"No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions." --Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1804.
Beautiful Nate/Dennis Mansfield
Howard Books

Beautiful Nate: A Memoir of a Family’s Love, a Life Lost, and Heaven’s Promises, written by Idahoan Dennis Mansfield about the son who died four years ago, is as much as anything else about finding the beauty within a mess. Mansfield does, although doing that has meant rethinking much of what he once thought he knew.

Those who got to know Mansfield when he first moved to Idaho a bit over 20 years ago, when he emerged as a state leader of Focus on the Family and maybe the state’s most visible social conservative, encountered a person of near-total certitude. An activist on the abortion and gay rights fronts, and tightly connected through much of the Idaho (and national) evangelical community, he seemed easily defined by stereotype. In his personal life too, he writes, he had a definitive take on among other things how to raise children.

Then Nate happened, and if what followed didn’t upend everything in Mansfield’s world, it changed a great deal.

He still is a highly active evangelical Christian and a political conservative, and his faith runs through a book which feels written more for an evangelical audience, or at least within that framework, than for people of other persuasions. But it’s well worth reading for non-evangelicals too, partly for the insights Mansfield offers here into the mindset, and partly because the story at the heart of the book, Nate’s, is at its core a human tale of tragedy and hope, running well beyond limitations of religion or politics, a sequence of events that could happen to anyone and has happened to many.

We’re all of us complex people, but Nate Mansfield, Dennis’ eldest son, may have been more obviously so than most. A political conservative and an evangelical Christian – he evidently shared those things with his father, to some degree at least to the end – was both gifted and capable on a number of fronts (as a teenaged campaign manager, for example) but also rebellious, ferociously angry and driven toward drug abuse. The roots of this aren’t completely spelled out (Mansfield may here be telling as much as he knows about those origins), but before Nate left high school he had been arrested – creating a problem for Mansfield’s 2000 congressional campaign – and would be arrested repeatedly in the years to come. Periodically addicted to substances both legal and not, heroin among them, Nate died in 2009 of a drug interaction.

The story of how Nate and his parents related uneasily over the years to come is unfortunately not an altogether new tale these days. There is a notably breathtaking and wrenching section here where Mansfield and his wife have to decide whether to allow a then-imprisoned Nate out from behind bars and back into their house, and decide against. You can feel the pain on the page.

The background is distinctive, however, because Mansfield had come into parenting and into much of his early activist work out of certainty that he knew the right way to raise a child – he describes in some detail what that was, where it came from, how he tried to put it into effect and how it periodically smashed into practical application – and was thrown when it didn’t work out. (In Nate’s case, that is: We aren’t told quite enough about the other two children in the house, but their lives apparently proceeded on less eventful and markedly smoother tracks to adulthood.)

Toward the end of the book, Mansfield writes, “I’ve learned that I don’t have all the answers. In many instances, I don’t even have the questions. My past bravado in posing and pretending may have looked good, but it was not good. It was flawed. …

“There is a prevailing series of unintended lies in evangelical Christianity that have been allowed to take root in the last 30 years. One lie says that loving ourselves is sin. Another says there are secrets to child raising and good marriage – that only some have the secrets and the rest of us should visit their websites and buy their products … This same reasoning says that if our lives are in chaos and being ripped apart at the seams, something is internally wrong. ‘We must make every effort not to show the damage,’ this reasoning quietly states. I’ve seen this, because I have lived it. Not only is it disingenuous and wrong, it simply does not work.”

Whatever other hopes he may intend for Beautiful Nate, Mansfield has put front and center here the honesty of the messy reality that in Nate’s life became unavoidable fact. For all the tragedy and heartbreak around that life, it engendered transformation and enlightenment in its wake. There’s the hope in Beautiful Nate, ample cause alone for reading it.

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Each Monday, we publish the Idaho Weekly Briefing, sent via email to subscribers. toward the end of last year, we decided to try something new: Summarizing the key elements of the Briefings from throughout the year in one book. The Idaho Briefing Yearbook 2012 is now available, covering all of the last year.

Ordering information is in the box above. It is available now.

Unlike the regular Briefings, the book is available only (for now) in print version.

