Archive for March, 2012

LBJ

Our Eternally Fascinating and Flawed President

The steady re-examination and reinterpretation of our 36th president is one of the most interesting developments in the shifting world of political history and biography. There are new and often very good books all the time about the Roosevelts, Kennedy and, more often now, Reagan, but the story of the big, drawling Texan is simply a political historian’s dream.

The fact that LBJ biographer Robert Caro is about to release the fourth volume of his massive and nearly life-long work on Johnson was, in and of itself, a significant news story. The book, Passage to Power, is out May 1 and covers the Kennedy assassination and deals with the fact that the ambitious then-vice president had all but given up aspirations to sit in the Oval Office. Caro has another volume still to come. To mark the release of the book, Caro has written a piece in The New Yorker and the magazine has collected seven different pieces Caro has written over the years about Johnson. The collection amounts to soul food for the political junkie.

Meantime, another fine new book on Johnson’s presidency is just out. Indomitable Will by Mark Updegrove – he’s the director of the Johnson Presidential Library in Austin – tells the story of Johnson’s Shakespearean presidency through oral histories of those, LBJ included, who lived the experience.

Dozens of other books have been written about Johnson and Robert Dallek’s two volume treatment remains among the best. There will be more.

During his presidency, Lyndon Johnson was loathed by many for what some saw as his unsophisticated manner and for having inherited the presidency that John Kennedy’s should have held much longer. Others came to despise Johnson for his escalation of the war in Southeast Asia or his vast expansion of the social safety net in the guise of Johnson’s Great Society. Still, Johnson remains one of the pivotal figures of 20th Century politics. Rarely has there been a better politician in the White House. Rarely has there been a more effective senate majority leader. Johnson’s impact on his moment in time survives years after his death and for anyone who loves politics and the American story will find the new volumes and many of the old fascinating reading. Put another way, you cannot begin to understand the politics of the United States in 2012 – the economy, health care, foreign policy, race – without an appreciation for the life and times of Lyndon Johnson.

 

 

One of the Good Guys

Clancy Standridge, 1927-2012

More than 20 years ago I was on the way home from a trip to Washington, D.C. with Clancy Standridge, who was for many years the legislative liaison and a top political confidante of my old boss Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus. It was late, the flight had been a long one, we were a little grumpy and tired from a series of those non-stop and not very productive meetings you often have in the nation’s capitol. As we stumbled up the long concourse in the Salt Lake City airport headed for the connecting flight to Idaho, handsome, debonair Clancy offered up an observation I have found myself repeating ever since. “This time of day,” he said, “your shoes feel like they are on the wrong feet.” Everyone laughed and the ordeal of getting home suddenly didn’t seem so onerous. That was Clancy Standridge.

Anyone who was around the Idaho Statehouse during the late 1980′s and early 1990′s will remember white haired, well-tailored Clancy Standridge who died recently in Portland, Oregon at age 84. It is a testament to Standridge’s skill with people and Andrus’s sense about what a Democratic governor had to do to interact successfully with an overwhelmingly Republican legislature that the state’s political watchers still say that Clancy was as good a gubernatorial emissary as has ever prowled the third and fourth floors of the Idaho Statehouse.

Clancy did his job the old fashioned way with unfailing courtesy, easy charm, a warm smile, a great sense of humor and by treating the most junior page with the same respect as the Speaker of the House. He also never forgot a commitment or failed to keep his word. Legislative attaches, the hardworking women who make the legislative machinery run, loved him. He handed out candy and compliments and people trusted him. It was remarkable the kind of gossip the old boy would pick up just by listening and being interested. When a junior backbencher just had to see the governor, Clancy made it happen. When a legislator who had consistently voted against everything the governor proposed, but still wanted a picture taken when his pet bill was finally signed into law, Clancy saw to it.

Born in Oklahoma on the cusp of the depression decade, Standridge was raised by grandparents, made his way west, served during the Korean War and hooked on with GTE, the old telephone company. He started out climbing poles and eventually worked up (or down) to serve as a senior government relations executive. Andrus plucked him from retirement to serve as his eyes and ears with the legislature. It’s hard to think he could have made a better pick. Clancy was smart, well read, schooled in politics, but more than anything he was a practitioner of the kind of personal style attributed to another Okie, Will Rogers, of whom it was said he never met a man he didn’t like. In politics, of course, you do meet people you don’t like, Clancy just never let on. I never heard him use the word, but Clancy Standridge practiced the art of civility, in fact he wrote the book on how to deal with people in the world of politics.

