Friday, December 30, 2005

Tussing vs. Volek

Attorney Tom Singer's 11-page report to the Billings City Council about potential litigation with Mayor-elect Ron Tussing was on my fax machine this morning. You can find the Gazette story, with a link to the full report, here.

The report agrees in essential points with my own analysis here (skeptics who said I didn't know what I was talking about can ease their guilty consciences by donating to PayPal on the Outpost site). And the Gazette didn't have to take legal action to see my analysis. Key points:

1. Tussing probably is a city employee for purposes of the agreement.

2. Pursuing litigation probably isn't such a hot idea.

3. The city's key concern is acting City Administrator Tina Volek, who might reasonably have expected the agreement to protect her from working with Tussing again. Money quote: "The Mayor, as presiding officer of the Council, generally participates in the annual performance review of the City Administrator. ... Were Mr. Tussing to participate in such a review and disparage Ms. Volek's performance in any way, she might allege his disparagement of her was related 'to matters at issue that led to' the settlement agreement, or in retaliation for her role in those matters. Based on such an allegation, she could assert a claim for breach of the agreement against Mr. Tussing, the City, or both."

Bottom line: "Whether it is possible or practical to exclude the Mayor from supervising and interacting closely with the Acting City Administrator is a question I cannot answer. I have no way of predicting whether Ms. Volek will ask that a barrier be erected, or if she would assert claims against the City or Mr. Tussing. The answers depend on what issues arise, and how people handle themselves over the next four years. It is possible to imagine may things that could go wrong, and our imaginations are never as wild as what reality dishes out. A year ago, no one foresaw the situation that exists today."

UPDATE: Matt Singer agrees with me.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Morrison, Tester and who?

Paul Richards, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, says in a news release that he is staging an informational picket this afternoon at the Lee Newspapers State Bureau in Helena. Richards is unhappy about this poll, which he says left him out altogether.

“My hat is in the ring despite what you might read in some newspapers,” Richards says. “It is the voters’ job, not the reporter’s job to decide which candidates are favored and which are not.”

I think he's got a legitimate gripe. Richards isn't going to win this thing, but he certainly has a chance to focus the discussion in places where the big party candidates may not want to go. But he may never get a chance.

Too bad for all of us. The political insiders only want to hear about the horse race; the voters want to hear what the choices are.

UPDATE: Lee's response is here, with Mike Dennison cashing in on the rare opportunity to interview Chuck Johnson.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

No child gets ahead

This Washington Post op-ed indicates that my biggest fear about the No Child Left Behind Act is coming true. When this phrase used to just show up in teachers' professional journals, I snickered at it. As I argued then, in a world where no child is left behind, no child gets ahead.

Then NCLB became official government policy -- in every state, no matter what. Leave it to the federal government to take public schools that already are struggling and find a way to make them worse. (Thanks to Kevin Drum for the link.)

UPDATE: Intelligent Discontent disagrees.

Monday, December 26, 2005

The Iraq solution

The Rolling Stone is running with Gov. Brian Schweitzer's plan for Iraq.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Wal-Mart in review

I went to see the screening of "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price" and reviewed it here. Meanwhile, Wal-Mart appears to have its sights on Laurel.

Why worry?

On the other hand, I was disappointed to hear Dave Berg repeat this tired argument Thursday about warrantless wiretapping: If you're not doing anything wrong, why worry about it?

Wulfgar deals with that question here. To which I add only: I think I remember Stalin making the exact same argument in about 1947.

Nothing intelligent about this design

Judge Andrew Napolitano was the guest host on Bill O'Reilly's "Radio Factor" Thursday, and he was a delight to hear. He is unfailingly courteous, but he also is no-nonsense and direct on point. In this case, he was blasting the Bush administration over misuse of the National Security Agency, but he was, if anything, even more critical of Congress for failing to reject the Patriot Act. Fun stuff.

He also was critical of the judge who ruled against intelligent design. He kept asking callers, Why aren't evolutionists willing to argue about competing theories? I didn't hear anyone make the obvious point: Because intelligent design doesn't provide anything to argue about.

Intelligent design is the Sherlock Holmes of scientific theories. Holmes said: When all other possibilities have been eliminated, then the possibility that remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.

