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Advise and Consent…

Years ago I enjoyed a delightful series of conversations with John Corlett, a true old-school newspaper reporter in Idaho who could recall political anecdotes with the sharpness that a gambler brings to counting cards in a Las Vegas casino. John’s career spanned a good part of the last century, from Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency to Ronald Reagan’s. He covered political conventions, wrote about statesmen and scalawags and he relished sharing his storehouse of memories every bit as much as I enjoyed hearing those memories.

Judge Chase Clark

Judge Chase Clark

One of many stories I remember involved former Idaho Governor and U.S. District Judge Chase Clark, the father-in-law of Senator Frank Church. Clark was part of a genuine Idaho political dynasty that featured two governors and a congressman who later became a U.S. Senator. Church married into the dynasty when he wed Bethine, the politically astute daughter of Chase Clark. The Clarks were mostly Democrats, but for bipartisan flavor the family also includes the remarkable Nancy Clark Reynolds, the Congressman’s daughter, and a Ronald Reagan confidante and D.C. power player.

Chase Clark ran for re-election as Idaho governor in 1942 and narrowly lost a re-match election with former Governor C.A. Bottolfson, the man Clark defeated in 1940. But 1942 was a Republican year, the country was at war, Roosevelt was in the second year of his third term and voters everywhere seemed to hanker for change. Corlett remembered that Democrat Clark considered his re-election chances to be less than stellar under those circumstances; so much so that Clark seems to have taken steps to create for himself a soft landing should the election turn out badly from his point of view.

As returns trickled in on election night 1942 it soon became clear that the governor’s race in Idaho would be a cliffhanger. Bottolfson eventually won by 434 votes out of more than 144,000 cast.

The Governor Who Wanted to Lose…

Late on election night as Corlett monitored the vote counting and tried to determine who was winning the very tight contest his phone rang. Governor Clark was on the other end of the line. “John,” he said, “it’s time for you to call the election for Bottolfson.”

Corlett could hardly believe what he was hearing. The incumbent Democrat was effectively conceding the election and doing so hours before it would become clear who the real winner might be. The curious phone call only made sense a few weeks later when Roosevelt announced Clark’s appointment to fill a vacancy on the federal bench in Idaho. A little over a month after leaving office in January 1943, Clark was nominated for the judgeship. He was confirmed by the Senate fifteen days later and served on the federal bench until his death in 1966.

Franklin Roosevelt

Franklin Roosevelt

Corlett was convinced that Clark had made a deal with Roosevelt before the election in 1942, a deal to have the president appoint him to the court should he lose, and John believed Clark actually wanted to lose, maybe even planned to lose. For Corlett, Clark’s election night telephone call concession was a political smoking gun. The governor wanted to be a federal judge a good deal more than he wanted to be a governor.

The life tenure of a federal judicial position (assuming good behavior) is just one attractive aspect of the job. The pay isn’t shabby, the working conditions are typically first rate and the retirement benefits quite nice thank you. As they say, “it’s indoor work with no heavy lifting,” unless you consider hours of sitting, listening, reading and writing strenuous. Done correctly, however, the job really should be demanding. It requires a certain temperament and a scholarly demeanor, experience, perspective, learning in the law and an abiding sense of fairness. It helps, as well, to be a real person with an ego in check, someone who is not overly impressed when everyone refers to you as “your honor.”

Idaho’s Next Judge…

I remembered the old John Corlett tale recently as I read the news of the unfolding and very secret process being managed by Idaho’s two Republican United States senators to fill the vacant judgeship on the federal district court in Idaho. As the Spokesman-Review’s Betsy Russell first reported, Senators Mike Crapo and Jim Risch have been quietly – very quietly – interviewing prospective candidates for the federal court position, but, as Russell also reported, two of the most obvious women candidates have not been interviewed, at least not yet.

The senators subsequently released a short statement to the effect that the confidential process was in everyone’s best interest and that men as well as women would be considered. Russell also reported that the current process is a dramatic departure from that used the last time Idaho had a federal court vacancy. In 1995, with Democrat Bill Clinton in the White House, Republican Senators Larry Craig and Dirk Kempthorne created a nine-member bipartisan panel made up of five Democrats and four Republicans. The partisan split was in deference to fact that Democrat Clinton would make the appointment. That process ultimately produced three stellar candidates, including current federal District Judge Lynn Winmill, who was nominated and confirmed and continues to serve with great distinction.

Judge Edward Lodge

Judge Edward Lodge

Crapo and Risch could have adopted a similar approach when respected Judge Edward Lodge announced his decision to move to “senior status” in September of last year. That they did not, and that only in the last few days has there been any news about the judicial position, might indicate that the senators aren’t really much focused on producing a candidate that will be both acceptable to them and to the person who under the Constitution actually makes the appointment, Barack Obama.

While its clear under the Constitution that the president “shall nominate, and, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint” federal judges, it is an unwritten fact of life in the United States Senate that no nominee gets approved by the Senate unless the senators of the state involved green light the appointment. This is particularly true when the Senate is controlled, as it now is, by one party while the other party holds the White House.

This political reality cries out, if indeed Idaho’s senators really want to see a judicial appointment while Barack Obama is still in office, for something like the bipartisan approach Craig and Kempthorne employed twenty years ago. It is entirely conceivable that the process now being used will produce a candidate that will turn out to be unacceptable to the White House and that may be what the senators truly desire. In the hardball of Senate politics the Idaho Republicans may have decided, as an Arizona Congressman actually said recently, that Obama should have not more appointments approved – period.

Idaho’s senators may have simply made the political calculation that they will “run out the clock,” while betting that a Republican wins the White House in 2016. Under this scenario Crapo and Risch will have teed up the candidate they want for early consideration by President Jeb Bush, Scott Walker or someone else.

With no more than seventy working days remaining on this year’s Senate calendar and with the Senate surely going into paralysis mode next year with a presidential election looming time will soon dictate whether an Idaho appointment is even possible. Even if Crapo and Risch were to produce a candidate relatively soon the White House and FBI vetting process could take months and extend into next year’s presidential morass. For the two senators this approach could neatly, if unfairly, place the blame for failing to fill the vacancy on the president’s desk.

The statement from Crapo and Risch last week made much of the need for an “entirely confidential” process. But it’s worth asking why? At least two widely mentioned, not particularly political and eminently qualified female candidates – U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson and federal Magistrate Candy Dale – have publicly acknowledge their interest in the appointment. Idaho, of course, is unique in that the state has never had a woman federal district judge. One suspects it is the senators insisting on the confidentially, since applying to become a federal judge, even if you are not selected, is hardly something most Idaho lawyers would hide under a bushel. Merely applying puts one in rare company.

One can certainly understand senatorial prerogatives and the Constitution wisely provides for “advice and consent” from the Senate, but a vacant federal judgeship that comes around maybe once in a generation really doesn’t belong exclusively to two U.S. senators or even to a president. The important job belongs to Idaho and given the nature of Idaho and national politics shouts out for a high degree of transparency.

Advise and Consent…Not So Much…

As this process stumbles forward the White House might consider these political facts:

Attorney General Loretta Lynch

Attorney General Loretta Lynch

Idaho’s two senators recently voted against the confirmation of a highly qualified African-American woman to become the first ever attorney general. They based their votes on the fact that Loretta Lynch, a seasoned federal prosecutor, merely said that she agreed with her boss, the president, on his immigration actions; actions admittedly controversial, but also currently under judicial review. Such conservative Senate stalwarts as Mitch McConnell, Orrin Hatch and Jeff Flake voted to confirm Lynch as attorney general, but not Crapo and Risch.

