The Senator from McCook

I took a political pilgrimage last week to an out-of-the-way little town in my native state.

I’ve taken similar trips in the past to Mount Vernon and Hyde Park, to Independence, Missouri and once to Dixville Notch, New Hampshire, which every four years casts the first-in-the-nation votes for president.McCook My pilgrimage to tiny, remote McCook, Nebraska in Red Willow County, hard by the Republican River and a short drive north of the Kansas border was as meaningful as any I have ever taken.

McCook is the hometown of one of the greatest political figures of the 20th Century, a man – a senator, a statesman, an ideal politician that most Americans have long forgotten, or worse, never heard of. I went to McCook to see George William Norris’ town, his home and to remember why he deserves to be considered among a very small handful of the greatest of American politicians.

McCook is where Norris first got elected as a local judge and where Norris - MIcfriends continued to call him “Judge” long after he had become one of the most influential senators in American history. Judge Norris went to the United States Congress for five terms early in the 20th Century and eventually in 1912 to the U.S. Senate for five more terms.

Norris retired to McCook – it was decidedly not his idea – in 1943 after losing a re-election that, at age 81, he might well have been advised to avoid. But unlike most politicians who lose and are forgotten, Norris’ reputation should only have risen after 1942, but that is not the way things work in the brutal, forgetful world of American politics. George Norris is mostly forgotten these days even in his hometown and sadly, almost completely forgotten in the “what have you done for me today” world of contemporary political importance.

Still, any member of the current Congress would kill for the Norris record of real accomplishment.

George Norris at site of Norris Dam.

George Norris at site of Norris Dam.

Twice Norris passed legislation to create public ownership of the hydropower resources in the Tennessee River valley only to see Republican presidents – leaders of his own party – kill the idea. When Franklin Roosevelt came to power in 1933, Norris’ vision of a Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) finally had a champion in the White House and the money was appropriated to construct Norris Dam and bring electricity to a vast swath of the American South. George Norris was the father of TVA and in many ways the father of public power in the American West.

When FDR ran for president in 1932, four percent of Nebraska’s farms had electricity. By the time his Nebraska constituents ignored Norris’ accomplishments and sent him into retirement in 1942 that number had increased to more than forty percent. George Norris was the father of the Rural Electric Administration – the REA – which he considered his most important accomplishment.

During his long career George Norris opposed U.S. entry into World War I, convinced it was a war forced on the country by greedy capitalists. Vilified for what many considered his “unpatriotic” stand, Norris came home to Nebraska, stood before the voters and said simply: “I have come home to tell you the truth.” Undoubtedly, many of his constituents still opposed his position, but his straightforward explanation of his action marked him as a man of great integrity and courage.

Norris conceived of the “unicameral,” single house, non-partisan legislature in Nebraska and campaigned across the state to ensure that the idea was approved at the ballot box by Nebraskans in 1934. Nebraska is still the only state in the country with the unique unicameral legislature. Norris argued for the idea as being more democratic than a system that allowed lawmakers to hide behind the “actions of the other house” and that gave special interests more avenues to influence legislation. It has been a noble experiment that others states might well consider.

In an earlier era when Wall Street and big bankers also dominated American politics, Norris took on the interests of greed and bigness and prevailed. He created a massive chart – the Norris spider – to illustrate to the Senate the vast web of financial interests that controlled everything from electricity to railroads, from oil wells to credit. Long before there was an Elizabeth Warren there was a George Norris.

Norris broke with his own party time and again on matters of principle and pragmatism most famously when he lead the 1910 revolt against the dictatorial rule of Republican House Speaker “Uncle Joe” Cannon. Norris rounded up the bi-partisan votes to strip Cannon of the ability to use the Rules Committee as his own personal tool to control the House of Representatives. Norris also broke GOP ranks in 1928 and again in 1932 to endorse Democratic presidential candidates. When Norris determined that Roosevelt deserved a second term in 1936, he ran for re-election in Nebraska as an independent and won.

When Norris lost his bid for a sixth senate term in 1942 to a Republican non-entity by the name of Kenneth Wherry, a former undertaker, he did something that no politician does any more – he went home to McCook to the house he and his wife had owned for Norris - Homedecades. He died in that house in 1944 never completely reconciled to having been turned out of office by his Nebraska neighbors.

The Norris house is preserved today as a Nebraska historical landmark complete with most of the furnishings that graced the modest two-story frame structure when the great man lived there. His books are in the bookcases. His plaque of appreciation from the TVA is prominently displayed. His 1937 Buick still sits in the garage. I think we may have been the only visitors of the day when we showed up last Friday afternoon.

In 1956 when a young Senator John F. Kennedy – with the help of his Nebraskan-born aide Theodore Sorensen – wrote his Pulitzer Prize winning Profiles in Courage, he included a chapter on George Norris, emphasizing Norris’ independence and willingness to fight for unpopular causes.

YOUNG-JFKA year later the U.S. Senate created a special committee – Kennedy was named chairman – to recommend five “great” former senators who would be recognized for their accomplishments. Kennedy’s committee labored for months to define senatorial “greatness” and eventually enlisted the help of 160 historians to advise them. The historians produced a list of 65 candidates. Kennedy joked that picking five senators from such a long list of worthies made choosing new members of the Baseball Hall of Fame look easy by comparison.

