Baseball, Giffords, John V. Evans, Politics

Tragedy in Tucson

giffordsPolitics, Guns and America

President Obama spoke for most Americans yesterday, as presidents do when tragedy strikes and something truly senseless happens, when he said we “would get to the bottom” of the horrific events on a sunny Saturday morning outside a Safeway store in Tucson.

Get to the bottom indeed.

We all tend to measure the impact of big events by the closeness of personal connection. For me, this one is close and truly does, as Tucson resident and former Bush Administration Surgeon General Richard Carmona said, make your heart bleed.

I spend a good deal of time in Tucson. Our place is less than two miles from where the mayhem that took six lives, including a respected federal judge and a nine year old girl, took place. I’ve been in that Safeway store a hundred times, often on a sunny Saturday morning, to get my daily newspaper fix.

I’ve also followed from a distance the promising political rise of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who now fights for her life not to mention a chance for a further political career. Before going to Congress, Giffords represented parts of Tucson in the state legislature and struck me – regardless of your partisan tint – as the kind of bright, well-spoken, committed young person we want and desperately need in our politics.

While it is much too early to come to judgments about the motive – if any – of the apparently badly troubled young man who is in custody and accused, perhaps with unidentified others, as the murderer. It is nonetheless inevitable that getting to the bottom of this American tragedy will turn to politics and guns.

It is already being asked if our American political culture has become so coarse, so bitter and tinged with the language of violence that such events directed at political people are made more possible. An eyewitness to the Tucson events said there was no doubt the gunman’s real target was the Congresswoman.

The wise and experienced old sheriff of Pima County, Clarence Dupnik – he’s been sheriff for 30 years and is respected for his blunt candor – said it explicitly.

“Let me say one thing,” the 73-year old Dupnik told reporters yesterday, “because people tend to pooh-pooh this business about all the vitriol that we hear inflaming the American public by the people who make a living off of doing that. That may be free speech, but it’s not without consequences.”

Dupnik, in sadness and in anger, said Arizona has become “a Mecca” for intolerance and bigotry.

This much we know. Giffords’ Tucson office was vandalized during the intense blizzard of national vitriol surrounding the health care legislation, she was shouted down at town hall meetings and, by all accounts, the campaign in Arizona’s 8th District last year was bitter and nasty. And, of course, Sarah Palin and others used tough language and imagery, including putting crosshairs over Giffords’ district, to target her for defeat last November.

Giffords made note of the Palin’s actions last fall when she said, “She [Palin] depicted the crosshairs of a gunsight over our district. When people do that, they have to realize there are consequences.” Palin, it must be noted, was one of the first to condemn the outrage.

Ironically, Giffords was a true moderate in the House. She was a “Blue Dog” Democrat who cast a protest vote last week again Nancy Pelosi. She voted instead for civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, who was himself once beaten senseless in the name of politics. Giffords proudly read the First Amendment on the House floor last week during the reading of the Constitution and she was widely regarded as a calming voice in a divided district.

Consequences. Words are powerful weapons and, at times, the alarming coarseness of American political rhetoric does seem seriously deranged and dangerous. Calls for civility have never seemed more timely or more necessary. The Los Angeles Times editorialized this morning calling out the truly moronic postings – from all points of view – regarding the Giffords shooting. Read it and weep again.

Getting to the bottom also requires a mature society to engage in real and sober self-reflection about our culture of guns. I know, I know, this is the third rail of American politics, but finding the discussion uncomfortable or politically difficult doesn’t make the self-reflection any less important. How can a culture that claims to value the sanctity of life tolerate the level of gun violence we seem to now find tolerable?

Once again American politics intersects with guns and violence. Ours is a great country, but the tragedy in Tucson suggests once more many uncomfortable things about our less-than-perfect Union. We have some work to do to get to the bottom and try to learn from – and rise above – yet another horrific tragedy.

