Arizona, Church

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.

 

Bush, Church, Cold War, Egan, Giffords, Humanities, Idaho Politics, Nixon

A Little History

Idaho in the Age of McCarthy

Edward R. Murrow famously said of Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy that he had not created the fear of Communism that swept the nation after World War II but that McCarthy “had merely exploited it, and rather successfully.” Joe McCarthy had lots of help in Idaho.

Next week the Idaho Humanities Council hosts its annual summer institute for teachers at the College of Idaho in Caldwell and Joe McCarthy is on the agenda. Nearly 40 Idaho teachers will spend the week in an intensive, multi-disciplinary look at the age that still carries the name of the junior senator from Wisconsin – McCarthyism. The Institute’s title: “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been…Fear, Suspicion and Incivility in Cold War America.”

On Tuesday evening, July 26th, I’ll have the pleasure of presenting a talk on Idaho’s politics in the early 1950’s that will focus on McCarthy’s best friend in the Senate, Idaho Sen. Herman Welker, and the Idaho politician who most suffered the guilt by association and out-and-out smears that defined much of the age, Idaho Sen. Glen Taylor.

My talk – drawing upon the nicknames of both Idaho Senators – is entitled “The Singing Senator and Little Joe from Idaho.” The event is scheduled for 7:00 pm at the College of Idaho’s Langroise Recital Hall. My talk is one of several during the week. You can check the full schedule at the IHC website.

I’m going to make the case that Welker and Taylor, a very conservative Republican and a very liberal Democrat, were the two most controversial political figures in the state’s history. They both came of age in the dawn of the Cold War and each flamed out as McCarthyism began to diminish as a political force. Between these two flamboyant men, one a rough, tough former University of Idaho athlete, the other a homespun, charismatic country music performer, the space was created that was necessary to allow the 32-year-old Frank Church to win a seat in the United States Senate and stay there for 24 years.

If you’re interested in Idaho political history and particularly how the McCarthy period in the early 1950’s influenced the political development of Idaho, you should plan to attend some of the events next week in Caldwell.

Other speakers include Nicholas Thompson, Senior editor of The New Yorker, who has written a fine book on his grandfather, Cold Warrior Paul Nitze a great foreign policy hawk, and George Kennan, one of the great figures in 20th Century American diplomacy. Thompson speaks Sunday night, July 24th.

Ellen Schrecker, Professor of History at Yeshiva University, speaks on Wednesday, July 27th. Professor Schrecker is one of the foremost historians of the Cold War period and has written extensively on McCarthy.

And Idaho native F. Ross Peterson speaks on Thursday, July 28th on McCarthy’s influence on politics across the Mountain West. Dr. Peterson is the author of a great book on Sen. Taylor.

One of the enduring lessons of the McCarthy period, a lesson we continue to struggle with as a nation, is the confusion, as Murrow so eloquently said in 1954, of dissent with disloyalty. Idaho was fertile ground for Red Baiting in the 1950’s. The charge of being “soft on Communism” or entertaining thoughts even slightly out of the mainstream could be enough to torpedo a political career. Making the charge against an opponent, on the other hand, was a proven strategy to advance a career.

The years when Joe McCarthy was a dominate figure in American politics are not among prettiest chapters of our history, but the period is one worth revisiting, understanding and evaluating in the never ending quest to create “a more perfect Union.”

 

 

Arizona, Baucus, Church, U.S. Senate

Heck Of A Job Brownie

mcfarlandHas There Ever Been A Bigger Upset?

It is hard to find in the recent history of the U.S. Senate a bigger upset than the game changer in Massachusetts yesterday. Republican Scott Brown came from behind to thump Democrat Martha Coakley and give the Bay State a GOP Senator for the first time since 1972. We’ll be sorting out the long-term implications, I suspect, for a long, long time.

I can think of only one race – a 1952 contest in Arizona – that might rival Brown’s victory in terms of an historic upset that carried broad national implications.

Democratic Senator Ernest McFarland (that’s him on the left above) was the Senate Majority Leader in 1952 and seeking a third term. Arizona in those days was a dependable Democratic state and McFarland, a popular figure with a record of accomplishment, including creating the G.I. Bill of Rights, should have won in a walk. He didn’t.

The national economy was soft, U.S. troops were bogged down in a stalemate in Korea, Joe McCarthy was hunting Communists and President Harry Truman’s approval ratings were in the ditch. Arizona Republicans seized the moment and put forth a handsome, articulate, well heeled haberdasher by the name of Barry Goldwater.

