Roman Holiday

Audrey_Hepburn_and_Gregory_Peck_on_Vespa_in_Roman_Holiday_trailerThis is the first of a series…

In the trailer for the enduringly sweet 1953 William Wilder film Roman Holiday there is an aerial view of the vast expanse of St. Peter’s Square. It’s nearly empty. As I look at the film after a mid-afternoon visit to the Vatican, I have to wonder what Italian politician – or papal functionary – Wilder had to bribe to get a nearly empty St. Peter’s Square for his film. It is never empty, not even nearly so.

And how did Wilder stage those scenes of Gregory Peck and Andrey Hepburn on a motor scooter, but not surrounded by all the traffic that is a constant – and I mean constant – fixture of the Eternal City? More bribes one suspects.

On no level does Rome work as a modern 21st Century city. The streets were made for Roman chariots. It’s mind-numbingly congested. It’s dirty and noisy. There are smells both modern and ancient. A crew is digging up a street covered in cobblestones and you just know there must be a few bodies of early Christian martyrs down there someplace. There must also certainly be traffic laws, but they are ignored willy-nilly. A good deal of the congestion comes from the wanton double parking that occurs on all but the busiest streets. Cars half way up on the curb, scooters scooting in and out of three (sort of) lanes of traffic, delivery vans delivering, a bicycle here and a city bus there. It’s general albeit remarkably controlled chaos. It’s Rome. It’s old and kind of broken down and, of course, it’s just about perfect.

The lines were long to get inside St. Peter’s on Thursday, but they moved quickly and with something approaching Italian efficiency and before long everyone from everywhere was inside the cool and dark great church. It was a relatively brief 20 minutes or so in line, a line that looked when we entered it might get us inside in time for Midnight Mass at Christmas. The magnificent basilica is certainly a special place for Roman Catholics, but judging by the multi-ethnic make-up of the line and the Tower of Babel mix of languages spoken around us, the place has special significant far beyond its role as the heart of the Catholic world. I’m thinking some of that has to do with Pope Francis, the new and bright face of world Catholicism. The chairs were spread out on Thursday all across the huge square in anticipation of a papal appearance on Friday – first Friday.

On every level as a place of history, culture, the glory and contradiction of religious faith, fashion, romance and what constitutes the essence of a great city Rome works just fine thank you very much.

The waiter at dinner – he recommended the tagliatelle with ultra-fresh vegetables and a shrimp straight from the sea, and he was right – is contemplating a job in Santa Barbara, but he is worried about the cost of living in southern California. Wait, I wonder, what about the cost of living in Rome? Not so bad he says. A small, but nice one bedroom apartment in a fashionable area of Rome may set you back a thousand Euros a month, but Santa Barbara may be another and higher matter. Still, an experienced waiter with a charming flare for conversation, a fine command of English, and knowledge of the Barbara d’Alba on the wine list can make a good deal more plying his skills in the United States. He’s worked in Boston and Maine in the past and patted his hip pocket as he smiled and noted his long hours and “where is the money” question at the end of the month. I left thinking I’d find an excuse to go to Santa Barbara if he ends up recommending pasta in southern California.

The Italians recently admitted they’re not ready for the World Cup, which must be a the same plain with the Yankees admitting they’re not ready for the World Series. The Italian football manager conceded that his team lacks “flair” as they have lost seven straight matches. The Italians open against England later this month and, while the national mood will not be on holiday when they lose eight straight you can bet the wine will still flow, the scooters will still scoot and Rome – and all of Italy – will remain eternal and full of flair. It’s big and messy, crowded and noisy, and the only thing missing is Audrey Hepburn on that scooter.

I still wonder how they got that on film.

Just the Beginning

332a64f4195b32b9555da335785b58d4It must have been about 1965 when my World War II veteran father had his gall bladder surgery.  As kid I wasn’t aware of many of the details, but I do remember that having the old man in the hospital for several days was a very big deal, particularly since we had to drive 100 miles or so round trip to visit him while he was recovering.

