An Idaho Political Character
My father had a marvelous sense of humor and he would often joke about the little town where he grew up in western Nebraska. Dad would say, “Most little towns have a town character. Where I grew up, the characters had a town.”
Like Dad’s hometown, Idaho hasn’t limited itself to one political character. We’ve had more than our share over the years. One-term Senator Glen Taylor comes to mind. A singing cowboy before he got into politics, Taylor ran for Vice President in 1948 on the Progressive Party ticket, lost his re-election, tried twice more to return to Washington, and settled for inventing the “Taylor Topper,” a toupee line that made him a millionaire. Now, that’s a character.
No list of Idaho characters would be complete, of course, without Steve Symms, a libertarian apple farmer from Caldwell who parlayed his charm and quotable one-liners about guns and government into stints in both the House and Senate. The former editorial page editor of the Lewiston Tribune, Bill Hall, used to joke that when Symms was starting out in politics, Bill would regularly refer to him as “an engaging kook.” Hall said, the late, great Idaho Statesman political writer, John Corlett, had to set him straight. Symms, who went to Washington to “take a bite out of government” and stayed on to lobby, was, according to Corlett, more kook than engaging.
Ol’ John should have known, he covered Idaho’s political characters all the way back to William Borah.
There are plenty of other political characters in Idaho’s history but, if forced to nominate just one for “character in chief,” it would be former Congressman George Hansen who was back in the news the last few days. The Idaho Supreme Court ruled that Hansen owed $700,000 to people he defrauded in a years-old case involving an investment scheme. Considering that charges of financial misconduct dogged him for years, its not too surprising that George Hansen reached the front page again with a story about financial misconduct.
Hansen has been out of public office since 1985, and anyone new to the state or its politics since then would be hard pressed to appreciate Hansen, the character, or understand his Ron Paul-like appeal over a long period in Idaho.
Long before there were Tea Parties or Birthers or Ron Paul, there was Big George, or George the Dragon Slayer, prowling the Second District of Idaho and teeing off against the federal government. Hansen ran twice unsuccessfully for the United States Senate, but somehow managed 14 years, spread over three decades, in the House of Representatives. Hansen wasn’t the first, nor last, to get elected time and again by trashing the federal government, but he may have been one of the more successful. For someone who spent a good part of his life in government, he sure hated government.
Not to be unkind to the Tetonia native, and he was hard not to like on a personal basis and I interviewed him many times on television, I cannot recall a single legislative accomplishment during his time in Washington. He did generate lots of headlines, however, as a highly quotable, outspoken foe of the IRS and OSHA, among other federal agencies, and he perennially turned up on the list of “most conservative members” of Congress.
Then-Rexburg college professor Richard Stallings defeated Hansen in 1984, while the incumbent congressman was a convicted felon. Hansen had failed to disclose certain information on required disclosure forms, but even with that heavy baggage hanging from his big frame, Hansen lost re-election by only 170 votes. It is still the closest Congressional race in Idaho history.
The Spokesman-Review’s Betsy Russell has a good take on Hansen and his appeal. For one thing, at 6-feet-8 and close to 300 pounds, the guy dominated a room. Big George was an aggressive retail politician; shaking hands, slapping backs, smiling and waving and moving on to the next voter. With his breathless, impassioned speaking style, Hansen could deliver a stem winder. One of his great assets was his attractive, articulate wife, Connie. Hansen often tellingly joked that Connie should have been the member of Congress. Heads would nod in agreement.
As a conservative Republican, Hansen also benefitted from having his political base in normally Democratic Pocatello. Hansen was once the mayor of Alameda, an Idaho town that no longer exists thanks to it having been incorporated years ago into Pocatello.
One of the last times I saw him he was boarding an airplane in Pocatello with two of those big brief bags that lawyers use when they are headed into court. But George had his cases stuffed full of his anti-IRA tome. I think he must have been on a book tour.
One of Hansen’s most memorable stunts was to travel to Iran during the embassy hostage crisis there in 1979. Much to the chagrin of the Carter Administration, he set up shop and tried to personally intercede with the Iranian government. Nothing came of it, but he generated a lot of media attention, including, I admit, a very expensive, half-hour satellite uplink interview that I conducted with him. Considering the perilous financial condition of public television in those days, I’m still not sure how my boss let that happen. Then again, George Hansen was always great copy.
Unfortunately, while the political characters usually do make the best copy, it is not often that they make the best public officials.
An Idaho Political Character
War is the unfolding of miscalculations - Barbara Tuchman
I have a clear memory of an old basketball coach from high school who preached a simple strategy. Coach would say when someone was trying to make a particularly difficult play, for example, a flashy, behind the back pass when simple and straightforward would do, “Don’t try to do too much.”
