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Guns and Myths…

     “I can make the case that if there were guns in that room other than his, fewer people would’ve died, fewer people would’ve been so horribly injured.”

                                        Donald Trump on Meet the Press, October 4, 2015              commenting on the mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon.

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One of the challenges in assessing the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump is that you run out of words that begin to describe his idiocy and cluelessness. I haven’t used despicable for a while, so let’s use that to characterize Trump’s reaction in the wake of the horrific – and most recent – mass shooting last week in Roseburg, Oregon.

Trump: More Myths About Guns

Trump: More Myths About Guns

And, of course, the GOP front runner had to make the unthinkable tragedy of students and their teacher murdered in a writing class all about him. “I have a license to carry in New York. Can you believe that? Somebody attacks me, they’re gonna be shocked,” Trump blustered in front of a cheering crowd at a campaign rally in Tennessee.

The Republican clown then completed the trifecta of gun mythology, which includes the old canard that even more guns are the answer to mass shootings and that we should all be armed to make the country safer, when he dismissed the epidemic of mass gun murder in the United States as (and he should know) a mental health issue.

But it is about the guns…

“It’s not the guns,” Trump said. “It’s the people, these sick people.” But in fact, as everyone really knows but few willingly admit, it is about the guns, particularly when there are essentially as many guns in the society as there are men, women and children in the country, vastly more guns by population than any other country on the planet.

It’s also not about the myth of mental illness, although that certainly plays a part. Dr. Paul Applebaum, a Columbia University psychiatrist who specializes in attacks like the recent one in Oregon, told New York Magazine last week that it is a fool’s errand to attempt to deal with mass murder by attempting to predict who is capable of mass murder.

“When I heard the news of the Oregon shootings, I thought, I’m done talking to reporters about the causes of violence.” Applebaum told the magazine. Rather, he said, he had developed a one-size-fits-all statement for the media that concluded, “If you tell me that there’s nothing we can do about guns, I’d say then we’re done. We’ve conceded that we are willing to tolerate periodic slaughters of the innocent. There’s nothing more to say.’”

Over the next couple of days the horror that unfolded last Thursday at Umpqua Community College will quickly fade away as it always does after the most recent gun outrage in America, while the short national attention span will move on to something else. President Obama is certainly correct when he says mass gun murder has become so routine in America that we have trouble maintaining for more than about two news cycles the outrage that might move us to action. We aren’t just lacking in urgency about gun mayhem we just don’t care.

Police search students at Umpqua Community College last week

Police search students at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon last week

The families in Roseburg will be left to attempt to cope with their grief and loss. But we should all grapple with the haunting words in one family’s statement that the loss of their 18-year old child has left their lives “shattered beyond repair.”

Meanwhile, the political class carries on with nary a skipped beat, repeating the old, tired and lame myths about guns. The Oregon victims deserve better – much better – than the perpetuation of myth making about guns from Trump and all the other apologists for mass murder who refuse to face facts about the society’s perverse embrace of the culture of the gun.

Debunking the self defense myth (using real facts), David Atkins wrote in the Washington Monthly that the right wing gun lobby and its slavish adherents have “gone so far off the rails that reality is no longer a relevant boundary on discussion. As with supply-side economics, the benefits of gun culture are taken not on evidence but on almost cultic faith by the right wing and its adherents.”

This mind set, apparently, prompts a state legislator in Idaho to post on his Facebook page that he is “very disappointed in President Obama. Again he is using the tragic shooting in Oregon to advance his unconstitutional gun control agenda.” What a crock, but also what a widely believed crock. When it comes to guns we know what we believe even when it’s not true. Discussions – or arguments – about guns exist like so much of the rest of American political discourse – in a fact free environment. Myths about guns morph into “facts” about guns.

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

                                      – Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

The entirety of the mythology begins, of course, with the Second Amendment and the decades that the National Rifle Association has devoted to myth making about the twenty-six words of the amendment.

Former Justice John Paul Stevens

Former Justice John Paul Stevens

As former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens has brilliantly related in his little book – Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution:

“For more than 200 years following the adoption of that amendment,” Stevens has written, “federal judges uniformly understood that the right protected by that text was limited in two ways: First, it applied only to keeping and bearing arms for military purposes, and second, while it limited the power of the federal government, it did not impose any limit whatsoever on the power of states or local governments to regulate the ownership or use of firearms. Thus, in United States v. Miller, decided in 1939, the court unanimously held that Congress could prohibit the possession of a sawed-off shotgun because that sort of weapon had no reasonable relation to the preservation or efficiency of a ‘well regulated Militia.’”

…A Well Regulated Militia…

Stevens says during the tenure of the conservative Republican Chief Justice Warren Berger, from 1969 to 1986, “no judge or justice expressed any doubt about the limited coverage of the amendment, and I cannot recall any judge suggesting that the amendment might place any limit on state authority to do anything.”

In his retirement Chief Justice Burger bluntly said in an interview that the Second Amendment “has been the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word ‘fraud,’ on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”

Only fairly recently, in fact in the last decade as Stevens points out, has the Second Amendment been broadly reinterpreted by the Court – the Heller decision in 2008 and the McDonald case in 2010, both decided by 5-to-4 votes  – to sharply expand its meaning. Of course, powerful political forces, including most importantly conservative politicians and the NRA, helped to propel these changes made by the most conservative Court since the 1930’s. The gun myths grew in direct proportion to the political agenda of the mostly rightwing politicians who benefitted most significantly from the NRA’s pressure and cash.

Nonetheless, “It is important to note,” Stevens writes, “that nothing in either the Heller or the McDonald opinion poses any obstacle to the adoption of such preventive measures” – expanded background checks and bans on assault weapons for instance – that were widely suggested in the wake of the Newtown tragedy that claimed the lives of 20 children in 2012.

Justice Stevens would go farther, as would I, in returning the Second Amendment to its original intent by inserting just five additional words. A revised amendment would read: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed.”

But such a change seems unthinkable when federal lawmakers won’t risk NRA ire by even discussing the kinds of change that the existing Second Amendment clearly permits.

Rather than advancing an “unconstitutional agenda” as gun mythology would have you believe, Obama has suggested – he did again last week and will no doubt do again and again – that “responsible” gun owners should finally support common sense efforts that might begin to roll back the rate of slaughter. You have to wonder if there actually are “responsible” gun owners out there who are as shocked as some of us are about mass murder at a community college, or at a church in Charleston, or at a theatre, a shopping center, at Army and Navy bases, or in a Connecticut elementary school.