Gall bladder surgery in the 1960′s was a far different operation than it has become more recently and often resulted in several days in the hospital and then a good deal more rest at home.

We joked that Dad had the good sense not to show off his incision as Lyndon Johnson had done when he had the same surgery at about the same time. That classic LBJ moment still ranks as one of the most offbeat presidential photo ops.

Johnson, a Navy veteran of the war, had his surgery at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Washington. My Dad checked into the Veterans Administration hospital in Hot Springs, South Dakota. We had no health insurance. If we needed to see a doctor we paid cash or, as when Mom had some major surgery, we pulled the family belt a little tighter and went on the payment plan. My parents spent years paying off Mom’s surgery and hospital bills, but the VA was free. The country owed it to Staff Sergeant R.E. Johnson and his grateful nation took care of his gall bladder. It may have been one of the few things my old man had in common with Lyndon Johnson.

The VA has been much in the news lately and the commendable retired Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, who took the fall for the obvious shortcomings of the big, sprawling federal bureaucracy, will doubtless go down in history as the general fired for speaking truth to the Bush Administration about the cost and duration of a war of choice in Iraq and then ended up walking the plank due to the failures of his agency to properly take care of many of the veterans of that war. Numerous commentators have made the obvious observation that firing Shinseki will do about as much to right the wrongs of the VA as firing him before the Iraq war did to bring sanity to that misbegotten policy. His tombstone might well read “fall guy.”

Amid all the posturing by political people over the mess at the Phoenix VA hospital, and apparently other VA hospitals, should hover a palpable sense of “you should have known better.” It’s pretty clear that the more than $150 billion we spend annually on the Veterans Administration isn’t nearly enough money to do the right job for the men and women who served their country and now often need very expensive and long-term care.

Yet, when Congress had a chance earlier this year to provide more resources for an agency that is chronically short of resources, for example, primary care physicians who spend all day seeing patients the legislation died during a Senate filibuster. There was hardly a ripple of regret for letting our veterans down.“I don’t know how anyone who voted ‘no’ today can look a veteran in the eye and justify that vote,” said Daniel M. Dellinger, national commander of the American Legion. “Our veterans deserve more than what they got today.”

Next time you see a member of Congress ask them how they voted on that one. It’s a pretty good measure of who really is “supporting the troops.”

Now given a fresh “political scandal,” – and this was certainly true before Gen. Shinseki made his inevitable exit – everyone wants to get aboard the bash the VA bandwagon.

As the old story goes the most dangerous place in Washington, D.C. is the space between a soundbite spouting politician, in this case outraged by the VA’s mismanagement, and a waiting television camera. There has been a genuine stampede to present the VA’s problems as the most recent thing that comes near be “worse than Benghazi…”

But, as noted, this was all readily foreseen and, in fact, rather widely forecast as recently as when the Iraq fiasco was still unfolding. Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz actually produced a study that predicted the long-term cost of the Iraq adventure would be $3 trillion - yes, “T” as in trillion dollars. Stilglitz was derided as a liberal alarmist whose analysis was wildly off the mark, but in 2010 he actually went back and re-ran the numbers and concluded that his huge number likely underestimated the true cost of the ten year war, in part, because he underestimated the health care costs of veterans that will only keep increasing for 30, 40 or 50 more years.

“About 25 percent of post-9/11 veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder,” according one recent report, “and 7 percent have traumatic brain injury, according to Congressional Budget Office analyses of VA data. The average cost to treat them is about four to six times greater than those without these injuries, CBO reported. And polytrauma patients cost an additional 10 times more than that.”

I remember this much about my Dad’s long ago medical care from the Veterans Administration: he had a gall bladder attack and in short order he was in the hospital for surgery. Maybe a few days at most passed from the attack to the cure and this was a VA dealing at the time with vets, like my Dad, who served during World War II. My favorite veteran died when he was 62 having never again set foot in a VA facility.

