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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.


Foot In Mouth Disease

BartonGaffes, Misconstrues, Misspeaks and Goofs

My old boss, Cece Andrus, was about as good at speaking off the cuff as any politician I’ve ever seen. He had a plain spoken, even blunt style, softened with a great sense of humor. He rarely misspoke – read on – and lived with the knowledge that, as he has often said, “you can go from hero to zero (snap your fingers) just like that in politics.”

I thought of that old truism – and winced – watching Texas Congressman Joe Barton yesterday slip the biggest size 10 foot in his mouth as I’ve seen in a while. Unless you’ve been exclusively watching World Cup replays, you can’t have missed Barton’s “apology” to BP for undergoing “a shakedown” at the Obama White House. While the rest of the world – well maybe not British Prime Minister David Cameron – was gorging on the ritual of a Congressional hearing – main course, oil company executive under TV lights – Barton managed to steal the show with his defense of the guys scrambling to contain the biggest environmental mess in American history. Talk about off message. Even the BP executive receiving the apology looked uncomfortable.

Barton later, not once but twice, apologized for his “misconstrued misconstruction.” Huh?

I’ve been struck by the incredible spate of similar gaffes recently. It is almost impossible to keep track of all of them. This is clearly a bipartisan phenomenon and, maybe we should be happy about this, not confined exclusively to elected officials or candidates.

Helen Thomas, the venerable, grouchy White House gadfly, resigned for popping off about getting all the Jews out of Palestine. Helen got little sympathy from the boys and girls on the presidential beat, some of whom were jockeying for her front row seat in the White House briefing room. You knew it was truly bad for her when, hold on, Ralph Nader rose to defend her. With friends like that…

BP’s chairman stood this week before cameras outside the White House and talked about his regard for the small people” of the Gulf. In fairness to the Swedish head of BP’s Board, what he really meant may have been lost in translation. Still, a gaffe in the Swedish vernacular is still a misconstrue in my book.

Rand Paul the Kentucky Senate candidate offered up a series of gaffes immediately after his recent primary win and now says he feels Barton’s pain. It takes a gaffer to know one. Richard Blumenthal, the Democratic senate candidate in Connecticut, is still in trouble for misstating his military record. To gaffe again once exposed seems doubly daffy.

The unbelievable story out of South Carolina gets better by the day. The surprise winner in the Democratic Senate primary there, Alvin Greene, is so unaware of what the job – and a campaign – entails that he asked Time magazine “if the candidate gets paid” for the interview he finally granted? Huh?

One of the great political websites – Political Wire – features the gaffe Top 10 list so far this cycle and, yes, Idaho’s Vaughn Ward gets spot number 4 for his “Puerto Rico is a country” slip up during the recent primary.

All this, and I could go on and on, may seem like the political equivalent of the BP gusher; a vast increase in gaffiness that just can’t be brought under control. My guess is that its not a real increase at all. Politicians and others in the public eye have been saying stupid things since the days of Caesar.

What is different – expanding the range and speed of gaffes and misconstrues, to paraphrase Joe Barton – is the Internet and YouTube. The off the wall comment now takes on an instantaneous life of its own and thanks to 24-hour news it gets repeated and repeated. Think of it as gaffing at the speed of light. And, thanks to Google, the gaffes never, ever go away.

Consider a rare Andrus, er, gaffe.

Shortly after his close 1986 comeback election victory, Andrus was asked on a TV talk show about the grief he’d taken from the National Rifle Association during the campaign. The NRA’s endorsement of his opponent – and frankly smear of him – particularly rankled the hunting and fishing governor because his lawyerly opponent was not a “hook and bullet” guy in the Idaho tradition. So, Andrus said of the NRA when asked, “oh, you mean the gun nuts of the world…”

We’re talking instant front page. Andrus also promised “retribution” for the “political distortions” he had been victim of. “Nuts” with that “retribution,” I remember it well. Proof perhaps that even the best trip up from time-to-time.