The scholar’s top choice was Norris. It wasn’t even close. The Nebraskan came in ahead of Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay, which you might think would have settled the matter. But members of the Kennedy committee had agreed among themselves that their recommendations must be unanimous. New Hampshire Republican Styles Bridges, who had served with Norris and didn’t appreciate his political independence as much as the group of historians did, black balled his consideration. Nebraska’s two Republican senators at the time also rebelled at any honor for Norris and as a result he was left off the list of all-time Senate greats.

[The list, by the way, included Webster, Calhoun, Clay, Robert Taft and Robert La Follette, Sr. In 2004, Senators Arthur Vandenberg and Robert Wagner were similarly recognized.]Norris - Time

Settling political scores is, of course, something politicians do, but the petty slight of George Norris, a product of small-town, rural Nebraska, who left a huge mark on American life, is a long ago error that should be corrected. Regardless of our personal politics, we should celebrate greatness in our political leaders. Lord knows there is little enough of it these days.

My pilgrimage to McCook convinced me all over again that while true political greatness is indeed a rare thing, George W. Norris had it. It was a moving and very special experience to step back into his world and know that such men once sat in the United States Senate.

 

The Most Important Election…

There is a wide-open field on the Republican side for the presidential nomination, with at least a half dozen serious contenders, while the lame duck Democrat in the White House, one of the most polarizing american-politicsfigures in modern American politics, struggles with foreign policy challenges which have emboldened his fierce critics in both parties and submerged his domestic agenda. The foreign policy challenges involve questions about the effectiveness of military aid in bloody conflicts that may, or may not, involve strategic American interests, as well as the proper response to brutal foreign dictators determined to expand their influence in central Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

The incumbent in the White House, elected with promises of “hope and change,” has lost his once large majorities in both houses of Congress and, while he remains a profoundly talented communicator and is still popular with many voters, others have grown tired of his aloof manner and the fact that he surrounds himself with a tiny corps of advisors who tend to shut off competing points of view. Even his wife can be a polarizing figure with some criticizing everything from her priorities to her wardrobe.

A fragile economic recovery continues to sputter along, while memories remain fresh of an economic collapse that rivals anything that has happened in three-quarters of a century. Half the country blames Wall Street, eastern bankers and the well-heeled for the economic troubles, while the other half laments excessive regulation, increasing debt and bloated federal government that is constantly expanding its role in American life. The country is deeply divided by race, class and religious differences.

The year is…2016? No…actually 1940.

The Most Important Election in Our Lifetime…Not Really…

Lincoln and McClellan

Lincoln and McClellan

The claim heard every four years that “this is the most important election in our lifetime (or in our history), it is, of course, nonsense. We don’t have “critical elections” every four years, but in fact have really only had a handful of truly “critical” elections in our history. In my view the two most important were 1864, when Abraham Lincoln defeated George McClellan thereby ensuring that the great Civil War would be fought to its ultimate end and achieve its ultimate goal, the abolition of slavery, and 1940 when Franklin D. Roosevelt broke with long-established political tradition and sought and won a third term. Roosevelt’s election, although it would have been hard to see clearly at the time, sealed the involvement of the United States in World War II and ultimately led to the defeat of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan.

Those two elections (you could add 1860 to the list, as well) had serious consequences that still echo today, the 1940 election particularly since it does have many parallels with what voters will face when they make a choice about the White House in 2016.

Arguably the field for the Republican nomination hasn’t been so completely wide open since 1940. In that election, as today, the GOP was a divided party between its more establishment wing – represented by New Yorker Thomas Dewey – and an insurgent element represented by the party’s eventual nominee in 1940, Indiana-born, former Democrat Wendell Willkie, a true dark horse candidate. The party was also split into isolationist and internationalist camps, with Willkie the leader of the later and Senators Robert Taft of Ohio and Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan leading the Midwestern, isolationist element.

As Many GOP Contenders as 2016…

1940 GOP Convention Ticket

1940 GOP Convention Ticket

Ten Republican candidates that year captured at least twenty-eight convention votes, with Dewey leading on the first ballot with 360 votes, still far below the number he would need to win the nomination. The Republican candidates, not unlike today, were a broad and opportunistic bunch ranging from names lost to history – the governor of South Dakota Harland Bushland, for example – to shades of the past like former President Herbert Hoover who amazingly thought he was a viable candidate eight years after losing in a landslide to Roosevelt in 1932.

Thomas Dewey

Thomas Dewey

Dewey lost support on every subsequent ballot, while Willkie and Taft steadily picked up steam. As Charles Peters has written: “To Republicans who liked Franklin Roosevelt’s sympathy for the allies but had a low opinion of his economic policy, Willkie began to look like an interesting presidential possibility. This group was not large in early 1940, but it was highly influential,” not unlike the “establishment wing” of the GOP today, which is tentatively coalescing behind Jeb Bush.

Finally on the sixth ballot Willkie commanded the votes needed to win the nomination and face the man who was the real issue in 1940 – Roosevelt.

