Archive for December, 2012

What’s Wrong

Unless you hail from the great state of Mississippi there is a good chance you’ve never heard of Sen. Byron Patton Harrison. That’s him nearby in a 1940 photo. The current dysfunction in Washington, D.C. is cause enough to remember senators like Harrison. Unfortunately now days, like the dodo bird, senators like Pat Harrison are mostly extinct.

Harrison – everyone called him Pat – wouldn’t recognize the U.S. Senate today and I’m guessing he’d be appalled by the current leaders, Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell.

In the late 1930’s, Pat Harrison, who served in the U.S. House and Senate from 1919 to 1941, was arguably the most influential member of the U.S. Senate. Harrison was both Senate President Pro Tem and Chairman of the powerful tax writing Finance Committee. As Harrison’s biographer Martha H. Swain has written, by 1939 the wily Mississippian was at the height of his powers.

“That year [1939] Washington newspapers voted him the ‘most influential’ senator,” Swain said. “Turner Catledge, the Mississippi-born managing editor of the New York Times, had described the Mississippian as the best ‘horse-trader’ for his way of cajoling colleagues to pass his Finance Committee legislation. His influence, Catledge said, stemmed from the fact that Harrison never ‘welched’ on a promise: ‘If Harrison told you something you could take it to the bank.’”

Harrison was a loyal Democrat and pushed Franklin Roosevelt’s Social Security legislation through his committee and the Senate in 1935, but at the same time  refused to rubber stamp FDR’s “soak-the-rich” tax legislation. Unlike today’s Senators, Harrison believed he could be both a loyal Democrat and his own man. That view got his at cross purposes with Roosevelt who, unwisely it turned out, opposed Harrison’s effort to become Senate majority leader in 1937. Even though Harrison lost that contest by one vote, ironically, and this was a testament to his reputation for candor and independence, he became even more highly regarded in the Senate after his defeat.

Even Roosevelt eventually came to acknowledge that Harrison was the go-to guy in the Senate. Because his word was good, and without regard to their early disagreements, FDR entrusted to Harrison the delicate job of easing controversial Lend Lease legislation through the Senate in 1941.

Not quite 60 years old, Harrison died later in 1941 of colon cancer. His death brought an bipartisan outpouring of sadness and regard. Roosevelt said of the Senate power broker that he was “keen of intellect, sound in principle, shrewd in judgment [with] rare gifts of kindly wit, humor, and irony.”

A newspaper editor back in Mississippi said Harrison was “square, approachable, and intensely human.”

Over the past weekend talks to avoid the so called “fiscal cliff” broke down – again – in the Senate and Vice President Joe Biden stepped in to attempt to salvage some kind of deal with GOP leader McConnell. Biden was needed, in part its reported, because Democratic leader Reid and his Republican opposite number don’t trust each other. Put another way, Reid and McConnell are so busy jockeying to win partisan debating points that they have no time to be national lawmakers.

Lots of things are wrong with the way the D.C dysfunction has brought the country, still reeling from an economic collapse, to the edge of another disaster, but I’ll mention just two: trust and process.

No good deal – and all politics is about making a deal – ever gets done when leaks and dueling soundbites constantly trickle out from both sides. The fact that both sides in this manufactured crisis are “negotiating” on Twitter and cable news is all the evidence we need that they don’t fundamentally possess the basic ingredient needed to do a deal – trust. When is the last time you heard someone say about a current Senate leader, as they did in the 1930’s about the mostly forgotten Pat Harrison, he never “welched” on a deal?

Reid and McConnell are so focused on the tactical daily soundbite and gaining the tiniest sliver of advantage over the other that they can’t be, to borrow a phrase, “square, approachable and intensely human.”

A second issue with this “fiscal cliff” is one of process. The legislative process is supposed to involve committee work, hearings, drafting of proposals, amendments and debate. Pat Harrison did not pass Social Security in 1935 by getting together with a couple of other senators and presenting a bill on the floor as a take it, or leave it proposition. He did what legislators are supposed to do – legislate, work with his committee, try this and try that and produce a bill that is then voted upon.

If a fiscal cliff deal gets done it will end up being a cobbled together mess born in secret and presented as a done deal to the House and Senate. Most of the people in Congress who should be involved – the chairs of the Finance and House Ways and Means Committees, for example – will have been about as close to the action and you and me.

