Home » 2011 » April

Rope a Dope

Ali, FDR and Barack

OK, I never thought I’d find a connection among the “greatest” heavyweight of all time, Franklin Roosevelt and the man now in the White House and officially certified as a resident of the United States, but bear with me.

Throughout his remarkable career Muhammad Ali struggled to be accepted for what he was – a consummate professional, a remarkably intelligent, one-of-a-kind man; an African-American with a gift for language who also challenged all kinds of conventional thinking.

Ali, a convert to the Muslim faith, was a man with a foreign name and remarkable championship skills; a man who made a principled stand against an awful war and paid dearly for it, a champion never accepted by many Americans as “legitimate.”  But, through it all, he could proudly claim to be “the greatest.”

It’s not bragging, they say, if you can do it and Ali could.

I watched the great champion in an old, black and white interview with Howard Cosell last night as he correctly analyzed himself as both loved and hated, misunderstood, undervalued, misrepresented and, well, just not one of us. He knows us better than we know him.

Elected to the presidency four times, father of Social Security, architect of victory in World War II, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was never considered legitimate by some of his persistent critics. The narrative of illegitimacy dogged him in each of his four elections to the presidency.

FDR was – take your pick – a “traitor to his class,” as historian H.W. Brands described him in his fine biography or more nefariously the architect of a vast Jewish conspiracy. As another Roosevelt historian has described the myth makers, they were convinced FDR was out “to betray the United States into the clutches of international conspirators who were plotting a world state under Jewish domination.” In other words, Franklin Roosevelt, the Dutch-American born of aristocratic parents of the Hudson River Valley was secretly a “Jew,” presiding over an administration dominated by an  “invisible Jewish leadership.” In other words – he was illegitimate.

And…the current president, a man besieged until yesterday by many who considered his very birth in the United States illegitimate. Obama, the editor of the Harvard Law Review (that is generally considered a pretty big deal), who a “carnival barker” reality television host can wonder how he ever got into the such an establishment Ivy League bastion.

To some Americans, Barack Obama can never be “legitimate,” just as the great boxer or the greatest president of the 20th Century can’t possibly be legitimate. Accomplishment is simply not enough.

Ali was a “draft dodger,” a “loud mouth” and not even a good boxer. Roosevelt was a Jew, a “cripple” and “mentally ill.” Obama must be a Muslim, and couldn’t have gotten into Harvard on his own. He’s just not a real American. He can’t be “one of us.”

Stay tuned. The production of the president’s birth certificate won’t silence some of the doubters. Even as Obama played rope a dope with the birthers, daffy Donald Trump still said he would need to check the veracity of the document. It just may be illegitimate. The Idaho Falls Post-Register quotes a guy in an eastern Idaho diner wondering if Obama released his paperwork “for political reasons or did he manufacture one?” After all, he had two years to produce the document and “I’m just asking,” the guy says.

As silly as political discourse has become in America, and with too much of the media lacking a filter to shut off the loud mouth de jour, there is something more troubling at play here. The something is deeply engrained in the political DNA of Americans.

For the haters of Roosevelt it wasn’t enough to oppose his policies, he had to be, at a time when anti-Semitism was hardly in the closet, exposed as a secret Jew. He must have been something sinister. He had to be unlike us, illegitimate. Google “was FDR a Jew” and you’ll find them. Like the poor, such folks will always be with us.

For Ali and Barack, it is the differences that count – the names, the color, the background. Accomplishment in the ring or on the Harvard Law Review or in the United States Senate or with the Nobel Peace Prize couldn’t possibly be legit. There must be some other explanation. These guys are different, foreign, not like the rest of us…illegitimate.

Remember all that talk a while back about a post-racial America. Not so fast apparently. I hope I live long enough to see it, but I’m certainly not counting on it.


All Politics

Stranger Than Fiction

Turns out Donald Trump’s checkered past is almost as interesting as his current foray into Republican presidential politics.

Trump has given a lot more money in political contributions to Democrats than Republicans, made a big contribution to Rahm Emmanuel’s Chicago mayoral campaign and volunteered to the Obama White House that he was just the guy to run the clean-up in the Gulf of Mexcio after the BP oil spill. Trump continues his daily media tour and, like moths to a flame, the cable shows and the mainstream media can’t get enough of it. Reminds me of the car wreck that you know you should avoid, but you can’t help yourself.

Meanwhile, Nate Silver, the number crunching polling guru at the New York Times, has an interesting analysis of polling on the “birther” question even as the White House produces the long-sought document.

Sounds as though the Queen of England, and perhaps the future King, subscribe to the old political maxim “don’t get mad, get even.” The last two British prime ministers – Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – aren’t on the invite list for the event of the decade in Britain – the Royal Wedding. 