At a time when Barack Obama is criticized, even by those in his own party, for being distant and a loner, when it takes a Camp David-like effort to get two golf loving politicians, the president and House Speaker John Boehner, together to play a round, and when bipartisanship can’t even extend to the dinner table, it’s worth remembering what a little civility can accomplish. Despite the toxic nature of our politics and even in the face of poll tested attack lines the world – including the political world – still works on the basis of personal relationships.

Washington waxes nostalgic for the time when Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill could make a deal on taxes or when Lyndon Johnson and Everett Dirksen could have a couple of belts followed by a handshake and move the country forward on civil rights. A few more D.C. golf games, a few more cocktails on the Truman balconey and a little more common decency in Washington and in every state capitol wouldn’t hurt any politician and it would be good for the country.

The little courtesies, the random acts of kindness work to build trust and respect and even powerful people can be moved. It becomes a little more difficult to call the political opponent an SOB when you’ve had dinner with the SOB and his wife and found out about his kids, his motivations and his needs. Personal relationships grease the wheels of politics or, if common decency and respect don’t exist, the gears seize up more frequently. Does anyone think the country would be worse off if Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell shared a laugh together once in a while? Harry ought to send Mitch’s wife flowers on her birthday. Clancy Standridge would have tried something that simple and that effective.

Clancy Standridge knew all about personal relationships. He was one of a kind, but I hope not the last of his kind.

 

Mitt’s Real Problem

It’s Not Etch-a-Sketch, But Something More Serious

Typically in politics the most painful wounds are self-inflicted. Candidates shoot themselves in the foot and hobble around for days trying to change the subject, while the political media, the opposition and YouTube repeat the gaffe over and over again.

Rick Santorum had his shoot the foot moment with ill-considered remarks on college and contraception. Newt Gingrich went into the high weeds with his colony on the moon moment. Barack Obama had his “cling to God and guns” diversion in 2008. GOP front runner – and I say again, almost certain nominee – Mitt Romney’s gaffes have been so numerous it can be difficult to keep them straight. He likes to fire people, the wife has two (2) Cadillacs, he isn’t a NASCAR fan, but knows rich guys who own racing teams, etc.

Romney has a strange – and I’m sure to him mind boggling – ability to step on his own good news. He won the Florida primary and then had the CEO moment that resulted in the “firing people” language. He buried Santorum in Illinois, got the coveted endorsement of Jeb Bush and then one of his top people suggested that for the coming general election campaign Romney would just hit the reset button, shake the Etch-a-Sketch and present himself as a more acceptable candidate to moderates and independents. Ouch.

All of this is embarrassing and does reinforce the by now well established notion that Romney is a shape shifting, out of touch Richie Rich.

But here’s a novel theory for the real problem Romney faces as he finally wraps the GOP nomination with a ribbon and it’s not Etch-a-Sketch. Romney lacks a compelling rationale for his candidacy against an incumbent president. Let me explain.

Back last summer when Romney announced his candidacy it looked to the world – at least the political world – that not being Barack Obama and having a business heavy resume would be more than adequate against an unpopular president burdened by a high unemployment rate. Now, nearing the end of a bruising primary campaign it has become much more obvious that Romney’s calculation last July is faulty. Romney needs a program, a plan for the country, neither of which he has provided in any detail so far. What Romney has offered – a resume and a I’m not the other guy message – is not enough to excite either the GOP base or appeal to the Etch-a-Sketch-prone moderates.

Some might consider it an old school notion, but a candidate for president or the school board simply needs more than a resume. A friend of mine put it well, when the Obama troops really start unraveling Romney’s resume this fall he’ll find he has no rationale for his candidacy.

You can almost hear Romney’s campaign brain trust arguing to the candidate that he needs to present himself as the anti-Obama, the experienced business guy facing off against the community organizer turned law professor. In fact, Romney used that approach in his most recent election night speech. But the trouble is that its all resume and no policy.

Romney does have stump speech talking points about cutting government and taxes and repealing the health insurance reform, but his speeches sound more like cable news talking points than a program. The presumptive GOP nominee is playing the political equivalent of former North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith’s four corner offense. He’s trying to run out the clock by doing nothing flashy, risky or interesting. Romney is holding the ball when he should be launching a few from beyond the three-point line.

