Monday, January 28, 2008

Winning Wyoming

Dave Barry sums up the Republican race, including the importance of the Wyoming primary:

It's still wide open. Mitt "Mitt" Romney holds a slight edge in delegates, plus a heifer he got for winning Wyoming. Right behind him are John McCain, Chuck Norris and the late Ronald Reagan. Bringing up the rear is Rudy, who needs a win and has been frantically courting Florida voters. He's mowing your lawn right now.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

On race

I'm a latecomer to this discussion at mtpolitics and don't want to get involved in the overwrought comments section there. But I would like to make a point or two, especially since this is likely to be a campaign theme.

First, Craig sees no distinction in 2008 between blacks aspiring to build stronger black families and communities and whites expressing similar aspirations. To me, the distinction seems obvious and potent. Whites, of course, spent centuries consciously building strong white communities, often on the backs of people of other skin colors. We finally figured out that was a source of great evil, and we have been trying to get over it.

But we are still top dogs. To refer to the "white community" is not only racist but redundant. The community we all live in is the community whites built, so references to white identity are widely recognized as code for a desire to return to the days when blacks were menial laborers and Indians were savages.

When blacks use similar language, no such code is implied. I read the references Craig refers to as a call for blacks to shake off the bonds of history and assume their rightful place as equals -- not as rulers -- in the world community. I detect no threat in it, and if it works, I am all for it.

Second, Craig asks in comments, "So, now that we’re 5-6 generations removed [from slavery], do we still have to wring our hands over it? When does the statute of limitations expire?"

I do not know the answer to that question, but I would suggest that the statute hasn't tolled yet. We are not nearly so far away from slavery as the chronology suggests. I have made this point before, but it may bear repeating: I grew up in the South in the 1950s. Blacks had to sit in a separate section at the movie theater. Blacks had to attend their own (inferior) schools. Few blacks dared date, much less marry, whites. Blacks couldn't play football in the Southwest Conference and had been in major league baseball for only a handful of years.

(Odd side note: a resident of my hometown was Lou Rochelli, whom I once interviewed and who helped show Jackie Robinson the ropes at second base on the Dodgers; he then became a player-manager in Great Falls.)

My parents, who certainly understood the evils of racism and tried to protect their children from it, still never quite got over the surprise of meeting blacks who were well dressed, well educated, well housed and well spoken. It took them years to fit that idea into their concept of how the world could be.

So I have often wondered: If I had grown up black in my hometown, confined to second-rate jobs, attending a second-rate school, constantly derided by whites who thought I would never be good enough or smart enough to do any better - and who had the weight of law on their side - would I be over that now?

I suspect not. I think I would carry that with me to the grave, and I suspect that many others who say that's all ancient history would feel exactly the same way. We have miles to go.

Long may he flap

I see the Gazette has brought Mallard Fillmore back, although with diminished billing in the classified ad section.

Mallard Fillmore was a discredit to the entire conservative cause when it appeared next to Doonesbury. If one knew nothing of liberals and conservatives except what appeared in those two strips, one would presume that conservatives are humorless, obtuse and draw great ducks.

But it is hard to say that Prickly City has been an improvement. Mallard Fillmore may have been obvious and predictable, but at least it had usually had a point, and that point usually was detectable. If Prickly City has a point, I haven't yet uncovered it.

But at least that puts it a cut above other new strips that have made their way to the Gazette, which uniformly strike me as dark, crude and unpleasant. Am I old enough to be nostalgic yet for Lil Abner and Pogo? Maybe not, but give me a couple of years.

A woman for president?

At least three times in the last week I have hard people say in public that they don't think a woman should be president -- twice on talk radio and once on talk TV. One was a yahoo who apparently just didn't like women; a second thought that putting women into positions of authority over men was a sin; a third said a woman would leave us in a position of weakness in the Mideast.

Gloria Steinem took a lot of heat for this op-ed piece. All the same, I can't imagine anybody saying publicly that a black man should not be president. People may think that, and they may vote that way, but saying it out loud has been pretty much out of the public picture since Al Campanis.

Publicly expressed racism is intolerable. Misogyny? Not so much.

Fighting words

Christopher Hitchens is so smart and mean that sometimes I get the queasy feeling that he might somehow ram his arm through the computer screen and grab me by the throat for even thinking about disagreeing with him. No such danger here; his attack on Mike Huckabee's cynical defense of the Confederate battle flag is perfectly on target.

My own argument about the Confederate flag has boiled down over the years to a single sentence: The side that wins the war gets to choose the flag. But you can't get a thousand words out of that, and they wouldn't be as forceful as Hitchens' if you could.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Good point

This letter writer to the Gazette has a good point. I don't know about MUS scholarships, but I do run into a lot of college students who are worried about not getting grades high enough to keep scholarship money coming in.

