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It Gets Worse

Congress – Not the People’s Choice

Has there even been a time when the United States Congress ranked lower with the American public or when dysfunction more profoundly gripped the institution? Hardly.

University of Tennessee historian Daniel Feller says we need to go all the way back to before the Civil War to find a Congress quite so much at war with itself as today’s bunch. Feller is among a group of historians that NPR surveyed to determine if the current Congress is just bad or among the worst in the nation’s history. Historically bad is, according to the historian, the correct answer.

Professor Feller cites the Reconstruction period immediately after the Civil War when Andrew Johnson struggled, with little success, to replace Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson’s fight with Congress over the League of Nations and Harry Truman’s battles with the “do nothing 80th Congress” as historic examples of when a president and a Congress were deeply divided. Still, Feller told NPR, “None of those involved the level of conflict within Congress itself that we see today.”

Just this week came further evidence that Congressional dysfunction and serial partisanship has claimed another victim. Nebraska’s conservative Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson, already the subject of intense negative attacks in his state, opted to quit rather than fight for another term. While coverage of Nelson’s decision has focused on the undeniable fact that Senate D’s will now be even harder pressed to hold the Senate next year, the real story here is the crumbling of the institution.

As Politicos Mike Allen reported in his newsletter, quoting an email from a Senate insider, “The retirement is a reflection of the growing polarization of the body. Nelson could work with anybody in the senate. Either side. His growing frustration with the domination of partisanship within the body lead to this decision. He blames both sides for letting things get out of hand and he often laments the willingness of anyone to really focus on the issues and develop a bipartisan solution anymore. Not since he put together the judicial nominations agreement in 2005 has there been any bipartisan accomplishments in the Senate. Since then a Fat Tuesday parade of exits have left moderate dealmakers like Nelson on the sidelines. Lott, Chafee, Breaux, etc. all left for the same reason. There is no comity to be found in the upper chamber anymore. … [T]he tea saucer is losing more of its cooling element and is becoming indistinguishable from the tea pot.”

Ben Nelson wasn’t a great senator, but then few in the Senate today would qualify to carry Robert Taft’s or Mike Mansfield’s briefcase. Nelson was a person, by political necessity and personal inclination, able to work across the partisan divide. But, there is no place for such people in today’s Senate.

It make me, an amateur historian of the Senate and its quirky ways, wonder what motivates people to reach the near absolute top of the American political system – the Senate – and then spend most of their time there trying to make certain the institution cannot function?

The late Sen. Robert Byrd revered the Senate as an institution. Byrd studied the history, knew the rules, understood what the Senate was designed to be and had to struggle to be. He even wrote a massive history of the institution that is remarkable for its lack of partisanship and its appreciation of compromise.

The retirement of Ben Nelson, whether or not his brand of conservative, Midwestern politics was your cup of tea, does mark yet another rubbing out of a “moderate.” As Jon Avlon notes in a piece at The Daily Beast, “at a time when our politics is looking like a cult, there is no tolerance for principled dissent. Dissent is disloyalty and punishable by either the threat of excommunication or electoral execution.”

Two things need to change. Those in the Senate – there must be a few – with some respect and understanding for the institution’s role in our democracy need to begin, through action and word, to restore a sense of civility and common purpose and voters need to quit rewarding people with high public office who seem to merely want to destroy the other side rather than work on the real problems of the nation.


Who Wrote That

Politicians Run From Their Words

Imagine this scene: It’s May 14, 1940 and Winston Churchill has just walked off the floor of the House of Commons and is surrounded by a gaggle of jousting British journalists.

“Mr. Prime Minister, the opposition has been extremely critical of your speech yesterday in which you said: ‘We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.’ Did you really mean to make such a pessimistic assessment and is your policy merely ‘victory…victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be?’ Do you really stand by those words, Mr. Prime Minister?”

In an alternative reality – maybe – we can imagine the great British Lion disavowing his famoous words and saying, as presidential candidate Ron Paul did recently about some writings that appeared in newsletters under his name, “I never read [or said] that stuff.”

The Paul excuse, lame and unbelievable at the same time, has been used to cover racist and anti-Semitic rants that the Texas Congressman now says were never his views and must have been the shoddy work of someone else that just happened to have access to his newsletters and could publish under his name without his approval.

As the old line goes, “I was born at night, but not last night.”

