Friday, October 31, 2008

Studs Terkel, R.I.P.

I have often called Studs Terkel one of the greatest living Americans. No more, alas, no more.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Citizen Wayne

A couple of people have pointed out this letter in the Gazette by former Publisher Wayne Schile. I'm glad they did: Somehow I had missed it.

Of course, I spent five of the same years at The Gazette that Wayne did and found "ultra liberals" in short supply. I did find a publisher who was willing to run over (or simply ignore) the editorial board every time it suited his GOP biases to do so.

The comments by "Orchy" are of particular interest:
Part of the reason our country is in the mess it is in is because of people like you: rich, power-mad thugs who made a fortune while the people who worked for you were paid barely a living wage. Perhaps the reason the media is so liberal is because most of the non-management people in the media / Gazette (at least in Montana) are the epitome of the "working poor". Go back to your yacht, Wayne, and remember that your opinion holds no more weight than anyone else's. Hard to take?

And this:
When you were The Gazette, your idea of "balance of power" was to get every single democrat out of office so that the republicans could do as they please. There was only one opinion at The Gazette...yours. You would not allow any of your employees to voice any opinion, on any subject, that didn't match yours.

A bit exaggerated, perhaps, but that makes it all the sweeter.

Thursday talk radio update

Dave Rye had a raft of callers explaining why the country would go to hell if Obama were to be elected. It was mostly the usual stuff, but a few callers claimed that Obama would undermine the Constitution. One said that Obama would "destroy the Constitution." Another guaranteed that Obama would try to pass laws that would violate the Second Amendment.

This floored me a bit. McCain has attacked Obama on just about every possible ground, but I have not heard even he argue that Obama would destroy the Constitution. Of course, no evidence for these claims was provided, and if anybody knows of any, I would sure like to hear it.

As I have noted before, it was Obama's spot-on answers to important constitutional questions about the powers of the presidency that first made me think he might be up to the job. Note that McCain had pretty good answers, too, but Obama's were more nuanced and thoughtful. On signing statements, for example, McCain said he flat wouldn't use them. But Obama laid out a precise case for how and when it is appropriate to use signing statements.

As for the Second Amendment, Obama said even before the Supreme Court ruled on the matter that he believed the Constitution protected an individual's right to bear arms. It's true, I think, that Obama predicted the Supreme Court would uphold the Washington, D.C., ban on hand guns. He was wrong, but not by much. The vote was 5-4, and even Scalia, who wrote the majority opinion, said that the court's decision in the Washington case didn't necessarily mean other ordinances limiting guns would be struck down. It's probably true that Obama would support more restrictive gun laws than some Montanans would like, but I've seen no evidence at all that he intends to do so in violation of the Constitution.

So where does the idea come from that Obama opposes the Constitution? Dream world?

McCain vs. Obama

I trundled my journalism students over to Losekamp Hall tonight to hear student debaters joust over the issues in the presidential campaign. Two things were striking: One was that when the debate coach asked the crowd of about 75 to 100 people to applaud to indicate who they thought won, most of the applause went to the McCain side (I concurred). But when she asked for a show of hands on how people planned to vote, I saw only one hand go up for McCain. I was sitting roughly in the middle, so I may have missed a few hands, but it was a tiny, tiny showing. I guessed that as many as two-thirds raised their hands for Obama; one of my students estimated only a third, and I suspect that his guess was closer to the truth than mine was.

But the difference was large enough to make me further ponder a point I already had considered: Would McCain be winning this race if he had someone other than John McCain to make the case for him? His ideas about taxation and the Middle East made far more sense coming from the students than I have ever heard them make coming from him.

Which leads to my second impression: Wouldn't it be great if presidential campaigns could be as focused on policies and issues as this debate was? No William Ayers, no Sarah Palin, no politicking or pandering, no guff about who looks best on stage or who loves the country most -- just a straight-up, nose-to-nose showdown over hard details of policy on the hardest issues. Wouldn't that do America proud?

