The Self-Reflection Deficit

One of the most distressing things about current American culture – or perhaps I should say the most depressing thing – is the complete and utterly bipartisan inability of so many people in public life to look into the mirror and see themselves.

Call it the self-reflection deficit. Even though we don’t see it around much any more, you must remember self-reflection and its well-know bias for truth and personal responsibility.

Clinton Global Initiative Brings Business And World Leaders Together“I gotta pay our bills,” says Bill Clinton about his post-presidential life as the best-paid saxophone player from Hope, Arkansas. Clinton made the comment when asked whether he would continue gathering up six figure checks making speeches while his wife runs for president. Clinton shows no sign that he appreciates, even a little, the conflicts swirling around him, his wife and their foundation thanks to his talking, apparently to almost anyone with a big bank account for big checks.

Payin’ the Bills in Clintonland…

Clinton had to have made his recent “pay the bills” comment knowing that he and Hillary would soon have to report the obscene cash haul – $25 million just since January 2014 – the two have raked in for standing behind a podium. The Associated Press also reported that Bill, that talkin’ fool, banked $50 million more for the speeches he made while Hillary was the country’s chief diplomat. Apparently a good deal of the cash came from well-healed individuals who just might have wanted to influence the former president’s wife. Go figure. Did I mention that Hillary’s State Department vetted all those speeches and, gosh, didn’t see a problem.

With income like that its hard to fathom the kinds of bills the Clintons “gotta pay,” but one certainly hopes that charging all those expenses on a platinum credit card that gives them airline miles, or at least points toward gas purchases.

But here’s where the self-reflection comes to play. Most folks would say to the Clintons, “if you can make that kind of dough just talking go for it, but don’t insult our intelligence by dismissing legitimate questions about how it looks and whether it’s just unseemly or something a good deal worse.”

The Clintons display one the worst characteristics of too many non-self-reflective people in public life, they apparently think – at least in their own minds – that if they’re well intentioned enough and stand for all the right things then, hey, what’s the beef about twenty-five or fifty million dollars to make up for having left the White House, as Hill said, “dead broke?” Bill says his foundation did nothing “knowingly inappropriate,” but that depends, I guess, on the definition of “inappropriate.”

Americans, being a generally forgiving bunch, don’t begrudge the Clintons making a nice or even an extravagant living. However, they shouldn’t be surprised that we do resent the smugness that goes with public figures dismissing questions about all that cash, while they fail to reflect on why we think they just don’t get it.

Ignoring the Obvious…

The self-reflection deficit has been fully in evidence around Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush, as well. Bush had a perfectly awful few days with his shifting answers to a simple and predictable question about whether he would have authorized the 2003 invasion of Iraq in light of “knowing what we know now.” Bush has a dynasty problem – Hillary Clinton does as well – that he continues to try and finesse rather than address. Whether he likes it or not – not would be my guess – voters want to know where and how he differs with his dad and older brother. As good a place as any to begin those questions is with the disastrous Iraq war that brother W. launched; arguably the worst foreign policy mistake since, well, in a long, long time.

George, George and Jeb.

George, George and Jeb.

As Maureen Dowd points out, Bush is the son and brother of two former presidents, but wants to pretend that George H.W. and W. are just family and he loves his family. Well, of course he does, but he’s not running for president to preside over Bush family Thanksgiving dinners. His judgment and – that word again – reflection over the mistakes of the past will tell us a great deal about how he’ll approach the job if he succeeds in getting the Lincoln Bedroom back in the family. Jeb can no more separate his presidential ambitions from his relative’s records than John Quincy Adams or Robert Kennedy could from theirs. That Bush is even trying, and with the flimsy explanation that he doesn’t like to answer hypotheticals and he loves the two Georges, is not only proof of a lack of self-reflection, but also a likely losing political strategy.

You almost want to grab the former Florida governor by the lapels, turn him toward a mirror and demand he decide what he really believes about the family business he hopes to continue. After all, as Dowd wrote in a recent column, “Jeb hasn’t even been asked any questions yet about W.’s dark contributions on waterboarding, the deficit and the near-total collapse of the American economy.” He will.

Will Jeb be self-aware enough to self-reflect on what he really believes? You can still love your brother and think he was a fool.

The Well-Know Bias: Truth…

Has Dick Retired the No Self-Reflection Trophy?

Has Dick Retired the No Self-Reflection Trophy?

Speaking of Iraq, former Vice President Dick Cheney may have retired the no self-reflection trophy with his inability or unwillingness to own up to any mistakes related to the Bush Administration’s various wars, detentions and tortures. Despite the mounting volumes detailing Cheney’s cynical merchandising of dubious intelligence, just to cite one example, the old cynic regularly emerges from his undisclosed location to hold forth on what he sees as the vast mistakes of the current administration, while refusing to accept even a whiff of responsibility for the steaming pile he and his boss left for Barack Obama.

History, with a bias for facts and responsibility, will sort all this out and Cheney will forever be regarded as among the principal responsible parties for a multitude of great mistakes, including invading Iraq on sexed up intelligence. He deserves it. Even Robert McNamera, a Cheney-like character from an earlier generation, finally confronted his personal and professional shortcomings, characteristics that everyone else had long ago identified. Don’t hold your breath waiting for that level of self-awareness from Cheney. Self-assured he most certainly is, but then again self-reflection requires character.

The no self-reflection caucus has a lot of members, including professional blowhards like Donald Trump and failures in both business and politics like former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.

One gets the impression that a guy like The Donald considers self-reflection to mean thinking deeply about how wonderful he is and concluding after further consideration that he is even more impressive. Ms. Fiorina, who made a big splash at the recent Iowa GOP cattle call for the eight hundred and some people running for president, apparently thinks having once met Vladimir Putin qualifies as foreign policy experience and getting fired in one of the highest profile corporate dismissals in recent history, not to mention getting wiped out in a California Senate race, are resume builders on the path to the Oval Office.

In Oregon, heads are still shaking over former Governor John Kitzhaber’s inability to self-reflect on the shenanigans of the even more non-self-reflecting fiancé who forced him out of public life just weeks after he won a fourth term.