Churchill, even had he wanted to, couldn’t disavow his words because he wrote them himself, but in the Internet age a candidate like Paul or Newt Gingrich can merely try to duck a past statement with, “Hey, that must have been written by some staffer and obviously it doesn’t represent my views.” Don’t buy it.

Gingrich latest explaining is his praise for Mitt Romney’s health care plans. Back in 2006, Newt said in one of his newsletters, “We agree entirely with Governor Romney and Massachusetts legislators that our goal should be 100% insurance coverage for all Americans. Individuals without coverage often do not receive quality medical attention on par with those who do have insurance. We also believe strongly that personal responsibility is vital to creating a 21st Century Intelligent Health System. Individuals who can afford to purchase health insurance and simply choose not to place an unnecessary burden on a system that is on the verge of collapse; these free-riders undermine the entire health system by placing the onus of responsibility on taxpayers.”

Gingrich’s spokesman said, drum roll please, “the Newt Notes essay wasn’t written by Mr. Gingrich himself.”

Here is a practical lesson in Politics 101. In every political office and campaign I’ve ever worked in, been close to or observed from afar, the candidate – or on a rare occasion an extremely trusted staffer – signs off on everything that is written down and committed to a speech draft. There is no margin of error on such statements, particularly since they now find an instant home on the Internet and can easily come back to haunt. That’s how it works.

Of course most politicians don’t write their own press releases and speeches, although they once did, but rather they have their people handle that time consuming labor. Still no candidate worth his or her salt would trust an unnamed, unsupervised staffer to issue statements in his or her name without first granting a sign-off. That simple fact of political and campaign life makes the Paul and Gingrich “I didn’t write it” defense indefensible.

The Republican primary season has been a rolling exercise in disavowing past stands. Nothing wrong in my book with a principled evolution of political positions. No less a politician than Abraham Lincoln went from a position of tolerating slavery in the interest of preserving the Union, and figuring that the practice would eventually wither and die, to issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. Like Churchill, Lincoln didn’t try to disavow previous statements since he had written them and he had the integrity to explain the evolution.

It’s OK to change positions in politics, but not OK to disavow statements made in publications that you actually control. It’s not really a question of authorship. It is a question of character.

“I never read that stuff” just doesn’t fly. It doesn’t even flap its wings.

An honest answer when confronted with a past statement that is, in the immortal words of Nixon Press Secretary Ron Ziegler, “no longer operative,” would be along the lines uttered by the legendary Earl Long, the one-time Governor of Louisiana. Confronted by an aide with the fact that a campaign promise made to his supporters would not be fulfilled, Uncle Earl honestly told the aide to tell those supporters the truth.

“Tell ’em I lied,” he said.



Christmas Memories

‘Tis the Season

Long ago I ceased being focused on what some nice spouse, relative or friend would place under the tree with my name attached. As much as I appreciate the generosity and the thought, Christmas has become for me a season of memory more than gifts and I find myself increasingly transported back to cold winter days where the thoughts are warm and inviting.

I was lucky enough to once spend Christmas in Paris and the City of Light did not disappoint. Christmas Day Mass at Notre-Dame – the Cardinal presiding and the music spectacular – followed by lunch in a memorable cafe on the Ile St. Louis. What a day. What a Christmas.

Forty years on I can now smile, sort of, about the hard court mishap that found this committed but awkward second-stringer tripping over his own feet, falling across the back of South Dakota’s best high school basketball player and knocking out my front teeth. It happened on Christmas evening as we practiced for a holiday tournament. Of course, my sympathetic Dad had to remark during the emergency trip to the dentist, “All he wants for Christmas is his two front teeth.” True story.

Speaking of Dad, he often told us the story of a very early Christmas memory of his when he and his brothers found an orange, a brilliant, colorful, tasty orange, in their Christmas stockings along with some hard candy and nuts. A juicy orange in December in Nebraska was, apparently, a very rare and big deal and that lovely memory stuck with him forever.

One Christmas, my father surprised Mom with several very suggestive pieces of, well, underwear. I was too young to know that it was called lingerie. Dad had hidden the various items under sofa cushions and behind the curtains. Mom had, in essence, a Christmas bra and panties scavenger hunt for which she was initially more than a bit embarrassed. Before long, she got into the spirit and would take her time finding the next unmentionable as the old man smiled in anticipation. It’s one of the earliest recognitions I had that my parents really were engaged in a serious love affair.

I’ve been asking friends to remember the best Christmas gift they ever received and the best gift they ever gave. It’s a great question that almost always elicits a big smile, a fun story and a warm memory.

