Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Epic Lincoln

On an outing this past weekend, Susan and I viewed the latest edition of Steven Spielberg writes history – “Lincoln”

“Lincoln” is compelling! Size matters – this film demands to be seen on the Big Screen. Get to the movie theatre and view. Don’t wait for downloads, cable or the DVD.

The flick is long, over two hours. It has beautiful cinematography but it is essentially a film of dialogue. There are some iconic shots, Lincoln telling stories, reading to his son, walking down the hall of the White House, but this movie is a talker. There are many many conversations that fully develop the characters; Obviously Lincoln but many others, Mary Todd Lincoln, Robert Lincoln, William Seward, Thaddeus Stevens, U S Grant, Preston Blair, Edward Stanton, and others.

Lincoln’s best attribute and what I found most enjoyable was his use of story telling and parable using it for political persuasion and advantage. The movie is spot on in this regard.

The movie credits the book being based on the Doris Kearns Goodwin’s history, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln”. The movie credits also note that Civil War historian James McPherson was a consultant.

I recently read “Team of Rivals” and enjoyed it thoroughly. I like Ms. Goodwin. Her book had original research and presenting Lincoln in a somewhat different way. Her book focused briefly on Lincoln’s history but was about his nomination, election, and Presidency (focusing primarily on Lincoln’s conduct of the War.) The movie caught Lincoln’s traits as described by Goodwin but the book was much broader in scope than the film’s focus on the 13th Amendment. Goodwin’s book is focused on Lincoln’s political skills and interpersonal skills in dealing with his cabinet, some of whose members had opposed him for the Republican nomination.

Politically an interesting aspect of both the book and the movie was the fact that a President actually consulted with his cabinet. He just didn’t use them for propaganda and photo opportunities.

James McPherson like Doris Kearns Goodwin is a Pulitzer Prize winner. Goodwin won for “No Ordinary Time”, about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Goodwin’s best book was “Wait Till Next Year”, her memoir of growing up a Brooklyn Dodger fan, the Dodgers move to Los Angeles, and the suburbanization of America in the last half of the 20th Century. 

McPherson won for “Battle Cry of Freedom.” If you are going to read only one book about the American Civil War, this is the one. McPherson is readable and lays it out culturally, socially, economically, militarily, and thus historically. I am not sure what McPherson added to the movie, other than perhaps as a “fact checker.”

Sidebar – “Fact Checker” is a new word that seems to have been added to common usage if not our vocabulary in the 2012 Presidential Election. I guess this has been necessary as veracity lately has been hard to come by. Sometime, I may post on this modern day need for someone to make sure our politicians are truthful. In the good old days when a politician was not honest he lost his credibility and often that was a career ender… anyway back to Honest Abe.

Essentially “Lincoln” is the story of the Congressional (House of Representatives) passage of the 13th Amendment (the outlawing and abolition of slavery) to the U S Constitution

The time frame is the last months of 1864 and January of 1865. To those interested in politics, the passage of the enabling legislation is not only interesting but compelling and instructive. The film depicts, political opponents who actually talk to each other. There is fiery debate, much lobbying, and even some horse-trading for jobs among some defeated Democrat house members. The amendment was passed during a lame duck session after the November 1864 General Election.

The cast – Lincoln is portrayed by Daniel Day Lewis. Lewis was born to play this role. You do not see Lewis in this film. You see Abraham Lincoln. I cannot explain it but it is True. This if for no other reason is why you must see this film. If you want to see Abraham Lincoln go see the movie. Perioid!

If it were not for the fact that Lincoln is in the movie playing himself, Tommy Lee Jones (that would be Assistant US Marshall Samuel Gerard and Al Gore’s Harvard roommate) steals the show. Jones plays Thaddeus Stevens. Sally Fields as Mary Todd will be looking for another Oscar (reportedly Field gained 25 pounds to play a proper Mary Todd). Unbelievably (but very believable) the 87year old Mark Twain er Hal Holbrook shows up with a stellar performance as Preston Blair. All the acting is tremendous.

