Byrd, Kagan and the Senate

byrdA Monday Morning in Senate History

The news that the longest serving member of Congress in the nation’s history, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, had died got me to thinking about all that the silver maned “dean of the Senate” has seen since coming to Washington, D.C. in 1952. Think about it: Korea, McCarthy, the Cold War, Eisenhower, Kennedy, LBJ, Vietnam, civil rights, Nixon, Watergate, the rise of China, the end of the Soviet Union, radical Islam, Iraq and Afghanistan. What a time and what a career. Byrd was 92 and he loved the Senate.

Byrd, with his courtly demeanor and three piece suits, was a throwback in many ways. Before his declining health, he was one of the Senate’s great theatrical orators. Byrd was also a respecter of tradition and rules, one of the Senate’s champion appropriators – it seems like half of the bridges and buildings in West Virginia carry his name – and a fierce defender of the Senate’s role and responsibility as an institution in our system; particularly the Senate’s role in limiting executive power. His has not been a career free of controversy, either.

In the early 1940’s, Byrd organized a Ku Klux Klan chapter in his hometown, Crab Orchard, and was chosen the chapter’s “Exalted Cyclops.” The Klan connection followed him all the rest of his life. In his memoir, Child of the Appalachian Coal Fields, published in 2005, he called joining the Klan a serious case of “bad judgment” driven by the naivete and ambition of a young man.

“(Klan membership) has emerged throughout my life,” he wrote, “to haunt and embarrass me and has taught me in a very graphic way what one major mistake can do to one’s life, career, and reputation.” Byrd goes on to note, not without irony, that organizing the Klan chapter in the 1940’s served as his stepping stone to politics.

He was mentioned as a presidential or vice presidential candidate more than once, rose to become Senate Majority Leader and has been a genuine scholar of Senate history. His book – The Senate: Addresses on the History of the United States Senate, 1789-1989 – is wonderful reading for a political history buff.

In his day, Byrd could play a pretty fair fiddle. I remember seeing him in action in a stiflingly hot Boise High School auditorium during a campaign event for Sen. Frank Church in the fall of 1980.

Byrd has also been a passionate advocate for better teaching of American history and when the Federation of State Humanities Councils presented him some years back with an award for his advocacy and support, he pulled out tattered copy of a history text he had read as a child in those Appalachian coal fields. The book, now mostly long forgotten, was An American History written by a Columbia University historian, David Saville Muzzey, and first issued in 1911. Muzzey’s work was a standard American history text in the early 20th Century and Byrd praised it to nines; repeatedly referring to “his Muzzey.”

In 2004, Byrd authored another book; a slim and well-reasoned volume entitled Losing America. With the book he lamented the steady rise, during what was then his nearly 60 years in Washington, of the power of an American president to commit our military to action with little if any questioning by the Congress. The book was written in the wake of 9-11 and George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq; a action Byrd had courageously and very openly opposed.

He wrote: “The awesome power to commit this nation to war must be taken back from the hands of a single individual – the president of the United States – and returned to the people’s representatives in Congress as the framers intended. No president must ever again be granted such license with our troops or our treasure.”

At a time when there is so much talk about threats to the Constitution from – take your pick – President Obama, the Democratic Congress, a conservative Supreme Court or talk radio it is interesting that those doing the denouncing on both the left and the right hardly ever – OK, Ron Paul is an exception – mention Byrd’s point about Article 1, Section 8, Clause 11 – “The Congress shall have power…To declare war.”

Bob Byrd knew “his Muzzey” and his Constitution. He has always carried a copy of the founding document in his coat pocket. His Senate career is one for the record books and the history books and the Senate could use his historical perspective as it takes on another Supreme Court confirmation this week.

And Now, Judging Kagan

Elena Kagan’s confirmation hearings open today and the Senate’s increasing inability to comprehensively, carefully and civilly carry out the “advise and consent” function may be as much on trial as the nominee.

Republicans on the Judiciary Committee were threatening over the weekend to boycott the hearings unless they got access to more Kagan documents. Ranking GOP member Jeff Sessions even suggested a filibuster might be in order.

