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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.


The Defining Event

The author and historian Shelby Foote, his narrative history of the Civil War  – all 1.5 million words of it – remains one of the masterpieces of American letters, once told the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns: “Any understanding of this nation has to be based, and I mean really based, on an understanding of the Civil War. I believe that firmly. It defined us. The Revolution did what it did. Our involvement in European wars, beginning with the First World War, did what it did. But the Civil War defined us as what we are and it opened us to being what we became, good and bad things. And it is very necessary, if you are going to understand the American character in the twentieth century, to learn about this enormous catastrophe of the mid-nineteenth century. It was the crossroads of our being, and it was a hell of a crossroads.”

The crossroads of American history? Indeed.

Do we really need to understand the Civil War to understand the current debates over the role of the Supreme Court or whether the president has the authority to legally detain a person thought to present a threat to the nation? The short answer is a resounding – yes. Issues of race, the roles and responsibilities of the states in relation to the federal government, whether a state can “nullify” a federal act, our very notions of freedom and equality all have roots in the Civil War. Later this month The Andrus Center at Boise State University will welcome a distinguished group of American scholars and historians to a conference to commemorate the 150th anniversary of our defining event. We’re calling it “Why the Civil War Still Matters.”

One of those historians is Dr. Joan Waugh who teaches history at UCLA and has authored a fascinating and important book about one of the central characters of the Civil War; a dated and dusty figure who most of us only vaguely know – U.S. Grant. Waugh sat out with her book – U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth – to understand the importance of Grant, the general and the president, to his times. I hope most high school students know that Grant was the fighting general who Abraham Lincoln ultimately turned to to win the Civil War and perhaps we have some hazy notion that he eventually became a mediocre president whose administration was dogged by scandal.

But in his time, Grant was much, much more; a figure considered by his fellow Americans as worthy of mention in the same breath as Washington and Lincoln.

“From April 9, 1865,” Waugh writes, “Grant emerged as the top military victor, but importantly as a magnanimous warrior of mythic status to whom the people of the re-United States turned for leadership time and again in the years after Lincoln’s assassination.” Think for a moment of the importance of Grant the military victor who brought defeat to the rebel southern states and then helps advance the long cause of reunification by virtue of him magnanimous attitude toward the very people who had tried to kill him and the country.

As difficult as our national challenges of race, equality and sectional division remain today, it is not at all difficult to imagine that without Grant, the magnanimous warrior, our national reconciliation may never have happened. This is the kind of story that Shelby Foote knew defined American character down to the present day. Today politicians from across the political spectrum toss around illusions to the Constitution like so many focus group tested sound bites, but the Civil War was all about the Constitution and the enduring meaning of the words to create “a more perfect Union.” For that reason and so many more our generation must confront again and again this national history and its meaning today.

More information on The Andrus Center conference on the Civil War – Why the Civil War Still Matters – can be found at The Center’s website: www.andruscenter.org.

 The conference will take place on October 25, 2012 and is open to the public. It promises to be a day of enlightenment, entertain and relevance.



The Defining Moment

It has always fascinated, even confounded me that hundreds of thousands of young men from farms and factories, Irishmen and Germans, rich and poor put on the Northern blue and fought a devastating Civil War for four years for the idea – the concept – of “Union.”

Of course the great and terrible American Civil War – across the country we are commemorating its 150th anniversary – eventually became a war to end slavery, but it certainly didn’t begin that way. The war that it is now believed claimed the lives of 750,000 Americans, North and South, was, as University of Virginia historian Gary Gallagher has argued, a war to preserve the very idea that a still new nation could survive – in one piece.

Gallagher’s latest book on the war – he’s written seven himself and co-authored or edited twice again as many – is called The Union War. Gallagher makes the case that as vital – and morally correct – as ending slavery was, preserving the idea of the still young nation was pretty important, too and that idea of Union is worth considering anew.

Gallagher quotes Abraham Lincoln early in the war as saying: “For my own part, I consider the central idea pervading this struggle is the necessity that is upon us, of proving that popular government is not an absurdity. We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose. If we fail it will go far to prove the incapability of the people to govern themselves.”

I’m delighted that Professor Gallagher and half a dozen other distinguished historians of the Civil War will be in Boise on October 25th for what proves to be an interesting, provocative and enlightening conference on the war organized by The Andrus Center at Boise State University.

Gallagher will keynote the conference with a talk entitled: “The Civil War at the Sesquicentennial: How Well Do Americans Understand Their Great National Crisis?”

Gallagher’s recent book has sparked some controversy because he has sifted the evidence in search of the real motivation for the fighting on both sides and re-interpreted much of what we have long taken for granted about the war. Such is the nature of the great conflict. It has been said that we have never stopped fighting – or debating – the war.

