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Tricky Dick and dissembling Donald

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In his masterful biography of Richard Nixon the journalist John A. Farrell recounts the last days – it was the summer of 1974 – of Nixon’s presidency with a variety of anecdotes that are chilling in their relevance to the drama currently unfolding in Washington, D.C.

Most who remember their history will recall that it fell to two Arizona Republicans, Barry Goldwater and John Rhodes, and Senate minority leader Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania to troop to the White House in early August and tell Nixon that his support on Capitol Hill had evaporated. He was sure to be impeached and convicted.

It’s not precisely true as political legend has it that the GOP heavyweights told Nixon to resign. They didn’t need to. The master politician who based his entire career, as Garry Wills once wrote, on “mobilizing resentment against those in power” got the message. The power was against him. Nixon immediately told his family “we’re going back to California.”

Proof, contained on an Oval Office tape recording, of Nixon ordering the cover-up of the Watergate burglary had sealed his fate. “This is it,” Rhodes said at the time. “It’s all over. There was the smokin’ gun. He had it in his hand.”

Nixon had refused to turn over the tapes, of course, and only did so when compelled by a unanimous order from the Supreme Court.

In his book Farrell recounts one phenomenal earlier conversation – it occurred in July 1974 – involving former chief justice Earl Warren, like Nixon a Californian and a Republican, and two sitting justices of the high court, William O. Douglas and William Brennan. Douglas and Brennan visited Warren in the hospital where he was recovering from a heart attack and before it was certain that the Court would force release of Nixon’s smokin’ gun.

Warren, however, was certain of what must happen. “If Nixon is not forced to turn over tapes of his conversations,” the former chief justice said, “with the ring of men who were conversing on their violations of the law, then liberty will soon be dead in this nation.”

* * *

A famous line is attributed to Mark Twain: “History doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme.” So it is with Tricky Dick and Dissembling Donald. As it was in 1974, so it is in 2019.

I got to wondering what the political mood was in Idaho when Nixon’s crimes were the dominate theme in the country, when Democrats in Congress struggled mightily to investigate a stonewalling White House and when another president attempted to obstruct justice by among other acts firing the special counsel investigating the Watergate affairs.

Idaho Republicans almost to a person supported Nixon until the absolute end. The precise dynamic is playing out now with GOP support for Trump.

In May 1973, after Nixon’s two top White House aides had resigned and after White House counsel John Dean had been fired, then-Idaho Republican Senator James A. McClure gave what Associated Press reporter David Espo called a “tough and disturbing” speech in Twin Falls. In the speech to a Republican audience, McClure lashed out at journalists for what he termed “stealing records of grand juries” – syndicated columnist Jack Anderson had reported on leaked grand jury testimony pertaining to Watergate – and blasted federal judges acting out of what McClure called “rather self-righteous motives.” That was a clear reference to Judge John Sirica, who by that point had sentenced two of the Watergate burglars to stiff prison sentences.

Espo wrote that McClure specifically exonerated Nixon for not taking the Watergate burglary more seriously since the senator contended Nixon was preoccupied with his re-election and affairs of state.

In October 1973, a few days after Nixon fired special counsel Archibald Cox – the infamous Saturday Night Massacre – Don Todd, then the executive director of the Idaho Republican Party, defended Nixon and sounded eerily like Trump defenders today.

House and Senate members who talk of impeachment, Todd said, would “disgrace themselves” with their overreaching. There was nothing wrong with Nixon’s handling of the Oval Office tapes, Todd contended, and said the president was justified in firing the special counsel.

John Farrell wrote that Nixon’s decision to fire Cox was the real beginning of the end for the president. The Washington establishment, he recounts, had reached a consensus – Nixon was trying to put himself above the law, but the Idaho delegation with the exception of Democrat Frank Church continued to passionately defend Nixon.

After Cox was fired McClure said the former solicitor general was a ”stubborn, willful man” and that it was inevitable that Nixon would sack him. And sounding like a Trump defender today, McClure discounted Cox as nothing more than a liberal Democrat who made no secret of “his partisan views.” For his part, First District Congressman Steve Symms said Nixon had every right to fire anyone in the executive branch “from the secretary of defense to a janitor at HEW.” But, Symms did allow that it was a legitimate question as to whether Nixon should have fired the man investigating his actions.

As the long course of the events that we now collectively call Watergate, from the arrest of the men who broke into Democratic Party headquarters in June 1972 to Nixon’s resignation in August 1974, Idaho Republicans stood by Richard Nixon.

McClure never admitted that Nixon’s actions related to Watergate constituted grounds for impeachment, but did tell his biographer that had he still been in the Senate he would have voted to convict Bill Clinton for lying to a grand jury about his relationship with a White House intern. No one is above the law, McClure said, obviously missing the hypocrisy.

When Nixon did resign, McClure said there were “literally no words to express the compassion” he felt for Nixon. And as for any punishment for the former president, McClure declared, “enough is enough … you don’t kick a man when he’s down.”

Orval Hansen, the Republican congressman from Idaho’s Second District, was more measured. Nixon had done the right thing by resigning, Hansen said, since his ability to continue in office had been destroyed by the revelation that he had ordered a cover-up and lied about it. Ironically, Hansen lost in a primary in 1974 in part, many Idaho observers concluded, because Nixon’s taint rubbed off on him.

The rhyming will continue.
 

Where will they find their souls

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Idaho has had its share of political scandals and usually they involve money or sex — or, not infrequently, stupidity. The state’s politicians have gone to jail for various money capers related to wrongly reported campaign finances, kiting checks or misusing public funds. Others have been publicly shamed for activities in airport bathrooms and various bedrooms. But those scandals have generally been personal, related to an individual failing or a purely human transgression.

