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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

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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.


Guns and Myths…

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

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

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

Trump: More Myths About Guns

Trump: More Myths About Guns

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

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

But it is about the guns…

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

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

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

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

Police search students at Umpqua Community College last week

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                      – Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

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

Former Justice John Paul Stevens

Former Justice John Paul Stevens

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

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

…A Well Regulated Militia…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.

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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.

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.




donaldsterlingSo much for a post-racial America.

Americans of color may have significantly more challenges to overcome with employment, education, health and housing than most white Americans, but it takes the racist rants of two old white guys to again bring into sharp relief the sobering fact that race is still the nation’s great unresolved issue. The optimists among us thought, for a moment at least, that the election more than five years ago of the first black president ushered in a “post-racial” new day. It didn’t.

If anything the nation’s struggles with race and class, not to mention gender and sexual orientation, remain as corrosive as ever. Fox News and a few pandering Republicans turned a deadbeat Nevada rancher into a “folk hero” before his own ignorant ravings about race showed every thinking person just what Cliven Bundy is really all about. While you can apparently get away with cheating the federal government out of a $1 million in lease payments by just waving around the Constitution, waxing nostalgic about slavery is, thankfully, still un-American enough to draw a belated rebuke from Rand Paul. Maybe Bundy should have read all of the Constitution, including the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.

The case of L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling is both more complicated and ultimately more troubling. Bundy is just the latest incarnation of the old John Birch Society/Posse Comitatius mind set that rises and falls periodically across the American West. The rise almost always occurs with a Democrat in the White House. With typical Bircher incoherence Bundy invokes the Constitution of a government he won’t recognize. He likes the 2nd Amendment just fine, but not those pesky provisions of the Constitution related to the power of federal courts. The Bundy mind set has found its perfect foil in the young, self-assured black man in the White House. Enough said, except perhaps that the Republicans who rushed to support this nut case still have plenty of explaining to do.

Sterling, the billionaire L.A. real estate developer, is a tougher case. He has apparently long been known for his racially tinged rants and has been in and out of court fighting discrimination cases that, among other things, alleged that he refused to provide repairs for his black tenants.

“It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people,” Sterling allegedly told his mixed race girlfriend in recording she apparently made. “Do you have to?”

Later, just to double down his racism with a gob of sexism, he added: “You can sleep with them, you can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it on that and not to bring them to my games.”

As the Washington Post reported:

“Sterling’s history paints a picture of a man who has let slip bigoted beliefs for years — and has, at least so far, sidestepped major repercussions. He was sued in 1996 for sexual harassment. In 2003 he testified in a separate court case that he occasionally paid women for sex. The same year, Sterling was sued by 19 tenants of a building he owned, along with the Housing Rights Center; they claimed Sterling’s employees refused repairs to black tenants and frequently threatened to evict them. Sterling settled the case for an undisclosed sum.

“In 2009, Sterling spent $2.73 million to settle another suit, this time brought by the Justice Department, which alleged Sterling refused to rent his apartments to non-Korean tenants, preferring that black and Hispanic prospective tenants look elsewhere. The lawsuit quoted Sterling as saying in sworn testimony that ‘Hispanics smoke, drink and just hang around the building,’ adding that ‘black tenants smell and attract vermin.'”

The National Basketball Association is investigating. Of course they are. It sounds like they might have done some looking around a long, long time ago. How the Sterling matter is handled by the NBA and its new commissioner will be vastly more important in the long run than any shooting-off-the-mouth of Sean Hannity’s new best friend.

Sterling is, after all, a long-time member of one of the world’s most exclusive clubs – the 30 owners of professional basketball teams. Sterling’s team, until last week a serious playoff contender, is coached by a black man. The team’s and the league’s fan base is to a substantial degree minority. The league’s big name stars, many of whom quickly condemned Sterling’s remarks, are African-American. The Clippers low key pre-game protest where white and black players wore their shirts inside out is just a preview of what’s to come from a professional league that owes its popularity, not to mention the money it generates for owners like Sterling, to the success of “black people” like LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

It’s not as though the NBA didn’t know about this guy. “Donald Sterling,” Paul Westphal, an NBA coach and great NBA player before that, told columnist Mike Lupica, “was always the worst-kept secret in the NBA.” Now, it’s get serious time – a teaching moment – for new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. Silver’s response and the response of the other 29 members of Sterling’s exclusive club will tell us a lot about a high profile big business in post-racial America.

