Bruce King…The Genuine Article
It is a cliche to say it, but they don’t make ‘em like former New Mexico Governor Bruce King any more. King died last week at the age of 85.
Folksy, plain spoken, a back slapping, hand pumping cowboy politician, King was a middle of the road Democrat and was elected governor three times in non-consecutive terms – 1970, 1978 and 1990.
Current Governor Bill Richardson said of King, “He was as genuine and colorful as his cowboy boots. I can just hear him say `mighty fine’ as he shook another hand.”
King’s career was that of an increasingly rare breed in American politics – a personality above all, a real person without pretense who never met a stranger. You certainly knew he was in the room. I saw him in action many times at meetings where governors would gather. I introduced myself one time and never had to again. He remembered.
Bill Clinton, then Arkansas governor, said he always tried to sit near King at governors’ meetings “knowing if I did I’d get a laugh and a lesson in life and politics.”
King was also known for his occasional ability to mangle the English language, a characteristic that no doubt endeared him even more to the speak plain caucus in New Mexico. He once said of a dubious proposal that it “would open a whole box of Pandora’s.”
The Santa Fe New Mexican called King the state’s “most loved leader and friendliest dignitary.”
My old boss, Cecil Andrus, had to call King once to remind him that only potatoes grown in Idaho could be called “Idaho potatoes.” Apparently someone in New Mexico was using “grown in Idaho” potato sacks to repackage New Mexico potatoes. Bruce took care of it.
In a story that may well have been apocryphal, but sure sounds like Bruce King, the governor was once asked his position on the controversial Waste Isolation Pilot Project, the so called WIPP Site, near Carlsbad. The massive Department of Energy project, years in construction, created a vast underground burial site encased in an ancient salt deposit where certain types of nuclear waste material is sent to slowly shed its radioactivity.
King allegedly said, in his twangy New Mexico voice, “Half of my constituents support the WIPP Site and half of my constituents oppose the WIPP Site and I’m with my constituents.”
We could use a few more Bruce Kings – the best kind of good ol’ boy.
Bruce King…The Genuine Article
Rexburg Speech Sparks, Well, Sparks
LDS Church Apostle Dallin Oaks gave a speech a while back at the church’s growing and impressive school at Rexburg – BYU Idaho – that received some spirited attention in religious and civil rights circles and, considering the subject – same sex unions – not surprisingly, the speech generated some controversy.
The subject has become, I think, a very difficult one for the media to handle and typically historical perspective is lacking. Framing the issue as one involving a question of conflicting rights, however, requires a certain willingness to grapple with the American experience regarding religious expression and the struggle for equality.
Dallin Oaks didn’t start this debate, but his speech in Rexburg may have sharpened it.
Oaks is an impressive fellow. He taught law at the University of Chicago, served as president of Brigham Young University, was a Utah Supreme Court judge, and now serves on the Church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. In Republican administrations, Oaks has been considered a potential U. S. Supreme Court nominee.
The subject of his Rexburg speech was religious freedom and the intimidation of members of the LDS faith that Oaks believes has come about as a result of the church’s opposition to same sex marriage proposals in California. In casting his concerns in terms of religious freedom, he incensed some by drawing parallels with the 1960′s civil rights movement.
“The extent and nature of religious devotion in this nation is changing,” said Oaks. “The tide of public opinion in favor of religion is receding, and this probably portends public pressures for laws that will impinge on religious freedom.”
As the Salt Lake Tribune reported, the LDS Church urged its “followers to donate money and time to pass Prop 8, the successful ballot measure that eliminated the right of same-sex couples to wed in California. Afterward protests, including several near LDS temples, erupted along with boycotts of business owners who donated to Prop 8 and even some vandalism of LDS meetinghouses.”
Oaks said, “In their effect [these actions] are like the well-known and widely condemned voter intimidation of blacks in the South that produced corrective federal civil rights legislation.”
