On June 9, 1979 Molly Ivins, the brilliant and still widely mourned reporter – she had a rare knack for simultaneously turning a phrase and twisting a knife with her journalism – had an Idaho datelined story in the New York Times.
“Confrontation over Mideast Policies Apparently Taking Shape in Idaho ’80 Race for Senate,” was the headline over Ivins’ story where she explored the fallout from a speech then-Senator Frank Church had given that was deemed to be highly critical of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Church, then chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, actually had criticized both the Carter Administration and the Saudis in his widely reported speech. Both were guilty, Church said, of undercutting efforts for a comprehensive Mideast peace. The U.S. was “pinning our policy to false assumptions,” Church said, much as the U.S. had placed a losing bet on the “a rotting regime” in Iran when for decades presidents of both parties made apologies for the Shah.
Church, predictably, was accused of undermining a vital strategic relationship when he criticized the Saudi regime, which was then as now, an often violent and repressive dictatorship. But the Idahoan did it anyway, taking on both a president of his own party and Idaho economic interests. The Boise-based construction firm Morrison-Knudsen had a huge contract in 1979 to build a new city in Saudi Arabia and Church’s eventual 1980 opponent, Steve Symms, was calling for accommodation with the region’s dictators in the interest of selling both American weapons and Idaho wheat.
Some things never change.
Amid the broad international condemnation of the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a gruesome, barbarous hit almost certainly ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – MBS to his “friends” – the current president can only focus on what Time magazine calls a “cold financial calculation: Saudi money for U.S.-made weaponry” that results in American jobs. Or as Donald Trump put it recently, “I don’t like the concept of stopping an investment of $110 billion into the United States.”
It is a brutal and cynical calculation and, like so many other “myths” which have long been the foundation of American foreign policy, it will be self-defeating. Frank Church knew that 40 years ago, Trump and his congressional enablers never will.
The Saudi-U.S. relationship is a veritable case study of how money, influence and delusion come together in Washington, D.C. The Washington Post recently outlined how the “sophisticated Saudi influence machine” has lavished millions on lobbyists, consultants, law firms and think tanks in order to prop up the myth that the Saudi dictatorship is a vital U.S. ally. The kingdom spent more than $27 million on such influence buying last year.
Robert Kagan, a veteran of the George W. Bush State Department and now a foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution, has argued that America has long harbored a fantasy about “reforming” dictators like MBS. Fanciful as it now seems, some Americans once thought Mussolini or the Shah of Iran would “reform” and we placed naïve bets on such fiction.
“Today, the Saudi crown prince’s U.S. supporters are asking how he could have been so foolish if he, as it appears, ordered the murder of Khashoggi,” Kagan wrote recently. “But who are the fools here? Dictators do what dictators do. We are the ones living in a self-serving fantasy of our own devising, and one that may ultimately come back to bite us.”
Which brings us to the Idaho politician currently in a position to influence U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia. You might be excused for forgetting that Senator Jim Risch, the Idaho Republican, has such power. But the man who will almost certainly be the next chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee hasn’t, near as I can tell, spoken a syllable about the Saudis. No statement of concern or condemnation over the Khashoggi murder. No thought or threat about sanctions. Risch, who never tired of slamming one aspect or another of Barack Obama’s foreign policy, is now a sphinx as a feckless president makes excuses for the inexcusable.
Some argue, and perhaps Risch believes this too, that American interests are served well enough by the Saudi regime’s effort to create “stability” in the Middle East, while using our weapons and help to churn up more chaos in Syria, Yemen, Egypt and elsewhere.
The real Saudi objective and the overriding objective of every despot – this has been the case since Franklin Roosevelt’s historic tete-a-tete with King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud in 1945 – is the preservation of the wealth and power of the ruling monarchy.
When Frank Church called out the Saudis in 1979 he was at the height of his influence and he used his platform to try to redirect U.S. policy. As his biographers LeRoy Ashby and Rod Gramer have noted Church “thought it was time for somebody with some stature in American politics to speak plainly to the Saudis.”
It’s well past time for that to happen again. If only there were a courageous Idahoan in a position of authority in the Senate. But guts and the perspective to take on a woefully ignorant president and a Washington influence machine in the service of a corrupt foreign government is not something you’ll find in Jim Risch.
One of the most remarkable, that is to say shocking, aspects of our current politics is the enormous degree of self-delusion that inflicts so many politicians and so many citizens. It seems to be an epidemic, or even a pandemic of ignorance that takes over minds and sickens them in the same way the great flu pandemic one hundred years ago infected so many millions world wide.
British Prime Minister Theresa May, for example, is hanging on by her fingernails, continuing to maintain the unalloyed fiction that the United Kingdom leaving the European Union will somehow be good for the British economy. The Brits call it Brexit and May and her self-delusional fellow Conservatives – and more than a few in the Labour Party – have been fussing for months over the terms of the exit from the European common market.
It is obvious now – as it was obvious when the U.K. voted to leave the EU – that accomplishing the trick of separating from Europe and still maintaining all the advantages of staying in Europe would simply be impossible. Yet, the delusion continues, while May’s government comes apart at the seams. It reminds me of one of the old silent film comedies produced by the legendary Mack Sennett – a bunch of clueless Keystone Cops running into walls, jumping through windows, generally making no sense whatsoever, while acting like they have it all under control.
As Feargus O’Sullivan writes at CityLab about May’s latest proposal: “If the deal scrapes through, it’s far from the brave new dawn that Brexit’s advocates insisted was just around the corner. It will still bind the country into accepting most E.U. rules (including a customs union) for the foreseeable future, while removing Britain’s ability to influence those rules as a union member.”
That is rather like your mother insisting you eat your peas and promising that you will have absolutely nothing to say about it the next time peas are served.
The brilliant Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole, who possesses an Irishman’s unique ability to poke holes in what passes for logic among the British ruling class, says the backers of the delusional Brexit scheme fall into three different categories of what he calls sheer ignorance. The first category is “deliberate unknowing,” a situation where “you are fully aware of something but then choose to suppress that consciousness.”
The smarter British politicians, May included, knew Brexit was a farce, but went along with the farce to maintain power … or something. The same type of delusion is rampant in Donald Trump’s America, particularly prevalent in the deep delusion infecting the Republican ruling class in Washington, D.C.
Republican politician after Republican politician labeled Trump unfit, a clown, a con man, a disaster, an ignorant buffoon and now – I’m thinking of you Lindsey Graham – they can’t get enough of their joker-in-chief. Trump hasn’t changed. “Deliberate unknowing” has, however, become the GOP’s SOP.