Lincoln will walk away with Best Motion Picture and probably as many as nine of the little gold guys. John Williams for score, Spielberg again, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, costumes, screenwriting – the whole package.

If you are even remotely interested in History – SEE IT!

Monday, October 22, 2012

George McGovern – A Recollection

(Thousands of South Dakotans had interaction with George McGovern in the political realm. These are my encounters with him, nothing too different than from many others – just mine.)

South Dakota has lost three of its political Titans in 2012, Bill Janklow, Jim Abdnor and now George McGovern.

Having come of age as they say in the 60s, I certainly heard of George McGovern way before I ever dreamed that I might live in South Dakota and had any clue of the correct pronunciation of our State Capitol.

Hubert Humphrey was my choice in '68. 1968 was a tumultuous year and when I voted for the first time in a Presidential election. In those days you had to be 21 years old to vote. In '72 my pick was Nixon. Since then I have supported the Republican nominee every time. In the intervening four years I married and had a young daughter. Having a family and adult responsibilities had that effect on me. I also was in transition from thinking with my head instead of my heart.

George McGovern was as noted in the many obituaries that are appearing was an unapologetic liberal. He always thought with his heart. Clearly it was the influence of his upbringing as the son of a Methodist Minister. He was a graduate of Dakota Wesleyan and well as Northwestern University whose roots are well established. Northwestern while being non sectarian was founded by Methodists with strong ties to the Methodist Episcopal Church.

Besides being out spoken in his opposition to the Viet Nam War (excuse me officially Conflict), the Eagleton debacle, and his proposal to give every American a check for $1000,neither his positions nor his competence made sense to me. You don't read about his $1000 welfare proposal in today's obits nor very little about his comments on the over regulation of business when the Inn he was proprietor of took bankruptcy. (I think in the early '90s.).

Nixon seemed like the logical choice. Over time it is often forgotten the war was a Democrat one. In '68 the incumbent President even chose not to seek re election because of it.

In 1973 I moved to South Dakota.

On Labor Day in 1972 George McGovern was kicking off his campaign with the traditional Democrat appearance in Detroit. (Forty years ago there were not two year campaigns like we “enjoy” now.) Only a year later on Labor Day as a newly minted South Dakotan I met George McGovern. Prior to the Wagner Labor Day Celebration parade he toured the new business my Dad and the Yankton Sioux Tribe began. To me (I was not involved in politics at the time) he was a celebrity. In Texas you might never see the Governor or a U S Senator, much less meet them; Additionally Senator McGovern had Celebrity Status with worldwide recognition.

At the plant on that Labor Day, the Senator was interested and very well met.

What I particularly remember was his politician's vanity. More than once he combed his hair and seemed ever observant, looking out for anyone who might have a camera. Thirty five years later when I interviewed him (he met me at the KELO television station) he was still ready with his comb and looking out for the camera.

My next major encounter with the Senator came several years later, probably in 1977 or 1978 when the Burlington Northern Railroad proposed abandoning railways in South Dakota. Of particular interest to me and the citizens of South Central South Dakota was the Nappa Junction to Platte line. While the plant that I helped manage used rail very little, (of course that was a great part of the problem) given the transportation marketplace, without rail as a competitor, trucking rates were sure to go up. This was before transportation services were deregulated and the Interstate Commerce Commission was abolished. Our Elevator companies were clearly worried as were their customers; Farmers. In South Dakota when farmers are worried so are their Congressmen.

We had a community meeting in Wagner with the rail users, many farmers, bankers, local business people, the newspaper, state legislators, county commissioners, the mayor, and city alderman with Senator McGovern.

Senator McGovern did what most elected officials do at this kind of meeting. He listened, was sympathetic, and assured us he would use his office to help try and find a solution.

