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Defining Moments…

Truly defining moments are rare in our politics. They come around perhaps once a decade or so, but when they do occur they often signal a massive change in public attitudes, even to the point of taking a contentious issue off the political table or redirecting the political trajectory of the country.

A defining moment...

A defining moment…

The Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 signaling the beginning of the end of segregated public schools was such a defining moment even as many Americans continued to vigorously resist the direction set by the Court. Even opponents of the decision were hard pressed to deny that a political Rubicon had been crossed. “Separate but equal,” a legal standard in effect for more than half a century, would no longer pass Constitutional muster and the legal and moral authority of the Supreme Court was now behind that position.

Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act a decade later would qualify as the same kind of defining moment.

More and more, Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 is viewed as a defining moment in American politics. Conservative principles soared with Reagan’s election, Republicans captured the Senate and Reagan and subsequent conservative presidents were able to cement a conservative majority on the Supreme Court.

Defining Changes in American Politics…

After each defining moment, our politics changed. Support or opposition to the Brown decision or how a politician voted on the Civil Rights Act would now become the measure of where a politician stood on civil rights. Those on the losing side – Barry Goldwater for instance, would forever carry the distinction of opposing civil rights.

ReaganReagan’s election ushered in a long period of reassessment of the size and scope of the federal government and helped shift the allegiance of many conservative white voters from the Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt to a Republican Party defined by the Gipper. We still feel the political pull and tug of all these moments.

The deeply engrained features of our political system – checks and balances, separation of powers, federal-state relations and intense partisanship – limit the opportunity for truly defining moments. But last week’s landmark Supreme Court decisions effectively settling two of the most contentious issues in current American life – the fate of the Affordable Care Act and the future of same sex marriage – show that the Court, perhaps more than legislators or presidents, now creates our defining moments.

Crispness of decision and clarity of direction rarely happen in our politics, but when it does occur it presents an equally rare moment when politicians, if they choose, can re-calibrate and re-position. This is such a moment.

The smart GOP presidential candidates will gradually begin to adjust their positions and rhetoric on Obamacare and same sex marriage knowing that, as one GOP consultant said after the same sex marriage ruling, “Our nominee can’t have serrated edges. Like it or not, any effort to create moral or social order will be seen as rigid and judgmental… Grace and winsomeness are the ingredients for success in a world where cultural issues are at the fore.”

Sharpening the serrated edges…

But the shrill anti-gay marriage, cultural warrior rhetoric of a Mike Huckabee or a Ted Cruz may in the near term do more to define the Republican Party for voters, particularly younger voters, than any subtle shifting of position and language coming from a Jeb Bush or a Chris Christie.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz

Texas Senator Ted Cruz

Cruz, a former Supreme Court clerk and an Ivy League educated lawyer should know better, but he’s saying in the wake of the same sex marriage decision that the Court’s ruling is not binding on anyone not specifically involved in the case before the Court. It’s a ridiculous and incorrect argument made, one assumes, simply to seek favor with those most opposed to the landmark decision. The same can be said for the phony argument that legalizing same sex marriage constitutes an assault on religious freedom. It won’t fly because it isn’t true.

Cruz’s approach is simply sharpening those “serrated edges” that can only cut the next GOP candidate. Cruz, Huckabee and a few of the other GOP pretenders obviously are unwilling or incapable of moving on from a defining moment, which just postpones the moment when the Republican Party begins to appeal beyond its Tea Party base.

The Texas senator notwithstanding, one or more of the other candidates can re-define themselves – if they choose – by deciding to appeal to the majority of Americans who support what the Supreme Court said about marriage and health care rather than continuing to cater to those Republican primary voters who want to continue the fight over issues that have now been settled. The one who does opt to re-define will be taking a calculated political risk, but it will be the kind of risk that may serve to separate the risk taker from a crowded field that increasingly will be seen by many voters as living in the past, or worse living in an alternative universe.

You can bet that the more skillful candidates in the GOP field – Bush, Christie and soon Ohio Governor John Kasich among them – are trying out this strategy and its talking points in front of a mirror somewhere. If they are not testing the talking points they’re preparing to lose another election next year.

Idaho, a state whose politics I know best, is also at such a crossroads. The overwhelmingly Republican legislature and the very conservative governor have vehemently opposed same sex marriage (and spent thousand of dollars to defend what we now know was an indefensible position) and have also refused to amend the state’s human rights statute to provide basic anti-discrimination protection to gay, lesbian and transgender citizens. Now that the United States Supreme Court has settled the same sex marriage issue, in effect nullifying Idaho’s Constitutional prohibition, the issues are clearer than ever.

All that is left is bigotry…

Richard Posner, a conservative U.S. Court of Appeals judge appointed by Reagan whose also teaches at the University of Chicago law school, has written one of the most insightful critiques of the various dissents in the recent same sex marriage case. Stripping away all the political smoke about protecting religious freedom, Posner writes, reveals that the only grounds for opposing same sex marriage, and I would add anti-discrimination protections for the LGBT community, is simply “bigotry.” Posner, pulling no punches and refreshingly so for a judge, also called Chief Justice John Roberts’ same sex marriage dissent “heartless.”

Judge Posner photo by Hugh Williams

Judge Posner photo by Hugh Williams

“I say that gratuitous interference in other people’s lives is bigotry,” Judge Posner wrote in Slate. “The fact that it is often religiously motivated does not make it less so. The United States is not a theocracy, and religious disapproval of harmless practices is not a proper basis for prohibiting such practices, especially if the practices are highly valued by their practitioners. Gay couples and the children (mostly straight) that they adopt (or that one of them may have given birth to and the other adopts) derive substantial benefits, both economic and psychological, from marriage. Efforts to deny them those benefits by forbidding same-sex marriage confer no offsetting social benefits—in fact no offsetting benefits at all beyond gratifying feelings of hostility toward gays and lesbians, feelings that feed such assertions as that heterosexual marriage is ‘degraded’ by allowing same-sex couples to “annex” the word marriage to their cohabitation.”

What possible reason can there be for Idaho legislators or those in a number of other states to continue to resist basic human and civil rights protections for gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender citizens of their states? The only grounds, as Judge Posner says, is nasty and enduring bigotry – not a winning political position.

The value for a politician in seizing the opportunities presented by a defining political moment can be clearly seen in the actions of South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley regarding the future of the Confederate flag.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley along with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) (R) and other  lawmakers and activists delivers a statement to the media asking that the Confederate flag be removed from the state capitol grounds.(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley along with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) (R) and other lawmakers and activists delivers a statement to the media asking that the Confederate flag be removed from the state capitol grounds.(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Washington Post profile of Haley proclaims that the governor made the move from “Tea Party star to a leader of the New South” when in the wake of the horrific murders of nine black Americans in a Charleston church she called for removal of the Confederate flag from the state capitol grounds.

The Post may overstate Haley’s transformation just a bit, but when the governor is quoted as saying, “This flag didn’t cause those nine murders, but the murderer used this flag with him as hate to do it…And this isn’t an issue of mental illness, this is an issue of hate,” she is certainly leading public opinion – transforming herself and the flag issue – at a moment of stark clarity about what should happen with the central symbol of white supremacy and bigotry.

