Good Reads

booksA Good Half Dozen

It is the time of year for lists of the “best of” of 2009, a year that may go down in memory as not leaving all that much to recommend it. Nonetheless, some new and not-so-new reads during the year are truly worthy of mention. None of these made the New York Times list or won the Booker Prize, but did make The Johnson Post half dozen.

 

Non-Fiction:

 

The best political biography I have read in a long time in John Milton Cooper’s life of the endlessly fascinating, endlessly flawed 28th president of the United States Woodrow Wilson. Woodrow Wilson – A Biography will likely remain the definitive treatment of Wilson for years to come. Cooper, a University of Wisconsin historian, is the Wilson scholar and he writes with a lively, engaging style that leaves none of Wilson’s many accomplishments – academic visionary, legislative maestro – or numerous shortcomings – stubborn, partisan – unconsidered. Still, Cooper likes his subject and we should, too. Reading this marvelous book made it clear once again that the modern world began in the Wilson Age. The world that emerged from “the war to end all wars” – not Wilson’s phrase, by the way – is the world of today: a violent Middle East, the fractured Balkans, a phony country called Iraq, etc.

 

For sheer delight in reading about a major figure of the 20th Century, few tomes can compare with Paul Johnson’s new, short biography of Winston Churchill. Johnson, a great writer and generally revisionist historian, captures Churchill in just 166 pages; no mean feat considering the great man’s life spanned the 20th Century from The Boer War to the Cold War. Johnson is particularly good at illustrating Churchill’s humanity. He was a damn tough taskmaster, but remarkably gentle with political foes once he had bested them. He taught himself to be a great speaker through – listen up would be politicos – endless practice and polish. He loved good Champagne and Johnson estimates that he may have consumed 20,000 bottles in his long lifetime. This is a great little book.

 

I approached Ted Kennedy’s memoir, published after his death, with some trepidation. Would Teddy offer up the typical book by a politician – interesting perhaps, but not really revealing? Kennedy’s book – True Compass – may, as his Senate career did, set a standard for such efforts. Kennedy candidly discusses his shortcomings and offers real insight into the “Kennedy Way”. His portrait of his father, Joe Kennedy, is particularly good and will cause a rethinking of the old man and his influence on American politics.

 

A final non-fiction pick for 2009 would be Antony Beevor’s D-Day, a superb re-telling of the Allied landings on the Normandy coast in June 1944 and the first major new book on the subject in 20 years. All the major players are here: Eisenhower, the brilliant organizer and politician, de Gaulle, Omar Bradley, Rommel, Teddy Roosevelt, Jr., but also the common soldier, sailor and airmen who accomplished the single greatest invasion ever undertaken. The invasion was brutal, brilliant, chaotic, callous and history changing. Beevor captures all of the story and suggests, as others have, that the invasion could well have ended in disaster. He also makes the case that atrocities – Allied bombing of French civilians and summary execution of prisoners on both sides, for example – have long been ignored in the myth making surrounding what Rommel called “the longest day.”

 

Fiction:

 

One of the best fiction reads this year was Jim Harrison’s The English Major. Harrison takes readers on a cross country romp from Michigan to Montana with funny and telling stops along the way. His hero is a 60ish English major turned backwoods farmer who finds himself without a wife and without much purpose in life. If you know Harrison, you’ll not be surprised that the book is full of quirky characters, massive amounts of food and drink and, of course, sex. The guy can write.

 

I have seen the movie with Humphrey Bogart and Sydney Greenstreet a dozen times and it is always enjoyable, but had never read The Maltese Falcon until recently. Dashiell Hammett’s classic was published nearly 80 years ago and it remains a great read. The John Huston movie is very faithful to the book, even using word-for-word dialogue, but there is no substitute for Hammett’s lean, clean prose coming off the page. This is the essential detective story.

 

Happy reading in 2010.

Merry Christmas

Charles DickensA Dickens of a Christmas

There is a current school of thought that holds that Charles Dickens “invented” many of our current customs regarding how Christmas is celebrated. For sure his story about the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge has become a timeless classic and the Christmas feast a much anticipated routine.

