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Remembering Bruce Sweeney

In the best tradition…

This is the way I’ll remember long-time Idaho state legislator Bruce Sweeney – smiling, never meeting a stranger, always trying to find a way to move the political ball down the field.

Sweeney, who represented Nez Perce County in the Idaho House and Senate for 20 years, died yesterday after a long battle with bone cancer. Following his senate career, Sweeney served on the Idaho Transportation Board for more than 10 years.

I will also remember Sweeney as one of a trio of Nez Perce County state senators who helped define the Idaho Democratic Party for more than 30 years. Bruce replaced Mike Mitchell in the state senate in 1982 and Mike replaced Cecil D. Andrus when he won the governorship in 1970.

Bruce Sweeney was also a tremendous track and field athlete. The University of Idaho proudly notes on Sweeney’s web page that the Vandal sprinter/hurdler was “never beaten by a Washington State” hurdler. Sweeney was a finalist in the U.S. Olympic Trials in 1956.

Bruce was a good pilot, too. During many years of observing and participating in Idaho politics, you accumulate a great many memories. I have a sharp memory of flying into the small airport at Caldwell in 1986, Bruce Sweeney in the left hand seat, Cece Andrus in the right. The Andrus campaign road show had missed a connection necessary to get us to the next political event, so the senator from Nez Perce loaded up the candidate and the press secretary and off we went into a dramatic Idaho summer morning.

That story is a good summary of Bruce Sweeney – do what is necessary to get the job done. His political and public service career is in the finest tradition of Idaho citizen-lawmakers.

He will be missed.

Where the Stimulus Dollars Flow

A Stimulus Round-Up

Is the stimulus working? Seems everyone has an opinion.

The Portland Oregonian editorialized recently and answered “yes.” The positive impacts of the stimulus are being felt, for example, at Portland State University where a serious backlog of maintenance is being tackled.

Dave Broder in The Washington Post weighs in that it is simply too early to tell for sure whether the first round of stimulus dollars are having the intended impact.

Elsewhere, Nevada’s embattled Governor Jim Gibbons (pictured above) – he’s in the middle of a messy divorce, staff defections and has approval ratings in the teens – picked a battle with the Silver State’s legislature over who is going to make stimulus spending decisions. The Las Vegas Sun said the battle has the makings of “a constitutional crisis.” Gibbons intends to hire a stimulus coordinator to oversee spending despite opposition for an interim legislative committee that told him not to make the hires.

USA Today had a nifty series of graphics last week showing, so the paper says, a very uneven picture across the country of how the stimulus dollars are rolling out in the states. California, where the economy is truly in a mess, leads the nation in the percentage (about 60%) of allocated stimulus dollars that have actually been received by the state. Idaho is a 29%, Montana at 20% and Washington and Oregon are at about 42%.

Alaska (are you surprised) leads the nation in total per capita stimulus spending at $1,094 for even citizen of the Last Frontier. Idaho is at $515 per person, Oregon at $543 and Montana at $621.

Meanwhile, a new report on “transparency” – how well the states are doing reporting and disclosing stimulus projects – was released by Good Jobs First. Of the Northwest states, Washington ranked best in this particular assessment. The Oregonian’s Harry Esteve reported on the survey. Idaho’s Governor Butch Otter highlighted some stimulus spending recently in eastern Idaho, making the point that the projects were needed and were not just a case of spending money for the sake of spending money.

This Has Happened Before

A bit of historical perspective may be instructive. The only other time in recent American history that compares to the current round of stimulus spending would be The Great Depression. The late, great Montana historian Mike Malone wrote of the situation in Idaho in 1933 in his fine book on the career of Idaho’s three-term, New Deal-era Governor C. Ben Ross. (Malone’s book is C. Ben Ross and The New Deal in Idaho.)

Ross was a fairly conservative Democrat and he initially supported “stimulus” spending from the Public Works Administration (PWA) and the Agriculture Department. Still, Ross became very frustrated with the bureaucratic delay of getting the “stimulus” money in circulation and the jobs on line.