The Telegaph calls it a “snub of historic proportions.” Apparently, Her Majesty never developed a liking for the last two Labour PM’s and harbors a distaste for Blair’s wife. She never curtsied. And William has never forgiven Blair for his grandstanding at the time of his mother’s death. Get even time – royally.

My other favorite political story of the day is the continuing post mortum on Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s decision not to enter the GOP presidential field. Granting Barbour’s immense network of contacts, his fundraising ability, his political experience, etc., I could never see him winning either the nomination or the presidency.

Still, his fling with the idea has cast a light on what it takes to run. Barbour called it a “ten year commitment” to the exclusion of virtually all else. One needs a lot of passion, ego and ambition to embark on that journey.

Barbour now has time on his hands, Trump’s birther issue is gone in a flash – maybe they can fill in for Blair and Brown on Friday. Just a thought.



Weekend Potpourri

Odds and Ends on Easter Weekend

Need a movie recommendation this weekend? Join Elwood P. Dowd and his buddy, Harvey, the invisible – except to Elwood – 6’3″ rabbit. The film was one of Jimmy Stewart’s favorites and, no, Harvey wasn’t an Easter bunny.

Good reads this weekend:

The Los Angeles Times has a piece about the uncharacteristically adult like behavior of the “gang of six” U.S. Senators who are trying to craft a true bipartisan approach to the budget. The “gang” includes Idaho’s Mike Crapo.

The extremely well-reviewed new bio of Malcolm X is on my bed side table. This review makes me anxious to get after it.

And this book I can unequivocally recommend – Unbrokenby Laura Hillenbrand, the author of the acclaimed book Seabiscuit. It is an absolutely riveting account of the combat and POW experiences of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic track star, who somehow was able to overcome his completely dehumanizing experience in a Japanese prisoner of war camp and go on to lead a fascinating life. You won’t be able to put it down.

Can’t say I’ve spent much time following the imminent nupitals of the British royals, but the announcement of the champagne they are serving got me to pay attention.  “Pol Roger,” the Decanter.com website says will be served and it, “has a long and honourable association with the British aristocracy. It was the favourite Champagne of Sir Winston Churchill, and in 1984 Pol Roger created the Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill in his honour.”

Good stuff…fit for a future King and Queen. No word if Sir Winston’s favorite Romeo y Julieta will also be available. I’m guessing not. A shame.



Isn’t it Time?

Former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn recently made their second trip to Cuba. Carter also went in 2002. Both trips, undertaken as a private citizen (but no former president is really a private citizen), were designed to try and move U.S – Cuba relations in a more positive direction.

Predictably, Carter was immediately denounced as a “shill for Castro” and an apologist for the Cuba government. Such criticism seems to roll of the former president’s back like water off a duck and Carter’s report on the visit, posted at the Carter Center website, paints a much different picture of what he did and said in Havana. Here’s the concluding paragraph of his trip summary:

“Both privately and publicly I continued to call for the end of our economic blockade against the Cuban people, the lifting of all travel, trade, and financial restraints, the release of Alan Gross [a jailed U.S. contractor] and the Cuban Five [Cuban dissidents], an end to U.S. policy that Cuba promotes terrorism, for freedom of speech, assembly, and travel in Cuba, and the establishment of full relations between our two countries. At the airport, Raul [Castro, the Cuba president] told the press, ‘I agree with everything that President Carter said.'”

For 50 years the United States has had an embargo against Cuba. During the Bush Administration and for most of that 50 years, it has been extremely difficult, even illegal, to travel to Cuba. Trade has been strictly banned. The Obama Administration has relaxed the travel rules some, but the chance that the two countries might actually get on a path to more normal relations remains wrapped around the axle of south Florida politics. The Cuba-American community there, largely Republican voters, remains a potent political force and last I checked Florida still played an outsized role in presidential politics. For years the political facts of life in one state have largely dictated the nation’s policy toward Cuba.

Nevertheless, by almost any measure our Cuban policy has run its course, and not just because I’d like to buy an extremely expensive Cuba cigar in the United States. At one time, post-Bay of Pigs and post-Cuban missile crisis it was easy to make the argument that Fidel Castro’s island regime was settling in to become a genuine threat to U.S. and Latin American security. Cuba did meddle in revolutions in far away places, like Angola, but today there is much reason to acknowledge that the Cuba-Soviet relationship was never as seamless as we feared nor was Castro, the socialist revolutionary, as effective as we might have thought. Cuba’s economy struggles today and the embargo, rather than bringing down Castro, has hurt the Cuban people and given the regime its anti-American reason d’etre.