Case in point: On the evening of the recent mid-term elections Trump took to his favorite chalkboard, Twitter, to proclaim the election a great victory for Republicans. He doubled down the next day during a White House news conference saying, “To be honest — I’ll be honest, I thought it was a — I thought it was a very close to complete victory.”
Right. Some kind of victory.
Democrats won 35-plus seats in the House of Representatives, taking control of that body. They held off what might have been a blood bath, while defending a slew of vulnerable seats in Senate. And they repaired much of the Midwest damage the party suffered in 2016 by winning a number of governor’s races. Oh, yes, Democrats picked up two Republican held Senate seats, including one in Arizona that has been in GOP hands since 1995, and now Democrats hold every congressional seat in Orange County, California.
John Wayne is spinning somewhere. But, it was “very close to complete victory” or, put another way, acknowledging that was not “very close to complete victory” is the very definition of “deliberate unknowing.”
That Trump news conference was, of course, where the president created the pretense to strip a CNN reporter of his White House credentials. A silly, self-delusional move by Trump and a White House staff ever more unmoored from reality.
“We’re working on many things. Criminal justice reform we’re working on very hard. We have a meeting today, do you know about that? We have a meeting today.” – Donald J. Trump in an interview with The Daily Caller
O’Toole’s second category of ignorance is the “crass self-delusion” mentioned at the head of this piece: the ability to convince yourself that a long-held ideological position is correct in the face of vast evidence to the contrary.
Our national political delusion in this category could be something like, oh, the huge Trump-GOP tax cut. The tax cut was, or course, promised as a amazing boon to the middle class and a launching pad for vast economic growth that would “pay for itself.” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell actually proclaimed, ““I’m totally convinced this is a revenue-neutral bill.” It wasn’t. Now – big surprise – McConnell says we’ll need to cut Medicare and Social Security to address the deficit created by the tax cut that was going to pay for itself.
The Republican ideology of tax cutting is certainly the stuff of true belief, the premise that tax cuts overwhelmingly working to the benefit of the wealthiest are good for all of us is a myth, easily refuted. The outcome of the entire tax cut charade has been to grow the deficit and threaten the broader economy. As the New York Times noted recently: “the fiscal health of the United States is deteriorating fast, as revenues have declined sharply. The federal budget deficit — the gap between what the government collects in revenues and what it spends — rose to $779 billion in the 2018 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30. That was a 17 percent increase from the prior year.”
Oh, well, in the age of Crass Delusion, with a president who lies with reckless abandon about absolutely everything, it may seem more comfortable to cling to the ideologically certain end of the ignorance continuum rather than grapple with messy old facts.
By the way, the Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale has done us a big favor. He’s actually been tracking Trump’s lies since Day One. It’s a big job, taking a mild-mannered Canadian – they really are our best friends – to keep track of the American president’s delusions, er, lies. Dale calculates “3,749 false claims” since Trump’s inauguration, the job of tracking the lies made easier by the frequency of repetition.
“On his fifth day in office, Trump baselessly alleged widespread voter fraud,” Dale wrote recently. “He did the same thing this past week. In his third month in office, Trump falsely claimed that the United States has a $500 billion trade deficit with China. He has said the same thing more than 80 times since.
“Listen to this president long enough, and you can almost sense when a lie is coming. If Trump tells a story in which an unnamed person calls him “sir,” it’s probably invented. If Trump claims he has set a record, he probably hasn’t. If Trump cites any number at all, the real number is usually smaller.”
“The Democrats want to invite caravan after caravan of illegal aliens into our country. And they want to sign them up for free health care, free welfare, free education, and for the right to vote.” – Donald J. Trump just before the mid-term elections.
The final O’Toolean category of delusion is what he calls plain old “pig ignorance” as in “the genuine hallmarked, unadulterated, slack-jawed, open-mouthed, village idiot variety.” In Trumpworld where to begin?
How about we send several thousand U.S. soldiers to the Mexican border at tremendous cost and at no small disruption to their personal lives. Let’s succeed in politicizing the military as part of a pre-election stunt in an effort to stop a “dangerous caravan” of displaced persons – poor, tired, desperate people – who pose absolutely no threat to the United States.
Or, how about this for pig ignorance? Appoint a grifting hot tub entrepreneur to run the U.S. Justice Department and somehow think that is either proper or a good idea. Trump might well succeed in getting his new acting attorney general, Matthew G. Whitaker, to fire special counsel Robert Mueller in hopes of heading off the continuing investigation into Russian interference with our elections and potential Trump campaign involvement in that interference. But do any but the most delusional among us think that Mueller can’t outfox a guy who once tried to raise money using bitcoin to finance research into time travel – this is true, by the way – and seems pretty sure Bigfoot is a thing (also true)?
I’ll put my bitcoin on the former FBI director and decorated Marine combat veteran. And I’d take double or nothing that Whitaker is gone in about three Mooches.
Or, we could demonstrate our real grasp of reality by uniquely blaming the massive and deadly California wildfires on a lack of proper forest management rather than the real culprits – extended drought and the effects of ever worsening climate change. Trump actually suggested “raking and cleaning things” would eliminate the causes of the massive fires. No, really, he did say that.
And we could make those claims even as the administration’s own budget proposal for the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management actually calls for reduced funding for approaches that might help mitigate some of the effects of wildfire.
“Pig ignorance” is living your entire adult life in a gilded enclave in Manhattan, never getting out of a bubble made of your own self-delusion and faking that you could tell a fire line from buffet line.
“The Sunday Times reported Britain’s army had been ordered to step up contingency plans to help police maintain public order in case of food and medicine shortages after a ‘no deal’ Brexit, citing an unnamed ‘well-placed army source.’”
“Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this [unifying Europe], and it ends tragically,” the loathsome Boris Johnson said just before Brits voted to drive themselves off a cliff. He was suggesting that the European Union was attempting this dastardly Hitlerian deed of unity “by different methods” than the Nazi’s or Napoleon used, but that the effect on the U.K. would be just the same as Trafalgar and the Blitz of 1940. This entire business is a paranoid fantasy, a political psychosis, which sounds much like the daily news feed out of the White House.
No doubt we are stuck with Trump and all his delusions and ignorance for some time to come. His GOP enablers appear to be ready to double down on a strategy of hanging with him while he hangs them out. The mid-terms may have put up a political speed bump on the highway of craziness, but the deliberate unknowing, crass self-delusion and pig ignorance seems sure to continue. One entire political party has embraced nonsense.
Which is not to say that we can’t stop any time we want from buying into wacko conspiracy theories and easily proven fallacies and we can stop listening to raving, ignorant people. Maybe the Brits will yet come to their senses. Perhaps we will, too.
Thomas Jefferson actually wrote something about this into the Declaration of Independence. “Let facts be submitted to a candid world,” ol’ Tom wrote. Good lord, let’s get on with that idea. Pig ignorance is just so stupid.