The Idaho Governor complained about the bureaucratic delays to Agriculture Secretary Henry Wallace and to Interior Secretary Harold Ickes. Ickes – you might think of him as the Rahm Emmanuel of his day (son was Bill Clinton’s deputy chief of staff) – wasn’t going to sit by and allow a “western governor” to criticize the New Deal relief effort.

“I had a letter from a governor,” Ickes said in 1933 in a radio speech clearly referring to Idaho’s Ross, “raising hell about red tape and delay…there is a lot of political whizbanging and sharpshooting. There are a lot of persons trying to make a record for assiduity. They want to be in a position, in case the [relief] programs fails, to say ‘I told you so.'”

Assiduity, by the way, is defined as “persistent personal attention.” Ross became quite skeptical of the relief spending later in his term suggesting that administration of the federal dollars had been politicized.

Still, tough old Harold Ickes pointed out to the Idaho governor in 1933 that Idaho would get more relief dollars – the stimulus of The Great Depression – if Ross would only make certain Idaho had enough qualified engineers to manage all the construction projects that had been funded.

In the early 1930’s, spending to stimulate the economy was, as it is today, an “art” not a “science” and effectiveness depended on many factors, including the ability of an aggressive governor to make a state bureaucracy work efficiently, in order to maximize the stimulus impact.

In another few months, I’m betting, we will have a better take on which governors have not “cut the red tape lengthwise” and been able to maximize the use of stimulus dollars.

Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman, the New York Times columnist, wrote recently that we “aren’t going to have a second Great Depression after all.” The recovery, Krugman wrote, will be slow and difficult, but “the economy has backed up several paces from the edge of the abyss.”

Is the stimulus working? Stay tuned.

Good Food for Political Junkies

The Battle for AmericaThe Definitive Book on the ’08 Election?

Political junkies, regardless of partisan leanings, may find the new Dan Balz/Haynes Johnson tome on the 2008 election must reading.

The book features sharp insights into GOP and Democratic grand strategy -including why Obama focused unprecedented attention on Idaho. The grand mistakes are aired, as well, including a dissection of the devastating infighting in the Clinton and McCain campaigns and McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate.

Balz, the Washington Post’s top political writer, and Johnson, a Pulitzer winner and widely published author, have written the first really detailed account of the historic election.

The Battle for America 2008 doesn’t offer a lot of groundbreaking new material, but even a lot of the story we know is engagingly packaged. As a political tale it is no less interesting now than it was during the course of the long, long 2008 campaign. One particularly interesting section centers on the Obama campaign’s focus on caucus states – including Idaho.

Idaho – a Key to Obama’s Caucus Strategy

“Idaho became the textbook study of the Obama [caucus] strategy,” Balz and Johnson write. “Only a few thousand people had participated in the caucuses in 2004. Obama’s advisers realized that with a relatively modest investment, they could probably win. What made Idaho even more attractive was the volunteer cadre already at work.”

Obama’s national field director is quoted as saying: “By the time our first staffer landed in Idaho at the beginning of October, the Idahoans for Obama had organized themselves….they had an office ready to rent, had the phone lines already on order….and they had figured out the caucus rules and typed them up and put them together in sort of an easy-to-use here’s how to caucus in Idaho.”

Balz and Johnson go on to compare what happened to the Democratic campaigns in New Jersey and Idaho as a result of the attention by the Obama strategists on the opportunity they saw in ruby red Idaho.

“New Jersey had 107 delegates at stake on Super Tuesday, Idaho had just eighteen. [Hillary] Clinton won New Jersey by ten points (54 percent to 44 percent) and won eleven more delegates than Obama. But Obama’s investment in tiny Idaho neutralized the impact of New Jersey, as he won there by an astounding sixty-two points, more than 79 percent to Clinton’s 17. With that margin, he gained twelve more delegates than Clinton.”

(The fellow who gets a lot of credit for creating the Idaho organization, TJ Thomson, is now a candidate for Boise City Council.)