Jeanetta Williams, president of the NAACP’s Salt Lake branch (and a former Idahoan), told the Tribune there is “no comparison” between what members of the LDS faith have endured and what civil rights advocates suffered.
“I don’t see where the LDS Church has been denied any of their rights,” she said. “What the gay and lesbian communities are fighting for, that is a civil-rights issue.”
This is a fascinating and important discussion because it brings at least two fundamental American values – religious freedom (and religious expression, however it is defined) into conflict with a claim of a basic civil liberty. The conflict is as old as the republic and as fresh as the morning headlines. It is also a study in how an issue can be framed and packaged for public and media consumption – my religious expression versus your civil rights.
I’m reminded of the thoughtful writing of Professor Martin Marty, a Lutheran pastor and a teacher and scholar at the University of Chicago School of Divinity. Marty has written of Abraham Lincoln’s willingness to invoke the Almighty in his political discourse. In fact, Lincoln – not a church joiner – may have spoken of God more often in his public discourse and writing than any other president.
Marty’s essay about Lincoln and religion notes that the 16th president wrote in 1864 to the Baptist Home Mission Society thanking the religious group for its support of his anti-slavery and Emancipation policies.
As Professor Marty has noted: “Of course, clergy in the South were claiming the same quality of biblical warrants for their pro-slavery, pro-secession, pro-Confederacy causes, and Lincoln had to deride them for that. Only a year or two before, he wrote the Society:
“‘Those professedly holy men of the South, met in the semblance of prayer and devotion, and, in the name of Him who said ‘As ye would all men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them’ appealed to the Christian world to aid them in doing to a whole race of men, as they would have no man do unto themselves, and thus, to my thinking, they contemned and insulted God and His church, far more than did Satan when he tempted the Saviour with the Kingdoms of the earth. The devils [sic] attempt was no more false, and far less hypocritical.”
Then, as Marty says, after having identified the South and its clergy with the satanic and the devilish, Lincoln qualified his point: “But let me forbear, remembering it is also written, ‘Judge not, lest ye be judged.’”
Ironically, Marty notes, Lincoln had just judged in the interest of pressing a political, indeed civil rights, point. As I said, this is an old debate and a complicated one in that American rights regarding religion and civil rights, at least the perception of those rights by some, can be in sharp conflict.
For what it’s worth, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has a recent survey that says support is growing among Americans for civil unions, but same-sex marriage is still opposed by a majority of Americans.
As this debate moves forward, and it will move forward, both sides will likely continue to attempt to cast the issue in terms of its own concept of “civil rights.”
Without a grand compromise that balances conflicting rights, as Lincoln might have said, both sides can’t be right.
The wonderful Marilyn Shuler will be honored this weekend with the Light of Philanthropy Award presented annually by St. Luke’s Hospital.
It is difficult to believe there could be a more worthy recipient.
For years, Marilyn Shuler was the face of human rights in Idaho as she led the state’s Human Rights Commission with a quiet grace and a steely commitment to dignity all enforced with the rule of law.
I had the rare pleasure of working closely with Marilyn during my time in Idaho state government. She was a role model, a powerful leader and a true moral force for good. One of my proudest moments was having a very small hand – Marilyn had a very big hand – in creating the holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Idaho.
Sadly, Idaho was one of the last states to recognize the remarkable accomplishments of Dr. King, but perhaps even more importantly to honor a society’s commitment to human rights. It would never have happened without Marilyn’s unflinching courage in overcoming the hidebound opposition to honoring Dr. King and then-Governor Cecil Andrus’ determination to not allow the state to suffer a black eye by failing to publicly embrace a just and overdue cause.
Beyond her singular successful career devoted to the human rights of others, Marilyn also served with distinction on the Boise School Board, helped manage public employees retirement dollars and guided the creation of the Anne Frank Memorial in Boise. That is a decidedly partial list of accomplishments. Along the way, she touched a million lives.
Every once in a while you see that someone is receiving the kind of public recognition they really deserve. This is such a moment.
