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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.

Heart and Soul

rs_560x415-140224091818-1024.roccos-chicago-pizzeria-arizona-legislators-022414The political and social fault lines in the modern Republican Party have been showing again for the last several days in Arizona. The Republican governor, Jan Brewer, vetoed a piece of legislation this week that was widely seen as opening a path of overt discrimination against gays. The veto came after days of increasingly negative attention focused on Arizona; attention that included corporate worries about the legislation’s impact on business and threats to cancel next year’s Super Bowl game in suburban Phoenix.

Brewer, an often erratic politician who once championed most causes of the far right of her party, took her time in doing it, but she ultimately saved the state’s Republicans from themselves. The hot button bill, pushed by conservative religious interests and passed by the Arizona legislature with only GOP votes, underscores once again the fractured nature and fundamentally minority bent of a Republican Party that vowed to renew itself after losing the White House again in 2012.

Gov. Brewer, who seems to be term-limited from running again in the fall, but still hasn’t said whether she would contest such an interpretation, underwent a full court press from the “establishment” wing of the GOP who called on her to ax the handiwork of Republican legislators. Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain and Jeff Flake both urged a veto. Apple, American Airlines, the state Hispanic chamber of commerce and a pizza shop in Tuscon that vowed to protest by refusing to serve Arizona legislators swarmed the governor. In the end it might have been the National Football League, plagued with its own image problems, that helped the governor decide to do the right thing; the right thing politically, economically, morally and for football fans.

The Republican Party’s national dilemma with issues like Arizona’s gay bashing legislation – and similar legislation in several other states with strong GOP majorities  – is neatly summed up in a comment from Mark McKinnon, the ad guy who made TV spots from George W. Bush in both of his successful elections.

“In this country, the arc of human rights always bends forward, never backwards,” McKinnon, a co-founder of the centrist group No Labels told Politico recently. “So these kinds of incidents are always backward steps for the Republican Party because they remind voters they are stuck in the past.”

Voters are being reminded of that reality in lots of places. In Oregon, some of the state’s most conservative Republicans are blasting the fellow GOP organizers of the 50 year old Dorchester Conference; denouncing them as “liberals” intent on advancing a pro-gay, pro-abortion, anti-religion agenda.

“In light of the unveiled agenda to promote and celebrate liberal causes like abortion-on-demand, pet campaign projects like ‘republicanizing’ same-sex marriage and the attack on people of faith and their religious liberties many of us do not feel that our participation in this year’s Dorchester Conference is welcomed,” one of the offended right wingers told The Oregonian.

In Idaho a conservative former Republican governor, Phil Batt, went straight at his party and Gov. Butch Otter over the state legislature’s failure to even consider legislation to add fundamental human rights protections for the state’s gay, lesbian and transgender population. Batt, with his own gay grandson in mind, wrote in an op-ed: “I would like to have somebody explain to me who is going to be harmed by adding the words to our civil rights statutes prohibiting discrimination in housing and job opportunities for homosexuals. Oh, I forgot, that might hurt the feelings of the gay bashers.”

It seems like a life-time ago that national Republicans, reeling from the re-election of the President Obama, commissioned an assessment of what the party needed to do to re-group in order to effectively contest a national election again. Like many such high-level reports, this one generated about a day and a half of news coverage and went on the shelf never to be read again. The GOP report outlined the demographic challenges the party faces and why the divisive debate in Arizona that quickly went national is so very damaging to party’s long-term prospects. Here are a couple of relevant paragraphs from the GOP’s Growth and Opportunity Book that was produced just over a year ago.

“Public perception of the Party is at record lows. Young voters are increasingly rolling their eyes at what the Party represents, and many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country. When someone rolls their eyes at us, they are not likely to open their ears to us.”

And this: “Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. States in which our presidential candidates used to win, such as New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, Iowa, Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia, and Florida, are increasingly voting Democratic. We are losing in too many places.”

In the face of this incontrovertible evidence Republicans have rolled out legislation like SB 1062 in state after state further alienating not only gay and lesbian voters, but likely most younger and independent voters. The GOP refusal at the federal level to even go through the motions of working on immigration reform seems certain to drive more and more Hispanic voters – the fastest growing demographic in the nation – away from Republicans candidates. At some not-too-distant point the political math, even in John McCain’s Arizona, becomes impossible for the GOP.

