Leader of the Pack

“I want to be able to go out at the top of my game…I don’t want to be a 42-year-old trying to become a designated hitter.” – Baseball fan Harry Reid on his decision to retire from the Senate.

It is often said that being president of the United States is the “toughest job in the world.” If that is true then being the Senate Majority Leader is certainly the second toughest job in Washington, D.C.

Harry ReidHarry Reid did the job longer than most and during a time – he shares the blame, of course – that marked one of the most partisan periods in the history of the Senate. Now in the minority, Reid announced last week that he will hang it up when his term ends next year.

Reid’s expected successor as Democratic leader, hand-picked it seems by the former boxer from Searchlight, Nevada, is New York Senator Charles Schumer who, one could expect, will extend the sharply partisan tone once his desk is directly across the aisle from Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

A Rare Big State Leader…

Schumer, should he be successful in replacing Reid next year, will be the first Senate leader in either party (majority or minority leader) to hail from New York. In fact, it is a historical Schumer-Reidcuriosity that the leaders of both parties in the Senate most often come from smaller states; states like Harry Reid’s Nevada.

The role of “Senate leader” is relatively new, at least in the long history of the United States Senate. The first formally designated “leader” was elected by the then-minority caucus of Democrats is 1919. The “Majority leader” title at that time was only informally conveyed on Massachusetts Republican Henry Cabot Lodge, who also chaired the powerful Foreign Relations Committee. The GOP majority made “the leader” an official designation in 1923 and since that time politicians from smaller states have for the most part occupied the top jobs in the Senate.

Of the biggest states, only Illinois has had two senators, Republican Everett Dirksen and Democrat Scott Lucas, in leadership. Meanwhile, Maine, Kentucky, Tennessee and Kansas have each had two senators in top jobs, while South Dakota, West Virginia, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Indiana, Oregon, Arizona and Mississippi each have had senators in leadership.

There are but a handful of exceptions to the small state leadership rule, most notably Texas (Lyndon Johnson), California (William Knowland), Pennsylvania (Hugh Scott) and, very briefly, Ohio (Robert Taft). Schumer will be another exception. Interestingly, with the exception of LBJ (who held a leadership position for eight years) and Scott (minority leader for six year) none of the big state leaders have held the job for long.

The longest serving leader remains Montana’s Mike Mansfield who served for sixteen years, all Mansfield_Dirksenas majority leader. By the time Reid is done, at least in terms of longevity, he’ll be in the company of Arkansas’ Joseph T. Robinson (fourteen years) and West Virginia’s Robert Byrd and Kentucky’s Alben Barkley (twelve years).

It is also interesting that Democratic leaders tend to last longer than Republican leaders. Reid’s tenure in leadership will put him in the top five of longest serving Senate leaders, all Democrats. Republicans Bob Dole of Kansas and Charles McNary of Oregon are the longest serving GOP Senate leaders, each having served eleven years.

So, why do smaller states tend to produce more Senate leaders? Could the Senate as an institution have a bias against senators from larger states? Could it be that serving as a senator from a large population state is more demanding than doing the same job in a smaller state therefore leaving more time for other duties like herding Senate cats as a leader?

My own theory – unburdened by any real evidence – is that small state senators just might be better at the skills of “retail” politics; the meeting and greeting, remembering names and faces, the attention to details that Mansfield, Johnson, Dole and Howard Baker put to such good use. Perhaps small state senators also regularly meet more voters, hold more town hall meetings, deal with more small town mayors and eat more tough chicken at Rotary Club meetings. Senators from larger states tend to operate on a more “wholesale” basis, often communicating with constitutes largely through the media. Perhaps they just aren’t as good at the “soft” people skills that make for good leaders.

Mike’s Approach…

The legendary Mansfield’s approach to his job as a U.S. senator might support my thesis. Mansfield, a bit of a loner all his life, would routinely show up in various Montana cities, Mansfieldsmoking his pipe, sitting alone in a coffee shop or hotel lobby just waiting to be engaged by a voter and “accepting conversation from whoever happened by.” Mansfield’s biographer Don Oberdorfer has written that the then-Senate Majority Leader’s “favorite haunt in the university town of Missoula was the Oxford Bar and Grill, where gambling took place in the basement, reachable through a meat locker.”

Mansfield became legendary in the Senate for his ability to listen, understand competing points of view and treat everyone with patience and respect. Did he hone those skills sitting at the bar of the Oxford in Missoula?

In the rarified, clubby environment of the U.S. Senate, people skills – modesty, ability to listen, empathy, and fairness – still matter, even in this age of poisonous partisanship. I suspect it also helps to know how to find the card game going on in the basement.

 Tomorrow: Love him or hate him, Harry Reid leaves a substantial legacy.

 

Strong Inside

I love college basketball and of course the love affair is in full blossom this time of year. My romance began in 1966 when a bunch of unknown upstarts from a Podunk school in El Paso – who ever heard of Texas Western College? – won the NCAA championship over the vaunted Coach Adolph Rupp and the University of Kentucky Wildcats.

