Politics is Motion

5112796991_002_ltBefore there was a Karl Rove or a James Carville there was John Sears. A Republican political consultant closely identified with Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, Sears plays a central role in a fascinating new book – The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan – by the great chronicler of the modern conservative movement Rick Perlstein.

Sears “brilliantly stewarded Ronald Reagan’s run from near impossibility to a dead heat” with President Gerald Ford in the 1976 Republican primaries, Perlstein writes. Reagan ultimately fell just short of grabbing the GOP nomination from the unelected Ford. It was the closest presidential contest since 1948. Had just a couple of things broken Reagan’s way he might well have won and, who knows, made it to the Oval Office four years earlier than he finally did.

Sears was a major force in that campaign. Reporters loved him for his candor and insight. Rivals, Republicans included, frequently snipped at him because he often was the smartest guy in the room and wasn’t shy about showing it.

Reagan once joked to journalist Theodore White that, “There was a feeling that I was just kind of a spokesman for John Sears.” Sears got canned during Reagan’s 1980 campaign when he clashed with the candidate’s California brain trust, but since he was a real pro he simply said it was Reagan’s right to get rid of him. Sears later worked as an analyst for NBC News.

Since Labor Day is now history and the kids are back in school, we can turn our gaze to elections that are now just two months away. Heading into the home stretch for Campaign 2014 there are some smart words from John Sears that are worth pondering for all candidates who want to win in November.

Sears’ trademark saying, Perlstein writes, was “politics is motion.” In other words, “When your campaign sets the terms of the political debate, you are winning. When your opponent has to catch up with one of your moves, he is losing.” Politics is motion. Let’s apply this notion to the race for governor in Idaho.

Electing an Idaho Governor

If you measure the common metrics of politics – the strength of the economy, support for education, party unity among them – the incumbent governor of Idaho, C.L. “Butch” Otter, ought to be in a world of hurt in 2014. Otter, a fixture of Idaho politics since the 1970’s, has been in the middle of a nasty intraparty feud that produced a virtually unknown challenger who gave him a run for his money in the May primary. mediaThe challenger ended up beating the two-term incumbent in some of Idaho’s largest counties, including Otter’s home base of Canyon County. Those party wounds are likely scabbing over as the election nears, but some deeply disenchanted Tea Party-type Republicans still say they would like to “punish” the governor for, among other things, embracing a state-based health care exchange. Many who have know him for years find it amazing that Butch can be attacked as being too liberal, but such is the state of Republican politics these days.

At the same time a brace of less-than-good news about education funding, a failed education reform initiative, Idaho personal income declines, and a botched prison privatization effort should further put Otter on the defensive. When it comes to funding schools and measuring personal income, it used to be said that “Idaho is the Mississippi of the West.” That can now be amended to “Idaho is Mississippi.” None of this should help the incumbent, but it doesn’t seem to be hurting much either.

The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) recently endorsed Otter for keeping Idaho taxes and spending low, which is also the flip side of Idaho’s Mississippi-like commitment to educational funding. To date the political discussion of school funding and the economy in Idaho has largely avoided the fact that while state spending on education has been shrinking in recent years due to a stingy state legislature and the governor, property taxpayers are paying more-and-more to keep the lights on at the school house. The need to pass supplemental levies at the local level, which is now virtually routine in many districts often means that the poorest school districts in Idaho just get poorer. The recent failure of a levy in Lapwai means kids in that district will get PE classes online. Nearly 40 Idaho school districts now operate only four days a week.

Another recent study, as reported by the Associated Press, indicates that “Idaho residents have among the lowest personal incomes in the nation but spend a higher percentage of their money on food, housing and other essentials compared with most others, according to data…by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.” Another report on the changing demographics of education in Idaho offered this sobering prediction over the next five years: “The state is expected to see net growth in lower income households and net declines in households with incomes above $50,000.” Ouch.

The governor once made funding highway needs the center point of his legislative agenda, but even with an overwhelming GOP majority in the legislature couldn’t bend his own party to advance his priority. Highway funding has virtually disappeared as a political issue. And the governor has to deal with at least one other issue – the political fatigue factor that often attaches to a politician seeking a third consecutive term. A third consecutive gubernatorial term has happened twice before in Idaho, but long ago – first in the early 1930’s and then again in the early 1960’s.

Somewhere in that mix of issues and impressions, amid the studies on incomes and educational support, and complicated by the GOP internal turmoil, there might be a coherent message for a challenger, something like Idaho is off on the wrong track and Otter has had his chance. But if politics is motion, as John Sears would say, the motion at this post-Labor Day moment still seems very much with the incumbent.

His liabilities notwithstanding, including a third-party challenger coming from the far, far right who could take five of more percentage points in the general election presumably at Otter’s expense, the Idaho governor’s race seems to be unfolding just the way Butch Otter and his supporters might have hoped it would. The old tried-and-true Republican playbook, the corners tattered and worn, is opening up as it always has, and as it so very predictably would, against Democratic candidate A.J. Balukoff.

