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         “I realize I need to get better.” 

— Jeb Bush commenting on the state of his candidacy.

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In a year when a majority of the Republican electorate – xenophobic and angry – fixates on the fanciful notion that political inexperience presents the only sure path back to the White House, it should have been obvious that the immigration reform embracing, “low energy” former governor of Florida, the consummate insider in an outsiders race, would be doomed.

Jeb needs to become the 'comeback kid' of 2016

Jeb needs to become the ‘comeback kid’ of 2016

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd calls it “the fall of the House of Bush,” the ultimate meltdown of the ultimate “establishment” Republican family. Jeb is toast, says Frank Rich, “History will look back at him, if it looks at all, as a world-class fool and the last exhausted gasp of a GOP that no longer exists.”

He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother…

Even popular culture seems to be conspiring against Bush. Truth, a glossy big screen “serious movie” starring Robert Redford as Dan Rather and Cate Blanchett as his CBS ’60 Minutes” producer, revisits the controversial story of brother W’s National Guard service in the Vietnam era. Reviews of Truth have been all over the map with many negative, but the film will still remind voters in both parties, not to mention the scribbling class, of Bush 43’s checkered presidency, as well as that whole entitlement thing at the moment brother Jeb would rather talk about, well, anything else.

George W. Bush in the Texas Air National Guard, 1968 - 1973. Photo Credit: George Bush Presidential Library

George W. Bush in the Texas Air National Guard, 1968 – 1973.
Photo Credit: George Bush Presidential Library

Donald Trump “emasculates” Jeb for his lack of passion and mocks him as the candidate of “mommy and daddy,” while delightedly reminding everyone that the last Bush was a YUGE disaster.

The New Yorker’s very funny satirist Andy Borowitz quips that Bush pulled the plug on his dismal campaign while standing under a banner reading “Mission Accomplished.”

The hard right in the GOP dislikes Bush more than any Democrat. The Red State website is on deathwatch for the crown prince of Kennebunkport, unable to contain its disdain for a guy who was a very conservative big state governor, but now is a “entitled” pariah: “The first step in fixing a problem is acknowledging you have a problem. The problem here [for Bush] is not that the electorate and party have changed but rather we are, for the first time, seeing the Emperor’s new clothes. We are seeing the people who believe they are entitled to lead — ‘rule’ is actually the word they would like to use — do nothing but propose the same tired old solutions because that is the way that it has always been done. Quite honestly, if you aren’t angry you either haven’t been paying attention or you are part of the problem.”

The Challenge of Getting Better…

Perhaps Jeb is destined to be his generation’s Robert Taft, the conservative scion of that famous American political family who was forever the bride’s maid, never the bride, always the pretender who never completely excited fellow Republicans.

Every campaign manager’s not-so-secret wish is that their candidate gets better over the course of a race. A slow start can often be overcome in a long race if the candidate gets steadily better. Bush started his campaign slowly and seems to have gotten more inept as the Iowa caucus approaches. His smack down by Marco Rubio in the most recent Republican debate has been widely seen as Jeb’s Waterloo.

“You could blame political malpractice — bad aides, bad advice, bad strategy. A hundred million dollars doesn’t buy what it used to,” writes Tim Egan of Bush’s debate debacle. “But the fish stinks from the head down, as any Sicilian grandmother will tell you. Bush owns this debacle, the third in a row. The debate broke him.”

Bush and Rubio in CNBC debate where Rubio was widely consider to have trounced his one-time mentor

Bush and Rubio in CNBC debate where Rubio was widely considered to have trounced his one-time mentor

Amid the Bush death notices since CNBC set a new standard for political debate incoherence, few beyond the Beltway took much notice of the curious story of “the leak” of the details of Bush’s entire campaign strategy.

Somehow a 112-page PowerPoint document detailing the Bush campaign’s line of attack on fellow Floridian Rubio, as well as internal polling information and plans for advertising ended up in the “in box” of David Catanese, the senior politics writer for U.S. News & World Report.

There are only two realistic explanations for the “leak.” It was either an enormous mistake on the part of a crashing campaign that hit the “send” key without thinking, or more likely it was a well-timed effort to inform the Super PAC supporting Bush (under our crazy system the PAC and the campaign can’t legally communicate or coordinate efforts) of Bush’s strategy over the next couple of months. By the way, that Bush Super PAC is still sitting on $100 million that it can use to jumpstart the “Bush comeback” storyline.

Maybe in this deranged campaign season that has seen the old, tried and true political playbook shredded, a cool $100 million doesn’t buy you love in Iowa or New Hampshire, but it can buy a lot of television time and that is going to be better than fighting over debate moderators.

Bush, on life support or already dead, has performed one statesmanlike service to the party that for the most part seems hardly able to tolerate his existence. Reading that dense PowerPoint details the Bush fixation on Rubio, the young protégé who now threatens to eclipse the one-time mentor. It’s a story line out of Shakespeare and, while Bush waits like the New York Mets for the “break” that may never come, Rubio’s moment may have now arrived and for the young senator that may mean peaking too soon.

“Rubio and President Obama have strikingly similar profiles,” the leaked Jeb strategy document says,” first-term senators, lawyers and university lecturers, served in part-time state legislatures for eight years, have few legislative accomplishments, and haven’t shown much interest in the process of advancing legislation and getting results.”

There is hardly a more poisonous charge than comparing a fellow Republican to the hated Obama and that line of attack, had it been employed by a more skillful candidate in the recent debate, might have had impact among GOP primary voters. At the least, Bush’s Super PAC now knows the talking points for Iowa as Rubio, who has flown below the radar for much of the pre-primary season, finally gets vetted in earnest. If Bush can’t have the nomination he seems hell bent on making sure that Rubio won’t either.

By Definition a Dynasty Has Staying Power…

Still, I’m in a small universe of observers who says of Jeb – not to fast. Say what you will about the white shoe, old-line establishment Bush Dynasty, like the lowbrow Duck Dynasty, it has staying power, even in re-runs.

The Dynasty

The Dynasty

Patrician “Poppy” Bush somehow navigated his way through the Watergate implosion – he was party chairman during Nixon’s final fall – then sought the presidency, lost and settled for the second spot, which positioned him to serve Ronald Reagan’s third term.

The elder Bush was never a great campaigner – remember Big Mo – but he made up for it with dogged determination and an ability, well hidden behind the nice guy demeanor, to go for the political throat. George H.W. finally met his match when tangling with the founder of the Clinton Dynasty.

Son George W was more disciplined and determined than he’s given credit for and somehow won two national elections (or stole them) that a lesser candidate might have blown. W had his old man’s facility for destroying an opponent, including the sleazy takedown of John McCain in the South Carolina primary in 2000, still one of the most vicious political hits in modern times, or the Swift Boating of legit war hero John Kerry in 2004.

All of which is another way of saying: get ready for the “Bush Rebounds” stories. You heard it hear first. In the enormously fractured modern Republican Party anything is now possible. The favored son of the dynasty may not have what father and brother possessed, including the instinct to Swift Boat opponents, but a guy with a $100 million Super PAC and 100 percent name ID may yet have the staying power to outlast this completely crazy cast of contenders.

Jeb Bush has been a perfectly awful candidate so far, but even the Mets, dead at mid-season, made it to the World Series. When everything is crazy anything is possible.


Suppose You Were An Idiot…

“Well I think he had really no choice. He’s doing very poorly in the polls, he’s a very low-energy kind of guy and he had to do something, so they’re spending a lot of money on ads.”

— Donald Trump quoted by Politico on Jeb Bush’s latest attacks.

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Suppose you were an idiot and suppose your were running for president, but I repeat myself.

OK, I appropriated that line from Mark Twain, but it so perfectly captures the Summer of Trump and besides I couldn’t help myself.

Over our long summer of political discontent focused on “anchor babies,” insults aimed at “losers” and women who bleed, well, let’s don’t go there, the vast Republican field of presidential candidates has allowed a low-class real estate developer whose only high office has been in one of his tacky office buildings to repeal the essential rules of politics. Maybe the cooler fall temperatures have finally caused them to wake up and stop the madness.

Jeb Bush - low energy or finally fighting back?

Jeb Bush – low energy or finally fighting back?