2014 Election, Borah, Giffords, Humanities

The Importance of Being Borah

borahA Senator Worth Remembering

I’ll be speaking on Wednesday night at the Main Boise Library on the life and career of Idaho’s longest serving U.S. Senator, William E. Borah. That’s him, third from the right, in a photo taken in Sandpoint. I’m going to guess is was in the middle-1920’s.

The Borah talk is one I have put together as part of the Idaho Humanities Council’s Speakers Bureau. I’ll talk about Borah’s career and lasting importance, but also about his view of the Senate in our form of government. Borah was a progressive Republican, somewhat in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt, but he was also fiercely independent and more than willing to buck his own party.

I’ve been reading and writing about Borah for a long time. In fact, I began his journey into blogland more than a year ago with a piece on his approach to Supreme Court appointments. I continue to find him a fascinating character. And, of course, there is that business with Alice Roosevelt Longworth.

The Library event is a 7:00 pm in the Main Auditorium. Staff at the Boise Library have also created a great Borah bibliography of books, articles and writings about the man known as “the Lion of Idaho.”


Andrus Center, Giffords, Grand Canyon, Humanities

Civilization Requires Civility

leachNational Civility Tour Comes to Idaho

Jim Leach is on a mission. The former Republican Congressman from Iowa, now chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), has the passionate belief that we’re shaking the foundations of our democracy by the way we handle our political discourse. Leach is on a mission for civility.

In a speech last fall in Nebraska, appropriately entitled “With Malice Toward None,” Leach said:

“The public goal should be to recognize that it is great to be a conservative or libertarian; great to be a liberal, a moderate, or progressive. But it is not great to hate. It is not great to refuse to respect one’s fellow citizens at home and refuse to endeavor to understand fellow peoples abroad.

“The decency and fairness with which political decisions are made are generally more important than the outcome of any issue. The ‘how’ almost always matters more than the ‘what.'”

Leach should know. He spent 30 years in Congress, rose to the top ranks, lost re-election in 2006, taught at Princeton and was tapped by President Obama to run the Endowment last year. Almost immediately he launched a 50-state “civility tour” talking about the importance to a functioning democracy of understanding and not demonizing your political opponents. He talks about the search for “the common good,” not just partisan advantage. Leach has a politician’s experience and a scholar’s disposition. Believe me, that is a rare but valuable combination.

The Andrus Center for Public Policy – I serve as the Center’s volunteer president – will host Leach for a lunch and talk on June 11th at the Grove Hotel in downtown Boise. The Idaho Humanities Council, the state – based affiliate of the NEH – has been instrumental in getting the chairman to Idaho. Leach will speak on “Civility in a Fractured Society.”

Leach doesn’t call for the abandonment of fiercely held political principles, but rather that we not start the political discourse by assuming that the other person’s position is automatically suspect and therefore not worthy of consideration. It is a message the Andrus Center embraces. The Center was formed in 1995 to help carry on the approach to public affair that the four-term former Idaho governor embodied – vigorous, but civil debate that sought to find win-win solutions.

Seating for the luncheon and speech is limited and you can reserve a spot online at the Center’s website.

As columnist Jamie Stiehm noted recently in U.S. News – to steal Dr. Samuel Johnson’s phrase – “we’ve become good at hating,” but not so good at being civil. Jim Leach is trying to save us from ourselves. Let’s hope he’s making progress.

Air Travel, Books, Giffords, Humanities

Why History Matters

YaltaKnowing the Past…

For much of the 1950’s and 1960’s, this photo – Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin together at Yalta in February 1945 – served as the iconic evidence that hard headed, authoritarian Russian Communism rolled over idealistic western democracy at the end of World War II.

In the most popular narrative, largely unchanged for more than half a century, the Cold War started at Yalta and the U.S. and Britain were easily rolled by that cagey Commie Uncle Joe Stalin.

The truth, of course, is much more complicated, more nuanced, and much more important. A new book – Yalta – The Price of Peace by Harvard historian S.M. Plokhy tells the nuanced story of Yalta and the account helps explain why the famous gathering in the Crimea was neither a victory nor a defeat for the west, but rather one step in the long march of history that helped shape the post-war world.

