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Posts published in December 2020



Maybe it’s the dark and cold, or some recent book I read, but I have found myself reflecting on the aspirational phrase of one of our countries founding documents: “the pursuit of happiness”.

Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence and used the inalienable rights of man to justify the colonies rebellion against the sovereign king.

“Pursuit” didn’t mean chasing after, but rather “living as.” Much like my wife pursues gardening; she grows plants, she has me dig up and move plants, occasionally she allows me to prune the plants. She’s not chasing gardening, she’s doing it. And it brings her great happiness.

So, I wonder if we as a nation have given up on the pursuit of happiness. From what I can see nowadays, most folks, congress and our President included, seem to be pursuing rancor. Bitterness is the flavor of our national drink. Let’s change that.

Jefferson’s other inalienables, life and liberty, were not placed in this short list as contrast, but rather as a cohort. Without life, pursuit is moot. Without liberty, the pursuit is limited. I believe he chose these three rights because they support one another; or they should.

A friend recently mentioned that the Constitution defined the pursuit of happiness as an inalienable right. I had to correct him that the phrase was in our Declaration of Independence. Nowhere does the Constitution define such a right. It was just too general, not specific enough. But I believe the founders had such a phrase in mind as they drafted the constitutional mechanics of government. Indeed, the Preamble references the purpose of the “Common Good” for the following document. Let us take such to heart.

Government cannot make one pursue happiness, but it definitely can get in the way of such a pursuit. The founders and subsequent amenders placed specific limits on government, so we would be free to pursue happiness.

But that doesn’t mean any act of government reduces my liberty or blocks my pursuit of happiness. I greatly appreciate that I don’t have to stop and pay tolls. I would much rather pay a tax at the filling station. I accept that we need money for roads. The gas tax supports the common good. But toll roads work for many states. The states are the incubators for this balancing of life, liberty and the pursuit.

I also felt liberated when, after a recent doctor visit, I was told I didn’t owe anything. I hadn’t had to spend time shopping for insurance, I hadn’t had a copay. I am now a Medicare recipient. Some might describe this as an infringement on their liberty, a universal health insurance for the elderly. But the elderly don’t. Survey after survey has shown Medicare enrollees are satisfied with their health insurance. No surprise, since we Medicare beneficiaries get about 15% of the annual Federal budget to support our liberty.

If your sense of liberty demands that everybody just gets out what they pay in, then we should make a law against insurance. But most people agree to pool their risks on a home fire. They pay the premium, and don’t wish their house will burn down. Most people agree to share risks with their neighbor when they buy car insurance. But as a country, we just have not concluded that we are all in the health care risk pool together.

And I believe our citizens pursuit of happiness has been stifled by the lack of universal health care coverage.

But we have solved these problems as a country before. We have built roads, we have sewer systems, we have schools and stadiums, all with community, state or sometimes federal support. We all need to keep our eyes open about who gets what benefits.

We need to pursue the common good. Vote for people who will.

Book report


What follows are some reflections on 10 of the books I read for the first time this year - not necessarily the 10 best, but the 10 that left the strongest impression, that drew my attention back weeks and months after I first consumed them. Not all are new, but they all (with one exception) were new to me this year. Collectively, they made up for me some of the better parts of 2020. This was, if nothing else, a good year to kick back and read.

They're listed here in alphabetical order (by author name), not preferential ranking. that would be too problematic for books as different as these.

Stephen Brusatte - The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World (2019). There's some new science here informing Brusatte's descriptions of the long-ago beasts and their world, but what grabbed me was the way the material was organized: As a historical narrative, not just of the dinosaurs but also of the world around them, and how and why it changed over time. He walks the reader through the story of the dinosaurs from the beginning to their (mostly: birds excepted) end, with the arrival of a rock from outer space. Instead of the usual circus parade of odd critters, we get here a story of how and why they developed as they did. It's surprisingly gripping. And you may gain a whole new appreciation for our avian friends in the process.