The difficult things to do…

The most difficult thing to do in politics is to say “no” to your friends. The second most difficult thing is to take a risk stepping away from a divisive issue that has moved on. As a candidate you can chose to point a new direction or you can stir the disaffected by continuing to turn over the nasty residue of anger and defeat.

All the evidence is in: Americans increasingly feel comfortable with same sex marriage, young people overwhelmingly so, and many Republicans – three hundred prominent Republicans appealed to the Court to legalize gay marriage – are saying that it’s just time to acknowledge that reality. Republicans have spent much of the last six years doing everything possible to dismantle or destroy Obamacare without proposing any real alternative, while the polls tell us more and more Americans support the law. Now the question becomes whether one of the GOP candidates can lead the party out of its dismal swamp by risking a break with its most reactionary members or whether for one more election Republicans will keep looking back, while the times, the politics and the country move on.

Imagine one of the Republican candidates simply saying something like this on the marriage issue: “You know I understand the feelings of many of my friends on this issue, but I have also heard and understood what the highest court in the land and most of my young friends have to say. They’re saying that a same sex couple’s marriage just isn’t a threat to me and my marriage nor is at any kind of threat to you and your marriage. The couple living next-door – gay, straight, Christian, Jew, Mormon, atheist – in no way prevents me from embracing my religious beliefs. To say that it does is playing on fear and intolerance that is not my idea of America. The American ideal is inclusion, acceptance and respect, not bigotry. Those are the values that I embrace and I hope all Americans do, as well.”

I’m not holding my breath expecting to hear such a speech, but I am hoping. A basic rule of politics after all, and this applies particularly to the Republican presidential field, is to quit digging when you find yourself in a hole.

Love, dignity, commitment, communion and grace…

David Brooks, a thinking person’s conservative, offered a variation on this “seize the moment” idea when he suggested in his New York Times column that it was time for social conservatives to recalibrate their strategy after the Supreme Court decisions.

‘I don’t expect social conservatives to change their positions on sex,” Brooks writes, “and of course fights about the definition of marriage are meant as efforts to reweave society. But the sexual revolution will not be undone anytime soon. The more practical struggle is to repair a society rendered atomized, unforgiving and inhospitable. Social conservatives are well equipped to repair this fabric, and to serve as messengers of love, dignity, commitment, communion and grace.”

That is an important and principled thought. A serious and conservative political leader could do a lot of good for the country by embracing it.


America’s Great War…

The marvelous British historian David Reynolds argues in his latest book – The Long Shadow – which explores the lasting legacies of World War I, that every country has a national narrative about its “great war.”

Photo - The Telegraph

David Reynolds author of The Long Shadow. Photo, The Telegraph

For Great Britain the “great war” remains World War I, which is being commemorated right now with solemn ceremonies, television documentaries, a raft of new books and even government financed field trips by school children to France to witness first hand the trenches and cemeteries where many of a generation fought, fell and remain.

War deaths from Great Britain, including those who died from disease and injury, were more than 700,000 from 1914 to 1918. The total reaches nearly a million when the soldiers of the empire are counted. The Great War, more even that World War II, remains a searing event in modern British history and memory.

America’s Great War…

In the United States, by contrast, the Great War remains, in Reynolds’ phrase, “on the margins of American cultural memory.” Our “great war” Reynolds correctly contends – the war that never ends for Americans – is the Civil War. More than three-quarter of a million Americans died. “More than the combined American death toll in all its other conflicts from the Revolution to Korea, including both world wars.” Our great war re-wrote the Constitution, ended slavery, realigned American politics and touched, often profoundly, every family and institution in the re-united nation. It also caused the death of our greatest president and cemented decades of resentment and hatred in a sizable chunk of the population.

Confederate troops under their flag

Confederate troops under their flag

“Both the Union and the Confederacy,” the British historian writes, “claimed to be fighting for ‘freedom’ – defining it in fundamentally different ways…in retrospect the dominant American narrative has represented 1861-1865 as a crusade to free the slaves, yet the unresolved legacies of slavery rumbled through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement, and the ‘Southern strategy’ – not even settled by the election of the country’s first black president in 2008.” That pretty well sums it up.

Yet the legacies of our “great war,” engaged afresh in the wake of the recent horrible events in South Carolina, never seem to be completely acknowledged by our political leaders. The war, many seem to believe, can be rightly treated as a cultural artifact, a historic aberration or a mere blip on the national path to the perfect Union. But the war remains with us in big ways and small, including in the rebel flag.

South Carolina Capitol

South Carolina Capitol

As symbolically and practically important as are the call by the Republican governor of South Carolina to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state capitol grounds and the moves by Walmart, Amazon and others to quit selling Confederate-themed merchandize, the war over our great war, including its meaning and importance, will continue. The battle goes on, in part, because even a century and a half after the war ended our national conflicts about race, civil rights and national and state politics are fueled by two great and hard to combat realities – myth and ignorance.

Losing the War and Winning the Legacy…

Scarlett and her "boys of the Lost Cause..."

Scarlett and her “boys of the Lost Cause…”

The South lost the Civil War, but in very important ways won the war to define the conflict. The still greatest Civil War film, for example, is Gone With the Wind, a glorious piece of Hollywood myth making that helped ensure that Scarlett O’Hara’s love for her southern home, Tara, and her determination to survive evil Yankee depredations would frame our great war as a noble “lost cause” fought to maintain a genteel Southern culture. It’s all hooey done up in hoop skirts. Myth with a southern twang.

The noble Ashley Wilkes, a cinematic stand in for Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson, was a traitor who took up arms against his country. Scarlett, the determined southern belle, aided and abetted the rebellion in order to maintain her piece of the South’s slave dependent economy. One commentator described Scarlett as the “founding Mother of the Me Generation,” unwilling to bother her pretty little head about anything beyond her own self-interest. An enduring line from the film, the Best Picture of 1939, is Scarlett’s dismissive line: “I’ll think about that tomorrow.” So it goes with our great war and its meaning.

As laudable as her actions are in calling for the flag to come down in South Carolina, Governor Nikki Haley still seems to embrace another great myth about the war. She said this week that some troubled souls, like the alleged killer of nine black Americans at a prayer service in Charleston, have “a sick and twisted view of the flag” and that those who simply respect southern “heritage” by displaying the flag are effectively victimized by those who embrace the banner as the ultimate racist emblem. This distinction is another myth.

The American Civil War was fought to maintain a way of life all right, but that “heritage,” that way of life, was all about maintaining slavery and white supremacy. While we’re taking down the Stars and Bars perhaps we ought to petition Turner Classic Movies to send Rhett and Scarlett off to a museum, too.

Myth + Ignorance = Politics…

The myths about our great war also feed directly into a shocking degree of ignorance about the seminal event in American history. Numerous studies have shown that many students have trouble placing the Civil War in the right decade of the 19th Century and some, even at very  good public universities, don’t know who won the war or why it was fought.

The 1948 Dixiecrat ticket

The 1948 Dixiecrat ticket

As ignorance intersected with mythology over the decades the Civil War became about “heritage” and “culture” rather than violent opposition to African-American civil rights. Meanwhile, politicians from Pitchfork Ben Tillman to Strom Thurmond to Richard Nixon invoked “states rights” as a cause as pure as Jefferson Davis’ motives.