The state’s big business lobby, the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry (IACI), which actually supported development of a state-based health insurance exchange, as did Gov. Otter, is on television attacking Balukoff for being a Obamacare loving “liberal,” a word as bad in red states today as Communist was in the 1950’s. Balukoff says he voted for Mitt Romney last time, but no matter. IACI also takes the Democrat to task for supporting tax increases. Those taxes, of course, are the regular levies that Boise School District patrons regularly pass in an effort to keep their schools among the best the country. Balukoff supported those efforts as a long-time member of the school board, but no matter.

The Farm Bureau, which of course doesn’t endorse candidates, has weighed in saying the Democrat doesn’t understand rural Idaho. Soon Balukoff will be giving away Idaho’s water and going door-to-door picking up guns. It may be an old and tattered political playbook that is being dusted off one more time, but it has worked time and again in Idaho and given a tepid challenge there is little reason to change a winning formula.

Politics is Motion

Meanwhile, the Otter campaign is on the air with a entirely positive commercial touting an improving Idaho economy and a governor that stands up to the feds. It almost reminds me of a Cecil Andrus spot in 1990, including the line that “Idaho is a great place to live, work and raise a family.” It’s morning in Idaho. Otter can take the high road when he has others more than willing to take the low.

Balukoff’s task in this race – any Democrat’s task – is to say something coherent and meaningful about the shortcomings of Otter’s eight years as governor – and there is plenty of raw material – and then present a picture of what a better future might involve. He doesn’t need to be nasty, but he does need to be pointed and specific. When your campaign sets the terms of the political debate, you’re winning. Politics is motion and time is short for a challenger to define the Idaho race in a way that just might make it competitive. Balukoff’s campaign so far seems very much like the campaigns that have come up short for Democrats for the last 20 years – too timid and ironically too conservative.

History tells us that generals always want to fight the last war. Politicians want to run the last campaign. You can often do that as an incumbent, but you don’t beat an incumbent, particularly an incumbent Republican in a state like Idaho, by doing what hasn’t worked before. To make it a race the challenger needs to make it a real choice for voters. You start framing the choice by establishing what the race is about – and its not a health care exchange and Barack Obama – and by taking a few risks.

Right now the Idaho race is about a Republican incumbent without much to brag about against a Democrat from Boise who is being defined as “a liberal.” It is not difficult to predict how that script plays out in November.

 

Criminalizing Stupidity

Warren-G-Harding-9328336-1-402Teddy Roosevelt’s only daughter, Alice, was one of the great characters of the nation’s capitol for most of the 20th Century. She knew everyone, married the Speaker of the House,  Nicholas Longworth, and had a long and passionate affair with Sen. William Borah of Idaho, who was likely the father of her only child. The outspoken Alice widely and freely shared her deliciously candid opinions about politics and people with anyone and everyone.

The embroidered pillow in her living room said: “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.”

Alice famously said of President Warren Harding, who she knew well and was perhaps our worst president, that he “was not a bad man. He was just a slob,” which reminds me of Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

To paraphrase Alice Roosevelt Longworth: “Rick Perry may not be a bad man, but he really isn’t a very smart one.”

Perry, the long serving Republican Governor, has been indicted by a grand jury in Austin accused of abusing his power. Imagine that, a Texas governor doing such a thing, but I digress.

Sometime back Perry quite openly tried to force the resignation of a Democratic prosecutor in Austin who has jurisdiction over public corruption cases. The prosecutor made a fool of herself during a drunk driving incident and spent some days in jail. Perhaps seeing an opening to get rid of a pesky prosecutor who was apparently looking into some details of Perry’s 14 years in the governor’s office, the governor demanded that the prosecutor resign. She refused. Pretty standard political behavior, right? But wait a Texas minute and whoa there cowboy!

At this point in our tale, Perry failed to turn off the stupid. In public remarks the governor tied the resignation of the vodka-swilling Democratic prosecutor to the state appropriation for the political corruption unit she commanded. Viola! Intimidation. Retribution. Abuse of power. Stupid. And, of course, there was no resignation, but rather a grand jury.

Most governors, obviously Rick Perry included, can’t resist the “threat” of the veto. It is the ultimate power of the executive. The legislature can vote and vote and vote, but in the end only one vote – the governor’s – stands between a law and a piece of paper headed for the round file. Rick Perry’s real failure as the man-who-would-be-president was more his threat than his action. You’d think a guy who has been governor for all of this century would understand that the action of saying NO – decisive, final, surprising, perhaps even a little mysterious – has way more political impact that the threat of saying NO followed by the anticlimax of action.