Then he told a great story I will never forget. He said that the Air Force should take our missiles out of their silos and put them on train cars and launch them from trains. We should keep the trains moving all around the Country in a random manner so that our enemies would not know where to strike them at any given time. The advantage to this would be that the Government could either manage the rail system or at least provide the funding for a rail infrastructure in the United States and thus save our rail line.

In an effort to demonstrate that he just had not gone looney tunes, he further explained. (As the ever unapologetic liberal) In the early 1950s Democrats pushed for greatly increased national funding of education, without much success.

In 1957, the same year McGovern was elected to the House of Representatives, the Russians put in orbit the Sputnik 1, the first Earth Satellite. Thus the space race started. During these Cold War years Sputnik was seen as a military threat to the United States. As a consequence the Democrat Education bill with a few new bells and whistles for Space Research was re dressed up as a National Defense Education Act and was easily passed into law. The Senator’s story was truly instructive, a great story, and a political anecdote.

I cut my political teeth campaigning against George McGovern. In 1980, as an absolute novice, I knocked on every door of every home and every apartment in Wagner with tabloid in hand telling my neighbors why they should vote for Jim Abdnor. While it is easy to attribute McGovern's defeat to James Earl Cater, I really don't believe McGovern was ever competitive. That is a story for another time.

About two years ago I attended a McGovern lecture at Zandbros Variety about his book on President Lincoln. After the lecture, we talked about his replacing Eagleton on the ticket in '72. An interesting history itself, as the Nominee he asked five or six others and was turned down before he settled on Sergeant Shirver. Finally I last exchanged pleasantries with him last winter at my perch at the counter at Queen City Bakery. Vain and feisty as ever, we discussed current events and he never had a harsh sentiment despite our very differing views.

George McGovern was a kind and decent man though always a battler. He fought for what he believed in. Many will say his legacy will be his opposition to Viet Nam, his fight against World Hunger, or even Watergate and campaign finance reform. All true, but I more hope his passing might reignite a time in politics reminding us all that those of differing views can work together to find solutions rather than fight and vilify our opponent.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Jeff the Plumber

Democrat Congressional candidate and Minnehaha County Commissioner Jeff Barth has put with his now viral and nationwide You Tuber some life into what has been a moribund primary election campaign to see who gets the honor of taking on and probably losing to Congresswoman Kristi Noem in November’s General Election.

Opinion is divided at this point about the quality and effectiveness of the video. One thing we can stipulate, it has gotten attention. The SD political press has covered it, even on the front pages of the daily news. On You Tube it has watches in over 6 figures and reportedly Barth was interviewed on a Cable TV news show. How many campaign contributions has he raised from it? Don’t know, haven’t heard.

However I like it. Jeff’s walk in the woods has the potential to be a game changer. While we haven’t heard much about this race, the buzz in political circles is Matt Varilek will win. Varilek the former Tim Johnson staffer who opposes Barth is the establishment candidate. He has the endorsement, Senator Johnson, Daschle, McGovern, et al. The thinking among other pundits and the few Democrat leaders I come in contact with is that Varilek has the cash and the Johnson machine thus is the over whelming favorite and Barth has no chance. Since so little activity has been seen if the buzz is correct, Varilek to this point must be taking a June win for granted and husbanding his cash for Noem in November. I assume the Johnson machine is ready if needed to do robo calls or cards or letters from the Senator.

The no chance may have changed. A couple of weeks ago in an Argus Leader podcast with both Mutt and Jeff, Varilek cavalierly thinking he has the primary sewn up and moving on to the political center revealed he did not agree with President Obama’s support of Gay Marriage. In and of itself that prompted more than a few active Dems to leave the Varilek camp, a crack in the foundation, a crack not a collapse.