Truth be told, the celebration of Christmas has long been a work in progress – sorry Bill O’Reilly – and always the subject of some controversy.

The Boston Globe had a wonderful piece this week about how the celebration of Christmas has evolved over the centuries in New England. It is worth a read. I learned, for instance, that Boston Puritans in the 1600′s effectively outlawed Christmas.

As author Stephen Nissenbaum writes: “On December 25, 1685, Boston Magistrate Samuel Sewall proudly wrote in his journal that ‘the Body of the People profane the Day’- that is, the town’s residents went about their work as usual – ‘and blessed be God no Authority yet compel them to keep it.’ Indeed, in a kind of reverse Blue Law, for a quarter century during the mid-1600s the Puritan leaders of Massachusetts actually outlawed its celebration.”

What were those Puritans thinking?

Garrison Keillor had some choice things to say recently about messing with Christmas tradition. He doesn’t like it, and he likes Silent Night just the way it is and, by the way, he isn’t crazy about those “lousy holiday songs” either, thank you.

“Christmas is a Christian holiday — if you’re not in the club, then buzz off,” Keillor wrote. “Celebrate Yule instead or dance around in druid robes for the solstice. Go light a big log, go wassailing and falalaing until you fall down, eat figgy pudding until you puke, but don’t mess with the Messiah.”

Keillor’s column, big surprise, offended Unitarians (and Jewish songwriters) and may have, momentarily, pleased that policeman of Christmas correctness the bombastic Mr. O’Reilly. Who’da thought that possible?

As for me, I like the Dickens Christmas sentiment best of all. In the great scene in A Christmas Carol where Scrooge encounters the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley, Scrooge tells the ghost that he had once been a great businessman. Marley’s disagreeing response is, in many ways, the essence of Christmas:

“Mankind was my business,” Marley says. “The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

Now, there is a Christmas sentiment.

Best wishes to you and yours for a Very Happy Christmas. And, yes, I’m sticking with “Happy Christmas” – not the popular and generic “Happy Holidays.” My own tradition.

Thanks to Dickens for that great story. I like what it has done for Christmas.

Montana’s Mansfield

manA Model of the Modern Majority Leader

Next to operating from the Oval Office, the front row desk on the majority side of the aisle in the United States Senate is arguably the most difficult perch in politics. That seat is where the Majority Leader sits – or stands – and attempts to move forward the world’s greatest deliberative body.

Mike Mansfield, by general agreement, did the job better than anyone ever has. Not bad for a one-time mucker from the copper mines of Butte, Montana.

During this holiday season, as the Senate rancorously flails its way to a conclusion on health insurance reform legislation, ol’ Mike is looking better than ever.

Current leader Harry Reid of Nevada will get – and deserve – any credit (or blame) due if Congress does complete the legislation, as is looking likely. But Reid has gotten to the finish line with a much different style than Mansfield would have used and, as a result, he presides over a much different Senate.

As Reid pushes for a bill, difficulties and tempers flare around the leader. His home state situation is troubling, too. Reid trails in the polls in Nevada and his unfortunate comments equating GOP opposition to the health insurance bill to support for slavery riled the Senate.

Mansfield was from a different era, for sure, but his was also a time – like ours – of great divide in the country. Somehow he made the Senate work a lot better than the current model. It is worth pausing for a moment to remember the truly incredible Mansfield and his style in the Senate.

Mike, as his Montana constituents knew him, held the Senate’s top job longer than anyone in history – from 1961 to 1977. His memory is revered in Montana and deserves to be long remembered in the history of American politics in the 20th Century.

Through civil rights legislation, through Vietnam, LBJ’s Great Society, Watergate and investigations of the CIA, Mansfield cultivated an approach to leading the Senate that involved less of him and more of everyone else. He insisted on fair play and dignity. Mansfield once stopped proceedings on the Senate floor in the middle of a roll call vote to demand that an amendment be considered that then-rookie Republican Ted Stevens felt had been given short shrift. Another Senator had given Stevens his word that the amendment would be considered, but then reneged on the pledge. Mansfield made it right. Stevens never forgot the moment and he told me years later that he considered Mansfield the Senate’s greatest leader and an even greater person. No faint praise coming from a highly partisan Republican.

