Afghanistan, Baseball, Churchill, Iraq, O'Connor, Politics, Veterans

Just the Beginning

332a64f4195b32b9555da335785b58d4It must have been about 1965 when my World War II veteran father had his gall bladder surgery.  As kid I wasn’t aware of many of the details, but I do remember that having the old man in the hospital for several days was a very big deal, particularly since we had to drive 100 miles or so round trip to visit him while he was recovering.

Gall bladder surgery in the 1960’s was a far different operation than it has become more recently and often resulted in several days in the hospital and then a good deal more rest at home.

We joked that Dad had the good sense not to show off his incision as Lyndon Johnson had done when he had the same surgery at about the same time. That classic LBJ moment still ranks as one of the most offbeat presidential photo ops.

Johnson, a Navy veteran of the war, had his surgery at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Washington. My Dad checked into the Veterans Administration hospital in Hot Springs, South Dakota. We had no health insurance. If we needed to see a doctor we paid cash or, as when Mom had some major surgery, we pulled the family belt a little tighter and went on the payment plan. My parents spent years paying off Mom’s surgery and hospital bills, but the VA was free. The country owed it to Staff Sergeant R.E. Johnson and his grateful nation took care of his gall bladder. It may have been one of the few things my old man had in common with Lyndon Johnson.

The VA has been much in the news lately and the commendable retired Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, who took the fall for the obvious shortcomings of the big, sprawling federal bureaucracy, will doubtless go down in history as the general fired for speaking truth to the Bush Administration about the cost and duration of a war of choice in Iraq and then ended up walking the plank due to the failures of his agency to properly take care of many of the veterans of that war. Numerous commentators have made the obvious observation that firing Shinseki will do about as much to right the wrongs of the VA as firing him before the Iraq war did to bring sanity to that misbegotten policy. His tombstone might well read “fall guy.”

Amid all the posturing by political people over the mess at the Phoenix VA hospital, and apparently other VA hospitals, should hover a palpable sense of “you should have known better.” It’s pretty clear that the more than $150 billion we spend annually on the Veterans Administration isn’t nearly enough money to do the right job for the men and women who served their country and now often need very expensive and long-term care.

Yet, when Congress had a chance earlier this year to provide more resources for an agency that is chronically short of resources, for example, primary care physicians who spend all day seeing patients the legislation died during a Senate filibuster. There was hardly a ripple of regret for letting our veterans down.“I don’t know how anyone who voted ‘no’ today can look a veteran in the eye and justify that vote,” said Daniel M. Dellinger, national commander of the American Legion. “Our veterans deserve more than what they got today.”

Next time you see a member of Congress ask them how they voted on that one. It’s a pretty good measure of who really is “supporting the troops.”

Now given a fresh “political scandal,” – and this was certainly true before Gen. Shinseki made his inevitable exit – everyone wants to get aboard the bash the VA bandwagon.

As the old story goes the most dangerous place in Washington, D.C. is the space between a soundbite spouting politician, in this case outraged by the VA’s mismanagement, and a waiting television camera. There has been a genuine stampede to present the VA’s problems as the most recent thing that comes near be “worse than Benghazi…”

But, as noted, this was all readily foreseen and, in fact, rather widely forecast as recently as when the Iraq fiasco was still unfolding. Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz actually produced a study that predicted the long-term cost of the Iraq adventure would be $3 trillion – yes, “T” as in trillion dollars. Stilglitz was derided as a liberal alarmist whose analysis was wildly off the mark, but in 2010 he actually went back and re-ran the numbers and concluded that his huge number likely underestimated the true cost of the ten year war, in part, because he underestimated the health care costs of veterans that will only keep increasing for 30, 40 or 50 more years.

“About 25 percent of post-9/11 veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder,” according one recent report, “and 7 percent have traumatic brain injury, according to Congressional Budget Office analyses of VA data. The average cost to treat them is about four to six times greater than those without these injuries, CBO reported. And polytrauma patients cost an additional 10 times more than that.”

I remember this much about my Dad’s long ago medical care from the Veterans Administration: he had a gall bladder attack and in short order he was in the hospital for surgery. Maybe a few days at most passed from the attack to the cure and this was a VA dealing at the time with vets, like my Dad, who served during World War II. My favorite veteran died when he was 62 having never again set foot in a VA facility.

The young men and women who fought for us in Iraq and Afghanistan will likely live longer  – much longer we can hope – than the World War II generation, even with the many and varied traumatic injuries our soldiers bring home from the battlefield. We’re just starting to feel the impact of that sober reality on the VA and the rest of American society. This truly is just the beginning. Properly resourcing the VA and de-politicizing the process of fixing its shortcomings should be every bit as much a national priority as sending young people to war and keeping them there year-after-year.

“If there is any cause that should be bipartisan, it’s care for our veterans,” writes E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post. “But too often, what passes for bipartisanship is the cheap and easy stuff. It tells you how political this process has been so far that so many of the Democrats who joined Republicans in asking for Shinseki to go are in tough election races this fall.”

This much I know: the VA was there when my Dad needed the medical help that he would have been hard pressed to access and pay for any other way. It was literally a life saver. Now, having pounded our military with endless deployments in the open ended wars that are now apparently a fixture of America in the 21st Century, the bill for those shattered and scared is coming due. Brace yourselves. The cost is going to be far greater than anyone engaged in the current debate lets on and we have no choice but to dig deep and pay it.

Maybe Congress should fume and fuss as much about how our military is used as they do when the health care system, created by Congress by the way, falls short of serving all of our veterans.