Now we have entered a land where a new type of scandal will test the American system, a challenge to moral, ethical and political decency that confronts the four men who represent Idaho in Congress with decisions that few of the state’s politicians have ever handled before.

The initial signs of how the leaders will respond are not gratifying, but hope for political redemption springs eternal, particularly as the impeachable behavior of the man in the White House finally becomes obvious to most Americans.

In a little more than a week, we have learned that the president of the United States pressured a foreign leader to manufacture dirt on his principal political opponent and then took extraordinary steps to conceal his conversation from others in the government. When a government whistleblower revealed the unprecedented action, the president attacked the whistleblower and said a member of Congress should be locked up for treason for investigating the matter.

We subsequently learned that the secretary of state and attorney general were involved in various ways in soliciting foreign political help from Italy, Austria, Great Britain and Australia; that the president’s personal lawyer has been subpoenaed to produce documents related to his unprecedented role in fanning conspiracy theories and operating a one-man State Department and that other whistleblowers — one relating to the president’s tax returns — are bubbling to the surface.

The essential charge against the president is pretty simple: He pressured a foreign leader from a country known both for its corruption and for needing U.S. military assistance to help him win reelection. If irony were not dead, we might marvel that the Ukrainian telephone call in question was placed by Donald Trump exactly one day after Robert Mueller testified before Congress about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

The president’s defense in the face of this avalanche of malfeasance has been to take to Twitter to attack members of Congress and news organizations, while spinning a steadily more bizarre collection of conspiracy theories, personal grievances and genuine craziness. If a president using the awesome power of his office to advance his own political fortunes at the expense of American foreign policy isn’t impeachment worthy, nothing is.

The entire Republican Party, morally and ethically rotten as a result of the Trump takeover, is poised to tumble. The only question for members of Idaho’s Republican congressional delegation is whether they will muster the courage and integrity to separate themselves from the cancer that grows on this presidency. So far they have chosen to blindly follow a mendacious, incompetent, self-possessed, ethically devoid character whose capture of their party was broadly, if ineffectively resisted. Now they are left clinging to the wreckage as the price of avoiding a primary.

Take it to the bank — all this will get worse.

The most interesting response so far to the president’s behavior has come from Sen. Mike Crapo, a veteran of the Clinton impeachment in 1999 who perhaps understands the current stakes. Crapo, of course, voted to impeach Bill Clinton for lying about sex with a White House intern. Now he has adopted the most measured approach of anyone in the Idaho delegation; in essence saying, wait and see what the evidence produces.

It’s illustrative to review what Crapo said about Clinton two decades ago. “Our entire legal system is dependent on our ability to find the truth,” Crapo said. “That is why perjury and obstruction of justice are crimes. The offenses are even worse when committed against the poor or powerless by the wealthy and the powerful.”

“Perjury and obstruction of justice are public crimes that strike at the heart of the rule of law — and therefore our freedom — in America,” Crapo said. “I concluded that these acts do constitute high crimes and misdemeanors under the impeachment provisions of the U.S. Constitution.”

The special counsel, of course, found substantial evidence that Trump had obstructed justice during the Russian investigation, but was precluded by Justice Department regulations from charging him.

But so far, Crapo has been alone in assuming a measured tone in light of the daily — even hourly — revelations of presidential misconduct. Sen. Jim Risch and Congressman Russ Fulcher reacted with tried and true White House talking points, blaming “liberal” Democrats and a hostile news media rather than focusing on the substance of Trump’s trolling for a political lifeline from Ukraine. From them, you heard not a word of concern about the loose cannon Rudy Giuliani or the secretary of state stonewalling a legitimate congressional investigation.

And Congressman Mike Simpson, usually the sane and sober member of the delegation, actually sent out a Trumpian fundraising appeal seeking cash for himself, while blasting “leftist Democrats in Congress” for engaging in “a witch hunt against the President.” He knows better and he knows that he knows better.

The urgent business of the Congress of the United States is simply to get to the bottom of what the president has done and the damage it has caused to the country. Risch, Fulcher, Crapo and Simpson have a simple choice: They can conduct themselves as patriots and affirm the strength of American democracy or they can remain fractured, frightened, fevered partisans. Either way history will judge them and the judgment will, pardon the expression, trump everything else they have ever done.

“Tampering with the truth-seeking functions of the law undermines our justice system and the foundations on which our freedoms lie,” Crapo said in 1999 when a Democratic president was in the dock answering serious charges that nonetheless pale in comparison to the transgressions of Trump.

As former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake wrote to fellow Republicans this week in the Washington Post: “Trust me when I say that you can go elsewhere for a job. But you cannot go elsewhere for a soul.”

These are surely times that try men’s souls. We’ll find out soon enough who among the state’s congressional delegation is willing to go all the way with this president — all the way over the cliff.
 

Lost in their own deceptions

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In 2017, the Gallup organization conducted a major national poll, asking a question they have asked in previous years: Is the news media trustworthy?

Wyoming was ground zero of media distrust with only 25 percent of the state’s citizens trusting the media a “great deal or a fair amount.” Other states at the bottom: Nebraska, Utah, North Dakota and Idaho. You can find similar results in other surveys and, of course, folks living in solid red states trust the local and national press the least.

And, while I’m the first to acknowledge that reporters and editors make mistakes all the time — I certainly did when I was in the daily news business years ago — I don’t think the widespread distrust of the news media, particularly among conservative consumers of news and information, is adequately explained by the simple explanation you hear all the time. The simple story: There is a deeply embedded liberal bias in the media.

My theory is more complicated and a good deal more sinister. I think conservative politicians have been misleading, bamboozling, indeed lying to their conservative followers for so long and with such conviction that it has directly contributed to a warped sense of what can be demonstrated to be true.