Perry was playing hardball when hiding the ball would have been the politically smart and more effective tactic. Nothing inspires political fear in an opponent more than the belief that you might do something really surprising. It’s always a good idea to keep the other guy guessing and asking, “Will that crazy S of a B come out of right field and do something really bizarre?” That, my friends, is the exercise of political power. Don’t threaten. Act. And surprise.

Rick Perry showed up to be booked on the abuse of power charges wearing a swell blue necktie and a slightly off-kilter grin. He rick-perry-300must be calculating that being indicted for abuse of power actually helps him with the GOP-base in places like New Hampshire and Iowa and it will.

Republicans in Congress want to impeach President Obama for abusing his power, but when one of their guys is charged with abusing power – a felony in Texas – it actually helps his positioning for the 2016 nomination. Isn’t American politics great?

I suspect many Democrats would like to be gleeful about the Perry indictment, but most know, as nearly everyone from Human Events to the Washington Post also know, his actions really aren’t criminal. Stupid maybe, but not criminal. As the Post wrote in an editorial: “What everyone should recognize is that this particular kerfuffle fell within the bounds of partisan politics, which, as the saying goes, ain’t beanbag.” By criminalizing stupidity we just worsen the crowding crisis in our jails. Not smart.

Reuters photo

New York Governor Cuomo speaks during a cabinet meeting in AlbanyWhich brings us to Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York where political scandals are about as prevalent historically as coyotes in Texas. If Rick Perry’s stupid threat followed by a veto was politics as usual, then Cuomo’s decision to appoint a high profile commission to investigate New York political corruption and then stonewall the commission’s work at every turn is potentially a whole lot more. The aggressive U.S. Attorney in Manhattan is on the case.

The New York Times, which, by the way, editorially called the Perry indictment silly, recently documented the extent to which Gov. Cuomo and his minions have tried to thwart the ethics commission’s work. This actually has the smell, as does Gov. Chris Christie’s Bridgegate problem across the Hudson River in New Jersey, of a real and lasting scandal.

Cuomo may one day look back on the much ballyhooed and very high profile launch of his ethics commission, complete with promises of transparency and candor, as a moment of gubernatorial hurbis that makes Rick Perry’s Texas stupid look pretty small town along side a New York perp walk.

But back to Warren Harding. When Harding died in 1923 under what are still not completely explained circumstances he was bedeviled by charges of corruption in his administration. Eventually his Secretary of the Interior went to jail and his Attorney General was forced to resign. Shortly before his death Harding complained that in the business of politics it always seems that your friends cause you the greatest amount of grief. It was true in 1923 and true today.

If it turns out that Gov. Perry has a problem it will be because he was trying, with his now criminalized veto, to clean up after his friends in the Texas Cancer Prevention and Research Institute, a favorite Perry cause where grants and such seem to flow steadily to his friends. The zeal of Gov. Cuomo’s staff in micromanaging the New York ethics commission may come close, if not cross the line, to obstruction of justice or witnesses intimidation. The same can be said for Christie’s staff in New Jersey and Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin, whose staff allegedly played fast and lose with the rules against mixing official business with political hijinks.

All these ethically challenged guys have huffed and puffed that all they have done is practice politics as a high art. Nothing criminal about that, they say. No usual suspects to round up in these parts. Still, politics isn’t just about high fast balls thrown at the other guys head. It shouldn’t always be just bluster and fuss wrapped in raw power. At its best politics is both style and substance; skill and sophistication. Be a little subtle while gently sticking in the knife. Bring down the hammer, but wrap it in velvet. Above all don’t channel Nixon and give them cause to call you a crook. And, while you’re at it, don’t get mentioned in the same blog post with Warren G. Harding.

The unpopular Barack Obama has some advice for Perry, Cuomo and the current gang of governors forcing us to mix politics and crime: don’t do stupid stuff. Or, as the always quotable Alice Roosevelt might have said, don’t be a slob.

 

Big George

220px-George_V._HansenI have a string of enduring memories of former Idaho Congressman George V. Hansen that date back nearly 40 years. Hansen died this week in Pocatello at age 83 and to the extent he deserves a place in Idaho and American political history it will be as one of the most controversial politicians the state, maybe the nation, produced in the second half of the 20th Century.

On one memorable occasion years ago I ran into Hansen as he struggled to squeeze his six foot, six inch, nearly 300 pound frame into an undersized Horizon Airlines plane on a particularly hot summer afternoon in Pocatello. He was huffing and puffing, perspiration streaming down his face, but every hair on his slicked down pompadour in place, packing his own luggage, smiling his big grin, off again to slay his dragons.