The young men and women who fought for us in Iraq and Afghanistan will likely live longer  - much longer we can hope – than the World War II generation, even with the many and varied traumatic injuries our soldiers bring home from the battlefield. We’re just starting to feel the impact of that sober reality on the VA and the rest of American society. This truly is just the beginning. Properly resourcing the VA and de-politicizing the process of fixing its shortcomings should be every bit as much a national priority as sending young people to war and keeping them there year-after-year.

“If there is any cause that should be bipartisan, it’s care for our veterans,” writes E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post. “But too often, what passes for bipartisanship is the cheap and easy stuff. It tells you how political this process has been so far that so many of the Democrats who joined Republicans in asking for Shinseki to go are in tough election races this fall.”

This much I know: the VA was there when my Dad needed the medical help that he would have been hard pressed to access and pay for any other way. It was literally a life saver. Now, having pounded our military with endless deployments in the open ended wars that are now apparently a fixture of America in the 21st Century, the bill for those shattered and scared is coming due. Brace yourselves. The cost is going to be far greater than anyone engaged in the current debate lets on and we have no choice but to dig deep and pay it.

Maybe Congress should fume and fuss as much about how our military is used as they do when the health care system, created by Congress by the way, falls short of serving all of our veterans.

 

Political Lessons

0The lasting image – unfortunately – from the recent Idaho primary election will be the two guys, the biker and the curmudgeon,  who hijacked the one and only debate among the Republican candidates for governor.

As my friend Marty Peterson has pointed out fringe candidates Harley Brown and Walt Bayes secured their 15 minutes of fame during the bizarre debate, including cameos on The Today Show and Colbert, and the world had a good laugh at Idaho’s expense. The real lesson from the silly spectacle should be, as Marty sensibly suggests, a better procedure to qualify candidates for the Idaho ballot. We’ll see if a future legislature can get itself to sensible on that issue, but in the meantime there are, I think, three other big lessons from the recent election marked by a paltry turnout of less than 25 percent.

The Most Conservative Candidate Wins…

Lesson one, and this has often historically been the case in Idaho, in a multi-candidate GOP primary the most conservative candidate has a very great chance to prevail. One-on-one Congressman Mike Simpson wiped out his more right wing challenger and Gov. Butch Otter much more narrowly prevailed over his one legitimate, and more conservative, opponent. The same dynamic prevailed in two person races for lieutenant governor and attorney general, but in the Secretary of State primary the candidate positioned to the far right in a four-person race, former House Speaker Lawrence Denney, won with less than 40 percent of the primary vote.

The GOP race for State Superintendent of Public Instruction is an outlier with a self-professed “non-political” candidate apparently winning mostly because she hardly campaigned and has a sort of Basque sounding last name.

The further lesson here is for Idaho Republicans and their continuing stranglehold on the state’s politics. As a new generation of politically ambitious Republicans jockey for position you might expect even more of these multi-candidate GOP primaries with the smart money placed on the candidate who can position the farthest to the right. At the same time, just ask Gov. Otter, there is a danger over the long run in the party producing general election candidates who give a centrist Democrat a shot at victory.

Butch Otter well remembers his first run for governor in 1978 when he competed in a six candidate field that produced a GOP nominee, then-House Speaker Allan Larsen of Blackfoot, who simply could not win statewide against Democratic Gov. John Evans. Larsen won that long-ago primary with only 28.7 percent of the vote. Otter finished third with 26 percent. Don’t believe the old saw that primaries make for stronger candidates. The lesson in Idaho has more often been that such contests tend to produce weak Republican general election candidates.

Otter must be thanking his lucky stars that he didn’t have another “respectable” opponent in the recent primary. Imagine the outcome if a Twin Falls or Idaho Falls Republican, perhaps an incumbent legislator, had run for governor and eaten into Otter’s barely 51 percent majority?

