Archive for June, 2011

What Next

Idaho’s Battle Over Education Reform

There was never a real chance that supporters of a recall of Idaho’s Superintendent of Public Instruction would be able to collect the nearly 160,000 valid signatures needed to force a recall of the controversial superintendent. Now that the recall effort is officially dead, the question becomes whether opponents of Tom Luna’s education reform ideas can keep the public concern – even anger – at a level sufficient to make a 2012 referendum, already qualified for the ballot, successful?

I’d argue the failure of the recall is a significant strategic setback for those who think Idaho’s education policy is headed in the wrong direction. The decision to mount the recall was, with perfect hindsight, a miscalculation that will now be portrayed as a sign of weakness.

Recall organizers, like Jim Allen in Pocatello, claim a moral victory with the recall effort despite not putting the superintendent’s job on the line.

“We’re not here whining and crying because it didn’t happen. We wanted to send a message and I think we succeeded in doing that,” Allen said.

We’ll see, but moral victories never win elections.

For his part, Luna said recall backers have made the issues surrounding education reform “personal,” while he’s focused on implementing the laws. After upsetting the status quo, the superintendent now is the status quo and so far he seems to be doing a credible job of playing both offense and defense. Luna is turning out to be, whatever you think of his policies, one of the more media savvy Idaho politicians in a long time.

If opponents of what Luna engineered in this year’s Idaho Legislature hope to overturn those laws next year they’ll need three things that may be hard to manufacture: money, a really compelling message and a level of public outrage that can be maintained for the next 17 months.

Recall opponents spent little money gathering signatures over the last few week – there are conflicting stories as to how short they fell – and they never came up with a consistent message about why what Luna and legislative Republicans have done is so harmful. They’ll need to do a lot better in the months ahead and history would indicate that they will need serious money to run a real campaign.

You can take it to the bank that the pro-reform forces will be organized, disciplined and well-financed.

In his statement in the wake of the recall failure, Republican Party chairman Norm Semanko seemed to indicate that he wants the continuing debate to stay focused on what became the GOP talking points during the 2011 legislature, namely curbing the union power of teachers.

Semanko said, in part, the efforts to place “Union interests ahead of the true recipients of public education, the students, have failed in Idaho.” That line of argument, coupled with a desire to control spending on education, essentially carried the day for the reform efforts during the legislative session.

The challenge for those who succeeded in putting the reform package on the ballot next year is to have the resources, the discipline and ability to make the referendum about something more fundamental – the future of education in Idaho. They may well have passion on their side, but they’ll need a strategy and money to overturn what is now the status quo in Idaho education.

A month can be a long time in politics. Seventeen months can be a life time.

 

A Moveable Feast

An Antidote to “Freedom Fries…”

One of the sweetest scenes in Woody Allen’s charming new film “Midnight in Paris,” involves the main character, played by Owen Wilson, walking the streets of the great city in the company of the stunning Marion Cotillard.

Wilson’s character, American screenwriter Gil Pender who struggles to write his novel, has been magically transported back in time to 1920’s Paris where he encounters a cast of celebrated writers and artists, including Hemingway, Picasso, Scott Fitzgerald and Matisse. Cotillard’s character, Adriana, has been keeping company with Picasso and is a stand-in for the painter’s many mistresses.

Gil, big surprising, is quite smitten with Adriana and can think of nothing better – OK, maybe one thing better – than walking the romantic streets of Paris at night with her. I identify.

Say what you will about France and the French, if you’ve been to Paris it is difficult not to conclude that it is the world’s most beautiful big city. Allen obviously believes so and his camera lavishes attention on the city that Hemingway called “a moveable feast.”

James Thurber was in Paris at about the time Allen’s movie is set and he captured the essence of the city pretty well when he said “the whole of Paris is a vast university of Art, Literature and Music…it is worth anyone’s while to dally here for years. Paris is a seminar, a post-graduate course in Everything.”

Unlike most American cities, maybe with the exception of San Francisco and a few others, Paris is a city for walking. You can actually walk almost everywhere. From Notre Dame to the Eiffel Tower is a good hike, but you can stop for a coffee or a beer on the way. (And, no the fake Eiffel in Las Vegas does not hold a candle to the real thing.) Along the way, you can walk by the river, through majestic parks and, if you are paying attention, you may just feel history under your feet.

I completely enjoyed Woody Allen’s light little romp back in time – Kathy Bates was superb portraying Gertrude Stein – but the movie is really a 90 minute love letter to Paris; the city of light and love; marvelous food and memory.