It’s reported that the “low energy” Jeb Bush, the one-time GOP frontrunner and former governor of Florida, has finally decided to take off the kid gloves – they must wear them up at the Bush estate in Kennebunkport – and start hitting back at the man who has been “emasculating” him for weeks.

“Look, Jeb Bush was a very successful governor,” says Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, “he’s a thoughtful man, he was a good, conservative governor. But every day, Donald Trump is emasculating Jeb Bush, and Republican primary voters are not going to default to the establishment candidate who is being weakened by these attacks that go unresponded to.” Bingo.

At least since June most of the Republican field, and many observers (yours truly included) have maintained that Trump’s half-life as a contender would last about as long as his hairdo in a windstorm. But the big boor kept on boring, tapping into the deep resentment and, of course, nativism that has come to define those who populate the outer planets of the GOP solar system. In retrospect it should have been obvious that someone in the massive Republican field would vault to the front of the pack by channeling the anger that has fueled so much of the over the top opposition to Barack Obama for the last seven years. Trump, as my father use to say, may be crazy, but he isn’t stupid and he has tapped that deep vein of resentment, even hatred, directed toward Washington, immigrants, the Kenyan-Muslim president, Wall Street, organic food and, who knows, maybe even Megyn Kelly. She is a card-carrying member of the elite, after all.

Until Jeb Bush realized that “staying under the radar” was a political path back to forever being referred to as the younger brother who couldn’t cut the Republican mustard, Trump has completely dominated the political summer. He did so because he is different, which is more than just loud and offensive. He has ridden the crest of a wave of mostly white, middle class resentment about a country that is changing rapidly in a way that many Americans must find downright scary, even scarier than a bloviating real estate developer.

Mr. Charm's Twitter photo

Mr. Charm’s Twitter photo

As numerous commentators have pointed out, Trump is just the latest incarnation of the “outsider” in American political history, the out sized personality willing to rhetorically attack the status quo, while offering little more than fire, brimstone and bluster. George Wallace played the part in 1968 and later. Huey Long in the early 1930’s did the same. Long was probably never a serious national threat to Franklin Roosevelt, but for a few brief moments in 1934 and before his death in 1935 he must have seemed a real threat. Ross Perot, Henry Wallace, Jesse Ventura and a host of lesser names have regularly appeared to appeal to the thirty percent or so of Americans who are always really pissed off about something.

What has been different with Trump is his mastery of the new tools of political communication and, of course, that the American public has never been subjected to such a full-fledge narcissist for such an extended period of time. Talk about different. Trump has been able to sustain his summer run with crude but effective marketing skills, four-minute hits on cable television, late night tweets that become early morning headlines and lately Instagram mini-commercials that may have been the catalyst convincing Jeb to jab back.

Every Trump tactic is just like the man: over the top, mostly devoid of fact, nasty and guaranteed to generate lots of attention. That’s the point – attack, attack, attack. Trump’s aggressiveness on the offensive – both meanings – makes General Grant in the Wilderness Campaign look like a low energy loser.

One of the oldest rules in politics is that the attack gets the attention, while the major policy speech gets ignored. Trump understands that rule and has been on the attack constantly since he joined the Republican race. Another old rule, especially true for Jeb Bush, is the fact that any political attack gone unanswered is an attack believed. When Trump repeatedly refers to Bush as “low energy” – essentially a wimp – and a “loser” who is “weak” he is really attacking Bush’s character rather than his policy positions. It’s a brilliant strategy that Bush had better match tweet for tweet.

So put me down in the camp of those, like Steve Schmidt, who think Bush had no choice but to get down in the hog swill with Trump. His task is very complicated, however, because of the dynamics of the Republican electorate. Bush wants to pull some of those thirty percent or so of really unhappy Republican voters over to his cause, but even more realistically he needs to present himself as a tough, decisive alternative to the loudest mouth in the race. Bush’s strategy of going after Trump is right, but the quality of his message and execution of his plan will determine if he has enough of the political attack dog in him to make the strategy work. I have my doubts.

Bush’s first major push back against Trump was ripped from the oldest and moldiest Republican playbook. Bush called The Donald a “liberal” and highlighted the nice things Trump has said over time about the Clintons. If Trump were a conventional politician that line of attack might have some legs, but the issues with Trump aren’t based on policy or anything that has to do with facts and reason. The disaffected won’t quit liking Trump because he got Hillary to his latest wedding or has had more positions on abortion than he had neckties. The Republican Party might reject him, however, if he starts to be seen as lacking in the essential quality that measures the ultimate success of any American president.

It’s all about the guy’s character. Bush needed to get under than mop of orange hair and tweak – and tweet – The Donald’s outsized personality, his enormous ego and his inability to let any slight go unanswered.

Trump is the grade school bully who couldn’t be stopped by appeals to reason or by complaints that he broke the rules or by tattling to the playground teacher. You have to shame him and call him what he is – a man whose ego and self-regard are so outside the realm of normal human interaction that he is dangerous, to himself, the Republican Party, the country and more.Reagan - There you go again

Bush needs to dust off Ronald Reagan and say “there you go again…” when Trump unloads and Trump will keep unloading because he can’t help himself. Jeb might even anticipate a Trump attack on him by making the attack himself. “Donald says I’m low energy, and I admit that I like to sleep at two o’clock in the morning rather than sit up inventing nasty things to say about people.”

A more direct line would be to simply say: “Trump is erratic, undisciplined, a hothead, an egomaniac completely full of himself. He may have the right character to succeed in the unethical world of New York real estate where you buy and sell contacts with mayors and governors, where people cheat and cut corners to get ahead, but he lacks the character to represent the American people.”

I’d never refer to Trump as a “reality television star,” since that gives him too much credit. He’d always be a “frequently failed real estate developer.” I’d point out that some of the great companies in America have declined to work with Trump because he lacks honesty and character. “Trump’s made a career out of being a bully when American needs a leader.”

Belittle the man where it hurts him the most: his mattresses are uncomfortable, his ties are badly constructed (I’ve never had one, but I bet they are), the towels in his hotels are too small, he’s getting old and can’t chase younger women any longer so he’s decided to run for president.

Trump would come back, of course, from such an attack with a discourse on how successful he has been, how rich he is, etc., but Bush will need to stay focused on the great man’s character, which even those who current support him must know is hardly a match for any president since Warren Harding.

Bush is an inherently clumsy candidate who often seems unsure of what he wants to say or what he really believes, but the circumstances of the Summer of Trump and his declining poll numbers have now pushed him into a strategy he might have wisely adopted weeks ago. Trump reminds us that attacking is often succeeding in politics and he who would attack also needs to defend.

Bush had better jump in with both feet and start landing some haymakers. Such are the moments that define candidates. Can Bush be a better retail politician than he has been? Is there any fire in that gut? Is there any ‘there’ there? With regard to Trump, can he finally find a language to point out what most of the country already knows?

Sometimes you just need to call the schoolyard bully a jerk and hit him upside the head with your lunch box.


The Education of the Younger Brother

It’s difficult, no matter your personal politics, to not have some sympathy for Jeb Bush and his efforts to articulate a plausible foreign policy approach for his presidential campaign. Given the wreckage his brother left him – and us – it’s a balancing act worthy of the Flying Wallenda Family.

George W. and Jeb  (AP Photo/Mari Darr~Welch, File)

George W. and Jeb (AP Photo/Mari Darr~Welch, File)

Bush’s stumbling attempts to get his arms around the issues, however, points out how dangerous things can be on that high wire. Still if he hopes to be president, Jeb will be forced to regularly and publicly struggle with brother George W’s legacy in the Middle East, while always trying to tip toe around the smoldering wreckage. No easy task.

Bush tried mightily this week to both avoid talking about the family mistakes and pin the continuing mess in Iraq and Syria on the current president and the former secretary of state. Even he must know its a stretch. Bush’s major foreign policy speech, delivered on the hallowed ground of the Reagan Library in California, was equal parts reinventing recent history and continuing the proclivity of many American politicians to work very hard to avoid confronting obvious, if difficult truths.

Grappling with the Facts and Lessons on History…

WW1centenary_715x195 (1)Across Europe this summer and last, the Brits, French, Germans and others have been marking both the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the centenary of the Great War that did not end all wars. British school children have taken field trips to the scenes of the carnage on the Somme in 1916 and near the tiny Belgian village of Passchendaele in 1917. But in reading about the various memorials and events, one gets the impression that something is missing from the history of this war – why did this catastrophe happen, this great war that destroyed empires, spawned an even more destructive second world war and gave us – apparently to the continuing astonishment of many current politicians – the map of the modern Middle East that was drawn during and after the war with little regard for facts on the ground?