Fox vs. Bullock

With my assorted jobs and duties, and my weird obsession with the presidential race, I admit I haven't followed Montana politics closely this year. But I noticed that Left in the West is speculating that Republican efforts to elect Tim Fox may be backfiring because his campaign has been so negative.

I can say for sure that Fox's negativity cost him one vote: mine. I can't listen to his ads and still believe that he is a serious person. There are consequences for negative campaigning, and one of them is losing my lonely vote.

Monday, October 27, 2008

GOP in Montana

Apparently, Republicans are getting nervous about how the presidential race is going in Montana.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Friday talk radio update

Dave Rye uncharacteristically read a monologue to open his broadcast on Friday. The monologue essentially explained why Republicans are good and Democrats are evil.

I was glad to hear him take on the topic and sorry that he said he didn't plan to do such a thing again. I also was pretty disappointed that the monologue took such a standard, stereotypical approach to the topic.

There was really nothing, for example, about why Republicans seem to be in so much trouble this election cycle. Are Americans turning socialist or have Republicans abandoned too many of the principles that made them electable in the first place?

There was no discussion of the split along ideological lines within the party: the old-school big-business Republicans, the libertarian Republicans, the social conservative Republicans. The breakup of this coalition is no more surprising, but is at least as worthy of discussion, as the breakup after Vietnam of the uncomfortable Democratic coalition of union workers, Southern conservatives and anti-war leftists.

There was no substantive discussion of some the party's apparent contradictions. Why is the party of individual liberty so opposed to letting people marry whomever they want? Why is the party of fiscal responsibility so indifferent to budget deficits? Why does the party that favors preserving what made America great have such a poor record on the environment?

Instead, we got mostly predictable homilies about how Republicans are more patriotic, more pragmatic and just all around better Americans than Democrats are. Too bad.

Thursday talk radio update

Glenn Beck was haranguing the world about the inevitability of Democrats restoring the Fairness Doctrine if they, as seems likely, win by big margins on Nov. 4. I have seen precious little evidence of any serious attempt to bring back the Fairness Doctrine, but it makes good political hay. Beck said he relies on conservative talk radio for news and information ignored or distorted by the MSM.

Funny he would say that. As regular readers of this feature know, I am often struck by how fact-free commercial talk radio is. Typically, listeners are spoon fed a sentence or two of fact, followed by an hour or two of opinionating. On Thursday, the only actual new fact that I can recall learning was the result of this poll showing the presidential race much closer than most other polls. Everything else, to the best of my recollection, was recycled stuff about Ayers, Wright, Obama's birth in Kenya, etc.

Beck, with his pompous propensity for beating every single point endlessly into the ground, is a particularly egregious offender. Last week, for example, he went on and on -- well beyond my listening capacity -- about a story that the Obamas had run up a huge room-service tab at the Waldorf-Astoria. Not only was the story trivial, but it turned out to have been fabricated. So people who listened to Glenn Beck that day not only didn't learn anything new, they instead learned something untrue. Beck used his program to subtract from the sum total of knowledge in the universe.

None of that makes a case for the fairness doctrine, although it may reduce fears of how serious the impact would be. I don't see the doctrine coming back, at least not in the form we once knew it. Still, I don't see anything wrong with requiring KBLG and KBUL to stand up in front of the public at broadcast license renewal time and explain to all of us why they donate thousands of hours of free air time each year to the Republican Party and donate nothing to Democrats. I just want to hear them explain how that behavior benefits the public enough to justify renewing their valuable licenses.

That's a broadcast I would pay to hear.

Go Obama

A friend told me about a Billings couple who recently traveled to Tunisia. In a restaurant, a member of the staff asked them, "Are you Americans?"

They said they were.

"Go, Obama," he said.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


I used to think Wikipedia was unreliable. Then I read this account of Roy Brown's political career.