TWCThere have been a thousand (or more) great college basketball games since 1966, but for my money none was better or more important than Texas Western’s 72-65 win over the big dogs from Kentucky and the segregated Southeastern Conference (SEC). The Texas Western Miners started five black players in that 1966 game. Kentucky didn’t have a black player until 1969. Adolph Rupp, the Baron of the Bluegrass, a Hall of Fame coach who won 82 percent of his games, went to his grave remembered for that championship loss by his all-white team to a talented and determined all-black team. It is stunning to remember that Rupp refused to shake hands with the Texas Western players after the game. And it should be just a little embarrassing to Kentucky fans today that the still vaunted Wildcats play their home games in Rupp Arena.

As Kentucky steams toward another national title, let’s just say that I’m for anyone but Kentucky. Call it a grudge and label it unreasonable, since the Wildcats now depend on spectacularly talented African-American players to maintain an unbeaten season, but I have a long memory.

Maybe its just Kentucky. I’ve long remembered a great line uttered by the supremely talented Civil War historian Gary Gallagher who once joked that Kentucky stayed loyal to the Union during the rebellion and “only joined the Confederacy after the war.” Adolph Rupp and his basketball team were still fighting that war more than a hundred years later.

Strong Inside…

All this old basketball and racial history came rushing back to me recently with the publication of a fine and important new book on basketball and race in the SEC, the pioneering courage of an African-American player at Vanderbilt who was the first to play in that storied league and how far we have come – and still need to go.

The book is Strong Inside, the gutsy story of Perry Wallace and his trials and triumphs in the SEC in the late 1960’s. The author Strong Insideis Andrew Maraniss (son of Washington Post associate editor David Maraniss, author of acclaimed books on Roberto Clemente, Bill Clinton and Vince Lombardi, among others).

In many ways the centerpiece of Wallace’s story is the account of a game he played in 1968 in Oxford, Mississippi. Remember the context. The Ole Miss campus was finally integrated in 1962, but not before a full-scale riot, a death and many injuries marked the school with scars that are still visible. The racist governor of Mississippi, Ross Barnett, played to local politics and his own ambition when he defied federal courts and President John Kennedy when James Meredith wanted to register for classes at Ole Miss.

In 1963, NAACP organizer Medgar Evers, an Army veteran of World War II, was assassinated in the driveway of his home in Jackson, Mississippi. Three young civil rights workers were murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1964. Bloody Sunday took place in Selma in neighboring Alabama in 1965. It was into that environment of hate, fear and racism and that a courageous Perry Wallace stepped when he set foot on the basketball court in Oxford for the first game in Mississippi featuring a black player.

Shortly before halftime a white elbow was thrown at Wallace, a blow “so fast that no one knows who threw the elbow,” Perry Wallace Senior YearMaraniss says. The blood flowed from Wallace’s wound, the crowd cheered and no referee blew a whistle. “When halftime ended,” the Washington Post noted in a recent review, “Wallace was left alone in the locker room with a bag of ice and a swollen eye. He was ‘shaken not just by the physical blow but by the relentless taunting. . . . He could hear the Ole Miss crowd react when his teammates returned to the court without him: ‘Did the nigger go home? Where’s the nigger? Did he quit?’”

Wallace didn’t quit. He helped Vanderbilt win that game, but had to make the long walk back to the basketball court all by himself. None of his white teammates made the simple gesture of walking with him. In other SEC basketball venues Wallace “was spit on and pelted with Cokes, ice and coins. At LSU, some Vanderbilt players claimed, a dagger was thrown on the court in Wallace’s direction. . . . In Knoxville, teammates remember, fans dangled a noose near the Vanderbilt bench.”

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Wallace’s story is the grace and dignity with which he dealt with such unspeakable abuse and overcame it all. Today Wallace is a widely respected law professor at American University in Washington, D.C. and a man humble in talking about his pioneering role in SEC basketball. Perry Wallace 1Vanderbilt officials, originally peeved when Wallace talked candidly at the end of his playing days about his experiences, finally made peace with him and retired his jersey in 2004. Perry Wallace deserves to be more widely remembered and Andrew Maraniss’s book is a wonderful start.

Banning the Dunk Shot…

Wallace stood just 6’5”, which, even considering the standards of his day, made him a rather small frontline player, but the guy could jump and Maraniss writes, “the ‘stuff shot’ was Wallace’s most reliable offensive move.”

The long-prevailing basketball wisdom holds that the “dunk shot” was banned to neutralize the inside play of the great UCLA post man Lew Alcindor – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But, Maraniss makes a compelling case that Wallace and his role as the first black player in the SEC also had much to do with banning the dunk. In that 1966 NCAA championship game Texas Western’s unforgettable big man, David Lattin, “embarrassed Rupp’s Wildcats with a powerful dunk over Pat Riley,” later a great NBA player and coach. “The next season,” Maraniss writes, “Lattin’s protégé, Wallace, embarrassed Rupp’s freshman team with his slam over Dan Issel,” also later an NBA star.

Shortly thereafter the NCAA rules committee, long dominated by Adolph Rupp, changed the rules to ban the dunk, a decision Ruppthat it is hard not to conclude was racially motivated. Rupp’s Wildcats never scheduled Lew Alcindor’s UCLA Bruins, but they played Perry Wallace’s Vanderbilt team twice every season. “While the [dunk] ban wasn’t directed at Wallace,” Maraniss says, “it was more than just a coincidence that the rules of the game changed just as the first black player – a prolific dunker – was about to enter the league that Adolph Rupp had dominated for decades.”