Not surprisingly, some of the juiciest material in The Battle for America involves the role Bill Clinton played in Hillary’s campaign.

Balz and Johnson do offer up some curious passages, usually when they attempt to draw larger political lessons from the 2008 campaign. They discuss, for example, changing demographics, particularly in the west and southwest, that helped drive Obama’s wins in places like Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada.

Then there is this passage:

“Through the 1970s and 1980s, Republicans had counted on California, the Rocky Mountain West, the South and the Great Plains to produce a virtual lock in presidential races. This was the springboard for the election of every Republican president from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan.”

Say what? The “virtual lock” observation is true enough, but the only Republican president between Nixon and Reagan was Gerald Ford who lost in 1976 when Jimmy Carter won the White House on his way to losing every state west of the Mississippi with the exception of Texas. Perhaps a better point would be to acknowledge that two Republican presidents – Nixon and Reagan – were each twice elected (and you can throw in George W. Bush, as well) by employing a Western/Midwestern/Southern strategy.

Still, a few nitpicks aside, if you love politics and find that you still cannot get enough of the last great campaign, The Battle for America 2008 is an engaging read.

The new book will fit nicely on the political bookshelf with Teddy White’s Making of the President series, Jack Germond’s and Jules Witcover’s fine books about the 1980, ’84 and ’88 elections and Richard Ben Cramer’s classic What it Takes about the 1988 candidates for president.

New Leaders at NEH and NEA

LeachLeach Confirmed to Head NEH, Landesman Will Run NEA

The Senate recently confirmed the new leadership at the National Endowments for the Humanities and the Arts and they are interesting and unconventional choices.

Former Iowa Congressman Jim Leach (above), a Republican who endorsed Barack Obama, is the former head of the House Banking Committee and a committed fan of the humanities. Leach helped organize the humanities caucus in the House and will be a politically savvy choice to run the NEH.

Rocco Landesman is a big-time Broadway producer and will head the NEA. Mel Brook’s The Producers is among his credits.

The two endowments, dating back to the administration of Lyndon Johnson, serve an incredibly important national role. The Idaho Humanities Council is the state-based affiliate of the NEH. The Idaho Commission on the Arts has a similar relationship to the NEA.

Among many wonderful benefits, the two national endowments provide grant funding for local arts programs, library reading programs, small museums and teacher institutes.

The endowments have survived an immense amount of political scrutiny since Newt Gingrich tried to eliminate federal funding back in the mid-1990’s. The extremely modest budgets for the two principle national cultural organizations that reach into every corner of the United States are still below where they were when Newt swung his meat ax nearly 15 years ago.

Leach and Landesman appear to have the prestige and smarts to keep rebuilding the endowments. America culture, art, history, literature, and our pleasure will all benefit.

 

 

This is Work?

Idaho Judge Pinch Hits in Yosemite Idaho Judge Pinch Hits in Yosemite

Interesting story in the New York Times earlier this week about Idaho federal Magistrate Judge Larry Boyle.

Who’d a thunk it, but the majestic national park at Yosemite in northern California has a federal courthouse. When the previous federal judge, who typically hears misdemeanor cases – guns, drugs and alcohol in the park – was forced to resign for health reasons, Judge Boyle offered to sub until a permanent replacement could be named. The judge and Beverly Boyle recently finished a two-week stint dispensing justice in what His Honor calls “the Garden of Eden”

Boyle was an eastern Idaho District Judge and a member of the Idaho Supreme Court before his appointment as a federal magistrate in 1992.

The Great Killebrew

Killebrew“As far as Iā€™m concerned, Hank Aaron is the all-time home run champ, and Roger Maris should still have the [single-season] record at 61, but Barry Bonds is the name you see in the record book.” Harmon Killebrew

When Idaho’s best ever baseball player retired in 1975, he stood at fifth all-time on the home run list with 573 dingers. Now Harmon Killebrew is tied for ninth on the list having been passed by Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, confirmed or suspected steroid abusers all, and Ken Griffey, Jr., who is not a suspect – at least not yet. Alex Rodriquiz, another steroid suspect, hit a 15th innning walk off homer Friday against Boston to tie Killebrew on the all-time list. Here’s the current homer leader line-up.

