Archive for January, 2010

The dinner

Author: Barrett Rainey

One evening during his presidency, John Kennedy hosted a dinner for several Nobel Prize laureates.
His toast before the meal went something like this: “Never has so much talent gathered at a single table in the White House since Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

I had a similar experience locally a few evenings ago. There were eight for dinner: a surgeon, a former secret service agent, a surgical nurse who is a commercial pilot, two pastors, a very accomplished professional musician and a master teacher. And me.

The conversation and the social interplay were so interesting that none of us left the table at the end of the meal. We stayed put in those straight-backed chairs playing a sort of verbal volleyball on all sorts of topics. It was fascinating!

Later, as I replayed the evening in my mind, I got to thinking. I’ve met a great number of such intelligent and lively people in our Northwest and around the country. Smart people. Educated people. Interesting people. Curious people.

Which led to this thought: given all the political, social and economic problems we have on our collective plates, if you turned my dinner mates and some of these others loose on the issues, I’ll bet they could solve ‘em!

Which quickly led to yet another thought: none of these people would likely ever run for public office. None! Ever!

Why would these smart, educated, interesting, curious people put themselves in an arena of name-calling, single issue bashing, distrust, unrewarding and poorly paid circumstances which we have allowed much of our political world to become?

Harry Truman on politics: “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen”. Bill Clinton: “Politics is a rough and tumble, contact sport. You’ve got to be tough”. Barak Obama: “Sometimes, just as in basketball, you’ve got to put your elbows out and take a few licks”.

Go to a few public meetings or a town hall session or two. Listen to the abuse. Listen to charges of conflict of interest. Look at endless recall efforts in community after community dealing with city councils, school boards, city commissions and the like. Listen to the name-calling directed at volunteers trying to serve.

While we are fortunate to have a few well-qualified people who will swim against this abusive tide, we too often must settle for the lesser of two unqualified candidates with little background or proven record of accomplishment.

We have tolerated beyond reason some of the shrill, minority voices who have groundlessly and often ignorantly tried to pillory office holders who know the facts and are doing the best they can with what we’ve given them. Which in a lot of cases isn’t much.

Government, like water lines, highways and school buildings, is the most basic part of our infrastructure as a community and a nation. It is the bones on which hang the meat and fibre of our country. In a lot of instances, we’ve allowed too many of those bones to be weakened by tolerating a political arena where most of the kinds of people we’d like to have in charge won’t go near the job.

A recent survey of thousands of girls and boys by the Girl Scouts of America found that the vast majority of teens questioned wanted nothing to do with leadership in any guise. They didn’t want the responsibility, the notoriety or even the rewards.

In far too many instances we are to blame for those results. And for the uncivil discourse and outright abuse of many in politics and appointive office. We have settled too many times for job hunters or single-issue voices when we really needed well-rounded, articulate professionals to take on the jobs.

Professionals like my dinner mates. Smart, educated, interesting, curious. There are quite a few of these folks around. Just imagine what they … and you … could do if we improved the atmosphere of public service.

U.S. Supreme Court decisions can seem distant and often irrelevant to main street. But the latest one, allowing unlimited cash support of … or opposition to … political candidates should rattle the teeth from “tea baggers” to the ACLU. To say nothing of local Democrats, Republicans and independents.

While all recent appointees to the court have steadfastly testified they wouldn’t be “activist” judges making law from the bench, that decision may be the most “activist” in the last 75 years. It all but neuters campaign finance law and certainly is activist.

That decision makes the two party system the three party system. With unfettered ability to select which candidates favor boardroom or membership desires, corporations and unions can dump unlimited dollars into support of their anointed one or to defeat anyone they target. They can determine the outcome of an election with more certainty than any voter. Or group of voters.

Nationally, smaller state election outcomes are especially threatened. In that category I’d put the Dakota’s, Idaho, Nevada, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and possibly Oregon. Making a large political media buy in Southern California, for example, the cost would be in the millions of dollars. But in these smaller states, you could get huge amounts of advertising covering them all for about the same amount. Or less.

For example, in Oregon, one television buy in Portland gives you the entire state except west of the Cascades from Eugene south to the California line. By far the majority of Oregon voters covered with one buy. One now unlimited buy.