Hansen, whose spectacularly controversial career as an elected official came to end in 1984, was not long out of jail for failure to file the required federal financial disclosure forms when I encountered him that day in Pocatello. Big George recognized me – I’d interviewed him many times, since publicity good or bad was the jet fuel of his political success – and, of course, he said hello and asked how I was doing. In turn I asked what he was up to and he pointed to the two oversized lawyer-style briefcases that were stuffed with paperback copies of his book assailing the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Hansen was on-the-road again that day selling his books and preaching his never ending gospel about the evils of the IRS.

In his death, as in his life, we will no doubt hear strongly mixed assessments of his career as, ironically, the mayor of an Idaho town (Alameda) that no longer exists, as perhaps the most conservative Congressman in Washington over seven terms spread from the early 1960’s to the early 1980’s, as an unsuccessful three-time U.S. Senate candidate, as a felon who eventually saw his conviction overturned in a cloud of classic Hansen confusion, and later as a private citizen ordered to repay hundred of thousands of dollars to investors he bilked. The one consistent element of his wild career was his determined crusade against the IRS, a crusade conducted by a publicity generating gadfly who regularly neglected to file his own federal tax returns.

Hansen fits squarely into the gallery of Idaho political characters from Sen. Herman Welker to Rep. Bill Sali who largely held political office to fightGeorgeHansen against government, generating big headlines by tilting at windmills as they played fast and loose with political and personal ethics, not to mention the truth. It is not difficult to recall Hansen’s legislative accomplishments since there really weren’t any, but it has always been difficult to keep straight his various brushes through and around the rules most of the rest of us play by.

As news of Hansen’s death spread this week a friend reminded me once again of the spectacular story of Hansen’s failure over many years to file federal tax returns. The blockbuster story was broken by then-Lewiston Morning Tribune reporter Jay Shelledy who, as he wrote years later, had been tipped off by various anonymous sources about the fact the the self-styled congressional critic of the IRS apparently so disliked the agency that he took it upon himself not to file his own tax return. Hansen denounced the story, the newspaper and the IRS and his southern Idaho constituents promptly re-elected him, perhaps because they appreciated the audacity of his denials.

Shelledy, a brilliant reporter who went on to edit newspapers in Moscow and Salt Lake City and teach young journalists at Louisiana State University, revealed the story behind the Hansen tax returns in 1988 after the death of former Idaho state IRS director Cal Wright, who had been one of Jay’s confirming sources. The reporter had promised the sources confidentiality in exchange for information about a story of an elected official flaunting the law. Idaho being Idaho and Hansen being a darling of the right wing the story hardly registered on his political career.

Ironically officials in the Nixon Administration were the first to tumble to Hansen’s lack of tax filing while vetting the out-of-work former Congressman for a position at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1969. Hansen had given up his House seat the year before to challenge then-Sen. Frank Church. Despite Hansen’s best efforts to label Church as soft on Communism, Church won the election handily.

According to Shelledy’s account, Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell, a man who knew something about breaking the law and going to jail, became aware of Hansen’s tax problems early in 1969. Wanting to avoid a political problem for the White House, Mitchell pulled strings. The attorney general, Shelledy wrote, ordered “the FBI and the IRS to let Hansen file back returns, pay what was owed, and forget about any legal action” that might embarrass the administration and, of course, derail Hansen’s federal appointment. Hansen, the great critic of the IRS, quietly flew to Boise and presented himself at the state IRS office on a Saturday, a day when the office was normally closed, to hand over the late  tax returns and a check. He went on to serve several years in a variety of top positions in the Nixon Administration and only years later did the story came to light thanks to Shelledy’s reporting.

It is impossible to escape the irony of a guy who made attacks on the federal tax agency the center point of his long political career, benefiting from the agency bending – or breaking – the rules to cover up his own repeated flaunting of federal law. The story is a lesson about Hansen, of course, but also one more indictment of the rottenness, 40 years after his resignation, at the core of the presidency of Richard Nixon. Years later Hansen was implicated in a massive investment scheme that cost one Idaho couple $300,000. In denying his appeal of a judgment that required him to repay the money, the Idaho Supreme Court said: “Hansen’s argument strangely assumes that he was unaware of his own assets until 2007. Moreover, there is no reason why the judgment would become inequitable simply because the judgment debtor cannot afford to pay it.” That sounds remarkably consistent with so much of Hansen’s tangled and genuinely strange career.

Say this much for Big George: he was a true believer of the Tea Party-type and a buddy of Ron Paul before such politics were fully in vogue. Never in doubt, Hansen styled himself a defender of the little guy against the excesses of Big Government. Google him today and you’ll find Big George lionized as a great defender of the Constitution who went to jail for his beliefs. At the same time, Hansen was a brilliant retail campaigner and as good a politician at working a room as I have ever seen, skills that were at the heart of much of his appeal to voters. Hansen was a rough and tough campaigner who played the race card against Frank Church in 1968, linking Church’s support for civil rights legislation with being soft on crime and Commies. When many Americans felt a growing disenchantment with the nation’s misadventures in Vietnam, Hansen criticized Church’s stand and argued for winning at any cost even if that meant using nuclear weapons. Seldom has a politician been so spectacularly wrong on so many things over such a long period.