Additionally, from health care to Iran, Idaho’s senators have opposed virtually all of Obama’s policy actions. They regularly lambast the administration for everything from underfunding the Idaho National Laboratory to over regulating Main Street businesses. Obama’s budgets, they have said repeatedly, are awful, his foreign policy a disaster and the president regularly engages in extra-constitutional behavior. Little wonder then that Idaho’s senators, as reliably opposed to anything the White House proposes as any two senators in the nation, have shown so little interest in actually working with the president on the rare Idaho judicial appointment.

What Would FDR Do…

As the old story about Judge Clark in the 1940’s proves, being appointed a federal judge is a highly desirable job. Franklin Roosevelt placed the just defeated Chase Clark on the federal bench in 1942 without, near as I can tell, much if any involvement by Idaho’s two senators at the time.

Senator D. Worth Clark

Senator D. Worth Clark

In fact it’s very likely that Roosevelt could have cared less about the opinion of Senator D. Worth Clark, Chase’s nephew and Nancy Clark Reynold’s father, since Worth Clark was an outspoken opponent of FDR’s foreign policy. Coming as it did from a member of his own party, Roosevelt bitterly resented Clark’s harsh isolationist critique and let it be known that he did.

Senator John W. Thomas, a Republican, who was appointed to replace William Borah when he died in 1940, was, with the exception of foreign policy, philosophically far removed from the man he replaced. Roosevelt both liked and respected Borah even though the two men clashed on many things and had Borah, a long-time member of the Judiciary Committee, lived he certainly would have had a say in filling the Idaho judgeship. With a war to run it’s not hard to speculate that the opinions of Clark and Thomas counted for next to nothing in Roosevelt’s White House. While the Senate did “advise and consent” on Judge Clark, it can safely be said that Idaho’s two senators had very little to say about his appointment.

Perhaps in the current case Mr. Obama ought to engage in some of that dictatorial activity he is so often accused of and go ahead and appoint one of the highly qualified and non-political women candidates to the federal bench. Let Idaho’s senators explain why a sitting U.S. attorney already confirmed by the Senate, or a federal magistrate vetted by her peers, or any number of other qualified women aren’t acceptable. The way things look today President Obama has nothing too lose as the clock winds down on his term and he confronts a judicial selection in Idaho vetted and suggested by two senators who can hardly mention his name without a sneer.

Barack Obama might enjoy, just as Franklin Roosevelt often did, seeing some of his greatest opponents in the Senate squirm just a little. At the very least, Mr. Obama could go down in history as the first president who tried to appoint the first women to the federal bench in Idaho.


The Most Important Election…

There is a wide-open field on the Republican side for the presidential nomination, with at least a half dozen serious contenders, while the lame duck Democrat in the White House, one of the most polarizing american-politicsfigures in modern American politics, struggles with foreign policy challenges which have emboldened his fierce critics in both parties and submerged his domestic agenda. The foreign policy challenges involve questions about the effectiveness of military aid in bloody conflicts that may, or may not, involve strategic American interests, as well as the proper response to brutal foreign dictators determined to expand their influence in central Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

The incumbent in the White House, elected with promises of “hope and change,” has lost his once large majorities in both houses of Congress and, while he remains a profoundly talented communicator and is still popular with many voters, others have grown tired of his aloof manner and the fact that he surrounds himself with a tiny corps of advisors who tend to shut off competing points of view. Even his wife can be a polarizing figure with some criticizing everything from her priorities to her wardrobe.

A fragile economic recovery continues to sputter along, while memories remain fresh of an economic collapse that rivals anything that has happened in three-quarters of a century. Half the country blames Wall Street, eastern bankers and the well-heeled for the economic troubles, while the other half laments excessive regulation, increasing debt and bloated federal government that is constantly expanding its role in American life. The country is deeply divided by race, class and religious differences.

The year is…2016? No…actually 1940.

The Most Important Election in Our Lifetime…Not Really…

Lincoln and McClellan

Lincoln and McClellan

The claim heard every four years that “this is the most important election in our lifetime (or in our history), it is, of course, nonsense. We don’t have “critical elections” every four years, but in fact have really only had a handful of truly “critical” elections in our history. In my view the two most important were 1864, when Abraham Lincoln defeated George McClellan thereby ensuring that the great Civil War would be fought to its ultimate end and achieve its ultimate goal, the abolition of slavery, and 1940 when Franklin D. Roosevelt broke with long-established political tradition and sought and won a third term. Roosevelt’s election, although it would have been hard to see clearly at the time, sealed the involvement of the United States in World War II and ultimately led to the defeat of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan.

Those two elections (you could add 1860 to the list, as well) had serious consequences that still echo today, the 1940 election particularly since it does have many parallels with what voters will face when they make a choice about the White House in 2016.

Arguably the field for the Republican nomination hasn’t been so completely wide open since 1940. In that election, as today, the GOP was a divided party between its more establishment wing – represented by New Yorker Thomas Dewey – and an insurgent element represented by the party’s eventual nominee in 1940, Indiana-born, former Democrat Wendell Willkie, a true dark horse candidate. The party was also split into isolationist and internationalist camps, with Willkie the leader of the later and Senators Robert Taft of Ohio and Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan leading the Midwestern, isolationist element.

As Many GOP Contenders as 2016…

1940 GOP Convention Ticket

1940 GOP Convention Ticket

Ten Republican candidates that year captured at least twenty-eight convention votes, with Dewey leading on the first ballot with 360 votes, still far below the number he would need to win the nomination. The Republican candidates, not unlike today, were a broad and opportunistic bunch ranging from names lost to history – the governor of South Dakota Harland Bushland, for example – to shades of the past like former President Herbert Hoover who amazingly thought he was a viable candidate eight years after losing in a landslide to Roosevelt in 1932.

Thomas Dewey

Thomas Dewey

Dewey lost support on every subsequent ballot, while Willkie and Taft steadily picked up steam. As Charles Peters has written: “To Republicans who liked Franklin Roosevelt’s sympathy for the allies but had a low opinion of his economic policy, Willkie began to look like an interesting presidential possibility. This group was not large in early 1940, but it was highly influential,” not unlike the “establishment wing” of the GOP today, which is tentatively coalescing behind Jeb Bush.

Finally on the sixth ballot Willkie commanded the votes needed to win the nomination and face the man who was the real issue in 1940 – Roosevelt.

By the time the Democrats convened for their convention in Chicago on July 15, 1940 (the Republicans met in Philadelphia in June), few besides FDR knew his intentions with regard to the “no third term” tradition. I’m convinced Roosevelt had decided much earlier to seek another terms, but the master political strategist wanted it to appear that his party was “drafting” him rather than as if he was actively seeking the nomination again.

Eleanor Roosevelt Addresses 1940 Convention

Eleanor Roosevelt Addresses 1940 Convention

Roosevelt dispatched his very politically astute wife, Eleanor, to Chicago to subtly, but unmistakably make the case for her husband. It worked and the Democratic Party rushed to embrace FDR – again. This whole story is wonderfully told in Charles Peters’ fine book Five Days in Philadelphia: The Amazing ‘We Want Willkie!’ Convention of 1940 and How It Freed FDR to Save the Western World.

