Archive for February, 2011

One of the Greats

mcclureJames Albertus McClure, 1924-2011

History will record that Sen. Jim McClure, who died Saturday at the age of 86, was one of the most significant politicians in Idaho’s history. A staunch Republican conservative, McClure nonetheless was liked and respected by those across the political spectrum, but beyond that he accumulated a record of accomplishment that has lasting impact.

A strong advocate for the natural resources industries so important to Idaho, McClure also saw the need to resolve long-standing debates over wilderness designation in his native state.

He worked out the boundary lines of the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area by spreading maps on the floor of the governor’s office and getting on his hands and knees with Democrat Cecil D. Andrus.

He helped champion creation of the Sawtooth NRA and in the last days of Frank Church’s life he got the iconic River of No Return Wilderness renamed for the Democrat.

He fought tooth and nail to grow the Idaho National Laboratory and distinguished himself as a member of the Iran-Contra Committee investigating that scandal.

As a reporter and in other capacities, I have had the chance to interview Jim McClure probably more than 20 times over the years. I never sat down with any person who was better prepared or who provided a better interview. He was candid, opinionated and always impeccable well informed. I also never saw the guy use a note card or a script. He was a marvelous extemporaneous speaker. He was also a complete gentleman.

Once in Sun Valley years ago, while McClure was chairing the Senate Energy Committee, he sat for a taped interview for well more than half an hour. At the end of the session, while we were making small talk, the technical crew whispered in my ear that none of the half hour of Q and A had been recorded on tape. Gulp.

I’d just wasted the time of a busy, important U.S. Senator and had absolutely nothing to show for it. Not missing a beat, McClure smiled and said, “Let’s do it again.” And we did. He didn’t have to do that. Most would have said, sorry, but I’ve got to run. Obviously, I have never forgotten the kindness.

One thing I’ll never forget about McClure was his principled pragmatism. Never anything less than a loyal and conservative Republican, he also knew that progress often requires compromise and finding a middle ground. Such was the case when McClure again hooked up with Andrus in 1987 and spent weeks working out a comprehensive approach to the decades-long battles over Idaho wilderness. They flew around the state, spread out the maps and offended everyone – particularly their respective “base” voters. There was something in the grand compromise that everyone could hate and the McClure-Andrus approach ultimately failed.

I’ve thought many times since that the two old pols knew they were far out in front of their constituents, but were nevertheless willing to risk political capital to try to resolve a controversy. It’s easy in politics to say “no.” It is much more difficult – and risky – to try to lead. McClure was a leader.

I was pleased to have a hand in creating a University of Idaho video tribute to Jim McClure in 2007. You can check it out at the University’s McClure Center website.

In the Idaho political pantheon, McClure stands with Borah and Church as a among the greatest and most important federal officials Idaho has ever produced. He was a genuinely nice guy, too.

Symbolic Cuts

burnsMinimal Money, Real Impact

Noted documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has waded into the fray over eliminating federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and sharply reducing the measly dollars we spend on the national endowments for the humanities and the arts.

In a piece in the Washington Post, Burns – his Civil War documentary may be the best long-form television ever – asks us to remember that during the Great Depression somehow the country found the dollars to support artists, writers and photographers who produced some of the most enduring work of the 20th Century. Surely, he says, we can afford a fraction of a cent of our federal tax dollar for CPB and the endowments.

In the interest of full disclosure, loyal readers need to know I have a strong bias here. I cut my journalism teeth years ago with a daily half-hour broadcast on public television. I have volunteered for 15 years on various boards dedicated to the mission of the public humanities and the bringing of thoughtful programs on American and world culture, history, literature, religion and philosophy to Idahoans and Americans. I’m a true believer in these well established and minimally funded institutions and I also understand the federal budget.

The $420 million we spend on CPB, almost all of which goes to local public TV and radio stations and programs like those Ken Burns makes, and the $168 million we spend on each of the endowments is a total drop in the federal budget bucket. The Pentagon spends that much in an afternoon.