Very late in his life, I had a fascinating few minutes with Mansfield in his Washington, D.C. office. He was long out of the Senate, had been U.S. Ambassador to Japan under both a Democratic and Republican president and was, just shy of 100 years old, still working almost every day as an advisor to Goldman Sachs. He came out of his tidy office in the old Washington Star building to greet me, ushered me to a comfortable chair and proceeded to make me a cup of coffee.

I realized at that moment some of the secret to his success. He was practicing the “servant as leader” approach to personal relationships. He had no need to see me, nothing to gain from offering 45 minutes of his time, and had no doubt answered the same questions that I would put to him a thousand times. Still he displayed for me the same qualities he used so successfully and for so long in the Senate – civility, respect, kindness, attention to detail and candor.

We spoke that day of Montana political history and I remember asking him his assessment of the great Montana political figures. He mentioned Senators Lee Metcalf, Thomas Walsh, Jim Murray and Burton K. Wheeler before allowing that he would rank below all of them in all-time accomplishment. I questioned his ranking and he firmly pointed out that I had asked him for his assessment. “And that is my assessment,” he said.

There is no institution of our government remotely like the United States Senate. It was designed by the founders to be slow. Tradition says that every Senator, no matter how junior or powerful, can bring the place to a grinding halt with two words – “I object.”

The last few weeks have often shown the Senate at its worst, locked in endless parliamentary combat with Democrats seemingly more focused on gathering up the magic 60 votes to stop a filibuster than in producing understandable reform. Republicans have played the obstruction card full tilt, which Senate rules allow if not encourage. The civility and respect that a Mike Mansfield brought to the leadership seems totally lacking on both sides of the aisle these days. It seems like Reid and his GOP counterpart Mitch McConnell are so locked in blind partisanship that they can’t see what the rest of the country sees – legislative chaos and incredibly unproductive gamesmanship.

Contrast that with Mike’s approach to incredibly contentious civil rights legislation in the 1960′s. As Don Oberdorfer writes in his masterful biography of Mansfield, the Majority Leader knew, as he prepared for what turned out to be the longest Senate debate in history, that he first had to deal with southern Democrats opposed to any civil rights legislation. The southerners, like today’s Republicans, were determined to slow and, if possible, kill any bill with the filibuster. In those days, it required even more votes – 67 – to cut off the talking and start the voting.

With great dignity and deference, Mansfield called the cagey leader of the southerners, Georgia’s Richard Russell, to his office and explained in detail the approach he would be taking to the legislation. Oberdorfer writes, “Russell was astounded by Mansfield’s candor and wondered if it were a prelude to some unpleasant surprise – perhaps a discovery of an obscure provision in the rules that had somehow eluded the master parliamentary experts from Dixie.”

Oberdorfer goes on to quote Mansfield: “I kept Russell informed of every move that we made on the civil rights bill. I don’t think he took me too seriously at first, but he did with the passage of time. [There were] no back strokes, no hidden areas.”

Next, Mansfield invited the Republican leader, Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen, into the strategy development – Dirksen produced 40 amendments – and Mansfield insisted that his staff work to get the GOP leader the press attention he coveted and that ultimately lead to Dirksen receiving much of the credit for passing the landmark legislation. When Senators gathered after the historic vote to congratulate each other and claim credit, Mansfield avoided being in any of the photographs. He conspicuously gave away the credit to others.

Still, most Senators knew who had created the atmosphere for progress. Florida’s George Smathers summed up the feeling. “Much of the credit for the fact that [the bill] was disposed of without leaving large schisms was due to the good, calm, patient, magnanimous, long suffering and much admired Mike Mansfield.”

My favorite Mansfield story is told by former Montana Congressman Pat Williams, another wonderful and talented Butte Irishman. Pat had tried and failed, while Mansfield was serving as U.S. Ambassador to Japan, to lure the former leader to Capitol Hill so that he could be feted appropriately for his years of statesmanship. Finally, on a pretext, Mansfield had to come to a reception and be part of a receiving line where he quickly became the star attraction amid much praise of his work in the Senate and the Far East. When Williams reached out to shake hands with the former Senator, Mansfield pulled him in close and whispered, “Pat, what are we going to do about the Berkeley Pit?”