The commemoration of the Great War and the end of the second war is, of course, entirely appropriate, but remembering the conflicts is not nearly enough. And some politicians – Japan’s prime minister, for example – would just prefer to move along, thinking; been there, done that. The anniversary of the Great War, for example, is only being quietly marked in Germany and the French continue to mostly ignore the their own troubled history during the second war.

British historian Max Hastings

British historian Sir Max Hastings

Failing to heed the lessons from such vastly important events has consequences, including the repeating of old mistakes. We must, as the respected British military historian Sir Max Hastings said recently, probe and question, debate and discuss the meaning, the causes and the consequences of our wars.

Hastings argued in a 2014 interview with Euronews that it is a serious mistake to simply mark the horror of the Great War without a serious grappling with the issues and reasons behind the fighting. Hastings’ lessons about that war and about the importance of teaching its lessons to new generations is worthwhile viewing. One wishes the current crop of candidates took the time to listen and think about such big questions, particularly as they rush to define their foreign policy platforms in an area of the world that is still so very unfamiliar to us.

Cloudy Thinking, Shaky Facts, Bad History…

In terms of understanding issues like the U.S. role in Iraq and the rise of ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant sometimes called ISIS – we can’t even agree what to call the movement) there is always a simple, concise explanation that is wrong, which leads me back to the allegedly “smarter” Bush – Jeb.

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki

The essence of Bush’s recent foreign policy argument is that Iraq was “secure” in 2009 following the “surge” of American troops that was instituted by his brother. That strategy, temporarily at least, propped up the perfectly awful regime headed by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Malicki.

Then, at least in Bush’s telling, President Obama with the support of Hillary Clinton let it all go to hell with the premature removal of American combat troops from Iraq. Therefore, under this logic and accepting Bush’s telling, Obama and Clinton “lost” Iraq and paved the ground for the rise of the spectacularly brutal ISIL. Bush’s analysis if, of course, mostly aimed at Clinton and is simple, concise and mostly wrong.

Writing in The New Yorker, Dexter Filkins, one of the more astute analysts of the American experience in Iraq, says: “the Republican argument that a handful of American troops could have saved Iraq misses a larger point. The fundamental problem was American policy—in particular, the American policy of supporting and strengthening Maliki at all costs. Maliki was a militant sectarian his whole life, and the United States should not have been surprised when he continued to act that way once he became Prime Minister. As Emma Sky, who served as a senior adviser to the American military during the war in Iraq, put it, ‘The problem was the policy, and the policy was to give unconditional support to Nuri al-Maliki.’ (Sky’s book, The Unraveling, is the essential text on how everything fell apart.) When the Americans helped install him, in 2006, he was a colorless mediocrity with deeply sectarian views. By 2011, he was an unrivalled strongman with control over a vast military and security apparatus. Who enabled that?”

Filkins’ answer to the enabling question is that George W. Bush, Obama and Clinton all had a hand in creating the mess, but he also notes a fact that Jeb ignores – it was his brother who established the timeline for the troop withdrawal, a timeline that Obama was only too happy to implement since he had campaign to get U.S. troops out of Iraq. Amending that agreement, as Bush said “everyone” thought would happen, was entirely contingent on the Iraqi government we had helped establish agreeing to U.S. troops remaining. Changing the Bush agreement, given the internal strife in the country, was never going to happen and, in fact, the Iraqi parliament refused to consider modifications of the troop withdrawal timeline.

As Filkins says, “at best, Jeb is faulting Obama for not amending the deal.”

Other commentators, including Paul Waldman, have observed that Jeb Bush, as well as other Republicans, continue to believe, against all evidence, that the United States could bend the internal politics of Iraq in a way that we might like. Remember the rhetoric about a western-style democracy taking root in the heart of the Middle East? It was a pipe dream and still is.

“And this is perhaps the most dangerous thing about Bush’s perspective on Iraq,” Waldman wrote recently in the Washington Post, “which can also be said of his primary opponents. They display absolutely no grasp of the internal politics of Iraq, now or in the past, not to mention the internal politics of other countries in the region, including Iran. Indeed, most Republicans don’t seem to even believe that these countries have internal politics that can shape what the countries choose to do and how they might react to our actions.”

As for Clinton, who of course is the real political target of Bush’s recent critique of past and present U.S. Middle East policy, Dexter Filkins says: “She played a supporting role in a disastrously managed withdrawal, which helped lay the groundwork for the catastrophe that followed. And that was preceded by the disastrously managed war itself, which was overseen by Jeb Bush’s brother. And that was preceded by the decision to go to war in the first place, on trumped-up intelligence, which was also made by Bush’s brother.

“All in all, when it comes to Iraq, Clinton doesn’t have a lot to brag about. But Jeb Bush might want to consider talking about something else.”

Let the Debate Continue…

Or would it be too much to just ask that Bush – other candidates, as well – grapple with the grubby details of the mess in the Middle East. It is a convenient sound bite to say, for example, that Obama and Clinton “allowed” the Islamic State to emerge amid all the sectarian violence that we could never have successfully controlled, even had we committed to U.S. boots on the ground for the next 50 years. Such thinking does little – nothing really – to help explain what has really happened in Iraq and why.

Islamic State fighters

Islamic State fighters

In a truly chilling article in the current New York Review of Books, an anonymous writer identified as a senior official of a NATO country with wide experience in the Middle East, provides some insight into all that we don’t know and can’t comprehend about the forces that have unleashed havoc in Iraq and Syria.

The latest ISIL outrage includes, according to the New York Times, a policy of rape and sex slavery, across a wide swath of the region. The sober and informed piece should be required reading for every candidate as a cautionary tale about how American policy, beginning with George W. Bush, has been a tragic failure. It is also a stark reminder of the real limits of what our military power can accomplish.

“I have often been tempted to argue that we simply need more and better information,” the writer says in attempting to explain ISIL. “But that is to underestimate the alien and bewildering nature of this phenomenon. To take only one example, five years ago not even the most austere Salafi [ultra-conservative Islamic] theorists advocated the reintroduction of slavery; but ISIS has in fact imposed it. Nothing since the triumph of the Vandals in Roman North Africa has seemed so sudden, incomprehensible, and difficult to reverse as the rise of ISIS. None of our analysts, soldiers, diplomats, intelligence officers, politicians, or journalists has yet produced an explanation rich enough—even in hindsight—to have predicted the movement’s rise.

“We hide this from ourselves with theories and concepts that do not bear deep examination. And we will not remedy this simply through the accumulation of more facts. It is not clear whether our culture can ever develop sufficient knowledge, rigor, imagination, and humility to grasp the phenomenon of ISIS. But for now, we should admit that we are not only horrified but baffled.”

If there is any good news amid the re-writing of our recent and often disastrous history in the Middle East it may be contained in the fact that Jeb Bush’s quest for the White House will mean that the American legacy in Iraq will continue to be debated. Smart politics might have dictated that Jeb leave the sleeping dogs of W’s policies lie, but that was never an option. The mess his brother made is still too raw and too important not to demand ongoing discussion, particularly from another Bush.

History will assign the blame for U.S. policy in the Middle East and I’m pretty confident how that will shake out. American voters, even given our short attention span and penchant to accept over simplification of enormously complex issues, should welcome the discussion that Jeb Bush’s speech has prompted. He may be, as Paul Waldman says, “shockingly obtuse” about the limits of American power and as misinformed as some of the people who led us down this rabbit hole, but we still need to force the debate and challenge the “theories and concepts that do not bear deep examination.”

Who knows, as Max Hastings suggests when considering the lasting lessons of the 100 year old Great War, we might actually learn something.


The Self-Reflection Deficit

One of the most distressing things about current American culture – or perhaps I should say the most depressing thing – is the complete and utterly bipartisan inability of so many people in public life to look into the mirror and see themselves.

Call it the self-reflection deficit. Even though we don’t see it around much any more, you must remember self-reflection and its well-know bias for truth and personal responsibility.