It is true that in our political history the fortunes of political parties regularly ebb and flow. The Whigs worked themselves out of existence in the 1850’s unable to find a set of positions that might bridge regional and ideological barriers and sustain them a national party. Immediately before and for years after the Civil War Democrats became largely a regional party that failed to command a national majority and elect a president in the years from 1856 until 1884. Teddy Roosevelt split the GOP in 1912 helping elect only the second Democratic president since the Civil War and his distant cousin Franklin, with the help of a Great Depression, created an enduring Democratic coalition – farmers, big cities ethnics, organized labor and the South – that lasted for two generations until moral and political battles over civil rights finally ceded the South to Republicans, a hand-off that now leaves that region as the only dependable base of the Republican Party.

In almost every case in our history when a party stumbles, as national Republicans stumble now, a unifying figure has emerged – FDR for Democrats in 1932 or Ronald Reagan in 1980 for the GOP – to offer a message that smooths over the ideological fissures. In the meantime, and lacking a unifying messenger, national Republican battles played out over the most polarizing issues – witness Arizona – will hamstring the party from moving forward.

Conservative commentator Myra Adams recently detailed ten reasons why the GOP is floundering as a national party. Adams remembered that the much maligned Millard Fillmore – he was president from 1849 to 1853 – was the last Whig Party president and she speculated that George W. Bush might well be the last Republican president. Her reason number nine for the current state of the national GOP was most telling. The party, she wrote, “is growing increasingly white, old, Southern, and male, which alienates majorities of younger voters, Hispanics, African Americans, gays, teachers, young professionals, atheists, unmarried women, and even suburban married women.”

In the end, the issues for Republicans are more serious even than the demographics. The party failure to re-cast itself by looking forward with attitudes and issues that address an America in the 21st Century is, to say the least, a risky gambit. Yet, the kind of a makeover that is needed seems increasingly unlikely, at least in the near term, when the loudest voices speaking for Republicans are constantly playing to a narrower and narrower group of true believers, while denying – as the 87-years young Phil Batt suggests – that the cultural and political world is passing them by.

Increasingly outside forces and insurgents like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz rather than sober-minded realists dominate the party’s message. The Koch brothers, aiming to keep beating the anti Obamacare drum, have hijacked the GOP message for the coming mid-term elections. Look for the totality of the GOP message this year to be about the evils of the health care law (and the “socialist” president) even as a new Kaiser Health poll shows Americans are increasingly comfortable with the much-debated law. Kaiser’s survey shows that fully 56% of those surveyed favor keeping the law as is or keeping it and making improvements. Only the GOP base is clamoring for something different and even those numbers are shrinking.

Another overly influential outside voice, the Heritage Foundation, was still trying to explain why the Arizona legislation was “good public policy” after Brewer’s veto. And the guy with the loudest (and meanest) GOP megaphone, Rush Limbaugh, always eager to double down on a lost cause, said Brewer was “bullied” into her veto position in order to “advance the gay agenda.” All that plays well tactically with the “increasingly white, old, Southern, and male” base of the GOP, but leaves much of the rest of the 21st Century United States very cold indeed.

Lacking the re-boot that many Republicans wisely advocated after the last national election the party, as Mark Mckinnon says, will continue to be stuck in the past. The really bad news for national Republicans is that elections are always about the future.

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.


The Spy from Boise

A Real Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Years ago as a very young, very naive reporter, the boss handed me a piece of wire copy ripped straight off the teletype machine and told me to find a photographer and get an interview with James Jesus Angleton.

I should have said – who? But, of course, I was too inexperienced (too stupid) to ask that question and to pause for a moment to think what I might ask the man who had recently been forced out as the long-time chief of counterintelligence at the CIA. I headed for a local hotel to try and stick a microphone in the face of man who, since World War II, had been the intelligence service’s top expert on the Soviet intelligence service, the KGB.

I found Angleton, as I recall, in a hotel ballroom – I don’t remember what he was doing in Boise – and after my innocent, stumbling approach he conceded to answer a couple of questions, the substance of which is now lost of history or, in the days of 16mm film, the cutting room floor. I think I asked his reaction to the on-going Church Committee investigation of CIA abuses. Again, as I recall, not surprisingly the old CIA hand was dismissive of the efforts of Idaho Democratic Sen. Frank Church to expose assassination plots, domestic spying and such on the part of the Agency.

I’ve long been struck by the irony of an Idaho United States Senator leading the investigation of a CIA that had come to be so influenced by an Idaho-born spy. Would you call that a small world?

My long ago and very brief encounter with James Angleton, I believe it was in 1976, came back to me recently after watching the thoroughly enjoyable new film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and the inspired performance of Gary Oldman in the lead role of spy catcher George Smiley.

