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.

Hidden in Plain Sight

basque2A Big Day In the Big Apple for Idaho Basques

A terrific new exhibit focused on the history and culture of American Basques – Hidden in Plain Sight - premiered on the hallowed ground of New York’s Ellis Island Saturday.

Boise Mayor Dave Bieter and Basque Museum Director Patty Miller (second and third from the right in the photo) helped open what is truly a world-class exhibit in the same rooms where 12 million immigrants passed into the United States from 1892 to 1954.

On the far left of the photo is exhibit curator Michael Vogt who did a masterful job of assembling artifacts, oral histories, photos, video and documents to help tell the story of the thousands of Basques who left northern Spain to settle in the United States. Many of those Basques ended up in southwestern Idaho, eastern Oregon and northern Nevada. The others in the photo are official representatives of the Autonomous Basque government in Spain who contributed financial and moral support to the exhibit project.

The notion of American Basques being “hidden in plain sight” is a takeoff on the fact that while Basques have done a remarkable job of assimilating they determinedly maintain language, traditions and culture. Musuem Board President Patti Laciondo wrote about that idea in the Idaho Statesman today.

The Basque Museum and Cultural Center has been around for 25 years, but this exhibit vaults a very special Idaho cultural organization far out on the national, even international stage. The National Park Service rotates a limited number of temporary exhibits through Ellis Island on an annual basis in order to compliment the starkly effective and profoundly moving permanent displays in the old building just off the southern shore of Manhattan. It is a singular honor for the Idaho musuem to be asked to mount such an exhibit. The exhibit will stay at Ellis Island through April and then open in Boise at the Basque Museum in September. As many as 300,000 people are expected to take a journey into the Basque story during the exhibit’s run in New York.

The always entertaining Oinkari dancers performed in cavernous Registry Hall at Ellis Island before the exhibit formally opened Saturday afternoon. The Basque choir from Idaho also performed. About 150 Idahoans made the trip to take part in the Ellis Island opening and many of them had their own stories about fathers, mothers or grand parents who entered the country through the gateway of American immigration.

It was impossible not to feel a lump in the throat as the Basque choir – Biotzetik – sang “America the Beautiful,” first in Basque then in English, in the place where so many new Americans caught their first glimpse of a new life in the new world. It was a moment that makes one marvel at what a country we have. A “nation of immigrants” in the language of John F. Kennedy, made great and unique in the world by the strength of its diversity.

American Basques are a fascinating part of the great American immigrant story, a part that will now, thanks to the work of the Basque Museum and Culutral Center in Idaho, be better known and appreciated around the country and the world.

Haiti and Idaho

missionariesThe Curious Case of Idaho’s Identity

By now most of the world able to access the Internet, buy a newspaper or listen to the BBC knows that a group of Idaho missionaries is behind bars in Haiti. Just what has happened is – and likely will remain for some time – a mystery. You know, if you have been following the world-wide story, that the eight Idahoans and the two others have been accused of coming dangerously close to trafficking in the shattered lives of the children of earthquake ravaged Haiti.

I have no idea what really happened in this troubling case, and I’m suspecting that the generally incompetent government of Haiti has about the same level of understanding. Perhaps the best that can be said is that a group of well-intentioned folks took well-intentioned actions that, when examined in the clear light of day, look pretty unsophisticated, naive, or even in the language of the Third World – imperial, or perhaps imperious.

I’ve been in New York the last couple of days and the Haiti missionary/human trafficking story has been all over the place. [Perhaps as a testament to how much New Yorkers - at least public radio-listening New Yorkers - desire to understand the Haiti-Idaho connection, I appeared this morning on WNYU's "The Takeaway," to provide an "Idaho perspective" on this international story. I had at least a moment's pause speaking for the entire state, but when in New York, hey someone has to speak for us.]

Here is one takeaway from the missionary story, and it is all about the curious mindset some of our fellow Americans on the east coast and elsewhere in this diverse land have when they read a headline that says: “Idaho missionaries charged with bad stuff in Haiti…”

These fellow citizens wonder just what is it about that strangely shaped western state, home to good potatoes, formerly home to a bunch of crackpot, white supremacists, and headquarters of a growing football dynasty, that such a story could emanate from there?

