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.

Ted Stevens

StevensStories Of Uncle Ted

Alaska says “goodbye” today to the guy the state legislature once voted “the Alaskan of the Century.”

I’m betting the ceremony in the great north – Vice President Biden is scheduled to speak – will be sad and historic and will remind all there, as well as the rest of us, that we reflect too little, and often too late, on the greatness and the humanity of people who, in one way or another, have touched our lives.

A group of my Gallatin colleagues – Republicans and Democrats – had the good fortune over long years to have encounters both large and important and small and meaningful with Ted Stevens who will go down in the history books as the longest serving Senate Republican in history and one of the “old school” members of the Senate. Stevens’ life and career is indeed one for the history books.

There follows some of the recollections, too late for sure, but no less important for the lessons they carry.

Cecil D. Andrus, four-term Idaho Governor and Interior Secretary from 1977-1981

Senator Stevens, even before my arrival at Interior, had worked out a “deal” of some sort with the Appropriations Committee chairman, the late Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who also nominally chaired the Interior Appropriations subcommittee. I say nominally because Senator Byrd basically let Senator Stevens run the subcommittee.

It was a Democratic Congress and a Democratic Senate, yet I had to face Senator Stevens sitting in the chairman’s seat when testifying. Even the majority staff answered to Stevens.

Using this power, Stevens on one occasion summoned me to appear before “his” subcommittee to justify a slightly more than $1 million request for the budget of the Interior Department’s Office of Public Affairs. This would have been the fall of 1978.

Earlier that summer I had personally led a group of some 30 journalists from across the United States on a 10-day “resource inspection” tour of many of the areas my department was proposing be aside for lasting protection as part of the deal creating the Trans-Alaska pipeline and the settling of native land claims.


It was a glorious trip and it garnered gallons of free ink in major publications all across the country. And Senator Stevens was furious.

In his view, I was lobbying Congress with taxpayer money. In my book I was educating voters through the media as to what the stakes were and why every American should care about Alaska. Ted demanded to know the cost of everything, the manifests of who flew on what flights, the itinerary – all of which he pored over with a fine tooth comb. He subjected me to several hours of detailed questions about this ridiculously small office budget, when the entire Interior budget was about $4 billion.

Thankfully, I’d done my homework and was prepared, patiently answering the senator’s numerous questions designed to embarrass me.

Finally, Ted took off on a tangent. He asked if I had yet read John McPhee’s “Coming into the Country,” the fine book on Alaska and Alaskans that had just been published. Before I could answer he launched into a long soliloquy about what a great book it was and how it had captured the fierce independence of Alaskans and their “hands off me” and “no governmental interference” attitude.

It was not often one could best Senator Stevens, but that morning I was able to. I replied that not only had I read the book, Mr. McPhee was scheduled to have lunch with me that very day and unless the session adjourned very soon I would be late.


Clearly stunned that I had already read the book and surprised to hear the author and I would be visiting, the Senator had no choice but to stammer, “By all means, Mr. Secretary, keep your luncheon date. Meeting adjourned!”

Dan Lavey, Gallatin President and former Chief of Staff to Oregon Republican Sen. Gordon Smith

I met Senator Stevens briefly under very sad circumstances. We were both attending a memorial service for the son of a mutual friend. The back story, however, offers some insights into the man’s character and personality.

I’ve enjoyed a long-time relationship with former Senator Gordon Smith – serving has a political advisor and on his staff. When he ran for re-election in 2002, Smith pledged to oppose oiling drilling in ANWR – a long-time goal of Senator Stevens. Smith, who prided himself on building close relationships with his Senate colleagues on both sides of the aisle, struggled to maintain his friendship with Stevens over the course of several high profile votes against opening the Alaska wilderness for energy development. Stevens was none too happy with Smith and let me know on several occasions.

In September 2003, Senator Smith tragically lost his son Garrett to suicide. It was a heartbreaking situation for Gordon, his wife Sharon and their family. When the news became public of Garrett’s death, Smith’s Senate colleagues rallied to the family’s side – offering comfort and support. None more so than the Senior Senator from Alaska. Indeed, Stevens personally helped organize a delegation of Senators to travel to Oregon for the memorial service and, as Pro Tempore of the Senate, made the decision to put the Senate in recess for a day allowing Senators to attend the memorial and honor the memory of Garrett Smith.

I know how much this act of kindness touched Senator Smith and his family. Here was this gruff, self described “SOB” who was widely known to have been very disappointed with Smith’s votes against ANWR, putting a personal relationship ahead of politics and policy. Other than exchanging a brief handshake with the man, I did not know him. But this act of grace on behalf of my friend I will never forget.


Chris Carlson, Gallatin Founding Partner and Director of Public Affairs in the Andrus Interior Department. Chris covered Stevens and the Alaska delegation as a young Washington correspondent.