Do the math. California has two senators; each of the above states has two. So, for the same dollars, you’re talking 18 senators. Not two. That’s why political parties … and voters … in lesser populated states now may lose control of their own political fate. Unlimited dollars.
Make no mistake: money runs politics and elects candidates. Always has. Always will. Ads reach far more voters than candidates do in person and have a huge effect on us as we form our opinions. Many of us feel there’s already far too much money in politics. But, as Al Jolson said, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

The court has placed corporate board and union influence and resources between the office holder and the voter, regardless of party. Without major local, regional or national support, no candidate can mount a successful bid for office if the incumbent is backed by such deep pockets. More than ever before, it will now be possible to “buy” an office or an election.

Corporations are odd ducks in some ways. They enjoy many legal protections individuals do. And should. Freedom of speech is one. The right to equal protection under the law is another. Well, this court decision certainly protects corporate rights. But should they have more freedom of speech because they have more dollars?

Should a major international corporation have the guaranteed right to find some empty suit, dress him/her up professionally, then spend millions to secure a national political office in which the empty suit will vote the corporate/union way? It seems to me the door is now open ever further to allow such behavior.

Local, state and national office holders in our backyard already enjoy sizeable corporate and/or union support or they wouldn’t be in office. Fact of life. As long as they do, and as long as no one comes along that could divert that support, those now serving will continue to do so if they stay in corporate/union favor. In many cases, we just happen to have an extraordinarily good crop. So it can work.

But there’s another side. If those with the cash are being well-served but the voter is not, it doesn’t work. If some hack fills the seat and can rely on corporate or union deep pockets, voters are not being served and better people with better talents have little chance to roust the empty suit. Pure political economics.

Those who have taken their fear and anger to the streets should look at this court and ask “What just happened?” There’s no question the court is stacked with conservatives. But this decision wasn’t conservative in any way. In fact, for those in the streets and independents looking for change, the “Boston Massacre” of two weeks ago may be the last message you’ll send.

A guy in Idaho said it best. “The court has taken ‘We the people’ out of the Constitution and replaced it with ‘GE the people’.”

One of the joys when building our home several years ago was the addition of a large HDTV on the wall and a very nice, state-of-the-art sound system. Great for sports and action movies. We’ve enjoyed it.
Until last week. Until Haiti crumbled at the world’s feet. Until crushed and mangled bodies were spread across our wall with dazzling clarity. Until theater sound broadcast cries of pain, abandonment and loss. Until superb technology surrounded us with suffering on a scale we had never seen.

The same brilliant electronics that brought football, baseball and worldwide programming to us in such clarity turned against our senses. Instead of athletic competition we were left stunned and numbed by pictures and sounds from a world gone terribly … horribly … wrong. The splendor of sports achievement was suddenly replaced by the all-too-real spectacle of a nation collapsing.

Having been a journalist most of my working life, I’ve seen my share of graphic death. I’ve even got a large roll of film … outtakes from accidents and other violent events I’ve covered … that couldn’t be broadcast because of the gore.

In the middle of the night in November, 1955, I was picked up by the back of my air force neck and dropped in a blackened farm field near Longmont, CO. The next 24 hours were spent with other GI’s, carrying a bag and a sifting net, picking up bodies, pieces of bodies and bits of bodies so burned and broken it was hard to tell what had been a person and what was field litter. And the smell. The smell of burning flesh and gasoline. You never, never forget it. Back at the base, we just threw our clothes and boots away.

A guy named John Gilbert Graham had put a bomb in a thermos bottle on a flight to Seattle. Seems he had been treated badly as a child and this was his way to get even with his mother who was on that plane.

So, yes, violent death and its aftermath are not new to me. But Haiti. Haiti was something none of us could prepare for.

I can’t imagine anyone watching this horror unfold not being affected in some way. We’re a curious lot. We rubberneck driving past a fender bender. We stand at the roadblock to watch firemen work on a house fire. We push against the yellow tape as police officers investigate brutal crime down the street. We just have to see for ourselves what’s going on where emergency lights blaze.

But our Haiti experience is different. This isn’t some scene of deadly violence where the litter will be swept up by a street crew so tomorrow there’ll be no clue of what happened. This is not a plane crash that headlines the news for a day or two then disappears. This isn’t even 9-11 which seared our minds as we watched buildings fall but which is now wrapped in some insulated part of our brains.

