Archive for September, 2011

Meltdown

The Game That Breaks Your Heart

The sport page headline in the Boston Herald this morning: “The Choke’s on Us.”

Herald columnist John Tomase captured the full agony of Boston fans in his third graph: “The Red Sox were euthanized by the Orioles last night when $142 million man Carl Crawford failed to catch a sinking liner in the ninth, allowing the O’s to walk off with a 4-3 victory.” Ouch.

The generally more staid Boston Globe wasn’t. The headline there: “Shameful Red Sox Made Unwanted History.” Recalling disasters of the past, the paper noted that the ghost of Bucky Dent is alive and well.

With the closer to home Mariners out of anything – except meaningless games – by the All Star break, I took some pleasure in anticipating the Sox in the post season. When I watched them drop two of three to the hapless M’s in mid-August, I should have known the jig was up. The meltdown in Beantown will go down in the record books as the greatest fall from baseball grace ever in September. For me it began at Safeco on Friday night in summer. These guys wore the season-long collar of doom; we just didn’t know it until last night.

Funny thing about sports – and politics – once the cloud of doom settles over a team (or candidate) there is virtually nothing – nothing – a manager can do to let the sunshine in. All through September, Red Sox skipper, Tony Francona, looked like a guy preparing to lose. He had the brave but worried look of Jimmy Carter’s campaign in 1980 or George H.W. Bush in ’92. He seemed to know he was going to lose the whole campaign, but was hoping for an October (or late September) surprise. Not gonna happen.

Still, what an amazing night of baseball. Three key games all in progress simultaneously. The channel changer needs a new battery this morning. Mike Lopresti kept a timeline for USA Today. He recorded the end at 12:07 am Eastern when the Red Sox shuffled off to a “winter of discontent.”

The late, great Commissioner and historian of the great game, A. Bartlett Giamatti, a Red Sox fan, said it better than anyone: “It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.”

There will be playoffs now and a World Series. I’ll watch it all with the full knowledge that winter has arrived early.

 

Trying Times

Leadership? Not So Much

At pivotal moments in American history it has often been the case that the right leader somehow emerged from the chaos of the moment and the nation was able to pass through trying times and set course for a better future.

Presidents Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan lacked the vision and courage to head off the steady drift in the direction of sectional strife in the 1850′s and, while there is a good argument to be made that Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 was the tipping point toward civil war, there is hardly any disputing that Lincoln brought to the presidency the powers of leadership that ultimately saved the country.

Likewise Franklin D. Roosevelt proved to be the right leader at the worse time in the 20th Century. FDR restored confidence and, I’m convinced, reformed American capitalism enough to save it. He was a leader made for his times.

There are a handful of other examples in our history. Andrew Jackson, with all his flaws, may qualify for a leadership award. More recently Ronald Reagan, invoked by every current GOP candidate for president as the leadership gold standard, had some of the FDR in him. He was a confidence builder when the nation needed a big dose. Washington stands, of course, in a special class of right leader at a trying time.

It’s hard to escape the reality that the nation is at another such crossroads and our politics and politicians hardly seem up to the task. The litany of problems is almost too big to fathom: stagnant economy, double-dip recession looming, crippling unemployment, increasing poverty and income gap, a national and international debt crisis, declining quality of public education, the need for entitlement reform, the European fiscal crisis, the uncertainty and unpredictability of the Arab Spring, climate change, terrorism, even the Red Sox have melted down.

The thinking man’s conservative, David Brooks, identified the heart of the problem in his New York Times column yesterday: “the ideologues who dominate the political conversation are unable to think in holistic, emergent ways. They pick out the one factor that best conforms to their preformed prejudices and, like blind men grabbing a piece of the elephant, they persuade themselves they understand the whole thing.”

The Democrats are all about tax increases on the most wealthy and increased spending to stimulate consumer demand. The Republicans can’t shake the gospel of tax cuts, controlling the deficit and whacking at regulation. What both sides miss is that we need to do all of that and more.

It may well be recorded at the supreme moment of missed opportunity in the Obama Administration was the president’s failure to grasp and champion the most important political and policy work to come out of Washington in a long, long time – the recommendations of Simpson-Bowles Commission. In the end, the discarding of the work of the former Wyoming Senator, Alan Simpson, and the Clinton-era White House Chief of Staff, Erskine Bowles, will be recorded as a failure of leadership. The bi-partisan commission called for doing it all – tax and entitlement reform, spending cuts, deficit reduction. The Commission prescribed exactly what every thinking American knows in their partisan heart must be done. Obama punted and Congressional Republicans did as well.