Thurmond, a South Carolina Democrat who eventually became a Republican, denounced civil rights and espoused states rights when he ran for the presidency in 1948 on the Dixiecrat ticket. Thurmond’s campaign wrapped itself in the Confederate flag and won four Southern states and an electoral vote in Tennessee.

Even the great liberal Franklin Roosevelt kept his distance from race and civil rights while in the White House even when pestered to take action by his more liberal wife. FDR had no desire to upset the delicate balance of white political power below the Mason-Dixon line that kept southern Democratic segregationists in his party and in position of great power until the last half of the 20th Century.

The sainted Ronald Reagan, the modern GOP’s answer to Roosevelt, skillfully played the myth card when seeking the presidency in 1980. Reagan launched his campaign that year in Philadelphia, Mississippi at the Neshoba County fair. Sixteen years earlier, as New York Times columnist Bob Herbert recalled in a 2007 column, a young New Yorker Andrew Goodman and two fellow civil rights activists Michael Schwerner and James Chaney, a young black man, disappeared in Neshoba County. Their bodies wouldn’t be found for weeks.

Reagan in Philadelphia, MS to launch his 1980 campaign

Reagan in Philadelphia, Mississippi  to launch his 1980 presidential campaign

“All had been murdered, shot to death by whites enraged at the very idea of people trying to secure the rights of African-Americans.

“The murders were among the most notorious in American history. They constituted Neshoba County’s primary claim to fame when Reagan won the Republican Party’s nomination for president in 1980. The case was still a festering sore at that time. Some of the conspirators were still being protected by the local community. And white supremacy was still the order of the day.”

States Rights…

Reagan used his Philadelphia, Mississippi speech – he was the first national candidate to ever speak there – to explicitly endorse “states rights” and blow the dog whistle of racial politics. Reagan made absolutely no mention of the still white-hot struggle in Mississippi for civil rights, while appealing to conservative white voters. Read the speech today with Reagan’s folksy references to “welfare” and “personal responsibility” and it is easy to see why his Republican Party cemented what appears, twenty-five years later, to be a permanent political deal with white southerners.

1964 FBI poster seeking information of missing civil rights workers.

1964 FBI poster seeking information of missing civil rights workers.

“I believe in state’s rights,” Reagan said in Mississippi in 1980. “I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level. And I believe that we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the constitution to that federal establishment. And if I do get the job I’m looking for, I’m going to devote myself to trying to reorder those priorities and to restore to the states and local communities those functions which properly belong there.”

The crowd of 10,000 voters – those who were there recall seeing no black faces in the crowd – knew what the candidate was promising and the “re-ordering” myth, at its heart a plea to return to – or maintain – a culture where the Confederate flag flaps in every southern breeze. It’s a small leap from Neshoba County in 1980 to the leader of the nation’s largest white supremacy group lavishing campaign money on Republican presidential candidates and members of Congress in 2015.

It is a moment to pause and praise the South Carolina governor for taking a decent and important step regarding that old and hateful flag. It would be easy to say the action is about 150 years late, but perhaps as symbols finally fall, even slowly, it will help to both destroy the myths and improve the knowledge about our great war. There is more to do.

Where it Began…

South Carolina in 1860

South Carolina in 1860

The next time you hear some politician proclaim fidelity to “states rights” or argue for the sanctity of the Constitution, remember that South Carolina, where our own great war began, rather skillfully and with no apparent irony invoked the Constitution in 1860 in an attempt to destroy the Constitution and leave the Union.

“A geographical line has been drawn across the Union,” South Carolina declared in seceding from the Union just weeks after Abraham Lincoln was elected, “and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that ‘Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,’ and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.”

Our great war really was about ending human bondage and not merely Scarlett’s “heritage.” Both sides knew it then and we should know it now. It should be obvious that the flag hoisted by the rebels represents, even today, the bloody battle to perpetuate black Americans in slavery. The Confederate flag is simply a symbol of racism, bigotry and hatred and having it fly over a state capitol or adorn a license plate is deeply offensive and historically wrong.

A century and a half removed from our seminal event our great war remains shrouded in myth and buried in ignorance, but one need only read Lincoln’s greatest speech to better understand our true history and why we must – finally – come to terms with our great national catastrophe and its roots in white supremacy.

“All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war…”

“One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves,” Lincoln said in 1865, “not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.”

Taking down the flag is important, but hardly the full answer to our troubled racial past and still troubled present. “The Confederate flag should not come down because it is offensive to African Americans,” Ta-Nehisi Coates, an African-American, writes in The Atlantic. “The Confederate flag should come down because it is embarrassing to all Americans. The embarrassment is not limited to the flag, itself. The fact that it still flies, that one must debate its meaning in 2015, reflects an incredible ignorance. A century and a half after Lincoln was killed, after 750,000 of our ancestors died, Americans still aren’t quite sure why.”

Some Americans are still willing to “rend the Union” by perpetuating myths and playing on ignorance often while pursuing votes. That awful war never ends. Taking down the flag is a small step, but a correct one. Myths are dismantled and ignorance overcome, too slowly perhaps, but it must happen.


Just Say No…

By all accounts Barack Obama has his work cut out for him convincing Congressional Republicans – and some Democrats – that his proposed obama0404nuclear weapons control agreement with Iran is better than having no deal at all.

Republican skepticism about an Obama initiative certainly isn’t surprising, since the president has seen something approaching universal disdain for virtually anything he has proposed since 2009. That Republicans are inclined to oppose a deal with Iran shouldn’t be much of a surprise either. In the post-World War II era, conservative Republicans in Congress have rarely embraced any major deal- particularly including nuclear agreements – which any president has negotiated with a foreign government.

Republicans Have Long Said “No” to Foreign Deals…

Before they were the party of NO on all things Obama, the GOP was the party of NO on international agreements – everything from the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I to the Panama Canal Treaties during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Even when Ronald Reagan Mikhail-Gorbachev-Ronald-Reaganattempted a truly unprecedented deal in 1986 with Mikhail Gorbachev to actually eliminate vast numbers of nuclear weapons – the famous Reykjavik Summit – most conservative Republicans gave the idea thumbs down and were happy when it fell apart.

And, near the end of his presidency when Reagan pushed for a treaty limiting intermediate nuclear weapons, conservatives like North Carolina’s Jesse Helms, Wyoming’s Malcolm Wallop and Idaho’s Jim McClure thought that Reagan, then and now the great hero of the conservative right, was plum crazy.

Much of the criticism of Reagan from the hard right in the late 1980’s sounds eerily like the current critique of Obama, which basically boils down to a belief that the administration is so eager for a deal with Iran it is willing to imperil U.S. and Israeli security. As Idaho’s McClure, among the most conservative GOP senators of his day, warned about the Reagan’s deal with Gorbachev in 1988, ”We’ve had leaders who got into a personal relationship and have gotten soft – I’m thinking of Roosevelt and Stalin,” but McClure was really thinking about Reagan and Gorbachev.