One of the most influential and campaign savvy Democrats in South Dakota (if not America) is Steve Hildebrand. Hildebrand is a supporter of Gay Marriage. In case anyone in SD doesn’t know, Hildebrand had been a top Democrat campaign consultant and strategist in the Democrat Party nationally. In 2008 he was the deputy campaign manager for Barack Obama and is widely given credit for Obama’s win in the Iowa Caucus. This is speculation on my part, but with Varilek’s declaration that he does not support Gay Marriage, Hildebrand may have switched horses mid stream in the Dem primary to Barth. Should that be the case and I am speculating that video maybe in part may be the work product of the talented Hildebrand. Its scripting has the DNA of a real professional. It is not lost on me that the You Tube was in the hands of Huffington Post and other national pundits within the hour of its release.

If I were Varilek I would be a little worried. 1. The video may bring some serious attention to Barth with Primary election voters. It’s called earned media and Barth is getting tons of it. 2. It may bring Barth some much needed coin 3. The I am mad as hell message rings true with almost all voters R and D.

If I were Barth, I would be putting together a walk on the woods nos. II and III.

Sidebar – In the run up to the 1980 election, the mad as hell message was the moniker of Eddie Chiles. Chiles ran that message at the conclusion of his nationwide radio ads touting Conservative principles. Chiles who lived in Forth Worth was also at one time the owner of the Texas Rangers later selling the team to a group led by George W. Bush. Chiles wife served for a time as the Republican National Committeewoman from Texas. The mad as hell message help set the stage for the 1980 Reagan victory and the Republicans picking up 9 Senate seats and the majority in the U S Senate.

The Democrat National Committee and the Democrat Congressional Campaign Committee should be helping Barth. He is their 2012 answer to Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher aka Joe the Plumber (and thus the foil to what they call the GOP Do Nothing Congress). If Barth doesn’t win in June he easily could find employment (and I mean Big Bucks) as the Democrat poster boy. The video is effective in the sense it speaks to the frustration of Americans.

Disclaimer on Jeff Barth – Jeff Bath is a good guy. I like him. I posted on him several years ago. It’s always interesting to see the facial hair shaved clean when running for higher office. One of the comments stated “Barth is a huge liberal, did you know that? I know that and just because he’s liberal does not mean that he is bad. Liking him and sending him to Congress are different matters. His mad as hell message is compelling to this Republican as well. Jeff and I just see the solutions differently. Jeff also likes chess and encourages children through SD Chess and Sioux Empire Chess to do the same.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

An Elephant in the Room?

The Campaign for the GOP nomination for the State House District #13 is Intense.

Legislative Redistricting has transformed this once very competitive District that had a marginal GOP voter advantage into the Senator Phiyllis Heineman Full Employment Act. (Prior to Senator Phyllis, former Democrat Senate Leader Scott Heidepriem previously represented District 13 after defeating both Dick Kelly and Heineman.)

The remodeled District #13 is the former Central Sioux Falls district that was enhanced in 2001 with GOP voters in the Tomar neighborhood, and super charged in 2011 with the addition of voters in the south Sioux Falls. Added were voters in northern Lincoln County (overwhelmingly inhabited by Republicans) living between Cliff and Western Avenues. Current voter registration shows a Republican advantage of over 2200 voters

Consequently the Intense GOP campaign is the product of what appears to be an excellent chance of winning in November coupled that there is no Republican incumbent in the primary.

Vying for the nomination for the two Representatives are Dr. Frank Alvine (who was defeated in 2010 by Senator Gene Abdallah in former Distinct #10), and local businessmen Mark Mickelson and Steve Westra.

There is much for this Republican to like about these candidates. Foremost they are from the private sector, are small businessmen, and entrepreneurs. They all have experience in helping others, building our economy and creating jobs. Their bios are linked above. (all are interesting and accomplished)

As Jonathan Ellis detailed in an Argus Leader story, while Mark Mickelson is a first time candidate he has political DNA. Mark's political pedigree is without peer in South Dakota (with the exception of his sister and brother who share Mark's.) Both his Grandfather and Father were Governor.