Andy Greenberg - Sandworm: A New Era of Cyberwar and the Hunt for the Kremlin's Most Dangerous Hackers (2020). From years of reporting - largely out of the magazine Wired - How cyberattacks grew and mutated and spread around the world, with detailed accounts at their best describing massive attacks in Georgia and South Korea, among other places, and burrowing inside two Kremlin-based organizations that seem to have been responsible for much of the worst activity. There's also a fascinating account of an American cyberattack on Iran (relating to its nuclear program (which spanned the Bush and Obama administrations. A stunning piece of investigative reporting.

Matthew Horace and Ron Harris - The Black and the Blue: A Cop Reveals the Crimes, Racism, and Injustice in America's Law Enforcement (2018). Harris worked from street level to top administration in law enforcement at the local, state and federal levels over 28 years, which is one part of what informs in this book on policing and race. The other part is that he is black. I read seven on eight books on law enforcement this year, and this one stood out for the thoughtfulness and emotional crunching Horace exposed, even if there were layers of cause and solution he didn't unearth as much as he might have. Horace loves law enforcement, has devoted his life to it, believes powerfully in its mission, but he does not shrink from the problems, which he acknowledges amounts to something much more than just a few "bad apples."

Fletcher Knebel - Night of Camp David (1971). The paperback cover carried the tag line, "What would happen if the president of the U.S.A. went stark raving mad?", and the book amply carries through on the premise. The novel, a solid popcorn story I first read back in the 70s, became an unexpectedly hot seller this year. Can't imagine why. The story is actually somewhat tamer than what we've been exposed to in the last few years, and the novel's ending was more uplifting than anything we in this year have any reason to expect in real life.

Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn - Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope (2020). All right, it's here in part because the central story in this book is set about five miles north of where I live. (And from time to time I walk through the location pictured on the front cover.) But there's also the unusually pragmatic take it sets in a subject area - inequality and our social difficulties - often given to politics, moralism and the dismal side of sociology. Kristof was raised outside Yamhill, Oregon, and the directly-told center story here is about the people there - and why, when some of them (such as Kristof) wound up doing very well, others saw their lives crater, crash and often end far too soon. The why of this, supplemented by other useful stories from around the country, make useful food for thought. It's not the whole story, but it encompasses a lot of it.

Jill Lepore - These Truths: A History of the United States (2019). Lepore has been an excellent bringer of fresh perspective on American History for years in her New Yorker articles, and a great big, massive slab of her take on American history makes for a real treat all by itself. It is set up in part as a corrective to some other broad-brush American histories, spreading less time and attention on the traditional national heroes, elections and military actions than most such books so, and pouring a lot of space into the marginalized - the American history of slaves and their descendants, and of women, get quite a work through. This isn't necessarily the only book on American history you'd ever want to read, but it belongs on a short list that you should, partly as a useful balance to almost everything else out there, and partly because of the beauty of the writing and the laying-out of connective tissues that are Lepore's hallmark.

Henning Mankell, Laurie Thompson (translator) - The White Lioness (2011). Series novels less and less stay in my mind for long - too often the writers seem to stretch out their material, thinning each book, milking the series. Even some of the more interesting-set detective stories in this century have fallen prey to the tendency. On top of that, translated novels often lose some of the original freshness of language. So why is this Kurt Wallender book (the third in the series about that Swedish detective) here? It helps that the translation here seems more artful and lively than most. More important, aside from the neatly complex - as opposed to over-complicated - story which makes a logical if stark juxtaposition of rural Sweden and roiling (and dangerous) parts of South Africa, the locales between which the book is split - and never really unites.

Barack Obama - A Promised Land (2020). The former president's first memoir, Dreams from my Father, was written long before he launched his political career, and carried a distinctive and sharply honest voice; to read it is to know it wasn't written with a political campaign in mind, and that it was crafted by someone who really could write well. This first presidential memoir (a second is planned, to follow from the aftermath of the Osama bin Laden raid) has a good deal of that feel, despite the very different subject matter. More than any other presidential memoir I've read, it conveys the sense and feel of what doing the job and living the life of a presidency must actually feel, look and sound like, through the lens of a specific personality.