Dr. King once said: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘what are you doing for others?’”
Marilyn Shuler has answered that question with a lifetime of service to others. She is an Idaho treasure.
When I noted a few weeks back that President Obama had made a good and interesting selection – former GOP Congressman Jim Leach of Iowa – to head the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), I did not expect such speedy confirmation of what a good appointment it was. Happily, it sounds like Leach will indeed be a great Chairman of the NEH.
At the National Humanities Conference last week in Omaha, Leach offered a stirring defense of the importance of humanities education and made the case for using the lessons of the humanities to quide us in a better direction with our politics and policy. His speech is well worth reading for any student of American history and politics.
A Leach talk in September about bridging cultures - he was talking about the western world and the Muslim world – was also excellent.
If you have ever wondered whether we need to teach humanities in the public schools – along with math and science – or whether there is a price to pay for a lack of civility in our public discourse, read Leach’s Omaha speech. A couple of excerpts:
On applying the humanities to public policy
“The United States is currently intertwined in two civil wars, both more than a third of the way around the world, each with a unique set of problems. One is in the wake of a terrorist attack on our shores plotted from a mountainous Afghani redoubt. The other was precipitated against a country that was not involved in the plot against America but was thought to be on the verge of developing weapons of mass destruction, a thesis since debunked.
“In making assumptions about the wisdom and manner of intervening in the affairs of other countries, would it have been helpful for policy-makers to have reviewed the history of the French colonial experience in Algeria, the British and Russian experience in Afghanistan, the French and U.S. experience in Vietnam?
“Would it have been helpful to study comparative religions and observe the historical implications of the Crusades and their relevance to peoples in the Middle East today? And what meaning might be found in our own colonial history—the asymmetric tactics, for instance, of Francis Marion, the South Carolina patriot known as the Swamp Fox, who attacked the best trained army in the world at night and then vanished into impenetrable swamps during the day?”
And this on the often nasty tone of our public discourse:
“In a political system characterized by historic antipathy to extremes, the decibel level of partisan voices is rising. Rancorous, socially divisive ideological assertions are being made with such frequency that few are thinking through the meaning or consequences of the words being used. Public officials are being labeled ‘fascist’ and ‘communist.’ One Member of Congress has even suggested that colleagues be investigated for ‘un-American activities.’
“Most bizarrely, some in public life have toyed with hints of history-blind radicalism—the notion of ‘secession.’
“Even the most cursory study of history would reveal the gravity and implications of such polarizing language. We fought a war across two oceans to defeat fascism and spent billions and sacrificed thousands to hold communism at bay. And a century and a half ago, over 600,000 Americans were killed in a bloody civil war over the question of secession. That war, we thought, settled two issues: that slavery was incompatible with humanist, democratic values and that these United States are indivisible, inseparable from each other. We are a union, after and above all.”
A Plea for Civility
Chairman Leach indicated he will focus attention on the critical importance of civility and how the humanities can give us a respect – and yes, understanding – for perspectives different from our own.
Jim Leach knows of what he speaks. In some quarters – one blogger calls him “a pro-Obama turncoat” – he has suffered vilification for breaking ranks with the GOP. In our superheated political kitchen, one man’s turncoat is another’s statesman. And, Leach offers the perfect cooling sentiment.
“Bridging cultural divides and developing a sense for a common humanity are moral and social imperatives. Together, we in the humanities are obligated to help advance an ethic of thoughtfulness rather than conformity of thought, decency of expression rather than coarseness in public manners.
“Civilization requires civility.” Amen.
First Nations Get Real Attention
Barack Obama got off a wonderful line last week when he spoke to more than 500 of the nation’s tribal leaders at a major conference in Washington. The president recalled his Montana campaign last year and the occasion of his adoption by Hartford and Mary Black Eagle of the Crow Tribe.
“Only in America,” Obama said, “could the adoptive son of Crow Indians grow up to become President of the United States.” The quip reportedly got a big laugh and illustrates Obama’s deft touch and graceful sense of humor. The presidential attention may also signal a new day – long overdue – of federal government attention to tribal issues.