Howard Phillips, the hard right blowhard who chaired the Conservative Caucus at the time, charged that Reagan was ”fronting as a useful idiot for Soviet propaganda.” Helms actually said Reagan’s jesse-helms-reagan_685352cnegotiations with Gorbachev put U.S. allies in harms way, just as Mario Rubio, Ted Cruz and Scott Walker say today Obama is putting Israel at risk. ”We’re talking about, perhaps, the survival of Europe,” Helms declared in 1988.

Walker, who was 20 years old when Helms’ was preaching apocalypse, told a radio interviewer last week that the Iranian deal “leaves not only problems for Israel, because they want to annihilate Israel, it leaves the problems in the sense that the Saudis, the Jordanians and others are gonna want to have access to their own nuclear weapons…” Never mind that the whole point of the Iranian effort is to prevent a nuclear arms race across the Middle East.

Date the GOP No Response to FDR and Yalta…

Historically, you can date the conservative Republican opposition to almost all presidential deal making to Franklin Roosevelt’s meeting with Stalin at Yalta in 1945 where FDR’s critics, mostly Republicans, contended he sold out eastern Europe to the Reds. “The Yalta agreement may not have been the Roosevelt administration’s strongest possible bargain,” Jonathan Chait wrote recently in New York Magazine, “but the only real alternative would have entailed continuing the war against the Soviets after defeating Germany.”

By the time of the Yalta summit, Red Army troops had “liberated” or were in place to occupy Poland and much of central Europe, which Roosevelt knew the United States and Great Britain could do little to stop. The alternative to accommodation with Stalin at Yalta, as Chait says, was making war on Stalin’s army. Roosevelt’s true objective at Yalta was to keep Stalin in the fold to ensure Soviet cooperation with the establishment of the United Nations, but the “facts on the ground” in Europe provided a great storyline for generations of conservatives to lament the “sellout” to Uncle Joe.

That conservative narrative served to propel Joe McCarthy’s hunt for Communists in the U.S. State Department and cemented the GOP as the party always skeptical of any effort to negotiate with the Soviet Union (or anyone else). Many conservatives contended that “negotiations” equaled “appeasement” and would inevitably lead American presidents to mimic Neville Chamberlain at Munich in 1938. Illinois Senator Mark Kirk dusted off that old chestnut last week when he said, “Neville Chamberlain got a better deal from Adolf Hitler,” than Obama did from the Iranians. The Iranian deal is certainly not perfect, but worse than a pact with Hitler?

Conservatives became so concerned about “executive action” on Brickerforeign policy in the early 1950’s that Ohio Republican Senator John Bricker proposed a constitutional amendment – the Bricker Amendment – that said in part: “Congress shall have power to regulate all executive and other agreements with any foreign power or international organization.” Dwight Eisenhower opposed Bricker’s effort certain that his control over foreign policy, and that of subsequent presidents, would be fatally compromised. When Bricker, who had been the Republican candidate for vice president in 1948 and was a pillar of Midwestern Republicanism, first proposed his amendment forty-five of forty-eight Senate Republicans supported the idea. Eisenhower had to use every trick in the presidential playbook, including working closely with Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, to eventually defeat Bricker and other conservatives in his own party.

A logical extension of McCarthy’s position in the early 1950’s was Barry Goldwater’s opposition in the early 1960’s to President John Kennedy’s ultimately successful efforts to put in place a nuclear test ban treaty outlawing atmospheric or underwater nuclear tests.

A test ban treaty was, Goldwater said, “the opening wedge to goldwaterdisastrous negotiations with the enemy, which could result in our losing the war or becoming part of their [the Soviets] system.” In Senate debate Goldwater demanded proof of the Soviet’s “good faith” and argued, directly counter to Kennedy’s assertions, that a treaty would make the world more rather than less dangerous. The treaty was approved overwhelmingly and has remained a cornerstone of the entire idea of arms control.

Later in the 1960’s, and over the profound objections of conservatives, the U.S. approved the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) designed to prevent the expansion of nuclear weapons. Ironically, as Jonathan Chait notes, the NPT today provides “the legal basis for the international effort to prevent Iran from obtaining nukes.” But the idea was denounced at the time with William Buckley’s National Review saying it was “immoral, foolish…and impractical,” a “nuclear Yalta” that threatened our friends and helped our enemies.

When Richard Nixon negotiated the SALT I agreement, interestingly an “executive agreement” and not a treaty, conservatives worried that the United States was being out foxed by the Kremlin and that Nixon’s focus on “détente” with the Soviet Union was simply playing into naïve Communist propaganda. Congressional neo-cons in both parties, including influential Washington state Democrat Henry Jackson, insisted that any future arms control deal with the Soviets be presented to the Senate for ratification.

Republican opposition to international agreements is deeply embedded in the party’s DNA, going back at least to the successful Republican efforts to derail Senate ratification of the agreement Woodrow Wilson negotiated in Paris in 1919 to involve the United States in the League of Nations, end the Great War and make the world “safe for democracy.”

The GOP’s DNA Dates to Woodrow Wilson…

The most effective and eloquent opponent of that agreement was BorahIdaho Republican Senator William E. Borah who, it was said, brought tears to the eyes of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge when he spoke against Wilson’s ideas on the floor of the United States Senate on November 19, 1919.

Addressing treaty supporters, but really talking to Wilson, Borah said, “Your treaty does not mean peace – far, very far, from it. If we are to judge the future by the past it means war.” About that much the Idahoan was correct.

Without U.S. participation and moral leadership the League of Nations was little more than a toothless tiger in the two decades before the world was again at war, the League unable to prevent the aggression that ultimately lead to World War II. It is one of history’s great “what ifs” to ponder what American leadership in a League of Nations in the 1920’s and 1930’s might have meant to the prevention of the war that William Borah correctly predicted, but arguably for the wrong reason.

Jaw, Jaw Better Than War, War…

Many Congressional Republicans have spent months – or even years – chastising Obama for failing to provide American leadership on the world stage, and for sure the president deserves a good deal of criticism for what at times has been a timid and uncertain foreign policy. But now that Obama has brought the United States, Britain, France, Germany, the European Union and Russia to the brink of a potentially historic deal with Iran, the conservative critique has turned back to a well-worn line: a naïve president is so eager to get a deal he’ll sell out the country’s and the world’s best interests to get it. Ted Cruz and other Republican critics may not know it, but they are dusting off their party’s very old attack lines. Barry Goldwater seems to be more the father of this kind of contemporary GOP thinking than the sainted Ronald Reagan.

No deal is perfect, and doubtless some down through the ages have been less than they might have been, but the history of the last 75 years shows that presidents of both parties have, an overwhelming percentage of the time, made careful, prudent deals with foreign adversaries that have stood the test of time. In that sweep of recent American history it has not been presidents – Republicans or Democrats – who have been wrong to pursue international agreements, but rather it is the political far right that has regularly ignored the wisdom of Winston Churchill’s famous admonition that “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”


A Bias for Action

His critics will probably say that once again Barack Obama has failed to exercise the kind of leadership that goes along with occupying the Oval Office. He’s waited too long, they’ll contend, to intervene on the West Coast port crisis and try to end the work slowdowns that have cargo backed up from San Diego to 101823174-451523212.530x298Seattle. The impact on the region’s economy is clear and the threat the U.S. economy is growing by the day.