I gave my Dad a box of really cheap cigars one Christmas. Really cheap. I still don’t know what possessed me. He never smoked cigars. He accepted them graciously and, I suspect, quietly sent them to the back yard trash with all the used Christmas wrapping.

Twice in recent years I’ve spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at the marvelous old National Park Service lodge on the south rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. What a place. Big fire roaring in the lobby fireplace, the canyon an unbelievable sight always, but extra special when the red and yellow landscape is dusted with a sprinkle of snow. It’s as if a light dusting of confectioner’s sugar had been spread over one of the Earth’s most awe inspiring places.

So, I’ll celebrate Christmas this year with a head and heart full of memory of friends and family and with a knowable of what I have to be very thankful for. I’ll watch Bing Crosby sing his famous song in Holiday Inn. I’ll put another log on the fire and watch Cary Grant help David Niven find the real meaning of Christmas in The Bishop’s Wife and wince at Chevy Chase’s disappointment when his Christmas bonus is a membership in the Jelly of the Month Club.

And, as night settles around, I’ll read again – as I have a hundred times – Joyce’s great story of Christmas – The Dead – with its haunting and magical last lines, “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

Christmas is memory. Here’s to a happy one for you and yours.


Good Reads

Ten Books to End the Year

Still looking for a last minute gift idea? How about a book? It has been a good year for good books.

In no particular order, here are ten that I found memorable during 2011.

1. Train Dreams by Dennis Johnson. This thin, but deeply satisfying little novella is set in northern Idaho and truly captures the mood of the landscape as it must have been in 1920. Johnson’s writing is haunting, spare and beautiful. This is a book that will stick with you.

2. Jack Kennedy by Chris Matthews. The MSNBC host hasn’t written the great biography of the martyred president, but he has written a warm and insightful book about politics and the impact one man can have on the country. A must read for a political junkie.

3. The Killing of Crazy Horse by Thomas Powers. The best single book I’ve ever read about the long, twilight struggle of Native Americans against the relentless westward pressure of white society. The great Sioux warrior is at the center of Powers’ narrative, but this book has the broad sweep of history about it and the story is wonderfully well told.

4. To End All Wars by Adam Hochchild. This is a marvelous account of the First World War told from the perspective of those who opposed the war in Great Britain. You may find, as I did, that you put this book down with a sinking feeling in pit of your stomach. The war that still shapes our world was both tragic and pointless.

5. Midnight Rising by Tony Horowitz. Horowitz, a marvelous storyteller, sets out to rescue the abolitionist firebrand John Brown from the caricature shelf of history. Horowitz puts flesh on Brown’s story and helps us understand why people followed him all the way to the gallows. You’ll come away thinking that the Civil War really began with Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry.

6. Arguably by Christopher Hitchens. This book is a collection of mostly short essays, reviews and columns by the late writer. Hitchens’ depth and range is evidence from first page to last in a big door stop of a book. The writing is superb, the connections remarkable, the sadness that the man is gone hangs on every page of this remarkable collection.

7. In the Garden of the Beasts by Erik Larson. This is the story of the improbable ambassadorship of William Dodd, a university history professor who ended up in Berlin in the 1930’s to witness and report on the consolidation of power by Hitler and his Nazi henchmen. Dodd was little supported by the striped pant set, the career State Department bureaucrats, by enjoyed the confidence of Franklin Roosevelt. You may find yourself scratching your head about the antics of Dodd’s round heeled daughter who at one time or another was engaging in love affairs with a Nazi, a Russian spy and the occasional U.S. and other visitor to Berlin, a place that was a true garden of the beasts.

8. A. J. Liebling: The Sweet Science and Other Writings. Liebling was one of the great reporters of his generation, but mostly unknown now to anyone under 50. This Library of America collection of his writings is a feast of great prose, especially so the pieces on Paris and the scoundrel governor of Louisiana Earl Long.

9. The New Deal: A Modern History by Michael Hiltzik. A financial columnist for the Los Angeles Times, Hiltzik has produced a fresh, critical and highly readable review of the Depression era and the political and policy response of Roosevelt and others. Hiltzik doesn’t stretch to make the point, but skillfully draws the unmistakable parallels that exist from FDR’s administration to Barack Obama’s.

