2020 Election, Pandemic, Trump, Uncategorized

Unrelenting Logic…

There is an unrelenting mathematical logic to the spread and impact of the COVID-19 virus. Denial of the logic is like playing Russian Roulette, the odds are unpredictable and choosing incorrectly is deadly. 

January 22, 2020Donald Trump: “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”

As brutal as the math will become – a couple hundred thousand cases become a million cases, a few thousand deaths become 100,000 deaths – the logic cannot be denied, unless you reside in a partisan political fantasy land. 

February 25, 2020Rush Limbaugh: “It looks like the coronavirus is being weaponized as yet another element to bring down Donald Trump. Yeah, I’m dead right on this. The coronavirus is the common cold, folks.” 

And it’s not like we haven’t been through something like this before – it happened in 1918 – it’s just that we don’t remember the history, or we chose to ignore evidence in plain sight. The logic remains. 

The Idaho Statesman, October 15, 1918

October 10, 1918 – The Wallace Miner: “We are confronted by an epidemic of influenza which will affect more than half of our population in probability. There is a shortage of physicians, nurses and hospital accommodations.” 

March 20, 2020 – The New York Times: “Even in the best case situation, with a shortage of skilled doctors and nurses, caring for Covid-19 patients with life-threatening respiratory distress will be like using a Band-Aid to stop a carotid artery bleed,” Pauline M. Chen, MD

News briefs from the Kendrick, Idaho Gazette, October 1918

October 11, 1918 – The Kendrick Gazette: “The quarantine has been placed in Idaho. All public gatherings, excepting schools, both public and private, are forbidden by an order issued Wednesday by the state board of health.”

October 15, 1918 – The Blackfoot, Idaho Republican: “In its fight to stop the spread of Spanish influenza, the public health service is investigating the causes of the disease, the conditions which promote its spread and the part played by carriers in epidemics of the malady.”

March 20, 2020 – The Hill: “The intelligence community was warning of the danger posed by the novel coronavirus throughout January and February as the White House downplayed the threat and was slow to roll out nationwide measures, reports show.”

October 17, 1918 – Twin Falls Weekly News: “To her credit be it said, Twin Falls has not hesitated to comply fully with the terms of the latest closing order to emanate from Boise…if it is necessary to close up every industry and every institution in the city in order to prevent an outbreak of Spanish influenza, Twin Falls will cheerfully do just that.” 

October 21, 1918 – The Spokesman-Review: “Three more deaths have occurred (in Nez Perce, Idaho) from influenza…(including) Carl Price, proprietor of the local garage…he leaves his widow and four small children.” 

October 22, 1918 – The American Falls Press: “Dr. Noth, who has been confined to his home for the past several days with influenza, suffered a relapse yesterday. Miss Virginia Nunnelly, who had been visiting in Salt Lake City for several weeks, has been summoned to help care for him.” 

October 23, 1918 – Spokane Chronicle: “Four deaths yesterday and three last night from pneumonia, following Spanish influenza, have resulted in closing the state college in all departments.” 

March 29, 2020 – Politico: “Liberty University, meanwhile, has invited its students to return to the dorms, whatever their circumstances might be. [Jerry] Falwell has said this decision was in students’ best interests—that students would be better off if they returned to campus before the coronavirus spread—but that suggestion has met with exasperation by public health experts, state and local officials, and many residents of Lynchburg.”

October 25, 1918 – Rathdrum Tribune: “The alarming spread of influenza throughout Idaho, caused the state board of health to order all public and private schools in the state to close indefinitely.” 

November 5, 1918 – Blackfoot, Idaho Republican: “The Bradford family is still seriously ill with influenza…Mr. and Mrs. Lyman Tanner are the proud parents of a baby son, born Monday morning. Both the parents are ill with influenza…Miss Hazel Quigley has been dangerously ill with the influenza, but is slightly improved at the present.” 

November 15, 1918 – Burley, Idaho Herald-Bulletin: “[With] the death of Ralph Jamison Gochnour from influenza Sunday night the University of Idaho lost one of its most prominent students…Mr. Gochnour was a member of the Sigma Nu fraternity. He was a young man of pleasing personality, a student of keen and inquiring mind.” 

Item from the Blackfoot, Idaho Republican, October 1918

November 22, 1918 – Kendrick Gazette: “There will be no church services in Kendrick Sunday. Both churches agreed to postpone church meetings for at least another week.” 

March 30, 2020 – Associated Press: “A northern Idaho lawmaker led a church service on Sunday despite a statewide stay-at-home order by Gov. Brad Little to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Republican Rep. Tim Remington, the pastor of The Altar Church in Coeur d’Alene, held the service, but it’s not clear how many attended…On Sunday, he told worshipers that the stay-at-home order violated their rights.” 

December 19, 1918 – Grangeville Globe: “Undertaker A.J. Maugg returned last Friday evening from Riggins where he was called the day before to direct the funeral of Mrs. Cleveland Hollenbeak of that placed who had passed away Thursday from influenza. Mrs. Hollenbeak was 28 years old and is survived by her husband and two small children.” 

December 27, 1918 – Salmon, Idaho Recorder: “The epidemic appeared last week in the stoutly quarantined community of Challis, where it is said more than a score of cases in pronounced form were reported. It was said the disease was conveyed to the town by an enterprising traveler who forded the river in order to get by the quarantine guards.” 

John Barry, author of the definitive study of the 1918 influenza pandemic: “Of all the lessons from 1918, the clearest is that truth matters…You don’t manage the truth. You tell the truth. . . Those in authority must retain the public trust. The way to do that is to distort nothing, to put the best face on nothing, to try to manipulate no one.” 

March 27, 2020Charlie Sykes, conservative columnist: “[This crisis has] its own peculiar awfulness: the overlay of bad faith, cynical spin, and serial deception. Who do we believe? What do we believe? Who is telling us the truth and who is shoveling fabulist bullshit? 

