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An Earlier "Tea Party"

American Liberty LeagueLessons from the 1930’s

Both Barack Obama and Franklin Roosevelt began their presidency by inheriting a country in economic meltdown. Both were Washington, D.C. outsiders who had mobilized broad, new coalitions in order to reach the White House. Both achieved dramatic legislative successes in their first two years in office. Both engendered tremendous right of center opposition bordering on genuine hatred.

Obama spawned the Tea Party movement in 2009. FDR provided the catalyst for something called the American Liberty League in 1934. The two movements, separated by more than 75 years, have as much in common as the circumstances of the Obama and Roosevelt presidencies. The language each used – focused on the Constitution the Founders envisioned, the threat to the country from “socialist” policies, and the insidious hand of big government – is nearly interchangeable, at times eerily so.

In their book – All But the People – George Wolfskill and John Hudson described the leaders of the anti-FDR Liberty League as focused on the Constitution and private property and convinced that the country was bound for socialism or fascism, or both.

In the mid-1930’s, leaders of the Liberty League were convinced that FDR was trampling on the Constitution and, as Wolfskill and Hudson wrote in their 1969 book, the country was “on the brink of chaos, threatened by bankruptcy, socialism, dictatorship, and tyranny” there is a “trend toward Fascist control” of the economy and on top of all that the banking industry had been taken over by the federal government.

One Tea Party website today says: “In this current day and age of politics many of (our) freedoms and liberties have come under attack, and are in danger of being taken away altogether. The Constitution of the United States, which is the definitive document that governs all of America, is routinely violated, disregarded, and trampled on by the very persons we have elected to defend and uphold it.”

New Deal historian David Woolner has written: “In hundreds of published pamphlets, the (Liberty) League often sent mixed or contradictory messages, variously accusing the New Deal of being inspired by fascism, socialism or communism, and the President’s leadership of being so strong that it was tantamount to the establishment of a dictatorship, or so weak that he rendered himself unable to ward off the sinister influence of his socialistic advisers.”

Hard times – in 1934 or 2010 – engender uncertainty and, yes, some chaos. It has happened before in our history. One thing that is different from FDR’s day to ours is that the Democratic president in 1934 had no hesitancy to take on those who came at him. The country didn’t dissolve, despite the overheated rhetoric, into “socialism” or “fascism” and the Constitution has survived. FDR fought back against his critics and, even with a new wave of New Deal revisionism underway, has been vindicated by history.

Roosevelt seemed to almost relish the battle with his opponents. He attacked the Liberty League as agents of Wall Street and he termed his well-funded opponents as the “malefactors of great wealth” who did not care about those less fortunate. When FDR ran for re-election in 1936 he famously said: “Never before in all our history have these forces (the anti-New Deal, Roosevelt forces) been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me – and I welcome their hatred.” Talk about a bring ’em on statement.

New Deal scholar Woolner noted recently, “President Obama has chosen not to take on the Tea Party with anything like the same rhetorical conviction, preferring to take a more reasoned as opposed to emotional approach to a remarkably similar anti-government backlash in a time of crisis. This might be more in keeping with his style of governance, but it may be a decision he will live to regret come November.”

Two lessons here. One, politics is a contact sport. If you are not pushing back on your opponents, you are most often loosing ground. Two, Americans reward conviction, not process.

Obama has a narrowing window to recast the last year or so as being about what FDR said in 1934, getting the country on sound footing and taking care of those Americans who don’t need a handout, but a hand up. Roosevelt vigorously defended his activist government as what was needed when the country faced enormous economic and social challenges.

Obama’s term so far has often been defined by “process” – the legislative process to write a health care bill, the process to find a path forward in Afghanistan, the process to cap an oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. Process isn’t politics. Emotion and conviction are.

Harry Truman said “the only thing new in this world is the history you don’t know.”

Franklin Roosevelt’s response to the American Liberty League in 1934 offers a playbook for the current president. Has he read the history?


Weekend Potpourri

Jerry BrownJerry Brown, Raul Labrador and the Boss

Politics is a fascinating business. Many of us – me included – bemoan the ungodly length and expense of the campaigns of our political process, but you have to admit this much: a long, grueling campaign can provide a glimpse of the real character of the candidates.