10. And, no list of mine is complete without at least one baseball book. You can do much worse than The House That Ruth Built by Robert Weintraub. The book tells the story of the characters who once owned the New York Yankees (or perhaps more correctly the story of the earliest characters who have always owned the most storied franchise in baseball). The book focuses on 1923 and how the “the big ballpark in the Bronx” came to be just as the Great Ruth hit his stride. Makes me long for spring.

Happy reading and Happy Christmas.


Ten I’d Like to See

Editor for a Day

I’m a news junkie. I consume newspapers, radio, television, the Internet, blogs and more like some folks consume cans of Coke or bags of salted peanuts. I’m addicted to news.

My much better half once clipped a Charles Schultz “Peanuts” cartoon from the Sunday paper and had it framed for me. In the cartoon Snoopy is seen with a significant number of papers under his arm (leg?) and Charlie Brown remarks that he’s always buying all the out of town papers. That’s me.

So, as a year-end wish, I’d like to put on my green eye shade for a moment, the kind an old-time editor might have worn, and suggest ten stories I’d like to see someone write.

1. Who has survived the housing bubble? I keep hearing stories about the massive inventory of built housing in Ada and Canyon Counties in Idaho, but I wonder how the developers, builders, architects, etc. manage to hang on? Is the housing situation improving? How much inventory is there? Who has weathered this awful story…and who hasn’t?

2. What’s happening to the Idaho timber industry? Twenty or more years ago every Idaho politician spoke of the staples of the Idaho economy as being timber, agriculture and mining. Political battles were fought over allowable harvest levels in Idaho’s national forests. Potlatch and Boise Cascade carried real economic and political clout. Additional formal wilderness designation was held hostage to the need for access to new raw materials. Agriculture is still big, mining – particularly gold exploration is booming – but what about the timber industry? The industry’s once-powerful trade group disbanded last year. What has happened to jobs, companies and how big (or small) is the once mighty industry?

3. Speaking of wilderness, that is where the Idaho Democratic Party has wandered for the last 15 years. With the exception of a one-term congressman and a superintendent of public instruction, the party that once held the governorship for 24 straight years seems a political afterthought. Does any Democratic leader have a plan to help the party return to relevance? Who might be a serious candidate for a serious office in 2014? Or, has Idaho become what Alabama was in the 1930’s – a one-party state for as far as the mind can see?

4. Speaking of politics, I’d be curious – and other Idaho news consumers would be, as well, I think – as to what the state’s all-GOP congressional delegation thinks of the current state of presidential politics. Several of the state’s Republican leaders have endorsed Mitt Romney, but I don’t see anything about what they make of the current campaign. I know these guys, serious politicians all, are following the debates and watching the polls. I’d like to know what they think about the campaign.

5. Idaho undertook massive changes in public education over the last two years, including for the first time actual year over year reductions in spending. School districts have downsized staff, changed schedules and eliminated programs. Who has been hurt? How many teachers have left the state and why?

6. Another education money story I’d like to see fleshed out is what the impact of legislative action on public school spending has been for local property taxpayers. There have been levy elections designed to raise money from property taxpayers to replace money – sales and income tax dollars – that has shrunk at the state level. The Boise district will ask voters to approve a levy in March. Some numbers reporting on what has happened could be enlightening.

7. One of the expected big battles of the 2012 Idaho legislature will center on whether the state will create a state-based health insurance exchange” as required by the unpopular Affordable Care Act– Obamacare in the parlance of those who most dislike the law. Idaho legislators voted against the exchange idea last year, but Gov. Butch Otter finally used an executive order to facilitate work on the exchange in the interim. Soon, the legislature will be asked to authorize the creation of an exchange and spend money on setting it up. Here’s a comparison I’d like to see: Utah, a state every bit as conservative as Idaho, already has an exchange in place. How did that happen? What is different in Utah as opposed to Idaho? Conservative Republicans run both states, but have come to apparently very different conclusions on this important issue. [Full disclosure: I serve on the board of a health insurance company that supports – as I do – creating a state-based exchange.]

8. The most vocal opposition to creating an Idaho exchange comes from the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a conservative, free-market think tank, and its director, a former reporter and GOP staffer, Wayne Hoffman. Hoffman is a very effective advocate. Many legislators listen when he speaks. Good for him. What lawmakers, the public and the media don’t know is who bankrolls his efforts. It continues to be a valid question and a potentially important story with impacts for Idaho’s public policy and politics.