President Donald Trump, in a pernicious way, is the ultimate example of distorting truth in the service of political gain.

Trump promised to build a “big beautiful wall” on the Mexican border that Mexico would pay for. He hasn’t. Yet, he flim flams his followers by posting pictures of repair or upgrades to existing stretches of the border fence — it’s not a wall — and claims that he’s faithful to his promise. He isn’t and Mexico isn’t paying. You are.

Trump insisted on withdrawal from the multinational Iranian nuclear deal and slapped more sanctions on Iran. But Iran has returned to enriching uranium and is predictably threatening more bad actions. Trump pulled out without a plan, while ensuring us everything would be just great. It’s not.

Ditto with North Korea, now reportedly secretly developing a submarine capable of launching missiles. Trump has met twice with North Korea’s butcher and has less than zero to show for it. Yet, to hear him tell it he deserves the Noble Peace Prize.

Trump insisted Republicans repeal Obamacare, even though repeal efforts had failed in the House more than 70 times. He’s promised a vastly better and less expensive approach to health care, but he’s never offered a health care plan and congressional Republicans haven’t, either.

The list goes on: Tariffs against China are putting millions in the federal treasury. Sure they are because Americans are paying a tax on Chinese imports. That’s how tariffs work. Trump has lied about his policy from day one.

Or how about the candidate who called for a “complete” ban on Muslims entering the U.S. showing up this week at a United Nations meeting to demand more religious tolerance?

Climate change is real. Ask any scientist. But Republicans nearly to a person fall in line behind the president’s babbling about light bulbs, plastic straws and his determination to end tougher auto emissions standards in California.

Trump was going to release his tax returns. He hasn’t, and has a team of lawyers working full-time to prevent it from ever happening. He wasn’t going to profit from his businesses while in office, but he has repeatedly. An interview with Robert Mueller? Sure, why not. It never happened.

One of the biggest howlers of all involves the 2017 tax cut, a huge windfall for the wealthiest in America that has ballooned the deficit and done nothing for the economy. But to be fair, Republicans have been riding the tax cutting hobby horse since the 1980s when Ronald Reagan established the fiction that tax cuts pay for themselves. They don’t.

At least cutting taxes is a policy, unlike the GOP response to health care, climate, Iran, North Korea or trade.

It’s easy to see that Idaho’s federal lawmakers are clinging to office simply by not upsetting their Trumpian constituency, a political culture almost entirely informed by Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and Trump’s 12,000 documented presidential lies. Yet, the remarkable political timidity of elected Republicans is explained by one additional factor. They’ve all come of age schooled in Newt Gingrich’s approach to politics. They’ve been going along with the blatant lies, the clever half-truths and the issueless GOP agenda for so long they’re locked in.

The most difficult thing for any politician to do is to tell supporters they are wrong, while explaining actual facts to skeptics. But most Republican officeholders have long since ceased to be independent agents. They don’t lead; they are motivated to avoid primary challenges and do so by justifying any policy or any behavior that follows Trumpian talking points. These are their keys to political survival. Republicans are so woefully out of practice leveling with their constituents that most of them adopted Sen. Jim Risch’s approach to the latest impeachment inducing information that Trump pressured Ukraine to manufacture dirt on a political rival. That is a national security and abuse of power transgression that should boggle any conservative’s mind, but Risch isn’t the least bit concerned and immediately trotted out a mini-blizzard of flim flam that avoids facts.

“For years the far left has been trying to delegitimize everything President Trump does,” Risch said. Quite a statement coming from a guy who warmly embraced every effort to thwart a Democratic president, including refusing to even consider a Supreme Court nominee. Risch accused Democrats of “prioritizing politics over facts.” Again, quite a comment from a politician who dismissed the special counsel’s Russian report as a “nothing burger.”

During a recent speech in Boise, Risch said Idahoans could count on him to never “fight with the president,” as if senatorial independence in a co-equal branch of government equaled political combat. Uncharacteristically, Risch spoke real truth when he said those Republicans who have pushed back against Trumpian lies and misdeeds “are not here anymore.”

That’s all you really need to know about a fact-free Republican Party. Job security is job one.

A serious day of reckoning is coming. Search for facts. Don’t trust your bias. The press isn’t the enemy of the people, but politicians unwilling to confront genuine high crimes come pretty close to being just that.
 

Sunshine

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The half-life of a failed political campaign is normally about 15 minutes. You lose and you’re forgotten pretty quickly even though the lessons of a losing campaign can sometimes be more enduring that what we learn from a winner.

Last year’s losing Democratic campaign for governor of Idaho is such a case. Since political memories fade quickly – remember when Mexico was going to pay for the wall and a certain candidate was going to release his tax returns – let me offer a reminder.

After a fairly brutal three-way Republican primary last year, Brad Little emerged from the GOP field to take on former state representative Paulette Jordan who had won a two-person Democratic primary. Little then cruised to a general election victory over Jordan, winning, to no great surprise, nearly 60% of the vote to Jordan’s 38%. Three other candidates divided the rest.

Jordan began the post-primary campaign riding pretty high, stimulating a lot of national press interest in her personal story and seeming to have a chance to make it an interesting contest. Little, meanwhile, needed to re-unite a somewhat divided GOP. By the time summer rolled around Jordan’s campaign was floundering. The campaign manager quit, one of several staff departures, when it was revealed that Jordan had established a federal “super PAC,” a political action committee able to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money in support or in opposition to candidates. And we then learned that the Jordan campaign had required Trumpian “non-disclosure” agreements with campaign staff.