BradyProfessional sports and the media have their share of incredibly well paid humans who refuse to self-reflect. Talented and supremely unaware quarterback Tom Brady refused to cooperate with the NFL investigation of his under-inflated footballs, then lawyers up to challenge the findings.

Often there isn’t much naval gazing in journalism either. Judith Miller still hasn’t fessed up to blowing her New York Times reporting of Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction and actually has a new book attempting to explain away some of the worst reporting on the run-up to the war.

Brian Williams apparently thinks he might one day return to the NBC anchor desk after making up war news about himself. Williams, not unlike Jeb Bush, tried to over explain what is pretty clearly a series of tall tales that reflect no reflection, but likely much more. Even some of those we count on to call B.S. on the non-self-reflectors can’t find it in themselves to gaze in the mirror.

Paging O’Reilly and Stephanopoulos…

Modern Survival Skills: Never Admit Anything…

We could go on and on, sadly, but you get the drift. When thinking about the unremitting lack of self-awareness in so many people in public life, I find myself longing for the kind of brutal justice British politics extracts from those who fail. Tradition and reality demands that British pols that screw up must self-reflect very quickly.

British Labour Party leader Ed Milaband lost – badly lost – the recent election. Milaband resigned the next morning. No time for fussing with a post-election “mistakes were made” plea that things will be different next time. Miliband went from “the next prime minister” to “Ed who?” in the time it takes to change your socks. Period. End of story. “Ed who” is now presumably self-reflecting in an undisclosed location.

More and more people in public life seem to have decided that the essential requirement of survival in the age of the ten-second sound bite and the twenty-four hour news cycle is to never, ever admit uncertainty or acknowledge that careful and nuanced consideration, including knowing yourself, is the essence of leadership. Above all they never, heaven forbid, ever acknowledge a mistake, even the smallest one.

The modern poll-tested, cable television survival skills demand a willing suspension of any degree of self-reflection, since consideration of one’s actions – real consideration – inevitably demands admission of some error. No one is perfect, as they say, but many these days think they must act as though they are. There is no substitute for “perfection” and certainty of self. Self-reflection is for sissies, or losers.

But, as our Mom’s told us, the admission of mistakes, or even the awareness that things might have been done better, is also the only possible path to getting better. Know yourself and you know what you need to work on.

I’d like to see Mom’s kind of candidate on the ballot. Someone willing to struggle with facts. Someone who understands that we are all a bundle of contradictions. Someone who admits they have something to learn. Someone who sees the world from the inside out. Someone big enough and secure enough to confront mistakes. Someone real.

Wouldn’t that be something to reflect upon.

 

Advise and Consent…

Years ago I enjoyed a delightful series of conversations with John Corlett, a true old-school newspaper reporter in Idaho who could recall political anecdotes with the sharpness that a gambler brings to counting cards in a Las Vegas casino. John’s career spanned a good part of the last century, from Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency to Ronald Reagan’s. He covered political conventions, wrote about statesmen and scalawags and he relished sharing his storehouse of memories every bit as much as I enjoyed hearing those memories.

Judge Chase Clark

Judge Chase Clark

One of many stories I remember involved former Idaho Governor and U.S. District Judge Chase Clark, the father-in-law of Senator Frank Church. Clark was part of a genuine Idaho political dynasty that featured two governors and a congressman who later became a U.S. Senator. Church married into the dynasty when he wed Bethine, the politically astute daughter of Chase Clark. The Clarks were mostly Democrats, but for bipartisan flavor the family also includes the remarkable Nancy Clark Reynolds, the Congressman’s daughter, and a Ronald Reagan confidante and D.C. power player.

Chase Clark ran for re-election as Idaho governor in 1942 and narrowly lost a re-match election with former Governor C.A. Bottolfson, the man Clark defeated in 1940. But 1942 was a Republican year, the country was at war, Roosevelt was in the second year of his third term and voters everywhere seemed to hanker for change. Corlett remembered that Democrat Clark considered his re-election chances to be less than stellar under those circumstances; so much so that Clark seems to have taken steps to create for himself a soft landing should the election turn out badly from his point of view.

As returns trickled in on election night 1942 it soon became clear that the governor’s race in Idaho would be a cliffhanger. Bottolfson eventually won by 434 votes out of more than 144,000 cast.

The Governor Who Wanted to Lose…

Late on election night as Corlett monitored the vote counting and tried to determine who was winning the very tight contest his phone rang. Governor Clark was on the other end of the line. “John,” he said, “it’s time for you to call the election for Bottolfson.”

Corlett could hardly believe what he was hearing. The incumbent Democrat was effectively conceding the election and doing so hours before it would become clear who the real winner might be. The curious phone call only made sense a few weeks later when Roosevelt announced Clark’s appointment to fill a vacancy on the federal bench in Idaho. A little over a month after leaving office in January 1943, Clark was nominated for the judgeship. He was confirmed by the Senate fifteen days later and served on the federal bench until his death in 1966.

Franklin Roosevelt

Franklin Roosevelt

Corlett was convinced that Clark had made a deal with Roosevelt before the election in 1942, a deal to have the president appoint him to the court should he lose, and John believed Clark actually wanted to lose, maybe even planned to lose. For Corlett, Clark’s election night telephone call concession was a political smoking gun. The governor wanted to be a federal judge a good deal more than he wanted to be a governor.

The life tenure of a federal judicial position (assuming good behavior) is just one attractive aspect of the job. The pay isn’t shabby, the working conditions are typically first rate and the retirement benefits quite nice thank you. As they say, “it’s indoor work with no heavy lifting,” unless you consider hours of sitting, listening, reading and writing strenuous. Done correctly, however, the job really should be demanding. It requires a certain temperament and a scholarly demeanor, experience, perspective, learning in the law and an abiding sense of fairness. It helps, as well, to be a real person with an ego in check, someone who is not overly impressed when everyone refers to you as “your honor.”

