In 1968, journalist Tom Wicker – he covered politics and wrote a column for the New York Times – produced a little book about the diverse personalities he observed during the presidencies of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.
Wicker was an observer, not a partisan, and he had a sharp eye for detail. I stumbled across the book recently and was surprised to find it remains a compelling read – an insightful account of when political leadership works and when it fails. One passage stays with me.
“The first and most fundamental task of the American politician ought to be that of public education,” Wicker wrote, “the enlightenment of the electorate he represents, a constituency that in the nature of the case and in the process of its own busines will not have the time, opportunity, or inclination that he had to inform itself about the realities of an ever more complex and shrinking world.”
Imagine that: the chief job of a politician ought to be educating his/her constituents.
As northern Idaho plugged into the dank and dangerous waters of a health care system in breakdown it is worth pausing for a moment to consider how one entire state has reached the point where it’s first-world health care system is in chaos. Ten Idaho hospitals and health care systems are now dealing with rationing health care because their facilities are overrun with unvaccinated patients and lacking adequate staff. Republicans, it seems, have finally found their “death panels.”
The simple answer to the question of how Idaho got here is, of course, a deadly strain of virus – the Delta variant of COVID-19 – but the deeper and even more troubling answer relates to propaganda, misinformation, political manipulation, and a rank inability by many of our fellow citizens to think critically and act responsibly during a crisis.
The Idaho Capitol Sun presented a remarkable example of all this earlier this week in an interview with a physician in the mountain town of McCall, Idaho. Dr. Patrick Kinney is at the end of understanding.
“We just don’t understand why people have trusted us for years,” Kinney told reporter Audrey Dutton, “and they’ve gone through all manner of uncomfortable things on our recommendation. Right? Like every 10 years, they’ve agreed to letting us put a 6-foot camera up their butt for a colonoscopy. Every year or three years or five years … they’ll get up in the stirrups, get a cold metal speculum put in their vagina for a Pap smear. And, you know, get a flu shot and get a pneumonia shot, get a shingles shot.”
Yet, Kinney said, with this deadly virus it’s different. “It’s like you just say the words ‘COVID vaccine,’ and their faces change, their eyes glaze over,” Kinney said. “They somehow feel like they’ve got better information than we do. And I don’t understand it, I really don’t. I don’t get it.”
Here’s the cultural and political reality: the origin story of where Idaho began to change – go off the rails – goes back to when the state became the exclusive reserve of one political party that has increasingly found itself playing to the most extreme elements in that party. Idaho has become a case study of what happens to a state where political leaders, over an extended period of time, systematically underfunded education, denied science, debased expertise, and lied to supporters about a host of issues.
The breakdown in basic trust of public institutions – hospitals, doctors, health districts, scientists – the near total disdain for education and the rejection of expertise are all aspects of a political system that seeks to appease its most far out members rather than lead them. Little wonder Idaho’s vaccination rates are among the worst in the country.
Consider one example. Earlier this year, the overwhelmingly Republican Idaho Legislature voted to strip the power of local public health districts issuing orders related to public health. Only partisan county commissioners – most of whom have refused to act or embraced conspiracy and misinformation – were left with any meaningful role in dealing with the kind of public health emergency that has now taken Idaho hospitals to the edge.
“Listening to experts to set policy is an elitist approach,” Republican state senator Steven Thayn declared, as he perfectly summarized the deadly incoherence of the GOP’s governing elite. “I’m also fearful that it leads to totalitarianism,” Thayn said, “especially when you say well, we’re doing it for the public good.”
It was then totally predictable that the health district serving Idaho’s capitol city would act recently to appoint to its board a patently unqualified, COVID denying pathologist. That doctor, Ryan Cole, immediately began dispensing policy advice, the kind of advice that is apparently OK in Idaho since it conforms with what the most fevered Republican voters want to hear.
