecologist, but it is nonetheless important stuff.

Only one paragraph – one – is devoted to the topic of weed control, where mention is made that “depleted ranges contribute to the spread of noxious and poisonous weeds” and that an ongoing weed control program is anticipated to respond to this problem. “The long-range program provides for substantial weed control activity through 1980,” the report says, “after which time this work will be progressively reduced.”

What has actually happened is that after about 1980 the increasing spread of noxious weeds became much worse and the BLM continues a long, twilight struggle against these unglamourous, but awfully important pests. We now recognize the important work that must occur with invasive species, whether its weeds affecting habitat and forage, or whirling disease affecting important trout populations. The BLM has generally kept up with the problem and has steadily accelerated the battle.

In the 1960 discussion on forest management, which centers on the O and C lands in Oregon, a smooth path forward was predicted for a sustainable harvest of 1 to 1.2 billion board feet annually for the next fifty years. The projection was good for about half of that period. Twenty-five years in, by 1985, there was growing public discontent about the effects of clearcut logging on public lands, and the BLM’s O and C lands in Oregon were eventually swept into the larger Northwest forest wars symbolized by the environmental concerns over the northern spotted owl.

What the Project Twenty-Twelve planners missed – and what almost any long-range planning effort will struggle to understand – are changing societal values. The planners did not forecast the increasing public and political consensus about environmental protection. They did not – or perhaps could not – forecast that the 1950’s Congressional debates over wilderness would lead to the passage in 1964 of The Wilderness Act.

That fundamental piece of national public land policy was followed by much other legislation – the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968, the National Environmental Policy Act in 1969 and the Endangered Species Act in 1973, to name a few.

The Project Twenty-Twelve report, proves that the most difficult thing to predict in the pace and magnitude of change. It’s pretty easy to collect data and then use a straight line to project growth into the future, but being able to see where the line will curve, or break or take a new direction is much more difficult.

The great general was right. Plans are useless, but planning is essential. Perhaps this old, dusty BLM report can – fifty years after its release – help a new generation of public land managers and policy makers ask better questions about the assumptions we all make about the future.

We can always start with the question and think deeply about it: what is taking place now that won’t – or can’t – continue into the future?

My thanks again to Andy for bringing the Project Twenty-Twelve report – ancient history, but fascinating information – to my attention.

Who Said That?

berra stengelYou Can Look It Up…Maybe

A few days ago I attributed the line “you can look it up” to the Hall of Fame New York Yankee catcher, Yogi Berra. A loyal and close reader gently suggested that I needed to “look it up.” That quote, he said, really came from Casey Stengel, who managed the Bronx Bombers, Mets and others.

After a little research, I’m frankly not sure who said “you can look it up.” It certainly sounds like something either of the memorable speakers of the English language could have said at the end of a sentence about something to do with the great game.

My research did turn up an article about how difficult it is to trace the origin of well-known quotes. Frankly, that didn’t help much because, if I read the piece correctly, you can’t always look it up. Such things are not always, well a sure thing.

I did find the “official” site for Casey Stengel and a whole page of quotes by and about the great manager. My favorite: “The secret of managing is to keep the guys who hate you away from the guys who are undecided.” Or this: “Good pitching will always stop good hitting and vice-versa.”

There is an official Yogi site, too, where you can buy his book – “I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said.” One collection of Berra quotes has this classic from, obviously, Yogi’s history of war and politics: “Even Napoleon had his Watergate.”

I did learn this in the search for the origin of the “look it up” quote: In a 1941 short story, the great James Thurber wrote about a three-foot adult (politicallhy incorrect – a midget) being sent to bat in a baseball game. Some claim – but only some – that the Thurber story was the inspiration for baseball owner Bill Veeck’s stunt when he sent three-foot something Eddie Gaudel to the plate in a St. Louis Browns game in 1951. Gaudel got no official at bat. He walked.

You can, oh, never mind.