Democrats Get A Chance When the GOP Misfires…

Lesson two follows from lesson one. The near total history of Democratic success in Idaho, dating back to at least Frank Church’s first election in 1956, has its foundation in Republican mistakes. Church got his chance when Republican Sen. Herman Welker proved to be an embarrassment by virtue of some of his antics and his close relationship with the controversial senator from Wisconsin Joe McCarthy. Church presented a fresh, young face, took the fight to the incumbent and won. He stayed in the U.S. Senate for 24 years.

Cecil Andrus, my old boss, got his chance in 1970 when Republican Gov. Don Samuelson proved he wasn’t up to the job after a lackluster term. Andrus parlayed that chance into four terms spread over three decades. As noted John Evans won two terms by first defeating a weak Republican candidate in 1978. Richard Stallings won a Congressional seat in 1984 by defeating, oh so narrowly, a Republican, George Hansen, who was a convicted felon and had been censured by Congress. More recently Walt Minnick grabbed his one term in the House against an inept and embarrassing Republican Bill Sali how proved he wasn’t up to the job.

To me the lesson is clear: Democrats in Idaho often only get a chance to shine because the state’s Republicans put forward a weak, flawed or otherwise damaged candidate. The Idaho GOP would appear to have at least three less-than-secure candidates in November – a third term seeking governor badly in need of uniting his splintered party, a secretary of state candidate who couldn’t hold his own leadership position in the state legislature and has been dogged by other controversy, and a candidate for school superintendent who no one seems to know. No predictions, but rather the observation that historically Idaho Democrats need Republicans to misfire if they are to have a chance to win an election. We’ll see if any of the current Democrats are positioned to take advantage of that history lesson.

Democrats Need a New Strategy…

Twenty or more years ago an Idaho Democrat had no chance to win statewide without a very strong showing – or better yet an outright win – in northern Idaho’s Kootenai County. The Coeur d’Alene area routinely sent conservation and education minded Democrats like Art Manley and Mary Lou Reed to the state legislature. No more. Kootenai County is now a hard right enclave where it seems impossible that a Democrat could make a credible effort. Cece Andrus won Kootenai County in every one of his elections from 1970 to 1990 and could count on Coeur d’Alene as part of a solid Democratic base. No more. The same can be said for Sandpoint and even the old Democratic stronghold of Shoshone County.

The old mantra that a Democrat could win just 14 of the state’s 44 counties and still be elected statewide just isn’t true any longer. Threading the political needle for a Democrat is, if not impossible, now a hugely demanding strategic challenge. The question for Idaho Democrats remains how, even as history suggests they might have a few rare opportunities this year, they maximize the votes of women, young people and Hispanics. At the same time they need a smart strategy to attract the increasingly smaller share of the conservative electorate – so called “moderate Republicans” – who may be thinking that the state has gone too far in whacking education spending and lacks a long-term economic development strategy?

If a Democrat wins a statewide race in Idaho anytime soon it will be because they have taken advantage of Republican misfires that produce vulnerable general election candidates and also found a new, 21st Century way to woo new voters who might listen to a fresh message aimed at the center of a right-of-center state. It won’t be easy, but in some respects the GOP has set the table thanks to some of the choices made in the recent primary.

 

Supremely Political

016I’ve been reading Gallup public opinion polls from 1935, knowing full well that admitting to having musty old opinion polls on my reading list could brand me instantly as eccentric, a geek or, at the very least, a political junkie. Guilty on all counts. Eccentric, geeky, political junkie.

In 1972, the Gallup organization published three massive volumes of “top line” results from all the polls that Gallup conducted since it began polling in 1935. It really is fascinating reading – at least I found it to be.

One big conclusion: Let’s just say that every president since Franklin Roosevelt would kill for his approval ratings. FDR was clearly the last president who consistently enjoyed stratospheric approval ratings.

Even at the height of the enormous controversy over Roosevelt’s plan to enlarge the Supreme Court in 1937, a proposal that never enjoyed majority support from the public according to Gallup, FDR’s personal approval numbers remained very robust. The cartoon from that period shows the Court out of step with the rest of the country and that sentiment was clearly widespread in 1937, but it never translated into public or political support for Roosevelt’s radical plan to remake the Court in his own image by appointing as many as six new liberal, New Deal-friendly justices.