As the campaign has unfolded it is obvious that Mickelson is not depending on either his pedigree and what is assuredly his name recognition advantage to win the election. Being the Eagle Boy Scout he is, he is running a large and focused campaign. This probably a good thing as his opponents are achievers as well. (BTW in any outcome, the winners will be the people of South Dakota.- In their personal lives all three are people who get things done. Theirs is not extreme nor a “Do Nothing” agenda.

Within political circles Mark's DNA is a decided advantage. He has been close to politics most of his life. His family in many ways have been in political circles for over one half century in South Dakota. His race is not their first rodeo. When Mark lived at home with his parents, his father served I believe as Brookings County States Attorney and then three terms in the State Legislature (one as Speaker of the House).

Mark was also on the scene during the campaign for the Governor nomination and the general election in 1986.

No Governor is without many friends and acquaintances. Of consequence without jumping through a lot of hoops of explanation, the Mickelson, McCahren, Adam, Graham, and Hart clans are well networked. His mother, Linda Mickelson Graham, who was First Lady of South Dakota for six plus years remains active in civic and charitable causes and served as Treasurer of Governor Daugaard's successful 2010 election. His first cousin Karl Adam is a former Chairman of the S D GOP and his father's sister, Patricia Adam has been politically active for her entire adult life and even earlier. In later years Pat served as Secretary of the State Senate and as Vice Chair of the State Republican Party when her brother was Governor.

None of this is lost on Mark's campaign. He knows the drill. The question is will he do it? The answer is Yes! Being around politics and campaigns was not lost on him. His political acumen is a definite plus but far exceeded by his work ethic.

Disclaimer – I live in District #13 and support Mark. I have contributed to his campaign and have two of his signs in my yard. I first met Mark when he was completing college when his Father became the GOP Governor candidate in 1996. He was a friendly and polite young man – always courteous. Like George Mickelson (a High School All American football player (center) at Sioux Falls Washington High, Mark is a physically big man. Over the years he has always greeted me kindly when we would come into contact.

I initially supported Mark's campaign because George Mickelson had been supportive of me and because I knew of Mark's accomplishments in business.

Several weeks ago he reached out to me for a quick talk about his campaign. It did flatter me that he reached out but I know he (knowing the drill) has touched out to many opinion makers throughout the District and Sioux Falls. He has alo touched many voters. He told me then that he and Cynthia (his wife and another well networked and big plus in the campaign) has already knocked on 600 plus doors talking to voters. Mark blindly stopped at my home and spoke to Susan. Also Westra's high school aged son stopped by the other evening and left campaign literature. He was very polite.

While Mark is engaged the other candidates are not idle. District #13 and other areas in Sioux Falls as well are awash with District #13 candidate's signs and billboards. Surely several thousands of them. Mickelson I think has large signs on as much as 5 percent (without exaggeration) of the Commercial properties on the well traveled streets in Sioux Falls (in and out of the district.) On the Mickelson Campaign Facebook page there was a picture of his sign (large 4'x6') building crew that consisted of eight people. Volunteers I assume. Impressive for a Legislative campaign.

Besides all the signs, door knocking, and without doubt mail and maybe phone calls in the next couple of weeks, the Mickelson Campaign is having a picnic next week. What is of note that the picnic has hosts. Many are movers and shakers on the civic and political scene in Sioux Falls. While I was not invited to any fundraisers for any of the candidates, I heard that Mickelson did have at least one pretty successful one. When the campaign finance reports are filed next week, I expect that the Mickelson campaign will file totals that even some statewide campaigns will be envious of. (That would include the announced and rumored candidates for the PUC and even a Democrat Congressional Candidate or two.

I have been around and involved in hundreds of legislative campaigns. This one is superior in money, volunteers, and organization to any I have witnessed. Some campaigns may have spent more but it was a there own money. That is not the case here.