In spite of Stevens’ pugnacious, acerbic style, it was clear he cared deeply and respected the Senate and his colleagues. He was smart as a whip and did his homework. Beneath the gruff exterior, lay a heart of gold and, on occasion, a keen sense of humor. He also had a terrific temper and was demanding of his staff. Consequently, he went through staff and chiefs of staff quickly.

I also knew Stevens to be an honest man of his word. I had a hard time giving any credence to government charges that he accepted corporate favors and could easily see him paying bills for work on his modest summer retreat, not realizing they had been heavily discounted by the contractor. Stevens loved the Senate and his work too much to risk losing it over nickel and dime greed.

If he was guilty of anything, it was the insidious arrogance of power that few can stymie. Even “Uncle Ted” started to believe his own press clippings. He must have thought he was bullet proof and certainly believed he was indispensable in the voters’ minds.

He was a realist, though, and when President Carter, following the suggestion of his Interior Secretary (Cecil Andrus), my old boss, used the Antiquities Act in November of 1978 to put much of Alaska into National Monuments, he knew he would have to negotiate and get passed decent and fair legislation.


My own Stevens story involves a tribute piece I wrote for Montana Magazine after the death of the great Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana. I’d been told by a Mansfield staffer that one of the very best Mansfield stories involved Stevens. I called the Senator and, rather amazing to me, he called me back promptly to talk about Mansfield. He’s the story Stevens recounted:

Stevens was a rookie Republican Senator in 1970, appointed to fill an unexpired term. Last in seniority and more than a little unsure of himself, he was determined to offer his own amendment to a pending ocean fishery bill being debated on the Senate floor. To prepare, Stevens had talked to his next-door neighbor and the floor manager of the bill, Senator Ed Muskie of Maine, to make certain he would have the chance to get his amendment considered.

Stevens knew he would be involved in Senate committee work while the bill was being debated on the Senate floor. In response, Muskie said he would get the word to Stevens in time to facilitate floor discussion of his amendment.

The call never came. Stevens vividly remembers his feelings more than 30 years later.

“When I realized that the roll call was underway, I rushed from the committee room back on the Senate floor, and not being one to mince words, I said to Muskie, ‘You son of a bitch, I have an amendment to this bill, and you know how much it means to me to be able to offer it.’”

Standing in his customary spot, observing the roll call was Majority Leader Mike Mansfield. He heard the raised voices and the obscenity.

“Mike said to me, ‘Senator, we just don’t use that kind of language on the floor of the Senate,’” Stevens said. “I apologized, but told Mansfield I was so upset because I had an amendment to the bill being voted on, and Senator Muskie told me I could present it, then hadn’t given me the chance.”

With the vote on final passage of the bill continuing, Mansfield asked Muskie, a fellow Democrat, if Stevens’ story was true.

“It’s true,” Muskie said, “but the amendment wouldn’t have passed. It’s just not necessary, Mike.”

Stevens then remembers that Mansfield turned to him and did something that was at the same time both simple and extraordinary. He asked for a copy of Stevens’ amendment. Stevens said what happened next has never happened again in the United States Senate.

Mansfield interrupted the roll call and asked unanimous consent to reverse course on the Senate calendar to the proper place where amendments could be offered. Stevens remembers dead silence in the chamber. The unanimous consent was granted and the Majority Leader was recognized.

“On behalf of the Senator from Alaska, I offer an amendment,” Mansfield said. “Does any Senator care to debate the amendment with the Senator from Alaska?” No Senator did.

Mansfield then turned to Stevens and asked if he cared to make a comment. Stevens still laughs at the thought that by opening his mouth he might have derailed the unprecedented action that was unfolding to his benefit on the Senate floor. He didn’t say a word.

In fact, no one, including Muskie, said a word. On the strength of Mike Mansfield’s sense of fairness – his character, really – the Stevens amendment passed that day without debate and remains the law today.

“When all this was over, Mike came over to me and said, ‘We are all equal on this floor, and a Senator must keep his word,’” Stevens says. “That was very meaningful to a new Senator and I have never forgotten it. Mike and I became wonderful friends and it began right there. He treated everyone alike without regard to politics or seniority.”

Stevens told me that his Democratic friend, Mike Mansfield, was “the best leader we ever had” in the Senate.

Ted Stevens will be remembered for a long time and for many things. A tough, demanding partisan; a fierce advocate for Alaska, but also a practical guy, a complex human like all of us. The kind of person you feel fortunate to have had a moment with. This is a day to remember – and celebrate – his life and accomplishments and all he touched.