The U.S. Supreme Court tells us a lot, as well. The Court’s 2013 ruling throwing out a major part of the Voting Rights Act and more recently upholding a Michigan law that bans race conscious admissions at the state’s colleges and universities are based either on wishful thinking that racial issues in the age of Obama still don’t bedevil our culture or that the courts simply have an extremely limited role in ensuring that all Americans are not merely created equal, but are treated that way, as well. Either explanation ignores today’s front page.

It seems self evident that Barack Obama’s election in 2008 not only failed to herald the arrival of a post-racial America, but rather stoked the long simmering fires of racism that were, we need to remember, originally written into the nation’s founding creed. An ignorant Nevada cowboy and the boob billionaire owner of a professional sports franchise certainly don’t represent the vast sweep of good and decent Americans of all races, creeds, colors and political persuasions, but they still represent too many.

“When ignorant folks want to advertise their ignorance, you don’t really have to do anything,” Obama said of Donald Sterling. “You just let them talk. That’s what happened here.”

Oh, if only it were that easy.


The Crown Jewels

SaguaroWhen presidential historians periodically take stock of “the greatest” American presidents Herbert Hoover never fares very well. His single term – 1929 to 1933 – was considered at the time and ever since as a prime example of a “failed presidency.”

The great stock market crash helped usher in the Great Depression and historically high unemployment on Hoover’s watch. His response to the resulting economic crisis has generally been considered inadequate, even callous, and Franklin Roosevelt crushed Hoover’s re-election hopes in an historic landslide in 1932. Hoover continues to rank among the most unlucky and unloved American presidents. History is a cruel mistress.

Yet, earlier this week I basked in the desert sunshine at a Herbert Hoover legacy – a truly monumental achievement – that the long-ago president created just days before he left the White House in disgrace. In the rocky, mountainous desert just west of downtown Tucson there exists what may be one of the failed president’s greatest, most visionary accomplishments. Thanks to the 31st president it’s our monument, too.

On March 1, 1933, Hoover, still smarting from his landslide loss to FDR, signed a presidential proclamation declaring thousands of acres of Arizona desert as Saguaro National Monument. The monument Hoover created with a stroke of his pen – he used his authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act – eventually became a national park in 1994 and played host to nearly 680,000 visitors in 2013. It is estimated that the park, the largest tourist attraction in southern Arizona, contributes $75 million annually to the local economy. Hoover’s monument protects the towering saguaro cactus, a magnificent creation that is found only in the desert of southern Arizona and across the border in Mexico. When you hike this area you’re struck by both the harshness of the desert environment and its delicate nature. It is the kind of place where the heavy hand of man could easily destroy the majesty that Mother Nature has created. We have a failed president to thank for saving it so that my hiking companions and I could enjoy it 75 years after Hoover put his signature on a presidential proclamation.

Fast forward to this week when House Republicans again voted to gut the 1906 Antiquities Act that has been used by fifteen American presidents to, in effect, create the greatest system of national parks, monuments and wildlife reserves on the planet. What modern conservatives fail to acknowledge is that our great national park and monument legacy would simply not exist as it does without every president since the Act was created having used it to preserve and protect the nation’s special places.

Teddy Roosevelt, a president most modern Republicans embrace only gingerly, clutched the Act to his burly chest and saved the Grand Canyon from commercial exploitation. He preserved Jewel Cave in South Dakota and Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, among a raft of other actions. Roosevelt knew he couldn’t get a reluctant Republican Congress to act, so he acted in the national interest and thank God he did.

William Howard Taft saved the Big Hole in Montana. Warren Harding used his authority under the Antiquities Act to preserve Bryce Canyon in Utah. Calvin Coolidge, not a man to fawn over executive power, used his to protect Craters of the Moon in Idaho and the marvelous Chiricahua’s in Arizona. FDR used the Act to protect Jackson Hole in Wyoming and Joshua Tree in California. Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan and both the Bush’s used the Antiquities Act. Bill Clinton created the Grand Staircase Escalante in Utah and protected the Minidoka Japanese-American internment site in Idaho. LBJ used the act. Barack Obama has, too.