FDR of course, went on to win the pivotal election of 1940, a rare election in American political history that turned primarily on foreign policy issues. Remarkably, both candidates endorsed the creation of a peace time draft in the middle of the campaign and Roosevelt and Willkie differed only in the most nuanced ways over the big question of whether and how the United States would provide aid to Britain as it struggled to hold off a Nazi invasion and eventually return to the offense against Hitler.

The 1940 campaign, like most political campaigns, had its share of pettiness and overheated rhetoric. Roosevelt was denounced as a “warmonger” and a dictator who would do anything to prolong his willkie buttonhold over the country’s politics. Willkie, a wealthy utility executive who made much of his small-town Indiana upbringing, was derided as “the barefoot boy from Wall Street,” so dubbed by Roosevelt’s Interior Secretary Harold Ickes. It was an open secret that Willkie had a long-time romantic relationship with a woman not his wife, but Roosevelt and the Democrats dare not raise the issue for fear that the “marriage of convenience” between FDR and Eleanor, not to mention the president’s own indiscretions, might become an issue. This would not be a John Edwards or Gary Hart campaign.

The 1940 campaign did involve two talented and serious candidates who openly discussed the big issues of the day and once the voters had spoken, Roosevelt and Willkie put aside personal animosities and linked arms for the good of the country – and the world.

Barack Obama won’t be running for a third term next year. Republicans made certain that would never happen when they recaptured control of the Congress after World War II and adopted the 22nd amendment to the Constitution, but Democrats will be, in effect, seeking a third term with presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton carrying the party banner.

Perhaps all – or almost all – politicians tend to look better in hindsight than they do when they are grubbing for votes, but it would be hard to argue that any of the contenders in either party today could hold their own on a stage with the major party nominees in that pivotal year of 1940.

The stakes were very high that year and Americans had their pick between two serious, quality candidates. Here’s hoping history repeats next year. Looking at the field I have my doubts.

Reader’s Note: 

There are at least three other recent fine books about the election of 1940 – Richard Moe’s Roosevelt’s Second Act, Susan Dunn’s 1940 – FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler: The Election Amid the Storm and Lynne Olson’s Those Angry Days. All are highly recommended as great political history.


Playing the Hand

Patient-ProtectionI’m not sure, but this photo may be the last time Democrats smiled about the Affordable Care Act or, if you prefer, Obamacare. President Obama put his signature on his signature legislative accomplishment on March 23, 2010 and, until the last few weeks, from a political standpoint the news has been pretty awful.

First the admissions: Democrats – thank Nancy Pelosi as well as the president for this – completely lost control of any coherent message about the law. Republicans did a masterful job of characterizing the ACA as government run amok. Obama, so the story goes, has Socialized health care in America and shredded the Constitution in the process. Sarah Palin chimed in with her nonsense talk about “death panels.” Democrats failed to respond or failed to respond effectively. Obama fumbled, screwed up, mislead, fabricated (chose your word) the business about liking and keeping your health plan. The roll-out was a first-class mess and we all know about the stupid website. Fundamentally the law, thanks to log rolling in Congress with the drug companies, the device manufactures, doctors, hospitals and insurance companies, is a massively complicated pile of legalize. It was almost as though the president and his supporters were saying, “We could tell you how it will work and how you will benefit, but you’d have to get sick first…”

More importantly from a political point of view the supporters of the law, chiefly including the Commander-in-Chief, never adopted a coherent, consistent, engaging message that might have allowed them to talk to the American people about an issue that has been on the agenda of every Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt. The debate became about process, ideology and partisanship and not about a better more secure future.

In politics, as in corn flakes, you can’t sell an idea without a believable message. The failure to offer a coherent, believable story about the law is nothing short of political malpractice. Critics will say, of course, that the law is such a mess that it can’t be defended or marketed, but I don’t buy that. Even George W. Bush, initially at least, sold the invasion of Iraq. Creating a system for millions of Americans to have health insurance and a more secure life is surely an easier sell than a war.

Still, four years later the law is the law, upheld by the Supreme Court (or at least by five justices), a survivor of a hundred different efforts by Republicans to repeal it or, better yet from their perspective, use it as a blunt instrument to pummel Democrats in another mid-term election. Apparently – crank up the irony meter – Americans now hate the law so much they have signed up in numbers that have even surprised the law’s biggest supporters. The polls tell us the law is a huge loser – although repeal is even more unpopular – and yet the GOP has placed nearly all of its mid-term eggs in the “we hate Obamacare” basket. All of the party’s 2016 hopefuls have bought into the notion that Obama’s law is the worst things since, well, maybe since Social Security, yet they offer nothing in the way of a better alternative.

In one of his pithy and incisive essays Garry Wills points out that supporters of the law will likely never turn the opponents around. Obama, Wills writes, “made the mistake of thinking that facts matter when a cult is involved. Obamacare is now, for many, haloed with hate, to be fought against with all one’s life. Retaining certitude about its essential evil is a matter of self-respect, honor for one’s allies in the cause, and loathing for one’s opponents. It is a religious commitment.”

Wills reminds us that Social Security was once almost as hated as the ACA, but somehow nearly 80 years on it still stands. “Repealing Obamacare will eventually go the way of repealing the New Deal,” Wills opines. “But the opposition will never fade entirely away—and it may well be strong enough in this year’s elections to determine the outcome. It is something people are willing to sacrifice for and feel noble about. Creeds are not built up out of facts. They are what make people reject all evidence that guns are more the cause of crime than the cure for it. The best preservative for unreason is to make a religion of it.”

The editorial page of the Wall Street Journal with an almost daily discourse on the “failures of the law” or any given George Will column easily serve as the Bible for this new religion. Will’s most recent column excoriating the law and the president concludes with this sweeping indictment of all things Obama: “progressivism is…a top-down, continent-wide tissue of taxes, mandates and other coercions. Is the debate about it over? Not quite.” Reads like a sermon to me.

But let’s talk politics. If Garry Wills is right (and George Will is his proof point) and it follows that Republican voters who have made a religion out of hating Obamacare are the most likely to turn out and vote in the November Congressional elections, what are Democrats to do?

They have two basic choices: Continue to flounder around and try to pretend they can whistle their way past the political graveyard without defending Obama’s law or they can embrace the obvious and begin – finally – to vigorously defend the law and its impact. One of this year’s imperiled Democrats, Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, has adopted Option Two.

“It’s a solid law that needs improvement,” Landrieu told the Washington Post. “My opponent [Republican Bill Cassidy] offers nothing but repeal, repeal, and repeal. And even with all the law’s setbacks, we’re seeing benefits for thousands of people in Louisiana.”

Landrieu continued, “I think the benefits that people have received are worth fighting for.” She citing an end to discrimination against preexisting conditions and extended coverage for young adults on parents’ plans. ”I think Bill Cassidy is going to be at a distinct disadvantage. He has insurance, but he’s also denying it to the 242,000 people” who would qualify if Louisiana expanded Medicaid as it can opt do under the Affordable Care Act.

Her opponent, Landrieu says, “also wants to take coverage away from tens of thousands who have gotten it for the first time.”

There is an old adage in politics that holds “being for something is better than being against something.” Democrats don’t have a choice. They can try to campaign this year by being for a law that admittedly is very controversial and almost universally misunderstood, but that is also of obvious advantage to millions of Americans or they sink again into the defensive crouch they have largely adopted since that smiling day back in March 2010.