Chibundu Onuzo - Welcome to Lagos (2017). More often than not, if I'm going to read a novel, then I want to read something novel - something I haven't read before, that introduces me to new people and places. The Inspector O novels, the first few of them anyway, set in North Korea got my attention a few years ago for that reason. And so did this stand-alone, a tale about a couple of deserters from the Nigerian army - who'd had enough of the murder and abuse of the people in rural villages - and wander off to the megalopolis of Lagos, where the story turns strange and amusing and insightful, meandering between issues of simple survival and governmental corruption. Some reviewers have criticized its wandering nature toward the end, and some readers might be slowed by the distinctive localized language (though I found it worth the effort), but if you read this you'll get a clearer picture than you otherwise would about life in a very different part of the world.

Stuart Stevens - It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump (2020). The preceding parade of books on this post notwithstanding, I read a bunch of books about current politics during the last year. Quite a few were pretty good, but a lot of them overlapped and seemed to run together. Among the many blasts at Trump and the many ruminations by Republicans over the last couple of years, this one by Stevens stuck out to me for the sheer level of personal emotion: The degree to which Steven appears to have exposed his outright agony over where he has been, what he has done and what he contributed to. To those who hurl invective to the never-Trumpers on the lines of, "See what you did?", Stevens replies, "I know. I know. Now we need to put it all out on the table, and figure out how to fix it."



Well, here we are. On the doorstep of 2021. Ain’t that somethin’?

While it’s good to be rid of 2020, much of what ailed us - as a nation and individually - is going with us into that new year. Nothing we can do about that.

Rather than the traditional “Top Stories of........” nonsense I despise, I’ve decided on a “Most Hated of 2020” category of the past 366 days. And, wouldn’t you know it, there are co-winners. Or losers.

First, more than anything else, the most dangerous and deadly has to be COVID-19. I know. You might want to nominate something or someone else but that shares the top spot on my list.

Nothing - and I mean NOTHING - has disrupted our lives in the last hundred years or so as much as Coronavirus 2020. Nor has any other event in that same time period killed or maimed so much of the civilian populace. Millions have had it; many scarred for life. More than 370-thousand dead.

No one - and I mean NO ONE - has escaped untouched, though a lot of people may think otherwise. It’s affected all of us in many ways. Maybe just the inconvenience of wearing a mask - or defying the common sense of such an adornment. Maybe it was not having the freedom of unrestricted movement that’s always been part of our heritage. Maybe it was not having some activity in life that you took for granted - going to church or a movie.

Or, it may have affected you as you looked down into the hole beside a casket bearing a loved one about to be interred. For too many, that will be the scar of 2020 that will remain in memory long after.

If we’re looking for something bright on the new year horizon, it may be this: we’ve got promising vaccines coming. For everyone. It may take a few - or many - months, but for all who want the assured protection, it’s here. The pharmaceutical companies, long-despised for their outrageous drug price-gouging, put themselves on a war-like production schedule and several got the new drugs to market in near-record time. The affects of COVID will be greatly reduced in 2021 because of their work.

The co-recipient on my “Most Hated of 2020” is one DONALD J. TRUMP - as the human that affected our lives more than any other.

As with the disease, the after-affects of Trump will be with us for a long, long time. It will take years - long beyond the four-year term of a President Joe Biden - to root out the leavings and rebuild confidence in the institutions of government ravaged by that one individual.

Though we’ve an incredible intelligence community and the best-equipped and best-trained military in the world, they’ve been weakened by his tenure. Failing to acknowledge the oft-proven charges of Russian interference in our lives - and the failure to respond to it - has not deterred Putin. Nor will it. We’ve not mounted strong retaliation or a more aggressive posture. It’s to be hoped a President Biden will apply some retaliatory discipline on the undisciplined Russian.

