Assessing LBJ

johnson200-62fbf6627cd90a3d7677dbcd0b201aa00477e8bb-s6-c30One of the best biographers of Lyndon Johnson, the presidential historian Robert Dallek, has often said that it takes a generation or more once a president has left office for us to truly begin to assess his presidency. Historians need access to the papers. Those in the presidential supporting cast, the aides, the associates, the enemies, need time to write and reflect on the man. Once those pieces start to come together, we can begin to form history’s judgment. LBJ’s time seems more and more at hand.

Dallek titled one of his volumes on Johnson – Flawed Giant. That, I suspect, will be the ultimate verdict of history. A big, passionate man with supremely developed political skills and instincts who was, at the same time, deeply, even tragically, flawed.

Frankly it is the juxtaposition of the greatness and the human failings that make the 36th president so endlessly fascinating and why contemporary and continual examination of his presidency – as well as his political career proceeding the White House – is so important.

All that Johnson accomplished as part of his domestic agenda from civil rights to Medicare is balanced – some would say dwarfed – by the tragedy of Vietnam. His deep compassion for those in the shadows of life is checked by the roughness of his personality. Johnson could both help pass the greatest piece of civil rights legislation since the Civil War and make crude jokes about blacks. He could turn on his Texas charm in cooing and sympathetic phone calls to the widow Jackie Kennedy and then issue orders to an underling while sitting on the toilet.

Johnson presents the ultimate challenge to those of us who like to handicap presidential greatness. Does it automatically follow that a great man must also be a good man? Few would measure up to such a reckoning. And just how do to assess greatness?

I think I’ve read every major biography of Lyndon Johnson: Dallek’s superb two volumes, Robert Caro’s monumental four volumes and counting and wonderful volumes by Randall B. Woods and Mark K. Updegrove. I’ve read Johnson’s memoir The Vantage Point and Lyndon Johnson & the American Dream by the young Doris Kearns before she was Godwin. Michael Beschloss has dug through the Johnson tapes and produced great insights into the man and his politics.

You can’t study LBJ without going deeply into the American experience in southeast Asia. Biographies of Senators Mike Mansfield, J. William Fulbright, Mark Hatfield and Frank Church, among much other material, helps flesh out Johnson’s great mistake. More recently I’ve gorged on the reporting of activities surrounding the 50th anniversary of passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, undoubtedly Johnson’s single greatest accomplishment.

Through all of this sifting of the big record of a controversial man I’m left to ponder how we fairly assess the Texan who dominated our politics for barely five years in the Oval Office and left in his wake both great accomplishments and the legacy of more than 58,000 dead Americans in a jungle war that a stronger, wiser man might – just might – have avoided.

The historian Mike Kazin wrote recently in The New Republic that LBJ doesn’t deserve any revisionist treatment for his “liberal” record because what really mattered was the war. “The great musical satirist Tom Lehrer once remarked,” Kazin writes, “that awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger made political satire obsolete. The same might be said for those who would turn the President most responsible for ravaging Vietnam into a great liberal hero.”

Historian David Greenberg, also a contributing editor for The New Republic, takes a somewhat different and more nuanced view, a view more in tune with my own, when he wrote recently: “No one can overlook anymore (for example) Washington’s and Jefferson’s slave holding, Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policies, Lincoln’s and Wilson’s wartime civil liberties records, or FDR’s internment of Japanese Americans. We know these men to be deeply flawed, in some cases to the point where celebrating them produces in us considerable unease. But, ultimately, we still recognize them as remarkable presidents whose finest feats transformed the nation for the good. So if in calling someone a hero it’s also possible to simultaneously acknowledge his failings, even terrible failings, then Lyndon Johnson deserves a place in the pantheon.”

Peter Baker, writing recently in the New York Times, asks perhaps the best question about the on-going reassessment of Lyndon Johnson. Given the state of our politics today, the small-minded partisanship, the blinding influence of too much money from too few sources and the lack of national consensus about anything, Baker asks “is it even possible for a president to do big things anymore?”

For better or worse, Baker correctly concludes, LBJ represented the “high water mark” for presidents pushing through a big and bold agenda and no one since has approached the political ability that Johnson mastered as he worked his will on both Republicans and Democrats in Congress. The reassessments of Lyndon Johnson will go on and I suspect the “flawed giant” will continue to challenge our notions of greatness for as long as we debate the accomplishments and the failings of American presidents.

The Last Hero

AaronHenry1I think he may be the greatest baseball player ever. I’ve always thought that.

