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.
  2.  

  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.
  4.  

  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.
  6.  

  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.

The Creative Economy

General-George-CusterWhat is it About Montana?

A few years ago North Dakota erected some clever signs at its border with Montana. One sign advised anyone headed west to remember what happened to a certain long haired cavalry commander who left North Dakota in 1876 and ended up in a sorry state on the banks of the Little Big Horn in Montana.

With all due respect to North Dakota, given a choice, does Montana sound like a lot more interesting place – to visit, to live, to work?

George Custer didn’t live to contemplate what I think of, and many others think of, as the allure of Montana. It has always fascinated me that the land of the Big Sky has a certain “brand” that states like Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado – not to mention North Dakota – never seem able to match. Maybe its because Montana has been building the brand since that fateful day in June of 1876 when the tourist from North Dakota misjudged his welcoming committee.

I got to thinking about what the Montana “brand” means to the economics and, perhaps more importantly, the image of the state while reflecting on two recent pieces of information.

The first was a program at Boise’s City Club a while back that focused on the “creative economy,” often identified as the critical mass in an area of artists, cultural non-profits and cutting edge businesses. Amoung the laments before the City Club was that 30-to 45-year olds are in danger of – or actually are – picking up and leaving Idaho, while an emphasis on developing home-grown entrepreneurs is waning.

When I first came to Idaho nearly 35 years ago, the Boise economy was largely defined by three amazing, home grown success stories. Harry Morrison had started his construction company – Morrison-Knudsen - in Idaho and shaped t into a world-wide powerhouse that pushed the dirt and poured the concrete to construct Hoover Dam and built a good deal of the American military infrastructure in South Vietnam, among many other big projects. In much the same time frame, Boise Cascade went from a small regional timber products concern to a major national player in the wood and paper industry. Joe Albertson pioneered the modern super market from the ground up with his first store in Boise’s North End and went on to build a national brand.

All three of those home-grown companies are still around, but in much different form than just a few years ago and none has the power or influence in the local economy that the old M-K, the old Boise Cascade and the old Albertsons had. The transformation of those three companies makes one wonder where the next great home-grown business will come from? I wonder particularly were the next great business will come from if we’re failing short, as many smart folks think we are, in encouraging a “creative economy.”

I know a handful of smart and aggressive young Idaho entrepreneur’s in the high tech world Idaho, but many of them will tell you they fear Idaho may not be the place where a new Micron, the last really big home-grown business, gets its start. The outlook is cloudy for a number of reasons.

Idaho has whacked its support for education at every level over the last two years. College is costing more and more and we don’t seem to be producing the workforce we need for a 21st Century economy. Idaho high school dropout rates and the number of young kids headed to post-secondary education is abysmal. As the Idaho Statesman reported yesterday the dropout numbers may be even more dismal – by double – than previously thought.

Bob Lokken, who built a successful high tech business in Boise and sold it to Microsoft, asked at that recent City Club event, “What if we took all the money we spend on K through 12 and create an information-age school system, not one that continues to make a labor pool for an industrial-age economy?” Good idea, but Idaho hasn’t even had a serious debate about what kind of education system we want – or need – for more than a decade. Building a 21st Century creative economy without a genuine strategy – a strategy that really engages the education establishment, business and those young entrepreneurs – is a bound to be about as successful as Custer’s trip into Montana. So, Idaho’s creative economy seems, at best, stuck in neutral.

Which brings me back to the Big Sky state and the second data point. The data came to me in the form of a special four page advertising section on – you got it – Montana that appeared recently in The New Yorker magazine. Before you dismiss an advertisement about Montana in the elitist New Yorker as self-serving fluff, consider the Montana message.

The Montana advertisement – really more an essay than an ad – was all about the creative economy. The piece quotes 20-year Montana resident Walter Kirn - he wrote the novel that became the hit movie Up in the Air – and Alex Smith, a film director, who will be making a film this summer based on a novel by Jim Welch - another Montanan – about life on an Indian reservation.

Montana officials say the piece was aimed primarily at encouraging tourism, but I think it works on a deeper level. It says, in effect: Montana values creativity, smart people like it here and we welcome such things.

The ad, or whatever it is, continues: “Montana captivates the imagination of remarkably imaginative people – writers, yes, but actors, directors, musicians, painters, sculptors – not because of what’s so obviously here or not here. Rather, creative people keep finding themselves amid unplanned moments of clarity that resound through their lives.”