Sports at the college and professional level along with the United States military have been more successful than virtually any other segment of our culture in advancing the cause of racial equality. Both have their problems to be sure, but both have also shown what America might be if we finally come to grips with our haunted racial past and commit to a better future. Perry Wallace’s largely forgotten story is a testament to what one man can do to make ours a more perfect union and proof that heroes are found in many places, including above the rim.

Perry Wallace and Andrew Maraniss were recently featured on the NPR program Only a Game when they were interviewed by Bill Littlefield. NPR’s All Things Considered also recently featured a story on the book.

The Maraniss book was published by Vanderbilt University Press. Order it up. If you’re a basketball fan you’ll enjoy it. If you enjoy an uplifting and great American story you’ll love it.

 

Third Act for a Bomb Thrower

He was one of the most polarizing political figures of the last half-century in Idaho, a union and gay rights basher who was part of the Tea Party before we called it that and before the Republican Party came to be too dominated by, well, guys like Gary Glenn.

GlennLong-time observers of Idaho’s politics – and now Michigan politics – will recognize his name and his tactics, including the brash one-liner, the scorched earth approach to every issue, the politics that reduce your opponent to a beast determined to ruin the culture. Those who long for a politics where opponents aren’t routinely demonized will not be surprised that Glenn, the one-time Idaho bomb thrower, is these days lobbing his grenades as a duly elected state representative in Michigan. You can be forgiven for thinking Idaho’s gain has become Michigan’s loss.

Wearing his religion on his sleeve, Glenn is in the forefront of efforts to deny marriage rights to gay couples in Michigan. Glenn’s American Family Association Michigan chapter – he’s the president – is widely described by human rights organizations as a “hate group.” As a legislator, Glenn is still advocating low taxes – or perhaps no taxes – and opposing a Republican governor’s plan to invest in Michigan infrastructure. And, of course, Glenn has ridden his “right-to-work” hobbyhorse for thirty years, all the way to Midland, Michigan, while preaching “freedom” for everyone but those unfortunate souls who happen to disagree with him.

At a state university in Saginaw, Michigan recently two dozen students showed up to protest an appearance by the former Idaho firebrand. According to the local newspaper the students, taking exception to Glenn’s harsh anti-gay rhetoric, chanted, “Hey, ho, Gary Glenn has got to go” and “2, 4, 6, 8, Gary Glenn is full of hate.” The Southern Poverty Law Center, the civil rights group Saginawthat once had a hand in driving the Aryan Nations out of Idaho, reports on its website that Glenn offered these helpful comments about gays in 2001: “As with smoking, homosexual behavior’s ‘second hand’ effects threaten public health….Thus, individuals who choose to engage in homosexual behavior threaten not only their own lives, but the lives of the general population.” Some things never change.

The Hired Gun…

If you want to mark a date on the calendar when Idaho politics truly began to change for the worse you could start with the day in 1985, when the Idaho legislature, after a bruising political battle, passed anti-labor “right-to-work” legislation over the veto on then-Governor John V. Evans. When unions succeeded in getting the issue on the ballot in 1986 the resulting campaign was particularly ugly. Glenn, a fresh-faced newcomer to Idaho – some called him not incorrectly a “carpetbagger” – orchestrated that nasty battle utilizing the kind of over-the-top tactics of intimidation and exaggeration – union “thugs” where threatening western civilization – that have become the norm in politics.

Before Glenn and the National Right-to-Work Committee targeted Idaho with bundles of outside money and deployed the politics of “if you’re not for us, you are against us,” Idaho was an organized labor backwater. In modern times the state had little history of labor unrest, but the unionized miners, timber workers and electricians tended to support Democrats who advocated for better schools and better paying jobs. Labor’s foot soldiers and campaign money never – at least not since the early 1950’s – gave Democrats a majority in the Idaho Legislature, but they did help keep the party competitive and helped elect guys like Evans, Frank Church and my old boss Cecil Andrus.

There are endless debates about the economic impacts of right-to-work on wages, job creation and the quality of employment opportunities and you can find studies and experts to support almost any point of view, but it’s beyond denial that the passage of the law in Idaho dealt a big blow to the Democratic Party. This was, one suspects, a big factor in Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s recent push to make that once labor friendly state the latest to put the state between union members and management.

It is also clear that Idaho’s ranking in one important economic category – personal income – is hardly an advertisement for the wonders of anti-labor public policy. According to Department of Labor statistics, “Idaho ranked dead last in 2013 with individual median income at $27,932 — likely aided by the fact it was at the bottom of all the states for the median income for women, $21,908. The Idaho median income for men was $33,623 — good for 48th place.”

If you like one-party government populated by a crop of legislators who now pass resolutions calling for the “impeachment” of federal judges who rule “incorrectly” on same sex marriage, oppose a Hindu prayer to open a legislative session, continue to defund education and deny basic human rights protections to the LGBT community then Gary Glenn deserves honorary Idaho citizenship. The do-almost-nothing Idaho legislature (remember, it wasn’t always so), is a monument to the lack of a political middle in the state and that too has roots in the long ago battles that Glenn and like minded allies stoked for maximum partisan mileage.