“I had no business beating Ernest McFarland, and I knew that from the day I started,” Goldwater said years later, “but old Mac just thought he had it in the bag and just didn’t come home [enough]. I could never have been elected if it hadn’t been for Democrats…I’d still be selling pants.”

Goldwater’s defeat of the sitting Senate Majority Leader was, in the view of McFarland’s biographer, “a harbinger of a new conservative and urban Republican agenda in the politically changing West.” But there was even more to the upset, including the fact that Arizona shed the one-party label.

McFarland’s loss also contributed to Republicans capturing the Senate majority in 1952. The great Robert Taft became Majority Leader and a still young first-termer from Texas by the name of Lyndon Johnson got his chance to lead Senate Democrats. Goldwater, of course, went on to a long Senate career and his own presidential run in 1964.

McFarland took the loss hard, but recovered to have his own second and third acts in Arizona political life. After losing the Senate seat, McFarland won the governorship twice, lost a Senate rematch with Goldwater, then served as Chief Justice of the Arizona Supreme Court.

Barry Goldwater’s win in 1952, like Scott Brown’s in 2010, sent huge ripples through American politics, ripples that can still be felt.

Now, the political speculation will focus on other shoes falling. I’m guessing Harry Reid, the current and beleaguered Senate Majority Leader, fighting for his own political survival in Nevada, knows all about Ernest McFarland and a remarkable political upset back in 1952.

Bush, Church

Like Father, Like Son

churchIdaho Friends, Family Celebrate Forrest Church

It has been 26 years since the death of Idaho’s acclaimed United States Senator Frank Church, but as I listened to the tributes for his acclaimed son on Saturday those years melted away and memory rushed back.

Forrest Church was described during his memorial service at Boise State University as one of the most important theological thinkers of the last half of the 20th Century. His pulpit at All Souls Church in Manhattan was a place were the public intellectual, the political son, regularly confronted the messy reality of a troubled world. Church’s major contribution as a religious leader was, as many have noted since his death, to help us focus on the good in the midst of the world’s reality.

So, being called a great thinker about life, death and religion is an entirely appropriate epitaph and true enough in Church’s case, but Forrest, who died in September after a prolonged illness, was also his father’s son – a complicated, eloquent man deeply committed to social justice and aware enough of himself to be comfortable with unanswerable questions.

Both these men died young and from cancer. The Senator was 59. Forrest died on September 24th, the day after his 61st birthday. In life they shared much, but perhaps nothing more important than the grace and dignity with which they left. In his last days, Forrest Church recorded a long series of interviews with AARP reflecting on life and appreciation, religion and death. The series of interviews is available here and well worth your time.

Forrest was, like his father, a profound and gifted writer. He produced 25 books in 25 years, but he may never have written anything as touching as the eulogy for the Senator – his father – which, upon re-reading, seems like it might have been written for him.

On that April day in the crowded Cathedral of the Rockies in Boise in 1984, Forrest spoke these words:

“In so many wondrous ways, my father taught us how to live…he also taught us how to die. I have never seen a or known a man who was less afraid of death. If religion is our human respnse to the dual reality of being alive and having to die, my father, from a very early age, was touched with natural grace. Because my father was not afraid to die, he was not afraid to live. He did not spend his life, as so many of us do, little by little until he was gone. He gave it away to others. He invested it in things that would ennoble and outlast him.

“In his life, my father was a bit like the day star, rising early to prominence, brilliant in the dusk and against the darkness, showing other stars the way. When it came time for him to go, when his precious flame flickered, he was ready. Peacefully, naturally, with serenity and grace, he returned his light unto the eternal horizon. Like the day star, my father went out with the dawn.”

We are fortunate, indeed, to have been touched by both of these remarkable people – sons of Idaho and men for the world.

Air Travel, Arizona, Books, Church, Death Penalty, Fire Policy

Saving The Forest By Burning It

fireRestoring Fire to the Landscape

A fine series of articles focused on a smarter approach to wild land fire management is rolling out this week in the Arizona Daily Star.

Reporter Tom Beal has three stories and a series of sidebars about some of the latest thinking on fire management and the challenge of altering the long-cherished notion that all fire is bad and must be banished from the ecosystem.

The series is reminiscent of work done over the last several years by the Andrus Center for Public Policy, including the Center’s report – The Fires Next Time. Following a major conference in 2003, the Andrus Center report made the case that changes in public policy must be accelerated in the direction of managing forest ecosystems more aggressively, including restoring fire to it rightful place in the management mix.

A good deal of the Center’s fire work has been informed by Stephen Pyne, perhaps the nation’s foremost historian of fire. Pyne keynoted that 2003 Andrus conference and he continues to call for more rapid change in fire policy.

