Baseball, Christie, Economy, Politics, Uncategorized

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.

Britain, FDR, New York, Public Television, Uncategorized

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.

 

Afghanistan, John Kennedy, Johnson, Journalism, Uncategorized

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.”

Boise, Egan, Idaho Politics, Montana, Uncategorized

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.

 

Uncategorized

Invisible Armies

I have been devouring a provocative and highly readable new book – Invisible Armies – by military historian and Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Max Boot. The hefty tome presents a sweeping history of “irregular warfare” from the time of the Romans to al Qaeda, with brilliant profiles of some of history’s great guerrilla fighters like Che Guevara, the man whose swaggering presence once graced a thousand college dorm room walls.

Think of the one name men of recent history who have defined so much of modern geo-politics and insurgency: Che, Mao, Ho, Tito, Fidel, Osama. This is the modern history of war.

The real benefit of Boot’s heavily researched book is to provide that great sweep and to argue forcefully that small wars fought by unconventional means have been a feature of military history, well, forever and have been particularly important to the United States since the last half of the 20th Century. We’re reminded, since our own founding myths often get in the way, that our own revolution was won less on the battlefield than in the halls of the British Parliament.

As Justin Green wrote recently at The Daily Beast as he analyzed Invisible Armies our revolution proved the “limitations of liberal nation states to suppress popular insurgencies. After all, Cornwallis’ surrender only deprived Britain of 8,000 of its 42,000 troops in North America. You’d think that this would be a mere minor set back prior to finishing off the colonists.

“What brought about peace and independence for the United States was the shift in public opinion in Britain,” Green wrote. “Prime Minister Lord North even lost his job over the war, resigning in 1782 after Parliament voted to end offensive operations in the colonies. (Remind anyone of a certain President opting not to run for re-election in 1968?)”

This history of irregular warfare fought by often invisible armies has never been more relevant. As thousands of American troops begin to wind down the country’s longest war in Afghanistan, a place we’ll leave having done about as much to create stability as the British did in the 1800’s and the Russians did in the 1980’s, the U.S. military seems certain to confront the next and the next small war. As much as some political leaders bluster about Iran’s or North Korea’s nuclear program the American military is better equipped to deal with such conventional challenges than it is to defeat the kind of brazen guerrilla force that recently stormed oil and natural gas facilities in Algeria or assaulted the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

Max Boot makes the case that we – as well as the Brits, the French and the Russians – have had to learn the lessons of war against an insurgent or a terrorist enemy over and over again. The French disaster in Indochina in the 1940’s and 1950’s is a telling example of doing almost everything wrong. Here’s a paragraph from Invisible Armies:

“Rape, beating, burning, torturing, of entirely harmless peasants and villages were of common occurrence,” wrote an English Foreign Legionnaire. His fellow soldiers, many of them Germans too young to have fought in World War II, often boasted “of the number of murders or rapes they had committed or the means of torture they had applied or the cash jewels, or possessions they had stolen.” Locally recruited auxiliaries, often thugs or Vietminh deserters who had “stiff prices on their heads,” were even worse, they were “feared and hated by the local population on account of their thieving, blackmailing, racketeering propensities.”

Which brings us to the on-going debate in the United States Senate over the president’s nomination of former Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel to be the next Secretary of Defense. While the odds still favor Hagel’s confirmation next week, 15 of the GOP’s most conservative senators, including Jim Risch of Idaho, John Barrasso of Wyoming and Mike Lee of Utah, have written to President Obama demanding that he withdraw the Hagel nomination. The White House immediately said that won’t happen.

Hagel’s real offense, once you set aside the silly made up stuff about him being a favorite of Hamas, is that he’ll be the point man in what I suspect will be Obama’s second term agenda to re-think the size, mission and capabilities of the U.S. military. Hagel had the audacity to go against the grain of Republican orthodoxy and question the Bush Administration’s policy in Iraq even after he voted to authorize the invasion. Hagel’s distinguished and honored service in Vietnam should equip him perfectly to know a few things about the current and future threats the U.S. will face from irregular armies. Rather than embrace a guy who has fought and bled as a grunt in Vietnam, a Vietnam-era chicken hawk like Dick Cheney, who has yet to receive his historical due for the mistakes and misjudgments that lead to Iraq and was deferred out of Vietnam service, calls Hagel – and new Secretary of State John Kerry, another decorated Vietnam vet – “second rate” appointees. Cheney will eventually find his place in history as one of the most powerful and most consistently wrong vice presidents. And it’s worth noting that most of the Senators who sit  in judgment of former Army combat Sergeant Chuck Hagel did not themselves serve.