As an historical footnote, I remember some Idaho Republican legislators in the 1980’s who were dubious about right-to-work potatoes_0asking why it was OK to mandate that every Idaho hop or potato farmer pay an assessment to support a state-mandated commodity commission, but the principle of every union member paying dues to support has bargaining organization was “coercion” and “a denial of freedom.” One man’s freedom is another’s “compulsory” union dues or, if you prefer, mandatory, state-sanctioned assessments on pea and lentil growers. I’m still waiting for the Idaho “freedom” movement to outlaw mandatory assessments on farmers, which exist, of course, in order to market products and advocate political causes for a special interest group. Journeymen plumbers are obviously in a different class. Talk about a closed shop.

Right-to-work legislation has never about “freedom,” as Glenn peddled the concept, but rather represented a cynical two-pronged strategy to weaken collective bargaining and erode support for Idaho Democrats. It worked like gangbusters and had the additional benefitunion of depressing wages.

After steamrolling the right-to-work effort in Idaho, Glenn was hired as the political operative for the state’s cattle ranchers and tried, with some success, to use that platform to create his own path to political power. The cattle lobby was a “voluntary” organization were members paid “dues,” but you won’t find many cowboys who don’t volunteer and ante up. More freedom, I guess.

Cece Andrus famously refused Glenn admission to the governor’s office in those days and did not, as Glenn’s partisans incorrectly claimed, “throw him out” of the big office on the second floor of the Idaho Statehouse. Andrus, with no use for completely partisan hired guns like Glenn, loved to say that he most certain did not “throw” Glenn out, which would have been impossible since the hired gun never got his brand new Tony Lamas across the door jamb.

Glenn next brought his polarizing brand of partisanship to the Ada County Commission and spent two contentious terms mostly preening for television cameras and fighting with other elected officials. Before long he lost a Republican primary for Congress and decamped for Michigan and, one might hope, obscurity. But not so fast. In 2012 Glenn unsuccessfully sought the Republican U.S. Senate nomination in Michigan, but that run merely served to open his third act and he captured a seat in the state legislature in 2014. You have to give the guy credit; he is a political survivor.

The Third Act…

I believe Glenn when he says, as he did in an Idaho Statesman piece marking the 25th anniversary of right-to-work coming to Idaho, that he is a “true believer” in his brand of ultra-conservative politics, the kind of politics that gains him regular attention from civil liberties groups who monitor the hateful drivel of Glenn and other divisive personalities like Glenn Beck and the radio preacher Bryan Fisher, two more professional agitators with Idaho antecedents.

Glenn is a true believer, but also a first-class opportunist, one of those people in politics who live to divide and chide. He’s made a living pumping out his anti-gay, anti-union, anti-tax mumbo jumbo, but beyond being against people not like him you have to wonder what he has to show for a lifetime of agitation?

Gary Glenn reminds me all these years later of the great question Lyndon Johnson asked of another fear and hate monger, George Wallace, during the darkest days of the voting rights struggle in 1965. “George,” LBJ said to the blustering Alabama governor, “what do you want left after you when you die? Do you want a Great…Big…Marble monument that reads ‘George Wallace – He Built?’…or do you want a scrawny pine board laying across that harsh, caliche soil, that reads, ‘George Wallace – He Hated?’”

Glenn left a questionable and negative mark on Idaho and now builds a dubious mark, as successful opportunists tend to do, in a new venue where, one suspects, all his nasty history is little understood. Still, his long “career” begs the question of just what has he built and what has his disdain for those who think differently really accomplished? He has certainly succeeded in keeping himself in the public eye and, ironically for someone who has so consistently preached the anti-government gospel, Glenn has once again landed on the public payroll, a perfect place from which to lament all the evils of government. As the same time, and in the name of “liberty” and “freedom” he has long championed causes that deny rights to others, while helping breed the absurd levels of animosity that are at the center of what passes for politics these days.

Michigan must be proud. Hate has a new lease on life. Mr. Glenn has opened his third act.

 

The Appearance of Influence

       “…this Court now concludes that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption. That speakers may have influence over or access to elected officials does not mean that those officials are corrupt. And the appearance of influence or access will not cause the electorate to lose faith in this democracy. “ – Justice Anthony Kennedy in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, 2010.

Generally speaking there are two types of political scandal: the sex scandal and the money scandal.

The first type of scandal, perhaps for obvious reasons, gets more attention from public and press. Think of Bill Clinton and the blue dress, Mark lewinsky-beretSanford hiking the Appalachian Trail all the way to his Argentine mistress, General David Petraeus going all in with his biographer (and sharing much more than pillow talk) and, of course, the continuing saga of former Senator Larry Craig’s wide stance in the Minneapolis airport. One could go on and on – Packwood, Weiner, Edwards – it is a long, long and bipartisan list.

The other type of scandal – the money scandal – is generally less memorable, but also more important. Political sex sells and fuels late night comedy. Political money merely corrupts. Like political sex scandals, political money scandals are a bipartisan problem and unlike what Justice Kennedy naively (or cynically) wrote in that Supreme Court decision, vastly expanded access to money and private influence in our politics has, and will continue to erode “faith in this democracy.”

Several recent cases still in the news make the point: Illinois Representative Aaron Schock, former Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber, would-be president Hillary Clinton and Senator Robert Menendez or, if you prefer, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey are in the top-of-mind scandal class. (It probably goes without saying that in any list of political scandals involving money, New Jersey is routinely entitled to two mentions.)

