The End of the World

andesAndes + Ocean + Islands = Spectacular

I have always thought some of the world’s great scenery was in the American West. The northern Rockies in Glacier National Park in Montana and the Sawtooth Range in central Idaho are truly world class. For maritime views there is little to compare with the San Juan Islands between Washington State and British Columbia.

However, having spent a couple of days tramping around “the end of the world” has me convinced that the southern tip of Argentina – Tierra del Fuego - must rank as one of the world’s most spectacular pieces of real estate.

The Argentine’s have tried a thousands schemes of create an industrial economy here. Sheep ranching in the 1890′s, a massive prison in the early 20th Century and in the 1950′s Juan Peron decreed that a naval base be located in Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. More recently, port facilities have been developed. Still it is the incredible scenery that brings most of the visitors and generates most of the pesos.

Argentina has struggled to create a modern industrial society in a vast land with limited traditional natural resources. What Patagonia has in abundance – breathtaking scenery, penguins, birds and solitude – may be even more valuable in an increasingly industrialized 21st Century.

The end of the world feels more like the beginning of the world we will increasingly value. It is not all that easy to get here, but it will be impossible to forget and irresistible not to return.

On the Road – Still

francisWaiting for Godot…or Delta

The British mystery writer Dick Francis has died. I liked his crisp, descriptive writing and thank him for introducing me, along with many other Americans, I suspect, to the sport of steeplechasing. His obit in the New York Times recounts his own early career as a jockey. He rode a dozen races with a broken arm and won two of them.

There was another obit in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution over the weekend that was both difficult to read and impossible to ignore. Diane Caves worked for the Centers for Disease Control and went to Haiti three weeks before the earthquake. Here is one sentence from writer Mark Davis’s poignant piece about her life and work:

Diane Caves of Atlanta, a policy analyst with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was killed in the Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti. This past Tuesday, nearly a month later, searchers found her body in the ruins of the hotel where she was staying. She traveled as much as she could. She laughed loud and often. She was 31.”

Moving from those sublime lives to the ridiculous, word comes over the weekend that two former politicians who ought to be retired for life – former Ohio Congressman Jim Traficant and former Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci - are positioning to attempt the post-prison comeback. Just what the U.S. Congress needs, an election Salon calls “the year of the crook.” At least those guys will have the most interesting hairstyles in the House. Meanwhile, good guys like Senators Evan Bayh and Judd Gregg are hanging it up. Not a good development for the Republic.

A lot of time to catch up on, and reflect upon, the news this weekend as Delta Airlines continues to recover in the American southeast from a “crippling” one inch snowstorm on Friday. Today is the day, I’m assured, when all returns to “normal.” I have faith.

Still, I couldn’t help reflect while, waiting for Delta, on Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play where two characters wait for that fellow Godot, who never shows up. At one point, Beckett has one of his characters proclaim: “I don’t seem to be able… (long hesitation) to depart.”

I know the feeling. But, today is the day when all returns to “normal.” I just know it.

On the Road

salmaChanging Planes on the Way to…

There’s an old story that if you’re headed for hell you’re going to have to change planes in Atlanta. True, except when its snowing. When that happens you can’t get there from here.

Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport claims to be the “world’s busiest” and, in the main, it seems a remarkably well run place. Vast, imposing, but well planned and operated, that is until the rare inch or two of snow arrives in north Georgia. Apparently snow was on the ground in 49 states on Friday. Only Hawaii was the holdout, but unfortunately I wasn’t headed in that direction.

A little bit of the white stuff, about the amount that would barely freshen up a ski slope in the northwest, virtually shut down ATL on Friday. Sitting around considering your fate during a “weather delay” provides LOTS of time to consider the human condition. Mostly that condition can be humorous, even amid a thousand cancelled flights. OK, so you have to look for the humor.

A Scotsman in the bar, awaiting his flight to Amsterdam and on to Glasgow – my guess, he’s still waiting – asked a young woman on a nearby stool if anyone had ever told her she looked like the actress Salma Hayak. She wisely didn’t respond. She also didn’t look like Salma Hayak.

