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Posts published in December 2015

Two to be thankful for

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Every Idahoan who cares about this state and how it came to be should read two relatively obscure books and be grateful the authors lived and worked here.

Through their writings and teaching these two left an indelible imprint on Idaho. Though they labored in obscurity, the political cognoscenti in Idaho know them well. Though they are fading into the mist of history, their contributions should be remembered. Any Idaho history is incomplete if it does not acknowledge their roles in shaping modern Idaho.

One book is a delightful novel, a murder mystery in fact, but chock full of the author’s knowledge of Idaho government, politics and public affairs. The other is a wonderful history of the major environmental issues that transformed and dominated much of Idaho’s political debate for fifty years, from the late 1930’s to the late 1980’s.

The novel, The Unlikely Candidate, is by the late Syd Duncombe who for 27 years taught government and political science courses at the University of Idaho. He was an inspiring influence to an entire generation of Idaho’s political leadership. Among those influenced directly by taking a class or indirectly by being drawn into out of class discussions prompted by his teachings were future U.S. senators and/or governors like Dirk Kempthorne, Jim Risch, Larry Craig and Steve Symms or future attorney generals like David Leroy. Then there are the “behind the scenes” political practitioners also influenced by Duncombe’s passion for politics, people like Phil Reberger, Robie Russell, Marty Peterson and Roy Eiguren.

Many of his former students could recall how he brought politics to life by brinigng different hats to class and then switching hats as he switched roles in the lessons he was bringing to life. His knowledge of politics was not just academic either. Before coming to Idaho he had worked in state government in New York and had been Superintendent of the Budget in Ohio.

He cultivated political office holders on both sides of the aisle. One of his great fans was Cecil Andrus who made Duncombe his Acting Director of the Budget Office upon his first election as governor in 1970. Duncombe put together Andrus’ first budget and Andrus always acknowledged his debt for Syd showing how a governor could truly shape policy if he understood how to put together a budget.

The novel’s hero is, surprise, a retired state budget director. Duncombe, however, wove into the text the kind of authentic details and knowledge that rings true with any who have been drawn into politics.

Syd had been working on the novel for several years. His beloved wife, Mary, died in 1997 but before doing so insisted Syd finish the book which he did in 1998. His passages on cancer are poignant as his writing was obviously one way of dealing with his grief.

He died at the age of 78 in Idaho Falls in late September of 2004. His legacy should live on beyond the life span of the hearts that were directly touched by his zest for life and politics.

The second book, Defending Idaho’s Natural History, is by former journalist and nine-term State Representative Ken Robison. He was born in Nampa in 1936, received his B.A. degree from Idaho State in 1957 and began a 30 year career in Journalism in 1959 as a copy editor at the Idaho Statesman. He was both a reporter and editor for the Statesman and from 1977 until his election to the Idaho Legislature in 1986 from Boise’s 19th Legislative District was the editorial page editor.

When it came to handing out charisma Ken missed the session. He always came across as a thoughtful but calm, dispassionate and objective - the journalistic version of Joe Friday - “just the facts, Ma’m” To the surprise of many though he turned into an outstanding legislator, one who always did his homework and when he spoke people listened.

He loved the Legislature, so he was one of those bulldog campaigners - knocking on every door in his district every year. Not surprisingly, his diligence and had work was rewarded by re-election eight times.

Robison brings this same diligence to his history of Idaho’s major environmental battles. He recognizes the truth in the old expression “success has a thousand fathers and mothers; failure is an orphan.”
He knows too that it is “citizen-activists” who bring change about and the parade of the involved changes inasmuch as some battles are decades long.

He does justice though to the many key folks who put forth time, talent and treasure. His account of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering is fascinating, and he exhaustively documents his sources. From the battles to restore salmon and steelhead runs, to the fight to protect the White Clouds, Hells Canyon and the Sawtooths to the creation of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness and the Selway/Bitteroot Wilderness its all there.

Robison has done an invaluable service in documenting the fight and the fighters.

Like Duncombe he too has labored in obscurity, but all Idahoans owe them both a tremendous vote of thanks.

First take/two views

Two exceptional reads to recommend today, both providing some explanation and understanding of one of the opposing sides of the great divides in American culture and politics.

One is personal, or from a personal angle, and ought to be read by anyone on the other side of the fence - though it likely won't be, since it would be too disturbing. On the surface, it was a first-person story about a woman, a mother of two, who recently decided to have an abortion. Her reasons why, and her description of life on the front lines of the culture war, make for some raw reading.