Almost all of this, along with unbelievable talk about Kagan’s wardrobe and looks, is little more than political theatre. The real questions that need to be asked, and probably won’t be, are much less theatrical and much more important.

Is she competent? Supreme Court clerk, White House Counsel’s Office, Harvard Law dean would argue for a yes. My question: what did she learn from those experiences and how might it apply to the Supreme Court?

Has she done anything in her professional or private life that might disqualify her – or anyone with similar history – from service on the high court? Nothing we know of.

So, ultimately, does she understand the role of a judge? While we’ll hear a good deal about her “judicial temperament” and whether she is an “activist” or a “liberal.” I’d like some member of the Senate committee to ask her who she thinks has most affected American judicial thought since 1789, or in the 20th Century? Does she know anything about Holmes and Brandeis, Marshall and Taney? What opinion of Chief Justice Rehnquist’s does she most admire? What has she read lately? How does she see the job of lawyer to the president? How will she work with Roberts and Scalia? Does she think she has any responsibility to explain herself – and her opinions – if she gots to wear the robe?

You can bet the White House has equipped Kagan with 110 ways to say “I couldn’t possibly comment on that since it is an issue that may well come before the Court.” So, maybe we could have the Senate engage her in a conversation about how she thinks, what she knows about history and the Constitution and how she will apply her experience.

I’m not holding my breath. The nineteen members of the Judiciary Committee – assuming the Republicans show up – will each need plenty of C-SPAN time. Why waste any of those precious moments on a real question that might really tell us something about the nominee when a partisan speech is possible – and expected?

Bob Byrd and Elena Kagan are joined in history this Monday morning; the history of the United States Senate. Let’s hope the current Senate is up to playing something approaching a useful role in writing one more chapter in that history, because with two problematic wars raging, a stagnant economy and millions out of work, the country hardly needs the sideshow of an unproductive fight over who should join the Supreme Court. The White House and the Senate have a stake in making things work, and work better. Why not start today?

In his massive history of the Senate, Byrd wrote lovingly about the great Majority Leader from Montana Mike Mansfield and quotes the Montanan – the longest serving leader in history – as saying: “In moments of crisis, at least, the President and the Congress cannot be adversaries; they must be allies who, together, must delineate the path to guide the nation’s massive machinery of government in a fashion which serves the interests of the people and is acceptable to the people.”

That is the Washington we need right now and can’t seem to get.

A Good Day to Die…

Sitting BullcusterThe Little Bighorn…a Battle Never Really Over

Sometime in the afternoon of June 25, 1876 – 134 years ago today – George Armstrong Custer and more than 200 troopers of the U.S. Seventh Cavalry under his direct command died on the hills and in the ravines along the east side of the Little Bighorn River in southeastern Montana.

The Battle of the Little Bighorn, Custer’s Last Stand, Sitting Bull’s Triumph, whatever it has been called, never seems to be as distant or as “historical” as other even more important moments in American history. A fabulous new book about the battle The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of the Little Bighorn by Nathaniel Philbrick goes a long way to explain why the lopsided encounter on that hot June afternoon never seems to be ready to move to the back shelves of our history.

Philbrick does a commendable job of telling a balanced story. He doesn’t detest Custer, although there is much to detest, and he doesn’t glorify the mostly Sioux and Cheyenne warriors – particularly Sitting Bull – who messed up the obsessively ambitious Custer’s opportunity, potentially, to win a great victory and position himself for a political career.

It’s fun to speculate about Custer the candidate. He was a shameless self promoter, a passably good writer, articulate – although he spoke very fast and this reportedly made him difficult to understand – and, even though his famous golden hair was thinning by the time he rode into the valley of the Little Bighorn, he was a good looking fellow.

He was also a partisan Democrat when Democrats need an attractive candidate for the White House. Who knows? He could have been a contender. Custer could also be a bully, a prude and, as it suited him, an extraordinarily attentive friend and husband. In other words, he was, well, complicated.