Pyne wrote recently in the context of major southern California fires: “Like economic transactions, fire is not a substance but a reaction – an exchange. It takes its character from its context. It synthesizes its surroundings. Its power derives from the power to propagate. To control fire, you control its setting, and you control wild fire by substituting tame fire.”

Most of the smartest people who think and plan for handling wild land fire know that we “control wild fire by substituting tame fire,” but the process of changing a hundred years of policy does not move, unfortunately, as quickly as a western wild fire.

By the way, while Steve Pyne is a celebrated author of much excellent material on fire, he has also authored a marvelous little book on the majestic Grand Canyon in northern Arizona where he spent time as a firefighter. How the Canyon Became Grand is a great read for anyone who loves that awesome ditch.

2014 Election, Afghanistan, American Presidents, Borah, Bush, Church, Churchill, Crisis Communication, Cuba, Dallek, Hatfield, Mansfield, Morse, Obama

Obama’s War

afghanistanWar is the unfolding of miscalculations – Barbara Tuchman

I have a clear memory of an old basketball coach from high school who preached a simple strategy. Coach would say when someone was trying to make a particularly difficult play, for example, a flashy, behind the back pass when simple and straightforward would do, “Don’t try to do too much.”

I have been thinking about that old coach this week as I’ve watched President Obama ensure that America’s longest war – our eight years and counting in the graveyard of empires, Afghanistan – will last a good deal longer. Afghanistan is Obama’s war now and I cannot escape the feeling that the president has made the decision – for good or bad – that will define all the rest of his historic presidency. We all hope he got it right. There is a good chance he has made the mistake of trying to do too much.

A nagging sense of deja vu hangs over his decision. We have seen this movie before and, as one of the president’s critics from the right – George Will – suggests, we won’t like the way it ends. As an Idaho and Northwest history buff, I am also struck by a realization of something missing from the political debate aimed at defining the correct policy approach in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The missing element, it seems to me, is hard headed consideration of the limits of American power and influence. Deja vu all over again. We have seen this movie before, as well, and the end is not very satisfying.

An Idaho Perspective on Limits

Idaho has had two remarkable United States Senators who played major national and international roles in formulating our country’s foreign policy in the 20th Century. William Borah, a progressive Republican, served 33 years in the Senate and chaired the once-powerful Foreign Relations Committee in the 1920’s. Frank Church, a liberal Democrat, served 24 years in the Senate and chaired the same committee in the 1970’s.

The Idahoans wielded political power in vastly different times and a half century apart. In the broad sweep of history, we have to say both lost their fundamental battles to shape American attitudes about the limits of our power and influence. There is a direct link from that failure to the president standing in front of the cadet corps at West Point earlier this week.

Borah’s influence was at its zenith in the interval between the two great wars of the 20th Century when he served as chief spokesman of the non-interventionist approach to foreign affairs. Church’s time on the world stage coincided with the post-war period when international Communism dominated our concerns and Vietnam provided all the proof we should ever need about the limits of American power.

It can only be conjecture, but I would bet that neither of the men from Idaho, who once exercised real influence in the Senate, would be comfortable with the president’s course in Afghanistan. The reason is pretty simple. Both Borah and Church, passionately committed to American ideals and to representative democracy, believed that even given the awesome power of the country’s military, there are real limits to what America power can accomplish in the world. Historically, both felt America had repeatedly embraced the errands of a fool by believing that we could impose our will on people and places far removed and far different from us. Their approach to foreign policy and identifying American interests was defined by limits and certainly not by the belief that we can do it all.

In his day, Borah opposed sending the Marines to Nicaragua to police a revolution. It simply wasn’t our fight or responsibility, he argued, and the effort would prove to be beyond the limits of American influence. Church never believed that American air power and 500,000 combat troops could help the Vietnamese sort out a civil war. Both were guided by the notion that Americans often make tragic mistakes when we try to do too much.

Other Northwesterners of the past – the Senate’s greatest Majority Leader, Mike Mansfield of Montana, Oregon’s pugnacious maverick Wayne Morse and the elegant, thoughtful Mark Hatfield – counseled presidents of both parties to understand our limits. Those reminders hover over our history and this moment in time.

None of this is to say that there are not real and compelling American interests in shutting down the 21st Century phenomenon of Jihadist terrorism. We do have legitimate interests and we must keep after this strategic imperative. But, the foundation of any successful strategy is correctly defining the problem and understanding the limitations.

Is projecting an additional 30,000 American troops into one of the world’s most historically difficult places, in the midst of tribal, religious and cultural complexity, the right approach? And, does it address the right problem? We’ll find out. The British and Russians found out before us.