That, my friends, is the language of brand building; not to mention the language of a creative economy of the 21st Century.

The Montana New Yorker piece ends with “few states have their own literature; Montana’s runs broad and deep, reaching far beyond familiar titles like the Big Sky, The Horse Whisperer and A River Runs Through It and into the lives of its people.”

Any ad guy, particularly one with a well-considered point of view, sort of like Don Draper in Mad Men, will tell you that a brand can’t last if its built on spin. It must be authentic and it must be true. Montana, I think, has an authentic brand.

Like Idaho and most other states, Montana also has big troubles with budgets, schools are hurting. What might be different, and it might explain why Montana is perceived differently – why the brand works – is that deep down in the land of the Big Sky they get the fact that captivating the imagination of deeply creative people is the economic road map into the 21st Century.

The Boys of Polyester

jackie brownHideous Baseball Uniforms

When it comes to baseball, I’m a traditionalist. Some of the most appealing aspects of the great game are its traditions. It’s been said that if a veteran of the Civil War could return for a day, go to Wrigley Field or Fenway and watch a game, he would immediately know what was going on. The game doesn’t change much, but when it does it is usually change for the worse.

I have never liked the designated hitter rule. Pitchers ought to go to bat. I’d be happy bringing back a 154 game season. With all the playoffs games that are needed now, the current season is too long and besides a return to a shorter season would make all the older records more relevant. I don’t like the trend of players wearing their pants so long they drag in the dirt. Whatever happened to stirrup socks, anyway? And while we’re at it, put a gentle but unmistakable bend in the bill of that cap young man. What gives with these young players that don’t shape the bill of a baseball cap?

Tradition = baseball.

The regard for tradition and history really took a beating in the 1970’s and early ’80’s when most teams went in the bag for truly hideous uniforms in gaudy colors. It amounted to a nationwide outbreak of polyester. The picture above is of Indians’ pitcher Jackie Brown - remember him – in the 1977 Cleveland uniform. It almost hurts to look at that thing. Brown’s career record in seven seasons was 47-55, but, hey, he got to wear that great uniform in whatever color that is.

A friend sent me the link to pictures and commentary on “10 pleasingly hideous baseball cards from the 1970’s.” Check it out…but not if you have a queasy stomach!

If you can look at the Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers or Oscar Gamble cards without a snicker, you’re a stronger person that me. Now that I think of it, bring back flannel.

Have a good weekend.

Politics Still Ain’t Beanbag

political booksAre Spouses Fair Game?

Finley Peter Dunne was an Irish-American writer and humorist and the creator of a once-popular character – Mr. Dooley – who Dunne famously had say in the 1890’s that, “politics ain’t beanbag.”

Mr. Dooley’s full quote, even more appropriate perhaps to the latest news out of a heavily contested congressional race in Idaho, was a bit more expansive. “Politics ain’t bean bag,” he said. “Tis a man’s game; an’ women, childher, an’ pro-hybitionists’d do well to keep out iv it.”

Idaho Republican Congressional candidate Vaughn Ward, the perceived front runner to take on Democrat Walt Minnick in the sprawling 1st District of Idaho, has been dealing with the enduring truth of Mr. Dooley’s famous quip the last couple of days.

The Idaho Statesman’s Dan Popkey wrote a long takeout on Ward’s family situation this week that centered on the fact that the candidate’s wife is a decade-long employee of the mortgage giant Fannie Mae. The relevance of that fact to Ward’s candidacy is that he has made a centerpiece of his campaign his opposition to federal bailouts of the big financial institutions that helped cause the mortgage meltdown. By inference, one of those financial institutions is the employer of Ward’s wife whose salary has allowed him to campaign full-time for high public office.

Ward blasted back at the story, saying he “never thought” his wife would be attacked. A careful reading of Popkey’s piece, played with up most prominence on page one under a headline stating that Ward’s family is supported by the bailout he opposes, indicates more emphasis on what some might see as Ward’s effort to have it both ways – attack the bailouts that arguably preserved his wife’s job – than any real attack on his wife. The newspaper, meanwhile, pushed back saying that the story was entirely appropriate, in part, because Ward had himself created the issue.