Still it was hard not to like him on a personal basis. Hansen was a gregarious, fast talking, glib and even strangely charming salesman of his own brand of political hokum. He remembered names and genuinely seemed to be interested when he inquired about your health and how your kids were doing. Hansen would often introduce his gracious and politically astute wife – Connie Hansen died in 2013 – as the brains in the family and the one who should be in Congress. As Big George delivered that line you could often see heads nodding in agreement.

Reporters loved to interview him because he was good copy and he rarely failed to deliver with his analysis of the latest government outrage or administrative overreach, while skillfully evading every tough questions about his own foibles. When Hansen somehow managed to fly to Teheran in 1979 and literally placed a card table outside the U.S. Embassy in order to negotiate the release of American hostages, the image was unbelievable and irresistible. At the time I was producing a daily public television program in Idaho and, despite what seemed like the outlandish cost involved, my boss authorized a live satellite uplink so we could feature an interview with the Congressman immediately on his return from what, of course, was a failed mission to free the captives. No hostages were released by the intervention of the big, lumbering Congressman from Idaho, but Big George Hansen nevertheless commanded front pages. Like a Huey Long or Lester Maddox of any earlier time, one has to admire the sheer temerity of his career. Even in defeat in 1984, when Richard Stallings and his own ethics finally combined to end his run, Hansen lost by fewer than 200 votes. He had succeeded for a long time in fooling most of the people.

George Hansen’s obituaries mention his self-described identity as “a dragon slayer” of out-of-control federal agencies, and for sure the old Pocatello insurance salesman played his part in crafting his own bigger-than-life political personality. May God rest his soul, sadly the old dragon slayer never bested his own ethical dragons over 40 years in public life and it will be for those incredible shortcomings that he’ll be remembered, that and the fact that even Idaho will have trouble producing another politician so spectacularly over the top as George Hansen.

 

Try to Remember

Richard Nixon, three days after resigning on 9 August 1974I am convinced that Americans have the attention span of a two year old. So, just for the record, this guy is Richard Nixon about whom more in a moment.

Our short attention span is illustrated by how easily and quickly we jump from crisis to crisis, news story to scandal on a daily, hourly, Twitter-influenced schedule. It can be enough to make your head pivot. Today it’s the sad story of Robin Williams or the glamorous life of Lauren Bacall. Day before we armed the Kurds. The day before that it was Ebola, or maybe another rocket attack or, wait, didn’t that Malaysian airliner go down in Ukraine, or was that the Indian Ocean? Let’s impeach Obama for doing too much and then criticize him for not doing enough. An unarmed young black man is shot and killed. Hasn’t that happened before? Did the president speak or is he playing golf? Or did I misremember?

Everything happens at once and everything is portrayed as being just as important as the next thing. CNN has taken to issuing email alerts announcing that it will soon be sending out an email announcing something really big.

Combine this NADD (news attention deficit disorder) with the unbelievable American capacity for historical amnesia and you have a society that lacks perspective and increasingly exhibits little sense of who we are, where we have been or, heaven help us, where we might be headed.

Amid all this noisy clutter anniversaries of two of the most significant events in the second half of the 20th Century slipped by recently with mostly just passing notice. Both events, a 50th anniversary – Congressional approval of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964 and Nixon’s resignation 40 years ago in 1974 – hold profound lessons for two current and persistent American dilemmas: our role in the Middle East and political dissatisfaction at home with a wounded president in his sixth year in the White House.

Rather than a defining moment in American history that caused presidents and members of Congress to forever say: Wait, this might not be what it seems, the incident in the summer of 1964 in the Tonkin Gulf off North Vietnam is mostly forgotten 50 years later. Forgotten by almost everyone, perhaps, but the hundreds of thousands of Americans forever changed by the war that followed. Tonkin_Gulf_Resolution

There is still debate about exactly what happened when U.S. warships on patrol in the Tonkin Gulf allegedly came under attack from North Vietnamese patrol boats. There is no doubt that President Lyndon Johnson, convinced that a domino effect would tumble one Southeast Asian country after another to Communism, seized on the incident and twisted it as necessary to gain Congressional approval – the Tonkin Gulf Resolution – allowing him to ramp up American military involvement in a way that still amounts to one of the most fateful – and wrong-headed – decisions in our history.

In a thoughtful recent Politico piece on the lessons of the 50 year old incident, Zachery Shore argued that one of the great failures of the Tonkin Gulf was U.S. unwillingness to assess and attempt to understand the motives of the Vietnamese. We barged in without knowledge and fled a decade later leaving behind vast amounts of blood and treasure. “Did Americans learn from Tonkin?” Shore asks.