Schock is the junior Republican from Peoria who first came to national prominence when a Washington Post story reported on the elaborate SchockDownton Abbey-like redecorating of his Capitol Hill office, a real estate makeover that likely constituted an illegal gift. It didn’t take long for the deep red walls and Edwardian touches to gave way to more important insights into Schock’s extensive connections to his wealthy donors. As the Post reported recently, the Congressman’s Lord Grantham moment “prompted a flurry of stories about his use of private charter planes that he says are to get around his district, concert ticket purchases, trips overseas and other forms of travel.” Expensive tastes are hardly an indictable offense, but failing to report gifts from donors or using their airplanes improperly may well be and Schock has now announced his resignation, likely just before his indictment.

There have been so many twists and turns to the sad and bizarre Kitzhaber saga in Oregon that is has become difficult to keep track of all of them, but it seems clear that an underlying theme in the tangled web that drove the four-time elected governor from office was…wait for it…money.

Kitzhaber’s fiancée seems to have been obsessed by making money and oblivious to how her public role created conflicts, or worse, for the couple. In another case, as reported by Willamette Week, Kitzhaber courted one of his biggest campaign donors, a developer who had given candidate Kitzhaber more than $65,000 since 2010, by attending a “summit” organized by the donor, who incidentally regularly complained to the governor about state environmental regulators. As the paper noted following the “summit,” which Kitzhaber had flown to on the donor’s private plane, the then-governor “asked a fundraising consultant how much money [the big donor] had given his re-election campaign so he could hit up another summit attendee…for the same amount.”

The Hillary Clinton case is even more obtuse, but no less troubling, involving Clinton the Secretary of State, Clinton the world famous mover and shaker of the Clinton family foundation (which has received millions from corporate and foreign sources) and coming to a campaign trail near you soon, Clinton the presidential candidate. If you think the recent flap over Hillary’s emails (particularly the ones that have been destroyed) doesn’tReadyPoster involve the intersection of her official work at the State Department and her work, as well as her husband’s and daughter’s, with the high flying Clinton foundation, and now the need to raise a billion dollars or so to run for the White House, well I have some aluminum siding I’d like you to consider.

A CBS New investigation found that one donor to the Clinton Foundation, “Rilin Enterprises – pledged $2 million in 2013…The company is a privately-held Chinese construction and trade conglomerate and run by billionaire Wang Wenliang, who is also a delegate to the Chinese parliament…The firm owns a strategic port along the border with North Korea and was also one of the contractors that built the Chinese embassy in Washington. That contract is a direct tie to the Chinese government.” We haven’t heard the last of these kinds of stories and she hasn’t even announced.

Senator Menendez’s scandal seems to involve more garden-variety type corruption – doing big favors for a big donor. For months the Justice Department has been looking into the connection between the Soprano State senator and a wealthy South Florida eye doctor, Salomon Melgen, who clearly loves Menendez. As Slate has noted, the doc and his family “gave $33,700 to Menendez’s 2012 re-election campaign, as well as $60,400 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee while Menendez served as its chairman during the 2010 election cycle. But the biggest contribution by far was a series of three payments totaling $700,000 that Melgen’s business gave in 2012 to Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC that in turn shoveled nearly $600,000 toward Menendez’s re-election that year. Melgen also paid for two free trips that Menendez took in 2010 to Melgen’s seaside mansion in the Dominican Republic,” a gift that Menendez did not initially disclose, but for which he later paid $58,500 to reimburse.

And what did the donor get beside the stimulating company of a United States Senator? “In recent years,” Slate reports, “Menendez repeatedly interceded on Melgen’s behalf in a dispute with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services over allegations that Melgen had overbilled Medicare for millions of dollars for injections he was performing on patients with macular degeneration. Menendez has also been pressing on Melgen’s behalf to help him see through a deal he has to sell port-screening equipment to the Dominican government.”

The latest Chris Christie greasiness in New Jersey rings of the kind of thing that the notorious Boss Tweed did across the Hudson more than a century ago – hand out tax breaks, contracts and other goodies to the politically well-connected and then sit back and reap the rewards. As the Associated Press reported this week, on Governor Christie’s watch, “New Jersey has authorized more than $2 billion in economic development tax breaks since 2014, often to corporations with notable political connections. One grant went to a developer who owes millions of dollars on an unpaid state loan.”

Christie’s administration lavished more than $600 million in tax breaks on Camden, New Jersey, (population 77,000) an amount four times the city’s annual budget. As AP notes, “As money has flowed to development in Camden, some trickled back into politics. Camden tax incentive recipients donated more than $150,000 to the Republican Governors Association during the time Christie ran it. But no donations are as notable as those from Pennsylvania developer Israel Roizman. Last February, the state awarded tax incentives worth $13.4 million to Broadway Associates 2010 LLC, a real estate development company he controls. The project in question: refurbishing 175 low-income housing units that deteriorated under two decades of Roizman’s ownership.”