Montana’s New Deal era power broker, Sen. Burton K. Wheeler, was a liberal Democrat, but he vehemently opposed Roosevelt’s “court packing” as a power grab by the executive branch. Wheeler reportedly told Roosevelt that the Supreme Court was “a religion” for many Americans and the president had prompted a fight over religion – never a good idea in politics.

In September 1937, when it had become clear that the president’s court plan was on political life support, Gallup asked in a survey if Roosevelt should continue his fight to enlarge the court. Fully 68 percent of those surveyed said “no.” The impact of the issue was enormous for FDR and for the Court.

Obviously, the integrity of the court had survived a full-frontal assault from a recently re-elected and immensely popular president. And the fallout did damage Roosevelt with a strongly Democratic Congress, while curiously not doing much harm to his overall public approval. In a way, the message from the bitter fight over the Supreme Court in 1937 – it was called at the time the “greatest Constitutional crisis since the Civil War” – was that “the Court is above politics,” or at least that the Court shouldn’t be subjected to attack on the basis of raw partisan politics.

Surveys Said…

Which brings us to three recent surveys on the current U.S. Supreme Court. One from the Pew Center shows, among other things, the Court’s overall approval rating nudging back above 50 percent. Public approval of the Court had dropped to 48 percent in the summer of 2013. At the same time there is both survey data, this time in a new Democracy Corps study,  as well as anecdotal evidence that the public more-and-more sees the Court as just an extension of politics by other means.

Here is a key takeaway from the Democracy Corps survey: “Two recent decisions on campaign finance have only served to intensify Americans’ dissatisfaction with the Court. The Citizens United ruling is deeply unpopular across every partisan and demographic group while Americans of nearly every stripe believe the recent McCutcheon ruling will make our political system more corrupt – again with broad consensus across Democrats, Independents, and Republicans.”

The Democracy Corps survey seems to contradict the Pew survey with its finding that “just 35 percent give the court a positive job performance rating and a strong majority believe that Justices are influenced more by their own personal beliefs and political leanings than by a strict legal analysis.” 

Another new study was prepared by several academics who reviewed free speech cases before the Supreme Court and this survey found – maybe this won’t surprise you – that more liberal judges tend to support the free speech claims of liberals and more conservative judges tend to support the claims of conservatives. “While liberal justices are over all more supportive of free speech claims than conservative justices,” the study found, “the votes of both liberal and conservative justices tend to reflect their preferences toward the ideological groupings of the speaker.”

As the New York Times reported, “The findings are a twist on the comment by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. that the First Amendment protects ‘freedom for the thought that we hate.’ On the Supreme Court, the First Amendment appears to protect freedom for the thought of people we like.”

“Though the results are consistent with a long line of research in the social sciences, I still find them stunning — shocking, really,” said Professor Lee Epstein, one of the authors of the study.

Adam Liptak covers the Supreme Court for the Times and wrote over the weekend that the recent 5-4 campaign finance decision – the McCutheon decision – broke along increasingly predictable partisan lines with the five justices appointed by Republican presidents voting for the Republican National Committee, which was a plaintiff. The four justices appointed by Democratic presidents dissented.

“That 5-to-4 split along partisan lines was by contemporary standards unremarkable,” Liptak wrote. “But by historical standards it was extraordinary. For the first time, the Supreme Court is closely divided along party lines.”

Even in Roosevelt’s day the Court’s makeup featured conservative Democrats and moderate to liberal Republicans. No such thing today. Other analysis shows that in the U.S. Senate, for example, the most conservative Democrat is now more liberal than the most liberal Republican. The Court increasingly reflects this huge partisan divide in the country.