Republicans are agin’ it. We know that for certain. Yet, voters must be just as confused about where Republicans stand on issues – providing health care for millions of uninsured, expanding Medicaid, keeping young folks on their parents insurance plans longer and providing coverage for preexisting conditions – as they are confused about what is and isn’t part of the controversial law. This is ground, as Sen. Landrieu suggests, for a real election year debate.

Democrats may not win a religious fight this year over Obamacare, but they won’t even have a chance unless they start throwing a few punches rather than trying to absorb those the other side will continue throwing. Defending a law that more than eight million Americans have embraced and that holds out the hope for a much improved quality of life for millions more seems like something worth fighting for because it really is better to be for something than against everything.

Many Republicans of the generation that created Social Security never came to fully embrace the program, but time, events and public opinion overtook them. Franklin Roosevelt, the father of modern American politics, loved to taunt his opponents by asking them what they would do differently and whether they had an alternative. Those are still good questions.

Downton Upper

David_Lloyd_GeorgeHad Britain not produced a Winston Churchill or a Margaret Thatcher Americans might know a lot more about another British Prime Minister David Lloyd George pictured here in the prime of his long life.

A few million of us have been, sort of, introduced to Lloyd George thanks to the PBS import of Downton Abbey, the Masterpiece series that began its fourth season last Sunday. In an episode in the first season of Downton, Lloyd George’s name is mentioned in passing drawing, as usual, a stinging retort from the Dowager Countess played so well by Maggie Smith. “Please don’t speak that man’s name,” she huffs, “we are about to eat.”

At the time – we’re right before the outbreak of The Great War – Lloyd George, described appropriately by his great granddaughter the historian Margaret MacMillan “as one of the most interesting and controversial politicians in modern British politics,” was serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer in a Liberal government and he had proposed what would come to be called “The People’s Budget.”

That budget sparked a revolution in British society. Lloyd George promised to pay for both guns and butter in pre-war Britain by soaking the rich. He advocated social reforms, particularly old age pensions and a war against “poverty and squalidness,” as well as massive spending on the British Navy, including the huge dreadnoughts thought necessary to keep pace with the German Kaiser’s naval ambitions.

Lloyd George, MacMillan writes in her superb book The War That Ended Peace, loved a good fight and didn’t flinch from his People’s Budget that was constructed around increases in “death taxes” and new and steep taxes on the landed aristocracy. Little wonder they disliked “that man” in the plush rooms at Downton Abbey. He was paving the way for the ultimate demise of Lord Grantham and his like.

“The rich wanted the dreadnoughts,” MacMillan writes of her great grandfather, “and now they didn’t want to pay.” And, for that matter, just what was the value of the aristocracy? Lloyd George answered this way: “A fully equipped duke costs as much to keep up as two Dreadnoughts – and they are just as great a terror – and they last longer.”

On another occasion Lloyd George said, “death is the most convenient time to tax rich people.” In the U.S. conservative politicians would label that “class warfare” and we’d debate the fairness of “death taxes.” Such policy made Lloyd George prime minister.

Downton Abbey, for all its high-class soap opera touches – the nasty villains, crippling tragedy and clueless Lords – really offers a peephole into the rigid class structure that once, and to some degree still does, define British life. Downton is at the center of a society where ones life and possibilities were defined by ones birth. The imperious Mr. Carson, Downton’s butler, and his downstairs staff were born to “service” and lord – or My Lord – help them if they screw up. Those who manage to escape their class limitations – the upstairs maid who dreams of becoming a secretary and the Irish chauffeur Tom Branson who manages to escape for love – are the exceptions. Mrs. Hughes, Daisy and the rest seem destined to live and die in service.

Most Americans, of course, continue to buy the notion that with our long-ago revolution against the mother country we were able to create a “classless society.” Even as income inequality and a lack of mobility have become features of modern American society few politicians on this side of the pond would dare to advocate a “redistribution” of resources from the country’s economic lords to the little people. Rather than disparage the 1%, Americans seem to let the excesses of a Bernie Madoff or JP Morgan Chase float away like the smoke from one of Lord Grantham’s after dinner cigars. Perhaps some of our guilty pleasure in feasting on the glided soap opera that is Downton is that we are convinced our make believe “classless” society is superior even if the dinner time attire at Downton is much better than sitting on the sofa and eating a Domino’s.

Americans have never had a royal family unless you count the Kennedys and George Washington rejected John Adams’ suggestion that the president be addressed as “His Excellency.” Still we loved Lady Diana and can’t get enough of the future king and queen. We adore British imports – Scotch whiskey, The Beatles, James Bond and Manchester United. Since at least 1941 when Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt struck a partnership to defeat the Nazis, the United States and Britain have had their “special relationship.” In almost every case – the Suez Crisis in 1956 being a major exception – we’ve been joined at the hip, often for good and occasionally not, with the Brits on matters of foreign policy.

As much as I like the series, and I really do, Downton says as much about America in 2014 as it does about Britain in 1922. As the New York Times noted in marking the return of the fourth season the series and its characters are remarkable in their ability to soldier on when terrible things happen. “The series is optimistic, warmhearted, almost Reaganesque in its ability to find a rainbow. Mr. [Julian] Fellowes [the series creator] holds up a bowdlerized edition of British society, where beneath a thin veneer of stratification, servants and masters are friends and confidants, and even cataclysm doesn’t break the bond.”

We also like Downton so much, I think, because of what it doesn’t say. A television series devoted to how The Great War destroyed a generation of British manhood and how domestic politics brought a landed aristocracy to heel wouldn’t command much of a following. On Sunday evening we get the sunny version, which is good television, but not very good history.

By 1922 Lloyd George, having sat across the table from Woodrow Wilson to craft the Treaty of Versailles and create the League of Nations, was out of power. Internal conflicts and scandal in the once dominate Liberal Party doomed the Liberals to minor party status from which the party has never recovered. Even Churchill jumped ship on his old mentor Lloyd George and returned to the Tories – the Dowager Countess certainly must have approved – as Britain sank into a period of deep reflection and sadness spawned by what Lloyd George called “the cruelest and most terrible War that has ever scourged mankind.”

David Lloyd George was born the son of a Welsh schoolmaster and as such would have had much more in common with Irish Tom Branson, the chauffeur turned Downton land manager, than with the dandy fellows who are sent into a twitter when black ties replace white at dinner. When Lloyd George was finally given his own title – Earl Lloyd George of Dwyfor in 1945 – he is reported to have said in Welsh “Y Gwir Yn Erbyn Y Byd ” – The truth against the world.

As we tune in this week to see if the sensible American, Lady Cora, and her head strong daughters can continue to outwit – its not that difficult – the dense Lord of the Manor, recall that Lloyd George said his country’s job after The Great War – a war that claimed more than 700,000 British lives – was “to make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in.” I doubt he had Lord Grantham in mind.


Power to the People

politifact_photos_rooseIn the second wave of New Deal legislation in the spring of 1935 – historians often refer to the period as the “Second New Deal” – Congress passed a massive omnibus bill – The Emergency Relief Appropriations Act. In a move that would be political poison today, Congress granted vast discretionary power under the Emergency Act to the president and Franklin Roosevelt got busy. With the stroke of a pen Roosevelt allocated millions to construct dams, build airports, bridges and tunnels.