It turns out Roizman – and here is proof that the acrid stench of corruption smells of bipartisanship – was a big “bundler” of campaign cash for Barack Obama, but also thoughtfully “donated $10,000 to the Christie-led [Republican] governors association in late 2013, a few months before receiving his tax breaks. Last year, he gave the group the same amount.” Meanwhile, the developer owes the New Jersey housing agency “$6.2 million in unpaid loans on another Camden housing project.”

There may be perfectly simple explanations for all these unrelated cases and it would not be correct to say the corrosive Citizens United decision alone ushered in a new era of corruption in our politics. The country’s convoluted campaign finance apparatus is so complex that it has spawned an entire industry of lawyers and consultants who make it their life’s work to navigate the system.

Still, to believe that cases like Schock, Kitzhaber, Clinton, Menendez, Christie and many others can be innocently explained away, one must accept Thomas Nastthe idea that really wealthy people give money to political candidates simply out of the goodness of their hearts or because of their passionate belief in the candidate or the cause. (Some do, of course, but their commitment could be demonstrated just as fervently by a check for a thousand dollars as it is by donating what for many Americans would be a sizeable bank account.) At the same time the innocent explanation of a situation involving money and politics that also has “the appearance of corruption” demands embracing the idea that candidates, particularly when they are recipients of really, really big checks and personal favors from donors, are totally immune to the concept of quid pro quo. There are many honest politicians, but we don’t make laws – nor did we once limit campaign contributions – because of the honest people.

Political corruption has existed since Caesar and human nature being what it is there will always be some fast buck artist angling for some favor from some powerful person. But with the adoption of the philosophy, sanctioned by the United States Supreme Court, that anything goes when it comes to money and politics we can expect Justice Kennedy to more-and-more be feasting on his words.

Unlimited, largely unregulated money in politics does give rise to both the appearance and the reality of corruption. The excesses will only grow worse over time in direct proportion to the electorate’s loss of faith in this democracy. Makes you long for a good political sex scandal.

 

The Water’s Edge…

“…the president may serve only two 4-year terms, whereas senators may serve an unlimited number of 6-year terms.  As applied today, for instance, President Obama will leave office in January 2017, while most of us will remain in office well beyond then — perhaps decades. – Letter from 47 Republican senators to Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Can’t We Just Agree on This…

Amid the persistent partisan rancor dominating Washington, D.C. you might think that the one issue that would lend itself to a modicum of bipartisanship would be an effort to prevent Iran from developing the ability to manufacture a nuclear weapon.

In the hands of a regime that since 1979 has proclaimed the United States as its great enemy, a nuclear weapon would represent an existential Iran-map-regionthreat not only to the U.S, but also to the continually troubled Middle East. Indeed, Iranian nuclear capability is a threat to the entire world.

In response to this very real threat, the Obama Administration has attempted to do what former President George H.W. Bush did when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 – build an international coalition to confront the threat. In dealing with the Iranian nuclear menace the United States has joined forces with France, Great Britain, Germany, China and Russia, but the U.S. has clearly taken the lead in the talks.

While Republican critics of Obama’s foreign policy often criticize the president for “leading from behind,” in the case of Iran the U.S. is clearly out front pushing hard for a diplomatic agreement. That fact alone, given GOP criticism of Obama’s approach to foreign policy, might argue for Republican cooperation and encouragement that could foster true bipartisanship. In fact, and in a different political world, the circumstances of the coalition led by the U.S. to prevent the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon seems like the epitome of a foreign policy issue where Republicans and Democrats might actually cheer each other on in expectation of an outcome that would be good for the country, the Middle East and the world.

Politics is always about fighting over the details, but stopping Iran from having nuclear weapons seems like a fundamental strategic goal that every American could embrace. But not these days. Just when it seems that American politics can’t make me any more discouraged about theCotton future of the country, Arkansas sends Tom Cotton to the United States Senate. Cotton is the architect of the now infamous letter to the Iranian ayatollahs that has both undercut Obama’s international diplomacy, while revealing the depths of blind partisanship in Washington.

Senate Republicans are so dismissive of Obama’s presidency that they are willing to risk blowing up the nuclear talks with Iran and happy to completely jettison any hint of bipartisanship in foreign policy. Ironically the GOP experts also set themselves up to take the blame if the Iranian talks do come apart. At the same time, Republicans offer no alternative to the approach Obama has taken (well, John McCain once joked about his desire to “bomb, bomb Iran,” as if that were a real option).

The GOP’s approach also centers on dismantling a long tradition of bipartisanship regarding Israel and giving encouragement to the current Israeli prime minister – who happens to be fighting for his political life – to take his own unilateral action against Iran. That is a prescription for World War III, but that seems to pale in the face of the Republican compulsion to de-legitimize Obama and show the world just how small and petty our politics have become.

When Country Came Before Party…

The U.S. Senate is a place of great history and great tradition. Some of that history is worth remembering in the wake of the truly unprecedented “open letter” 47 Republican senators directed this week to the leadership of Iran. That letter, of course, has now become controversial and may well mark a new low point in failure of responsibility and leadership by the senators who signed it.

