More Baseball

PiniellaPiniella, the Pirates and Peaking

Whenever I think about Sweet Lou Piniella, who managed his last game Sunday, I remember reading a piece a few years back about the fact that Piniella would often wake up in the middle of the night worrying about what went wrong on the field and how to avoid the misfortune from happening again. Unfortunately, I know the feeling. I’m a post-midnight, middle-of-the-night worrier, too.

But, I digress. In one of these 4:00 a.m. moments, as recounted in the story, Piniella, always worried about his pitching staff, hit upon the notion of going with a four-man rather than a five-man rotation. His next comment was priceless.

”Now at four in the morning it seemed to work for me,” Piniella said. “Whether it works at 7 o’clock at night or 1:30 in the afternoon, I’m not sure.” Exactly. What seems like gold at 4:00 a.m. often looks like something a lot less valuable in the cold light of day.

In any event, we may never know if another of Lou’s middle-of-the-night brainstorms is a keeper, since he vows he is done with the dugout and, finally, really going to hang it up. It has been quite a ride for the one-time Yankee outfielder and American and National League manager of World Series winners and also rans. By all accounts, Piniella is a nice guy with a Hall of Fame temper on the diamond. I’ll miss seeing him pull a base out of the infield and try to turn it into a Frisbee.

The Pirates

The hapless Pittsburgh Pirates – you know you’ve become hopeless when the that word hapless is the only adjective that seems to work in front of your name. The hapless Bucs have – here we are in late August – ensured that they will endure their 18th consecutive losing season. Since 1992, there has never been a point in any season when the once-stories Pittsburgh franchise was more than seven games over .500. This year, the Pirates ensured a losing season faster than ever. Some record that.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had a great photo a fan holding a sign reading, “I’m a Cubs fan, I came to Pittsburgh to feel better.” Ouch.

If all that losing wasn’t bad enough, the Associated Press obtained club documents that show while Pittsburgh fans were agonizing over all those sub-.500 years, the guys in the front office were some how able to make just north of $29 million bucks the last two seasons. Who says losing doesn’t pay? Obviously, the Pirate owners weren’t spending any of their money on baseball players. It wasn’t always so.

Back when Joe L. Brown run the front office the Pirates won two World Series titles and five Division titles. Brown, who died last week at 91, was one of the best baseball people most folks never heard of. Brown was the Pirates GM from the 1950’s to the 1970’s.

As the New York Times noted in its obit: “In building the 1960 champions, Mr. Brown blended (Roberto) Clemente, (Bill) Mazeroski, Dick Groat and pitchers Bob Friend, Vern Law and Roy Face with players he obtained in trades: center fielder Bill Virdon, third baseman Don Hoak, catchers Smoky Burgess and Hal Smith, and pitchers Harvey Haddix and Vinegar Bend Mizell.”

in 1971, under Brown, the Pirates fielded the first all-black starting nine in a game with the Phillies.

And…more on “the” home run

A few loyal readers pointed out that I failed to address, in my weekend post on Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard round the world,” the controversy over whether Thomson knew what was coming that October afternoon at the Polo Grounds when he hit his famous home run off of Ralph Branca.

Joshua Prager’s book The Echoing Green makes a strong case that the Giants had spent all of the 1951 season at the Polo Grounds stealing the signs of opposing pitchers by use of a Rube Goldberg-like, but still ingenious, system of telescopes and buzzers. In Prager’s account, Giants’ hitters could get tipped off to what was coming.

Until his dying day, Thomson denied any advance knowledge that Branca was going to serve up the fastball that would be immortalized on film, in novels and in Russ Hodges’ famous “the Giants win the pennant” radio call.

It is a great story, and the “truth” will never be known with any certainty but, you know what, I don’t think it matters? And, here’s why.

It has been said, and I think it is true, that hitting a baseball being throw at you from 60 feet away at near 100 miles per hour is the single hardest thing to do in all of sports.