By the time the Democrats convened for their convention in Chicago on July 15, 1940 (the Republicans met in Philadelphia in June), few besides FDR knew his intentions with regard to the “no third term” tradition. I’m convinced Roosevelt had decided much earlier to seek another terms, but the master political strategist wanted it to appear that his party was “drafting” him rather than as if he was actively seeking the nomination again.

Eleanor Roosevelt Addresses 1940 Convention

Eleanor Roosevelt Addresses 1940 Convention

Roosevelt dispatched his very politically astute wife, Eleanor, to Chicago to subtly, but unmistakably make the case for her husband. It worked and the Democratic Party rushed to embrace FDR – again. This whole story is wonderfully told in Charles Peters’ fine book Five Days in Philadelphia: The Amazing ‘We Want Willkie!’ Convention of 1940 and How It Freed FDR to Save the Western World.

FDR of course, went on to win the pivotal election of 1940, a rare election in American political history that turned primarily on foreign policy issues. Remarkably, both candidates endorsed the creation of a peace time draft in the middle of the campaign and Roosevelt and Willkie differed only in the most nuanced ways over the big question of whether and how the United States would provide aid to Britain as it struggled to hold off a Nazi invasion and eventually return to the offense against Hitler.

The 1940 campaign, like most political campaigns, had its share of pettiness and overheated rhetoric. Roosevelt was denounced as a “warmonger” and a dictator who would do anything to prolong his willkie buttonhold over the country’s politics. Willkie, a wealthy utility executive who made much of his small-town Indiana upbringing, was derided as “the barefoot boy from Wall Street,” so dubbed by Roosevelt’s Interior Secretary Harold Ickes. It was an open secret that Willkie had a long-time romantic relationship with a woman not his wife, but Roosevelt and the Democrats dare not raise the issue for fear that the “marriage of convenience” between FDR and Eleanor, not to mention the president’s own indiscretions, might become an issue. This would not be a John Edwards or Gary Hart campaign.

The 1940 campaign did involve two talented and serious candidates who openly discussed the big issues of the day and once the voters had spoken, Roosevelt and Willkie put aside personal animosities and linked arms for the good of the country – and the world.

Barack Obama won’t be running for a third term next year. Republicans made certain that would never happen when they recaptured control of the Congress after World War II and adopted the 22nd amendment to the Constitution, but Democrats will be, in effect, seeking a third term with presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton carrying the party banner.

Perhaps all – or almost all – politicians tend to look better in hindsight than they do when they are grubbing for votes, but it would be hard to argue that any of the contenders in either party today could hold their own on a stage with the major party nominees in that pivotal year of 1940.

The stakes were very high that year and Americans had their pick between two serious, quality candidates. Here’s hoping history repeats next year. Looking at the field I have my doubts.

Reader’s Note: 

There are at least three other recent fine books about the election of 1940 – Richard Moe’s Roosevelt’s Second Act, Susan Dunn’s 1940 – FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler: The Election Amid the Storm and Lynne Olson’s Those Angry Days. All are highly recommended as great political history.

 

Just Say No…

By all accounts Barack Obama has his work cut out for him convincing Congressional Republicans – and some Democrats – that his proposed obama0404nuclear weapons control agreement with Iran is better than having no deal at all.

Republican skepticism about an Obama initiative certainly isn’t surprising, since the president has seen something approaching universal disdain for virtually anything he has proposed since 2009. That Republicans are inclined to oppose a deal with Iran shouldn’t be much of a surprise either. In the post-World War II era, conservative Republicans in Congress have rarely embraced any major deal- particularly including nuclear agreements – which any president has negotiated with a foreign government.

Republicans Have Long Said “No” to Foreign Deals…

Before they were the party of NO on all things Obama, the GOP was the party of NO on international agreements – everything from the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I to the Panama Canal Treaties during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Even when Ronald Reagan Mikhail-Gorbachev-Ronald-Reaganattempted a truly unprecedented deal in 1986 with Mikhail Gorbachev to actually eliminate vast numbers of nuclear weapons – the famous Reykjavik Summit – most conservative Republicans gave the idea thumbs down and were happy when it fell apart.

And, near the end of his presidency when Reagan pushed for a treaty limiting intermediate nuclear weapons, conservatives like North Carolina’s Jesse Helms, Wyoming’s Malcolm Wallop and Idaho’s Jim McClure thought that Reagan, then and now the great hero of the conservative right, was plum crazy.

Much of the criticism of Reagan from the hard right in the late 1980’s sounds eerily like the current critique of Obama, which basically boils down to a belief that the administration is so eager for a deal with Iran it is willing to imperil U.S. and Israeli security. As Idaho’s McClure, among the most conservative GOP senators of his day, warned about the Reagan’s deal with Gorbachev in 1988, ”We’ve had leaders who got into a personal relationship and have gotten soft – I’m thinking of Roosevelt and Stalin,” but McClure was really thinking about Reagan and Gorbachev.