My weekly column from the Lewiston (Idaho) Tribune
Idaho’s Governor-Elect Brad Little has some big decisions to make. In the next few weeks he’ll need to put his stamp on a state budget that will spell out how he proposes to implement the Medicaid expansion initiative supported overwhelmingly by the state’s voters last week.
Presumably he’ll want to, at least at the margins, differentiate his proposals for education funding from those of his long-time boss retiring Governor Butch Otter. Maybe he’ll propose a grocery tax repeal and a way to pay for it. Additionally a major challenge for the governor-elect is the perception, and remember perception is reality in politics, that he is simply gearing up to preside over Otter’s fourth term.
There is a way to immediately change that perception and it involves how Little will stock the leadership ranks of state agencies. The new governor has two choices: he can tinker at the margins or he can clean house. He should clean house. Not doing so would be a big mistake for one simple reason.
Every governor, whether one that is succeeding a member of his party as Little will be, or taking over from the other party, has one clear moment when he (or we can hope someday soon she) can place a dramatic imprint on state agencies. This is such a moment for Little, a guy who has long prided himself on being a student of government, a kind of cowboy boot wearing policy wonk steeped in the details of governing in a way that Otter never was.
Idaho has, all things considered, a relatively weak governor model. The governor doesn’t directly appoint some of the most important state agency heads. A governor can have influence, but has no direct appointment authority over the Departments of Transportation, Corrections, Fish and Game, Lands or Parks and Recreation. Nevertheless what he can control is very important: the state Commerce Department, Health and Welfare, the departments of Administration, Labor, Insurance and Finance, the state personnel chief and the critical job of state budget director.
One can only imagine that Little, still basking in his decisive win on election day, has discovered just how many new best friends he now has. Half the GOP members of the legislature – a conservative estimate – lust after an appointment to a state job, even if the outrageous perk of receiving a big jump in state retirement benefits may soon go away. For many legislators snagging the good salary and benefits that go with being an agency director has to look pretty good.
Many of the current occupants of these state jobs – all appointed by Otter – will be working overtime to hang on to their positions. The natural tendency for most new governors would be to take the path of least resistance and keep a bunch of the Otter crowd. They’re loyal Republicans, after all, and many contributed to Little’s campaign. They’ll pledge their fidelity and most will want Little to succeed. But Little can’t – or won’t – shape a new version, his vision, without new people, his people, in key positions.
My old boss, Cecil D. Andrus, lived this lesson in 1986 when he was preparing to succeed fellow Democrat John V. Evans in the governor’s office. Evans, a good man and still an underrated governor, had assembled a good team and many of them wanted to stay on into a new Democratic administration. Andrus knew better. He imposed a rule during his campaign that he would accept no contributions from staffers in the Evans Administration. He wanted no implied understanding that someone from the outgoing regime might curry favor with the new crowd, while hoping for a job. Andrus angered more than a few people, fellow Democrats mostly, when he made it clear that he was cleaning house. With only a couple of exceptions he brought in an entirely new cast of state government leaders, people loyal to him, people sharing his vision, people understanding his priorities, people who knew he was the boss.
Little’s immediate staff – a chief of staff, a press secretary, counselors on key issues – will constitute a critical part of his team. He should pick them wisely from among people he knows, trusts and is confident will serve him – and Idaho citizens – with diligence, energy and, as Franklin Roosevelt famously insisted, a “passion for anonymity.”
Beyond his immediate staff, Little would be well advised to put his own person in charge of economic development at the Commerce Department. He should install a seasoned administrator at the Department of Administration, an incredibly important agency that handles everything from computers to risk management, and a place where more than one governor has been tripped up. Most of society’s problems land daily on the desk of the director of the Department of Health and Welfare and the director there best be a person the new governor can both trust and personally hold accountable.
It’s no knock on the Otter crowd that a new governor should want and is entitled to his own team. There are lots of names on doors in state government, but only one name on the ballot. Governor Little will send a signal about how he’ll run state government by the personnel decisions he makes between now and Christmas. If he’s smart he’ll make a clean sweep. He’ll start fresh and from day one be in a position to hold his own people accountable. He’ll never have a second chance for a new beginning. He’ll never have a second chance to have his own first term rather than Butch Otter’s fourth term.
My weekly column from the Lewiston (Idaho) Tribune…
A few takeaways from the midterms.
The State of the Union – Divided: The red gets redder and the blue gets bluer. The story of the 2018 midterms will be that the deep political divisions in the dysfunctional American family are destined to only get deeper. Rural America – and rural Idaho – will continue to embrace a remarkably divisive president who articulated a blatant election appeal based on racial and class division that would have made George Wallace blush.
There is something for every partisan to celebrate in the results. Democrats won control of the House of Representatives and repaired some of the party’s recent damage in the Midwest. Democratic control of the House will return some level of balance, if not bipartisanship to national politics.
Republicans can celebrate the pick up of several Senate seats and as a result Senate Republicans will be even less inclined, which is saying something, to police administration actions. Given the abject lack of Senate oversight of Trump’s foreign policy – Idaho’s Jim Risch will now likely become an even more shameless Trump apologist as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee – look for the president’s incoherent approach to the world to become more erratic, less predictable and more dangerous.
Bottom line: Trump has further consolidated his control over a Republican Party that now completely owns his ballooning deficits, serial lying, a fear and loathing message of racial division, disdain for the most basic level of ethics and in the pre-election period a politicization of the American military to deal with the phony issue of “a caravan.” Nationally the party has shredded any appeal to suburban women, younger voters and those with a college education. Republican voters actually re-elected two members of the House who are under indictment and in Nevada a dead man who owned a brothel – he was regularly referred to as “a pimp” – won a legislative seat. This is not the party of Ronald Reagan.
Meanwhile, national Democrats have room to grow a diverse coalition but lack a natural leader, which may be the best news of all from the election for Donald J. Trump.
Simpson’s New World: Second District Congressman Mike Simpson is adjusting to a new reality. Simpson, the most accomplished Idaho federal lawmaker since the late Senator Jim McClure, is a legislator of uncommon common sense. Now he will have to learn new tricks as an appropriator in the minority. Had Republicans held on to the House of Representatives Simpson had an outside shot at chairing the immensely important House Appropriations Committee. At least Simpson would have remained chairman of an important subcommittee. Now, the man who brings home the bacon of the Idaho National Lab and regularly attends to home state issues will need to apply all his skill as a bipartisan dealmaker to continue to wield influence in a Democratic House. Simpson will, on the surface at least, have a better relationship with new First District Congressman Russ Fulcher than he ever had with Raul Labrador. While Fulcher will join a House were his natural allies – Labrador’s old “Freedom Caucus” – will be severely neutered and where he will labor in the least attractive position in politics: a rookie in the minority.