And meanwhile the country is hungry – desperate even – for real leadership. Many Republicans salivate over the prospect that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will turn his consistent “no” into an announcement that he’ll enter the GOP battle and it’s easy to see why. Christie delivered an inspirational speech last night at Republican hallowed ground, the Reagan Library in Simi Valley. His indictment of Washington leadership will surely resonate with Democrats and Republicans who long for leadership from someone.

“In Washington,” Christie said, “we have watched as we drift from conflict to conflict, with little or no resolution.

“We watch a president who once talked about the courage of his convictions, but still has yet to find the courage to lead.

“We watch a Congress at war with itself because they are unwilling to leave campaign style politics at the Capitol’s door.  The result is a debt ceiling limitation debate that made our democracy appear as if we could no longer effectively govern ourselves.”

Christie specifically jabbed President Obama for failing to embrace the Simpson-Bowles work noting pointedly that it was “a report the president asked for himself.”

I’m not at all convinced Chris Christie is the Lincoln or FDR we need, but I am convinced that genuinely honest talk about the enormous problems facing the country, with an unstinting focus on big solutions to big problems rather than what David Brooks calls “proposals that are incommensurate with the problem at hand,” would be the beginning of the leadership the country needs and hungers for.

The electorate is deeply unsettled. The evidence floats about everywhere you look. A new CNN survey says only 15% of Americans have confidence in their government; an all-time low. The Coca-Cola chief says China is a better business bet than the USA. There is an unmistakable sense that American power and influence is in decline.

Is anyone up to the task? Can anyone see beyond the next election? I’m betting if someone could look that far ahead – see ahead to real leadership – it would be the best possible strategy to win.

 

J. Robb Brady

A Rare Breed

Loyal readers at this spot know that I occasionally rage against the dying of the light of local journalism. The days of independent, community-minded and engaged newspapers, television and radio stations does seem to me more and more imperiled, which makes the passing of J. Robb Brady, the long-time publisher and editorialist of the Idaho Falls Post Register, a singularly sad milestone.

Brady was a young 92 when he died Sunday in Idaho Falls. His wife Rose – they were married for 69 years - died earlier this year.

Robb Brady was, as the younger set might say, “old school.” His office looked like it could have been at home on the set of the old television show “Lou Grant.” Robb truly had printer’s ink in his veins and it was obvious he took great pride and satisfaction in running a family-owned newspaper.

Robb Brady was also a conservationist, occasionally at the expense of his objectivity, but had I the chance, as he did, to buy ink by the barrel, I would want to have the same kind of opinionated, passionate editorial page he presided over at the Post Register. I remember taking a client in some years back to “background” Robb and others at the paper on a new mining venture in Lemhi County. I warned the client that it would be a tough session full of pointed questions. Robb, as far as I know, never met a mine he liked and the editorial board meeting was tough and pointed, but never lacking in civility.

Brady simply wanted folks to justify their plans and most of all answer how they would take care of the Idaho environment he came to champion. The answers he got were seldom good enough, but his judgments were rarely nasty, rather more concerned and dubious. In other words, his was the newspapering mind of a skeptic, not a cynic.

He wasn’t a booster – OK, well maybe a little bit of a hometown booster of the Department of Energy. All politics is local after all. Not many mines in Bonneville County, Idaho, but thousands of jobs at the Idaho National Laboratory.

For example, in a 2006 editorial Brady lamented the power of oil and gas companies to dominate the Bush Administration’s public lands leasing policies and suggested that global warming had an answer – develop a newer, safer generation of nuclear reactors rather than exploit more dirty carbon-based energy. At least Brady, unlike too many who possess a strong conservation ethic, had a real alternative to more oil and gas exploration – invest in nuclear power.

The tributes to Robb Brady will flow in now from those who will remember his spirited, passionate editorials about the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains, about his championing of protection for the magnificent Sawtooth Range and the River of No Return Wilderness. But some of the best and most important memories will come from the generations of ink-stained wretches he touched and trained.

Marty Trillhaase, now the editorial page editor of another family-owned newspaper in Lewiston, once worked with Brady in Idaho Falls, as did the Idaho Statesman’s Kevin Richert and Rocky Barker. Calling Brady kind, generous, opinionated and courageous, Trillhaase concluded his editorial today with the all-too-true observation: we’ll not see his like again.