Idaho’s Next Judge…

I remembered the old John Corlett tale recently as I read the news of the unfolding and very secret process being managed by Idaho’s two Republican United States senators to fill the vacant judgeship on the federal district court in Idaho. As the Spokesman-Review’s Betsy Russell first reported, Senators Mike Crapo and Jim Risch have been quietly – very quietly – interviewing prospective candidates for the federal court position, but, as Russell also reported, two of the most obvious women candidates have not been interviewed, at least not yet.

The senators subsequently released a short statement to the effect that the confidential process was in everyone’s best interest and that men as well as women would be considered. Russell also reported that the current process is a dramatic departure from that used the last time Idaho had a federal court vacancy. In 1995, with Democrat Bill Clinton in the White House, Republican Senators Larry Craig and Dirk Kempthorne created a nine-member bipartisan panel made up of five Democrats and four Republicans. The partisan split was in deference to fact that Democrat Clinton would make the appointment. That process ultimately produced three stellar candidates, including current federal District Judge Lynn Winmill, who was nominated and confirmed and continues to serve with great distinction.

Judge Edward Lodge

Judge Edward Lodge

Crapo and Risch could have adopted a similar approach when respected Judge Edward Lodge announced his decision to move to “senior status” in September of last year. That they did not, and that only in the last few days has there been any news about the judicial position, might indicate that the senators aren’t really much focused on producing a candidate that will be both acceptable to them and to the person who under the Constitution actually makes the appointment, Barack Obama.

While its clear under the Constitution that the president “shall nominate, and, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint” federal judges, it is an unwritten fact of life in the United States Senate that no nominee gets approved by the Senate unless the senators of the state involved green light the appointment. This is particularly true when the Senate is controlled, as it now is, by one party while the other party holds the White House.

This political reality cries out, if indeed Idaho’s senators really want to see a judicial appointment while Barack Obama is still in office, for something like the bipartisan approach Craig and Kempthorne employed twenty years ago. It is entirely conceivable that the process now being used will produce a candidate that will turn out to be unacceptable to the White House and that may be what the senators truly desire. In the hardball of Senate politics the Idaho Republicans may have decided, as an Arizona Congressman actually said recently, that Obama should have not more appointments approved – period.

Idaho’s senators may have simply made the political calculation that they will “run out the clock,” while betting that a Republican wins the White House in 2016. Under this scenario Crapo and Risch will have teed up the candidate they want for early consideration by President Jeb Bush, Scott Walker or someone else.

With no more than seventy working days remaining on this year’s Senate calendar and with the Senate surely going into paralysis mode next year with a presidential election looming time will soon dictate whether an Idaho appointment is even possible. Even if Crapo and Risch were to produce a candidate relatively soon the White House and FBI vetting process could take months and extend into next year’s presidential morass. For the two senators this approach could neatly, if unfairly, place the blame for failing to fill the vacancy on the president’s desk.

The statement from Crapo and Risch last week made much of the need for an “entirely confidential” process. But it’s worth asking why? At least two widely mentioned, not particularly political and eminently qualified female candidates – U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson and federal Magistrate Candy Dale – have publicly acknowledge their interest in the appointment. Idaho, of course, is unique in that the state has never had a woman federal district judge. One suspects it is the senators insisting on the confidentially, since applying to become a federal judge, even if you are not selected, is hardly something most Idaho lawyers would hide under a bushel. Merely applying puts one in rare company.

One can certainly understand senatorial prerogatives and the Constitution wisely provides for “advice and consent” from the Senate, but a vacant federal judgeship that comes around maybe once in a generation really doesn’t belong exclusively to two U.S. senators or even to a president. The important job belongs to Idaho and given the nature of Idaho and national politics shouts out for a high degree of transparency.

Advise and Consent…Not So Much…

As this process stumbles forward the White House might consider these political facts:

Attorney General Loretta Lynch

Attorney General Loretta Lynch

Idaho’s two senators recently voted against the confirmation of a highly qualified African-American woman to become the first ever attorney general. They based their votes on the fact that Loretta Lynch, a seasoned federal prosecutor, merely said that she agreed with her boss, the president, on his immigration actions; actions admittedly controversial, but also currently under judicial review. Such conservative Senate stalwarts as Mitch McConnell, Orrin Hatch and Jeff Flake voted to confirm Lynch as attorney general, but not Crapo and Risch.

Additionally, from health care to Iran, Idaho’s senators have opposed virtually all of Obama’s policy actions. They regularly lambast the administration for everything from underfunding the Idaho National Laboratory to over regulating Main Street businesses. Obama’s budgets, they have said repeatedly, are awful, his foreign policy a disaster and the president regularly engages in extra-constitutional behavior. Little wonder then that Idaho’s senators, as reliably opposed to anything the White House proposes as any two senators in the nation, have shown so little interest in actually working with the president on the rare Idaho judicial appointment.

What Would FDR Do…

As the old story about Judge Clark in the 1940’s proves, being appointed a federal judge is a highly desirable job. Franklin Roosevelt placed the just defeated Chase Clark on the federal bench in 1942 without, near as I can tell, much if any involvement by Idaho’s two senators at the time.

Senator D. Worth Clark

Senator D. Worth Clark

In fact it’s very likely that Roosevelt could have cared less about the opinion of Senator D. Worth Clark, Chase’s nephew and Nancy Clark Reynold’s father, since Worth Clark was an outspoken opponent of FDR’s foreign policy. Coming as it did from a member of his own party, Roosevelt bitterly resented Clark’s harsh isolationist critique and let it be known that he did.

Senator John W. Thomas, a Republican, who was appointed to replace William Borah when he died in 1940, was, with the exception of foreign policy, philosophically far removed from the man he replaced. Roosevelt both liked and respected Borah even though the two men clashed on many things and had Borah, a long-time member of the Judiciary Committee, lived he certainly would have had a say in filling the Idaho judgeship. With a war to run it’s not hard to speculate that the opinions of Clark and Thomas counted for next to nothing in Roosevelt’s White House. While the Senate did “advise and consent” on Judge Clark, it can safely be said that Idaho’s two senators had very little to say about his appointment.