Idaho Republicans Sweep – Again: Governor-elect Brad Little ran a textbook Idaho GOP campaign and crushed Paulette Jordan, his badly overmatched Democratic opponent. Jordan, with little to show for her vacuous, personality driven campaign other than a scrapbook of national news clippings, did nothing to change the trajectory of Idaho’s beleaguered Democratic Party. In fact, Jordan may have retarded the progress of rebuilding a credible minority by blowing what might have been a historic opportunity. Republicans have held the governor’s office for 24 years and, as prolonged, uncontested power inevitably does, they have accumulated a litany of scandals minor and otherwise. Little was effectively running for Butch Otter’s fourth term – never an advantageous political position – and in a year when women candidates nationally made major strides. But Jordan never put together a real campaign, never had a compelling message and never succeeded in turning the lanky rancher’s white Stetson black.
Jordan’s anemic showing did no favors for the one statewide Democrat, superintendent of public instruction candidate Cindy Wilson, who seemed to have a path to victory and even in defeat ran well ahead of the top of the Democratic ticket. Rural red Idaho did Wilson in, however, while old-time Democrats, now mostly gone and forgotten, in places like Nez Perce and Shoshone Counties are spinning in their graves.
The scope of Little’s win – and Jordan’s loss – is illustrated by one telling election statistic. Jordan spent more than a million dollars to collect 38% of the vote, barely three percent more than the Democrat who put his name on the ballot for attorney general, never campaigned and didn’t raise a cent.
A tiny, but not insignificant glimmer of hope for Idaho’s Democrats was a pick up of a handful of legislative seats, a growing lock on the state’s largest county – Democrats won two county commission seats in Ada County for the first time since 1976 – and the example of the ballot proposition that expanded Medicaid coverage to some of the most vulnerable Idahoans. That well-funded, well-organized, well-messaged campaign was both historic and provides a template for a future statewide Democrat. If any Idaho Democrat ever wins again it will happen because that candidate has a compelling message that reaches voters where they live and builds a new organization at the grassroots that brings new participants, particularly millennial and Latino voters, into the political process.
If the national GOP’s deep problem with suburban women has any, even minor, corollary in Idaho, it is in the Great State of Ada. A young and appealing generation of women office holders now populates the Boise city council and the county commission. The party has to start rebuilding someplace and Ada County is as good as it gets for Idaho Democrats.
My latest column for the Lewiston (Idaho) Tribune on Idaho politics…
It is now clear that the campaign of Idaho Democratic gubernatorial candidate Paulette Jordan purposefully worked to establish a “shell” company in Wyoming, channel at least $20,000 through that company and kept the connections, including who has actually benefited from the campaign’s largess, secret. The convoluted effort was undertaken, the Jordan campaign acknowledges, in order to disguise the ultimate recipients of the campaign’s money. The campaign says the money went to anti-Brad Little Republican operatives who have to remain anonymous to avoid getting crossways with “their Republican patrons.”
Unpacking this subterfuge and the Jordan campaign’s shifting explanation of these shenanigans leads to a couple of obvious questions.
One question: If Jordan has been truly seeking Republican support in her underdog campaign against the GOP Lt. Governor, support she needs to win, why not do the hard work of forming a genuine “Republicans for Paulette” group? For a long time Democrats, particularly former Governor Cecil Andrus, made such efforts a lynch pin of their campaigns. I remember then-Republican Senator Steve Symms walking into my office in the Idaho Statehouse years ago and looking at a framed copy on the wall of a full-page ad featuring prominent Republicans that Andrus’s campaign had utilized during the hard fought 1986 campaign. The ad featured photos of Washington U.S. Senator Dan Evans and Idaho business titan Harry Magnuson, among others. Symms simply said, “That ad elected him.”
Rather than such a transparent, and I would argue effective, tactic, Jordan’s campaign embraced s shadowy scheme to allegedly employ disenchanted GOP operatives to dish dirt on her opponent.
A second question: Is Idaho’s campaign finance disclosure law really so toothless that it permits a campaign to set up what in essence is a secret company (out of state), route money through that company and keep the ultimate recipients of the cash secret? We don’t really know for sure what the company – Roughneck Steering, Inc. – did for the campaign. We don’t know who did whatever was done and we can’t contact the firm because it’s really only a mail drop in Sheridan, Wyoming with a “registered agent” who won’t return a phone call.
When I inquired a couple of weeks ago the Jordan campaign told me that Roughneck’s agents (whomever they are) had made “polling calls” approximately “8,270 calls (in August), in September the calls were made to 9,023 Idahoans.”
But the story shifted when Jordan’s campaign manager Nate Kelly later spoke to reporter Betsy Russell of the Idaho Press. “They ended up doing a bunch of not polling, but push-polling,” Kelly said.
For those not versed in the terminology of sleazy campaign practices, a “push poll” is designed to persuade, or more often misinform, voters under the guise of being a legitimate public opinion survey. Typically a heap of entirely negative material is shared with the person getting a call in hopes of planting the notion that a certain candidate is a scoundrel. The practice is held in such low regard that it violates the code of ethics of most real pollsters.
Kelly also told Russell that Jordan’s previous campaign manager, Michael Rosenow, who resigned in September apparently to protest the campaign’s involvement with a federal political action committee, established the Wyoming shell company. Of course we can’t ask Rosenow about that because he signed a non-disclosure agreement with Jordan’s campaign.
If, as the Jordan campaign says, there are “anti-Little” forces determined to damage Little’s candidacy that would be some news and would certainly underscore the deep fault lines – or perhaps just bitter animosity – that continues to exist in the Idaho GOP after Little won a tough primary in May. Of course, because the Jordan campaign won’t tell us we can’t even be sure there are mysterious GOP operatives hoping to sabotage their party’s nominee. My own checking turned up suspects, but no evidence.
Kelly rejects any suggestion that the Jordan campaign has engaged in subterfuge in order to obscure the final dispensation of campaign funds. He called Roughneck “a contracting firm” that merely processed payments to individuals who had done the actual work for the campaign. He contends such arrangements are typical in the corporate world. Kelly, a California attorney, is also the owner of another Wyoming company that has received several payments from the Jordan campaign.
Despite his role in shielding the names of those really behind Roughneck Steering, Kelly recently told the Associated Press that Jordan’s campaign was all “about transparency.” And he added, “We want to be an open book and not be distracted. Everything is on the up and up.” That statement is Donald Trump-like in its credulity.
