Archive for March, 2011

Healing

Tucson…Two Months

On This city in the Sonoran Desert has been our adopted “second city” now for more than ten years. We have come to love the place, particularly this time of year.

The near arrival of spring brings a huge variety of life to the desert. The birds start talking at first light, the cool mornings give way to progressively warmer days until, as the incredible pink sunsets appear in the darkening, brilliant blue sky, the desert night cools again and one of the greatest star shows anywhere helps remind us how insignificant we are in the grand scheme.

The third annual Tucson Festival of Books has been dominating the city this weekend, particularly the campus of the University of Arizona. Thousands flocked to the campus yesterday to wander among booths, listen to music and celebrate books with a long list of good writers.

I listened to writer Jonathan Eig talk about his latest book on the Chicago mobster Al Capone. As a baseball fan, I’ve admired and enjoyed Eig’s books on Jackie Robinson and Lou Gehrig. He had a big crowd in a big tent laughing yesterday as he disposed of a few myths about Big Al. Capone didn’t order the St. Valentine’s Day massacre, for instance, and Eliot Ness had almost nothing to do with bringing Capone to justice. More plausibly, Capone got crosswise with a smart U.S. Attorney.

Frank DeFord held forth, as did J.A. Jance and Douglas Brinkley. I’m looking forward to seeing a talented historian Annette Gordon-Reed later today and one of my historian heroes, Robert Utley.

NPR’s Scott Simon moderated a fascinating panel with Luis Alberto Urrea – his book The Devil’s Highway is a chilling and exceeding well-crafted account of human trafficking along the U.S. – Mexican border – and T. Jefferson Parker, a novelist who writes about the drugs, money and guns that increasingly define our relationship with Mexico.

Simon seemed momentarily taken aback when a questioneer thanked him for his sensitive and knowing reporting in the aftermath of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and so many others on January 8. The big crowd in the UA Student Union applauded the remark and the conversation returned to the nature of the misunderstood story playing out daily in the borderlands.

Still, a little over two months on from the shootings, the healing here comes slowly and one gets the impression that a whole city is still processing, reflecting, mourning and trying to move ahead.

Six white crosses still sit on the ground across the street from the Safeway at Ina and Oracle where Gifford was meeting constituents on January 8. There was a big benefit concert this week to raise money to further the healing. A Gifford’s aide, Ron Barber, organized a fund for that purpose and a big car dealer and Republican businessman who had supported Gifford’s opponent last year made a large donation. The UA has launched an institute devoted to civility and a Gifford’s intern-turned-hero, Daniel Hernandez, announced this week that he’ll run for student body president at the University. And, of course, the updates on the Congressman’s condition dominated the news here and got big play everywhere. Life goes on.

The big book festival this weekend made me reflect anew on the power of stories in the hands of gifted storytellers to help us make sense of an often senseless world. Artists simply help us live and cope.

Luis Urrea, a great and gifted writer who straddles at least two cultures, gave me a new mantra while he was talking with Scott Simon. Urrea says he tells his writing students that every day is Christmas or their birthday, they just need to be open to the gifts – mostly little tiny gifts – that come their way every day.

Tucson is finding its way two months on by finding and enjoying the little gifts that come its way every day.

A Reporter’s Reporter

David BroderDavid Broder, 1929 – 2011

In the last few years it became “inside the beltway” sport for some to denigrate the kind of journalism that Dave Broder practiced for so long from his lofty perch at the Washington Post.

To his few critics, Broder, who died on Wednesday at age 81, was old school, a guy interested in the substance of politics, not the cynicism, someone who actually believed that politicians could be motivated by something other than self-interest. Worst of all, to some, Broder was a model of civility; judicious with his judgments, slow to pull the trigger of blame.

For my money, he was the gold standard, the dean, the kind of reporter who is rapidly disappearing from the political beat, or any other beat. Broder was to the soles of his well-worn shoes a reporter, not a pontificator. He was criticized by some for repeating the conventional wisdom on D.C., but by any measure of the work that journalist do, he was a calm, reasoned, informed, non-cynical voice that both tried to understand politics and not debase politicians. Dave Broder was a nice guy in what is often a cutthroat business.