Sen. Joseph McCarthy and others exploited many of the myths about Yalta, including the notion that FDR was naive about dealing with the Russians and that somehow Churchill and Roosevelt should have been able to get a better outcome for Poland.

Plokhy’s research makes clear that FDR was far from naive. He went to Yalta to make a deal in the interest of getting Russian approval of his outline for the creation of the United Nations and, under intense pressure from his military advisers, to get Stalin to commit to joining the war in the Pacific against the Japanese. He accomplished both objectives. He also got agreement on post-war occupation of Germany and secured for the French, who Stalin wanted out of the picture, a major role in both the U.N. and western Europe. By contrast, neither Churchill nor FDR had much leverage over Stalin when it came to Poland, since, by early 1945, Red Army troops were occupying much of the country and would win the race to Berlin.

That is the history and the nuance, yet as recently as 2005, George W. Bush, choosing to read (or remember) history with an ideological bias, was declaring that Yalta led to some of “the greatest wrongs of history.” No word on what the former president thinks of Karl Rove’s new book that acknowledges no Bush-era culpability for American military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that’s another history lesson.

Still, both cases – Yalta and the post-war and Iraq today – prove a fundamental truth: where there is no nuance, history gets distorted; where history is abused in the pursuit of ideological ends there can be no truth.

“History can help us be wise,” Margaret MacMillan, the Canadian historian, writes in her new book – Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuse of History. “It can also suggest to us what the likely outcome of our actions might be.”

MacMillan is the best kind of historian; a skilled researcher and a lively writer on the search for truth. Her last book – Paris 1919 – tells the story of the Versailles Treaty that ended World War I and helped set the stage for the next war. The book should be required reading for every American politician, since all seem to need to understand the rule of unintended consequences.

Ultimately, history is about trying to arrive at truth, which is why MacMillan tweaks Bush and Tony Blair for invoking Munich of the 1930’s to justify an invasion of Iraq in the 21st Century. But she is no ideologue, also pointing out that a “liberalizing” China is unwilling to deal with the legacy of Mao and that even normally circumspect, mild mannered Canada experienced a full-throated controversy in the 1990’s when a documentary suggested that there might be questions of morality associated with Canadian aircrews and their wartime strategic bombing of Germany.

I think Margaret MacMillan might agree that one of the profound challenges facing the American Republic is a deepening and profoundly troubling lack of understanding of our history coupled with the fact that history is ever more regularly twisted to suit some need to score immediate partisan politic points.

Frank Rich, writing in the New York Times over the weekend, made this fundamental point in a starkly effective way. Rich quotes a former Bush White House press secretary and the ever present Rudy Giuliani, as saying “we did not have a terrorist attack on our country during President Bush’s term.” Say what?

Obviously, this ultra selective “abuse” of history was rolled out in an effort to portray the current occupant of the White House as “soft or terrorism.” Barack Obama may or may not be soft on terrorism, but abusing the reality of recent history to make that case is beyond comprehension and should be labeled for what it is – a distortion or, if you prefer, a lie. As the old saying goes, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts, or their own history.

The recent race to raise America’s educational standing in math and science has generally meant a diminishment of teaching of what we normally call the humanities, most importantly history. I’m all for better math and science education, but I also know that too many Americans, as surveys and Jay Leno’s sidewalk interviews have shown us, don’t know much about their history.

No less an historian than two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough said a while back that the lack of knowledge about our history is jeopardizing our way of life.

We don’t all need to ponder the real impacts of Yalta in 1945 or know in detail the terms of the Paris peace conference in 1919, but we do need to know enough about our own history to call foul on those who would distort it. We can’t rely exclusively on historians to hold the ideologues of the right and the left to account for “abusing” history. Democracy doesn’t – or can’t – work that way.

If we fail to know enough of our history, or, as David McCullough has said, to “know who we are” or we misunderstand “how we became what we are, we’re going to start suffering from all the obvious detrimental effects of amnesia.”

That truly is a threat to our way of life.