Case in point, Boeing just got an award from the Defense Department to build a new generation of aerial tankers – price tag $35 billion. Assuming Boeing builds a full fleet of 179 tankers, that averages out to about $195 million per plane. That buys a whole lot of what the endowments and CPB provide Americans.

I know, I know, we need new aerial tankers to replace those in service since Eisenhower was in the White House, but don’t we also need a place – for a tiny fraction of the cost – where Ken Burns’ documentaries reach a huge audience or where the humanities endowment supports a local museum or library?

Congress and the president continue the gandy dance around the real need to address the federal budget deficit. We have a crisis in three areas – defense spending, Medicare and Social Security. We need to address a combination of very difficult tradeoffs. Extend the retirement age, means test Medicare, reduce the size and scope of our military power on every continent and raise taxes. It’s easier to say than to cut, but there you have the real issues.

Anyone who tells you we can address the dismal federal deficit by cutting CPB and the National Endowments is practicing demagoguery on the scope of Huey Long, the subject, by the way, of a Ken Burns’ documentary.

Much of this debate, it must be noted, is about ideology rather than real budget savings. Some conservatives assail public broadcasting or the pointy headed humanities and arts community as the preserve of “liberals.” Nonsense. William F. Buckley found a home on PBS. Were the great man alive today, do you think he could find a place on Fox or CNN? Not a chance. Listen to a week of The NewsHour or Morning Edition and really consider the range of views, opinion and ideology you hear. Public TV and radio have become one of the few real clearinghouses of ideas about the American condition. Not liberal, not conservative, but truly fair and balanced.

America is a country of ideas. We have thrived for as long as we have because we value the big debate, the chance for lots of voices – from Ken Burns to the Red Green Show (on PBS) to the Trailing of the Sheep Festival and a summer teacher institute in Idaho (funded by the Idaho Humanities Council) – to be heard, considered, rejected and embraced.

We must get serious about the federal deficit. We must also recognize that a guy as talented as Ken Burns would never have a chance in the “marketplace media.” A long-form documentary on baseball, jazz, the National Parks or World War II simply won’t find a place in modern commercial broadcasting. So, eliminating that platform is really a decision to eliminate the ideas represented there.

If we lose what a Ken Burns represents, we lose a connection with our history and our culture that simply can’t be replaced. We will regret it, but not as much as our children.

Myths and More

flagSomethings Just Ain’t So

How many times have you heard someone say – usually a politician – “Americans have the best health care in the world.”

Or this one – no one goes hungry in America. Or, America is the world leader in – fill in the blank.

Truth be told, we aren’t leading the world in much these days. Our health care is the most expensive in the world, but by almost any measure no where close to the best. And, according to a recent USDA report, fully 15 percent of Americans are now food “insecure,” literally unsure where the next meal is coming from.

One of the great challenges to American democracy, made particularly acute by the vast expansion of “information” available to all of us every minute of every day, is the challenge of separating what we think we know from what is really, verifiably true.

Some of the myths, 51 percent of likely Republican primary voters don’t believe Barack Obama was born in the United States, for example, serve to warp political judgments and reinforce a constant theme of some of his opponents that Obama is “not like us.” It is a myth that serves some political ends.

Other myths, like the oft repeated notion that the NFL Super Bowl is the most watched sporting event in the world, just play to the old notion that if it happens here it must be the biggest, the best, the most important. Actually, the World Cup soccer championship, thanks to a truly world-wide audience, gets more viewers than the Packers beating the Steelers.

Some of the so called “mainstream media” are trying to debunk some of the myths out there. The Washington Post runs a regular feature – “Five Myths” – that puts the facts back into common myths. Its good stuff. A recent piece by Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer challenged the myth that the 16th president was “just a country lawyer.” He wasn’t.