It will come as little surprise to anyone who has traveled the country a bit that Idaho is about as well understood as the rules of cricket to most of our fellow countrymen. It is not so much that the state has a bad image as that it has almost no image at all. Or, perhaps more correctly, some folks assume the worst given a generally blank slate to draw upon.

In one sense, Idahoans (you could have said the same of Montana in the days of the Unibomber) might say, who cares what others think or the conclusions to which they jump? We have a sense of ourselves. We know what we are about. But, in life and in the “reality” of the 24 hour news cycle, perception matters. There is a perception that Idaho fosters, well, strange things.

I wish the world’s perception of the state I have called home for 35 years now was more in keeping with reality. For example, I talked at length with a concerned Idahoan last week who was about to leave for his second extended trip to Haiti to see what he can do to improve the availability of clean water and evaluate how to mitigate earthquake damage to prevent long-term environmental degradition to an already badly degraded landscape.

I know, I know, man bites dog is news. A narrative of out of control missionaries, fueled by something in the water in Idaho, fits the all-too-common preception of the Gem State.

Sad that is, but also true.

The President and the Supremes

untitledCriticising the Court Has a Long History

The curious ritual that has become a feature of a president’s State of the Union speech – the black robed justices of the United States Supreme Court sitting rigid, formal, unsmiling and strictly non-partisan in the front row of the House Chamber – assumed a good deal more relevance last week. President Obama looked down on the justices, at least the six who attended his speech, and let them have it over the Court’s recent decision to unshackle corporate money in American politics.

The cameras caught Justice Samuel Alito mouthing the words “not true” as Obama used the biggest stage in politics to tell the court to its many faces that it was wrong.

The encounter, if that’s indeed the right word, ginned up plenty of commentary. The reaction generally ranged from one extreme – “Obama was out of place” openly criticising the court – to the other – Alito’s reaction was only slightly less bad mannered than Rep. Joe Wilson shouting “you lie” to the president during an earlier speech on health care reform.

In truth, presidential – or for that matter legislative – criticism of the nation’s highest court is almost as old as the Republic and why shouldn’t it be? The court holds enormous sway over American life and, as we witnessed recently, the confirmation of a new justice has become the biggest vetting process in politics outside of the grueling primary gauntlet we put our would-be presidents through.

A little history.

In 1935, Franklin Roosevelt was so exasperated with the then-Supreme Court lead by Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes that FDR spent more than an hour at a news conference berating the Court for its decision overturning most of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NRA), the centerpiece of the president’s legislative effort to combat the Great Depression. The Court ruled that the NRA had improperly attempted to regulate interstate commerce.

The White House worked differently in those days and a president’s news conference was “off the record,” meaning reporters could not quote him directly without express permission. The White House press corps was so astounded by FDR’s tirade against the Court that they badgered press secretary Steve Early until he agreed to let them use just one of FDR’s choice lines that has since gone down in history. The Court, Roosevelt said, was returning the country “to the horse and buggy era” of interstate commerce.

This was the Court that, among others, the flamboyant Louisiana Senator Huey P. Long referred to as the “nine old men.” When Long learned that the Court had finally taken up residence in its elegant new building across the street from the Capitol, and that the cost of the grandly columned structure was $9 million, he sneered, “a million dollars a piece for nine old men.”

During the Civil War, the great Lincoln assumed vast war powers and virtually ignored the Supreme Court, defying and marginalizing Chief Justice Roger Taney. Lincoln was so unconcerned about the sensitivities of the Court that while the Chief Justice was gravely ill he aggressively promised Taney’s job to his own problematic Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase.

In an earlier day, Thomas Jefferson fought openly with the Court and referred to the Constitution becoming “a mere thing of wax” in the hands of judges.

Dwight Eisenhower is remembered more and more as a “near great president,” not least for his appointments to the Supreme Court of Earl Warren and William Brennan, but he was fierce critic of the Court. Eisenhower fumed privately over the Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case in 1954 and spoke bitterly of his disappointment in Warren. Ike also refused to speak out publicly in the aftermath of the Brown case, unmistakably leaving the impression that he disagreed with what is now considered one of the greatest rulings in the history of the high court.

Out of the White House in 1961, Eisenhower was asked if he made any great mistakes as president, to which he replied, “Yes, two, and both are sitting on the Supreme Court.”