Has the NRA so poisoned the political well of reality that no red state Republican can dare say “enough is enough” and something must change? Is there no group of “responsible” gun owners willing to call the bluff of the makers of the gun myths? Does every NRA member buy the group’s more guns, no regulation logic, while blithely sending off their dues to enrich a collection of political hacks in Washington, D.C. whose real agenda is to – wait for it – maintain their influence and, of course, sell more guns?

So, while Roseburg mourns, the gun world turns away and Trump and others get away again with repeating the well-worn myths about guns. What we can be sure is not a myth is that we will be here again soon enough repeating the call for prayers for the victims and the first responders and we will, for a few televised moment at least, be stunned, while we consider the ever mounting death toll.

And so it goes. The cycle repeats. Nothing changes. A society’s inability to deal with its most obvious affliction hides in plan sight. We also quietly hope that the odds are in our favor and unlike the grief torn families in Oregon we’ll not be the next ones shattered beyond repair.


The Lessons of Carter…

“I would like the last Guinea worm to die before I do.” – former President Jimmy Carter on his campaign to wipe out the parasitic disease that has historically afflicted millions in Africa.   

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It took Jimmy Carter’s brain cancer to show me what is so sorely missing from American politics – humility and class; lack of self-pity and abundance of humor.

Mention Carter at a dinner party or a ball game and you’ll almost certainly get some spirited conversation going. The comment will likely range from “the worst modern president” to “a smart guy just not up to the job” to the “best ex-president we’ve ever had” to “history will treat him pretty well.”

ATLANTA, GA - AUGUST 20:  Former President Jimmy Carter discusses his cancer diagnosis during a press conference at the Carter Center. on August 20, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

ATLANTA, GA – AUGUST 20: Former President Jimmy Carter discusses his cancer diagnosis during a press conference at the Carter Center. on August 20, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

The news conference last week where Carter calmly, factually, stoically and with humor and grace discussed his cancer, its treatment and his long life was a sterling reminder for me of what a fundamentally decent and quintessential “American” man he is and has always been. Who in the current field attempting to grab the brass ring of the presidency has even a fraction of Carter’s self-awareness and humility?

When asked if he had any regrets, Carter said he wished he might have been smart enough to have sent another helicopter on the hostage rescue mission to Iran in 1979. Had that mission succeeded – a crash in the desert doomed the chance – Carter would have had his Bin Laden moment and might well have won re-election against Ronald Reagan in 1980. A less secure, less comfortable-in-their-own-skin public person would just have said in response to that question – “Regrets? I have no regrets…”

During the run-up to the remarkable election of 1976, I interviewed both Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter. Fresh out of college, I was working at a small radio station in eastern Iowa when Mrs. Carter came to town. In her own quiet and persistent way Rosalyn was pursuing the breakthrough “Iowa strategy” that allowed a little known Georgia governor to launch a successful presidential campaign. Carter was the first to understand that Iowa’s quirky caucus system could be a launching pad for a little-known candidate. I don’t remember what I asked the spouse of the candidate in the fall of 1975, but I do remember her poise and kindness. She had all day, or so it seemed, for a bumbling young radio reporter.

Carter with Idaho Senator Frank Church

Carter with Idaho Senator Frank Church

By early 1976, I had moved to television and to Idaho, and Carter made a stop in Boise while campaigning for votes in that state’s caucus. I distinctly remember elbowing into a hot, sticky and very crowded meeting room at the old Holiday Inn near the Boise airport to watch Carter meet the press. After answering the obligatory questions from the traveling press corps – I particularly remember a hectoring Sam Donaldson of ABC – Carter took time to do one-on-one interviews with we locals. I think I asked a probing question about whether the candidate thought he could win Idaho’s caucus vote and, of course, he said he could. He didn’t. Favorite son Senator Frank Church entered the race and won Idaho.

Still my memory of Carter all these years later – and of also of President Gerald Ford, who I also interviewed in 1976 – is that of a low-key, thoughtful, decent men in control of their egos and motivated, as we hope all candidates are, by the right reasons.

Carter’s quiet and controlled personality was once mocked by many who saw the Georgia peanut farmer as out-classed by the Georgetown set, but they had it wrong. Carter possessed real American values. He regularly taught Sunday school, – he still does – built homes for Habitat for Humanity and carried his own suit bag off Air Force One. The same quiet, understated, but effective approach has marked the work of the Carter Center in Atlanta, which has focused on health issues in Africa and the advancement of peace through democratic institutions around the world.

Carter in Nigeria

Carter in Nigeria

Carter’s post-presidential good work earned him a Nobel Prize and with nary a hint of scandal about money or purposes.

Carter’s after White House life stands in stark contrast to the activities of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Carter has let his good work speak for itself, while the Clinton’s work is subsumed amid the flaunting of their big money connections and holidays in the Hamptons. Humble it isn’t and Carter could teach them a thing or two if they where humble enough to listen.

Faced with one last and inevitably losing fight, Jimmy Carter has again struck a grace note, as his one-time speechwriter James Fallows has observed. “The 1970s are so dis-esteemed,” Fallows wrote in The Atlantic, “and Carter has been so vilified (in counterpoint to the elevation of Reagan), and the entire era is now so long in the past, that many people may wonder how Carter could have become president in the first place.”

The key to answering that question, Fallows said, and I agree, is contained in Carter’s approach to his own discussion of his perilous health and his exemplary life. If you haven’t seen the clip you should. This is the way real people talk minus the calculation and self-centeredness of political life.

The common narrative around Carter’s presidency is that he failed, but history, which rarely treats one-term presidents well, will record that the power of his will brought Israel and Egypt to peace at Camp David and his Baptist sense of right and wrong helped power the controversial decision to relinquish to the Panamanians the canal we once stole fair and square. Completion of the Alaska conservation legislation – during a lame duck session of Congress no less – will forever rank as one of the greatest conservation accomplishments by any administration. Carter’s focus on human rights in foreign affairs, again much mocked during his tenure, still demands, as it should, a central place in American policy.

Carter with Egypt's Sadat and Israel's Begin

Carter with Egypt’s Sadat and Israel’s Begin

But here is the real measure of Carter: his quiet, thoughtful approach to public life during his presidency and after is a genuine model for how to behave in the public arena. He would never have won a shouting match with a Christie or a name-calling contest with a Trump. Today we identify political leaders by their cult of secrecy and sense of entitlement, their self-absorption or that all-too-familiar strut of self-assurance without the burden of accomplishment. Carter was – and is – different.