Holzer writes: “…in the 1850s [Lincoln] ably (and profitably) represented the Illinois Central Railroad and the Rock Island Bridge Co. – the company that built the first railroad bridge over the Mississippi River – and earned a solid reputation as one of his home state’s top appeals lawyers.”

New York Times graphic columnist Charles Blow is another of the mythbusters. His recent piece compared the United States to more than 30 other countries on the basis of the International Monetary Fund assessment of the conditions that contribute to an “advanced economy.”

We don’t fare very well.

Our income inequality has us compared – is unfavorably the word – to Hong Kong. We’re doing better on unemployment than Greece or Spain, but no where near as well as Switzerland, Denmark or even Canada. With regard to life expectancy, we’re not nearly as good as France, but about as good as Cyprus. Cyprus?

We have the largest number of people incarcerated per 100,000 citizens of any place in the world. More than 700 per 100,000 in jail here. It’s about 50 per 100,000 in Iceland. Little wonder our corrections costs are running wild.

Student math achievement is – big surprise – way behind Japan, Korea and Singapore. And, food security. No one goes hungry in Belgium or Austria. We’re the worst of the worst in the “advanced economy” class when it comes to food security.

There is an old saying in politics that holds that you will know that a candidate for public office is in trouble when he or she starts believing their own press releases. In other words, the spin of what we’d like to be able to accomplish overtakes the reality of what we are really living. We start living myths, substituting our opinions for facts.

Amid all the talk about “American exceptionalism” we struggle to separate the myths of our standing in the world from the reality of our challenges. All the while, the rest of the world is catching up, or already leading us and, in many cases, moving on.

Mark Twain said, I think, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

President’s Day

buchananGreat Readers

James Buchanan was the 15th President of the United States and by nearly universal assessment the worst we’ve ever had. He dithered while the Union came apart, helped precipitate Bleeding Kansas and did nothing to help Lincoln during the succession crisis in the last days of his administration. Mark Buchanan as a near complete failure…except as it turns out the guy was a great reader.

The Daily Beast website has a fun series of short profiles of the presidents who were most in love with books. You would guess, of course, Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and the two Roosevelts, but Buchanan or Rutherford B. Hayes? Hayes amassed a personal library of 12,000 volumes and Herbert Hoover, a very smart man and not a very effective president, had a library of rare books on obscure science subjects and many were in Latin.

The same website has a Presidential Trivia Quiz today.

Who was the first president to fly in an airplane? Hard to believe, but true, only one president is buried in Washington, D.C. and, believe it or not, Jimmy Carter was the first president born in a hospital.

So…on President’s Day, a toast – a rare toast – to James Buchanan, a bad president, but a book lover. With that knowledge, he can be modestly redeemed in my eyes.

 

Effective and Not

man with flagNullification or Common Sense

They celebrated Jefferson Davis’s inauguration yesterday in Montgomery, Alabama. Actually, it was a day late. One hundred fifty years ago Friday, Davis became the President of the Confederacy.

As the Los Angeles Times noted, it was a much bigger celebration in 1961 on the centennial of the event that presaged the Civil War. Several southern governors showed up then, none did this weekend. The crowds were smaller and more people were in the ceremony than in the audience.

As LA Times blogger Andy Malcolm points out, Davis – this is history, not state’s rights mythology – is a curious hero for modern day southerners. He actually opposed succession, but not the “right” of a state to do so, and his wife openly opposed the war. The prickly former Mississippi Senator had a stormy tenure. He tried to micromanage the operations of southern armies in the field, advanced his favorite generals over more accomplished men and developed an uncanny ability to feud with southern governors. Still, he was the only president the south had. You go to celebration with the president you have.

Apropos of the political moment in several states – Montana now seeks to nullify health care and the Endangerd Species Act – even Davis opposed nullification, arguing that just leaving the Union was a more practical and effective approach. That didn’t work all that well, either.