For weekend amusement I didn’t watch the endless talking heads on the fiscal cliff, but rather tuned into the NPR quiz show “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me” where a panel of smart and funny people crack wise about news and popular culture. The celebrity guest this past weekend was the current British ambassador to the United States Sir Peter Westmacott, a career foreign service officer with a wicked sense of humor.

At once point Sir Peter was asked a question about the differences in the British and American political “cultures.” It was the kind of question that most political people would have answered with a vague generality. Instead, Her Majesty’s ambassador said it seems to him that the U.S. system was designed [in colonial times] to – his word – avoid “tyranny” that might be imported from across the oceans and, as a result, the the U.S. set up a system “designed not to work.”

The quip from the witty Brit got a big laugh from the audience, a knowing laugh, the kind of laugh that says, “yup, he’s right…”

The Congress that will die along with the old year will go down in history as one of the most unproductive in recent history. First, the members of Congress and the president created the pending crisis of automatic tax increases and spending cuts because months ago they couldn’t agree on a a real legislative fix, the kind of fix that would have required the hard, bipartisan work of legislating. Then, knowing exactly what would happen if they behaved as they have, Congress diddled right up until the absolute last minute – and likely beyond – to come up with what will undoubtedly be a half-baked, non-solution.

Much kicking of cans down the road will follow.

The Senate of Pat Harrison’s day would have been embarrassed by such political amateurism, such willing abandonment of the basic responsibilities of governance. While the country shakes its collective head at its hyper-partisan, broken system and, while even the British ambassador feels compelled to joke about the yokels in the former colonies, the nation’s ruling class fiddles and fusses. They should be embarrassed, but most don’t seem to be. After all, you have to be aware that something is wrong in order to be embarrassed enough to try and fix it.

 

Good Reads this Year

Winston Churchill was the greatest statesman/writer of the 20th – or perhaps any – Century. Over his long life he made serious money as a writer, won the Nobel Prize for his life’s work as a writer and was also a serious reader.

Winston once said, “If you cannot read all your books…fondle them – peer into them – let them fall open where they will, read from the first sentence that arrests the eye, set them back on the shelves with your own hands, arrange them with your own plan so that you at least know where they are. Let them be your friends; let them at any rate, be your acquaintances.”

Such a quote is a good jumping off point to praise some of the books of this year that I enjoyed – and perhaps you will, too.

First…Churchill. The book is The Last Lion – Defender of the Realm the last of three volumes – the first two by William Manchester – that constitute a mini-library of the remarkable life of the great Englishman. Knowing he was dying, Manchester asked reporter Paul Reid to finish his magnum opus. It was sure to be an impossible job, but I must say Reid does a fine job of closing the Churchill ring. One can nitpick the style or the focus and some critics have hit the length – over 1,000 pages – but Reid has done justice to Manchester’s Lion. The book covers Churchill during the war and to the end of his life. If, like me, you continue to be fascinated by the bigger than life, flawed, funny, tender, petulant, brilliant Churchill you’ll need to tackle the book. You can build up the upper body just by holding it. The workout is worth it.

The quote – “The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know” is attributed to Harry Truman, another prolific reader. Such is the case for me with a book, not new but published in 2009, entitled England’s Last War Against FranceAuthor Colin Smith tells the story of the bloody, far flung war between Churchill’s British Empire and Nazi-friendly Vichy France from 1940-1942. It is a remarkable story now mostly forgotten.

Public opinion research tells us that most Americans cannot name a single member of the United States Supreme Court. John Roberts, the chief justice and best known member of the court, was identified by only 20% of Americans in one survey during 2012. That amazing and disturbing fact makes Jeffrey Toobin’s book – The Oath – on the Supreme Court and the Obama Administration all the more valuable. The title refers to the botched presidential oath Roberts administered to Obama in 2008 and that story is a fine point of departure for Toobin to take us into the inner workings of the third branch. Reading this book will give you reason to believe that knowing the nine justices and understanding how politics and background drives the court even more important than worrying over the fiscal cliff.