America suffers a civility and humility deficit. It’s reflected in our politics and our popular culture. There is a coarseness, a meanness, an emptiness that sucks the air out of what is really important. The insufferable Ted Cruz, for example, a man with more self-regard than public accomplishment, waited hardly a day after Carter’s cancer announcement before taking to the stump to lambast the former president’s record. Nice touch.

Carter said he’s at ease with whatever comes, his faith intact, thankful for friends and for his vast and important experiences. We all reach this point eventually, staring our own mortality full in the face and most, I suspect, would hope to exhibit Jimmy Carter’s sense of peace about a life of purpose, meaning and service. 

For one, brief moment last week Jimmy Carter reminded us what a well-composed public life can look like. It’s not about bluster and bling, not about the nasty and fleeting. It is about decency, composure, respect, modesty and, yes, good humor. God knows we need some more of all that and a 90-year old man with brain cancer reminds us that he has done his part to try and help make all of us a little better. We should all be so lucky. 


What We Permit We Promote…

What we permit we promote.

It has all become so predictable, the banality of mass death and guns and race in our exceptional nation.

It is so predictable...

It is so predictable…

The first reports still shock – briefly. How many? Is this happening again? Why?

The somber television announcers pronounce a people shocked. Round up the usual suspects for instant analysis. He had to be severely disturbed how else to explain it? The town – this time Charleston instead of Newton or Aurora or Binghamton or Ft. Hood or Tucson – mourns the preacher, the grandmother, the track coach, the innocent murdered in a church. By one count America has had at least sixty-one mass murders by gun since 1982 and the reaction has become so predictable.

What we permit we promote.

Some of us thought it might be different, finally, after all those little kids were killed in their school. The president, the one coming after all the guns, said it was a moment to come together and address the crisis. It wasn’t and isn’t again.

Obama-Charleston-Speech-VideoCharleston was the fourteenth time during his presidency that Barack Obama has issued a statement about a mass killing and the resignation in his most recent statement was perhaps also predictable.

“At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries,” Obama said. “It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency. And it is in our power to do something about it. I say that recognizing the politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now. But it would be wrong for us not to acknowledge it. And at some point, it’s going to be important for the American people to come to grips with it and for us to be able to shift how we think about the issue of gun violence collectively.”

But this too will pass. We all know “the politics in this town” are unable to deal with reality. The candidates will move on, unable and unwilling to risk, well, anything. And we will move on, too. Once again we’ll explain it away as the inexplicable action of a disturbed loner. Guns aren’t the problem. Some will change the subject by saying it was more proof of a sinister attack on religion or that race had nothing to do with it or that as bad as it was – and will be again – these are not the kinds of problems government can fix.

We’ll talk about it on the Sunday shows. By next week the blood on the hands of the gun lobbyists will be wiped clean again and we’ll be reminded sternly that the Constitution protects our right to die in a church during a prayer meeting. Someone will invoke the Founders and someone else will remind us that a right invented by five conservative justices on the highest court in the land allows more handguns to exist in America than there are people in America. We should arm the preachers. That’s the answer.

The prayer vigils will be painful, but not so hopeful. We’ve done it so often before. The funerals in a few days will signal that we really can move on. The debate will soon enough take place about whether the young man who did it should die too. But soon his name and his actions and his .45 caliber handgun will fade away. It’s so predictable. It has happened before. Nothing more to see here. There is nothing to be done

What we permit we promote.

“The regularity of mass killings breeds familiarity,” the Economist notes, while the rest of the world stares gap jawed at our exceptional country.

“The rhythms of grief and outrage that accompany them become—for those not directly affected by tragedy—ritualized and then blend into the background noise. That normalization makes it ever less likely that America’s political system will groan into action to take steps to reduce their frequency or deadliness. Those who live in America, or visit it, might do best to regard them the way one regards air pollution in China: an endemic local health hazard which, for deep-rooted cultural, social, economic and political reasons, the country is incapable of addressing. This may, however, be a bit unfair. China seems to be making progress on pollution.”

Soon enough the painful and poignant stories about the victims will fade with only their families and friends left to wonder. The curious, deadly, hateful mix of violence and racism and guns that cut a gaping wound across American life and has since our beginnings will remain. It is so predictable.

What we permit we promote.


Packin’ in the Classroom

o-TEXAS-GUNS-CARS-CAMPUS-facebookIn more than 35 years of observing the Idaho Legislature I am hard pressed to remember another time when really controversial legislation – in this case the “guns on campus” bill – became law in the face of such wide-spread opposition from the people and institutions most directly impacted.

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter’s signature on the contentious legislation was no surprise. He signaled his support early but, given the unanimous opposition from college and university presidents, the Otter-appointed State Board of Education (SBOE), an array of student leaders and many in law enforcement, it can be counted as a mild surprise that the bill ever got to the governor. Similar legislation has died in the past.

University presidents argued that allowing concealed weapons on a college campus would inevitably lead to more overall security concerns, greater costs for law enforcement and might well impact recruitment of faculty, students and athletes. Former Idaho House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, a conservative who is also a pragmatic guy, was known during his long tenure as Speaker for killing his share of crackpot ideas. Newcomb now manages government relations for Boise State University and he told the Boise Weekly, “I had one professor tell me, ‘All my kids are going to get A’s.’ I think it changes the whole climate.”

But back to the dynamic of a part-time, citizen legislature and a governor willing to ignore the wholesale opposition of the people closest to the kids and issues on the state’s higher education campuses. More than ever the state legislature considers itself a collection of the 105 smartest people in Idaho. They’re experts on everything and never in doubt on anything. The SBOE says on its website that it “is a policy-making body for all public education in Idaho and provides general oversight and governance for public K-20 education. SBOE serves as the Board of Trustees for state-sponsored public four year colleges and universities and the Board of Regents for the University of Idaho.”

That statement is clearly not true. Some trustee that can’t impact such a fundamental issue of campus policy and safety. Some oversight, particularly when the legislature is willing to substitute its “judgment” for that of the people legally and Constitutionally charged with that responsibility. The State Board was on record early opposing the guns on campus bill and the college presidents weighed in on this issue more forcefully than on almost any issue – including budgets – that I can remember. They might as well have been shouting down a dry well.

Answer this

In the wake of the horrific Virginia Tech shooting – the seven year anniversary is in April – where a lone, mentally-ill student shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others, attorney Brian J. Siebel, then a senior lawyer with the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, suggested a variety of questions regard guns on campus in an article published in the George Mason University’s Civil Rights Law Journal. Siebel’s questions are as valid today as when the Virginia Tech shootings were dominating the news in 2007.