Another Mickelson for Higher Office?

Clearly that is the unspoken question. Ellis raises the question in the article and surely Mark is confronted often with being asked about elective office so frequently during his adult life. When we met, I asked Mark why he was running. He gave me pretty much the same answer he gave the Argus. He thinks that if he is ever to do it, this is the time.

After catching up with each other I asked again, Why? He said that South Dakota had been good to him. He said he felt is important to assure that South Dakota is a great place to live. His prism is as a businessman and business developer. He said that the best thing we can build South Dakota is to promote business in today's knowledge economy, we (South Dakota) must have the best schools.

Does that mean he will run for Governor or Congress, I do not know.

You can never know. First he has to get elected. Then he has to like it and feel he is making a difference. Then you have to see how he is accepted by others both his peers and his constituents. How will his wife and boy's feel about when he is missing in action on the home front?

Mark Mickelson has the skills and I predict based on him, not his pedigree a future if he desires it. Other politicians with ambition should be concerned and be paying attention.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

In Defense of Lobbyists

The charge of Lobbyist has once again entered the political debate.

Current top tier GOP Presidential candidates, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, are charging, answering, and counter charging over whether or not Newt lobbied for Freddie Mac. Romney says Yes, Newt says No, just counseling or advising. Newt is making the Tom Daschle defense argument that he only advises his clients on strategy but in fact is not a Lobbyist and is thus not registered with the Congress.

Whether he has actually advocated vote positions on certain issues I do not know, however former Speaker Gingrich has advised several important South Dakota interests: Poet and Sanford Health System.

Sidebar – By focusing on the widely accepted notion that Lobbying is bad should not Romney focus his fire on just Gingrich’s association with Freddie Mac (their complicity in the Housing Finance Bubble) and the $1.5 million he received from them for his advice, rather than letting the debate refocus on the definition of Lobbyist and whether Newt did it?

The Lobbyist charge easily crosses partisan lines in South Dakota as well. Recently the SD GOP attacked Stephanie HS for her newly minted status as Federal Lobbyist conveniently forgetting that after his defeat in 2002 John Thune worked in a similar capacity. If my memory serves me, SD Democrats and the Daschle campaign attacked Thune’s lobbyist activity in the run up to the 2004 SD US Senate election.

Lobbying like many professions in honorable, if done honestly and ethically. Lobbying is an essential function of freedom and American Government. The First Amendment of the U S Constitution provides:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. (emphasis added)

Lobbying is a natural extension of being able to bring a voice to the government, either the Executive or the Legislative branches. Having persons either individually or collective bring facts and opinions to their government in an attempt to persuade a preferred outcome is a basic tenant of freedom.

It is important to distinguish lobbying from bribery. Persuading with facts is freedom; buying votes, official actions or favor is against the Law.

While our Federal Officials and the Executive branch of State government have staff to gather facts and study issues, this is not true of our State Legislators (at least in South Dakota where they have no paid staff). Even with a paid staff, the information and expertise that Lobbyist bring to the government arena is essential.

In South Dakota Lobbyist perform several important functions, the most important being expertise on the issues, groups, and individuals they represent. We have citizen Legislators who in many cases have little experience or knowledge of what can be many complex issues or proposed regulations. Having Lobbyists with specialized knowledge of the issues representing what can be several sides of an issue is frankly essential to making good laws.

Good Legislation requires Legislators with common sense and an ability to understand facts and issues when presented to them. The variety of issues require help in understanding complex issues ranging from banking, commerce, transportation, medicine, local government, the law, education, and a smorgasbord of other issues.

Further (and there are pros and cons to this) but having Lobbyists preserves some institutional memory to the Legislature and Executive functions. Particularly with term limits (though even to some extent to my observation of almost 40 years) the Lobbyist may be the only one on the scene (read here in Pierre) that can put an issue in perspective and explain “how and why” that happened.