Read the list of national monuments and special places protected by presidential action and you’ll read a list of America’s heritage, a list of the places all of us would love to visit and do by the millions every year.

Utah Republican Rob Bishop sponsored the bill in Congress this week and complained, as Politico reported, “that Obama has designated a half-dozen monuments in the past year without input from Congress, including a significant expansion of a national monument along the Pacific Ocean in California this month. The March 11 action permanently protects about 1,665 acres of federal lands near Point Arena, 130 miles north of San Francisco.”

Obama acted, of course, because Congress no longer – and rarely has in our history – acted to create national parks and monuments. Many now hope, and I count myself in that number, that Obama will use his authority under the 1906 Act to permanently protect the Boulder-White Clouds area in central Idaho. If the president does act it will be because Congress, despite a vast amount of input from Idahoans and Americans in other states, has not acted for a generation to formally protect this area. The late Sen. Jim McClure and then-Gov. Cecil D. Andrus, a Republican and a Democrat, advocated action to protect the Boulder-White Clouds in the 1980’s and Republican Rep. Mike Simpson has pushed protection of the area for a decade and still Congress has not moved.

Teddy Roosevelt realized when he acted to protect the Grand Canyon that local pressure from politically influential economic interests would never permit Congressional action, so Roosevelt acted for the public interest. Once the canyon was protected, Congress got serious about it’s responsibility. Jimmy Carter famously used the Antiquities Act at the behest of his Interior Secretary – Idaho’s Andrus – to create his and the nation’s great Alaska lands legacy. The Alaska Congressional delegation only came to the table when presidential action finally forced serious action. Carter’s conservation legacy will one day be seen to rival Teddy Roosevelt’s and all thanks to the Antiquities Act.

The House vote this week is mostly for show, another poke in the eye of Obama, and is unlikely to spur action by the Senate. For more than 100 years the Antiquities Act has allowed American presidents of both parties to protect the national crown jewels. In an ideal world, Congress would regularly and seriously consider conservation measures like protection for Idaho’s Boulder-White Clouds, but in fact it rarely even holds hearings on such things.

As the Salt Lake Tribune in Rep. Bishop’s home state editorialized this week: “Turning a piece of federally owned land — land held in trust for all the people of the United States, present and future — into a national monument is an innately forward-thinking act. But it is one that could, should sentiments and circumstances change, be reversed.

“It’s at least possible that a majority of the American people, speaking through their elected representatives in Congress, could decide that the temporary benefit of burning another 100 million tons of coal or another 100 million barrels of oil outweighs the benefit of preserving beautiful, unique or environmentally fragile lands. If that happens, they can move to sell the parks, cancel presidential declarations of national monuments and rub their hands together over all the lovely money that their friends will make.”

The next time you visit a national park or monument remember Teddy Roosevelt’s words in 1908 when he protected the awesome canyon of the Colorado River. “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve upon it; not a bit,” TR said. “What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and for all who come after you.” Exactly.

There is nothing wrong with the Antiquities Act that a more conservation-minded, forward-looking Congress couldn’t fix.

Fighting to Innovate

2013-Tesla-Model-S-front-1Tesla, the electric car manufacturer, is attempting to revolutionize the American auto industry by building safe, attractive, energy efficient electric cars that are designed to meet a growing customer demand. But…there are some challenges.

Tesla, in challenging the long-established American way of selling new cars, is (big surprise) hitting decades-old speed bumps as it tries to invent a new approach for you – the consumer – to purchase a car. The Tesla story is a great case study in innovation, but also a story about how often American capitalism is arranged to thwart innovation and protect the status quo of well-entrenched interests who like the things just the way they are.

Henry Ford’s great contribution to American industry was, if not to invent at least to perfect, the assembly line. That process allowed one of his Model T automobiles (and after 1928 the Model A) to seamlessly travel a route along the factory floor as auto workers added piece after piece until finally a finish car eased off the line. It was an innovation that helped revolutionize the auto industry and made Detroit, for a couple of generations at least, the center of world manufacturing.

