A Really Bad Idea

clarkTea Partiers Want to Do Away With Direct Election of Senators? Come on…

The fellow to the left should be the poster boy for why repealing the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is a really, really nutty idea.

William Andrews Clark was one of the original robber barons of the American West, a Montana Copper King, a genuine scoundrel and a United States Senator thanks to the money he spent buying a few state legislators and his ticket into the world’s greatest deliberative body.

Now – brace yourselves – the Tea Party movement is advocating, you can’t make this stuff up, doing away with direct election of U.S. Senators. Even more off the wall, the two top candidates for the GOP nomination for Congress in Idaho’s First Congressional district have endorsed the idea as has Idaho’s governor. These folks must be drinking something stronger than tea.

William Edgar Borah, one of the greatest United States Senators, lead the charge in the early 1900’s to amend the Constitution to take away from state legislators the power to elect United States Senators. Borah was a progressive – that would be a dirty word for many Tea Partiers – who believed that the power to make Senators ought to reside with the people, not a tiny group of elected officials (legislators) subject to the influence and money of special interests, raw politics, deal making and close door decision making. He fought for the amendment for years before it was finally passed.

Now, apparently harboring the misguided notion that letting legislators elect U.S. Senators would somehow strengthen states rights, the Tea Party movement is all over repealing Borah’s historic handiwork.

Borah’s biographer Marian McKenna writes this about the Idahoan’s effort to put the American people in charge of deciding who serves in the U.S. Senate.

“The feeble and corrupt, he wrote,will always be found in personal government, but in a true democracy neither incompetence nor dishonesty will long remain unexposed. ‘What judgment is so swift, so sure and so remorseless as the judgment of the American people?'” Indeed.

The founders wrote the state legislature election process into the Constitution because they wanted to ensure one house of the national legislature would be dominated by an elite. The House of Representatives would be for the common people, the Senate for the new American nobility. The provision stayed in the Constitution for so long, in part, because southerners worried that African-Americans would influence the popular vote for members of the Senate.

Borah disliked the lack of direct election for the same reason William Andrews Clark loved the idea. Borah knew he could stand a chance getting elected if the people were passing judgment, if a bunch of small-time pols in the legislature did the selecting they would often be subject to deals, pressure and money. Clark used all three to seal – or steal – his election in Montana at the turn of the 20th Century.

Do candidates like those in Idaho who have endorsed this idea really think we ought to disenfranchise the people and let a simple majority of the 105 members of the Idaho Legislature elect our U.S. Senators? If they do, they haven’t read any history. They need to.

Can you imagine the wheeling and dealing in the state legislature around a U.S. Senate seat? I’ll vote for your guy if you support the appropriation for my community college? You want your bill to see the light of day, better support my guy for the Senate?

The state legislature – any state legislature – is capable of more than enough mischief, thank you, without trusting them to elect our U.S. Senators. I really hope the otherwise serious people who are supporting this idea are merely guilty of pandering to the movement of the moment. If they are serious, the tea they’re drinking has fermented.

Collaborate or Litigate

Life in the WestAndrus Conference Considers A Better Way

If you want a sense of how often public policy in the American West regarding land use or the environment is made in a courtroom, just Google the name of any one of the last half dozen Secretaries of the Interior.

You’ll get lots of hits: Alaska v. Babbitt or Defenders of Wildlife v. Kempthorne or Andrus v. Shell Oil Company. Much of the litigation results from a legitimate need to sort out claims to competing rights. My right to use the land or drill for oil versus some other right to protect a species or complete a process.

But a good deal of the litigation over what we might broadly call “the environment” comes about because legitimate competing interests can’t find a basic level of trust in the other side to try and sit down and hash out a compromise that leaves the lawyers advising rather than suing. That may be changing a little as so called “collaborative processes” produce significant win-win situations in various places in the West.

Last Saturday’s Andrus Center conference in Boise highlighted two successful and very different collaborations in Idaho.

One – the Owyhee Initiative - resulted in legislation that both protects some of the most spectacular river canyon country in the U.S. and helps preserve a rural way of life in the rugged ranching country of southwestern Idaho. Fred Grant, a property rights lawyer who worked for eight years on the collaboration, told the conference his willingness to come to the table with the once-hated enviros had cost him friends, but the payoff had been worth all the heartburn and hard work.