For pure power of good writing and enormous grasp of history, culture and literature, treat yourself to a copy of the late Christopher Hitchens‘ collection of essays Arguably. You don’t have to like Hitchens’ politics or approve of his views on religion to be astounded at his range and writing. This is kind of book you can pick up for a few minutes, lose yourself, put down and then discover again and again. Remarkable stuff.

John Lewis Gaddis’ brilliant life of diplomat, writer and big thinker George F. Kennan won the 2012 Pulitzer for biography. It deserves the medal. You’ll come away from reading about Kennan’s life wondering why we aren’t producing such public servants today or, if we are, why they are never heard from.

So many other great books in 2012 – Caro on LBJ, Meacham on Jefferson, new novels from Jim Harrison and Ivan Doig and more.

As Winston said, “If you cannot read all your books…fondle them – peer into them – let them fall open where they will…let them be your friends.” It was a good year for friends.

 

Traditions

Charles Dickens, with his enduring 1843 tale A Christmas Carolinvented much of what we consider the traditions of Christmas – the gifting of presents, the big dinner and the fostering of good will and glad tidings. We each build upon the Dickens’ Christmas with our own traditions that lead to memory and, I’m convinced, contribute to much of the pleasure that is Christmas. One of our Christmas traditions has become the viewing of a wonderful movie – one of the very best Christmas movies ever – The Bishop’s Wife, a 1947 classic starting David Niven, Cary Grant and the lovely Loretta Young.

The plot, not unlike Frank Capra’s Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life, involves a charming angel named Dudley (played by Grant) who answers a prayer from the Bishop (Niven) who is struggling to raise the money to build his magnificent new cathedral. Dudley charms everyone, including the Bishop’s attractive wife (Young), and eventually helps the Bishop realize that there is more to his Christian leadership than fundraising and catering to the wealthy parishioners who are intent on building a big building.  With the annual viewing of The Bishop’s Wife it’s never difficult to find the real meaning of the season and the film always leads me back, Dickens-like, to Christmas past.

As 2012 gives way to the promise – eternally optimistic here – that our politics will move to the center, that reason and facts will come to prevail on hard cases as diverse as guns and climate and that jobs and education and cancer cures become the headlines of the New Year, I’ve been thinking about traditions that through the years have come to define memories of Christmas. Dickens may have invented the modern Christmas, but my mother perfected it. And, while Cary Grant’s angel reminds us what the season is really all about I am annually drawn back to – the tinsel.

You could say that my mom was a perfectionist. She never had a hair out of place, dressed as well as dad’s paycheck would permit and cultivated a sense of style that would not have been out of place in Hollywood or the Hampton’s. Not bad for a farm girl from western Nebraska. In terms of Christmas, for mom nothing succeeded like excess, particularly when it came to tinsel. Mother loved tinsel – silvery, shiny, straight and in volume. To hang the tinsel properly required, or course, a perfect tree. If the tree dad found wasn’t perfectly shaped, mom would get her sewing scissors out and cut and paste a branch or two until the shape suited her. Then came the tinsel, carefully preserved from year-to-year, stored safely away from one Christmas to the next. Occasionally she would agree to discard a short piece that had survived one tree too many, but not often. I distinctly remember “volunteering” to help mom hang the tinsel one year and being instructed in the fine art of making sure the strands were perfectly straight and in sufficient number. I didn’t have the tinsel gene and eventually backed off and allowed the tinsel queen her dominance. Perhaps that experience scared me for life because I shudder at the very sight of Christmas tree tinsel to this day. Some traditions are best remembered and not practiced.

Mom had certain traditional Christmas foods that would make a once a year appearance right about Christmas Eve. She made a sticky white candy – Divinity – that I never particularly warmed to, but – brace yourselves – her fruitcake was tremendous. I’ve heard all the bad jokes about Christmas fruitcake, but none of those put downs applied to mom’s cake. It was lighter than most fruitcakes, moist and lacking those awful candied fruits that often seem to have been as well preserved from year-to-year as the tree tinsel. Mom used fruit cocktail in her cake and when she learned that I didn’t particularly care for the walnuts that she added to the recipe she made me a walnut-free cake for my personal consumption. Heaven. No appetite for tinsel, but I can still taste that fruitcake.