My dad – a baseball fan and not a golfer – used to ask, when watching the U.S. Open or the Masters on television, why the crowd had to be perfectly quiet when a golfer is preparing to hit a stationary ball sitting on the ground, while a major league hitter is expected to concentrate in front of a screaming crowd of 50,000 fans, and hit a leather rock being throw at frightening speed that could be aimed at his head or his feet or anywhere in between? Good question.

Bobby Thomson may well have known a Ralph Branca fastball was on the way. He still had to hit it and under the most intense kind of pressure. He didn’t pop it up to the shortstop, he hit it into the left field stands. End of story.

As the great novelist Don DeLillo wrote in the prologue to his book Underworld, which is set at the Polo Grounds on the afternoon of Thomson’s homer when the Giants beat the Dodgers:

“…fans at the Polo Grounds today will be able to tell their grandchildren – they’ll be the gassy old men leaning into the next century and trying to convince anyone willing to listen, pressing in with medicine breath, that they were here when it happened.”

I wasn’t there when it happened, or even born, but that doesn’t matter, either. It did happen – the most perfect home run ever – thanks to the late Bobby Thomson.

Did I mention that he was a Giant? His homer beat the Dodgers, too. What a story.

Just Plain Getting it Wrong

Park51300Don’t Confuse Us With Facts, Please…

The photo is of Park51, the proposed site of an Islamic cultural center, two Manhattan blocks north of where the twin towers of the World Trade Center once stood.

By now, I suspect, everyone in the country – except perhaps that escaped prisoner caught late last week in Arizona with his accomplice girl friend – has an opinion on whether the so called “Ground Zero mosque” is appropriate for this site.

(I’m making the assumption that the jail breaker might just have been too busy while out on the lamb to check in on cable TV or pick up a paper to follow this controversy, but who knows? Seems like everyone else is weighing in.)

There are many things of interest about the hottest story out of New York since Chelsea’s wedding. The “mosque issue” is fast becoming a political litmus for this year’s candidates and political analysts are debating how much voicing support and then walking it back a bit it is hurting the President. Republicans, for the most part, have jumped all over the issue and made the case that this is the worst idea, well, since Mohammad demanded the mountain come to him.

President Obama, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and some of former President George W. Bush’s guys have made the case that the issue must be about religious freedom and not condemning an entire religion by saying all Muslims harbor radical, violent intentions. Others ranging from Newt Gingrich to Harry Reid, in various shades of heated rhetoric, have condemned the location of the proposed Islamic center and, in many cases by extension, also condemned the religion to which 1.5 billion of the world’s people adhere.

One more thing of interest in this story, a story that has dominated the news now for close to three weeks, says a great deal about how information gets disseminated and used in the digital age. It is fascinating to me just how many of the essential elements of the story lack factual basis or have been so distorted in the repeated re-telling that they have little resemblance to the truth.

Hendrik Hertzberg, writing in the August 16 edition of The New Yorker tried to catalogue some of the details that have just gotten lost, or been distorted, or are just plain wrong as the story has picked up steam and controversy.

“Well, for a start,” Hertzberg wrote, “it won’t be at Ground Zero. It’ll be on Park Place, two blocks north of the World Trade Center site (from which it will not be visible), in a neighborhood ajumble with restaurants, shops (electronic, porn, you name it) churches, office cubes, and the rest of the New York mishmash. Park51, as it is to be called, will have a large Islamic “prayer room,” which presumably qualifies as a mosque. But the rest of the building will be devoted to classrooms, an auditorium, galleries, a restaurant, a memorial to the victims of September 11, 2001 (emphasis added), and a swimming pool and gym. Its sponsors envision something like the 92nd Street Y – a Y.M.I.A, you might say, open to all, including persons of the C. (Christian) and H. (Hebrew) persuasions.”

Hertzberg went on to note, as others have, that the principal backers of the center are immigrants from Kuwait (a country we went to war to liberate) and Kashmir and the man who is now routinely referred to in press accounts as “a controversial imam,” Feisal Abdul Rauf, is a Columbia University grad who has been in charge of a mosque in the Tribeca neighborhood of New York for nearly 30 years.