Intelligent design says that all theories that attempt to explain the origins of life by examining what we can see, taste, touch, hear and see must inevitably fail. Life is too complex and improbable to have come about without intervention by some higher intelligence. So as long as intelligent design advocates can shoot holes in other theories, their theory remains the one possibility that hasn't been eliminated.

But shooting holes in existing theories does not amount to offering an alternative theory. And figuring out life is far more complicated than narrowing a short list of suspects or possible points of entry. When Copernicus shot down the Ptolemaic system, he didn't just point out the defects in the system, he offered an alternative that explained the facts better. And his theory has held up under testing thousands of times in hundreds of different ways.

When intelligent design is able to do what Copernicus did, then it deserves a place in science class.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

King Kong vs. King Kong

Two movies on my all-time Top 10 list were made in 1933: "Duck Soup" and "King Kong." We'll probably never have another "Duck Soup" ("Dr. Strangelove" may be as close as we will get, but not even Peter Sellers could play Harpo Marx); however, Peter Jackson has taken a heck of a crack at bringing Kong to a modern audience.

The new version is in part an homage and in part an attempt to improve upon and resolve some of the weaknesses of the original. The original's special effects hold up amazingly well after all of these years, but Jackson has topped them, especially with Kong's lifelike facial expressions. The movie's added length doesn't make the story drag, but it does undercut the elegance of the original's three-act structure, cleanly broken into segments before the island, the nightmare of the island, and the cruelty of the New York sequence.

The movie also pushes the relationship betweeen the ape and the girl to another level, both gaining and losing something in the process. What's lost is some of Kong's purity, which makes him such a potent symbol of everything that seemed to be going wrong in 1933. As Plenty Coups said of grizzly bears, Kong is always "in his right mind," never too tired or too lazy or too timid or too indecisive to do exactly what the occasion requires.

He does battle against a world that neither he nor many of the people living in it could quite understand: a nation of rich resources but mired in depression; a newly coined world power but reluctant to assume the role; a nation founded on free enterprise but increasingly drawn to socialism and communism; an economy built on agriculture in which farmers were abandoning farms by the thousands.

Kong's death is not merely spectacle but public sacrifice. He is brought down by airpower and machine guns, potent symbols for people living just 15 years after World War I had shown how those weapons could overturn everything they thought they knew about the glory of war.

None of that would have worked if the characters or filmmakers had ever shown the slightest indication that they knew what they were up to. They play it for thrills and even throw out a false clue in the "beauty and the beast" motif, relying on Fay Wray's endless fear and repulsion for the beast to show how lost Kong's world really was to contemporary Americans.

For Jackson, playing the story that naively wasn't an option. He lays on the thrills in triplicate but essentially contorts the primitive power of the original into a story about interpersonal relationships. His Kong is noble but too accessible. The ape as mensch just doesn't play.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Time to impeach?

Over at Spun and Spinning, Tony is calling on The Outpost to editorialize in favor of impeaching Bush for illegally spying on Americans. It's a topic well worthy of opinionating, but I'm not ready to lead the charge for impeachment. Here's why:

1. What Bush did probably was illegal, but it isn't yet 100 percent clear. The Volokh Conspiracy has the best discussion I've seen so far about that question. I don't favor impeachment when even marginally defensible legal stances are available.

2. I'm generally against impeachment and recall votes. Nixon is the only exception I can think of and that only because his offenses were so clear and pervasive and cut so close to the heart of what this country ought to be about. As a rule, I think voters have a right to the candidate they elected, even if most of them eventually conclude they made a poor choice.

3. The Outpost doesn't take many stands on national issues. That isn't because those issues aren't important, but because we have no special access to information or knowledge about what happens at the national level. Our opinions are no more useful than those of anyone else who follows the national news in a half-assed sort of way.

Having said all that, I still find what the president did inexcusable. If he wanted expanded authorization for domestic spying, he should have asked Congress to give it to him. He shouldn't have just taken it.

Police vs. animal shelter

This interesting piece by Evelyn Pyburn appeared both on the Big Sky Business Journal's website and in the Yellowstone County News. I can't quite decide what to make of it, but it deserves a close look.

UPDATE: Via e-mail, Sarah Grau sends along some pertinent thoughts:

The most important point I want to make is: the Billings Police Foundation is NOT the Billings Police Department, nor is it the City of Billings.

