The Essential Holiday…

My Aunt Vera was a genuinely nice person. She could have been an All-American model for a Norman Rockwell painting and she always looked, as my Dad might have said, “neat as a pin.” She favored tight little curls in her lovely grey hair, an old fashioned look that seemed to fit her perfectly. And no pants or slacks for Vera, always a dress even when laboring in the kitchen as she did one memorable Thanksgiving more than a half century ago. That celebration with all its sounds and smells lives on in the half-light of memory of a November long ago.Norman-Rockwell-Thanksgiving

My Dad had two half brothers and while they had different last names, they were in all other respects as close as any three men – three brothers – can be. As a kid growing up I lived near one of my Dad’s brothers and his wife, my Aunt Mae. They both became like a second mother and father to me.

We didn’t often see the other brother since Hisel – with that name you might understand why everyone used his nickname, Smut – and Aunt Vera lived some distance away. When it was suggested that we establish a new family tradition and annually rotate Thanksgiving dinner with first one brother (and wife) hosting and then another the idea was immediately embraced as offering a happy excuse to get together.

Everything went swimmingly when my mother hosted the first Thanksgiving dinner under the new arrangement. Mom was a fine cook of the old school. She lavished attention on her gravy, her turkey was never overdone and her pumpkin pie was a thing of beauty. We didn’t see the good china very often and the “real” silver was stored away for only the most special of occasions. That Thanksgiving Mom set the table as if John F. Kennedy were stopping by for lunch. Even I got a long stemmed goblet and a fancy white napkin.

Aunt Mae also knew her way around the kitchen and when she hosted the second Thanksgiving gathering the following year the food was good and the laughs even better. I can still remember my father and his brothers telling stories on one another, engaging in the good natured banter than passes for intimacy among a certain generation of men. The brothers loved each other dearly, but tended to express their affection with verbal towel snapping and warm handshakes. Hugs were for the women doing all the real work in the kitchen, while the men exchanged teasing jokes in the living room over a splash of Canadian Club. Naturally, I hung with my Dad and his brothers.

ThanksgivingThe Thanksgiving tradition seemed fully established until it was Aunt Vera’s turn to prepare the feast. For years afterward it was a guilty pleasure between my Mother and Dad to challenge each other to say something positive about that dinner. As they struggled to do so, often while we enjoyed another of Mom’s good meals, the table would be engulfed in laughter at the memory of a turkey that never quite got done, the side dishes that never quite worked. There is a reason I never developed a taste for mince pie.

Finally Mom would try to say something generous about the rolls and butter or marvel at where Vera got those fresh flowers, but inevitably my Dad would smile and say that his brother obviously hadn’t married Aunt Vera because of her cooking.

Thanksgiving, the essential American holiday, is my favorite holiday, a time for family, food, football and fun. Even in a world that at the moment seems seriously off the rails, Thanksgiving is a refuge, a place of memory and warmth, a place to reflect on life’s many, many wonders and blessings.

As I think, as I always do this time of year, of those long ago gatherings with my parents, aunts and uncles, it is the laughter and the love that sits most lightly on my mind. I’m going to resist the temptation this week to think too much about Trump, or terror or Tom Brady and drift back to the Nebraska in my mind where turkey and cranberry relish mix with the sweet memory of people I loved and still love.

Aunt Vera’s turkey wasn’t the point. Putting my feet under her table was.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

Congress, Thanksgiving


article-2251995-169CB38F000005DC-298_634x640Wouldn’t you know. I’m just about to get into full Thanksgiving mode and word breaks from England, where they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, that my favorite celebrity chef – Nigella Lawson – is being accused of serial drug abuse. Cocaine, no less.

Nigella? Really?

Generally, I expect that the biggest news to break during this, my favorite holiday, is the by now completely-to-be-expected story of how some good ol’ boy down in say, Beaumont, Texas – Texas leads the nation in this you may not be surprised to know – has torched his car port when he plunked the still partially frozen Thanksgiving turkey in a pot of over hot oil. Boom.

I can hear the resulting conversation: “Boy, that sucker took off! Glad the Dodge wasn’t under the car port. Where’s Bubba?”