It’s virtually impossible to overstate the negative affects on this nation because of DJT. The remnants of his footprints are over nearly all of our government. No single occupant of the Oval Office has inflicted so much damage in so short a time.

He came into that office damningly illiterate about facts of government, of economics, of history, of America’s place in the world. To his everlasting shame, he leaves the same as he came.

His future will not be that of the usual ex-president. It’s abundantly clear the other four surviving members of that exclusive group want nothing to do with him in any way.

No, Donald’s future portends a long series of lawsuits and, quite possibly, criminal charges in several cases for past activities, both in and out of the presidency. One or more convictions eventually. It may even turn out he’ll become the first former President of these United States to spend extensive time in a jail cell. Could happen.

The national media is, predictably, going to offer breathless accounts of every move and whisper coming from a Biden White House. And, just as predictably, minutiae from every twist and turn of Trumpworld in 2021 and beyond. While his affects on our lives may be lessened by his governmental absence, his future public persona will still be “news.”

Odd, that the top of my list should be shared by a plague and the most unqualified and - in my mind - the most despicable human to ever occupy the office of President of the United States. But, it is what it is. And our lives are distinctly poorer for both.

Well, we’ll leave the list up on the old bulletin board for a few days. Then, it, too, will be faded and a bit tattered. Much as will the 12 months of 2020 in a bit.

For many of us, the two winners on this list have inflicted some scars. There’ll be some lingering after-affects. From both. But, as this nation has done so many times, we’ll overcome the conflicts and hurt inflicted and “get on with it.” That’s our nature.

It’s also our nature to look out for one another. Stay safe.

Biden’s cabinet


Not that it’s a surprise, but the Biden appointments include nods to identity politics from the Left, but also “Deep State” internationalists and at least two nominees with Blaine County ties to Ketchum/Sun Valley.

We’re mostly a get-away location for these folks and you’re not likely to find them as disguised incognitoes in the Costco or Walmart isles of Twin Falls or Pocatello. Their politics are decidedly liberal and they’ve been part of Biden’s circle for years.

One is former Massachusetts Senator John Kerry who with his wife Theresa Heinz Kerry, have a home in Ketchum, one of several mansion residences. Kerry was the Democratic nominee for President in 2004 and then Secretary of State in the Obama administration. He has recently been nominated by Joe Bidden to lead the administration’s efforts on climate change.

The columnist and former governor Mike Huckabee quipped that Biden picked Kerry because he mistook him for a tree. Humm. He does look sort of craggy. But both Kerry and his wife have long been active in environmental causes, so there’s logic in the appointment, which doesn’t need Senate confirmation.

The other appointment with Blaine County ties is Antony Blinken, who is Biden’s nominee for Secretary of State and the nephew of Wood River Valley resident Alan Blinken, who ran for the US Senate against Larry Craig in 2002. Craig won the contest. Alan Blinken hosted a fundraiser for Biden in the recent campaign.

Both Alan Blinken and Donald Blinken, the nominee’s father, served as American ambassadors in the Clinton administration, Donald in Hungary and Alan in Belgium. (Idaho Press, 11/23) The Blinken family has long ties to investment banking in New York and were part of Clinton’s fundraising circle. Reminds us of the supposed exchange between writers F. Scott FitzGerald and Ernest Hemingway, in which FitzGerald muses that the rich are different from you and me. To which Hemingway replies, “Yes, they have more money.”

Antony Blinken, the nominee for Secretary of State, has a long history of working with Biden as both a staffer and foreign policy advisor in the Obama administration. But he’s not only “son of diplomats” to rise in American foreign policy.

In the 1780s, John Quincey Adams, then a teenager, accompanied his father John Adams, on diplomatic missions in Europe on behalf the American Revolution. He e He took to diplomatic service so well that President George Washington appointed him as an ambassador while in his mid-twenties, and he later served as Secretary of State as well as our sixth president.

Following that, Adams served in Congress for twenty years where he was an outspoken opponent of slavery. He successfully argued the Amistad case before the US Supreme Court in 1841, which opened legal avenues for ending slavery. He’s considered of America’s best Secretaries of State.

