A Warm Bucket of…

I’ve spent a good part of my life in politics accumulating a collection of one-liners and memorable stories uttered by politicians. My collection isn’t built on just any old one-liner or story, of course, but rather the type of memorable phrase that escape the lips and immediately begins haunting the speaker. You know the kind.

Remember Bill Clinton’s infamous line when questioned about his dalliances with Monica Lewinsky – “It depends on what the definition of the word ‘is’ is.” That line will be in Bubba’s obit – guaranteed.

Mules-skinner Moses

Mules-skinner Moses

Back in 1929, the U.S. Senate was debating a trade bill (history does repeat) and a feisty, outspoken senator from New Hampshire uttered one of the great lines in American political history. Republican George Moses, a spokesman for eastern business interests and the Senate president pro tem, had become increasingly upset with the western “progressives” in both political parties who consistently opposed conservative economic policy, including what became the infamous Smoot-Hawley tariff legislation. In a speech to a group of manufacturing executives Moses, who was known for his quick wit, thought he was getting off a funny line at the expense of the progressives when he said, “the sons of the wild jackass now control the Senate.”

Progressive Republicans like Idaho’s William Borah and Nebraska’s George Norris didn’t get the humor and with Moses presiding in the Senate and therefore unable to respond, they slashed away at the conservative Republican. Moses was accused of insulting certain senator’s mothers. He was blasted as a shill for big business. One wag nicknamed the senator “Mule-skinner Moses.” Moses lost re-election in 1932 in no small part because of his “jackass” line. A popular political book in the early 1930’s took its title from Moses’ effort at a put down of the progressives and it is still a fun read.

Sen. William E. Borah

Sen. William E. Borah

Borah isn’t much remembered any more, but the Idaho senator had a sense of humor. Calvin Coolidge once invited him to the White House to gauge whether Borah might accept nomination as vice president. Coolidge reportedly asked Borah if he were interested in a spot on the Republican ticket. “Which spot, Mr. President,” Borah replied. He stayed in the Senate.

Not all one-liners are disasters by any means. Some of the best lines are those that employ self-deprecating humor. Ronald Reagan mastered the difficult political art of using the one-liner to poke fun at himself and in the process defuse some of his own vulnerabilities. Reagan once quipped that he’d left strict orders to be rousted from sleep if there was ever any international crisis, “even if its during a Cabinet meeting.” Priceless line.

John Nance Garner, a crusty Texan who served as speaker of the house and was vice president during Franklin Roosevelt’s first two terms, is mostly remembered for comparing the vice presidency to “a warm bucket of spit.” The word Cactus Jack actually used was not “spit,” but something even less attractive – piss.

Jack Garner and FDR discuss a warm bucket of something...

Jack Garner and FDR discuss a warm bucket of something…

Garner’s earthy comment about the vice presidency, probably first made in the 1930’s, has now entered political lore, but apparently the line was rarely quoted prior to Garner’s death in the 1960’s. The “warm” whatever was considered a little too colorful until more recent times.

Speaking of which, Lyndon Johnson famously said it was impossible for him to fire FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and that he would keep Hoover “inside the tent pissing out rather than outside pissing in.” LBJ, who disparaged nearly everyone, reportedly said of his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, that “All that Hubert needs over there is a gal to answer the phone and a pencil with an eraser on it.”

Bob Dole, another great political wit, said as he gazed on presidents Carter, Ford and Nixon standing together at a White House event: “There they are. See no evil, hear no evil, and…evil.”

John McCain a while back called fellow Republican Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul “wacko birds,” a not bad variation on “a wild jackass.” Still I wish McCain would have channeled George Moses and at least called the insufferable Cruz “a son of a wacko bird.”

Dick Cheney get mad at Senator Patrick Leahy some years ago and dropped the “f-bomb” on the Vermont Democrat – on the Senate floor not less – telling Leahy he “could go f-himself.” Leahy responded by saying Cheney was “having a bad day” and the senator added he was shocked – shocked – that such language was used in the Senate. First time Leahy heard that term, I guess. A Cheney spokesman said the two pols had “a frank exchange of views,” which is political speak for they hate each.

Huey Long doing what he did best - talking

Huey Long doing what he did best – talking

Huey Long, the one-time governor and senator from Louisiana, displayed contempt for both national political parties in the early 1930’s. Long once said the Republicans and Democrats reminded him of the old patent medicine seller who had two different bottles of elixir for sale. Each medicine was good, but different. One was named “High Popalorum” and the other “Low Popahirum.” One bottle came from the bark of a tree skinned from the top down and the other from bark skinned from the roots up. And that, Long said, was the difference between the two parties – one was skinning from the ear down and the other from the ankle up.