Howard Phillips, the hard right blowhard who chaired the Conservative Caucus at the time, charged that Reagan was ”fronting as a useful idiot for Soviet propaganda.” Helms actually said Reagan’s jesse-helms-reagan_685352cnegotiations with Gorbachev put U.S. allies in harms way, just as Mario Rubio, Ted Cruz and Scott Walker say today Obama is putting Israel at risk. ”We’re talking about, perhaps, the survival of Europe,” Helms declared in 1988.

Walker, who was 20 years old when Helms’ was preaching apocalypse, told a radio interviewer last week that the Iranian deal “leaves not only problems for Israel, because they want to annihilate Israel, it leaves the problems in the sense that the Saudis, the Jordanians and others are gonna want to have access to their own nuclear weapons…” Never mind that the whole point of the Iranian effort is to prevent a nuclear arms race across the Middle East.

Date the GOP No Response to FDR and Yalta…

Historically, you can date the conservative Republican opposition to almost all presidential deal making to Franklin Roosevelt’s meeting with Stalin at Yalta in 1945 where FDR’s critics, mostly Republicans, contended he sold out eastern Europe to the Reds. “The Yalta agreement may not have been the Roosevelt administration’s strongest possible bargain,” Jonathan Chait wrote recently in New York Magazine, “but the only real alternative would have entailed continuing the war against the Soviets after defeating Germany.”

By the time of the Yalta summit, Red Army troops had “liberated” or were in place to occupy Poland and much of central Europe, which Roosevelt knew the United States and Great Britain could do little to stop. The alternative to accommodation with Stalin at Yalta, as Chait says, was making war on Stalin’s army. Roosevelt’s true objective at Yalta was to keep Stalin in the fold to ensure Soviet cooperation with the establishment of the United Nations, but the “facts on the ground” in Europe provided a great storyline for generations of conservatives to lament the “sellout” to Uncle Joe.

That conservative narrative served to propel Joe McCarthy’s hunt for Communists in the U.S. State Department and cemented the GOP as the party always skeptical of any effort to negotiate with the Soviet Union (or anyone else). Many conservatives contended that “negotiations” equaled “appeasement” and would inevitably lead American presidents to mimic Neville Chamberlain at Munich in 1938. Illinois Senator Mark Kirk dusted off that old chestnut last week when he said, “Neville Chamberlain got a better deal from Adolf Hitler,” than Obama did from the Iranians. The Iranian deal is certainly not perfect, but worse than a pact with Hitler?

Conservatives became so concerned about “executive action” on Brickerforeign policy in the early 1950’s that Ohio Republican Senator John Bricker proposed a constitutional amendment – the Bricker Amendment – that said in part: “Congress shall have power to regulate all executive and other agreements with any foreign power or international organization.” Dwight Eisenhower opposed Bricker’s effort certain that his control over foreign policy, and that of subsequent presidents, would be fatally compromised. When Bricker, who had been the Republican candidate for vice president in 1948 and was a pillar of Midwestern Republicanism, first proposed his amendment forty-five of forty-eight Senate Republicans supported the idea. Eisenhower had to use every trick in the presidential playbook, including working closely with Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, to eventually defeat Bricker and other conservatives in his own party.

A logical extension of McCarthy’s position in the early 1950’s was Barry Goldwater’s opposition in the early 1960’s to President John Kennedy’s ultimately successful efforts to put in place a nuclear test ban treaty outlawing atmospheric or underwater nuclear tests.

A test ban treaty was, Goldwater said, “the opening wedge to goldwaterdisastrous negotiations with the enemy, which could result in our losing the war or becoming part of their [the Soviets] system.” In Senate debate Goldwater demanded proof of the Soviet’s “good faith” and argued, directly counter to Kennedy’s assertions, that a treaty would make the world more rather than less dangerous. The treaty was approved overwhelmingly and has remained a cornerstone of the entire idea of arms control.

Later in the 1960’s, and over the profound objections of conservatives, the U.S. approved the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) designed to prevent the expansion of nuclear weapons. Ironically, as Jonathan Chait notes, the NPT today provides “the legal basis for the international effort to prevent Iran from obtaining nukes.” But the idea was denounced at the time with William Buckley’s National Review saying it was “immoral, foolish…and impractical,” a “nuclear Yalta” that threatened our friends and helped our enemies.

When Richard Nixon negotiated the SALT I agreement, interestingly an “executive agreement” and not a treaty, conservatives worried that the United States was being out foxed by the Kremlin and that Nixon’s focus on “détente” with the Soviet Union was simply playing into naïve Communist propaganda. Congressional neo-cons in both parties, including influential Washington state Democrat Henry Jackson, insisted that any future arms control deal with the Soviets be presented to the Senate for ratification.

Republican opposition to international agreements is deeply embedded in the party’s DNA, going back at least to the successful Republican efforts to derail Senate ratification of the agreement Woodrow Wilson negotiated in Paris in 1919 to involve the United States in the League of Nations, end the Great War and make the world “safe for democracy.”

The GOP’s DNA Dates to Woodrow Wilson…

The most effective and eloquent opponent of that agreement was BorahIdaho Republican Senator William E. Borah who, it was said, brought tears to the eyes of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge when he spoke against Wilson’s ideas on the floor of the United States Senate on November 19, 1919.