Afghanistan, John Kennedy, Johnson, Journalism, Uncategorized

First Draft

wicker_s160x162My closest personal connection to the events of this day 50 years ago were the few hours I spent more than 30 years ago with the reporter who literally wrote the first draft of history.

Tom Wicker was a southern liberal, born and educated in North Carolina and passionate about civil rights and civil liberties. He also early on developed the ability to write eloquent, piercing, streamlined prose and he just happened to be assigned to the Kennedy motorcade in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Wicker was 37 that day, a hardworking, but little known backbencher in the New York Times Washington bureau. It fell to him to write a story about an event that is still making news.

Wicker called the copy desk at the Times from a downtown Dallas pay phone – some of you may remember pay phones – and dictated his most famous story from notes scribbled on a copy of the official White House schedule for that fateful Friday. Every reporter wonders if they’ll be up to the task of describing a tragedy and a few find out. His voice breaking with emotion, Wicker dictated his lead:

Dallas, Nov. 22–President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was shot and killed by an assassin today.

Only twelve words in the first paragraph of Wicker’s story. In fact four of the first five graphs of Wicker’s story was but a sentence long. Here they are:

He died of a wound in the brain caused by a rifle bullet that was fired at him as he was riding through downtown Dallas in a motorcade.

Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was riding in the third car behind Mr. Kennedy’s, was sworn in as the 36th President of the United States 99 minutes after Mr. Kennedy’s death.

Mr. Johnson is 55 years old; Mr. Kennedy was 46.

Shortly after the assassination, Lee H. Oswald, who once defected to the Soviet Union and who has been active in the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, was arrested by the Dallas police. Tonight he was accused of the killing.

In those five, sparse paragraphs you really have the complete essence of what we remember from Dallas half a century ago. No word is out of place or unnecessary. With so much drama and tragedy and with so little time it would have been easy to overwrite, but Wicker didn’t succumb. That first draft of history from Dallas is simply a first-class piece of reporting created under the most awful and demanding circumstances.

Tom Wicker went on to become one of the most respected and important journalists of the post-war period. He covered presidents, and held them to a high standard, from Kennedy to Carter, wrote 20 books, went inside the prison at Attica, New York during a riot that eventually claimed 39 lives, and made Nixon’s “enemies list.” He never had a bigger story than his story 50 years ago today.

Wicker came to Idaho in the late 1970’s as a guest of the Idaho Press Club. I was an officer in the organization all those years ago, had a drink with him, talked shop, had him sign a couple of books and was too shy – or maybe too naive – to ask him about the Dallas story. Only later did I realize what a masterpiece he crafted on that awful day. With all we know about that day, with all the pictures and books, the conspiracy theories and the what-might-have-beens, Tom Wicker’s first draft remains hauntingly moving and overflowing with sadness. It is a timeless piece of writerly craftsmanship.

Wicker brilliantly chose to end his Dallas story with four paragraphs devoted to the speech John Kennedy was to have delivered, but never did on November 22:

The speech Mr. Kennedy never delivered at the Merchandise Mart luncheon contained a passage commenting on a recent preoccupation of his, and a subject of much interest in this city, where right-wing conservatism is the rule rather than the exception.

Voices are being heard in the land, he said, “voices preaching doctrines wholly unrelated to reality, wholly unsuited to the sixties, doctrines which apparently assume that words will suffice without weapons, that vituperation is as good as victory and that peace is a sign of weakness.”

The speech went on: “At a time when the national debt is steadily being reduced in terms of its burden on our economy, they see that debt as the greatest threat to our security. At a time when we are steadily reducing the number of Federal employees serving every thousand citizens, they fear those supposed hordes of civil servants far more than the actual hordes of opposing armies.

“We cannot expect that everyone, to use the phrase of a decade ago, will ‘talk sense to the American people.’ But we can hope that fewer people will listen to nonsense. And the notion that this nation is headed for defeat through deficit, or that strength is but a matter of slogans, is nothing but just plain nonsense.”

Afghanistan, Journalism

There is No Herald Tribune Today

ihtSome years ago we visited the land of big lakes in northern Italy. I had heard that George Clooney – the actor George Clooney recently seen hugging Katie Holmes in London – owned a smashing villa on the shores of Lake Como where he entertained his Hollywood friends. For some reason, even though we were in the area for several days, George neglected to invite us over for dinner. Or even cocktails. I would have gladly brought a bottle of the local wine.

So, no George on the trip to Varenna and Bellagio – the one on the big lake in Italy, not on The Strip in Nevada. I remember lovely Varenna most fondly, a little town perched rather precariously on a steep hillside above the frightfully beautiful lake. The lovely woman who ran one of the town’s small restaurants announced the menu of the day by saying simply, “we have meat and we have fish.” Perfect.

The first morning in Varenna I set off to find the European vacationing American connection to the New World – the International Herald Tribune. A small newsstand near our hotel turned out to be promising even as I entered with a certain trepidation, Italian not being my first language. The woman behind the counter waited patiently while I looked over the newspapers – La Monde, Corriere della Sera,  the Wall Street Journal and the jackpot the IHT.

I pointed in my best Italian at the Herald Tribune, smiled and put down what I was certain was enough money to pay for the paper. The clerk returned my smile, handled me the paper and, thankfully, a little change. I went away happy, as Ernest Hemingway and John dos Passos must have in their day, with the paper that would catch me up on the pennant races, give me a flavor of news from Washington and tell me of a gallery opening in Milan.

