American Presidents, Civility, Native Americans, Obama

Only In America

glacierxFirst Nations Get Real Attention

Barack Obama got off a wonderful line last week when he spoke to more than 500 of the nation’s tribal leaders at a major conference in Washington. The president recalled his Montana campaign last year and the occasion of his adoption by Hartford and Mary Black Eagle of the Crow Tribe.

Only in America,” Obama said, “could the adoptive son of Crow Indians grow up to become President of the United States.” The quip reportedly got a big laugh and illustrates Obama’s deft touch and graceful sense of humor. The presidential attention may also signal a new day – long overdue – of federal government attention to tribal issues.

In 1934, another president – Franklin Roosevelt – on another trip to Montana was honored by the Blackfeet Tribe with a ceremony near Two-Medicine Chalet in Glacier National Park. That’s FDR in the back seat of his Cadillac touring car. He had spent the day touring the park. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt is standing next to then-Interior Secretary Harold Ickes.

In my read of New Deal history, FDR’s policies toward tribal nations were a mixed bag. Roosevelt championed the Wheeler-Howard Act, also known as the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 or, as then-BIA Commissioner John Collier preferred, the Indian New Deal.

Well intentioned as most of Roosevelt’s policy was, it still suffered from a “Washington knows best” bias and even Collier, a generally great Commissioner, possessed a heavy paternalist hand.

Obama’s moves so far seem to hold great promise for true progress on tribal issues.

Obama’s joke about his adopted status was a light hearted moment during an otherwise substantive meeting; a meeting that was almost completely overshadowed in the news cycle by the tragic shootings at Ft. Hood, Texas.

Concluding his remarks, the president said: “I understand what it means to be an outsider. I was born to a teenage mother. My father left when I was two years old, leaving her — my mother and my grandparents to raise me. We didn’t have much. We moved around a lot. So even though our experiences are different, I understand what it means to be on the outside looking in. I know what it means to feel ignored and forgotten, and what it means to struggle. So you will not be forgotten as long as I’m in this White House.”

Mark Trahant, an Idaho native from Ft. Hall and a thoughtful commentator on Native American issues, says Obama’s decision to put the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) at the center of coordinating federal policy regarding tribal nations means the president means business. I agree. Any good bureaucrat knows that policy follows the money.

Obama’s tone and his appointments – former Idaho Attorney General Larry EchoHawk is the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs – together with his empathy and directives to the bureaucracy could truly mark a new era. Let’s hope so.

American Presidents, Catholic Church, Nobel Prizes, Obama

Did Obama Get the Wrong Nobel?

Updike and Marc This Just In: the Nobel Prizes are…Gee, Political

 

The great American writer John Updike never won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He should have.

When Updike came to Idaho a few years back, I spent a marvelous day with him and asked if, considering his enormous body of work, it was a disappointment never to have won the biggest prize in literature.

After all, Faulkner won. So did Hemingway and Steinbeck. He got that marvelous twinkle in his eye and just smiled and said something about not writing for awards. Nonetheless, I got the sense that the snub was a disappointment, but one he had become resigned to.

Personal opinion – Updike should have won the Nobel, but did not because of the Nobel Committee’s alleged (more recent) bias against American writers.


Some of the rap has been that Updike, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, John Cheever, just to name a few, are too commercial and not sufficiently literary by Nobel standards. Bunk. Decisions about awarding Nobel Prizes are political whether we’re talking peace, prose or poetry.

I’ll leave the dissection of the Obama Peace Prize to all those who have already had their say, but I did take note of two particular reactions.

Senator John McCain, as the LA Times noted, has once again proven” that he is still out of touch with his party.” McCain told CNN, “I think all of us were surprised at the decision. But I think Americans are always pleased when their president is recognized by something on this order.” The old McCain.

A second reaction – Louisa Thomas – at Newsweek suggests the president should have won the literature prize on the strength of his two excellent books.

Who knows, Obama may get a second chance for a Nobel. Winston Churchill won the literature prize in part, no doubt, because he was a great political leader, but also because he was one hell of a good writer and had accumulated a substantial body of great work.