The second collaboration has been underway in eastern Idaho in the Henry’s Fork drainage where irrigators, environmentalists and federal agencies meet regularly to work through water and habitat issues. They’re not looking for legislation, but rather a constructive forum to work on problems. With the Henry’s Fork Watershed Council they seem to have found the forum.

The Idaho Statesman’s Rocky Barker covered the conference that also featured Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell and BLM Director Bob Abbey. Rocky’s piece today offers more insight into how the collaborative process is working in the Henry’s Fork basin.

Over the next few weeks the Andrus Center – I serve as the Center’s volunteer president – will distill the innovative thinking from the conference, produce a “white paper” and engage a working group in an attempt to create more forward progress focused on collaboration rather than litigation. Look for more follow up.

Collaboration that solves problems and builds trust has to gain more traction in an American West where fundamental values – open space, wildlife habitat, clean air and water, working landscapes that support ranching and resource utilization – are in danger in a changing economy and a changing climate.

To some, as former Idaho Governor Cecil Andrus likes to say, the word “compromise” is an unclean concept. But, if you believe as I do, that personal relationships built on trust are what ultimately make the world go round, then finding a way to collaborate and not litigate really is the path to a better future in the often contentious American West.

The Great Twain

TwainClothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society. - Mark Twain

Of all the incredibly funny things he said, that is my single favorite Mark Twain quote. I smile every time I see it.

April has been Mark Twain month. I’ve seen articles about his death 100 years ago this month. His love of baseball. He was an investor in the Hartford Dark Blues, a team that folded after one season. The local newspaper said his investment in the shaky enterprise had firmly established his reputation as a humorist. Ouch.

There are an embarrassment of new books about Twain. Stories about the fabulous house, now a museum, he built in Hartford. Controversy over naming a cove on Lake Tahoe after him. And always the quotes.

“I am only human,” he said, “although I regret it.”

No less a writer than Ernest Hemingway said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn…”

One of the best new books is Mark Twain: Man in White by Michael Shelden. Shelden tells the story of Twain’s last years as a celebrity and how he came to wear the snow white suits we now identify as part of his “brand.” I have been reading the book and completely enjoying the story of a man of immense talent, big ego, huge humor and breathtaking originality. Shelden makes the case that Twain managed his own image as carefully as his prose.

My friends at the Idaho Humanities Council are devoting their summer institute for Idaho teachers to Why Mark Twain Still Matters. Watch for more information on public events during the week-long event in July.

Before Mark Twain there never was anything like him and there hasn’t been since. He may have been the ultimate American original. Go read him again and read about him. You’ll be better for it and, as Mom would say, “it will be good for you,” but most of all it will be great fun.

Much of what Mark Twain said more than a hundred years ago still seems relevant, like this which wasn’t said, but might have been, about Washington, D.C. and Goldman Sachs.

“The political and commercial morals of the United States are not merely food for laughter, they are an entire banquet.”

Oh, yes, Twain coined the term “Gilded Age” when talking about the economic excesses of the late 1800’s. The guy has been dead for a century, but he’s as fresh as this morning’s headlines.

Immigration Politics

immigrationA Short-term Bounce, Bad Long-term Politics

No matter your feelings regarding the merits of a single state – Arizona – taking action on immigration, there can be no doubt that what the state legislature and governor have done in the land of the Grand Canyon has set off another raging national debate. Boycotts are threatened. Lawsuits are planned.

Makes you wonder, as Linda Greenhouse wrote, what the ol’ libertarian Barry Goldwater would have thought about a bill that requires police to ask a person they only suspect of immigration violations for their papers.

The Arizona law has also, I suspect, firmly cemented the partisanship of immigration politics to the long-term detriment of the GOP.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who signed the controversial legislation, had hardly gotten her pen back in her pocket before some of the more strategic thinkers in the Republican Party – Jeb Bush a Floridian and Karl Rove a Texan – declared Arizona’s sweeping immigration legislation a big political mistake. The GOP’s U.S. Senate hope in Florida almost immediately put distant between the Arizona action and his candidacy. With a name like Marco Rubio that may not really be a big surprise, but it does signal a Republican problem.