“But what did we expect? We had taken a long vacation from truth because we could afford to, right?” 

“You can call it a germ, you can call it a flu, you can call it a virus, you know you can call it many different names. I’m not sure anybody even knows what it is,” Donald Trump

March 30, 2020 – The New Yorker: “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. Trump said repeatedly that he wanted the country to reopen by Easter, April 12th, contradicting the advice of most health officials. (On Sunday, he backed down and extended federal social-distancing guidelines for at least another month.)”

March 31, 2020Donald Trump: “This is going to be a very painful, very, very painful two weeks. When you look and see at night the kind of death that’s been caused by this invisible enemy, it’s incredible.”

March 6, 1919 – Salmon Recorder: “With but 18 new cases of influenza reported yesterday to the city health office the crest of the third revival of the epidemic is believed to have passed.” 

The logic is unrelenting. 

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Additional reading:

  • In lieu of Opening Day, a wonderful essay on baseball by Adam Garfinkle.
  • NeverTrump conservative William Kristol – I’ll remind you he was chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle – on how Trump has broken the Republican Party and conservatism for good. Kristol says: “We have now reached the terminus of craven loyalty and pathetic apologetics. I don’t see how either the political institution of the Republican party or the intellectual movement of conservatism recovers from what we have seen over the last three years—but especially the last three months.”
  • I won’t be reading Woody Allen’s new book, but you should read this review by Dwight Garner in the Times. Here’s a preview: “Volunteering to review [the book], in our moral climate, is akin to volunteering for the 2021 Olympic javelin-catching team. I told my wife and daughter my plan, and they stared at me as if I’d announced my intention to find the nearest functioning salad bar and lick the sneeze guard.”
  • And finally, video conference is bigger than ever in the age of physical separation. Here’s a thoughtful piece on how to make the most of it and also understand the limitations. And remember: failure to mute is the new “reply all.”
  • Stay safe.
Uncategorized

How We Live Now…

NOTE: A reached out this week (thanks social media) to a great reporter I’ve known and respected for a long time who now lives in northern Italy.

I was hoping Andrea Vogt, an Idaho native, would give me some fodder for my regular column in the Lewiston, Idaho Tribune where she used to work. Andrea writes regularly for European newspapers and has produced documentaries for the BBC.

Andrea’s sobering, enlightened essay was more than I expected. I want to share it in full.

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Idaho has always been a bit of a paradise oasis, even when all hell breaks loose in the rest of the world: a safe place to live, a reassuring place to come home to, a remote place where it is easy to say with a blithe shrug “well, it won’t happen here.”

As the coronavirus pandemic swept through northern Italy, where I now live, I watched it encroach – despite a strict lockdown — toward my region, then toward the nearest city and then eventually into my small town.  

A billboard in northern Italy. The entire county has been under a lock down order since March 9, 2020

I live in one of the most affluent regions of Italy, with quality socialized health care, free and accessible for all – and yes, we pay for it with high taxes, but I have rarely had to wait long for an appointment and never had to worry about how to pay a medical bill. And yet, the severity of pneumonia associated with the coronavirus epidemic severely strained and at times overwhelmed the system here, mostly because so many patients needed serious help all at once and because Italy has such a large population of high-risk elderly and because, in the beginning, they underestimated the swift and deadly contagion. 

It is easy to make the mistake of debating the risks of coronavirus, when the more pressing concern is that the pandemic creates a shortage of ICU beds available for other emergencies –  things like ATV wrecks, logging mishaps, highway collisions, accidents at home or in the shop, or patients needing surgeries for other reasons, like cancer or hip replacements. Are the region’s hospitals and clinics equipped to meet all the needs of its residents as the pandemic bears down?

Idaho has the advantage of being naturally socially distanced by its wide-open spaces and sparse population. But this can also provide a false sense of security –  I hope I’m wrong, but I imagine that even though an invisible menace is threatening “everyone else,” in Idaho, life is probably chugging along fairly normally: farmers meet for coffee at the diner, loggers line the barstools at the tavern, prayer meetings and family gatherings still seem safe enough and the daily shifts at the factories – Simplot, Micron, Clearwater Paper — hum on, oblivious to the danger facing production lines.

That was the case where I live, too, an initial hesitance to close everything down, for fear of hurting the economy. It was gradual, starting in late February, but now everything (except commercial activities strictly linked to the basic supply chain and essential services) has lurched to a dramatic halt, as the economy (and personal freedoms) began playing second fiddle to desperately saving lives.

In a little town not far from me called Medicina, population 16,000, the virus raced silently through the local senior center, killing its cook, its handyman, the vice president and a whole table of retired card players – this virus tends to kill more men than women.  They felt safe. They were healthy and lived in a small town. They didn’t see it coming. Now Medicina is mourning their grandpas.

The day that happened I wrote an urgent email home to my mother, sister, aunts and uncles in northern Idaho. Ten days before there was any discussion of social distancing in the U.S., I urged them all to begin canceling appointments and preparing. I wonder about others who may not have such a personal connection to the pandemic, who did not receive a dire warning from someone they know and trust. I worry about the lack of unified, coherent federal response in the United States, which will leave poorer, less resourceful states more vulnerable. 

The center of the virus outbreak in northern Italy

Washington State, California and New York perhaps can manage on their own. But can Idaho? Will Kootenai Medical Center in Coeur d’Alene have enough respirators (and what about overflow from Spokane?) How about St. Joseph Regional Medical Center in Lewiston-Clarkston, with its large number of retirees? What about Gritman in Moscow and St. Luke’s in Boise?  

These are the questions to put to Idaho’s elected officials, who were apparently busy passing bills to regulate transgenders as the pandemic approached. They were elected to protect and represent you. Hold their feet to the fire and ask each one of them how prepared the hospital nearest you is, and what is plan B? How many ICU beds, how many respirators, how many masks in the storage closets for the frontline doctors, nurses and staff? 

