American Presidents, Andrus, Baseball, FDR, Obama, Politics

A Passion For Anonymity

FDRWhen the Staff Becomes the Story

What we now think of as the modern White House staff dates back to the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Before FDR – Woodrow Wilson, for example – presidents had a White House staff that basically included a secretary to handle correspondence and scheduling and maybe a typist or stenographer. Roosevelt changed all that just as he changed almost everything about the modern presidency and the operation of the White House.

When fear was expressed that FDR was engaging in executive empire building by expanding the White House bureaucracy, he famously responded that his assistants would be characterized by a “passion for anonymity.” What happened to that idea?

I’d be the first to concede that the demands of the 21st Century White House, at least in some respects, pale in comparison to those of FDR’s day. FDR didn’t have to deal with the 24 hour news cycle and most everything moved more slowly. Still, Roosevelt battled a depression and won a war with a handful of personal staffers who for the most part didn’t become household names or the subject of long profiles in the New York Times. There wasn’t a Rahm Emanuel or Karl Rove in the group.

I got to thinking about this while reading what was, at least for political junkies, the admittedly fascinating piece on Emanuel in last week’s Times Magazine. If the piece was intended to restore a certain calm to the No Drama Obama operation and tamp down the storyline that the president’s Chief of Staff is – take your pick – tired, discouraged, out of sorts or sync with his boss, too visible, too overbearing, a lightening rod, etc., it doesn’t seem to have worked.

Emanuel has been the subject of a Letterman Top 10 List, countless stories and even a sole-subject blog Rahmblr. The Rahmblr will be profiled, along with his brother, on “60 Minutes” on Sunday. Can you say overexposed?

I’m admittedly from the old school. FDR had it right. In my old school view, political aides, generally speaking, best serve the boss when they aren’t always part of the story. While there is something to be said for a political aide taking the arrows for the boss when the going gets tough, there is not much to be said for political staffers becoming the story.

After a campaign in 2008 where turmoil among Hillary Clinton’s staff and John McCain’s advisers seemed to define the out-of-control nature of both their campaigns, I had a naive notion that an Obama White House might not succumb to the usual inside the beltway fixation on who is doing what to whom among the president’s closest advisers. Naive indeed.

Political operations are unique beasts organizationally and culturally. There is nothing quite like them. Nonetheless, in at least one way, a political operation, be it the white hot White House or some backwater congressional office, are like corporate boardrooms or big league baseball locker rooms. When the antics of the CEO’s underlings or the third baseman’s relationship with the shortstop start to get more attention than the substance of the business or the score of the game, then the boss or the manager usually has a big problem.

Considering the qualities and intelligence of the people involved, it is amazing to me that Clinton and McCain didn’t immediately put a stop to the dysfunction in their staffs during the last campaign. Their failure to do so speaks volumes about their own management and leadership abilities. Stay tuned to see if Obama tolerates more of what seems to be the building drama in his organization.

I think I know what FDR might have done. He had a few trusted advisers – Louis Howe, Steve Early and Harry Hopkins, for instance – but he never let any one adviser totally dominate the administration or his thinking. He kept his own counsel, often not sharing his thinking while keeping his own staff guessing and agile, and he made sure that he, and he alone, made the big decisions.

A little more anonymity, and frankly modesty, from people who haven’t been elected to anything would be a good thing.

My old boss, Cece Andrus, the only fellow elected governor of Idaho four times and someone, as even his detractors admit, who knew how to work the levers and make decisions, used to remind his Statehouse staffers – me included – that “there are lots of names on doors around here, but only one name on the ballot.” In other words, I’m the boss and you work for me. Keep your head and your profile down and tend to business.

Words to govern by.

Andrus, Boise, BPA, Sustainable Economy

Honoring Sustainability

Lava Lake LandLava Lake Land and Livestock Claims Andrus Award

Former Idaho Governor and Secretary of the Interior Cecil D. Andrus has devoted his life of public service to finding the delicate sweet spot between a robust economy that produces good jobs and the conservation of the land, air and water that make so much of the western United States such a special place.

Fifteen years ago, Andrus, fresh from his last of four terms as Idaho governor, had a major hand in helping launch Sustainable Northwest, a regional non-profit dedicated to helping nurture local collaboration aimed at sustainable economic development that fits with a conservation ethic. It is a terrific organization that has done much good work.

This Thursday night in Portland, Sustainable Northwest presents its annual awards – named after Andrus – to, among others, Hailey, Idaho’s Lava Lake Land and Livestock. Lava Lake produces – I’m biased, but I know my my lamb chops – the best grass-fed, organic lamb you can find anywhere. The ranch is the foothills of Idaho’s Pioneer Mountains just southeast of Sun Valley.

The ranch will be honored for its national leadership in sustainable agriculture and landscape scale conservation. Worthy recipients, great product, good for the economy and the environment.

Andrus, Biomass, Blogging, Boise, Climate Change

Biomass and Climate Change

Cecil AndrusCece Andrus: Developing Region’s Biomass Will Take Time and Transparency

A couple of months ago, the former Idaho Governor and Interior Secretary offered his take on increasing utilization of biomass for energy.