The title of Thurber’s story? Of course it was – You Could Look It Up.

The Death of a Brand

mccainThe Once and Future John McCain

There once was a time when Arizona Sen. John McCain warmly embraced the label “maverick.” He seemed to delight in taking positions at odds with his party – or even his state’s – orthodoxy. He had established himself firmly in the tradition of some of the great Senate mavericks of the past – LaFollette, Borah, even Goldwater.

But just as BP’s “Beyond Petroleum” brand washed away in the Gulf oil spill, so has McCain’s maverick brand forever vanished thanks to his presidential election run and his ugly, but still decisive,
victory yesterday in the GOP primary in Arizona. McCain, by all odds, will be back in the Senate post-November, but not as a maverick and likely not ever again as an interesting, important American political player.

I have always found the tough, opinionated McCain to be one of the more fascinating characters in American politics. His personal story, the POW experience, his once obvious regard for those on the other side of the aisle, his old school willingness to be an unpredictable independent couldn’t help, at one time, to make him an interesting, maybe even historic, player in the long history of the Senate. That brand is gone, I think, and with it much that made John McCain so interesting and important in the Senate.

As Politico noted in its story today about McCain, during the most recent primary, in addition to spending $21 million, he repudiated many of the positions – immigration, climate change, etc. – that once made his maverick brand genuine:

“Immigration wasn’t the only issue where McCain seemed to recalibrate his position in response to the primary challenge,” Politico said. “He also promised to filibuster any legislation that revoked the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy after pledging to support the repeal in 2006 and he distanced himself from an emissions capping measure he co-sponsored with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) as conservative anger over cap-and-trail boiled over.”

As one commentator noted, McCain rolled out a TV spot with six, tough looking Arizona sheriffs to attest to his new, tough stand on immigration. This is the guy who once teamed with Ted Kennedy to write an immigration reform bill, but during the campaign he walked away – ran away – from all that history.

“The votes are in,” Adam Hanft wrote at the CNN website. “The sheriffs spot — and an entire campaign apparatus that had to relegitimize the senator’s conservative acceptability, including an endorsement from Sarah Palin — did the job.

“But it’s a profound comment on where Republican politics stand in 2010 that John McCain had to run against a new challenger by also running against his old principles.”

The Senate was a more interesting place when McCain the Maverick roamed the floor. He may, who knows, prove to be a maverick again once safely re-elected, but he may also find that in politics once you are seen as running from your principles its pretty hard to ever again be taken seriously, as a maverick or anything else.


More Baseball

PiniellaPiniella, the Pirates and Peaking

Whenever I think about Sweet Lou Piniella, who managed his last game Sunday, I remember reading a piece a few years back about the fact that Piniella would often wake up in the middle of the night worrying about what went wrong on the field and how to avoid the misfortune from happening again. Unfortunately, I know the feeling. I’m a post-midnight, middle-of-the-night worrier, too.

But, I digress. In one of these 4:00 a.m. moments, as recounted in the story, Piniella, always worried about his pitching staff, hit upon the notion of going with a four-man rather than a five-man rotation. His next comment was priceless.

”Now at four in the morning it seemed to work for me,” Piniella said. “Whether it works at 7 o’clock at night or 1:30 in the afternoon, I’m not sure.” Exactly. What seems like gold at 4:00 a.m. often looks like something a lot less valuable in the cold light of day.

In any event, we may never know if another of Lou’s middle-of-the-night brainstorms is a keeper, since he vows he is done with the dugout and, finally, really going to hang it up. It has been quite a ride for the one-time Yankee outfielder and American and National League manager of World Series winners and also rans. By all accounts, Piniella is a nice guy with a Hall of Fame temper on the diamond. I’ll miss seeing him pull a base out of the infield and try to turn it into a Frisbee.