Rauf is so dangerous that the Federal Bureau of Investigation enlisted his help to “conduct ‘sensitivity training’ for agents and cops” after 9-11. Rauf is also the vice-chair of the New York Interfaith Council, which means he regularly associates with Christians and Jews, Hindus and Buddhists who, one assumes, thought enough of him to elected him vice-chair of their organization. (The founder and chairman emeritus of the Interfaith Council, by the way, is the retired Dean of the Cathedral of St. Patrick the Divine. Those Anglicans can be pretty radical.) Rauf has also often and at length, it is important to note, denounced terrorism in general and the 9-11 attacks in particular. Before it became popular for Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh to denounce him, Rauf palled around with Condi Rice and Karen Hughes of the Bush Administration.

Not quite the story that appears in the thousands of words written daily about this issue, but it does help explain, if not excuse, why so many people have made up their minds that the “Ground Zero mosque,” promoted by “radical Muslims” will be a threat to all Americans and an insult to the 9-11 victims and their families. Lots of folks believe that, it’s just not true.

When I went to journalism school back in the dark ages, a old prof told us over and over that reporting a story – particularly a story steeped in controversy – required more than merely recounting what “he said and what she said.” That kind of journalism, the old, green eye shade guy would say, almost always ensures that “the truth goes and hangs itself.” Seems like that is what has happened on the south side of Manhattan.

There us much more evidence, everywhere you look, of the truth looking for a place to die. Consider, for a moment, the President’s religion and place of birth.

Barack Obama wrote two best selling books about his life and background, books that have been poured over by reporters and his political enemies for years now. Books that discuss at some length his views on religion and what it means to him to be a Christian. Obama has given interviews and made speeches talking about his faith and, in particular, how those of us not of the tradition can begin to understand the black Christian church in America.

Yet according to a new Pew Research poll 20% of Americans now firmly believe the President is a Muslim. In the same survey, fully 34% of conservative Republicans believe Obama is a Muslim.

In his book The Audacity of Hope – you can look it up on page 208 – Obama writes about his decision to fully embrace Christianity:

“It was because of these newfound understandings – that religious commitment did not require me to suspend critical thinking, disengage from the battle for economic or social justice, or otherwise retreat from the world that I knew and loved – that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ one day and be baptized. It came about as a choice and not an epiphany…I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to His truth.”

Reading those words, one who continues to believe Obama is a secret Muslim simply has to believe he is a serial teller of untruths, which may actually help explain the 34%. The opinion page editor of the Dallas Morning News wrote about this the other day and made a telling point when declaring that the paper would quit printing letters making religious claims about the President for which there is absolutely no evidence and that are clearly not true.

“Aren’t the people who claim Obama is a Muslim,” the editor asked, “some of the same people who said they could not trust a man whose Christian preacher said racist and unpatriotic things from the pulpit? Which is it? Is he a follower of a controversial Christian preacher or a Muslim?”

Truth and logic there, but is anyone paying attention?

Another 41% of Republicans in a recent CNN/Opinion Research poll believe Obama was “probably” or “definitely” born in another country. Even when a copy of Obama’s birth certificate, certified as authentic by officials in Hawaii, was posted on the Internet, the so called “birthers” continue to believe what just ain’t so.

Of course, there is more. The story continues to circulate that current Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner used to work at Goldman Sachs, one of the big, bailed out Wall Street banks. Nope, the Goldman guy was the last Bush Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson.

Or, what about the now accepted notion that the terribly unpopular Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) – hated left and right in a rare show of bipartisanship about anything – was all Obama’s doing. Wrong again. TARP occurred on the Bush watch late in 2008 with W’s full backing, as well as that of John McCain.

What’s going on here? There are lots of theories, including one called the “backfire effect.” This notion holds that when a person harbors a particularly strong view, that is shown by facts and logic to be wrong, they often actually reject the facts and logic and strengthen their belief in what is false. It is a sort of “don’t confuse me with the facts” response, on steroids, to something that may be personally comforting or important to believe even if it is just not true.