I’ve bought the IHT in Paris and London, Milan and Buenos Aires. I had one of the few truly enjoyable airplane rides of my life when I boarded a flight in Europe and the smiling flight attendant handed me that morning’s Herald Tribune. How very civilized. How very international.

The paper has been through its good times and bad since James Gordon Bennett started the paper in Paris in 1887. In the 1920’s it became the tip sheet for ex-patriots living in Europe and has always offered a take on the world as seen through the distinct lens of Americans living in Paris. Simon Tisdall, writing in The Guardian, remembers that the paper – then called the Herald – figured in Hemingway’s great novel The Sun Also Rises.  The “first thing the autobiographical hero, Jake Barnes, does on his return to France from Spain is buy the Herald,” Tisdall wrote, “and read it in a cafe with a glass of wine.” How civilized.

In their infinite wisdom the powers to be at the New York Times – they own what until today was the IHT – have re-christened the old girl The International New York Times. The Times brass says it is furthering  “the global brand” for the mother ship and I suspect there is marketing wisdom, if not great respect for tradition, in the new name. I’ll just need to get used to it, I guess, as I’ve gotten use to smaller and smaller print papers and shorter and shorter stories. This “old school” newspaper lover is trying to adapt to what the newspaper folks call their “digital platforms.” Give me ink on newsprint, thank you.

Maybe the best thing about the transition to the new name is that there has been respect for the features and style of the old IHT, including the columns that the great Art Buchwald wrote for many years. If you’re too young to know who Art Buchwald was then let’s just say I’m sorry for you. There is no one writing today quite like Buchwald. In April of 1956 he wrote his IHT column about covering the wedding of Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier, he of Monaco not the Washington volcano. Think of that celebrity wedding as on par with Kate Middleton and that British bloke she married a while back.

After reporting that his seat at the ceremony, courtesy of the bride’s family due to his feud with the Prince’s family, offered the choice of sitting behind a post or behind ex-King Farouk, Art decided he could see more from behind the post.

Buchwald wrote: “At the palace reception, after the wedding, the bridegroom’s relatives and the bride’s relatives kept separated and eyed each other suspiciously. Most of us from the Kelly side, as we ate foie gras, lobster, chicken and wedding cake, decided our Grace was too good for their Rainier, and she was a girl in a million. We decided that America had given Europe many things in the past, but nothing comparable to this beautiful princess.”

Buchwald might have actually been at the Kelly-Rainier wedding since he knew everybody, but the beauty of his very funny pieces was it was often impossible to separate his fanciful imaginings from his eyewitness reporting. Most of the time the fanciful won out. Buchwald once wrote, as NPR reported, “you know, there are only three things worth seeing in the Louvre museum. That’s the Winged Victory, the Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa. And the rest of the stuff is all junk.”

Art Buchwald was a treasure and the IHT was treasured because of his wonderful prose. He was also right about “our Grace.” She was a girl in a million…but that is another piece.

On my second morning in Varenna, still wondering why the less-than-gracious Clooney hadn’t called, I wandered down to my newsstand and after a few grunts in English and gestures in Italian I bought my Herald Tribune. Perfect. On the third morning, I repeated the ritual looking over the offerings and trying to spot the Herald Tribune among all the papers whose names I couldn’t pronounce let alone read. Finally after some moments of unsuccessful searching the woman behind the counter, who had always responded immediately to my graceless pointing, quietly said in perfect English – “There is no Herald Tribune today. Sorry.”

I smiled my Ugly American smile. She spoke English all along and I can almost hear her saying the same words this morning – There is no Herald Tribune today. I hope the International New York Times can somehow carry on the tradition. I’ll miss the quirky and beautiful International Herald Tribune, just as I miss the quirky Art Buchwald and the beautiful Grace.


Afghanistan, Journalism

Newspapers to Dodos


On Tuesday morning June, 23 1942 the Portland Oregonian newspaper reported on the details of a Japanese naval attack on the United States mainland. The first such attack on the continental U.S.

Late in the evening of June 21 – roughly 24 hours before the Oregonian published details of the incident – the Japanese submarine I-25 surfaced in the midst of a group of fishing trawlers near the mouth of the Columbia River offshore of Astoria. The sub’s captain unlimbered his deck gun and reportedly lobbed a handful of shells – the paper reported 9, other accounts say 17 – toward the shore and a coastal battery at nearby Fort Stevens. The submariners weren’t aiming at anything in particular, just attempting to create a little chaos. One shell reportedly destroyed a strategic target – a backstop at a local baseball diamond. While no one was injured the shelling indicated that World War II had come calling to the Pacific Northwest. It was big news and the diligent Oregonian played the story big on Page One with an Astoria dateline.

Had the new distribution schedule for Portland’s venerable daily paper been in effect back in 1942 the newsprint version of that Japanese attack story wouldn’t have been on front steps in Portland until Wednesday morning – 48 hours after the fact. As part of a comprehensive move away from print and to digital, the Oregonian, published in Portland as a daily since the Civil War, will soon offer home delivery only on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. The paper will print every day – so it’s said – just not make home deliver available every day.

The paper also announced additional staff reductions on Friday, including apparently a sportswriter who was summoned home from covering the College World Series in Omaha where the Oregon State Beavers were competing. Reporter John Hunt tweeted “laid off and leaving Omaha.” Well, at least the baseball reporting Hunt knows what it’s like for a ballplayer to get an unconditional release.