He still has – and likely will for a long time have – the legitimate record for most home runs in a career. An astounding 755 and he never hit more than 47 in any one season. Across 23 seasons he was the soul of consistency. All those home runs, a career batting average of .305, he led the league in RBI’s four times and averaged 113 runs batted in over a long, long career. He made it to the post season three times and hit .393. He had all the tools – hit for power, hit for average, run, throw and field his position. The complete package. The real deal.

Throwing a fastball buy him, the pitcher Curt Simmons once said, “was like trying to sneak a sunrise past a rooster.” He was that good.

Tonight in Atlanta the Braves will remember that cold spring evening 40 years ago today when he broke the most storied record in baseball, the Babe’s record that is now his record. Oh, Bonds may have his name first in the record book, but we all know that story. The real record – no asterisk – is his and he’ll be there tonight like he has always been there since 1954 – dignified, a little reserved, elegant, patient, always, always the very personification of professional.

When Howard Bryant wrote his biography he called him “the last hero” and it’s a fitting title. He came of age in the old Negro Leagues, then played in Milwaukee, then Atlanta and finally back to Wisconsin. His life and career traced the arc of our society’s racial transformation; a sad and vital journey still not finished. His life covered all the distance from his native Alabama, the home, as Dr. King famously of it in 1963, of “vicious racists” and a governor “his lips dripping with the words of  interposition and nullification” to the Hall of Fame.

While he marched on overtaking the Babe’s record in 1974 the death threats piled up. Hard to believe that a great baseball player needed guards to protect him from those who both denied his greatness and his manhood. “Three decades later it still pained him,” Bryant writes, to recall “how a piece of his life had been taken from him and how it had never come back.” It was one of the game’s worst moments, made good only by his grace and greatness.

His was a quiet and oh-so-effective example that told racism it would eventually always strike out. He put up with all the downside of stardom and celebrity, the pressure and pain of a black man quietly, and always with great dignity, making it known that he was the best that there ever was. He missed much of the really big money in the game, but never played for the glory or gain, but for the love.

He was the first player, well Willie too, that I really started to care about. I became a Braves fan because of him and a Giants fan because of the Say Hey Kid.

When he turned 75 a few years ago they threw a big party for him in Atlanta. Bill Clinton came. Barack Obama had just been elected and he said he was “thrilled” that a young black man was in the White House. Not many heroes in sports any more. Maybe too much money and too many egos. Tonight in Atlanta one of the heroes – maybe the last in the greatest game – will be back on the green grass that was his stage.

On this day 40 years ago he made history, but Henry Aaron will always be a genuine American hero.

 

Politics of the Oligarchs

Campaign FinanceimageFor most of the 20th Century, indeed for much of the history of our Republic, there was a consensus that money – particularly vast sums of money – had an inherently corrupting influence on American politics.

The intersection of money and politics, both at the fringes and at the center of our democracy, has often led to full-blown scandal. William Andrews Clark used his copper fortune to buy a U.S. Senate seat in Montana in 1899 by bribing state legislators. By today’s standards Clark’s “acquired” Senate seat was a real bargain. He reportedly spent only $300,000.

In the 1920′s money was at the core of the Teapot Dome scandal that sent a cabinet member to jail and forever defined Warren Harding’s administration as among the most corrupt in the nation’s history. In 1935 the nation’s electric industry, threatened by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s desire to break-up the great utility holding companies, mounted what was at the time the greatest (and costliest) lobbying campaign ever. The effort consisted of phoney “grassroots” lobbying of Congress financed by the then unheard of sum of $5 million. We know about this because a then little known Alabama Senator by the name of Hugo Black used a Congressional investigation to expose how the big money was gathered, laundered and spent to protect the utility monopoly.

Watergate, Abscam (the money and political scandal that serves as the basis for the Oscar-winning film American Hustle), Al Gore’s fundraising at a Buddhist temple, well, you get the point and we could go on-and-on.

With its latest ruling on political money, the United States Supreme Court (or more correctly five justices) further shredded the one-time consensus that too much money mixed up with politics is fundamentally bad for American democracy. The Court’s McCutcheon ruling now joins the historic case Citizens United, both written by Chief Justice John Roberts, in systematically eliminating constraints on money in politics. While Roberts’ McCutcheon ruling left in place individual limits on contributions to candidates and political action committees, one only has to read the opinion to see that those limits will eventually topple, too.