Obama has now dispatched his Labor Secretary to engage the warring port operators and labor unions, but still seems reluctant to apply the full power he has under the still controversial law known since its passage in 1947 as Taft-Hartley.

Under the Taft-Hartley Act, as Roll Call has noted, “the president can get involved once a strike or lockout affects an entire industry, or a substantial part of it. At that point, the president must appoint a board of inquiry to report on the factual elements of the dispute. After that, the president can petition a federal court to prevent any strike or lockout the president has deemed a threat to national health or safety.”

Obama undoubtedly knows his history and as such knows that a president can win big or sometimes lose large when he puts the prestige of the presidency on the line in a labor dispute. Still, the American public has usually rewarded decisive presidential action when it can be clearly shown to be in the broad national interest.

Wielding a Big Stick…

Theodore Roosevelt rarely – make that never – seemed to hesitate to throw himself into a fight. Teddy-Roosevelt-the-Anthracite-Coal-Strike-the-Railroad-and-Civil-Rights-_picture_-2When a national coal strike edged into its fifth month in 1902 and threatened a very cold winter for millions of Americans, Roosevelt became the first president to personally intercede in a labor-management dispute. Using typically Rooseveltian tactics, T.R. summoned the strikers and the coal operators to meet and urged them to work out their differences in the national interest. The workers agreed, management balked, and Roosevelt acted. He threatened to seize Pennsylvania coal fields and use soldiers to dig the coal and then he appointed a hand-picked commission to suggest a way out of the impasse.

“Ultimately, the miners won a ten percent increase in pay with a concomitant reduction in the number of hours worked each day. The commission failed to recommend union recognition, however, or to address the problems of child labor and hazardous working conditions. Still, for the first time the federal government acted to settle, rather than break, a strike.” The decisive action by Roosevelt, coming not long after he had assumed the presidency and long before Taft-Hartley, helped cement his well-deserved reputation for action and leadership.

Although Harry Truman denounced the Taft-Hartley legislation in 1947 as “a slave labor law” – harrystrumanTruman vetoed the legislation only to see his veto overturned by a strong bi-partisan vote in both houses of Congress – the no-nonsense Missourian channeled T.R. in 1946 when he came close to nationalizing the nation’s railroads to end another crippling strike. Truman was incensed that two of the twenty national rail unions refused to accept a wage agreement that he had personally helped broker and he went on the radio to blast union leaders by name. His words prophetically anticipated the passage of Taft-Hartley the next year.

“I would regret deeply if the act of the two leaders of these unions,” Truman said, “should create such a wave of ill will and a desire for vengeance that there should result ill-advised restrictive legislation that would cause labor to lose those gains which it has rightfully made during the years.”

The year 1946 was a brutal year for Truman, the country and organized labor. A wave of strikes swept the country after the end of World War II and Republicans scored big wins in the mid-term elections allowing the GOP to recapture control of Congress for the first time since 1930. That historic election, coupled with the legislative cooperation that existed among conservative Republicans and conservative southern Democrats, led to major changes in the labor friendly Wagner Act, a cornerstone accomplishment of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal that passed in 1935.

The Taft of Taft-Hartley…

Taft-Hartley is the best remembered legislative accomplishment of the man once known as “Mr. TaftRepublican” – Robert Alonso Taft of Ohio. Taft was a fixture in national politics and a contender for the Republican presidential nomination from 1940 until 1952. Taft died of cancer in 1953 having never won the Republican presidential nomination that might have allowed him to fulfill a dream to follow his father – William Howard Taft – into the White House.

What is less well remembered is that Taft – unlike the labor-hating Fred Hartley, a New Jersey Congressman who chaired the House Education and Labor Committee – was a highly respected, hugely powerful senator; a man of principle and a politician willing to compromise in order to pass important legislation. Taft was at the zenith of his legislative power in 1947.

Taft’s best biographer James T. Patterson has pointed out that the Ohio senator had “relatively little interest” in a Time - Taftprovision advanced by Hartley that would require union leaders to swear anti-communist oaths in exchange for recognition by the National Labor Relations Board. Patterson says that Taft, while certainly aiming to trim the sails of organized labor, “insisted on the right of labor to strike and to bargain collectively with management.” Taft also opposed too much government scrutiny of internal union operations and true to his life-long convictions opposed “extensive government intervention in the economy.”

As West Coast Democrats and many Republicans now call for decisive presidential action to end the port crisis by invoking provisions of Taft-Hartley, it is interesting to note that the region’s members of Congress were all over the map in 1947 when it came time to consider Truman’s veto of Bob Taft’s famous legislation.

Oregon’s Wayne Morse, still a Republican in 1947, was one of only three Senate Republicans who voted to sustain Truman’s veto. Three liberals, the likes of whom don’t exist any longer, Warren Magnuson of Washington, Glen Taylor of Idaho and James Murray of Montana also voted to uphold Truman’s veto. Other Republicans in the Northwest delegation in 1947 – Zales Ecton of Montana, Henry Dworshak of Idaho, Harry Cain of Washington and Guy Cordon of Oregon – voted to override Truman and make Taft-Hartley law. Those were the days when Oregon and Washington had Republicans and Idaho had Democrats.

One could argue that organized labor in the United States has been in a long, steady decline since Taft-Hartley, which ironically makes it easier from a political standpoint for a president, even a Democrat, to intervene in a situation like that that now grips the West Coast ports.

The Gipper Strikes…

Obama might remember that it was a political no-brainer for Ronald Reagan to fire striking air traffic controllers in 1981, even though the union had supported Reagan’s election. Reagan’s action in that 3384-20Acelebrated case allowed him to quote one of his favorite presidents, Calvin Coolidge, whose portrait Reagan had placed in the Oval Office. When air traffic controllers violated the law by striking Reagan quoted the laconic Vermonter: “There is no right to strike against the public safety of anybody, anywhere, at any time.”

Reagan biographer Richard Reeves says telephone calls and telegrams buried the White House and “supported the President’s stand by more than ten to one.” Many historians contend that Reagan’s harsh action further diminished labor’s clout, but there is little doubt his actions enjoyed broad public support and enhanced his popularity.

It appears the West Coast port situation has entered the phase where everyone involved is unable – or unwilling – to take a step back and try to find a solution. With everything from imported automobile parts to exported grain backing up there is no downside for a politician to act decisively and in the broad public interest. There is ample precedent for such action dating back to Teddy Roosevelt and ample reason to believe that a president, particularly one in the final two years of his term, would enjoy widespread public support for rolling up his sleeves and pounding the table for a settlement. A Democratic president, who surely will want to lean in the direction of organized labor, might also succeed, as a labor-friendly Roosevelt did in 1902, in crafting a solution that amounted to an historic win for workers.

In any case, in instances such as as the West Coast port issue, there is a strong bias in favor of presidential action, and sooner rather than later.


Mandela and Us

NM_mandela_old_photo_110127_16x9_992Most of the world is rightly celebrating the life and lessons of Nelson Mandela. Warts and all Mandela will go down as a pivotal figure in the last decades of the 20th Century and will no doubt remain the gold standard for the difficult, seemingly impossible politics of racial reconciliation.