By the way, the Beaumont Fire Department held a training exercise this week to alert the Texas fryer brigade that hot oil, frozen turkeys and alcohol don’t mix. Throw in a little bad blood with a brother-in-law over the outcome of the Texas v. Texas A&M football game and we’re talking insurance claims. Almost makes me long for a seat at the Cheney family Thanksgiving.

But, seriously, I do love Thanksgiving. It is the most American of holidays and a holiday that has its origins in the right kind of thinking – giving thanks. I’ve also long thought that Thanksgiving was doggedly resisting becoming just another excuse to troop to the mall and rack up credit card debt, but I can apparently give up on being thankful for that.  The morning paper carries a K-Mart ad announcing that the store will be open at 5:00 am Thanksgiving day. Macy’s, WalMart and many other big box merchants have joined K-Mart in unceremoniously dumping the once sacred tradition of being closed on one day of the year where Americans really ought to stay home and enjoy each others, or at least conspire together not to burn down the car port.

I understand the nature of capitalism, just as Pope Francis does, and that the period from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve is a critical period for many retailers to make it or break it for the year, but 5:00 am on Thanksgiving? Will Thanksgiving now become just another shopping crazed day on the over indulgent road to the post-Christmas sales? Will Denny’s next be offering a turkey dinner to go that you can eat from the comfort of your shopping cart at Best Buy?

I’m sure the Jesuit pope wasn’t thinking specifically of America’s over-indulgent consumer culture (or was he) when he wrote in his latest Apostolic Exhortation, “We have created a ‘disposable’ culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the ‘exploited’ but the outcast, the ‘leftovers.'”

Words to contemplate on the way to K-Mart in the pre-dawn hours.

Thanksgiving hold special memories for me – Mom’s deft touch with the turkey and gravy, my brother being home, a Detroit Lions game in the background, a special year when two college basketball players joined us for dinner and more recently friends, family, good cheer, too much pie and plenty of love with the leftovers. And, yes, I have a roasting pan overflowing with things to be thankful for this year.

Thanksgiving can’t possibly get better by making it the biggest shopping day of the year, but ultimately only we shoppers have the power to convince the big box guys that some things are too important to turn over to door busting specials. If we stay away, nap on the sofa, help mom with the dishes, play Scrabble with the nieces and nephews, watch an old movie or, heaven forbid, read a book, the guys at Shopko will conclude – it’s the nature of capitalism after all – that opening early on the day after Thanksgiving is still the way to go.

In the spirit of the season, by the way, I am officially suspending judgment on whether the British celeb chef Nigella was getting through what sounds like an awful ten year marriage to Charles Saatchi with the help of something a bit more exotic than turkey breast stuffed with Italian sausage and Marsala-steeped cranberries.

For her part Nigella says the drug abuse charge is nonsense and like all good celebrities she took to Twitter to thank her fans for standing by here. Many said they would bake something in a show of solidarity. That’s the spirit.

I’m standing by, too, and for two reasons. The drug charge is, after all, being made by an ex-husband who we last heard from with his hands around the chef’s throat and, after an exhaustive review of Nigella’s website, I didn’t find a single recipe for frying a turkey.

Happy Thanksgiving. Eat well, take a nap, go for a walk. There are other days to shop, really.


Baseball, Campaign Finance, Egan, Idaho Politics, IRS, Poetry, Politics, Thanksgiving

Following the Money

One of the great faults of American journalism – and there seem to be so many in the age of never ending news cycles – is what journalist and tax analyst David Cay Johnston calls the “unfortunate tendency…to quote people accurately without explaining the underlying context.”

The story of the IRS targeting conservative groups for extra scrutiny when those groups applied for IRS certification of tax-exempt status is a case in point – a breaking political story without a lot of context. Most reporting, as far as it has gone, has appropriately focused on who did what and why? Google Lindsey Graham/IRS and you’ll find 4,500,000 hits with the latest being the senator’s call for a special prosecutor to probe the “a scandal worse than Watergate.”

What has largely been missing is the origin of the whole brouhaha. Of course the who did what and why must be investigated and, trust me, it will be, but nothing ever happens in a vacuum where politics are concerned. The context of the IRS scandal is enormously important to understanding what has happened. Appropriate for the IRS – it always begins with money.

As former Wall Street insider and one-time Treasury Department counselor Steven Rattner tried to provide a little context recently in the New York Times:

“The decision in 2010 to target groups with certain words in their names did not come out of nowhere. That same year, the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case substantially liberalized rules around political contributions, stimulating the formation of many activist groups.