Haiti is just too … too … I can’t even come up with words that capture the scope of the tragedy. In total, it defies all usual description. People on top of the hill and those in the slums were treated evenhandedly in death and loss. Our electronic front row seats have made us witnesses to all.

There’ll never be a realistic death count. With no recent census, and mass disposal of bodies which has become necessary, thousands and thousands of people … individual real people … will have simply disappeared. Dollar estimates of damage won’t mean much because so much physical destruction was in the slums where structures lost had little real value.

Somehow our usual response to disaster of sending a few dollars isn’t as comforting as in other times. It feels like another raindrop in a storm. The damage … the loss … the scope … the death toll … all overwhelm not only our senses but also the magnitude of what little we can offer in help.

When television cameras leave so, too, I’m afraid will much of the world’s interest and participation in rebuilding in the impossibly long aftermath. I hope not though it almost always does. Maybe this time, because of the totality of loss, our attention will not be so short-lived.

When I think of the geologic history of the area in which we live and the forecasts of eventual massive seismic activity here in the Northwest, maybe those old words will keep us watching Haiti: “There but for the grace of God go I.” Or us.

By now you know I’m a political junkie. Started during my high school years. I’ve never outgrown it. Some kids followed football or baseball scores and standings; some knew every song on the radio. At the age of 14 or so, I could tell you the names of precinct chairmen in both parties in all of Bend! Yes, they called them “chairmen” then.

Anyone worth the salt in the political junkie business usually has a well-developed sense of people. And issues. If you don’t learn how to read both early on you can support a lot of losers. Or losing causes. To have a life-long love of the game, separating issues from non-issues, should be second nature.

Which is why I’m wondering why all the fuss about what Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) reportedly said privately eight years ago about Barak Obama. Reid is alleged to have said Obama had “light skin” and “didn’t sound like a Negro” unless he chose to. Reid has admitted the words were wrong and apologized. Repeatedly. Obama has called Reid’s remarks a “poor choice of words” and graciously accepted the apology. That should be the end of it.

But the national media and many Republican lime-lighters won’t let it go. It’s being played and replayed ad nauseam along with requests … or demands … that Reid resign from the Senate. Which he shouldn’t. The absurd comparison is made to something former Sen. Trent Lott said at a testimonial dinner for the late Strom Thurmond.

Road apples! There is no comparison. Thurmond was an avowed racist for decades and ran for president as the candidate of an all-white separatist political party. His public statements … to say nothing of his private ones … were openly and completely racist. Lott got in trouble at a dinner for Thurmond when he said America would have been better off if Thurmond, a racist, had won the presidency.

What Reid said was in a conversation in his office. Still, Obama was right to characterize the words as “poor choice,” accept the apology and move on.

Maybe the reason I’m willing to cut Reid some slack on this is because I’ve said worse. And many more times than once. Truth be told, I’ll bet you have, too. Like me, probably more out of ignorance than hate.

Bend, OR, in the 1940s and 50s had one black family with no kids in school. I didn’t know anyone “of color” but, like a lot of teens, I had a stupid mouth at times. I said what everybody else said because “everybody else was saying it.”

In the military in my late teens, I suddenly met lots of “people of color.” My graduate course in race relations came quickly. I was better for it. My first drill instructor was Staff Sgt. Richard Wong from San Francisco. My first roommate was Arturo Lugo from El Paso. My best friend was Robert Strickland, a black Panamanian I supported in getting his American citizenship. My first boss was Master Sgt. Irley Meeks, a 6-foot-5 hard-drinking Cherokee from Oklahoma. I was suddenly living in the United Nations!

During my years as a street reporter in Washington DC, I had lots of racial interaction. Nearly all positive. In the 60s and 70s, hundreds of thousands of people came and went in the city as civil rights marches and anti-war demonstrations filled the broad streets. As I covered all the activities in my 30s, it was like being thrown into a racial and societal blender. You couldn’t spend years in the midst of that without becoming more diverse in your thinking.

Few of us in later life think as we did in our early years. Longevity is a great teacher. Not that there aren’t some who flunk the course, but most of us gradually move from the views we held in our teens. That’s usually given as one reason why most people who have truly conservative outlooks (small “ c”) are older.