Do student want guns in classrooms, Siebel asked? Apparently not if you believe elected Idaho student leaders. Will students feel safer if the person next to them in chem lab is packing? Will parents be inclined to support a decision for their little Jennifer or Cameron to attend schools where guns are openly allowed, or given the attitude of the legislature, openly encouraged? What about the pressure, academic and otherwise, that many kids feel during those formative college years when grades clash with ready access to booze and worse? And will more guns on campus contribute to more suicide now the third leading cause of death among young Americans age 15 to 24? All those questions still apply to Idaho and the handful of other states that allow guns on campus. These are the kinds of questions higher education policy makers deal with every day as they worry about the welfare of young people in their charge, but these questions were largely ignored or certainly given scant attention in the recent Idaho debate. And why is that?

It’s impossible not to conclude amid the sober sounding claims that guns on campus is merely a straight forward Constitutional issue – it isn’t, that when the National Rifle Association shows up touting a gun bill the NRA’s legislative soldiers fall immediately in line. No phalanx of college presidents or concerned students can trump the political power of the gun lobby.

In year’s past the kind of opposition that came together to oppose the NRA-endorsed Idaho legislation may well have prompted a few sober-minded lawmakers to counsel a go-slow approach or, as some opponents suggested this year, a year of cooling off to really consider the ramifications of such lawmaking. But such is the lock (and load) hold of the NRA on legislators in many states that any departure – any departure at all – from the gun lobby line is considered gun rights treason.

Armed America

The Gun Report blog of the New York Times reports today that, “the executive vice president of the National Rifle Association (Wayne LaPierre) spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., last week, and after equating freedom and individual rights with gun ownership, he painted a dire picture of a country with no defense but its armed citizenry.

“Freedom has never needed our defense more than now,” LaPierre thundered from the stage, as the Times put it. “Almost everywhere you look, something has gone wrong. The core values we believe in, the things we care about most, are changing. Eroding. It’s why more and more Americans are buying firearms and ammunition — not to cause trouble, but because we sense that America is already in trouble.”

This is the rhetoric of a dystopic Hollywood movie where a handful of heavily armed super heroes hold off the evil invaders. The only sane people in Wayne’s world are those armed to the teeth, because in the richest country on the globe with a long-enduring tradition of representative democracy, we can no longer trust the police, the courts, and our elected officials to keep our freedoms. Such is the mind set of an armed America and those policymakers who keep marching in lock step with the gun lobby, while completely ignoring the bloody reality of what the NRA’s agenda increasingly means.

The Times gun blog today recounts some recent headline gun news:

“A 2-year-old boy accidentally shot and killed himself with a handgun he found at a home in Broken Arrow, Okla., Tuesday night. It is unclear how the toddler got hold of the weapon. No arrests have been made.”

“Wesley Pruitt, 13, was killed in an accidental shooting at a friend’s home in Rains County, Tex., Wednesday afternoon. The victim and his 15-year-old friend were in a bedroom when the older boy pulled the trigger of a 12-gauge shotgun, not realizing it was loaded. No word on charges.”

“A 57-year-old man was shot in the face during a home invasion robbery in Sandpoint, Idaho, late Monday. Three men were arrested after an 11-hour standoff with police.”

And so it goes day after day.

The Gun Violence Archive reports as of today 2008 Americans have died in gun-related incidents since January 1, 2014 and another 3,305 have been injured. We don’t know how many guns there really are in America, but various estimates say 270 million, at least. That number grows every day. Don’t you feel safer?

Rolling Stone magazine recently offered some statistics to back up a claim that just given the numbers regarding issues like health care, prison populations and gun violence, the United States more-and-more resembles a third-world, developing county.

“The U.S. leads the developed world in firearm-related murders,” the magazine reported, “and the difference isn’t a slight gap – more like a chasm. According to United Nations data, the U.S. has 20 times more murders than the developed world average. Our murder rate also dwarfs many developing nations, like Iraq, which has a murder rate less than half ours. More than half of the most deadly mass shootings documented in the past 50 years around the world occurred in the United States, and 73 percent of the killers in the U.S. obtained their weapons legally. Another study finds that the U.S. has one of the highest proportion of suicides committed with a gun. Gun violence varies across the U.S., but some cities like New Orleans and Detroit rival the most violent Latin American countries, where gun violence is highest in the world.”

In the America of 2014, with lawmakers in both parties in a perpetual defensive crouch to ward off any NRA-inspired assault should they dare question any element of the gun lobby’s agenda, such facts are not merely inconvenient, but more shockingly not even discussed. In the armed America of 2014, the only acceptable political answer is more guns in more places, including now in Idaho the college library and who knows were else next time.

The Pope of Hope

CVC_TNY_12_23_13_no_date_580pxAn enduring image for me of the decidedly mixed year that is fast passing away is the whimsical cover illustration of a recent New Yorker magazine of the Jesuit Pope Francis spread eagled in the snow, six-year-old like, creating a snow angel. It seems a perfect image of hope in what has often seemed to be a year marked only by discord, strife and bitterness.

From the partisan breakdown in Washington politics, including the now distant memory of a pointless and costly shutdown of the federal government and the more recent abandonment of unemployment protections and reductions in food stamp benefits for millions of Americans, to the deadly and protracted civil wars in Syria and South Sudan and the near civil war in Iraq, from media fixation on the trivial ignorance of Duck Dynasty and Anthony Weiner to the incompetence of the Affordable Care Act roll out, only Pope Francis and Nelson Mandela seemed able this year to cut through the clutter and address something important.

In a superb profile in the same New Yorker with the Argentine snow angel on the cover, James Carroll offers a nuanced assessment of the still-new Bishop of Rome. Yet you come away from Carroll’s profile and the recent reporting of other Vatican watchers believing – even hoping – that this man is the radical that both his church and the world need. And the word radical is used not in its usual polarizing political context of right vs. left, but rather in the context of a moral and spiritual leader who recognizes the need for fundamental change both in tone and substance.

Carroll recounts that the Pope is “a large man with a ready smile” who preaches with fervor and with questions. “What kind of love do we bring to others? . . . Do we treat each other like brothers and sisters? Or do we judge one another?”