The BPF is a 501c3 public charity established in 1999, recieved its IRS
ruling in 2001 (I think) You could check at

In my opinion, a small group of city employees (present and former)
started their own little company a few years ago and operated it on city
time, with city employees, at a city address and with city
publications. Their mission was to "provide assistance for programs and
equipment not included in the city budget." But they did so, by the
examples provided in the article:

1. Depositing checks that were not made payable to them

2. Telling donors the Shelter could not take their
donations, please reissue the check payable to the BPF

I would go further and opine: any revenues they've ever received belong
to the city, since they were sought after...on city time, by city
employees, at a city address and via city publications.

I would hope our State's Attorney General is interested in practices 1
and 2 listed above.

I understand that Deanna Anthony admitted the BPF only has 2 Board
members. On the last form 990 they filed, they listed 10, I believe.
This fact speaks volumes: did the other 8 bail? If so, why? With only
2 board members is the BPF in violation of its own bylaws? If so, the
state's SOS should be interested, as would the IRS.

Finally, why care? Because it was taxpayer money. They were an
unnecessary vehicle as operated. The city gets money, why would we give
it away to someone we would then have to ask for it back from?

Governmental bodies can accept donations.

The BPF is not accountable to taxpayers, it is not the city.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Gone with the Wendy's

I guess this is good news. But then I read this (courtesy of Jackie Corr) and wonder, once again, what sort of monuments we are creating for ourselves.

Reader's paradise

The most compelling part of this story was the last paragraph:

During his suspension, Granger has been reading six to eight hours a day, absorbing books that will enrich his knowledge of his specialty areas of classical music and public affairs. He recently finished a 1,200-page biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt and has been reading reviews of recent classical music releases.

Man alive. Where does a fellow apply to get suspended?

Gone to war

Some people found this speech remarkable for the president's admission that a thing or two might have gone wrong in Iraq. I found it remarkable, and depressing, because of this quote: "As President, I'm responsible for the decision to go into Iraq."

Why remarkable? Because no one else seems to be even a little bit concerned that the president so blithely confounds the express intention of the Founding Fathers, who labored to craft a Constitution that would deny to any single person the power to take this nation into war.

The founders' intentions could not have been more express. Their logic could not have been sounder. Yet to even suggest that we should now follow their wishes is to step into tinfoil hat land. Some argue that Congress authorized the war when it passed a resolution deferring to the president. It authorized no such thing. It simply abdicated its constitutional responsbility.

Under the founders' scheme of government, no president, and no human being, could ever stand before Americans and claim responsibility for starting a war. That the founders' wishes have been so ignored and neglected over the last 50 years has been the greatest challenge to democratic rule this country has ever faced.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Give me liberty

We watched most of "King Arthur" on TV the other night and were once again struck by the universal tendency to recast heroes of the ancient past as forerunners of Patrick Henry. I got the feeling that Arthur would have been less comfortable at the Round Table than sitting around with the Founding Fathers drafting the Bill of Rights. Even the abysmal "Alexander" recast the conquering general as another civil libertarian yearning to breathe free.

I don't pretend that I know what Arthur was really like, but I suspect that Monty Python got closer to the truth than this movie: a rousing combination of duty to God, divine right, chivalry, ego, valor and superstition. Arthur, I suspect, would have been as dumbfounded by the Magna Carta as by a jumbo jet. Every time a peasant showed up in the movie, I was tempted to shout, "Come and see the violence inherent in the system."

Modern movies do a great job of capturing the feel and look of the old days, but they don't even try to get inside the heads of those characters. They just recast them all with a powderhorn and musket, spouting good old American values.

I can't help but wonder whether our inability to imagine people who truly don't think the way we do hasn't led us into an ill-considered war or two.

Winding down

Just about done with school. I got my Rocky grades in on Tuesday, after having to spend a few hours tracking down a plagiarism case. It was a good reminder why I would have been a lousy detective. Once the thrill of the chase is over, I just felt dragged down by it all. I already know too many things I don't want to know. Why learn one more?

Now I just have to grade my German finals and get those grades in by Wednesday. Then in the spring, I'll be teaching two German courses at MSU-Billings, and I have a whole month to get ready for it. Maybe I'll get it done right this time.