I met him once and spent a day with him at an Andrus Center conference in Boise a number of years ago. That forum, organized with the Frank Church Institute at Boise State, focused on politics, the press and the law in the post-9-11 world. Well into his 70’s, Broder consented to fly across the country and be part of a discussion that I moderated featuring judges, lawyers and journalists. He provided no bombast, just perspective. No harsh criticism of the political process, but rather understanding informed by the belief that most of the time people in public life try, as they see it, to do the right thing.

Many of the tributes to Broder, and there will be many over the next few days, will mention his penchant for going door-to-door to talk to real voters about politics. The tributes will stress his sensitivity, even his compassion for the mighty who tumble from great power and his fundamental decency and gentlemanly nature. All true.

New Yorker political writer Hendrik Hertzberg admits to criticizing Broder for his repeating of the conventional Washington wisdom, but then recounts a charming story of Broder impressing the devil out of Hertzberg’s fawning mother. Not every good reporter is a hit-headed Carl Bernstein. Thank goodness there has been room for a long, long time for a decent and discerning Dave Broder.

I connived to sit next to Broder at dinner after a long day at that Andrus Center conference. We’d spent the day discussing and debating how the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon would change American politics, law and the press. I wanted to hear him hold forth on Washington, but he kept gently turning the conversation local.

Always the reporter, he wanted to know what was going on in Idaho. Midway through dinner, he pulled out one of those uniquely shaped reporter’s notebooks and starting taking notes. I was dumbfounded. Dave Broder, the dean of Washington political reporters, thought I had something worth recording in his notebook. If I hadn’t already liked the guy, that would have sealed the deal. But, most importantly, he really did want to know. He was a reporter. Always looking for information, opinions, insight.

Writing in the Post yesterday, Robert Kaiser said it well: “In a business dominated by hard-driving egos, Broder was an anomaly: a Midwestern gentleman, gentle in manner, always eager to help fellow reporters and to preserve the reputation of his newspaper. His standards never slipped, save perhaps when yielding to his perennially unfulfilled dreams for hisbeloved Chicago Cubs.”

One of the reasons our politics has assumed such a hard and nasty edge relates directly to the hard and nasty approach of too many opinion-driven news organizations and the people who work for them. Dave Broder, even when criticized, refused to succumb to the nasty and cynical. He uplifted his craft and, as a result, uplifted those he covered.

I’ve often thought since that dinner in Boise back in 2003 that Dave Broder would have been welcome on that particular night at any Georgetown salon, Washington embassy or U.S. Senator’s dinner table. He chose to come to Boise. He wanted to know what was happening out here. He was curious and interested. He was a real reporter.

At that Andrus Center conference Broder was asked what responsibility the press has to protect secrets that might impact national security. It was the time when then CIA officer Valerie Plame had been publicly identified and her cover blown thanks to political leaks and press reports.

Broder warned the questioner that he was going to get a longer answer than he might want and then proceed to say, with nuance and insight, that it is the government’s responsibility to protect its secrets. The press has another job. The job of the press is to report what is going on, he said, what is important. The government tries to protect secrets, the press reports news.

Old school, indeed.

If you don’t believe Dave Broder was one-of-a-kind, try to think of anyone in journalism today who can now inherit his unique role. He was the dean, maybe the last of a breed.

I’m not sure he ever revisited those notes he took when we were talking during dinner, but he did write it down. I’ll remember that – and Dave Broder – for a long, long time. Good guy, terrific journalist.

Failing at Politics and Policy

Expelled from Politics

On Tuesday, the Idaho House approved the most political piece of State Superintendent Tom Luna’s “education reform” effort and sent it on to receive a sure signature from Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter.

Idahoans who care about schools – and politics – may look back on the vote to strip collective bargaining rights from the state’s teachers and make tenure more tenuous for new teachers as a true watershed moment.

Like the great Jack Dempsey, knocked out of the ring in a 1923 title fight, the Idaho Education Association’s once-powerful role in the state’s politics has been knocked for a loop, perhaps never to recover. Dempsey somehow pulled himself back in the ring against Luis Firpo and eventually won his famous fight. The IEA has rarely demonstrated that kind of agility.

It seems unfair to kick someone when they’re down, but the reality in these events is obvious, just as the politics is raw. The IEA has failed at both politics and policy and when the legislative moment of reckoning arrived in 2011, the state’s teachers were vilified, marginalized and defeated badly. This has been a long time coming.