“In the year ended Sept. 30, 2010, the division received 1,741 applications from ‘social welfare organizations’ requesting tax-exempt status. Two years later, the figure was 2,774. Meanwhile, the staff of the division tasked with reviewing these applications was reduced as part of a series of budget reductions imposed on the I.R.S. by anti-tax forces.

“A far higher proportion of the new applicants wanted to pursue a conservative agenda than a liberal agenda. So without trying to defend the indefensible profiling, it wouldn’t be that shocking if low-level staff members were simply, but stupidly, trying to find an efficient way to sift through the avalanche of applications.”

In other words, thousands of applications for tax-exempt status for “social welfare organizations” inundated the IRS in the two years after five members of the Supreme Court effectively removed most restrictions on money, especially corporate money, in American politics. A bunch of smart political operatives – think Karl Rove and Bill Burton – seized this historic moment in our political history to create an opportunity to make a lot of money for themselves and spend a lot of money in highly partisan ways with all of it carefully hidden from any public disclosure. The one quasi-public step of the process to receive IRS sanction is to apply for an exemption, which as Steve Rattner notes, thousands of groups were doing in the wake of the Citizens United decision. Other groups just began operating without the formal approval apparently confident that they would eventually get the OK. The most well-financed groups like Rove’s Crossroads GPS and Burton’s Priorities USA could afford the kind of legal talent that is steeped in the nuance of IRS rules thereby virtually ensuring that their applications would thread the tax agency needle.

A little more context. Turns out the IRS rarely denies an application for one of these “social welfare” organizations. The Center for Public Integrity looked at all this and concluded that over the last four fiscal years the IRS has denied the applications of just 60 groups, while approving more than 6,800 applications.

Congress has, of course, delegated the rule making for how to assess these groups to the IRS meaning the bureaucrats are left to determine just what constitutes a “social welfare organization.”

Here’s what the agency’s own internal guidance says:

“Whether an organization is ‘primarily engaged’ in promoting social welfare is a ‘facts and circumstances’ determination.

“Relevant factors include the amount of funds received from and devoted to particular activities; other resources used in conducting such activities, such as buildings and equipment; the time devoted to activities (by volunteers as well as employees); the manner in which the organization’s activities are conducted; and the purposes furthered by various activities.”

Rove’s group, just to take one example, spent more than $300 million in the 2012 election cycle on its version of “social welfare” and is already financing campaign-style attack ads against Hillary Clinton; perhaps the earliest such attack in the history of presidential politics.

Writing in The Atlantic long-time Washington policy and politics observer Norm Ornstein nailed it when he said: “The idea that Crossroads GPS, or the American Action Network, or Priorities USA, or a host of other organizations engaged in partisan campaigning on both sides are ‘social welfare organizations’ is nonsense. Bloomberg’s Julie Bykowicz recently pointed to another example to show the farce here. Patriot Majority USA, run by a Democratic operative, told the IRS its mission was ‘to encourage a discussion of economic issues.’ It spent $7.5 million in ads attacking Republican candidates in 2012–and then virtually disappeared, with Bykowicz unable to reach the group by e-mail or phone. ‘Social welfare?'”

Ornstein’s fundamental point is this: “This is all about disclosure of donors, and about political actors trying to find ways to avoid disclosure.” Bingo.

In Idaho the ultra-conservative Idaho Freedom Foundation, which has never even hinted at the source of most of its money, operates under another section of federal tax law – section 501(c)(3) – and finances a “news service” that generally serves to reinforce the group’s libertarian political agenda, which most recently has been focused on lobbying to keep Idaho from establishing a health insurance exchange under the Affordable Care Act – Obamacare – and publicizing the objections of the group’s executive director to the state’s traffic enforcement mechanism. In order to be exempt under section 501(c)(3) a group must be deemed to be a “public charity” or a “private foundation.”

In Idaho most hospitals are public charities so are many educational foundations and arts and humanities groups, but so too is the Idaho Freedom Foundation, which has become one of the most powerful political forces in the state. It must be noted that IFF received its IRS designation before Citizens United started the avalanche of secret political money flowing to tax code empowered outfits like Rove’s, but still the Idaho group most recent tax return says it collected more than $350,000 in grants and contributions in 2011 to further its “public charity” work.