My dad had few Christmas traditions other than to occasionally experiment with a Tom ‘n Jerry mix or to place the plastic Santa and two reindeer on the steep roof of the little house we lived in in Chadron, Nebraska when I was just old enough to have Christmas really register. Those were the days when Christmas lights were constructed so that one broken bulb would darken an entire string of lights. I can still see him outside struggling in the December darkness and cold to find and replace the offending bulb. He found it then came inside and sipped a Canadian whiskey and a splash of water while watching his elegant wife hang that damn tinsel. Dad knew better than to offer to help. Smart man that he was he admired perfection, cocktail in hand, from a distance.

As I grew older Christmas involved reading from the Gospel of St. Luke, a Christmas Eve buffet supper and memorable gifts. I still remember the bicycle and the double set of Tinker Toys. There may have been socks and gloves and pajamas, too. I gave my mother what I considered a lovely bottle of Evening in Paris cologne one year and, bless her heart, she acted like I had personally acquired the dime store fragrance from Coco Chanel.

Now, all those warm Christmas memories constitute the very best gifts I have ever received. Tinker Toys come and go, the tinsel gets discarded and the cologne fades, but the memories remain and thankfully new ones are created, including the memories I now carry of the carefully constructed scene and precious words at the end of that favorite Christmas movie. As David Niven’s Bishop Henry steps to the pulpit to deliver his Christmas sermon at the end of The Bishop Wife, Cary Grant’s angel – work completed – stands outside the church in the gently falling snow and listens to the words that have now become part of my Christmas memory.

“Tonight I want to tell you the story of an empty stocking,” the Bishop says. “Once upon a midnight clear, there was a child’s cry. A blazing star hung over a stable and wise men came with birthday gifts. We haven’t forgotten that night down the centuries; we celebrate it with stars on Christmas trees, the sound of bells and with gifts. But especially with gifts. You give me a book; I give you a tie. Aunt Martha has always wanted an orange squeezer and Uncle Henry could do with a new pipe. We forget nobody, adult or child. All the stockings are filled… all that is, except one. And we have even forgotten to hang it up. The stocking for the child born in a manger. It’s his birthday we are celebrating. Don’t ever let us forget that. Let us ask ourselves what he would wish for most… and then let each put in his share. Loving kindness, warm hearts and the stretched out hand of tolerance. All the shining gifts that make peace on earth.”

Happy Christmas…and thanks for checking in here. All the best in 2013.

 

Guns and Guts

 

In 1963 when the young black activist, John Lewis, who later became the distinguished Congressman from Georgia, was nearly beaten to death during a civil rights march in Alabama, the cautious John F. Kennedy knew he could not fail to push forcefully for meaningful legislation that would attempt to bring blacks into the mainstream of American life.

Bending the curve of the epidemic of gun violence in a gun deranged society presents Barack Obama with the same kind of challenge. It has been suggested that the Sandy Hook Elementary school massacre will be Obama’s defining moment as president; more significant than being the first African-American president, more important than hunting down bin Laden or dealing with the worst economy since the Great Depression the aftermath of the awful school shooting will define Obama’s legacy.

Read what Kennedy said about civil rights almost 50 years ago and apply the same words to Obama’s defining moment today.

“We face…a moral crisis as a country and a people,” Kennedy said in a television speech on June 11, 1963. “It cannot be met by repressive police action. It cannot be left to increased demonstrations in the streets. It cannot be quieted by token moves or talk. It is a time to act in the Congress, in your State and local legislative body and, above all, in all of our daily lives. It is not enough to pin the blame on others, to say this a problem of one section of the country or another, or deplore the facts that we face. A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all. Those who do nothing are inviting shame, as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognizing right, as well as reality.”

Right as well as reality. Kennedy immediately introduced civil rights legislation that he did not live to see enacted, but the important political fact is that he seized the moment to declare that the Nation faced a “moral” crisis. No less a crisis confronts Obama’s Nation on the cusp of 2013.