In ol’ Henry’s day Ford workers were paid $5 a day and it was said you could have any color Model T you wanted as it was black. The cars were affordable, relatively easy to repair and drive and Americans bought 15 million of them. When Ford decided to introduce the improved and more stylish Model A – you could buy the car in exotic colors including Arabian Sand – the big factories the company operated had to completely shut down for months while re-tooling took place. Ford’s dominance with the “T” had been challenged by General Motors and other manufactures who were innovating with more powerful engines and attractive features like electric starters and windshield wipers. Ford was into basic until he couldn’t sell basic. And while the Model A was a great car, Ford Motor Company never again truly dominated the industry Henry Ford had invented, in part, because the company took an innovation holiday that never really stopped until the advent of the trendsetting Mustang in 1964.

Ford and his rivals back in the early days of American motoring also faced tremendous challenges in getting their products to market. The system of automobile dealerships so common today began to develop in response to the need to distribute the product. Before long almost any town of size had a Ford dealer, a Chevy dealer and eventually perhaps a Packard, a DeSoto or a Chrysler dealer. The dealers became major players in the local and state economy. Some became household names because their faces were splashed on billboards or later television. And, in keeping with the American way, they became influential players in politics. In time the car dealers largely wrote the laws in most states that attractively (for them) limited competition by requiring, among other things, that you buy your new car directly from “Happy Town Ford,” an independent franchisee, rather than directly from a factory.

The trouble for Tesla is simply that the old dealership model, a feature of the American industry since the 1920’s, isn’t how Tesla sees its cars being sold in the 21st Century. I think of Tesla as the Apple of car dealers. Lots of customer service, a showroom more Mad Men than Joe’s Garage and a product that demands high touch and higher concept. Looking at a Tesla is like browsing an Apple store. Buying a new Toyota unfortunately feels more like a trip to K-Mart.

Three states – New Jersey, Texas and Arizona – have now made it clear to Tesla that the company can’t sell cars directly from its sleek, Apple-inspired stores.  Rather the company, under existing state laws, must conform to the old, old dealership model. Not surprisingly long-established automobile dealers, no doubt threatened by aggressive new competition and no doubt quietly encouraged by established manufacturers, have pushed state officials to make Tesla conform to a sales model and state laws that Henry Ford would have recognized.

“The dealer regulations are similar to those put in place to save the family farm and protect individual farmers,” Jack R. Nerad, the executive market analyst at Kelley Blue Book told the New York Times. “But the landscape is vastly different now. Big dealerships don’t need the type of protection the single-brand store needed back in the day.”

The latest state to tell Tesla to take a hike is New Jersey, ironically where Gov. Chris Christie has lately experienced his share of auto-inflicted political wounds. After apparently first encouraging Tesla to do business in New Jersey, Christie now says the automaker needs to deal with the state legislature in order implement its business plan in the Garden State. He sounds like he’s suddenly never heard of lobbying the legislature to encourage a new business venture.

“Tesla was operating outside the law,” Christie recently said during a town hall meeting. “I have no problem with Tesla selling directly to customers, except it’s against the law in New Jersey.” That, indeed, is the problem. Maybe, just maybe, the law needs to change, but if you’ve been around state legislatures much you know the local car dealers have a lot of clout.

Ironically, Tesla is facing serious push back from two states – Arizona and Texas – that Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk has said he wants to consider as sites for a $6 billion factory that might employ 6,500 workers who would manufacture the lithium ion batteries to power the cars he wants to sell. I hardly need point out that the places where Tesla has been most aggressively backed off are all states with free market loving Republican governors. So far tough guy governors like Christie in New Jersey and Rick Perry in Texas haven’t done much of anything to change a restraint of trade business model enshrined in state law. The next time you hear a politician rail against too much regulation you might think Tesla.

All of this makes corporate recruitment a good deal more difficult, too. Tucson, Arizona would like to host the Tesla factory – who wouldn’t – but why would Tesla open a state-of-the-art facility and spend a few billion in a state that won’t allow the company to sell its product the way it believes in most effective?

I long ago came to believe that in politics, and in most of life, the simplest explanation is most often correct. American automobile manufacturers, and that group would include firms like Toyota, Nissan and others that have effectively become U.S. manufacturers, are looking over their shoulders at Tesla and seeing a smart, sophisticated and aggressive competitor. Detroit, a name we don’t often associate with new thinking, has been late to the innovation party at least since the Edsel hit the street. The status quo they know is comfortable and predictable. You can almost hear them saying – why change? We wrote the law and we like it just fine thank you.