Clinton Global Initiative Brings Business And World Leaders Together“I gotta pay our bills,” says Bill Clinton about his post-presidential life as the best-paid saxophone player from Hope, Arkansas. Clinton made the comment when asked whether he would continue gathering up six figure checks making speeches while his wife runs for president. Clinton shows no sign that he appreciates, even a little, the conflicts swirling around him, his wife and their foundation thanks to his talking, apparently to almost anyone with a big bank account for big checks.

Payin’ the Bills in Clintonland…

Clinton had to have made his recent “pay the bills” comment knowing that he and Hillary would soon have to report the obscene cash haul – $25 million just since January 2014 – the two have raked in for standing behind a podium. The Associated Press also reported that Bill, that talkin’ fool, banked $50 million more for the speeches he made while Hillary was the country’s chief diplomat. Apparently a good deal of the cash came from well-healed individuals who just might have wanted to influence the former president’s wife. Go figure. Did I mention that Hillary’s State Department vetted all those speeches and, gosh, didn’t see a problem.

With income like that its hard to fathom the kinds of bills the Clintons “gotta pay,” but one certainly hopes that charging all those expenses on a platinum credit card that gives them airline miles, or at least points toward gas purchases.

But here’s where the self-reflection comes to play. Most folks would say to the Clintons, “if you can make that kind of dough just talking go for it, but don’t insult our intelligence by dismissing legitimate questions about how it looks and whether it’s just unseemly or something a good deal worse.”

The Clintons display one the worst characteristics of too many non-self-reflective people in public life, they apparently think – at least in their own minds – that if they’re well intentioned enough and stand for all the right things then, hey, what’s the beef about twenty-five or fifty million dollars to make up for having left the White House, as Hill said, “dead broke?” Bill says his foundation did nothing “knowingly inappropriate,” but that depends, I guess, on the definition of “inappropriate.”

Americans, being a generally forgiving bunch, don’t begrudge the Clintons making a nice or even an extravagant living. However, they shouldn’t be surprised that we do resent the smugness that goes with public figures dismissing questions about all that cash, while they fail to reflect on why we think they just don’t get it.

Ignoring the Obvious…

The self-reflection deficit has been fully in evidence around Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush, as well. Bush had a perfectly awful few days with his shifting answers to a simple and predictable question about whether he would have authorized the 2003 invasion of Iraq in light of “knowing what we know now.” Bush has a dynasty problem – Hillary Clinton does as well – that he continues to try and finesse rather than address. Whether he likes it or not – not would be my guess – voters want to know where and how he differs with his dad and older brother. As good a place as any to begin those questions is with the disastrous Iraq war that brother W. launched; arguably the worst foreign policy mistake since, well, in a long, long time.

George, George and Jeb.

George, George and Jeb.

As Maureen Dowd points out, Bush is the son and brother of two former presidents, but wants to pretend that George H.W. and W. are just family and he loves his family. Well, of course he does, but he’s not running for president to preside over Bush family Thanksgiving dinners. His judgment and – that word again – reflection over the mistakes of the past will tell us a great deal about how he’ll approach the job if he succeeds in getting the Lincoln Bedroom back in the family. Jeb can no more separate his presidential ambitions from his relative’s records than John Quincy Adams or Robert Kennedy could from theirs. That Bush is even trying, and with the flimsy explanation that he doesn’t like to answer hypotheticals and he loves the two Georges, is not only proof of a lack of self-reflection, but also a likely losing political strategy.

You almost want to grab the former Florida governor by the lapels, turn him toward a mirror and demand he decide what he really believes about the family business he hopes to continue. After all, as Dowd wrote in a recent column, “Jeb hasn’t even been asked any questions yet about W.’s dark contributions on waterboarding, the deficit and the near-total collapse of the American economy.” He will.

Will Jeb be self-aware enough to self-reflect on what he really believes? You can still love your brother and think he was a fool.

The Well-Know Bias: Truth…

Has Dick Retired the No Self-Reflection Trophy?

Has Dick Retired the No Self-Reflection Trophy?

Speaking of Iraq, former Vice President Dick Cheney may have retired the no self-reflection trophy with his inability or unwillingness to own up to any mistakes related to the Bush Administration’s various wars, detentions and tortures. Despite the mounting volumes detailing Cheney’s cynical merchandising of dubious intelligence, just to cite one example, the old cynic regularly emerges from his undisclosed location to hold forth on what he sees as the vast mistakes of the current administration, while refusing to accept even a whiff of responsibility for the steaming pile he and his boss left for Barack Obama.

History, with a bias for facts and responsibility, will sort all this out and Cheney will forever be regarded as among the principal responsible parties for a multitude of great mistakes, including invading Iraq on sexed up intelligence. He deserves it. Even Robert McNamera, a Cheney-like character from an earlier generation, finally confronted his personal and professional shortcomings, characteristics that everyone else had long ago identified. Don’t hold your breath waiting for that level of self-awareness from Cheney. Self-assured he most certainly is, but then again self-reflection requires character.

The no self-reflection caucus has a lot of members, including professional blowhards like Donald Trump and failures in both business and politics like former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.

One gets the impression that a guy like The Donald considers self-reflection to mean thinking deeply about how wonderful he is and concluding after further consideration that he is even more impressive. Ms. Fiorina, who made a big splash at the recent Iowa GOP cattle call for the eight hundred and some people running for president, apparently thinks having once met Vladimir Putin qualifies as foreign policy experience and getting fired in one of the highest profile corporate dismissals in recent history, not to mention getting wiped out in a California Senate race, are resume builders on the path to the Oval Office.

In Oregon, heads are still shaking over former Governor John Kitzhaber’s inability to self-reflect on the shenanigans of the even more non-self-reflecting fiancé who forced him out of public life just weeks after he won a fourth term.

BradyProfessional sports and the media have their share of incredibly well paid humans who refuse to self-reflect. Talented and supremely unaware quarterback Tom Brady refused to cooperate with the NFL investigation of his under-inflated footballs, then lawyers up to challenge the findings.

Often there isn’t much naval gazing in journalism either. Judith Miller still hasn’t fessed up to blowing her New York Times reporting of Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction and actually has a new book attempting to explain away some of the worst reporting on the run-up to the war.

Brian Williams apparently thinks he might one day return to the NBC anchor desk after making up war news about himself. Williams, not unlike Jeb Bush, tried to over explain what is pretty clearly a series of tall tales that reflect no reflection, but likely much more. Even some of those we count on to call B.S. on the non-self-reflectors can’t find it in themselves to gaze in the mirror.

Paging O’Reilly and Stephanopoulos…

Modern Survival Skills: Never Admit Anything…

We could go on and on, sadly, but you get the drift. When thinking about the unremitting lack of self-awareness in so many people in public life, I find myself longing for the kind of brutal justice British politics extracts from those who fail. Tradition and reality demands that British pols that screw up must self-reflect very quickly.

British Labour Party leader Ed Milaband lost – badly lost – the recent election. Milaband resigned the next morning. No time for fussing with a post-election “mistakes were made” plea that things will be different next time. Miliband went from “the next prime minister” to “Ed who?” in the time it takes to change your socks. Period. End of story. “Ed who” is now presumably self-reflecting in an undisclosed location.

More and more people in public life seem to have decided that the essential requirement of survival in the age of the ten-second sound bite and the twenty-four hour news cycle is to never, ever admit uncertainty or acknowledge that careful and nuanced consideration, including knowing yourself, is the essence of leadership. Above all they never, heaven forbid, ever acknowledge a mistake, even the smallest one.

The modern poll-tested, cable television survival skills demand a willing suspension of any degree of self-reflection, since consideration of one’s actions – real consideration – inevitably demands admission of some error. No one is perfect, as they say, but many these days think they must act as though they are. There is no substitute for “perfection” and certainty of self. Self-reflection is for sissies, or losers.

But, as our Mom’s told us, the admission of mistakes, or even the awareness that things might have been done better, is also the only possible path to getting better. Know yourself and you know what you need to work on.

I’d like to see Mom’s kind of candidate on the ballot. Someone willing to struggle with facts. Someone who understands that we are all a bundle of contradictions. Someone who admits they have something to learn. Someone who sees the world from the inside out. Someone big enough and secure enough to confront mistakes. Someone real.

Wouldn’t that be something to reflect upon.