Elsewhere it is reported that President Obama sees the surprising Pope as an ally with like-minded notions about the need to shrink the gulf between the world’s rich and poor. However, what Francis has and Obama struggles to obtain may make the Pope a better mentor than a kindred soul. After two successive leaders of the Catholic Church who placed a premium on doctrinaire obedience by the church and its leaders to a our-way-or-the-highway view of social issues like gay rights, contraception and abortion, the new pope seems determined to reform the Catholic bureaucracy and turn the church’s message in a new and better direction with both his words and his deeds.

Symbols are important, as presidents from Lincoln to Reagan have taught us, and Pope Francis seems to instinctively grasp that truth. He has mostly abandoned the Popemobile for a small car, lives in a two room apartment rather than the Vatican penthouse, shuns the red loafers and ermine capes, and, yes, he kisses babies. He has attacked the bloated and corrupt Vatican bureaucracy like a born-again political reformer and dismissed some bishops and scolded others for forgetting – or ignoring – the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

“The spirit of careerism,” Francis warned a recent gathering of new bishops, “is a form of cancer.” And he possessed of enough self-awareness – an indispensable political attribute  – not to shield himself from criticism. “Since I am called to put into practice what I ask of others,” he wrote in recently, “I too must think about a conversion of the papacy.” That sounds a good deal like a radical with a plan laying the groundwork for a new direction.

One suspects that Francis also is a strategic enough political thinker to understand the value of surprise, the power of the unexpected gesture. As a 76-year old with only one lung Francis could easily have been a caretaker pope, but he’s been anything but so far. Rather he seems like a man in a hurry, at least in the context of a church that is defined by glacial change, who realizes he may not have much time to change things. So, with the surprise of his symbols and the courage of his convictions the pope, it seems to me, is executing on a grand strategy.

First he must change the focus of the church from a hectoring, secretive institution that has become comfortable with constantly saying “NO” to one that actually speaks of its real purpose, which is to serve the poor, seek justice, be inclusive even with non-believers, and advocate for peace. Once that moral authority is established and the bureaucracy is better under control he can move on to even more controversial issues.

One of the many remarkable things this new pope has done is to be gentle with the man he replaced. Under different circumstances and with a different leader having the previous Pope Benedict literally living above the store could have been awkward in the extreme. But Francis has done not only the kind and Christian thing, but the politically strategic thing by tending to his relationship with the uber doctrinaire ex-pope who once led the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, the Vatican office dedicated to keeping the church in line. On Dec. 23 Pope Francis visited his predecessor for prayers and lunch, just the kind of small but telling gesture that speaks volumes and resonates on television.

Pope Francis like Mandela, another great leader who was able to transcend his circumstances, are better politicians than most politicians. They understand that change – political and institutional change – come from a careful meld of arts both soft and firm. Leadership requires both moral authority and sense of purpose. It can mean quiet persuasion delivered with a smile as well as fierce determination to succeed coupled with the energy and drive to execute on a plan. Leadership also means outwitting your opponents and, a lesson Obama has yet to learn after five years in office, a willingness to cajole, flatter and co-opt. But it begins with moral authority.

Perhaps the president’s New Years Resolution should be to not merely quote the pope’s speeches, but adopt his political tactics.

Given what may become the long lame duck presidency of Barack Obama and given the dispiriting lack of genuine leaders elsewhere in the world – think of the thuggish Putin or any of the bureaucrats running western European nations – maybe, just maybe we have reason to hope at the end of this mostly hopeless year that God does work in mysterious ways.

When most we need a reminder of what one man can do on a journey from a jail cell to the Nobel Peace Prize we end 2013 reflecting on Mandela’s remarkable life. And when most we need to believe that someone can articulate with real moral authority the universal truths of compassion, respect, inclusion and peace we at last have a Pope of Hope.


The Power of Humility

The-Pope_2514251bMy reaction to the remarkable interview with Pope Francis that dominated the international news cycle last week was hardly unique. The New York Times’ Frank Bruni wrote Sunday about having the same feeling.

“It was the sweetness in his timbre, the meekness of his posture,” Bruni wrote that was truly remarkable. “It was the revelation that a man can wear the loftiest of miters without having his head swell to fit it, and can hold an office to which the term ‘infallible’ is often attached without forgetting his failings. In the interview, Francis called himself naïve, worried that he’d been rash in the past and made clear that the flock harbored as much wisdom as the shepherds. Instead of commanding people to follow him, he invited them to join him. And did so gently, in what felt like a whisper.”

As a general rule Pope’s don’t do interviews or if they do they speak in a certain Vatican code that is as difficult to decipher as a Ben Bernacke news conference. And when a pope speaks it is not typically in a whisper. Yet, the Argentine Jesuit who has been surprising the world since moving to Rome earlier this year sat for three different interview sessions and then gave the transcript the papal seal of approval by looking it over. In all his answers he spoke like a real person on everything from the Church’s fixation with abortion and gay marriage to his own taste in movies and art. Even before the blockbuster interview that appeared around the world in Jesuit journals Francis was shunning popely convention, as well as the royal trappings and red shoes of the Bishop of Rome, by living in a guest house and working the phones.

Remarkable. Also hugely important, not just for his message of inclusion and self-reflection, but for his style. His Holiness has provided a lesson to leaders – or alleged leaders – in our modern culture, whether they be in business, politics or entertainment on how to lead.

If you are an American Catholic who believes the Church has strayed from the Gospel message focused on works of charity and taking care of the poor and disaffected the Pope’s lengthy interview provides a welcome dose of hope. For those inclined to embrace the Church’s unfailing focus on abortion and gay marriage the Pope has no doubt created some heartburn in the pews. Even the doctrinaire Archbishop of New York had to admit that the big-minded Pope had created “a breath of fresh air.”

Reading the remarkable interview one come away with the impression of a man of faith who, like most of us, struggles with that faith. In how he wages that struggle is the essence of leadership in the modern age – humility, candor, humor, an appeal to reason and above all inclusion.

Contrast Pope Francis’ approach with the senseless bickering and daily preening of small-minded leaders in Washington, D.C. Oh but to possess the certainty of a Sen. Ted Cruz, a young man who has been in the Senate for weeks and has seen his head grow daily ever larger as he speaks as the oracle of the ages that he apparently believes himself to be. So full of their convictions and themselves are Cruz and his Tea Party acolytes that they threaten, bluster and filibuster the country to the edge of another fiscal cliff to unfund a law that both houses of Congress passed and the president signed – three and a half years ago.