Take Jerry Brown, for instance. Brown may be in the midst of making one of the classic mistakes in politics – assuming too much. The San Francisco Chronicle has an interesting story on Brown’s troubles connecting with folks who don’t remember him from his earlier days as governor of the ungovernable nation of California. Brown is hazy on policy specifics, its said, and his claim to be the candidate of experience rings hollow for those under 40 who just don’t know what this old guy is all about.

A couple of years in politics in a long, long time. A decade or more is a lifetime. Jerry Brown is finding, as I’ve noted before here, that a comeback in politics is darn tough. Newer voters don’t know you, many of those who do know you wonder if you have any new ideas and, of course, your enemies seem to be the only voters with really long memories.

Polls and Money in Idaho’s First

Raul Labrador, the GOP candidate in Idaho’s First Congressional District, did something unusual this week – he touted a poll that showed him ten points behind incumbent Democratic Congressman Walt Minnick. Candidates tend to tout polls that show them in the lead or, at least, within striking distance.

Labrador’s pollster, the respected Oregonian Bob Moore, did note in the release on his research that the challenger’s challenge is to become as well known and as well liked as Minnick.

The real news in Bob’s survey, seems to me, is that Minnick is “personally well liked” by 52% of the voters polled in the First District. His negative score was 21%. Right now, any incumbent will take those numbers to the bank and Minnick has. The other major news in this race this week is that Minnick has a million bucks in the bank. Labrador has less than $69,000. That won’t buy much name recognition for a challenger who needs to become better known.

So Long to the Boss…

When I heard on Tuesday that long-time New York Yankee owner George Steinbrenner had died, I have to admit my first reaction was – just like “the Boss” to die the morning of the Major League All-Star game. What timing. His bigger than life story would dominate the mid-summer classic and overshadow a rare National League win. It could have been the storyline of a Seinfeld episode.

I come genetically by my dislike for the Bronx Bombers. My Dad taught me a good deal of what I know about the great game and his genes held the DNA of a Yankee hater. It would only follow that I’d never have much use for George and his antics.

I remember quizzing Dad about some of the all-time greats of the game. I asked about DiMaggio who, Dad admitted, was a “great player, but also a #@&* Yankee.” Enough said.

Still, as George departs for whatever rewards await a Major League baseball team owner, we need to give the ol’ boy his due. Steinbrenner burnished one of the greatest “brands” in sports, maybe in business – period. He insisted in perfection. OK, perhaps boorishly at times, but he hated not to win and found anything but winning unacceptable.

Perhaps he can’t take the World Series victories with him, but Steinbrenner – I hope – enjoyed them while he could. We will not, I suspect, see another like him. God rest his soul and go Red Sox.

Last Call

prohibitionThe Rule of Unintended Consequences

Most students of 20th Century American history know that the 18th Amendment to the Constitution – Prohibition – helped spawn the rise of organized crime. Al Capone, Mayer Lansky and Lucky Luciano, not to mention a host of lesser crooks and thugs, owed their spectacular rise to the misguided reformers of the 1920’s who thought they could put the Constitution between a thirsty citizen and a bottle of rye.

But until I popped open Daniel Okrent’s fascinating new book – Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition – did I realize that so much else has resulted from the great experiment to do away with booze in America.

Take, for example, the rise of the now ubiquitous Walgreen’s Drugstore. You can find a Walgreen’s on every other corner in many U.S. cities today and we can thank Prohibition for that. Okrent notes that Chicago-based Charles Walgreen had built his “chain from nine locations in 1916 to twenty just four years later.” Family history says it was the introduction of the Walgreen’s milkshake that drove the chain’s remarkable growth spurt in the 1920’s, but it wasn’t milkshakes alone that allowed Walgreen to operate 525 stores by the end of the decade.

Physicians prescribing “medicinal” alcohol had a lot to do with the rise of the drugstore chain. Doctors typically charged two bucks for a script for a pint of whiskey and the local pharmacist filled the order. That must have been almost as good as a modern day Viagra concession.