Assessing LBJ

johnson200-62fbf6627cd90a3d7677dbcd0b201aa00477e8bb-s6-c30One of the best biographers of Lyndon Johnson, the presidential historian Robert Dallek, has often said that it takes a generation or more once a president has left office for us to truly begin to assess his presidency. Historians need access to the papers. Those in the presidential supporting cast, the aides, the associates, the enemies, need time to write and reflect on the man. Once those pieces start to come together, we can begin to form history’s judgment. LBJ’s time seems more and more at hand.

Dallek titled one of his volumes on Johnson – Flawed Giant. That, I suspect, will be the ultimate verdict of history. A big, passionate man with supremely developed political skills and instincts who was, at the same time, deeply, even tragically, flawed.

Frankly it is the juxtaposition of the greatness and the human failings that make the 36th president so endlessly fascinating and why contemporary and continual examination of his presidency – as well as his political career proceeding the White House – is so important.

All that Johnson accomplished as part of his domestic agenda from civil rights to Medicare is balanced – some would say dwarfed – by the tragedy of Vietnam. His deep compassion for those in the shadows of life is checked by the roughness of his personality. Johnson could both help pass the greatest piece of civil rights legislation since the Civil War and make crude jokes about blacks. He could turn on his Texas charm in cooing and sympathetic phone calls to the widow Jackie Kennedy and then issue orders to an underling while sitting on the toilet.

Johnson presents the ultimate challenge to those of us who like to handicap presidential greatness. Does it automatically follow that a great man must also be a good man? Few would measure up to such a reckoning. And just how do to assess greatness?

I think I’ve read every major biography of Lyndon Johnson: Dallek’s superb two volumes, Robert Caro’s monumental four volumes and counting and wonderful volumes by Randall B. Woods and Mark K. Updegrove. I’ve read Johnson’s memoir The Vantage Point and Lyndon Johnson & the American Dream by the young Doris Kearns before she was Godwin. Michael Beschloss has dug through the Johnson tapes and produced great insights into the man and his politics.

You can’t study LBJ without going deeply into the American experience in southeast Asia. Biographies of Senators Mike Mansfield, J. William Fulbright, Mark Hatfield and Frank Church, among much other material, helps flesh out Johnson’s great mistake. More recently I’ve gorged on the reporting of activities surrounding the 50th anniversary of passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, undoubtedly Johnson’s single greatest accomplishment.

Through all of this sifting of the big record of a controversial man I’m left to ponder how we fairly assess the Texan who dominated our politics for barely five years in the Oval Office and left in his wake both great accomplishments and the legacy of more than 58,000 dead Americans in a jungle war that a stronger, wiser man might – just might – have avoided.

The historian Mike Kazin wrote recently in The New Republic that LBJ doesn’t deserve any revisionist treatment for his “liberal” record because what really mattered was the war. “The great musical satirist Tom Lehrer once remarked,” Kazin writes, “that awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger made political satire obsolete. The same might be said for those who would turn the President most responsible for ravaging Vietnam into a great liberal hero.”

Historian David Greenberg, also a contributing editor for The New Republic, takes a somewhat different and more nuanced view, a view more in tune with my own, when he wrote recently: “No one can overlook anymore (for example) Washington’s and Jefferson’s slave holding, Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policies, Lincoln’s and Wilson’s wartime civil liberties records, or FDR’s internment of Japanese Americans. We know these men to be deeply flawed, in some cases to the point where celebrating them produces in us considerable unease. But, ultimately, we still recognize them as remarkable presidents whose finest feats transformed the nation for the good. So if in calling someone a hero it’s also possible to simultaneously acknowledge his failings, even terrible failings, then Lyndon Johnson deserves a place in the pantheon.”

Peter Baker, writing recently in the New York Times, asks perhaps the best question about the on-going reassessment of Lyndon Johnson. Given the state of our politics today, the small-minded partisanship, the blinding influence of too much money from too few sources and the lack of national consensus about anything, Baker asks “is it even possible for a president to do big things anymore?”

For better or worse, Baker correctly concludes, LBJ represented the “high water mark” for presidents pushing through a big and bold agenda and no one since has approached the political ability that Johnson mastered as he worked his will on both Republicans and Democrats in Congress. The reassessments of Lyndon Johnson will go on and I suspect the “flawed giant” will continue to challenge our notions of greatness for as long as we debate the accomplishments and the failings of American presidents.

Bethine Church

churchesIt seems only appropriate to mark the death of Bethine Church who, for nearly 30 years after the death of her husband in 1984, kept his legacy – and the Church legacy alive – by reflecting on an enduring photo of the two of them together. In many respects they were that rare commodity in modern politics – a husband and wife team.

Bethine Church died at age 90 on Saturday. Her health had failed markedly in the last few months and, as son Chase said, she simply died of “old age.” By any measure hers was a full life.

In the masterful third volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson – Master of the Senate – the historian Robert Caro did justice to the Church partnership when he wrote of her in the 1950’s: “Bethine Church did not fit that era’s mold of the docile Washington political wife, for while Frank was new to politics, she had been born into it, into Idaho’s Democratic dynasty, the ‘Clark Party.’ She had been raised in the Governor’s Mansion; during her girlhood her father was Idaho’s Governor, one of her uncles, D. Worth Clark, was Idaho’s United States Senator; another uncle had been the state’s governor some years before. She and the young man who had fallen in love with each other in high school were an exceptionally close couple; years later, one of Church’s staffers would call their marriage ‘the longest running high school romance in history.'”

On the morning after his razor thin loss to Republican Steve Symms in the contentious, nasty 1980 campaign, I was among a small horde of reporters stamping our feet to stay warm in the damp grass outside of the Church home on Idaho Street close to downtown Boise. The house had been Judge (and governor) Chase Clark’s home and later became the Boise outpost for the senator and his political partner.

Before long Church, with Bethine at his side, stepped behind a bank of microphones to do what I expect is one of the most difficult things in politics – offer a gracious statement in defeat. The first question, as I recall, after the short and gracious statement was “what do you intend to do now?”

With perfect timing the Senator Church said, “Oh, we’ll be staying together…” I remember nothing else that was said.

The next few days, appropriately so, will be given over to tributes to the Grande Dame of Idaho Democratic politics. She’ll be remembered for her passion for the Sawtooths, and wilderness and for protecting Frank’s legacy. Until the end of her long life she maintained vigorous relationships with big names like Joe Biden and Al Gore. She encouraged hundreds of would be candidates, some of whom might have been better off taking a pass on a political race. She toyed, perhaps seriously, with challenging Symms in 1986 and wisely took a pass.

Idaho has produced really only a handful of truly outstanding and nationally important political figures. Frank Church, sponsor of the Wilderness Act, wise and informed voice on foreign policy, early opponent of the Vietnam quagmire and the senator who warned against domestic spying a generation ago, is in that elite number. Still as Church’s biographers LeRoy Ashby and Rod Gramer have written in their book Fighting the Odds, “It is impossible to honor Frank Church without honoring her. He had believed, quite literally, that she had saved his life in his first battle with cancer. She had been his best friend and constant companion; by all accounts their love for each other ran deep. He had always needed her.”

Idaho and the nation has lost a great figure who lived a great story. We will not likely see her kind again.


The Rhyme of Political History

ralph-crane-gov-robert-e-smylieThe last time an Idaho governor received a serious primary challenge he lost.

It was 1966 and three-term incumbent Republican Robert E. Smylie, pictured here dressed like he might have been trying out for The Sons of the Pioneers, seemed to be at the zenith of his political power – chairman of the National Governors Association, the senior governor in the nation and a serious player in national politics.

Time magazine took note of Smylie’s re-election announcement in April of 1966 by reporting, “In Idaho, Republican Governor Robert E. Smylie, 51, dean of the nation’s Governors and a 1968 vice-presidential hopeful, filed for a fourth four-year term, which if completed would make his the longest gubernatorial tenure in U.S. history (current record: 15 years, set by Maryland’s Albert C. Ritchie from 1920 through 1934). Smylie, who led the 1965 fight to dump Goldwaterite Dean Burch as G.O.P. national chairman, will campaign on his ‘New Day’ programs of increased state outlays for health, welfare and education financed by a 3% sales tax.”