I have been thinking about that old coach this week as I’ve watched President Obama ensure that America’s longest war – our eight years and counting in the graveyard of empires, Afghanistan – will last a good deal longer. Afghanistan is Obama’s war now and I cannot escape the feeling that the president has made the decision – for good or bad – that will define all the rest of his historic presidency. We all hope he got it right. There is a good chance he has made the mistake of trying to do too much.
A nagging sense of deja vu hangs over his decision. We have seen this movie before and, as one of the president’s critics from the right – George Will - suggests, we won’t like the way it ends. As an Idaho and Northwest history buff, I am also struck by a realization of something missing from the political debate aimed at defining the correct policy approach in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The missing element, it seems to me, is hard headed consideration of the limits of American power and influence. Deja vu all over again. We have seen this movie before, as well, and the end is not very satisfying.
An Idaho Perspective on Limits
Idaho has had two remarkable United States Senators who played major national and international roles in formulating our country’s foreign policy in the 20th Century. William Borah, a progressive Republican, served 33 years in the Senate and chaired the once-powerful Foreign Relations Committee in the 1920′s. Frank Church, a liberal Democrat, served 24 years in the Senate and chaired the same committee in the 1970′s.
The Idahoans wielded political power in vastly different times and a half century apart. In the broad sweep of history, we have to say both lost their fundamental battles to shape American attitudes about the limits of our power and influence. There is a direct link from that failure to the president standing in front of the cadet corps at West Point earlier this week.
Borah’s influence was at its zenith in the interval between the two great wars of the 20th Century when he served as chief spokesman of the non-interventionist approach to foreign affairs. Church’s time on the world stage coincided with the post-war period when international Communism dominated our concerns and Vietnam provided all the proof we should ever need about the limits of American power.
It can only be conjecture, but I would bet that neither of the men from Idaho, who once exercised real influence in the Senate, would be comfortable with the president’s course in Afghanistan. The reason is pretty simple. Both Borah and Church, passionately committed to American ideals and to representative democracy, believed that even given the awesome power of the country’s military, there are real limits to what America power can accomplish in the world. Historically, both felt America had repeatedly embraced the errands of a fool by believing that we could impose our will on people and places far removed and far different from us. Their approach to foreign policy and identifying American interests was defined by limits and certainly not by the belief that we can do it all.
In his day, Borah opposed sending the Marines to Nicaragua to police a revolution. It simply wasn’t our fight or responsibility, he argued, and the effort would prove to be beyond the limits of American influence. Church never believed that American air power and 500,000 combat troops could help the Vietnamese sort out a civil war. Both were guided by the notion that Americans often make tragic mistakes when we try to do too much.
Other Northwesterners of the past – the Senate’s greatest Majority Leader, Mike Mansfield of Montana, Oregon’s pugnacious maverick Wayne Morse and the elegant, thoughtful Mark Hatfield – counseled presidents of both parties to understand our limits. Those reminders hover over our history and this moment in time.
None of this is to say that there are not real and compelling American interests in shutting down the 21st Century phenomenon of Jihadist terrorism. We do have legitimate interests and we must keep after this strategic imperative. But, the foundation of any successful strategy is correctly defining the problem and understanding the limitations.
Is projecting an additional 30,000 American troops into one of the world’s most historically difficult places, in the midst of tribal, religious and cultural complexity, the right approach? And, does it address the right problem? We’ll find out. The British and Russians found out before us.
As Barbara Tuchman made clear in her classic book The Guns of August – the book centers on the miscalculations and unintended consequences that helped precipitate the First World War – wars never unfold as planned. Miscalculations and faulty assumptions always get in the way of grand strategy.
Assuming progress on a tight timeline, assuming better behavior from a stunningly corrupt Afghan government, assuming our brave and talented troops can “nation build,” where others have failed time and again, are calculations and assumptions that may just not go as planned.
Grant the president this: he inherited a mess and no good option. Also, like Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam and Harry Truman in Korea, he faces great political pressure not to display weakness or signal American retreat. It has never been in the presidential playbook to candidly discuss the limits of our power and influence. The American way is to believe we can do it all.
One of the great “what ifs” of 20th Century American history, particularly the history of presidential decision-making, is the question of what John Kennedy, had he lived and been elected to a second term in 1964, would have done with American involvement in Vietnam.
Many historians now believe, with a second term secure and political pressure reduced, JFK would have gotten out. We’ll never know. We do know what Johnson did, and his inability to confront the limits of national power and define precise American interests destroyed his presidency. History may well record that George W. Bush and Barack Obama failed to confront the same limits and correctly define precise interests.