Harmon – here are his career numbers – was signed out of Payette, Idaho by the Washington Senators in 1954 at age 17.

The usually soft spoken and non-controversial Killebrew recently let go with his thoughts about how drugs have tainted – forever perhaps – the great game. He told reporters during the Hall of Fame ceremony recently that the steroid cheaters have “hurt the integrity” of the game. Of course he’s right.

A friend remarked recently that he had stumbled on an ESPN Classic re-broadcast of a 1985 World Series game between the Kansas City Royals and the St. Louis Cardinals and was stunned to see all the normal sized ballplayers. Trim, even skinny guys, used to play major league baseball. (Remember Willie McGee?)

Now days most of the biggest stars look like they sleep on a cot in the weight room.

The Great Killebrew has it right. Release all the names from the 2003 drug tests – the names are going to continue to dribble out – and make a decision on whether records will count or never will.

Where is a commissioner like Bart Giamatti or Fay Vincent when baseball needs them the most?

August in Wisconsin

WisconsinThe Land of Cheese…and Other Things

Random notes from the north of Wisconsin.

The signs of the dog days of summer are everywhere you look in Wisconsin right now.

The Wisconsin State Fair – one of the big ones in the Midwest – is going on this week in Milwaukee. Chocolate covered bacon is the new food sensation this year. More on that later. The lovely, sweet cherries are just about perfect in Door County in the north of the state hard by Lake Michigan.

And, of course, the Packer training camp is up and running. (I buried the lead, based upon what really dominates the news here.) The general manager of the storied Green Bay franchise caused a bit of a stir among the green and gold faithful by suggesting that the dog fighter Michael Vick might, just might, be a suitable heir to Brett Farve or Bart Starr.

A Rich Political History
Wisconsin politics, like its food and football, have never been dull and are frequently fascinating. The state’s colorful political history boasts many characters. Going way back, the State Fair proudly notes that a prospective candidate for president visited in 1859. Abraham Lincoln knew a battle ground state when he saw one.

More recently, the Congressman representing northern Wisconsin, Rep. Steve Kagen a Democrat from Appleton, had two of his town hall meetings on health care reform disrupted this week by very noisy protesters. Apparently this type of engagement is now standard, part of a national effort to make life miserable for members of Congress on August recess.

Kagen seemed to handle the hubbub pretty well. At least he used the right analogy in talking to the press. “There was a significant amount of anger there,” he told the Green Bay Press-Gazette, “as if the referee made the wrong call in a Packer game.”

This alleged “battle ground state” – maybe in name only – hasn’t gone for a Republican since Ronald Reagan’s second term. Barack Obama rolled up 56% of the vote in Wisconsin in 2008, exactly the margin for that other untested Illinois politician in 1860.

Arguably the greatest political figure Wisconsin has produced – and one the most independent -was Fighting Bob La Follette, a early progressive of the western type, who served as governor and then as one of the most influential United States Senators. La Follette was once hung in effigy for opposing U.S. involvement in World War I, but still managed to spawn a Midwestern political dynasty.

La Follette, a nominal Republican, bolted his party in 1924 – he wasn’t a Coolidge fan – and gathered in more than 16% of the popular vote running as an independent presidential candidate. His running mate on the Progressive Party ticket was another “radical” and a nominal Democrat from Butte, Montana – Senator Burton K. Wheeler. The La Follette-Wheeler ticket carried only Wisconsin in 1924, but the Progressives – anti-monopoly, anti-interventionist in foreign affairs and anti-Ku Klux Klan – ran far ahead of the Democratic ticket most everywhere in the Northwest, including Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.

Over many years, Wisconsin’s has had its share of “radicals” of both the left and the right. Gaylord Nelson founded Earth Day and made common cause over his Senate career with Frank Church of Idaho on many environmental issues, including the landmark 1964 Wilderness Act. Both Nelson and Church lost re-election in the Reagan landslide of 1980.