In the meantime, I'm compiling a list of the most common errors students make in writing (English, not German). I'll add to it as they come to me, but here are a few, in no particular order:

1. Comma splices. Not quite universal but very, very common.

2. Leaving out the comma after the year in a complete date. Almost every student will write, "I was born Jan. 1, 1980 in Billings" instead of "I was born Jan. 1, 1980, in Billings." It's so universal an error that obviously their high school and junior high teachers didn't know the rule either.

3. Pronoun agreement. Nearly universal. "Their" has become the default pronoun for all purposes, regardless of gender and number.

4. Use of "then" for "than." Odd, but quite common.

5. "Affect" vs. "effect." Wrong more often than not.

6. Punctuation outside quotation marks. Students put commas and periods outside quotation marks far more often than they would if they were just guessing. Somewhere along the line, they’re being taught to do it the wrong way.

Saturday, December 10, 2005


Doctors have again found acute leukemia in Bette Bohlinger, a Billings resident and wife of Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger. The disease had been in remission. A news release today that a bone marrow donor is being sought.

For information, contact Eileen Damone, Montana's contact for the National Marrow Donor Program at

Bauer vs. Tussing

I don't have much to add to this wacky situation, other than to note that it came just as I was concluding that Mayor Ron Tussing really will be a city employee. That's a point I had decided earlier to leave to the lawyers, but I can play lawyer, too.

I came to the conclusion by the process of elimination. I can think of only four reasons why the city would write a check to anyone:

1. The person has a claim against the city, due to some tort or contractual obligation. Not the case here.

2. The person is a vendor who sells a product to the city. Not the case here.

3. The person is an independent contractor who is paid to provide a specific service to the city. Don't jump on this train too fast. Independent contractor status is governed by state and federal law. The requirements are strict, and I don't think there is any way an elected official could qualify.

4. The person is an employee. Sounds right to me. The fact that Tussing didn't go through the normal application process strikes me as irrelevant in terms of his employee status (although it may be relevant to the question of whether he breached his agreement). But I would argue that he did go through a standard application process, called a primary and an election, before becoming an employee entitled to receive paychecks and other benefits from the city.

Does this mean that he should have to quit or pay back the money? Not necessarily. I still think that the key questions don't concern what would hold up in court. Rather, they are:

1. What did both parties think they were agreeing to? Good faith is more important in this case than legal precision.

2. Has the city honored its obligation to protect Tina Volek from having to work with Tussing again? I still think that question outweighs the sentiments of voters. In my mind, the whole dispute evaporates if she is adequately protected.

3. Does the city has a fiduciary obligation to pursue the recovery of taxpayers' money if an agreement has been breached? Generally, yes. But this is strictly a dollar and cents question. This case is unlikely to set a meaningful precedent; I mean, what are the odds? And the cost of recovery could easily equal or exceed the dollars at stake.

Wal-Mart on the big screen

In response to my earlier question about a Billings showing of "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price," I am reliably informed that a public showing will take place at 7 p.m. Dec. 19 at the Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship, 2032 Central Ave.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Now in print

The issue of Montana Quarterly with my Brian Schweitzer story is now out (sorry, not available on the web). And the check is in the bank.

And this week's Outpost has my thoughts on the 12th anniversary of the menorah incident. It turned into one of those 5 a.m. stories, so I'm not sure how well it captures what I really wanted to say (and I don't have the courage yet to look). But I do recommend reading the comments on the topic below from Roxanne Kent, who was the lyricist for "Paper Candles." She expresses what a lot of people seemed to be trying to say at the play, and she may have put it better than I did. At any rate, it's a good counterpoint to some of the more cynical comments on that thread.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Thomas vs. Hitchens

While Cal Thomas thinks planting propaganda in Iraqi newspapers is just peachy (most penetrating insight: "Lippmann was possibly being sarcastic"), Christopher Hitchens thinks heads should roll.

My opinion? Start sharpening the ax.

Side note: Why has the report, cited by Hitchens, that Bush wanted to bomb Al Jazeera drawn so little attention? If true, wouldn't that be an impeachable offense? And if it's not impeachable, why not?

Monday, December 05, 2005

Burns me up

U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns places great value on my advice and opinions. Or so he says in a letter that showed up at my house last week.