Jordan’s campaign finance report covering the period from the primary to October 1 was unlike any I’ve seen in looking at those reports for nearly 40 years. She eventually raised and spent over $1.2 million on out-of-state consultants, lots of out-of-state travel and a variety of hard to understand shell corporations, including a one in Wyoming that drew particular attention. Almost nothing was spent on television.

A lot of Jordan’s spending, as I and others wrote at the time, was just odd and seemed seriously disconnected from any real effort to convince 300,000 or so Idaho voters – the number Jordan needed to squeak to a win – to actually vote for her.

As the Associated Press wrote last October: “The company registered in Wyoming as Roughneck Steering Inc. drew attention among Jordan’s hundreds of expense entries because Wyoming’s laws don’t require the officers of a company to be made public with the initial filing. That made it impossible to know from the finance report who was behind the company and why Jordan sent it $20,000.”

Roughneck Steering registered with the Wyoming Secretary of State on July 26, 2018 as a for profit domestic corporation. Two $10,000 payments to the company from Jordan’s campaign followed, along with a confusing explanation from the campaign as to what was done for the money and who did it. The campaign said polling work was involved, undertaken apparently by Republicans who could not risk being exposed for helping a Democrat. Hence the shell company.

Under the laws of the state of Wyoming, Roughneck Steering was required to file an annual report for the Wyoming Secretary of State on July 1, 2019. That first year report requires, unlike the initial corporate filing, more detail about officers of the company. Wyoming grants a 60-day grace period beyond the filing date so that a company has even more time to make its filing legal.

On September 8, 2019, the Wyoming Secretary of State declared Roughneck Steering “inactive” and “administratively dissolved.” As a helpful employee in the office in Cheyenne told me this week the company has basically ceased to exist.

Here’s why this ancient political history still matters. The purpose of Idaho’s campaign finance law is disclosure, real transparency. A run of the mill voter, a political rival, a supporter or opponent of a particular candidate is supposed to be able to look at a candidate’s reports and figure out where the campaign’s money came from and how and with whom it was spent. That’s why the reports are typically called “sunshine” reports. Sunshine is a disinfectant.

If the Jordan campaign is able – and clearly they have been able to date – to get away with sending money to a shell corporation at a post office box in Wyoming in a way that intentionally hides the beneficiary of the payment and how the money was spent that’s not anyone’s definition of disclosure.

Let’s assume for a moment the Jordan campaign really did pay some Idaho GOP operatives through this Wyoming shell company. We can assume it, because we’ll likely never know for sure. But where does such subterfuge stop?

Imagine that some future campaign actually wanted to launder some campaign cash. Say a candidate collects a hundred grand from campaign contributors, but really wants to put that money in his or her own pocket. Just set up a shell corporation in Wyoming, a state notoriously sympathetic to corporate slight of hand, and report the $100,000 “expenditure” as “campaign consulting” or “research” or even “polling,” and then have your shell company hand the cash back to the money-laundering candidate.

The state of Wyoming will be none the wiser. Idaho’s Secretary of State, even if there is suspicion of something untoward, has little ability to investigate. A loophole is created, or better yet has already been created.

The remedy is simple: require under the Idaho campaign disclosure law not only identification of a company or individual that a campaign has spent money with, but also who owns the company and what specifically the company or individual did to warrant the expenditure. As with all campaign finance scandals from Nixon’s illegal contributions from the dairy industry in 1972 to Donald Trump’s apparent payments to silence various women prior to the 2016 election, when campaigns hide the source or destination of money it’s always because they can’t tolerate sunshine.

By the way that super PAC Jordan established last year was also registered in Wyoming at the same address and under the same rules as Roughneck Steering. It, too, has been declared inactive and dissolved by the state of Wyoming. The PAC reported only one contribution to date – $25,000 from the Coeur d’Alene Tribe last year – and only one expenditure, $3,000 to an accountant in California. The Federal Election Commission’s records show no contribution from the PAC to any candidate.
 

Show up, ask a question

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Republican Congressman Greg Walden represents a vast swath of Oregon in the House of Representatives. His huge district stretches from the Snake River canyon along the Idaho-Oregon border to the Nevada state line and then west to Medford, at the crest of the Cascades.

Walden, who has been in Congress for 20 years and has never won re-election with less than 56% of the vote, represents an area more than eight times larger than the state of New Jersey. Walden spent August, euphemistically called “the district work period” for members of Congress, actually working, and driving.

Walden held town hall meetings in such exotic places as Heppner and Burns; he met with constituents at the fire hall in Arlington and talked politics at Bob’s Texas T-Bone restaurant in Rufus. Maybe 250 Oregonians live in Rufus and I’m guessing most of them show up at Bob’s – the food was great and the waitress was “awesome” according to a recent Facebook review – with some regularity.

Walden, and for that matter the rest of the Oregon congressional delegation, are unlike most members of Congress. They regularly subject themselves to unscripted interaction with their constituents. Walden has held more than 15 town hall meetings since June, more than any other member of the House, and they are not always mild-mannered affairs.

As Oregon Public Radio reported on Walden’s town hall in Burns: “Harney County resident Lynn McClintock told Walden ‘our economy is becoming weaker because of these [tariffs], farms are struggling and the immigration is being impacted, too, with visas to get them to come and work in these fields.’”

Walden tap danced on the immigration part of the question, but admitted the Trump tariffs were hurting wheat farmers and damaging trade with Japan, but he defended the administration’s tough stand against China. In other words he explained himself one-on-one without a filter, where people could read his body language and gauge for themselves whether he was waffling or leveling.

Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden – he has served in the Senate since 1996 and before that was a member of the House – is the king of town halls. After constituent meetings in August in Beaverton, Corvallis, Newport, Bend and east Portland, Wyden now counts 926 town hall meetings since he became a senator. He has long pledged – and actually does – visit every one of Oregon’s 36 counties for a town hall every year.