Kennedy once said this: “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie: deliberate, continued, and dishonest; but the myth: persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.”
As we head into the cold and gray of another long winter in the rugged, deadly mountains of Afghanistan, we may again – I hope I’m wrong – confront the persistent, persuasive and unrealistic myth that America’s military – motivated, trained and determined as it is – can do everything.
As I said, I hope I’m wrong.
He Really is – Quote, Unquote – Fantastic
OK, I was dubious. An old style animated feature length film of the children’s book by Roald Dahl. How special can that be?
Trust me – it’s special. With George Clooney, Meryl Streep and Bill Murray bringing the fuzzy puppets to life, you find that you’re inhabiting a very special world somewhere between the human and the animal. Mr. Fox wears a necktie to work, writes a column for a newspaper, but lives in a hole (and after trading up, in a tree) eats like an animal and, well, hunts chickens like a fox.
This is a rare movie where the trailer actually does justice to the film. For insight into how the movie was made, check out Terry Gross’ - am I over using this word – fantastic NPR interview with director Wes Anderson.
The color, smart dialogue, the music – all are really good. The movie may even serve to resurrect the fading – to say the least – fame of the 1960′s group The Bobby Fuller Four.
The kids will love the animals. The rest of us will identify with references to real estate deals, unheeded advice from lawyers, anxious teenagers and a character in mid-life crisis who just happens to be a fox.
I thought it was fantastic.
The Long Line From Huey Long to…Lou Dobbs?
In 1935, Franklin Roosevelt’s chief political operative and campaign manager, Postmaster General James A. Farley, commissioned a public opinion poll. Farley, a canny New York pol, was already thinking about his boss’s re-election more than a year away and was worried about a populist assault on FDR and the New Deal.
Farley’s secret survey confirmed that he had reason to worry. As Huey Long’s best biographer, the great historian T. Harry Williams, wrote in his fascinating book about Long, who was both Louisiana’s Governor and a United States Senator:
“The result [of the poll] was disquieting. It disclosed that if Huey himself ran he would poll three to four million and maybe six million popular votes. Moreover, his support was not restricted too the South but was nationwide. He would, in fact, attract as big a percentage of the votes in the industrial centers of the East as he would in the rural areas, and in a close election he could tip the balance to the Republicans.”
That same year, 1935, a curious little book – American Messiahs - appeared and its contents were eagerly consumed by most everyone who closely followed politics. The book offered chapter length profiles of a collection of “messiahs;” political figures who some saw – and who saw themselves – as saviors of the country in a time of mass unemployment and economic depression.
Huey Long was one of the “messiahs.” Long appealed to millions as an advocate for the little guy and a vicious critic of the fat cats. He was also a terrific communicator. Old age pension advocate Dr. Francis Townsend, his mass movement helped spur the creation of Social Security, was also identified as a “messiah,” as was Catholic radio priest Father Charles Coughlin, who brilliantly built a national following using his rich Irish brogue to push an anti-Semitic, populist message. Each of the “messiahs” had both the potential to command a national audience and impact presidential politics.
The author of American Messiahs, originally identified only as The Unofficial Observer, was in fact a well-connected political columnist John Franklin Carter. Carter wrote in the introduction to his book:
“I regard them [the messiahs] as indispensable irritants, since they supply the motive-power for essential change and because their manifest exaggerations counterbalance the intemperance of those conservative who regard Roosevelt as a dangerous revolutionary and the gradual reforms of the New Deal as akin to Communism.”
Some of this has a familiar ring this many years later, even as today the most profound criticism of the still-new president comes from the right not the left.
We’ll never know if Long would have followed his instincts and mounted a third-party challenge to Roosevelt. The Kingfish was murdered in a hallway of the Louisiana statehouse and died on September 10, 1935. His reported final words – “Lord, don’t let me die. I have so much to do.” – may offer a clue to his ultimate ambition. Long had already prepared a campaign manifesto that he entitled My First Days in the White House.
A third-party populist movement did come together, in a way, in 1936. A radical North Dakota Congressman William Lemke, with Coughlin’s support, mounted a national campaign hoping to rally those millions who had viewed Huey Long as their messiah. Lemke polled less than a million votes and Franklin Roosevelt went on to win re-election in an historic landslide.
Roosevelt won that election, in part, by out flanking the populist ranters and directly attacking the big business, Wall Street and newspaper moguls who were united against New Deal programs like public works projects and Social Security.
“Never before in all our history,” Roosevelt fumed, “have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me – and I welcome their hatred.” FDR served up political red meat for an anxious, hungry country.