 

It’s the Money

College Football…the Case for Reform

Taylor Branch is a serious historian, a man who has made his considerable reputation as perhaps the most important historian of the civil rights movement. Branch’s superb Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963 deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize and it is just about the best thing in print on the politics, history and turmoil that roiled the country as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. pulled America forward, forcing us to confront our racist past and our unequal present.

Branch is an outstanding reporter and he has now turned his impressive investigative and analytical skills to the business of college football. His story – the cover piece in the current Atlantic - is an absolute must read for any fan, any skeptic, anyone who even occasionally wonders what big time college football has to do with big time higher education.

The Columbia Journalism Review said, “Taylor Branch’s cover story in the new Atlantic is a devastating indictment of the NCAA…a superb synthesis of the history of the NCAA, the hypocrisy of keeping athletes from getting paid while the commercialization of college sports (football and basketball, that is) runs amok, and why a reckoning may be in store.”

Frank Deford, who has long lamented the crass commercialism of college athletics, devoted his recent NPR commentary to Branch’s article that he called “the most important article ever written about college sports.”

I read Branch’s piece last week and came away with that once-in-a-while feeling that you have just read something really important, truly insightful and that you really learned a thing or two. His distillation of the history of the NCAA is simply fascinating. His insights into the business of big-time college football should be enough to make any big corporate sponsor blush. His characterizations of the scandals rippling through the game should make every college president in America queasy. But, since we’re really talking money and hypocrisy here, it will take something more than Ohio State firing a football coach or Boise State sacking an athletic director, to reform this system. It will happen, Taylor Branch forecasts, in a courtroom. He make a very compelling case.

Branch’s fundamental indictment of college football rests to two pillars: the NCAA is today, and long has been, a corrupt “cartel” determined to control as much of college athletics as it possibly can and that the so-called “student-athlete” is a fiction dreamed up by a long line of NCAA leaders who were determined to treat young athletes as indentured servants, while college coaches and the institutions themselves are enriched beyond the wildest dreams of most of the young men who labor for free.

As Branch says: “The term student-athlete was deliberately ambiguous. College players were not students at play (which might understate their athletic obligations), nor were they just athletes in college (which might imply they were professionals). That they were high-performance athletes meant they could be forgiven for not meeting the academic standards of their peers; that they were students meant they did not have to be compensated, ever, for anything more than the cost of their studies. Student-athlete became the NCAA’s signature term, repeated constantly in and out of courtrooms.”

He goes on to recount, in painful detail, stories where “student-athletes” have been seriously injured playing for respected colleges only to lose appeals that they be granted the basic protections of worker compensation laws.

“The NCAA today is in many ways a classic cartel,” Branch writes. “Efforts to reform it—most notably by the three Knight Commissions over the course of 20 years—have, while making changes around the edges, been largely fruitless. The time has come for a major overhaul. And whether the powers that be like it or not, big changes are coming. Threats loom on multiple fronts: in Congress, the courts, breakaway athletic conferences, student rebellion, and public disgust. Swaddled in gauzy clichés, the NCAA presides over a vast, teetering glory.”

In 1939, Robert Maynard Hutchins, then the young president of the University of Chicago, did what a college president would likely get tarred and feathered for today – he dropped football. Hutchins famously said, “To be successful, one must cheat. Everyone is cheating, and I refuse to cheat.”

Hutchins confronted the fundamental question: just what does ultra expensive college football, complete with lucrative sponsorship deals, high rolling boosters who play by high rolling rules and inevitable scandal have to do with education, scholarship and research. Hutchins answer was just as valid in 1939 as it is today – nothing.

Since reading Taylor Branch’s piece, I’ve read to other pieces of reporting on college football that strangely make his fundamental point in vastly different ways. The University of Chicago, Maynard Hutchins long in the grave, resurrected its football program thirty years after it was eliminated.

As the New York Times noted recently, “In 1969, football returned as a varsity sport, oddly enough during the Vietnam War era when many rebellious students were comparing blocking and tackling to bombing and strafing.

“Since then, the game has been thriving on its own measured terms in N.C.A.A. Division III, free of the highest level of competition. Winning is a preference and not an obsession. Players, though zealously recruited, are not given athletic scholarships. Championships are won but little noticed.

“Chicago presents its own kind of parable: going from all to none before settling on a path in between.

“We’re just a teaspoon in a larger sandbox,” said Dick Maloney, the team’s head coach since 1994. “There are places where football is more like a giant shovel, but I prefer it when everything is kept in perspective.”