Deputy Idaho Secretary of State Tim Hurst points out that the purpose of Idaho’s voter approved campaign disclosure law is pretty simple and the intent is not to hide information from voters about how money is raised or spent by candidates. Hurst referenced the stated purpose of the law: “To promote openness in government and avoiding secrecy by those giving financial support to state election campaigns and those promoting or opposing legislation or attempting to influence executive or administrative actions for compensation at the state level.”
Another section of the Idaho law says: “No contribution shall be made and no expenditure shall be incurred, directly or indirectly, in a fictitious name, anonymously, or by one (1) person through an agent, relative or other person in such a manner as to conceal the identity of the source of the contribution.”
If the state of Idaho can’t enforce the law in the face of the Jordan campaign’s obvious efforts to skirt real disclosure then the state’s “sunshine law” isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.
The most distressing aftermath of the last awful week has to be the lack of condemnation, even the absence of demands for basic decency, directed at the president of the United States on the part of the nation’s ruling political party.
Search high and low if you will and try to find any level of moral or human response, let alone condemnation, of the hate filled tone established and perpetuated by the president. The response to Trump’s increasingly unhinged rhetoric from GOP members of Congress is, well, unlike him silence.
The president, as usual, has been all over the place in the wake of the largest anti-Semitic mass murder in U.S. history and a mass assassination attempt against Trump’s various opponents. He’s consulted his old, worn playbook – condemning reporters, vilifying opponents, accepting chants of “lock her up” at his rallies, spreading more hate and fueling more conspiracy. Fellow Republicans, well, they’ve been sitting on their lips hoping against hope that they can somehow slide past the mid-terms without great losses.
You simply cannot find a word of condemnation, concern or caution directed by a Republican toward the president. Columnist Richard Cohen calls the Vichy Republicans what they are – “moral cowards.”
Donald Trump should not – and ultimately will not – be held accountable for the senseless, racial and religious violence that has become an all-to-regular feature of American life. He has, however, undeniably made worse the deep and persistent hatred of “others” that has long and sadly been a part of the American story. He fans the flames of division. Hate and fear are the twin pillars of his strategy, such as it is, in the interest of ginning up the Republican base. You have to go back to the 1800s in American history to find such an openly racist, hateful president. And I don’t want to be unkind to Andrew Johnson or John Tyler.
Trump supporters and enablers will continue to deny the harsh reality of his racism, but the evidence is everywhere to see: the manufactured pre-election “crisis” at the border where a relative handful of desperate Central American refugees – not illegal immigrants – are fleeing a chaos of death and poverty that the United States, at least in part, helped create; the awful, hateful language about “Mexican rapists” and “low IQ” African-Americans; the Obama birther garbage; calling a black candidate for governor of Florida “a thief;” the proclamation that the president himself is a “nationalist” – code really for “white nationalist;” the equal apportionment of responsibility for the neo-Nazis atrocities in Charlottesville in 2017 and attacks on “globalists,” a term the white ultra-right uses to slander George Soros and Jews in general. And all that just constitutes Trump’s highlight reel of hate.
It is being said, and properly so, that Trump did not create this climate of fear and hatred, but he most certainly has exploited it for his own purposes. The Republican Party Trump now owns lock, stock and barrel (pardon the analogy) has allowed the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower and Reagan to resemble something disturbingly like the racist French political party led by the ultra-right Marine Le Pen. It is an awful realization that Trump has brought the GOP – and the nation – so very low in such a short time.
And where are the legislative Republicans?
“If there is such a thing as a hate crime,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, “we saw it at Kroger [in Louisville] and we saw it in the synagogue again in Pittsburgh. Horrible, criminal acts.” But beyond saying everyone should tone down their rhetoric, McConnell has no words for Trump. No admonition to back off, to stop spreading fear and fostering more hate. McConnell remains, like most every elected Republican, afraid to take on Trump’s hatred for fear of the backlash from those motivated by Trump’s hatred.
He also likes the judges and the tax cut. It is a Catch-22 of political and moral abdication of a type rarely, if ever, seen in our lifetimes.
Where once Republicans were guilty of transmitting “dog whistles” aimed at “others,” their president today is, as Cohen wrote this week, offering a “validation” of his own hate fueled conspiracy theories. The Pittsburgh murderer of 11 people at their place of worship was prompted it seems not only by the killer’s anti-Semitism, but also by his hatred of the fact that Jews where actually living their beliefs and adding migrants fleeing their own versions of hell.
“Trump’s allies,” as Jonathan Chait has noted, “have gone from justifying his reality-show authoritarian persona as a necessary expedient to embracing it as a positive good.”
“It doesn’t matter if it’s 100 percent accurate,” a senior Trump-administration official told the Daily Beast, defending the president’s fear mongering attacks on a caravan of potential refugees. “This is the play,” Scott Reed, a strategist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told the Washington Post. “It’s a standard tactic to use fear as a motivating choice at the end of a campaign, and the fact is the fork in the road is pretty stark.” In Texas, when a fan at a Ted Cruz speech exclaimed about [Cruz’s opponent] Beto O’Rourke, “Lock him up!,” Cruz answered, “Well, you know, there’s a double-occupancy cell with Hillary Clinton.”
If you need a chilling reminder of what such moral bankruptcy can portend take an hour or so and read a remarkable little book by the French writer Eric Vuillard. The book – The Order of the Day – describes in chilling detail two events that seemed less than remarkable at the time, but we now know forecast a cataclysm outcome.
“Vuillard’s book is a powerful story that relates with a simplicity free of mannerisms,” Gaby Levin wrote earlier this year in Haaretz, “two historical events connected to the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s and to Europe’s blind advance toward the abyss in the years before the war. Vuillard seeks to show how ‘sometimes the greatest catastrophes herald their arrival in small steps.’”
The first event was an unremarkable meeting early in 1933 in Berlin when 24 top German industrialists – we recognizes their companies to this day, Siemens, Bayer, Allianz, BASF, among others – pledged financial support to the then-struggling Nazi Party. Going along with the Nazis was an easy call for Germany’s industrial elite. Adolf Hitler was, of course, full of overheated rhetoric. The businessmen didn’t respect him, but they were sure he could be contained and after all he would probably be good for business.
The second event, five years later, recounts the Nazi takeover of Austria – the Anschluss – a series of cynical, opportunist, violent moves by Hitler that had they been resisted by politicians in Europe who should have known better could well have changed the course of history.
In recalling this history we should remember that many elected Republicans once saw through their current all-powerful leader. Senator Lindsey Graham, now Trump’s South Carolina toady, once warned, “If we nominate Trump we will get destroyed…and we will deserve it.” Today he tweeted his support for Trump’s immigration policy.
Ted Cruz, the loathsome creature seeking a second Senate term in Texas, called Trump a “coward” after Candidate Trump insulted Cruz’s wife and tied his father to John Kennedy’s murder. The two will soon campaign together again in Texas.