OK you say, but I don’t really like the French that much. Remember what James Baldwin said:  “It is perfectly possible to be enamoured of Paris while remaining totally indifferent or even hostile to the French.”

See the movie and fall in love with the great city for the first time or the hundredth.

 

 

Huntsman

The Man the White House Must Fear

Nothing, ever – nothing – is certain in politics. A candidate or officeholder can literally go from hero to zero in the length of time it takes to send a tweet or jackknife a trailer behind the SUV you have apparently just stolen. There are no sure things. Nothing is ever pre-determined in politics. The game must be played, the votes cast and counted. Hero to zero avoided.

So, with the acknowledgement that Barack Obama shouldn’t, and by most accounts isn’t, taking a second term for granted next year, the president must have taken some cold comfort from the fact that, until yesterday, the likely GOP field confronting him was not comprised of political world or incumbent beaters.

The guy that I’m betting the White House fears the most formally got into the race yesterday. Jon Huntsman, the former Governor of Utah and U.S. Ambassador to China, is all that the rest of the field isn’t – moderate, interesting, possessed of humor and good looks and projecting something like charisma. Every four years, the GOP looks for a candidate that reminds us of Ronald Reagan. Huntsman comes pretty close. He even chose Reagan’s 1980 backdrop, the Statue of Liberty, to launch his campaign.

The question, of course, is whether the “moderate” Huntsman is too middle-of-the-road to compete effectively for the generally very conservative voters in Republican primaries in places like New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida. That bell has yet to ring. Stay tuned.

However here’s why, I think, Obama should fear Jon Huntsman and why conservative GOP primary voters ought to give the guy a hard first, second and third look.

1) Huntsman can credibly make the case that he is a pro-business, fiscal conservative. As governor of Utah he has a jobs record to tout. Under his watch Utah did smart and responsible things with public investments and still maintained an attractive climate for business. The economy and jobs will, after all, be what the 2012 election is all about.

2) Huntsman’s more-moderate-than-most positions on many social issues – he said yesterday he would “respect” New York’s gay marriage law - will diminish him in the eyes of many GOP voters, but not among many independents and genuine moderates in both parties. He’s walking a fine line here, but if he can walk it he may be able to appeal across the ideological divide on social issues. Reagan did the same for his two terms.

3) Huntsman’s personality, his smile, charm and rugged good looks might just help make him a contender. While the other Mormon in the race, Mitt Romney, looks like the little figure of a groom on the top of an old fashioned wedding cake, Huntsman moves, talks and acts like he might actually have a personality. (Romney’s too earnest by half style has already been laughed at on Saturday Night Live.) I will always maintain that a great percentage of voters size up the candidates not on the basis of their policy positions, but on the gut-level reaction to what they see in the individual. Do they seem genuine? Are they optimistic? Are they likeable? On that basis alone, Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale never had a chance against Reagan and John McCain was a born loser against Obama. Don’t discount the “I like the looks of this guy” as a real factor.

4) Huntsman does not appear to start the campaign with a potentially fatal flaw. That may be damning the guy with faint praise, but he doesn’t start with Romney’s health care baggage around his neck or Gingrich’s staff defections or Ron Paul’s nuttiness or Michelle Bachman’s shrillness or Tim Pawlenty’s lack of charisma and message. In short, much like Obama in 2008, Huntsman is a blank canvas onto which interested voters can sketch their perfect candidate. Even conceding Huntsman lack of name recognition, no one else in the GOP field starts with the advantage of not being almost completely defined before the race even begins.

I could be back here in six months writing about the presidential campaign flame out of the former governor of Utah and, if so, I’ll eat the crow. But, I’m betting if Barack Obama didn’t sleep well last night it wasn’t the Afghan draw down he was tossing and turning over, it was Jon Huntsman as his opponent a year from now.

 

No Crimes

The Vertiginous Tangle

As St. John’s University law professor Michael Perino explains in his superb book on the 1933 congressional investigation into the stock market crash and the following Great Depression; that highly charged and much publicized probe was essential to making sense of the country’s worst financial meltdown.

Without that investigation of earlier day Wall Street greed and corruption – the investigation pinpointed the lack of effective oversight and regulation of the economy – we might never have had an accounting of what went wrong and who was to blame. We also may not have seen the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission, federal deposit insurance and banking regulation.