The assessment came in a major speech to a conference of U.S. Forest Service managers in Boise. While not a pessimistic assessment of biomass as a greater source of energy, the speech was a typically Andrus-like accounting of opportunities and challenges.

Andrus was particularly pointed in warning the foresters that meeting policy objectives for the National Forests, including increased energy production and encouraging local economic development, while still protecting the environment, will require a lot of transparency and many trade-offs.

The former four-term governor also challenged the forest managers to be clear about whether and how they are managing the public’s land based on the reality of climate change.

You can find the full speech here. Here is a key section:

“We do not like making trade-offs and we do not like having to choose. For years the Forest Service has been caught in this struggle. We continue to debate what exactly the purposes of the national forests are, and how we approach an agreement around that question.

“One Idahoan would tell you the national forests exist to produce wood fiber. Another would tell you they exist to provide hunting and fishing opportunities. Another would tell you the forests help drive the economy of the state, particularly rural communities. This Idahoan would tell you that there is a measure of truth in each of those answers.

“So what you do, and what policy makers must do, is find the delicate balance that creates an equilibrium and gives the American public the opportunity to have it all; an increase of energy from biomass, a stronger economy and the hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation we so enjoy in Idaho and the West.”

American Presidents, Andrus, FDR, Little Bighorn, Obama

The Survival of the Republic

FDRFDR and “the Jew Deal” and Obama “the Kenyan”

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that ain’t so.” Mark Twain

OK, I admit it. I don’t need more evidence that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii in 1961, two years after Aloha land became the 50th state. I am convinced the president is native born and therefore qualified to exercise the executive power of the government under the Constitution. It is a closed case for me, but apparently not for many so called “birthers” and even, at last count, eleven members of Congress who are sponsoring legislation requiring presidential candidates to produce their birth certificates.

All of this talk of birth certificates comes hard on the heels of the persistent rumor that Obama is a secret Muslim.

What’s going on here? A Constitutional crisis? An updated version of UFO sitings?

None of that. The Obama “stories” are, I submit, in league with a long, colorful and frequently disquieting chapter in American presidential history. It is the chapter where some Americans never quite get to the point of accepting the person in the White House. Presidential history is full of “facts” from the fringe that, if true, would surely “disqualify” the offender in the Oval Office.

The president in modern times most aggressively vilified in this way was surely Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As George Wolfskill and John A. Hudson document in their book – All but the People – Franklin D. Roosevelt and His Critics – FDR was – pick your poison – mentally ill, unable to handle the strain of office due to his polio, a shadow Communist (or Fascist), a warmonger and a Jew.

A contemptible collection of crackpots, including the radio priest Father Charles Coughlin who commanded an audience that Glenn Beck would envy, and a southern demagogue by the name of Gerald L.K. Smith, rumor mongered the anti-FDR lies constantly. As Wolfskill and Hudson note, Smith’s Christian Nationalist Crusade mailed out thousands of copies of a phony Roosevelt genealogy, purporting to “prove” FDR’s Jewish ancestry, during the presidential campaign of 1936. A footnote read: “Every sensible Christian and loyal American will fight the campaign of Leftist, Communists, Jews and Internationalists to return the Roosevelt dynasty to power.”

Roosevelt won that 1936 election, by the way, in an historic landslide that only convinced his critics that he was determined in a second term to advance not the “New Deal,” but the “Jew Deal.”

In earlier times, the detractors of President John Adams contended he harbored secret ambitions to declare himself King and, despite Adams role in the American Revolution, as president he was determined to tighten bonds with England.

Andrew Jackson came to believe that the death of his beloved wife, Rachel, was a direct result of the vicious attacks directed at him, but aimed at her. One charge – the Jacksons were bigamists.

More recently, John F. Kennedy had to counter the widespread belief, advanced effectively by his political opponents, that his election as the first Catholic president was sure to install the Bishop of Rome – the Pope – as White House chief of staff.

George W. Bush had to contend with conspiracy theorists in the wake of September 11th and some Americans will never get over his “illegitimate election” by a 5-4 vote of the United States Supreme Court.

“Politics ain’t bean bag,” as they say, and for sure the game has always been played as a full contact sport. Good advice to any politician: Don’t climb in the ring if you can’t take a punch and a low blow has always been part of our politics. You want fair play – go to a cricket match

Still, the speed and viral nature of today’s rumor spreading, fueled by the Internet, 24 hour cable news, and bloviators like Lou Dobbs and Beck is nearly impossible to fathom or refute. Spreading rumors in the age of instant communication makes “old media” reporting, the kind that actually seeks out the facts, even more important as an antidote to the nonsense.

But, there is another old adage – the truth never catches up with the allegation – that keeps theses stories alive for days, weeks and beyond.

Considering all the rascals who have occupied the White House – from a secret Jew to a secret non-citizen – it is a real wonder the Republic has survived at all.