Still it’s fascinating to see the broad and deep bipartisan out pouring of respect for a man that the Reagan Administration contended in the 1980’s was head of a terrorist organization, a designation that was not formally changed until 2008. There is some reason to believe the CIA tipped off South Africa’s whites-only government to Mandela’s whereabouts in 1962, a tip that ultimately led to his trial and lengthy incarceration.

I’m reminded of the intense and passionate debates in the early 1980’s over whether Ronald Reagan could be pressured to impose economic sanctions on the apartheid government of South Africa. Then-Congressman Dick Cheney voted in 1985 against a resolution that called for Mandela’s release from jail and commentators from George Will to William F. Buckley defended the white South African government and condemned Mandela and his African National Congress (ANC) as just a pawn of the Soviet Union.

After much debate the Congress in 1986 voted to do what the Reagan Administration wouldn’t and imposed economic sanctions on the apartheid government of South Africa. The president vetoed the legislation. Reagan, knowing he held a weak hand in the face of growing public outcry over the continued oppression of blacks in South Africa, pulled out all the stops in order to sustain his veto.

As the New York Times reported at the time, “Mr. Reagan made a major effort…to salvage his veto, and he called a number of Senators personally, arguing that he would appear weak and ineffective” in an upcoming summit meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev “if he were rebuffed by the Republican-controlled Senate on a major foreign policy question.”

The Senate eventually voted 78-21 to override Reagan’s veto of the sanctions legislation, but not before Sen. Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican, warned that “the thrust of this legislation is to bring about violent, revolutionary change, and after that, tyranny.” Helms and Mandela are now both dead and we know who was right.

For the record, the Northwest delegation in 1986 was entirely Republican. Oregon’s senators – Mark Hatfield and Bob Packwood – and Washington’s senators – Dan Evans and Slade Gorton voted for the sanctions against South Africa and to override Reagan’s veto. Idaho’s senators Steve Symms and Jim McClure voted with Jesse Helms.

The U.S. was actually quite late in adopting a policy of isolating South Africa in part because the country’s leaders spent so much of the post-war world viewing every event in every corner of the world through the narrow prism of the Cold War. The logic was simple and wrong: Soviets supplied backing to the African National Congress, Nelson Mandela was in jail for being a leader of the ANC, therefore it must logically follow that we had to oppose the ANC. But the larger lesson here is simply that time and again in the post-war world the United States misread, from Vietnam to South Africa and even on to Iraq, the nature of national struggles over self-determination.

Successive State Departments and CIA wise guys framed nearly every issue as a struggle pitting the democratic West versus the Evil Empire, when often, as Nelson Mandela showed us, the great twilight struggles of the last half of the 20th Century were typically about more basic and more enduring things – the right to vote, the right to self determination, the right to throw off colonial shackles, the right to make your own way, the right to be treated with dignity. We too often lacked the imagination that might have allowed us envision that a man imprisoned for 27 years might walk out of his prison cell, Gandhi or King-like, and embrace a type of political and racial reconciliation that would usher in a peaceful revolution the likes of which a Jesse Helms simply could not fathom.

For most of his too short life, we must recall, his own government spied on the revolutionary Dr. King, convinced he must be a Communist agent.

As the world – and almost every American politician – rushes to get right with Mandela, we would do well to remember at least two things. Mandela was not a saint, but rather a remarkably pragmatic politician and a damn good one too, and in many ways a much better politician than some of the Americans who for so long failed to understand his motivations and talents.

The second is that Mandela was a revolutionary; a revolutionary who, fortunately for his country and the world, made the transition from advocate of armed struggle to champion of constitutional democracy. For too long his movement and the man were seen in the United States through the foggy lens of what some call  American exceptionalism, the idea that our system and our approach is automatically superior to every other system or approach. This notion, that political legitimacy can only come about as the result of a fully baked western-style Jeffersonian democracy, has driven American foreign policy since at least Woodrow Wilson and has often left us blind to the real motivations of nationalist or anti-colonial movements from Vietnam to Soweto.

Part of the legacy of Mandela and us is that the United States has often been exceptionally wrong for too long about movements like the fight to end apartheid in South Africa and wrong about the people who lead those fights. So, by all means, celebrate the life of a man who now belongs to the ages and whose name fits in the same sentence with Gandhi and Dr. King, and while doing so remember that our own history as a nation traces its origins to a messy and bloody revolution and the vision and leadership of determined, political men whose real motive was freedom.


The Big Mo

Mixing sports and political analogies can be dangerous, but there is so little left to be said about the presidential campaigns – here goes.

The San Francisco Giants (happily for we Giants fans) clearly have what George H.W. Bush once called “The Big Mo.” The dejected St. Louis Cardinals had their National League rivals on the ropes (sorry, a boxing reference) in the league playoffs until a sneaky left hander, apparently in the twilight of his pitching career, reversed the Francisians’ slide and created the kind of momentum that is hard to explain in sports (and politics), but undeniably can be just as important and as a timely as a three-run homer.

A debate in Denver in early October changed the arc of momentum in the presidential campaign and Barack Obama is learning how terribly difficult it can be to get an opponent’s Big Mo turned off and turned around. By all reasonable accounts the presidential election campaign is just where most of us thought it would end up when we first measured an Obama-Romney match-up months and months ago. The race is down to six or seven states – lucky them – and will likely turn on the ground game of the two campaigns in a handful of counties in Ohio, Iowa and Virginia. Without doubt, however, The Big Mo has and will help the challenger.

One of the toughest things in politics – and sports – is to finish a long campaign on the up swing; to be growing your strength as you hit the tape. Designing and executing the “end game” of a long season, especially when the contestants are so closely matched, is tricky business. In fact, the end game of many close contests often has less to do with planning than with luck; luck being the residue of hard work and preparation. A key moment – Mitt the Moderate returning in the Denver debate or Barry Zito finding his old magic in Game Five – can, however, tip the scale and change the trajectory of the long season.

You can’t exactly create The Big Mo, but you can capitalize on it when it happens. The first George Bush is the classic example of thinking that The Big Mo, in and of itself, is enough to power a team to victory. After Bush won the Iowa caucuses in 1980 he said, ‘”Now they will be after me, howling and yowling at my heels. What we will have is momentum. We will look forward to Big Mo being on our side, as they say in athletics.”

Bush eventually lost the Republican nomination to Ronald Reagan in 1980, in part, because Reagan had a message and Bush had a resume. Bush also peaked too early. Claiming The Big Mo coming out of the very first campaign contest is a good deal different than claiming momentum in the last weeks of a torturously long campaign. Bush, in essence couldn’t capitalize on the momemtum he awarded himself and lost the very next contest, in New Hampshire, to Reagan.

Now the Detroit Tigers and the Obama campaign will frantically scramble to alter the momentum. Here’s betting that doing so will take an event – a lead-off homer in Game One for the Tigers or a bounce from the foreign policy debate for Obama, for example – to alter momentum. You can’t artifically create The Big Mo in sports or politics, you can take advantage of it when it magically, wonderfully and mysterious appears. Just ask the Cardinals.


What To Do With Lenin

What do you do with the body of a man who undoubtedly changed the world, but now has – we can hope – been consigned to the dust bin of history?