Never one to stand on any kind of ceremony, Mansfield was thinking, even at that moment and far away from Montana, about the massive Superfund site in his hometown.

The U.S. Senate may never see another leader like Mike Mansfield and that is a real shame for the Senate and the nation.

A Race for Idaho Governor – Part II

idaho state sealSix Things to Watch in Otter vs. Allred

As the New Year unfolds, Idaho voters may experience something they haven’t often witnessed lately – an interesting gubernatorial campaign.

After months of speculation that long-suffering Idaho Democrats might not field a serious candidate against incumbent Republican Butch Otter, a newcomer with interesting credentials jumped into the fray last week.

Yesterday’s post discussed the broad dynamics of the down and out Idaho Democrats and whether Keith Allred’s surprise candidacy can jump start their fortunes. Today: a half dozen things worth watching as this race unfolds.

1) How will the 2010 Idaho Legislature turn? The last two sessions have featured intra-party brawls between House and Senate Republicans and between Otter and GOP legislative leaders. The battles betray the fault lines between the more moderate elements in the party and the more conservative and have helped stall the governor’s legislative agenda, primarily transportation funding. It has been Otter’s fate to preside during a time of severe retrenchment and with the state’s economy still off in the ditch, the coming session promises more budget cutting and service reductions. Having been served this plate of political drama, Democrats haven’t been able to capitalize. So, watch how education funding fares – both K-12 and higher education – and whether continued deterioration in these areas really cause, or can be made to cause, consternation at the state’s kitchen tables.

2) By late summer or early fall will there be any discrenible improvement in the economy? Every incumbent would like a crystal ball on this question. At Christmas week, the state’s unemployment rate stands at a shade over 9%. If we could predict where that rate will stand on Labor Day and whether jobs and economic issues become a centerpiece of the coming campaign, we would have a better idea of whether an Otter-Allred match up will feature a real election or merely the run-up to a second term Otter coronation.

3) Can Allred gather the resources to run a credible race? The last two gubernatorial elections showed there is probably a million dollars available for any Idaho Democrat who works hard and seems credible. Still, carrying the fight to a well-financed incumbent is always an expensive proposition, particularly when one has to buy name recognition.

4) Will 2010 be a “throw the bums out election?” And, if it becomes an anti-incumbent year generally, will the notion of change gain steam across the political spectrum and in Idaho? Change was a powerful winning factor in national and state elections in 2008 and all the polling at the moment indicates folks are mad as hell and not anxious to take much more. Next year’s politics could be about change all over again, particularly if challengers, regardless of party, are able to make the case that the folks in office are part of the problem. That is, historically speaking, a tough sell for a Democrat in Idaho, but there is a populist wave building in the country and the smart candidates my try to ride it until November.

5) Does Allred’s personal story help him connect? The new candidate hails from Twin Falls, has a ranching background, a Harvard education, has served as an LDS Church leader and, until his announcement, could claim strong, non-partisan policy expertise. Does all that give him a chance to make his case in areas of Idaho – the Magic Valley in south central Idaho and the Upper Snake River Valley in the east, for instance – where Democrats are seldom heard and even less frequently considered worthy of a vote? While southern and eastern Idaho may seem a tempting target for a Democrat like Allred, historically the party’s successful candidates have had to play well north of the Salmon River and there the personal story will be dissected and debated for its relevance to many voters who still think in terms of timber and silver, salmon and wheat. I’ve always thought an acid test for an Idaho Democrat was being able to campaign at the gate of the Bear Lake County Fair in Montpelier and at the Border Days Rodeo in Grangeville, while not looking out of place in either locale. No Democrat since Cece Andrus have been able to pull that off.

6) And, can Keith Allred write a fundamentally new Democratic narrative in Idaho? And, will his adopted Democratic Party let him? He will need to fashion an updated, compelling 21st Century message, build a new electoral coalition, craft a new statewide organizing principle and, oh yes, there is that money. Democrats in Idaho also always need a major dose of luck – self-made generally.