Everyone in Washington, even the 15 Senators who wrote to the president about Hagel, would privately tell you that the U.S. military budget, considering the vast deployments of personnel and equipment around the world, not to mention the generations of health care spending that will be required to care for the physically and mentally wounded of our last two wars, must be brought under control. The Washington budget debate begins and ends with taxes and entitlements, but must ultimately include sober judgments about spending on the military. We can’t afford what we have and too much of what we have isn’t designed to fight the enemies we face.

Fifty some years ago, the great Montana Sen. Mike Mansfield, in his own way as much of a maverick as Hagel, proposed a series of amendments – the Mansfield Amendments – to reduce the American military presence in Europe. Mansfield, the history professor, argued “with changes and improvements in the techniques of modern warfare and because of the vast increase in capacity of the United States to wage war and to move military forces and equipment by air, a substantial reduction of the United States forces permanently stationed in Europe can be made without adversely affecting either our resolve or ability to meet our commitment under the North Atlantic Treaty.”

Mansfield, who incidentally served in the Army, Navy and the Marine Corps, was a visionary. Republicans and Democrats ought to embrace his kind of thinking again, provide a laser-like focus on the still evolving mission of our military, and work with a Secretary Hagel and the Obama Administration to re-size and re-purpose a splendid military that needs fresh thinking. Max Boot’s Invisible Armies is a good place to start the re-thinking and his book will soon be required reading in military schools and the Pentagon. It ought to be required reading in the Senate Arms Service Committee, as well.

 

Baseball, Politics, Uncategorized

Debasing the Language

Writing in 1946 George Orwell of Animal Farm and 1984 fame, said, “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.”

Orwell’s world, distant as it seems today, was filled with worry about Stalinist Russia, the dying British Empire and the dawn of the nuclear age. Talking or writing politically about such things required, Orwell lamented, a studied ability to say something deceptive that only hinted at the real issues. Facts were incidental. Emotion and deception were then, and sadly still are, the currency of political language.

” Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness,” Orwell wrote. “Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, “I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.”

Orwell’s concerns about the misuse of language were obviously relevant to the post-World War II period, but were he still with us he would notice the debasing of political language everywhere in the 21st Century. A few, but only a few, examples:

An Idaho State Senator, with shocking historical ignorance, but with maximum rhetorical impact, compares the Holocaust to the response of insurance companies under the Affordable Care Act – Obamacare. This kind of historically inaccurate comparison is in keeping with a growing trend of his opponents comparing the American president to the Austrian corporal. (And if you don’t get that reference, you really shouldn’t even try historical analogies.)

The apparently business savvy CEO of gourmet grocer Whole Foods compares the Obama’s Administration’s traditionally liberal approach to health care (which until 2009 was supported by many Republicans) as some how being like “fascism.” 

A recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the Benghazi consulate tragedy brought analogies to the 9-11 attacks and some conservative commentators have actually said that Benghazi was a more serious example of government corruption than Watergate, a lawless series of events that forced the only resignation of a president in American history. The mouthpieces of the National Rifle Association simplify and distort the debate about mandatory background checks and bans on assault rifles by declaring that Obama is “coming for your guns.”

These random examples of political overstatement, untruths and, as Orwell might say, “question-begging” help explain why American politics has too often become a fact free zone. Outrageous argument (and incendiary words) have replaced facts as the currency of political discourse. We have come to treat Orwellian political language as a club to bash an opponent who usually merely differs with us on policy. At the same time we increasingly embrace the kind of faulty history that equates the Holocaust, the unspeakable crime of the 20th Century that targeted for murder every European Jew, with a domestic policy dispute – health care – that in fact has been a widely debated feature of American politics for at least one hundred years. Facts and real argument disappear in the fog of outlandish rhetoric.

When the Benghazi attack that tragically took the lives of four brave Americans, and the subsequent response to that attack, are equated to Watergate, it’s important to remember, as Paul Waldman wrote recently in the American Prospect, that the Nixon Administration engaged in a massive cover-up of the Watergate break-in that ultimately sent a number of very senior officials to jail.

“(J. Gordon) Liddy [for example] was convicted of conspiracy, burglary, and illegal wiretapping; today he is a popular conservative radio host,” Waldman writes. “Among those who ended up going to prison for their crimes in the Watergate scandal were the attorney general, the White House chief of staff, and the president’s chief domestic policy adviser. The scandal was so damning that facing impeachment and almost certain conviction, the president of the United States resigned.”