Upon hearing of his death in 1924, the true believers reportedly said: “Lenin is dead. Long live Lenin.”  So, they embalmed the mastermind of the Bolshevik Revolution and laid him out for all eternity in his own red granite mausoleum in Red Square just outside the Kremlin Wall in Moscow.

Now, with a new dictator in town named Putin, Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov – Lenin – has become “the dead mouse on the national living room floor” according to a delightful piece in Sunday’s New York Times by the talented Christopher Buckley. Apparently more than 50% of post-Communist Russians favor burying the old boy once and for all.

Seeing Buckley’s story reminded me of my own fleeting, but memorable encounter with Lenin. It was 1984, a time of some of the greatest tension between the Soviets and the United States. We didn’t know then that the Soviet Union was on its last legs. After all, Ronald Reagan had referred to the Communist state as “the evil empire” and tensions ran very high.

I was fortunate enough to tag along with a group of Idahoans who went to the Soviet Union for about two weeks as part of a people-to-people exchange. We were there to make a television documentary and one of the genuine highlights of the trip was time spent gathering film footage in the vast expanse of Red Square where then, as now, Russian soldiers stand guard over Lenin’s Tomb.

Not everyone gets inside the mausoleum, but somehow we did, but no photos were permitted. Apparently our Soviet minders wanted the visitors from the capitalist west to see the man from which the revolution had sprung.

I remember that a long line of gawkers snaked by Lenin’s body in single file and, in my case, both fascinated and a little creeped out at seeing the extraordinarily well  dressed (and preserved) dictator bathed in soft and flattering light. His dress shirt was an immaculate white. The French cuffs adored by gold cuff links and his necktie perfectly knotted. Lenin looked like he’d stretched out for a long afternoon nap without bothering to remove his suit jacket.

The whole visit lasted maybe 30 seconds and the well-armed Russian guards did not encourage any loitering, but obviously I still remember the cuff links and being in the presence of the body, at least, of one of the century’s most consequential figures.

Lenin’s body, indeed his tomb in Red Square where so many generations of Soviet leaders stood and watched the high stepping Red Army march by, are  today symbols of a failed and discredited system, but are still symbols of our – and Russian – history. So, do Russians bury Lenin and with him hope that a distant, but still telling part of world history is pushed underground, too?

In the French capitol Napoleon’s Tomb is a tourist attraction that political correctness seems hardly to have touched. The Corsican did, after all, try to conquer European, but is honored still as a great man of France. Even Adolf Hitler couldn’t resist a visit when he toured Paris just after the fall of France in 1940.

Robert E. Lee, arguably guilty of treason for leading a war of rebellion against the United States, is buried inside the chapel at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, the state that still celebrates his birthday as an official holiday.

What do we do with the elements of our past that no longer seem relevant or appropriate? Do we, as the Stalin regularly did, airbrush those elements from history? (Stalin, by the way, was embalmed after his death and for a while laid out next to Lenin, but that pairing didn’t last.)

Lenin has been sleeping the sleep of the old, dead Bolshevik for nearly 90 years. What Lenin did must be remembered. Perhaps Russians can remember his role in 20th Century world events without keeping his corpse on morbid display in the very heart of their capitol city.

As Buckley calls him, “Sleeping Beauty from Hell,” deserves a final resting spot, not out of mind for sure, but finally out of sight.


Action This Day

The (Almost) Case for Unilateral Action

In September 1940, just in front of the election that would make Franklin Roosevelt the first and only third-term president, FDR engineered an audacious deal with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

In exchange for gifting 50 aging, World War I vintage U.S. destroyers to the besieged British, Churchill granted the American president 99 year leases on a number of military bases in the Western Hemisphere. The destroyers for bases deal was loudly condemned by FDR’s critics who called it a raw presidential power play. As critics correctly pointed out, Roosevelt acted on his own motion, going behind the back of Congress to cut his deal with Churchill. History has for the most part vindicated FDR’s power play and many historians think the U.S. actually got the better of the deal.

The 1940 action by Roosevelt may be one of the greatest examples of a president acting unilaterally, but our history is replete with similar examples of presidential action on a unilateral basis. One of Theodore Roosevelt’s gutsy unilateral moves as he was nearing the end of his term created millions of acres of forest preserves – today’s National Forests – and protected the Grand Canyon. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was an act of presidential leadership that is almost universally praised today, but at the time the Great Emancipator cut Congress out of the loop and acted alone.

Now come criticism of Barack Obama’s unilateral action to order the end of deportations for certain young people who might otherwise be sent packing for being in the country illegally even as they have gone on to get an education, or work in order to become contributing members of our society. Critics charge the president acted for the most transparent political reasons or that he acted unconstitutionally or that he has now made legislative action on immigration more difficult. That last charge seems a particularly hard sell given the inability of Congress to act at all regarding immigration, but the real beef with Obama is that he acted alone.

Jimmy Carter used presidential action to protect the environmental crown jewels of Alaska, an action that ultimately forced Congress to get off the dime on that issue. Harry Truman informed Congress, but did not seek its approval regarding his 1948 decision to desegregate the U.S. military.

Of course all presidents overreach, but most do so by acting unilaterally in the foreign policy field, and that a place were unilateral action is often decidedly more problematic, at least in my view. It may turn out that Obama’s immigration action will be successfully challenged in a court of law or the court of public opinion, but don’t bet on it. I’m struck by how often in our history when a president has taken a big, bold step on an issue were Congress can’t or won’t act that the bold step has been vindicated by history.

The American people have always tended to reward action over inaction. Ronald Reagan’s unilateral decision to fire striking air traffic controllers near the beginning of his presidency in 1981 is a good example. Now celebrated, by conservatives at least, as a sterling example of a president acting decisively in the public interest, the decision was enormously contentious at the time it was made. Now its mostly seen as an effective use of unilateral action by a strong president.

The early polling seems to show that Obama’s recent “dream act-like” action on immigration is widely accepted by the American public. The lesson for the current occupant of the Oval Office, a politician who has displayed little skill in getting Congress to act on many issues, might be that a little unilateral action on important issues is not only good politics, but good government.

George W. Bush got this much right about the power of the presidency: the Chief Executive can be, when he wants to be, the decider on many things. The great Churchill frequently demanded “action this day” in his memos to subordinates. The great wartime leader knew that power not used isn’t worth much; but action properly applied is indeed real power.



Weekend Reads

Robert Caro, Jerry Kramer and More

There is a fascinating piece planned for publication Sunday, and already online, in The New York Times on legendary Lyndon Johnson biographer Robert Caro. Caro is about to release volume four of his projected five volume bio of LBJ. To date he has produced 3,388 fascinating pages.

Caro’s work is one of the greatest studies ever of the accumulation and use of political power. The piece also has great insights into the author’s methods, which could properly be described as “old school.” He dresses for work every day in jacket and tie, for example. Great piece.

Northwest Nazarene University political scientist Steve Shaw and one of his colleagues, English Department Chair Darrin Grinder, have just released an important new book that I highly recommend. The Idaho Statesman’s Dan Popkey wrote about the book – “The Presidents and Their Faith” – earlier this week. From Jefferson’s own version of the Gospels to Woodrow Wilson’s Presbyterian minister father to Richard Nixon’s Quaker roots, Shaw and Grinder give us wonderful mini-portraits of 43 presidents and their personal and political faith. With so much talk of politics and religion, the book couldn’t be timelier. Highly recommended.