“The lead-up to the most recent war in Iraq had a depressingly reminiscent feel,” he says in answering his own question. “A president seemed intent on invading, presuming to liberate a foreign people that perhaps were not as eager for American liberation as Washington thought. The president failed to fully consider their point of view, just as the public failed to ask how long we would need to stay or how welcome we would be. And in 2002, when George Bush requested a congressional blank check, only 23 Senators and 133 Congressmen voted against the Iraq War Resolution. The great majority in both houses of Congress went along uncritically, only later regretting their insouciance. How many Americans today feel that the war in Iraq warranted the cost in lives and treasure? The question was never whether Saddam was a bad man; it was whether the Iraqi people truly wanted what America hoped to give them. The answer required thinking hard and learning much about the other side.”

Oregon Sen. Wayne Morse with Lyndon Johnson

morseOf course, only two members of the United States Senate – Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska – voted NO on LBJ’s resolution, a Congressional sanction for war, in 1964. Their wisdom stands as a stark reminder that it has become easy ever after for us to go to war and to think that our awesome military might holds a solution to every problem from refugees tragically stranded on an Iraqi mountain top to a raging civil war in Syria. The Gulf of Tonkin also reminds us that an advanced case of American hubris caused another American president to tragically think we could invade a country in the middle of the Middle East, depose a dictator who had ruled with savagery for decades, knit together the tribal and religious factions left behind, and see Jeffersonian democracy flourish amid the death and destruction. Did Americans learn anything from Vietnam’s Tonkin Gulf moment? Sadly, not much, which bring us to Nixon.

Forty years ago this month Richard Nixon flew off to political and personal exile in California barely days before he almost certainly would have faced a broadly bipartisan effort to impeach and convict him for an actual crime, obstruction of justice, related to the Watergate break-in.

Most Americans have forgotten, or never knew, that Nixon gave up the presidency only after a delegation of Republican1406945855000-GoldwaterRhodesNixon wise men, including Barry Goldwater, went to the White House and told their president that the jig was up. The point is obvious. You don’t remove a president, as the tin hat wearing Tea Party crowd wants to do today, without a serious, bipartisan debate and agreement over the alleged “crimes” of the chief executive. Impeaching Obama is a sixth year sideshow ginned up by cable news “analysts” equipped with more hot air than brains and aided and abetted by a political class that doesn’t know its history. (Arizona Republic photo)

The spate of new Nixon books marking the 40th anniversary of his demise should be occasion to reflect on the man, his deeds and misdeeds and once again wonder, as historian David Kennedy has written, how he “was ever allowed to ascend to the presidency in the first place.” Rather we get a new CNN poll showing that, as in all things, Americans are sharply divided about Tricky Dick’s Watergate crimes.

“Fifty-one percent of those questioned” in the CNN survey, “say Watergate was a very serious matter because it revealed corruption in the Nixon administration, with 46% saying it was just politics – the kind of thing both parties engage in. The 51% is unchanged from 14 years ago, when CNN last asked the question.” In other words, our sense of what constitutes acceptable political behavior, and the level of unacceptable behavior that could lead to impeachment, has sunk so low that the real crimes and unbelievable abuses of power that drove Richard Nixon from the White House are, to 46% of Americans 40 years later, just politics as usual.

The same CNN poll shows a substantial generational divide over Nixon and Watergate. Older Americans generally think it was serious stuff, younger people not so much. Both young and old agree that their current government can’t be trusted to do the right thing most of the time. I’d like to know under what rock those 13% who think otherwise have been living.

This has been a summer of big anniversaries, including 70 years since the Allied invasion of Normandy, a monumental event that less than a year later helped precipitate the end of World War II in Europe. While visiting the invasion beaches in June I overhead an American father sketching in the details of the war in Europe for his daughter who appeared to be in her early 20’s. Dad described the significance of the invasion of France in 1944, but also correctly pointed out, as many historians now contend, that it was the fearsome, bloody fighting on the eastern front that ultimately hastened the end of that awful war.

“So we were fighting the Russians?” the daughter said. Her dad explained that, no, we were on the same side with the Russians fighting against Nazi Germany. This lack of even elemental knowledge on the part of many Americans of our fairly recent history is a function of, I fear, a culture that values opinions and sensations more than facts and knowledge.

It would be wrong to read too much into that little overheard story this summer in Normandy, but it doesn’t leave me particularly optimistic when I think about what happens when our short national attention span collides with our historical amnesia. If we don’t understand our history and aren’t able to put our present challenges in some historical context we can’t possibly apply all the valuable lessons of our checked past to help us make our way in today’s very messy world.

The lessons of Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam, Richard Nixon with Watergate, George W. Bush with Iraq apply anew to this our latest summer of discontent. Failing to appreciate the lessons of our own history, or at least debating what those lessons are, ensures that we will have the opportunity to make the same mistakes over and over again.