The current owners of the Oregonian have adopted similar strategies for papers in New Orleans and Cleveland, so for anyone reading the ink blotches the further reductions in journalistic talent and the continual shrinking of news content shouldn’t have really been a huge surprise. I have no doubt that the economics of journalism have turned brutal and that new approaches are required. Newspaper circulation continues to decline – the Oregonian’s off about one-third in the last ten years – and ad revenue continues to hemorrhage. A newspaper lover is left to conclude that, like Detroit automakers of the past or health insurance company executives of the present, most of the folks running newspapers are decidedly ill-equipped to re-invent their products. Getting better almost never means getting smaller and harder to find.

Still, when a old, respected institution takes a turn for the worse it’s a sad day and, more importantly, cause for larger reflection on what it means to our culture.

When I first moved to Idaho in 1975 (I know, ancient history) you could buy the Oregonian in street boxes or at Hannifin’s Cigar Store downtown. I often bought the daily and Sunday editions to follow the paper’s generally solid coverage of regional issues and politics. Being able to by a neighboring state’s big city daily ceased a long time ago and the paper’s latest retrenchment means you soon won’t be able to get a copy at home every day. This is progress?

Oregonian’s announcement, complete with the kind of “this is good news, really” spin that most ink stained wretches disdain, is just the latest sad chapter in the slow, steady and apparently unstoppable demise of the great American newspaper. The march to the Internet with all its related impact on sense of community, real and serious journalism, politics and advertising (just to name a few) does appear inevitable, but just for a moment I’m going to bemoan the cost to a society that seems ever more fragmented with more and more of our citizens more than ever disconnected from one another.

New York Times columnist Charles Blow worries – I do, too – that “America is quickly dividing itself into two separate nations, regional enclaves of rigid politics, as the idea of common national priorities fades further into a distant past.” But how can we possibly have a common, shared idea of national priorities (or even citywide or regional priorities) when one of the great levelers of our society – carefully collected, written and edited information on our culture and politics, in other words serious journalism – is going the way of the dodo? In the new digital world who will cover City Hall and who will care about the school board? Who will help us determine our priorities or at least suggest that we should have some?

I’m not so nostalgic for the “good old days” of newspapers to believe that community or regional papers have ever been remotely close to perfect. They haven’t. Like all of us newspaper publishers, editors, columnists and reporters can be shortsighted, ill-informed, petty and even biased. I know because I was one and have known plenty of others. Franklin Roosevelt spent a good part of his presidency worrying about what arrogant publishers like William Randolph Hearst would write about him and well he should have. That’s called a democracy.

Still, as an old journalism prof once told us, in most American communities only a handful of people get up and go to work every day thinking about what information the citizens of their community need to know and have the skills and wherewithal to go collect and distribute that information. Some towns, fewer and fewer sadly, are lucky enough to have a publisher or owner who is willing to go out on a limb and set an agenda for change and progress in that town. Newspapers can, at their best, do more than entertain or inform. They can lead and force political and business interests to confront what is needed or needs to change. If not a perfect calling journalism is, and newspapers in particular are, can be a noble calling.

In a reality stinking of newsprint and irony the Mayor of Portland, Charlie Hales, has been a daily punching bag for the Oregonian recently over a series of controversies as City Hall that the paper has highlighted in considerable detail. Friday in the print issue of the paper Hales lamented the news of more layoffs and less visibility for the very institution that has been jabbing him. Then he contributed fifty bucks from his own pocket to the bar tab for Oregonian staffers drowning in the swamp of an industry that is attempting to recreate itself by generally becoming less-and-less vital to the community it seeks to serve.

I’m charging up the iPhone and downloading another less-than-adequate news website app. Such is the way of the world. But as another newspaper starts to slip from print and relevance to digital and something else, I may be the last guy clinging to newsprint. It’s true, as some analogize for newspapers, that we don’t need buggy whips or vacuum tubes any longer, but neither of those obsolete features of a bygone era helped to define community, touch a soul or cover a ballgame. Somethings old are still just better. Life will undoubtedly go on without the kind of journalism and sense of community that the Oregonian, the Plain Dealer, the Times-Picayune, the Seattle P-I, the Rocky Mountain News and a hundred other papers once provided, but will life in those communities be as good?

Put me down as highly skeptical as to whether such transitions are good for the future of the Republic. Ol’ Tom Jefferson both used and despised the press, but that indispensable founder also knew the essential role of the press was fundamental to the success of our noisy, often divisive democracy. “The press [is] the only tocsin of a nation. [When it] is completely silenced… all means of a general effort [are] taken away.”

Let’s hope that the continued migration of a once great industry to the uncertainty of the digital space, with almost certainly fewer reporters, fewer resources and a narrower focus, can make websites of papers like the Oregonian the “tocsin” of a 21st Century America. I’m not so sure. In fact, I’m pretty sure it isn’t going to happen.


Afghanistan, Churchill, Coolidge

Graveyard of Empires

“All along the north and northwest frontiers of India lie the Himalayas, the greatest disturbance of the earth’s surface that the convulsions of chaotic periods have produced.” That’s how Winston Churchill began his still highly readable 1897 book The Story of the Malakand Field Force.

Young Winston wrote from the British cavalry barracks in Bangalore where he was stationed as part of his deployment to the part of the world the Brits more than once tried to subdue. It worked, as Churchill’s book makes clear, about as well for them as it has for us.