As Salon noted in a review of Philbrick’s extremely well written and researched book: “Today, Custer has long since become an embarrassment to educated white Americans. But the effort we’ve put into debunking him amounts to admitting we’re stuck with him. From the Goldilocks hairdo he’d actually rid himself of before Little Bighorn to the final, almost certainly inaccurate, tableau of The Last White Man Standing as the ‘hostiles’ close in, he’s the horse’s ass we rode in on.”

My own view is that the Custer story continues to generate interest and books – the General, really Lt. Colonel, even has a website and a “re-enacter” – for several reasons.

Even with Philbrick’s fresh retelling, we will never have the final word on the battle. The confusion of the battle – it played out over some distance in difficult terrain – and the selective or flawed memory of those who survived – and none directly with Custer did survive – combine to leave many details impossible to pin down. What really happened will forever remain a mystery.

America, even in 1876, loved a flamboyant character. Custer was all that. He rode into Civil War battles wearing his own specially designed black velvet uniform. He once organized his entire regiment into companies defined by the color of the horses – a black horse company, a grey horse company, etc. He skillfully courted the press. One of the men who died with him in Montana was a newspaperman along to report on his exploits. Custer was a personality. Cable TV would have loved him.

Philbrick makes a compelling case that Custer, had his customary luck held that long ago day, just might have prevailed. He had used similar tactics before to raid Indian villages and had his subordinates – Marcus Reno and Frederick Benteen – not hated Custer so much, and been better soldiers, they just might have pulled off the attack they launched against the massive native village. Sitting Bull shared that belief early on that hot afternoon, saying that he thought his warriors might well be routed.

Finally, the Custer of Hollywood and heroic paintingts has survived and thrived because his very best publicist was his handsome wife, Elizabeth or Libby. She lived a long life, dying in 1933 at age 91 and, playing the role of “professional widow,” she pulled out all the stops to burnish he departed husband’s reputation and keep his memory alive. A profile in American Heritage noted that her last letter to Custer ended this way: “My thoughts, my dreams, my prayers, are all for you. God bless and keep my darling. Ever your own Libbie.”

As the Wall Street Journal has noted in its review of Philbrick’s book, the author is generally even-handed and displays, I think, just the right amount of disdain for Custer. Philbrick also continues the historical advance of the Custer story from “tragedy” to “cautionary tale.”

By the summer of 1876, the United States was in transition from a post-Civil War focus – Reconstruction would officially end with the election of 1876 – to a nation with imperial designs. The prevailing political and military sentiment was to contain the “hostiles” on confined reservations in order to advance the nation’s economic development and population expansion.

The Little Bighorn was but a momentary pause in that march for, as the Austin-American Statesman notes: “After the battle, Sitting Bull’s huge village quickly scattered, and virtually every band surrendered to federal authorities within a few months. Reservation life brought only despair and deprivation. ‘This victory, great as it was,’ Philbrick writes of the battle, ‘had simply been the prelude to a crushing and irresistible defeat.'”

For a long time, I thought it strange that we named the battle after the guy who had lost. Why not the Great Sioux and Cheyenne Battle? Or, Sitting Bull’s Battle? Former Montana Congressman Pat Williams answered the question when he told me a while back that during his 18 years in Congress, he caught as much flak for sponsoring the legislation to change the name of the battlefield – from Custer Battlefield to Little Bighorn Battlefield – as anything he ever did.

Custer died 134 years ago today, but then again he never really died.

Firing Generals

McClellanmcarthurTruman Did It, So Did Lincoln…

When I first heard about and then read Gen. Stanley McCrystal’s comments about President Obama and some of his top advisers, I thought of another general – brilliant, but also cocky – who dissed his commander-in-chief, and, no, it was Douglas MacArthur.

The guy I thought of was George Brinton McClellan – Little Mac – the general who confounded Abraham Lincoln and, I would suggest, bears more than a passing resemblance to the sacked McCrystal. There is a famous story from 1862 about McClellan showing a supreme amount of disrespect for his Commander-in-Chief. Lincoln called one evening on his commanding general at his home in Washington, D.C. Told that McClellan was out, Lincoln, with a couple of companions in tow, told the general’s household staff that he would wait for his return in the parlor. Before too long McClellan came home and was told the President of the United States was waiting to speak to him. Rather than immediately present himself, McClellan sprinted up the stairs and went to bed.