I’ve attended a couple of Wyden’s meetings in Tillamook and Astoria, where the senator packed the local high school auditorium, made no speech, but instead took every question – many were pointed and specific – for more than an hour.

At Wyden’s town hall in Tillamook County in January – it was a Saturday afternoon and 80 or so people were on hand – the very first question was about Wyden’s support for something called the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, a confusing piece of legislation dealing with third-party boycotts of Israel. The questioner was measured but firm: if Wyden continued to support the legislation he would never, ever get the guy’s vote again.

Wyden explained his position, in no way satisfied his questioner and then took the next question, and so it went for an hour. There were questions about climate change, local fishing, the Mueller investigation and water quality in Rockaway. A couple of times Wyden reminded the crowd that anyone was welcome to ask a question and he appreciated all the questions, even when someone took issue with him. It was an afternoon of small-d “democracy.”

“There is no better way to empower citizens than to throw open the doors,” Wyden told Politico last year. “The founding fathers never had in mind that this would just be a spectator sport.”

In many ways Oregon is the political flip side of Idaho. Greg Walden is the only Republican in the Congressional delegation and Democrats dominate state offices and the legislature. But, Oregon is different from Idaho in at least one other way. Federal elected officials in Oregon routinely engage with their constituents in wide-open, no-holds-bared encounters.

That almost never happens in Idaho. You can search the official websites of Senator Jim Risch and Congressmen Russ Fulcher and Mike Simpson and find no record of the kind of town hall that is routine in Oregon.

Give Senator Mike Crapo credit for being all over Idaho in August with events from Cataldo to Corral, but it’s been a cold day in August since Crapo did an event like Walden and Wyden do almost every month.

Of course Idahoans who live in smaller, rural communities deserve the attention of a United States senator, and Crapo deserves credit for going places where other politicians can’t be bothered, but a visit to the fire department in Cavendish isn’t quite like taking question from anyone who shows up in downtown Lewiston, the north end of Boise or the high school in Pocatello.

Turns out the Idaho delegation are a lot more like the rest of Congress than is the Oregon delegation. There are politicians like Chuck Grassley, the senior Republican in the Senate, who makes a point of visiting every Iowa county – there are 99 of them – every year for a town hall. Grassley gets asked about his support for repealing Obamacare or rubber-stamping judicial nominees, yet he keeps showing up and has for 40 years.

But Grassley, Wyden and Walden are exceptions. Risch, Fulcher and Simpson are the norm.

I reached out to Walden recently to get a comment about all his town halls, but when his communications director realized I might compare Walden’s approach to that of his GOP colleagues in Idaho she demurred. “I do not think we are going to be able to provide a quote at this time for the article since the Idaho delegation are close friends of Greg’s,” she wrote in an email.

In other words, Walden didn’t want to show up his pals, but it seems like he already has.

It makes you wonder if respect for Congress and regard for our political system would improve if elected members of Congress just showed up once in a while and answered questions from people they theoretically work for.
 

How quickly things go to hell

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In spare, yet elegant language Winston Churchill, determined to tell his story of the second Great War in his lifetime, wrote about this week 80 years ago.

“Poland was attacked by Germany at dawn on September 1. The mobilization of all our forces was ordered during the morning. The Prime Minister asked me to visit him in the afternoon at Downing Street,” Churchill wrote in the first volume of his literary and historical masterpiece about the Second World War.

Students of history – most of us, of course, weren’t around for the world changing events of the first week of September 1939 – will know what followed. Churchill returned to the British Admiralty as First Lord, a position he vacated in disgrace in in 1915, and eventually, in 1940, became prime minister. Churchill only got the top job, a position he had coveted since his youth, because of failure.

A botched military expedition landed British troops on the Norwegian coast in the spring of 1940 led to history shaping decisions. Churchill supported the Norway landings, but the ill-planned and poorly equipped troops had to be withdrawn and the Royal Navy lost several ships, including an aircraft carrier. The subsequent debate – “the most momentous that has ever taken place in Parliament” in the words of one participant – was so bitter, so ugly that it soon became clear that Neville Chamberlain, the Conservative prime minister would have to resign.

Churchill became prime minister, at least in part – he did not detail this in his own writings – because he skillfully maneuvered for the job, sidelining the sitting foreign secretary the First Earl of Halifax, a calm, quiet, pious man known as “the Holy Fox.” Halifax was also “an appeaser,” one of many British politicians who had sought up until the moment Hitler’s panzers rolled across the Poland frontier to find a way – almost any way – to avoid war. Halifax was also a member of the House of Lords, a political detail that technically prevented from speaking in the Commons, a difficult problem for a politician attempting to rally the country to war.

Churchill used all his leverage and a lifetime of experience in politics – he was 64 at the time – to make it obvious to everyone in public life in Britain that the King had to summon him to form a government. As he later wrote of his first night as prime minister, “I felt as though I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and this trial.” He slept soundly, Churchill recalled, “and had no need for cheering dreams. Facts are better than dreams.”

In his masterful biography of Churchill, arguably the most important and most complex political figure of the 20thCentury, the historian Andrew Roberts makes one telling and extremely valuable point about this now ancient history: It might have turned out much differently.

Halifax, with all his shortcomings, but also senior standing in the party could have insisted on the premiership. He had more support among Conservatives and, in contrast to Churchill’s impulsiveness and penchant for drama, was considered a man of superior judgment. The King also wanted Halifax to succeed Chamberlain. The complication of his House of Lords position might have been finessed. Yet Halifax, a figure now largely lost to history or if remembered not remembered well, did something remarkable. He put his country ahead of himself.