That's too bad. One message I try to get across to students is not to freak out too much about grades; they don't matter that much in the long run, and they can distract students from getting out of college the most useful things that are there. But it's a lame message to students who will have to drop out if their grades drop even a little bit.

The result is that some of the best students are among the most timid -- afraid to stick with a course that proves challenging, afraid to explore outside their major, afraid to take an innovative approach to an assignment. I especially see it in German classes, where the skills needed to learn a language don't match up all that well with the skills needed to succeed in college overall. I hate it when students quit because they are afraid they may not get the A they need.

It's a bum way to run an educational system.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Going to the middle

Talk yakker Bill Cunningham continues referring to Barack Obama as Barack Hussein Obama, demonstrating a passion for journalistic thoroughness that he shows for no other candidate. In fairness -- and I'm sure he wants to be fair -- he should also use middle names when referring to other presidential candidates. As a handy guide, here they are: Willard Mitt Romney, Ronald Ernest Paul, Johnny Reid Edwards, John Sidney McCain III, Rudolph William Louis Giuliani, Michael Dale Huckabee, Fred Dalton Thompson and Hillary Diane Rodham Clinton.

Let the campaign begin!

Global burn

This post at Left in the West oversimplifies matters a bit. Steven Running argues that global warming is "just plain facts." So far as that goes, it's true enough. Even the global warming debunkers I have read do not dispute that carbon dioxide levels are increasing, that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and that greenhouse gases produce a warming effect. After all, greenhouses work, don't they?

The dispute is over two other matters:

1. What effect will all of this ultimately have on the world's climate? Since climate is so complex, it's understandable that there should be disagreement even among the best scientists about exactly how serious the effects of global warming will be. The fact is, nobody knows for sure.

2. Given that uncertainty, how much should we rationally try to do to prevent the effects of global warming? Again, it's a complicated question since the results of global warming will no doubt be mixed. As a good conservative, I argue that it makes sense to take modest steps that would make sense even if global warming turns out to be no big deal: energy conservation, alternative energy sources, pollution cleanup measures, and so on.

Radical extremists on the left think that's not enough; they may be right, but it isn't clear that we could do enough even if we wanted to. Radical extremists on the right think we should do nothing at all until we are sure it's too late. That's just suicidal.

Global warming skeptics make a key mistake: They point out that uncertainty over the effects of global warming means that it may not be as bad as the more extreme scenarios anticipate. But they forget that the uncertainty also means that the effects could be far worse. They play a dangerous game. No wonder they get so angry when the debate doesn't go their way.

As long as we are on the subject, let's take a shot at another point global warming skeptics make over and over again. They point out that climate has changed radically for natural causes in the past. That's true. But then they leap to the conclusion that all global temperature change must be the result of something other than human causes. Sorry, that doesn't compute. And even if it did, it still wouldn't mean that we should do nothing.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Silly bill

In the category of dumb legislation falls this news release from Denny Rehberg, who is sponsoring a bill "allowing employers to require employees to speak English while engaged in work activities."

Says Rehberg: “The English language is one of the common denominators that unites our diverse nation. So, it’s only fitting U.S. employers should be able to require their employees to speak it."

I thought one of the common denominators that unites our diverse nation was our right to say any damn thing we pleased, whether or not it fits the prejudices of our elected representatives.

He adds, "Immigrants wanting to be a part of America’s workforce should be willing to engage in the basic act of learning English. This bill gives employers the ability to insist they do so.”

When I read statements like that one, I suspect that the speaker has absolutely no clue what he is talking about. When I worked at Bueroeinrichtungshaus Finkenzeller in Munich, Germany, I spoke German probably 95 percent of the time. My boss, a Spaniard, spoke slightly broken German (as did I), but his German was better than his English, and my German was better than my Spanish, so German was the nearest thing we had to a common language.

But there were occasions when it made sense on the job to speak in English. Mostly it was because a co-worker wanted to make me feel at home or to practice his own English, a request I was happy to oblige. Occasionally English helped -- or could have helped, if it had been available to all involved -- to get around an unfamiliar phrase or an arcane bit of vocabulary.

On other occasions, it just felt good to speak a little English. No matter how hard one works to learn another language, it never quite comes as naturally as the native tongue. I remember scouring the tiny English language section at the nearby branch library, hungry for a familiar voice. I read every Sherlock Holmes story ever written, just because I loved hearing the language in my head.