On another occasion Long said, “They’ve got a set of Republican waiters on one side and a set of Democratic waiters on the other side, but no matter which set of waiters brings you the dish, the legislative grub is all prepared in the same Wall Street kitchen.” Sounds like something Elizabeth Warren might say, but I’m not sure she has a sense of humor.

Humor is a great leveler in politics, but the storyteller needs to be careful lest the line that seems perfectly fine before it leaves your mouth lands like a cannonball.

Sen. Mark Kirk before his foot reached his mouth. REUTERS/Jeff Haynes

Sen. Mark Kirk before his foot reached his mouth. REUTERS/Jeff Haynes

The very latest addition to my collection of one-liners comes from freshman Republican Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois, a politician facing a stiff challenge to his re-election. Kirk was asked about fellow Senator Lindsey Graham, a never married bachelor, who is now running for president. Graham said he’d figure out the first lady role, assuming he has the chance, by calling upon his sister and a stable of friends, a kind of rotating list of first ladies.

Kirk, trying to be funny, told an interviewer: “I’ve been joking with Lindsey…did you see that? He’s going to have a rotating first lady. He’s a bro with no ho.” Kirk helpfully added, “that what we’d say” on the predominately African-American south side of Chicago.

Rick Perry’s “oops” quote seems appropriate. Kirk apologized and Democrats pounced bringing to mind one of the great political observations uttered about politicians by a non-politician.

“Reader, suppose you were an idiot,” Mark Twain wrote. “And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”

 

Death Leaves a Heartache…

Any death, it is said, diminishes all of us and we instinctively know the wisdom of that truth even if we rarely acknowledge the diminishment. Whether it’s a refugee fleeing the madness in Syria or a homeless person under a bridge death is the great equalizer and the one absolute all of us share.

Great wealth or rarified position might set you apart in life from those without either, but we all end up in the same place.

Death is news. A typhoon, a shooting or a capsized boat in some far away place catches our attention, perhaps for only a moment, and we pause to think of those touched by the mortality we all share and then, as we must, we carry on with life.

John Nash - the brilliant mind

John Nash – the brilliant mind

Occasionally the reality, the sadness, the finality and yes, even the hope of the great equalizer touches us more profoundly, more personally. We lose a friend or a friend loses a parent. Someone we admire – a John Nash, the Nobel winning mathematician – or someone worthy of our contempt – a Tariq Aziz, the cynical apologist for Saddam – dies and we mark the passing.

The passing of Vice President Joe Biden’s son Beau last week was such a moment for me even though I know those involved only from long distance and by observation.

Beau and Joe Biden

Beau and Joe Biden

Young Biden just forty-six years old, died of brain cancer leaving a wife and two small children. He’d been attorney general of Delaware and served an Army tour in Iraq. By every account he was a truly exemplary young man. The outpouring of condolences and support for the Biden family was of such a magnitude that in their home state, the family published a full-page thank you in the state’s largest newspaper. The gesture was so classy, personal and obviously heartfelt that it will make you cry.

Joe Biden has often become and not always unfairly, a political punch line, an old school pol that works a room by slapping backs, kissing babies and occasionally tripping over his nearly always moving tongue. He has the gift of gab and unlike so many people who have spent their lives in full public view, Biden seems to relish being where he is. It was painful, moving and somehow also profoundly uplifting to watch the grieving and sorrow of such a public man done in such an obviously authentic and personal way. Biden has had more than his share of the sorrow of unbearable parental loss.

Joe Biden, 1972

Joe Biden, 1972

When Biden, the ridiculously young senator from Delaware, was sworn in back in 1973 he took the oath at the bedside of his son Beau who was still recovering from the injuries he sustained in the automobile accident that killed Biden’s first wife and infant daughter. One photo from that day shows four-year-old Beau with his left leg in traction and his single parent dad hovering nearby. Biden wrote to one correspondent that he doubted he would ever get over the loss or understand why it had happened. Now he must endure it all again.

Biden and Obama at Beau Biden's funeral

Biden and Obama at Beau Biden’s funeral

In his moving and plainspoken eulogy for Beau Biden last Saturday, President Obama said this: “We do not know how long we’ve got here. We don’t know when fate will intervene. We cannot discern God’s plan. What we do know is that with every minute that we’ve got, we can live our lives in a way that takes nothing for granted. We can love deeply. We can help people who need help. We can teach our children what matters, and pass on empathy and compassion and selflessness. We can teach them to have broad shoulders.”