In 1937, the the very eve of rolling out his unbelievably controversial plan to enlarge the Court as a means of liberalizing it, Franklin Roosevelt had seven of the nine justices to dinner at the White House. Only the president and a few of his closest aides knew that FDR was planning a direct, frontal assault on the Court by “packing” it with as many as six additional judges hand picked to do his bidding. It was widely reported at the time that the president completely enjoyed the idea of entertaining the “old men” all the while knowing he was shortly to attempt to politically cut their throats.

Presidents have been going after the Court for a long time.

In a provocative book published last year – Packing the Court – the eminent American historian James MacGregor Burns argued that we need more debate, not less, about the role the Supreme Court has assumed in American life. Burns goes so far as to argue that the Court has over two centuries grabbed power far beyond what the separation of powers and a striving for balance call for in the Constitution. In fact, Burns predicts a coming crisis in which the Supreme Court will be the centerpiece in rethinking whether the American people, through their elected representatives, or those unsmiling justices in the House Chamber will finally determine what the Constitution really says.

Without regard to that ominous prediction, a couple of facts seem obvious. The current Court is split 5-4 on many, if not most, issues fundamental to the left. At the same time, the very conservative Roberts Court, as evidenced by its most recent ruling, has turned the old argument about activist judges on its head. Should the Roberts Court willingly continue an aggressive posture, a kind of judicial activism of the right, and overturning 100 years of precedent is by any measure some type of judicial activism, it could signal many new fights over many new rulings in the years ahead.

Given this landscape, it is not a risky prediction to forecast many more rhetorical jabs directed at the Court from the White House and a lot more “not trues” floating back.

Such is our history.

Two Outliers With Big Followings

salingerSalinger and Zinn: American Originals…And More

J.D. Salinger (left) might have become the greatest American writer of the post-war period, but opted out of fame and as the New York Times notes became “the Garbo of letters.” Salinger died yesterday, a mystery man to the end, with his masterpiece The Catcher in the Rye rolling on and on, discovered by each new generation; immensely popular and controversial.

The leftist historian, teacher and activist Howard Zinn also died this week, content to the end to tell the American story through the eyes of “little people” he long contended had been left out of most history books. Zinn’s million-selling A People’s History was a surprise and runaway best seller; immensely popular and controversial.

Zinn shrugged off criticism that his approach to history was more polemic than fact, once telling an interviewer: “If you look at history from the perspective of the slaughtered and mutilated, it’s a different story.”

Salinger, the famous recluse, pursued his craft in just as individual a manner. His reputation established, he moved to New Hampshire to live the life his great character Holden Caulfield hoped for, building: “a little cabin somewhere with the dough I made and live there for the rest of my life,” away from “any goddam stupid conversation with anybody.”

A People’s History and The Catcher in the Rye…true American classics from two American originals.

An Election That Matters

Scott BrownWhy Scott Brown Won…

Great piece in the Boston Globe today on why Massachusetts’ voters made the decisions they made recently; putting a Republican, Scott Brown, in the Senate for the first time since 1972. The analysis, based on Election Day polling by respected Democratic pollster Peter Hart, is worth reading in the context of the president’s State of the Union tonight. That speech, in many ways, will be read as a response to the Senate contest in the Bay State.

Here is one telling paragraph: “Still the economy, stupid. The economy, not health care, drove the vote. Among those who felt the economy was doing well, (Who are those people?) [Martha] Coakley won 52-to-43 percent. For those who said the economy was not good or poor, Brown won 56-to-39 percent.”

Those findings confirm the oldest rule in politics: when the economy is sick, politicians – particularly those seen as most in charge – get the flu.

Many Democrats would like to be able to respond to the current political turmoil by saying “we inherited all this,” but that referendum was held a year ago November. George W. Bush is a fading memory and voters are telling national Democrats one unmistakable message: “it’s the economy stupid and you guys have been in charge.”

We’ll see fairly soon, I suspect, whether anyone is really listening and, if they are, whether they can articulate a program that starts to make more sense to the worried American voter. My sense is there is political danger for anyone right now who comes across as looking less than completely serious about the economic challenge.

Links here will take you deeper into some of Hart’s polling or an interesting new survey from National Public Radio.