Just remember when you hear or read the next gaffe, it is said in Washington, DC that the real definition of a gaffe is “when a politician speaks the truth.”

Which is another way of saying that rarely does the “misconstrue,” apology notwithstanding, veer far from what is really on the gaffer’s mind. You can look it up.

Politics 101

political booksThinking About Our Fractured Politics

Jim Leach, the current chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and a former 15-term Republican Congressman from Iowa, has the perfect formulation for why the middle has disappeared in American politics, while the most out there elements in both parties continue on the rise.

Leach was in Boise last week as part of his national crusade to stress civility in our public dialogue and in our partisan politics.

In between his stint as a Congressman – Leach joked that his constituents invited him to leave – and his tenure at the NEH, he taught at Princeton. While there he developed what he calls two minute courses on American history and politics. One mini-course he entitled Politics 101.

Politics 101 begins with the recognition that the American electorate is roughly divided into thirds – one-third Republican, one-third Democratic, one-third independent. Then, realize that in primary elections, like the one recently in Idaho, only about 25% of registered voters participate in selecting a party’s nominees. This 25% is generally made up of the most ardent party faithful; the true believers who also tend to be the most conservative Republicans and the most liberal Democrats. Furthermore, in some states with party registration, independents play no role in selecting the partisan contenders, effectively giving these self-defined “middle of the roaders” no role in defining who carries the partisan banners.

So, by Jim Leach’s formulation, as we slice the electorate ever more finely in party primaries, we get down to about one-sixth of the total population making the big and basic decision about who goes on to a general election. In Idaho, winning a GOP primary is, in most places, the election and its often decided by a tiny fraction – the most partisan fraction – of the electorate. The recent Democratic primary in Idaho featured the smallest percentage of participation in many years.

Under this basic political arithmetic, no wonder most Republicans are tacking to the right and Democrats to the left. If they look and act like moderates – moderates like Jim Leach during his years in Congress – they get, in the vernacular of modern politics, “primaried.” And, just like that, the middle of American politics has ceased to exist.

A Republican like Bob Bennett in Utah or a Democrat like Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas plays Russian roulette if they dare to work across the aisle. One of the great charges against Bennett, a three-term senator, was that he worked with Ted Kennedy and dared to supported the bi-partisan Wall Street bailout that, by the way, occurred on the watch of a GOP president.

Leach quoted – perhaps not altogether in context, but the words do ring – the great Irish poet, W.B. Yeats, “things fall apart; the center cannot hold” where the “best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Our fractured politics stand to get worse, I fear, because self preservation in the human and political animal is such a powerful force. It takes a remarkable man or woman to try to appeal beyond the fringes of either party. The center is a dangerous place now in politics, but it has always been where real things get done.

Politics 101 today equals friction and faction. The middle not only hasn’t held, it has disappeared.


Leaking Oil and Credibility – Part II

obamaThe President as Crisis Manager

As a result of the BP oil spill in the Gulf, Barack Obama has learned – let’s hope he’s learned – some lessons about leadership in a crisis.

Some of the criticism leveled at the President, such as the BP mess being “Obama’s Katrina,” seem a little off base and the media driven storyline about Obama needing to show a little temper was mostly just a made for cable controversy. Still the facts are that with the oil company clearly not acting quickly enough and ultimately not having a real plan to contain the damage from the big blow out, residents of the Gulf region and the county looked to Obama to lead. His record is, in my view, at best spotty.

Many Americans embraced the Sarah Palin “drill, baby, drill” notion during the last campaign, but at the same time those same folks are no fans of Big Oil. In a new USA Today poll, 71% of those surveyed say Obama should get tougher with BP. His speech from the Oval Office tonight seems likely to take a harder line, but that’s only part of the lesson from this crisis and its comes late in the crisis management game.