A young John Kennedy warned tired and dispirited national Democrats in 1956 – with himself no doubt in mind – that the party needed “new ideas, new policies and new faces.”


Kennedy could have been talking about Idaho Democrats over the last 15 years. And while the political math for Democrats remains extremely difficult, a definition of “a new idea” would be nominating for governor a southern Idaho ranch kid turned Harvard professor, who is an LDS Bishop, sits a horse well and just happens to be a state government policy wonk.

Will a new face like that play in Grangeville? And will Allred’s consensus approach to policy catch on Bear Lake County? Stay tuned.

A Race for Governor in Idaho

allredCowboy Wonk Vs. Cowboy Governor

Since 1994, the Idaho Democratic Party has been living the truth of the old saying about insanity. The definition of insanity, it is said, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. Four times in a row, Idaho Democrats have run essentially the same campaign for governor and four times in a row they have lost, badly.

The next Idaho gubernatorial election may – too early to tell for sure – may offer a different narrative. Twin Falls native
Keith Allred threw in with the Democrats last week and barring some big surprise will be the party’s candidate against incumbent Republican Butch Otter. I say “threw in” because until his announcement, most who have known him since he moved back to Idaho five years ago would have been hard pressed to divine his partisan leanings.

After establishing a name for himself in political and media circles as a scrupulously non-partisan policy analyst and founder of a non-profit group –
The Common Interest - Allred has decided to try and apply his notions about what he calls “collaborative polling” to a run for the state’s highest office.

Allred is a very smart guy, well spoken and engaging. He is also a first time candidate matched against a guy who has been on the ballot continuously since 1986. Allred is also, and I say this with genuine regard, a policy wonk. If an Idaho election could be decided on the basis of who knows the most about the gasoline tax, Allred would be a shoo-in, and, of course, if smart, wonkish guys always won elections, we’d be remembering the tenure of President Bill Bradley. Politics rarely works that way.

Elections more often turn on other factors – human factors – such as likability, toughness, passion, organizational ability and innovation. Still a deep and wide knowledge of issues sure can’t hurt a first time candidate and it is better to start informed in detail about issues than to have to learn it all during the job interview.

The political and media classes know Allred by virtue of his very solid analytical work on issues like education funding and property taxes. While relationships with the chattering classes helps with early credibility, Allred is far from a household name. To state the obvious, he has a lot of ground to cover to make himself as well know as Otter who has served at Lt. Governor, Congressman and Governor for more than two decades. As the Idaho Statesman’s
Rocky Barker correctly noted recently, Otter remains one of the best retail politicians Idahoans have ever seen and retail politics still matter in Idaho.

But, back to the need for a different narrative. The Democratic Party in Idaho, never a real statewide organization, has long lacked an effective plan – including a consistent and compelling message and the leadership to push a message – that might allow it to regain the relevance it lost when Phil Batt came from behind to grab the governorship in 1994. That watershed election ended 24 straight years of Democratic dominance in the big office on the second floor of the Statehouse and Democrats have been struggling ever since.

In the four elections beginning in 1994, no Democratic candidate for governor has captured more than 44% of the vote. The party and its gubernatorial candidate cry out for new approaches, for some innovation and for effective outreach to a new Idaho; the Idaho of young immigrants, Hispanics and high tech entrepreneurs. Having said that, it is admittedly easier to diagnose the problem than to prescribe the precise remedy.

For starters, the state has changed dramatically since 1986 when my old boss, four-term Governor Cecil D. Andrus won a very close election based on his ability to target and carry 13 of the state’s 44 counties. Many of those once reliably Democratic areas have long since ceased to be friendly territory for a Democrat. Organized labor, once a pillar of Democratic strength, is now, thanks in part to right to work legislation passed in 1986, much less a pillar. And the party’s legislative ranks have not proven to be any kind of a farm team of gubernatorial or other statewide talent.

It has been a long time since Democrats have had a successful younger candidate for major office – Andrus was 39 when he was first elected, Frank Church was 32 when he went to the Senate – who could present a new face for the party. One of the brightest potentials of the 45-year old Allred’s campaign is what it might mean in terms of a youth movement for aging Idaho Democrats.