Insightful piece in The Atlantic by staff writer Conor Friedersdorf that explains why national Republicans have spent 20 years searching for the next Ronald Reagan and haven’t found him.

“Today, would be Reagans with less charisma, less executive experience and less time spent honing their thinking and communication skills are somehow expecting to succeed even as they operate in a less advantageous political environment. Of course it isn’t happening. And it’s no wonder conservatives are divided in who they support.”

And finally, I am very aware (and happy) that baseball is back in action. My Giants open today in the city by the bay. But, the best sports book I’ve read in a while is an older book, published in 1968, Instant Replay by Green Bay Packer great and University of Idaho grad Jerry Kramer. The New York Times called Kramer’s book the “best behind the scene glimpse of pro football ever produced.”

Some think the book’s candor has contributed to Kramer being passed over for the NFL Hall of Fame. If so, that’s ridiculous. Kramer is the most deserving NFL player not in the Hall and that oversight, at long last, should be corrected. Get a copy of the book and read it. It’s great.


Boomer Sioux-ners

The Saudi Arabia of the Great Plains

For most of the 20th Century North Dakota claimed the unenviable distinction of being the one state in the nation that regularly experienced declining population. In 1930, as drought and depression ravaged the Upper Great Plains, the population in North Dakota was just a shade north of 680,000 souls. By 1970, that number was about 618,000. By 2000, North Dakota’s population was back to the level it had been in 1920.

Now oil and gas exploration and development in the northwestern corner of North Dakota seem sure to drive population growth, state revenues and change in ways not experienced since the 1930’s. The state legislature last week both projected an oil and gas fueled $1.5 billion  – with a “B” – budget surplus and passed what a critical spokesman for the oil and gas industry called the most stringent rules regarding hydraulic fracking anywhere in the country.

“They are the most onerous regulatory changes we’ve ever seen,” Ron Ness of the North Dakota Petroleum Council told the Associated Press. Ness’s group represents more than 200 companies working in the North Dakota oil patch. “I’m a bit concerned about the cost of doing business in the state and that it could begin to discourage activity.”

The new rules require higher levels of bonding by industry, faster clean-up of fluids left from the fracking and disclosure of the chemicals used in the process.

The rules were put in place by a Republican legislature in a deep red state with a Republican governor. North Dakota is clearly embracing its new role as the Saudi Arabia of the Great Plains, but one also gets the sense that the state is wary about the gusher of social and economic change the energy boom brings. In January, North Dakota reported more than 6,000 active wells that produced nearly 17 million barrels of oil. The state once best known for wheat and spring flooding is now a bigger oil producer than any state save for Texas and Alaska. All this is happening, of course, while the national campaign trail is full of hot talk about soaring high gas prices and the alleged anti-energy development policies of the Obama Administration. Newt Gingrich – Mr. $2.50 a gallon gas – clearly hasn’t found his way to Williams County, North Dakota.

In Williston, once a sleepy cow town just east of Montana and south of the Canadian border, you had better know someone with an inside track or you’ll never find a motel room. The oil companies have reserved everything for miles around for months, while five new hotels are under construction. Wages and the cost of living have skyrocketed in western North Dakota, as have other measures that the Chamber of Commerce isn’t bragging about.

One recent account of life in the oil patch – in Indian Country Today – noted: “The Williams County Sheriff’s Office in Williston reports that there are as many DWIs issued at 10 a.m. as are issued at midnight. Jail bookings have increased 150 percent, and bonds as large as $10,000 are routinely paid in cash. (One person paid a $65,000 bond by pulling the cash out of a Walmart shopping bag.) Law enforcement can no longer do anything but answer calls, make arrests and investigate crimes. The proliferation of strip clubs and “babe buses”—which are basically strip clubs (or worse) operating out of an RV—has also added to the frontier-town atmosphere, according to the Williams County Sheriff’s Office.”

The Fargo Forum, one of the better newspapers in the upper Great Plains, has started a new website to cover “the patch” and assigned a reporter to live and work in the area. One of reporter Amy Dalrymple’s first stories from Williston featured a former Spokane, Washington couple who are spending nearly $2,400 a month to live in their RV parked in a local lot. Jayson Jarvis says he came to the patch to find better work and is still waiting. “The work here has been way too inconsistent to make enough,” he said. That said unemployment in North Dakota is about 3% and virtually non-existent in the western part of the state.

The other big story in North Dakota – if you don’t count the University of North Dakota’s march through the NCAA hockey tournament – is a raging debate over whether the university in Grand Forks can continue to use its nickname – The Fighting Sioux. Some time back the NCAA said UND could not compete in certain collegiate athletic events as long as the school used the Native American nickname. Ironically to many in North Dakota, the NCAA wants to nix the use of a nickname that local Sioux tribal leaders contend is just fine with them. The issue made it to the North Dakota Supreme Court last week and, depending on how the Court rules, the logo war may be decided by voters later this year.

In the farm depression days after The Great War and before The Great Depression, North Dakota’s rich soil gave rise to a remarkable populist/progressive political movement known as the Nonpartisan League. Farm prices were awful, farm foreclosures were epidemic and a certain prairie radicalism seemed to meet the needs of many farmers. The opportunistic NPL, with many former Socialists under its big tent, came to dominate the Republican Party in North Dakota, a dominance that continued until the 1950’s when the League, more or less, came to identify with Democrats. North Dakota’s Democratic Party today is official the Democratic NPL Party. If that sounds like North Dakota’s politics are a bit unorthodox that is because they are. The state tends to elect Republican governors, while often sending Democrats to Washington. Bill Clinton wouldn’t waste his time in most red states, but he keynoted the Democratic NPL convention last weekend in Grand Forks were his response to devastating floods is remembered fondly.

North Dakota will almost certainly put its three electoral votes in the Republican column come November. The state – like Idaho – hasn’t voted for a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Rick Santorum did well in the recent North Dakota caucuses, in part, by making the effort to visit the booming oil patch. But, North Dakota is also unpredictable. There is a certain creative and political tension at play in the state that finds citizens and politicians both embracing the oil boom and yearning for the old-style symbolism contained in that UND logo. One senses the small town simplicity that really does have its appeal is rapidly changing – even disappearing – in “rural” North Dakota.

So while you can buy an oil and gas motif necktie in the gift shop at the North Dakota Heritage Center just across the parking lot from the high rise state capitol building you may soon only find Fighting Sioux tees and sweatshirts in a second hand store. North Dakota is drilling its way into the 21st Century, but its quirky political and social history means that while they gingerly embrace an oil soaked future these salt of the earth flatlanders still steal a glance over their shoulders at a simpler, slower time.

North Dakota is the center of the energy boom in the United States and how this 21st Century story plays out here will say a good deal about the country’s march to something closer to energy independence. North Dakota is still a very rural state where radio stations supply farm market news in and around the commercials for a new harvester or a better herbicide. Energy will change North Dakota. It remains to be seen if the fans of the Fighting Sioux will like all the change that is just beginning.