Tesla is a 21st Century car company that is also trying to revolutionize the energy world. First, however, the company needs to change public policy and alter a status quo that works to the advantage of a powerful, entrenched group of business owners who love to sell and service cars just like they did when my dad bought his Model A Ford.

Inventing a new kind of car might prove to be a lot easier than changing a few decades of law that protects the aging and arguably outmoded business model of all those guys down at the Auto Mall.

Downton Upper

David_Lloyd_GeorgeHad Britain not produced a Winston Churchill or a Margaret Thatcher Americans might know a lot more about another British Prime Minister David Lloyd George pictured here in the prime of his long life.

A few million of us have been, sort of, introduced to Lloyd George thanks to the PBS import of Downton Abbey, the Masterpiece series that began its fourth season last Sunday. In an episode in the first season of Downton, Lloyd George’s name is mentioned in passing drawing, as usual, a stinging retort from the Dowager Countess played so well by Maggie Smith. “Please don’t speak that man’s name,” she huffs, “we are about to eat.”

At the time – we’re right before the outbreak of The Great War – Lloyd George, described appropriately by his great granddaughter the historian Margaret MacMillan “as one of the most interesting and controversial politicians in modern British politics,” was serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer in a Liberal government and he had proposed what would come to be called “The People’s Budget.”

That budget sparked a revolution in British society. Lloyd George promised to pay for both guns and butter in pre-war Britain by soaking the rich. He advocated social reforms, particularly old age pensions and a war against “poverty and squalidness,” as well as massive spending on the British Navy, including the huge dreadnoughts thought necessary to keep pace with the German Kaiser’s naval ambitions.

Lloyd George, MacMillan writes in her superb book The War That Ended Peace, loved a good fight and didn’t flinch from his People’s Budget that was constructed around increases in “death taxes” and new and steep taxes on the landed aristocracy. Little wonder they disliked “that man” in the plush rooms at Downton Abbey. He was paving the way for the ultimate demise of Lord Grantham and his like.

“The rich wanted the dreadnoughts,” MacMillan writes of her great grandfather, “and now they didn’t want to pay.” And, for that matter, just what was the value of the aristocracy? Lloyd George answered this way: “A fully equipped duke costs as much to keep up as two Dreadnoughts – and they are just as great a terror – and they last longer.”

On another occasion Lloyd George said, “death is the most convenient time to tax rich people.” In the U.S. conservative politicians would label that “class warfare” and we’d debate the fairness of “death taxes.” Such policy made Lloyd George prime minister.

Downton Abbey, for all its high-class soap opera touches – the nasty villains, crippling tragedy and clueless Lords – really offers a peephole into the rigid class structure that once, and to some degree still does, define British life. Downton is at the center of a society where ones life and possibilities were defined by ones birth. The imperious Mr. Carson, Downton’s butler, and his downstairs staff were born to “service” and lord – or My Lord – help them if they screw up. Those who manage to escape their class limitations – the upstairs maid who dreams of becoming a secretary and the Irish chauffeur Tom Branson who manages to escape for love – are the exceptions. Mrs. Hughes, Daisy and the rest seem destined to live and die in service.

Most Americans, of course, continue to buy the notion that with our long-ago revolution against the mother country we were able to create a “classless society.” Even as income inequality and a lack of mobility have become features of modern American society few politicians on this side of the pond would dare to advocate a “redistribution” of resources from the country’s economic lords to the little people. Rather than disparage the 1%, Americans seem to let the excesses of a Bernie Madoff or JP Morgan Chase float away like the smoke from one of Lord Grantham’s after dinner cigars. Perhaps some of our guilty pleasure in feasting on the glided soap opera that is Downton is that we are convinced our make believe “classless” society is superior even if the dinner time attire at Downton is much better than sitting on the sofa and eating a Domino’s.

Americans have never had a royal family unless you count the Kennedys and George Washington rejected John Adams’ suggestion that the president be addressed as “His Excellency.” Still we loved Lady Diana and can’t get enough of the future king and queen. We adore British imports – Scotch whiskey, The Beatles, James Bond and Manchester United. Since at least 1941 when Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt struck a partnership to defeat the Nazis, the United States and Britain have had their “special relationship.” In almost every case – the Suez Crisis in 1956 being a major exception – we’ve been joined at the hip, often for good and occasionally not, with the Brits on matters of foreign policy.