Reckless invocation of the Holocaust and the greatest political scandal in modern American history in order to highlight political or policy differences doesn’t just point out the historical ignorance of those who make such connections, but it also cheapens legitimate debate about important issues. George Orwell said it well: “Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Words to remember almost any time you hear a politician make an historical connection when they should be trying to argue the merits of their position.

 

Uncategorized

The Glamour Of It

I have spent a lot of years getting on and off airplanes. I’m not in the million mile category to be sure, but the airlines – generally – like my business because I have a few hundred thousand miles of air travel under my seat. I’m what the guidebooks call “a seasoned traveler.” And as a seasoned traveler, I’m growing more and more nostalgic for the days when boarding an airplane was an adventure in upscale travel as opposed to a claustrophobic endurance match. My several hundred thousand miles have taught me a few things.

I learned long ago, for example, to never check a piece of luggage. Why risk it? And, with reductions in staffing for airlines and at most airports, it takes for ever to retrieve an article from the gentle apparatus that carries your roller bag from plane to passenger. Like I said, why risk it? If you want to only carry on, however, you have to be on your toes. Overhead bin space goes fast in the era of airlines charging for checked luggage. You had best find a way to get into an early boarding group or face trying to stuff you bag into an overhead that is already filed with shopping bags, fly rods, coats, car seats and the occasional violin or frighteningly large stuffed animal owned by the little girl crying uncontrollably across the aisle from where you were hoping to read a good book and take a nap.

As for seats, I’m an aisle guy. You do have to get up a few times during a long flight to allow the passenger(s) sitting next to you get out for the bathroom, but the aisle is still the way to go. (Do be careful of the person – at least one on every flight – who slings a backpack over his shoulder that is large enough to outfit an entire Everett expedition. These folks are typically oblivious of that fact that their backpack is swinging wildly from side to side as they struggle to the back of the plane, bringing concussion-inducing blows to aisle seat sitters. You’ve been warned.)

Security lines increasingly demand a strategy, as well. Avoid at all cost the person who obviously has not flown in the post-9-11 era. You can spot them. They’re drinking out of a Big Gulp cup and cleaning their nails with a pocket knife. “What,” they’ll say, “I can’t take this through security? When did that happen?”

I particularly love the members of the traveling public who wait for 15 minutes in a long line without any preparation for what happens when it’s their turn to enter the metal detector. These are the folks who suddenly realize as they approach the check point with 80 people behind them that they have their entire coin collection in their inside coat pocket.  Or they belatedly discover that those pesky “liquids, not to exceed three ounces” are carefully and securely packed in the bottom of a bag filled with enough corn chips to put Tostido’s out of business. “They must be in here somewhere? When did this happen?” I recently observed a woman with the largest bottle of hair conditioner I have ever seen arguing about whether “this tiny little thing” violated the three ounce rule. That bottle not only violated the rule, it was enough conditioner to supply perfectly conditioned hair to most of the western hemisphere for a year.

In the old days air travel had a certain glamour. The plates were china and the little tablecloths were, well there were little tablecloths in the ancient and glamorous days of air travel. People actually dressed well to board an airplane. Those days are gone. Flip flops and tank tops are the norm these days. If you are lucky you might spot a guy in a jacket and tie or a woman in a nice pant suit on your flight, but more likely you’ll see ball caps turned backward, baggy cargo shorts and tee shirts that were new when Jimmy Carter was in the White House. As David Sedaris once wrote in a side-splittingly funny New Yorker piece, many air travelers today look like they came directly to the boarding gate after washing shoe polish off a pig.

Not completely sure that the United States faces an obesity crisis – you obviously haven’t been in an airplane recently. As more and more airlines utilize smaller, regional jets – CJ’s they’re called in the business for the Canadian origin of their birth – the seats get smaller and smaller and the aisles narrower and narrower. At the same time the passengers get bigger and bigger. It used to be a rare event to see a particularly large person request a “seat belt extender,” but such requests, in my informal surveys, are more and more common. The CJ’s present problems for normal sized passengers, too. I sat next to a fellow on a recent flight who, while not out of shape or overweight was just a big guy. I lost the quiet, but intense 90 minute fight for a small piece of the arm rest. The bruises are healing nicely.