For example, slavery ended with the war, but racism hasn’t ended. We have the first black president in the White House, but his presidency has been haunted by age-old demands for greater “state’s rights” on many things and our country is now as politically divided as at any time since, well, the Civil War. Arguments persist about displaying the “Stars and Bars,” the Confederate battle flag, over southern state capitols and there is plenty of room to debate Lincoln’s arguably unconstitutional crack down on the partisan press and suspension of habeas corpus.

I would argue that the Civil War is the defining event in our national story. It was fought from 1861 to 1865, but in some respects the personalities, the impact, the controversy, the relevance are with us still. I’ll offer more thoughts on the great American trial this week and hope loyal readers might consider devoting a day in October to thinking anew about the Civil War at a conference we’re calling – Why The Civil War Still Matters.


To Be Thankful

Grand CanyonA Grand Canyon

Looking for something to be thankful for this holiday season?

Lift a glass to the memory of the 26th President of the United States. He saved the Grand Canyon – saved it, I’m convinced, so that I could have the marvelous experience of standing at its rim on a cold, clear Christmas Day knowing that there are some things too perfect to let the heavy hand of man intrude.

Theodore Roosevelt called the Grand Canyon “the most wonderful scenery in the world” and compared it to “ruined temples and palaces of bygone ages.” It is a temple and thank God Roosevelt had the vision and grit to protect it from the zinc and copper miners who were – its hard to believe today – determined to exploit the Canyon in the early days of the 20th Century.

On May 6, 1903, as part of his celebrated “loop tour” that took Teddy to Yellowstone, Yosemite and eventually the Grand Canyon, Roosevelt stood at the south rim and spoke words that still ring with universal truth and his vision. TR’s trip, the longest and most ambitious ever taken to that point in presidential history, is recounted beautifully in Douglas Brinkley’s fine book The Wilderness Warrior.

Reflecting on the majesty of what the locals called “the big ditch,” Roosevelt said simply, “You cannot improve upon it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. Keep it for your children and your children’s children and all who come after you as one of the great sights for Americans to see.”

When Congress failed to act on his request to protect the Canyon as a National Park, Roosevelt took his own action on January 11, 1908. Now, there’s something to be thankful for.

Timothy Egan

EganA Voice of the West

Tim Egan, who writes an on line column for the New York Times website, had a marvelous piece earlier this month. He called it “My Summer Home” and it was an ode to the vast expanse of America – our public lands – that all of us own.

Egan wrote of an early trip with a friend, also named Tim, and the land they found was theirs and is ours, all of us.

“It was ours, Tim and I came to understand, all of it. We owned it — lake, mountain and forest, meadow, desert and shore. Public land. We could put up our tents and be lords of a manor that no monarch could match. We could hike in whatever direction our whims took us, without fear of barbed wire or stares backed by shotguns. We could raft into frothy little streams, light out for even bigger country, guided only by gravity.”

Good stuff and the kind of thing you can hear first hand from Egan on October 6th in Boise. The Andrus Center for Public Policy, in cooperation with the Ted Trueblood Chapter of Trout Unlimited, is hosting an appearance and book signed for Tim at the Rose Room in downtown Boise. The event is free and open to the public and begins at 6:30 pm.

Tim will talk about his latest book – The Big Burn – and copies of that page turner will be available thanks to Boise’s Rediscovered Books. The Big Burn is a fascinating account of the devastating fires that scorched so much of northern Idaho, Montana and Washington in 1910. Wallace, Idaho virtually burned to the ground. Egan places the fire story in the larger of context of natural resource politics, the birth of the U.S. Forest Service and the legacy that big ol’ fire carries to this day.

Come on down on October 6th. It will be a good time with a good guy and a great writer.

Now…For Something Completely Different

Andrus CenterCivility in Public Life – Now There’s an Idea

Jim Leach, the former Republican Congressman from Iowa and now chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, will be in Boise a week from today as part of his national civility tour.

I’m happy, through the Andrus Center for Public Policy, to be involved in hosting a lunch and speech from the chairman on June 11th. A small number of tickets remain for Leach’s speech entitled “Civility in a Fractured Society.” If you’re interested visit the Andrus Center’s website.

During a recent speech on the civility subject in Salt Lake City, as the Tribune reported, Leach “recalled an episode from Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War , in which even the cultured state of Athens murdered, enslaved and colonized the people of the island Melos for refusing to help fight Sparta.”

The former 30-year congressman said: “The lesson is that even great nations sometimes lose their way,” he said. “We’re going to have to think about whether or not we remain one country that moves together, but can also accommodate a wide variety of views.”