Previously she had written a piece on line, which got some attention, "about what it was like to be exhausted and hopeless and be told that you simply needed to work harder or give up more. It was about my life, and the lives of millions of others." It generated violent reaction including plenty of threats against her - and her children.

She wrote about "the worry that I, and millions of women across America, have felt is the only rational response to life in a country where it’s perfectly legal to scream epithets like a banshee inches from a woman’s face simply because she wanted another Depo shot. We all have to think about that, about the fact that any one of those people might be homicidally misinformed, that one of them might decide that today is the day to martyr themselves or us."

The other article helps make some sense of where some of that anger and violence is coming from by looking at a symptom of the problem from a non-political angle: From that of health.

Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo writes about a study that's been out for a few weeks - you may have have briefly seen a headline about it - the finding of an unusually high death rate, since the late 1990s, of middle-aged and non-college educated non-Hispanic white people in America. The death rate in the last 15-plus years in other sectors in the American population (and in that sector in other countries) has been gradually falling, but among white middle-aged non-college people, men and women, it has spiked upwards sharply, a great contrast to everyone else. One more thing: The specific cause of death driving that spike is this: "drug and alcohol poisonings, suicide and chronic liver disease. In other words, either literal suicide or the slow motion suicide of chronic substance abuse."

Why is this happening? Marshall starts by noting "On the one hand, the correlation with lower education levels points us to a phenomenon we've known about for years: the declining economic and life prospects of less educated, less affluent Americans who are taking the brunt of the great divergence between the ten percent or so of the population that is getting ahead in today's economy and everyone else who is just struggling to hold their own or falling behind."

But why are other ethnic groups - Hispanic, black, others - not spiking upward as well? Marshall suggests "the stressor at work here is the perceived and real loss of the social and economic advantages of being white."

Marshall couches this in terms of theorizing, not a finally established conclusion. But I'd be surprised if he's not at least mostly right: It makes so much sense of why so much destructive, and self-destructive, activity is happening in America.

The plus side of the picture may be that younger cohorts seem not to be reacting this way - they may have grown up with a different social view and set of expectations. That might mean we will eventually grow our way out of this. But it may take a long time. - rs (photo/Dave Pape)

Obama’s foreign policy

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Contrary to what Republican presidential candidates keep trumpeting, in the area of foreign policy Obama is doing just fine in the eyes of the rest of the world.

The redoubtable Brookings Institute, the original middle-of-the-road think tank and an icon in this arena for over 100 years, carefully acknowledged this in a May of 2015 report. “Both his critics and his defenders tend to use unrealistic benchmarks in grading his presidency,” the report first observes. “If we use the kinds of standards that are applied to most American leaders…” it concludes, “Mr. Obama has in fact done acceptably well.”

This conclusion is confirmed by results released in October of 2015 by the Pew Research Institute. In a poll of over 40 countries world-wide, Pew reports that Obama enjoys an average approval rating of 65% in world affairs. In the important four countries of our closest allies in Western Europe – the U.K., Germany, France and Spain - it is even higher, with an average approval of 75% or better. Only in Russia, China and the Middle East of the major countries of the world does Obama receive truly bad ratings, but these regions also gave Bush terrible ratings. The most that can be said here is that Obama has not been able to improve upon the positions he inherited from the Bush administration.

In fact, Obama has racked up a remarkable record of accomplishments in foreign policy in the last seven years. Consider: he (1) rebuilt the worldwide reputation of the United States from its lowest point ever during the last days of the Bush administration to one of general approval and good relations with most countries by mid-2015; (2) cautiously improved relations with Vladimir Putin of Russia; (3) significantly improved relations with Xi Jinping of China; (4) reopened the embassy in Cuba; (5) successfully completed implementation of SALT II; (3) successfully reached a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issues with Iran; (4) achieved working trade agreements with Europe, China and the Pacific Rim countries for new multi-national trade pacts; (5) is on the brink of achieving the first ever multi-national agreement on climate change; (6) withdrew all troops from Iraq on schedule; (7) significantly degraded al Qaeda, including the killing of Osama Bin Laden; and (8) is on-target for significant reduction in troop requirements in Afghanistan.

There are huge problems that have cropped up, or remain, and which overshadow some of these gains.