Obviously, immigrants should learn English. Obviously, English is the preferred language in most American workplaces. But employers should not use English to control or weed out workers who are still trying to learn. And the federal government should not give employers the cudgel that allows them to do that.

The real goal seems clear: Our congressmen don't want immigrants to feel at home or to be able to speak the language most likely to help them succeed. Congressmen want to look like tough guys. Instead, they look like bullies.

UPDATE: I didn't know when I wrote this that Roger Clawson was writing on the same issue (and on English only) for the Jan. 24 Outpost. I can't give the column away, but here's a quote: "English-Only laws are, at best, empty symbolism and, at worst, xenophobic, race-tinged proposals that imperil programs that can help non-English students and adults attain English proficiency."

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Back to school

Got a call this morning from Dennis Unsworth, commissioner of political practice, to let me know that his office has accepted the formal complaint filed last week against Celebrate Billings by Janet Green.

If you read today's Gazette, you already know that. But it won't be in The Outpost this week. I was on the story early Tuesday but am back in school most of the day now and couldn't get back in time to get it nailed down before deadline. Dagnabit it.

The full class load started today: professional writing at Rocky, two German classes at MSU Billings and some part-time tutoring. So the blog is likely to go mostly fallow again for a while. To the extent that I have writing time, I need to devote it to the Outpost -- all the options are inadequate, but that is the best of a bad lot.

Side note to Greg Tuttle: I know you read this blog from time to time, so this is just to let you know that I have a number for Janet Green that you may not have. It apparently was added to the complaint after you got your copy.

Since the Montana Newspaper Association has refused to talk to me for years, I don't think the number will do me any good. It does seem to be a working number, but my call hasn't been returned. Of course, MNA probably won't talk to you either, but you are welcome to the number if you want to give it a try.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

By any other name

I'm working on the Outpost calendar and listening to Bill Cunningham on talk radio. Every time he refers to Barack Obama, he refers to him as "Barack Hussein Obama." I see that Rush Limbaugh is doing the same thing. And now What's Right in Montana is picking it up.

It's similar to, although worse than, Republicans' habit of referring to their opposition as the "Democrat Party" rather than by its actual name, which is the Democratic Party (nobody ever refers to the Republic Party).

Hussein is part of Obama's actual name, of course, but it isn't the name he uses. In fact, none of the candidates in the presidential primaries goes by first and middle name, and Obama is the only one referred to that way.

By the age of 5 or 6, most Americans learn to refer to people by the names they use to refer to themselves. Some Americans never grow up.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Lee falling

More bad news for Lee Enterprises. $2.44 billion of goodwill? Dang, if they had just one more dollar, they could buy a cup of coffee.

E-mail of the day

A spam message pushing online medications included this testimonial:

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your special offers that preserve my time and bucks,
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Happy Minion Day!

Burns on primaries

Conrad Burns was interviewed Friday on David Berg's "Voices of Montana" radio talk show. Most of the discussion was about how wonderful Burns is and what meanies the Democrats and media were for mentioning his ties to Jack Abramoff. But there also was this: Burns raised doubts about using primaries to select presidential candidates rather than picking candidates at political conventions as in the old days.

I wasn't taking notes or even listening very carefully, but his argument seemed to be that the old method picked candidates who best represented the political party and its interests. In the current system, all candidates essentially are running a national campaign in every state and genuine differences in policy and ideology tend to stay beneath the surface.

It seemed like a reasonable point, and I, too, have wondered whether all these primaries really serve the national interest. If nothing else, conventions certainly were more exciting in the old days. But it also would have been hard to top the New Hampshire primary for excitement.

Still, I wonder if it could be true that by obscuring party differences in the primaries we wind up exaggerating them when it comes to actual governance.

Friday, January 11, 2008

More here

The story about how Celebrate Billings paid for ads that appeared in the Billings Gazette backing a school mill levy election takes a new twist.

When I interviewed Gazette Publisher Mike Gulledge about this, he assured me that The Gazette intended to do, and would do, the right thing. I believed him not, I hope, because I am hopelessly naive but because it wouldn't really make sense, so far as I could figure, to do it any other way. When a reader telephoned to ask if this was "dirty money," I said I didn't think so.

But I find the Gazette's accounting for the expenditures obscure at best (as, apparently, does the commissioner of political practices and, perhaps, MSU Billings). I can't help but wonder if the explanation is that the Gazette wanted to count that $225,000 in Celebrate Billings membership dues as Gazette revenue rather than as a separate account. If so, the intertwining of funds, especially funds used for political purposes, may have been a bad mistake.