The Pirates

The hapless Pittsburgh Pirates – you know you’ve become hopeless when the that word hapless is the only adjective that seems to work in front of your name. The hapless Bucs have – here we are in late August – ensured that they will endure their 18th consecutive losing season. Since 1992, there has never been a point in any season when the once-stories Pittsburgh franchise was more than seven games over .500. This year, the Pirates ensured a losing season faster than ever. Some record that.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had a great photo a fan holding a sign reading, “I’m a Cubs fan, I came to Pittsburgh to feel better.” Ouch.

If all that losing wasn’t bad enough, the Associated Press obtained club documents that show while Pittsburgh fans were agonizing over all those sub-.500 years, the guys in the front office were some how able to make just north of $29 million bucks the last two seasons. Who says losing doesn’t pay? Obviously, the Pirate owners weren’t spending any of their money on baseball players. It wasn’t always so.

Back when Joe L. Brown run the front office the Pirates won two World Series titles and five Division titles. Brown, who died last week at 91, was one of the best baseball people most folks never heard of. Brown was the Pirates GM from the 1950’s to the 1970’s.

As the New York Times noted in its obit: “In building the 1960 champions, Mr. Brown blended (Roberto) Clemente, (Bill) Mazeroski, Dick Groat and pitchers Bob Friend, Vern Law and Roy Face with players he obtained in trades: center fielder Bill Virdon, third baseman Don Hoak, catchers Smoky Burgess and Hal Smith, and pitchers Harvey Haddix and Vinegar Bend Mizell.”

in 1971, under Brown, the Pirates fielded the first all-black starting nine in a game with the Phillies.

And…more on “the” home run

A few loyal readers pointed out that I failed to address, in my weekend post on Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard round the world,” the controversy over whether Thomson knew what was coming that October afternoon at the Polo Grounds when he hit his famous home run off of Ralph Branca.

Joshua Prager’s book The Echoing Green makes a strong case that the Giants had spent all of the 1951 season at the Polo Grounds stealing the signs of opposing pitchers by use of a Rube Goldberg-like, but still ingenious, system of telescopes and buzzers. In Prager’s account, Giants’ hitters could get tipped off to what was coming.

Until his dying day, Thomson denied any advance knowledge that Branca was going to serve up the fastball that would be immortalized on film, in novels and in Russ Hodges’ famous “the Giants win the pennant” radio call.

It is a great story, and the “truth” will never be known with any certainty but, you know what, I don’t think it matters? And, here’s why.

It has been said, and I think it is true, that hitting a baseball being throw at you from 60 feet away at near 100 miles per hour is the single hardest thing to do in all of sports.

My dad – a baseball fan and not a golfer – used to ask, when watching the U.S. Open or the Masters on television, why the crowd had to be perfectly quiet when a golfer is preparing to hit a stationary ball sitting on the ground, while a major league hitter is expected to concentrate in front of a screaming crowd of 50,000 fans, and hit a leather rock being throw at frightening speed that could be aimed at his head or his feet or anywhere in between? Good question.

Bobby Thomson may well have known a Ralph Branca fastball was on the way. He still had to hit it and under the most intense kind of pressure. He didn’t pop it up to the shortstop, he hit it into the left field stands. End of story.

As the great novelist Don DeLillo wrote in the prologue to his book Underworld, which is set at the Polo Grounds on the afternoon of Thomson’s homer when the Giants beat the Dodgers:

“…fans at the Polo Grounds today will be able to tell their grandchildren – they’ll be the gassy old men leaning into the next century and trying to convince anyone willing to listen, pressing in with medicine breath, that they were here when it happened.”

I wasn’t there when it happened, or even born, but that doesn’t matter, either. It did happen – the most perfect home run ever – thanks to the late Bobby Thomson.

Did I mention that he was a Giant? His homer beat the Dodgers, too. What a story.

Just Plain Getting it Wrong

Park51300Don’t Confuse Us With Facts, Please…

The photo is of Park51, the proposed site of an Islamic cultural center, two Manhattan blocks north of where the twin towers of the World Trade Center once stood.