Whether he knows it or not, Mitt Romney, and the people giving him bad advice, have adopted the same basic strategy that the Republican candidate in 1948 adopted against Harry Truman. In that election, a northeastern (dare I say it – moderate) governor ran on his resume. Thomas E. Dewey, a rather stiff, formal, but very intelligent man, calculated that he would take no risk, propose no real policy or program and beat Truman by just not being Truman.

That strategy helps explain why you’ve never studied about or read a book on first term of that great Republican President Thomas E. Dewey.

As the candidate weathers the Etch-a-Sketch moment, there is a little good news for the U.S. economy. Etch-a-Sketch sales have soared. Amazon lists the red plastic game as its biggest “mover and shaker” selling for $13.44. Romney ought to visit the Etch-a-Sketch plant in Ohio, a swing state, and announce a new initiative to return American toy manufacturing to world prominence. Really. This guy needs some policy to go with his resume.

 

Boomer Sioux-ners

The Saudi Arabia of the Great Plains

For most of the 20th Century North Dakota claimed the unenviable distinction of being the one state in the nation that regularly experienced declining population. In 1930, as drought and depression ravaged the Upper Great Plains, the population in North Dakota was just a shade north of 680,000 souls. By 1970, that number was about 618,000. By 2000, North Dakota’s population was back to the level it had been in 1920.

Now oil and gas exploration and development in the northwestern corner of North Dakota seem sure to drive population growth, state revenues and change in ways not experienced since the 1930′s. The state legislature last week both projected an oil and gas fueled $1.5 billion  – with a “B” – budget surplus and passed what a critical spokesman for the oil and gas industry called the most stringent rules regarding hydraulic fracking anywhere in the country.

“They are the most onerous regulatory changes we’ve ever seen,” Ron Ness of the North Dakota Petroleum Council told the Associated Press. Ness’s group represents more than 200 companies working in the North Dakota oil patch. “I’m a bit concerned about the cost of doing business in the state and that it could begin to discourage activity.”

The new rules require higher levels of bonding by industry, faster clean-up of fluids left from the fracking and disclosure of the chemicals used in the process.

The rules were put in place by a Republican legislature in a deep red state with a Republican governor. North Dakota is clearly embracing its new role as the Saudi Arabia of the Great Plains, but one also gets the sense that the state is wary about the gusher of social and economic change the energy boom brings. In January, North Dakota reported more than 6,000 active wells that produced nearly 17 million barrels of oil. The state once best known for wheat and spring flooding is now a bigger oil producer than any state save for Texas and Alaska. All this is happening, of course, while the national campaign trail is full of hot talk about soaring high gas prices and the alleged anti-energy development policies of the Obama Administration. Newt Gingrich – Mr. $2.50 a gallon gas – clearly hasn’t found his way to Williams County, North Dakota.

In Williston, once a sleepy cow town just east of Montana and south of the Canadian border, you had better know someone with an inside track or you’ll never find a motel room. The oil companies have reserved everything for miles around for months, while five new hotels are under construction. Wages and the cost of living have skyrocketed in western North Dakota, as have other measures that the Chamber of Commerce isn’t bragging about.

One recent account of life in the oil patch – in Indian Country Today - noted: “The Williams County Sheriff’s Office in Williston reports that there are as many DWIs issued at 10 a.m. as are issued at midnight. Jail bookings have increased 150 percent, and bonds as large as $10,000 are routinely paid in cash. (One person paid a $65,000 bond by pulling the cash out of a Walmart shopping bag.) Law enforcement can no longer do anything but answer calls, make arrests and investigate crimes. The proliferation of strip clubs and “babe buses”—which are basically strip clubs (or worse) operating out of an RV—has also added to the frontier-town atmosphere, according to the Williams County Sheriff’s Office.”

The Fargo Forum, one of the better newspapers in the upper Great Plains, has started a new website to cover “the patch” and assigned a reporter to live and work in the area. One of reporter Amy Dalrymple’s first stories from Williston featured a former Spokane, Washington couple who are spending nearly $2,400 a month to live in their RV parked in a local lot. Jayson Jarvis says he came to the patch to find better work and is still waiting. “The work here has been way too inconsistent to make enough,” he said. That said unemployment in North Dakota is about 3% and virtually non-existent in the western part of the state.