One theory is that some folks so dislike Barack Obama – much as some folks so disliked George W. Bush – that they need/want to believe things that reinforce their views even if those things aren’t true. The human mind is a curious thing.

A political scientist, Brendan Nyhan, who is a Robert Wood Johnson scholar in health policy at the University of Michigan, has studied the “backfire effect” and recently told NPR’s Talk of the Nation that misinformed people – conservatives and liberals – rarely change their minds once they are made up. Now, there’s a cheery thought.

As traditional journalism declines apace, one of the promising new developments has been a greater commitment by some news organizations to good, old fashioned “fact checking.” There are websites devoted to this. One of the best is FactCheck.org that tries to keep politicians and others making public claims honest. It is, after all, possible to research and find real answers to many things.

Yogi Berra was right, once again, when he famously said “you can look it up.” Yes, you can, if you will.

Nevertheless, Nyhan and others say fact checking, no matter how well it is done, may not have much impact on those who simply won’t be confused by, well, facts.

If, when talking or speculating about things that we believe that just aren’t true, we were focused on whether Elvis is really dead or whether Neil Armstrong really walked on the moon or why the U.S. Air Force just won’t come clean with all it knows about UFO’s, it would be a mild curiosity. We could write it off as just a fact of life that some people will believe what they want to believe. But, when the myths continually trump the facts for a significant number of people in the every day political and policy life of the nation, it is a cause to wonder – can this be good for the country?

The Chicago Tribune’s Clarence Page calls what is going on “American dumb-ocracy” and cites as proof of the dumbing down not only the recent Pew survey about Obama’s religion, but also Jay Leno’s on-street interviews and evidence that way too many Americans, for example, have no idea what the First Amendment protects. Civic engagement, Page says, has to mean more than closely following Lindsay Lohan’s drinking problems. Page is discouraged about dumb-ocracy and me, too. He simply says, “heaven help us.”

Lincoln, I think, talked about not being able to fool all the people all the time. That is some cold comfort, but I’m also reminded of the old line, often attributed to Mark Twain, that “it ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

The Shot Heard Round the World

thompsonBobby Thomson, 1923 – 2010

This life-long San Francisco Giants fan will never forget, nearly a decade ago, walking for the first time into the then-new Giants ballpark south of Mission on the shores of China Basin. It was a lovely Saturday afternoon, the perfect day for baseball. Then the history hit me like an inside fastball you can’t seem to step away from.

Just inside one of the entrances to AT&T Park, Russ Hodges’ immortal words: “the Giants win the pennant, the Giants win the pennant, the Giants win the pennant, the Giants win the pennant” are stenciled on the wall. I can still feel the goose bumps.

Bobby Thomson, of course, hit his famous 1951 home run – the most famous home run in baseball history, some say – at the long gone Polo Grounds in New York, a continent away from China Basin. But so what?

As long as there are Giants and Giant fans and baseball fans, Thomson “shot heard round the world” will be the defining moment for the great franchise and as close as we are likely to have of a single defining moment for the great game.

Bobby’s shot off the Dodgers’ Ralph Branca has followed the Giants from the weirdly shaped Polo Grounds to windy Candlestick to AT&T Park. It is just that kind of moment and has been since 1951.

Thomson has been remembered this week as a tough competitor, a man who wore his one real moment of fame with quiet dignity and as the hitter who will be forever linked with one pitcher for as long as there are baseball memories.

The great baseball writer Roger Angell remembered Thomson homer as the first “where were you” moment in the country since Pearl Harbor.

Imagine what it would be like to have your entire professional career – your entire life, really – defined by a couple of seconds captured in grainy black and white and in Hodges’ classic home run call? Thomson had a 15 year career, played for the Braves, Cubs, Red Sox and Orioles, as well as the Giants, hit .270 for his career, once lead the National League in triples – he hit 14 in 1952 – and was once traded for a pitcher named Al Schroll, but one swing at 3:58 pm on October 3, 1951 is all that really matters.