It takes in a wide range of territory, the same as the weekly Briefings (which also, separately, cover Oregon and Washington). We have reports on politics, federal, state and local government, legal and law enforcement action, business and the economy, the environment, health and education, transportation, communication and culture in the state. There are also calendars and reports on milestones of people – arrival and departures, including deaths, during the year.

If you want to know what happened (that’s of importance) in Idaho last year, the Yearbook is probably the best place to start. Let us know what you think.

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Book Review

God Gave Me a Mulligan: A Journalist’s Life in War and Peace, by A. Robert Smith (Punster Press, 2012)

Northwest political watchers who go back to the 70s, or further, will recall the name of A. Robert Smith, who covered the region for nearly three decades from the viewpoint of Washington, D.C. His is a story of a specific time and place; it would not be easy to replicate now.

Smith was a World War II vet (the book’s title derives mainly from a close call he had in the Pacific) unsure about what he wanted to do afterward, professionally. He became interested in journalism, drove to Washington D.C. to work for a while as a copyboy in one of that city’s now long-deceased papers, and then decided he wanted to become a Washington correspondent – cover Congress, attend White House briefings, break stories through the executive agencies. He didn’t go for it the usual way, which would have involved spending many years working his way up at one of the papers. His route, instead, was to go to one of the regions of the country where few of the newspapers had D.C. coverage other than the wire service (mostly, that is, Associated Press). That brought him to the Northwest, where he sold editors in the region – mainly Washington and Oregon (the Oregonian and the Eugene Register Guard among them) but a few in Idaho too, and also in Alaska, for which he covered the arrival of statehood – the idea of coverage tailored for their readers.

That meant Smith had essentially no preparation at all for taking on a major and highly complex journalistic assignment. Seemed not to matter. Through the 50s and 60s, his bureau grew in size. By the mid-seventies, as newspapers were swept into groups and the first of many rounds of cost-cutting began, the bureau began to struggle, and in 1978 Smith left for an editing job at a Virginia newspaper.

Before then, though, there were lots of stories, and Smithy tells quite a few in this memoir. Some of the best have to do with Senator Wayne Morse, the cantankerous Oregon liberal who was the subject of Smith’s first book (Tiger in the Senate), which resulted in getting Smith banned from his Senate office for several years. (For the second time.) He throws in descriptions of many of the other Northwest figures, and presidents, he ran into along the way. There is, in all, the sense of a fair-minded guy who knew how to cover a partisan community in a decent and civil manner. Today’s Washington press corps could do worse than to take heed.

Smith’s bureau was eventually sold to Steve Forrester, whose family owned (and still does) several Oregon newspapers, and it continued on for some years. At present, though, there’s no counterpart; probably the idea of making a living covering the Northwest for newspapers, once a viable business, is no longer practical. So much the worse for the Northwest.

But it was done once, and well. Large portions of Mulligan are simply personal (a well-told human story), but Northwesterners will find plenty of interest here.

(A small quibble: If he ever mentioned anywhere what the “A” stood for, I missed it.)

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Two subjects here. One is the long-time Washington Senator Henry Jackson, one of the most impactful the region has ever had, and his work with one of his staffers, Forrest Gerard – and we should note here that a lot of the work credited to members of Congress actually gets done by staffers, so that’s a worthy story on its own merits.

The other is the issue at hand: “Termination,” as applied to Indian reservations. As the glossary puts it, termination in the context of Indian reservations means “an end to the special relationship between tribes and the federal government. The idea was to settle claims with tribal governments and then terminate the federal government’s role on reservations. American Indians would then become subject to state laws.”

For someone who likes clear and clean lines of government, the federally-recognized tribes and their reservations are an inconvenience. They fit nowhere in the nation’s federal system, but they’re not – terms of language notwithstanding – realistically independent nations either. (Independent nations controlled by a bureau of the federal government?) A wide range of people have bought into the idea of termination over the years. Of course, if that approach had become law, Indian country would look a lot different now, and surely a lot less prosperous.

Once, Jackson was one of them. He changed his mind, and his work with Gerrard was one of the key levers in that change.

So the new book Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars, written by former Seattle Post-Intelligencer Editorial Page Editor Mark Trahant (and, much further back, former Sho-Ban News editor), tells a story about how a policy – against termination – came to be put in place after an unsteady run through the years, and a story about how Washington works. It’s a solid slice of political storytelling.