“He knew in his heart,” Roberts has written, “that he was not of the calibre required for a wartime prime minister, and that Winston Churchill was.” Halifax’s act of “supreme self-abnegation” was, Roberts says, perhaps his greatest service to his country, indeed to the world.

There is certainly no equivalence – or very little – between a war crisis 80 years ago and the slow walking economic suicide taking place today around Britain’s pending withdrawal from the European Union. Yet the confluence of cataclysmic events does underscore one immutable truth: character in leadership matters, and never matters more than in times of great trial.

The British prime minister today, Boris Johnson, is as unlike the man who came to power in Britain in 1939 as two men could be. Johnson claims to revere Churchill and has written a book about him, but BoJo, as he’s now regularly called, is a clownish figure not unlike his chaos inducing similar number in the White House. Neither man has the fundamental character to master the jobs they hold let alone provide the steady, principled leadership that troubled times demand.

The erudite Edward Luce, a columnist for the Financial Times, summed up Johnson this week – he might have been talking about Donald Trump: “To anyone not paying attention, Boris Johnson is making it up as he goes along, which is precisely what he did as a journalist. He doesn’t have a clue how to govern. His prime ministership is tomorrow’s fish and chip paper.”

Johnson lost his first vote in Parliament this week and his petulant response was to effectively sack nearly two-dozen members of the Conservative Party, including Winston Churchill’s grandson, Nicholas Soames. The firing, reminiscent of Donald Trump’s constant need to punish any Republican who darns cross him, came 80 years to the day that Soames’s grandfather came back to the Admiralty. The irony is lost only on someone who has no appreciation of irony.

There is crisis afoot in the world’s two great democracies and the trouble starts, or at least is most sharply defined, at the top. The notion that character counts, that the mental and moral qualities necessary for true leadership are paramount, is missing from politics. Truth has taken a vacation.

Some of our fellow citizens apparently feel so despondent about the shape of things that they willingly turn governments over to turmoil makers like Donald and Boris, believing somehow that “leaders” who fuel their days with chaos and thrive on narcissistic self-interest are good for what ails us.

Those who forget history, as it’s said, are doomed to repeat it. The importance of character-driven leadership has rarely been more important, and that is an enduring lesson from September 1939. How quickly things can go to hell without principled leadership is another lesson.

And facts remain better than dreams.
 

Leadership failure

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The shambolic, incoherent, incompetent, lie-infested and often just plain crazy foreign policy of Donald Trump was on full display in recent days, while what passes for the TOP (Trump Old Party) foreign policy establishment, including Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, was on August vacation.

In the space of a few days:

Trump threw a hissy fit when the Danish prime minister rebuffed his scheme to “buy” Greenland and Trump responded by cancelling a state visit.

The chaos of the president’s Iranian policy was on full view at the G-7 summit in France where Trump’s decision to pull out of the agreement to control Iran’s nuclear weapons program, with no realistic alternative in place, has become a signature foreign policy failure.

Trump claimed, with no evidence that talks with China to end an escalating trade war were back on. They were not. Nor had the U.S. made a trade deal with Japan, as Trump claimed.

And, of course, Vladimir Putin’s best friend, the president of the United States, was doing PR work for the Russian thug with our G-7 allies, while dishonoring years of bipartisan and international condemnation of the former KGB officer.

Oh, yes, after three Trump photo ops with Kim Jong Un, events that gave the North Korea dictator precisely the legitimacy he craves, that murderous thug is still firing off missiles in violation of United Nation’s sanctions.

“The First Lady has gotten to know Kim Jong Un, and I think she’d agree with me—he is a man with a country that has tremendous potential,” Trump told reporters at the G-7.

But as journalist Robin Wright pointed out, “Melania Trump has never met Kim.” The White House later issued a “clarification.” Stephanie Grisham, the latest dissembler in the White House press office, said that Trump “confides in his wife on many issues including the detailed elements of his strong relationship with Chairman Kim—and while the First Lady hasn’t met him, the President feels like she’s gotten to know him too” Right.

It’s difficult to pick the most serious of Trump’s fables from among his smorgasbord of foreign policy lies, half-truths and bouts of wishful thinking, but the continuing championing of Putin has to be among the most worrisome.

In arguing to readmit Russia to the group of seven, which include the U.K., Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan, Trump offered a twisted rationale that was head spinning in its nonsense. Remember that Russia was expelled from the group after Putin’s unlawful and forced “annexation” of Crimea in March 2014. That move marked the first time since the end of World War II that national boundaries in Europe were altered by force. It was, and remains, a very big deal.

Yet, Trump said, “[Crimea] was sort of taken away from President Obama. Not taken away from President Trump, taken away from President Obama … President Obama was not happy that this happened because it was embarrassing to him. Right. It was very embarrassing to him and he wanted Russia to be out of the, what was called the G8, and that was his determination. He was outsmarted by Putin. He was outsmarted. President Putin outsmarted President Obama.”

No, Putin did not “outsmart” Obama. Putin invaded a territory that was once part of the old Soviet Union because he wants to put the old union back together. It’s why he’s constantly meddling in Ukraine. His action was a blatant, aggressive violation of international law and the world’s major democracies sanctioned him and kicked him out of the G-7.

“Trump is the one working to undo those punishments,” Jonathan Chait wrote in New York Magazine, “allowing Putin to reap the rewards of the invasion at no cost, and possibly to grab more territory if he desires. It is a completely Orwellian spectacle: the president trying to reward Russia’s attack is blaming the president who punished the attack for the invasion itself.”

And this from conservative writer Andrew Egger: “The fact that Trump is more comfortable savaging other U.S. politicians than our actual adversaries isn’t exactly surprising by now, yet the brazenness of it is still sufficient to shock.”