UPDATE: Someone has already removed the cheap shot. Good.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Pouring it on

I've been getting lots of political e-mail for months, much of it suggesting that Barack Obama is a Muslim, terrorist, socialist, pervert, illegal alien, etc. But in the last couple of weeks, the intensity has kicked way up. I get e-mail just about every day from Obama, Biden, McCain and Palin, mostly asking for money. But the anonymous, scurrilous attacks on Obama are pouring in at a rate of at least a half-dozen a day. Most of them I don't even look at anymore.

How's your e-mail looking?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The socialist

I had a long interview on Saturday with Roy Brown about his race for governor (see the Oct. 23 Outpost for details). As I have on occasion mentioned, I have always found him to a principled, thoughtful politician. He's a tad conservative for my tastes, but I never pick my preferences among politicians on the basis of whether I agree with their politics (voting is another matter, and none of your business).

The point here is that he laid out detailed plans for how he would govern Montana, including some ideas that sound pretty progressive to me, such as his proposals for more openness in government and for allowing employers a tax credit if they pay student debt for Montana college graduates who take jobs in Montana.

But when the topic switched briefly to national issues, I was a bit surprised to hear what sounded like typical Republican talking points: Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and the Community Reinvestment Act are to blame for the financial crisis; Barack Obama's tax plan amounts to class warfare and socialism.

I won't run down the links, but if you have followed this issue, you know that there is a pretty strong case to be made that the CRA had little impact on what has gone wrong in the financial system. More importantly, I have never understood the class warfare argument about the tax system. Unless you think that everyone should pay exactly the same amount of tax (and if you do think that, good luck with raising enough revenues to fight a war or two), then you have to favor at least a moderately progressive tax structure. Obviously, reasonable people can disagree about exactly what tax rates are fair and prudent. You don't want to kill the investment goose that lays golden eggs, but if you are making tax policy, you are going to look where the money is. As U.S. wealth becomes more and more concentrated, extracting a larger share from those who have the most just seems practical.

It sure doesn't sound like class warfare.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

They might be president

Montana Headlines has a post up about James K. Polk. What better time to link to the greatest rock song ever written about "Napoleon of the Stump."

Off with the blouse

A reader-recommended (and pretty darn funny) link.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Thursday talk radio update

Sean Hannity couldn't understand why his essentially nonstop efforts to put Barack Obama in bed with William Ayers weren't taking hold. He seemed bewildered by this.

But it isn't hard to understand. For one thing, despite his extraordinary efforts, neither Hannity nor any of his confederates has succeeded in establishing any strong tie between Obama and Ayers. I'm sure I'm not the only guy who has served on boards without asking any questions about the backgrounds of my fellow board members. They may all have been child rapists, for all I know.

For another, once a guy like Ayers is loose in society, what's the best way to deal with him? You can't lock him up because the government bungled the case. You could try to make a permanent pariah out of him, but what would that accomplish other than reinforce the notion that violence is the only way for him to deal with a society he dislikes? Why not get some useful work out of him -- which requires that somebody hire him and that other people work with him and maybe even shake his hand once or twice. From Obama's point of view, what's more important: helping reform schools or risking a taint on his political career?

But the real reason Ayers hasn't worked as a political tactic is because of a point I have argued before: This sort of thing works only to the extent that it reinforces existing public perceptions about the candidate involved. The "potatoe" gaffe was devastating for Dan Quayle because people already had decided he wasn't very smart. Once Gerald Ford got a reputation as an awkward fellow, every head bump made the news. When it looked like George H.W. Bush had never seen a checkout scanner before, it fed the perception that he was an out-of-touch elitist.

But not even Hannity has ever been able to uncover a single word that Obama has said that makes him sound sympathetic to terrorists. People just aren't buying it. And every presidential debate has helped establish that Obama is a sane, rational, pragmatic and careful politician. It just isn't credible that he would rather be building bombs.