By now, I suspect, everyone in the country – except perhaps that escaped prisoner caught late last week in Arizona with his accomplice girl friend – has an opinion on whether the so called “Ground Zero mosque” is appropriate for this site.

(I’m making the assumption that the jail breaker might just have been too busy while out on the lamb to check in on cable TV or pick up a paper to follow this controversy, but who knows? Seems like everyone else is weighing in.)

There are many things of interest about the hottest story out of New York since Chelsea’s wedding. The “mosque issue” is fast becoming a political litmus for this year’s candidates and political analysts are debating how much voicing support and then walking it back a bit it is hurting the President. Republicans, for the most part, have jumped all over the issue and made the case that this is the worst idea, well, since Mohammad demanded the mountain come to him.

President Obama, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and some of former President George W. Bush’s guys have made the case that the issue must be about religious freedom and not condemning an entire religion by saying all Muslims harbor radical, violent intentions. Others ranging from Newt Gingrich to Harry Reid, in various shades of heated rhetoric, have condemned the location of the proposed Islamic center and, in many cases by extension, also condemned the religion to which 1.5 billion of the world’s people adhere.

One more thing of interest in this story, a story that has dominated the news now for close to three weeks, says a great deal about how information gets disseminated and used in the digital age. It is fascinating to me just how many of the essential elements of the story lack factual basis or have been so distorted in the repeated re-telling that they have little resemblance to the truth.

Hendrik Hertzberg, writing in the August 16 edition of The New Yorker tried to catalogue some of the details that have just gotten lost, or been distorted, or are just plain wrong as the story has picked up steam and controversy.

“Well, for a start,” Hertzberg wrote, “it won’t be at Ground Zero. It’ll be on Park Place, two blocks north of the World Trade Center site (from which it will not be visible), in a neighborhood ajumble with restaurants, shops (electronic, porn, you name it) churches, office cubes, and the rest of the New York mishmash. Park51, as it is to be called, will have a large Islamic “prayer room,” which presumably qualifies as a mosque. But the rest of the building will be devoted to classrooms, an auditorium, galleries, a restaurant, a memorial to the victims of September 11, 2001 (emphasis added), and a swimming pool and gym. Its sponsors envision something like the 92nd Street Y – a Y.M.I.A, you might say, open to all, including persons of the C. (Christian) and H. (Hebrew) persuasions.”

Hertzberg went on to note, as others have, that the principal backers of the center are immigrants from Kuwait (a country we went to war to liberate) and Kashmir and the man who is now routinely referred to in press accounts as “a controversial imam,” Feisal Abdul Rauf, is a Columbia University grad who has been in charge of a mosque in the Tribeca neighborhood of New York for nearly 30 years.

Rauf is so dangerous that the Federal Bureau of Investigation enlisted his help to “conduct ‘sensitivity training’ for agents and cops” after 9-11. Rauf is also the vice-chair of the New York Interfaith Council, which means he regularly associates with Christians and Jews, Hindus and Buddhists who, one assumes, thought enough of him to elected him vice-chair of their organization. (The founder and chairman emeritus of the Interfaith Council, by the way, is the retired Dean of the Cathedral of St. Patrick the Divine. Those Anglicans can be pretty radical.) Rauf has also often and at length, it is important to note, denounced terrorism in general and the 9-11 attacks in particular. Before it became popular for Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh to denounce him, Rauf palled around with Condi Rice and Karen Hughes of the Bush Administration.

Not quite the story that appears in the thousands of words written daily about this issue, but it does help explain, if not excuse, why so many people have made up their minds that the “Ground Zero mosque,” promoted by “radical Muslims” will be a threat to all Americans and an insult to the 9-11 victims and their families. Lots of folks believe that, it’s just not true.