“The partisan polarization on the Court reflects similarly deep divisions in Congress, the electorate and the elite circles in which the justices move,” Liptak notes and, almost all of the time these days, even the young men and women chosen as law clerks to the justices have a partisan background. Even the speaking engagements justices accept almost always line-up with the justice’s partisan backgrounds before they went to the bench. John Roberts and Clarence Thomas, for the most part, speak only to conservative groups, Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for the most part, only to liberal groups. You have to wonder how this kind of polarization can be good for the justices, the Court or the country.

“The very question of partisan voting hardly arose until 1937,” Liptak writes, “as dissents on the Supreme Court were infrequent. When the justices did divide, it was seldom along party lines.” This was clearly true for the Supreme Court Franklin Roosevelt tried to change. Some of the decisions FDR most disliked were supported by the “liberals” on the Court, but I would argue that in the main they were acting as judges and not as partisans, which is what we should be able to expect.

Supreme Politics…

At least three things need to happen to turn around the steady partisan drift of the Supreme Court; a drift that will inevitably further erode public confidence in the Court. Of course if you believe the research the erosion of confidence is already happening.

First, presidents need to nominate judges based primarily on the quality of their scholarship and thoughtfulness and not, as is most often done now, almost entirely on the basis of a partisan background. You could argue that the last largely “non-partisan” appointment to the Court was Justice David Souter in 1990. Souter, of course, disappointed many conservatives for being too moderate. But, in many ways, he had the experience and resume of an ideal candidate for high judicial office. Souter came to the Court with two overriding qualifications – a reputation for sound judicial scholarship and a career marked by independence. Every appointment by presidents of both parties since Souter has been highly political in nature.

At the same time, the politicians in the Senate who “advise and consent” on these appointments need to take more seriously that role. The nomination of a Supreme Court justice has become one of the most partisan exercises in our democracy and all the parties, for the good of the country and the Court, should pull back from the partisan edge. It is a long way down if they step much farther in that direction.

Second, the justices themselves need to recognize that putting on judicial robes does not provide cover for blatant partisanship. The demands of public accountability insist on great effort not only to display non-partisanship, but to practice it as well.

Finally, judges need to accept the fact, as the Democracy Corps survey suggests, that the public has a weak appetite for an institution that has extremely limited requirements for disclosure of conflicts and continues to resists every attempt to open up its incredibly important proceedings to modern media coverage. The secretive nature of the Court’s deliberations is obviously necessary to preserve the process of judging, but it no longer makes sense to deny coverage of the arguments that precede the decision making. It’s past time for broadcast coverage of the Supreme Court.

You could argue that the great partisan politicization of the Supreme Court dates to the failed nomination of Robert Bork in 1987 and the successful nomination of Clarence Thomas in 1991. The searing new documentary – Anita- Speaking Truth to Powerthat re-visits the circus that became the Thomas confirmation hearings, if seen by enough Americans, might actually serve as a catalyst for re-thinking the whole process of nominating and confirming justices. I’m going to guess that most Americans under 40 don’t have a memory of the testimony of law professor Anita Hill before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991. If they see this film they can’t help but pay closer attention to future appointments to the Court that shapes so much about our lives.

The new documentary makes the case powerfully that raw politics – Senate politics, as well as race and gender politics – prevailed when Thomas was confirmed in the face of considerable evidence that he had acted inappropriately – we’d call it sexual harassment today – toward a number of women who worked with him, ironically at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It is also ironic now to remember that Thomas was approved by a Democratic Senate. The vote was 52-48.

Just for the record, among Northwest senators only Oregon Republican Bob Packwood, who would later have his own troubles with sexual harassment, voted “no” on the Thomas nomination.

The great cynic H.L. Mencken, who at one time or another disparaged most everything and everyone, reportedly said that judges “are law students who mark their own papers.” I think Mencken’s point was that judges, alone in our system, are largely unaccountable to anyone and therefore in need of a heightened degree of self control and reflection, as well as a passion for the non-partisanship.

Or, as the great English philosopher and jurist Francis Bacon wrote, “Judges ought to be more learned than witty, more reverend than plausible, and more advised than confident. Above all things, integrity is their portion and proper virtue.”