Recapturing the Narrative

obamaOK, Now What…

There is a great line in the 1972 film The Candidate starring the young Robert Redford. In the film, Redford’s character is an aspiring politico named Bill McKay who takes on the seemingly hopeless task of running for the U.S. Senate against an older, wiser and completely entrenched incumbent. Through many fits and turns and much learning on the campaign trail, the younger man pulls off the improbable upset.

As the reality of winning begins to sink in, McKay turns to an aide and, displaying genuine wonder, asks: “What do we do now?” He never gets an answer as the film ends.

That scene is art imitating life. No successful candidate – at least those completely honest with themselves – would not ask themselves “now what” as the flush of victory gives way to the reality of governing.

Campaigns have a beginning, middle and an end and are about organization, style, poetry and luck. Governing – real governing – requires a different skill set and, very often, different personalities. Governing is day-by-day, hour-by-hour and, more and more, thanks to the never ending news cycle, minute-by-minute.

I’ve always thought that every newly elected candidate ought to be handed, along with a certificate of election, a card printed with an old and almost always true political axiom – the people who help you get elected are often not the people to help you govern. The Obama campaign crew – as good as they were at getting him elected – may just have run out of steam when the political hill climb is becoming the toughest.

Admittedly everything in Washington is an echo chamber and, while the intensity of the political game is greater inside the Beltway, the political reality is that more than a year and half into his term Obama – and his team – have ceased to be able to drive the national narrative.

A Republican friend, genuinely amazed by Obama’s legislative accomplishments and astounded by the White House inability to shape the national dialogue, said it well. The White House hasn’t had a week on message in weeks.

From the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to the ham handed firing of an African-American women in the Department of Agriculture to the Muslim cultural center in New York the White House seems always to be reacting to events and even then can’t get a coherent message out. Fellow Democrats aren’t helping. The ethics scandal surrounding Charley Rangel, and now Maxine Waters, seems sure to dominate the political narrative for weeks to come.

Add on the polls. According to Gallup, Obama, at 46% or so approval, is in the pre-mid-term range with Bill Clinton in 1994, Lyndon Johnson in 1966 and Reagan in 1982. Democrats lost 53 seats in ’94 and 47 seats in ’66. Republicans dropped 28 seats with the Gipper in the White House in ’82.

There are two indispensable qualities most politicians need and many lack – self deprecation and self awareness. The impression has settled in that Obama is cold and aloof. Where some see smart and thoughtful, many others see above the fray, out of touch, elitist or, worst perhaps, someone so sure of himself as to be too sure of himself.

It is a deadly combination this aloofness and sureness, if it sticks.

Todd Purdum, the former New York Times White House correspondent, has a
great political junkie piece in the current Vanity Fair. Purdum, after interviewing most of the top Obama brain trust, comes away thinking that the President is going to keep on keeping on. He’s made a calculated decision to try and play the Washington game differently. As Purdum concludes:

“Obama’s gamble is that, if you look after the doing of the presidency, the selling of the presidency will look after itself. The short-term price may come in stalled poll numbers, electoral setbacks, and endless contradictory advice from the kibitzers. The payoff, if there is one, lies out on some future horizon. Obama may be right about this strategy, or he may be wrong. But it is the strategy he is following nonetheless.”

It is a gamble and I think the President could help himself and those of us who at least don’t wish him to fail if he let us inside the thinking that shapes his gamble. He could also learn from others who held the office and ended up successful in history and on policy.

John Kennedy had the remarkable ability to poke fun at himself at news conferences and to be genuinely self deprecating. He once quipped, as Jackie was received like a Princess on a trip to France, that he was merely the guy who accompanied his attractive wife to Paris.

Ronald Reagan had an actor’s timing and sense of humor and both qualities never failed to serve him well.

When Franklin Roosevelt, the truest patrician to ever occupy the White House, died in 1945 a distraught mourner was asked if he had personally known the president. No, the man answered, but he knew me. Good quality for a successful president.

Obama needs to remind Americans why so many of them found him an appealing candidate in the first place. His exuberance. His ability to get off a good line, often at his own expense. His candor about race and his sense of reality about how tough the problems really are. A case in point. Rather than ignore the ridiculous charge from some in the Tea Party crowd that he is a “socialist,” Obama would be better off to find a funny and engaging way to point out just how nonsensical the notion really is.

He also needs to resurrect the prime time news conference from the East Room. Take the questions. Bat aside the silly ones. Call on FOX News and join the dance. Above all educate the country about our hard choices. The guy got elected, after all, in no small part because he made a lot more sense most of the time than an angry, snarling John McCain.

The headline on Purdum’s Vanity Fair article is Washington, We Have a Problem. We do.

If Barack Obama really hopes to change Washington, and have a second term to do it, he has to adapt a good deal more than he has or than he appears inclined to do.

It may be time – or past time – to ask those smart guys who helped get him elected: Now what?