Archive for July, 2012

Bad History Matters

David Barton’s book “The Jefferson Lies” is a New York Times bestseller. It was also recently voted “the least credible history book in print.” The book has been widely panned by real historians, but still it sells and sells.

David Maraniss, an Associate Editor of The Washington Post, is just out with a completely sourced, deeply researched reporting job called “Barack Obama: The Story.” Maraniss, a Pulitzer winner for his reporting on Bill Clinton, has written a shelf full of fine books on Clinton, Al Gore, Roberto Clemente and Vince Lombardi, among other subjects. He’s a pro and turning to the footnotes in his books tells you all you need to know about how seriously he takes the research that is the super structure of his reporting.

Yet, Maraniss’ book, well-reviewed and critically praised, hasn’t broken through as a big seller. For that book on Obama you’ll need to turn to Edward Klein’s book “The Amateur,” which has been on the Times bestseller lists for weeks despite the fact that is based on anonymous sources and little real reporting.

Klein’s highly-critical polemic about the President is nevertheless outselling Maraniss’ even-handed, yet critical biography. Actually, outselling is an understatement. Klein’s book has sold 137,000 copies and the Maraniss book has sold 19,000.

Garbage sells seems to be the lesson.

Part of the explanation for the sales success of Klein’s Obama book is the still apparently widespread notion that major elements of the President’s life – his religion and his birth, for example  - are phony, made up, invented. Maraniss picks through his pile of conspiracy and myth making and concludes that the real frauds and fabricators are those, like Klein, who keep repeating the lies, inventing new ones and passing it off as history.

Same goes with Barton’s book about Jefferson in which he concocts the story that Jefferson’s real beliefs about God and the place of religion in our public life have somehow been hidden all these years. Rather than believing in a strict separation of religion and government, Barton would have us believe Jefferson was really “an Orthodox Christian.”

As distinguished religion scholar Dr. Martin Marty points out a “real”
historian of the American founding, Gordon Wood, had this to say about Jefferson:  “It’s easy to believe in the separation of church and state when one has nothing but scorn for all organized religion. That was the position of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s hatred of the clergy and established churches knew no bounds. He thought that members of the ‘priestcraft’ were always in alliance with despots against liberty. For him the divine Trinity “was nothing but ‘Abracadabra’ and ‘hocus-pocus’. . . Ridicule, he said, was the only weapon to be used against it.”

Barton and Klein write what they pass off as history in order to advance a cause and, of course, to sell books with the help of Glenn Beck and others with a political or religious agenda. It’s a free country and we do have a First Amendment after all, but what they do is not history and to pass it off as such is also a fraud.

One of the great and pressing problems with our politics is the inability of too many people to agree on even the most fundamental facts. How can we fix out-of-control federal spending unless we agree on what is causing it? Is it some of the lowest real tax rates in history? Or runaway spending on entitlements? Or both?

Is climate change real? Is the Earth warming and, if so, has man contributed? What to do?

The beginning of solving problems is to agree on at least a few fundamental facts. Silly books that pretend to report history don’t help, nor do book sellers like Barnes and Noble and Amazon who treat phony history like we should really take it seriously.

Next time you’re browsing for a new read check out the cover, of course, but then turn to the back before you buy. Has the author really sourced the book? Do the footnotes, if there are any, pass the smell test? Is there a bibliography, meaning that the author consulted other books on his subject? Are sources named? Does the writer have an obvious agenda?

If you want to read fiction, you should, but don’t fall for fiction that passes itself off as history. There is too much good and important history being written to let the frauds and fabricators make all the sales.

 

Romney in London

Today Mitt Romney got a nasty taste of what political life is like under a foreign media microscope. He must be wondering why he didn’t stay home.

By the measure of world-wide Twitter trending (#Romneyshambles), not to mention the Brit papers, Romney’s visit to London has gone over there about as well as the Norman conquest.