This is going to matter to you much more in 10 days time than whether or not John or Betty changes their gender on their birth certificate. I pray Idahoans don’t end up facing the dilemmas unfolding in the rest of the world – but as a remote, self-sufficient, independent place that has always prided itself on preparedness, I hope Idaho’s elected officials, at state and local levels, are all pragmatically preparing a vigorous, level-headed plan to address to the real problems they could encounter. When there is a record snowstorm in the forecast, they get the plows ready. Now, they need to make sure Idaho’s hospitals are equipped to respond to this very different kind of storm, which they cannot say they didn’t see approaching.

In the meantime, fellow Idahoans, my advice is to stay home and stock up, not just on flour and butter for your pantry, but on the goods you might not expect to have needed to cope in the coming weeks: compassion, creativity, patience and strength. 

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Additional reading:

  • Absolutely unbelievable story: Reuters reports that beginning in 2017 the Trump Administration slashed by two-third the staff of a CDC facility in China designed to work on epidemics. “The CDC office in Beijing is a shell of its former self,” said one of the people, a U.S. official who worked in China at the time of the drawdown.
  • John Barry wrote the definitive account of the 1918 pandemic called The Great Influenza. His interview with The New Yorker’s David Remnick is worth your time. And it’s not like this hasn’t happened before.
  • An outstanding young scholar and teacher at the University of Montana, Rob Saldin, has a book coming soon on the NeverTrump Republicans. Rob, who I am happy to call a friend, had a great piece recently in the New York Times. It, too, is on point for this moment in history.

Uncategorized

The NRA is a Fraud…

We learned with certainty this week what the more discriminating among us have known for a long, long time – the National Rifle Association (NRA) is a fraud. The Wall Street Journal, not anyone’s definition of the liberal press, produced the documents that prove how the NRA’s chief mouthpiece, Wayne LaPierre, and a handful of other top executives have scammed the nation’s gullible gun owners out of millions and millions of dollars.

LaPierre has perfected the gift of the grift. The Journal reported that he submitted bills for $39,000 worth of clothing during one – just one – visit to a Beverly Hills “boutique.” As writer Jonathan V. Last noted, it is possible, I guess, to pay $500 or $600 for a pair of pants, but at LaPierre’s rate of spending “that leaves you with close to 80 pairs of pants.” The documents obtained by the newspaper seem to indicate LaPierre, who usually seems more focused on bullet proof vests than Italian suits, somehow racked up clothing bills approaching $275,000, all billed to the Second Amendment loving deer hunters who send checks to the NRA. 

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is introduced with Wayne LaPierre, Executive Vice President of the National Rifle Association, on May 20, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky.

And then there’s the gun lobby’s lobbyist’s taste in travel, also amazingly spendy, $40,000 for a one-way flight from Washington to the Bahamas and $1,096 for “Airport Assistance” in Frankfurt, Germany. 

The NRA booked legal expenses over the last year of $18.5 million with just one law firm. That is a lot of billable hours, in fact more than $100,000 per day over the course of a full year. LaPierre also billed nearly $14,000 for three months rent for “a summer intern” who reportedly worked at the NRA. That is some rental. Some intern. 

Oliver North, the sleazy former Iran-Contra operative, served briefly as president of the NRA before being deposed a couple of weeks ago. He reportedly had a cushy contract worth millions annually. It’s difficult to tell from the organization’s 990 form what if any perks NRA board members receive, but former senator Larry Craig, a dependable shill for the NRA in Congress, is a long-time board member and at a minimum he owns a piece of the current scandal. 

LaPierre, living the pampered life style of the “elite” beltway hypocrite, is, of course, the guy who regularly keeps his cash register humming with bombast like this: “It’s up to us to speak out against the three most dangerous voices in America: academic elites, political elites and media elites. These are America’s greatest domestic threats.” 

There is more, pricy travel, expensive perks, insider sweetheart deals, but you get the point. Expenses incurred by the NRA brass that aren’t “just extravagant and wasteful,” as Jonathan Last wrote, “but … so insane that you can’t even really figure out how they were actually incurred.” An entirely different set of questionable activities has prompted an investigation into the NRA’s tax-exempt status.

The NRA’s fraud – conservative columnist Max Boot describes it as a big part of the larger “racket” that American conservatism has become – dates back a long way. My personal NRA inflection point came in the early morning hours of November 1, 1986, three days before the gubernatorial election that year. The NRA was all over the Idaho airwaves that weekend smearing Cecil D. Andrus. 


“Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” Eric Hoffer


Andrus had, audaciously it turns out, honestly responded to one of the NRA’s “candidate surveys.” A big issue then was whether to outlaw so called “cop killer” bullets, Teflon coated rounds specifically designed to penetrate a bulletproof vest. Andrus said he had no problem banning the bullet since he’d never seen an elk wearing a bulletproof vest. The once and future governor also said he had no issue with bans on military-like assault weapons, the kind that have become the weapon of choice for our regularly occurring school massacres. 

The NRA gave Andrus a D-rating in 1986 and put up commercials calling him a threat to Idaho sportsman. The hunter-governor who never met a shotgun or elk camp he didn’t love just wasn’t pure enough for Wayne LaPierre. The gun lobby endorsed Republican David Leroy in 1986, a fellow who knew his way around a Boise courtroom, but a guy no one expected to occupy a hunting camp.

To understand how amazing – or outrageous – those NRA smears of Andrus were you need to know about Andrus the hunter and gun owner. In early October of that election year, Andrus quietly left the campaign trail for three days so as not to miss his annual elk hunt. As his press secretary I was deathly afraid some enterprising reporter would ask me where the candidate was and why he wasn’t shaking hands and seeking votes? In retrospect I should have put out a news release – “Andrus Pursues Mighty Wapiti Rather Than Votes.” He got his elk, by the way.  