As the Idaho State Senate prepares to ignore the sound and fury of “nullification” of federal health care legislation that came over recently from the state’s righters in the Idaho House, it may be worth a moment to consider how a state that depends so heavily on federal largess – INL, Mountain Home AFB, the Forest Service, irrigation projects – can wage an effective battle against the big, bad federal government.

Former Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus has a piece in the Twin Falls Times-News that makes the case for the quiet, but effective approach of applying common sense to our not infrequent battles with Washington, D.C. In short, fix problems by using the courts and the legislative arena, not by passing time wasting bills that garner big headlines, but don’t fix problems.

That approach is more difficult, to be sure, but it can work and have lasting results. All that lasts from the nullifiers of 150 years ago is the memory of a lost cause, the consequences of which we still struggle to put in context and understand. The real question may be, have we learned anything from that disasterous piece of American history?

Bashing Teachers

chipsTeachers as Targets

Like most everyone, I suspect, I had a favorite teacher growing up. (Actually, I had a hopeless crush on my high school chemistry teacher, but that is another story and probably goes some distance to explain my very weak performance in her class.)

My favorite was Mr. Parr, a history and social studies teacher and the 8th grade basketball coach. It’s not an overstatement to say that John Thomas Parr changed my life. I was a pimply faced, shy, decidely underachieving, near teenager when I walked into his class.

I was interested in history. He made me love it.

I wanted to play basketball. He made me want to play for him.

I lacked confidence. He gave it to me. I’ll never forget making both ends of a one-and-one free throw opportunity in a game in Evanston, Wyoming. With 30 seconds left in the game, I couldn’t even think of missing. I didn’t want to disappoint Mr. Parr.

I used to marvel at the way he used humor, a set of firm but fairly applied rules and his moral authority to handle anything that came up in class or during practice after school. Kids not only liked the guy, they wanted to do well – and do good – for him. He reflected his talents and personality back on us. What a great teacher he was.

I’ve been thinking about Mr. Parr – he’ll always be Mr. Parr to me – as I’ve read stories from Idaho to Wisconsin betraying an increasingly nasty undercurrent in the on-going debate over education budgets or, in the Idaho and Wisconsin cases, education “reform.” Teachers as a class are getting hammered. Its both a shame and a major public policy mistake.

In Wisconsin, new Gov. Scott Walker has proposed eliminating many teacher collective bargaining rights and in response thousands of teachers have descended on the state capitol to protest. Meanwhile Democratic legislators have walked out in their own protest. In Idaho, parts of the reform proposal focus on changing the way school districts handle contracts with teachers. I’ve yet to see a story that links improving classroom performance to changing contracts.

In both states teachers complain about being left out of the “reform” discussions. Meanwhile, Education Secretary Arne Duncan seems to offer a more complicated, but perhaps ultimately better approach.

At an education summit this week – collaboration, not confrontation was the theme – Duncan asked teacher unions, administrators and school board members “to take on tough issues such as teacher benefits, layoff policies, and the need for more evaluations of administrators and school boards, not just teachers. ‘The truth is that educators and management cannot negotiate their way to higher [student] performance. The [labor] contract is just a framework. Working together is the path to success.’”

I don’t know if Mr. Parr was “ruled by a labor boss” over at the local teacher union. I never thought about what he got paid or the hours he worked. It was pretty obvious the guy loved what he did. Sure there are bad teachers out there. Gosh, I suspect there are even bad investment bankers, misbehaving members of Congress, even retired NFL quarterbacks who haven’t quite measured up.

There are lots more Mr. Parr’s, too.

Getting kids better educated and creating the workforce for the 21st Century may just require that we focus on the best teachers and finding ways to make good teachers great.

I’d gladly swap all the educational experts for 30 minutes with John Thomas Parr. I’m betting the old teacher and coach would have some ideas. I’m betting he’d begin with the moral authority that goes with common sense.