It isn’t an entirely dispassionate look at the subject; Trahant is clearly anti-termination. His argument, and compelling, is that ending the federal relationship with the tribes would effectively end their governing structure, and over time – maybe not long time – that would effectively destroy the tribes and native culture. Now, he writes that tribal self-government “is no longer in question. Every tribe, state and federal leader now accepts that framework as a given.”

Wasn’t always that way. Trahant recounts how Congress formally adopted a termination resolution in 1958.

Jackson is one of the main personal reasons for that transition, along with Gerard. For those of us who don’t track Indian issues in Congress closely, it’s an obscure story. This book shows why it should not be.

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Some of the reads enjoyed here over the last year, and recommended to you, from Ridenbaugh Press. Let us know what you think – and what else we should be reading . . .


Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine Is Making Us Sicker and Poorer by Shannon Brownlee (Bloomsbury, 2007). The counter-intuitive title pretty much says it. Yes, the lack of health insurance is an enormous problem; the lack of affordable health care generally is even bigger. But a key part of the problem has to do with some of the reasons that hideously expensive system is so expensive, and it includes a lot of treatment that shouldn’t be. This is a subject this space will return to in the months ahead, and health care reform is highly likely to be a major theme of the months ahead; and this investigative book is excellent reading meantime about what should be an important part of all that. A whole lot of what is done in the name of our health isn’t making us healthier, and we nationally need to come to grips with that. Soon.


The Appeal by John Grisham (Delta, 2008). It’s one of his legal potboilers (which tend to be not quite as well written as his off-track books), but few books this year hit harder politically. Few overt polemics made the case so well; this is a classic case of using fictional characters to lay out a story that has the full ring of truth, the kind of function that has a long (even honored) history. It may be a thriller, but it’s also one of the best political books of the year, and you need look nowhere further than the recent history of the contests for the Washington Supreme Court to see why. Grisham here is angry – he lets no one off the hook, most especially voters who too often don’t know enough about what they’re doing.


Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson (Vintage, 1995). Yes, this novel has been around for years, and yes, it’s already gotten lots of kudos. But we just got around to it this year, and glad for it. The story is well told, the characters thoughtfully deepened and rounded, but what sticks most are the atmosphere and the feelings. Set in the Northwest (mostly in the San Juan islands), it has a lot to say about this region, without explicitly going there – it has a well-drawn background, but that’s not its core subject. Its take on community relations, and how even the islands among our communities are globally linked, are both timeless and timely. This can be one of those books that changes the way you look at the world, and (maybe more than that) your neighbors.


Have a Nice Doomsday by Nicholas Guyatt (Harper Perennial, 2007). The back cover notes: “50 million Americans have come to believe that the apocalypse will take place in their lifetime.” The background of that, and the myriad implications how this country is run, unspool in this book, written with a light touch – it isn’t the slash job you might expect. There’s humor scattered throughout, and Guyatt’s tone is a little bemused (he’s no true believer, just a student of those who are), but he plays fair. This book is about a whole large part of the country the traditional mass media rarely treat, and rarely know how. They (and the blogosphere, for that matter) could take a few lessons from Guyatt’s approach.


Lincoln, President-Elect by Harold Holzer (Simon & Schuster, 2008). The subtitle is, “Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860-61,” and that’s what it covers – and argues about. There’s been a strain of historical thought, starting contemporaneous with Lincoln, that he mishandled, dealt too loosely, with the secession crisis during the months between his election and inauguration. This book, by a writer of numerous Civil War era histories and researched to intricate detail, makes an excellent case that Lincoln played the few cards available to him far better than most people thought, or still do think. This book, surprisingly timely, might be therapeutic for the currently hyperventilating among us.


The Conscience of a Liberal by Paul Krugman (WW Norton, 2008). This came out some months before Krugman won the Nobel, and his subject is mostly politics, not economics, though Krugman expertly weaves the two of them, and makes the (academic, without getting abstruse or pedantic) case for how economic and politics have had a direct effect on each other. You needn’t agree with everything he says to find the book useful. More than any other of the year (that we’ve read), this one outlines the world view and the case for the governing just now coming into power, his early 2008 squabbles with Barack Obama notwithstanding. You’ll pick up some useful history, some useful economics, a statistics lesson or two, and more along the way.


