This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Friday, February 25, 2011

The Politician America Loves to Love

                  Try naming the greatest American presidents, and three immediately leap to the head of the class: Washington, Lincoln and FDR. It’s elementary; they all took office when the country was on the verge of falling apart, and all three, in different ways, kept that from happening.
                  For various reasons Washington and Roosevelt haven’t entirely captured the imagination of today’s public. Washington was an aristocrat and slave owner, had an aloof personality, and wasn’t terribly quotable. His genius was to lend the force of his quiet personality and authority to a new and precariously situated government so it could function and establish itself. Good administration makes bad drama.
                  FDR rewrote the social contract, gave people hope in the country’s darkest economic hour, and saved capitalism from itself. A lot of capitalists, and their fellow travelers in the punditry, have never forgiven him.
                  Lincoln, however, has become the great American icon — the one politician (and he was definitely a politician) almost all of us seem to admire and respect. I was reminded of that this week when the Rotary Club of Gilroy, CA invited me to give my talk “Lincoln’s Greatest Speeches and Why They Worked” as a Presidents Day program.
                  In the talk I attempt to trace the evolution of Lincoln’s thought and rhetoric from the Cooper Union speech of February 1860, which probably won him the presidency, to the Second Inaugural Address in March 1865, which, with its hauntingly beautiful closing sentence, leaves you wondering how much better a country this would be if he had lived to the end of the term.
It’s not original scholarship, but rather a synthesis of existing literature on Lincoln, with a few thoughts of my own thrown in. The point, if there is one, is that over the years he moved from precise legal argument to broad moral concern expressed poetically and even quasi-religiously, though he was not a conventionally religious man.
You wouldn’t think a subject like that would be of general interest, and if it were about anyone else, it probably wouldn’t be. But even people who have no use for history seem to be fascinated by Lincoln, perhaps because they want to believe in leadership unvarnished and somehow more pure than what they see on TV today.
America’s love affair with Lincoln has been going on for a long time. In 1922 H.L. Mencken wrote that there are four kinds of books that never lose money in the United States — detective stories; novels with lurid sex themes; volumes on spiritualism and occultism; and finally, books on Lincoln.
I see the fascination whenever I give the talk. Typically, at least a dozen people come up after the meeting to talk about the presentation. If there’s time for audience questions, they come fast, furious, and on the most amazing subjects. This week I was asked what kind of suit Lincoln was wearing when he was assassinated.  I said I didn’t know but it was probably black and ill-fitting; then a woman in the audience raised her hand to say she’d just been reading about it, and that it was a Brooks Brothers suit. I’m taking her word, but leaving it out of the talk.
Seven score and ten years after Lincoln’s presidency, even most white Southerners have reluctantly accepted the end of slavery, and the rest of the country regards his role in ending it to be an act of great statesmanship. It was, but let’s not forget Harry Truman’s definition of a statesman: A dead politician.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Nordstrom Civilization on a Wal-Mart Budget

            If they made me dictator of California tomorrow, I’d have the state budget whipped into shape by spring break. Odds are you wouldn’t like the way I did it, but that would be your problem.
            Of course, this being California, you don’t have to worry about a dictator doing something you don’t like. You don’t even have to worry too much about your elected officials doing something you don’t like because it’s really easy to put an initiative on the ballot and let the people make the decision themselves.
            Which is one of the ways we got into this mess. The best assessment of California under the initiative process comes from David Brooks of the New York Times. When you let the people vote on everything, he said, they spend like socialists and tax like libertarians.
            There’s not much evidence that people in California want substantively less government. Given a chance to vote for better schools, clean water, parks, tougher sentencing laws, and more prisons, they consistently say yes.
            Given a chance to vote for the taxes to pay for these things, reality avoidance kicks in. Almost no one knows what it costs to run a school or a prison, so it’s easy to imagine that it’s less than it is. Then it’s a short step to rationalizing a no vote on any specific tax on the grounds that government ought to cut waste, get its house in order, and live within its means.
            Easy to say but hard to do. To begin with, government, like business, is ruled by a wide-ranging set of contracts and laws that can’t just be tossed aside in the name of so-called efficiency. As your dictator, I could ignore the ones I didn’t like, but in a democracy that particular aircraft carrier takes a long time to turn. Nor is there a line item called “waste” in any public budget I’ve ever seen.
            Waste is for the most part in the eye of the beholder. Very little of it is the sort of documentable inefficiency that everyone can agree on. Most of the so-called “waste” in public budgets is what you don’t think public funds should be spent on, but I do. It’s a political judgment, not a managerial one.
            California now has a near-total disconnect between what we want and what we want to spend. The initiative process lets the people micromanage the governmental process without ever having to look at the complete picture. We put all sorts of handcuffs on our legislators, then complain that they aren’t showing enough dexterity in getting the job done.
            It wasn’t always this way. Back in 1972, when California government was actually working pretty well, I remember being sent, as a young reporter, to a school board meeting. The board had passed a budget and had just received a report from the county on the assessed valuation of property in the school district.
            Administrators had done the arithmetic and recommended that the board set a tax rate that, based on the valuation, would raise the money needed to cover the budget. After a few minutes of discussion, the board did so and moved on to the next item.
            There was no public vote on the tax rate. The assumption at the time, which now seems quaint, was that the board members had been chosen in fair elections to run the district; that they should be allowed to do so; and that if they screw up, they can be held accountable by the people at the next election. The question today is who holds the people accountable when we screw up?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Local News from Nowhere