Some political commentators claim that the real economic and social divide in our society is between those Americans in the “top 1%” who control such a significant portion of the nation’s wealth and, well, the rest of us. I’m in sympathy with the argument, but I’m here to tell you the economic and social divide is even greater between business class and coach. Once in a while my miles get me “up front” in the rarefied air of First Class. It’s the difference between a Lexus and Yugo. Hot and cold running drinks, real and mostly edible food, leg room and a flight attendant who isn’t just moonlighting from her regular job as a private prison guard.

The glamour of business travel, the glamour of any travel other than riding “up front” on an international flight, is lamentably a thing of the past. As gone as when Rick puts Ilsa on that plane leaving Casablanca for Lisbon. Remember how glamorous Ingrid Bergman looked in those closing scenes from the great movie? Paul Henreid was dashing in suit, tie and fedora. Those folks were dressed for serious travel. They were going someplace.

But come to think of it in Casablanca Ilsa Lund and Victor Laszio were just fleeing the Nazis, not doing something really stressful like washing shoe polish off of a pig.

 

Baucus, U.S. Senate, Uncategorized

The Last Great Senate

When then-Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker was at the zenith of his political power and influence in Washington it was said that if his Senate colleagues were charged with secretly selecting a president they would have chosen Baker. He was that respected on both sides of the political aisle.

Baker was a moderate Republican when the GOP had such a thing and his influence on the Senate and American politics from the 1960’s to the 1990’s was significant. He was both minority and majority leader, could have been on the Supreme Court had he wanted the appointment and after the Senate served as Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff and later as ambassador to Japan.

A fine recent book on the Senate during Baker’s hay day makes the case that the senator from Tennessee was one of the century’s great legislators and led “the Republicans at a time when, for some members of his caucus, compromise was beginning to be a dirty word.”

The book , The Last Great Senate, is Ira Shapiro’s first-hand history of the Senate in the 1970’s before the pivotal election of 1980 – the election of Ronald Reagan and the defeat of many Senate liberals – ushered in a new era in American and senatorial politics. Shapiro, a staffer to several Senate Democrats in this period, nonetheless makes Baker one of the heroes of his book by recalling his essential role in the Watergate hearings, as well as Baker’s support for the Panama Canal treaties and his generous and non-partisan backing of Jimmy Carter during the Iran hostage crisis.

Shapiro makes a compelling case that the rapid increase in partisanship in the Senate after 1980 – the year Senate lions like Idaho’s Frank Church, Washington’s Warren Magnuson and South Dakota’s George McGovern lost – continues to this day.

There are many reasons why “the world’s greatest delibrative body” has become a place where compromise rarely exists and where partisan showmanship reigns nearly every day. Shapiro sums it up this way: “It is more difficult to be a senator today than it was in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The increasingly vitriolic political culture, fueled by a twenty-four-hour news cycle, the endless pressure to raise money, the proliferation of lobbyists and demanding organized interests are all well known, and they take a toll. But all those factors make it more essential that our country has a Senate of men and women who bring wisdom, judgment, experience, and independence to their work, along with an understanding that the Senate must be able to take collective action in the national interest.”

Pick out a roster of the Senate in the 1970’s and read the names – Republicans like Dole of Kansas, Hatfield of Oregon, Goldwater of Arizona and McClure of Idaho and Democrats like Jackson of Washington, Mansfield of Montana, Bayh of Indiana and Hart of Michigan – and recall that the United States Senate used to work.

As the Washington Post noted in its favorable review of Shapiro’s book, “Senators are politicians with the most monumental political ambitions, and they operate in a political environment that reflects how much the country has changed — in some ways, not for the better. The fault is not in the Senate but in the country itself.”

Indeed. James Madison’s view of the Senate as described in Federalist 62 would be a body defined by “senatorial trust” requiring a “great extent of information and stability of character.” I suspect most members of the Senate today chafe at the characterization that they live in a world of political dysfunction, but perhaps they do precisely because voters seem barely willing to tolerate the need for Senators, from both parties, to embrace “senatorial trust” and work together, really work together, to address, and occasionally solve, big national problems.

 

Uncategorized

Second Terms

Second terms are difficult.

Woodrow Wilson won the narrowest of re-elections in 1916 on a promise that he “kept us out of war” and promptly got the country into World War I. Grant’s second term was a mess of scandal and mismanagement that has forever tarnished his reputation. Reagan had Iran-Contra, Clinton had Monica and, in what was really his second term, Truman had Korea.