The hero of Perino’s book is a short, stocky, blunt spoken, cigar smoking Italian-American named Ferdinand Pecora. Dubbed The Hellhound of Wall Street – also the title of Perino’s book – for his tenacious pursuit of the truth about the events that precipitated the Great Depression, Pecora is the kind of investigator that has been unfortunately missing in the aftermath of the most recent economic meltdown.

The feisty little lawyer preferred simple, blunt questions and wouldn’t let witnesses retreat into the fog of insider language. He focused on right and wrong and making certain the public understood what the “respected” Wall Street figures had been up to in the pursuit of greed.

With no updated version of the tough, demanding investigation Pecora led during the Depression we may never have a complete accounting of what brought the U.S. economy to its knees in late 2008.

As Perino told NPR’s Robert Siegel last October, Pecora uncovered the scandalous practices of Wall Street bankers like Charles Mitchell, president of National City Bank, a financial institution we now know as Citibank.

Mitchell, in the wild pursuit of money for himself and profits for his bank, pushed ever riskier investments in the late 1920’s. Eventually Mitchell’s financial house of cards came tumbling down. Here’s part of the exchange between Perino and Siegel:

SIEGEL: You write in the book, that the officers of Citibank – this was how Pecora saw it – were paid potentially enormous amounts, only if they were able to sell vast amounts of securities. And since they did not bear the cost of securities that went down in value, they had incentives to sell as many securities as possible.

This sounds awfully familiar.

Prof. PERINO: It does sound awfully familiar. And if you read those hearing transcripts from 75 years ago, there’s an eerie ring to all of them.

Mitchell had built up a huge network for selling to middle-class securities. But with a huge network came a huge overhead. And he was constantly cajoling and berating his salesmen to make more securities. He actually said that the bank manufactured securities. And with Mitchell constantly at their backs, and the prospects for good securities sort of waning as time went by, they went and sold more and more shoddy securities; the bonds of sketchy South American countries and various other enterprises that were almost bound to fail.

SIEGEL: Very reminiscent of what happened in the mortgage market in recent years.

Prof. PERINO: Extremely reminiscent. I mean we have fancier terms for it now. We call them Collateralized Debt Obligations and other things, but basically it boils down to the same thing.

So…where is the Ferdinand Pecora of the 2008 meltdown? Why are most of the Wall Street banking titans who were on the job when the economy was, by many accounts, within hours of total collapse still on the job? Why have none of the speculators who helped create and profit from the “housing bubble” become the kind of notorious household name that Charles Mitchell became in 1933?

New York Times columnist David Brooks suggested a reason in a recent column. “Washington is home to a vertiginous tangle of industry associations, activist groups, think tanks and communications shops,” Brooks wrote. “These forces have overwhelmed the government that was originally conceived by the founders.

“The final message is that members of the leadership class have done nothing to police themselves. The Wall Street-Industry-Regulator-Lobbyist tangle is even more deeply enmeshed.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Gretchen Morgenson and financial analyst Joshua Rosner are even more pointed in their scathing indictment of the people behind the mortgage crisis. The American economy, they write in their book Reckless Endangerment, was “almost wrecked by a crowd of self-interested, politically influential and arrogant people who have not been held accountable for their actions.”

Meanwhile, as the Times recently reported, the banking regulation that was passed in the wake of the meltdown is mired in controversy with many rules required to implement the enormously complicated and, by many accounts, less-than-effective Dodd-Frank legislation still in limbo. The consumer protection agency created by that legislation remains leaderless.

Rather than chastened by the role the biggest of the big banks played in driving the economy into a ditch, celebrity bankers like JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon seem emboldened. Dimon recently got into a very public spat with Federal Reserve Board chairman Ben Bernacke when the Wall Street banker suggested that efforts to regulate big bank practices have gone too far. Dimon said because of the new regulations banks are reluctant to lend money and that may actually be hurting the economic recovery.

That sounds like the guy who killed his parents and seeks mercy from the court because he’s suddenly an orphan. Still, Dimon is, by most accounts, among the best, most ethical of the really big bank operators. And maybe he’s worth every penny of his compensation – nearly $21 million last year – but while the economy continues to struggle, he and the elite .01 percent of the U.S. economy continue to wallow along in the style in which they have become accustom.

At times it seems we haven’t learned anything at all from those wild days in late 2008 when John McCain was suspending his presidential campaign to deal with the financial crisis and then-Treasury Sec. Hank Paulson was getting down on one knee to beg Nancy Pelosi to pass bailout legislation. Paulson was so stressed about the fate of the economy during this period that he had to excuse himself from meetings to dry heave.