In January 1945, with the end of the Second World War in sight, Franklin Roosevelt was about to set off for an historic meeting at Yalta with Josef Stalin and Winston Churchill. The critical subject at that conference was the formation of a post-war organization that might have a chance to prevent another world conflict. Then as now, many senators in both parties distrusted Roosevelt believing him too secretive in his dealings vandenbergwith other world leaders and too dismissive of Congress. An influential Republican Senator from Michigan, Arthur Vandenberg, had long been a skeptic of FDR’s approach to foreign policy, but the rapidly evolving world order – a powerful Soviet state, a diminished British Empire, a hugely powerful United States – caused the once-isolationism minded Vandenberg to reassess his thinking. (Something, need I note, that few politicians dare do these days.)

The result of that re-thinking was one of the greatest speeches in the history of the Senate. Famously declaring that, “politics stops at the water’s edge,” Vandenberg re-defined, literally in a single speech, the shape of American foreign policy in the post-war world. Pledging support to the Democratic president, the Republican Vandenberg said: “We cannot drift to victory…We must have maximum united effort on all fronts…and we must deserve, we must deserve the continued united effort of our own people…politics must stop at the water’s edge.”

Vandenberg, who desired the presidency as much in his day as Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz or Rand Paul do now, nevertheless worked closely with Harry Truman to flesh out the creation of the United Nations and implement the Marshall Plan to help Europe recover from the ravages of war. It was a remarkable example of bipartisan leadership from a man who, had he wanted to do so, might have created political havoc both domestically and internationally.

Vandenberg was reportedly surprised by the impact of his “water’s edge” speech, modestly saying: “I felt that things were drifting. . . Somebody had to say something, and I felt it could be more effectively said by a member of the opposition.”

Imagine a Republican senator saying such a thing today.

Arthur Vandenberg, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate, knew that an American president must have the ability to deal directly and decisively with foreign leaders. The president – any president – is also entitled to a to be free of the constant undertow of partisan politics on the home front, particularly when the stakes are so very high. Vandenberg also knew that the United States Senate has a particular ability to shape the national debate about foreign policy thanks to the Constitution’s requirement that the Senate “advise and consent” on treaties and the appointment of ambassadors.

Imagine for a moment the Senate behaving differently than it does. Imagine for a moment a Senate populated by senators like Arthur Vandenberg. In such a Senate Republican leaders might go to the White House regularly for private and candid talks with the president where they might well express profound concerns about a potential agreement with Iran. They might even make speeches on the Senate floor about what kind of agreement they expect. The Foreign Relations Committee might conduct detailed, bipartisan hearings on the challenges and opportunities contained in an agreement. The Committee might invite former secretaries of state or national security advisors from both parties to testify. (By the way, at least two former national security advisors, Brent Scowcroft, a Republican, Zbigniew Brzezinski, a Democrat, support the diplomatic effort underway.)

MansfieldMike_DirksenEverett4271964The once impressive Foreign Relations Committee, haunted by the ghosts of great senators like J. William Fulbright, Mike Mansfield, Frank Church and Howard Baker who once served there, might hear presentations from and ask questions of academics and foreign policy experts from the United States and our foreign partners. They might actually undertake a bipartisan effort to understand the nature and timing of a threat from Iran.

Instead, driven by the hyper-partisan needs and far right wing tilt of the coming presidential campaign, Republicans are making the question of “who can be tougher on Iran” their foreign policy litmus test. The inability to embrace even a hint of bipartisanship seems rooted in the stunning belief that Obama (not to mention former Senator and now Secretary of State John Kerry) would literally sell out the country – and Israel – in a potential deal with Iran.

The debate over the now infamous Republican letter to Iran will no doubt continue and time will tell whether it provides Iran an out to abandon any agreement, but at least one aspect of the letter – how it came to be and who created it – deserves consideration in the context of the history of the United States Senate.

Since When Does a Rookie Get to Call This Play...

The letter was the brainchild of the Senate’s youngest member, a senator who ranks 93rd in seniority, a senator who took office less than three months ago. Freshman Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton is an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran who is frequently described as a strong advocate for greater defense spending and a darling of the party’s farthest right wing.

In a different Senate operating under adult supervision the young Gentleman from Arkansas would have been told to file his letter in a recycle bin, but in the Senate we have the Cotton letter was signed by a number of Republican senators with substantial seniority that should have known better, senators like Idaho’s Mike Crapo and Arizona’s McCain. After noting that McCain now says the letter “wasn’t exactly the best way to do that,” the New York Times editorialized that the Cotton missive “was an attempt to scare the Iranians from making a deal that would limit their nuclear program for at least a decade by issuing a warning that the next president could simply reverse any agreement. It was a blatant, dangerous effort to undercut the president on a grave national security issue by communicating directly with a foreign government.”

Arthur-Vandenberg---resizedAfter researching the history, the Senate historian says there is no precedent for such a letter. And Alan Hendrikson, who teaches at the prestigious Fletcher School of International Relations, agrees that the Cotton letter “undercuts” the whole idea of American foreign policy. “Neither the Senate nor the House has sought to interfere with actual conduct of negotiations by writing an open letter to the leadership of a country with which the U.S. is negotiating,” Henrikson told McClatchy News.

The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank joked that perhaps Cotton, who denied that his epistle was one-of-a-kind, would undercover “an open letter from American legislators written to King George III in 1783 warning him that the efforts of Benjamin Franklin, John Jay and John Adams might be undone with the stroke of a quill.” But, of course, no such letter was ever written, just as Cotton’s should not have been.