Time confidently predicted Smylie was “assured” of winning the GOP nomination. He wasn’t. The future vice-presidential hopeful lost his party’s nomination to a little-known state senator from Bonner County named Don Samuelson. That election had dramatic consequences for Idaho’s political history.

“When the primary returns were tabulated,” University of Idaho political scientists Syd Duncombe and Boyd Martin wrote in a post-election analysis, “Samuelson carried all but seven of Idaho’s forty-four counties to defeat Smylie 52,891 to 33,753. One columnist [the Lewiston Morning Tribune’s Robert Myers] attributed Smylie’s defeat to his long term of office, his support of the sales tax, and opposition from Goldwater Republicans stemming from his role in the replacement of Dean Burch.”

Following Arizona Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater’s disastrous 1964 presidential lost to Lyndon Johnson – NBC’s Chet Huntley called Goldwater supporters “classic Republicans, segregationists, Johnsonphobes, desperate conservatives, and radical nuts…the coalition of the discontent” – the moderate wing of the GOP, shoved aside by Goldwater’s hard right followers, set out to reclaim the national party and Bob Smylie helped lead the moderate charge.

One major target of Smylie and the GOP moderates was Tucson, Arizona lawyer Dean Burch, a friend of Goldwater’s who the candidate had installed as chairman of the national Republican party. Burch helped turn the party hard to the right, as Rick Perlstein documents in his fascinating book on Goldwater called Before the Storm. When Ku Klux Klan leaders in Georgia and Alabama, for example, endorsed Goldwater in 1964 Burch refused to disavow their support and said only “we’re not in the in business of discouraging voters.”

Smylie’s Moderate National Role

In January of 1965, after Goldwater’s landslide loss to Johnson, Smylie made national news when he said, as the Associated Press reported, “the time is past when Dean Burch can do anything to save his job as national chairman of the Republican party.” Conservative commentators took to identifying Smylie as a leader of the “Rockefeller wing” of the national party with one writing that the Idaho governor was utilizing “meat axe” tactics to push Burch out as national chairman. Eventually Burch, who went on to serve as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and a top aide to Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, resigned the GOP chairmanship and was replaced by Ohio pol Ray Bliss, a choice acceptable to party moderates like Smylie.

In the mid-1960’s the national Republican party was badly divided, much as it is today, between an insurgent wing loyal to Goldwater’s brand of unflinching conservatism and a moderate wing where political operators, like Ray Bliss, preached the politics of expansion. Bliss, for example, once said his only concern as party chairman was winning elections.

The Goldwater partisans were, in many ways, an earlier version of today’s Tea Party adherents and in Idaho they effectively took over the state party. Bob Smylie found himself swept along in these roiling waters with a growing national profile as a moderate who at the same time had to appeal to an increasingly conservative Idaho GOP. It was a difficult, maybe impossible task, since Smylie stimulated bitter hostility from much of the party base, including a young woman named Gwen Barnett.

Idaho’s Republican national committeewoman, Barnett was the youngest member of the national committee and she made it her cause to defeat Smylie. As long-time Idaho political observer Marty Peterson wrote a while back, “Barnett had become a close ally of the Goldwater forces. Her friend Dean Burch, a former member of the Goldwater Senate staff, had been elected Republican national chairman. She was also close to such rising conservative stars as John Tower, who had become the first Republican elected to the senate from Texas since Reconstruction.” Barnett recruited Samuelson to run against Smylie, helped round up the money and saw to it that insurgent Idaho Republicans united behind the challenger. The resulting and stunning defeat of the moderate Smylie made 1966 one of the most significant years in Idaho political history.

Looking back on this near ancient political history it is now easy to see that Smylie, a governor who deserves to be well remembered for creating a state park system and establishing a balanced tax system, committed a cardinal political sin – he lost touch with his base. Undoubtedly this supremely self-confident man was overconfident.

Generally speaking there is little payoff in Idaho for being well regarded on the pages of Time or being chummy with the very liberal then-governor of New York Nelson Rockefeller. You can Google Robert E. Smylie today and find a photo of him at the Boise airport in 1959 welcoming his buddy Rockefeller to town and another picture of Smylie in 1961 at a national governors’ gathering wearing shorts, his shirt unbuttoned to the naval and at the helm of what appears to be a very large yacht. Not exactly typical Idaho political images today or in the 1960’s.

The Rhyme of Political History

Fast forward to 2013 and the news last weekend that a relatively unknown state senator, Russ Fulcher of Meridian, will challenge two-term incumbent Butch Otter for the Republican nomination for governor in 2014.

As Mark Twain is famously reported to have said, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

It would be easy to overstate the parallels between 1966 and 2014, but you would also have to have political blinders in place not to recognize some of the striking similarities about the two races separated by nearly 50 years. The first would be Gov. Otter’s “long term of office” – four years in the state legislature, 14 years as Lt. Governor, six years in Congress and going on eight years as governor. It is often true in politics that as the years accumulate so do the enemies.

Another parallel: Otter’s opponent comes to the race from a perch in the state senate where by all accounts he has assembled a very conservative voting record not unlike Samuelson all those years ago. And like the man who beat Bob Smylie, Fulcher is making a straight forward play for support from the insurgent/populist wing of his party.

With Idaho Democrats still mostly an after thought in the state’s politics, the Idaho GOP has in effect become two or maybe more parties divided into various factions. There seems little doubt the anti-establishment, populist oriented Tea Party wing (and its many variations) has been on the rise since at least 2008 when insurgents pushed out a state party chairman who had the support of Otter and many of the party’s traditional movers and shakers. Many of those same insurgents, over the objections of Otter and other leaders of the party, then successfully battled to close the state’s GOP primary, in essence forcing party registration on Idaho, a move which seems certain to ensure that the most motivated and perhaps the most disenchanted Republican voters dominate next May’s primary election.

Ironically, the battle for the heart and soul of the Idaho GOP, tends to pit more traditional business-oriented, Chamber of Commerce Republicans against the same brand of populists who fueled Barry Goldwater’s rise in the early 1960’s. Generally speaking many of these voters are the most skeptical of government, dismissive of “elites” of any type and disdainful of long tenure in office. All of which makes you wonder if Gov. Otter’s forthcoming campaign event in Coeur d’Alene, featuring the great moderate hope of the national GOP New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, will serve to reinforce the image that the insurgents are fighting the establishment. Christie recently won a landslide re-election in New Jersey by appealing to Democrats and independents with the kind of campaign Ray Bliss would have loved, but that many in the Tea Party find off putting.

One final parallel. Don Samuelson had a compelling issue in 1966 against the incumbent. Smylie’s championing of the sales tax – first put in place in the 1930’s then repealed by voters before being resurrected in 1966 – was at the heart of the entire campaign that year. Ironically Idahoans endorsed the tax at the ballot box in November of 1966 even as Samuelson, who had voted against the measure in the legislature, was winning a four-way general election race with barely 41% of the vote. The pro-tax vote in 1966 was 61%. Samuelson simply sliced the electorate just finally enough to grab the votes of the anti-tax crowd, and that block and a few more votes were enough to give him a win.

[It’s worth noting that both Idaho parties originally nominated anti-sales tax candidates for governor in 1966 even as voters were warming to adopting the tax at the ballot box.]

Fulcher’s issue is, of course, Otter’s advocacy of development of a state-managed health care exchange, which he equates to Otter supporting “Obamacare.” Never mind that Otter sued the federal government and lost over the extremely controversial health insurance reform law before concluding that the state would be better off developing its own exchange rather than relying on the federal government.

Obamacare, not unlike rank and file GOP resentment of Smylie’s moderate leadership role in national politics and his support for establishing a sales tax in the 1960’s, could become a powerful cause for many GOP primary voters, and in politics a powerful cause that juices up the base can, as long-time Idaho analyst Randy Staplius recently observed, be even more important than the profile of the candidate.

The politics of Idaho just became a lot more interesting and, while it should be said emphatically that Butch Otter has many, many significant advantages as he goes for a third term as governor – a solid conservative record, a winning personality, a polished retail approach to politics, lots of money, and the advantages of incumbency – once in a while history does rhyme.

