Basques, Media

Save Balloon Boy!

Ballon BoySomeday, Someday…

The cartoon from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch kinda says it all.

Someday , I just know (if I live long enough), I’ll be able to say I was impressed by the journalistic judgment shown by cable news. Someday.

Yesterday, on the other hand, fell just a little short.

My favorite part of the “balloon boy” story was watching the once-credible CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer. It was quite the situation in “The Situation Room.”

This is the same guy who used to report with some authority on the Middle East peace process and interview presidential candidates. But, hey, what’s that compared to a live balloon chase over the eastern front of Rockies. There is news, after all, and then there is news.

Linda Holmes, a writer on popular culture, has some thoughts. As she points out – listening Wolf – “It’s not always easy to know what you’re looking at, even when you’re staring at it with your own eyes.”

After Wolf, and a close second as a favorite part of the “balloon boy” story, comes the merchandise.

At www.SaveBalloonBoy.org you can own the tee-shirt commerating the “most disappointing conclusion to helium-filled balloon journalism ever.” Retail $20, unless you buy at least 25 shirts and qualify for the 10% discount.

The only quick lesson to draw from “balloon boy” is that the 24-hour news cycle needs lotsa material. After all, Michael Jackson can only die once – presumably.

Andrus Center, Baseball

Rooting for Microsoft

The Splendid Splinter…

I confess. I was pulling for the Red Sox to advance in the American League playoffs. Alas, as usual for me, baseball in October is about disappointment.

The Yankees – big surprise – appear to be on a roll and why not. Money buys happiness in Yankeeland – new stadium, a pitching staff that is an embarrassment of riches, a team leader (and MVP?) in the too perfect Jeter and, thank God, a quiet George Steinbrenner. Beyond Alex Rodriquez’s little steroid problem, the Yankees have almost become the no drama Bombers.

Still, while granting the remarkable history of Yankee success – Joe Girardi wearing No. 27 as the millionaires in pinstripes seek their 27th World Series – how can you not like the Sox?

The famous line about what it’s like being a fan of the Bronx Bombers is credited to a number of people and it may have been the great sportswriter Jim Murray who said it first, “Rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for U.S. Steel.”

Perhaps that line needs updating considering the state of basic manufacturing in America. Rooting for the Yankees these days is, what, a little like rooting for Microsoft. Pulling for the Red Sox, by contrast, is like rooting for your favorite uncle or for the kid’s soccer team.

Being for the Sox is blue collar. Being for the Yankees is, well, pinstripes.

During the playoffs the camera frequently catches the big city swells at new Yankee Stadium, lounging in the thousand dollar seats, still decked out in ties and jackets after a hectic day of trading. They sip $12 Bud Lights, while yakking on their cell phones, no doubt checking on the Tokyo market opening. At Fenway you see guys in sweatshirts, hanging on every pitch, holding their daughters in one arm and tugging on a real beer.

Every baseball fans knows the Great DiMaggio, but brother Dom (who patrolled the outfield in Boston, made seven All-Star rosters and had a career .298 average) is mostly forgotten outside of Boston. Pesky, Yastrzemski, Cronin, Rice, all were greats and played in the best ballpark ever. Now, those are guys you could root for.

Another reason to like the Red Sox is that really good writers like them. David Halberstam’s Teammates is a wonderful little book about friendship. It begins with a 1,300 mile trip by DiMaggio and Pesky to visit the great Ted Williams.

John Updike wrote a wonderful piece – Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu – about Williams last game at Fenway in 1960. Williams, of course, in epic style, hit a home run in his last at bat at the band box and, typical Williams, refused to acknowledge the adulation of the fans.

Updike described the moment: “Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters.”

No cheers for me in the American League this year. Red Sox out. Tigers done. Twins foiled. The Angels of Los Angeles or West Covina, or whatever they are, will be next. That’s the other thing about the Yankees – they are ubiquitous and, I’m afraid, inevitable. It comes down to their operating system, like it or not.

Put me down as not. I can’t bring myself to root for Microsoft.

Allred, Stigers

Curtis Stigers

New Album, Big Tour, Great Press

Boise’s musical gift to the world, jazz singer and songwriter Curtis Stigers, continues to rack up accolades as his lengthy tour in Europe continues.
Stigers’ new album – Lost in Dreams – is out and being well reviewed.