Prohibition also sped the evolution of the speedboat, something like the kind George H.W. Bush ran aground yesterday on the Maine Coast. Rum runners needed the extra horsepower to outrun the Coast Guard along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Many of the big names in today’s California wine industry – Mondavi, Beaulieu, Wente – thrived during the 1920’s thanks to the dramatic increase in the consumption of “sacramental” wine. Jewish “wine congregations” suddenly appeared around the country.

Okrent also makes an effective case that modern coalition politics can trace its dry roots to Prohibition. A motley and unlikely crew of anti-booze zealots, women’s suffrage advocates, progressive reformers in favor of an income tax and even the Ku Klux Klan, came together to convince the Congress, and then most state legislatures, to end the liquor trade.

We know how this story ends. It didn’t work. Yet both political parties and politicians as diverse as William Jennings Bryan, Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding went along with a national wave that, while politically expedient was also really stupid.

Okrent – he is the former Public Editor of the New York Times – writes with genuine insight based on exhaustive research. He quotes the Mayor of Boise and bar owners in Butte; the Governor of Utah and the sheriff of King County, Washington and paints wonderful portraits of the cast of characters that drove the politics and the policy.

George Will recently called Okrent’s book “darkly hilarious” and it is downright laugh out loud funny at times. One big-time bootlegger in New York was so impressed with the closing arguments of the prosecutor who was trying to put him in jail that he told the lawyer, “I almost think I should be convicted.”

Will also said, and its true, that Prohibition was doomed from the start.

“After 13 years, Prohibition, by then reduced to an alliance between evangelical Christians and criminals, was washed away by “social nullification” – a tide of alcohol – and by the exertions of wealthy people like Pierre du Pont who hoped that the return of liquor taxes would be accompanied by lower income taxes. (They were.) Ex-bootleggers found new business opportunities in the southern Nevada desert. And in the Second World War, draft boards exempted brewery workers as essential to the war effort.”

By 1932, the fizz had gone completely out of Prohibition and Franklin Roosevelt, in the political parlance of the time a “dry-wet” – he supported Prohibition, but also enjoyed a martini (with entirely too much vermouth, according to contemporaries) – could openly call for repeal. The photo at the top of this post is of the caustic columnist H.L. Mencken drinking to the end of Prohibition in his hometown of Baltimore, a place that never, even remotely, took to the notion of no booze. Mencken pronounced his first drink – make that legal drink – “pretty good – not bad at all.”

Prohibition, like so much of our history, is a cautionary tale. Excess in almost everything is a bad idea. It is hard – impossible maybe – to redirect basic human instinct; harder yet to ban a substance that many enjoy responsibily and fundamentally think should be no one’s business save their own. Prohibition proves that there are limits to what governments can do.

Last Call, a good summer read, full of insight into American politics and culture, is – pardon the pun – spirited. It might even go a bit better with a drink of something. You choose.

Honoring Borglum

BorglumArt and Politics in a Different Time

You can be forgiven if you didn’t know that Idaho has a Hall of Fame. Apparently the group only gets real attention when they decide, as they did in 2007 and again last week, to honor an individual with Idaho connections who has generated controversy.

The last time the group was in the news, they had decided to induct Larry Craig into the Hall while the former senator was still daily enduring the brunt of jokes from late night comedians.

This year its Mt. Rushmore sculptor John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum who has generated the headlines because of his 1920’s ties to the Ku Klux Klan. Borglum, born in Bear Lake County, Idaho Territory in 1867, was a man of enormous talent, even greater ambition and – I know this will be a shock – some serious shortcomings as a person.

As the superb PBS series The American Experience noted when it broadcast a piece on Mt. Rushmore some time back, “Borglum liked to tinker with his own legend, subtracting a few years from his age, changing the story of his parentage. The best archival research has revealed that he was born in 1867 to one of the wives of a Danish Mormon bigamist. When his father decided to conform to societal norms that were pressing westward with the pioneers, he abandoned Gutzon’s mother, and remained married to his first wife, her sister.”

The rest of Borglum’s life was just as confused and, frankly, in keeping with the west of mythology, just as disordered and contradictory. Why else would a elfin-size man consider it possible (not to mention desirable) to carve 60 foot high heads of American presidents on the side of a slab of granite in the Black Hills of South Dakota? Borglum also believed he had the ability and political skill to create a monument to the heros of the Confederacy at Stone Mountain, Georgia. That’s where the Idaho native met up with the Klan.