The Wonderful Unpredictability of Politics

Political scientists Duncombe and Martin presciently noted in their 1966 election analysis that, while Idaho Republicans had won big at the ballot box that year – electing Len Jordan to a full term in the U.S. Senate, winning both of the state’s congressional seats, picking up seats in the legislature and, of course, retaining the governorship – the party came out of the Smylie-Samuelson experience badly divided. Such “rifts would need to be healed” they pointed out if the party were to consolidate its gains in 1968 and beyond. What actually happened show that the riffs weren’t so well healed.

In 1968 Democrat Frank Church won re-election to the U.S. Senate and just two years later, in 1970, Democrat Cecil D. Andrus, who had cut his political teeth on primary and general election campaigns during the dramatically unpredictable year of 1966, won the governorship over Samuelson who proved to be a better giant killer than a governor.

Andrus has often said when folks joke about Samuelson’s ineptitude as governor, “Don’t say anything bad about Don Samuelson. If there hadn’t been a Don Samuelson there never would have been a Cecil Andrus.”

That 1970 election began 24 straight years of Democratic control of the Idaho governorship, a political phenomenon that seemed unimaginable four decades ago, but that happened in no small part because of the turmoil fostered by the primary defeat of an Idaho governor who seemed unbeatable until he wasn’t.


Are You Listening?

Obama-ListensWhile Washington and most of the media are obsessed with the botched roll out of Obamacare, a story with much more long-lasting and more profound implications unfolds around us with hardly a passing notice from Congress or many voters.

Here’s a prediction. When the history of the Obama Administration is written, the admittedly monumental screw ups with the health insurance website will get a paragraph or two of attention. The vast network of intelligence gathering – OK, let’s call it what it is spying – that is taking place on the watch of a president who was elected as a civil libertarian will get a full chapter. It’s that important.

It is nearly impossible to keep track of the flood of revelations about the activities of the National Security Agency (NSA), but here are some of the highlights. The New York Times reports that the NSA listened in not only to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone calls, but started doing so years ago when Merkel was merely a backbencher in German politics.

“How the N.S.A. continued to track Ms. Merkel as she ascended to the top of Germany’s political apparatus illuminates previously undisclosed details about the way the secret spy agency casts a drift net to gather information from America’s closest allies,” Mark Mazetti and David Sanger wrote in the Times. “The phone monitoring is hardly limited to the leaders of countries like Germany, and also includes their top aides and the heads of opposing parties. It is all part of a comprehensive effort to gain an advantage over other nations, both friend and foe.”

The news of the spying has already badly damaged the personal relationship between the American president and the German chancellor. The phone call Merkel initiated to express her outrage was, as an Obama aide told the Times, “not easy.” No kidding.

We also know that NSA has been tapping into Google and Yahoo networks, monitoring the phone calls of journalist, gathering millions of bits of data from foreign and domestic phone systems and, most significantly, saying almost nothing – at least nothing truthful – about this gigantic infringement of civil liberties.

When the NSA’s James Clapper speaks his language of evasion reminds you of the once popular television comic Professor Irwin Corey, the absent minded “world’s great authority” who would ramble on speaking nonsense that sounded strangely profound. Corey once opined, appropriate to NSA spying, “If we don’t change direction soon, we’ll end up where we’re going.”

“Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden asked Clapper a while back during a Senate hearing.

Clapper responded: “No, sir … not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently, perhaps, collect, but not wittingly.”

Only after the Edward Snowden revelations did Clapper admit his answer was, as The Atlantic reported “erroneous,” or “the least untruthful” one he could provide. Wyden recently said, “There’s not a shred of evidence today that that would have been corrected [in public] absent the [Snowden] disclosures.”

Normally lying to a Congressional committee – ask Oliver North – is reason to clean out your desk or maybe fix up your cell, but Clapper remains on the job with his efforts now focused on explaining away the spying on Merkel and 30 other world leaders.

Forty years ago another Northwest senator, Idaho’s Frank Church, laid bare the out-of-bounds behavior of the NSA, the CIA and the nation’s other security agencies. And, like the prescient civil liberties advocate he was, Church carefully warned that an American government with the means, in the case of the CIA, to open the mail of American citizens and hatch plots to kill foreign leaders, conceivably could turn that same awesome power on domestic enemies.

Then President Gerald Ford tried repeatedly to blunt Church’s investigation in the 1970’s once telling Church and Texas Sen. John Tower, as Leroy Ashby and Rod Gramer report in their fine biography of Church, that America is “a great power and it is important that we be perceived as such – that our intelligence capability to a certain extent be cloaked in mystery and held in awe.” But Church knew that just the opposite was true. An all powerful and overreaching national security state that employs tactics more and more reminiscent of Putin’s Russia or Saddam’s Iraq is not a recipe for global respect or moral authority.

A great country, secure in the wisdom of its own best instincts and loyal to its creed, could command real respect. “Ours is not a wicked country,” Church said in 1976, “and we cannot abide a wicked government.”

A country that is a force of moral authority in the world doesn’t find itself with a Secretary of State saying what John Kerry was compelled to say this week. “The president and I have learned of some things that have been happening in many ways on an automatic pilot, because the technology is there and the ability is there,” Kerry told a conference in London via video link. “In some cases, some of these actions have reached too far and we are going to try to make sure it doesn’t happen in the future.”

Oregon’s Wyden is a worthy successor to Idaho’s Church and is playing much the same role as he confronts the entrenched power of the national security state. “We will be up against a ‘business-as-usual brigade’—made up of influential members of the government’s intelligence leadership, their allies in think tanks and academia, retired government officials, and sympathetic legislators,” Sen. Wyden warned last month. “Their endgame is ensuring that any surveillance reforms are only skin-deep. … Privacy protections that don’t actually protect privacy are not worth the paper they’re printed on.”

At the risk of sounding like a Tea Party conspiracy theorist, I do reflect on the historic fact that our federal government, even with all the sacred respect we profess to show for the Constitution’s protections of our civil liberties, has frequently trampled on those liberties. From World War I when American citizens went to jail for criticizing the war to the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War, from liberty oaths in the McCarthy era to Watergate break-ins, it takes no Orwellian flight of fancy to see an all-knowing, all-seeing federal government destroying our standing abroad, while trashing our liberties at home.

Great nations are true to their values. Great nations don’t just do things because they can. And great nations do not put civil liberties on autopilot.

Frank Church warned us 40 years ago. Ron Wyden is trying to warn us today.


Everything Old…

e325971eebc3ccb1_landingIdaho Sen. Frank Church went to his grave nearly 30 years ago still being criticized by some, including Idaho politicians like the late Sen. Jim McClure, who should have known better (and probably did), for all the alleged damage Church’s various investigations in the 1970’s had done to the CIA, the FBI and the NSA. The criticism was bogus then and today’s headlines featuring new insights into the extent of government information gathering on Americans only serves to underscore the importance of Church’s investigations in 1975 and 1976.

As the media fixates on security leaker Edward Snowden and his every movement, it may be worth remembering the role Church played in uncovering the spying excesses of the super secret agencies that have done nothing but grow since the Idaho Democrat pulled back the curtain on their highly questionable – and illegal – action more than a generation ago. The resistance to Church’s investigations was fierce at the time. Dick Cheney was White House Chief of Staff  and a vocal critic. Imagine that. Today the response to domestic spying is perhaps best summed up by the out-to-lunch comments of a Tennessee Congresswoman who warned that her constituents wouldn’t like “some knee jerk reaction” in Washington to their own government’s secret snooping. She need not worry by all accounts.

A fine piece at the Harper’s website – appropriately entitled “On the NSA’s That ’70’s Show Rerun” – recounts the Church investigations and quotes two former Church staffers, Peter Fenn and Pat Shea.

“The Snowden Affair is a “rerun” of issues first uncovered during the 1970s, though these problems trace back to the earliest American efforts at espionage, says [Pat] Shea. Between 1975 and 1976, the Church committees produced more than a dozen reports detailing the illegal activities of the NSA, CIA, and FBI, which included opening mail, intercepting telegrams, planting bugs, wiretapping, and attempting to break up marriages, foment rivalries and destroy careers of private citizens. ‘We thought we put a stop to this wholesale collection of information on Americans forty years ago,’ says Peter Fenn, another former Church staffer.”

Church’s civil liberties sensibilities were already fine tuned when he discovered that the government had been opening mail the senator, a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee, had sent to the then-Soviet Union. “It was an affront to his privacy,” says Shea, a committee deputy director under Church , “an affront to the separation of powers.” [Note: Pat Shea is a long-time personal friend, a Board member with me at the Andrus Center and an attorney in Salt Lake City.]