A New Messiah…or Messiahs
Now comes word that former CNN anchor and anti-immigrant crusader Lou Dobbs is weighing a possible run for either the White House or the United States Senate from New Jersey. The bombastic Dobbs, it seems to me, fits snugly into the line of blustery populists that stretches back to Huey Long and even farther.
There is a populist rage underlying much of the rhetoric of ranters like Dobbs, radio and TV talker Glenn Beck, and even former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. These modern messiahs tap into a deep reservoir of distrust for big institutions and “the elite.” And, as Long, Coughlin and others did years ago from the left, Dobbs, Beck and Palin offer from the right – in another time of economic turmoil – homey, simple, easy to digest solutions to life’s complex problems.
Even with his communication skills honed at the alter of cable news talk, Lou Dobbs is no Huey Long. Long, in the early 1930′s, was developing a genuine base of support in the south and elsewhere. He also had a brilliant sense of humor and, unlike a talk show host, he actual got elected and produced new roads, hospitals and free textbooks. What Big Lou shares most with the Kingfish is a cultivated disdain for politicians of both parties.
“The only difference I ever found between the Democratic leadership and the Republican leadership,” Long said, “is that one of them is skinning you from the ankle up and the other from the neck down.” Now, that was effective communication.
Long also had his book – Every Man a King – to promote his Share the Wealth philosophy. His radio broadcasts were so popular that when Portland, Oregon station KGW refused to carry one of his talks the station’s audience rebelled. Sarah Palin now has her book – will Dobbs be far behind – and while she and the book, according to most polls, aren’t playing well with a majority of Americans – particularly women – the book is a runaway best seller. Palin’s folksy style does touch a raw, populist nerve with many and the media cannot get enough of her.
The famous southern, progressive journalist Hodding Carter was correct when he called Huey Long a “demagogue” and its tempting for some today to politically dismiss the current messiah crop as a curious, passing fad; part of an out-of-touch fringe that just happens to have ready access a microphone.
Easy to dismiss them intellectually, but while economic uncertainty dominates the lives of many Americans, not so easy to dismiss them politically. Demagogues, by their very nature, attract attention and the media loves to cover them. The more outrageous the rhetoric the better.
I suspect most Republicans would confess privately to wanting nothing to do with Lou or Sarah. They shudder at having them as the face or voice of a great party. Most Democrats said the same thing – privately – about Long, Townsend and Coughlin in the 1930′s, but eventually that changed.
Franklin Roosevelt found that he could not easily dismiss the messiahs of the mid-1930′s. Rather, after attempting to co-opt many of them, he determined that the best way to deal with “messiahs” was to defeat them politically. For the most part he did; taking them head on, including appropriating some of the best features of their reform agendas.
There may be a political lesson in that for Democrats and Republicans alike in 2010 and beyond.
The Boneless Wonder…
Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was born on this day in 1874.
The world has not been the same since.
In any one of a half dozen fields – the military, literature, history, painting, lecturing, acting (?) – Churchill could have become an international celebrity, acknowledged for his remarkable talents. Thank goodness he chose politics.
For two years running now, I have had the genuine pleasure of attending the annual Chartwell Society dinner at the elegant Arlington Club in downtown Portland, Oregon. The dinner has been organized for 17 years by a group of Oregon Churchillians who gather to remember the great man’s life and legacy. Of course, true to Churchill’s memory, they also enjoy cocktails – or Winston’s favorite Pol Roger champagne – good roast beef and fine French wine. The whole affair is conducted amid much talk of the man who gave Britain her roar during the awful days of World War II.
Unfortunately, recent changes in Oregon law prevented the standard after dinner cigar at the recent Chartwell Society gala. Winston would not have approved. Generally, he favored a Romeo y Julietta; Cuban, of course and in the size he made famous. One of his cigars, reportedly partially consumed at the Casablanca conference in 1943, was recently valued at 800 pounds.
I had the honor of delivering one of the toasts during the Chartwell Society dinner, a toast to Churchill’s wartime friend Franklin Roosevelt. I believe theirs was the most consequential friendship of the 20th Century.
The Chartwell dinner gets me thinking about the remarkable accomplishments of Churchill and, in fairness, also his rather remarkable failures.
Decidedly on the plus side of his legacy is the fact that he provided the vocabulary and the courage needed for Britain to hang on against the Germans in 1940 and 1941 while the United States remained a largely isolationist nation. He forged a great alliance with Roosevelt that still resonates with us today.
Churchill is also remembered for engineering the disastrous British expedition to the Dardanelles in 1915 that ultimately forced his resignation as First Lord of the Admiralty. Winston was a man of action and ideas. Some of his actions and ideas were great, many others were not. Still, perhaps the greatest lesson of Churchill’s long and fascinating life was his determination to always carry on.