As much as I like the series, and I really do, Downton says as much about America in 2014 as it does about Britain in 1922. As the New York Times noted in marking the return of the fourth season the series and its characters are remarkable in their ability to soldier on when terrible things happen. “The series is optimistic, warmhearted, almost Reaganesque in its ability to find a rainbow. Mr. [Julian] Fellowes [the series creator] holds up a bowdlerized edition of British society, where beneath a thin veneer of stratification, servants and masters are friends and confidants, and even cataclysm doesn’t break the bond.”

We also like Downton so much, I think, because of what it doesn’t say. A television series devoted to how The Great War destroyed a generation of British manhood and how domestic politics brought a landed aristocracy to heel wouldn’t command much of a following. On Sunday evening we get the sunny version, which is good television, but not very good history.

By 1922 Lloyd George, having sat across the table from Woodrow Wilson to craft the Treaty of Versailles and create the League of Nations, was out of power. Internal conflicts and scandal in the once dominate Liberal Party doomed the Liberals to minor party status from which the party has never recovered. Even Churchill jumped ship on his old mentor Lloyd George and returned to the Tories – the Dowager Countess certainly must have approved – as Britain sank into a period of deep reflection and sadness spawned by what Lloyd George called “the cruelest and most terrible War that has ever scourged mankind.”

David Lloyd George was born the son of a Welsh schoolmaster and as such would have had much more in common with Irish Tom Branson, the chauffeur turned Downton land manager, than with the dandy fellows who are sent into a twitter when black ties replace white at dinner. When Lloyd George was finally given his own title – Earl Lloyd George of Dwyfor in 1945 – he is reported to have said in Welsh “Y Gwir Yn Erbyn Y Byd ” – The truth against the world.

As we tune in this week to see if the sensible American, Lady Cora, and her head strong daughters can continue to outwit – its not that difficult – the dense Lord of the Manor, recall that Lloyd George said his country’s job after The Great War – a war that claimed more than 700,000 British lives – was “to make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in.” I doubt he had Lord Grantham in mind.


First Draft

wicker_s160x162My closest personal connection to the events of this day 50 years ago were the few hours I spent more than 30 years ago with the reporter who literally wrote the first draft of history.

Tom Wicker was a southern liberal, born and educated in North Carolina and passionate about civil rights and civil liberties. He also early on developed the ability to write eloquent, piercing, streamlined prose and he just happened to be assigned to the Kennedy motorcade in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Wicker was 37 that day, a hardworking, but little known backbencher in the New York Times Washington bureau. It fell to him to write a story about an event that is still making news.

Wicker called the copy desk at the Times from a downtown Dallas pay phone – some of you may remember pay phones – and dictated his most famous story from notes scribbled on a copy of the official White House schedule for that fateful Friday. Every reporter wonders if they’ll be up to the task of describing a tragedy and a few find out. His voice breaking with emotion, Wicker dictated his lead:

Dallas, Nov. 22–President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was shot and killed by an assassin today.

Only twelve words in the first paragraph of Wicker’s story. In fact four of the first five graphs of Wicker’s story was but a sentence long. Here they are:

He died of a wound in the brain caused by a rifle bullet that was fired at him as he was riding through downtown Dallas in a motorcade.

Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was riding in the third car behind Mr. Kennedy’s, was sworn in as the 36th President of the United States 99 minutes after Mr. Kennedy’s death.

Mr. Johnson is 55 years old; Mr. Kennedy was 46.

Shortly after the assassination, Lee H. Oswald, who once defected to the Soviet Union and who has been active in the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, was arrested by the Dallas police. Tonight he was accused of the killing.

In those five, sparse paragraphs you really have the complete essence of what we remember from Dallas half a century ago. No word is out of place or unnecessary. With so much drama and tragedy and with so little time it would have been easy to overwrite, but Wicker didn’t succumb. That first draft of history from Dallas is simply a first-class piece of reporting created under the most awful and demanding circumstances.