Which brings us to Risch, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who recently announced his re-election campaign and promptly received Trump’s full-throated endorsement “Senator Jim Risch of the Great State of Idaho has been an incredible supporter of our Agenda!,” Trump Tweeted. It was pay back for Risch’s blind adherence to a foreign policy, as former Defense Secretary James Mattis said recently that “puts us at increasing risk in the world.”

In the state’s history only a handful of Idahoans have been given – or earned – a place of national leadership. I think of Republican Sen. James A. McClure, who led the Senate Energy Committee in the early 1980s with considerable distinction, while also serving in a Senate leadership position. Cecil Andrus’s tenure as Secretary of the Interior ranks among the very best in history. William Borah and Frank Church both chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and distinguished themselves by, among other acts, calling various presidents over foreign policy blunders.

Risch has now reached the pinnacle of a lifetime in public office – he’s a case study of a career politician – but he’s apparently willing to squander any influence he might have over foreign policy to remain “an incredible supporter” of Trump’s agenda.

Does that mean Risch endorses Putin’s return to the G-7? Does he really believe the efforts to control Iran or North Korean nuclear weapons are in good hands with this president? Does he think it appropriate that the next G-7 summit should be held at Trump’s struggling Florida golf resort, a multi-million dollar scheme to put money in the president’s own pocket?

We don’t know the answer to these and a dozen other questions because the senator rarely – if ever – comments on anything having to do with Trump’s foreign policy. No statements. No hearings. No leadership. And there isn’t a scintilla of evidence that Risch’s strategy of whispering in Trump’s ear, as he claims to do on a regular basis, has had any effect on either his behavior or his policy.

It’s not his job, Risch infamously said, the call out the president’s lies.

Risch has arrived at his moment of power and prestige, but he’s opted for partisan politics – and his own re-election – over the national interest. If there were any justice in politics it should cost him his job.
 

Devaluing education

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My dad never went to college. He graduated from high school in 1930 when unemployment rates were on the way to 15% and eventually reached 25%. He needed – and wanted a job – so he never seriously thought about taking the time to get more education. I believe he regretted that decision for the rest of his life.

It was the same for my mother, a high school graduate who ended up working in the administrative office of a small state college in Nebraska. She had all the skills needed in those days to be a secretary. She could type, take shorthand and knew how to format a business letter, but I’ve always suspected she longed for more. For many in her generation, particularly women, more was just not an option.

Both my parents were avid readers and our home was filled with books and magazines and newspapers, but no degrees. They valued what they never had an opportunity to achieve and there was never a doubt that my brother and I would go to college. It would be a financial struggle to some degree, but tuition at a state college in those days was remarkably affordable and besides my parents – children of the Great Depression – accepted it as an article of faith that a college education was a stepping stone on a path to a better, more financially secure life.

Yet, opinions about the value of higher education divide Americans like most everything else divides us. The Pew Research Center reported recently that, “over the past two years, the share of Republicans and Republican leaners who view the impact of colleges and universities positively has declined 18 percentage points (from 54% to 36%), and this shift in opinion has occurred across most demographic and ideological groups within the GOP.”

Views on the part of Democrats about the positive role of colleges and universities are almost the reverse of those held by Republicans, with wide majorities of Democrats saying, “colleges have a positive effect on the way things are going in the country.”

It’s no coincidence that the Republican Party “base,” the die hard supporters of the current president, are dominated by non-college educated voters who apparently broadly subscribe to the notion that higher education is dominated by “elites” peddling dangerous ideas. It’s also no coincidence that Republican elected officials from coast-to-coast are increasingly critical of higher education.

Alaska’s Republican governor, a Donald Trump favorite, recently proposed an immediate $130 million, 40% reduction in state support for the Alaska university system. Public outrage and the real threat that such drastic action would decimate the University of Alaska prompted a pull back. The university system now has three years to absorb a $70 million haircut.

Two years ago the attorney general of Arizona sued the state’s university system because tuition was too high, but of course failed to acknowledge that the GOP dominated state legislature has wacked higher education funding by more than 40% over the last decade.

According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, “Overall state funding for public two- and four-year colleges in the school year ending in 2018 was more than $7 billion below its 2008 level, after adjusting for inflation.”

In eight states – Alabama, Arizona, Illinois, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina – per-student funding declined by more than 30 percent over ten years. Still, state funding and how it has impacted tuition and fees is just a part of the higher education story.

In Idaho, of course, some Republican lawmakers want to wage a culture war over diversity programs on Idaho campuses and critiques from the political right often involve the accusation that liberals dominate college and university classrooms and administration.

While my own college experience is mighty dated, I’m confident the culture war aspects of modern higher education are vastly overblown. My most memorable college instruction was a rumpled old prof who made me grapple with the causes and effects of the American Civil War. He didn’t have a political agenda. He was a teacher. I still have the textbook he used. I know dozens if not hundreds of teachers and administrators in higher education and to a person their motives are education, not indoctrination.

The new leaders who are now in place at all of Idaho’s public colleges and universities face daunting challenges, including raising tuition costs that can be tied directly to decreased state support. But no issue is more important than impressing upon law and policy makers that higher education is vital to personal and societal success. College presidents can no longer, if they ever could, be content to assume, as my parents did, that everyone gets the message about how important higher education is and will be in the future.

Amid the culture wars and partisan divides it’s worth focusing on the cold hard fact that the current and future American economy demands more education for more Americans. Not everyone needs or wants a four year degree, of course, and community colleges and skills training of all kinds must be a critical part of producing a talented workforce. A still too little tapped role for colleges and universities are robust partnerships with workforce and skills training program. Policy makers need to find the resources to make that work.