Idaho Governor Cecil D. Andrus, a gun owner and hunter, who understood the NRA’s fraudulent game

Andrus once stashed a new 12-gauge shotgun in my office while waiting for the opportunity to secret the firearm into his home. He said if he could get the gun home without Carol noticing she would never know he had purchased another firearm. He had so many guns that one more would fade unnoticed into the gun cabinet. 

The four-term governor was the kind of politician the NRA can’t abide, a passionate hunter and gun owner who thought the organization was off its rocker when it came to legitimate restrictions on the kinds of weapons that now regularly kill innocent people in churches, synagogues, schools and on street corners. Thirty years ago he correctly saw that the NRA, faking concern for sportsmen, while serving as stalking horse for firearms manufacturers, had just become one more radical ancillary of the Republican Party. Unlike most politicians he had the courage to say that the leaders of the gun lobby really built their political influence in order to facilitate their own financial enrichment.

For decades the NRA has been the biggest fundraising cash register on the hard right of American politics, whipping up outrage, constantly stoking fear and always depositing the checks. The fraud is finally coming home to roost. 

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(This piece originally appeared in the Lewiston, Idaho Tribune on May 17, 2019)

Uncategorized

Dereliction of Duty…

Nearly 100 years ago — April 15, 1922 to be exact — a Democratic senator from Wyoming introduced a resolution in Congress that touched off one of the most significant investigations in American political history. The Wall Street Journal had reported the day before that the secretary of the Interior, a former Republican senator from New Mexico by the name of Albert Fall, an appointee of President Warren Harding, had engaged in unprecedented conduct. Fall had leased to a private company, without competitive bids, U.S. naval oil reserves at a remote field in Wyoming known as Teapot Dome.

Republicans, who controlled the Senate, actually voted to investigate the Republican administration. But expecting the investigation would come to nothing, they detailed the most junior member of the Public Lands Committee, Montana Democrat Thomas J. Walsh, to chair the investigation.

Montana Democrat Thomas J. Walsh, investigator of the Teapot Dome scandal

By the time Walsh was finished cataloguing Fall’s corruption and the bribes he received for facilitating the oil leases, the secretary was on his way to jail. Walsh became a political celebrity and Teapot Dome entered history as one of the great scandals in American politics.

An offshoot of the oil scandal was a parallel effort to investigate corruption at the Justice Department, an investigation also conducted by a Montanan, Democrat Burton K. Wheeler.

When the subjects of that investigation stonewalled the Senate, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Congress had the power to issue subpoenas, compel testimony and demand production of documents. As the court noted in a landmark 1927 decision, the memory of James Madison was invoked, “the power of inquiry — with process to enforce it — is an essential and appropriate auxiliary to the legislative function. It was so regarded and employed in American legislatures before the Constitution was framed and ratified.”

Said another way: Congress’ oversight and investigative functions were legitimately earned amid a huge scandal uncovered by a newspaper and investigated by determined lawmakers. Now, decades later, congressional oversight and accountability is being frittered away amid a host of real and potential scandals by an administration that seems destined to replace Harding’s as the most corrupt in history.

The Trump administration has apparently determined that it will comprehensively stonewall oversight by a co-equal branch of government. The president says the executive branch will resist every subpoena for information, while the attorney general of the United States flips his middle finger to the House Judiciary Committee.

And the United States Senate — where Teapot Dome was exposed, where a corrupt attorney general (Harding pal Harry Daugherty) was forced to resign, where Harry Truman investigated the defense industry and where the crimes of Watergate were disclosed — continues to squander its constitutional obligations to investigate and check the executive branch.

As the Salt Lake Tribune noted in a recent editorial, “By abandoning the role the Constitution assigns them, to jealously defend the power of their branch of government against encroachments by other branches, Republicans in Congress surrender their duty, their power and their part in defending American democracy.”

Idaho’s two U.S. senators are poster boys for this shameful dereliction of duty.

Jim Risch has had the gavel of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee now for nearly five months, months when the NATO alliance has been under siege from the White House, when Venezuela has been in crisis, when North Korea has saber-rattled with new missile tests, when tensions have mounted with China and Iran, and when Saudi Arabia has escaped responsibility for the brutal murder of a journalist employed by a U.S. newspaper. Yet Risch has required no testimony on any of this from the secretary of state or other senior administration officials.

Each of Risch’s public statements toes the administration line even as that line shifts and wobbles with incoherence.

Risch is also a senior member of the Intelligence Committee but has no interest in questioning the attorney general or special counsel Robert Mueller on the extensively documented Russian effort to interfere with American democracy.

Mike Crapo is a member of the Judiciary Committee, the committee that recently endured a word salad of obfuscation from Attorney General William Barr on the Mueller report. Crapo, rather than focusing on the substance of the special counsel’s work, used his precious time to question the nation’s top law enforcement official about how the Washington Post obtained a copy of Mueller’s letter taking issue with how his work has been characterized by Barr.

Idaho’s senators fail to follow up and that is not what their oath demands

Crapo might have asked, just as one example, about this sentence from Mueller’s report: “Our investigation found multiple acts by the President that were capable of exerting undue influence over law enforcement investigations.” Crapo didn’t display even a hint of inquisitiveness about the Russian investigation or the president’s behavior, but spent the hearing serving up softballs. His and Risch’s performance is rank political incompetence or, perhaps, it’s something else even more troubling.

Senate Republicans could well be ignoring their constitutional obligations, as the Salt Lake Tribune suggested, “To get themselves on the good side of a chief executive who is so clearly corrupt, engaging in obstruction, campaign and ethics violations, using the presidency as a cash cow for his personal business interests, who disrespects the separation of powers, freedom of the press, the rights of minorities and immigrants and our long-standing international alliances.”

In other words: Crapo, Risch and fellow Senate Republicans have willfully surrendered their own and congressional power for wholly partisan political reasons.

By consistently placing loyalty to a president of their own party above the institution of the Senate and the good of the nation, they mock a sworn oath to “support and defend the Constitution” against all enemies.

Political courage is an increasingly rare commodity these days and playing to the prejudices of your partisan tribe trumps all other considerations. But that is not what the job — or the oath — requires.