There have been other dramatic home runs – Bill Mazeroski actually won a World Series with a walk off in 1960 – but Thomson’s is still “the epic” home run. Maybe it was the time, the post-war, or the dramatic, late season comeback by the Giants, down by 14 games in August to the hated Dodgers, or maybe it was Hodges’ radio call: “There’s a long drive…it’s gonna be…I believe…”

Thomson once said “that time was frozen…it was a delicious, delicious moment.” It was, it is and it will always be.

It will always be Bobby Thomson, Number 23 on his jersey, that gracious swing, Pafko at the wall, 3:58 pm in a Polo Grounds of the mind.

My lovely, charming wife, no baseball fan she, but smart and insightful about everything, knew immediately when she walked in this morning, while I was composing this post, that I was writing about “Bobby Thomson and the home run.” Yup.

The great sportswriter Red Smith wrote some of the best lines about “the home run” when he said: “The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressively fantastic, can ever be plausible again.”

Bobby died this week. His home run – our home run – never will.


Debating Debates

20_Idaho_Governor_Debate_t210A Short History and a Few Suggestions

Let’s give credit to the two major candidates for governor of Idaho. They have debated early and apparently will debate often between now and November 2. That hasn’t always been the norm in Idaho.

In many past elections, incumbents have often deemed it in their best interest to sit on their lead, while going into the political equivalent of Coach Dean Smith’s four corner basketball slowdown offense. Coach Smith, the great North Carolina legend, wanted to control the game knowing that the opponent can’t score without the ball. This year in Idaho things look different. Otter and Allred seem ready to run the floor.

Allred seemed to generate the most headlines in the first encounter with his charge that Otter is a “career politician,” while Otter defended his handling of education budgets and quipped that the Democrat was the “first college professor” he’d ever run against. Otter zinged Allred for talking about a top-to-bottom review of the state’s myriad tax exemptions without offering specifics.

Long-time political observer Randy Stapilus pointed out that both candidates know their Constitutional history and “tossed in so many references to the ‘founding fathers’ that you began to wonder if either of them really understands that the year is 2010, not 1790. But then, this (was) an Idaho Falls audience.”

There will be more debates and that is all too the good.

I think there may be just a handful of debates in recent Idaho political history that had any real impact on an election. The two Frank Church – Steve Symms debates in 1980 may not have been decisive in that historic race, but I believe they helped Symms, a glib conservative with a reputation for the controversial, off-the-cuff remark, establish that he could hold his own with the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who was one of the Senate’s best debaters and an eloquent speaker.

As I recall those encounters, and I moderated both of them, Symms was on the attack at every turn and Church, a four-term incumbent, was generally on the defensive and not just from Symms’ charges, but also from a massive national effort engineered by a conservative political action committee. The media coverage of those debates – usually the source of the greatest political consequence – tended to call the encounters a draw, but in many ways that equalled a win for the challenger Symms.

In 1986, the debates featuring Symms and then-Governor John Evans, who was challenging for the Senate seat, and Lt. Gov. David Leroy and then-former Gov. Cecil Andrus, who were seeking the governorship, were spirited and important.

Beyond those encounters, its hard to recall an Idaho debate that made much impact, which is not to say that they aren’t important – very important – to the democratic process.

Here’s a suggestion. Idaho needs a more formalized, standardized approach to political debates. The model is the Commission on Presidential Debates, the group that organizes the now standard debates featuring the Republican and Democratic candidates. The Commission determines the location for the face-offs and generally manages the logistics. At various times in Idaho, the Press Club, the League of Women Voters, Idaho Public Television and individual news organizations have organized – or tried to organize – debates. This week’s debate in eastern Idaho was organized by the Idaho Falls City Club and the format – clean, straightforward, presided over by a single moderator – seemed very well done.

Unlike Thursday’s Otter-Allred encounter in Idaho Falls, Idaho debates are typically held in Boise. But debates should be held around the state and public TV (and anyone else who wants to) should broadcast them.