During a stop at one of those typical airport shops – one of those places that carries watches, jewelry, etc. – a woman enters talking on her cell: “I’ve found something cheap,” she says, “I think this is what I’m looking for – cheap.” The salesperson glances over a with a smile and mouths under her breath, “cheap, not in this place.”

I’ve long ago quit checking luggage on any flight. I’m a straight on, carry on kind of guy. I figure given all the things that can – and often do – go wrong with air travel, why not eliminate at least one complication. I never check. The folks who did check on Friday wished they hadn’t. One guy sees my rolling bag and asks how I’d managed to retrieve it in and around all the delayed and cancelled flights. He looked absolutely envious when I told him. Maybe I should have offered him a clean pair of socks.

I saw most of the world in Atlanta on Friday. Most folks were pretty well mannered, a little stressed, tired and confused, but rolling with the travel punches. There was lots to see in Atlanta on Friday, but no Salma Hayak sitings – darn. Bet she doesn’t check either.

Toyota’s Troubles

toyotaAnatomy of a Recall, er, Recalls

David Letterman’s monologue hit a little close to home the other night. Dave said that things had gotten so bad at Toyota that the “navigation lady was praying.”

Indeed, prayer may be the next strategy at Toyota. At least it would be a strategy.

Whatever happens next, Toyota could do well to follow the lead of the navigation lady. She is the best thing about my Toyota. The navigation lady is always polite, authoritative, just a bit assertive in that favorite aunt kind of way, and she is always well prepared, unlike the top brass at Toyota. When you take a wrong turn, against her advice, the navigation lady will gently remind you to “make a legal U-turn” and get back on track.

Better than prayer, Toyota response to its current crisis of quality requires a legal U-turn. Listen to the navigation lady.

Toyota has violated all three of what I think of as the basic rules of handling a crisis. The company’s response has been consistently ineffective, slow and lacking a message. Three strikes.

Until very recently, Toyota failed to take charge of the crisis, admit the obvious and directly and convincingly apologize.

It seems like no one in charge at the big company asked the fundamental question that should always be asked in a crisis situation – what is the right thing to do to protect the public? Answering that question honestly and then acting in the public interest is almost always the surest way to protect the corporate reputation and maintain public trust. The image of Toyota’s CEO getting ambushed at a swanky Swiss resort during the world economic summit, followed by his escape in a sleek Audi (with good brakes no doubt) only helped drive the narrative of a company lacking real leadership and unwilling to assume responsibility for serious quality shortcomings. A brand as resilient as Toyota’s could have withstood an early, frank admission of lack of performance followed by a heartfelt apology and immediate corrective action. Instead, the response was halting, ineffective and forced. Most folks are forgiving, even of corporate CEO’s, if they believe they are getting the honest story and that contrition is genuine. Toyota dented the fender on this basic requirement.

Toyota has lacked a consistent, believable message.

Communication 101 here. A consistent message from the beginning of the crisis; a message that addressed what went wrong, what needs to be done to fix it and restating the company’s commitment to safety and quality would have helped shape the public – and Letterman’s – response. Perhaps Toyota should have immediately invited third-party supervision of its processes and aggressive engaged the regulators as it engineered a technical response to the crisis. Instead, customers and the public got what looks a lot like the stonewall.

And, Toyota has made the classic mistake in the age of the 24 hour news cycle, it has failed the test of speed.

Speed kills. In the age of instant communication, speed kills bad news or a lack of speed feeds the flames of crisis. Toyota’s response has been so slow and so defensive that it helped spawn a whole series of stories, like the lead piece in last Sunday’s New York Times, that only fed the notion that Toyota’s reputation for quality is a myth. With Toyota failing to provide a quick, credible counter narrative – no recognition of the need for speed – the crisis has kept growing.

Toyota will probably pick its way through this mess, but it will take some time and the damage will last a while. I’ll keep paying close attention to the navigation lady, at least for a while, but I may need some convincing to take a chance on another Toyota. The company is paying the cost of incredibly sloppy handling of big and very public troubles. In the modern world, a precise, quick and genuine response to a crisis is the only way to avoid an even bigger crisis.