 New Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has now limped home from his first surprise trip to Afghanistan reduced to admitting the obvious – “it’s complicated.” Hagel, a decorated Vietnam vet and, I suspect like many from his generation who served and fought he is a reluctant warrior. Hagel was dissed by the increasingly detestable Hamid Karzai who actually said during the secretary’s visit that Taliban acts of violence in Afghanistan proved a level of collusion with the United States. Karzai then cancelled a joint press conference with Hagel just to make his contempt for the fighting and dying done by American’s perfectly clear.

It should tell us something that Hagel – and all high level visiting Americans – need to make “surprise” visits to Afghanistan since the security situation is so tenuous. It’s clear some the attacks during the Hagel visit were meant to send a message. Is anyone listening?

Former New York Times columnist and Council on Foreign Relations chairman Leslie Gelb says, in a piece titled “To Hell With Karzai,” that it’s time for the Obama Administration “to stop letting these Karzai guys play us for suckers and speed up our exit, and stop wasting American lives and dollars.”

We’re finding – and, of course, this was completely predictable – that getting into Afghanistan was a whole lot easier than getting out. Like Vietnam and Iraq before, we have met the limits of our ability to project force to change politics and history on the ground, this time in the shadow of the Himalayas.

It was a fool’s errand to try in the first place, but makes even less sense to prolong the effort. We will eventually leave Afghanistan and the departure will signal a return of the tribal wars and turmoil that have been a fixture of the place for hundreds of years. It’s difficult, almost impossible, for a superpower to admits its limits, to admit that we cannot always be the positive, democratic role model we so desperately believe to be our destiny, but doing so – admitting the limits of western power in an ancient tribal culture – is the beginning of realism and maybe, just maybe, the beginning of a better approach.

“Except at times of sowing and of harvest, a continual state of feud and strife prevails throughout the land,” Churchill wrote of Afghanistan (and Pakistan) more than 115 years ago. “The people of some valley fight with those of the next. To the quarrels of communities are added the combats of individuals. Khan assails khan, each supported by his retainers. Every tribesman has a blood feud with his neighbor. Every man’s hand is against the other, and all against the stranger.”

And we are the strangers. As of this morning 2,050 Americans have died and more than 18,000 have been wounded in this place where strife prevailed before we arrived and will prevail after we are gone.

Afghanistan, Baseball, Journalism, Politics

Dishing it Out

An old journalist friend of mine is fond of saying that “the press can dish it out, but we don’t have to take it.” I thought of that great one liner as what might have been – should have been – a serious discussion of federal budget policy over the last week turned into a junior high school style story about Bob Woodward, the ultimate Washington insider, being “threatened” by a mild-mannered White House economic adviser.

By now, unless you don’t follow what passes for serious news these days, you know that Woodward, the more famous half of Woodward and Bernstein of Watergate fame, has been all over the tube expressing dismay at White House staffer Gene Sperling for suggesting that the famous reporter might “regret” pushing his version of a story on the origins of the dubious sequester idea.

As a one-time reporter who was “threatened” over the years by tougher guys than Gene Sperling, I offer a couple of observations on the Washington culture of political reporting, at least as practiced by Woodward.

First, it’s impossible to believe that Bob Woodward hasn’t been roughed up in private before by a White House official who took umbrage at something he was about to write or had written. This is the guy after all who helped unravel the Watergate affair during the Nixon Administration; a White House staffed by a bunch of guys who maintained an “enemies list” that included at least two serious and often critical reporters – Daniel Schorr and Mary McGrory – not to mention Paul Newman and the president of the National Education Association. If Woodward can be “threatened” by an email from a presidential economic adviser – an email where Sperling apologized for losing his temper in an earlier phone call –  he either has been living a charmed existence as the only reporter on the planet never cussed out by a source or he truly has a journalist glass jaw that can’t absorb even the lightest tap. I suspect his motives for making a big issue of this little matter are more complex.

Second, this entire tempest in a thimble casts truly unfavorable light on what many serious people have know for a long time to be Woodward’s dubious methods to gain and hold access to the powerful in Washington, D.C. and, of course, those who hope to be powerful. The dirty little secret of politics and journalism is that reporters and political people engage daily in a carefully choreographed kabuki dance that involves the constant trading of little favors – information, access, quiet confirmation, invitations, tips – that ultimately works to the benefit of those doing the reporting and those in constant need of exposure. Woodward has developed this dance into a lucrative publishing and speaking career that mostly involves repeating the completely predictable wisdom of those willing to provide him access for what he then usually reports as the exclusive inside story of big decisions.

Writing in The New Yorker John Cassidy nailed it when he said Woodward’s real beat has become the Washington establishment; the Georgetown, Wolf Trap, Charlie Palmer Steak, K-Street crowd that lives and breathes the kind of gossip the Washington Post Style section exists to deliver.

“The real rap on Woodward isn’t that he makes things up,” Cassidy writes (and Woodward has been accused of that). “It’s that he takes what powerful people tell him at face value; that his accounts are shaped by who cooperates with him and who doesn’t; and that they lack context, critical awareness, and, ultimately, historic meaning.”

Or as Joan Didion wrote in a critical assessment of Woodward’s work in 1996 his books involve “a scrupulous passivity, an agreement to cover the story not as it is occurring but as it is presented, which is to say as it is manufactured.” The reality Didion describes is at the core of much of the alternative reality, fact-free debate that permeates American politics today. Woodward’s books top the best seller list – therefore, the logic goes, they are important – but when the real history of the Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama Administrations is written the Woodward tomes, free of footnotes, devoid of real analysis and based mostly on comments from unnamed sources, won’t be cited for the simple reason they can’t be trusted. After all Woodward hasn’t really been writing a first draft of history, but a thinly sourced account of people in power who provide access that they hope will, in the short term at least, cast them in the best possible light. What Woodward does is really not journalism, but more like the first draft of self-serving conventional wisdom from the people in the Washington establishment who will talk with him.