One of the great cautionary tales of the American presidency was Franklin Roosevelt’s second term. After winning a stunning landslide re-election, FDR squandered his massive goodwill with an audacious plan to expand the Supreme Court. Rebuffed on that hubristic notion, Roosevelt doubled down and attempted to “purge” fellow Democrats who the president thought too conservative. Every one of them survived and after 1937 Roosevelt never again commanded a working majority in the Congress for his domestic agenda. Had Roosevelt’s presidency ended after two terms, and had he been denied a chance to lead the nation during World War II, we might remember him today as a president who badly overreached in his second term and failed miserably.

Second terms are difficult. The very attributes that make a president feel comfortable in his second act are the ones that all too often get them in trouble – too much confidence, too much insulation from the rest of the world, a since of pride (hubris?) that the re-elected president has succeeded and his foes have not. Pride does goeth before a fall. Second terms are also marked by exhaustion, by staff members who get to thinking more about themselves than the job or the boss and by an almost inevitable running out of steam.

Barack Obama’s full-throated defense of political liberalism in his second inaugural address will be celebrated by many who have wondered if the cerebral college professor and community organizer is really committed to the progressive agenda. Wonder no more. However, great political speeches – and his will, I predict, go down in history as a great inaugural speech – require great political implementation if the ideas they embody are to be more than historical footnotes.

The real challenge for the president in his second term, more than avoiding scandal and overreach, is how he will apply the grease of political action to the sticky gears of political Washington. Since everyone has an opinion: here is a modest, yet attainable second term agenda for a president who has already past the rest of being transformative.

In a Nixon-goes-to-China way, Obama has a unique opportunity to be the American president who crafts a comprehensive reform of the big three entitlement programs – Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security – in a way that secures the essential national safety net for at least a generation. Talk about a legacy. Obama, because he truly believes in these programs, can be the transformative guy who makes them work far into the future. He’ll need to offend some of his friends, but what’s the presidency for anyway? Obama can stitch together a grand bargain – budget reductions, entitlement reforms, revenue, the whole ball of wax – if he wants, but he’ll need to bargain and trade. The question is whether he’s willing and able to go big and try to secure a truly historic deal.

On climate change, the president can merely order the EPA to aggressively regulate greenhouse gases and avoid a huge and eventually pointless fight with Congress and the energy industry. At the same time, the president can get his new Secretary of State working harder on meaningful international agreements. Obama also needs a sharp, politically effective EPA Administrator. How about bringing former New Jersey Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman to EPA?

The country is already moving in the direction Obama stressed in the human and civil rights portions of his speech yesterday. Younger Americans, those under 35 say, don’t need to be convinced that the country’s civil rights agenda should be expanded more broadly to include gays. As Martin Luther King, Jr. (and others) have famously said, and Obama clearly knows, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” Obama stands on the right side of history here and those who oppose him will find the country steadily moving away from them. He merely needs to continue to give voice and direction to the movement.

By the same token, given enough presidential attention, the country will move, perhaps not fast enough for some of us, but move nonetheless, on guns. Obama can influence this debate, as he already has, by focusing on the moral dimension of the country’s culture of violence. He is again on the right side of history.

On immigration reform Obama needs a Republican ally. The element of surprise in politics is badly underrated. Obama could surprise, and advance his own agenda, by offering to work directly with, say Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, to fix one issue that most sensible Republicans now know is going to continue to keep them from winning national elections. Obama has absolutely nothing to lose by reaching out to scared Republicans on this issue. He’s got them right where he wants them.

Part of the historic difficulty with a second term is that something unexpected always turns up. FDR had to move the country from isolation to international engagement as World War II began. Truman had to fire Douglas MacArthur. Nixon had to confront the White House taping system. Andrew Jackson had to confront the nullification crisis. And like most presidents in a second term, Thomas Jefferson was often pre-occupied with foreign affairs.

One reason, I suspect, that so many of his political opponents dislike Barack Obama so much is that they know, deep down, that he is indeed a transformational figure; one of those once-in-a-generation figures who changes politics and public understanding in lasting ways. Perhaps he is even, as some suggest, the Reagan of the left for the 21st Century. In any event, his place in history is secure as the first African-American elected not once, but twice to the highest office in the land. But the difficult second term will determine much more – whether he was merely the first or whether he’ll be among the great.

 

Andrus Center, Baseball, Uncategorized

Grace and Grit

You have to admit there is a certain rich irony in the sad fact that two of baseball’s all-time greats – Stan Musial and Earl Weaver – died the same weekend that the sports and popular culture world is still trying to process the misdeeds, misdirection and misfires of Lance Armstrong and Manti T’eo.