He values my opinions so much that he asked me to fill out a three-page survey detailing my views to help him verify that he shares the majority view in Montana on key issues. Among the questions, none of which I'm making up:

"Did you support the President's decision to oust the murderous regime of Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq?"

"Are you angry with how the United Nations and so-called 'allies' like France and Germany have undermined our efforts in Iraq and the war on terror?"

"Does it anger you that the courts are more and more ruling against our religious liberties and traditional values and institutions?"

"Has the time come to ease unneeded and counter-productive government regulations and restrictions on agriculture?"

OK, so the senator really isn't interested in my opinion. He's interested in my wallet. As the four-page accompanying letter notes, he hopes to use the survey to "contrast the Democrats' liberal 'values' with our own commonsense Montana values."

Whatever Democrat opposes him, he said, will espouse "the same leftist values of Harry Reid, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Ted Kennedy." Indeed, the letter uses the phrase "liberal Democrat" at least 10 times. And it tells stretchers: John Morrison, Burns says, "is a trial attorney whose industry, and the medical malpractice suits it champions, have had more to do with the rising cost of health care than any other one factor!" Jon Tester, Burns says, "has consistently aligned himself with the far left during his tenure in the State Senate." The far left? Who could that possibly be? Possibly the "Hollywood and New York elite who have always resented the western values and traditions" that Burns upholds.

He sums up, "And the cold, hard fact of the matter is, unless I have your maximum political AND financial support right-here-and-now in the fall of 2005 ... I may not be ready for the firestorm we fully expect the liberal Democrats to soon unleash against me across all of Big Sky Country."

A scary thought indeed.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Still not in our town

I spent a fair part of Saturday seeing "Paper Candles," the new play about the Billings menorah incident of 1993; then sitting through a discussion about it; then watching "Not in Our Town," the documentary that aired on PBS about the whole thing; then viewing excerpts from related documentaries; then a second discussion about all of that.

I'm assembling my thoughts for next week's Outpost, and I don't know how it will turn out. But I was especially struck by something Venture Theatre's artistic director, Mace Archer, said after the play. He said that the menorah story functions as a metaphor, and people have trouble dealing with the metaphors in their own lives. I can't recall specifically whether he said this next bit, but it seemed to follow from what he did say: Art is a way of helping people incorporate metaphor into their lives, and helps build the mythology that makes up the fundamental truths about who we are and how we live. Anyway, that's how my thoughts were running, and, as usual, Mace said it much more eloquently, and he's smarter and better looking, too, which is why I hate and despise him.

And all that about metaphor and mythology is a bit high flown, and I will try to bring it closer to earth for the paper. As I watched the play, I did find myself wishing, somehow, that the facts were further in the past, so that they would stop intruding on what really was a parable. In some ways, it may be that the people who have the most trouble grasping the significance of the parable are the people right here who lived through it all.

In the meantime, I'd be interested in hearing any metaphors, or myths, any reader here might have to add.

Saturday, December 03, 2005


Bill Higham, 55, a good friend of The Outpost and a good citizen, has died. Services will be Dec. 17.

He had a fatal illness, apparently, for some time. I didn't know that because I had neither seen nor heard from him since he left First Citizens Bank a year or so ago. Others who knew him said they had tried to reach him and he hadn't responded.

He had served on the MetraPark board, was a member of the Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Committee and was active in NILE and in some Republican political campaigns. On Fridays in the early days of The Outpost, we used to meet at Pauly's (earlier Vinnie's, later a couple of Mexican food restaurants, the Eleven: 11 and Creole's) for drinks with Bill and Denny Rehberg.

First Citizens Bank was on my delivery route in those days, and Bill always subscribed, even though he could have picked one up by walking a few yards. I delivered his paper personally to his desk -- the only publisher-to-subscriber, one-on-one service we offered -- and we would talk about the paper and the news. Every year or so, I would hit him up to renew his subscription.

The paper was, of course, too liberal for his tastes, but he read it faithfully. I promised him once that if The Outpost ever became a huge success, I would become a rich Republican, too. Another failed promise, so far at least.

He was a heck of a guy, loyal, reliable and concerned, at least when I knew him. I don't know exactly what wrong, and I guess I never will.