We are long past the point where we can expect, much as we might hope for it, Republicans, even in the mildest terms, to repudiate Donald Trump, his racism and his politics of hate. Moral bankruptcy begets moral bankruptcy.
Now, its up to the run of the mill American citizen to decide what kind of leadership they want and what kind of country they hope to inhabit. This is what elections are for. We shall see what happens as Trump likes to say and, while you contemplate your vote next week consider this:
Acclaimed historian Jill Lepore has written a remarkable new history of the United States, perhaps the most ambitious re-telling of the American story in generations. She sees the broad sweep of history in all that is happening around us. “I think we live in an age of tremendous political intolerance,” she said recently in an interview. “I think we live in an age where people don’t understand the nature of our political institutions.
“That really, really concerns me. Because it’s a symptom of the way people want to win by any means necessary. Because we’ve been given this kind of rhetoric of life or death, we’re on the edge of a cliff. It’s very hard for people to operate as a civic community interested in the public good in that kind of a climate.
“We all have contributed to the making of this climate, but I hope this is climate that can still change.”
I hope for change, too, but also acknowledge that we are indeed on the edge of a cliff.
Thirty years ago this month then-Idaho Governor Cecil D. Andrus willfully and with malice aforethought sparked one of the most consequential confrontations of the nuclear age. The Idaho governor, a rangy, bald-headed one-time lumberjack from Orofino, took on the federal government in a way few, if any, Idaho politicians ever had before, or has since.
I have many vivid memories of working for Andrus those long years ago, but no memory remains more evocative than when the governor of Idaho called the bluff of the Department of Energy over nuclear waste. We are still feeling the ripples of that encounter and Idaho, thanks to dozens of subsequent actions, including a landmark agreement negotiated by Andrus’s successor Phil Batt, has gotten rid of a good part of its nuclear waste stockpile. If current state leaders are half as smart as Andrus and Batt they will fight to retain the leverage Idaho has to get rid of the rest.
On a crisp fall day in 1988 Andrus and I flew to Carlsbad, New Mexico, a town in the southeastern corner of the state at the time better known for its caverns than for its starring role in a governmental showdown. Carlsbad was once the potash capitol of the country and had long been a place where extracting value from the earth dominated the economy. When potash ceased to be an economic driver for the region the powers to be in Eddy County went looking for a future. They found some level of economic salvation in nuclear waste. Andrus was there to help realize their expectations and in the process help Idaho.
Years earlier, as Secretary of the Interior, Andrus had become a Carlsbad favorite for his attention to local issues – Carlsbad Caverns National Park in the domain of the Interior Department is nearby – and because of the respect he enjoyed the locals made him an honorary member of the Eddy County Sheriff’s Posse. As a member of the august group Andrus was able to sport the outfit’s signature Stetson, a big hat hard to miss in a crowd. The Stetson was a scintillating shade of turquoise.
Wearing his colorful headgear, Andrus arrived in Carlsbad thirty years ago to “tour” the then-unfinished Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), a massive cavern carved out of the deep salt formations under southeastern New Mexico. Years earlier the Department of Energy (DOE), then as now the single most incompetent bureaucracy in the federal government, had determined that the salt formations would be the ideal place to permanently dispose of certain types of extremely long-lived radioactive waste. Encased thousands of feet below ground in salt that had existed for hundreds if not millions of years and never touched by water, the waste would be safe. The science was sound even if DOE’s execution of a plan to prepare the facility for waste was deeply flawed.
Andrus’s WIPP inspection left him convinced that the only way to move DOE’s bureaucracy was to manufacture a crisis. His motive, of course, was to shine a light on DOE management failures, but also advancing the day when nuclear waste that had been sitting in Idaho for years would be permanently removed to New Mexico. He returned to Idaho and closed the state’s borders to any more waste, declaring, “I’m not in the garbage business any more.”
I remember asking Andrus if he really had the legal authority to take an action that seemed sure to end up in court. He smiled and said, “ I may not have the legal authority, but I have the moral authority. Let them try to stop me.”
The audacious action had precisely the effect Idaho’s governor intended. The nation’s decades of failures managing its massive stockpile of nuclear waste became, at least for a while, a national issue. The New York Times printed a photo of an Idaho state trooper standing guard over a rail car of waste on a siding near Blackfoot. DOE blinked and eventually took that shipment back to Colorado.
A now retired senior DOE official recently told me Andrus’s action was the catalyst to get the New Mexico facility operational. His gutsy leadership also highlighted the political reality that Idaho’s rebellion against the feds might easily spread. Subsequent litigation, various agreements and better DOE focus, at least temporarily, lead to the opening of the WIPP site in 1999 and some of the waste stored in Idaho began moving south.
With the perfect hindsight of thirty years it is also clear that Idaho’s willingness to take on the federal government did not, as many of the state’s Republicans claimed at the time, hurt the Idaho National Laboratory. Republican Governor Phil Batt’s 1995 agreement, which Andrus zealously defended up until his death last year, continues to provide Idaho with the best roadmap any state has for cleaning up and properly disposing of waste. Idaho would be foolish to squander any of the leverage it has thanks to the work Andrus and Batt did to hold the federal government accountable.
But, of course, some Idahoans continue to talk about waste accommodation with DOE, even as deadlines for more removal and clean up are missed and the DOE behemoth stumbles forward. A former Texas governor who once advocated eliminating the agency now heads DOE. As Michael Lewis demonstrates in his scary new book The Fifth Risk, DOE Secretary Rick Perry is little more than a figurehead acting out a role that is both “ceremonial and bizarre.” According to Lewis’s telling, Perry didn’t even bother to ask for a briefing on any DOE program when he arrived.
Meanwhile Perry’s boss recently announced in Nevada, a state where waste is about as popular as a busted flush, that he’s opposed to eventually opening the Yucca Mountain site as a permanent repository for very high-level nuclear waste. Donald Trump made that statement even as his own budget contains millions of our dollars to work on opening the very facility.
Federal government incoherence obviously continues. Cece Andrus confronted it thirty years ago. He was right then and we can still learn from his leadership.
Paulette Jordan, the Democratic candidate for governor of Idaho, has created in a way rarely seen in the state’s recent political history a small donor fundraising juggernaut. Jordan has tapped into thousands of small donors in Idaho and across the country. From Clinton, New York to Longview, Washington from Aiken, South Carolina to Denver, Colorado people have been sending her money and in the process she has raised more than $1 million, a respectable figure for an underdog Democrat in Idaho.