Among the raft of Executive Orders signed by Roosevelt, and permitted under the Emergency Act, was the creation of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). As Stanford University historian David Kennedy has written, “when REA began its work, fewer than two farms in ten had electricity; a little more than a decade later, thanks to lost-cost REA loans that built generating plants and strung power lines down country lanes and across field and pasture, nine out of ten did.”

Before the REA’s low-interest loans changed the landscape, as Morris Cooke the first REA Administrator said, the typical American farmer was in an impossible situation. “In addition to paying for the energy he used,” Morris wrote, “the farmer was expected to advance to the power company most or all of the costs of construction. Since utility company ideas as to what constituted sound rural lines have been rather fancy, such costs were prohibitive for most farmers.”

One of the great and enduring myths of the American West, as the great writer Wallace Stegner liked to remind us, is the myth that the West was built by rugged individuals. Nonsense, Stegner said. The West was built by the federal government and there are few better examples of how an enlightened government changed the landscape and life of millions of Americans than the REA. This fascinating and still immensely important story, fundamentally a political story about the good government can do, is told with engaging flair and real insight in Ted Case’s fine recent book Power Plays.

Case, the executive director of the Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association, argues that preserving the public institutions and the public good that the REA ushered in during Roosevelt’s day has required nearly 80 years of constant hand-to-hand combat with a variety of political forces, often including hostile presidents. The battle has been worth it, since it is not an overstatement to say that the region’s cooperative utilities, and the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) that serves them with power and transmission, really have built the Northwest.

As debates rage in Washington over the scope and role of government, it’s worth remembering that during some of the nation’s darkest days of Great Depression, presidential candidate Roosevelt came to Portland, Oregon in 1932 and made an eloquent argument for a government devoted to the “larger interests of the many.” The occasion was a campaign speech – billed in the day as a major policy address on public utilities and hydropower development – that turned out to be one of FDR’s most important policy pronouncements during his history making campaign against Herbert Hoover.

“As I see it, the object of Government is the welfare of the people,” FDR said during his Portland speech. “The liberty of people to carry on their business should not be abridged unless the larger interests of the many are concerned. When the interests of the many are concerned, the interests of the few must yield. It is the purpose of the Government to see not only that the legitimate interests of the few are protected but that the welfare and rights of the many are conserved…This, I take it, is sound Government — not politics. Those are the essential basic conditions under which Government can be of service.”

During his Portland speech Roosevelt pledged to develop the hydro resources of the Columbia River, proposed vast new regulation of private utilities and foreshadowed the creation of what became the REA, the agency that, as David Kennedy says, “brought cheap power to the countryside, mostly by midwifing the emergence of hundreds of nonprofit, publicly owned electrical cooperatives.”

The reason many Americans in 1932 lacked access to adequate or any electricity, Roosevelt said, is “that many selfish interests in control of light and power industries have not been sufficiently far-sighted to establish rates low enough to encourage widespread public use.” He might also have said that many private utilities in the 1920’s and early 1930’s were content to operate highly profitable businesses in relatively easy to serve urban areas and were simply unwilling to make the effort and expend the resources to deliver power to smaller communities and farmers.

It’s difficult to imagine today, when without thinking we enter a dark room and flip the switch, how long it would have taken to get affordable electricity to rural Northwest and its farms had Roosevelt not followed through on his powerful Portland speech on power. Imagine the Pacific Northwest without the power of the federal dams that FDR promised in1932 in Portland – and I know they have become controversial – or the legacy of public power. The region’s great public utilities have played their part in the region’s development for sure, but they often have a fundamentally different mission from public power, including the need to generate a rate of return on investments, while answering to shareholders and investors.

It is a re-occurring feature of American democracy that we debate and debate again the reach and responsibility of government. We are stuck in a particularly dysfunctional period of that debate right now. Almost always in our history these periodic debates have been resolved, to the extent they are ever fully resolved, in favor of what Roosevelt long ago called “the welfare of the people.”

In the last years of his life, as Ted Case points out in his political history of how cooperative utilities remade rural America, Lyndon Johnson remarked that “of all the things I have ever done, nothing has given me as much satisfaction as bringing power to the Hill Country of Texas. Today in my home county,” LBJ said, “we have full grown men who have never seen a kerosene lamp except possibly in a movie – and that is all to the good.”

Rugged individuals make for good movies, but aggressive action by a federal government devoted to the greatest good for the greatest number helped turned on the lights in much of the Pacific Northwest. The story Ted Case tells in his book Power Plays is a reminder of what truly enlightened public policy once looked like.


Why Politics Ain’t Fun…Anymore

ap320763252878Jack Germond, a classic ink-stained wretch straight out of The Front Page, loved politics and politicians until he didn’t any longer.

Germond, who died this week at age 85, was definitely of the “old school.” He knew how to change a typewriter ribbon and I’ll bet he once had a bead on every pay phone in Iowa and in New Hampshire. Germond once said that he covered politics like a horse race because, while most voters do want to know what a candidate stands for, they also really want to know who has the best chance to win an election. But Jack was also old school in that he wanted to know about candidates as real people. What motivated them? What did they really care about? Could they think?

When the gruff, opinionated, smoking, steak-eating, Martini-drinking reporter hung it up in 2001 he told NPR’s Bob Edwards that he had grown “sick of politics.”

“I got sick of politics, Bob,” Germond said. “I particularly got sick of these two candidates this year. You know, you get to the point — you know, you’re 72 years old and you’re covering George W. Bush and Al Gore and you say, ‘How do I explain that to my grandkids?’ I mean, that’s terrible.”

Like a lot of us, I suspect, ol’ Jack grew tired of the phony rituals of modern politics, the lack of authenticity and the campaigns that have become almost completely driven by too young men (and some women) in suits and iPads who think they know everything there is to know about survey research, but have never met a sheriff or walked a precinct for a state legislative candidate.

Candid, Opinionated, Unpredictable

Ask any reporter – or voter – the type of politician they most appreciate and you’ll often hear that they like the candid, opinionated guy (or woman) who isn’t over programmed and not completely predictable. But increasingly we get just the opposite. If you’ve heard one Mitch McConnell speech or one Harry Reid soundbite you’ve pretty much heard all they have to offer, or at least all they think they can offer safely. The typical modern politician is so scripted, so committed to “staying on message” and so determined not to offend “the base” that they often say virtually nothing of importance. In place of real thinking that might generate a new idea the typical pol – the guys Germond got sick of – falls back on the safe and practiced. It may be boring, but it’s poll-tested.

Germond told the Washington Post that he got pretty stiff drinking Scotch with presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy during a plane ride in 1968. “We started talking about the kids we’d seen in the ghetto that day,” Mr. Germond said years later. “He wasn’t trying to plant a story. He was really interested in the subject and really affected by what he’d seen.” Imagine that. A politician letting the human side show through. It used to happen, but not much anymore.

The statute of limitations has long since expired so I can safely reveal that former Idaho state senator, Lt. Governor and eventually Gov. Phil Batt used to drink with reporters. He actually seemed to like it, too. Years ago when Idaho Statehouse reporters were first consigned to quarters in the deep basement of the Capitol Building, Batt would often come down on a Friday night when the business of the legislative session was done for the week and have a pop or two with the scribbling class. As I remember it Jim Fisher, then a political reporter for the Lewiston Tribune, had a deep desk drawer that could accommodate a bottle of something that was technically illegal to consume on state property. Those of us fortunate enough to sit in on Phil Batt’s off-the-record “news conference” quickly discovered all the stories we’d missed during the week, the latest lobbyist out of favor and which legislator with a wandering eye was hitting on which committee secretary. I don’t remember that any stories were planted, but much insight was gained.