The regional piece is really important. It’s hard to believe a gubernatorial debate anywhere other than eastern Idaho would have generated a question about the Areva uranium enrichment project near Idaho Falls. A debate in Lewiston this cycle would ensure that questions would be asked about the controversial plan to haul massive oil field equipment up Highway 12. Idaho is a state of regions and having the debate spread around would be good for the state, the candidates and regional issues.

So, how about an Idaho Commission on Gubernatorial Debates? Each major political party could appoint a representative to the Commission and they in turn could agree on a third member. The Commission could seek proposals from various cities or organizations, like the City Clubs in Idaho Falls and Boise, to sponsor debates and then conduct the negotiations about formats and other details with the various camps. The Commission could select the moderators and spend the time and effort needed to determine eligibility for third-party or independent candidates, most of whom never mount a serious campaign and should not get in the middle of a discussion between those who will win elections.

A Commission would have the added benefit of keeping the members of the Fourth Estate, the press, out of the debate organizing and sponsoring role. News organizations should cover debates, not determine formats and who participates. Media organizations have often found it impossible to say “no” to debate participation by fringe candidates and some of the formats for past television debates in Idaho, apparently in an effort to make the debate move faster or seem more interesting, have been so prescriptive with time limits and “lightening rounds” as to seem more like game shows than serious discussions of serious issues.

In past Idaho elections candidates have also, from time-to-time, played various media organizations against one another in order to position for maximum benefit to their own campaigns. Nothing really wrong from with that from the standpoint of political strategy except that it tends to make the negotiations difficult and prolonged. There have been occasions when debates sponsored by news organizations actually end up limiting coverage rather than enhancing it. A Commission would do away with this type of gamesmanship.

One final observation. Having seen debates from all sides as a moderator, organizer and aide to a candidate, I’ve come to understand that generally speaking campaigns and candidates hate the idea of debates. At best, they often consider a debate a necessary evil. They know they will catch flack of they dodge debating, but most candidates – the underdog being the notable exception – would rather make a trip to the dentist. Debates take time to prepare for, they can be high risk and low reward events and there is always the chance for the game changing gaffe or stumble.

All the more reason to standardize the events, raise the bar on expectations for gubernatorial debates and make these every four year political events a truly institutionalized part of Idaho campaigns.


News, Money and Politics

murdochBlurring the Lines a Little More

I’ve long been a believer that the best defense against what is often referred to as “the nefarious influence of money in politics” is the disinfectant that comes with vast amounts of sunshine. In short, let the sunshine in and disclose, disclose, disclose.

As long as the Supreme Court equates First Amendment rights with essentially unlimited political contributions, even from corporations and unions, full disclosure is about all the assurance anyone has that we have the means to judge who – or what – is bankrolling a campaign.

My personal preference would be for even more disclosure, including more frequent requirements for reporting and more disclosure of the ultimate sources of political action committee, union or corporate contributions. If money in politics is poison – even Teddy Roosevelt said it was – then tighter limits on the amounts of individual, corporate and union contributions seems like a sensible approach. But, thanks to a tangled web of laws, regulations and court rulings, we have an increasingly wide-open system where every election cycle the money flows farther and faster and the candidates spend vast amounts of their time, as the campaign language goes, “dialing for dollars.”

Leave it to Rupert Murdoch, The Man Who Owns the News, as his recent biographer described him, to add a new wrinkle to the long-running saga around campaign finance. Murdoch, owner of the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal and, most importantly, Fox News, just had his News Corporation write a $1 million check to the Republican Governors Association. Perfectly legal, properly disclosed by all accounts, but a further and unmistakable blurring of the lines between news and politics.

The News Corporation contribution to the Republican governors is certainly not unprecedented. GE, Disney and other “media companies” have been players in this space for a long time. What is unusual is the size of the check and the partisan implications.

News Corporation maintains the corporate side of the house made the contribution with no involvement from the guys who run the cable network where Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck hold court nightly, almost always in high dudgeon about the latest Democratic action, and where a sort of GOP shadow government – Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich – gets paid to comment.