For the same reason, attempts to link John McCain to G. Gordon Liddy won't go anywhere either, other than to further neutralize the Ayers attack. Liddy is an unrepentant felon, who arguably did more to hurt the country than Ayers ever did, and McCain's ties to Liddy are at least as tight as Obama's to Ayers. But nobody thinks John McCain is G. Gordon Liddy. It just doesn't matter.

Still, it was pretty entertaining to watch Chris Matthews on "Hardball" last night trying to get a McCain spokesman to admit that Sarah Palin has been attacking Obama's patriotism by suggesting that he finds America "imperfect" enough that he pals around with terrorists. The spokesman kept saying that the issue was not Obama's patriotism but his judgment. Matthews kept insisting that he admit the obvious: The attack was on his patriotism.

I wish I had counted how many times Matthews asked the question. I wish he had asked it a hundred times. The spokesman never gave in, but everybody watching knew he was lying.

We're back

The Billings Outpost website is back up, although obviously not all of the bugs are worked out of it yet.

Sunday, October 05, 2008


Two ongoing themes in this election bug me.

One is that candidates who exceed expectations somehow win debates. Politics is not a sport in which handicapping applies. Sarah Palin may have done better Thursday night than her worst critics expected, but I can't imagine that anyone -- not even John McCain or the chairman of the Republican National Committee -- would really want to have her on the spot in a national crisis instead of Joe Biden. And that, ultimately, is what the election ought to be about.

The second is the mockery from the right about Biden's characterization of paying taxes as a patriotic duty. Biden is right, of course. Patriotism isn't about waving flags, wearing lapel pins or putting your hand over your heart when you hear "The Star-Spangled Banner." Patriotism is about service. Patriots vote in elections, serve on juries and pay their taxes. Sometimes they volunteer in schools or civic clubs, donate to charities and help out in political campaigns. In times of crisis, they may be called upon to ration gasoline, recycle scrap metal or serve in the military.

It's not a lot to ask, really, except for the last part. And those who mock paying taxes as an essential component of patriotic citizenship might as well be mocking military service. Both are equally essential.

Thursday talk radio update

Since school started, I rarely hear Bill O'Reilly anymore. My first-year German class falls smack dab in the middle of his radio show. Too bad, in a way, because O'Reilly really has been the only national talk show host we can hear in this area who seems to make a genuine effort to be fair to Obama. The rest are totally in the tank.

But I did hear him last week vowing to take Barney Frank apart on TV for Frank's role in the failure of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. I thought: not likely. Frank is every bit as tough and smart as O'Reilly, and he is far better versed on the issues.

I missed the show, but thanks to the miracle of You Tube, you can see it here, if you have the stomach for it. O'Reilly is at his blustering worst; Frank doesn't give an inch and uses, you know, actual facts in his response.

The unfortunate part is that we never do find out why Frank thought in July that Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae would be OK. I'll bet he had an answer for that, too, but O'Reilly lacked the presence of mind to ask him.

McCain unveiled

Rolling Stone has a very tough piece on John McCain -- thinly sourced but devastating in its impact. It will be worth remembering in the coming weeks as the McCain campaign incessantly reminds us that, by the way, Barack Obama encountered a few radicals over the years.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Germany update

My second-year German class was visited today by the director of international programs at the university in Ludwigsberg, Germany. As I have said before, I try to keep up a bit with what's going on over there, but Germany is a long ways off, and I'm a busy guy, so I'm never sure quite how well my point of view holds up.

So I asked him how perceptions of America are in Germany these days and was somewhat gratified to hear a view similar to my own. He described German feelings toward America as "unrequited love."

Germans have in large part been our fans since World War II because we rebuilt the country, punished the worst of the war criminals and kept the Russians out. After Sept. 11, there was a huge outpouring of German support for America. But in subsequent months, America seemed to want to go its own way, with little regard for allies and bent on a war that didn't make much sense to most of the rest of the world.