Church’s answer to the secret surveillance activities was to first expose as much as possible about the methods and motives of the rogue agencies and then to create FISA – the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act – that established a formalized process for judicial review of government requests for snooping rights. The fact that we now know almost nothing about the real operations of the so called FISA Court – the Court sits in secret and lacks anything approaching the adversarial nature of the American judicial process – would, I suspect, appall Frank Church. He objected to the lack of checks and balances in the secret system he uncovered, but he also abhorred the essential culture of secrecy in the intelligence community.

Few Americans, for example, realize that the intelligence budget is totally “off the books.” If you wanted, as an American citizen, to know what the CIA (or the NSA) spent last year you couldn’t find that out. It’s secret. We only know that the CIA is vastly larger and more involved with para-military activity today than it was in Church’s day. The super secret NSA – one book on the agency calls it the “Puzzle Factory” – has become the largest, most secretive and potentially most intrusive spy agency in the world.

The absurdity of the culture of secrecy surrounding the U.S. intelligence community was highlighted a couple of days ago when Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden and Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, two of the very few members of Congress who seem willing to push back against the NSA’s programs and secrecy, said publicly that the agency’s “fact sheet” on its efforts to protect the privacy of American citizens contained “significant” errors.

“Significant” errors is another way of saying lies. Yet, and here is the absurdity, the two United States senators cannot, without violating secrecy rules, state specifically what was wrong with the so called “fact sheet.” The NSA “fact sheet” has apparently been removed from the agency’s website where you’ll now find next to nothing about the story that has dominated the news now for more than two weeks. The NSA’s motto might well be, “we’re secret and we like it that way.”

Perhaps the most disturbing feature of this ’70’s Show re-run is the generally tepid response from Congress and the American people. Opinion polls seem to indicate the public is ho-humming the entire controversy and perhaps as a result poll-sensitive elected officials, with the exception of Wyden and Udall, are laying low. Again, I suspect, Church would be stunned. There is no more fundamental responsibility of the legislative branch of the federal government than that of checking the excesses of the executive branch, but Congress would prefer to use up its oversight bullets on made-for-TV controversies like the IRS review of non-profit applications. Few are calling for real and comprehensive oversight of the secret American government even though, as Max Frankel wrote recently in the New York Times, “information that is gathered and managed in secret is a potent weapon — and the temptation to use it in political combat or the pursuit of crimes far removed from terrorism can be irresistible.”

(By the way, Wyden and Udall are both members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, another legacy of the Church investigations, as is Idaho Sen. James Risch. As far as I can tell no Idaho news organization has questioned the senator on the NSA revelations and he has made no formal statements. You have to wonder why? Risch did comment on the NSA issues in a Q-A with the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s sponsored Idaho Reporter website where he mostly dismissed the importance of Snowden’s leaks.)

Of course Americans want and expect to be safe from terror and those forces at home and away who would do us harm. At the same time, a free society by its very nature must balance its freedoms against its security. Today we seem unwilling to even engage in this debate and seem willing to accept at face value that the government is going to behave in a way that protects American freedoms.

I share my friend Pat Shea’s worry, as Harper’s put it, “that today’s hyperpartisan congress won’t enforce the checks and balances that are needed to keep rogue elephants in check.”  [Shea] “is among a growing chorus calling for a new Church Committee, an independent commission comprised of intelligence-savvy officials who will put the ideals of open, fair and effective government above short-term politics.” But don’t hold your breath waiting for Congress to attempt to do what Frank Church did nearly 40 years ago – hold accountable the most super-secret agencies of our government, the agencies most able, as Church wrote, to turn their methods and secrecy “around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left.”

Church was “an ethical giant,” Shea says. “We now live, unfortunately, in a world of ethical midgets.” Frank Church understood American history and fundamental values and he had the political guts to expose the excesses of the intelligence agencies because he understood that no political system based on openness and accountability is really and truly free when it tolerates, in the name of security, governmental actions that are the very antithesis of openness and accountability.

Church warned us in the 1970’s. Is anyone listening in the 21st Century?




An Old Notion Relevant Again

On the downhill side of the Gilded Age in American political and business life – that would have been in the late 1800’s – progressive reformers from Theodore Roosevelt to Woodrow Wilson to Louis Brandeis found fault with the idea and reality of a concentration of economic power.

Brandeis, a great legal advocate before he went on the U.S. Supreme Court in 1916, described the threat of economic concentration by a single, simple word “bigness.” Brandeis entitled one of his greatest works, published in 1913, Other People’s Money and one chapter in that book was called “The Curse of Bigness.”

“Size, we are told, is not a crime,” Brandeis wrote, “But size may, at least, become noxious by reason of the means through which it was attained or the uses to which it is put. And it is size attained by combination, instead of natural growth, which has contributed so largely to our financial concentration.”

Today it is almost an article of faith that “bigger is better,” but the early 20th Century focus on means and uses of economic concentration are just as relevant today as when Woodrow Wilson was in the White House.

Our political and regulatory system seems unable to address the “too big to fail” syndrome and the human abuses that can follow. Much of corporate America seems one big merger followed by another and meanwhile, Walmart, one of the biggest of the bigs, seems to be engulfed by a major foreign bribery scandal in Mexico, Rupert Murdoch’s vast media empire is now defending its political clout in Great Britain as Murdoch execs fend off criminal charges for violating privacy. Criminal charges have been leveled against a BP engineer involved in the Gulf oil spill. You could go on, but the situation is clear – too big to fail can also be too good to be true.

Idaho Sen. Frank Church – he served in the Senate from 1957-1981 – is remembered today primarily for his headline generating investigation of the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1970’s, but Church always considered another of his Senate investigations equally, if not more, important. As chairman of a subcommittee on multinational corporations in 1973, Church delved deeply into the practices, some of them corrupt, of some of the biggest, most powerful companies in the world.

Church’s work cast light on International Telephone & Telegraph’s involvement in the fall and murder of Chilean President Salvador Allende and Lockheed was exposed for its role in a bribery scandal in Japan. Lockheed’s CEO at the time admitted to spending millions on bribes to foreign officials and a Japanese prime minister went to jail in the resulting scandal. The entire chain of events led to passage of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in 1977, the U.S. law that Walmart may find itself on the wrong side of today.

Frank Church discovered in that long ago investigation that human nature, driven by an imperative to constantly expand and concentrate economic power has its dark side. In such a world corners get trimmed, ends justify means and we experience an Enron or we end up bailing out a financial institution that can only justify its continued existence because it’s too big to fail.

A thinking man’s conservative, New York Times columnist David Brooks, had a fascinating column this week in which, in a way, he came at this bigness issue from a novel angle. Brooks’ point was that a blind focus on destroying the competition – Brandeis might have termed it how businesses become always bigger – is the flip side of a lack of innovation. When the focus is on constantly and relentlessly growing, creativity goes begging. The need to be bigger inevitably trumps everything, including finding a better way to make a widget.

Brandeis argued a hundred years ago – his was the age of Standard Oil and the House of Morgan – that eventually bigness, that which “is attendant of excessive size,” is inefficient. Eventually, he wrote, “Decentralization will begin. The liberated smaller units will find no difficulty in financing their needs without bowing the knee to money lords. And a long step will have been taken toward attainment of the New Freedom [a reference to Wilson-era reforms in banking and business.]

It may well be in this age of globalization with a bank in Rhode Island tied to the fate of a housing development in Ireland that there is no going back from bigness, but there may be more than nostalgia in longing for a simpler, smaller time.

Frank Church, a liberal Democrat, helped expose the evils of bigness and concentrated power in the 1970’s, just as his role model in the Senate, William E. Borah, had done in the 1930’s. Borah, a Republican progressive, hated bigness, monopoly and concentration of power. He championed small business and decentralization and once said, “When you have destroyed small business, you have destroyed our towns and our country life, and you have guaranteed and made permanent the concentration of economic power, [which in turn ensures] the concentration of political power.  Monopoly and bureaucracy are twin whelps from the same kennel.”

I don’t know about you, but I long for a political leader willing to call bluff on concentrated power. Bigger isn’t always better, it may just be bigger.