Addressing treaty supporters, but really talking to Wilson, Borah said, “Your treaty does not mean peace – far, very far, from it. If we are to judge the future by the past it means war.” About that much the Idahoan was correct.

Without U.S. participation and moral leadership the League of Nations was little more than a toothless tiger in the two decades before the world was again at war, the League unable to prevent the aggression that ultimately lead to World War II. It is one of history’s great “what ifs” to ponder what American leadership in a League of Nations in the 1920’s and 1930’s might have meant to the prevention of the war that William Borah correctly predicted, but arguably for the wrong reason.

Jaw, Jaw Better Than War, War…

Many Congressional Republicans have spent months – or even years – chastising Obama for failing to provide American leadership on the world stage, and for sure the president deserves a good deal of criticism for what at times has been a timid and uncertain foreign policy. But now that Obama has brought the United States, Britain, France, Germany, the European Union and Russia to the brink of a potentially historic deal with Iran, the conservative critique has turned back to a well-worn line: a naïve president is so eager to get a deal he’ll sell out the country’s and the world’s best interests to get it. Ted Cruz and other Republican critics may not know it, but they are dusting off their party’s very old attack lines. Barry Goldwater seems to be more the father of this kind of contemporary GOP thinking than the sainted Ronald Reagan.

No deal is perfect, and doubtless some down through the ages have been less than they might have been, but the history of the last 75 years shows that presidents of both parties have, an overwhelming percentage of the time, made careful, prudent deals with foreign adversaries that have stood the test of time. In that sweep of recent American history it has not been presidents – Republicans or Democrats – who have been wrong to pursue international agreements, but rather it is the political far right that has regularly ignored the wisdom of Winston Churchill’s famous admonition that “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”

 

The U.S. and Iran in One Long Sentence

Just two months before handing the keys to the Oval Office over to Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman insisted that all covert action in Tehran be put on hold. “We tried to get the block-headed British to have their oil company make a fair deal with Iran,” Truman complained privately, but “no, no, they could not do that.” – Historian Douglas Little on U.S.-Iranian relations

By way of providing historical context for the just announced U.S. – Iran nuclear talks continue in SwitzerlandIranian “framework” for a deal on Iran’s nuclear capability, let’s see if I can reduce more than 100 years of history between the two countries to one, very, very long sentence. Hang on.

The U.S. and Iran: History in a Sentence 

As long ago as 1900 the U.S. and Britain coveted Persian (as it was then called) oil, a valuable commodity that became critical to powering the Royal Navy during World War I; some guys in Persia decided that locals weren’t getting a fair share of the oil revenue from the Anglo-Iran Oil Company – we call it BP today – so they set up a fellow called the Shah; this first Shah flirted with Nazi Germany in the 1930’s – some people still say the Iranians are “Nazi-like” – and alarmed the western allies, so Churchill and Stalin secretly plotted to depose him and they installed the Shah’s son in his place, Iran was then occupied by Allied and Russia forces and after the second World War the U.S. cozied up to this new Shah – Mohammed Reza Pahlavi – believing he would be a good buffer against Soviet designs on the region (and the oil), but in 1949 an Iranian politician named Mossadegh – he never
www.MohammadMossadegh.comliked the Shah – complicated things when he started arguing for more
local control over the oil (he wanted a 50-50 split with Britain, that’s what Harry Truman was referring to above) and then he became the democratically elected prime minister, but, fearing Mossadegh was a dupe of the Russians, the CIA sponsored a coup in 1953 to force him out – Teddy Roosevelt’s grandson was the CIA officer in charge and the Shah just happened to be out of town – and the reformist prime minister (Mossadegh again) was arrested and imprisoned (he died under house arrest in 1967), the Shah was now fully in control and could return to town, while his secret police (with CIA support) cracked down on all dissent, but the U.S. still liked the Shah and kept him on the diplomatic A-list (he was anti-communist, after all), even while Iranian clerics termed him a puppet of the United States; an impression Richard Nixon seemed to confirm when he gave the Shah a big load of military equipment in the 1970’s believing that the Shah and his army would help create “stability in the region” (he was anti-communist, after all), but finally things got really shaky for the Shah, even after Jimmy Carter toasted him on New Years Eve in 1977 Carter - Shahand called his regime “an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world,” but the Iranians were restless and the clerics demanded change, and before long the U.S. had to tell the Shah it was time for him to go and he left for Egypt, but he was sick with cancer and the United States – for humanitarian reasons it was said – let him come to New York for treatment, which dredged up old memories of that U.S. coup back in ’53 when the Shah was conveniently out of town, and twelve days later the U.S. embassy in Tehran was overrun by students and a bunch of U.S. citizens were held hostage for 444 days, while an ancient Ayatollah started really running things in Iran, a hostage rescue Tehranmission failed pretty much sealing Carter’s re-election defeat and cementing the power of the clerics, then a few minutes after Ronald Reagan became president in 1981 the hostages were released, which may have been the least of Iranian concerns at the time since they were locked in a hugely bloody war with their neighbors in Iraq and, of course, the U.S. backed a guy named Saddam in that war, which ended in a stalemate in 1988, but when the U.S.’s one time friend Saddam then invaded Kuwait in 1990 the Iranians suddenly didn’t look all that bad, but there was a lot of history here and when the U.S. subsequently invaded Iraq in 2003, the Iranians were opposed to “the great Satan” messing around in their back yard – even though they hated Iraq and fought a war against Saddam they considered the U.S. a bigger threat (maybe history had something to do with it) and they also wanted to “bring stability to the region” by supporting their guys in Iraq – and, about the same time, Iran really started supporting an outfit called Hamas – terrorists to some – and they hated the idea of Israel, but that was a long-standing deal going back to that first World War, and Iran didn’t care much for Saudi Arabia either, a U.S. ally, and some U.S. guys – Dick Cheney comes to mind – welcomed a pre-emptive Israeli attack on Iran to prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons and, oh yes I nearlyoliver-north-time-magazine-200x263 forgot, when Reagan was president some smart guys in the U.S. government came up with the idea of engineering a complicated trade of weapons for hostages with money from the deal then going to support the Nicaraguan Contras (they were anti-communist, after all), but the whole deal – illegal in any event – got botched up by a Marine Corps Lt. Colonel named North and Congress investigated what we started to call the “Iran-Contra affair,” and Reagan apologized, and a couple of guys went to jail, and then in 2008 the United States elected a new president who seemed to be saying “since we’re so worried about an Iranian nuke, and since the Israelis already have nukes, and rather than stabilizing the region the Iraq war, where we not only didn’t find weapons of mass destruction, but just helped make things in the region crazier, maybe – all the history aside – maybe we should just talk to these people rather than default to another war that might not bring stability to the region,” and the Iranians might be forgiven for thinking (after all this history): what the heck, can we trust these guys?