While it may seem quaint to invoke the Constitution as a guide to appropriate congressional behavior, it has never been more important to do so. Democracy may well die in darkness, but it also dies when people sworn to protect it ignore their responsibilities and that is what Risch and Crapo are doing.

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Uncategorized

The Trump Swamp…

My weekly column from the Lewiston, Idaho Tribune

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When Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke slinks away next week from the big building on C Street in Washington, D.C., he will have, in the space of less than two years, placed himself in the history books along side Albert Bacon Fall.

For a guy who once claimed to be a “Teddy Roosevelt Republican,” committed to conservation and protection of public lands, to leave office under an ominous ethical cloud and compared to Warren Harding’s Interior secretary who went to jail over the Teapot Dome scandal is a stunning come down. Once a rising Republican star, the former Montana congressman, now seems certain to be dogged by a host of investigations and forever tainted by association with the administration of Donald J. Trump.

So-to-be former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke .

When Zinke was named to the Interior post – Washington’s Cathy McMorris Rogers and Idaho’s Raul Labrador were contenders, but passed over – he was widely praised even by conservation groups. Zinke had crafted a bipartisan image in Congress, “the only Republican to support a Democratic amendment to permanently authorize the so-called Land and Water Conservation Fund,” as Politico noted. But proving the truism that absolutely everyone who works for Trump is tainted by the proximity, Zinke will be remembered, perhaps even beyond his grifting ethics, for rolling back national monument designations and generally trashing the conservation legacy of previous Republican and Democratic administrations.

The two Idahoans who have served as Secretary of the Interior – Democrat Cecil Andrus in the 1970s and Republican Dirk Kempthorne for the last three years of the George W. Bush administration – were polar opposites in political ideology, but each understood that serving as the chief steward of all the people’s land carries a solemn obligation. While Kempthorne will likely be best remembered for the six-figure remodel of the secretary’s office bathroom, he did bring a genuine spirit of collaboration to the job. Andrus’ legacy as one of the nation’s great Interior secretaries is secure, in part, because he engineered the largest conservation initiative in history by protecting vast swaths of the last frontier – Alaska.

Zinke, despite the conservation rhetoric that temporarily assuaged some skeptics, attempted to transform the Interior Department into an extension of the oil, gas, mining and grazing industries. Zinke did his best to make true the old joke that the Bureau of Land Management, the BLM, is actually the Bureau of Livestock and Mining. This, of course, was Trump’s aim in the first place.

The president, who one assumes has never spent a night under the stars, never fished a Western trout stream or devoted a second to thinking about conserving America’s most special places for future generations, turned stewardship of the environment over to fraudsters. Ethical shenanigans forced Scott Pruitt out of the Environmental Protection Agency – remember the $50 a night condo he rented from the wife of an energy industry lobbyist and his $3 million a year security detail? And Zinke now leaves subject to a potential criminal investigation involving the chairman of the oil services company Halliburton and some land Zinke owns and wants to develop in western Montana.

Trump appears poised to name as Zinke’s replacement an oil and gas lobbyist, the current No. 2 at the department, who literally has to carry a card with him delineating all his potential conflicts of interest. Into this swamp Labrador and soon-to-be-ex-Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter have stuck a toe. Each has been mentioned as a potential secretary of the Interior. Labrador needs a job and seems to be campaigning for the position. He tweeted fulsome praise toward Trump last week for – wait for it – signing an executive order, something Trump does over and over again in lieu of having a real agenda. Otter doesn’t need a job and should trust his gut and hang out at his ranch.

Vast acreage of the federal government during the Trump administration has become an ethics-free zone. A former Trump national security adviser may yet go to jail, three cabinet secretaries have resigned amid swirling scandals and the president himself is buffeted by a persistent special counsel, involvement in a campaign finance scandal that paid off a porn star, a corrupt family foundation and lord knows what else.

Remember draining the swamp? Zinke’s imminent departure reminds us that promise was as phony as Mexico paying for a wall.

The resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis, a decorated Marine Corps combat veteran, who leaves after issuing a withering indictment of the president’s abandonment of allies and leadership on the international stage, should also give any Interior aspirant ample reason for pause.

If Trump comes calling on Labrador or Otter, they should remember the words of the conservative scholar Eliot Cohen, a State Department counselor to Condoleezza Rice during the second Bush administration.

Writing last week after Mattis’ resignation over a matter of principle, Cohen said in The Atlantic: “Henceforth, the senior ranks of government can be filled only by invertebrates and opportunists, schemers and careerists. If they had policy convictions, they will meekly accept their evisceration. If they know a choice is a disaster, they will swallow hard and go along. They may try to manipulate the president, or make some feeble efforts to subvert him, but in the end they will follow him. And although patriotism may motivate some of them, the truth is that it will be the title, the office, the car and the chance to be in the policy game that will keep them there.”

But, it’s not worth it. Anyone who gets close to this chaotic mess will get stained, or even destroyed. The evidence is in plain sight. The swamp devours the swamp’s own creatures.

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Editor’s Note: My biography of Montana New Deal-Era Senator Burton K. Wheeler has an official release date – March 21, 2019. The book, a look at a genuine political maverick, as well as a much different U.S. Senate, is available for pre-order at Amazon or the University of Oklahoma Press.

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Uncategorized

The Manifestly Unfit…

      Anderson Cooper: You’ve said you want to end Obamacare. You’ve also said you want to make coverage accessible for people with pre-existing conditions. How do you force insurance companies to do that if you’re no longer mandating that every American get insurance?

       Donald Trump: We’re going to be able to. You’re going to have plans…

       Cooper: What does that mean?

      Trump: Well, I’ll tell you what it means. You’re going to have plans that are so good, because we’re going to have so much competition in the insurance industry. Once we break out — once we break out the lines and allow the competition to come…

Transcript of Second Presidential Debate

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I suspect it will take a few days for the full impact of the second presidential debate to truly sink in with American voters. Fresh garbage, after all, takes a few days to ripen and begin to, well, you get the idea.