The Lion of Idaho – Part II

BorahBorah: A Power in the Senate

Seventy years after his death, William E. Borah has become a shadowy historic figure in his adopted state of Idaho. During the nearly 33 years he spent in the United States Senate, however, Borah – called the Lion of Idaho – was a hugely influential figure in American politics, even though some of his contemporaries lamented his unwillingness, at times, to assume an even larger role.

Borah was a creature of the Senate and his times and the Senate was a different place in the first decades of the 20th Century than it has become today. Many senators tended to see themselves more as national representatives rather than home state advocates and the Senate was, in many respects, the ultimate political platform; a place to make a national reputation and a long career. Borah did both.

Some interesting details of Borah’s long career:

Borah never got along particularly well with President Calvin Coolidge, even though both were Republicans. One story has Borah being asked to the White House in 1924 where Coolidge was hoping to entice the Idahoan’s support in that year’s presidential election. Coolidge asked whether Borah would consider a place on the national ticket, to which the Senator reportedly replied, “Which place, Mr. President?” Borah ultimately rejected overtures to become vice president and refused to make the nominating speech at the GOP convention for Silent Cal.

Borah exercised great influence over a long period of time on appointments to the Supreme Court. In 1932, he played a pivotal role in convincing Herbert Hoover to nominate Benjamin Cardozo to the Court. Cardozo is now widely considered one of the greatest justices.

In 1937, Borah played a huge, behind the scenes role in derailing Franklin Roosevelt’s scheme to “pack” the Supreme Court by adding as many as six new justices. At a critical moment, Borah prevailed upon elderly Justice Willis Van Devanter, one of the Court’s staunch conservatives and a neighbor of Borah’s, to tender his resignation. The move, quietly engineered in personal conversation, helped undermine FDR’s plans by presenting the president with chance to appoint a liberal to the court.

At a time when the charge of being “soft on communism” was every bit as damaging as it was in more recent times, Borah was an early and long-time advocate for diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union. The Russian Revolution took place in 1917 and the United States did not extend formal diplomatic recognition until 1933. Borah called for recognition in the early 1920′s.

Borah’s reputation for independence and bipartisanship was greatly respected. In 1924, Montana Senator Burton K. Wheeler, a Democrat, was indicted on corruption charges. Many in the Senate saw the indictment as nothing more than a trumped up charge aimed at intimidating Wheeler who was conducting a high profile investigation of the Justice Department and corrupt Attorney General Harry Daugherty. Borah lead a bipartisan Senate investigation of the charges against Wheeler and concluded he was not guilty of anything except looking into Daugherty’s shady dealings. With little dissent, the Senate adopted the carefully crafted report. Wheeler was later also found not guilty by a Montana jury and Borah and Wheeler cemented a lifetime friendship. When it appeared that Borah might face a tough re-election in Idaho in 1936, and that the Democratic administration of Franklin Roosevelt would help Borah’s challenger, Wheeler publicly repudiated FDR’s meddling in Borah’s race and pledged to campaign for his Republican friend. Talk about bipartisanship.

In 1932, a well-known Washington reporter, Ray Tucker, published what became a very popular political book with the unforgettable title – Sons of the Wild Jackass. The title was a reference to a remark that New Hampshire Republican Senator George Moses had made when referring to the independent, progressive element in American politics. It was not meant as a compliment. Tucker’s book contained chapter length profiles of 15 of the “jackasses,” including Borah.

Tucker’s opening sentence regarding Borah is perhaps the best single description of the great Idaho senator. “There are four distinct political factions in the United States,” Tucker wrote, “Republicans, Democrats, Progressives and William Edgar Borah of Idaho.”

William E. Borah served longer in Washington, D.C. than any other Idahoan. He chaired the powerful Foreign Relations Committee for eight years, a role that made him an international figure. He dominated state politics, not by heading a political machine, but by the power of his personality and his carefully cultivated reputation for integrity and independence.