One other Northwest-Wisconsin connection of particular note was the close friendship between Senator Herman Welker, a one-term Payette, Idaho Republican, and Joe McCarthy, a favorite son of Appleton, Wisconsin. Often described as McCarthy’s “best friend in the Senate” or “little Joe from Idaho,” Welker never abandoned his Wisconsin Republican colleague even when being McCarthy’s friend became a liability. Welker served as McCarthy’s chief defender when the Wisconsin senator was censured in 1954 for his increasingly reckless behavior in attacking those he suspected of Communist sympathies.

Cheese and brats…a growing issue
Wisconsinites, by all appearances, are not making the mistake of spending too many lovely August days worrying about health care reform or cash for clunkers. These are days for cheese, beer, brats and cream puffs, after all, the four main food groups. As a result the expanding Wisconsin waste line seems to be – sorry – a growing issue.

A columnist in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel set aside the usual polite Midwestern reserve this week to challenge fellow cheeseheads to admit the obvious: “Half of us are fat; a quarter, really fat. If bands don’t play ‘Too Fat Polka’ at weddings around the state anymore, they should. Make it our song until we can tie shoes without gasping for air between the left and the right.”

To sum this up: one more political connection.

Another of Wisconsin’s true political radicals was Senator William Proxmire, a gadfly, skinflint and physical fitness nut who served 32 years in the U.S. Senate. Proxmie replaced McCarthy in the Senate and never spent more than a few hundred buck on a re-election. He also created the Golden Fleece Award to spotlight wasteful government spending and was known to run to work in the Senate – ten miles a day.

As the New York Times noted after his death in 2005, “Tall, thin and bald as a young man, Mr. Proxmire was unusually vain about his looks. He had a series of hair transplants and a face lift, and in 1973, he published a book about staying in shape: ‘You Can Do It: Senator Proxmire’s Exercise, Diet and Relaxation Plan.'”

I’m betting the State Fair’s new chocolate covered bacon would never have caught on with ol’ Bill Proxmire.

Now That Was Quick

SutherlandThe Fastest Confirmation…

George Sutherland is the only person from the state of Utah to ever serve on the United States Supreme Court. Nominated by President Warren Harding in 1922, Sutherland still holds the record for the fastest confirmation in court history. The entire process – nomination, no hearings and Senate confirmation – took one day.

After being defeated in his bid for a third term in the United States Senate, Sutherland established a Washington, D.C. law practice and developed a friendship with Harding. That close relationship lead to his court appointment.

Sutherland spent 16 years on the high court faithfully opposing almost all expansion of government power. He became the intellectual leader of the “four horsemen,” the conservative bloc on the court that before 1937 rejected much of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation. Sutherland retired in 1938.

Supreme Court confirmations have certainly changed since 1922. New justice Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination was announced by President Obama on May 26. She was confirmed today. By my count her confirmation process lasted 72 days.

By the standards of the modern Senate confirmation ordeal the Sotomayor process was speedy, but no threat to George Sutherland’s record. Like Joe DiMaggio’s record of hitting safely in 56 consecutive major league baseball games, the Utahan’s record will never be broken.

The Survival of the Republic

FDRFDR and “the Jew Deal” and Obama “the Kenyan”

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that ain’t so.” Mark Twain

OK, I admit it. I don’t need more evidence that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii in 1961, two years after Aloha land became the 50th state. I am convinced the president is native born and therefore qualified to exercise the executive power of the government under the Constitution. It is a closed case for me, but apparently not for many so called “birthers” and even, at last count, eleven members of Congress who are sponsoring legislation requiring presidential candidates to produce their birth certificates.

All of this talk of birth certificates comes hard on the heels of the persistent rumor that Obama is a secret Muslim.

What’s going on here? A Constitutional crisis? An updated version of UFO sitings?