In 1934, another president – Franklin Roosevelt – on another trip to Montana was honored by the Blackfeet Tribe with a ceremony near Two-Medicine Chalet in Glacier National Park. That’s FDR in the back seat of his Cadillac touring car. He had spent the day touring the park. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt is standing next to then-Interior Secretary Harold Ickes.
In my read of New Deal history, FDR’s policies toward tribal nations were a mixed bag. Roosevelt championed the Wheeler-Howard Act, also known as the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 or, as then-BIA Commissioner John Collier preferred, the Indian New Deal.
Well intentioned as most of Roosevelt’s policy was, it still suffered from a “Washington knows best” bias and even Collier, a generally great Commissioner, possessed a heavy paternalist hand.
Obama’s moves so far seem to hold great promise for true progress on tribal issues.
Obama’s joke about his adopted status was a light hearted moment during an otherwise substantive meeting; a meeting that was almost completely overshadowed in the news cycle by the tragic shootings at Ft. Hood, Texas.
Concluding his remarks, the president said: “I understand what it means to be an outsider. I was born to a teenage mother. My father left when I was two years old, leaving her — my mother and my grandparents to raise me. We didn’t have much. We moved around a lot. So even though our experiences are different, I understand what it means to be on the outside looking in. I know what it means to feel ignored and forgotten, and what it means to struggle. So you will not be forgotten as long as I’m in this White House.”
Mark Trahant, an Idaho native from Ft. Hall and a thoughtful commentator on Native American issues, says Obama’s decision to put the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) at the center of coordinating federal policy regarding tribal nations means the president means business. I agree. Any good bureaucrat knows that policy follows the money.
Obama’s tone and his appointments – former Idaho Attorney General Larry EchoHawk is the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs – together with his empathy and directives to the bureaucracy could truly mark a new era. Let’s hope so.
Does Idaho’s Blue Dog Risk His Base?
There is a fundamental rule in politics – the first and most important rule, perhaps – that is ignored by any politician at considerable risk. Ask Dede Scozzafava.
Scozzafava was the Republican congressional candidate in a recent special election in upstate New York who could not hold on to a seat that has been in GOP hands since U.S. Grant was in the White House.
Scozzafava ultimately withdrew from the special election and endorsed the Democrat who eventually won. Her demise was sealed thanks to a badly fractured Republican base that thought she had strayed way too far from party orthodoxy. Her political situation was exacerbated – and fate ultimately sealed – by a third party candidate who appealed to the most conservative voters in the heavily Republican-leaning district. In short, the special election in the 23rd District of New York was a real mess, but the wreckage illustrates that fundamental rule.
Secure your base.
Republicans are still beaming over two gubernatorial victories last week in New Jersey and Virginia. In both cases, capable Republican challengers won against damaged Democrats who where unable to excite the party base that carried Barack Obama to victory in both states just a year ago. Most post-election analysis has confirmed that Democrats in both states were not terribly motivated, while the GOP core was very excited. Independents in both states helped closed the deal for the Republicans.
In short, Republicans secured and motivated their base. Democrats did not.
Idaho’s lone congressional Democrat, Walt Minnick, now confronts a similar problem as he walks the very fine line demanded of a western Democrat in a deep red state. Minnick must know that his base is restless.
Minnick’s dilemma – the line he walks – might be reduced to this: in a state like Idaho, he must be an independent with a conservative lean, but at the same time he cannot risk turning his Democratic base – small as it is – against him.
Minnick represents Idaho’s sprawling First District that runs from the west Boise suburbs, south to the Nevada border and north all the way to British Columbia. The district includes the largest wilderness area in the lower 48 named for Frank Church, the last Democrat to represent Idaho in the U.S. Senate, as well as the deepest canyon in North America. The University of Idaho, a fine research school, is in the district, as is the plot of ground where the white supremacist Aryan Nation once held forth.