A Simpler Sentence…

There is a simpler sentence to explain the long and troubled relationship. Let’s just say: It is complicated, very, very complicated.

 

So Goes Indiana…

Indiana Religious Freedom Law OppositionSomewhere, maybe, there is a political operative for one of the Republican presidential candidates who is sitting at a desk, hunched over a computer smiling at the viral news that the Grand Old Party has taken a another hard right turn into the war zone of culture, but some how I doubt it.

The #indiana has, at least for a few more days, reshaped and shuffled the pre-primary primary season for the Republican Party and I’m betting no one from Jeb Bush to Ted Cruz was really looking to be defined by the actions of the Indiana state legislature. But, you try to go to the White House with the issues you have, as Donald Rumsfeld might say.

Indiana, home to great basketball, fast motor racing and St. Elmo’s Steakhouse (one of the greatest I’ve ever visited), has discovered the power of social media this week. When Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed a “religious freedom” law into effect a few days ago he set off a national debate vastly beyond anything the Hoosier state has seen in a long, long time. The time that 30t-mushnick-300x3001former Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight threw a chair hardly registers compared to the shock of Pence and Indiana Republicans touching a new third rail of American politics – discrimination couched as expressions of religious belief.

But first, let’s consider the politics. According to the Gallup polling organization, the level of acceptance of homosexuality in the country is at an all-time high – more than 60 percent – and even higher among younger Americans. Support for same sex marriage has crossed the same threshold of acceptance. According to Pew Research, opposition to same sex marriage stood at 65 percent in 1996, but by last year public opinion had shifted dramatically with 54 percent of Americans now approving of the idea.

It is not necessary to be an MIT math whiz to see that the world has changed and the pace of change is only likely to accelerate as younger Americans, vastly more accepting of all types of diversity, assert themselves in the economy and politics. The modern Republican Party is on the wrong side of this divide.

Second, in the wake of the still unfolding Indiana firestorm, Republicans find themselves in the almost always uncomfortable political position of debating the technical, legal aspects of a law. When a politician is forced, as Pence was, to say that a law he signed is not a license to discriminate against gay and lesbian Americans and then forced to explain legally how that is possible, you have the political equivalent of explaining how a watch is made when the public just wants to know what time it is.

Whether it has been completely fair or not, the Indiana legislation has been forever defined as at a minimum, opening the door to discrimination based on sexual orientation. Republican candidates have been reduced to explaining what the law doesn’t do rather than what it was reported to accomplish. So far they have mostly botched the task.

The backlash, both politically and otherwise, has been intense. One of the best Tweets I’ve seen was from the Indianapolis Motor CBcAf8RUQAEEr0q.jpg-largeSpeedway, home of the legendary 500 mile race. The Speedway’s famous sign simply spelled out: “We Welcome Everyone.”

A lengthening parade of some of the biggest business brands in the country – Nike, Walmart, Apple, Twitter, Yelp, Levi Strauss, Eli Lilly and Accenture, among others – have publicly opposed the Indiana law. The NCAA has essentially said it will not allow future big-time college athletic events in Indiana. (When the NCAA looks good in comparison, #indiana, you have a problem). All this, too, creates political fallout, as Bush will undoubtedly find when he goes calling for campaign cash in Silicon Valley this week. More importantly, business is signaling that discrimination is bad for, well, business.