Carving portraits on the sides of mountains requires some kind of ego, not to mention showmanship, artistic and engineering skill, political connections and impossibly good public relations. Borglum had all that and then some.

I grew up in the shadow of Mt. Rushmore, a National Monument about 25 miles from Rapid City. The monument, to my eyes, is one of the most fascinating tourist sites in the United States and draws nearly 3 million visitors every year. Yet, the place is an incredible study in contradiction. At Mt. Rushmore, it requires real effort not to confront all the tension and dissention inherent in the American story.

When the project was dedicated by President Calvin Coolidge in the summer of 1927 he cast Borglum’s breathtakingly complex endeavor in patriotic, nationalistic terms.

“Its location will be significant,” Coolidge said. “Here in the heart of the continent, on the side of a mountain which probably no white man had ever beheld in the days of Washington, in territory which was acquired by the action of Jefferson, which remained an unbroken wilderness beyond the days of Lincoln, which was especially beloved by Roosevelt, the people of the future will see history and art combined to portray the spirit of patriotism.”

Silent Cal lavished praise on the “people of South Dakota” and the four American presidents who would soon take their places on the mountain. He did not deign to mention the Lakota Sioux, the original “people of South Dakota” who considered – still consider – the Black Hills theirs by right of a treaty signed with the United States government in 1868.

So, in the extreme, Borglum’s incredible artistic and engineering accomplishment is a shrine to American democracy and all the best that stands for and a mountain-sized reminder of what the “American” experience has meant for Native Americans.

Borglum story was every bit as much a contradiction as the story of his greatest accomplishment. All the news coverage of Borglum’s induction into the Idaho Hall of Fame prominently mentioned, as it should have, his involvement with the Klan while he was attempting to construct what eventually became the Stone Mountain Memorial in Georgia – a monument to Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis.

The Idaho Statesman’s Kevin Richert and the editorial page of the Idaho State Journal chided the Hall of Fame pickers for, at a minimum, a lack of due diligence in selecting Borglum for any honor.

Here’s my take. The Klan represents a ugly, ugly period in American history, but it is our history and a fair and more complete – not to mention more interesting – reading of that history requires us to struggle with context and motivation. The “perfect” vision afforded by hindsight can blind us to nuance. History, after all, is often about finding a balance; in Borglum’s case human frailty versus great accomplishment.

Borglum, a politician as much as a sculptor, surely felt he needed both the political and financial help of the Klan in Georgia in the early 1920’s if he were to succeed with his Stone Mountain tribute. The three Americans honored there, not to put too fine a point on it, had participated in an effort to violently overthrow the government of the United States. And Stone Mountain isn’t just another hunk of granite. The modern Klan was re-born in a ceremony on top of the mountain in 1915.

Borglum took on the Stone Mountain project for several reasons; for money no doubt, surely for prestige, maybe even for his art. He set out to create an heroic monument to the leaders of the War of Rebellion at the same time he was contemplating a monument to one of the presidents who put down that rebellion. In the process, in the case of Stone Mountain, he made a deal with the Klan. Today we might well say Borglum made a deal with the devil and, yes, you might get an entirely different read on these same details in part of the old Confederacy. That, too, is part of our history.

Consider one more contradiction. Borglum abandoned work on Stone Mountain in 1923 in large part because of financial disagreements with the project’s sponsors. He had also gotten enthused about the prospects of an even more grandiose art project in the Black Hills championed by a very progressive Republican United States Senator named Peter Norbeck. Norbeck, a friend and political supporter of Teddy Roosevelt and his brand of liberal GOP politics, worked – most of the time, anyway – closely with Borglum to push the Mt. Rushmore project and raise money to complete the monument. Norbeck in his politics and priorities was about as far removed from the Klan as South Dakota is from Georgia.