How awful to lose a child and Joe Biden has lost two.

A remarkable informal talk the vice president gave to families who have lost loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan went largely unnoticed back in 2012, but to listen to the speech now in the context of more unthinkable loss for Biden is, well, stunning. Only the hardest heart would not be moved and impressed by his understanding and empathy.

“No parent should be pre-deceased by their son or daughter,” Biden told the military families as he recounted his own Catholic struggle to overcome being “mad at God.” Biden said the loss of his wife and daughter made him understand how someone confronted with such loss and grief could contemplate suicide.

“Not because they were deranged, not because they were nuts,” Biden said, but “because they’d been to the top of the mountain, and they just knew in their heart they’d never get there again, that it was never going to get – never going to be that way ever again.”

Writing recently in The New Yorker Evan Osnos observed, “In a town [Washington] where ‘family’ is often brandished as a political prop, the Bidens have never attracted a cynical reading. In their tragedy, their striving, their survival and their improbable optimism, the Bidens are a deeply American family—a clan that, even as it edged into privilege, has never looked out of reach or out of touch.”

Such loss as Joe Biden has sustained, one suspects, never goes away. It is amazing when we take time to stop and think about it that the resilience of the human spirit allows us, somehow, in the face of such tragedy to struggle on. That kind of human spirit was evident with the Bidens over the last week.

Joe Biden, the gabbing politician with the flair for saying things that get him in trouble, will never be a laugh line for me again. In a business that so often and so completely lacks “authenticity,” the guy has proven at his most vulnerable moments that he is the real deal. His loss is ours. He’s a dad hurting as only a father (or mother) can. His grace and candor in handling the worst kind of loss a parent can imagine, let alone experience, is not just ennobling, it is a testament to how good people carry on when unthinkable things happen to them.

As the old Irish prayer says:

Death leaves a heartache

no one can heal;

Love leaves a memory no

one can steal.

I’m praying for those Bidens.

 

Inevitable? Not so fast…

Nothing – nothing – is inevitable in politics. Let’s make that the first and last rule as we enter the long, grim slog to a national election in seventeen – oh my goodness, seventeen months.

A horse race, but not THE horse race.

A horse race, but not THE horse race.

The horse race oriented national political media absolutely loves the kind of campaign that is unfolding – mostly lacking in substance and long on measuring political furlongs. You might think the Belmont is the big race, but Iowa is the focus of the real horse race. And on they come down the straightaway. Lindsey Graham. Seriously? Lincoln Chafee? Give me a break. He’s too unknown to be a dark horse. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal couldn’t get elected to the Baton Rouge City Council right now, but he’s saddling up. Martin O’Malley sounds like an entry in the Irish Stakes, but he’s really in the Cedar Rapids sprint.

The Great Race…

Hillary-the-inevitable. Jeb-the-heir-apparent, assuming he actually announces. What else will he do with all that money which he has arguably illegally been gathering in with both hands, while maintaining the necessary fiction that he’s still deciding whether to become a candidate? What is Bush deciding actually? Whether the Iraq war was a bad idea? Whether next summer in Maine is better than next summer in, well, Nevada?

Can a divisive Midwestern governor without a college degree contend? Who wins South Carolina? Is Bernie a loony or just a socialist? What about Rick Perry? Yeah, what about him? His announcement of candidacy comes with stories about his indictment in Texas. The comment the former Texas governor made in 2012 when he couldn’t remember one of the federal agencies he proposed eliminating seems strangely appropriate to his second call to the post. “Oops,” he said. Who is to disagree?

With half dozen – or two dozen – Republican candidates likely to enter the race in the next two months, we’re in for much more of this kind of political discussion. God help the country and us. We get the politics and politicians we pay for, I guess.

The horse race is all about who is up and who is down, who is raising money or not and who “connects” with voters at a pancake breakfast in Davenport, Iowa. Gaffes, another word for stupid comments or even occasionally uncharacteristic candor bordering on truth, get lots of coverage during this season. The horse race is all about who looks best prancing around the paddock. The best horses don’t have to say much, just look good “trying out themes” or “courting big donors.” Heaven forbid that one of these show horses actually displays some gumption, as in staking out a position.