Naturally, I was skeptical about the whole Celebrate Billings project from the git-go. Daily newspapers exert considerable influence just from their natural role. To try to leverage additional influence using nonprofit partners stretches my understanding of what a newspaper's place in the community ought to be.

UPDATE: The curse of running a weekly. I checked with the commissioner on political practices on Monday; on Tuesday, a formal complaint was filed.

Interesting that one of those involved in the complaint was Donald Cyphers, who has experience in such matters.

By coincidence, I raised skepticism both about Celebrate Billings' political involvement and about Cyphers' political ad practices in the same column six years ago. More here.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Eric Bibb

The Outpost sponsored a 2002 appearance by Eric Bibb at the Alberta Bair Theater. He's coming back on Jan. 23, and we are sponsoring the show again.

I was only mildly interested in sponsoring the show. We thought his first show was solid but not spectacular, and it evoked no overpowering desire to see him again. But Corby Skinner brought by Bibb's latest CD on Monday, and now I can't wait. I started playing the album on the way home from work late last night, and had to sit in the car and let it play for a while before I could get out and go in the house. I drove to work this morning listening: The same thing happened. Now I'm just back from driving to the bank. Same thing. He's got me hooked.

It's hard to say exactly why. He's got a driving basic blues guitar style, embroidered by world music influences. He brings in other instruments as needed, including a few other voices. All the songs are originals, except one, Dylan's "Buckets of Rain." It was Dylan, according to Bibb's Wikipedia entry, who told him when he was 11, "Keep it simple, forget all that fancy stuff."

He seems to have taken the advice to heart. The new album is full of simple ideas, simple themes, simple tunes, playing out in front of intricate guitar work. It is addictively listenable. I can't wait to see him.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Dixie Chicks

Late last night I watched "Shut Up and Sing," the 2006 documentary about the Dixie Chicks' dust-up over a comment Natalie Maines made about George Bush. It was a very well made film that not only reinforced my concern about their plight but also made me interested in them as musicians and as people -- something I never imagined would happen.

Maines comes across as just incorrigibly outspoken on nearly every topic, sometimes laughing at her own absurdities even as they are escaping her lips. Her fellow chicks come across as nearly saintly: committed artists devoted to family, music and each other.

Not everybody in the film comes off so well. Radio executives act like scared clowns; anti-Chicks protesters as dumb hayseeds. It's particularly dispiriting to see so many country fans behave so badly. After all, country music was built on the work of people who didn't fit in. Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, George Jones and Merle Haggard are hardly models of clean living and moral solemnity.

Coming off worst was a Republican congressman who said the Chicks were merely experiencing the business consequences of expressing their opinions in public. If there is any bedrock principle of democracy, it is that political opinions ought to be kept separate from business consequences. Democracy works only if you and I agree that we can fight bitterly over who should be elected president of the country or the school board, then cast our votes and go back to living and working together, you getting your hair cut in my shop and me getting my car repaired in your garage.

Break that principle, and the entire democratic contract is in peril.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Don't fence me in

Nearly all of this opinion piece in today's Gazette makes good sense.

After spending a year monitoring the East German border back in the 1970s, I became unalterably opposed to building walls around countries. The mayor of McAllen, Texas, takes a more carefully reasoned view.

I suspect he knows the real reason why sensors, radar and video surveillance are unacceptable alternatives. Even though they would be cheaper and work better, they just wouldn't have the same symbolic impact as a big, ugly fence blighting our border. I'm agin it.

It has never been clear to me how a fence would keep out terrorists. As the mayor points out, there are easier ways to get inside this country. And it still is unclear to me why if it is such a good idea to export jobs to foreign low-wage workers, it's a bad idea to import foreign low-wage workers. What's the difference?

My one quibble: I don't think a guest worker program would work. To me, it gives us the worst of all worlds: security problems and a permanent unassimilated underclass. You can't let people in if you aren't going to give them hope and a reason to act like Americans.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Media for Schweitzer?

What's Right in Montana has this odd post, anticipating "an all-out effort from the media" supporting Brian Schweitzer's re-election. I don't think there is any question that Schweitzer is liked by a lot of reporters, for reasons that have nothing to do with his politics. He's colorful; he spouts good quotes; he's spontaneous; he's confrontational; he sometimes calls reporters up to ask their opinions. When my mother died last fall, he called to offer his condolences. That sort of thing is all meat to a reporter.

But it doesn't follow from that that the media would go all out to lift Schweitzer over Brown. I have lots of respect for Brown and always enjoy talking to him. He always has struck me as honest, honorable and decent. I know some other reporters feel the same way, and I don't know of any who don't (although I admit I don't follow this stuff closely anymore).