“I think we need to be prudent and say it’s time to let children be children, Delta is going to spread, we cannot stop it,” Dr. Cole told the board of a local charter school. “Everybody’s essentially going to get it.” In short: ignore science, let them die.
Cole’s advice, of course, contradicts vast expert opinion about how to control the pandemic, and completely ignores the deaths that can be prevented. Southern Idaho is almost certainly now headed toward the level of hospital crisis already overwhelming the north.
Yet, no Idaho Republican of standing – the governor, statewide elected officials, the congressional delegation, the party’s legislative leadership – has had a word to say about the lies and misinformation. Doing so, let’s be honest, would subject them to instant abuse, perhaps physical threats, and certain political challenge.
The impacts of the wholesale political manipulation of conservative voters we are seeing now has been a long time coming. The serial Republican lies – tax cuts pay for themselves, Marxists runs higher education, climate change is a hoax, liberal judges are the activists, immigrants and refugees present a danger to America, an election was stolen – and the fears these lies spawn have swamped the political right for decades. Little wonder people began to believe them.
Republican elected officials, the handful who really know better, know they have lost any ability to educate and reason with many of their followers. They stood by in silence while Fox News polluted cable television, while the crackpots at the Idaho Freedom Foundation defined the party’s agenda, while a corrupt con man took over their party, and while lies and misinformation kill thousands.
To those who harbor a belief that this will change, that reason and enlightenment will one day seep back into conservative politics, I say – get over it. Most Republicans aren’t even trying to educate and inform their electorate. They are afraid of what will happen if they suddenly begin to speak the truth. We should all be afraid of what will continue to happen now that they have quit trying.
A few items I came across this week that I hope will be of interest…
Jimmy Carter and Afghanistan
There are two excellent new biographies of President Jimmy Carter, including The Outlier by Kai Bird.
Bird had a piece recently in The Washington Monthly charting Carter’s connection to the long U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. It’s good history, and a reminder of why hot takes on current events often miss the long backstory.
“If you think America’s exit from this Central Asian country concluded a 20-year war, think again. Some forgotten history goes a long way to explaining how we got where we are. The United States first intervened in Afghanistan in the summer of 1979—six full months before the Soviet Union’s land invasion—when Carter was president. Prodded by his hawkish national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter reluctantly agreed to authorize a small covert action program to provide aid to a motley group of mujahideen guerrilla forces challenging the central government in Kabul. Take note: These mujahideen were extreme Sunni Muslim fundamentalists, and more than a decade later they would morph into the Taliban. But they were anti-communists—and for Brzezinski, who viewed the world with Cold War blinders, that’s all that mattered.”
A helpful reminder of how we got mired down in a place we didn’t understand and still don’t. Here’s the link:
George W. Bush’s Wars are Now Over. He Retreated a While Ago.
This Washington Post story is in the same category. Fearless prediction: the eventual verdict of history will not be kind to the president – George W. Bush – who initiated a war in Afghanistan and then got diverted to a war in Iraq.
“Bush’s own popularity has clearly benefited from his time out of office. Irrelevance proved to be a disinfectant. In 2018, a poll from CNN found that Bush was viewed favorably by about 6 in 10 Americans. It got to the point where another familiar face had to come out from retirement to stage an intervention.
“‘I just wanted to address my fellow Americans tonight, and remind you guys that I was really bad,’ Will Ferrell said, reprising his role as Bush for an SNL guest spot in 2018 year. ‘Like, historically not-good.’”
How to Make a Netflix-Style Documentary
I have to say – I’m a big fan of Netflix. And a fan of documentaries like the kind that you find all the time on the streaming service. Heck, I even made a couple documentaries back in the days of black and white TV.
So, this is fun.
“In this short video, YouTuber Paul E.T. shows how you can make a Netflix-style true crime documentary about anything. Even stolen toast. The equipment needs are pretty minimal – a good camera, a couple of lenses, some lighting, and a decent mic. The magic is in the editing.”
It’s short…and funny. The link:
Thanks much for reading. Stay safe.