Over the last 15 years, as Idaho’s politics has shifted dramatically, the IEA has clung to an old and outdated strategy. Rather than try to elect allies to the legislature or cultivate those already there, the teachers have seemed to focus, without success, on top of the ticket races like governor and state superintendent. The folly of the approach was well documented in a good piece of reporting recently by the Idaho Statesman’s Dan Popkey.

Popkey got the quote of the current legislative session out of former Democratic State Sen. Brandon Durst who complained about IEA’s focus on thwarting Luna’s re-election bid rather than winning a handful of potentially decisive legislative elections, his included.

“They’re my friends, so let me characterize it a little bit more diplomatically,” Durst told Popkey. “They blew it. Their decision to put all of their resources, not just financial but also human resources, behind [Luna’s] campaign and his campaign alone, really hurt races down the ticket.”

But this failure of political strategy goes deeper than misfiring in one election cycle. The IEA has something like 13,000 members in every corner of Idaho. That represents a grassroots organization that most interest groups would kill for, yet the teachers seem not to have been able to really mobilize these local foot soldiers and use them to build broader coalitions. This represent a failure of strategy that ignores a fundamental tenet of politics at every level: organize, organize, organize.

At the same time, Idaho’s teachers have become a punchline and a punching bag for what’s wrong with education. Teachers have become the Idaho equivalent of the old story that everyone hates the U.S. Congress, but most of us still like our own Congressman.

Most Idahoans like the teacher who helps educate their kids, they have just come to hate the teachers union. At the risk of blaming the victim, IEA must shoulder a good deal of the blame for letting this damaging perception take root. The teachers, sorry to say, didn’t fight back effectively against the ceaseless drumbeat that they are a major part of the problem with education.

Which bring us to policy. Whether its fair or not, perception is reality in politics and the perception hangs that teachers have not engaged constructively in the raging debate over why our education system fails to meet almost everyone’s expectations. Playing defense all the time is not a political strategy and it has become for the teachers a recipe to become politically marginalized.

Successful movements – and interest groups – eventually need to stand for something, educate folks about the wisdom of the position and build broad support. I’m guess that even most of their supporters in the Idaho Legislature really don’t understand the IEA’s policy agenda, assuming there is one.

IEA’s leadership justifiably complains about not being at the table when Luna’s reform agenda was hatched, but the teachers also had a chance to build their own policy table and haven’t. Unfortunately, this is not just an Idaho-based failure, but a broader national failing of professional teacher organizations. Look no farther than Wisconsin or Ohio for proof.

At the IEA website, there is a link called “Why Politics?” A click at the link takes you to a short page that explains that the organization is involved in politics because decisions in Idaho and Washington, D.C. effect teachers.

Then there is this sentence: “Time and again, over the last century (emphasis added) IEA members have won major victories to both defend and set new standards for public education in Idaho.”

It’s hard to remember in this century when Idaho teachers won a major or even minor victory. It may be a long time – if ever – before that happens again. If it ever happens again, it will be because Idaho’s worn down and increasingly hard pressed teachers, and the organization that represents them, adopts a real political strategy that can help them climb back into the ring.

The Great Game

baseballMemories of Baseball

More than any other of the games that command the attention of the dedicated sports fan, baseball is a game of memory.

Memories of dads playing catch with kids, the mental image of walking up a ball park ramp for the first or the hundredth time and taking in the sight and smell of the green field, the endless records that record the history and detail of thousands of contests – all are a part of the individual recollections of so many hours spent in the magical spell of the great game.

No matter how long you play, watch, read about or reflect on baseball, you will never have it mastered. You can never exhaust the infinite prospect that you will find and enjoy something fresh and new.

Today, I know, I’ll find something fresh and new in the oldest and maybe the sweetest ballpark currently in use in the Cactus League, Phoenix Municipal Stadium. The home Oakland A’s entertain the boys of spring from Seattle this afternoon and for me it will be the unofficial start of another sweet season of memory. You can’t go to a ballpark without remembering. In a way, it may be the best part of baseball.

My baseball mentor, my dad, established this spring-time ritual of baseball memory. About this time every year he would start to recall: Mickey Cochrane, his favorite, the great A’s and Tigers catcher; Connie Mack, the manager who wore a suit and tie in the dugout; Jimmie Foxx and Lefty Grove, Dizzy and Daffy, and Mickey Owen’s tragically dropped third strike.

Memories.