Still, the story begs the question: just what is fair and what is off limits when it comes to a political spouse? The simple answer: there aren’t any rules.

Was Michelle Obama’s comment during the last presidential campaign that for the first time she was “proud to be an American” relevant? Were Hillary Clinton’s long ago trades in cattle futures relevant? Montana Senator Max Baucus’ ex-wife had a run in at a garden store some years back that made headlines. Was that relevant?

Politics is a fish bowl where the water gets changed every day and it sure ain’t beanbag and never has been.

In 1989, Dan Popkey wrote a series of very tough articles focused on the nomination of then-Idaho first lady Carol Andrus to the board of then-Boise based Morrison-Knudsen Corporation. The allegations, at their core, were about integrity and struck at the potential for a conflict of interest. I know first-hand how tough the pieces were because I was serving as then-Gov. Cecil Andrus’ press secretary and had the unwelcome responsibility of fielding Popkey’s questions. When a prominent GOP legislator jumped on the story, it went quickly from personal to very political and Mrs. Andrus, a highly intelligent, thoughtful and very private person, alone made the decision to withdraw from consideration for the corporate board.

Obviously, 20 years later, I remember many of the details of that story with a certain pit in the middle of my stomach. Was it uncomfortable to deal with? Absolutely. Were the stories inherently unfair? Given the day, I can argue it either way. I do know that it is not realistic to think of any governor’s wife as anything other than a public person. Same goes for a congressman’s wife, or the wife of a congressional hopeful.

I also know, and Andrus says as much in his memoir, that it was a darn painful experience for a close family that knew the rules of the political game and above all valued personal integrity. He adds the observation in his book – with Bill and Hillary Clinton in mind – that “attacking the family has become a kind of blood sport nowadays.”

It is the rare public person who can for any length of time keep the political separate from the familial. True fact: stories like the Ward story have become an expected part of suiting up and climbing in the political ring. Perhaps in a more genteel world it wouldn’t be so, but in that make believe world genuine bipartisanship would exist, as well. What often matters most with such stories is how the politician deals with the adversity, particularly when the adversity involves a family member. In that case, it is not just politics, but very, very personal and in my experience one of the touchiest of all political issues to manage.

So, politics sure ain’t beanbag, but tis surely a game for grownups and it helps as a candidate to have a very thick hide. Helps if the spouse does, too.

More Assaults on Public TV

big birdVirginia Governor’s Plan Sounds Familiar

I wrote yesterday about Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s hasty retreat from a controversial Confederate History Month proclamation. Some how the Guv left out any reference to slavery in his proclamation, an oversight he quickly corrected.

McDonnell is not pulling back, however, from another of his controversial proposals – a plan to eliminate state support for the Virginia public television and radio system. Much as Idaho Gov. Butch Otter proposed a four-year phase out of state support for public television earlier this year, McDonnell is asking the Virginia legislature to cut $2.2 million in state support over a four-year period.

The Washington Post quotes the governor’s spokesperson today: “Due to a historic $4.2 billion budget shortfall, and because of the growing educational programming options on cable and through the internet, the Governor had to set priorities and make some tough decisions.” Sounds familiar.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch says the McDonnell is “gunning for Big Bird” and notes that eliminating the modest amount the state devotes to public broadcasting has long been a priority of legislators in the GOP-controlled House of Delegates. McDonnell’s proposal may not fare as well in the Democratic Virginia Senate.

As we know, in Idaho, the heavily GOP legislature refused to embrace Otter’s budget recommendations to eliminate support for public television (and several other small agencies) and the governor quietly signed an appropriation a few days ago that gave the Idaho system the same type of percentage reduction in funding that most other state programs received. Otter also signed, in a public ceremony, legislation to provide a temporary tax credit for donations to public television and several other programs.

Also as in Idaho, the editorial and public response in Virginia has been in favor of allowing public broadcasting to take its share of cuts in a tough economic environment, but not use the downturn as an excuse to eliminate a vital service.

As the Virginia Pilot noted in an editorial: “A tough budget year shouldn’t be used as an excuse to take a gratuitous swipe at local stations that are struggling to continue providing superior educational programming and insightful coverage of local and state issues during the recession.”

In Idaho a massive show of public support for public TV sidetracked the governor’s budget notions. We’ll soon see if Virginians appreciate Big Bird as much as folks in these parts obviously do.