By one account Romney insulted all of England by wondering if the Brits are ready for prime time when it comes to hosting the Olympics; couldn’t seem to remember the name of the Ed Miliband the leader of Labour Party; disclosed (simply not done apparently) that he had met with the head of MI6, the super secret British intelligence service that prides itself on having almost no public profile, and misused some common English words that have considerably different meaning in the mother country.

Oh, yes, a Romney aide also told a London paper that the GOP candidate’s   “Anglo-Saxon heritage” made him a more dependable ally than President Obama. That discounts, of course, that Great Britain has been our most dependable ally since, oh, 1941. It must have also reminded some people of Obama’s “Kenyan roots” and undoubtedly reminded the British that Kenya was once theirs. The whole British Empire thing, don’t you know. In fairness to Romney he walked back the comment, but the fun was just beginning.

One tweet from Britain said it was clear Romney was “the American Borat.” Another said Romney had “retroactively cancelled” his European trip.

State the obvious: everyone can have a tough day. Obama will have his share between now and November. Still, when you are attempting to portray yourself as a person with a command presence, able to hold your own with world leaders, and you end up being publicly dissed by the Mayor of London, you’ve laid a large egg.

Perhaps the front pages of tomorrow’s London (and U.S.) papers will help put a stake into the nutty idea that a few days of visits to Europe or Israel by an aspiring American president – Obama did the same thing in 2008 – is in any way a demonstration of any kind of foreign policy knowledge or preparation. Romney would have done better to stay home and read about England.

His shambled visit may or may not signal something about Romney’s readiness for prime time. It certainly signals that there is no substitute for good judgment about one’s own limits. Safer, cheaper and more effective photo opportunities are available at American factories. The Romney photo op at 10 Downing Street just cost the GOP nominee a couple more days of completely negative press and plays to type that the guy is out of touch.

Of course, in the whole scheme of things, its just a lot of distraction and noise, but I can’t wait to see Jon Stewart’s take.

 

What To Do With Lenin

What do you do with the body of a man who undoubtedly changed the world, but now has – we can hope – been consigned to the dust bin of history?

Upon hearing of his death in 1924, the true believers reportedly said: “Lenin is dead. Long live Lenin.”  So, they embalmed the mastermind of the Bolshevik Revolution and laid him out for all eternity in his own red granite mausoleum in Red Square just outside the Kremlin Wall in Moscow.

Now, with a new dictator in town named Putin, Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov - Lenin – has become “the dead mouse on the national living room floor” according to a delightful piece in Sunday’s New York Times by the talented Christopher Buckley. Apparently more than 50% of post-Communist Russians favor burying the old boy once and for all.

Seeing Buckley’s story reminded me of my own fleeting, but memorable encounter with Lenin. It was 1984, a time of some of the greatest tension between the Soviets and the United States. We didn’t know then that the Soviet Union was on its last legs. After all, Ronald Reagan had referred to the Communist state as “the evil empire” and tensions ran very high.

I was fortunate enough to tag along with a group of Idahoans who went to the Soviet Union for about two weeks as part of a people-to-people exchange. We were there to make a television documentary and one of the genuine highlights of the trip was time spent gathering film footage in the vast expanse of Red Square where then, as now, Russian soldiers stand guard over Lenin’s Tomb.

Not everyone gets inside the mausoleum, but somehow we did, but no photos were permitted. Apparently our Soviet minders wanted the visitors from the capitalist west to see the man from which the revolution had sprung.

I remember that a long line of gawkers snaked by Lenin’s body in single file and, in my case, both fascinated and a little creeped out at seeing the extraordinarily well  dressed (and preserved) dictator bathed in soft and flattering light. His dress shirt was an immaculate white. The French cuffs adored by gold cuff links and his necktie perfectly knotted. Lenin looked like he’d stretched out for a long afternoon nap without bothering to remove his suit jacket.

The whole visit lasted maybe 30 seconds and the well-armed Russian guards did not encourage any loitering, but obviously I still remember the cuff links and being in the presence of the body, at least, of one of the century’s most consequential figures.