Growing up in western Nebraska, I’m sure my dad never set foot in the old ballpark in Brooklyn, but it came home to him nevertheless in a hundred scratchy and distant radio broadcasts. He didn’t have to physically be there to know the place and I know the feeling.

I never saw the great Duke Snider play – he died a few days ago at 84 – but after reading the memories of his Dodger teammate, pitcher Ralph Branca, I can almost see him roaming center field in old and long gone Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. Branca’s memories are the memories of a baseball fan.

As a general rule this Giants fan doesn’t waste much baseball admiration on a Dodger, but I make an exception for that old Brooklyn bunch – Campanella, Reese, Erskine, Hodges, Robinson and, of course, the Duke of Flatbush. They were something special. They live in our baseball memories.

Branca offered a warm and wonderful tribute to his old teammate over the weekend and it was all about memory.

“I still see Duke as a young man,” Branca wrote in the New York Times, “I see him out there in center field, racing past the ads for Van Heusen shirts and Gem razors, while executing a brilliant running catch. I see him at the plate, crushing Robin Roberts’s fastball and sending it soaring high over that crazy right-field wall at Ebbets Field. I see him rounding the bases. I see him smiling. I feel the joy of his sweet, happy soul.”

There may be no crying in baseball, but there is poetry in the memories. Great humor, too.

Greg Goossen, who also died recently, inspired a great deal of humor during his lackluster and memorable baseball career. In his too-short but very full life, the one-time catcher also promoted big-time boxing, did a stint as a private detective and served as Gene Hackman’s movie stand-in. Goossen, in what must be close to a record, if not a guaranteed laugh line, played for 37 different teams in the minor, Mexican and Major Leagues.

Goossen remarkably lead the team in hitting during the one season of the short-lived Seattle Pilots and told an interviewer he would have played his whole career in Seattle. Teammate Tommy Davis, himself well-traveled, piped up with, “You did!”

Goossen figured prominently in Jim Bouton’s baseball classic Ball Four where Bouton recounted that he and Goossen once played against each other in an International League game. Goossen was behind the plate when a hitter rolled a bunt back toward the pitcher. “First base, first base,” Goossen yelled. Ignoring those instructions the pitcher wheeled and threw to second with all runners safe.

Goossen, ticked that his simple directions had been ignored, moved back behind the plate while Bouton yelled from the opposing team dugout, “Goose, he had to consider the source.”

The Duke and the Goose, Branca and Bouton and all the rest will be there at Phoenix Muni today. That’s the way this game is played with balls and strikes, hits and ground outs…and memories. It’ll be great.

The Great Race

snow whiteGrand Old Pretenders

George Will has finally written what many Republicans are thinking: these folks aren’t ready for prime time. In his Sunday column, Will laments the “vibrations of weirdness” emanating from the prospective GOP presidential field.

Exhibit A this week is Mike Huckabee, often seen as the GOP front runner in what blogger Taegan Goddard calls “the Fox News primary.” The wise New York Times columnist Tim Egan, still a hard-nosed, fact-based reporter at heart, lays bare Huckabee’s “misspeak” this week about Barack Obama’s growing up in Kenya. Of course, Huckabee got that all wrong. Obama grew up in Hawaii (still one of the 50 states), spent some time in Indonesia and didn’t visit Kenya until he was in his 20’s.

But, as Egan points out, Huckabee not only misspoke, he had a whole line of factless argument built around Obama the Kenyan. This wasn’t a slip of the tongue, but a premeditated argument aimed at driving the wedge over whether Obama is really one of us.

Even more damaging to Huckabee is Egan’s reporting on the fictions around a the case of a parolee that Huckabee never really had to explain during his short run for the GOP nomination in 2008. Read Egan’s reporting and see if this guy really has a chance.

Here’s a bet that Huckabee opts to stay on Fox as a talk show host rather than troop around in the snow in Iowa and New Hampshire. Egan’s piece will haunt him either way.

George Will, meanwhile, does not count The Huck in the five candidates – Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, Tim Pawlenty, Haley Barbour and Mitch Daniels – that he sees as the great hope of the GOP. But, as he writes, “the nominee may emerge much diminished by involvement in a process cluttered with careless, delusional, egomaniacal, spotlight-chasing candidates to whom the sensible American majority would never entrust a lemonade stand, much less nuclear weapons.”