Here’s the analogy that works for me. We’ve had 50 years of deadlock and non-engagement with Cuba, a country 90 miles from our shores, while halfway around the world, thanks originally to Nixon and Kissinger, we have engaged the Chinese and, I would argue, slowly, but steadily, helped bring a measure of the free market and openness in that communist country. We may have gone too far. The Chinese now threaten our economic leadership in the world. At the same time, we engage Vietnam, a country in which we fought a long and bloody war, with trade and diplomacy. We have an unsteady, but absolutely necessary relationship with Putin, the old KGB chief, in Russia. But nothing of any substance with Cuba.

Idaho and other Pacific Northwest conservatives, guys like Sen. Mike Crapo and Gov. Butch Otter, have long pushed for more trade opportunities with Cuba, the Castro brothers notwithstanding. In February 2008, Crapo signed a bipartisan letter to the Bush Administration, asking for a rethinking of U.S. policy in light of the resignation of Fidel Castro.

“Our current policy deprives the United States of influence in Cuba,” Crapo wrote, “including the opportunity to promote principles that advance democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.  By restricting the ability of Americans to travel freely to Cuba, we limit contact and communication on the part of families, civil society, and government.  Likewise, by restricting the ability of our farmers, ranchers, and businesses to trade with Cuba, the United States has made itself irrelevant in Cuba’s growing economy, allowing Cuba to build economic partnerships elsewhere.”

Cuba presents a “Nixon goes to China” moment. Relaxing trade restrictions and putting the countries on a path to more normal relations, requires conservative, trade-oriented Republicans, like Crapo, to keep pushing.

In a 2005 report, the libertarian-leaning CATO Institute, labeled our country’s Cuba policy “four decades of failure.” CATO’s trade policy director Daniel Griswold wrote: “The most powerful force for change in Cuba will not be more sanctions, but more daily interaction with free people bearing dollars and new ideas.” Indeed.

World-class cigars aside, Cuba can’t have much to sell to us. They import most of their food and manufactured goods. By contrast, we have everything the Cubans need from automobiles to high rise resort hotels, from Idaho potatoes to Washington apples. Continuing sanctions is simply a huge missed opportunity.

Jimmy Carter left office in 1981 with a 34% approval rating. His tenure remains controversial, but his standing in the history books aside, Carter has quietly and effectively been a model “ex-president.” His selfless work in Africa to end disease, his election monitoring around the world and his advocacy for women continue to be impressive. As one of the few Americans to engage at the highest levels with Cuba’s political elite, with dissidents, artists and religious leaders, he deserves a fair hearing on Cuba.

Pure south Florida politics aside, when Jimmy Carter and Mike Crapo are on the same page about Cuba, everyone should be listening.


Say It Ain’t So

Where is Landis When We Need Him?

I’m not sure what to be more shocked about this morning: the breaking news that long-suffering Chicago Cubs fans may have to endure more ridicule or that the quietly inept Commissioner of Major League baseball has stepped in to bail out another of baseball’s loudly inept owners.

The story out of Chicago that the 1918 Cubs may have been the World Series throwing inspiration for the 1919 White Sox is, still and all, based on speculation. The Dodger meltdown is all too real. Old documents have turned up that suggest that White Sox players, pitcher Eddie Cicotte particularly, may have been inspired by the Cubs taking a dive against the Boston Red Sox in the 1918 series. Cicotte is hardly a character witness. He was banned from baseball for life by then-Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis for cavorting with gamblers and, very likely, conspiring to lose the 1919 series to the Cincinnati Reds.

Professional baseball realized it had a problem in the wake of the “Black Sox” scandal and turned to a crusty Chicago federal judge, Landis, to assume dictatorial powers over the game in the interest of restoring integrity to the national past time.

Landis was selected by the owners – baseball had millionaire owners then, too – but he operated more as a policeman than a hand maiden. With two major National League franchises – the Mets and the Dodgers – now operating under serious financial clouds and with Roger Clemens about to follow Barry Bonds into steroid never-never land, baseball could use a commissioner who was less dedicated to holding the coats of the game’s owners than in establishing fundamental standards of conduct that, Landis-like, really protect the integrity of the enterprise.

Gamblers once spread around money to try and fix the World Series and Judge Landis drew a sharp line in the infield dirt by declaring that gambling was off limits to anyone involved in the game. Just ask Pete Rose if that precedent is as good today as it was in 1920.

Today’s baseball gamblers are guys like Frank McCourt who ran one of the great brands in sports into the ditch after using enormously leveraged money to buy the Dodgers and Fred Wilpon, the Mets principle owner, who once counted Bernie Madoff as both close friend and financial advisor.