All that was less than three years ago, but eons in Beltway time and with distractions like Anthony Weiner and Sarah Palin why worry about really complicated, important stuff like the cause of the worst economic crisis since Charles Mitchell was scamming folks in the 1920’s?

Ferdinand Pecora took names and people went to jail as a result of his investigation in 1933. Most Washington politicians now couldn’t tell us what went wrong in ’08. They’re too balled up in the vertiginous tangle.

But, understandably perhaps, the ultra-rich Wall Street crowd needs a little diversion as the New York Times reported Sunday in a Style section piece on the latest, most exclusive Big Apple private club – The Core.

As Guy Trebay wrote, the club “is open to all — or at least, in an essential way, to all those in the top 1 percent of United States households: families with earnings the Tax Policy Center estimates will be $3,061,546 on average this year for a family of four, as well as those from an even more-elevated category that the nonpartisan, nonprofit group calls the ‘ultra rich.’

“The estimated income this year for households occupying that particular niche — a mere 0.1 percent of all United States households — will be $13,719,746, according to the Tax Policy Center.

“’The fat-cat hedge fund guys love the place,” said Richard David Story, the editor of Departures, the glossy travel magazine distributed to holders of American Express Platinum and Centurion cards. ‘These guys take their heartbeats per minute as seriously as they take their investment portfolios.’ As putative fat cats, the club’s members, of which there are now 1,500, are presumably undaunted by the club’s $50,000 initiation and $15,000 annual fees.”

When Ferdinand Pecora laid bare the abuses of Wall Street in the early 1930’s, the U.S. Senate paid him the princely sum of $255 a month for his efforts. His efforts brought down the men who broought down the U.S. economy and ushered in sensible regulation. What a wise investment that was.

As Perino notes in the conclusion of his book on the investigator and his investigation: “Nearly eighty years ago, in the depths of the worst economic crisis in the country’s history, Ferdinand Pecora showed what a well-run and well-researched Washington investigation could accomplish, and although congressional hearings often descend into bluster and posturing, the Pecora hearings remain a model to which future investigations can aspire. All they need is a Hellhound.”

 The similarities between the two financial meltdowns 80 years apart are striking. The contrast in how the political and economic elites have handled the two events is just as striking.  It’s almost enough to give you the dry heaves.

 

Dad

“When I was a boy of fourteen , my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by how much he had learned in seven years.” - attributed to Mark Twain.

Hugh Billingsly (aka Ward Cleaver) must be smiling that knowing smile somewhere this weekend. He learned a lot as Wally and the Beav were growing up. Such is the lot of dads.

Mark Twain may or may not have ever uttered that quote, but my dad used to love to repeat it followed by a twinkle and a little laugh. I think now he must have been signaling my brother and me that “you boys will understand one day…” Yup, dad was right again.

My dad never played golf. He wasn’t a hunter or fisherman. He didn’t shop well. He tended to the yard. He painted things. He played catch pretty much whenever called upon. He always flipped the car keys your way at the drop of a hat. He could fix most anything, a trait he did not, unfortunately, pass along to me. I don’t think he ever went to the garage for a tool. That was work for a son, which is why I hate to this day to go to the garage for a tool that I probably won’t be very good at using. He knew about cars and airplanes and, I realize now, women. He was old school with women, particularly with mom. He’d stand when a woman entered the room. He’d take his hat off in an elevator, and he always wore a hat. He would hold a door and offer a compliment, easily and genuinely.

He loved jokes. I repeat them today even as I recall thinking they were corny or silly when he first told them and then repeated them again and again. My favorite one is, nope, I can’t repeat it on a family blog. Dad could give a great speech, tell a great story and make a great point. He loved Will Rogers and could quote the great cowboy humorist. He wasn’t very political, just very practical. Everyone, I mean everyone, liked dad.

Dad loved baseball and was very fond of the St. Louis Cardinals. He once saw them play two World Series games and loved to tell that story. Dad loved to read and almost anything; magazines, books, newspapers, the backs of menus. He liked his VO with just a little water. Wasn’t much of a beer drinker. Wasn’t fond of many foods, but for reasons that still escape me loved my mother’s meatloaf. And saltine crackers. He liked his steak very, very well done. I remember cringing when he’d tell a waiter to “bring me the charred remains” of  a once tender New York steak.