Here’s why these Republican luminaries are worried. The demographics of America continue to change – and rapidly. According to the Pew Center’s profile of the nation’s Hispanic population, Hispanics now comprise at least 10% of the population in Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Utah. In Nevada, Hispanics make up 26% of the population. In Arizona, the number is 30% and in California its 37%. No wonder Meg Whitman, the California GOP gubernatorial candidate, immediately said there are better ways to address the issue than the Arizona approach.

The median age of the Hispanic population in Idaho is 22 and other states are slightly above or below that number. The median age of native born Hispanics in Idaho is 15. Ninety percent of young Hispanics in Arizona are U.S. citizens. Do the political math. The Hispanic population is growing. These are young families and in a decade or so they will be voting in much larger numbers than today.

The immigration legislation in Arizona may crystallize what is potentially a very tight race between Brewer and state Attorney General Terry Goddard, a Democrat. Depending upon the poll and the day, the lead in race is in constant flux. The debate in the great Southwest could also sharpen the partisan divide nationally as Democrats generally oppose the Arizona effort. By contrast, the GOP is all over the map.

For a long time the conventional political wisdom about this issue has held that the only real risk for a candidate was being too soft on immigration and that may hold for a while, but it is hard to argue with the numbers and the trends. If Democrats want a comeback strategy in a place like ruby red Idaho, they best start with understanding the demographics and aspirations of the growing Hispanic population. These Americans – and a generation of new voters – are up for grabs and Republicans, in Arizona at least, have sent a message – they’re not interested.

Democrats best get out the clip boards and start walking the neighborhood. Arizona just handed them an opportunity to organize, organize and organize. They don’t need to be in favor of anything except fairness and equal opportunity, old American values that will appeal to the fastest growing group of Americans.

The courts will eventually decide whether Arizona’s law is, as Rove suggested, fraught with Constitutional problems. The court of Hispanic public opinion may already be set to render a verdict that is fraught with real long-term political problems for Republicans.

A Reputation in Tatters

ambroseAmbrose Accused of Faking It

I’ve always had a soft spot for Stephen Ambrose the author of Undaunted Courage, the book that did more than anything, I think, to bring Lewis and Clark back from the dusty corners of American and Western history.

I have a vivid memory of visiting Ambrose at his summer place in Helena, Montana some years ago. It was a treat to be invited into his “office” – if I remember correctly a converted garage – where he wrote and where a photo of Dwight D. Eisenhower hung prominently on the wall.

Ambrose was a little on the gruff side, outspoken, but still gracious. He signed a couple of his books for me that day. At least, that’s how I remember it going. Then again, maybe I embellished the memory a little in the interest of making the experience a bit more, well, interesting.

I’ve been questioning my own memory about that meeting since I read, with more than a touch of sorrow, Richard Rayner’s piece in The New Yorker making a very solid case that Ambrose fabricated (embellished, made up, lied about) the level of interaction he had with Eisenhower during the time he was writing the general-president’s biography. Until now, the Ambrose works on Eisenhower have been considered the definitive story of Ike’s military and political career. No more.

Rayner documents, with the help of the meticulous records Ike’s assistants kept, of the very limited amount of time the historian spent with the former president in the 1960’s. Ambrose claimed hundreds of hours. The records show maybe five hours. The documentary evidence even calls into question Ambrose’s oft told story about how he came to write about Eisenhower.

As a result, as James Palmer notes, “everything Ambrose claimed Eisenhower said, including quotes that have often been used by other historians, must now be taken as false.”

Those who occasionally check in at this spot know that I am passionate about history. I have come to really disdain what some have called the American propensity for “historical amnesia.” It is a big part – and I don’t believe I overstate the case – of the reason our politics, our political discourse and our understanding of why things are as they are seems so limited so much of the time. A lack of historical perspective failed to inform the country about the dangers of going into Iraq, it recently led a governor of Virginia to proclaim Confederate History Month and forget to mention slavery, it permits a clown like Glenn Beck to get away with equating the Catholic (and other religions) tradition of social justice with “socialism.”

For the most part, Americans don’t know their history. So when popular historians like Stephen Ambrose find a wide following – he sold over 5 million books – a history buff can only rejoice that more people are paying attention. Except, what happens when the work of a popular historian is cast into serious doubt? And, not for the first time, regrettably.