Obama: From Promise to Power by David Mendell (Amistad, 2007). The two self-penned Obama books are worth the read (for different reasons), but if you want an informed outsider’s take on the man, this is a good option. Mendell was a Chicago Tribune reporter from 1998 to 2004, and covered Obama closely during most of that time; he’s familiar with the background, and he knew the man pre-fame. The book dishes little real dirt, although it amply covered almost everything that came out this year about Jeremiah Wright and other Chicago hot spots – none of those came as a surprise to anyone who read this early in the year. But it feels well grounded. There’s a little too much self-referential press material in it, and the book ends just before the ’08 presidential really kicked in. But this one may stand for a while as a solid backgrounder on the next president.


1960: LBJ vs. JFK vs. Nixon: The Epic Campaign That Forged Three Presidencies by David Pietrusza (Union Square Press, 2008). This doesn’t seem quite like the definitive take on the subject that it might have been, that Theodore White’s once seemed to be. But it covers such a mass of detail, full of so many neatly-observed pieces, that it belongs in the upper ranks of campaign books. Reading it this fall, as the presidential campaign hit its mid stages, it seemed especially appropos – the linkages kept popping up. Good history almost always repays reading; you never know where the lessons will reapply.

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McClure of Idaho, by William L. Smallwood, Caxton Press, Caldwell ID (2007).

reviewIn thinking back on James McClure, who was a senator from Idaho for 18 years through 1990 and a U.S. representative six years before that, you don’t recall either an overwhelming personality or riotous controversy; the mental picture can seem a little blurred, some of the normal shorthand – that he was a “conservative Republican” – doesn’t quite seem to cut it, especially for what the terms mean in this decade.

McClure bookThe new – release is set for September 1 – biography, McClure of Idaho, brings some focus. Get hold of two basic points and you have a fair sense of this guy who, improbably in some ways, has been one of Idaho’s most successful politicians.

One is this: He never really left the small, socially conservative, rural town of Payette where he grew up and established himself professionally. Politicians like to say such things about themselves, but in McClure’s case it seems generally true, generating the range of positives and negative you get from that background.

The other, less obvious to most of the public but clear to those who worked around or across from him, is implied by this passage: “You need to know that Jim McClure fancies himself as the consummate do-it-yourselfer. He did all the wiring and plumbing and heating installations in his Payette house during the years when it was undergoing remodeling, and he did the same thing in his cabin on Payette Lake outside of McCall. There isn’t anything around a house that he thinks he can’t install or repair.” McClure was (is presumably), to a degree unusual for a legislator, a highly focused detail man, happier working on the precise language of legislation or on a stubborn electrical wiring job, than in blasting off on the ills of the world.

Put the two pieces together, and you have a basis for evaluating McClure. This book, too – in an analogous sense, it too has these qualities. It is very much an “authorized” biography, and its mood and attitude is suffused by McClure’s and the community of family, friends and associates around him. But its 485 pages are also packed with loads of detail, and it’s an easy recommended read for anyone interested in one of Idaho’s leading political figures and the impact – considerable – he has had on the state.

Your writer should note here some background. I covered McClure as a newspaper reporter and editor during his last dozen or so years as a senator, and held him in some regard (and still do) as a highly capable public servant. (Should note too that the publisher, Caxton Press, also published a book I wrote called Governing Idaho, which can be located on the right-hand column of this site’s main page.) Linda Watkins (the managing editor here) worked at his Boise office as an intern for several months in the early 80s, and left with a favorable impression of both the senator and the office.

Externally, McClure was a classic example of “working up the steps” in politics: From Payette County prosecutor, to state senator, to Senate leadership, to the U.S. House, to the U.S. Senate, and came respectably close to becoming Senate majority leader. All of this suggests a grasping ambition, and in many politicians it would be, but you never got that sense from McClure. From him you got interest and energy about the job, but also an amiability that almost seemed diffident. You can imagine him walking into a room filled with people and just handing out by the wall, waiting for someone to walk up and talk; that’s not really an accurate image, but mainly because he trained himself to push out and campaign. Not many politicians clearly understand their personal assets while maintaining genuine humility and a personable style; McClure was a rarity in that. (Another way of putting it is to say that he had no personal charisma, an assessment he’d likely accept.) While a senator, he never seemed so smitten with the Beltway as to have any trouble giving it up, which he did in his mid-60s. (A fourth term in 1990 would have been his for the asking.)