Here’s a quick sample of some of the press in Britain:

“Curtis Stigers is now regarded as being at the forefront of a new generation of jazz singers.”Surrey Today

“With one of the most distinctive voices in music, Curtis Stigers continues to blaze a path as one of his generation’s finest and most original interpreters of modern songs.” – Burton Mail

“Lost in Dreams is the latest chapter in a career that can only be described as a musical odyssey.” – The Daily Post

And check out the video of Curtis and Seth MacFarlane performing together at the BBC Proms late this summer at Royal Albert Hall in London. Good stuff.

The really big Stigers tour continues through most of November. A big talent and a good guy puts us on the international music map in a big way.

Biden, Lincoln

More Lincoln…at Cole and Ustick

Lincoln As War Leader

Mark this post down as “shameless self promotion.”

On October 15th at 7 pm, I’ll be at the marvelous new Boise neighborhood library at Cole and Ustick for a talk on the Abraham Lincoln as a war leader.

A big and happy crowd (above) gathered at the new library a few weeks back when it opened.

The Library has been nice enough to host both of my Idaho Humanities Council Speaker’s Bureau lectures on the great Lincoln.

The upcoming talk explores how Lincoln, with virtually no military experience, invented the role of “Commander in Chief” and became a better military strategist than most of his Civil War generals.

Here is a link to more on the event. Hope you will consider attending.

American Presidents, Catholic Church, Nobel Prizes, Obama

Did Obama Get the Wrong Nobel?

Updike and Marc This Just In: the Nobel Prizes are…Gee, Political

 

The great American writer John Updike never won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He should have.

When Updike came to Idaho a few years back, I spent a marvelous day with him and asked if, considering his enormous body of work, it was a disappointment never to have won the biggest prize in literature.

After all, Faulkner won. So did Hemingway and Steinbeck. He got that marvelous twinkle in his eye and just smiled and said something about not writing for awards. Nonetheless, I got the sense that the snub was a disappointment, but one he had become resigned to.

Personal opinion – Updike should have won the Nobel, but did not because of the Nobel Committee’s alleged (more recent) bias against American writers.


Some of the rap has been that Updike, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, John Cheever, just to name a few, are too commercial and not sufficiently literary by Nobel standards. Bunk. Decisions about awarding Nobel Prizes are political whether we’re talking peace, prose or poetry.

I’ll leave the dissection of the Obama Peace Prize to all those who have already had their say, but I did take note of two particular reactions.

Senator John McCain, as the LA Times noted, has once again proven” that he is still out of touch with his party.” McCain told CNN, “I think all of us were surprised at the decision. But I think Americans are always pleased when their president is recognized by something on this order.” The old McCain.

A second reaction – Louisa Thomas – at Newsweek suggests the president should have won the literature prize on the strength of his two excellent books.

Who knows, Obama may get a second chance for a Nobel. Winston Churchill won the literature prize in part, no doubt, because he was a great political leader, but also because he was one hell of a good writer and had accumulated a substantial body of great work.

I was thinking this morning of the intensity of the 2008 political campaign just a year ago. The daily drama and intensity of that unforgettable campaign has faded, but amidst all Palin, Bill Ayres, fist bumps and Joe the Plumber, not to mention the financial meltdown, who would have thought we’d be talking about the Nobel Peace Prize and an American president 12 months later?

Like him or not, Barack Obama has been a transforming figure on the world stage. His challenge may ultimately be to live up to all the world’s out sized expectations.

 

– – – –

As for the great Updike, just because it is so good, here is one of his last short poems. Appropriate, I think.

Requiem

 

It came to me the other day:
Were I to die, no one would say,
“Oh, what a shame! so young, so full
Of promise – depths unplumbable!”

 

Instead, a shrug and tearless eyes
Will greet my overdue demise;
The wide response will be, I know,
“I thought he died a while ago.”

 

For life’s a shabby subterfuge,
And death is real, and dark, and huge.
The shock of it will register
Nowhere but where it will occur.
Carter, Famous Americans

Who We Choose To Honor

Statue Statuary Hall: A Curious, All-American Mix of Politics, Art and Political Correctness

At the very heart of American government, inside the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, stand 100 statues of famous and not-so-famous Americans. The statues – two from each state – depict the individuals each state has chosen to represent its story to the rest of the nation.