George Pataki at a Chipotle in Manchester, NH

George Pataki at a Chipotle in Manchester, NH

If you are a horse who has been out to pasture for a long time say, for example, former New York Governor George Pataki, you only show up in the daily racing form by doing something out of the ordinary. Simply booking a Southwest Airlines flight to Manchester, New Hampshire does not qualify. The conservative writer Jonah Goldberg says Pataki is “like an order of bad clams, he keeps coming back up on me.” Book that Southwest ticket, George.

What is for Sure…

Very few things seem certain at this point in the horse race, but let’s focus on what is more-or-less obvious.

Ironically, it was Barack Obama in 2008 who identified a major problem that will likely confound Hillary Clinton on her long march (maybe) back to the White House. While debating during that long ago campaign, Clinton was asked – a silly question, but the kind we have come to expect – to comment on the fact that Obama seemed to be better liked by voters than she was. Hillary looked hurt by the suggestion and Obama set tongues waging when he remarked in response that Hillary was “likeable enough.”

Obama’s comment was widely seen as one of those “gaffes,” a comment that showed him to be peevish and less than gracious to his female opponent. Trouble was, Obama got it right. His was a gaffe of candid truth. Clinton is not particularly likeable. When her negative likability quotient combines with growing public concern about her trustworthiness, not to mention whether Clinton identifies with “people like me” and whether she inspires confidence, you get to the heart of what I suspect will be the lingering cloud hanging over the inevitable fading of the former secretary of state.

Hillary Rodham Clinton meets with locals at the Jones St. Java House, LeClaire, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Hillary Rodham Clinton meets with locals at the Jones St. Java House, LeClaire, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Perhaps the strategists around Clinton have decided to keep in reserve any talk of the specific issues and concerns that drive her to again seek the presidency. So far she has said almost nothing of substance, while happily snapping selfies in Iowa coffee shops. Perhaps the Clinton brain trust has calculated that they will eventually need to pivot to real issues, say Syria or Wall Street regulation, when the candidate inevitably needs to change the subject from the next revelation about her finances, her emails or her husband. It is certain at this point that she is basing her campaign on – here is that word again – her “inevitability” and her gender. After all, that worked so well for her in 2008. Meanwhile we wait for evidence that Clinton has learned anything from her previous run.

Watching the Clinton campaign unfold one gets the impression that they make it up every day. Her campaign reminds me of Gertrude Stein’s famous quip about Oakland: “There is no there there.” What drives Clinton to run? Why the reluctance to spell out a real and specific agenda? The cynic might think, even after all these years in public life, that she hasn’t figured it out, or perhaps she really thinks “inevitability” and gender are enough. I long for a reporter to ask her, oh that’s right she doesn’t talk to reporters. Therefore, I long for her to give us three reasons why she wants and deserves to be president. I know, Christmas is coming, too.

Bernie: The Long Shot…

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders

Little wonder then that self-proclaimed democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator elected as an independent, is drawing large crowds and sizeable online contributions even as many of the chattering class dismiss him as a hopeless long shot. Of course Sanders is a long shot. Being defined as “a socialist” has never been a resume line that gets anyone even close to the White House.

Still Bernie has something Hillary doesn’t – convictions, which also explains why people are showing up in Iowa and New Hampshire to hear him talk about the disappearing middle class, the need to break up the big banks and do a better job providing health care for people in the world’s biggest economy. The Nation has a fascinating piece on Sanders’ tenure as the small town mayor of Burlington, Vermont. He originally won that job by ten votes and then, based on his hard work to build and maintain affordable housing and deal with other real-life concerns in an American city, the good citizens of Burlington elected him again and again. Sanders later won a House seat and then Vermont elected a practical, progressive to the Senate. Go figure.

While politicians pander to the American sentiment of “supporting the troops,” Bernie actually used his perch as chairman of the Senate’s Veterans Affairs Committee to do something for servicemen and women other than talk about them. One-on-one with Clinton he’ll make her squirm and the Clinton inevitability may not seem such a sure thing. Bernie Sanders won’t win the Democratic nomination, but he might help ensure that Hillary Clinton doesn’t either. Imagine Sanders running a strong second in Iowa and then eking out a win in New Hampshire (next door to his home base in Vermont). The Eugene McCarthy comparisons are already beginning.

The Clinton campaign, vacuous and “inevitable,” is a fully inflated balloon. The smallest pinprick could deflate the whole thing faster than you can say “my home computer server.” Democrats, at least in modern times, have never had a frontrunner more dominant or more vulnerable. “House of Cards” is more than a television series about politics and Washington; it may well describe the Democratic Party when “inevitable” gives way to “what do we do now?”