Most executives learn – sooner or later – that the most difficult thing to uncover in a crisis is quality information upon which to act. It became pretty clear pretty fast that the information deficit in the Gulf would be a major problem. While BP tried one Rube Goldberg fix after another, the President and his people came late to the realization that BP was making it up as they went. In short, there was little reliable information about the best strategy to contain the growing spill and all the ideas seemed to be coming from the less than credible company that caused the crisis in the first place. Everyone involved also seemed to lack good intelligence on what the moving oil slick would likely mean to the Gulf coast.

Obama needed better information earlier and faster. Lesson number one.

Most executives also learn – eventually – that you can’t delegate responsibility when you’re the top guy. For days after the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was the administration’s face on the scene. Nothing against Salazar, but we all know where the buck stops. The President and his advisers should have realized that this was his crisis to manage, and manage aggressively almost from day one.

So, lesson number two. Obama should have taken charge much sooner and more forcefully. I think, and again hindsight is easy, that he should have insisted on face-to-face meetings with BP leadership in the Gulf and in DC. Realizing that the government doesn’t possess the expertise to plug a blown out oil well a mile deep in the ocean, he should have raided major oil companies, universities, the national labs, private industry and foreign sources for the best available talent to manage the containment. I think the most profound criticism to level at the President is his failure to take the containment job away from BP early on. If he can fire the CEO of GM, he certainly has the moral authority to take over in this case. He should have.

Who is to say whether better solutions would have been forthcoming, but such a move would have clearly signalled that he was in charge and not relying on the company to address its own obvious failures.

Another lesson: when all is said and done this disaster will largely be about who pays and how much. Apparently the President is now insisting on a BP escrow account to be available to finance the clean up, pay claims, etc. Better late than never, but still very late. Money won’t fix all that will need to be fixed in the Gulf, but money will certainly do until something better comes along. Obama could have displayed real toughness by both taking control of the containment effort and forcing BP to put real money on the table a lot earlier.

Finally, I expect the President has learned another valuable, but painful lesson from this long ordeal: its hard to mobilize the government to effectively deal with a crisis that is both big and unpredictable. Katrina not withstanding, we generally have pretty effective national response to natural disasters – flood, hurricanes and the like – we struggle when the crisis is outside the usual box. Hard as it is to believe, federal agencies – state agencies for that matter – are rarely or routinely called upon to work together and coordinate an overall approach to a problem. They tend to be isolated, siloed organizations where even top managers, in say, the Transportation Department don’t know their counterparts over at Interior. It is a problem endemic to any large organization, but it can be particularly acute in government.

As John Kennedy famously said when the right hand of his government didn’t know what the left hand was doing – “there is always some dumb SOB who doesn’t get the word.”

That’s why any President – or Governor or CEO – needs to be able to reach down in the bureaucracy and crack heads in the interest of action. Action in government, where most folks practice survival skills full time and are horribly risk averse, even during a crisis, requires aggressive, demanding leadership.

A final lesson from history. When the great (and flawed) Winston Churchill took over as British Prime Minister in the dark days of 1940, he insisted, against almost unanimous advice, on reserving to himself the portfolio as Defense Minister as well as Prime Minister. Critics said it was too much for any one man, particularly one pushing 70 years of age. Winston was told he needed to delegate the day-to-day running of the war and focus instead on the big picture strategy.

But Churchill, who knew a few things about human nature and leadership, understood that he would get the credit or blame for every military success or failure regardless of whether some other figure had the official title. Churchill insisted on being in the middle of every decision, pushing, prodding, selecting personnel and reading reports and issuing demanding memos. He craved the responsibility and, while he certainly didn’t get every call correct, he inspired great confidence and dogged determination just when both were needed the most.

In a crisis – the Battle of Britain or a oil spill in the Gulf – the top guy is the responsible party. Might as well make the most of it, a lesson President Obama now seems to be embracing, finally.

Leaking Oil and Credibility

oil+spillLessons to Learn

I’ve been asked a dozen times since the BP oil spill developed in the Gulf of Mexico what I would have advised the company’s executives as they face what may prove to be – or already is – a truly catastrophic environmental disaster. Alas, BP hasn’t called, but of course I have some ideas about what they might have done differently.