Anyway, I happened to be interviewing Roy Brown this morning (see next week's Outpost) so I asked him about that. He said that generally, yes, he's been treated fairly by the Montana press and has no particular complaints. Obviously, there are lots of reasons why a candidate who has just launched a statewide campaign might not want to sound like a whiner about press coverage, but I suspect Brown was telling the truth and that he has, in fact, gotten fair coverage.

So I don't know what Kool-Aid What's Right in Montana has been drinking, and I'm equally mystified by his assertion today that the media had picked Hillary Clinton for coronation. I know even less about national politics than I do about statewide politics, and I know that the media's alleged pro-Clinton bias has been a popular theme on right-wing talk radio.

But I can't think why it would be true. By the accounts I've read, Clinton runs a tightly controlled campaign that is unlikely to endear her to reporters. She isn't a maverick, like Paul or McCain (in 2000) or a fresh face like Obama. Her politics are relentlessly mainstream. Why would the media choose her for coronation?

I didn't even think we had coronations in this country. We have elections, and reporters who cover elections like above all a good story. Obama's a good story. Huckabee's a good story. Paul, if he can raise his numbers, would be a good story. Clinton? Old news.

UPDATE: With respect to Hillary Clinton's press relations, see this.

Billings Blog swings the market

In Thursday's Outpost, I reported that Lee Enterprises stock was trading at $14.53 a share, down from around $21 in July. Yesterday it closed at $11.78.

Here's a take on the fall by a Lee newspaper.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Convict Burns

Montana Headlines says the press convicted Conrad Burns in the last election. Maybe his memory is better than mine, but I don't recall that happening. Obviously, questions were raised about Burns' relationship with Abramoff, and, obviously, reporters explored those questions. That's their job.

But I can't recall reading anywhere in the press that Burns was guilty of a crime. I don't have time to do the research right now (I'm still delivering papers) but I did just enter "conrad burns abramoff convicted" into Google. Glancing through the results, the only sources I see that say Burns was guilty are all bloggers. Maybe Montana Headlines was reaching for some higher metaphorical truth -- somewhere up there beyond the realm of actual facts.

One of the first things reporters learn is not to say that people who haven't been convicted of a crime are guilty of a crime. Reporters who make that mistake get sued, and fired. I would be surprised if it happened here, but perhaps someone can show me where it did.

Montana Headlines also says that Burns has now been "cleared." I guess that's true, if "cleared" means he won't be indicted. But that doesn't mean Montana voters were wrong to decide that his behavior wasn't what they wanted to see in that high office.

Future of news

The reclusive editor of the Outpost emerges from seclusion long enough to write a column, then quickly retreats.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Good Time Charlie

I didn't get around to seeing "Charlie Wilson's War" over the holidays, but I would still like to. Maybe this weekend.

I want to see it not just because the movie got good reviews and because the topic interests me. Charlie Wilson, now retired, was the first congressman I ever had occasion to cover back in rural East Texas in the late 1970s.

I was working in a small town for the Palestine Herald-Press, but his was a rural district, so he spent a fair amount of time courting the newspaper. He was a classic Southern politician of the era: tall, good-looking, with a booming voice. He is one of the few people depicted in the movies who looked better in real life than the actor portraying him on the screen. When he stood with his shoulders rared back, he wasn't merely ramrod straight. He was more than that, practically concave, a bantam rooster at full height. When he stood in front of the room, in a well tailored suit and pinstripe shirt, thoughtfully sucking on tiny spectacles, he was an impressive sight.

His was a brand of politics that no longer seems to exist. I agree with Jim Gransbery that conservatives and liberals are mainly distinguishable these days by loyalties, not by ideology. Wilson was a Democrat, of course; that was mandatory in East Texas in those days. But his politics consisted of a sly mixture of conservatism, populism and old-style liberalism. He backed the mujahideen in Afghanistan, Somoza in Nicaragua, Medicaid, the Equal Rights Amendment, choice on abortion and increases in the minimum wage. His reputation as a Washington party animal apparently was well earned, but I can't recall that it ever was a campaign issue. People honestly seemed to think that it was nobody's business but his own.

And he wasn't afraid to bump heads. Wayne Sellers, the publisher of the little paper I worked for, was a rail hobbyist and a booster of Amtrak. When he asked after a Chamber of Commerce speech why Wilson didn't do more to push funding for trains, Wilson replied, his voice booming across the room, "Because we can't make people ride them, Wayne."

He wasn't the sort of politician one now associates with this conservative, Bible belt part of Texas. But he made it all work, serving 12 years in the Texas Legislature and 24 years in the U.S. House.