Justice Clarence Thomas voted with the Roberts’ majority in the McCutcheon case, but argued in a separate opinion that, amazingly, the Court hadn’t gone far enough. Thomas called the ruling “another missed opportunity,” and as Politico reported, said he would strike down all limits on campaign donations and that the state of the law will be unsatisfying incomplete until the court squares up to that issue. “Until we undertake that reexamination, we remain in a ‘halfway house’ of our own design,” Thomas declared. In other words, stay tuned.

The Sheldon Primary

Amid the general and persistent fog of American politics, the daily battle for the dominate soundbite, the buzz of the latest opinion poll, jobs report or health care enrollment number it is easy to miss what is happening right in plan sight. But, like the revelation Dorothy must have felt when she pulled back the curtain on the less-than-meets-the-eye Wizard of Oz, the direction of our politics – if you want to see it – was on display in stark relief a few days ago at the expensively tacky Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas.

It is a rich irony that the conservative majority on the Supreme Court knocked another brick out of the wall of campaign finance law just days after four of the likely Republican candidates for president next year were cooing and scraping in front of the $93 million dollar man – casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson.

In my distant memory there was a time when it was considered unseemly for a politician to audition, at least publicly, for the favor of a business mogul whose vested interests are so obvious. As Jonathan Alter points out in his New Yorker blog there is no secret as to what “the Sheldon primary” that recently featured the governors of New Jersey, Wisconsin, Ohio and the former governor of Florida was all about.

Adelson, who makes most of his money at a casino in Macau (which, if your geography is rusty is “a special administrative region” of the People’s Republic of China) wants no expansion of Internet gaming that might threaten his gambling halls and he wants two federal investigations of his operations to go away. He’d also like to name the next Secretary of State and dictate U.S. policy toward Israel and the Mideast. Give the guy credit for candor.

“I’m against very wealthy ­people attempting to or influencing elections,” Adelson told Forbes in 2012. “But as long as it’s doable, I’m going to do it.”

So here was Ohio Gov. John Kasich shamelessly and publicly sucking up to Adelson, the guy who single-handedly spent $93 million in 2012 attacking Mitt Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital, a generous gesture that kept Newt Gingrich in the GOP presidential race long weeks past his expired by date. As Kasich’s home state Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote, “Kasich, more so than any of his peers, drops all pretense” in his effort to kiss Adelson’s ring, or something. “He laces his 30-minute speech with direct appeals and shout-outs to the host with the most. Starting with the fifth or sixth, one national reporter loudly guffaws with each utterance of ‘Sheldon.’”

In John Roberts’ world rich guys like Adelson writing huge checks to politicians and the committees who support them is, in the words of Garrett Epps of The Atlantic merely “free speech” for rich guys. Millions in financial support from the deepest of the deep pockets is just “like volunteering to lick stamps at the campaign office; reclusive Nevada billionaires are just constituents, like the widow seeking her pension benefits; the desires of business executives are just beliefs, advanced in the way the Founding Fathers wanted—by writing big checks. Under this rationale, it is hard to see why direct-contribution limits should be allowed, and we may assume that cases soon to be brought will give the majority the chance to eviscerate those limits.”

Roberts’ reasoning equates Sheldon Adelson’s $93 million in political spending to my bumper sticker. It’s all a matter of free speech, says the Chief Justice, but obviously not at all about equal access to the political process or disproportionate influence over the lawmakers.

NBC’s Chuck Todd has documented how this “free speech” campaign has been going: “Political spending from outside groups – either created or bankrolled by American billionaires – has skyrocketed from $193 million in 2004 and $338 million in 2008,” Todd wrote recently, “to a whopping $1 billion in 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. To put this $1 billion in outside spending in perspective, it’s almost TWICE what John Kerry and George W. Bush spent COMBINED in the 2004 presidential race ($655 million). And it’s THREE TIMES the amount John McCain spent in the 2008 election ($333 million). Another way to look at all of this money: Overall political spending on races (presidential plus congressional) has DOUBLED from $3 billion in 2000 to $6.2 billion in 2012. And in presidential races alone, the combined amount that George W. Bush and Al Gore spent in 2000 (about $250 million) QUADRUPLED to the combined amount Barack Obama and Mitt Romney spent in 2012 ($1 billion-plus). And that doesn’t count the political-party spending.”

My bumper sticker is sounding less and less important as, in reality, we turn electoral politics, once dominated by candidates and parties, into a free spending game for Sheldon Adelson and other billionaire oligarchs who have the money and the vested interests to increasingly dominate our elections. As long as it’s doable, as Sheldon might say, why not.