Tom Wicker went on to become one of the most respected and important journalists of the post-war period. He covered presidents, and held them to a high standard, from Kennedy to Carter, wrote 20 books, went inside the prison at Attica, New York during a riot that eventually claimed 39 lives, and made Nixon’s “enemies list.” He never had a bigger story than his story 50 years ago today.

Wicker came to Idaho in the late 1970’s as a guest of the Idaho Press Club. I was an officer in the organization all those years ago, had a drink with him, talked shop, had him sign a couple of books and was too shy – or maybe too naive – to ask him about the Dallas story. Only later did I realize what a masterpiece he crafted on that awful day. With all we know about that day, with all the pictures and books, the conspiracy theories and the what-might-have-beens, Tom Wicker’s first draft remains hauntingly moving and overflowing with sadness. It is a timeless piece of writerly craftsmanship.

Wicker brilliantly chose to end his Dallas story with four paragraphs devoted to the speech John Kennedy was to have delivered, but never did on November 22:

The speech Mr. Kennedy never delivered at the Merchandise Mart luncheon contained a passage commenting on a recent preoccupation of his, and a subject of much interest in this city, where right-wing conservatism is the rule rather than the exception.

Voices are being heard in the land, he said, “voices preaching doctrines wholly unrelated to reality, wholly unsuited to the sixties, doctrines which apparently assume that words will suffice without weapons, that vituperation is as good as victory and that peace is a sign of weakness.”

The speech went on: “At a time when the national debt is steadily being reduced in terms of its burden on our economy, they see that debt as the greatest threat to our security. At a time when we are steadily reducing the number of Federal employees serving every thousand citizens, they fear those supposed hordes of civil servants far more than the actual hordes of opposing armies.

“We cannot expect that everyone, to use the phrase of a decade ago, will ‘talk sense to the American people.’ But we can hope that fewer people will listen to nonsense. And the notion that this nation is headed for defeat through deficit, or that strength is but a matter of slogans, is nothing but just plain nonsense.”

Out of Sight, But Important

For a state that hates government so much, Idaho sure has a lot of it.

Idahoans have single purpose districts for airports and hospitals, sewer systems and mosquito abatement. Idaho has government “closest to the people” to handle fires, irrigation, highways, cemeteries and auditoriums. Idahoans hate government so much that they often make it largely ineffective and remarkably inefficient – maybe that is the point come to think of it – by hiding away a five-person board over here and a special purpose taxing district over there.

While the state legislature has been busy creating all this government at the local level, remember these are the same folks who regularly memorialize Washington, D.C. on the inherent evils of a distant and menacing government, state lawmakers grant almost no real authority – as in taxing authority – to Idaho cities or counties. The state constitution places severe limits on government debt and local option taxation has been so unpopular in the legislature for the last 40 years it might as well be a Stalinist plot. There is no funding source for local transit service. Want to build a new library or police station? For the most part, Mr. Mayor and City Council, you have a choice – either save your money or beg the taxpayer for super majority approval to levy a bond. The legislative and constitutional constraints are so severe that the City of Boise had to lead the charge to change the state constitution a while back in order to expand parking at the Boise airport; an expansion that will be paid for entirely from revenue derived from folks who park cars to use the airport. Before the change, which had to be approved by voters statewide, even that type of “user fee” revenue couldn’t be used to upgrade airport facilities.

When you consider the various restrictions on local government’s ability to make investments in brick and mortar it is suddenly obvious why we build so little in the way of local infrastructure, and Idaho is, don’t forget, a state where local control is sacred, until it isn’t.

Lacking the tools that are common in places as politically conservative as Oklahoma City and Ozone, Tennessee – 37 states have local option taxes – Idaho cities are left trying to make the most of what few tricks they can pull from a tiny hat.

Here is a brief tour of around the hat. Boise has a city government with certain limited powers to collect property taxes to finance public services. Most of this revenue is devoted to police, fire, library and general government services. To advance downtown development the city years ago created a urban renewal agency, now known as the Capitol City Development Corporation (CCDC), a quasi-local government agency also with  very limited authority. For instance CCDC has developed and owns most of the parking structures in the downtown area and can use tax increment financing to further certain types of development within its established boundary. In 1959 the legislature authorized and Boise voters approved what became the Greater Boise Auditorium District (GBAD). This additional local government creature of state law is completely separate from the city and from CCDC. GBAD does have a dedicated source of revenue – a hotel/motel tax on folks who visit Boise and spend their money in the capital city. GBAD, within certain limits, can spend this money  – currently several million in cash – on “public auditoriums, exhibition halls, convention centers, sports arenas and facilities of a similar nature.”