Give credit to Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who did not sign the letter and may yet help his party lead rather than posture. Against all evidence about what the United States Senate has become, perhaps Corker can channel Arthur Vandenberg, a staunch Republican and a frequent critic of Democratic presidents, who could still put his country above his party.

 

A Baseball Purist Faces Facts…

Winter is officially over. Baseballs are being tossed around in the Sonoran desert. I know because I sat in the sun this week and took in a spring training games in the cactus-leagueCactus League. The adoring fans were in their seats – we San Francisco Giants fans tend to be a well behaved group – the brats were pretty good, the beer reasonably cold, the pitchers predictably rusty and the guys wearing uniforms with numbers like 79 and 93 looked a little stunned. Perhaps it was all the sun after a long, cold winter.

Or it might have been the one big surprise of spring training: the clock in the outfield.

One of the many things I love about baseball, at least until this year, is that there has been no clock. Theoretically a baseball game could last forever. What bliss. There is a shot clock in basketball. Periods are timed in hockey, football and (sort of) soccer, but baseball just unfolds slowly and at its own considered pace. However, it apparently unfolds more slowly than some in the Commissioner’s office think it should. So now we have a clock in the outfield specifying how long pitchers have to get ready between innings and how long the warm-up period lasts when a manager brings out the hook and a new thrower jogs in from the bullpen.

Pace of Play BaseballAnd the new rules designed to speed up the venerable game do not just involve pitchers. Hitters, some of whom treat each at bat as an orgy of unnecessary movement, are now expected to keep at least one foot in the batters box between pitches. No more, the theory goes, the endless and mindless stepping away from the plate, knocking the bat on the cleats, adjusting the batting gloves fourteen times, pulling up the sloppy pants, taking eleven practice swings and praying that you’ve guessed correctly that the next pitch is a fastball.

I predict pitchers will adapt better than hitters, but the throwers best get ready since a clock timing pitches is looming. The Arizona Fall League experimented with that concept last year and the average length of games dropped to 2:51. Double and Triple A will continue the experiment this summer. The big leagues can’t be far behind. Pitchers will protest the effort to make them work faster, but they should take it up with men and women on an auto assembly line. Greater production is the American way, even if it is not the way of a $20 million a year baseball pitcher.

The crack down is sure to come, as well, for hitters. Mike Hargrove, who during his pg2_g_hargrove_350
twelve year career played for the Indians, Rangers and Padres, was so slow making his way to the batter’s box with endless adjustments of his equipment and tugs to his uniform that he was dubbed “ the human rain delay.” Hargrove reportedly contended his routine – he did it between every single pitch – only took 19 seconds, but under the new rules ol’ Mike would likely be fined. Indians’ manager Tony Francona joked recently that were Hargrove playing today he would “be playing for free,” with all his salary consumed by fines generated by all his fluttering and flapping around home plate.

Major league baseball has finally decided that the game of the endless summer needs to unfold a little faster. Last year the average game took 3:08 and more than once – many more than once – I’ve sat until the last out of a game that took three and a half or four hours. Particularly if the beer is cold and the restroom a long walk those games do seem like endless summer.

I’m a baseball purist. I still don’t like the designated hitter, enclosed stadiums and too many night games. I like the players to wear their pants correctly, put a slight curve in the bill of the cap and wear the headgear straight on their heads. And like show girls, I like a ballplayer to show a little sock. Aluminum bats at the college level are about as welcome as a Clinton-Bush presidential match-up next year. I like guys who don’t wear batting gloves and do wear sleeves. Fake grass is just that – fake. I like pitchers who work quickly and batters who get in the box, stay there and take their cuts. I like fans that keep score and stay in their seats. I’m old school about baseball and proud to be.

But even a purist has to admit the typical game takes too darn long to play. Look at some old game summaries from the 1930’s and 1940’s and you will see games that took an hour and three-quarters to play. The average length of game in 1950 was 2:21; hardly time enough to get a second beer. A doubleheader (a thing of the past, sadly) in the old days could often be played as quickly as a single game today. I’m reluctant to embrace any change in the great game, but I hope the clock in the outfield cuts a few minutes off a game and that the hitters adjust their batting gloves before they get to the plate.

We may well continue the tradition that there is “no crying in baseball,” but we can’t say any longer there is no clock. We’ll see how it works. As a purist that hopes to see the game return to the old, quicker model – and if I could be Commissioner of Baseballty-cobb for a while – I would forget the clock and demand players again wear those big, heavy wool flannel uniforms and dress in stuffy locker rooms without air conditioning. Ban Gatorade from the dugout. Play mostly day games, particularly in July and August. With the arrival of August’s really hot weather in places like Washington, Detroit and Atlanta the speed of play would surely increase. Players would decide, as Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb surely did in their day, that the only relief was a cold shower and a colder beer.

A more realistic purist might say it would be better if the players, managers and umpires just had a little talk and decided among themselves to speed up the game rather than introduce a clock to a game that has never had one, but every fan knows that is about as likely as the next 30 game winner or the Cubs winning the World Series.

There is so much to see at a baseball game, even when there isn’t much going on, but now we add the clock and one more old and dear tradition fades away. What next? Dodger fans arriving early and staying late? Yankee fans suddenly turning humble? A pennant in our nation’s capital? The Cubs in contention in September? Even on the clock a purist can dream, can’t he?