So much of the initial reaction to Sandy Hook seems so small, so completely fanciful or so focused on treating the symptoms of gun violence. The sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin suggests, amazingly, that armed guards should be posted in every school and every public place. Others tout arming teachers or bullet-proofing the backpacks of six-year-olds. Obama, already on record supporting reinstating the assault weapons ban, must know from reading the morning paper that such weapons are flying off the shelves as Americans beef up their arsenals in expectation that Congress might take a step that few really believe will have much impact. Thousands upon thousands of such weapons are already in circulation and even Sen. Diane Feinstein, the California politician with first-hand experience with gun violence, concedes that a new assault weapons ban won’t impact those weapons already abroad in the land. And the president’s one specific proposal so far, an interagency task force headed by Vice President Biden, seems so inside the beltway, so bureaucratic as to invite a Saturday Night Live parody.

A moral crisis, JFK knew, required more than a task force or a what will amount to a slightly better than symbolic ban on military-style weapons sitting in the corners of American closets. Obama must know this and that makes his Sandy Hook response his own moral crisis.

The assumption underlying all the small thinking about how to prevent the next school massacre is that our Nation cannot – ever – confront the real issue – too many guns and too few controls over who owns them and how they are bought. Australia, not exactly a nation know for its wild-eyed liberalism, decided to do something about assault weapons and launched a national “buy back” effort that has dramatically reduced the number of such weapons. Canada imposes a 28 day waiting period to purchase a weapon and then requires that two people vouch for the purchaser. We have certain requirements in place that require mental health reporting, but many states ignore the requirements. A serious moral response to Sandy Hook and Tucson and Columbine and on and on demands a serious and deeper look at what must be done to break the curve of violence.

As Adam Gopnik writes in The New Yorker, “Gun control works on gun violence as surely as antibiotics do on bacterial infections. In Scotland, after Dunblane, in Australia, after Tasmania, in Canada, after the Montreal massacre—in each case the necessary laws were passed to make gun-owning hard, and in each case… well, you will note the absence of massacre-condolence speeches made by the Prime Ministers of Canada and Australia, in comparison with our own President.”

In places like Idaho and Wisconsin all the disquieting talk about tougher controls on guns will be greeted with completely predictable outrage. The NRA will soon move from crisis management mode to Capitol Hill assault mode and the gun lobby’s champions in public office will fume against attacks on Second Amendment rights and, many American will hope, that the same old politics will replace images of funerals featuring tiny caskets. If such comes to pass Obama’s moral moment will recede and the belief that nothing can be done will continue to rule our streets and schools.

Serious – really serious – steps to control guns will be intolerable to many Americans. John Kennedy’s civil rights speech in 1963 carried just as unpalatable a message for many Americans in Alabama and Mississippi and many other places. Kennedy told his brother, the attorney general, that television images of police dogs attacking civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham made him “sick” and convinced him that the South would never reform short of strong federal civil rights action.

As TIME noted in a 2007 essay on JFK’s slow conversion to the cause of civil rights, “Although Kennedy’s assassination five months [after his civil right speech] deprived him of the chance to sign the civil rights bill into law, he had finally done the right thing. That its passage in 1964 came under Johnson’s Administration should not exclude Kennedy from the credit for a landmark measure that decisively improved American society forever. Although J.F.K. had been slow to rise to the challenge, he did ultimately meet it. That gives him a place in the pantheon of American Presidents who, in his own words, were profiles in courage.”

Civil rights became a bipartisan national cause, not for everyone, of course, with dead-end southerners like Richard Russell fighting to the bitter end, but a national cause nonetheless. Republican Sen. Everett Dirksen, for example, understood both the politics and the morality of the moment and stood on the right side of history with Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King. The current moment begs for such leadership from both sides of the political divide.

No single law, no task force, not even essential improvements in mental health will stop American gun violence, but Barack Obama must know, as Sandy Hook Elementary enters American history in the same way Selma and Montgomery and Birmingham did a half-century ago, that half-measures aren’t adequate to confront a moral crisis. Unfortunately racial divide still exist in America since no single law could end that moral crisis either, but after Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 the United States was a different and better place. Such a moment is upon us again.



It’s the Culture

The semi-automatic rifle used to unleash mayhem in a Connecticut elementary school last Friday is described as a civilian version of the weapon carried by our fighting forces in Afghanistan. The Bushmaster can accommodate a 30 shot magazine and the Newtown shooter burned through hundreds of rounds before ending his own sorry life with a semi-automatic handgun after a 10 minute killing spree.