When I went to journalism school back in the dark ages, a old prof told us over and over that reporting a story – particularly a story steeped in controversy – required more than merely recounting what “he said and what she said.” That kind of journalism, the old, green eye shade guy would say, almost always ensures that “the truth goes and hangs itself.” Seems like that is what has happened on the south side of Manhattan.

There us much more evidence, everywhere you look, of the truth looking for a place to die. Consider, for a moment, the President’s religion and place of birth.

Barack Obama wrote two best selling books about his life and background, books that have been poured over by reporters and his political enemies for years now. Books that discuss at some length his views on religion and what it means to him to be a Christian. Obama has given interviews and made speeches talking about his faith and, in particular, how those of us not of the tradition can begin to understand the black Christian church in America.

Yet according to a new Pew Research poll 20% of Americans now firmly believe the President is a Muslim. In the same survey, fully 34% of conservative Republicans believe Obama is a Muslim.

In his book The Audacity of Hope – you can look it up on page 208 – Obama writes about his decision to fully embrace Christianity:

“It was because of these newfound understandings – that religious commitment did not require me to suspend critical thinking, disengage from the battle for economic or social justice, or otherwise retreat from the world that I knew and loved – that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ one day and be baptized. It came about as a choice and not an epiphany…I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to His truth.”

Reading those words, one who continues to believe Obama is a secret Muslim simply has to believe he is a serial teller of untruths, which may actually help explain the 34%. The opinion page editor of the Dallas Morning News wrote about this the other day and made a telling point when declaring that the paper would quit printing letters making religious claims about the President for which there is absolutely no evidence and that are clearly not true.

“Aren’t the people who claim Obama is a Muslim,” the editor asked, “some of the same people who said they could not trust a man whose Christian preacher said racist and unpatriotic things from the pulpit? Which is it? Is he a follower of a controversial Christian preacher or a Muslim?”

Truth and logic there, but is anyone paying attention?

Another 41% of Republicans in a recent CNN/Opinion Research poll believe Obama was “probably” or “definitely” born in another country. Even when a copy of Obama’s birth certificate, certified as authentic by officials in Hawaii, was posted on the Internet, the so called “birthers” continue to believe what just ain’t so.

Of course, there is more. The story continues to circulate that current Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner used to work at Goldman Sachs, one of the big, bailed out Wall Street banks. Nope, the Goldman guy was the last Bush Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson.

Or, what about the now accepted notion that the terribly unpopular Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) – hated left and right in a rare show of bipartisanship about anything – was all Obama’s doing. Wrong again. TARP occurred on the Bush watch late in 2008 with W’s full backing, as well as that of John McCain.

What’s going on here? There are lots of theories, including one called the “backfire effect.” This notion holds that when a person harbors a particularly strong view, that is shown by facts and logic to be wrong, they often actually reject the facts and logic and strengthen their belief in what is false. It is a sort of “don’t confuse me with the facts” response, on steroids, to something that may be personally comforting or important to believe even if it is just not true.

One theory is that some folks so dislike Barack Obama – much as some folks so disliked George W. Bush – that they need/want to believe things that reinforce their views even if those things aren’t true. The human mind is a curious thing.

A political scientist, Brendan Nyhan, who is a Robert Wood Johnson scholar in health policy at the University of Michigan, has studied the “backfire effect” and recently told NPR’s Talk of the Nation that misinformed people – conservatives and liberals – rarely change their minds once they are made up. Now, there’s a cheery thought.

As traditional journalism declines apace, one of the promising new developments has been a greater commitment by some news organizations to good, old fashioned “fact checking.” There are websites devoted to this. One of the best is FactCheck.org that tries to keep politicians and others making public claims honest. It is, after all, possible to research and find real answers to many things.

Yogi Berra was right, once again, when he famously said “you can look it up.” Yes, you can, if you will.

Nevertheless, Nyhan and others say fact checking, no matter how well it is done, may not have much impact on those who simply won’t be confused by, well, facts.