Yet with evidence showing that the higher educational achievement in the United States has now been overtaken by some of our principal economic competitors, including South Korea (where 70% of young people earn a college degree), as well as Canada and Japan. In fact, the U.S. ranks eleventh among 35 developed nations in college attainment according to a new study by the American Enterprise Institute.

Like so much that divides Americans, the “is college worth it” gap that has Republicans challenging higher education’s value is based more on ideology than facts. At its core a valuable and valued higher education produces critical thinkers, able to reason a way though problems and opportunities by applying learned knowledge. Never have we needed that kind of education more.
 

War on the west

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Amid the hourly chaos that is the Trump government it is possible to lose sight of the truly significant, while focusing on the merely crazy or simply incompetent.

So it was with the appointment – without Senate confirmation – of the acting director of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the announced intention of the administration to effectively gut the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The two events – a hardly a coincidence – occurred a few days apart.

It turns out the most incompetent administration in anyone’s lifetime is competent in one way: it knows how to trash the environment.

The appointment of William Perry Pendley, a hard rightwing lawyer who has repeatedly voiced support for selling public lands, is in keeping with the administration’s appointments of Ryan Zinke, the ethically challenged former Secretary of the Interior, and current Secretary David Bernhardt, a former coal industry lobbyist.

These guys don’t care about public access to public lands for western hunters and fishermen, backpackers and sightseers; they’re all about lessening protections and being cozy with the west’s extractive industries. You’d be naïve not to think that they will, as one-time Secretary Cecil D. Andrus said, cater to “the rape, ruin and run” crowd.

Pendley has a particularly pernicious reputation. As High Country News noted recently: “The Wyoming native has extreme anti-government views. He despises the Endangered Species Act, once writing the bedrock conservation law seeks ‘to kill or prevent anybody from making a living on federal land.’ He has sued the federal government numerous times in the last three decades, including over ESA listings and national monument designations. He’s called the science of climate change ‘junk science’ and blasted the Obama administration for waging a perceived ‘war on coal.’”

In a January 2016 article in the National Review, Pendley, who styles himself as one of the original “Sagebrush Rebels,” boldly asserted that, “The Founding Fathers intended all lands owned by the federal government to be sold.” In that article Pendley championed Illinois as a model all western states should aspire to. Ninety-eight percent of the land in Illinois is owned privately. Try finding a place to hunt on public land in the Land of Lincoln.

Pendley, a supporter of the anti-government, anti-public lands Bundy crowd, also traffics in the old myth that the 1980s “Sagebrush Rebellion” was a spontaneous reaction to policies advanced by the Carter Administration when Andrus was running the Interior Department. It’s nonsense. Big money interests and corporate exploiters have been lusting over your land for generations. They always wait for an attractive political moment to pounce and they now have a willing accomplice in the White House.

In 1980, the Interior Department did a study of the various efforts to liquidate the west’s vast public acreage and, to no great surprise, found the “Sagebrush Rebellion” was as old as the hills. To quote from that report:

    In 1832 the Public Land Committee of the U.S. Senate claimed that state sovereignty was threatened by federal land ownership. The rest of Congress, however, maintained its discretionary authority to manage such land without limitation and rejected the complaint.

    In 1930 the Hoover Commission proposed to cede much of the public domain to the states. The recommendation was opposed by both the eastern Congressional majority and by the Western states, who having already acquired the most productive land, wanted no responsibility for the “waste lands” remaining.

    In the 1940s Senator Pat McCarran (D., Nevada) conducted a series of investigations into the Grazing Service (one of BLM’s predecessors) and the Forest Service, both of whom were trying to bring livestock grazing under control. In 1946 Senator Edward Robertson of Wyoming sponsored a bill to convey all unreserved and unappropriated lands to their respective states. BLM was formed the same year.

    In 1956 Senator Russell Long (D., Louisiana) proposed similar legislation.

The new “acting” head of the BLM is just the latest in a long line of hucksters who want to limit your ownership of national forests and rangelands. They’re driven by an ultra-conservative mindset that don’t just devalue public land, but considers it valueless.

The decision to gut much of the enforcement mechanism of the ESA was, of course, immediately endorsed by Idaho’s anti-conservation Senate delegation and Rep. Russ Fulcher, and it represents an even more blatant attack on the environment. Fulcher, parroting talking points that could have been produced by the “rape, ruin and run” crowd, congratulated Trump and company for “increasing transparency and continuing to fix this broken law.”

Richard Nixon signed this “broken law.” It has saved bald eagles and grizzly bears and countless other species. Leave it to Trump, a guy whose idea of roughing it is a resort bathroom without gold fixtures, to shred the last bit of credibility Republicans had on the environment.

The legacy of America’s public lands is one sure thing we can hand off to our grandchildren. No other country on earth has as much abundance of the open and accessible public lands, as well as the wildlife diversity that literally defines the American west. The land doesn’t belong to a president, or a blinkered rightwing lawyer or a coal company. It belongs to all of us, and our kids.

I’ll believe Republicans like Jim Risch and Mike Crapo value public lands when I see them insist on putting the acting BLM director through a Senate confirmation vote. I’ll believe Fulcher cares about your kid’s western legacy when he speaks, even once, about the value of the wide-open west without sounding like a lobbyist for an oil company.

The folks who regular devalue the idea of America’s public lands often talk about “balance,” which is vitally important in a region where many people make a living off the land. But they rarely talk about stewardship or how to harmonize the needs of resource industries with the legitimate values of conservation.

“When the West fully learns,” the great writer Wallace Stegner once said, “that cooperation, not rugged individualism, is the quality that most characterizes and preserves it, then it will have achieved itself and outlived its origins. Then it has a chance to create a society to match its scenery.”