The real point here is that the IRS code is a confused, often contradictory hodge-podge of rules and dodges. Citizens United further confused the already messy landscape and spawned an entirely new industry where vast amounts of unregulated, unreported money is being used to influence public policy and elections. Money and politics going together is as old as eggs with bacon, but this new political world, illustrated anew by the IRS “scandal,” has perverted the one standard that has a chance of keeping our politics remotely clean and transparent. That standard is disclosure. Perhaps the months of investigation into who did what and why at the IRS will help Congress and the American voter see just who is hell bent on using secret money, with the help of the tax code, to increasingly dominate politics.

If it turns out the IRS willfully targeted certain groups, while not looking closely at others, then heads must roll. But if instead it turns out, as seems entirely possible, that the extra “scrutiny” was based on a fumbling bureaucratic response to a incredibly flawed system then Congress should set about to fix that problem.

As Salon’s David Dayen notes, “It’s pretty simple, then, to figure out what took place. The IRS, faced with the enormous task of dealing with a surge of 501(c)(4) groups taking advantage of an often contradictory law, performed triage by taking the path of least resistance – going after the most obvious targets, who didn’t have the resources to artfully stay within the tax laws, or to fight back against invasive reviews. They shied away from the heavily lawyered-up big-money groups, and instead focused on battles they thought they could win.”

There’s some additional context for you.



The Year the Johnson’s Integrated Thanksgiving

Note: Happy Thanksgiving to all of you. I’m re-posting a Thanksgiving piece from several years ago about a very memorable day from my long ago youth. Hope you enjoy it …  and a great holiday. Thanks for reading. 


Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday; the most American of celebrations dating back, officially at least, to Lincoln and the dark days of the Civil War. It has always meant connection for me – with family, friends, traditions and a profound sense that some of us, the lucky ones, truly are blessed with much to be genuinely thankful for.

I have enduring memories, no doubt ripened over time, of Thanksgivings past. There was the year my Aunt Vera couldn’t quite get the turkey cooked, while my mother – she who knew how to roast a bird – quietly steamed, and not just the brussels sprouts, either.

Mom was like I expect many women of her generation, a great cook of basic good things. No lumps in her mashed potatoes – ever. The gravy, she insisted, must be cooked – slowly. Pumpkin pie filling was eased into a crust made by hand. The dressing never came from a box. Mom wouldn’t have known a tortellini from a duck breast, but she knew how to make a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.

My father, never much of a hand in the kitchen, would marvel as we set down to the feast that Mom, with little more preparation than a  high school home ec course under her apron, could make it all come out just right and perfectly timed. No undercooked birds in the Johnson household. And she loved the compliments and, yes, fished for them. “Is the turkey moist enough?” she would ask just to be re-assured that the old bird was indeed just right.

“How about some more of everything?” she would suggest and often we would pass the platters again. She was the “Empress of Thanksgiving,” completely in command of her kitchen/dining room empire.

Poor Aunt Vera. Mom cut her no slack and I don’t believe we ever had Thanksgiving at her house again.

By the middle 1960’s, we had moved far from family in Nebraska to the isolated outpost of Rock Springs, Wyoming. (Of the many places I’ve lived, Rock Springs is the only town that consistently draws a knowing chuckle. Let’s just say that Rock Springs will never be confused with, say, Sun Valley, Idaho or Bozeman, Montana. Think west Texas with about as much charm.)

I was in junior high school in Rock Springs, the new kid in town with little by way of friends and with even fewer of the social skills that make some teenagers instantly popular with their crowd. Friends were yet to be made and Thanksgiving break that year was just an extra long weekend. What I did possess was a Gail Goodrich autographed model basketball and an abiding love of the game I was trying – slow of foot and short of stature – to master.

Thanksgiving wasn’t on my mind, basketball was. We weren’t going to travel to be with family, so I figured, weather permitting and with little else to do, I’d shoot a few hoops in a school playground after the turkey had been served.

A couple of days before Thanksgiving, Dad brought home news that he’d been asked by a friend at the local community college whether the Johnson’s might be willing to put an extra leaf in the dining room table and roast a slightly larger turkey in order to host two young men from the Western Wyoming Community College basketball squad. Mom, never one to shy from cooking for two or twenty, immediately said yes. I didn’t know what to think.