In the depressing aftermath of another mass murder by guns, this time in the nation’s capitol, the NRA’s mouthpiece rails against the “broken” mental health system, but nowhere hints at even a tiny bit of humbleness that might acknowledge that the gun culture the NRA helped create might – just might – have something to do with the outrageous level of gun violence in America. In this ever-so-sure world there are never shades of grey only moral certainty articulated in a loud voice.

Or consider those members of Congress like Indiana Republican Marlin Stutzman who voted recently to throw several million poor Americans off food stamps in a move that the Congressman casually says “eliminates loopholes, ensures work requirements, and puts us on a fiscally responsible path.” Mr. Stutzman’s appeal to reason doesn’t look so good when you understand that he  took away $39 billion in food assistance with one hand, while cashing in on his own $200,000 farm subsidy with the other and he wasn’t alone. A “fiscally responsible path” obviously only leads to the other guys door.

I could go on, but you get the drift. Little wonder Americans have essentially given up on their political leaders handing the Congress a 20% approval rating, which is actually up a couple of points apparently because voters are embracing Congressional reluctance to rush into another war. Imagine that. Still compared to the enormous problems we face – from gun violence to failing schools, from climate change to a middling economy – the swelled heads who might actually try to tackle those problems seem so very small, so very petty and so very lacking in humility.

As Frank Bruni wrote of the Pope, “authority can come from a mix of sincerity and humility as much as from any blazing, blinding conviction, and that stature is a respect you earn, not a pedestal you grab. That’s a useful lesson in this grabby age of ours.”

Pope Francis, the Jesuit scholar who loves Mozart, Puccini and Fellini’s films, knows something most people in modern public life seem unwilling to learn. You lead not by having the best daily soundbite or finding the newest, most novel way to insult your opponent, but by walking in the other person’s shoes, understanding their motivations and fears and by appealing not to the crassness of partisan politics, but to the sweet reason that is the product of  facts and candor and trust.

“We must walk united with our differences: there is no other way to become one. This is the way of Jesus” says the pontiff from Buenos Aires. This still new Pope is doing something Washington, D.C. hasn’t done for a long time. He’s making sense.

What Will It Take

130916190249-32-navy-yard-shooting-0916-horizontal-galleryHere are two numbers to fix in your mind as the nation once again visits an aspect of American exceptionalism that has become all-too-familiar. The numbers are 8,261 and 29 and I’ll return to them in a moment.

In the 1950’s and 60’s it took a landmark Supreme Court decision – Brown v. Board of Education – the courage and dignity of a black woman who refused to go to the back, the murder of innocents in a Birmingham church, a March on Washington, much death and violence and ultimately the breaking of Senate filibusters to begin to erase a society’s legacy of slavery and inequality.

From the 1820’s until the great Civil War the subject of slavery could barely be touched in our nation’s political process, so national calamity came calling. The south’s domination of American politics from the 1890’s to the 1960’s meant that civil rights legislation, including anti-lynching laws, access to public accommodations and the ballot box were essentially denied to black Americans, but then something changed. The American people, at least enough of them, acting through their elected representatives decided that society needed to change. A black preacher and a president from Texas, one calling us to live out our creed and the other breaking with his own and his region’s history, began to move us, as Hubert Humphrey once said, “out of the shadow of states’ rights and…into the bright sunshine of human rights.”

The change was slow, too slow, and uneven. For decades our Constitution was interpreted to allow discrimination and thereby ignore and avoid our peculiar and exceptional history. Ultimately the Court had to change along with society and politics and change came.

The political process, paralyzed thanks to special interests, fear, tradition and the next election, had to change and finally it did. The little black girls who were murdered and the white woman who was killed represented a change that, to many Americans, seemed impossible, but wasn’t impossible, only hard and necessary. The passage of the landmark civil rights legislation nearly 50 years ago did not, of course, end discrimination or stamp out racism. Ending those evils remains a constant work in progress, but few would say that America is not a different place in 2013, with a black man in the White House, than it was in 1963 when the young black preacher wrote from his Alabama jail expressing “hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”

A Too Distant Tomorrow

This morning Priscilla Daniels woke in Washington, D.C. under her own dark cloud. Her 46-year-old husband, Arthur, was killed Monday at the Washington Navy Yard in the most recent mass shooting in America. Priscilla Daniels’ 14-year-old son, Arthur A. Daniels, was shot and killed in 2009 – as his father was Monday – in the back while fleeing his murderer.

“The parallels between the deaths of her husband and son are not lost on Priscilla Daniels,” the Washington Post reports. “Aaron Alexis, the shooter in Monday’s rampage, had repeated run-ins with his military superiors and the law and was cited at least eight times for misconduct for various offenses, according to documents and Navy officials.

“The person who shot her son in 2009 — Ransom Perry Jr. of Northeast — had been arrested nine times before, including as recently as January of that year, on a charge of carrying a pistol without a license. He was sentenced to 24 years in prison. Friends say the family was just starting to come to terms with the loss of their youngest child.”

8,261 and 29

Back to those numbers I mentioned earlier: 8,261 is the number of Americans – at least 8,261 and likely more  – who have died as a result of gun violence in America since the Newtown school shootings last December 14. That is an average of more than 29 gun-related deaths in the United States every day since the death of the innocents at Sandy Hook Elementary.

I’ll leave you with this, the words of Chief Medical Officer Dr. Janet Orlowski at MedStar Washington Hospital Center where the dead and wounded were taken Monday:

“I may see this every day…but there’s something wrong here, when we have these multiple shootings, these multiple injuries—there’s something wrong. The only thing I can say is, we have to work together to get rid of it. I’d like you to put my trauma center out of business. I really would. I would like to not be an expert on gunshots…We just cannot have one more shooting with so many people killed. We’ve got to figure this out. We’ve got to be able to help each other.

“So I have to say, it’s a challenge to all of us—let’s get rid of this. This is not America. This is not Washington D.C. This is not good.”

You really have to wonder what it will take.


The Church Endures

For those of us who seek to understand the enduring Catholic Church and all its modern challenges, it is best to take the long view and to remember that the church, a religious entity, is also fundamentally a political – small “p” political – institution. 

Any institution that has survived and thrived for two thousand years is, by the very nature of its longevity, conservative, traditional and resistant to change. The truly surprisingly news that Pope Benedict XVI is planning to resign next month is just the kind of nearly unprecedented event that happens so rarely in the long history of the Catholic Church.