The Court may not be a “religion” as Sen. Wheeler said nearly 80 years ago, but it is the one branch of our complicated system that above all depends on public trust and confidence. Even a little erosion of that trust is a big problem.

Tie One On

bow-ties-bella-graceI admit it. I have taken my share of grief over the years for wearing a bow tie. My affection – or affliction – has prompted snickers, crude jokes and feeble attempts at one-liners.

I’ve been asked, just for example:

“Do you tie those yourself?” No, I want to say, my butler does it for me.

“Can I touch it?” Seriously? If you look like Grace Kelly, I would say, knock yourself out.

“Are they hard to tie?” Yes, very, I say. Rather like those sneakers you’re wearing.

Whenever I get that look, the, oh, he’s wearing a bow tie look, I just remember what a very smart and sartorially advanced gentleman once told me: “It takes a confident man to wear a bow tie.” It doesn’t hurt that women seem to notice and frequently compliment a well-chosen bow tie.

Men’s Journal recently did a takeout on “The Art of Wearing a Bow Tie.” After suggesting, incorrectly I believe, that wearing a bow tie is “always a strange choice,” the article when on to say something I do agree with: “There is no way – unless you happen to currently live in a fraternity house at a large southern university – to subtly wear a bow tie. Your neckwear will say something so you want to make sure it’s on message.”

Like the man said – confident men wear bow ties and, in my experience, the same men make a fashion and personal statement. No president since Franklin Roosevelt has routinely worn a bow tie. He also used a cigarette holder and wore those little glasses – Pince-nez – that fasten to the bridge of your nose. The bow tie was the least of FDR’s fashion statements. Harry Truman, a sharp dresser, tied one on from time-to-time, but no one since has dared except when the commander-in-chief breaks out a tuxedo for something like the increasingly silly White House Correspondent’s Dinner.

Speaking of the tux, I am unalterably opposed to the trend of men wearing long ties with a tuxedo. Call me old-school, another label often attached to the bow tie wearer, but the classic, clean and elegant look of black tie demands a bow. And, yes, you must learn how to tie it yourself. Those store bought, already tied models look like they were stamped out a press. Part of the style of wearing a bow tie is tying the darn thing.

I got my first bow tie when I was, I think, 14 years old. I bought it myself and was given a little booklet – I still have it somewhere – on how to tie the bow. I went home and stood in front of a mirror for what seemed like hours trying to master the right combination of crossovers, tucks and pulls required to cinch the knot just so. My arms began to ache from being held in an unnatural position, but I eventually mastered the art. I don’t need a mirror any more, but it helps. But, as I said, if you are going to make the statement make it all the way – tie it yourself.

Winston Churchill wore, just about every day, a navy blue polka dot bow tie. You think he had a sense of style? Humphrey Bogart wore them. Lincoln and Branch Rickey, the baseball innovator and the man who signed Jackie Robinson, wore bow ties. George Will, the cranky, pedantic columnist frequently wears one, and I forgive most of his most ill-considered rants because he does. Bow ties and the fact George Will appreciate baseball makes up for a lot of misguided political opinions. The late, great senators Pat Moynihan of New York and Paul Simon of Illinois wore bow ties. Can you see Harry Reid or Mitch McConnell in one? I rest my case.

There is a school of thought that bow ties only work with sport coats or a blazer. I’ll grant you that such pairing are generally safe bets, but former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, a great judge and a habitual bow tie wearer, pairs his ties with a dark suit and he looks just like he is – distinguished and classy. Whatever you do, don’t wear a bow tie with one of those old fashioned jackets with the elbow patches or, even worse, a corduroy jacket. It is just fine to appear scholarly or academic, but you can cross a line that you don’t want to cross pretty easily.

Some fool has said you can’t trust a man who wears a bow tie. Ridiculous. Or, its been suggested that when you are next called for jury duty, wear a bow tie. No one wearing a bow tie ever gets placed on a jury they say. Don’t believe it. I did it once and was named the foreman.