Perhaps in the current case Mr. Obama ought to engage in some of that dictatorial activity he is so often accused of and go ahead and appoint one of the highly qualified and non-political women candidates to the federal bench. Let Idaho’s senators explain why a sitting U.S. attorney already confirmed by the Senate, or a federal magistrate vetted by her peers, or any number of other qualified women aren’t acceptable. The way things look today President Obama has nothing too lose as the clock winds down on his term and he confronts a judicial selection in Idaho vetted and suggested by two senators who can hardly mention his name without a sneer.

Barack Obama might enjoy, just as Franklin Roosevelt often did, seeing some of his greatest opponents in the Senate squirm just a little. At the very least, Mr. Obama could go down in history as the first president who tried to appoint the first women to the federal bench in Idaho.

 

Visiting (Again) Flyover Country…

I’ve spent the last two weeks on a 3,000 mile road trip through nine very rural western and southwestern states – flyover country for Hillary, Jeb and the cast of thousands seeking a nomination, any nomination, for president.

All the candidates who seek our attention now and our votes next year, will say they lust for the White House in order to “give voice to” and “represent” the “real folks” in rural America. They all talk about flyover country like they’ve been there. Truth be told none of them have really spent any time in the American outback and if they were to visit – don’t hold your breath – they would be as out of place as sport coat at a rodeo.

The rural American west is where you see motels named Shady Rest and where every town seems to shady-rest-motel-51f1835ed3bf7e0fb700009chave an Outlaw Saloon and an El Rancho Steakhouse. The main streets are wide and mostly quiet, particularly since Walmart came to town. The chain stores that helped doom the mom and pop stores in rural America tend to cluster at the far edges of the old pioneer towns along the highways where you slow  down to 30 miles per hour so that you have time to count the pick-ups at the Taco Bell.

Occasionally you can still find a reminder of what good tastes like at places like Sehnert’s Bakery and Bieroc Café in McCook, Nebraska. We had to ask what a bieroc was, but the locals know. You can’t get a bieroc at the Taco Bell, by the way. More often the storefronts are covered with plywood, the drug stores are empty and convenience stores double as a place to buy groceries.

Lots of things have disappeared in flyover country, including most of the movie theaters. I love Netflix and Hulu, but there is no substitute for the group dynamic of going to a movie in a real theater. A Harneyfavorite uncle long ago owned The Harney Theater in Custer, South Dakota. It was a magical place for a kid where cutouts of snowy white clouds – made of plywood, I suppose – were suspended from a robin’s egg blue ceiling. It was a place for dreaming. For the admission price of a quarter I fell in love with Doris Day at the Harney and marveled at the exploits of Henry Fonda and Richard Burton in The Longest Day. I held hands with a girl for the first time in that dark, slightly musty movie palace. Talk about magic. Today the Harney is a pizza parlor and seeing that made me feel like I had just said goodbye to one more piece of my youth.

On Interstate 80 west of Green River, Wyoming and literally in the middle of nowhere sits Little America. Once upon a time calling Little America a “truck stop” was a little like calling John Wayne a “thespian.” Little America was our regular lunch stop on the road to Salt Lake City years ago and when we stopped recently – I remembered the booths, the soft serve ice cream and the waitresses who called everyone “honey” – the nice woman behind the counter said the “sit down and be waited on” restaurant had closed last fall. Lunch options in Little America now included the kind of fare you find at a convenience store connected to gas pumps. A slice of rural America really did turn out to be just a truck stop. Change can be tough on memories.

My road trip was an attempt to connect again with some places I knew forty (or more years ago) and to jog old memories of events, people and places that, whether we fully know it or not, shaped our understanding of the world. After the trip my memories of life in rural America seem better than today’s reality.

I once lived in Rock Springs, Wyoming, for example (quit laughing) and realized that my (almost) life-long fascination with trains can be traced back to that old railroad and coal mining town that is literally divided in half by the Union Pacific mainline. At the zenith of American train travel in the 1940’s one hundred trains a day passed through Rock Springs and fully a quarter of that number were passenger trains.

"SONY DSC                       "By the time I came to live in southwestern Wyoming the passenger train era was rapidly coming to a close, but as a romantic eighth grader already enamored by travel I still remember walking down to the old Rock Springs depot to wait for the arrival of the Portland Rose, one of the Union Pacific’s most impressive trains. The Rose operated right up until the Amtrak era. I was never disappointed with the arrival of the sleek yellow coaches trimmed in red and gray. I wanted, of course, to get on board, settle in my Pullman and think about dinner in the diner complete with “many Pacific Northwest products.” Sadly that is only a memory.

Once upon a time you could get a train to almost anywhere in rural America. Now you can drive. If you live in Cambridge, Nebraska or Sundance, Wyoming you drive a hundred miles to get on an airplane. Nostalgia aside, and while admitting I love trains, we have made systematic public policy decisions over many decades to lavish massive public subsidies on planes, trucks and automobiles and permitted a once great national passenger rail system wither and die. Deregulating airlines in the 1970’s doomed air service to many small markets and as a result transportation alternatives really don’t exist now in the outback. There are a lot of gas stations, however.

The more conservatives candidates for high public office now and next year will appeal to rural Americans by talking about guns and stoking fear of the federal government. Those are time-tested tactics that have worked for a long time and will work again. Most of rural America is painted dark red after all and no candidate is likely to offer a public policy answer to keeping a local restaurant in business in rural Nebraska. You can take to the bank the fact that no one will talk seriously about the poverty, the flight of young people to “urban opportunities” or the persistent economic decline of small town America. No one will recall that once upon a time government programs brought electric lights to farms and precious water to crops and that politicians fought for the honor to speak for small town America. The overheated rhetoric of the coming campaign will merely reinforce the sentiments of the guy in South Dakota I saw, who displayed a big sign saying, “Don’t blame me, I voted for the American.” There is a good deal of anger – maybe even fear – just below the surface in the outback.