I was thinking this morning of the intensity of the 2008 political campaign just a year ago. The daily drama and intensity of that unforgettable campaign has faded, but amidst all Palin, Bill Ayres, fist bumps and Joe the Plumber, not to mention the financial meltdown, who would have thought we’d be talking about the Nobel Peace Prize and an American president 12 months later?

Like him or not, Barack Obama has been a transforming figure on the world stage. His challenge may ultimately be to live up to all the world’s out sized expectations.

 

– – – –

As for the great Updike, just because it is so good, here is one of his last short poems. Appropriate, I think.

Requiem

 

It came to me the other day:
Were I to die, no one would say,
“Oh, what a shame! so young, so full
Of promise – depths unplumbable!”

 

Instead, a shrug and tearless eyes
Will greet my overdue demise;
The wide response will be, I know,
“I thought he died a while ago.”

 

For life’s a shabby subterfuge,
And death is real, and dark, and huge.
The shock of it will register
Nowhere but where it will occur.
American Presidents, Baseball, Britain, Obama, Politics, Reagan

Mistrusting the Government

ReaganOne Election Does Not “Change” the Country

Barack Obama has taken some grief, particularly among liberal Democrats, for making the observation (and repeating it) that Ronald Reagan’s two terms in the White House fundamentally “changed the trajectory” of the country in ways that Bill Clinton’s two terms, for example, did not.

Candidate Obama got into one of those pointless (but totally consuming, made for the media) debates with Hillary Clinton last year when he said that Reagan, “put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.” Clinton charged Obama with “admiring Reagan” and wondered how any self respecting Democrat could possibly say something even halfway flattering about the GOP’s favorite icon.

Obama’s obviously accurate analysis – Reagan did change the country – reminds me of the old line that in Washington, D.C. the definition of a gaffe is when a politician speaks the truth.

Writer and historian Matthew Dallek (a former Dick Gephardt speech writer and son of presidential historian Robert Dallek) has a great take at Politico on Obama’s own challenge in “changing the trajectory” of the country and rolling back “the culture of Reaganism” that he sees as “a remarkably resilient political force in late 2009.”

Matthew Dallek is a perceptive and not uncritical student of Reagan. He has written a fine book about Reagan’s first election victory – the California governorship in 1966.

There has long been – and remains – a healthy skepticism in America about government and about the whole notion of “change.” Even the great presidents, widely admired as agents of change – Lincoln, Jackson, FDR, to name three – didn’t find the job to be easy and all encountered tremendous resistence. So it goes with the current occupant of the White House.

Afghanistan, American Presidents, Baseball, Journalism, Obama, Politics

Whoops…the Main Stream Media Falls for it Again

ObamaObama’s School Speech – A Made for Cable TV Story

I’ve often thought that if the occasional Michael Jackson funeral or Mark Sanford hike on the Appalachian Trail didn’t materialize to help fill the “news hole”, the “main stream media” – particularly cable news – would literally need to invent such stories in order to sustain the 24 hour news cycle.

The President’s post-Labor Day speech to American school children was such a story. The “controversy” generated by the mere thought of the Obama speech – the allegation was that he would use the speech to spread liberal (or worse) political propaganda to impressionable students – absolutely dominated the Labor Day weekend news. News organizations spanning the spectrum from Fox to NPR reported the speech controversy as if it were on par with Iranian nuclear weapons development or the worsening situation in Afghanistan. The story kept feeding the cable beast over the long weekend.

And the speech itself? Well, when all was said and done, Idaho’s conservative Republican State School Superintendent Tom Luna pronounced it, according to the always reliable Betsy Russell of the Spokesman Review, as “appropriate and timely” and Laura Bush and Newt Gingrich weighed in with an actual endorsement of the president’s talk.

Turns out the speech wasn’t about socialism after all, but more like the talk my dad used to deliver on the first day of school – “work hard, don’t get discouraged, be responsible, school is important.”

If you missed the talk here is the full text.

On the other hand, if you miss the next (or the last) 24 hours of cable news will you have missed anything at all? Debatable.

Here is a general rule: if an instant political controversy seems just a little to contrived, a little too “made for television,” it probably is. The “editorial function” – independent judgment applied by journalists to verifiable facts – used to operate to reduce the impact and intensity of contrived controversy. No more. These days we frequently need to be our own editors.

American Presidents, Andrus, FDR, Little Bighorn, Obama

The Survival of the Republic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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