The after massacre reports speculate that the mass murder of 20 six and seven year olds may prompt a serious national discussion of what a “civilized” society can do to reduce the epidemic of gun violence in the United States. Most of the discussion so far centers on two specific ideas: restore the long-expired ban on weapons like the Bushmaster assault rifle and get serious about mental health care in the United States. Both ideas are worthy of serious, non-ideological debate, which isn’t likely to happen since the real bedrock on which America’s proclivity for gun violence rests is more fundamental and ultimately just about as disturbing as a deranged 20-something walking into a school building and causing the kind of damage a U.S. soldier might rain upon the Taliban in the remote mountains of the Hindu Kush. A national debate about once again banning assault weapons or pouring more resources into mental health care is a fine start, but it falls short of understanding the American culture of guns and violence. Don’t hold your breath for that bit of national soul searching.

Hollywood owns a piece of this culture. Television, too. The sleazy video game industry owns a piece. The national political establishment owns a good chunk of this culture too, including the current occupant of the White House. The politicians gather us again around the national hearth of sorrow as they did when a Congresswomen, a federal judge and others are gunned down at an Arizona supermarket on a Saturday morning; or when an Oregon shopping mall turned into a shooting gallery; or when a deranged young man takes a gun into a movie theatre or a college campus. After a while, I admit, all the mass shootings and obligatory NPR interviews with behavioral experts run together like so many bad dreams endured again and again. When the bad dream finally begins to recede the gun rights folks will start to remind us that other countries with tougher gun laws than we have also experienced crazy people who kill with guns. The Second Amendment, we will be reminded, is a guarantee that each of us has a Constitutional right to pack what we want. Guns don’t kill people. The sorrow gives way to politics and myth and the deranged soul of a culture of guns moves on to the next outrage.

But why, you have to wonder, do we have this national fixation with guns? Why does an entire lobby exclusively devoted to guns and access to guns of every type dominate the national discussion of, well, guns and whether any type of control over guns is acceptable? Why do candidates live or lose on the basis of devotion to the National Rifle Association? Why do politicians vie for votes by posing with a shotgun and a promise never to do anything to weaken the holy orders of the Second Amendment? Why have thousands of Americans scampered to their nearest gun shop in the wake of President Obama’s re-election out of a silly fear that somehow this country will curb its enthusiasm for guns?

The historian-journalist Garry Wills suggests that the gun culture has become like the Old Testament God Moloch who, Leviticus reminds us, demanded blood sacrifice in an earlier culture that we can safely say with the perfect hindsight of centuries was tragically deranged.

“The gun is not a mere tool, a bit of technology, a political issue, a point of debate,” Wills writes. “It is an object of reverence. Devotion to it precludes interruption with the sacrifices it entails. Like most gods, it does what it will, and cannot be questioned. Its acolytes think it is capable only of good things. It guarantees life and safety and freedom. It even guarantees law. Law grows from it. Then how can law question it?”

As for Sandy Hook Elementary, Wills says, “That horror cannot be blamed just on one unhinged person. It was the sacrifice we as a culture made, and continually make, to our demonic god. We guarantee that crazed man after crazed man will have a flood of killing power readily supplied him. We have to make that offering, out of devotion to our Moloch, our god. The gun is our Moloch.”

All societies are victims of their own myths. The Second Amendment, sorry you Constitutional revisionists, is not about carrying an assault weapon into a school or theatre. The Founders who wrote that amendment used weapons that required 15 seconds to reload after each shot was fired. Over time, the U.S. Supreme Court gradually gave rise to the modern myth that The Founders envisioned a culture where guns were more common that sense. As recently as 1939 the Court looked at the Second Amendment and saw a “well regulated milita” and not an armed society. But over time, with the Court’s willingness and thanks to generations of political expediency and a little dose of Charlton Heston, we have now fully embraced our gun culture and made it a singular feature of American life.

But why? Why does a “civilized” culture, a nation that tells itself over and over again that it is the last, best hope of earth, a nation of exceptionalism unlike any other, not attempt to end the slaughter of its first graders? The answer, to paraphrase Shakespeare, will not be found anywhere but in ourselves. We have fashioned a culture, deranged by guns and violence in the eyes of most of the rest of the “civilized” world, and at Sandy Hook Elementary we again reap the whirlwind of that awful reality.