Politics was fun then, but rarely is anymore.

Obama the Predictable

The cerebral and increasingly buttoned-down Barack Obama seemed about as fun as a root canal when he took questions from the White House press corps before flying off to his Martha’s Vineyard vacation the other day. Obama was asked about Republican threats to shut down the government or even default on government obligations rather than approve funding for the hated Obamacare. Obama, of course, gave a completely predictable response.

“The idea that you would shut down the government unless you prevent 30 million people from getting health care is a bad idea,” the president said. “What you should be thinking about is how can we advance and improve ways for middle-class families to have some security so that if they work hard, they can get ahead and their kids can get ahead.”

“Middle-class families” must be the most focus group tested terminology in American politics, but it has almost nothing to do with what you know Obama is really thinking. Regardless of what you think of Obamacare wouldn’t you like the Commander-in-Chief to show a little emotion just once in a while? Imagine the cool POTUS popping his top with some Harry Truman-style rhetoric.

“Let me tell you what I think  of this kind of threat: let them try it,” Obama might have said. “The Affordable Care Act – Obamacare – is the law of the land. John Boehner has tried more than 40 times to undo it, but he can’t and he won’t. Shutting down the government or defaulting on our debt is just plain crazy. If my GOP friends want to be out-of-power for a generation, I’d advise they listen to the crazy caucus on the fringe and shut down the government – again. It worked so well for them last time.

“And while I’m on the subject, the next time a Republican says they want to do away with health insurance for all American ask them what they intend to replace it with? Does the Speaker or Sen. Rubio or Sen. Cruz have an answer to millions of Americans without health insurance? Do they like the idea that we have the most expensive health care in the world and far from the best health care in the world? What do they suggest would happen to the hospitals, doctors and insurance companies who are months into implementing a law that Congress passed and the United States Supreme Court reviewed and upheld? Boehner and Rubio and Cruz are without ideas. All they are sure of is that they don’t like me. I’m used to it. Now they should get used to the idea of me being in the White House for another three years.”

OK, I made all of that up, but you get the point. Authentic can’t be polled tested. You can’t easily fake being steamed. Candor in our politics has become as rare as Scotch in a desk drawer.

FDR is Still the Gold Standard

In her excellent new book – 1940 – FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler and the Election Amid the Storm – historian Susan Dunn tells the gripping story of one of the most consequential presidential elections in our history. With war raging in Europe, the 1940 election came down to two issues – a third term for Franklin Roosevelt and the direction of the nation’s foreign policy. Late in his campaign against businessman Wendell Willkie, FDR took on his opponents with candor, humor and their own words. It is what politicians used to do.

“For almost seven years the Republican leaders in Congress kept on saying that I was placing too much emphasis on national defense,” Roosevelt said in an October 1940 speech at Madison Square Garden. “And now today these men of great vision have suddenly discovered that there is a war going on in Europe and another one in Asia! And so, now, always with their eyes on the good old ballot box, they are charging that we have placed too little emphasis on national defense.”

Then, to use his word, FDR indicted his Republican opponents using their own words and their own votes. Roosevelt listed by name the GOP leaders, including Willkie’s running mate, who had voted repeatedly against defense appropriations. Then, with perfect timing, the president made his audience laugh along with him at the poetic mention of three of his most partisan and obstructionist opponents.

“Now wait,” Roosevelt said with a big smile, “a perfectly beautiful rhythm – Congressmen Martin, Barton and Fish!”

Willkie later said, “When I heard the president hang the isolationist votes of Martin, Barton, and Fish on me and get away with it, I knew I was licked.”

The old school politics that Jack Germond loved have gone the way of the pay phone, replaced by 30 second attack ads, robo calls and bland and completely predictable rhetoric that is virtually devoid of passion, substance and humor. No wonder Jack got sick of politics. He could remember when it was fun and better.

Politics shouldn’t be blood sport, but having a little blood flowing in your veins is entirely appropriate. Modern politics would be a good deal more interesting and a lot less dysfunctional if politicians quit thinking that authenticity, candor, a little fire in the belly and a dose of humor were somehow political liabilities.

How about a little more passion like “Martin, Barton and Fish” and a little less babble about “middle class families.”


Jim Crow’s Playmates

One of the best things about the new film about baseball great Jackie Robinson is actor Harrison Ford’s portrayal of baseball executive Branch Rickey, the man who found the guts in 1945 to sign Robinson to a minor league contract with the Montreal Royals and then in the 1947 season, against all odds, brought the first African-American player to the major leagues.

By all accounts Mr. Rickey, as everyone called him, wasn’t much of a ballplayer himself. He only played in the majors for four seasons, had a career batting average of .239 and hit only three home runs. Granted it was the “dead ball” era, but those numbers don’t get you to Cooperstown.

Rickey got to the Hall of Fame on the strength of his success as a baseball manager and executive. He had a hand in three great and enduring innovations – the establishment of the farm system to identify and nurture talent, breaking the color line with the signing of No. 42 and late in his life helping start the Continental League, a proposed third major league that failed to get off the grass, but nevertheless ushered in expansion of baseball to new markets.

The great sportswriter Jim Murray said Rickey “could recognize a great player from the window of a moving train” and the great man’s nickname, “The Mahatma,” was recognition of his pioneering ways and the deep Christian faith that he wore on his sleeve. One contemporary said when Rickey met you for the first time he wanted to know everything about you, then set out to change you.

In the wake of seeing the Robinson movie – it’s a must for any baseball or history buff – I read a splendid piece by another great sportswriter Red Smith. Writing in 1948, the year after Robinson broke the Jim Crow barriers around baseball, Smith was reporting – and not with any surprise – about how little support Rickey had received from the other leaders of the national past time.

“A curious sort of hullabaloo has been aroused by Branch Rickey’s disclosure that when he went into the ring against Jim Crow, he found fifteen major league club owners working in Jim’s corner,” Smith wrote. “It is strange that the news should stir excitement, for surely it couldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone.” Those other owners – Red Smith called them “Jim Crow’s playmates” – were worried about alienating fans, suffering public abuse or hurting their investments. Most likely all three. Questions of morality often get snagged on the sharp edges of commerce. Morality wins, as it did in 1947, when a big man – make that two big men – act with a sense of righteousness and with history on their side.

It’s hard, I think, perhaps even impossible, for anyone born after the awful era of Jim Crow to grasp the degree to which economic, political and cultural forces were aligned to keep black Americans from jobs, health care, public services, the ballot box and the sense of decency that goes with simply being respected. It was a shameful, nasty and profoundly disturbing period of American history. One reason for young people to see the Robinson film, in addition to the well-told heroic story, is to get a taste of the appalling racism that Robinson and so many other Americans of color deal with every hour of every day.

A spectacular new book by Columbia University historian Ira Katznelson expands on the political implications of the Jim Crow era, and yes the implications still echo today, by exploring in detail the Faustian bargain Franklin Roosevelt entered into in order to push his New Deal agenda through a southern dominated Democratic Congress in the 1930’s. The Robinson story fits squarely in the history lesson Katznelson tells so well.