Ironically it was Newt Gingrich, the guy who benefited from the Adelson financed attacks on Romney’s private equity past, who said during the last campaign, “You have to ask the question, ‘Is capitalism really about the ability of a handful of rich people to manipulate the lives of thousands of people and walk off with the money?’” The answer, more and more, seems to be – yup.

“Watching events in Russia and Ukraine,” columnist Gail Collins writes, “you can’t help noticing all the stupendously rich oligarchs with their fingers in every political development. It’s a useful word, connoting both awesome power and a group you don’t really want to have around.

“In the former Soviet Union, the money elite generally get their power from the politicians. Here, it seems to be the other way around. But the next time casino zillionaire Sheldon Adelson invites the Republican presidential hopefuls to go to Las Vegas and bow before his throne, feel free to say they were just off honoring an oligarch. Apparently, the founding fathers would have wanted it that way.”

Truth be told the Founders wouldn’t recognize American politics today. They were tough, aggressive partisans to be sure, but they couldn’t have imagined a political process where a handful of extraordinarily well-to-do rich guys have been able to bend the system merely by spending lavish amounts of cash. In poll after poll, Americans express exasperation and cynicism about our politics. Millions don’t participate feeling that their vote – not to mention their voice  – doesn’t count. Younger Americans, in particular, see a rigged system built and maintained by the really wealthy to perpetuate themselves and their point of view.

If you think the American electorate is cynical now, just wait until all the campaign spending limits come off as the Roberts’ court take it upon itself to ensuring that more money from fewer people is the overriding and perhaps only decisive factor in our politics. Americans may not like Congress much these days, but one suspects they’ll like a bunch of well-heeled oligarchs calling all the shots even less.

The question then: will we change this trajectory and blunt the politics of the oligarchs or will we, as Gail Collins says, decide that “what this country really needs is more power to the plutocrats?”

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.

Packin’ in the Classroom

o-TEXAS-GUNS-CARS-CAMPUS-facebookIn more than 35 years of observing the Idaho Legislature I am hard pressed to remember another time when really controversial legislation – in this case the “guns on campus” bill – became law in the face of such wide-spread opposition from the people and institutions most directly impacted.

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter’s signature on the contentious legislation was no surprise. He signaled his support early but, given the unanimous opposition from college and university presidents, the Otter-appointed State Board of Education (SBOE), an array of student leaders and many in law enforcement, it can be counted as a mild surprise that the bill ever got to the governor. Similar legislation has died in the past.

University presidents argued that allowing concealed weapons on a college campus would inevitably lead to more overall security concerns, greater costs for law enforcement and might well impact recruitment of faculty, students and athletes. Former Idaho House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, a conservative who is also a pragmatic guy, was known during his long tenure as Speaker for killing his share of crackpot ideas. Newcomb now manages government relations for Boise State University and he told the Boise Weekly, “I had one professor tell me, ‘All my kids are going to get A’s.’ I think it changes the whole climate.”

But back to the dynamic of a part-time, citizen legislature and a governor willing to ignore the wholesale opposition of the people closest to the kids and issues on the state’s higher education campuses. More than ever the state legislature considers itself a collection of the 105 smartest people in Idaho. They’re experts on everything and never in doubt on anything. The SBOE says on its website that it “is a policy-making body for all public education in Idaho and provides general oversight and governance for public K-20 education. SBOE serves as the Board of Trustees for state-sponsored public four year colleges and universities and the Board of Regents for the University of Idaho.”

That statement is clearly not true. Some trustee that can’t impact such a fundamental issue of campus policy and safety. Some oversight, particularly when the legislature is willing to substitute its “judgment” for that of the people legally and Constitutionally charged with that responsibility. The State Board was on record early opposing the guns on campus bill and the college presidents weighed in on this issue more forcefully than on almost any issue – including budgets – that I can remember. They might as well have been shouting down a dry well.

Answer this

In the wake of the horrific Virginia Tech shooting – the seven year anniversary is in April – where a lone, mentally-ill student shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others, attorney Brian J. Siebel, then a senior lawyer with the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, suggested a variety of questions regard guns on campus in an article published in the George Mason University’s Civil Rights Law Journal. Siebel’s questions are as valid today as when the Virginia Tech shootings were dominating the news in 2007.