Lenin’s body, indeed his tomb in Red Square where so many generations of Soviet leaders stood and watched the high stepping Red Army march by, are  today symbols of a failed and discredited system, but are still symbols of our – and Russian – history. So, do Russians bury Lenin and with him hope that a distant, but still telling part of world history is pushed underground, too?

In the French capitol Napoleon’s Tomb is a tourist attraction that political correctness seems hardly to have touched. The Corsican did, after all, try to conquer European, but is honored still as a great man of France. Even Adolf Hitler couldn’t resist a visit when he toured Paris just after the fall of France in 1940.

Robert E. Lee, arguably guilty of treason for leading a war of rebellion against the United States, is buried inside the chapel at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, the state that still celebrates his birthday as an official holiday.

What do we do with the elements of our past that no longer seem relevant or appropriate? Do we, as the Stalin regularly did, airbrush those elements from history? (Stalin, by the way, was embalmed after his death and for a while laid out next to Lenin, but that pairing didn’t last.)

Lenin has been sleeping the sleep of the old, dead Bolshevik for nearly 90 years. What Lenin did must be remembered. Perhaps Russians can remember his role in 20th Century world events without keeping his corpse on morbid display in the very heart of their capitol city.

As Buckley calls him, “Sleeping Beauty from Hell,” deserves a final resting spot, not out of mind for sure, but finally out of sight.

 

Obama Reflects on Term – Sort Of

If Barack Obama holds off a determined and extraordinarily well-financed challenge from Mitt Romney and wins a second term in November it will be in spite of his accomplishments and first term record, not because of them.

With 112 days to go until the election, Obama is on the attack and not above the fray. From a political strategy standpoint he may have no other option if he hopes to win.

Romney is correct in his basic assessment of the Obama strategy: the president and his team need to rip Romney, not run on the first term record. Obama has presided over a dismal economy – much of which he inherited – yet it’s clear that after three-plus years he owns the unemployment rate and the uncertainty felt in the country. The president had the guts and decisiveness to get bin Laden, but Syria or Pakistan or Afghanistan could blow sky high any minute. He passed historic health  insurance reform, but outsourced any positive message about that accomplishment to people like Nancy Pelosi, who took a polarizing issue and made it worse. To say that Obama’s term has been a mixed bag is to be generous.

Obama was asked last week about his term and, because he’s more self- reflective than the buttoned up Romney, he offered some analysis to CBS’s Charlie Rose.

“When I think about what we’ve done well and what we haven’t done well, the mistake of my first term — couple of years — was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right,” Obama said. “And that’s important. But the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times.”

Romney immediately pounced saying, “being president is not about telling stories,” but in fact that is a sizable part of the job. Creating a sense of shared national ambition and fostering an understanding that Americans are all in this together is a presidential job. Franklin Roosevelt knew that. So did Abraham Lincoln.

Still, Obama did not address the other equally important part of the job that he has not gotten right since 2008 and that is the role of what I’ll call “politician in chief.”

Obama, a gifted orator, has not been able, perhaps for reasons of personality, to grasp the levers that would permit him to use the inherent power of the presidency to build political relationships and accumulate political chits. In short, he’s no Lyndon Johnson, FDR or Ronald Reagan in understanding that a president can use the power and prestige of the world’s most powerful position to bend partisanship.

In politics, as in most every walk of life, things often get done not for reasons of, as Obama said, “getting the policy right,” but because two people or a group of people come to trust and value each other. You can’t trust someone when you have no personal relationship with them.

One of the great powers of the presidency, by most accounts largely unused by Obama, is the power to, well, schmooze. This president is not a retail politician. He cultivates a cool and detached persona. Small talk and small kindnesses, a call to the White House for lunch or coffee, a golf outing or a weekend at Camp David, are not part of Obama’s DNA.

Of course, Obama has had to navigate an incredibly nasty and overtly partisan Washington, D.C. environment during his time in the White House, but his response to that environment – and his self-awareness about not telling a compelling story is part of the response – has almost entirely been an outside game. Washington is an inside town.