The Lion of Idaho

BorahWilliam E. Borah, U.S. Senate – Idaho
June 29, 1865 – January 19, 1940

A little more than 70 years ago, arguably the most famous political figure Idaho has ever produced – Senator William E. Borah - came home for the last time. Following a memorial service in the United States Senate that President Franklin Roosevelt attended, a funeral train carried the “Lion of Idaho” home to Boise.

Borah lay in state in the Capitol in Boise as thousand filed past his casket. Burial followed at Boise’s Morris Hill Cemetery where the Borah memorial sits prominently near the center of the city’s largest cemetery.

Born at the end of the Civil War and coming of age during a time when Idaho was among the last frontiers in America, the brilliant lawyer-turned-politician lived during some of the country’s most turbulent times. Events touched him and vice versa, from the labor violence in the Coeur d’Alenes (Borah prosecuted labor leader Big Bill Haywood for murdering Borah’s good friend former Gov. Frank Steunenberg in 1905), the First World War (he reluctantly supported American involvement), the League of Nations (he helped lead the opposition), the Great Depression and the outbreak of a second war in Europe.

Borah, a progressive Republican, championed non-intervention in foreign affairs and regulation of monopoly at home. He was only seriously challenged for re-election once, in 1936, when incumbent Democratic Governor C. Ben Ross took him on. Allegedly FDR’s political operatives had encouraged Ross even though Borah had remained on friendly terms with the president and supported many of his New Deal initiatives. Borah, drawing on bipartisan support and a well-earned reputation for independence, decisively turned back the challenge and ultimately Roosevelt stayed out of the contest.

In 1937, FDR toured the West and, during a stop in Boise, the just re-elected Borah introduced the just re-elected Roosevelt in front of the State Capitol in Boise. A wonderful picture of that event shows the president seated in the back seat of a big touring car, with Borah standing nearby at the radio microphones.

Borah deserves to be remembered for many reasons. As chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee he advocated naval disarmament and fathered a rather idealistic notion about outlawing war. As a westerner, he championed western reclamation projects. As a classic liberal, Borah, in the style of Jefferson, was a life-long advocate of the small farmer and shopkeeper. According to most accounts, he was also one of the greatest orators – on par with Daniel Webster or John C. Calhoun – to ever grace the Senate.

Most of all, I think, Borah deserves to be remembered – beyond the high school in Boise and the state’s tallest mountain in the Lemhi’s that carry his name- for his sense of what being a Senator is all about. Borah was a jealous protector of the Senate’ prerogatives. He neither took orders from the president, of either party, nor blindly opposed him.

Rather, Borah was a passionate defender of the Senate’s role, unique in the American system, as challenger of all concentrated power – in business or in government. In a lesson for our times, he should be remembered, more than one hundred years after he entered the Senate and 70 years after his death, as an opponent of presidents of both parties that pushed too far the power of the executive.

When Borah died in 1940, the news of his death was on the front pages from Berlin to Bombay, from Buenos Aires to Boise. Idaho has not had since, and the times probably won’t allow again, another such “citizen of the world.”

Ironically, when news of his death was carried in the Idaho Statesman in Boise, it was noted that Borah hadn’t visited the state he represented in the Senate for two years. Obviously, he was loved at home, deeply respected in the Senate and a power in the country and the world.

Further reading on Borah:

Leroy Ashby’s fine book – The Spearless Leader – recounts Borah’s reluctant leadership of the progressive movement of the early years of the 20th Century.

The one definitive biography of the great Idaho senator is Marion McKenna’s 1961 book simply entitled Borah.

Author Stacy Cordery’s recent and well-researched biography of Alice Roosevelt Longworth – Alice – provides, I think, definitive proof of Borah’s long-rumored, long-standing affair with Teddy Roosevelt’s outspoken and independent daughter. Cordery makes the convincing case that Alice’s only daughter was fathered by Borah who had no children of his own with Mary McConnell Borah, the daughter of Idaho’s third governor.


Tomorrow…some additional thoughts on the Lion of Idaho.