Blinken’s experience and wide connections in Washington, DC are likely to secure him Senate approval as Biden’s Secretary of State, despite the contentious election and its aftermath. Presidents normally are given deference in Cabinet nominees, unless the individual has significant negatives.

But other Biden cabinet nominees are likely to face close scrutiny. One of Trump’s key campaign points in 2016 and 2020 is that an entrenched Washington bureaucracy dating from both the Clinton and Obama administrations has undermined American interests at home and abroad by placing foreign interests above our own.

The new Biden cabinet includes a number of such “Deep State” internationalists, as well as carefully-picked minority and identity politics nominees. That was probably inevitable with a Biden victory; after all, he served with little distinction in Washington for decades, relying on connections and long-term friendships. And at 78 he is unlikely to go much beyond his known circle from his Clinton and Obama years.

Biden’s business ties to foreign companies and governments through his son Hunter were successfully buried by much of the press; they are now coming to light, and they put the lie to Biden’s claim he had no such connections. (Fox, 12/11).

With son Hunter asking for a key for Joe to a shared office with a Chinese operative, it’s obvious that the Bidens saw foreign money-making as a lucrative side-business for the Biden family.

The Chinese, who are masters of intrigue and influence-peddling, are likely joyous at the election now that their puppy’s father, “Big Joe,” will soon be in the White House. (Fox, 12/12) Trump was right about the Bidens family being a “Godfather” enterprise, but the press took a walk to save their guy.

Meanwhile, the BLM’s favorite socialist, Kamala Harris, waits just offstage. Move along folks, nothing to see here.

Stephen Hartgen, Twin Falls, is a retired five-term Republican member of the Idaho House of Representatives, where he served as chairman of the Commerce & Human Resources Committee.  Previously, he was editor and publisher of The Times-News (1982-2005). He is the author of two new books on Southern Idaho, “Tradition & Progress: Southern Idaho’s Growth Since 1990.” and “Spirit of Place: Southern Idaho Values Across Generations.” He can be reached at

Season of hope


After spending the first 40 years of his life in the wind-swept northwestern corner of Nebraska, my dad developed a few good lines about what winter was like in those parts.

He joked that an out of state visitor once asked, “What do you people do around here in the summertime?” Dad’s response: “Well, last year it came on a Sunday and we had a picnic and a ballgame.” One of his favorite lines became a favorite of mine: “You get used to the change of seasons – ten months of winter and two months of damn poor sledding.”

In her writings about the rough sandhill country along the upper Niobrara River, my dad’s home ground, Nebraska native Mari Sandoz equated winter with the end of things, that time “when dry snow fell like dandruff from a gray sky.” The long, dark days and nights before the green shoots of spring break ground led Sandoz’s homesteading father to drink too much and tolerate too little. Mari titled the last chapter of her memoir of her father – “winter.”

It is a damn good thing winter arrives in near proximity to Christmas. Without the opportunity to experience the season of hope and reflect on the prospects for a better future, facing the bleakest months might just make all of us as grumpy as old Mr. Potter was before Harry Bailey helped straighten him out.

What is there to say of the end of this awful, deadly, confounding year? How about good riddance?

When it comes to 2020, I’m reminded of the famous speech by the British politician Leo Amery in 1940. Amery delivered his remarks in an entirely different context, but the sentiment is spot on: “Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.”

The tired cynic in me has had enough of the crazy conspiracy politics of division of these interminable twelve months. My optimistic, hopeful self longs for reason, calm, caring and competence. My emphasis is on hope.

As the Reverend Henry Brougham – played by the elegant David Niven – reminds us every Christmas at the end of the wonderful 1947 film “The Bishop’s Wife,” we have this season of hope, after all, because “It’s his birthday we are celebrating.” And, as Henry says in his Christmas eve sermon, “Let us ask ourselves what he would wish for most … and then let each put in his share. Loving kindness, warm hearts and the stretched-out hand of tolerance. All the shining gifts that make peace on earth.”