In 1924, to further confound the modern reader of Borglum’s life, the sculptor happily endorsed the presidential aspirations of Wisconsin Senator Robert M. La Follette who ran as a third party candidate on the Progressive ticket. Borglum cast quarter-sized bronze reliefs of the very liberal La Follette and his equally liberal running mate Sen. Burton K. Wheeler of Montana. The likenesses of the two progressives – they supported strong unions, child labor laws and a non-interventionist foreign policy – were used as campaign buttons and you can still occasionally find Borglum’s handsome work in second hand shops or on eBay.

It’s also worth noting that during that 1924 election only the Progressive Party platform condemned the Klan. The Democratic and Republican platforms were silent because, rather than condemn the white sheet crowd, the major parties actually hoped to appeal to Klan members.

As historian Stanley Coben has pointed out, in the 1920’s the Klan “enrolled more members in Connecticut than in Mississippi, more in Oregon than in Louisiana, and more in New Jersey than in Alabama.” In the 1920’s, Klan backed candidates won races for governor in Oregon, Kansas and Colorado.

Shakespeare wrote, “the evil men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.”

Borglum, as is well document, had many flaws, including ego and self aggrandizement and he flirted, and maybe more, with the Klan. We have been recently reminded that as a young, ambitious man, the late, great Sen. Robert Byrd did much the same. Hugo Black, arguably one of the greatest Supreme Court justices in our history, and certainly one of the greatest civil libertarians to ever grace the Court, had to explain his Klan membership in 1937. He spent the rest of his days living it down.

We shouldn’t excuse such errors of judgment, youthful indiscretion or rank opportunism, but a fair reading of history – and in this case Gutzon Borglum’s accomplishments – also requires consideration of the man’s total life. If further proof of Borglum’s artistic achievement it necessary, note that he sculpted two of the 100 statues in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall. This guy, born near Paris, Idaho, had some serious talent.

Borglum and the Klan are part of our history; the good and the not so good. So too the mountain he carved on disputed ground in the Black Hills of Lakota territory featuring other worthy – and very human – white men Washington, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson. Turns out our history is just as confused and contradictory as Gutzon Borglum’s.

The Worst Idea in Politics

GossettGovernors Appointing Themselves

The recent death of Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia has many, many consequences. For example, until his replacement is decided, Byrd’s seat – the 60th Democratic seat in the Senate – deprives the majority of the vote needed to stop a filibuster. Also, depending on how things play in West Virginia, the “safe” Byrd seat could be a seat Democrats have to protect, particularly if there is a special election in the fall.

Nothing upsets a state’s politics quite like a Senate vacancy, which brings me to the fellow pictured nearby – Governor then Senator Charles Gossett of Idaho.

As I noted in a post a few months back, Gossett is one of two Northwesterners – Montana’s John Erickson being the other – who engineered their own appointments to the U.S. Senate. It is a horrible idea and nearly always fatal to the politician doing the engineering.

Perhaps this is why West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, who reportedly longs for Byrd’s Senate seat, has repeatedly ruled out appointing himself. Maybe that self awareness helps explain the governor’s 70% approval rating in the Mountaineer State. Still, the state’s AFL-CIO, among others, has publicly called for Manchin to reconsider. Bad idea, Governor.

Nine governors have tried the, “gee, I think I’ll appoint myself to the Senate” approach. Eight of them subsequently lost a primary or the very next opportunity to confront the voters, Gossett and Erickson included.

Only one governor has been able to pull off this political slight of hand, Kentucky’s Albert B. “Happy” Chandler in 1939. Chandler went on to win a special election and then a full term and then resigned his Senate seat in 1945 to become Commissioner of Baseball. It says all one needs to know about Chandler’s Senate career that he is best remembered for succeeding Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis and approving Jackie Robinson’s major league contract in 1947, but that’s another story.

At least one very promising political career ended when a governor appointed himself to the Senate. In 1977, Minnesota Gov. Wendell Anderson, a rising star in national Democratic politics, decided he was the best choice to replace Walter Mondale who had left his Senate seat vacant when he was elected Vice President.