Dad was a member of the so called “greatest generation,” but he wouldn’t have thought of referring to himself that way. The war and the Depression were the life changing events in his too brief life. I wish I would have been smart enough, when he was getting much smarter as I aged from 14 to 21, to ask him more about it. He didn’t say much, but he knew a lot. He was among the smartest guys I have ever know. It’s taken me a good part of my life to figure that out.

He loved his own dad, I think, the way I love him. Much to my regret, I never knew my grandfather, but know enough to know what I missed. I think about and miss both of those good old guys this weekend as I watch a little baseball, read a little, try to find the right company to tell that story of his and stay away from the garage.

Happy Fathers Day.

James and Jeter

A Contrast in Class

I woke up this morning thinking of writing something about the GOP debate last night in New Hampshire. But that encounter, featuring seven Republican contenders, was so completely predictable that a little LeBron James analysis seems more urgent today. After all, the next NBA season will be upon us before the next New Hampshire primary. First things first.

I confess that the last time I was really interested in a National Basketball Association final, Larry Bird was still playing. I really only paid close attention, season-long attention, to pro basketball when the great Elgin Baylor was captain of the Lakers. Back then both the pants and the shots were shorter. While mom and dad assumed I was fast asleep, I can still remember turning the radio down very low and listening to Chick Hearn’s call of a late west coast Laker game from the “fab-u-lous Forum in Inglewood…”

So, for me this year’s playoffs where not a case of eagerly waiting for the great egos from South Beach to get their just desserts at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks. I really hadn’t been paying attention and came to membership in the “I really don’t care much for LeBron” crowd late in the game, er, late in the playoffs. And, apparently like millions of fans, I enjoyed the outcome immensely.

On the intense stage of a championship, regardless of the sport, it is one of life’s guilty little pleasures to watch the most hyped guy, the guy with all the press, all the cash and all the big talk, fall flat on his face. LeBron James certainly didn’t disappoint. And, as if to further cement his well-earned reputation for lacking in class, he handled defeat with, well, not a lot of it. Class that is.

Let the jokes begin: “LeBron will never make change for you as he never has the fourth quarter.” Or, “The reason why LeBron skipped college was to avoid the finals.”

The governor of Ohio, LeBron’s home state and the place he “abandoned” in order to bring a championship to Miami, actually issued a proclamation praising the “loyalty, integrity and teamwork” of the team from Dallas. Give LeBron this much: he united most of the country behind a team from Texas, no small accomplishment.

Now for something entirely different – Derek Jeter.

Loyal readers know that I have no love lost for the New York Yankees. Being a Yankee fan is too easy, too predictable. Sure it’s the greatest franchise in baseball history, but Microsoft is the greatest franchise in software. Where’s the romance in that?

Still, sometime soon the Yankee captain, a sure fire Hall of Famer, will enter elite company when he slaps his 3,000 career hit. He’s currently six hits shot of the magic mark. I’ll be rooting for him, despite the pinstripes. Derek Jeter is the antithesis of a guy like LeBron James. He’s played his entire career in New York, the media capitol of the world, and has found a way to not be a constant feature in the tabloids. He survived and thrived through the Steinbrenner years. He’s played along side the not so loved Alex Rodriguez and projected a certain calm professionalism that then A-Rod or a LeBron can only dream about. Of course, Jeter has his detractors, but mostly because he’s a Yankee and not becuse he’s a chump.

So, why is Jeter a widely beloved figure in New York and beyond and also widely recognized as both a consummate pro and a genuinely nice guy, while disliking King James is the national religion of sports fans?

Some would argue, Buzz Bissinger, for instance, that LeBron hatred as gone too far, but “the chosen one” just keeps bringing it on himself. James repeatedly violates the first rule of public relations: quit digging when you’re in a hole. Just a small flash of humility, a warm word for the great play of Dirk Nowitzki, maybe even staying out of the spotlight for a while, would start to alter the LeBron storyline, but of such basic common sense the very wealthy and very sure of himself young man seems entirely incapable. 

LeBron James will never be a fan favorite. Too late for that. He might still be a respected super star, but not if he spends his NBA career behaving like Barry Bonds in short pants. Sports fan don’t like LeBron James for a reason, just like they like Derek Jeter for a reason.

One of these great athletes gets it. The other hasn’t a clue. One guy is self aware, the other self centered. And that, as they say, is the difference in having folks root for you to reach a hollowed mark and being made fun of by the governor of Ohio.