Air Travel, Baseball, Books, Politics

The Johnson Treatment

What Would Lyndon Do…

Before Vietnam defined his as “a failed presidency,” Lyndon Johnson assembled an historic record of legislative accomplishment. He got civil rights and voting rights legislation passed, created Medicare, federally guaranteed student loans and the national endowments for arts and the humanities. And that is certainly a partial list.

Of course, the bigger than life Texan – the flawed giant in biographer Robert Dallek’s words – had lots of help with all that legislation, but Johnson was the catalyst, the cajoler in chief. History records him as the nation’s greatest legislative politician.

In a great piece on the Daily Beast website, LBJ aide Tom Johnson, writes about how his old boss would have gotten a health care reform bill through the current congress. It’s worth reading to understand the full impact of the “Johnson treatment” and how effective LBJ could be in winning votes for his legislation.

Like every good politician, Johnson kept lists and he settled scores. The great Idaho Senator Frank Church was victim of Johnson’s attempt to make sure that the press and other Vietnam critics knew that the president can always have the last word.

As American involvement in Vietnam continued to divide the country with dimming prospects that the conflict could be brought to a satisfactory conclusion, Church became more and more outspoken in his opposition to the war. It was a principled and courageous stand at odds with many of his Idaho constituents and certainly at odds with President Johnson.

After a White House dinner, LBJ cornered Church to work him over for his stand on the war. According to the story, recounted in LeRoy Ashby and Rod Gramer’s fine biography of Church, the senator allegedly told the president that he had come more and more to agree with the celebrated Washington columnist Walter Lippman, who had turned sharply against LBJ’s Southeast Asia policy.

Only later did Church come to believe that Johnson himself was the source of a story making the rounds among reporters and cocktail party goers in Washington that LBJ had responded by telling the Idahoan, “Next time you need a dam out in Idaho – go talk to Walter Lippman.”

Makes you wonder what LBJ would be saying to Max Baucus or Chuck Grassley about health care reform right now.

Only two presidents in the past 50 years – Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan – have been able to consistently and effectively work the levers of presidential power to fundamentally reshape the American political landscape. We know Barack Obama is a student of history. The next few weeks may tell whether he can begin to work the levers as well as Lyndon and Ronnie did.

Books worth considering:

  • Ashby and Gramer’s Church biography is Fighting the Odds. It is the complete life and offers great insight into Idaho politics in from the 1950’s to the 1980’s.

 

  • Among the newest LBJ biographies is a fine book by Randall Woods called LBJ: Architect of American Ambition. Not exactly a favorable treatment of LBJ, but a fully nuanced take on his remarkable accomplishments and equally remarkable failures.

 

  • Bob Dallek’s two volume bio of LBJ – Lone Star Rising and Flawed Giant – helped redeem, to a degree, Johnson’s reputation as a great legislative tactician.

 

  • Robert Caro’s monumental four-volume Johnson biography is still in progress. Give Caro his due – he knows more about LBJ and had written more than anyone – but he lacks either Woods’ or Dallek’s sense of nuance or balance. Anything Caro produces is a must read for political junkies and his emphasis is always on the exercise of power, but count on heavy emphasis of the darkest of the dark side of Lyndon Johnson.

 

  • Finally, when it came out in 2005, William E. Leuchtenburg’s The White House Looks South received less – much less – attention than it deserved. Leuchtenburg focuses on FDR, Harry Truman and LBJ as he weaves a great narrative about how those three Democratic presidents had “one foot below the Mason-Dixon Line, one foot above.” His treatment of Johnson’s presidency is particularly good reading.

What would Lyndon do with a Congress coming back from an August recess all spun up about what to do with health care reform? You can bet LBJ would have had an aggressive plan and he would have worked himself into a lather trying to make it succeed.

Air Travel, Books

A Giant of Western Storytelling

guthrie“Every story is the story of a man or a woman or a small group of people.”A.B. Guthrie, Jr. – A Field Guide to Writing Fiction

A.B. “Bud” Guthrie, Jr. deserves a place in the front ranks of American writers. A new biography of Guthrie, published earlier this year, should help cement the Pulitzer Prize winners place among the best who have ever written about the West. I hope, as well, that it might renew an interest in Guthrie’s amazing body of work.

The book – Under the Big Sky – A Biography of A.B. Guthrie, Jr. – by Jackson J. Benson was published by the University of Nebraska Press. Benson has also written fine biographies of Wallace Stegner and John Steinbeck.

Guthrie was a successful newspaper editor in Kentucky when he was awarded a Neiman Fellowship at Harvard and while studying there he finished his first novel – The Big Sky – published in 1947. He followed with The Way West and was awarded the Pulitzer in 1950.

There followed many other works of fiction, including some great mystery stories, two memorable screenplays – Shane in 1953 and the Kentuckian in 1955 – as well as magazine pieces and non-fiction.

After moving permanently to Montana in 1956, Guthrie became a more outspoken conservationist and, to some, a bit of a crank. I think his personality was in keeping with the western characters he created – independent, pithy and always in touch with the land.

If you are in the market for a great late summer read, go search out Benson’s fine new biography or one of the Guthrie titles. You won’t be disappointed.