The general consensus has now developed that BP has irreversibly lost the PR battle, with some now comparing the lackluster response to Exxon’s handling of the Alaska spill years ago, and has yet to win the battle to stop the oil flow.

Could it have been different? Hard to tell, but maybe.

Rule number one of a real crisis, I think, is simply that it is almost impossible for any entity – corporate, governmental, etc. – to move fast enough. The first hours in responding to a disaster, particularly such a public disaster, almost always establish the public perception of how well the crisis is being handled. The first hours and days of the Gulf spill now seem like a blur. What was happening, who was in charge, was this really bad, could it be quickly contained? Instinctively, I think, most people watched the television pictures of the burning oil rig and concluded that this would be a real mess. Meanwhile, BP and the government seemed slow out of the blocks.

So, BP – and the government – failed the first test of crisis. They couldn’t or wouldn’t move fast enough. In the early hours of a major crisis, action is always better than talk.

What might BP have done differently? I have five suggestions for what could have been done and one guess about why none of it happened.

First, how might it have changed public perception had BP’s CEO, the much-beleaguered Tony Hayward, immediately gone on television – from the Gulf – and announced that he was asking the state of Louisiana to establish an account, that the state would control, in which BP would immediately deposit – pick the number – $250 million as a down payment on the clean up? Real cash, not a promise to pay all “legitmate claims” might have made a powerful statement that the big oil company was really serious.

Additionally, BP might have announced that it was immediately suspending al offshore drilling every where in the world while it conducted, with the help of outside experts, its own assessment of safety and emergency response.

Hayward could also have humbly asked for an immediate meeting – in the Gulf – with President Obama, the Secretary of the Interior, the top Coast Guard officials, the heads of Exxon-Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell and the governors of the Gulf states. The purpose of the meeting: establish an immediate crisis response team, seek the best possible industry help to determine the best way to stop the leak and contain the oil and, most importantly, get all the responsible folks in the same room and on the same page.

It might have also helped BP’s credibility from the first moment had Hayward admitted what almost all the rest of us suspected – the company did not know the extent of the leak, did not fully understand the cause, didn’t have a sure fire solution to contain the oil and fully expected the worst with regard to the environmental consequences. It is remarkable what a humble admission of “we don’t know and we need help” will do to retain credibility and, frankly, buy time to get organized and really figure out what to do.

Hayward should also have become the sole face of the company’s response. He should have camped out in the Gulf, constantly meeting with local officials, business people, environmentalists and fishermen, and working the media. He should have aggressively engaged the President and his administration rather than appear to be a reluctant participant in the whole process by suggesting he wanted “his life back.”

Here is a bet as to why BP seemed to do nothing in the first days except to say it took responsibility while seeming to downplay what was really happening. I’m betting the company’s lawyers took charge of the response and the overriding objective became to contain the financial and legal liability for BP and its shareholders. I can almost hear a smart, articulate attorney telling the CEO that he must do nothing that would eventually be used to shape the inevitable legal cases that will drive BP’s liability.

Don’t get me wrong, the lawyers must be in the room when a crisis is unfolding, but in a career of helping manage various kinds of crisis – nothing admittedly this big – I have concluded that the “right thing to do” is almost immediately in conflict with what constitutes the best legal strategy for the entity responsible for the crisis. It’s hard for any CEO – even the most well intentioned – to ignore the legal advice he will receive, but doing the right thing – and fast – is almost always the better long-term option than to craft a response that is driven largely by legal considerations.

Now, as the President heads back to the Gulf today, the New York Times reports that he will demand a BP escrow account, summon the company’s executives to the White House and generally ramp up the public pressure on the company. Some might argue it’s a little late.

It is easy to second guess while looking in the rear view mirror, but I think, had BP acted faster and more decisively by putting real money on the table and seeking help and buy in from the industry and government, it could have taken charge of the unfolding narrative in the first hours and saved itself some major and long-lasting PR heartburn.

Tomorrow, some thoughts on lessons for the President in the government’s response to the spill.