The other big story in North Dakota – if you don’t count the University of North Dakota’s march through the NCAA hockey tournament – is a raging debate over whether the university in Grand Forks can continue to use its nickname – The Fighting Sioux. Some time back the NCAA said UND could not compete in certain collegiate athletic events as long as the school used the Native American nickname. Ironically to many in North Dakota, the NCAA wants to nix the use of a nickname that local Sioux tribal leaders contend is just fine with them. The issue made it to the North Dakota Supreme Court last week and, depending on how the Court rules, the logo war may be decided by voters later this year.

In the farm depression days after The Great War and before The Great Depression, North Dakota’s rich soil gave rise to a remarkable populist/progressive political movement known as the Nonpartisan League. Farm prices were awful, farm foreclosures were epidemic and a certain prairie radicalism seemed to meet the needs of many farmers. The opportunistic NPL, with many former Socialists under its big tent, came to dominate the Republican Party in North Dakota, a dominance that continued until the 1950′s when the League, more or less, came to identify with Democrats. North Dakota’s Democratic Party today is official the Democratic NPL Party. If that sounds like North Dakota’s politics are a bit unorthodox that is because they are. The state tends to elect Republican governors, while often sending Democrats to Washington. Bill Clinton wouldn’t waste his time in most red states, but he keynoted the Democratic NPL convention last weekend in Grand Forks were his response to devastating floods is remembered fondly.

North Dakota will almost certainly put its three electoral votes in the Republican column come November. The state – like Idaho – hasn’t voted for a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Rick Santorum did well in the recent North Dakota caucuses, in part, by making the effort to visit the booming oil patch. But, North Dakota is also unpredictable. There is a certain creative and political tension at play in the state that finds citizens and politicians both embracing the oil boom and yearning for the old-style symbolism contained in that UND logo. One senses the small town simplicity that really does have its appeal is rapidly changing – even disappearing – in “rural” North Dakota.

So while you can buy an oil and gas motif necktie in the gift shop at the North Dakota Heritage Center just across the parking lot from the high rise state capitol building you may soon only find Fighting Sioux tees and sweatshirts in a second hand store. North Dakota is drilling its way into the 21st Century, but its quirky political and social history means that while they gingerly embrace an oil soaked future these salt of the earth flatlanders still steal a glance over their shoulders at a simpler, slower time.

North Dakota is the center of the energy boom in the United States and how this 21st Century story plays out here will say a good deal about the country’s march to something closer to energy independence. North Dakota is still a very rural state where radio stations supply farm market news in and around the commercials for a new harvester or a better herbicide. Energy will change North Dakota. It remains to be seen if the fans of the Fighting Sioux will like all the change that is just beginning.

 

A Brother

Robert E. “Rick” Johnson, 1945-2012

Here is hoping those of you who read here with some regularity will endulge me a very personal piece today. My brother died Monday, much too young and, as is so often the case, without me – and others I suspect – saying all we might have said while he was alive.

Rick was a classic big brother, smart, cool – always had a girlfriend – the guy everyone wanted as a friend. I was in awe. He excelled in high school as a four-sport jock. Held school records in the long jump, quarterbacked the football team, got his little school to the state basketball tournament. I tried, with no success, to emulate his athletic prowess and he was always encouraging my efforts even when, as I now know, he knew it wouldn’t be. He went off to college while I was still in junior high school and, in a way, we lived a generation and a world apart. He became a coach and teacher and later worked very successfully in the lumber and construction materials business. My path was journalism, politics and public affairs.

University of Nebraska football coach Bo Pelini may not know it, but he has lost his number one assistant. Brother Rick bled Husker Red. As season ticket holders, he and his wife would six or seven times a year make the extraordinarily long drive from Bismarck to Lincoln for a Nebraska home game. That, my friends, is a devoted fan. I remember growing up in western Nebraska and later South Dakota and Rick driving his old Chevy out to some high hill trying to tune in on the car radio a game on a fall Saturday afternoon. This guy loved his football, but even more his family.

We would talk on the phone and generally set the politics aside – Rick was just a bit more conservative than his brother – and catch up on the latest sports and family news. He always had a story about one of the kids doing something special or, more recently, the grandkids. It will be cold comfort to them for a while, but they will always have a life-time of memories of a truly great Dad and Grandfather. He’ll be the talk of every future family gathering. We’ll be telling Rick stories for as long as there are Johnsons.