The American fabric is badly frayed as the awful 2020 comes to close. The fabric is in urgent need of repair. All the shining gifts are within our power to bestow. If any of us thinks the stitching up of our national fabric will happen without diligent work by each and every one of us, we’d be wrong.

All things, it is said, are political, but the best of things – the hopes for the future we each hold dear – are surely about more than politics. And it all begins with hope: “a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen.”

There are certain things to wish for, Peter Wehner wrote recently. “Honor, decency, courage, beauty, and truth. Tenderness, human empathy, and a sense of duty. A good society. And a commitment to human dignity. We need to teach others—in our individual relationships, in our classrooms and communities, in our book clubs and Bible studies, and in innumerable other settings—why those things are worthy of their attention, their loyalty, their love.”

Such things are also worthy of hope, our “expectation and desire” that a new year cannot provide the luxury of forgetting the awful year passing away but can renew our purpose and restore our faith that the future can be better than what we have had to endure. The heartbreak and despair of 2020 cannot and should not disappear, but with just enough determination we can make the new year a better year than the one we gladly leave behind.

“The year 2020 gave the world perspective,” Len DiSesa wrote in his letter to the editor of the New York Times this week. “We took so much for granted before the pandemic entered our lives: dining out whenever we wanted to; dropping in to see friends; hugging our relatives; traveling at will. It is part of the human condition to not appreciate something until it is taken away . . . We have all been stung by this disease, and many have suffered much more than others. But when it is eventually eradicated from the planet I hope we all remember how truly awful 2020 was, and acknowledge the perspective it gave us to appreciate what 2021 can bring.”


After the awfulness of 2020, America needs to unplug and restart, focusing on what really matters – our kids, grandkids, parents, grandparents, our friends, community, the basic decency and fairness that exists in your service club, at your local library, in the nurse who lives down the block and the kid who shovels snow.

“It has always seemed strange to me,” John Steinbeck wrote in his enduring classic Cannery Row. “The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding, and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism, and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.”

So, the heck with selfish meanness. Enough with self-interest that divides. Let us celebrate the better things we can hope for in a new year, and accept the wisdom of Winston Churchill who said at Christmas 1941 – the end of another awful year – that Americans and their British cousins should embrace “the peace of the spirit in each cottage home and in every generous heart.”

Suspend the hum bugs. Winter is really just a prelude to spring. Look ahead to the picnic and the ball game. This season of hope is the dawn of better days. Extend the out-stretched hand of tolerance and seek the healing balm of hopefulness.

And, yes, God bless us, everyone.

An inflection year?


When the Washington Post asked readers for a single adjective to describe the year 2020, words like “exhausting,” “surreal,” “chaotic,” “relentless” and “nightmare” turned out to be popular.

But will it mark an inflection point for our nation - and, for local purposes, for Idaho?

It may teach us some lessons, which may be useful or not.

2020 did not mark an obvious political turning point, in a larger, voter-driven sense. Idaho voted much as it has for nearly three decades running, and while the national vote changed in some places, the presidential numbers marked something closer to incremental change than anything sweeping (even if the change from a Trump to a Biden presidency will be dramatic enough).

But 2020 was a year of Covid, and in many places - including some around Idaho - that of Black Lives Matter (which gave many of us in the west a new meaning for the BLM acronym), and some changes could come out of that.

Some people may draw conclusions that almost come out of the late 60s, that the thing to do is riot in the streets, engage in violence, threaten public officials and anyone else who disagrees with them. Did 2020 open the door to that kind of behavior, or did it offer ample enough demonstration that acting like violent children isn’t a path toward improvement?

There are other possible lessons, and those - involving both Covid-19 and BLM - relate to how we treat each other, whether we listen to and expect honesty from each other, and whether we act like civilized people … or like feral pure individualists who wander into town after having grown up the way Tarzan did.