I’m not going to carry water for Harry Reid. At his age and with the privileged, well-traveled life he’s led, he’s on his own. He said a dumb thing. Now he’s apologized. The subject of the offensive remarks has accepted and suggested the incident be put in the past. Where it belongs.

Those making so much noise about Reid are not concerned with race relations or propriety. They’re opportunistic, self-serving hacks and voices of discord who are trying to blow this situation into something that will give them or their party some sort of imagined advantage. I hope it doesn’t.

Reid was wrong saying what he said. And whatever we said years ago, so were we.

The masochistic BCS football mess is behind us. But before closing the door at our house, I’ve got a couple more thoughts; some likely familiar to older Beavers, Ducks, Huskies and Cougar fans. Maybe some others.

There was a time … long, long ago … when no one had ever heard of the Boise State Broncos. A little college on the banks of the Boise River with a green grass playing field like everybody else. It was the ’60’s-’70’s. Coaches were Smith, Knapp, Setincich, Criner and a few others. Not many heard of them, either.

Benches in the stands were aluminum with little ridges that made your butt sore. Or cold. Winter games were often played with temperatures in the 20’s. But you bought your ticket, brought along some hot bourbon and lemonade, wrapped up in your hunting clothes, huddling with other fans on that little campus few knew about. Not important games. But they were OUR games. That was enough.

In the 80’s, some fast talking stadium carpet salesman slickered the college into laying down an unnatural blue field where the green had been. In the 90’s, Dirk Koetter became coach. In a year or two, we had ourselves a pretty good team. Then Houston Nutt. Then Dan Hawkins. The Broncos moved up, too: from Big Sky to WAC. The good times started rolling!

More seats were added. Covered ones for high rollers were expanded so we old timers were moved out of our familiar 40-50 yard seats to make room for these new, moneyed fellas. Then still more seats built in other parts of what was now a “stadium” if you please. More dislocations. But we were rolling! Even national TV a few times.

Of course, during all of this, ticket prices kept inching up. And free parking disappeared. Then, to get your ticket, you had to pay several hundred dollars more each season to a booster club you didn’t want to join. Then parking … free or otherwise … disappeared if you didn’t buy the package. Then more ticket price hikes. And more national television. But things were rolling!

Then Hawkins went to Colorado and a new fella … Chris Petersen … was our guy. And the Broncos went from just rolling to high speed!

Some of us who had sat on the cold aluminum benches during the “nobody-ever-heard-of-the-Broncos” years, well, we watched it on TV. For a lot of us it wasn’t that we couldn’t pay the fees; it’s was a case of wouldn’t. We felt betrayed. We felt ignored. After all those years of supporting the team, helping buy new equipment when necessary, showing up to cheer when only penguins should have been out, taking the many losing years in stride … well, all that didn’t count for much. Things were in overdrive!

Now BSU’s president says more money’s needed to expand the stadium. Yet again. They did it last year with high-priced “sky boxes” at $60,000 a pop per season! Got to do it again! Need to attract those bigger schools with larger crowds. And more national TV.

I suspect mine’s not an unusual tale. Really long-time supporters at Autzen, Rezer, Husky and any other college or professional stadium probably have similar stories. There were early years when the teams were “your” teams; when you sat in much smaller, half-filled stands, sold peanuts for Lion’s or Kiwanis clubs, ate cold hotdogs and suffered through a lot of losing …and freezing … seasons. Enjoying every minute.

There are some generations behind us, now enjoying the games in those “stadiums,” hosting tail-gaters, going to booster events, riding charter jets to far off domed stadiums and taking it all in stride. They’re rolling! How all that happened isn’t even a thought.

But some of us remember when stands were only on one side of the field, colleges needed fund raisers to buy the right football shoes for the guys, pep parades borrowed our tractors to pull the floats, a flask of Jack Daniels warded off the cold, a local doctor volunteered to be team doc, and games were played early not for TV schedules but because there were no lights for night games.

Just a few years ago.

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PERSONAL NOTE: To those still clinging to the failed thesis Boise State got where it did in football rankings this year because of a so-called “weak schedule,” I direct your attention to the words of Coach Petersen after beating the #4 team in the country: “We’ve done everything we were asked to do.” That says it. Go Broncos!