No one can take away from Bob Woodward’s (and Carl Bernstein’s) legacy as the shoe leather reporters who uncovered one of the great scandals in American political history and brought down a president. But the young Bob Woodward, who did old fashioned, grind it out police reporting to illuminate Watergate, has become at age 70 as much a fixture of the Washington establishment as the Round Robin Bar in the Willard Hotel. His professional oxygen, just as with the people who cultivate his approving coverage, is publicity and acceptance. Without it he’s just another D.C. reporter in a wrinkled trench coat and not a real player, and to be somebody in D.C. you simply must be a player. Woodward has chosen to chronicle the conventional and the predictable and that will eventually be the way he is remembered – as the court reporter of the Washington establishment.

You could take Bob Woodward more seriously if he both dished it out and took it. Go back, if you can stand it, and read his account of George W. Bush’s decisions to go into Iraq and the subsequent make-up books critical of Bush. The latest Woodward non-scandal, after all those breathless books, is proof that he  doesn’t really either dish it out or take it very well. How Washington of him.


Afghanistan, Baucus, Churchill, Clinton, Foreign Policy, John Kennedy, Montana, Otter, U.S. Senate, World War II

War and Congress

Burton K. Wheeler was a Democrat who served as United States Senator from Montana from 1922-1946. His career, as he acknowledged in his memoir, was full of controversy. Among other things, Wheeler was indicted on corruption charges and fought with powerful interests ranging from the mining companies in his adopted state to Franklin Roosevelt, a man he had once enthusiastically endorsed for president.

The FBI followed him, particularly after he criticized Roosevelt’s foreign policy prior to American entry into World War II. His patriotism was assaulted. He was deemed a Nazi sympathizer by some. He helped stop Roosevelt’s Supreme Court power play in 1937 and championed important legislation impacting utility companies and Native Americans. If you are defined in politics by your enemies, Wheeler had many. His friends included Charles Lindbergh, William E. Borah, Joe Kennedy, Huey Long and Harry Truman. He was considered a serious presidential contender in 1940. FDR put an end to that with his third term.

Wheeler’s kind of senator really doesn’t exist anymore. Senators of his generation were, of course, from their respective states, but they represented more than local interests. Wheeler and Borah and Robert Wagner and Pat Harrison, who I wrote about recently, were national legislators and the Senate was their stage. Wheeler walked that stage most prominently in 1941 when Americans were profoundly divided over how far the nation should go to provide aid to Great Britain during some of the darkest days in the history of western civilization. Wheeler battled, as he called them, “the warmongers” who he thought were altogether too eager to get the country involved in another European war.

Wheeler lost this “great debate,” the U.S. did come to the aid of the battered Brits, Japan attacked in Hawaii and the Montana senator eventually lost his seat in the Senate. This is a story I’ve tried to tell in the most recent issue of Montana – the Magazine of Western History, the respected history journal published by the Montana Historical Society.

At first blush Wheeler’s fight for non-intervention in 1941 seems like ancient history. Americans fought the good and necessary war to stop fascism and the Greatest Generation is justly celebrated. But, like so much of our history, the fight over American foreign policy prior to Pearl Harbor has a relevance that echoes down to us more than 70 years later as the morning headlines tell of President Obama’s parley in the Oval Office with Hamid Karzai.

We are apparently at the end of the beginning of our longest war. Americans have been fighting and dying in the mountains and deserts and streets of Afghanistan for nearly a dozen years. As we prepare to leave that “graveyard of empires” (leave more or less) the question is begged – have we accomplished what we intended?  And when we are gone will we leave behind such a corrupt, incompetent government that the Taliban and assorted other bad guys will again quickly take charge?

Before 1941, when Montana’s Wheeler and others raised their objection to an interventionist foreign policy, the United States was comfortable with a modest role in the world. The county was stunned by the violence and by what seemed at the time to be the ultimate futility of the Great War. During the 1920’s and 1930’s Americans embraced their traditional attitude of remaining aloof from European disputes, gladly eschewed any ambition to supplant the British as the world’s policeman and the country happily retreated behind two deep oceans. After 1941, hardened by the trials of another world war and the threat of Communist expansionism, Americans embraced a national security state and we have never really looked back.

Today, as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders points out, the United States spends more on its military than the rest of the world’s nations combined and we’ve tripled defense spending since the mid-1990’s. Despite the sobering experience of Vietnam, we rather casually, at least by 1941 standards, deploy our troops around the world with certain belief that such power can impact all events. Americans have been camped in Europe since 1945 – 80,000 are still deployed – protecting our NATO allies who increasing reduce their own military outlays.

After a nine year war in Iraq, a dozen years in Afghanistan, with deployments and bases from Australia to Turkey, and given the need to confront a national fiscal crisis one might think that America’s aggressively interventionist foreign policy would be at the center of Washington’s debates, but no. Once the U.S. Senate had such debates; debates that engaged the American public and where Congress asserted its Constitutional responsibility to actually declare war. But even after September 11 the national foreign policy “debate’ has more often been about the need to expand and deploy American power, rather than how to make it more effective. The current shaky state of the nation’s budget would seem reason enough to really have a foreign and defense policy debate again, but even more importantly Americans and their leaders should, with cold and calculating focus, assess our role in the world.