9. Washington State voters recently voted – with healthy encouragement from Costco, the big retailer – to get the state out of the liquor business. States where liquor is controlled, purchased by the state and sold in state-owned and operated liquor stores, is a relic of the country’s post-Prohibition days in the 1930’s. Given Idaho’s historic inclination, when given a choice, to favor the private sector over the public, just how does the state maintaining a liquor monopoly fit? It is often argued that the status quo helps discourage consumption. But is that true? Would a change cost the state money or make it money? An enterprising reporter ought to be able to figure that out? Right next door Washington will be testing many of the assumptions long-held in Idaho.

10. And…I’m curious about the impact on the state’s unemployment rate over the last 18 months or so of the downsizing local and state governments have engaged in. Just how many positions have been eliminated in the tough budget environment? What has been the impact on both those people and public services? Maybe it’s good, maybe not. It’s an important story that hasn’t been much reported.

There you have it…ten stories I’d love to read in 2012.


Dark Horse

Could It Happen Again?

The well-quoted Larry Sabato, the political guru at the University of Virginia, has begun talking openly about the possibility that the Republican presidential primary field may not be as complete as many have thought. Sabato suggests that the post-Super Tuesday calendar, when 59% of all the GOP’s convention delegates will be selected, makes it possible – if not likely – that a “dark horse” can still enter the race late and scramble the nomination math, maybe even winning a “brokered” convention.

If so, it would be the first time since 1940 that a late arriving potential president came out of left – or maybe right – field to capture a major party nomination for the White House. That guy, Wendell Willkie, was barely on the political radar screen early in 1940 and came from far back in the field to win the GOP nomination on the sixth ballot at the party’s Philadelphia convention.

In a Gallup Poll in May of 1940, Willkie hardly registered as a serious contender. A former Democrat, who had supported Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, Willkie was an afterthought in a field led by New York prosecutor Thomas Dewey and United States Senators Robert Taft of Ohio and Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan. In that Gallup Poll Dewey enjoyed the support of 67% of those polled. Less than two months later, with France having fallen to Hitler’s army and war seeming more and more likely, Willkie was the GOP candidate charged with the task of depriving Roosevelt of an unprecedented third term. In part, Willkie won the nomination because he refused to be pigeon holed into the GOP’s traditional isolationist foreign policy, the position that Dewey, Taft and Vandenberg espoused, and because he was, more or less, a fresh face who was seen as someone able to take the fight to Roosevelt.

At that Philadelphia convention in late June 1940 – the fascinating political story is beautifully told in Charles Peters’ fine book Five Days in Philadelphia– Willkie trailed on the first ballot, but systematically gathered strength as the delegates kept on voting. Republicans convinced themselves that the Indiana-born, utility executive – FDR’s acerbic Interior Secretary Harold Ickes called Willkie “the barefoot boy from Wall Street” – was the party’s strongest possible candidate.

By October of 1940 Roosevelt’s advisers had become very concerned that the articulate Willkie, who was at the same time both charmingly rumpled and ruggedly handsome, had closed the gap and just might prevent a third FDR term. The threat of Willkie’s growing strength as election day approached prompted Roosevelt to make his famous pledge that American boys would not be sent into a foreign war. FDR, benefiting from the “don’t change horses in the middle of the stream” message, won the election with just under 55% of the vote. Willkie carried only 10 states his home state of Indiana included, as well as Michigan and the big farm states of Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas.

Is another Republican dark horse possible next? Sure, but not likely. The testing that occurs as part of the primary slog has become the established way to narrow the field and select the last man – or woman – standing. Still, the up-one-day, down-the-next quality of the Republican campaign so far leaves a door open, narrowly, to a late arriving contender. 

As one of Sabato’s columnists said recently, “Should Mitt Romney stumble badly in the January events in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, another establishment Republican could enter the race in early February and still compete directly in states with at least 1,200 of the 2,282 or so GOP delegates. Many of them will be up for grabs after April 1 when statewide winner-take-all is possible.

“Similarly, should non-Romney alternatives led by Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry fall flat in the January contests, there would be time for the conservative wing of the party to find a new champion to carry its banner through the bulk of the primary season.”

So, who might it be should it come to be? Not likely a Willkie-like business person who had never sought political office before. We know Donald Trump and The Donald is no Wendell Willkie. It would have to be someone with broad appeal to both the conservative and more establishment wings of the GOP and someone, like Willkie, who had appeal to moderates and independents, with a real chance – better than the established field – to beat the incumbent. Is Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels listening? The last dark horse was also a Hoosier.