The collection – a fascinating national cross section of great, near-great, and some mostly forgotten Americans – recently added a new honoree from Alabama – Helen Keller. The Los Angeles Times blog has that scoop.

The Statuary Hall collection from the Northwest states is fascinating.

Montana’s Jeanette Rankin (left), the first woman elected to the Congress and the only member to vote against U.S. participation in both World Wars, is in the Hall. Montana’s other statue is a great likeness of the wonderful cowboy artist and sculptor Charlie Russell.

George Shoup, Idaho’s last territorial governor and first state governor and also a Senator, is in the Hall. Idaho’s great progressive Republican William E. Borah is Idaho’s other pick and a natural.

Oregon is represented by Jason Lee and Dr. John McLoughlin , two early day Oregonians who played key roles in establishing the state. Not exactly household names, but interesting choices.

Washington’s picks are the pioneering missionary Marcus Whitman and Mother Joseph, a Catholic nun, who raised money and built early hospitals, schools and orphanages.

As with all things political, you know that there must be a back story (read political deal) regarding how each of these folks were chosen for this special attention in such a special place.

Earlier this year California, acting at the behest of the legislature, replaced its statue of Civil War-era preacher Thomas Starr King – he had been in the Hall since 1931 – with a likeness of Ronald Reagan. Minister King was credited by Abraham Lincoln with helping prevent California from becoming an independent republic during the great rebellion. Quite an accomplishment, but King was clearly not the Gipper.

Alabama’s new Helen Keller statue displaced a guy named Jabez Lamar Monroe Curry, a Confederate Army Lt. Colonel and pre-and post-war politician. Southern states tend to honor Confederate generals and politicians. Bobby Lee, for example, stands erect for the Old Dominion and Jefferson Davis represents Mississippi.

Some of the picks are no brainers. Utah – big surprise – honors Brigham Young and the Kingfish, Huey P. Long, in full oratorical flourish, stands in the Hall for Louisiana.

Statuary Hall seems to me a particularly American idea – each state honoring its own in the nation’s capitol and every pick saying something interesting about each state.

I have not read the new Dan Brown best seller – The Lost Symbol – but I’m told Statuary Hall plays a role in the novel. Considering that the book sold more than two million copies in its first week, perhaps Dan Brown will help a whole new group of Americans discover this unique piece of American real estate.

Once readers have solved the mystery of The Lost Symbol, they can turn their attention to discovering Jacob Collamar, the extremely forgotten Vermonter who was President Zachery Taylor’s postmaster general. He, too, is in the Hall.

BPA, Cars, Cities, Sustainable Economy

The Livability of Rocky Mountain Cities

Dan KemmisDan Kemmis – Sustaining the West’s Urban Economy Means A Focus on “Livability.”

I had the pleasure of introducing Dan Kemmis, the former mayor of Missoula, Montana and speaker of that state’s House of Representatives, at this week’s City Club of Boise luncheon.

The Kemmis speech and Q-A airs Saturday at 8:00 pm on KBSX (91.5) or you can catch he program on the City Club website.

Kemmis is the rare political leader who has successfully combined people and political skills with the ability to create new policy approaches – he’s a champion of civic engagement and collaboration – and then write about them with clarity and intelligence. He is now a senior fellow at the University of Montana’s Center for Natural Resources and the Environment.

As the Idaho Business Review noted, Kemmis made the case that the “real driver … of the new western economy has been the livability of our communities.”

Kemmis maintains that “livability is bigger, deeper and stronger as a driver than growth itself.”

He makes a pretty compelling case that cities like Salt Lake, Missoula, Boise and Denver have thrived, and will again, because they are essentially really decent places to live. (I could add a few more cities to the list – Portland, Bozeman, Coeur d’Alene, for instance.)

Think about Salt Lake’s good and getting better transit system, Missoula’s great parks and open space, Boise’s foothills and marvelous parks and greenbelt, and Denver’s revitalized downtown (and the Colorado Rockies).

As our region struggles to climb out of a deep recession, Dan Kemmis would remind us to focus on the basics of what makes cities great – intellectual infrastructue (libraries, for instance), open space, parks and outstanding recreational opportunities, ease of movement, and a culture of civic engagement.