If Obama were as good at small ball, personal politics – the late night phone calls, the ride on Air Force One, the cozy dinner in the family quarters – as he is on the stump, he might have had a real chance to put a dent in the messy climate in the nation’s capitol.

Obama made a strategic error, in my view, in spending his vast political capital right after the 2008 election on months of wrangling over the health care legislation. It’s easy to see now – and should have been seen then – that his focus needed to be on the economy, but he also failed in mounting any charm offensive with anyone on the other side of the political divide.

It took Obama more than half his term to invite the golf loving House Speaker John Boehner to the first tee. The two most important men in Washington played 18 holes and then strapped the political guns back on and started shooting. Boehner is a partisan, of course, and largely captive to the Tea Party caucus in the House of Representatives, but Obama, another partisan, never really tried to make the Speaker a friendly partisan. Did Boehner try? No, but then again it’s not his job to cultivate the president. Politics just doesn’t work that way and Washington certainly doesn’t work that way.

Really successful politicians demonstrate an ability to grow in office. They learn new tricks. Obama isn’t a natural schmoozer and so far hasn’t seen the virtue in even trying to woo his adversaries, but for a more successful second term he will needs to learn how to use the personal power of his office. Politics is not all about policy by any means. The soft skills of personal connections are the grease that can make the political gears turn.

Obama partisans will say, but how can you schmooze people who really, really dislike you? Good question and no one ever wins over every hide-bound partisan street fighter, but there is virtue and a PR reward in even trying and failing. Americans may hate partisan gridlock, but they hate even more when kindness and decency is met by nastiness. At the very least, a president can win the PR battle.

Mitt Romney doesn’t appear to have a Schmoozer-in-Chief gene, either, which unfortunately means the next president is probably going to be unable to use some of the real power that automatically goes with the job. You don’t have to be a nice guy or a smiling pushover to be president, but you do have to use all the elements of power – big and little – to show the other side, and the American people, that you are working to ease the nastiness.

 

 

Retroactive

Romney Campaign Crisis Management

There is an old truism in politics that holds “when you’re explaining, you’re losing.”

By that standard, given the Romney camp’s stumbling efforts over the last week to get together a plausible story on when the candidate really left his private equity firm, it’s been a loser of a few days for the GOP nominee.

But, as potentially important as that not very effective crisis management has been, the candidate’s greatest vulnerability is still contained in the documents we’re never likely to see – Mitt Romney’s tax returns. Two things are at play in the tax return decision and each provides real insight into both the candidate’s character and decision making and how he might perform should he get to the Oval Office.

Romney’s fundamental qualification for the presidency, by his own reckoning, is his extensive business experience at the private equity firm Bain Capital. He made a lot of money for himself and his investors at Bain and, according to his supporters, practiced modern capitalism just the way Adam Smith intended. He also, it seems clear, did many things to limit his tax liability. There is no harm in that, unless you decide to run for the job of leader of the free world and it becomes common knowledge that off-shore accounts in the Cayman Islands and banking relationships in Switzerland were part of your personal investment strategy.

According to accounts from those who know him well, Romney operates like the CEO he once was. He undertakes analysis, looks at the numbers and then he decides. Here’s a bet that candidate Romney, back when he was planning to seek the GOP nomination, came to the irrevocable decision that his tax returns would not – never, no way, nada – be released. Romney’s decision on his tax returns turned on the fact, I’m betting again, that he simply couldn’t explain, or more likely didn’t want to explain, what the returns contain. After all, it’s the rare CEO who considers his income or tax liability to be anyone’s business but his own.

Normally, early in a presidential campaign, the political guys on the campaign team survey all the candidate’s weak spots and develop a strategy to deal with each. The conventional political wisdom, under the first rule of crisis management, would have had Romney quietly dump all his returns back to his Massachusetts governorship days well in advance of the hand-to-hand combat stage of the campaign. Bill Clinton perfected the “document dump,” a massive release of information, often on a Friday before a holiday weekend, that got the whole mess out at once with surrogates teed up to explain what all the information meant.