Making the Case for Any of Six or Eight Republicans…

Republicans have a different problem with their steadily expanding field of candidates. They may never get consensus about who to push forward next year or perhaps even worse they nominate a candidate so beholden to the Tea Party wing of the GOP that he (probably not Carla Fiorina) can’t possibly win a general election. Historically there has never been such a large Republican field or a field that lacked an obvious worthy, a candidate like John McCain or Mitt Romney, who can win in large part because they were just the next in line and have paid their dues. At this point you can make a case for any of six or eight candidates.

2015TaftA-1x33Comparisons are being made to 1952 when the politically untested Dwight Eisenhower captured the Republican nomination and the White House, but Eisenhower had a much greater national reputation at that time than any contender does today and Ike did help win a very big war. Needless to say there is no Eisenhower in the Republican field, no one with his stature, seriousness and bipartisan appeal.

While we’re making 1952 comparisons, let’s say that Clinton is no Adali Stevenson, a serious, principled man with a genuine of sense of himself, as well as a sense of humor. Stevenson lost to the five star general twice, but did credit to himself in the process. Oh, for such a choice next year.

Republicans, meanwhile, are positioning in the horse race by shedding positions faster than Bill Clinton is raking in speaking fees. Chris Christie was for the Common Core before he decided it wouldn’t play in rightwing primaries. Jeb and Marco Rubio once made the near-fatal GOP primary mistake of saying that the Republican Party ought to embrace immigration reform, but they jettisoned those positions just as quickly as they got rid of their autographed Denny Hastert photos.

This much also seems clear: Both parties are looking for a candidate with convictions and something approaching authenticity. Bernie Sanders is getting attention right now because, the radical label notwithstanding, what you see is what you get. Rand Paul on the Republican side has some of the same qualities. But, Paul the libertarian has the same problem as Sanders the socialist. Neither can be elected with their uncomfortable labels attached. This dilemma leads to the great political question of our time: can you appear to be authentic, while trimming what you really believe?

While nothing is inevitable in politics and all campaigns come down to a less-than-perfect choice between two flawed candidates, I’m pretty sure that when we arrive at November 2016, the candidate seen as the most likeable, authentic, trustworthy, honest and most sure of their positions will be the next president of the United States. We may have not seen them yet or, even worse, we may not see them at all.

Fasten your seat belts, we’re in for a bumpy ride.

 

God Save the Queen…

There is an old joke well known to owners of British automobiles of a certain age. It goes something like this: Question – Why have the Brits never developed an industry based on manufacturing a personal computer? Answer – They couldn’t figure out how to make the PC’s leak oil.

It’s still funny even as I look at the oil spot in the garage.

I once had a British car collection, which is another way of saying I had two British cars. You can’t have a collection with just one. I have, not unlike Picasso dispersing his masterpieces, downsized the “collection” to a single automobile, if you can call a 55-year-old Triumph TR 3 an “automobile.”

Volvo makes automobiles. So does Mercedes, or Chrysler. The Brits make cars.

The 1960 TR3

The 1960 TR3

Quirky and Lovable…

The TR3 is one of the most iconic cars ever made and one of the quirkiest. It has no windows but rather something called a “side curtain.” For a car produced in a country where it rains about 364 days a year, a side curtain is about as useful as a gag order on Senator Ted Cruz. With the side curtains fully deployed you may just get completely soaked in a rainstorm rather than drowned. The side curtain is not a practical answer to moisture in any form.

The car is a two-seater. Really. There is a little shelf behind the two seats that might be comfortable for a Barbie Doll or a small dog, but not for anyone taller than one of those Munchkins from Oz. The rearview mirror on a TR is mounted on the dash at a level that requires the driver to duck and cover to see that eighteen-wheeler bearing down just behind the gas tank. There is a knob on the dash panel to regulate the heater, but it works about as well as the windscreen wipers. The wipers, about eight inches long, are less effective than taking your index finger and flicking it back and forth on the windscreen. You might think a country that is predominately wet and cold would get the wipers and heater thing worked out, but if you believe that you just don’t appreciate the charm of the British automobile, er, car.