The Most Interesting Man

Conversations with ConservativesEven before he hired Idaho’s most senior political journalist to run his press operation this week you would have had to say that Idaho Republican Congressman Raul Labrador was the most interesting, unpredictable, and arguably most important political figure in the state.

Putting the former political writer and columnist for the Idaho Statesman on his payroll just adds to Labrador’s fascinating spring and summer. Consider:

He mounted a high profile, but too-little, too-late campaign to become House Majority Leader when Rep. Eric Cantor very unexpectedly lost a primary election in Virginia. That effort might have seemed quixotic, but it also kept the First District Congressman in the middle of the tug of war between the establishment and Tea Party forces in the U.S. House of Representatives. Labrador continues to receive lavish attention from the national media. Among the House’s most conservative Republicans he remains a go-to critic of the president on immigration and House Speaker John Boehner on almost everything. His semi-regular appearances on the Sunday morning talk circuit, especially Meet the Press on NBC, means he gets more national press than the rest of the Idaho delegation combined and, I suspect, as much national political TV time as anyone since Sen. Frank Church investigated the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1970’s.

Labrador endorsed the insurgent gubernatorial candidacy of state Sen. Russ Fulcher who mounted a remarkably strong challenge to incumbent Gov. Butch Otter and then the Congressman presided over the chaotic recent GOP state convention that ended in turmoil, lawsuits and very likely lasting intra-party hard feelings. Still, while navigating the rapids at the center of the Idaho GOP, Labrador seems hard to have missed a beat or stubbed a toe over the last few months.

Little wonder that the most interesting man in Idaho politics again dominated the political news this week with his hiring of Dan Popkey as his press secretary, a move that I suspect surprised nearly everyone who pays attention to such things. Labrador has guaranteed that every move he makes in the near-term will be dissected to determine the level of Popkey influence. It will be great grist for the political gossip mill and will serve to make Popkey’s new boss, well, interesting.

Having made the leap over the line from journalism to politics nearly 30 years ago, I am certain of only one thing: My old friend and occasional adversary, Dan, is in for a thrilling ride. Think about the possible stops: Congressional leadership, a U.S. Senate seat perhaps, the governorship one day. Who knows? Labrador is one of those politicians who is routinely underestimated and yet regularly overachieves and modern politics – think about the guy in the White House – tends to reward a young man in a hurry who has a plan. It helps, as well, not to commit the cardinal sin of politics – being dull. Raul Labrador isn’t.

The other thing the Popkey hire illustrates, sadly, is the continuing and steady demise of real political journalism, and not just in Idaho. Dan’s reporting – along with the excellent work of the Spokesman-Review’s Betsy Russell – has long been required reading for anyone in the state who cares about politics and public policy. The kind of perspective, experience and knowledge of the political players that a reporter develops over 30 years can’t easily be replaced. Here’s hoping the effort continues to be made, but the trend lines are hardly encouraging.

Popkey likely reached the zenith of his reach as a columnist several years ago when the Statesman featured his work several times a week and often on the front page. His major investigative pieces on the University of Idaho’s mostly botched real estate development in Boise and on Sen. Larry Craig – that work put his newspaper in Pulitzer contention – haven’t for the most part been matched since. Coverage of the Idaho Legislature has declined dramatically, and not just on the part of the Boise media, in the last fifteen years and real critical and insightful coverage of the Idaho delegation in Washington, with the regular exception of opinion pages in Lewiston and Idaho Falls, is virtually non-existent.

Politicians from Barack Obama to Sarah Palin have found they can override the media filter by creating their own content and then by targeting that material to specific audiences. This is the new normal in politics and the media and it increasingly narrows the space for reporters like Popkey and for news organizations in general. Rep. Labrador said in the news release announcing the hiring of his new press secretary that he had “learned that one has to have an exceptional communications strategy to effectively represent Idaho in Congress. I know that Dan will help me better communicate my message to constituents and the media.”

I would fully expect Popkey will do just that, leaving us to reflect on the irony of a politician improving the communication of his own message, while further hastening the demise of old style political reporting.

 

 

The French Way

home1_0Last in a series from Europe…

[Paris] – The chance to spend a few weeks in France this summer provided both the time and the detachment to reflect – on politics, the U.S. relationship with, as Donald Rumsfeld might say, “old Europe,” history, art and, of course, food and the enjoyment of a good lunch or a fine dinner. The richly appointed bistrot Benoit on the Rue Saint Martin in the heart of Paris – the photo is of the main dining room – is one of my favorites.

My conclusion after happily eating and drinking my way across Paris: the French way of dining in a nice restaurant is superior in most ways to the same type of experience in the United States and there are at least six reasons for my belief and they have nothing to do with the quality of the food, which is almost universally great.