That may be in part because he was always, in some important part of his mind, a small-town lawyer in a conservative, insular, religious community that viewed a lot of the outside world with some suspicion. For example. The upheaval of the 60s can be described in many ways; when writer William Smallwood characterizes much of it as a period of runamuck federal regulation and spending as the streets ran foul in unkempt hippies (all of which, he writes, was “generating outrage among the concerned citizens in the hinterlands” – so that we know which Americans were the concerned citizens and which were not), we’re getting a sense of many of the people of Payette, and McClure and the people around him, saw it. And how he saw the world, in the big sense, didn’t seem to change enormously however much detailed knowledge he accumulated (which he did) or however much he traveled around in it.

All of this alone might have made McClure a so-so legislator at best, but he also had this gift for detail, and that was transformative. Possibly no other member of Congress from Idaho has ever had it the way McClure did, and it gave him real value in every legislative job he held, and he held them continuously for three decades. Occasionally, the big picture notwithstanding, it would lead him into interesting places, such as his long-running enthusiasm for electric cars, one of which he owned for many years. Detail is the underappreciated heart and soul of legislating, and McClure was a natural at it; this book has the level of specificity to tell what that meant, on a range of levels.

In several ways, this book’s approach is entirely appropriate for McClure. It is thorough, but not to the point of obsession; it is cleanly told, and the key episodes are rendered well. We’d question emphasis and characterization in some places (and there are a few niggling errors), but no glaring omissions.

McClure of Idaho has the kind of plain title that ordinarily seems offhand, but actually earns itself (as, say, Borah of Idaho never did or could have) from the narrative. If either of those subjects are of interest, it’ll repay reading.

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Abit off-topic for this Northwest site, but not by too much: Herewith, a quick review of 10 books we read over the last year (all of these published in 2006, or shortly before) which gave us useful insight in a number of areas . . . including the great Northwest.

Even though only one of these books was explicitly about the region.

To be clear, we’re not suggesting this as any kind of “10 best” list (and we’ll list them in alpabetical order by author). Some are national sellers, but most are lesser known, and one a relatively obscure regional academic books. Just two are specifically “Northwest” books. But all of them have, in their various ways, fresh and useful ideas and information useful to anyone trying to better understand politics and society. They are all highly useful. And between them, they suggest some of the many ways books can help us understand our neighbors as well as people who live somewhat further away.

The only descriptive word we can think of that all have in common is, “provocative” – they will make you think. At least, they made us think.

Links go to Powell’s Books (which is where we bought most of them).

Crashing the Gate Crashing the Gate, by Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga (Chelsea Green). This is the book by the main guys at the two most popular liberal political blogs in the country (Daily Kos and MyDD), guys who spend much of their time hashing on George W. Bush, Republicans and anyone allied with them. But that’s not what this book’s about. Oh, they get in a few shots, but seemingly just as a gesture to make their loyalties clear. Their main concern is the internal problems of the Democratic Party, the structural and substantive problems – from money to consultants to ego to bad analysis – that brdevil the party long before it actually goes to war with Republicans. This is a shrewd book about how politics (of anyone’s stripe) works, and Republicans could read it just as profitably as Democrats could. (But please don’t tell the authors we said so . . .)

TuliaTulia, by Nate Blakeslee (PublicAffairs). Annals of the drug wars: In 1999 a seriously corrupt cop, known in the police community as a serial liar with serious money problems, led the arrest of 47 people in the small town (population about 5,000) of Tulia, Texas, on drug charges – with no evidence, not even drug samples, other than his own unsupported testimony. All but a few of the 47 were swiftly convicted, and most given sentences of many decades duration. The book shows shades of gray (not all of these convicts were upstanding citizens, and not all the people who got the cases overturned were saints), but you can’t read this without reconsidering the state of justice in America, in this new century.