He clearly has not succeeded in all that he set out to do. He has been unable to close Guantanamo. We continue to struggle in Afghanistan. Iraq is coming apart. The emergence of ISIL is a real threat. The situation in Eastern Europe is tense. Some of these failures were inherent and left over from the days of Bush and prior, some were the result of early mistakes by Obama in resetting the direction of his policies, and some are simply works still in process as a result of a constantly changing dynamic in the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

One area for which he is roundly criticized by the Republicans is not a mistake. The concept of “leadership from behind” is the product of his decision to change the direction with which we implement operations in foreign policy; to build coalitions and seek consensus before action, and to defer, where appropriate, and allow others with greater interest or greater proximity to the crisis at hand, to take the lead both in planning and implementation. He has said repeatedly that it is not necessary for the United States always to be the first ones in, always to own the plans or concepts of operation, or always to position itself as the ultimate leader.

This is true not only in Europe but also in the Middle East, where the ills and mistakes committed in “The Ugly American,” Lederer’s and Burdick’s classic of the late 1950’s, are illustrative of why the mere presence of the United States can be toxic to any situation. The animosity towards the United States by the countries of the Middle East erupted with the disastrous decision to go to war against Iraq, then continued through the series of mistakes, incompetence and egregious mishandling of the post-war developments under the Bush administration. It has not abated during the Obama years.

Given this situation, plus the outbreak of Arab Spring and the uncertainties surrounding Putin’s intentions in the Ukraine and elsewhere, it is not feckless to be cautious, nor to wait until a concept of operation had matured to the point of mutual agreement among allies, before proceeding. To have followed the hawks’ cry of “Ready! Shoot! Aim!” would, in most analyst’s eyes, have landed us in a much more precarious situation with respect to Eastern Europe and conditions in the Middle East than we find ourselves in today.

We may not be in a good position yet in all the hot spots of the world, but it could have been much, much worse. It is instructive that, aside from the few regions mentioned above, the only entities truly wringing their hands over the choices Obama has made in these areas are not among our allies or even among those directly affected, but rather are only from the right wing media crowd and the Republican presidential candidates, all from within our own country.

No one knows where history will eventually place Obama in his management of foreign policy. Surveying the current writings, and sifting out the obviously politically biased commentary, one might expect the grade somewhere in the high C to mid B range – perhaps even an A minus, depending upon unfolding developments with ISIL and the Ukraine.

One thing is certain: Obama does not deserve the label of being the President responsible for making the worst foreign policy decisions ever. That badge of dishonor clearly and demonstrably continues to belong exclusively to the 43rd President, George Walker Bush, and to his cabal of cronies, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Sununu, and Rove.

First take/Dear

It's unwise to jump to conclusions about why someone did something - as, in this case, the loner Robert Dear taking hostage and shooting up a Planned Parenthood location at Colorado Springs - but as details emerge, substantial conclusions become more reasonable. Little has been released by law enforcement in the case so far, and little has emerged directly from Dear about his motivations, other than a passing phrase about "no more baby parts."

But today the New York Times has released its examination into his background, talking with ex-wives and others who have known him over the years, tracing his path around the country. Some clear impressions start to emerge.

The Times writes, "He was a man of religious conviction who sinned openly, a man who craved both extreme solitude and near-constant female company, a man who successfully wooed women but, some of them say, also abused them. He frequented marijuana websites, then argued with other posters, often through heated religious screeds. “Turn to JESUS or burn in hell,” he wrote on one site on Oct. 7, 2005."

And, referring to an incident from several years ago, "A number of people who knew Mr. Dear said he was a staunch abortion opponent. Ms. Micheau, 60, said in a brief interview Tuesday that late in her marriage to Mr. Dear, he told her that he had put glue in the locks of a Planned Parenthood location in Charleston."

There were, in other words, a number of indicators that screws were loose - maybe just a couple of turns looser than is much more widespread. - rs

Facts often hard to find

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I’ve been a morning news hound most of my life. New information and several cups of black coffee usually kickstart my days. Guess that extra time is a retirement benefit. Gotten so I don’t fully trust any one portion of the media now so I scan about a dozen sources, cross-checking for accuracy. That’s a handy thing to do - especially in the last few years.

Several reasons, I believe. First, newspapers are disappearing. And not just in small towns. Some gone forever. For others, new electronic versions replacing them. While usually more flashy and formatted for easier reading, they’re not as “newsy” as their print forebearers. Stories are fewer and shorter. “Consultants” - bastards of the media business - have ordered “shorter, peppier, crisper, lighter.” Nothing about more accurate.

Second reason I check more sources is for facts. Like a lot of things these days, that accuracy “ain’t what it used to be.” Sometimes the “facts” are wrong. Sometimes writing is so filled with spelling, grammatical and informational errors you have to read several times to figure out what the facts are. Here are a few examples just this morning. Somewhat unimportant, I grant, but they make a point.