If, when talking or speculating about things that we believe that just aren’t true, we were focused on whether Elvis is really dead or whether Neil Armstrong really walked on the moon or why the U.S. Air Force just won’t come clean with all it knows about UFO’s, it would be a mild curiosity. We could write it off as just a fact of life that some people will believe what they want to believe. But, when the myths continually trump the facts for a significant number of people in the every day political and policy life of the nation, it is a cause to wonder – can this be good for the country?

The Chicago Tribune’s Clarence Page calls what is going on “American dumb-ocracy” and cites as proof of the dumbing down not only the recent Pew survey about Obama’s religion, but also Jay Leno’s on-street interviews and evidence that way too many Americans, for example, have no idea what the First Amendment protects. Civic engagement, Page says, has to mean more than closely following Lindsay Lohan’s drinking problems. Page is discouraged about dumb-ocracy and me, too. He simply says, “heaven help us.”

Lincoln, I think, talked about not being able to fool all the people all the time. That is some cold comfort, but I’m also reminded of the old line, often attributed to Mark Twain, that “it ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

The Shot Heard Round the World

thompsonBobby Thomson, 1923 – 2010

This life-long San Francisco Giants fan will never forget, nearly a decade ago, walking for the first time into the then-new Giants ballpark south of Mission on the shores of China Basin. It was a lovely Saturday afternoon, the perfect day for baseball. Then the history hit me like an inside fastball you can’t seem to step away from.

Just inside one of the entrances to AT&T Park, Russ Hodges’ immortal words: “the Giants win the pennant, the Giants win the pennant, the Giants win the pennant, the Giants win the pennant” are stenciled on the wall. I can still feel the goose bumps.

Bobby Thomson, of course, hit his famous 1951 home run – the most famous home run in baseball history, some say – at the long gone Polo Grounds in New York, a continent away from China Basin. But so what?

As long as there are Giants and Giant fans and baseball fans, Thomson “shot heard round the world” will be the defining moment for the great franchise and as close as we are likely to have of a single defining moment for the great game.

Bobby’s shot off the Dodgers’ Ralph Branca has followed the Giants from the weirdly shaped Polo Grounds to windy Candlestick to AT&T Park. It is just that kind of moment and has been since 1951.

Thomson has been remembered this week as a tough competitor, a man who wore his one real moment of fame with quiet dignity and as the hitter who will be forever linked with one pitcher for as long as there are baseball memories.

The great baseball writer Roger Angell remembered Thomson homer as the first “where were you” moment in the country since Pearl Harbor.

Imagine what it would be like to have your entire professional career – your entire life, really – defined by a couple of seconds captured in grainy black and white and in Hodges’ classic home run call? Thomson had a 15 year career, played for the Braves, Cubs, Red Sox and Orioles, as well as the Giants, hit .270 for his career, once lead the National League in triples – he hit 14 in 1952 – and was once traded for a pitcher named Al Schroll, but one swing at 3:58 pm on October 3, 1951 is all that really matters.

There have been other dramatic home runs – Bill Mazeroski actually won a World Series with a walk off in 1960 – but Thomson’s is still “the epic” home run. Maybe it was the time, the post-war, or the dramatic, late season comeback by the Giants, down by 14 games in August to the hated Dodgers, or maybe it was Hodges’ radio call: “There’s a long drive…it’s gonna be…I believe…”

Thomson once said “that time was frozen…it was a delicious, delicious moment.” It was, it is and it will always be.

It will always be Bobby Thomson, Number 23 on his jersey, that gracious swing, Pafko at the wall, 3:58 pm in a Polo Grounds of the mind.

My lovely, charming wife, no baseball fan she, but smart and insightful about everything, knew immediately when she walked in this morning, while I was composing this post, that I was writing about “Bobby Thomson and the home run.” Yup.

The great sportswriter Red Smith wrote some of the best lines about “the home run” when he said: “The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressively fantastic, can ever be plausible again.”

Bobby died this week. His home run – our home run – never will.