In a day when jeans and a tee shirt paired with flip flops can constitute high fashion, I subscribe to a higher and better standard. I’ve never worn a bow tie to a baseball game, but look at a photo of a game prior to 1960 and you’ll see gents in the stands dress for success. I do agree with the contention that a bow tie makes a statement. It says something about style, tradition and individuality. Think Fred Astaire and James Bond, shaken not stirred and always black tie. Think Chaplin and FDR. Teddy Roosevelt, too. Bow ties put you in good and not too crowded company.

Learn to tie one. They’re sold in many colors and shapes. Ladies seem to like them. See if you’re man enough.

 

Inevitable

ThomasDeweyYou recognize, of course, the famous President Thomas E. Dewey.

It was 1948 when the then-Governor of New York, the handsome and fearless former prosecutor – Tom Dewey – defeated the hapless Harry Truman. Truman was so unpopular in ’48 that it was inevitable – inevitable – that Tom Dewey would beat him. It was a lead-pipe cinch. Really.

Truman, an accidental president, stumbled into the Oval Office in 1945 after the death of the beloved Franklin D. Roosevelt. By his own admission, Truman was ill-prepared for the awesome responsibilities of the White House. Truman only became vice president because a dying Roosevelt turned over the selection process to the Democratic bosses and they settled on poor ol’ Harry because, well, because he seemed like a safe, if not very inspired choice. President Dewey won re-election in 1952, as we all know.

If you are scrambling to find your pocket list of American Presidents you can stop looking. The Dewey presidency never happened. President Dewey proves my political lesson of the day: The only thing inevitable in politics is Election Day.

Just ask President Dewey.

Or you could ask the one-time Vice President Richard Nixon. His political career came to an ignominious end in 1962 when, having lost the presidency to John Kennedy in 1960, Nixon then lost the governorship of California. Barring a political miracle, Time magazine reported, Nixon’s political career was over. “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore,” ol’ Dick Nixon told reporters in 1962 and that was the last we heard of him.

A second George H.W. Bush term seemed like a no-brainer in 1992. Bush had put together an international coalition that threw Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait and his approval ratings where in the stratosphere. You can look it up.

The list goes on: Idaho State Senator Jim Risch was washed up after losing both a re-election in 1988 and a GOP primary in 1994. Since the end of his political career he’s served as lieutenant governor, governor and currently as a U.S. Senator. The aforementioned Franklin Roosevelt was the vice presidential candidate on the losing Democratic ticket in 1920. Then he contracted polio and age 39. Everyone said his political career was done for. A man in a wheel chair could never be elected president. Abraham Lincoln was a one-term Congressman in the 1840′s, then lost a U.S. Senate race in 1858. After that the prairie lawyer who lacked a national profile was a goner politically speaking.

In the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll former Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has a commanding lead over every possible Republican contender for the White House in 2016. If the election were held today Hillary would trounce Jeb Bush 53-41. The inevitability of her securing the Democratic nomination is so obvious former adversaries in the Barack Obama camp and guys like Sen. Tim Kaine are endorsing her. No one wants to be the last person in on a deal that is inevitable. To read the well-informed opinions of, as Calvin Trillin has dubbed them, the Beltway Gasbags you would conclude that we might as well call of the election right now. Hillary has it in the bag.

Trouble is the election won’t be held today, but rather more than two and half years from now. If it is true that nothing is inevitable in politics other than Election Day, then it is also true that two weeks in politics can be a life-time. Two years is a life-time of life-times in politics.

Hillary Clinton may well be the next president of the United States. She may decide to run, win her party’s nomination in a walk and waltz through a general election campaign defeating Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and fifteen other opponents. Or maybe not.

The single biggest threat to Clinton’s “inevitability” is the idea that she is inevitable.

Thomas E. Dewey ran the kind of campaign in 1948 that politicians tend to run when they think it’s in the bag. Dewey defeats Truman the Chicago Tribune headline said. President Dewey, you remember him, learned the hard way that it’s never – ever – in the bag in politics.