If 2020 were a long-form television series, you might draw a moral from it along these lines: We really do have some responsibility toward each other, and a primary focus on satisfaction of grudges is no way to get along or to try to govern ourselves.

That brought to mind a quote from earlier this year, when former legislator Luke Malek (who said he plans to run for lieutenant governor in 2022), said he wants to “work together to solve problems rather than divide people.”

Such a quote only a few years ago would have seemed so anodyne as not even meriting mention; wouldn’t everyone think that? But in 2020, that Malek quote, coming in a time when anger, suspicion and division have become overt political strategy in some places, almost seems like a daring reach.

As we arrive at 2021, we have had a year in which division - physical division, social distancing - has become a common fact of life, and something nearly all of us want to change and at least greatly reduce in the year ahead. As we do that, as we see each other face to face a little more once again, might that mean we reconsider some of our divisions? Might we be a little more willing to listen, a little less determined to find dark motives, conspiracies and even evil in people who are simply different from us?

We are already, of course, in a new campaign cycle, albeit in its early stages. But with a legislature set to arrive (in some fashion) shortly, and political campaigns likely to take form not long after, we can begin to ask now whether the troubles of 2020 might actually help us rethink some of our baser approaches to many things, politics among them.

And right now, in this unusual holiday season, seems as good a time as any to start turning that corner. Might the spirit of this season carry on in the months ahead? We can hope.

Luke’s timeless account


We all know St. Luke’s compact and yet detailed account of the birth of Christ in a Bethlehem stable, how the baby was “wrapped in swaddling clothes” and then visited by wondering herdsmen from the nearby hills.

As dopey as it sounds in our calloused times, Luke tells how shepherds in the fields “tending their flocks by night” were visited by an angel who brought them “good tidings of Great Joy” for “all people” that “unto you is born this day a Savior who is Christ the Lord.”

Angel? Chorus? Good Tidings? Yea sure, saith many. It’s a COVID Christmas. Where are the “good tidings?” Vaccines are coming, but we’re not yet able to relax precautions.

We are given more in this packed account from Luke 2, a template into how government’s unrelenting hand impacts us all, something we can all relate to in this time of mask mandates which Biden promises to expand.

Luke relates how a “decree went out from Caesar Augustus” that every person – man, woman, child – would go to the town of their origin to be taxed. And so that is what Joseph did, taking along his wife Mary, she being “great with child.” to be counted and taxed as well.

Those who think broad government edicts are a new idea should read this again; even in Roman times, government’s hand touched everyone. Mary was to be taxed along with Joseph. Now that’s true gender equality.

The Middle East in those times were under Rome’s military and civilian control, so what the governors decreed, that was what was done. Luke does not tell us explicitly here, but other sources (chiefly Josephus) relate how Rome’s governance was hardly a light and loving touch. Tax collectors and edicts were everywhere.

Yet Luke proudly proclaims the symbolic import of this baby’s coming into the world that dark night, a symbol of peace and love for all humanity.
Current COVID angst and political turmoil aside, isn’t that the essential meaning of Christmas? That the affairs of men are but specks of dust in a dark night through which Christ’s birth and life shine as a beacon, calling us all to “Goodness and Light” as the Christmas carol says?

Luke has been called the “great physician” by Biblical scholars and he’s often depicted as a medical doctor in Medieval art. But he was also a detailed reporter -- one of history’s early known journalists – whose account is widely regarded as the best and most accurate of Christ’s birth.

Yet, Luke makes it clear he is no fan of Roman order and authority. In today’s politics, he might be a Libertarian, disdainful of government agents and Pharisees. Christ, he says, (Luke 23) stands mute before Pilate, who turns him over to the baying crowd of persecutors. See, says one, Christ’s own enigmatic words condemn him.

It is a passage which foresees Paul in Galatians: (5:1) “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.”

Is that not another lesson from Luke’s story: live in the freedom which Christ has given us, in the spiritual sense, and “be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage?”