Lincoln’s aides were outraged. What a snub of the president whom McClellan was known to call “an idiot” and “the gorilla.” Lincoln, one wonders why, shrugged off the snub. Time after time during the early days of the Civil War, Lincoln gave McClellan his head and time after time McClellan disappointed. Finally, after McClellan failed to follow up on his on significant defeat of Robert E. Lee’s army at the bloody battle of Antietam, Lincoln sacked the arrogant and ineffective general. McClellan, never lacking in self-confidence, eventually ran against Lincoln for president in1864. Lincoln had the pleasure of dispatching him a second time, but he probably put up with more than he should have and for much longer.

Obama acted more decisively and appropriately with McCrystal. And, when the president summoned his general from Afghanistan, at least McCrystal showed up to face the public hanging.

Lincoln had another general – Joe Hooker – who talked openly about the country’s need for “a dictator” to effectively end the Civil War. Lincoln, again displaying real patience, heard about Hooker’s lose talk and wrote the general one of the greatest letters any C-of-C ever wrote a battlefield commander.

Only generals who create victories, Lincoln told Hooker, could hope to create dictators. You bring the victories, Lincoln said, and “I’ll risk the dictator.” Lincoln finally had to fire Hooker, too.

Here’s the point: had McCrystal’s strategy in Afghanistan been working in a way that all of us could see, he might have survived. As it is, McCrystal is a good deal more like McClellan and Hooker than he is like MacArthur. MacArthur had engineered the audacious amphibious landing at Inchon in Korea, for example, and had a long record of accomplishment before Truman tied the can to him for his open contempt for the president. One of the best analysts of the American military, Thomas Ricks, makes the point that we ought to have even less hesitation about relieving a general. He’s right.

With all respect to McCrystal, he hasn’t won a thing. For that matter, neither has the newly designated commander Gen. David Petraeus. Petraeus is given credit for devising and implementing the Iraq strategy, yet despite all the praise for the general, what happens after American troops further disengage in Iraq is still an open question.

The verdict is also very much out regarding the Afghanistan strategy. Obama may look back on this moment and come to regret that he didn’t seize upon McCrystal’s, and his staff’s, Bud Lite Lime infused indiscretions with a Rolling Stone reporter to reassess the entire strategy in Afghanistan. There is plenty of reason to wonder if any commander can make it work.

Lincoln – and Truman – learned that a president only gets to fire a general every once in a while. Doing so reasserts, in an essential way, the American tradition of civilian control of the military. But, considering how rare and high profile such a move is, a president better make the most of it to change strategy, too.

A Radical Proposal – Guest Post

CarlsonLet’s Make Better Use of “Former’ Governors

Note: A guest post today from Chris Carlson my long-time friend, former partner and student of Idaho and national politics. Chris, mostly retired now, is writing a weekly column for the St. Maries Gazette-Record and enjoying the good life in north Idaho. Today, Chris – never shy and retiring – offers thoughts about how to make better use of all the “former” governors in the country. Chris…the floor is yours. Thanks…


By Chris Carlson

According to the National Governor’s Association there are 250 living former governors across the United States. That’s an average of five per state. Idaho¸ Montana, and Oregon are right at that average and the state of Washington is slightly above that with six living former governors.

Stop and ponder for a minute what a reservoir of talent, experience, ability, insight, perspective and decision-making that pool of individuals represents. Then sit back and realize that it’s a largely untapped pool. These are people who have had to make tough choices because most states mandate truly balanced budgets (no off the books gimmicks either), people who are used to making decisions and implementing policies.

It should come as no surprise then that most often America turns to governors and former governors when it selects its presidents. In the last 100 years only three presidents have been elected directly from the Senate—-Warren G. Harding, John F. Kennedy, and Barack H. Obama. Sitting or former governors elected president include Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

After reflecting on what an absolutely inhumane circus the path to the presidency has become, I’ve hit upon a radical solution that taps into that unused pool of talent and ability represented by former governors.