Public Power Private DamsPublic Power, Private Dams, by Karl Boyd Brooks (University of Washington Press). The only book here with a specifically Northwest topic, yet it’s broader than that. Brooks, an attorney and a former Idaho state senator, is now a professor of history at the University of Kansas, but he never lost interest in the back story of how what was once a plan to build a big federal dam at Hells Canyon came to be exchanged for three smaller dams built by Idaho Power Company. The long story of how it happened, especially pertinent with the current relicensure of the dams, throws insight into how public and private interests do battle, and how a significant piece of the Northwest got to be the way it is.

NextNext, by Michael Crichton (HarperCollins). The only novel on the listed, and not here particulary as a “thriller”; Chricton has done better on that front elsewhere. But the information and ideas he lays out about the upcoming round of genetics and biochemical research are fascinating; almost every twist of the story will give your sense of ethics a jolt. At the end you mostly conclude, as Crichton does (in his afterword), that while research should not be impeded, we’re not ready yet for some of the results we may soon get.

Team of RivalsTeam of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Simon & Schuster). Was there anything left to write about Lincoln, the most written-about of Americans? With the book about how Lincoln was shaped by his melancholy (as he styled it, “depression” according to one new biographer), the well seemed to have run dry. But then came this, about Lincoln’s relationship with his cabinet members, especially with Seward, Chase and Bates, and Lincoln stands revealed anew. Drawing on biographical materials from all these people, and comparing them to each other – setting them in context – we get a whole different sense of who these people were. And a fresh appreciation for Lincoln himself, through the eyes of men who originally held Lincoln in deep contempt and were forced by what they experienced to revise their judgement. (Steven Spielberg apparently has movie rights; a good movie could be pulled from the scenes in this book.)

Chain of CommandChain of Command, by Seymour Hersh (Harper Perennial). The big, definitive book about the catastrophe that is Iraq probably will not be written for a few years yet; perspective and greater depth than is even possible now will be needed for that. In the meantime, several good books on the subject have emerged already, of course. Of the seven or eight we’ve read this is our top recommendation. Hersch’s reworking of his New Yorker dispatches keep their sense of immediacy, and his depth of experience in national security reporting makes him unsurpassed at this stage at least. Chain of Command focuses on Iraq and Aghanistan, but – while not sacrificing in-depth reportage – it covers a broad scope across the Middle East and central Asia, and back to D.C. A good overview for someone who’s read the headlines and wants to go beyond; a good read too for those who already have gone beyond.

Big Box SwindleBig Box Swindle, by Stacy Mitchell (Beacon). If you think the argument against the astoundingly fast spread of big box stores across America is simple or easily dismissed, try reading this. The effects of these stores – Wal-Mart being just the biggest of them – are so many and varied that a book really is needed to cover them all; in some places here, you get the sense that whole new arguments against the behemoths can be found in every paragraph. Not only a critique of these businesses, it is also a social survey; and not only that, it includes a comprehensive call for action. It is a polemic – one of the most powerful and useful of the year.

American TheocracyAmerican Theocracy, by Kevin Phillips (Viking). In which the man who first came to national notice in the 60s as the prescient author of The Emerging Republican Majority now stands appalled at that majority – and yet the core of this book isn’t about politics (in the direct sense) or politicians. In some of the best researched and sharpest social and economic analysis of recent years (and maybe the strongest in a long series of closely-reasoned analytical pieces), Phillips paints a harrowing picture of an America overextended overseas, swamped in debt, facing severe resource problems and delusionally unable to come to grips with reality. The core of his analysis in this densely packed book is hard to refute (though we’d be fascinated to hear his post-November 7 analysis of the current state of play in politics).

Breaking RankBreaking Rank, by Norm Stamper (Nation Books). Stamper, the former chief of police at Seattle, would be the first to say – does say, in this book – that many of his views about law enforcement are minority views within the law enforcement community. (We don’t necessarily concur with everything he has to say, either.) But he backs up his idiosyncrasy with specifics drawn from three decades on the street and in managing police, and you finish with a strong impression that the difference between Stamper and many in his former profession is a greater willingness to learn, think analytically, and adapt. Traits we could use more of, and not only in law enforcement.