The last pope to resign – Gregory XII – did so amid a “crisis” in the church that makes many of the problems and challenges that face Benedict’s modern church seem almost quaint. As the New York Times noted with regard to Gregory’s long ago resignation, “Three rival popes had been selected by separate factions of the church, and a group of bishops called the Council of Constance was trying to heal the schism. In an interview with Vatican Radio, Donald S. Prudlo, a papal historian at Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, Ala., said Gregory XII had offered to resign so that the council could choose a new pope whom all factions would recognize. It took two years after Gregory XII’s departure to elect his successor, Martin V.” 

So say that the Catholic Church is in “crisis” is almost an oxymoron. The Church endures despite the crisis.

The world-wide media coverage of Benedict’s announcement has spawned a vast amount of speculation about a successor, stories about where the ex-Pope will live and, of course, competing takes on whether the resignation is proof the Church’s fundamental strength or proof of its enormous challenges. Truth be told the Church’s challenges – and there are plenty of challenges from the clergy sex abuse outrages to the role of women in the Church – nearly always take a back seat to its traditions. A transformative Pope comes along rarely. John XXIII was such a leader. The “reforms” ushered in by his combination of pastoral humbleness and the historic Second Vatican Council he convened have defined much about the modern Church and those reforms, as becomes the Church, are still both praised and lamented.

By contrast, given his substantial communication skills and while celebrating his substantial moral role in helping force the end of Communist influence in his native Poland, the much beloved John Paul II was more a consolidator of the Church’s traditional theology and skepticism of the modern world than any agent of change. Pope John Paul II made it certain that there would be a Pope Benedict. The princes of the Church who will now select the next Pope are fundamentally disciples of the two men who appointed all of them to their positions of leadership. Remember after all, nearly 100 years separated the Vatican Council in the 1860’s that put in place the doctrine of papal infallibility from John XXIII’s Council in the 1960’s that largely ended the Latin Mass. That Benedict, in the age of Twitter, surprised the world and the faithful by announcing his resignation in Latin proves how bound by history and tradition the modern church remains.

While many American Catholics yearn to see a modernizer in charge at the Vatican, a man who might lead a renewal that deals realistically with the abuse scandals, does more to bring women into Church leadership and more effectively employs the Catholic notions of works of mercy and charity to address the modern world’s challenges, the Church’s 2,000 year history holds little hope for anything like a quick transformation. The new Pope will be both a spiritual and a political leader and, in all faiths, spiritual leaders are constrained by tradition. Political leaders, most at least, are constrained by fear – change is risky and change is hard.

Popes come and popes go – more than 250 men have ruled the Catholic Church in its two millennia – but the Church as an institution endures and change comes to the institution about as frequently as a resignation of the Bishop of Rome.


For ‘Em, Or Agin ‘Em

Normally there is something to be said for consistency in politics. No one likes a flip flopper. Just ask Mitt Romney. And when it comes to consistency, blind, unyielding, not one inch consistency, no one does it better than the National Rifle Association – the NRA.

As it has accumulated political power over the last 25 years and become the most feared lobby in the country, the NRA has been nothing if not brutally consistent. For the NRA there is no room for compromise on guns and gun issues – none. If you’re in public office you are either for the NRA down the line or you are soft on the Second Amendment and not to be trusted with public responsibilities and very likely a one of those willing to standby when the government comes for the guns.

Maybe, just maybe, in light of the horrors of Sandy Hook Elementary where some of the six-year-olds suffered 11 gunshot wounds, the NRA’s brutal commitment to consistency has, at last, become a liability.

My one direct and personal engagement with the NRA’s brand of no prisoners, no negotiation politics dates back to 1986 and the moment has left a deep and jagged scar where I once naively thought actions and intentions meant more than blind allegiance to an NRA that has clearly become little more than a front group for gun manufacturers.

For those old enough to remember the 1986 race for governor of Idaho was a tough, competitive and ultimately extremely close election. As a newcomer to politics – I’d covered the business, but not been of the business – the campaign and election were a graduate education in bare knuckles, character assault and, with regard to the NRA, old-fashioned smear politics. The candidates were my boss, Cecil D. Andrus, a Democrat and as big a hunter, sportsman and gun owner as anyone I have ever known and then-Lt. Governor David H. Leroy, a young man definitely on the rise in Idaho GOP politics. Andrus had an edge with experience – he’d twice been elected governor and served in the Carter cabinet – and he spent most of the campaign emphasizing his desire to boost economic development and improve schools. Leroy, who had already been a successful statewide candidate as both Lt. Governor and Attorney General, was smart, ambitious, both well-spoken and well-funded, and determined.

The candidates and their campaigns displayed many differences, one being that in a state where hunting and fishing defined many voters’ weekends, Dave Leroy wasn’t really a hunting and fishing guy. Andrus was and still is. Enter the gun lobby.

The NRA came close – very close – to playing the spoiler in that 1986 race and, as they are wont to do, they entered the contest at the absolute 11th hour with what seemed then, and still seems, a blatantly dishonest smear.

As I look back on the race, with some years of accumulated political experience, I can see clearly now that the campaign was a see-saw affair throughout the summer and into the fall. I distinctly remember a weekend of panic in October when Andrus quietly and determinedly disappeared from the campaign hustings for three long days in order to disappear deep into the Idaho hill for his annual elk hunt. I lived in fear that some enterprising reporter would demand an interview or insist on knowing why the candidate wasn’t campaigning given how close the race had become. Knowing now what I didn’t fully appreciate then, I should have issued a statement announcing that in keeping with annual tradition the Democratic candidate for governor was, for the next few days, only making campaign appearances at his elk camp.

Andrus had not missed an Idaho elk hunt for years and nothing, not even Dave Leroy breathing down his neck, would keep him out of the hills. He’s been known to joke – yes he filled his tag last fall – that with a full freezer and a little luck he might make it through another winter. (I called the former governor yesterday to check my recollection of the NRA’s involvement in the ’86 race and it took him a while to get back to me. He was in a goose pit most of the day.)

Some people live for work, or boats, or football, or skiing, or book collecting. Andrus lives for his hunting and is proud of his gun collection, but that didn’t keep the all-knowing, all-powerful NRA from branding him as “soft” on the Second Amendment doing so at a stage in a political campaign where he barely had time to refute such lunacy.

One of the major gun-related issues at the time involved a robust national debate over the legality of so called “cop killer bullets,” Teflon-coated ammunition that it was said could penetrate a bullet-proof vest, the kind of body armor police officers had begun to routinely wear. In responding to the NRA’s always over simplified and overly dramatic candidate questionnaire, the once and future governor allowed that he hadn’t much use for Teflon-coated bullets or rapid fire assault rifles for that matter. He would later joke that he had never “seen an elk wearing a bullet-proof vest,” but such a policy position, even one coming from a life-long hunter, gun owner and supporter of the Second Amendment was heresy to the “our way or the highway” crowd at the NRA.