I’m old enough to remember when Robert Kennedy came to Pine Ridge, South Dakota in 1968, the Kennedypoorest county and the poorest Indian reservation in the country, in an attempt to place rural and Native American poverty on the presidential agenda. Historian Thurston Clarke has written about Kennedy’s visit and noted that no presidential candidate since has made the trip to Pine Ridge, even though poverty is just as endemic today as it was in 1968 and the suicide rates are tragic to the point of scandal.

Rural America’s challenges have been reduced to a political talking point. Conservatives blame the problems on the heavy hand of government and too much regulation and they take rural votes for granted, while liberals have lost elections in rural American for so long they hardly even attempt to relate, which makes what Bobby Kennedy did nearly 50 years ago all the more remarkable.

The Census Bureau reported in 2012 that the urban population of the United States increased by more than twelve percent in the first decade of the 21st Century. As rural America continues to shrink there is more and more reason for politicians to ignore the fewer and fewer Americans who scratch out a living in the outback. Politicians and most of the rest of us, like the mythology of rural America – the rugged, up-from-humble beginnings storyline, the idea of wide-open spaces, family farms and Sunday dinners. But that old, rural, western American mythology only masks the nasty reality that is mostly ignored in our politics. About a third of the poorest counties in the nation are in the rural, mostly very conservative west. Colorado’s poorest county, for example, has a population of about 1,200 souls and more than 1,000 live below the poverty line. (Mitt Romney, the 47 percent guy, won Crowley County, Colorado in 2012 with more than 61 percent of the vote.)

It will be impossible for any serious presidential candidate during the next campaign to avoid talk of the dramatic growth of economic inequality and the shrinking middle class in the United States, but most will do so while headed to a fundraiser in New York City or Silicon Valley. Fly over country, the place that promised opportunity to immigrant Americans a hundred or more years ago, is more familiar than most places with the decline of the middle class. Today the rural west seems a shrinking, weathered place where jobs are as scarce as a first run movie – or any movie – and real solutions for generations of problems are as non-existent as a passenger train or a serious visit from a national candidate.

 

The Senator from McCook

I took a political pilgrimage last week to an out-of-the-way little town in my native state.

I’ve taken similar trips in the past to Mount Vernon and Hyde Park, to Independence, Missouri and once to Dixville Notch, New Hampshire, which every four years casts the first-in-the-nation votes for president.McCook My pilgrimage to tiny, remote McCook, Nebraska in Red Willow County, hard by the Republican River and a short drive north of the Kansas border was as meaningful as any I have ever taken.

McCook is the hometown of one of the greatest political figures of the 20th Century, a man – a senator, a statesman, an ideal politician that most Americans have long forgotten, or worse, never heard of. I went to McCook to see George William Norris’ town, his home and to remember why he deserves to be considered among a very small handful of the greatest of American politicians.

McCook is where Norris first got elected as a local judge and where Norris - MIcfriends continued to call him “Judge” long after he had become one of the most influential senators in American history. Judge Norris went to the United States Congress for five terms early in the 20th Century and eventually in 1912 to the U.S. Senate for five more terms.

Norris retired to McCook – it was decidedly not his idea – in 1943 after losing a re-election that, at age 81, he might well have been advised to avoid. But unlike most politicians who lose and are forgotten, Norris’ reputation should only have risen after 1942, but that is not the way things work in the brutal, forgetful world of American politics. George Norris is mostly forgotten these days even in his hometown and sadly, almost completely forgotten in the “what have you done for me today” world of contemporary political importance.

Still, any member of the current Congress would kill for the Norris record of real accomplishment.

George Norris at site of Norris Dam.

George Norris at site of Norris Dam.

Twice Norris passed legislation to create public ownership of the hydropower resources in the Tennessee River valley only to see Republican presidents – leaders of his own party – kill the idea. When Franklin Roosevelt came to power in 1933, Norris’ vision of a Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) finally had a champion in the White House and the money was appropriated to construct Norris Dam and bring electricity to a vast swath of the American South. George Norris was the father of TVA and in many ways the father of public power in the American West.

When FDR ran for president in 1932, four percent of Nebraska’s farms had electricity. By the time his Nebraska constituents ignored Norris’ accomplishments and sent him into retirement in 1942 that number had increased to more than forty percent. George Norris was the father of the Rural Electric Administration – the REA – which he considered his most important accomplishment.

During his long career George Norris opposed U.S. entry into World War I, convinced it was a war forced on the country by greedy capitalists. Vilified for what many considered his “unpatriotic” stand, Norris came home to Nebraska, stood before the voters and said simply: “I have come home to tell you the truth.” Undoubtedly, many of his constituents still opposed his position, but his straightforward explanation of his action marked him as a man of great integrity and courage.

Norris conceived of the “unicameral,” single house, non-partisan legislature in Nebraska and campaigned across the state to ensure that the idea was approved at the ballot box by Nebraskans in 1934. Nebraska is still the only state in the country with the unique unicameral legislature. Norris argued for the idea as being more democratic than a system that allowed lawmakers to hide behind the “actions of the other house” and that gave special interests more avenues to influence legislation. It has been a noble experiment that others states might well consider.

In an earlier era when Wall Street and big bankers also dominated American politics, Norris took on the interests of greed and bigness and prevailed. He created a massive chart – the Norris spider – to illustrate to the Senate the vast web of financial interests that controlled everything from electricity to railroads, from oil wells to credit. Long before there was an Elizabeth Warren there was a George Norris.

Norris broke with his own party time and again on matters of principle and pragmatism most famously when he lead the 1910 revolt against the dictatorial rule of Republican House Speaker “Uncle Joe” Cannon. Norris rounded up the bi-partisan votes to strip Cannon of the ability to use the Rules Committee as his own personal tool to control the House of Representatives. Norris also broke GOP ranks in 1928 and again in 1932 to endorse Democratic presidential candidates. When Norris determined that Roosevelt deserved a second term in 1936, he ran for re-election in Nebraska as an independent and won.