Again, I’m guessing, but I’d bet that Romney’s campaign never had a serious discussion about releasing his tax returns. Rather CEO-like Romney just told his advisers what he had decided. End of discussion. Now, months later, the no-release-of-tax-returns issue is coming back to haunt the campaign big time.

Here’s Romney “explaining” that decision to Fox News over the weekend: “The Obama people keep on wanting more and more and more – more things to pick through, more things for their opposition research to try to make a mountain out of, and to distort, and to be dishonest about. … [I]f we want to talk about transparency, the real issue is: Why has this president used his presidential power, and executive privilege, to keep the information about the Fast and Furious program from being explained to the American people?”

Trouble is Romney’s explanation and his efforts to change the subject aren’t even washing with his supporters.

“He should release the tax returns tomorrow. It’s crazy,” GOP analyst William Kristol said on Sunday. “You gotta release six, eight, 10 years of back tax returns. Take the hit for a day or two.”

But, of course, Romney won’t – or can’t – take the hit for a day or two, because the returns will be both complicated and voluminous. Releasing them will provide a vast amount of detailed information about Romney’s business and investment decisions. Simply put, he decided months ago he couldn’t – and wouldn’t – go there.

Now, consider the two things the candidate’s decision tells us about Romney the candidate and the prospective Commander-in-Chief. The first is about managing risk and the second about understanding expectations.

It was completely predictable that a candidate reportedly worth $250 million would have to deal with serious questions about his finances and investments on the road to the White House. Romney’s strategy, to the extent there is one, has been to deny that his tax returns, investments and Bain Capital decisions are anyone’s business. But that stance ignores the reality of modern politics. There is no cone of silence around such things, particularly when you are likely the most well-to-do guy seeking the Oval Office in modern times and doing so by making the argument that your business career better prepares you for the job that the other guy.

But Romney failed to fully appreciate that proper handling of his tax returns is simply a matter of managing political risk and, as a result, the candidate hasn’t managed his own risk very adroitly.

The second issue is about expectations. After profound and lingering questions about Bill Clinton’s finances – remember Whitewater the failed Arkansas land deal - there is an expectation among the political class in America, as well as the political media, that a candidate for president is an open book on issues relating to personal finance.

Fifty years ago Lyndon Johnson might have been able to get away with dodging questions about the vast wealth he accumulated from radio stations and other investments, but those days are long over. The modern expectation is, as it should be, that a candidate for high public office is transparent about personal finances.

How a person handles their investments and tax liability is, after all, a window into bigger questions about character and judgement and Mitt Romney has the blinds drawn tight.

The fact that he and his advisers have so mishandled the “risk” associated with the tax return issue and so misread the expectations about transparency must be shaking many of his friends and supporters.

Romney adviser Ed Gillespie, a GOP smart guy of the first order, over the weekend was trying to manage the fallout from Romney’s retirement date at Bain Capital when he suggested that Romney had “retired retroactively” from his CEO job back in 1999. That terminology, once the snickers die down, may ensure Gillespie a permanent place in the Political Spin Hall of Fame.

But here’s another bet: What Ed Gillespie and the rest of Romney’s political team would really like to retroactively revisit is the tax return question, but the boss won’t – or can’t – go there. So, the explaining goes on another day.

Tomorrow, what Barack Obama’s admissions about the failures of his first term say about his character and judgment.

 

The Anchorman

The Most Trusted Man in America

This may be the most famous photo of the many famous photos of the famous CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite. The grainy, black and white image was taken while Cronkite, in shirt sleeves, announced the awful news that John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been shot and killed in Dallas.

In a remarkable piece of 1963-vintage television reporting, Cronkite sits calmly in the middle of what had to have been massive confusion in the CBS newsroom, fielding notes handed to him and seamlessly handing off the airwaves to a local reporter in Dallas. He makes it look easier than it was in 1963. We take that electronic news sleight of hand for granted today. It wasn’t normal back in the black and white days of television.