He famously said: “When you are going through Hell, keep on going.” He did.
When Churchill returned to lead the British Navy in 1939 – remember he had been forced to resign from the same post 24 years earlier – he was, at age 65, widely considered the right man at the right time, in fact the only man for the job. He went to his old office in the Admiralty Building and found the same charts and maps that he had left there nearly a quarter century before. To mark his return, a signal was flashed to the fleet – “Winston’s back!” Who says there are no second acts in political life? Churchill had a second, third and fourth life. He always kept on going.
Churchill will be long remembered for his remarkable ability to inspire with the written and spoken word. He was an elegant, earthy, inspirational, funny and profound speaker, and, take note today’s politicos, his remarkable way with words – something he worked very hard to master – was a talent that contributed directly to his political success.
One of my favorite stories involves Churchill’s critique of Labour Party Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, a dour Scotsman who Winston believed was a weak leader. During a parliamentary debate he painted an unforgettable word portrait of MacDonald, who was seated across the floor in the House of Commons:
“I remember when I was a child, being taken to the celebrated Barnum’s Circus, which contained an exhibition of freaks and monstrosities, but the exhibit on the program which I most desired to see was the one described as ‘The Boneless Wonder.’ My parents judged that the spectacle would be too demoralizing and revolting for my youthful eyes and I have waited fifty years to see The Boneless Wonder siting on the Treasury Bench.”
You can almost hear the laughter, see the nodding heads and know that the victim of the wit and cutting put down had no possible recourse. What does one say to being called The Boneless Wonder?
One of the greatest resources for all things Churchill is the Churchill Centre which sponsors an annual conference in the United States and vigorously defends the old boy’s reputation. The scholarly analysis of Churchill’s role in two world wars and the post-war world of the 1950′s and 1960′s continues unabated. My guess is that he will be written about as long as the history of the English speaking people is recorded.
Like all great men – and women – Winston Churchill was far from perfect. He was however a remarkable leader at the very moment the world needed him the most. We should remember his birthday every year.
A Class Act, A True Citizen
At a time when coarseness and disrespect seems to be the norm in our civic and political dialogue, Ed Stimpson was from an older and better school. He was a gentlemen first and an involved citizen always.
Ed died on Wednesday after a tough, courageous battle with lung cancer. The unfairness of his death at 75 made all the more hard to take by the fact that the lanky aviation expert was never a smoker. Life treats the good guys just as roughly as the rest of us.
[After posting this Friday, I came across a fine tribute to Ed from an old friend in Washington State.]
The Associated Press described Ed as an “aviation advocate” and he was that for certain. He was the first president of the General Aviation Manufactures Association and was appointed by President Bill Clinton, with the rank of ambassador, to represent the United States on the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization. That group, based in Montreal, makes the rules for aviation world-wide. George W. Bush kept Ed on in the position and he served until 2004. He was recognized internationally for his leadership and he and his equally civic-minded partner, Dorothy, made quite the pair. It is hard to imagine another couple so engaged and so willing to play a role in making their town, their state and their world a better place.
Stimpson received the Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy in 1998 for his public service contributions to aviation, an honor he shared with Charles A. Lindbergh, World War II pilot Lt. Gen. James H. Doolittle and Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong. Fast company. To know Ed was to understand how at home he was in such company.
The National Business Aviation Associated called him an industry icon. Aviation Week said the “tall, quiet, elegant and effective” Stimpson was one of the industry’s most respected voices in Washington, D.C.
I first met Ed and Dottie Stimpson 20 years ago when they arrived in Boise – Ed was working for the old Morrison-Knudsen Corp. – and together they immediately became involved leaders in civic and political life. Dottie almost singlehandlely created the thriving City Club of Boise and the couple has been recognized for their many contributions to a civil society and for creating opportunities for young people. Countless political candidates and even a budding environmental writer, then-Senator Al Gore, benefited from the elegant receptions held over the years in the Stimpson home.
My wife, Pat, and I also benefited on several occasions from Ed’s ability to grill a mean lamb chop, keep the glasses full and the conversation rolling. No visit with Ed and Dottie was ever complete without updates on the latest books, the next trip or the most recent campaign. Like everyone who knew him, I’ll miss Ed for many, many reasons. We should all hope to leave such a legacy: gentleman, elegant, effective, a completely decent man who made a real difference.
Yeats’ famous quote seems particularly appropriate: “Think where man’s glory begins and ends, and say my glory was I had such friends…”
Ed Stimpson was simply one of the good guys.