I spent some time with a friend from the east coast recently. His business will allow him to live anywhere he likes and he and his bride spent a few days in Boise assessing the city as a potential new home. Searching for an alternative to the old rat race of long commutes and no sense of community, smart folks look West and have for ever. Like all young parents, they want good schools and a good environmental for the kids. I wasn’t selling paradise and I didn’t need to. Boise – and other good cities in the West – tends to sell themselves on the basis of “livability.”

Dan Kemmis is right. Livability, quality of life, whatever you call it, is an economic driver. The real challenge is not to screw it up or undervalue what we have and, perhaps too often, take for granted.

Air Travel, Books

Idaho’s Kim Barnes Scores PEN Award

BarnesA Country Called Home

Kim Barnes, the supremely gifted writer who teaches at the University of Idaho in Moscow, has joined rare company indeed – and she deserves to be there.

Barnes’ novel – A Country Called Home – has been awarded the 2009 PEN USA Literary Award for fiction.

As the University noted in a release: “The PEN USA award places Barnes in good company: 2009 recipients includes Creative Nonfiction winner Steve Lopez, who won for ‘The Soloist,’ published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, now a movie distributed by Dreamworks and Universal Pictures; and Dustin Lance Black, who won in the screenplay category for ‘Milk,’ which also earned an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.”

Barnes was a Pulitzer finalist in 1997 for her memoir In the Wilderness. She is working on novel number three, which Knopf will publish.

For more insight into the talented Ms. Barnes, check out New West’s interview with her late last year. Good writer, good books.

Baucus, Campaign Finance, Health Care, U.S. Senate

A Montanan at the Gates of Reform – Again

WheelerMBaucusax Baucus and B.K. Wheeler

Max Baucus (right), the current chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, is on the verge of making history by writing (and perhaps passing) a sweeping reform of the nation’s health care system.

The Montana Senator – he was elected to the Senate in 1978 – is walking a path that one of his progressive Montana political forefathers – Burton K. Wheeler (on the left, above) -blazed nearly 75 years ago.

Baucus has been catching some grief in Montana – the Great Falls Tribune rounded up some of the opposition – and from those farther to the left on the political spectrum for not pushing harder for the so called “public option” provision in his health care bill. Baucus says, with some political logic, that he is trying to produce a bill that will actually pass the Senate.

 

Reforming Utility Law in 1935

 

Wheeler, a New Deal-era Senator, faced some of the same criticism in 1935 when he was attempting to push a sweeping piece of regulatory reform legislation – the Public Utilities Holding Company Act – through the Senate. The legislation was designed to address a variety of abuses by the handful of major utility holding companies that dominated the industry at the time.

Wheeler’s major decision was whether to include in the bill – also know as the Wheeler-Rayburn Act (future House Speaker Sam Rayburn was the House sponsor) – a so called “death sentence” provision that would mandate the dissolution of most of the nation’s powerful utility holding companies. Wheeler chaired what was then called the Senate Interstate Commerce Committee.

No doubt, like Max Baucus dealing with health care, Wheeler received thousands of letters, hundreds from Montana, opposed to his utility legislation. Montana Power Co. organized a letter writing campaign among its shareholders to press the case that Wheeler’s proposed legislation would “destroy” utility company investors.

At the height of the debate, Wheeler went on nationwide radio to defend the legislation and attack the lobbying effort. He began his half hour talk by saying that as the Senate sponsor of the holding company legislation he had received more mail from Philadelphia in the last month than he had received from Montana in the last two years.

“Nice chummy letters, too,” Wheeler said. “They call me everything from such high-class terms as ‘rogue’ and ‘rascal’ on down the scale. Most of them show the fine hand of the United Gas Improvement Company. The best of them must have come from Gertrude Stein. It consists of this: ‘It makes me sick to think how sick I get when I think about you.'”

Like Barack Obama’s support for health care reform, Wheeler knew that Franklin Roosevelt supported the broad sweep of utility reform, but on the core issue of the “death sentence” (or in Baucus’ case, the “public option”) no one knew for sure how far the president would go to fight for the provision.

Wheeler eventually succeeding a getting a letter from FDR voicing his support for the “death sentence” provision and the Montanan waited for exactly the right moment to make the letter public.

The president wrote that “while clarifying or minor amendments to section 11 [the death sentence] cannot be objected to nevertheless any amendment which goes to the heart of major objective of section 11 would strike at the bill itself and is wholly contrary” to what he would support.