The one thing that may remain relevant from the last successful Democratic gubernatorial campaign is the Andrus message: good schools, a good economy and a good place to live. That basic message, updated for a new century, may be more telling than ever in 2010, but, of course, every good message needs a good messenger.

Meanwhile, with the exceptions of the city limits of Boise and the Sun Valley area, Republicans can, and do, contest and win elections everywhere in Idaho. The GOP does have a farm team and very importantly, as the state’s population has grown over the last two decades, Otter’s home county – Canyon – has become even more critical in a statewide race.

Here is a telling statistic and remember the state’s population growth as you consider this: In losing to Otter in 2006, Democratic candidate Jerry Brady gathered in only 5,400 more votes than Andrus did in winning the governorship 20 years earlier in that very close race against Republican David Leroy. By contrast, Otter won in 2006 with 46,000 more votes than Leroy polled against Andrus two decades ago. Those numbers – growing Republican voting strength and relatively flat Democrat numbers – represent a structural deficit for a Democrat that presents a huge challenge for anyone running statewide.

Nevertheless, at first blush, the Allred candidacy has at least two things going for it: a fresh face backed by Idaho sensibilities and the potential to write a new Democratic game plan. It was no small surprise that respected former Republican State Senator
Laird Noh of Kimberly endorsed Allred right out of the box and praised his bi-partisan consensus building skills. Not a bad start, but only a start.

Woody Allen famously said that 90% of life is simply showing up. Ninety percent of politics may be showing up at the right time. Is the timing right in Idaho for a new kind of Democrat? Or, do tough times like the present argue for continuing the politics and personalities that Idahoans have grown comfortable with for 15 years? Such questions make politics winter’s best spectator sport.

Tomorrow: A half dozen things to watch as an Otter-Allred race unfolds

Media Matters

newspapersRupert and the Gray Lady

More proof this week of the fundamental changes taking place in the newspaper business. David Carr, a media commentator for The New York Times - the Gray Lady of American journalism -gives voice to what many media traditionalists have either observed first-hand or expected would happen.

Stop the presses: Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal – another great American newspaper – has turned to the right in its news and analysis. At least that is Carr’s assessment.

The response from the Journal is fascinating. The dueling statements from editors Robert Thomson of the WSJ and Bill Keller of the NYT read like the transcript for a Fox News shout down.

Here is the important point, I think, and the accelerating trend: the news business is fragmenting into a range of providers of “content” built around distinctive perspectives – political, social, economic. If the Journal has become the national conservative newspaper, there are those who would argue that the Times has long been the nation’s liberal paper. Perhaps both papers should just admit the obvious.

Of course, a press baron like Murdoch, schooled in the tough, partisan style of British journalism, is going to put his conservative mark on the Journal. If Murdoch understands anything, he understands market segmentation. He knows there is a vast audience for point-of-view news and he will get there first with the most. He is increasingly serving up British-style journalism for an American market.

Fifty to 75 years ago, papers like the Chicago Tribune, published by the isolationist, Republican Colonel Robert McCormick - the publisher modestly dubbed the Trib “the World’s Greatest Newspaper” – and New York’s short-lived PM, a left of center paper bankrolled by the millionaire Marshall Field, were unabashedly point-of-view. These papers reported favorably on their friends and assaulted their enemies, often in front page editorials.

Once, after a Tribune story spoke favorably of a U.S. Senator McCormick disliked, the publisher cabled – no email in the 1930′s – his Washington bureau asking if reporters there intended to continue to serve as press agents for the Senator. They didn’t.

We may be inevitably headed back to a much earlier day in American journalism when every newspaper was partisan and all the “news” came with a distinct point of view. Alexander Hamilton had his own newspaper, so did Jefferson, and everyone in the 1930′s knew that McCormick’s Tribune was anti-Roosevelt. It was his point of view. Was it always fair? No. Was it entertaining? Absolutely. Did it sell papers? McCormick created a media empire built on his personal perspective and his skill as a innovator in the delivery of information. Like Rupert Murdoch, the Colonel understood his market.

Murdoch, as with many things, may just be ahead of the pack as American newspapers go back to the future. In fact, having a distinct point of view may be the salvation of print journalism in the digital age.