George W. Bush once famously advocated a “humble” foreign policy and disowned “nation building.” Bush’s rhetoric, of course, hardly matched his policy and a dozen years later, with little debate and perhaps even less sober reflection, we wind down a war that likely will again offer new proof of the limits of American power.

Montana’s Wheeler lost his seat in the U.S. Senate in 1946 largely because he was deemed out of touch with the post-war world. His old-fashioned attitudes about expressing American power were out of fashion. But were they? At least he forced a debate; a debate similar to the one that we need again today.


Afghanistan, Air Travel, Books, Journalism

The Anchorman

The Most Trusted Man in America

This may be the most famous photo of the many famous photos of the famous CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite. The grainy, black and white image was taken while Cronkite, in shirt sleeves, announced the awful news that John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been shot and killed in Dallas.

In a remarkable piece of 1963-vintage television reporting, Cronkite sits calmly in the middle of what had to have been massive confusion in the CBS newsroom, fielding notes handed to him and seamlessly handing off the airwaves to a local reporter in Dallas. He makes it look easier than it was in 1963. We take that electronic news sleight of hand for granted today. It wasn’t normal back in the black and white days of television.

Two things about Cronkite’s reporting and demeanor strike me after all these years and after having seen the video many times. First, was his unwillingness to rush to the judgment that JFK had actually died. A local reporter in Dallas says that the president has apparently died and then Cronkite is handed a note saying that Dan Rather, who ironically would no so successfully replace Cronkite at the CBS anchor desk in 1981, was reporting the same thing.

Still, the veteran wire service reporter won’t flatly speak the dreaded news. Finally, when the wire services confirm Kennedy’s death, Cronkite, with a slight quiver in his voice, says its true – the President of the United States has been assassinated. And that is the second remarkable thing about the video. Cronkite shows the emotion that I can remember and most American’s felt upon hearing the news of Kennedy’s death – disbelief, horror, sadness, even fright. All of that was captured in a few seconds of television’s first draft of history.

In his masterful new biography of Cronkite historian Douglas Brinkley devotes an entire chapter, 20 pages, to Cronkite’s and CBS’s handling of the Kennedy murder. I read the passage, still gripped by the intensity of the moment all these years later, just a day after CNN and Fox News, among others, blew the initial coverage of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision on Obamacare. What a contrast. And, while the two events – a president assassinated and a controversial court ruling – are hardly comparable, Cronkite’s careful, humble, measured response in handling a huge story is a startling contrast to a flustered, unprepared Wolf Blitzer mishandling a big story.

The Brinkley book, more than anything I have read recently about the state of journalism, particularly television journalism, makes the case that Cronkite-era standards have gone missing on much of the nation’s airwaves. The three network evening news programs, while drawing a sliver of the audience that Cronkite and his contemporaries once commanded, still offer a version of the old network quality and seriousness, but the vast wasteland of cable news is completely foreign to the news product CBS once put on the air night after night.

Cronkite, we learn from Brinkley’s exhaustive research, was far from a saint. He was extraordinarily competitive, could cut his colleagues off at the knees, loved bawdy jokes and arguably became too much the cheerleader for the space program and NASA. And, later in life, Cronkite simply quit trying to mask his liberal political opinions giving his detractors reason to question whether he had always played the news straight down the middle.

 Still, the Cronkite that emerges at Brinkley’s hands is a pro, a well-read, well-sourced reporter who wanted to be first, but more importantly wanted to be right. Cronkite also had a nuanced understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of television news. He knew he couldn’t match the Washington Post’s Watergate coverage and didn’t try, but still based almost an entire CBS Evening New broadcast on the print reporting Woodward and Bernstein had done. Cronkite’s coverage of the Nixon resignation in 1974 is still riveting television.

At the same time, Uncle Walter knew that taking a reporter and camera along as U.S. GI’s hunted the Viet Cong in the rice paddies of South Vietnam was exactly the story that television could report with brutal and uncomfortable honesty. CBS with Cronkite as the Managing Editor, a newspaper term and role at he completely embraced, helped make Vietnam the living room war. Cronkite’s 1968 special on Vietnam – he declared the war at a stalemate – was a decisive political and media moment in that awful period of our history.

For most Americans younger than 40 Walter Cronkite and his brand of television news are ancient history, no more relevant to modern America than Alexander Hamilton or Thomas Edison. But Cronkite, who died in 2009, is relevant precisely because there is no one like him now.

No one, really, picked up the Cronkite mantle when he left the anchor desk, prematurely he would conclude, in 1981. Cronkite came, it is now clear, from the greatest generation of television news, as did Huntley and Brinkley, Howard K. Smith and Harry Reasoner, and many others from the 1950’s to the 1980’s. But there was only one Cronkite and now we have a book that remembers his story and his greatness, warts an all, even as some of us search for a place to turn in the vast television wasteland that measures up, even a little, to his standards.

“He seemed to me incorruptible,” said director Sidney Lumet, “in a profession that was easily corruptible.”

Cronkite would joke when someone referred to him as the “most trusted man in America,” that it was clear “they hadn’t checked with my wife.” But that title fit then and it seems all the more special – and retired – today.


Afghanistan, Journalism

Long Reads

Good Reads in the Long Form

I’m old enough to remember when the mailman brought LIFE magazine to our house. It was a big event every week. The magazine was a coffee table size, for one thing, and almost always featured an interesting, even arresting, cover photo or illustration. I’ve been a sucker for magazines ever since.