Rise of American DemocracyThe Rise of American Democracy, by Sean Wilentz (Norton). Long, intense, lots of small print – not the lightest read on the list, so be warned. But you cannot do better if you’re interested in what democracy meant and how it was developed in the early decades of the United States – and Wilentz makes superbly clear that what we have more commonly considered as basic freedoms were developed over time, as part of a long-running civic dicussion. It is the perfect background for any discussion of freedoms and rights as we understand them – and watch the debates over them – today.

And so: What books would you suggest adding to the list?

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reviewHistory usually does not repeat itself, exactly, but it does send waves of recollection off into the future. We have a hard time learning from history, it seems, until after it smacks us more than once.

Brooks bookUseful history books can at least soften the shock, and Karl Brooks’ new (and first) book on the Hells Canyon controversy may do that, since its timeliness has worked out well. One of the underreported developments in Idaho and Oregon now underway is the renewal of Idaho Power Company’s licenses for the Brownlee, Oxbow and Hells Canyon Dams on the Snake River; the almost certain ultimate approval of those renewals does not lessen their importance (or render insignificant the terms attached). The lack of current controversy would seem to tell many Idahoans and Oregonians that the dams on the Snake involve no dispute.

But they once did, ferocious dispute indeed, and not where you might think. The battle running from the late 40s to the late 50s centered not on the environmental question that might be a centerpiece today – whether to build a dam (or more than one) on such a fine stream of freeflowing river. The issue then was over whether the federal government or Idaho Power, both experienced dam builders, should do the job – and win control of a key piece of electric generation in the Northwest.

Our Paradox Politics touched on the subject briefly, from the standpoint of Idaho politics. But now Karl Brooks has given it the full book treatment, and this thorough review turns out to be unexpectedly timely.

Karl BrooksBrooks was a state senator from Boise, a Democrat, from 1986-92, and a lawyer by profession. He was capable enough at both (as a senator, he was one of those Democrats most highly regarded by Republicans without much compromising philosophically), but the role of hard-nosed advocate or sharp-elbowed partisan never much suited him. He later quit legal work and politics to take a job with the Idaho Conservation League and later still, and currently, a professorship at the University of Kansas.

Public Power, Private Dams (University of Washington Press, Seattle) is Brooks’ review of how history got wrenched around at a critical moment. He may draw issues from some historians for wandering near the counterfactual – the speculation of what might have happened if – but the question at the heart of the book is simply a good reporters’ question: Why didn’t the federal government build the big single dam at Hells Canyon that its planners had for some years intended?

As of the late 40s, the federal goverment – mainly the Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers – were the big guys on the western dam-building scene. They had just got through constructing the mass of enormous dams on the Columbia River (among others), and were ready to taken on what might have been the biggest dam of all – a single big dam in Hells Canyon.

On the other size was a small regional utility, Idaho Power Company. Idaho Power was busy dam builder too, mainly on the Snake River in southern Idaho, where it constructed a long list of dams – much smaller dams than the federal monsters. It wanted to build on Hells Canyon too, but a smaller structure (later expanded to three).

The most immediate and easiest answer to why Idaho Power eventually, in the mid-50s, prevailed, is politics and political philosophy. When the federal plan first gathered steam, in the late 40s, Democrats under Harry Truman were still in power in Washington. From that time Republicans gained strength, especially after the congressional elections of 1950 and the presidential of 1952, and brought with them much more sympathy to private enterprise and less toward big public projects (except, in Dwight Eisenhower’s case, highways). By the time final decisions happened in the late 50s, Idaho Power’s timing was very good.

That’s a reasonable short version, but it doesn’t satisfy entirely, and Public Power demonstrate why it shouldn’t.

Brooks’ narrative gives visibility to the full range of interests and issues playing a role in the dispute, from fish to power rates and distribution and much more – including fundamental changes in the way a lot of people looked at such things as government services, private interests and the role of electric power. (One of the obscure but notable points Books raises is how a growing awareness of environmental considerations and the needs of fish runs drastically undercut the New Deal goal of building big new public projects – one liberal impulse hacking the ground out from under another; the point has resonance today.) It’s a complex story, not a simple one. Brooks tells it cleanly and well.

And it may even send a few more people to the public files to look up those Idaho Power relicensure papers . . .

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