The looming and continuing threat - Trumpism.
The looming and continuing threat – Trumpism.

Two thoughts dominate the day after what was surely the sorriest spectacle in the modern history of presidential campaigns. The first thought relates to the second, but seems more immediate and at least today more sobering: Donald J. Trump has brought a level of coarseness, hate and un-Americanism to politics that will shape the near and long-term trajectory of the country.

And I write that without any further analysis of “the tape.”

You don’t easily, or perhaps even at all, put the vileness of this man’s approach to politics back in the bottle. Trumpism is like a tiny dollop of plutonium – even a small amount contaminates and kills.

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Oh, Canada…

     “When the time for change strikes, it’s lethal. I ran and was successful because I wasn’t Pierre Trudeau. Justin is successful because he isn’t Stephen Harper.”
                                       – former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney

– – – – –

We Americans don’t generally pay much attention to The Great North. Canada is only on the mind when the Blue Jays are in the playoffs, when we laugh at the late, great John Candy (a Canadian, eh) in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, or when we long for a doughnut and a Moosehead. You hockey fans are an exception.

Del Griffith (John Candy), the shower ring salesman, in Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
Del Griffith (John Candy), the shower ring salesman, in Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

Here’s some of what you may have missed, while wondering when Trump will finally go too far.

Campaigns Need Not Be So Darn Long…

Canada just completed one of its longest election campaigns in its history – a whopping 79 days! What, you say, they ran a national campaign in…what, less time than it takes Joe Biden to decide to run in a national campaign. You can do this political business in an intelligent and competent manner and not spend two full years doing it. Really, you can.

I was in the Great North in September, while the candidates were in the hustings and while one of the nationally televised debates took place. The campaign was sharply focused, but in a remarkably civil manner, perhaps thanks to the “sunny ways” of Justin Trudeau, the leader of the Liberal Party who will now become the new U.S.-friendly prime minister.

Liberal Party leader and Prime Minister-elect Trudeau
Liberal Party leader and Prime Minister-elect Trudeau

I read the papers while in Canada and have followed the campaign since then, and with full respect to the many U.S. news organizations I respect and follow regularly, the broad and deep coverage of the Canadian national election was also sharply focused – much more on issues that personalities – and remarkably civil. Yeah, I know, this is Canada where niceness is embedded in the national DNA, but what a refreshing thing to see the three principle leaders of the national parties acting, mostly, like serious adults going about serious business.

Serious Campaigns Make for Serious Voters…

If anything Canadian politics is more complicated than ours. National elections are three or four-way affairs, so Trudeau, the left-of-center Liberal, was not merely trying to oust Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, but also triangulating with the also left-of-center New Democrats who might well have, had they run a better campaign, replaced the Liberals as the liberal party in Canada. Got that?

Canadians had enough of their prime minister.
Canadians had enough of their prime minister as this “modified” sign on Salt Spring Island indicated in September

More parties, more policy positions, more nuance, and real political strategy also seem to make for more engaged and smarter voters. For example, if you were among the 7 in 10 Canadians who were feeling than Stephen Harper, who had become a remarkably divisive figure, had run out his string as prime minister, what do you do at the polling place? You needed to make a choice: who has the best chance to dumping the prime minister? In Canada its called “strategic voting” and young Trudeau, the son of the flamboyant former Prime Minister Pierre, played the strategy perfectly.

I’m such a political junkie that I watched the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s election night coverage (thanks C-Span) and was tickled to learn that one of the most frequently used search terms on Canadian Goggle these last few days was “strategic voting.”

Other quick observations: as the polls closed across Canada Monday night, first in Atlantic Canada, then in Ontario and Quebec and on to the West, the CBC almost instantly reported the results from the various “ridings.” There was very little delay in reporting which candidate was winning and almost no backtracking by the CBC’s political analysts. Their first assessment was almost always spot on and it was fast and authoritative. It would appear the Canadians know how to run a national election and, like much else, we might learn a thing or two from our northern neighbors.

Positive and “Sunny” Always Beats the Alternative…

And consider this: young, optimistic, and telegenic Justin Trudeau – one wag said it was impossible for him to take a bad photograph – based his campaign on an idea that would never, ever be so clearly articulated in the United States. Trudeau told Canadians; in essence, we are going to run budget deficits for the next three years in order to undertake important investments in infrastructure that will also help grow the Canadian economy. The Liberal platform is classic Keynesian economic policy, government investment in critical projects even if the investments require borrowing the money.

The policy is not new, needless to say. Barack Obama and many other American politicians have or do embrace the same notion. It is the candor that is refreshing. Trudeau in clear, precise language laid out his deficit spending platform and Canadians basically said: “Yes, that sounds about right.”

Pierre Trudeau in 1973 with the new prime minister under his arm.  Photo by Rod C. MacIvor
Pierre Trudeau in 1973
with the new prime minister under his arm.
Photo by Rod C. MacIvor

In contrast to the dour, nasty, often tasteless politics in our own country at the moment, Trudeau made a point of speaking compassionately about refugees, demanded that Canadian society embrace inclusion, and maintained a relentlessly upbeat campaign.

In his victory speech Monday night, Trudeau, a young man who grew up among politics and politicians and clearly learned a few lessons from his old man, again appropriated a great line from Canadian political history.

“Sunny ways, my friends, sunny ways,” Trudeau said with a big smile, channeling the great Canadian Liberal Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier. Canadians and their new prime minister remind us again that positive, candid, forward-looking, hopeful campaigns are almost always winners.

It’s a great country and soon, perhaps, we’ll know as much as Justin Trudeau as we do about Justin Bieber. It’s past time to pay attention to The Great North.