The lesson – U.S. challenges at home and around the world require real understanding, civility and a sense of history; not to mention tolerance.

Jim Leach is an interesting, thoughtful guy who has spent a good part of his life in politics and knows the value of engaging our adversaries armed not only with strength, but with understanding, debating our political opponents with decency and practicing the arts of democracy with civility.

By the way, Boise State University President Bob Kustra will be interviewing Jim Leach on his Boise State Public Radio show – 91.5 FM – today at 5:30 pm and Sunday at 11:00 am. The Idaho Statesman’s Dan Popkey has also interviewed the chairman, so look for his piece soon.

Civilization Requires Civility

leachNational Civility Tour Comes to Idaho

Jim Leach is on a mission. The former Republican Congressman from Iowa, now chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), has the passionate belief that we’re shaking the foundations of our democracy by the way we handle our political discourse. Leach is on a mission for civility.

In a speech last fall in Nebraska, appropriately entitled “With Malice Toward None,” Leach said:

“The public goal should be to recognize that it is great to be a conservative or libertarian; great to be a liberal, a moderate, or progressive. But it is not great to hate. It is not great to refuse to respect one’s fellow citizens at home and refuse to endeavor to understand fellow peoples abroad.

“The decency and fairness with which political decisions are made are generally more important than the outcome of any issue. The ‘how’ almost always matters more than the ‘what.'”

Leach should know. He spent 30 years in Congress, rose to the top ranks, lost re-election in 2006, taught at Princeton and was tapped by President Obama to run the Endowment last year. Almost immediately he launched a 50-state “civility tour” talking about the importance to a functioning democracy of understanding and not demonizing your political opponents. He talks about the search for “the common good,” not just partisan advantage. Leach has a politician’s experience and a scholar’s disposition. Believe me, that is a rare but valuable combination.

The Andrus Center for Public Policy – I serve as the Center’s volunteer president – will host Leach for a lunch and talk on June 11th at the Grove Hotel in downtown Boise. The Idaho Humanities Council, the state – based affiliate of the NEH – has been instrumental in getting the chairman to Idaho. Leach will speak on “Civility in a Fractured Society.”

Leach doesn’t call for the abandonment of fiercely held political principles, but rather that we not start the political discourse by assuming that the other person’s position is automatically suspect and therefore not worthy of consideration. It is a message the Andrus Center embraces. The Center was formed in 1995 to help carry on the approach to public affair that the four-term former Idaho governor embodied – vigorous, but civil debate that sought to find win-win solutions.

Seating for the luncheon and speech is limited and you can reserve a spot online at the Center’s website.

As columnist Jamie Stiehm noted recently in U.S. News – to steal Dr. Samuel Johnson’s phrase – “we’ve become good at hating,” but not so good at being civil. Jim Leach is trying to save us from ourselves. Let’s hope he’s making progress.

Collaborate or Litigate

Life in the WestAndrus Conference Considers A Better Way

If you want a sense of how often public policy in the American West regarding land use or the environment is made in a courtroom, just Google the name of any one of the last half dozen Secretaries of the Interior.

You’ll get lots of hits: Alaska v. Babbitt or Defenders of Wildlife v. Kempthorne or Andrus v. Shell Oil Company. Much of the litigation results from a legitimate need to sort out claims to competing rights. My right to use the land or drill for oil versus some other right to protect a species or complete a process.

But a good deal of the litigation over what we might broadly call “the environment” comes about because legitimate competing interests can’t find a basic level of trust in the other side to try and sit down and hash out a compromise that leaves the lawyers advising rather than suing. That may be changing a little as so called “collaborative processes” produce significant win-win situations in various places in the West.

Last Saturday’s Andrus Center conference in Boise highlighted two successful and very different collaborations in Idaho.

One – the Owyhee Initiative – resulted in legislation that both protects some of the most spectacular river canyon country in the U.S. and helps preserve a rural way of life in the rugged ranching country of southwestern Idaho. Fred Grant, a property rights lawyer who worked for eight years on the collaboration, told the conference his willingness to come to the table with the once-hated enviros had cost him friends, but the payoff had been worth all the heartburn and hard work.

The second collaboration has been underway in eastern Idaho in the Henry’s Fork drainage where irrigators, environmentalists and federal agencies meet regularly to work through water and habitat issues. They’re not looking for legislation, but rather a constructive forum to work on problems. With the Henry’s Fork Watershed Council they seem to have found the forum.

The Idaho Statesman’s Rocky Barker covered the conference that also featured Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell and BLM Director Bob Abbey. Rocky’s piece today offers more insight into how the collaborative process is working in the Henry’s Fork basin.