The movie, based on the great espionage thriller by John la Carre, is, in many ways, a British version of the story James Angleton lived at the CIA; the story of an alleged “mole” at the very top of the nation’s intelligence service; a counter spy Angleton was determined to find and eliminate. The quest eventually took Angleton down instead.

The Republican politician and one-time ambassador to Italy, Clare Booth Luce, once told Angleton, who began his spy career organizing operations against Italian fascists, “There’s no doubt you are easily the most interesting and fascinating figure the intelligence world has produced, and a living legend.” Others were not so charitable.

Angleton was born in Boise, Idaho in 1917, as his New York Times obit noted the year of the Russian Revolution, the son of an employee of the National Cash Register Company. After spending summers in Italy, Angleton went to Yale where he developed his life-long love of literature and poetry and was recruited into the OSS, the agency that eventually became the CIA.

Angleton, in later years his posture stooped and his thick mane of hair streaked with gray, was, by all accounts, a Renaissance Man. He grew orchids and attended lectures on Joyce. One colleague said, ”He had a remarkable amount of knowledge about world events, art, literature.”

Former CIA officer David Atlee Phillips, who like Angleton was caught up in the whirlwind that surrounded the Agency in the 1970, wrote in his memoir, that “Angleton was CIA’s answer to the Delphic Oracle: seldom seen but with an awesome reputation nurtured over the years by word of mouth and intermediaries padding out of his office with pronouncements which we seldom professed to understand fully but accepted on faith anyway.”

It was Angleton’s zealous search for the CIA mole – the counter conspiracy theorists speculated that Angleton himself might have been the mole – that eventually lead then-director William Colby to show the counterintelligence chief the door. Angleton’s forced retirement from the CIA came in 1974. Unlike George Smiley, the fictional character in Tinker, Tailor, who was brought out of retirement to search out the mole in Britain’s MI6, Angleton was fired, in part, for too aggressively pursuing the CIA’s mole. In the process, some argue, he not only damaged the individual careers of many intelligence agents, but undermined the Agency’s efforts to run an effective intelligence program against the Soviets.

To detractors Angleton became the worst kind of paranoid operative, secretive and suspicious of everything all the time. To others he was the very personification of the dedicated intelligence agent. One magazine profile suggested that “If John le Carré and Graham Greene had collaborated on a superspy, the result might have been James Jesus Angleton.”

Angleton died of cancer in 1987 at age 69, as much a mystery in death as in life. What secrets he must have taken with him.

Old-time Boiseans will remember Angleton’s brother, Hugh, a diminutive, elegant man who owned a rather spectacular downtown gift store. Hugh Angleton, always impeccably dressed in suit and tie, served as a kind of showroom director at his store – Angleton’s. The store was filled to overflowing with rare and elegant china, jewelry and art objects. I often wondered if his more famous brother helped locate some of the exotic and expensive items that filled the display cases in Hugh’s store, which, sadly, passed out of existence years ago.

Years ago, it’s said, then-CIA Director James Schlesinger went to Capitol Hill to brief Senate Armed Services Chairman John Stennis on a major Agency operation.  “No, no my boy,” responded Senator Stennis.  “Don’t tell me.  Just go ahead and do it, but I don’t want to know.”

So it is with the intelligence agencies. So secret is what they do, as the joke goes, they could tell us, but then would have to kill us. In trying to explain this shadowy world, novels and motion pictures are more satisfying than reality. In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, George Smiley – sort of – got the mole. The spy from Boise never did.



One Year On

A year ago this weekend Tucson, Arizona was at the center of the world. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a vibrant up-and-coming moderate Democrat, was shot during a saturday morning meet and greet with her constituents at a Safeway store a mile or so from where we retreat whenever we can from southern Idaho’s winter inversions. Six other people who were nearby the Congresswoman that day, including a nine year old girl and a respected federal judge, died. Many others were injured.

Those events just a year ago seem as though they happened last week, and at the same time, they seem – our attention span being what it is – like ancient history.

In Tucson, a genuinely civilized place an hour north of the Mexican border, seemingly everything might have changed and regretably perhaps very little has changed over the last year. Gifford’s remarkable recovery from her brain injury that awful January day seems to me a miracle. She’ll appear with her husband Mark Kelly at a candle light vigil memorial service on Sunday. She is still a Member of Congress, undecided on whether to seek another term in a swing district that both parties would love to have come November. A moving ceremony was held in the Catalina foothills this week to dedicate a monument to one of Giffords’ young staff members, Gabe Zimmerman, who did not survive the attack. A series of other activities are scheduled to mark the events of January 8, 2011.

The Tucson community seems, in many respects, committed to remembering, and finding a way forward from, what is widely called The Event. The University of Arizona, for example, has established The National Institute for Civil Discourse and former Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush are the national co-chairs.