Lucas: The Prince of Darkness

Lucas: The Prince of Darkness

Much has been written about the electronics in British cars of a certain vintage. A company named Lucas did the wiring harness, the gauges, etc. Lucas is known among we owners as “the Prince of Darkness.” There is actually a website devoted to jokes about the Lucas “Prince of Darkness” problem. One of my favorites: “Alexander Graham Bell invented the Telephone. Thomas Edison invented the Light Bulb. Joseph Lucas invented the Short Circuit.”

A certain person I adore asked me recently what it was like to drive a car with “basically no electronics?” I declined to answer beyond saying that the TR has a gas gauge (mostly accurate, I think), a heat gauge (accurate), an oil pressure gauge (accurate) and an amp meter that must work because the battery stays charged. Oh, yes, there is a speedo that registers about ten miles per hour faster than the car is actually moving (probably a good thing) and a tach that seems to be reliable. Any or all could fail in the next few minutes.

Ah, that smell…

British cars of a certain age also have a definite aroma. They smell to me like equal parts oil, gasoline, age and burning $100 bills. When I had two British cars I had a mechanic on retainer. A gambling addiction might have been cheaper.

All the quirkiness aside, the TR is a conversation starter. Young males, cute girls and older guys – think PBR or Bud drinkers – tend to “get” the Triumph. They are smart enough to appreciate the craziness involved with owning a car without windows, that smells constantly of oil and that has the most unreliable electronics this side of Apollo 13.

Megan's Austin Healey

Megan’s Austin Healey

No one is likely to confuse a TR with a great car like, say, a Jaguar XK-150 or the sexy Austin Healy roadster slinky Megan was driving when she picked up Don Draper at the LA Airport in Mad Men. Draper was a Cadillac Coupe de Ville-type guy. Probably wouldn’t be caught dead in a workman-like sports car like a TR. Not many frills, these cars, just top down and a tight gearbox. The smiles and thumbs up you get while driving one are pleasant extras.

BMW now owns the Triumph “mark,” as they say and there have been rumors of the car making a return; rumors denied by BMW. Would that be a triumphant return if it were to happen? Maybe it’s the nostalgia or the quirks or that I’m a sucker for most everything British, but should there ever be a revival, I’ll still like the old smelly TR3 best. There was a long series of TR’s – all the way up to a TR7, but the old 3’s remain the classics. (The TR6 would be next best in my view.) After the TR3, the company went into a long, slow decline and produced some truly hideous cars before going out of business in 1981.

The Triumph Wikipedia page says it well: “It is alleged that many Triumphs of this era were unreliable, especially the 2.5 PI (petrol injection) with its fuel injection problems. In Australia, the summer heat caused petrol in the electric fuel pump to vaporize, resulting in frequent malfunctions.” Maybe that is what you deserve when you take a British car to a hot summer climate.

My own ‘special relationship’…

My TR3 nameplate - well worn

My TR3 nameplate – well worn

The nameplate mounted on the firewall says the car was built in Coventry, while Harold MacMillan was prime minister. How British. That combination confirms my own “special relationship” to the TR3 and to Britain.

Coventry, an industrial and manufacturing city north and west of London, got some of the worst of The Blitz in World War II. MacMillan, a conservative and contemporary of Churchill’s, was a great friend of the young liberal American President John Kennedy. Mostly forgotten in the United States sadly, MacMillan was brave, funny and politically talented. Wounded five times in the Great War, MacMillan nearly died in a plane crash in North Africa in the second, while serving as the top British official there. Unlike so many politicians today, MacMillan was also blessed with a marvelous sense of humor, once saying, “I have never found, in a long experience in politics, that criticism is ever inhibited by ignorance.”

British PM Harold MacMillan

British PM Harold MacMillan

There is no record of MacMillan’s views on cars like mine, but he might have had a TR3 and its owner in mind when he observed: “It has been said that there is no fool like an old fool, except a young fool. But the young fool has first to grow up to be an old fool to realize what a damn fool he was when he was a young fool.” How can you not love the Brits? Do you think he was talking about fanatics for cars from his homeland?

The TR’s boot – trunk to you colonials – is tidy, but will hold a weekend bag and you can (maybe) poke the golf clubs in behind the front seats. Your passenger will probably want to hold the picnic basket on her lap or risk the chicken salad tasting like high-test petrol. If it rains, just fasten on the tonneau cover (it won’t fit very well) and wait it out in a pub. Strangers will approach you with stories about how they “once had a car just like that. Damn, I wish I hadn’t gotten rid of it.”

Who needs windows or efficient windscreen wipers anyway and the oil spots on the garage floor seem a small price to pay for a love affair. God Save the Queen.

 

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.