As Kevin Boyle wrote in reviewing Fear Itself in the New York Times, “[FDR’s] calculation was simple enough. Thanks to the disfranchisement of blacks and the reign of terror that accompanied it, the South had become solidly Democratic by the beginning of the 20th century, the Deep South exclusively so. One-party rule translated into outsize power on Capitol Hill: when Roosevelt took office, Southerners held almost half the Democrats’ Congressional seats and many of the key committee chairmanships. So whatever Roosevelt wanted to put into law had to have Southern approval. And he wouldn’t get it if he dared to challenge the region’s racial order.”

Franklin Roosevelt, Katznelson argues, made a “rotten compromise” with the southern politicians of his own party who dominated Congress in exchange for being able to govern effectively in a time of depression, war and deep and persistent fear. While FDR didn’t challenge a segregated culture, ironically the New Deal served to both prolong Jim Crow and made its demise inevitable. FDR’s “rotten compromise” fails as a profile in courage, but the Hudson River valley aristocrat who fancied himself a Georgia farmer eventually made so many changes in the way we use and view government that his New Deal made Harry Truman and eventually Lyndon Johnson possible.

In the same way that Branch Rickey, The Mahatma of baseball, saw a wrong and tried to right it, first Truman and later Johnson, fully understanding the political consequences, abandoned the old Democratic Party of Jim Crow and ushered in the civil rights era; an era of unending struggles, that still dominates politics and culture today.

Every time I read or hear about another effort to make voting more difficult for minorities in America or hear a politician suggest that “American exceptionalism” makes it clear we don’t have to worry about race and class in this “post-racial” time in our history, I’ll remember Jackie Robinson’s one-time Brooklyn Dodger teammate from Alabama Dixie Walker. Walker, a fine ballplayer and a career .306 hitter who lead the league in hitting in 1944, also led the push back against Robinson playing with the Dodgers. Walker demanded to be traded and drew up an anti-Robinson petition that he and other Dodger players were determined to present to club president Branch Rickey.

Dixie Walker’s career dried up after 1947. Rickey traded him to the lowly Pirates and he retired in 1948, but would come back to coach in the majors often working  without issue with black ballplayers. In his 2002 book The Era, the great writer Roger Kahn quoted Walker as saying: “I organized that petition in 1947, not because I had anything against Robinson personally or against Negroes generally. I had a wholesale business in Birmingham and people told me I’d lose my business if I played ball with a black man.”

Fear is a great motivator. History has a tendency to reward people who push back against it. Rickey and Robinson are in the Hall of Fame. Truman’s stock at a great president continues to rise. Johnson’s place as the president who sacrificed his party’s once invincible regional base in the south in exchange for civil rights legislation is secure. Dixie Walker told Roger Kahn the anti-Robinson petition was the “stupidest thing he had ever done,” and he regretted it for the rest of his days.

Dixie Walker was by all accounts a devoted family man who, as Harvey Araton wrote in 2010, was “without much formal education, [but] he was curious and informed. Representing N.L. players, he helped devise the major leagues’ first pension plan, suggesting its revenue be generated from All-Star Game proceeds.” None of that has helped erase the stigma of what Dixie Walker did when driven by his own fear during the season of 1947.

Time may heal wounds, but reputations are much harder to repair. The playwright said it:  “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.” Fear itself stands in the way of so much.


The Architect

For most of the nearly ten years that I spent in front of a camera at Idaho Public Television in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Peter Morrill was behind the camera making me look as good as was humanly possible. (That’s Peter nearby upstaging Big Bird). That he didn’t always succeed in making me look good reminds me of the old joke about some of us having a face well suited for radio, but Peter always tried.

By the time I left television for good late in 1985 in order to tip my toe in the churning water of politics, the guy I always counted on to get the broadcast on the air had honed his television skills to the point where he could literally do it all. He shot the film – later the video – edited and polished the script, adjusted the lights, tinkered with the graphics, everything it seemed including jawing with the engineers about tweaking the transmitter. Peter had become through sheer design and love for the box with wires and lights a complete television talent who understood the business from the perspective of the kid carrying the tripod in the field to the state legislator wrestling over the public TV budget in the Statehouse. It was a natural progression for him to become General Manager of Idaho’s system and the guy who would lead Idaho’s only true statewide media organization to great accomplishments while serving an ever larger audience.

Morrill has been rightly praised over the last couple of weeks – the legislature passed a proclamation – following the announcement of his retirement that will come later this year. Typical Peter, he’s staying around until his successor is on the job and I use that word – successor – intentionally. Someone will follow him. He’s not going to be replaced.

During his 34 years at Idaho Public Television Peter Morrill and his team have won a bucket full of impressive awards, including an Emmy and a Murrow award, somehow found the money to upgrade the entire statewide system to a digital platform and made the Idaho system the most watched per capita in the nation. All the while Morrill has had to reach more and more Idahoans who are willing to pledge a few bucks a month to support not just Big Bird and Masterpiece, but truly outstanding, high quality local productions. In the public service space, Morrill and IPTV have been leaders with live coverage of the state legislature and the courts and in offering the most serious public affairs programming available on the tube in Idaho. It’s all been done with steadily diminishing resources from the state.

At the same time Peter has been an outspoken even courageous voice in defending the public television mission as  one of the few places in the current vast wasteland of cable where serious and occasionally controversial programming can be seen. This in fact may be his greatest legacy.

Obviously, I’m a friend and admirer and far from objective. Together in the old days we made some modestly important television – a trip to the then-Soviet Union that resulted in a couple of documentaries, some pioneering statewide public affairs programming produced with minimal modern technology and important political debates, including Church and Symms in 1980. We certainly had more fun and independence than our age and experience warranted and those years produced the kind of television war stories that remain cherished memories for life. We once shut down and partially flooded the Ram Bar in Sun Valley (during the day) when a portable light got a little too close to the ceiling sprinkler system. That video still exists, I think, as do about 20 bad takes of yours truly in a Dan Rather-style trench coat trying to complete a on-camera stand-up that came close to getting the better of me and had my camera guy, the impressive Mr. Morrill, bent over in laughter.

We once put the late, great environmental writer Edward Abbey on the air in Moscow (Idaho) for a half hour interview even after the author of The Monkey Wrench Gang insisted that he be allowed to continue smoking his big cigar during the broadcast. That was, of course, in violation of any number of rules, but the show must go on. Peter walked into a Russian Orthodox church service in Moscow (Russia) with a 16 mm film camera on his shoulder after assuring our KGB-like minder that of course we wouldn’t film anything inside the church. He did, mostly without having to look through the view finder.  The less said the better about that night on the town in the capital of “the evil empire.” Certain amounts of vodka were consumed. The good news – we weren’t sent to Siberia. We interviewed then-presidential candidate and future Secretary of State Alexander Haig in the bridal suite of an Idaho Falls hotel complete with a statue – very romantic – of Venus d’ Milo over the general’s shoulder. And, we once attempted election night coverage with a couple of interesting and opinionated on-set analysts – former Governors Bob Smylie and Cecil Andrus. The fun made up for the salaries.