Predictably, Democrats were outraged and demanded disclaimers on future RGA sponsored ads taking on Democratic gubernatorial candidates. It was also widely noted that the News Corporation donation some how didn’t generate much coverage on Fox News. I wonder how Fox might cover a million dollar contribution from the New York Times to a Democratic committee?

The trouble with the News Corporation explanation that this was simply a corporate decision with no connection to the hot house cable network – and let’s assume for the sake of argument that News Corporation is giving us the fair and balanced truth here – is that it just doesn’t pass the old smell test.

As a friend regularly reminds me, the Murdoch explanation lacks the quality of verisimilitude. That ten dollar word is defined as “the appearance or semblance of truth; likelihood; probability” As in “the play lacked verisimilitude.” This play lacks.

It reminds me of the newspaper that editorially endorses one candidate over another and then says, as I almost always believe, that the editorial opinions of newspapers are totally walled off from the newsroom and news coverage. Few readers believe such explanations. They have become as cynical as many reporters. In the age of a more and more sharp edged, opinionated, point-of-view media, Fox News, or anyone else playing at the million dollar level in partisan politics, shouldn’t be surprised that the explanation of separation between the corporate side of Murdoch’s empire and the news side just doesn’t pass the basic test of seeming to reflect, well, the truth.

Here’s the real issue, I think, with Murdoch and his approach. The guy is a businessman, and a very successful one by most accounts, and he is also a committed conservative. In keeping with his personal politics and political philosophy, why not just drop the pretense of “fair and balanced” and engage in the market place of ideas in a fully transparent, genuine manner. If Murdoch would just acknowledge what everyone believes – detractors and fans, alike – that Fox is the conservative opinion network, it would be liberating. Well, on second thought, that may be a poor choice of words. It would be honest.

As I’ve noted in the past in this space, the news business – and it is a business – that we once knew is as dead as a dodo bird. We are going back to the future with “news” organizations becoming more and more identified with a point of view and a partisan agenda. In my perfect world – I remember Walter Cronkite – I think this is a bad trend, but it is also not likely to be reversed. It was, after all, good enough for the days of Hamilton, Adams and Jefferson and it is going to have to be good enough for the days of Obama and Palin, Fox and MSNBC.

Rupert Murdoch’s big check to the RGA is all right by me as long as he plays by the rules of disclosure. I just wish he’d take the next step, conduct himself like a Hearst, a Pulitzer or a McCormick (partisan news moguls of the past) and drop the pretense that his politics and his cable news operation is anything but a major political player, in both opinions and money, in American conservative politics. Fox News regularly wins the ratings battle against left-leaning MSNBC and CNN, which finds itself in the ill-defined middle, so why not just admit that Fox is the home of conservative opinion and will support conservative causes with its really big checkbook and its really big megaphone.

I happen to think Murdoch is brilliant from a business standpoint in occupying a space where he can shape opinions and influence policy completely in sync with his own views. That is the American way, even if you are Australian. Just go the final step and admit that is what you’re doing.

Jon Stewart – he of the obvious truth – said what lots of folks must be thinking: “This (the News Corporation contribution) is a travesty. I really think if anything Republicans should be paying Fox News millions and millions of dollars. Not the other way around.”

Now, there is some verisimilitude for you.

Political Tragedy

boggsAir Disasters Shaped Idaho and Alaska Politics

The Washington Post had a fascinating and yet difficult to read story a few days ago about how an airplane accident shaped the modern political landscape of Alaska. In 1972, then-House Majority Leader Hale Boggs (left) and then-Alaska Congressman Nick Begich, both Democrats, died in a famous Alaska crash. The plane and its passengers were never found.

Boggs was a huge D.C. player at the time, but it was Begich’s death that carved the modern contours of the politics of the Last Frontier. Begich’s son, Mark, is now the state’s junior senator.

In addition to Mark Begich, current Rep. Don Young and former Senator and Governor Frank Murkowski figure in the political evolution that began with the Boggs-Begich tragedy. Young, in Congress since 1972, said of Nick Begich: “He passed on, and I got to be congressman.”