In his OregonLive.com blog, Steve Duin recalls other of Ambrose’s misdeeds and the latest episode calls up his run-in with plagiarism related to his book about bomber crews in Europe during World War II. It is not a pretty record and his reputation as an historian, as they say, lays in tatters.

I have most of the books Ambrose wrote about Eisenhower. Until a couple of days ago, I thought of them as little temples to the times of a very important American. Now I’ll never think of those books the same way again. I’ll remember the kindness of their author, to be sure, but I’ll wonder what compelled him to mix fiction with history, particularly when the true story is so very interesting.

Winston Churchill famously quipped that history would be “kind” to him because he “intended to write it.” And, so he did producing one of the first and most voluminous histories of World War II.

Still, I can read Churchill knowing that what is on the page has been written by a participant in the great events; a participant colored by all his bias and desire to create a legacy and defend his actions. That doesn’t make Churchill’s version of history “bad” history, or less interesting, or without merit. You just know what you’re reading.

I used to read Stephen Ambrose’s words, naively it turns out, as the work of a keen, uninvolved, but still passionate, academically trained searcher for the “truth” in history. No more and that is a real shame.

Put a Clinton on the Court

Nope, Not Hillary…Bill

I know, I know, the 42nd President of the United States of America totes around just a little baggage – that whole impeachment thing – but appointing him to the Supreme Court may not be as crazy as it seems at first blush.

Consider four reasons why it would make sense for Barack Obama to put the former president where no former president has been since Warren Harding put William Howard Taft on the court in 1921.

  1. Obama needs a politician as much as a judge. Since he announced his retirement, much of the commentary about the long and distinquished career of Justice John Paul Stevens has focused on his remarkable ability to work the inside game on the Court, create a majority from time-to-time, provide intellectual leadership and craft the brilliant dissent that might eventually lead to a majority. Even his worst detractors would have to admit that Bill Clinton is a great politician; the smoozer in chief. You can just see him walking over the Justice Anthony Kennedy’s chambers and working his magic. Obama needs a person with Clinton’s political and personal skills to try and replace Stevens.
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  3. Clinton is a still young 64. If he lays off the cheeseburgers, he could spend a decade or more on the Court and be a huge player from the first day. We have no real tradition in America of getting value out of former presidents. We should. They leave office and are left to their own devices to find a way to put all the experience gained in the Oval Office to beneficial use. As a country, we invested a lot in the guy. Might as well get our money’s worth.
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  5. Obama will want to appoint a liberal to the court, but must be careful not to appoint too much of a liberal. Clinton would bring to the confirmation process a legitimate resume as a centrist, but with a liberal’s instinct for social justice and real sensitivity to race and class. The guy is a moderate southern liberal to the soles of his big feet. Obama would get his liberal without the obvious confirmation battle that would come by naming some liberal Appeals Court judge with a long paper trail. In spite of Monica, Clinton is emminently confirmable. Is the GOP senate really going to filibuster a guy who was the only Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt elected to two terms? His favorability late last year was 64%, a darn sight better than anyone else in public life these days. Added plus: the confirmation hearing will be must watch TV. I can’t wait for the questions from Jeff Sessions and Orrin Hatch.
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  7. Finally, being on the Court would be good for the guy and good for his wife. Clinton has established his foundation and done good work on AIDS prevention and other issues, but his portfolio as a former president is limited. Being the new guy, the new intellectual heft on the Court, might give him real purpose. Add to that the fact that more even than now, with Hillary at the State Department, he would need to mind his P’s and Q’s. Purpose for him, room for his wife. A twofer.

I’m betting Bill Clinton has never thought of Will Taft as a role model, but he should. Taft, the former president, became a hugely influential member of the Court. Of course, Taft had the advantage of being Chief Justice, but do you think for a minute that current Chief John Roberts wouldn’t be taken aback – intimidated even – by Justice Bill Clinton, every bit his intellectual equal, sitting in conference with him. It might be enough to open the Court to C-SPAN. With his political knowledge, international reach and good ol’ boy smarts, Clinton will quickly become the intellectual force in the Committee of Nine that is the Supremes.

I won’t be holding my breath for this appointment to happen, and its much more likely that a Clinton on the Court would be named Hillary, but if Obama really wants to make his mark on the Supreme Court for a long time to come, he won’t find a bigger or more effective justice than Elvis, the former president that is.