A substantial percentage of Jordan’s fundraising haul has come from small, individual contributions, some as small as $5 and many less than $100. And many donors have given to her campaign multiple times. It is the kind of broad based fundraising that candidates dream about. Jordan’s contribution profile differs dramatically from her opponent, Lt. Governor Brad Little, who has mostly relied on the standard sources of GOP campaign cash – industry PACs, businesses, lobbyists and well-heeled supporters from across the state. As a result Little has outraised the Democrat by a lot and in the home stretch has held on to more cash for a final push.
Yet there is a confounding mystery at the heart of Jordan’s campaign: little of her cash seems to have made its way into what you might call a real campaign – direct mail, billboards, TV, radio, newspapers and social media. Rather hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on out of state consultants and, as the Idaho Statesman’s Cynthia Sewell documented recently, on food, travel and lodging – much of it out of state – by the candidate.
Jordan’s pre-election campaign finance disclosure report is simply one of the most unusual, which is to say unprecedented, documents of its type since Idaho voters mandated campaign finance disclosure 1974. To say the least the report raises more questions than it answers, while the campaign refuses to provide answers to basic questions about how and why it has spent its money. Consider a just few questionable details from Jordan’s October 10 report:
The campaign has paid at least four out-of-state companies in Wyoming, Vermont and Minnesota nearly $50,000 for what it says are various consulting services. Yet the companies appear to be “shells” with no actual place of business only a mailing address and a contact listed as a “registered agent.” One company is identified by the campaign as a Limited Liability Company with a post office box in Peru, Vermont, but the Vermont Secretary of State has no record of the company existing. Another company that has received payments from Jordan’s campaign lists its address as an apartment in Minneapolis.
One company with a Cheyenne, Wyoming address, lists Jordan’s campaign manager, Nathanial Kelly, as its president, secretary, treasurer and only director. Kelly is the same guy who recently tried to explain away why the campaign required its staffers to sign non-disclosure agreements. Kelly’s Wyoming firm only became active in August just about the time Kelly has said he was helping the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, with Jordan’s encouragement, to establish a federal super PAC.
A second Wyoming firm that received two $10,000 payments from Jordan since August is registered at the same Sheridan, Wyoming address as the federal PAC. This firm has not filed more complete information, including the names of incorporators, with the state of Wyoming because it isn’t required to do so until a year after it is formally registered. Meanwhile, the campaign insists that none of its resources have gone to helping establish the federal PAC, which Jordan has refused to discuss beyond criticizing the reporting that disclosed its existence.
The Jordan campaign has employed two different digital fundraising firms both located in Washington, D.C. and paid them more than $110,000. One firm started work after Jordan won the May primary. The campaign also reports payments to two separate campaign reporting and compliance firms with one firm joining post-primary. The campaign, which has had two high profile staff shake ups since May declined to provide information on how many different employees it has paid – it appears upwards of a dozen – has also utilized two different payroll services firms, but has also paid staff directly. (The campaign refused my request to provide information on who has been paid and how.) These set ups beg the question: why are two firms doing what appears essentially to be the same job.
The campaign also reported a $1,000 “contribution” to a California entity that lists the same Novato, California address as one of the reporting and compliance firms. When I asked who received the contribution I was told the money went to “an elected official who is consulting for the campaign as well.” A spokeswoman at the Idaho Secretary of State’s office says failure to disclose the recipient of a contribution from an Idaho campaign committee is a violation of Idaho law. That obviously is a problem for Jordan’s campaign, but her small dollar donors might also be justified in asking why would an Idaho campaign scraping for every dollar make any contribution to a candidate in California?
Campaigns, we all know, cost money. Personnel, technology, advertising and travel require money, the kind of money Jordan has been raising. But the real question for the candidate – and her thousands of small donors – is why so little of the more than one million dollars she has raised has been spent in a way that might actually reach, inform and motivate Idaho voters?
The campaign has talked about the importance of transparency and accountability in state government, but that clearly doesn’t extend to her campaign. Jordan’s latest campaign finance report is a black box of questions, contradictions and head scratching inconsistencies. It all begs another question: where has all the money gone and why?
This year’s race for Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction will test one of my long held theories about the state’s politics. It will be news to some voters, but Democrats have occasionally won elections in Idaho, but generally only when Republicans screw up and put forward a candidate broadly seen as unfit or ill prepared. When that happens a competent Democrat can win and often stay in office for a while.
Frank Church won the first of his four terms in the Senate in 1956 because he faced a flawed GOP incumbent, Herman Welker, who had distinguished himself as Joe McCarthy’s best friend in the Senate. Welker was likely also suffering from a brain tumor, which may have contributed to an erratic personality that offended many voters, including Republicans. Unacceptable GOP candidate equals Democratic win.
Cecil Andrus used to joke that had there not been a Don Samuelson, another bumbling GOP incumbent, he would never have won the first of his four terms as governor. Democrat John Evans beat the hapless Republican gubernatorial candidate Allen Larsen in 1978 only after Larsen, an awful candidate, told live-and-let-live Idahoans that he thought it was possible to legislate morality. That’s why you don’t remember Governor Larsen. Richard Stallings was elected to Congress because the GOP incumbent George Hansen was a serial crook. One judge, obviously giving Big George the benefit of the doubt, said Hansen’s failure to comply with campaign finance law was not necessarily “evil” but “stupid, surely.” Hansen later served time for defrauding a bank.
Which brings us to Cindy Wilson, the earnest, experienced, energetic and personable Democratic candidate for state superintendent of public instruction. Wilson, based on her resume and grasp of issues, should, even in red Idaho, be a serious candidate. She’s taught for 33 years in schools in Orofino, Pierce, Shelley, Boise and Meridian. She’s won awards for her classroom success and Governor Butch Otter appointed her to the state board of corrections, giving Wilson a view of how educational failure contributes to exploding prison populations. That Wilson has a chance to win, however, says as much about the underwhelming incumbent as it does about the challenger.
Republican incumbent Sherri Ybarra is, as one astute observer told me, really “an accidental candidate.” Ybarra, a total political unknown with a shallow resume, came from nowhere to win the GOP nomination four years ago. That was enough for a Republican “fresh face” to win a general election. Since then Ybarra’s often erratic performance has raised persistent questions about her competence and even her interest in the job.
For a politician who is supposed to be an advocate for Idaho’s 300,000 public school students, Ybarra frequently seems to have forgotten to do her homework. Ybarra has been late with her campaign finance reports and has never fully explained why she had to amend disclosure reports going back to 2017 to justify why she paid herself back for a loan to her campaign that she had never disclosed as a loan in the first place.
Ybarra has stressed support for rural schools, but her policy proposals have been thin to the point of non-existence. Gubernatorial candidate Brad Little, by contrast, recently put some specific meat on the bones of how rural districts might actually combine certain services. It is the kind of thing a chief school officer might do rather than a candidate for governor.