Exhibit B: Another piece this week, also in the Post, detailing the relationship – if that is the right word for it – between Huntsman and Romney. Reporter Jason Horowitz’s fascinating piece about the two ambitious LDS politicians says: “The respective former governors of Utah and Massachusetts have vast fortunes, silver tongues and great hair. They are also distant cousins, descended from a Mormon apostle who played a key role in the faith’s founding. The two men enjoyed the early support of powerful and devout fathers and performed the church’s missionary work – Romney in France during the Vietnam War and Huntsman in Taiwan.”

Horowitz goes on to make the case that both Huntsman and Romney wanted to run the Salt Lake City Olympics, knowing that the high profile post would help their political aspirations. When Romney won out, the two men’s personal and family connection was badly frayed. Horowitz also gets into the issue of which of the men is the “better Mormon.”

Neither the Huckabee story line this week nor the Romney-Huntsman feud can possibly be the narrative Republican strategists are hoping to develop. At this point, in the desperate race for money and attention, this kind of story line doesn’t help build momentum, but does raise questions that will linger and linger, first among the chattering classes and eventually among the voters.

Former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus – he won his share of elections – has a favorite saying: “you can’t win a horse race with a dog.” Admittedly, it’s early, very early, in the all-too-long political nominating process. The economy and Middle East oil prices may yet be a greater threat to Obama than anyone in the Republican field but, having said that, none of these contenders is reminding anyone of Ronald Reagan, or even Howard Baker, Bob Dole or John McCain.

The weirdness is vibrating and no one is running the lemonade stand.

A New Game

voteParty Registration Comes to Idaho

Idaho’s most conservative Republicans got what they long wanted yesterday with the decision by U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill throwing out the state’s open primary law. We’ll see if this important decision becomes the political equivalent of the dog catching the car.

It would seem that the immediate impact, as some Republicans exalted over “Democrats no longer picking our candidates,” would be to shift the already very conservative Idaho GOP even further to the right. The after thought Idaho Democrats are left to lament shutting people out of the system. Maybe.

But, if Democrats were to pick themselves up off the canvas and seize Winmill’s ruling as the opportunity it could prove to be, it just might turn out to be the spark that lets the long-suffering party get back in the game.

In politics you can often define opportunity as the moment circumstances collide with timing. The circumstances are the issues mix in Idaho right now – faltering funding for education and a still limping economy – the timing is reflected by the stark reality that Idaho Democrats need a new organizing principle and new blood; energy and ideas to jump start a political recovery. Scrambling the primary process, requiring party registration could be a very big deal.

The current Idaho legislature will end sometime this spring likely having left many, if not most, Idahoans wondering just what happened to education. Expect more Statehouse demonstrations and perhaps even a teacher walkout in coming days focused on defining the education issue to the detriment of the majority party. If Democrats were smart they’d be in the streets collecting names and e-mail addresses of these motivated, mostly younger Idahoans.

(One wag noted the irony in proposing that Idaho students become more comfortable with on-line course offerings, while the kids are organizing on Facebook.)

The recent Boise State University poll says 37 percent of Idahoans now identify themselves as “independents,” only 21 admit to being Democrats, while 33 say they align with the GOP. In the BSU surveys, the numbers of self-described Republicans has been in steady decline. By the same token, in a new closed primary those “independents” are, at least theoretically, up for grabs and for the first time in 2012 primary voters will have to be identified by a party label.

The Republicans in Idaho have long had the money, organization and hearts and minds of, at least, a plurality of Idaho voters. But this is also true: the most faithful adherents in each party are the “true believers” of the increasingly farther right and left. These folks volunteer at the precinct level, they attend the party conventions, they vote in primaries and, at least in the GOP, some of them pushed for a closed primary. The true believers also tend to push the parties to the extremes, which is why you see GOP proposals to nullify health care legislation and repeal the 17th amendment to the Constitution.

Most Idaho Republican officeholders no longer fear a challenge from a Democrat. They only worry about an assault from the right. This unrelenting ever more conservative push tends to diminish the already shrinking center were more Idahoans, if you believe the BSU poll, say they are more at home.

Democrats should look deeply into the impact of Judge Winmill’s decision. It just might contain the fragile threads of a return to viability. Viability will, however, require a new strategy, true centrist policies, messages and candidates and a very big dose of luck. Democrats, of course, need to supply most of that. Ironically, a federal judge may have given the Idaho GOP the thing it says it wants, but also the lucky break Idaho Democrats need.