Critics frequently contend that public television isn’t really all that necessary in an age when any cable or satellite subscriber can locate a couple of hundred channels from the comfort of the living room couch. The truth is just the opposite. If all you want to watch is the Real Wives of.…fill in the blank, or your idea is news is O’Reilly or Maddow then you don’t need public television. However, if an occasional documentary, serious drama or music program or a political talking head that does need to shout to be heard strikes your fancy then the public channel is often your best and only bet.

Peter Morrill did what very few people in his industry do. He went from the guy who actually makes programs to the guy who actually figures out how to put and keep them on the air. He mastered the details of every aspect of the business and in the process became a nationally respected and locally effective salesman for the very idea of public television. Not a bad career. Idaho is damn lucky he made the state his home and gave so much of himself to build and sustain one of Idaho’s greatest public assets.

It was my good fortunate to be along for some of the early ride and some of the best days I’ve ever had in what some would call work. Announcing his retirement, the State Board of Education called Morrill “an exceptional leader.” That’s it. Exceptional people, with real talent and commitment often become exceptional leaders of important organizations. Peter Morrill did just that and all the thanks he receives will be less than he deserves.


The Presidents

Every president, well almost every president, eventually gets his reappraisal. It seems to be the season for Calvin Coolidge to get his revisionist treatment. The 30th president, well known for his clipped Yankee voice and a penchant for never using two words when one would do, does deserve some chops for agreeing to be photographed – the only president to do so, I believe – wearing a Sioux headdress.

Ol’ Silent Cal came to the Black Hills of South Dakota to vacation in the summer of 1927 and the magnanimous native people who considered the Hills sacred ground made the Great White Father an honorary Chief. The president fished in what later became Grace Coolidge Creek in South Dakota’s Custer State Park – the Sioux were not as gracious to the park’s namesake – and a fire lookout is still in use at the top of 6,000 foot Mt. Coolidge in the park. The Coolidge summer White House issued the president’s famous “I do not chose to run in 1928” statement to the assembled press corps a few miles up the road from the state park in Rapid City.

But all that is just presidential trivia as now comes conservative writer and historian Amity Shlaes to attempt to rehabilitate the diminished reputation of Silent Cal. Shaels’ earlier work The Forgotten Man is a conservative favorite for its re-telling of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal; policies that in Shlaes’ revisionist hands helped prolong the Depression and made villains of the captains of Wall Street who, she contends, deserved better treatment at the bar of history.

Shlaes’ new book, predictably perhaps, is winning praise from The Wall Street Journal – “The Coolidge years represent the country’s most distilled experiment in supply-side economics—and the doctrine’s most conspicuous success” – and near scorn from others like Jacob Heilbrunn who writes in the New York Times – “Conservatives may be intent on excavating a hero, but Coolidge is no model for the present. He is a bleak omen from the past.”

As long as we debate fiscal and economic policy we’ll have Coolidge to praise or kick around. The best, most even handed assessment of Coolidge is contained in the slim volume by David Greenberg in the great American Presidents Series. Greenberg assesses Coolidge as a president caught in the transition from the Victorian Age to the modern. “Coolidge deployed twentieth-century methods to promote nineteenth-century values – and used nineteenth-century values to sooth the apprehension caused by twentieth-century dislocations. Straddling the two eras, he spoke for a nation in flux.”

Two facts are important to putting Coolidge in context: he took office (following the death of the popular Warren Harding in 1923) in the wake of the American experience in World War I, which left many citizens deeply distrustful of government as well as the country’s role in the world.  Coolidge left office on the eve of the Great Depression. A nation in flux, indeed.

To celebrate President’s Day we also have new books, of course, on Lincoln, as well as the weirdly fascinating political and personal relationship between Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. There is also a fascinating new book on the relationship among former presidents – The Presidents Club. David Frum writing at The Daily Beast wades in today with a piece on three presidents who make have been great had they had more time – Zachery Taylor, James Garfield and Gerald Ford. Three good choices in my view.

Even William Howard Taft generally remembered for only two things – being the chubbiest president and being the only former president to serve as Chief Justice of the Supreme court is getting his new day in the sun. The sun will be along the base paths at the Washington National’s park where the new Will Taft mascot will join Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt for between inning races. Talk about revisionism. At 300 pounds Taft never ran for anything but an office.

One enduring truth is that every president is shaped by his times. (One day, I hope, we can say “their” times.) And over time we assess and reassess the response to the times. Reappraisal is good and necessary. A robust discussion of whether Calvin Coolidge’s economic policies were a triumph of capitalism or a disaster that helped usher in the Great Depression is not only valuable as a history lesson, but essential to understanding our own times and the members of what truly is the most exclusive club in the world – The American Presidency.

By the way, The Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University will convene a major conference on “The State of the Presidency” on February 28, 2013 in Boise. The day-long event is open to the public, but you must register and can do so online. Hope to see you there.


Themes That Repeat

When Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for re-election in 1936 the American economy was in very tough shape. Unemployment was over 16%, farm prices were awful and American big business, staggered to its knees by the Wall Street crash of 1929, was recovering, but still limping badly.

Yet, amid the dismal economic news, Roosevelt had succeeded in his first term in passing tough new banking regulations, massive public works projects like Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River in Washington State were employing thousands and Congress had endorsed something called Social Security. FDR ran for re-election 76 years ago with a decidedly mixed record. He could tout major legislative accomplishments, but lots of Americans were hurting badly. Given the awful state of the economy and voter penchant for throwing out the incumbent when the economy stinks, the conventional political wisdom would hold that Roosevelt should have lost re-election. Obviously he didn’t.

Roosevelt scored one of the greatest political triumphs in U.S. history in 1936 when he crushed the Republican ticket by winning more than 500 electoral votes and failing to carry only two states. FDR’s campaign manager quipped, “So goes Maine, so goes Vermont” – the only states the Landon-Knox ticket carried. The president’s historic landslide also pulled dozens of congressional candidates along and the House and Senate were overwhelmingly Democratic.

If the broad outlines of the United States in ’36 exhibit a more than passing resemblance to the country this year then I believe you’re identifying some of the “themes” in American politics that have an endlessly fascinating way of repeating themselves. This is a subject I’ll be exploring this week during a public talk at Boise’s Main Public Library. The Wednesday, September 12th event is free and open to all. I hope you might consider coming out for a dose of politics and history. My talk is entitled: FDR and Obama: The Difficulty of Winning a Second Term.

But, back to themes. Social Security, broadly debated and badly mishandled in 1936 by FDR’s Republican opponent, Kansas Gov. Alfred E. Landon, is clearly a recurring theme in our politics. Social Security’s sister programs, Medicare and Medicaid, keep coming round again and again and are once more in the middle of the current presidential campaign. The GOP political talking point that a left-of-center Democrat – like Roosevelt or Barack Obama this year – is pushing the country to socialism is an argument as old as the New Deal. FDR’s critics went even farther with one saying the 1936 election was a contest between “Washington and Moscow.”

The evil excesses of big business or the heavy hand of regulation thwarting business is a steady theme in our politics, as is the role of the U.S. Supreme Court. The nastiness of race and religion are also recurring themes and each played a role in 1936 and each does today.

Roosevelt used the power of his anti-big business argument, his personal likability and his amazing communication skills to win re-election in 1936. Faced with many of the same issues and armed with many similar skills, will Obama be able to pull off what Roosevelt accomplished in remarkably similar conditions three quarters of a century ago? I hope you’ll join me Wednesday for a lively discussion of how the themes of our political history run smack into the current campaign.