Idaho politics since the 1960’s has been framed, as well, by air tragedy.

Both former Congressman and Senator Jim McClure and Gov. Cecil Andrus can trace the pivot points of their remarkable careers to 1966 and the tragic deaths of rivals in Idaho plane crashes.

McClure was not considered the favorite in a tight GOP primary race in 1966 when John Mattmiller of Kellogg, who had run unsuccessfully in 1964 and was running hard early in the primary season, crashed his small plane into a powerline while trying to approach the fog-bound Kellogg airport. McClure went on to win the primary and defeat incumbent Democratic Rep. Compton I. White, Jr. The rest is history. McClure served three House terms and three more terms in the Senate before retirement in 1990.

Andrus had narrowly lost the 1966 Democratic gubernatorial nomination to Salmon attorney Charles Herndon. Herndon polled 1,277 more votes than the future governor in the primary but, when Herndon’s plane went down on September 14 during a campaign flight from Twin Falls to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho Democrats had to scramble to nominate a replacement. Andrus emerged from a contentious state central committee process to capture the nomination by a whopping two votes.

The party was badly divided after Herndon’s death, but leaders like then-Sen. Frank Church and Rep. White threw in with Andrus. The then-Orofino state senator lost the general election – he still jokes about being the only candidate in America to lose the governorship twice in the same year – but was well positioned to capture the nomination and the big office in the Statehouse when he ran again against incumbent Don Samuelson in 1970.

Andrus went on to become the longest serving governor in Idaho history and arguably one of the most popular and successful.

One other truly promising Idaho political career cut short by an airplane accident was that of State Sen. Terry Reilly of Nampa. Reilly, a big, strapping, handsome, well-spoken Irishman was also the rarest of Idaho Democrats – a Canyon County Democrat. Reilly was seen as a credible statewide candidate for Lt. Governor in 1986, when a plane he was a passenger in went down on a flight from northern Idaho to Idaho Falls in April of that election year. The pilot of that plane was another Democratic wanabee Pete Busch who had lost to McClure in the 1984 Senate race and in ’86 was seeking the 1st District Congressional seat.

I have a distinct memory of getting the news that the Busch-Reilly flight was badly overdue at the traditional Truman Day dinner in Idaho Falls. The dinner is a must-appearance for a statewide candidate and both men had been scheduled to speak. I still remember the gasp in the crowd when it was announced that the plane was overdue and missing.

Then-State Treasurer Marjorie Ruth Moon, a well-known fixture in Idaho politics for years, eventually carried the Democratic standard in the ’86 Lieutenant Governor contest. Moon narrowly lost that year to a fellow named C.L. “Butch” Otter who went on to serve Idaho’s longest tenure in the No. 2 job, win three terms in Congress and the governorship in 2006.

Otter is seeking re-election in November and its is pure, blind conjecture to speculate how his, or the state’s, political history might have been different had Reilly lived, won the Democratic primary 24 years ago and taken the now-governor on in the general election. Had that match-up occurred it would have featured two engaging, charming, talented retail politicians each with a base in the state’s second largest county.

A legacy of Terry Reilly’s too young life taken way too soon lives on in Terry Reilly Health Services, a network of non-profit medical clinics for low income Idahoans. Reilly started the well-respected clinics after his early days teaching English to Hispanic kids had convinced him that often the youngsters needed health and nutrition help side-by-side with language skills.

It has been said – and correctly so – that the great unknown in politics is timing. Fate and tragedy can certainly influence timing. That has clearly been the case when it comes to politicians and airplanes in Idaho and Alaska.

Some politicians, even very successful ones, develop over time a certain air of invincibility. They tend to think they can – indeed must – press ahead against the odds, even against nature sometimes. But it is only an illusion.

Andrus, who knows a thing or two about both flying and campaigning, has often said that no meeting – particularly a political meeting – is worth risking a flight when weather or other conditions dictate that I would be better to be late than to never show up.