1) The noise level in a French restaurant rarely, if ever, leaves your head throbbing. Typically the tables in a French restaurant are very close together, even uncomfortably close by U.S. standards, but the conversation at the adjourning table hardly ever leaves that table. For some time the New York Times has been noting in its restaurant reviews the “noise level” of New York establishments. I cringe when I read one that says “obnoxious” or “deafening.” Admittedly, I’m getting older and don’t tolerate all that background noise as well as I once did, but frankly it’s never a problem in a French restaurant. Among other things, in France you’ll seldom hear the obligatory background music soundtrack that is a feature of many U.S. restaurants. As a consequence the noise level is restrained, civilized and accommodating of a conversation with your meal. No shouting is necessary. I like that.

2) I also like the fact that a French waiter or waitress doesn’t consider a total stranger a long lost friend of the family. You’ll never hear in Paris – “Hi, I’m Phillippe and I’ll be your waiter…” Rather you’re treated as a customer. The approach is friendly, accommodating, professional, but with no hint of phoney intimacy. The table top chit-chat with a waiter, unless you want to engage, is limited to offering a menu, taking a drink and food order and then leaving you alone. I flinch at the U.S. restaurant tradition that now seems to demand that the waitress immediately ask “how is your dinner?” I frequently have to swallow my first bite before I can answer. I increasingly find myself wanting to say: “Give me a couple of minutes to taste everything and I’ll let you know.” The French wait staff will return and ask if everything is to your liking, but they’ll do so only after you’ve had a decent interval to sample and consider. They then disappear and let you eat and talk. I like that.

3) Wine is a big part of a nice dinner for many people these days in the United States and also in France. Two things the French do with wine is superior in my considered opinion to the American approach. I have watched uncomfortably many, many times in a nice U.S. establishment as a waitress removes the foil from a wine bottle and then attempts to cork screw open the bottle while holding the darn thing suspended in mid air. I want to say: “Sit the bottle down on the table and remove the cork like you would at home.” When did it become illegal to sit a wine bottle on the table and use the natural leverage that provides to extract the cork? It’s not illegal in France. A French waiter will also leave you to pour the wine for your table after the first glass. I like that. In the U.S. too many waiters seem to hover and refill your glass after every sip. Maybe the theory is to get you to race through the bottle and order another, but after observing the French method I’m going to start asserting myself and telling U.S. waiters – nicely – to let me pour. That way I control the pace and the waiter can have more time to go ask someone else if “everything is fine” with their meal.

4) It’s my observation that most men eat a meal more quickly than women. In a U.S. restaurant this frequently has the waiter saying to the men, “still working on that?” Actually, no I’m not, but keep your mitts off the plate. It would be more polite, not to mention that it might slow down the generally over-fast pace of male eating, if all the plates stayed on the table until the last – and slowest – eater is finished. That’s the way they do it in France and I like it.

5) In a French restaurant you always – always – need to ask for the bill. The waiter will simply not produce the accounting of financial damages until you are ready to pay. This, too, is a good practice. I choose to believe that the gesture of asking for the bill – L’addition s’il vous plait? – is an acknowledgement by the waiter and the restaurant that you can have all day and half the night if you want to enjoy the meal experience. You’ll be asked whether you want a dessert or a coffee, but even if the answer is “no” you’ll still be in charge of exactly when you want to leave the French restaurant. During a long lunch at another great Paris bistrot we enjoyed watching two elderly gents, good friends obviously, talk and laugh and eat and drink their way through a very long lunch. The waiter never lurked nearby, but was always there when something was needed. The two old guys, slapping each other on the back, eventually left, but not before pausing near the door to bid adieu to their waiter and the guy in the dark suit who is a fixture in many French restaurants. I don’t know what these dark suit fellows really do, but they certainly smile a great deal and generally make you feel welcome and well taken care of. The old guys had a grand time at lunch and they left when they were ready. No one even subtly suggested it was time for them to head for the door. It’s even considered rude to present the bill before you ask for the bill.

6) Finally, there is the tipping, or lack thereof. Generally speaking there is no tipping in France. The cost of service is built into the bill. There is no need for the mental math required in a U.S. restaurant to calculate 15 or 20 percent of the total check and then add it on as a tip. Waiters are paid a salary in France, unlike many in the U.S. who depend on a share of tips to contribute to their total compensation. If you receive particularly good service a modest tip won’t be rejected, but it’s not expected. The expectation is that you’ll get attentive, professional service – and I almost unfailing did – and that the service goes with the meal. Another reason to like the French system.

French politics are messy and about as dysfunctional as our own. The country has deep and profound issues relating to immigration and minorities. Antisemitism remains an ugly feature of the far right in French politics. I doubt whether French worker productivity would compare well with ours. France has it’s problems, as we do. But when it comes to the restaurant experience the French have that down cold.

Hold on there – I’ll pour the wine and, no, you can’t have my plate just yet.