Basques, Media

Hewitt and the Prince of Darkness

HewittWhat Does This Tell Us?

Perhaps more than anyone, Don Hewitt, the CBS News executive who died this week, invented the idea of television news. Hewitt staged the Kennedy-Nixon debates, produced the early years of Walter Cronkite’s expanded 30 minute nightly broadcast, and invented “60 Minutes.”

I happened to be home nursing a nasty summer cold the day the TV news pioneer’s death was announced. I couldn’t help thinking as I watched (which I rarely do) the continuous loop of nasty health care hearings, celebrity gossip and talking head wisdom that passes for news on cable television that little of that content has much to do with the kind of television Don Hewitt pioneered at CBS.

The irony was palpable when a cable anchor, more at home presiding over a verbal slugfest than a eulogy for a television pioneer, waxed eloquently about Hewitt’s role in the development of the medium.

More irony in the nearly simultaneous passing of columnist Robert “The Prince of Darkness” Novak. With his long-time partner Roland Evans, Novak carved out an early reputation as a tough, well-sourced Washington reporter who broke big stories and stepped on big toes. The rise of cable talking head shows, the type of “news” program that places a premium on opinion (most of it blindly partisan) as opposed to real reporting, gave Novak a new audience. He seemed to relish being cast in the role of the gloomy disher of usually outraged opinion.

Still, with all his years of Washington experience, I often found myself wishing for a just little nuance, a bit of dispassionate insight from one with obviously so much depth. But, that’s hoping for too much from cable and from those who play a role on cable.

We all know the news business, and television news included, continues in a steep, deep decline. The reasons are many, no doubt, including the unbelievable rise of the “new media” thanks to the Internet. I’m from the old school, however, and still want to believe real content – not just overheated opinion in the guise of entertainment – still matters.

Don Hewitt knew something about news and also something about entertainment. With “60 Minutes” he skillfully and very lucratively combined the two. Bob Novak was a good reporter who adapted skillfully and lucratively to the strictures of cable talking head shows, but what he mostly did on the tube had little to do with news.

Both these old news hands had a role, I think, in the continuing evolution of they way we gain information, particularly political information. Stay tuned for the next chapter. I am not an optimist.

I am confident someone will become the next Novak. The “expert,” opinionated talking heads are a dime a dozen these days. I do wonder if there will ever be another Hewitt or worse, perhaps, if anyone really cares any longer about his kind of television.

Wheeler Center Plans Montana Media Conference

By the way, the good folks at the Burton K. Wheeler Center at Montana State University is planning a conference on Montana media issues this fall. “Failure to Inform:” Is There a Looming Media Crisis in Montana? is scheduled for Missoula September 30 and October 1. Sounds like a very timely gathering.

Air Travel, Books

The Big Burn

The Big Burn by Tim EganTim Egan Has Another Winner

Ninety-nine years ago today – August 20, 1910 – the worst forest fire in modern times reached a climax in northern Idaho, western Montana and eastern Washington. By the time the great fire of 1910 had burned itself out, three million acres of timberland had given way to the relentless force of wildfire and 125 people had died.

Tim Egan’s new book – The Big Burn – Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America – won’t be out until October, but a read of the advanced copy has me convinced the Spokane native and long-time New York Times writer has another major winner on his hands. Egan’s book is gripping history intercut with fascinating narratives about characters like President Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot (the first chief of the Forest Service) Senators Weldon B. Heyburn of Idaho and William A. Clark of Montana, and Ed Pulaski, an Idaho forest ranger who is the hero of the fire story.

Egan makes a convincing case that the great fire saved both Roosevelt’s dream of the still new U.S. Forest Service (Heyburn was a sworn enemy of the federal agency) and gave the Forest Service a mission – controlling fire – that remains controversial to this day.

Egan’s last book – The Worst Hard Time a story of the dust bowl, was a best seller and won the National Book Award for history. The new book is every bit as good.

Egan also writes a weekly column – Outposts – for the New York Times on-line and frequently pinch hits on the Times Op-Ed pages.

Tim Egan will headline the Idaho Humanities Council’s Distinguished Lecture in the Humanities in Couer d’Alene on October 8th and you can be sure he will make a great talk.

Here is a brief except from the Prologue of The Big Burn:

“By 10 P.M., the streets of Wallace, Idaho – where President Roosevelt had walked seven years earlier – were overwhelmed by flames, and the forests he had set aside for future generations was in ruins. Hundreds of firefighters were lost, and thought to be dead.”

Near midnight on August 20, 1910, a telegraph operator in Wallace sent this message:

“Every hill around town is a mass of flames and the whole place looks like a death trap. No connections can be had with outside towns. Men, women and children are hysterical in streets and leave by every possible conveyance and route.”

The Big Burn is a great story told by a terrific writer. Look for it in book stores in mid- October.

Uncategorized

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.

Basketball, Stimulus

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.

Air Travel, Baseball, Books, Politics

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.

Argentina, Arizona, NEA, NEH

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.

 

 

Little Bighorn, Uncategorized

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.

Andrus Center, Baseball

The Great Killebrew

Killebrew“As far as I’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?