Stan the Man, maybe the most talented nice guy to ever lace up a pair of spikes, and The Duke of Earl, one of the most competitive and successful managers in the history of the game, could not have been more different from one another or less like those who will forever be remembered for Oprah’s confessional and the bizarre cloak of hoax that a great university has thrown around it’s star linebacker. The two old Hall of Famers go out like the pros they were, individual, real guys remembered by fans and opponents for their accomplishments not their embellishments. 

Musial, the quiet, funny competitor who labored his entire career largely out of the media glare in St. Louis, has never gotten his due as among a handful of the game’s greats. Stan died as he lived, respected, even revered, as a good and decent fellow. Weaver, the profane, pint-sized dirt kicker who once said he hoped to be remembered as “a sore loser” will be remembered for more than that and not because he was perfect. He wasn’t, but he was the real deal.

“Despite his salty, inventively profane diatribes,” the Washington Post wrote in a swell tribute, “Mr. Weaver considered himself a practicing Christian. Nonetheless, Pat Kelly, on Orioles outfielder who later became an evangelist, once asked Mr. Weaver why he didn’t join players at chapel meetings.

“Don’t you want to walk with the Lord?”Kelly reportedly asked.

“I’d rather walk with the bases loaded,” Mr. Weaver replied.

Weaver will be remembered for his umpire baiting – he was thrown out of two games before the first pitch was thrown – and his priceless one-liners. If you can stand the language, check out a classic Earl tirade on YouTube. He tells the umpire who tosses him, “You’re here for only one reason – to ___ us!”

The Earl of Baltimore once said when one of the Oriole’s truly fine pitchers Mike Cuellar lost his stuff, “I gave Cuellar more chances than my first wife.” Like Musial, Weaver was a winner in the old fashioned way with hard work, commitment and fierce determination.

Musial’s statistics speak for themselves. In 22 years in the majors, Musial failed to hit .300 just four times. In 1949, he came within one home run of leading the National League in hits, doubles, triples – and homers. Next to his accomplishments on the field what comes through in George Vecsey’s fine 2011 unauthorized biography of Musial is what a completely decent guy he was.

In 1952 and 1956 Musial had supported the Republican moderate Dwight Eisenhower for president, but in 1960 he went all in for John F. Kennedy. The two elegant guys met on a street corner in Milwaukee in the fall of 1959. Kennedy reportedly said, “They tell me you’re too old to play ball and I’m too young to be president, but maybe we can fool them.” They did. JFK went to the White House, Stan the Man to the Hall of Fame. You might say they both won on the first ballot.

Musial went on a week-long, eight state barnstorming tour for Kennedy at the very end of the very tight 1960 campaign. It must have been as good a campaign swing as there ever was. Actress Angie Dickinson, novelist James Michener, future Supreme Court Justice Byron (Whizzer) White and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. joined Ethel and Joan Kennedy and the Cardinal slugger on the trip to rally support for JFK in generally tough country for Democrats – Nebraska, Colorado, Utah and Idaho included.

Dickinson remembered getting booed and having things thrown at her in the red states of 1960, but also that Musial was “always funny…the life of the party…such a dear guy.”

In Vescey’s book, Michener remembers the group’s stop at a Boise country club – it must have been Hillcrest – “where the well-turned-out ‘bridge-playing’ women would not even acknowledge the Democratic celebrities.”

Writing in the New York Times, Vescey reminds us that during the era of the late DiMaggio and Williams, the early Mays and Aaron, Stan Musial was voted by LIFE magazine as the greatest player of the post-war period.

“Lukasz Musial, a Polish immigrant who worked in the zinc mills, was never comfortable in this new land,” Vescey said, “but his son, sweet and athletic, found mentors, men who taught him how to dress and shake hands and look people in the eye. He wanted to have a good life. In later years, he wore suits and ties and read The Wall Street Journal in his office at Stan & Biggie’s Restaurant. Musial wanted to be a businessman, not a figurehead.

“He knew the cuts of meat the way he knew the repertory of Robin Roberts (10 homers) [Don] Newcombe (11) and Warren Spahn (17, the most.) Those pitchers loved him, by the way.”

The Duke of Earl and Stan the Man. Just when you think it’s no longer possible to look up to anyone in sports, when the current crop disappoints and frustrates time and again, you have to pause and say – they weren’t all that way. Even the pitchers will miss Stan and the umps will tip their caps to Earl.