Huffington Post promoting a feature story with a picture showing actors Don Knotts and Myron McCormick. The cutline was about life in “Mayberry” promoting reruns of “The Andy Griffith Show.” Problem is the picture was from a 1958 movie entitled “No Time For Sergeants.” McCormick never appeared on the Griffith show. Small thing? Yes.

HuffPo again. Headline about the latest cop killing in Chicago and how the damning video of the murder came to light. International headline read “Blowing the Whitsle.” Another small thing? Yes. But around the world.

More and more, I’m seeing headlines like these: “Car loses control” or “Driver killed after crash.” Cars don’t “control” or “lose control;” The driver - if you read the story - was killed instantly when the car hit that tree.
Story in our local weekly this morning about the end of a long highway construction project that’s been a headache. The line: “Roadway improvement project is new completion.” Small? Yes, again.

Or how about this? Last week, national media was headlining the shooting down of a Russian jet over Turkey. In nearly all coverage, the reference - headline and body copy - has been about the two “pilots.” Over and over again. Problem? No jet fighter has two “pilots. Just one. The other is a crewman - usually a weapons officer who’s NOT a pilot.

Most of these examples are small, I grant. But, if you can find so many in so many places, it’s reasonable to become suspicious of reporting on more significant events. And this doesn’t even speak to the constant wrong reporting of events in a true “breaking” story because all sources want to be “first” rather than “accurate.” But that’s a whole ‘nother story.

Here’s a personal third thought about so much misreporting. I’ve long maintained the way to truly corrupt a good reporter is to insist on attendance at a journalism school. “J” schools have long been an unreliable training ground for reporters. Might make a resume look good but that’s all. Give me a bright, strong liberal arts or history major with an outsized sense of curiosity. If they want to know how things work, why things work, what really happened and what it means, I’ll teach ‘em to spell and write. Just keep following that curiosity and the rest of us will do the backup.

We’ve never lived in a time when more information has been so easily available. Problem is, we’re not being informed of what we need to know. Few newspapers regularly report on - or staff - city hall, courthouse or the school board. Broadcasters only go when there’s likely to be controversy. Or “visuals.” Yet most government news truly affecting us comes out of city halls, courthouses and statehouses. When TV “reporters” do go, they usually come late, grab someone near the door and ask what’s been going on and how that person feels about it. That’s not news.

Newspaper and broadcast chains are gobbling up local news outlets. New management often has no local ties or background. Fender-benders, personal hygiene tips, care of the family dog, what’s new in Hollywood and how to more effectively deal with a bad complexion make up the content of too many local broadcasts. About once a month, I try to watch one. Haven’t gotten past five minutes in years.

I’ve spent most of this adult life in and around media and I’d like to ask you a question and issue a warning. The question: why does the national media staff Trump daily speaking appearances for cut-ins if he should say anything controversial? Or exceedingly stupid? They all do it. But what about Sanders or Kasich or Clinton or Bush? Any of them regularly staffed for “breaking news? Is CNN or Fox ready to pounce there, too? No way.

And the warning: be careful what you accept as fact. You may hear something you want to hear - something that affirms what you already think. But is it fact? Right or left? Is it true? Have you checked any other source for the same “facts?” I do. Every day. Old habit. And, every day, I find “facts” at odds with truth or what really happened. Or what was really said.

In too many instances, accountability and responsibility for accurate reporting has been lost. We now read, watch and listen at our peril.

First take/named

This was bound to happen; it was a matter of time.

A month ago Jack Yantis, a rancher in Idaho's Adams County, was shot to death in an encounter with two sheriff's deputies. The incident has been under investigation since, and no charges have been filed, at least so far. Until yesterday, the deputies have not been named publicly. That, Sheriff Ryan Zollman said, was for their safety.

That might have held for a few days, at most, but certainly no longer than that.

Adams - it's familiar to us, since we formerly owned property there, and for some years planned to move there - is a small county of fewer than 4,000 people. It tax base is constrained, and people there aren't big on high tax rates. In such a county, a sheriff's office with as many as five or six deputies would be considered pretty well staffed. People in the county have encountered them, one way or another, for years. How long do you think it would take for them to figure out who the two in the Yantis incident were - especially since Zollman earlier had tagged them as having five and 15 years of experience respectively?

When the Idaho Statesman at Boise yesterday said it had multiple sources confirming the names - which evidently led Zollman to release the names himself - that could hardly have come as a surprise. A lot of Adams County people must have figured it out weeks ago.

It's hard to keep a secret in a small town. Now let's hope investigators release the rest of the rest before too much longer. - rs