To wavering Senate Democrats, the President’s message was blunt: Burt Wheeler is doing the White House’s bidding in pushing hard for the “death sentence.” A vote against the provision would be vote against Roosevelt. Wheeler added his own reminder that the real advocates of deleting the death sentence from the holding company legislation where the holding companies themselves, who had fought so hard from the beginning to weaken his bill.

“When they vote for this amendment [to eliminate the ‘death sentence’] they vote to kill the bill,” Wheeler said. “When they vote for this amendment they are voting as the lobbyist up in the galleries; representing the Power Trust, want them to vote, because the lobbyists want them to vote to kill the bill.”

The amendment to strike the “death sentence” from the Public Utilities Holding Company Act failed – by a single vote. For a moment it looked as though the vote would end in a 44-44 tie, but then Senator Peter Norbeck, a once-in-a-while progressive Republican from South Dakota, broke the tie and voted with Wheeler to keep the “death sentence” in the bill.

Wheeler had won, but the bitter fight highlighted the deep fractures among Senate Democrats. The holding company legislation passed the House – “death sentence” in place – and was signed into law by Roosevelt. In different times and under different circumstances, the Congress in 2005 repealed the remaining elements of the law that Wheeler (and FDR) fought to put in place nearly 75 years ago, but in the 1940’s and beyond the Public Utilities Holding Company Act remade an American industry.

 

Legislative Parallels – and Now

 

The historic parallels in these two reform efforts are numerous. Beyond the fact that Baucus and Wheeler share some obvious political history – Montanans, self styled independent Democrats, not infrequently at odds with their national party leadership – the two pieces of legislation have interesting similarities.

In 1935, Wheeler, like Baucus today, was dealing with a president who wanted legislation passed, but until pretty late in the game declined to be completely engaged or say exactly what he would settle for. Democrats in both cases were divided with conservative to moderate Democrats being slow to embrace reform. In 1935, presidential action pushed enough of the wavering Democrats to get a sweeping bill passed.

The charges and counter-charges flew then as now. Proponents were accused – you guessed it – of wanting to usher in socialism. The utilities were labeled as greedy, with no regard for the little guy. The lobbying – then as now – was fierce. (The 1935 lobbying practices actually prompted a congressional inquiry chaired by Alabama Senator – later Supreme Court Justice – Hugo Black.)

One thing that was very different in Wheeler’s day. Several progressive Senate Republicans – Norbeck, George Norris of Nebraska and William Borah of Idaho, among others – supported the utility reforms. Baucus, by contrast, appears to have a chance to get Maine Senator Olympia Snowe’s support for a Senate bill, but additional GOP votes appear mighty hard to come by.

Reforming utility practices in the 1930’s was a huge undertaking that reshaped a major piece of the American economy. A tough Montanan pulled it off. Another Senator from Big Sky County, three-quarters of a century later, is knocking at the gate of health care reform.

Stay tuned. If the utility regulation battle of 1935 is any historic guide, we will see many more twists and turns before any health care legislation is on the president’s desk. Then as now, a Montana Senator is calling many of the plays.

Air Travel, Biden, Books, Lincoln

Speaking of Lincoln

Harold HolzerAcclaimed Lincoln Scholar Will Speak in Boise October 29th

Harold Holzer has been in high demand this year.

The bicentennial of the birth of the 16th President of the United States has found Holzer lecturing, often several times a week, from coast to coast. The outstanding Lincoln scholar will be hosted by the Idaho Humanities Council on October 29th.

If you have not made plans to attend – you should. It will be a great event.

Holzer – his day job is Senior Vice President for External Affairs at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City – is the co-chair of the Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and has received the National Humanities Medal. His latest of many Lincoln books is focused on Lincoln President-elect and deals with his struggles with succession even before reaching the White House. The four months between Lincoln’s election and his taking office were among the most important days in the nation’s history.

Holzer’s book – Lincoln at Cooper Union – is a fine piece of work that explains Lincoln’s rise as a national political figure following his famous speech early in 1860 in New York City.

Once again, the Idaho Humanities Council has hit a home run with a great speaker on a great topic. What a run the Council has had: Doris Kearns Godwin, David McCullough, John Updike, Frank McCourt, David Halberstam, Stephen Ambrose to name just a few of the incredible writers and scholars who have graced the annual Distinguished Lecture in the Humanities.

If you love history, literature and the American story – this event is a must. See you there.