Anderson, handsome, well-spoken, known to Minnesotans as “Wendy”, had graced the cover of TIME magazine in 1973 while wearing a plaid shirt and holding a big ol’ northern pike. Anderson, it seemed, was a young man with a bright political future. It all ended with the “Minnesota Massacre” of 1978. The Minnesota Democratic Farmer-Labor Party – the DFL – suffered a shackling at the polls that year. Anderson lost the Senate election and his former Lt. Governor, Rudy Perpich, who had facilitated Wendy’s Senate aspirations, lost the Governor’s race. The voters took out their resentment on politicians who were seen as too smart by half. Generally speaking, voters hate an inside deal. In the Minnesota case, once they had punished him, voters did give Perpich a second chance. He came back to win and go on to become the state’s longest serving governor.

When a Senate vacancy occurs, it must be tempting for a governor having won a statewide race, having built a political organization, to look in the mirror and think: “there is no one better for this job.”

History says there are better choices – and they include anyone but the governor.

Political Movies

The Best ManPolitics on the Big Screen

It’s been a while since Hollywood produced a really good political film. With the exception of Primary Colors and Frost/Nixon, I’m hard pressed to name another really good recent film with a political theme. I’ve got to go back to the 60’s to begin my “best of the best” list.

So, lets go to the movies and consider politics on the big screen.

Gore Vidal, to the extent he is remembered at all these days, is recalled as a relic of the 60’s thanks to his feuds with Norman Mailer, his lefty politics, etc. Vidal, a really fine writers, deserves much better, not least for his play – and screenplay – for one of the best political movies ever – The Best Man.

The 1964 movie has a superb cast – Henry Fonda, Cliff Robertson and Lee Tracy (who won an Academy Award). Order it up on Netflix and revel in the black and white, 1960’s atmosphere of a vicious campaign for the White House. See if you can match up the characters with the real politicos of the time. JFK, Truman and Stevenson, according to some, were Vidal’s inspiration. It is a very good film and good political theater featuring a cameo from the great ABC newsman Howard K. Smith. If Vidal did nothing else in his long, literary life (and he did) this screen play would stand alone as a worthy piece of work, worthy of a great writing career. One of my all-time favorite movies, and a great play, too.

Other favorite “political” movies:

  • Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the Frank Capra classic from 1939. Capra had the misfortune to make his great political film in the same year with Gone with the Wind, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Stagecoach and The Wizard of Oz, among others. Still the story of naive, freshman Sen. Jefferson Smith endures. True story, members of the Senate hated – absolutely loathed – Capra’s film. Majority Leader Alben Barkley went to the premier in Washington, D.C, left in a huff and condemned the movie the next day as an outrage. Senators didn’t behave like that, Barkley fumed, and Capra had dishonored the U.S. Senate. Then, as now, the Senators didn’t get it. The public loved Capra’s film. The filibuster scene, Jimmy Stewart in a sweat trying to uphold the honor of the world’s great deliberative body, is a classic of American cinema.

  • Seven Days in May. The John Frankenheimer film, also from 1964, is a classic story of ambition, honor and respect for the American tradition of civilian control of the military. Kirk Douglas is superb as the Marine colonel who helps thwart a military coup. The authors, Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey, reportedly got the idea for their novel after interviewing Air Force Gen. Curtis “bomb them back to the stone age” LeMay. JFK read the book and thought it not all that unthinkable that the kind of military coup depicted in the film could occur in the USA. Great film, cautionary tale

  • In 1957, Andy Griffith – yes, that Andy Griffith – starred in a terrific movie – A Face in the Crowd. Elia Kazin directed the film as an early cautionary tale about the incredible power of television as a source of personal power and political propaganda. The film has a great cast, including the wonderful Lee Remick in her debut role. As a post-McCarthy piece of Hollywood magic, this is a a great film.

  • And, number five – so many to chose from – Judgment at Nuremburg, All the President’s Men, Michael Collins, Citizen Kane, but I have to pick All the Kings Men, the original version from 1949 with Broderick Crawford. A not-so-fictionalize account of the career of Huey P. Long, the film was based on the Robert Penn Warren novel of the same name. It won the Best Picture of 1950 and awards for the top actors, too. A great story about political power and the good, and not so good, it can accomplish.

So many films, so little time. If you love politics and the great American story, any of these will be worth a couple of hours. I’m betting you’ll still be thinking and talking about them days after the credits fade. See you at the movies.