Ybarra has touted a school safety initiative – KISS, Keep Idaho Students Safe – but did nothing to coordinate her very expensive proposal with the office state lawmakers specifically established to deal with that issue. As Idaho Education News reported recently the head of the Idaho Office of School Safety and Security was dumbfounded to learn that Ybarra had gone off on her own, ignoring the expertise in his office. “We didn’t even know she was looking at doing any kind of safety initiative until she announced it to the general public,” said school safety program manager Brian Armes.
Challenger Wilson might have simplified her entire campaign by adopting an easily understood slogan: “I’ll show up for work.” Ybarra has frequently missed state board of education meetings, including a meeting this summer that conflicted with her professed need to pack for a vacation. Lately she has been stiffing joint appearances with Wilson, including in the last few days an Idaho Falls City Club event and an educational forum at Boise State University.
Ybarra ducked the Idaho Falls appearance in favor of a fundraiser at a pub in Eagle owned by a former colleague who lost his educational credentials after being accused of multiple counts of sexual harassment. “He was punished for that, and he’s still a friend of mine,” Ybarra told reporter Clark Corbin of Idaho Education News. “We’re not around kids right now, we’re at a fundraiser.” That statement will be remembered as the definition of tone deaf, or perhaps worse.
The last time Idaho had a bumbler in the state superintendent’s office voters overwhelmingly rejected his “education reforms” at the ballot box. And before that an incompetent Republican state superintendent lost re-election to Democrat Marilyn Howard, who went on to serve two terms, carrying on a tradition of professional, competent management of the office that dates back to Jerry Evans and Roy Truby in the 1970s and 1980s.
Having the big R behind your name is often all it takes to win in Idaho, but if voters are paying attention and really want competence in a job critical to kids and parents and the economy, the incumbent state superintendent will be looking for a new job in January.
My latest column that run Friday, October 5, 2018 in the Lewiston (Idaho) Tribune.
Most Americans today won’t recognize his name. When he resigned in disgrace from the U.S. Supreme Court in 1969 he mostly disappeared from public life, remembered now only as a footnote in the evolving story of increasing partisan hostility over membership on the highest court in the land.
It wouldn’t be correct to say that the politicization of the court began with Abe Fortas – judicial nominations are and have always been inherently political – but what happened to Fortas does provide a cautionary tale for today’s Senate as it struggles with the tortured process of assessing Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s fitness for a lifetime appointment.
Fortas, like Brett Kavanaugh, was not merely a creature of the political process but a deeply partisan political player who, like Kavanaugh owed his appointment to a flawed process engineered by a flawed president.
Fortas was, like Kavanaugh, a Yale Law grad, and was one of the bright young lawyers who populated the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt. In the 1940s Fortas helped found a high-powered D.C. law firm – today’s Arnold and Porter – where he represented deep pocket corporate clients and maintained his extensive and lucrative political connections.
When his friend Lyndon Johnson needed legal help to make certain his contested 87-vote victory in a 1948 Texas Senate race would hold up under scrutiny he called Fortas. After Johnson won a landslide election as president in 1964, like most presidents he wanted to put his mark on the Supreme Court. Johnson being Johnson, he literally forced Associate Justice Arthur Goldberg off the court in order to appoint his pal Fortas. He was confirmed and that decision seemed, briefly, to cement a liberal lean to the Supreme Court for a long time to come.
But, in a variation of the old line that you can make God laugh by telling him your plans, Johnson – and Fortas –overreached. Badly. When, near the end of Johnson’s presidency in 1968, Chief Justice Earl Warren announced his retirement, LBJ was certain he could replace Warren as chief justice by ramming a Fortas nomination through a Senate controlled by Democrats. Shades of the current controversy – Johnson insisted on speedy Senate action. Don’t ask a lot of questions, he said, just confirm him – quickly.
Conservative southern Democrats and Senate Republicans refused to go along with the hurry up process, particularly after it was disclosed that Fortas had been the beneficiary of a sweetheart deal that paid him a tidy sum to teach at American University, a deal not financed by the college, but by former clients at his old law firm. It was also revealed that the justice had been a regular advisor to Johnson, counseling the president on PR strategy regarding the war in Vietnam, attending cabinet meetings and even drafting a state of the union speech for LBJ. Fortas, with the surety of a Brett Kavanaugh, dissembled about his involvement and ultimately a Senate filibuster killed his appointment as chief justice.
But even as Fortas stayed on the court, the drip, drip of scandal would not stop. And finally when another sweetheart consulting gig involving a shady friend was unearthed Fortas’s time was up. He resigned from the court in disgrace in the spring of 1969. He died in 1982.
So play this out 50 years later with another highly partisan court appointment. Kavanaugh has left not only a vast and still undisclosed paper trail of his activities and views of the George W. Bush White House, but now has had two appearances before the Senate Judiciary Committee where, to be charitable, he has been at best guilty of less than subtle obfuscation.
The president of the United States has outsourced judicial vetting to the most extreme partisans in the community of GOP special interests who want to complete the full politicization of the court. He has, like LBJ in 1965, looked beyond talent and temperament to put a politician on the bench.
No matter what happens with the Kavanaugh nomination – let’s assume he is narrowly confirmed amid continuing controversy about his past and his truthfulness – the scrutiny, just like with Abe Fortas, will not suddenly disappear.
There is a better than even chance that Democrats will win control of the U.S. House of Representatives in the fall and a feisty New Yorker by the name of Jerrold Nadler will become chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Last weekend Nadler seemed to be reaching back in time when he said: “We cannot have a justice on the SupremeCourt for the next several decades who will be deciding questions of liberty and life and death and all kinds of things for the entire American people who has been credibly accused of sexual assaults, who has been credibly accused of various other … wrong things, including perjury. This has gotta be thoroughly investigated. I hope the Senate will do so. If he is on the Supreme Court and the Senate hasn’t investigated, then the House will have to.”
Based upon what the Supreme Court should be – independent, free of obvious partisan taint, above politics to the extent that is possible – it’s easy to see that Lyndon Johnson made a historic mistake in 1965 appointing an unabashed partisan to the court. Johnson knew what he was doing. He wanted his guy in there. History shows us how that turned out. Donald Trump also wants his guy on the court, a judge who has wondered out loud if constraints on presidential power are appropriate and, credible questions of past conduct aside, believes he is being put upon only as “revenge on the behalf of the Clintons.” The lesson is clear: controversial, highly partisan nominees are bad for the court and bad for the country.
In his biography of Abe Fortas, historian Bruce Allen Murphy notes that a portrait of Fortas that once hung in a prominent place in the Yale law school has now disappeared from the New Haven campus. Does a similar fate await a new justice? We’re going to find out.