 

2016 Election, American Presidents, Baseball, Guns, Nobel Prizes, Obama, Oregon, Politics, Stevens, Supreme Court, Trump, Uncategorized

Guns and Myths…

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

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

– – – – –

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

Trump: More Myths About Guns
Trump: More Myths About Guns

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

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

But it is about the guns…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                      – Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

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

Former Justice John Paul Stevens
Former Justice John Paul Stevens

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

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

…A Well Regulated Militia…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Six Books for the Dog Days…

Two brothers who changed the world, a submarine commander who helped propel the United States into the Great War, a writer who delved deeply into the lives of the people next door by drawing upon his own complicated experiences, the lives of the Gipper and de Gaulle and a wild and fascinating story of an astronaut left behind on Mars. Some of my summer reading and a half-dozen suggestions for the dog days.

– – – – –

The Brothers Wright
The Brothers Wright

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough. The brothers who, if not exactly invented flight, refined the theory and technology that created the modern era were, amazingly, bicycle mechanics in Dayton, Ohio. The outstanding narrative historian David McCullough captures all the failures and triumphs of Orville and Wilbur, while never stinting the human side of what they set out to do – create a dependable aircraft that would revolutionize the idea of human flight. The Wright Brothers is not the very best of McCullough – I still love The Path Between the Seas and Mornings on Horseback – but it’s a great tale well told.

The same can be said for Erik Larsen’s Dead Wake, the story of the last crossing of the massive British passenger liner Lusitania. Most everyone knows the broad strokes of the story. The luxurious ship, the biggest and fastest of the day, sets out from New York bound for Liverpool during the tense days of World War I in 1915. The German government took out ads in New York papers warning passengers that they traveled at their own risk through waters patrolled by commerce raiding German U-boats.

Dead WakeThe big ship sunk twenty minutes after being torpedoed off the Irish coast with the loss of 1,198 passengers and crew, including 128 Americans. The sinking, not surprisingly, created an international crisis and came close to drawing the U.S. into the war. The Kaiser secretly ordered his navy to avoid passenger liners after the big ship went down, but when the Germans re-introduced the policy of “unrestricted submarine warfare” early in 1917 the United States declared war. Even knowing how this story ends has not prevented Larsen from producing a page-turner. He is particularly effective in describing the cramped and dangerous life of the thirty-four crew members aboard U-20, the sub that sank the Lusitania.

Jay Begley’s biography of novelist, poet, critic and essayist John Updike came out last year, but I didn’t discover this gem until this summer. Literary biography can be tough and dense stuff, but Begley has produced a nuanced and often fascinating profile of the prolific Updike who died of cancer in 2009. I had the good fortune to spend a fascinating day with Updike when he visited Boise, Idaho some years ago and Begley captured all the charm, humor, self-awareness and occasional darkness of the writer that I observed for a few hours.

The young Updike at work
The young Updike at work

The critics either love or hate Updike, but I suspect we’ll be reading him long after many of his contemporaries are dead and gone – and not just for the sex. If you liked Updike’s Rabbit or his many, many great pieces in The New Yorker, you’ll enjoy Begley’s even-handed, but not uncritical assessment of the man and the writer. It’s the best kind of literary biography and it is simply called Updike.

I keep reading about American presidents, because I can’t seem to get enough of the details about the central character in all our politics. I eagerly approached H.W. Brands’ big door-stop of a biography of Ronald Reagan hoping that the talented writer and researcher had finally produced “the” great book on the Gipper. I was disappointed, but still recommend the book as a basic “life” of the consequential and controversial 40th president.

If you’re looking – as perhaps I was and still am – for a historian to really explain Reagan, you’ll be disappointed. Brands is a great story teller, like his subject, but what seems to be missing is an effort to place of Reagan in the larger context of 20th Century American politics. Was he the Republican FDR? Was he the last of an old type of Republican or the first of a new type? Did Ronnie make Goldwater conservatism popular, or was his personal magnetism more important? We’ll wait for another book to grapple with those kinds of questions.

Reagan - A LifeBrands gets all the basic stuff of Reagan’s remarkable political life jammed in this book and for a general reader wanting a breezy survey of his presidency Reagan – A Life will do the trick. Brands has touched broadly on the memoirs and news accounts of the Reagan era, but I’ll keep hoping for someone to make the deep dive into the archives, the papers and reports of the Reagan presidency in the way McCullough has done for Harry Truman or Robert Caro for LBJ.

I’m guessing most Americans know little about Charles de Gaulle, the one-star French general who nearly singlehandedly created the idea of “Free France” once the Nazis had overrun and occupied his country in 1940. Some may vaguely recall that Mon General came back to power in the late 1950’s and found a way to extricate France from a bloody civil war in Algeria, re-wrote the French Constitution and ruled the country with a firm hand, a huge ego and a domineering personality for a decade. Today it is not an overstatement to say that de Gaulle, and the myth of de Gaulle, is at the very center of French politics and culture. Some contend his memory shadows over France as Napoleon’s once did.

Mon General
Mon General

There is hardly a town of any size in France without its Place de Gaulle or Boulevard Mon General. The modern French political state is covered with de Gaulle’s fingerprints. After reading Jonathan Fenby’s superb biographyThe General: Charles de Gaulle and the France He Saved – I started to understand what de Gaulle means to France – and the world. De Gaulle’s personal story – wounded and captured in World War I, fleeing the Fall of France in 1940 to fight on in Africa and eventually in Europe, retirement to write his memoir (which is excellent, by the way), his return to politics with fights with the U.S. over NATO, nuclear weapons and France’s place in the world – is equal to the life of a Churchill or an Eisenhower. The General, as large in death as he became in life, must rank in the top tier of “most important persons” in the 20th Century. Fenby, a British journalist, obviously admires de Gaulle, but sees him in all his haughty and magnificent glory.

When de Gaulle was finally finished in 1969 he remarked to an aide:”The French want to get rid of de Gaulle today but you will see the growth of the myth 30 years from now.” About that, like so much else, Mon General was correct. De Gaulle’s was a great and important life and Fenby has written about it with style, grace and historical context. If you want to understand France a little better, you need to understand de Gaulle a little better.