Friends have been extraordinarily kind when hearing the news about my brother this week and one inquired, in the most gentle way, about my family and faith traditions. The question, coming just at the right time, caused me to really consider an answer. All of us, intellectually at least, know that death is a part of life. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But until death comes knocking we – at least me – rarely confront the ultimate reality. My faith is summed up by the Sermon on the Mount and in the profound belief that love is all we really have. If love were not the ultimate gift from God why would such a hole exist in your heart when death comes calling?

I’m off to North Dakota to wear some Husker Red, celebrate a very good, but too short life, and to bask in the love that my brother left behind.

 

GOP Challenge

A Case of Curious Marketing

When former Florida Republican Gov. Jeb Bush suggested recently that “appealing to people’s fears and emotion” just might not be a winning political strategy for his party in 2012 and beyond, in part because, as Bush said, the GOP is handing Hispanic voters – the fastest growing block of voters in the country – to the Democrats for the foreseeable future. Given the state of GOP politics, perhaps it was predictable that Bush would be attacked from the right for his own stand on – you got it – immigration.

The attack poodle of the far right, Ann Coulter, branded Bush with the scarlet “A” for amnesty, a charge in today’s Republican Party about on par with being “soft on communism” in the 1950′s or proponent of “free love” in the 1960′s. Never mind that Bush’s analysis of the danger confronting the current and future Republican Party is entirely supported by real evidence in every direction you want to look.

Republican strategist and pollster Whit Ayres says the GOP cannot continue to lose Hispanic voters by a margin of 2-1, as the party did in 2008. “If we don’t do better among Latinos,” Ayres said recently, “we are not going to be talking about how to get back Florida in the presidential race, we are going to be talking about how not to lose Texas.”

But letting the noxious national debate around immigration drive the GOP over the nearest cliff is only the most obvious example of a national Republican Party that seems to be increasingly disconnected from minorities, young people, suburban women and, dare I say it, many moms and dads who aspire to send their kids to college as the surest path to a decent and economically secure life.

The hot button social issues that have driven the last few weeks of the Republican primary campaign has also included a great deal of talk about same sex marriage , an issue about which, all the evidences suggests, younger Americans care not a fig. Researach by Gallup in 2011 shows that Democrats and Independents have grown steadily more comfortable with the idea of same sex marriage, only the attitudes of Republicans haven’t moved. The percentage approving the idea among the 18-34 demographic is at 70%.

The religious liberty/contraceptive debate in the GOP contest has sharply increased the gender gap that has befuddled Republican presidential candidates for a generation. Barack Obama won the support of 56% of women voters in 2008 and with the help of Rush Limbaugh and a party strategy badly out of sync with where most Americans – especially women – live he is on pace to do even better this year.

Then there is education. Rick Santorum, a guy with three college degrees, launched a truly unusual line of attack on the president recently when he seemed to challenge the notion that most moms and dads should aspire for their kids to get a college education. Santorum dusted off the old line that college is a radicalizing experience for impressionable young people. Perhaps the former Pennsylvania senator is confused about college students wherem after all, his primary opponent, the “radical” Ron Paul, seems to enjoy some of his strongest support. In any event, Santorum is clearly on the wrong side of the mom and dad vote. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that 94% of parents with kids 17 and under expect their youngsters to attend college. They also believe it is essential now days for a woman to get a degree and that college directly leads to a better life and higher income potential. And, of course, they are worried about paying for the education they deem essential.

“He wants everybody in America to go to college,” Santorum told supporters in Michigan in late February as he criticized Obama. Then Santorum warned that “some liberal college professor” would be “trying to indoctrinate them.”

“What a snob,” Santorum said of the president. “He wants to remake you in his image. I want to create jobs so people can remake their children into their image, not his.”

The GOP message is both bad politics and bad marketing. It may be heartfelt ideology, but it simply doesn’t square with the concerns and aspirations of a very large swath of the electorate that the Republican nominee must appeal to in the fall and, as pollster Ayres points out, are key to Republicans remaining a national party in the decade ahead.

Apple Computer can sell almost anything these days because the brand and performance of its products are so universally accepted. Things don’t work that way with political parties. Ideas and how they are packaged matter in politics.