Given the continued drug cheating and financial incompetency in baseball, a real commissioner would lay down the law, not just try to pick up the pieces. The way to keep the modern day gamblers out of the game is not to let them in the first place and, when they screw up, quickly show them the door. Baseball ownership has always been a closed shop for too many guys operating on too much leveraged money who enjoy the vanity of owning the owner’s box. All their money, their messy divorces and their felonious financial advisors aside, the game still belongs to the fans in the seats.

A real commissioner would spend more time worrying about the best interest of the folks who buy the tickets rather than the interest of some rich guy who isn’t smart enough to make money on a baseball team in Los Angeles or New York.

Landis is remembered for banning the eight White Sox players in 1920 and altogether he banned more than twenty players for gambling, selling stolen cars and other sins that brought disrespect to the game. He also banned one owner – William B. Cox of the Philadelphia Phillies – for betting on his own team. Cox remains the only owner ever banned for life.

It’s time to send some more owners to the showers – permanently. Landis knew the score. He reportedly told players, “Don’t go to those owners if you get into trouble, come to me. I’m your friend. They’re no good.”

Spoken like a real commissioner.


Mayor Annoyed

The Best Politician You Never Heard Of

If you’ve ever been to the ballpark in Baltimore – Oriole Park at Camden Yards – and loved it as I have, you have William Donald Schaefer to thank. Or maybe you’ve been able to wander around the gorgeous Inner Harbor in Baltimore and visit the stunning National Aquarium. All the work of Don Schaefer.

In one of the best political profiles ever written, Richard Ben Cramer, called Schaefer, who died on Monday at age 89, Mayor Annoyed. Annoyed because things didn’t happen fast enough in his city, annoyed because greedy developers (and NFL owners) refused to see things his way and annoyed because nitwit reporters tweaked him for his temper and his very old school ways.

He never quit working. Schaefer became legendary for driving around the city at all hours stopping his Buick to check on an abandoned building, talk to some guy on the street or pick up a pile of trash. The mayor, and later the governor, always had work to do.

For 15 years, Schaefer was the mayor of Baltimore and then spent two terms as governor and more time as Maryland’s controller. He never married. Politics was his mistress. He was a builder, a boss, a bully, a booster and, as the Baltimore Sun said in his stunningly interesting obituary, “the dominate figure in Maryland politics over the last half century.”

Don Schaefer was the model of the modern, big city mayor.

Schaefer, often referred to as the “Governor of Baltimore” after he moved to Annapolis, hated that the Baltimore Colts NFL team had left his beloved city. As governor, he was determined to do what it took to get a team back and to keep the Orioles in town. That included making peace with his legislative critics to ensure a $280 million stadium deal was approved. It was and Camden Yards is part of his monument.

As the Sun’s Michael Dresser wrote in his obit: “[Schaefer’s] style in dealing with legislators was cunningly flexible. With strong personalities he would pitch fits punctuated by profanity and obscene gestures before coming to a compromise. With others he played on their sympathies and made them feel so bad about hurting him that they went along.”

He detested Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke, who Schaefer thought, correctly no doubt, was keeping an NFL team from returning to Baltimore. He had a long-running feud with his successor as governor, Parris Glendenning, once saying of the man who replaced him, also a Democrat, “I will not have any disparaging remarks about him except I hate him. That’s putting it mildly.” He was so independent he endorsed George H.W. Bush and once had dinner with Ronald Reagan and the next day blasted his policies.

America was once blessed with flamboyant, outspoken, get it done today mayors. Guys like James Michael Curley in Boston and Jimmy Walker and Fiorello La Guardia  in New York and Richard J. Daley in Chicago. Controversy stuck to them, ambition defined them and the little people loved them. Don Schaefer was cut of the same cloth. These guys built great cities.

I had the pleasure of observing Gov. Schaefer a few times during meetings of the National Governors Association in the late 1980’s. Let’s say he did not suffer fools well.

One night I got on the elevator in the Hyatt on Capitol Hill just as the governor was returning, all by himself, from the obligatory black tie dinner at the White House. How was the dinner, I asked, hoping for a little State Dining Room gossip.

Schaefer reached up, pulled on one end of his bow tie to loosen it and offered his assessment of an evening at the White House. “The food was pretty good, but otherwise it was a damn waste of time.” As the elevator stopped on his floor, he said, “good night, I got work to do.”

I remembered that ocassion while reading Cramer’s great 1984 Esquire magazine profile of Mayor Annoyed. Cramer describes Schaefer’s penchant for issuing “action memos” demanding that his staff immediately address some city problem. “Broken pavement at 1700 Carey for TWO MONTHS,” for example.

He once sent an action memo that read simply: “There is an abandoned car…but I’m not telling you where it is.” City crews, Cramer wrote, ran around for a week “like hungry gerbils” trying to find that car. “They must have towed five hundred cars.”

Like the man said, he had work to do. What a character.