Welcoming total strangers to the Thanksgiving table was something we had just never done. I’m sure Mom prepared the turkey just as well as she always did. Knowing her she wanted to impress the college boys with the breast meat moist, the drumsticks savory, the mashed potatoes creamy and the gravy rich and hot. The pies were delicious, I’m sure. Frankly I don’t remember. What I do remember were the two big guys, really big guys, who showed up for dinner that Thanksgiving in windy Rock Springs.

Bill Davis was, as I recall, a rather skinny, 6 foot 8 inch post man with slick and quick moves around the basket. Donald Russell was a brawny, but quick 6 foot 2 inch shooting guard who bore a remarkable resemblance to his more famous older brother, Cazzie, the great University of Michigan and National Basketball Association star.

Basketball great Cazzie Russell

(These memories of the long-ago Wyoming Thanksgiving came rushing back when I read recently the happy news that the great Cazzie Russell had been inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame. He deserves to be there. In jogging my memory of Russell and his brother, I stumbled across a piece written about Russell about this time. He was a great basketball player and is a good man.)

These basketball playing, turkey eating, very big young men towered over my Dad who was all of 5 foot 6. I remember Mom apologizing that the long legs didn’t fit very well under our modest dining room table. I was in awe. College basketball players at our Thanksgiving table. I don’t recall being smart enough enough to ask the questions I would have liked to ask or confident enough to make the conversation I now wish I could have experienced. I was focused on basketball and the novelty of these two guys at our table.

I wonder now what two, rather quiet, even bashful, young African-American men must have thought of our very traditional, Nebraska-inspired menu and ritual? Did they humor us because they had been told to have Thanksgiving dinner with total strangers? They must have missed home and family and we must have been a poor and unfamiliar substitute. They ate well with their long legs under Mom’s table, but was it good food without genuine comfort? What did they really think of us? What did they think of Rock Springs? What did they think of the awkward kid?

I’m going to guess, this part of memory is truly fleeting, that the year the Johnson’s integrated Thanksgiving was 1966. Black Power had entered the national vocabulary in 1966. A half million Americans were in Vietnam. Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister of India, Star Trek premiered and A Man for All Seasons hit the big screen.

Bill Davis and Don Russell came to your house on an important day and, in some small but profoundly important way, I grew up over Thanksgiving dinner. No one would say that my Mom and Dad were pacesetters when it came to race relations, but the fact that my conservative, buttoned down father brought those two guys to our dinner table and Mom fed them the best things she could make left an enduring mark on my heart. It was a truly memorable Thanksgiving.

Bill Davis went on to a pretty decent college career at the University of Arizona and was drafted in the 12th round by the NBA Phoenix Suns in 1968. Don Russell played a little ball for the Wyoming Cowboys, I believe. I watched both young men play several games that season for the local community college and followed them by reading the box scores in the Daily Rocket Miner. I’d had dinner with them, after all. Bill and Don seemed like friends after that Thanksgiving.

Many things to be thankful for this year, including the memory of Thanksgivings past, including one particularly memorable dinner for five in Rock Springs, Wyoming in 1966.


Congress, Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving

lincolnLincoln’s Decree of Thanksgiving in 1863

It is well to remember that as troubled as our economy is at this traditional season of Thanksgiving, there have been darker times.

During the awful year of 1863, with a vast and bloody civil war raging across the nation, Abraham Lincoln caused the nation to pause and celebrate its bounty and blessings.

Andy Malcolm at his Los Angeles Times blog dusts off that eloquent proclamation today along with President Obama’s Thanksgiving decree.

Enjoy reading them with a profound prayer of Thanksgiving and a hopeful wish for better times – soon – for all the world.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Biden, Congress, Lincoln, Thanksgiving

The First Thanksgiving

Lincoln President Lincoln’s Proclamation

Secretary of State William Seward drafted Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation in 1863 establishing the last Thursday of November as a national day of thanksgiving and praise “to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

Seward’s prose was not nearly as poetic as Lincoln’s, but the fact that the president and his chief advisers could look to the Almighty and give thanks in the middle of an awful civil war is most assuredly a testament to their ultimate faith in the grand experiment called The United States of America.

The full Lincoln proclamation is here.

A happy and blessed Thanksgiving. And, thanks for visiting The Johnson Post.