Since the 1950′s, at least, the district has grown increasingly more conservative. Three GOP congressmen who once represented the First District – Jim McClure, Steve Symms and Larry Craig – went to the Senate from this reliably Republican outpost. For a Democrat, the margin of error in the First District is, well, there is no margin for error for a Democrat.
Minnick won the challenging job of representing this huge district a year ago by narrowly defeating a deeply polarizing incumbent, Bill Sali, who ran hard to the right. Before last fall, the district had not sent a Democrat to Washington since 1992.
Minnick won the way Democrats have often won in Idaho, by defeating a weak Republican – Bill Sali – who had his own problems keeping the GOP base together. Church got his start this way and so did Cecil Andrus and each found a way to keep winning with a consistent appeal to the base and a winning message to the middle.
A year ago, Minnick was able to knit together a coalition that included an energized Democratic base that came to like Obama, salted with just enough moderate R’s who couldn’t fancy more Bill Sali, and complemented by independents who typically vote for Republicans unless they find them, as they did Sali, just too far out of the mainstream. This is the very political definition of fragile territory.
To his strategic credit, Minnick also played to the middle, stressing his farm upbringing while touting his business acumen. His campaign also succeeding in showing Idahoans that he not only supports guns, but uses them. It all added up to just enough to eek out a win in a presidential election year when John McCain polled more than 61% of the Idaho vote.
Late last Saturday night, Minnick cast a vote that may go a long way toward securing his political fate. Idaho’s lone Democrat on the national stage joined 38 other conservative Democrats – the so called Blue Dogs – in opposition to the party’s health care legislation that passed the House by the narrowest of margins. For good measure, Minnick also voted against the rule that allowed the Democratic bill to come to a final vote. In other words, he went the distance in opposition to a idea – health care reform – that is as fundamental to many Democrats as FDR’s old campaign song “Happy Days Are Here Again.”
[Long-time Idaho political observer, Randy Stapilus, also suggests that Minnick may have complicated his already delicate dance on the health care legislation by opposing the contentious amendment, backed by many Blue Dogs, to restrict funding for abortion.]
While health care legislation might be the vote that most of his constituents remember the longest, Minnick has also been at odds with party theology over the last few months on the stimulus package, climate change legislation and some aspects of financial services reform. He may well have succeeded in becoming the most independent Democrat in the House, but that label hasn’t kept him from making every list of most vulnerable incumbents in 2010. He and two potential Republican challengers are amassing war chests and this figures to be a dog fight – blue or otherwise – in the months ahead.
For his part, former Congressman Sali continues to flirt with a potential re-run, a situation that could end up being the best case for the current incumbent.
A year out from his re-elect, here are the questions worth pondering: Will Minnick pay a price among hardcore Democratic supporters for his independence on issues like health care? Or, as he must believe, will he be able to thread the electoral needle once again; re-assemble the Democratic base, again add enough moderates from the GOP and pull a sizable majority of independents?
To be sure there are a world of votes ahead, including presumably the ultimate vote in Congress to reconcile the House and Senate versions of a health care reform bill, and Republicans in Idaho’s First District are still months away from selecting Minnick’s challenger. Lots of things can – and probably will – happen.
Still, as New York, Virginia and New Jersey show most recently, and as successful politicians know instinctively, the party base needs to feel the love. Your friends hate to be taken for granted.
In Minnick’s district, I’m going to peg the dependable Democratic base – it has consistently dwindled since 1990 – at something north of 30%, perhaps even 35%, of the voters. These are the folks that show up at fundraisers, put up yard signs, man phone banks and walk parade routes handing out a candidate’s literature. They also talk to their friends about politics and politicians. You want the base working and voting, not restless and wondering.
There are never numbers enough among the base to elect a Democrat in Idaho, but if these folks decide – even in modest numbers – to sit one out, there are numbers enough to defeat a Democrat.
This is Walt Minnick’s dilemma and it requires walking a very fine line indeed.