            From the late 1930s to the end of the 60s the newspaper I later worked for was located in the heart of downtown, a few hundred feet off Main Street.
            The post office was two blocks away, and every morning the editor would take a break around 10 and walk over to pick up the mail. He could have delegated the responsibility, but instead considered it one of the most important things he did. It put him out in the community, where people could flag him down and tell him what was on their minds. Often he’d return to the office with two or three leads on news stories.
            In 1970, having outgrown its downtown location, the newspaper moved one mile to a former Safeway building. It was no longer in the center of town, but it was highly visible on Main Street as you came in from the state highway. The editor still picked up the mail every day (a tradition I continued until 1991) but had to drive to the post office instead of walking. He didn’t encounter as many people and came back with far fewer story ideas.
            Several years ago and under a different ownership, the paper no longer needed all the space in the former Safeway building. It sold the property to a Toyota dealership for a nice piece of cash and moved to a smaller space in a business park at the outskirts of town. It’s two miles from the post office now, but since the paper got rid of the P.O. box as a cost-cutting measure, it doesn’t really matter.
            At least it’s still located somewhere within the city it serves. The daily newspaper in the next town, a far larger operation, sold its downtown building a few years back and moved its physical operations several miles away, completely outside the city it’s named for. The paper is now located in a business park so far off the beaten path that you half expect to see a hitchhiker with a chainsaw as you drive out to it.
            The publisher spoke at a Rotary Club luncheon last month and was asked if the paper would ever move back to its home city. He said he’d like to, but the long-term lease the paper has at its current location would make such a move problematic. In other words, don’t hold your breath.
            At least that newspaper still has an office people can go to, if they’re willing to put out the effort. AOL recently started four online newspapers in our county as part of their nationwide effort to provide local news content. The papers are all called, preceded by the name of the community.
            In front of me as I write this is the business card for one of the local Patch editors. It shows the website address, the editor’s cell phone number and e-mail address. There’s no geographic address at all — not even a P.O. Box. If I didn’t personally know the editor, I’d have to wonder if she, like her publication, is virtual.
            The trend line is clear, and resistance is futile. No one ever got ahead in this country by fighting progress. But progress can leave good things in its wake without creating a replacement of equal value. The physical connectedness between a community and its news sources may be one of those good things lost. I hope not, but am far from convinced.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Horse-and-Buggy Law for the Information Age

                  In his book Undaunted Courage, a history of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Stephen E. Ambrose illustrated the hardship of their journey and the debate over the value of the Louisiana Purchase with a discussion on the state of transportation.
                  It really hadn’t changed in two thousand years, Ambrose said. People were still getting around essentially as they had in the time of Julius Caesar: riding on horses or in animal-drawn carriages of some sort or sailing on ships powered by the wind. Things had been that way for so long that hardly anyone imagined they could ever be different.
                  That was in 1805, a scant 17 years after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. The next half-century saw transportation revolutionized by the development of the steam engine and railroad, which suddenly made the world a smaller place indeed. In the same period Morse invented the telegraph, which did for communication what the other two did for transportation. (The founding fathers could have benefited from the telegraph back in 1788. When New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the Constitution, making it the law of the land, they had to put an express rider on a horse to get the word out.)
                  Progress in transportation and communication continued unabated, with the development of the automobile, airplane, daily newspaper, telephone, radio, television and internet.  As a consequence, one of the least controversial and least debated clauses of the Constitution became one of the most important.
                  Back in 1788, most commerce — aside from the trade in slaves and tobacco — was local. If a farmer produced a surplus of butter, he might sell some to his neighbors. Even in the large cities, most of the food consumed was produced nearby. The power to regulate interstate commerce was seen largely as a reasonable way for the federal government to serve as an umpire in trade disputes between the states or to build lighthouses to reduce the incidence of shipwreck.
                  One of the debates at the time the Constitution was up for ratification was whether  a central federal government could effectively govern an area as large and populous as the United States. It was a fair question at the time, even though the large and populous country in question was 13 states and three million people. After all, look how long it would have taken to get a judicial order (never mind a militia) from the as-yet unnamed capital to Georgia or Massachusetts.
                  The technological changes in transportation and communication settled the question. Once people could move around and communicate more quickly, commerce grew correspondingly and became more of a regional, if not national affair. That, in turn increased the need for government oversight at a federal level in areas never imagined. When the butter came from local farms, there was no need for federal oversight; not so when it came from a factory in Chicago buying cream from Wisconsin and taking orders from corporate headquarters in New York.
                  It has become fashionable for conservatives to complain that the interstate commerce clause has been stretched to cover just about everything, but given how dramatically national commerce has changed in 222 years, how could it be otherwise? The men who wrote and approved the Constitution almost certainly didn’t anticipate the magnitude of that change, but they understood that change there would be; that’s why the powers granted to Congress are described in general terms. A functional society needs laws that allow general principles to be applied to specific and changing circumstances. Without that flexibility, we’d be stuck in the 18th Century forever.