Let’s amend the Constitution and establish a College of Governors (former) and much as the College of Cardinals elects a new Pope, this College of Governors would meet every four years to select the President! The two term limit would still apply. But think of the money that would be saved, and what better body would there be than a group of former governors (been there, done that kind of folks) to weigh who is best qualified to carry the awesome responsibilities of the Presidency?

Here’s a roster of former governors in the four northwest states. As I read the list I thought to myself I could easily delegate my presidential ballot to this group and feel, like the All State commercial says, we’d be in good hands. Here’s the list, and as you read it, think about my radical proposal:

Idaho—(5) Cecil D. Andrus, John V. Evans, Phil Batt, Dirk Kempthorne, and Jim Risch.

Montana—(5) Tim Babcock, Ted Schwinden, Stan Stephens, Marc Racicot, and Judy Martz,

Oregon—(5) Mark Hatfield, Vic Atiyeh, Neil Goldschmidt, Barbara Roberts and John Kitzhaber. Dr. Kitzhaber is running again for his old job, and if elected he would drop from the College of Governors.

Washington—(6) Al Rosellini, Daniel J. Evans, John Spellman, Booth Gardner, Mike Lowry and Gary Locke.

The only criteria for belonging to this college would be status as a former Governor (not even necessarily elected). If you’ve been sworn in as a State’s chief executive, you’re in. Neither would there be an age limit. Al Rosellini is now 100 years old and still sharp as a tack.

Nor, just as with the College of Cardinals, would the College of Governors have to select from one of their own. The only mandate would be to select the person in their estimation best qualified to carry out the duties of the Office of the Presidency. Simple majority of those eligible would be sufficient for the white smoke to emerge from the Capital, and the Dean of the College to announce: “We have a new President!”

It really isn’t such a radical idea is it?


The Troubles

Bloody SundaySunday, Bloody Sunday

It has been said that the 20th Century was the most violent century since man started walking upright. From the Boer War to the Balkans, two world wars, revolution in Russia, “insurgency” from Algeria to Malaysia, from Vietnam to Angola. A bloody century and all of it more or less completely tragic.

That context, perhaps, is what made last week’s official apology of the new British Prime Minister, David Cameron, so unusual and, one can hope, so important. Cameron, still in the honeymoon of his recent election, took to the floor of the Commons to react to the years-in-the-making official inquiry into the bloody Sunday of January 30, 1972 in Londonderry (or Derry), Northern Ireland.

Some British troops, ironically from the heroic and decorated Parachute Regiment, completely lost their heads on that Sunday and fired into a civil rights protest crowd. Eventually fourteen died and Ireland north and south started to bleed. Before “the troubles” sputtered out many years later – thanks in no small part to American help from George Mitchell and Bill Clinton – thousands more had died and violence by the gun and bomb had, in some ways, become a substitute for politics in Ireland.

Cameron’s comments all these years later about Bloody Sunday have reverberated across Ireland and Britain; indeed around the world. Here is part of what the young prime minister, not much more than a toddler when it happened, had to say:

“Mr. Speaker, I am deeply patriotic. I never want to believe anything bad about our country. I never want to call into question the behavior of our soldiers and our army who I believe to be the finest in the world.

“But the conclusions of this report are absolutely clear. There is no doubt. There is nothing equivocal. There are no ambiguities. What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong.”

The press and political reaction to Cameron’s words – and as much his tone – has been rather remarkable.

John Burns, writing from London for the Times, compared the words of reconciliation to what happened in South Africa upon the election of Nelson Mandela. Bono, whose U2 song Bloody Sunday helped bring the outrage – an a call for peace – to world attention, said with his speech Cameron had gone from “prime minister to statesman.” He called the speech “one of the most extraordinary days in the mottled history of the island of Ireland..”

One of the best things I’ve read about Cameron’s words and what they mean came from the pen of the fine Irish writer Colum McCann. His book Let the Great World Spin won the National Book Award for fiction last year. Writing at the Daily Beast, McCann noted that Cameron’s apology came one day before Bloomsday, the one day in the Dublin life of James Joyce’s character Leopold Bloom celebrated in Ulysses.