That’s just about the sum total of scattered and very limited infrastructure “tools” available to any Idaho city.

If all this sounds a little like Afghan tribal politics you’re getting the idea. The city has a mayor and an elected council. CCDC has a board appointed by the Mayor with approval of the council. The city and its urban renewal agency have, to a degree, overlapping membership, but separate staff. GBAD has its own elected board, elected of course from a “district” that has different boundary lines than the city or the redevelopment agency. In a perfect world all these “units of government” would get together, agree on priorities, find a way to maximize the meager resources the control freaks in the legislature have granted them and build some things to create an even better city. But, they haven’t and as a result Boise hasn’t built much in the way of major public infrastructure in many years.

For years the city has had a wish list of public projects, including a new main library, a second neighborhood library at Bown Crossing, a street car system and a new multi-use sports facility that could be home to minor league baseball, soccer, high school sports and community events. The city has made nominal progress on these infrastructure priorities and not for lack of desire, but rather for lack of money.

GBAD has long advocated an expanded downtown convention center and has continued to bank money against that prospect even as doubt-after-doubt has been raised about the wisdom of such a move, particularly in the location the district has reserved for such a building. The expansion idea also lost steam while GBAD board members engaged in a nasty, protracted and distracting public spat about funding for the city’s convention and visitor bureau, a spat apparently now resolved. What remains is the question of what exactly GBAD wants to do with its money and authority, which brings us back to local quasi-governmental entities that are mostly out of sight, but still important.

To put it bluntly, the only local entity with a guaranteed source of revenue, albeit with a limited mandate on which to spend those resources, essentially has no plan for what to do with its money. Does it revisit the idea of a larger, if not optimally located convention center? Does it try to expand at its current site? Does it engage in planning a multi-purpose sports facility? (Full disclosure: I have advocated for the stadium approach.) Or does it, as some are now suggesting, find a way to financially support a downtown theatre space that might work in the old Macy’s department store building? Or…what? And more importantly what does the community really need and want?

On May 21 voters within the auditorium district, again the boundaries are different from the city, will vote to fill three of the five seats on the board. If history is a guide a couple of thousand voters will make the decision and, again with history as a guidepost, the district will quietly fade out of sight without the necessary debate about community priorities. It would be a shame. I’d like to know what each of the candidates thinks are the district’s priorities and just how they might approach getting in sync with those who should be their downtown playmates. Such a conversation in front of an election might give the community a sense of whether any consensus can be found on anything.

I would obviously be delighted to have a robust community debate about the wisdom and wherefore of a public-private approach to a new sports facility for baseball and soccer, but if not that idea – what?

Other cities are on the move. The city of El Paso, Texas – not my idea of a robust and economically powerful place – just began work on a new downtown stadium that will house a Triple-A team next year. Morgantown, West Virginia and Richmond are working on similar projects. San Diego is working on a convention center expansion and Phoenix has completed its expansion. Oklahoma City re-invented itself over the last decade with a ballpark, a convention center and other major public infrastructure.

GBAD built the Boise Centre more than 20 years ago and it has clearly become a major community asset, but ask yourself what else has the community really gotten behind since the Morrison Center was sited on the Boise State University campus back in 1984, nearly 30 years ago? Great cities build great public assets. It was easier in the days when the legendary urban developer Robert Moses waved his fist and a public facility was created in New York City. It’s admittedly much more difficult when the tools are scarce and the few tools you have are so widely dispersed.

Idaho’s convoluted and fragmented system of local government entities almost  ensures that nothing much will happen unless all the local players find a way to get on the same page. As a new nation we long ago ditched the unworkable Articles of Confederation in favor of a government able to make decisions and levy taxes to pay for those decisions. Such an elegant solution seems beyond the state legislature’s capacity. Instead one of the most conservative legislatures in the nation has given us the curious reality of more government than we want and less government than we need. And when all this government can’t agree on much of anything that is precisely what we get – not much of anything.

Pay attention to the GBAD election. It might be a chance to get something done in Idaho’s capital city.