As Barbara Tuchman made clear in her classic book The Guns of August – the book centers on the miscalculations and unintended consequences that helped precipitate the First World War – wars never unfold as planned. Miscalculations and faulty assumptions always get in the way of grand strategy.

Assuming progress on a tight timeline, assuming better behavior from a stunningly corrupt Afghan government, assuming our brave and talented troops can “nation build,” where others have failed time and again, are calculations and assumptions that may just not go as planned.

Grant the president this: he inherited a mess and no good option. Also, like Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam and Harry Truman in Korea, he faces great political pressure not to display weakness or signal American retreat. It has never been in the presidential playbook to candidly discuss the limits of our power and influence. The American way is to believe we can do it all.

One of the great “what ifs” of 20th Century American history, particularly the history of presidential decision-making, is the question of what John Kennedy, had he lived and been elected to a second term in 1964, would have done with American involvement in Vietnam.

Many historians now believe, with a second term secure and political pressure reduced, JFK would have gotten out. We’ll never know. We do know what Johnson did, and his inability to confront the limits of national power and define precise American interests destroyed his presidency. History may well record that George W. Bush and Barack Obama failed to confront the same limits and correctly define precise interests.

Kennedy once said this: “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie: deliberate, continued, and dishonest; but the myth: persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.”

As we head into the cold and gray of another long winter in the rugged, deadly mountains of Afghanistan, we may again – I hope I’m wrong – confront the persistent, persuasive and unrealistic myth that America’s military – motivated, trained and determined as it is – can do everything.

As I said, I hope I’m wrong.

Arizona, Christmas, Church, Visions

Establishing a Vision

ArizonaArizona Seeks Better Jobs, Environmental Protection

A fascinating series of stories in the venerable Arizona Daily Star, the Tucson paper, reporting on a massive statewide public opinion survey conducted by the Gallup organization and commissioned by the Center for the Future of Arizona.

The survey effort is designed to build upon a statewide visioning exercise and has resulted in an impressive action report – The Arizona We Want.

As the Star reported: “‘Most states don’t tend to have a vision,’ said Lattie Coor, chairman and CEO of The Center for the Future of Arizona and Arizona State University president emeritus. ‘The Arizona We Want’ report was released this month.”

Perhaps it is no big surprise that quality, 21st Century jobs topped the list of Arizona priorities, followed by protecting the state’s natural wonders and improving opportunities for young people.

Like most of the rest of the West, Arizona’s political leadership is locked in a prolonged battle over budget cutting and fiscal priorities. The state has a huge deficit to address and a legislature not often on the same page with the governor. So, it is also not surprising that the Gallup survey finds that folks in Arizona have lost confidence in their political leadership. A remarkable finding: only 10% of those surveyed, and it was a huge sample of 3,600 interviews, expressed confidence that the state’s political leadership would look out for their interests.

An old saying comes to mind: If you don’t know where you’re going any road will get you there.

Some in Arizona are trying to determine where the state is going. At least that much is encouraging.

Brother, Bush, Church, Religion

Forrest Church

ForrestEloquence in Politics and Religion

Forrest Church, who died last week at 61, could, with his writings and sermons, be both strikingly eloquent and stunningly insightful. In that regard, he was clearly his father’s son.

It is a rare thing in public life these days to read the words or hear the voice of a truly eloquent thinker and writer. The late Idaho Senator – Frank Church – was that rare breed and so was his Unitarian minister son.

Back in January 1984, with his father dying of cancer, Forrest spoke to his Church of All Souls congregation in New York City about death and life.

He said that day that naturally all of us are afraid of death because “death is the ultimate mystery. But there is a way to counter this fear. We can live in such a way that our lives will prove to be worth dying for. It lies in our courage to love. Our courage to risk. Our courage to lose. Many people have said it in many different ways. The opposite of love is not hate. It is fear.”

Forrest Church was a man of religion and, importantly, a thinker about theology and all its mystery and uncertainty. He sought to make people think, not just believe. Forrest was also a skilled historian whose books on the basics of the American system, including freedom of speech, civil liberties and religion should be required reading for anyone who wants to struggle to undersand where we came from and where we might be going. A good collection of his writings can be found here.

In an Easter sermon in 2008, while battling his own cancer, Church said: “We all are children of God. We all are sinners. We all can be forgiven if we will refrain from harsh judgment. Love casts out fear. God is love. And only love remains. Only the love we give away.”

Both father – the Senator was 59 – and son died much too young, but what lives they lived.