None of that. The Obama “stories” are, I submit, in league with a long, colorful and frequently disquieting chapter in American presidential history. It is the chapter where some Americans never quite get to the point of accepting the person in the White House. Presidential history is full of “facts” from the fringe that, if true, would surely “disqualify” the offender in the Oval Office.

The president in modern times most aggressively vilified in this way was surely Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As George Wolfskill and John A. Hudson document in their book – All but the People – Franklin D. Roosevelt and His Critics – FDR was – pick your poison – mentally ill, unable to handle the strain of office due to his polio, a shadow Communist (or Fascist), a warmonger and a Jew.

A contemptible collection of crackpots, including the radio priest Father Charles Coughlin who commanded an audience that Glenn Beck would envy, and a southern demagogue by the name of Gerald L.K. Smith, rumor mongered the anti-FDR lies constantly. As Wolfskill and Hudson note, Smith’s Christian Nationalist Crusade mailed out thousands of copies of a phony Roosevelt genealogy, purporting to “prove” FDR’s Jewish ancestry, during the presidential campaign of 1936. A footnote read: “Every sensible Christian and loyal American will fight the campaign of Leftist, Communists, Jews and Internationalists to return the Roosevelt dynasty to power.”

Roosevelt won that 1936 election, by the way, in an historic landslide that only convinced his critics that he was determined in a second term to advance not the “New Deal,” but the “Jew Deal.”

In earlier times, the detractors of President John Adams contended he harbored secret ambitions to declare himself King and, despite Adams role in the American Revolution, as president he was determined to tighten bonds with England.

Andrew Jackson came to believe that the death of his beloved wife, Rachel, was a direct result of the vicious attacks directed at him, but aimed at her. One charge – the Jacksons were bigamists.

More recently, John F. Kennedy had to counter the widespread belief, advanced effectively by his political opponents, that his election as the first Catholic president was sure to install the Bishop of Rome – the Pope – as White House chief of staff.

George W. Bush had to contend with conspiracy theorists in the wake of September 11th and some Americans will never get over his “illegitimate election” by a 5-4 vote of the United States Supreme Court.

“Politics ain’t bean bag,” as they say, and for sure the game has always been played as a full contact sport. Good advice to any politician: Don’t climb in the ring if you can’t take a punch and a low blow has always been part of our politics. You want fair play – go to a cricket match

Still, the speed and viral nature of today’s rumor spreading, fueled by the Internet, 24 hour cable news, and bloviators like Lou Dobbs and Beck is nearly impossible to fathom or refute. Spreading rumors in the age of instant communication makes “old media” reporting, the kind that actually seeks out the facts, even more important as an antidote to the nonsense.

But, there is another old adage – the truth never catches up with the allegation – that keeps theses stories alive for days, weeks and beyond.

Considering all the rascals who have occupied the White House – from a secret Jew to a secret non-citizen – it is a real wonder the Republic has survived at all.

An International Star…

Curtis StigersThis Guy is Good…

One of the most talented and nicest guys I have ever known, Curtis Stigers, has been nominated for an Emmy Award for the lyrics he wrote for the main title theme of the FX Network show – Sons of Anarchy. The nomination is in the category for Outstanding Main Title themes.

While Curtis played the famed Oak Room of New York’s Algonquin Hotel earlier this summer, his great popularity in Europe tends to find him touring there extensively. This summer and fall, he has many dates in Germany, Denmark and England. He played the prestigious Royal Albert Hall in London for the summer BBC Proms on August 1st.

Those of us lucky enough to see Curtis when he’s home in Idaho, may have a tendancy to take the guy’s international reputation a little bit for granted. After all, he’s the hometown boy who turns up regularly to headline a benefit concert for a good cause. His show earlier this year at the Boise Contemporary Theatre was as good an evening as any music fan could ever hope to enjoy.

He’ll have a new album out in the fall. A really accomplished singer, songwriter and mutli-instrument musician, Curtis Stigers is – even better – also a solid citizen and a caring guy blessed with a terrific wife and daughter. He is a great ambassador for Idaho and the country.

Congratulations Curtis…