TIME is on our coffee table along with The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker and a new favorite The Week. I’ve lately become a fan of The London Review of Books. It’s fun and interesting to read a British take on U.S. literature and to read about many books – and subjects – that you may never find in a local bookstore. I’ve been a subscriber at various times to Harper’s, The Atlantic, Foreign Affairs, National Geographic and long ago to Boys’ Life. I like magazines.

I particularly like the long form stories that are a New Yorker speciality and I made a happy discovery recently that a great website – Longreads– regularly compiles the longreads from many different sources.

The Longread site has links to articles on everything from comedy to Russia, from San Francisco to Science and links to the articles that are finalists for the National Magazine Awards.

If you like magazines, this site is almost like visiting an old fashioned newsstand and browsing the titles. Good stuff.


Afghanistan, American Presidents, Churchill, Foreign Policy, Iraq, John Kennedy, O'Connor, Obama, Pete Seeger, Romney

Obama the Warrior

No More Soft on National Security

One of the great strategies in politics is to take your opponent’s greatest strength and turn that advantage  into a liability. It’s not easy to do, but when it’s done well it can be brutally effective.

The “swiftboating” of Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic candidate for president, is perhaps the best example in recent memory of how effective attacking the strength of an opponent can be. 

In Kerry’s case, a legitimate war hero – the guy was awarded the Silver and Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts for service in Vietnam – became, thanks to attacks on that military record, a questionable patriot, a liar and, in some minds, a fraud. “Swiftboating” has now entered the political lexicon as a verb meaning – to smear effectively.

You may remember that when Kerry accepted the presidential nomination in 2004 he stepped to the podium and saluted, military style. That was the beginning of the end. While it was obvious to most independent observers that Kerry didn’t deserve the swiftboat attacks and was obviously caught off guard by charges that turned the truth on its head, it’s also true that he  and his campaign did a horrible job responding. Still, the well-bankrolled truth turning – an early glimpse of what we’ll see this fall from Super PAC’s – worked remarkably well and George W. Bush, the guy who actually had avoided Vietnam service, got re-elected.

[I’ll offer the not terribly original prediction that the “swiftboating” of John Kerry will be studied years from now by political analysts as a classic example of a big smear that was improperly handled by the candidate-victim.]

The 2004 attacks on Kerry also worked, in part, because they seemed to confirm a narrative, dating back to George McGovern in 1972, that Democrats just aren’t as truthworthy when it comes to the nation’s security as Republicans. Ironically, McGovern, a decorated World War II bomber pilot who opposed the Vietnam War, also did not – or chose not – to make a virtue of his distinguished military record. Not until Stephen Ambrose’s 2001 book – The Wild Blue – that featured McGovern’s story did many Americans know that the South Dakota senator and presidential candidate was a genuine, if deeply conflicted, hero of the Greatest Generation.

Now comes Barack Obama and the anniversary of the Navy Seal mission to – use the President’s term – “take out” Osama bin Laden. As TIME’s Jon Meacham has written, Republicans are “shocked, shocked” that the Obama team is taking credit, politicizing if you will, the bringing to justice of the world’s foremost terrorist.

“Here, however, is the issue,” Meacham writes. “Since at least 1968, Democrats have traditionally been more circumspect than their Republican foes in presidential politics. The lesson of the Clinton years and of Obama’s win of both the nomination and the general election in 2008 is that Democrats need to be as tough as JFK was (tough was a favorite Kennedy term). Is the bin Laden ad fair to Romney? No, not really. But politics is not for the faint of heart.”

Here’s my take: Obama has so far been successful in taking away from Republicans one of the historically sharpest arrows in their quiver. Try as they might, Republicans and their presidential candidate can’t pull a Kerry or McGovern on Obama. The GOP and some commentators charge that Obama has overplayed the bin Laden events of a year ago and maybe so, but here’s the issue in that regard: any day Mitt Romney is talking about foreign policy, and he’s been talking about it for days, is a bad day for his campaign.

Obama owns these issues in a way that no Democrat has favorably owned a set of foreign policy issues since Franklin Roosevelt was in the White House. Count on Obama to make the case as the campaign goes forward that he inherited two wars, shut one down in the face of critics who said he was wrong to do so, and then gave the order to take out the guy who made the other war, Afghanistan, necessary.

Frankly, Republicans and Romney, in particular, are committing political malpractice by attempting to compete with the president on these issues. Rather than going to a New York City firehouse yesterday to remember 9-11, Romney should have gone to a military hospital and quietly met with a few soldiers after issuing a statement congratulating the Navy Seals for getting bin Laden. He looks weak and guilty of “me, too” when he says he’d have given the order to go after the Al Quada leader, particularly since he suggested during the last campaign that he wouldn’t.

Romney’s campaign will succeed or fail on the basis of whether he presents a coherent economic message backed by a strategy for growing jobs and economic security for Americans. The Obama campaign has rope-a-doped their opponent into punching below his weight on foreign policy, certainly not the issues Romney wants to run on, and every day that happens, Romney loses.

 As for the charge that Obama is overplaying the bin Laden success, give that great political analyst Jon Stewart the last word. After all, George W. Bush landed on an aircraft carrier and proclaimed Mission Accomplished in Iraq, or as Stewart said, “he spiked the ball before the game began.” Stewart’s point: Bush, like Obama, would have ridden the issue of being the good guy who got the bad guy as far as possible. In a very basic sense, Obama is again capitalizing on statements from Romney’s past that today look less than, well, astute.

Obama may be overplaying the events of a year ago, but as the baseball great Dizzy Dean once said, “it ain’t braggin’ if you can back it up.”