In a front page piece, the Times also reported on the latest trends in college football uniforms, noting that the University of Maryland has done a deal with edgy gear manufacturer Under Armour to create a series of game jerseys, pants and helmets that the team will surprise fans with every week. Of course, four of the new jerseys are on sale by the college.

Just to connect the dots, as Branch does in his reporting, while the University of Maryland and dozens of other schools make a bundle on deals to sell college football jerseys and other team goodies, Ohio State University players are serving suspensions and have had four figure fines imposed for selling their own jerseys, rings and awards.

As Branch, Deford and others have pointed out, the NCAA never really goes hard after a big time football program. They’re simply afraid that real sanctions to clean up the college football cesspool might force the Ohio State’s and Miami’s to pick up their footballs and unite under a different banner. The NCAA can’t stand that thought. It needs the money. So, the NCAA spends about one percent of its budget on enforcement and typically only gets really snarly with some kid who may have trouble scrapping together the cash to get the oil changed in his car.

The University of Chicago’s Hutchins once joked that a student could get twelve letters in college without learning to write even one. Today the University that produced the first Heisman Trophy winner and then abandoned the Big Ten Conference is best known for its 85 Nobel laureates.

The entire system of college football – the organization, the big money, the ruse of the “student-athlete” – is eventually going to come tumbling down. There is truly a scandal here and like almost every scandal its ultimately about money and what the corruption of too much money and too little integrity can do to even the noblest of intentions.

 

Drawing the Lines

Here’s an Idea…Let Ben Do It

When Idaho’s “citizen” reapportionment panel deadlocked recently everyone in the state looked to the Big Man on the second floor of the state capitol building for guidance. And for good reason. Ben Ysursa has forgotten more about Idaho’s election process than most of us could ever hope to know. So here’s a novel idea that will never happen, but should – let Ben draw the lines. I apologize in advance to my friend, Ysursa, but stay with me.

Rather than Ysursa’s steady and experienced hand on the redistricting tiller, we’ll now have a new reapportionment panel in place next week – three partisan Democrats and a trio of partisan Republicans – trying and do what the first gang of six failed to do in 90 days of expensive trying. In theory the equally divided “citizens” committee seems like a sensible solution to the games legislators historically play when it comes time, as it does every ten years, to decide the shape of the state’s legislative and Congressional boundaries. The sensible idea goes south, however, because both parties bring their partisan agendas to the process and common sense is handed a spoiled ballot. To those who will be quick to say, “but the citizen panel worked last time,” I say it worked only because one member – to perhaps his eternal regret – voted with the other side. The partisan political powers to be seemed determined to not have that happen again.

I know, I know, drawing legislative and Congressional boundaries may be the single most partisan thing done in our politics. Careers are made or ended based on these geographic and population decisions. All the more reason to let a pro call the shots. Suppose for a minute that the Commissioner of Baseball decided that we need to tweak the rules of the great game. Would he assign the job to a group of amateur fans, three Red Sox partisans and three Yankee fanatics? Of course not. Even Bud Selig would be smart enough to call in a Joe Torre or Frank Robinson; an expert who knows and loves the game, but is wise enough not to play games with the rules.

The Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call did a story last week detailing how difficult the reapportionment job is in a smaller states, like Idaho. The biggest states have finished the job, while Maine (and Idaho) seem hopeless caught in the political weeds. Idaho reapportioners wandered into the weeds when Republicans panel members pushed an agenda to create a legislature even more conservative than the current one and Democrats saw the process as offering a small sliver of opportunity to get the party back to relevance. Next stop: deadlock.

Of course, my solution – let Ben do it – will pass muster with no one, including most likely Ben. What sane person would want this job? But consider this: Ysursa has been in the Secretary of State’s office since just after statehood, or at least it seems so. Ben first toiled as long-time Secretary of State Pete Cenarrusa’s chief deputy and he has held the top job himself since 2002. Ben has twice been overwhelmingly re-elected with bi-partisan support. You would be hard pressed to find a loyal Republican, as Ysursa proudly is, who is seen by partisans of every stripe as both a professional and completely fair minded. I can think of no person in either party who would approach the partisan job of reapportionment with more dispassion and with a long view as to what is in the best interest of Idaho. He could have the lines drawn by tomorrow afternoon and I’d bet a ticket to a Red Sox – Yankee playoff game that Ben’s plan would pass Constitutional muster if, as always seems likely, the ultimate plan goes before a judge.