So, if the politics of discrimination against gay and lesbian Americans – or even the appearance of discrimination – doesn’t make political sense, and with many of the usual business allies of the Republican Party in revolt against an Indiana-type law, why do it? [Arkansas Republican Governor Asa Hutchison apparently asked that question when presented with a similar proposal in his state. Hutchison, after first indicating he would, now says he’ll not sign the legislation.]

I think Amy Davidson, writing in The New Yorker, has the answer to the why question.

“The Indiana law is the product of a G.O.P. search for a respectable way to oppose same-sex marriage and to rally the base around it. There are two problems with this plan, however. First, not everyone in the party, even in its most conservative precincts, wants to make gay marriage an issue, even a stealth one—or opposes gay marriage to begin with. As the unhappy reaction in Indiana shows, plenty of Republicans find the anti-marriage position embarrassing, as do some business interests that are normally aligned with the party. Second, the law is not an empty rhetorical device but one that has been made strangely powerful, in ways that haven’t yet been fully tested, by the Supreme Court decision last year in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. That ruling allowed the Christian owners of a chain of craft stores to use the federal version of the RFRA (the Religious Freedom Restoration Act) to ignore parts of the Affordable Care Act. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in her dissent, argued strongly that the majority was turning that RFRA into a protean tool for all sorts of evasions.” She was correct.

In short, the efforts in Indiana and Arkansas involve crafting laws sufficiently vague and open to wide interpretation expecting that the new statutes can serve as a vehicle to get a case in front of a judge who might rule in a way that creates an eventual avenue to the Supreme Court. The Indiana law is not so much about making public policy that can be debated and clearly understood, as it is about teeing up a legal argument that leaves the dirty work of defining the line between religion and discrimination to five conservative justices. Any bets on how that comes down?

Indiana’s governor, in denying the discriminatory intent of the law in his state, said the new statute, “only provides a mechanism Penceto address claims, not a license for private parties to deny services.” Or perhaps more correctly, as Davidson writes, the Indiana law provides “a mechanism to discriminate, rather than a license. What it certainly will do is give some people more confidence to discriminate. But is that what Indiana really wants? And is that what the G.O.P.’s 2016 candidates should be looking for?”

Interestingly, in a debate that mirrors the on-going debate in Idaho (and elsewhere) over creating specific state-level prohibitions against discrimination directed toward gays and lesbians, the perfect fix for the Indiana dilemma is merely for the legislature to create such protections in law. So far that remedy, a specific statement of public policy opposed to discrimination, hasn’t been a serious part of the discussion in Indiana. Of course, Idaho continues to dance around that clear choice, as well. As this debate continues to unfold, Idaho policy makers might want to listen closely. It is not completely farfetched to think that Idaho could become Indiana.

But here is the ultimate political, indeed moral, bottom line: If you are reduced to arguing that something you have done in the name of “freedom” isn’t really designed to create an ability for some people to deny freedom – that’s what discrimination is – against some other people, while couching it all in the smoke of “restoring religion” you are likely on the wrong side of a very dubious argument, not to mention history.

 

Harry Reid’s Senate Legacy

Having lost the majority after the 2014 election, suffering a gruesome injury that nearly cost him sight in one eye, and facing gty_harry_reid_press_conference_glasses_jc_150224_16x9_992another bruising re-election campaign in Nevada, it’s not a huge surprise that 75-year old Senator Harry Reid, a fixture in Senate leadership for more than a decade, decided that he will hang it up when his term ends next year.

As a young man Reid was a decent boxer and throwing punches with wild abandon is an appropriate metaphor for Reid’s pugnacious tenure as a Senate leader. Reid has been an unapologetic boxerpartisan. He has made it his personal cause to expose the Koch brothers influence on American politics and Reid accused Mitt Romney, with no real evidence, of paying no taxes during the last presidential campaign. That attack line alone messed up a week of Romney’s campaign.

Reid is also something of a political contradiction. A practicing Mormon, Reid has been a huge champion of Nevada’s glittering gaming industry. His LDS faith certainly didn’t keep him from savaging fellow Mormon Romney in a fashion that made Barack Obama’s attack lines seem tame by comparison. Reid has also championed the mining industry inside a political party where digging things up is considered bad form. All politics is local, after all, and gambling and mining make Nevada go and as for Reid’s brand of politics – once a brawler, always a brawler.

Charisma challenged, not an eloquent speaker, never one to frequent the Sunday morning green rooms that are the natural habitat of Washington’s gasbags, Reid is in many ways a throwback, an often parochial senator from Nevada who will also leave a substantial mark on American political history. His fighting instincts, as well as the political times, made Reid one of the most partisan Senate leaders in a long, long time and he certainly deserves a big dose of responsibility for the toxic levels of American political discourse. Reid has both lamented and contributed to the new norm – the politics of obstruction.

Still, love him or hate him – and there are many in both camps – Reid will, I believe, figure prominently in Senate history both for his longevity in leadership and, love it or hate it, for at least five things that might not have happened without him.