When Norris lost his bid for a sixth senate term in 1942 to a Republican non-entity by the name of Kenneth Wherry, a former undertaker, he did something that no politician does any more – he went home to McCook to the house he and his wife had owned for Norris - Homedecades. He died in that house in 1944 never completely reconciled to having been turned out of office by his Nebraska neighbors.

The Norris house is preserved today as a Nebraska historical landmark complete with most of the furnishings that graced the modest two-story frame structure when the great man lived there. His books are in the bookcases. His plaque of appreciation from the TVA is prominently displayed. His 1937 Buick still sits in the garage. I think we may have been the only visitors of the day when we showed up last Friday afternoon.

In 1956 when a young Senator John F. Kennedy – with the help of his Nebraskan-born aide Theodore Sorensen – wrote his Pulitzer Prize winning Profiles in Courage, he included a chapter on George Norris, emphasizing Norris’ independence and willingness to fight for unpopular causes.

YOUNG-JFKA year later the U.S. Senate created a special committee – Kennedy was named chairman – to recommend five “great” former senators who would be recognized for their accomplishments. Kennedy’s committee labored for months to define senatorial “greatness” and eventually enlisted the help of 160 historians to advise them. The historians produced a list of 65 candidates. Kennedy joked that picking five senators from such a long list of worthies made choosing new members of the Baseball Hall of Fame look easy by comparison.

The scholar’s top choice was Norris. It wasn’t even close. The Nebraskan came in ahead of Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay, which you might think would have settled the matter. But members of the Kennedy committee had agreed among themselves that their recommendations must be unanimous. New Hampshire Republican Styles Bridges, who had served with Norris and didn’t appreciate his political independence as much as the group of historians did, black balled his consideration. Nebraska’s two Republican senators at the time also rebelled at any honor for Norris and as a result he was left off the list of all-time Senate greats.

[The list, by the way, included Webster, Calhoun, Clay, Robert Taft and Robert La Follette, Sr. In 2004, Senators Arthur Vandenberg and Robert Wagner were similarly recognized.]Norris - Time

Settling political scores is, of course, something politicians do, but the petty slight of George Norris, a product of small-town, rural Nebraska, who left a huge mark on American life, is a long ago error that should be corrected. Regardless of our personal politics, we should celebrate greatness in our political leaders. Lord knows there is little enough of it these days.

My pilgrimage to McCook convinced me all over again that while true political greatness is indeed a rare thing, George W. Norris had it. It was a moving and very special experience to step back into his world and know that such men once sat in the United States Senate.

 

The Most Important Election…

There is a wide-open field on the Republican side for the presidential nomination, with at least a half dozen serious contenders, while the lame duck Democrat in the White House, one of the most polarizing american-politicsfigures in modern American politics, struggles with foreign policy challenges which have emboldened his fierce critics in both parties and submerged his domestic agenda. The foreign policy challenges involve questions about the effectiveness of military aid in bloody conflicts that may, or may not, involve strategic American interests, as well as the proper response to brutal foreign dictators determined to expand their influence in central Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

The incumbent in the White House, elected with promises of “hope and change,” has lost his once large majorities in both houses of Congress and, while he remains a profoundly talented communicator and is still popular with many voters, others have grown tired of his aloof manner and the fact that he surrounds himself with a tiny corps of advisors who tend to shut off competing points of view. Even his wife can be a polarizing figure with some criticizing everything from her priorities to her wardrobe.

A fragile economic recovery continues to sputter along, while memories remain fresh of an economic collapse that rivals anything that has happened in three-quarters of a century. Half the country blames Wall Street, eastern bankers and the well-heeled for the economic troubles, while the other half laments excessive regulation, increasing debt and bloated federal government that is constantly expanding its role in American life. The country is deeply divided by race, class and religious differences.

The year is…2016? No…actually 1940.

The Most Important Election in Our Lifetime…Not Really…

Lincoln and McClellan

Lincoln and McClellan

The claim heard every four years that “this is the most important election in our lifetime (or in our history), it is, of course, nonsense. We don’t have “critical elections” every four years, but in fact have really only had a handful of truly “critical” elections in our history. In my view the two most important were 1864, when Abraham Lincoln defeated George McClellan thereby ensuring that the great Civil War would be fought to its ultimate end and achieve its ultimate goal, the abolition of slavery, and 1940 when Franklin D. Roosevelt broke with long-established political tradition and sought and won a third term. Roosevelt’s election, although it would have been hard to see clearly at the time, sealed the involvement of the United States in World War II and ultimately led to the defeat of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan.

Those two elections (you could add 1860 to the list, as well) had serious consequences that still echo today, the 1940 election particularly since it does have many parallels with what voters will face when they make a choice about the White House in 2016.

Arguably the field for the Republican nomination hasn’t been so completely wide open since 1940. In that election, as today, the GOP was a divided party between its more establishment wing – represented by New Yorker Thomas Dewey – and an insurgent element represented by the party’s eventual nominee in 1940, Indiana-born, former Democrat Wendell Willkie, a true dark horse candidate. The party was also split into isolationist and internationalist camps, with Willkie the leader of the later and Senators Robert Taft of Ohio and Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan leading the Midwestern, isolationist element.

As Many GOP Contenders as 2016…

1940 GOP Convention Ticket

1940 GOP Convention Ticket

Ten Republican candidates that year captured at least twenty-eight convention votes, with Dewey leading on the first ballot with 360 votes, still far below the number he would need to win the nomination. The Republican candidates, not unlike today, were a broad and opportunistic bunch ranging from names lost to history – the governor of South Dakota Harland Bushland, for example – to shades of the past like former President Herbert Hoover who amazingly thought he was a viable candidate eight years after losing in a landslide to Roosevelt in 1932.

Thomas Dewey

Thomas Dewey

Dewey lost support on every subsequent ballot, while Willkie and Taft steadily picked up steam. As Charles Peters has written: “To Republicans who liked Franklin Roosevelt’s sympathy for the allies but had a low opinion of his economic policy, Willkie began to look like an interesting presidential possibility. This group was not large in early 1940, but it was highly influential,” not unlike the “establishment wing” of the GOP today, which is tentatively coalescing behind Jeb Bush.