Still, as the Tucson Weekly notes, so much about the shooting remains either a mystery or unresolved a year later. The shooter, a deeply troubled young man, continues to be evaluated as he waits to stand trial. The passionate discussion in the aftermath of the shooting about the desperate need for better mental health services in Arizona and the nation seems to have passed quietly away. The determined calls for calmer and more civil political discourse, calls that seemed so sensible in the wake of January 8, have been overtaken by another political election cycle that is destined to dump millions of dollars– maybe more – into the dissimination of some of the nastiest, most anonymous political attacks in the history of the republic. Sensible ideas about keeping weapons from the potentially deadly hands of the mentally ill are unthinkable as subjects for debate in the presidential election campaign. The Congressional newspaper, The Hill, reports that security concerns in Congress have largely given way to a return to business as usual.

Life in America goes on and so does the peculiar kind of American death that visited Tucson a year ago.

Last month, according to FBI data, 1.5 million Americans acquired a hand gun. A female U.S. Park Service Ranger, the mother of two young daughers, was shot and killed days ago at a roadblock in Rainier National Park in Washington. The shooter was an Iraq war veteran. Last fall, a mentally troubled faculty member at the University of Idaho shot and killed one of his students. Six police officers were shot, one killed and two are still critical, during a drug raid in Utah in the last week.

Americans have embraced wars on drugs, illegal immigration, radical Muslim terrorists, even wars on cancer and heart diesease, but no war on gun violence. Washington Congressman Norm Dicks, a proponent of a sensible and extremely limited policy to ban guns from the national parks, says such a move, limited as it would be, is impossible given that the “NRA (the National Rifle Association) has a majority in the House and the Senate – that’s the reality of it.”

No tragedy, not Gabby Giffords’ wounding and six deaths in Tucson a year ago, not the senseless murder of a Park Service Ranger, not massacres at Virginia Tech University or Fort Hood, can cause the nation’s leaders to even pause and consider a better course for guns. The public policy response to American handgun violence is simply non-existent and the candle light vigils will continue, year after year.

The Arizona events are remembered this weekend with deep sorrow and with the peculiarly American response to such senseless violence – hope for a better future. Hope, regrettably, is not a strategy. A candle light vigil, as important and heartfelt as it will be, is not enough.

The Tucson dead, nine-year-old Christina Taylor-Greene, Judge John Roll, Dorothy “Dot” Morris, Phyllis Schneck, Dorwin Stoddard and Gabe Zimmerman, along with all the other victims of our unique epidemic of gun violence, deserve to be remembered every day, but they deserve better from their leaders, as well.


Winter in the Desert

Beyond the Beltway

It can be difficult – maybe even impossible – to think worried thoughts about the failure of the Super Committee, the Greek debt crisis or Newt Gingrich’s rise in the polls when you spend a day experiencing winter’s return to the Sonoran Desert near Tucson. Of course winter in the Arizona desert means a high above 70 degrees, high blue sky, a sunset so wild and colorful that you think Jackson Pollock must have inspired it and a cool evening that requires that a sweater replace your tee shirt.

The baseball Cardinals rule their world, the Arizona football version struggles with a 3-7 record just up the road in Phoenix, but the spectacular northern Cardinal rules the roost hereabouts. The brilliant red fellows perch and preen in a mesquite tree looking for all the world like a super model on a Milan runway. I’m guessing the birds, all duded up in crimson, are less demanding than a skinny teenager wearing Dolce and Gabbana. The bird also puts an exclamation point on what is truly beautiful in a world that all too often seems contrived and phony. Nothing phony about a Cardinal sighting on a sunny day in the desert.

We’re also welcoming back to Arizona the hummingbirds that I choose to believe spend their summers in Idaho. They’ll winter in Arizona like so many snowbirds from Wisconsin and Alberta, and when the days become too hot in the spring they’ll rev up those little engines and head for cooler climes. Today they find the desert just about perfect.

The natural cycles of nature, the birds coming and going, the weather changing and challenging us can slip by without our notice, but they shouldn’t. The cycles can refresh and restore. The birds can inspire with their beauty and independence. The desert seems almost dormant in late November; buttoned down for the cool weather, but not if you watch and listen. The sounds and sights are magic. It’s enough to give you hope that humans can adapt and change, too.

In a season of Thanksgiving, I’ll try hard to set aside the cynical that seems to dominate too many of our days and relish for at least a few hours the magical. Winter is coming to the desert and it renews and inspires. It’s a lot to be thankful for.