Do student want guns in classrooms, Siebel asked? Apparently not if you believe elected Idaho student leaders. Will students feel safer if the person next to them in chem lab is packing? Will parents be inclined to support a decision for their little Jennifer or Cameron to attend schools where guns are openly allowed, or given the attitude of the legislature, openly encouraged? What about the pressure, academic and otherwise, that many kids feel during those formative college years when grades clash with ready access to booze and worse? And will more guns on campus contribute to more suicide now the third leading cause of death among young Americans age 15 to 24? All those questions still apply to Idaho and the handful of other states that allow guns on campus. These are the kinds of questions higher education policy makers deal with every day as they worry about the welfare of young people in their charge, but these questions were largely ignored or certainly given scant attention in the recent Idaho debate. And why is that?

It’s impossible not to conclude amid the sober sounding claims that guns on campus is merely a straight forward Constitutional issue – it isn’t, that when the National Rifle Association shows up touting a gun bill the NRA’s legislative soldiers fall immediately in line. No phalanx of college presidents or concerned students can trump the political power of the gun lobby.

In year’s past the kind of opposition that came together to oppose the NRA-endorsed Idaho legislation may well have prompted a few sober-minded lawmakers to counsel a go-slow approach or, as some opponents suggested this year, a year of cooling off to really consider the ramifications of such lawmaking. But such is the lock (and load) hold of the NRA on legislators in many states that any departure – any departure at all – from the gun lobby line is considered gun rights treason.

Armed America

The Gun Report blog of the New York Times reports today that, “the executive vice president of the National Rifle Association (Wayne LaPierre) spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., last week, and after equating freedom and individual rights with gun ownership, he painted a dire picture of a country with no defense but its armed citizenry.

“Freedom has never needed our defense more than now,” LaPierre thundered from the stage, as the Times put it. “Almost everywhere you look, something has gone wrong. The core values we believe in, the things we care about most, are changing. Eroding. It’s why more and more Americans are buying firearms and ammunition — not to cause trouble, but because we sense that America is already in trouble.”

This is the rhetoric of a dystopic Hollywood movie where a handful of heavily armed super heroes hold off the evil invaders. The only sane people in Wayne’s world are those armed to the teeth, because in the richest country on the globe with a long-enduring tradition of representative democracy, we can no longer trust the police, the courts, and our elected officials to keep our freedoms. Such is the mind set of an armed America and those policymakers who keep marching in lock step with the gun lobby, while completely ignoring the bloody reality of what the NRA’s agenda increasingly means.

The Times gun blog today recounts some recent headline gun news:

“A 2-year-old boy accidentally shot and killed himself with a handgun he found at a home in Broken Arrow, Okla., Tuesday night. It is unclear how the toddler got hold of the weapon. No arrests have been made.”

“Wesley Pruitt, 13, was killed in an accidental shooting at a friend’s home in Rains County, Tex., Wednesday afternoon. The victim and his 15-year-old friend were in a bedroom when the older boy pulled the trigger of a 12-gauge shotgun, not realizing it was loaded. No word on charges.”

“A 57-year-old man was shot in the face during a home invasion robbery in Sandpoint, Idaho, late Monday. Three men were arrested after an 11-hour standoff with police.”

And so it goes day after day.

The Gun Violence Archive reports as of today 2008 Americans have died in gun-related incidents since January 1, 2014 and another 3,305 have been injured. We don’t know how many guns there really are in America, but various estimates say 270 million, at least. That number grows every day. Don’t you feel safer?

Rolling Stone magazine recently offered some statistics to back up a claim that just given the numbers regarding issues like health care, prison populations and gun violence, the United States more-and-more resembles a third-world, developing county.

“The U.S. leads the developed world in firearm-related murders,” the magazine reported, “and the difference isn’t a slight gap – more like a chasm. According to United Nations data, the U.S. has 20 times more murders than the developed world average. Our murder rate also dwarfs many developing nations, like Iraq, which has a murder rate less than half ours. More than half of the most deadly mass shootings documented in the past 50 years around the world occurred in the United States, and 73 percent of the killers in the U.S. obtained their weapons legally. Another study finds that the U.S. has one of the highest proportion of suicides committed with a gun. Gun violence varies across the U.S., but some cities like New Orleans and Detroit rival the most violent Latin American countries, where gun violence is highest in the world.”

In the America of 2014, with lawmakers in both parties in a perpetual defensive crouch to ward off any NRA-inspired assault should they dare question any element of the gun lobby’s agenda, such facts are not merely inconvenient, but more shockingly not even discussed. In the armed America of 2014, the only acceptable political answer is more guns in more places, including now in Idaho the college library and who knows were else next time.