The Power of Harry…

First, without Reid’s statewide political organization it is questionable that Obama would have carried Nevada in 2008 and 2012. Look at the Nevada map. It is mostly red, but Reid’s political influence rests heavy in the state’s population200px-Nevada_presidential_election_results_2012.svg centers – Las Vegas and Reno. These cities and their suburbs are where Reid has won his elections in Nevada and where Obama won, as well. In the currency of electoral politics, Harry Reid delivered Nevada for the Democratic presidential candidate – twice.

Without Reid serving as “master of the Senate” in 2009, it’s hard to believe Obama could have rounded up enough votes to pass the controversial $787 billion stimulus legislation – remember it took three Republican votes. Not a single House Republican voted for the stimulus bill, but somehow Reid crafted a degree of bi-partisanship to ensure that the legislation reached Obama’s desk.

Reid’s fingerprints are all over passage of the even more controversial Affordable Care Act (ACA). Without Harry Reid it’s unlikely that the sweeping health insurance reform legislation would have happened, since passage required that he hold every single Democratic vote in the Senate. The legislation may eventually be considered along side Social Security as a great legislative triumph or it may be shot down by the Supreme Court. Either way Harry Reid was a principle architect and that legislation alone likely cost him his job as majority leader.

Reid will also be remembered for finally taking the historic step to end the Senate filibuster, alg-reid-sotomayor-jpginvoking the “nuclear option,” regarding most presidential appointments, particularly including federal judges. As a result, Obama has very quietly reduced the backlog of vacancies on the federal bench, including filling empty seats on the influential federal circuit court for the District of Columbia. That court, considered second only to the Supreme Court in importance, has shifted under Obama from being dominated by the appointees of Republican presidents to one with a majority of judges selected by Democrats. Reid certainly also gets some of the credit for ensuring that two more women were confirmed to the Supreme Court.

Just Say No to Yucca Mountain…

MOUNTAIN YUCCA NUCLEAR WASTE FACILITY NEVADA DESERT WEST DUMP GOVERNMENT FUEL SPENT TUNNELFinally, when tallying Reid’s legacy it’s impossible not to note his singular role in putting sand in the gears of national nuclear waste policy. Reid has fiercely opposed the long-time federal government plan to develop a high-level nuclear waste disposal site at Yucca Mountain north of Las Vegas. His unrelenting opposition helped convince the Obama Administration to quit work on the project, leaving the nation without any plan to dispose of the vast amounts of nuclear waste that remain scattered around the country.

A Limited Number of Great Leaders…

I would argue that since the post was formally established in the 1920’s there have been very few truly great and effective Senate leaders. Any list of “masters of the Senate” must, of course, include Lyndon Johnson whose bigger-than-life style and mastery of the personal politics of the institution in the 1950’s have never been matched.

Montana’s Mike Mansfield, still the longest serving majority leader, would be on any list of greats and for reasons opposite those that put Johnson is on the list. Where Lyndon bullied, blustered and begged senators to his will, Mansfield was the quite behind the scenes conciliator. Johnson would assault his colleagues with the full on “Johnson treatment.” A flurry of words would lbj1accompany Lyndon’s hands tugging on the lapels of a suspect’s suit, while he leaned in and physically overpowered another of his victims. As the photo makes clear he even used “the treatment” on a young John Kennedy and a stunned Scoop Jackson.

Mansfield, in contrast, puffed on his pipe, listened and tried to work things out. More often than not he succeeded, so much so that upon his death one of the Senate’s most erasable partisans, Alaska’s Ted Stevens, told me that Democrat Mansfield was the best leader the Senate had ever seen.

Considering the often ugly and almost completely unproductive Senate we see today we can fondly remember Republican leaders like Bob Dole and Howard Baker, partisans with an ability to make a deal. In the 1930’s Franklin Roosevelt depended on Joe Robinson of Arkansas to get most of his New Deal through the Senate and Robinson, always a loyal Democrat also revered by his Republican colleagues, obliged. Oregon’s Charles McNary, never in the majority, was thoughtful, cool and respected by his Senate colleagues. In many ways McNary was a model senatorial leader, particularly one having to operate in the minority.

1101640710_400The “wizard of ooze,” Republican Everett Dirksen of Illinois, critical to passage of historic civil rights legislation in the 1960’s, and Democrat Robert Byrd, passionate in his love of the Senate as an institution, clearly rank in the top tier of Senate leaders. But beyond that short list the pickings are pretty thin, which is why the frequently controversial Harry Reid – love him or hate him – and his accomplishments – love them or hate them – will likely ensure that he finds a place of permanent importance in the history of successful leaders of the United States Senate.

Harry Reid has been a political fighter with all the charm of an ill-tempered bull dog. His partisanship clearly contributed to the current do-nothing U.S. Senate where he has been the perfect foil to the equally charmless and partisan Mitch McConnell. Reid could put his foot in it Joe Biden-style, once calling New York Senator Kristen Gillibrand “the hottest senator” and candidate Obama “light skinned.” When asked about regrets he might harbor in his fight with the Brothers Koch, Reid simply said: “Romney didn’t win did he?”

In the age of poll tested, bland candidates who measure every word and fret over every action, political junkies are going to miss the old boxer from Searchlight, Nevada. He took a few punches, landed a few himself, and never committed the unpardonable political sin of being dull. Fighters rarely are.