McCann, with an Irishman’s ear for the telling phrase, wrote: “Let’s take the apology. Let’s celebrate it. A wound was acknowledged. A further grief was stared into oblivion. It is, in its way, its own piece of literature. It was almost as if Anna Akhmatova had stepped in alongside the questioning (Leopold) Bloom to say—as she does in one of her poems—“You’re many years late, how glad I am to see you.”

How much good can be done to say “we were wrong?” How much healing can come from “I’m sorry…I apologize?”

In the long, bloody history of the last century, we have much – in our nation and in every nation – to regret and to acknowledge as wrong. Doing it requires so little, but it can mean so much. Maybe it is the start to understanding…and peace.

You Build It…They Do Come

BaseballTime to Get Serious About a New Stadium

The Boise Hawks open their home season tonight. The Northwest League affiliate of the hapless – why does that word fit so well – Chicago Cubs play Salem-Keiser at aging Memorial Stadium. The stadium, near the Ada County Fairgrounds is actually in Garden City, and it is, did I mention this, aging?

I’ll be in my third base box, but I’ll be thinking, as I do every year at this time, about the need for a new, improved venue that could, I believe, accomplish several important objectives for the community. It’s time for Boise to get on with the plan. Here’s a partial list of what a new, multi-purpose stadium could mean for Boise and southwestern Idaho.

  1. We all know the community – and southwest Idaho – needs some economic development activity. A new, multi-purpose stadium in the right location would be first and foremost an economic development tool.

  2. Boise needs to take serious steps to secure minor league baseball for the long haul and if the community ever aspires to move up – and why not – to Triple AAA, Memorial Stadium isn’t going to cut it. Some of us can remember the Boise minor league team playing at the old field at Borah High School – you couldn’t get a beer – and the move to the Fairgrounds location was like moving from a sandlot to Yankee Stadium, but now its time to re-think the location, quality and attractiveness of a stadium that could be home to the Hawks, maybe a minor league soccer franchise, local high school sports, concerts and more.

  3. New, well-conceived stadium projects have shown that they can revitalize a neighborhood that needs a shot in the arm. There are many potential locations and it’s probably too early in the assessment process to focus on any one site, but the City of Boise owns land along the Connector, west of downtown that needs to be seriously evaluated. Goodness knows that neighborhood, now the domain of abandoned auto dealerships and vacant lots, could use us a little love.

I remember a dinner with Mayor-elect Dave Bieter more than six years ago where the subject of a new stadium came up. The mayor has had plenty of priorities over those months, but now seems generally willing to think the multi-purpose stadium idea through. Good. It will take his leadership and the involvement of an enthusiastic community to move this idea forward.

The ownership of the Hawks have played a constructive role in this early discussion and have done some preliminary market analysis. More needs to be done, but it does seem clear that the Hawks could be the prime tenant for a new facility. If this effort is to get to first base and beyond a broad community need will need to be met. In other words, it is more than baseball, as important as I think that must be in the discussion.

Reno made a play for Triple AAA baseball and got it with a new downtown ballpark that anchors a redevelopment effort. Eugene (and the University of Oregon) built a new facility for the venerable Emeralds, a team long in the same league with Boise. Missoula finally got behind a new ballpark – the Beach Boys play there in August – and the Pioneer League Osprey seem sure to stay for a long time. Oklahoma City used the iconic Bricktown Ballpark to further renew an historic area in the heart of downtown. The list goes on and on.

I love Boise and have for the nearly 35 years I’ve been here. The city has so much going for it – great parks, new libraries, the Greenbelt, a nationally prominent college football team, a tremendous arts community with theater, music and more, the Foothills and the Boise River. Now, its time for a great, multi-purpose stadium venue to lock in professional baseball, attract minor league soccer, showcase high school sports and serve as a community venue for concerts and more.

Knowing Boise as I do, I know we’ll have the predictable debate over what role government institutions should play in drafting and pushing a new stadium plan. Here is a fact: these developments just don’t happen without a robust private-public partnership and a vast amount of community involvement.

Boise needs to take the next step and, with the Hawks opening another season tonight, its time to engage a community-wide conversation, make a plan and do something big and important for the city and the region.