Somethings are too important to be left to politicians and, with all due respect to the six people who tried to write a plan, some things are too important to be left to amateurs. The lines defining Idaho’s legislative and Congressional districts should be drawn based, number one, on common sense as defined by population, communities of interest, geography and history. If six truly independent people brought that notion to the Idaho process they could write the plan in a week. Partisan considerations make that impossible.

Think that letting Ben do this job is crazy? Maybe, but let’s see where we are in six weeks or so.

 

Reflections

Ten Years On…

Amid the tenth anniversary reflections over the terror attacks on New York and Washington there is much to ponder, remember and regret, including our response and its effectiveness.

Bill Keller, just stepped down as the top editor at The New York Times, used the tenth anniversary to revisit his own cheerleading for the Iraq war. Keller concludes “I think Operation Iraqi Freedom was a monumental blunder.”

No such reflection or any second thoughts from former Vice President Dick Cheney who told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, “I think we made exactly the right decision (regarding the invasion of Iraq.)”

The weekend’s commemoration of September 11, 2001 was remarkably free of politics, but 9-11 and the war on terror, as Politico points out, continues to infuse our politics.

“Even as voters grow weary of the nation’s wartime footing,” Alexander Burns and Maggie Haberman write at Politico, “Democrats and Republicans continue to seek out opportunities to wield the memory of 9/11 for electoral gain — whether that means using the Guantanamo Bay detention center as a wedge issue, courting the support of firefighters and police or attacking a proposed Islamic center near ground zero.”

So much was lost ten years ago and it is altogether fitting and proper that we regret and mourn that loss. We will do so for as long as people are alive who remember that day. But, we might do well to also reflect on the fleeting nature of the profound desire that existed in the days immediately after September 11 to come together as a country, share both grief and sacrifice and get our national response correctly calibrated. The Spirit of September 12, needless to say, did not last long.

Historian Julian Zelizer writes that our passion for partisanship couldn’t be overcome even by the tragedy of 9/11.

“Could the promise of September 12 ever be fulfilled,” Zelizer asks. “Certainly today there are enormous areas of consensus between the parties, such as over most counterterrorism policies, over the need for strong homeland security programs and even for strong military vigilance with countries such as North Korea and Pakistan.

“Nonetheless, the partisan forces that play out on the campaign trail are simply too great to overcome. If 9/11 taught us anything, it’s how deeply rooted partisanship is in our modern political culture. Even a tragedy of its magnitude could barely contain the forces that perpetually rip apart members of the two parties.

“Ten years ago, the parties came together. But they came together just for a brief spell. In the long span of history, it was as if the moment ended before either side could even blink.”

More serious than even the partisanship of our politics is the general failure of real reflection and analysis in the wake of that terrible day ten years back. A Dick Cheney can’t even hint that he has had a moment of pause considering all that has happened in a decade, including wars costing thousands of lives and perhaps $4 billion in treasure.

But reflect we must and not just on the horrible losses of a decade ago. Fareed Zakaria and others ask are we safer, was our response to 9/11 truly effective, have we improperly compromised our civil liberties and the American reputation for respecting the “rule of law,” has the re-ogranization of our intelligence system worked, and are we fated to wage an endless “war on terror?”

It is worth remembering, as Zakaria does, that “on the day before 9/11 the U.S. was at peace, had a large budget surplus, and oil was $28 a barrel. Today the U.S. is engaged in military operations across the globe, has a deficit of 1.5 trillion dollars and oil is $115 a barrel.”

A new Rasmussen survey says 66% of Americans think the country has “changed for the worst” since 9/11 and fewer than 50% think we’re winning our war on terror. To believe such surveys is to believe that the American people know that we haven’t gotten it right. As the past weekend illustrates, we remember well enough, but do we accumulate much knowledge along with the memory?

Bin Laden is dead and by most accounts his vastly diminished terror network is on the run, but it’s impossible to think – ten years on – that we are anywhere close to the end of the era that began on that spectacular September day a decade ago. Where do we go now? How will we know without more real reflection, without more effort at taking stock and admitting that maybe – just maybe – we have more learning to do?

A question for us – a question that really honors those who perished on 9/11 and in the wars that followed – is whether we will be smart enough to really assess the effectiveness of our response to the tragedy, and adjust as necessary, so that 20 or 50 years on the children of the victims of 9/11 will live in country that not only remembers their loss, but has learned from it as well.