Two things about Cronkite’s reporting and demeanor strike me after all these years and after having seen the video many times. First, was his unwillingness to rush to the judgment that JFK had actually died. A local reporter in Dallas says that the president has apparently died and then Cronkite is handed a note saying that Dan Rather, who ironically would no so successfully replace Cronkite at the CBS anchor desk in 1981, was reporting the same thing.

Still, the veteran wire service reporter won’t flatly speak the dreaded news. Finally, when the wire services confirm Kennedy’s death, Cronkite, with a slight quiver in his voice, says its true – the President of the United States has been assassinated. And that is the second remarkable thing about the video. Cronkite shows the emotion that I can remember and most American’s felt upon hearing the news of Kennedy’s death – disbelief, horror, sadness, even fright. All of that was captured in a few seconds of television’s first draft of history.

In his masterful new biography of Cronkite historian Douglas Brinkley devotes an entire chapter, 20 pages, to Cronkite’s and CBS’s handling of the Kennedy murder. I read the passage, still gripped by the intensity of the moment all these years later, just a day after CNN and Fox News, among others, blew the initial coverage of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision on Obamacare. What a contrast. And, while the two events – a president assassinated and a controversial court ruling – are hardly comparable, Cronkite’s careful, humble, measured response in handling a huge story is a startling contrast to a flustered, unprepared Wolf Blitzer mishandling a big story.

The Brinkley book, more than anything I have read recently about the state of journalism, particularly television journalism, makes the case that Cronkite-era standards have gone missing on much of the nation’s airwaves. The three network evening news programs, while drawing a sliver of the audience that Cronkite and his contemporaries once commanded, still offer a version of the old network quality and seriousness, but the vast wasteland of cable news is completely foreign to the news product CBS once put on the air night after night.

Cronkite, we learn from Brinkley’s exhaustive research, was far from a saint. He was extraordinarily competitive, could cut his colleagues off at the knees, loved bawdy jokes and arguably became too much the cheerleader for the space program and NASA. And, later in life, Cronkite simply quit trying to mask his liberal political opinions giving his detractors reason to question whether he had always played the news straight down the middle.

 Still, the Cronkite that emerges at Brinkley’s hands is a pro, a well-read, well-sourced reporter who wanted to be first, but more importantly wanted to be right. Cronkite also had a nuanced understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of television news. He knew he couldn’t match the Washington Post’s Watergate coverage and didn’t try, but still based almost an entire CBS Evening New broadcast on the print reporting Woodward and Bernstein had done. Cronkite’s coverage of the Nixon resignation in 1974 is still riveting television.

At the same time, Uncle Walter knew that taking a reporter and camera along as U.S. GI’s hunted the Viet Cong in the rice paddies of South Vietnam was exactly the story that television could report with brutal and uncomfortable honesty. CBS with Cronkite as the Managing Editor, a newspaper term and role at he completely embraced, helped make Vietnam the living room war. Cronkite’s 1968 special on Vietnam – he declared the war at a stalemate – was a decisive political and media moment in that awful period of our history.

For most Americans younger than 40 Walter Cronkite and his brand of television news are ancient history, no more relevant to modern America than Alexander Hamilton or Thomas Edison. But Cronkite, who died in 2009, is relevant precisely because there is no one like him now.

No one, really, picked up the Cronkite mantle when he left the anchor desk, prematurely he would conclude, in 1981. Cronkite came, it is now clear, from the greatest generation of television news, as did Huntley and Brinkley, Howard K. Smith and Harry Reasoner, and many others from the 1950′s to the 1980′s. But there was only one Cronkite and now we have a book that remembers his story and his greatness, warts an all, even as some of us search for a place to turn in the vast television wasteland that measures up, even a little, to his standards.

“He seemed to me incorruptible,” said director Sidney Lumet, “in a profession that was easily corruptible.”

Cronkite would joke when someone referred to him as the “most trusted man in America,” that it was clear “they hadn’t checked with my wife.” But that title fit then and it seems all the more special – and retired – today.