Finally, for something completely different: an American astronaut left behind for dead by his mates on desolate Mars. Andy Weir’s smart, hilariously funny and scientifically detailed novel would typically be the last thing to get placed on my bedside table. Science fiction, space travel, etc. is just not my thing, but I absolutely loved The Martian.

MartianAs Weir says of his best-selling novel: “After a dust storm nearly kills him and forces his crew to evacuate while thinking him dead, [astronaut] Mark [Watney] finds himself stranded and completely alone with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive—and even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone long before a rescue could arrive.

“Chances are, though, he won’t have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old “human error” are much more likely to kill him first.”

No spoiler alert. Read the darn book to appreciate the twist and turns that propel the novel and make you at one with this poor bastard stuck on Mars.

As amazing as is Weir’s book, the story behind the story is nearly as amazing. The Martian begin as a serialized, self-published story on Weir’s website, free to anyone who wished to download the novel. Fans soon begged for an e-reader version, which Amazon insisted must cost 99 cents. Thousands downloaded the book, an agent called and Random House decided it might sell in a print addition. It did, as in bestseller lists. Matt Damon will star in the movie that is out this fall.

It also appears, as the Washington Post has reported, that The Martian has been a huge PR Godsend for NASA, which still says a manned mission to Mars is the agency’s next big goal. It should be.

Weir’s book is far out, as in the fourth planet from the Sun, but also seriously plausible. He digs deep for facts and reasoning to make the case that his hero can actually figure out a way to survive on the surface of Mars and Weir infuses the narrative with quirky and irreverent humor that will have you laughing out loud and demanding to read a passage out loud to anyone nearby. It’s that good.

As my son said, “we’ll see how Hollywood can screw up” a really fine and entertaining book.

See you at the library.

Basques, Egan, Idaho Politics, Media, Uncategorized

The Most Interesting Man

Conversations with ConservativesEven before he hired Idaho’s most senior political journalist to run his press operation this week you would have had to say that Idaho Republican Congressman Raul Labrador was the most interesting, unpredictable, and arguably most important political figure in the state.

Putting the former political writer and columnist for the Idaho Statesman on his payroll just adds to Labrador’s fascinating spring and summer. Consider:

He mounted a high profile, but too-little, too-late campaign to become House Majority Leader when Rep. Eric Cantor very unexpectedly lost a primary election in Virginia. That effort might have seemed quixotic, but it also kept the First District Congressman in the middle of the tug of war between the establishment and Tea Party forces in the U.S. House of Representatives. Labrador continues to receive lavish attention from the national media. Among the House’s most conservative Republicans he remains a go-to critic of the president on immigration and House Speaker John Boehner on almost everything. His semi-regular appearances on the Sunday morning talk circuit, especially Meet the Press on NBC, means he gets more national press than the rest of the Idaho delegation combined and, I suspect, as much national political TV time as anyone since Sen. Frank Church investigated the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1970’s.

Labrador endorsed the insurgent gubernatorial candidacy of state Sen. Russ Fulcher who mounted a remarkably strong challenge to incumbent Gov. Butch Otter and then the Congressman presided over the chaotic recent GOP state convention that ended in turmoil, lawsuits and very likely lasting intra-party hard feelings. Still, while navigating the rapids at the center of the Idaho GOP, Labrador seems hard to have missed a beat or stubbed a toe over the last few months.

Little wonder that the most interesting man in Idaho politics again dominated the political news this week with his hiring of Dan Popkey as his press secretary, a move that I suspect surprised nearly everyone who pays attention to such things. Labrador has guaranteed that every move he makes in the near-term will be dissected to determine the level of Popkey influence. It will be great grist for the political gossip mill and will serve to make Popkey’s new boss, well, interesting.

Having made the leap over the line from journalism to politics nearly 30 years ago, I am certain of only one thing: My old friend and occasional adversary, Dan, is in for a thrilling ride. Think about the possible stops: Congressional leadership, a U.S. Senate seat perhaps, the governorship one day. Who knows? Labrador is one of those politicians who is routinely underestimated and yet regularly overachieves and modern politics – think about the guy in the White House – tends to reward a young man in a hurry who has a plan. It helps, as well, not to commit the cardinal sin of politics – being dull. Raul Labrador isn’t.

The other thing the Popkey hire illustrates, sadly, is the continuing and steady demise of real political journalism, and not just in Idaho. Dan’s reporting – along with the excellent work of the Spokesman-Review’s Betsy Russell – has long been required reading for anyone in the state who cares about politics and public policy. The kind of perspective, experience and knowledge of the political players that a reporter develops over 30 years can’t easily be replaced. Here’s hoping the effort continues to be made, but the trend lines are hardly encouraging.

Popkey likely reached the zenith of his reach as a columnist several years ago when the Statesman featured his work several times a week and often on the front page. His major investigative pieces on the University of Idaho’s mostly botched real estate development in Boise and on Sen. Larry Craig – that work put his newspaper in Pulitzer contention – haven’t for the most part been matched since. Coverage of the Idaho Legislature has declined dramatically, and not just on the part of the Boise media, in the last fifteen years and real critical and insightful coverage of the Idaho delegation in Washington, with the regular exception of opinion pages in Lewiston and Idaho Falls, is virtually non-existent.

Politicians from Barack Obama to Sarah Palin have found they can override the media filter by creating their own content and then by targeting that material to specific audiences. This is the new normal in politics and the media and it increasingly narrows the space for reporters like Popkey and for news organizations in general. Rep. Labrador said in the news release announcing the hiring of his new press secretary that he had “learned that one has to have an exceptional communications strategy to effectively represent Idaho in Congress. I know that Dan will help me better communicate my message to constituents and the media.”

I would fully expect Popkey will do just that, leaving us to reflect on the irony of a politician improving the communication of his own message, while further hastening the demise of old style political reporting.