Over the next few weeks the Andrus Center – I serve as the Center’s volunteer president – will distill the innovative thinking from the conference, produce a “white paper” and engage a working group in an attempt to create more forward progress focused on collaboration rather than litigation. Look for more follow up.

Collaboration that solves problems and builds trust has to gain more traction in an American West where fundamental values – open space, wildlife habitat, clean air and water, working landscapes that support ranching and resource utilization – are in danger in a changing economy and a changing climate.

To some, as former Idaho Governor Cecil Andrus likes to say, the word “compromise” is an unclean concept. But, if you believe as I do, that personal relationships built on trust are what ultimately make the world go round, then finding a way to collaborate and not litigate really is the path to a better future in the often contentious American West.

Life in the West

ACPPAndrus Center Explores Land Issues, Challenges

When Bob Abbey, the director of the Bureau of Land Management, testified before Congress last year during his confirmation hearing he talked about the need for common sense communication around the many demands on the 256 million acres of our land that he manages.

“We can achieve our common goals and better serve the public by working together while we continue our discussions on issues where we might disagree,” Abbey told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

That statement is a pretty good summary of the 15 year old philosophy of the Andrus Center for Public Policy.

The Center, chaired by the former Idaho governor and Secretary of the Interior, will host Abbey and the nation’s other major land manager, Tom Tidwell, the Chief of the Forest Service, at a day long conference in Boise on May 1st.

Registration for the conference – Life in the West: People, Land, Water and Wildlife in a Changing Economy – began yesterday at the Center’s website.

As Dr. John Freemuth, the Boise State University political scientist who serves as the Center’s Senior Fellow, has written:

“Whether it is lost habitat, wolves, or the many other battles stemming from different values, many worry that a livable and familiar Idaho could slip away under economic and other pressures. At the grassroots level there have been a number of efforts and partnerships underway in Idaho that might have something to teach us about building necessary “civic capacity” as we try and grapple with this landscape level change at the state level. We want hear hear and learn from some people involved in these efforts, in order to better see what might be needed to build a sustainable political and social coalition to work successfully all around the state.

“This Andrus Center conference will develop a set of action items designed to build on current successes in Idaho and elsewhere and commit to a follow up of these action items over the next several years by tapping citizens and leaders committed to making our capacities grow.”

If you are one of the thousands of Idahoans who care deeply about the use and future of our public lands, you will want to be part of this conversation. As Cece Andrus has often said, the best ideas come about when people check their guns at the door, sit down together to understand the point of view of others and come away with common sense conclusions. The many thorny issues – energy, water, wildlife, access – that confront us in the West certainly need a common sense touch.

I hope you’ll join us on May 1st at Boise State University.

A Delicate Balance

Perry_Mason showIt’s Not As Easy As They Made It Look

In the old TV series, Perry Mason always wrapped up the case in the last few minutes of the show, tied a ribbon on the verdict and went out for a cocktail, or whatever, with Della Street. If only it were that easy in real life.

The American system of justice is often complicated, confusing, contentious and cumbersome. It is also central to our form of government.

On April 15th in Boise, the Andrus Center for Public Policy – I proudly serve as the volunteer president of the Center – will host with the Idaho Press Club a half day seminar that will dig into some of the complications of the justice system, particularly as they relate to the media. The seminar – we’re calling it “A Delicate Balance” – is also supported by the University of Idaho College of Law and the Idaho State Bar. Members of the bar can earn two continuing legal education (CLE) credits for attending.

The seminar at the Boise Centre is open to the public – there is a $10 registration fee – and will be, I believe, both interesting and entertaining to anyone who cares about how our justice system works and how its workings are reported by the media. Register on line at the Andrus Center website and look over the seminar agenda.

Idaho’s Chief Federal Judge B. Lynn Winmill will keynote the seminar and be joined in a panel with, among others, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, the Idaho Statesman’s Dan Popkey, Todd Dvorak of the Associated Press, Betsy Russell of the Spokesman Review nd prominent Idaho attorney Walt Bithell. University of Idaho Law School Dean Don Burnett will participate in the panel and offer remarks.

Some years back, the Andrus Center adopted as a part of several of its policy conferences a “Socratic dialogue” method of engaging participants in a discussion of difficult, contemporary issues. We’ll take that approach again on April 15th. I’ll present a hypothetical scenario to the panel and they’ll work through some of the issues that often occur when the Constitution’s guarantee of a fair trial comes in conflict with the First Amendment protections of a free press. It will be fun and provocative. Participants in the Andrus Center/Press Club seminar are also invited to attend the College of Law’s Bellwood Lecture reception also at the Boise Centre. The reception will begun upon completion of the seminar.

Hope you’ll attend. I’m guessing that even Perry Mason could benefit.