Finally on the sixth ballot Willkie commanded the votes needed to win the nomination and face the man who was the real issue in 1940 – Roosevelt.

By the time the Democrats convened for their convention in Chicago on July 15, 1940 (the Republicans met in Philadelphia in June), few besides FDR knew his intentions with regard to the “no third term” tradition. I’m convinced Roosevelt had decided much earlier to seek another terms, but the master political strategist wanted it to appear that his party was “drafting” him rather than as if he was actively seeking the nomination again.

Eleanor Roosevelt Addresses 1940 Convention

Eleanor Roosevelt Addresses 1940 Convention

Roosevelt dispatched his very politically astute wife, Eleanor, to Chicago to subtly, but unmistakably make the case for her husband. It worked and the Democratic Party rushed to embrace FDR – again. This whole story is wonderfully told in Charles Peters’ fine book Five Days in Philadelphia: The Amazing ‘We Want Willkie!’ Convention of 1940 and How It Freed FDR to Save the Western World.

FDR of course, went on to win the pivotal election of 1940, a rare election in American political history that turned primarily on foreign policy issues. Remarkably, both candidates endorsed the creation of a peace time draft in the middle of the campaign and Roosevelt and Willkie differed only in the most nuanced ways over the big question of whether and how the United States would provide aid to Britain as it struggled to hold off a Nazi invasion and eventually return to the offense against Hitler.

The 1940 campaign, like most political campaigns, had its share of pettiness and overheated rhetoric. Roosevelt was denounced as a “warmonger” and a dictator who would do anything to prolong his willkie buttonhold over the country’s politics. Willkie, a wealthy utility executive who made much of his small-town Indiana upbringing, was derided as “the barefoot boy from Wall Street,” so dubbed by Roosevelt’s Interior Secretary Harold Ickes. It was an open secret that Willkie had a long-time romantic relationship with a woman not his wife, but Roosevelt and the Democrats dare not raise the issue for fear that the “marriage of convenience” between FDR and Eleanor, not to mention the president’s own indiscretions, might become an issue. This would not be a John Edwards or Gary Hart campaign.

The 1940 campaign did involve two talented and serious candidates who openly discussed the big issues of the day and once the voters had spoken, Roosevelt and Willkie put aside personal animosities and linked arms for the good of the country – and the world.

Barack Obama won’t be running for a third term next year. Republicans made certain that would never happen when they recaptured control of the Congress after World War II and adopted the 22nd amendment to the Constitution, but Democrats will be, in effect, seeking a third term with presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton carrying the party banner.

Perhaps all – or almost all – politicians tend to look better in hindsight than they do when they are grubbing for votes, but it would be hard to argue that any of the contenders in either party today could hold their own on a stage with the major party nominees in that pivotal year of 1940.

The stakes were very high that year and Americans had their pick between two serious, quality candidates. Here’s hoping history repeats next year. Looking at the field I have my doubts.

Reader’s Note: 

There are at least three other recent fine books about the election of 1940 – Richard Moe’s Roosevelt’s Second Act, Susan Dunn’s 1940 – FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler: The Election Amid the Storm and Lynne Olson’s Those Angry Days. All are highly recommended as great political history.

 

Just Say No…

By all accounts Barack Obama has his work cut out for him convincing Congressional Republicans – and some Democrats – that his proposed obama0404nuclear weapons control agreement with Iran is better than having no deal at all.

Republican skepticism about an Obama initiative certainly isn’t surprising, since the president has seen something approaching universal disdain for virtually anything he has proposed since 2009. That Republicans are inclined to oppose a deal with Iran shouldn’t be much of a surprise either. In the post-World War II era, conservative Republicans in Congress have rarely embraced any major deal- particularly including nuclear agreements – which any president has negotiated with a foreign government.

Republicans Have Long Said “No” to Foreign Deals…

Before they were the party of NO on all things Obama, the GOP was the party of NO on international agreements – everything from the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I to the Panama Canal Treaties during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Even when Ronald Reagan Mikhail-Gorbachev-Ronald-Reaganattempted a truly unprecedented deal in 1986 with Mikhail Gorbachev to actually eliminate vast numbers of nuclear weapons – the famous Reykjavik Summit – most conservative Republicans gave the idea thumbs down and were happy when it fell apart.

And, near the end of his presidency when Reagan pushed for a treaty limiting intermediate nuclear weapons, conservatives like North Carolina’s Jesse Helms, Wyoming’s Malcolm Wallop and Idaho’s Jim McClure thought that Reagan, then and now the great hero of the conservative right, was plum crazy.

Much of the criticism of Reagan from the hard right in the late 1980’s sounds eerily like the current critique of Obama, which basically boils down to a belief that the administration is so eager for a deal with Iran it is willing to imperil U.S. and Israeli security. As Idaho’s McClure, among the most conservative GOP senators of his day, warned about the Reagan’s deal with Gorbachev in 1988, ”We’ve had leaders who got into a personal relationship and have gotten soft – I’m thinking of Roosevelt and Stalin,” but McClure was really thinking about Reagan and Gorbachev.

Howard Phillips, the hard right blowhard who chaired the Conservative Caucus at the time, charged that Reagan was ”fronting as a useful idiot for Soviet propaganda.” Helms actually said Reagan’s jesse-helms-reagan_685352cnegotiations with Gorbachev put U.S. allies in harms way, just as Mario Rubio, Ted Cruz and Scott Walker say today Obama is putting Israel at risk. ”We’re talking about, perhaps, the survival of Europe,” Helms declared in 1988.

Walker, who was 20 years old when Helms’ was preaching apocalypse, told a radio interviewer last week that the Iranian deal “leaves not only problems for Israel, because they want to annihilate Israel, it leaves the problems in the sense that the Saudis, the Jordanians and others are gonna want to have access to their own nuclear weapons…” Never mind that the whole point of the Iranian effort is to prevent a nuclear arms race across the Middle East.