On the final weekend of the 1986 campaign, anti-Andrus NRA propaganda started appearing in Idaho mailboxes. Radio ads told Idaho hunters that the hunter-governor had earned a “D” rating from the gun lobby and the political operatives at the NRA had endorsed his non-hunter opponent. I spent that last weekend of that campaign writing and slapping together response ads attempting to refute the smear. In the days before email and the Internet, getting a radio ad on the air on the Saturday before an election was no mean feat, but we did it and by a narrow margin Andrus won the election.

I’ve always taken some satisfaction in knowing – Idaho is a small state – that many Idahoans who might have been inclined to vote in that election solely on the basis of gun issues had firsthand knowledge that their once and future governor actually owned and used guns. In this case the NRA’s smear didn’t work, but it left an impression. These guys don’t know the meaning of nuance and they are blindly partisan. You’re either for ’em, or agin ’em.

In the years since, the NRA has, if anything, become even more dogmatic, shriller and less open to any discussion of policy. As we now see, even in the wake of the first grade massacre in Connecticut and even given the stark realization that more than 1,000 Americans have died at the barrel of gun just in the days since Sandy Hook, the NRA tolerates no deviation from its hard line in the dust. The suggestion that constraints on military-style weapons and high capacity magazines or that national firearms policy might include sensible background checks on gun buyers brings the immediate charge that the sacred Second is being trampled, the president ought to be impeached and the “jack booted thugs” are coming to take the guns. It’s a level of political paranoia and fear mongering completely devoid of reality and on par with theories that the moon landing was faked or that an American president was born in Kenya.

The Andrus Idaho experience nearly 30 years ago, as bitter as the taste remains, actually seems pretty tame compared to the NRA’s response to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary. The NRA leadership seems to believe that it can just ignore a moral issue that requires sober, reasoned, civilized response. Time will tell whether the real sportsmen who climb into Idaho’s hills every fall and crouch in goose pits in sub-freezing weather will continue to agree.

Americans have a way of coming around to change policy and even change society in ways that once seemed impossible. Moral questions from ending slavery to establishing child labor laws to ensuring voting rights of African-Americans took years – even generations – to be addressed and some of society’s big challenges clearly remain. But perhaps, just perhaps, a civilized, moral nation can come to the realization that a constructive debate about how to try and prevent a future Sandy Hook is a mighty low threshold for a decent people to step across.

The most feared lobby in Washington did not become so feared by being constructive, reasonable, rational or fair. The NRA amassed power the old fashioned way using the same kind of intimidation and arrogance that it accuses its opponents – and even its opponent’s children – of practicing.

Emerson famously said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” The NRA’s foolish consistency in the awful aftermath of the assault gun murders of 20 innocent children does not yet mark the end of the gun lobby hold on our politics, but it may – just may – mark the beginning of the end.


Father Riffle

     It is no secret that my Catholic Church has suffered – continues to suffer – through an enormous leadership crisis. The Church’s child sexual abuse scandal remains an open wound largely because too many top leaders continue to treat it as a public relations problem rather than a profound moral failing of an entirely male dominated organization. And don’t get me started on the silly fight that the bishops of the Church have picked with the nuns, those saints on earth who in many many cases remain closer to the folks in the pews than any bishop.

All this makes the passing last week of Father Donald Riffle, a retired priest in the Diocese of Boise all the sadder. Father Riffle was there is no other way to put it, a remarkable fellow – pastoral, principled a man with a message and a wicked sense of humor who profoundly influenced so many folks fortunate enough to stumble into his path.

Riffle died January 3, 2013 while in Hawaii, a place I think he considered a bit of heaven on earth. Before his health began to slip he would joke about his regular pilgrimages to the land of sun and balmy breezes to play golf. For many years in an around his beloved golf he took good care of the faithful at Boise’s St. John’s Cathedral. Most Catholics considered Riffle’s homilies better – and his jokes spicier – than they had any right to expect from a Church that places a premium on doctrine often at the expense of a coherent message to its people. Riffle always had a message. I never saw him use a note, an index card or a script. He’d walk down from his chair at the appointed time, place his glasses gently on the alter and talk directly to me and to the several hundred folks who it often seemed came mostly to hear him preach. The guy was a remarkable communicator and one of the best speakers I have ever heard. After a Riffle homily, I’ve often thought that the Church should have set him up as a homily coach for young priests. Father Don was the best.

Father Riffle also had a remarkable facility for remembering names and after a service he would stand at the door shaking hands, hugging and calling everyone – everyone – by their first names. I remember when our oldest son was in grade school and would accompany us to Mass, Riffle would thank him for bringing the old folks to Church. He had a soft heart for Bishop Kelly High School and the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. He was known to cut the Mass short if an important football game might conflict with an overly long service.

It’s worth a confession to admit that a major reason I converted to the Catholic faith many years ago is because of Don Riffle. He was skeptical at first that I was serious and I think always harbored a little doubt that a former Methodist could really make it. Yet his was a warm, but challenging kind of faith. The kind of faith that acknowledged that for most of us every day is a struggle but that you must keep trying.

Don Riffle also taught me an enduring lesson about the power of the Catholic bureaucracy. Over breakfast many, many years ago, I was lamenting how some now forgotten issue was being handle in the dim and mysterious recesses of that bureaucracy. He smiled and essentially said to forget about trying to change such worldly things in a mammoth and often out of touch organization. Your job, he said, was to attend to the little things we can impact like an envelope in the collection basket, a box of groceries for a family down on its luck at Thanksgiving and our own daily interaction with all the other souls we come across who are, like us, struggling quietly along. The Catholic Church, a mirror to the rest of our society perhaps, is a flawed and all too human institution. It disappoints as well as elevates but at its best it bestows upon the believers a sense that we were put here for reasons bigger and more important than ourselves. Don Riffle’s life as a priest gives us reason to believe that God can do wonders here on earth and Riffle would remind us to be open to the possibilities.

There is a golf game somewhere today where every drive ends in the fairway. All the birdie putts drop and the temperature never demands a sweater. Bets are being placed on the Irish-Alabama game and no one will lose. People are smiling and the libations are tasty. I haven’t a clue what heaven is like, but I’m confident the quality of the humor and the level of the conversation is a whole lot better there today.