But he said German misgivings about America are tied solely to the current administration. Angela Merkel has taken a pragmatic approach to U.S.-German relations. Naturally, he said, Germans are rooting for Obama to win the election. But he said either candidate would be an improvement in German eyes over the Bush administration.

Poor Max

Max Baucus can't catch a break. He seems to have played a genuinely key role in crafting the bailout legislation that finally passed on Friday, but nobody seems to care.

Early on, Jon Tester got some national play for saying, approximately, that he could understand how a financial crisis might sneak up on a dirt farmer like him, but how did it sneak up on people who are paid to watch that kind of stuff?

Then after the Senate vote this week, I saw Tester on "Hardball," explaining why he opposed the bill. At one point, Chris Matthews slipped up and said that the Republican next to Tester (whose name I should remember but don't) had voted against the position of his party's presidential candidate. He hadn't: He and McCain both voted for the bill; it was Tester who crossed up his presidential candidate. Everybody got a big laugh at Matthews' expense, and nobody seemed to enjoy it more than Tester, with his trademark easy grin.

The only time Tester slipped may actually have made him more likable. Matthews asked if he would voted for the bill if the vote had been close enough that it would have mattered. Tester seemed to have trouble understanding the question, but came across not as if he was too dumb to get it, but as if he couldn't understand why anybody would think he would vote for a bill he opposed out of political expediency.

I flipped to Fox News, where various congressmen were taking turns stepping up to the mike to give reporters their takes on the result. Baucus was second in line; the guy in front of him (sorry, I forgot his name, too) actually gave Baucus credit for helping to craft the compromise. But when it was Baucus' turn to step up to the mike, the network cut away.

Quickly, I flipped to CNN, which was showing the same feed, delayed by a few seconds. There was the same guy, handing Baucus credit again, and there was Baucus, waiting his turn to speak. The guy finished, Baucus stepped to the mike, and the network cut away.

This morning I was listening to talk radio on KBLG. The host (not Dave Rye, but that other guy, whose name I also have, to my shame and disgrace, forgotten) announced that Jon Tester was on the phone. He took the call, and we heard weakly, "This is Max. Maybe Jon Tester is on another line."

Debate hash

I often find myself rooting for a complete debate meltdown. Mostly I don't even really care who does the melting. There is lots of talk about the power of words in my line of work, and the thought of seeing words actually destroy someone before my eyes and a national audience has an evil appeal.

I figured Thursday night's vice-presidential debate might be the best chance I would ever have to actually see it happen. Sarah Palin was atrocious, in my view, but I can't argue with the consensus: She lost the game but beat the spread.

Two moments sent something close to a genuine shiver down my spine. One was when she picked up a Sean Hannity talking point attacking Obama for suggesting that airstrikes in Afghanistan kill civilians. I heard Hannity feed her the talking point in an interview with her on the radio Thursday (the interview was recorded Wednesday). Hannity has been pounding on that talking point for a while, but it's never been clear to me why what Obama said upsets him. Does he think it is untrue? Does he think that presidential candidates shouldn't speak unhappy truths? Because anybody who thinks airstrikes don't hurt civilians probably thinks that brain surgery is best performed with a hatchet. If you can't deal with the reality of wars, don't start wars.

But there it was Thursday night, big as could be, from Hannity's mouth direct to the mouth of the person who wants to be the second-most important American voice on foreign and military policy. A truly chilling moment.

The other chill was a response to her answer to the question about the constitutional status of the vice presidency. It seemed obvious to me -- didn't it to you? -- that she had absolutely no idea what the question meant. I could see the gears churning: Republican = good, Cheney = Republican, Cheney = good. Her lame answer should appall all Americans, especially conservatives who claim to take the Constitution seriously.

One side note: I made my journalism students watch the debate and write a live story afterward. They were pretty unimpressed by both candidates. The excitement I thought I detected about Obama on campus last spring seems to have gone. He has become just another politician. Regrettably, perhaps, that also is what has made him suddenly so electable.