Date the GOP No Response to FDR and Yalta…

Historically, you can date the conservative Republican opposition to almost all presidential deal making to Franklin Roosevelt’s meeting with Stalin at Yalta in 1945 where FDR’s critics, mostly Republicans, contended he sold out eastern Europe to the Reds. “The Yalta agreement may not have been the Roosevelt administration’s strongest possible bargain,” Jonathan Chait wrote recently in New York Magazine, “but the only real alternative would have entailed continuing the war against the Soviets after defeating Germany.”

By the time of the Yalta summit, Red Army troops had “liberated” or were in place to occupy Poland and much of central Europe, which Roosevelt knew the United States and Great Britain could do little to stop. The alternative to accommodation with Stalin at Yalta, as Chait says, was making war on Stalin’s army. Roosevelt’s true objective at Yalta was to keep Stalin in the fold to ensure Soviet cooperation with the establishment of the United Nations, but the “facts on the ground” in Europe provided a great storyline for generations of conservatives to lament the “sellout” to Uncle Joe.

That conservative narrative served to propel Joe McCarthy’s hunt for Communists in the U.S. State Department and cemented the GOP as the party always skeptical of any effort to negotiate with the Soviet Union (or anyone else). Many conservatives contended that “negotiations” equaled “appeasement” and would inevitably lead American presidents to mimic Neville Chamberlain at Munich in 1938. Illinois Senator Mark Kirk dusted off that old chestnut last week when he said, “Neville Chamberlain got a better deal from Adolf Hitler,” than Obama did from the Iranians. The Iranian deal is certainly not perfect, but worse than a pact with Hitler?

Conservatives became so concerned about “executive action” on Brickerforeign policy in the early 1950’s that Ohio Republican Senator John Bricker proposed a constitutional amendment – the Bricker Amendment – that said in part: “Congress shall have power to regulate all executive and other agreements with any foreign power or international organization.” Dwight Eisenhower opposed Bricker’s effort certain that his control over foreign policy, and that of subsequent presidents, would be fatally compromised. When Bricker, who had been the Republican candidate for vice president in 1948 and was a pillar of Midwestern Republicanism, first proposed his amendment forty-five of forty-eight Senate Republicans supported the idea. Eisenhower had to use every trick in the presidential playbook, including working closely with Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, to eventually defeat Bricker and other conservatives in his own party.

A logical extension of McCarthy’s position in the early 1950’s was Barry Goldwater’s opposition in the early 1960’s to President John Kennedy’s ultimately successful efforts to put in place a nuclear test ban treaty outlawing atmospheric or underwater nuclear tests.

A test ban treaty was, Goldwater said, “the opening wedge to goldwaterdisastrous negotiations with the enemy, which could result in our losing the war or becoming part of their [the Soviets] system.” In Senate debate Goldwater demanded proof of the Soviet’s “good faith” and argued, directly counter to Kennedy’s assertions, that a treaty would make the world more rather than less dangerous. The treaty was approved overwhelmingly and has remained a cornerstone of the entire idea of arms control.

Later in the 1960’s, and over the profound objections of conservatives, the U.S. approved the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) designed to prevent the expansion of nuclear weapons. Ironically, as Jonathan Chait notes, the NPT today provides “the legal basis for the international effort to prevent Iran from obtaining nukes.” But the idea was denounced at the time with William Buckley’s National Review saying it was “immoral, foolish…and impractical,” a “nuclear Yalta” that threatened our friends and helped our enemies.

When Richard Nixon negotiated the SALT I agreement, interestingly an “executive agreement” and not a treaty, conservatives worried that the United States was being out foxed by the Kremlin and that Nixon’s focus on “détente” with the Soviet Union was simply playing into naïve Communist propaganda. Congressional neo-cons in both parties, including influential Washington state Democrat Henry Jackson, insisted that any future arms control deal with the Soviets be presented to the Senate for ratification.

Republican opposition to international agreements is deeply embedded in the party’s DNA, going back at least to the successful Republican efforts to derail Senate ratification of the agreement Woodrow Wilson negotiated in Paris in 1919 to involve the United States in the League of Nations, end the Great War and make the world “safe for democracy.”

The GOP’s DNA Dates to Woodrow Wilson…

The most effective and eloquent opponent of that agreement was BorahIdaho Republican Senator William E. Borah who, it was said, brought tears to the eyes of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge when he spoke against Wilson’s ideas on the floor of the United States Senate on November 19, 1919.

Addressing treaty supporters, but really talking to Wilson, Borah said, “Your treaty does not mean peace – far, very far, from it. If we are to judge the future by the past it means war.” About that much the Idahoan was correct.

Without U.S. participation and moral leadership the League of Nations was little more than a toothless tiger in the two decades before the world was again at war, the League unable to prevent the aggression that ultimately lead to World War II. It is one of history’s great “what ifs” to ponder what American leadership in a League of Nations in the 1920’s and 1930’s might have meant to the prevention of the war that William Borah correctly predicted, but arguably for the wrong reason.

Jaw, Jaw Better Than War, War…

Many Congressional Republicans have spent months – or even years – chastising Obama for failing to provide American leadership on the world stage, and for sure the president deserves a good deal of criticism for what at times has been a timid and uncertain foreign policy. But now that Obama has brought the United States, Britain, France, Germany, the European Union and Russia to the brink of a potentially historic deal with Iran, the conservative critique has turned back to a well-worn line: a naïve president is so eager to get a deal he’ll sell out the country’s and the world’s best interests to get it. Ted Cruz and other Republican critics may not know it, but they are dusting off their party’s very old attack lines. Barry Goldwater seems to be more the father of this kind of contemporary GOP thinking than the sainted Ronald Reagan.

No deal is perfect, and doubtless some down through the ages have been less than they might have been, but the history of the last 75 years shows that presidents of both parties have, an overwhelming percentage of the time, made careful, prudent deals with foreign adversaries that have stood the test of time. In that sweep of recent American history it has not been presidents – Republicans or Democrats – who have been wrong to pursue international agreements, but rather it is the political far right that has regularly ignored the wisdom of Winston Churchill’s famous admonition that “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”