It’s tempting to draw lessons from Luke’s account for today’s confounding politics. Is Trump, as some think, the ‘Savior” brought to us to lead a rejuvenation of cultural values in American life? Or are House Congressional Democrats the real “saviors” of American life, standing up to a usurper and falsely-elected “king?”

What would Luke say? It’s tempting to think Luke would echo Christ’s own words, telling us to set aside petty things in these strident times and strive to live better together, separate and apart perhaps, but seeking common ground where we can.

Isn’t that what Christ means when he later says to Peter, “Feed my sheep?” It’s a reference back to the symbolic image we have of Christ’s birth in the manger with an angel telling those watchful shepherds, do not fear, God is with us, Emmanuel.

Merry Christmas, all.

Stephen Hartgen, Twin Falls, is a retired five-term Republican member of the Idaho House of Representatives, where he served as chairman of the Commerce & Human Resources Committee.  Previously, he was editor and publisher of The Times-News (1982-2005). He is the author of the new book “Tradition & Progress: Southern Idaho’s Growth Since 1990.” He can be reached at An earlier version of this column appeared on December 22, 2019.

Christmas gifts


I don’t give gifts easily. My wife does. I’ve asked her how to do better.

She says it’s simple: just pay attention to those around you, think of what they want or need, and chose something that might please them. Oh, and it’s best if you know their size and what colors they like.

I haven’t wrapped these up yet. I’m going to ask you all if I’ve missed the mark.

For Idaho Republicans I bought some canvas and a Speedy-Stitcher so they can make modifications to their Party tent. I’m not sure whether they want to keep making it bigger, or split that circus tent into smaller sections.

I figure they can vote on that.

Idaho Democrats were harder to buy for. They are so rare, it’s hard to really know what they might want or need. I found some old Cecil Andrus and Frank Church political buttons on Ebay but the shipping cost more than the buttons so I passed. I have a whole pile of voter registration forms in an old backpack, I was thinking of giving these, but then I remembered, that’s where I got them, from the Idaho Democratic Party. It’s really bad form to re-gift, my wife says. Then, I thought of the old stand-by: a bottle of Idaho Whiskey. So, I got some at the liquor store, but I hadn’t tasted it before, so I opened it before wrapping it to just have a sip. Do you think they’d mind getting a half bottle? It’s not bad.

Brad, our Governor could stand a heartfelt gift this dark season. I’ve been trying to think about what he might want or need. It seems like everybody has an opinion about that. Some seem to think he needs a backbone, while others would send him a muzzle and handcuffs. I got him a bottle of that Idaho Whiskey and I didn’t sip but a little out of that one. It’s mostly full. I better get it wrapped up soon.

Our Lieutenant Governor, Janice McGeachin seems to have everything she wants right now, so I didn’t think I should give her anything. She’s got a taxpayer funded part-time job, with taxpayer funded staff and a fancy office, and the Governor never asks her to do much. Plus, she gets all the free press coverage she wants. But then I remembered the legislature will be starting up soon and she has to run herd on the Senate. That’s her most taxing obligation. I found an old five-pound maul in my tool shed she can use for a gavel whenever either of the Democrats rise to speak. I might put a bow on it. Would that be sexist?

Attorney General Lawrence Wasden really needs some Christmas cheer, all the griping we hear about him. He wouldn’t sign Idaho up for that Texas election lawsuit to support Trump; boy did some of his Republican tent folks singe him. But I’m getting a little self-conscious about another trip to the liquor store. I keep telling them these are gifts for others I’m getting. They just smile and nod. I have a nice pair of oven mittens that say they can handle hot coals. I’ll wash them up and send them off. What do you think?

If you give a gift to one person, and not the next, feelings might be hurt, so I made a list of all the folks in the Statehouse. By the time I got down to the Treasurer and the Controller, I realized maybe a Christmas card would have to do. We have a bunch of cards we got at an Idaho Democratic Fundraiser. They show a donkey/elk with Christmas lights in the antlers.

They’ll do, I guess.

Next year I’ll ask my wife to do the gifts. This is hard.