Mike Kueber's Blog

June 28, 2011

Great presidents and continuing legal education

During the annual meeting of the State Bar of Texas, I had the good fortune of hearing presidential historian Douglas Brinkley give a talk on great presidents in America’s history.  I’m not sure how his talk qualified as continuing legal education for lawyers, but the state bar has almost unlimited power on that issue and it is very unlikely that anyone will complain.

Brinkley is a famous historian who is often interviewed on national news programs because he has the ability to present information in an interesting way, and his talk to at the annual meeting didn’t disappoint.  The talk was informal, and I suspect Brinkley could give it in his sleep.  His principal insights were:

  1. Although the talk was about presidents, Brinkley started with a non-president – Charles Thompson – who was a relatively unknown politician who did yeomen’s work in forming our union, but then was shut-out of a role in the newly-formed United States because he was too progressive for his time – i.e., he favored the emancipation of slaves and the liberation of women.
  2. George Washington’s signal achievement was to give up power after two terms.
  3. Thomas Jefferson saw that the Mississippi River was the spine of America and that religion has no place in a democracy.
  4. James Polk was successful because he established clear objectives (resolving the border issues with Mexico and Canada) and knew that wars of choice must be ended quickly.
  5. Lincoln’s challenges make the challenges faced by any other president seem highly manageable.
  6. Teddy Roosevelt created and led the conservation movement even though the public wasn’t demanding it.
  7. Franklin Roosevelt created the feeling that the federal government could solve all our problems.
  8. Harry Truman was horribly unpopular because he was too direct in trying to achieve his objectives, but his stock in history has skyrocketed.
  9. Dwight Eisenhower was an under-rated president who showed that America could be fiscally conservative and still do great things – e.g., NASA, interstate highways, and St. Lawrence Seaway.
  10. John Kennedy implemented things that worked (Peace Corp and SEALS/Green Beret), whereas his successor Lyndon Johnson spent too much money on things that didn’t work.
  11. Gerald Ford did a great job of extricating America from two problems – Nixon and Vietnam.
  12. Jimmy Carter brought morality to Washington.
  13. Ronald Reagan went with his gut and told Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.”
  14. Bill Clinton was relatively successful, but never did anything big and will always be remembered for the sex scandal.
  15. George H.W. Bush will be upgraded by historians because of his brilliant handling of foreign policy.
  16. Barack Obama is disposed to placate, not lead.  He acts like the only adult in the room, but doesn’t lead.  His greatest accomplishment will be getting elected.

Brinkley skipped over Bush-43, but someone during the Q&A asked if it was likely that Bush-43 would be upgraded by historians.  Brinkley did not think so because Bush-43 would be forever stained by the economic collapse at the end of his second term.  It’s ironic that Bush’s economic collapse not only resulted in the historic election of Barack Obama, but also may have fated Obama to the ignominy of a one-term presidency.

In my opinion, Brinkley skipping Bush-43 was bad enough, but skipping Richard Nixon, too, is unforgivable, especially when he found time to mention Jimmy Carter.  I will keep that in mind when reading Brinkley in the future.

December 11, 2010

Sunday book review #4 – Decision Points by George W. Bush

George W. Bush is my favorite contemporary politician.  When I was going door-to-door during my Congressional campaign, the 2nd-most common question was what I thought of Bush-43.  (The most common question was what I thought of Roe v. Wade.)  Although I realized I would be more successful in my door-to-door discussions if I distanced myself from Bush, or at least gave a more nuanced opinion, I responded truthfully that I admired the man.

With that disclosure, I begin this review of Decision Points.  Unlike most presidential books, Decision Points is not a chronological narrative of the Bush presidency.  Instead, it is a review of how Bush made the important decisions in his life.  Because there is so much interesting material in the book, I have decided to break the review into three parts – the pre-9/11 stuff, post-9/11 foreign policy, and post-9/11 domestic policy and conclusions.  I will review the first part this week and the other two parts, I hope, on succeeding Sundays. 

The pre-9/11 stuff

The pre-9/11 stuff comprises four chapters – Quitting (about drinking), Running (deciding to run for president), Personnel (hiring and firing), and Stem Cells (government research with stem cells).  In the course of explaining those decisions, Bush reveals a lot about his character and personality, which is the diametric opposite of my all-time favorite politician, Richard Nixon.  I supported Nixon because I related to a lot of his background, values, ambitions, and insecurities.  He was the perfect foil for John Kennedy.  My preference for Nixon seems inconsistent with my admiration of Bush-43, who background and personality is more Kennedy-esque and Nixonian.  What’s so special about Bush-43?

Sportsmanship

 Maybe it’s his love of sports.  Bush and I share the love of sports, and I think we share some of the fundamental values that sports teaches, the most important being sportsmanship.  Bush described with admiration the sportsmanship displayed by his dad in losing to Bill Clinton in 1992: 

  • Dad handled the defeat with characteristic grace.  He called early in the evening to congratulate Bill, laying the foundation for one of the more unlikely friendships in American political history.  Dad had been raised to be a good sport.  He blamed no one; he was not bitter.” 

Later in 2000, early in the evening, after the critical state of Florida had been called for Gore, Bush showed his own sportsmanship – “I was ready to accept the people’s verdict and repeat Mother’s words from 1992: ‘It’s time to move on.’” 

I love this attitude.  Defeat is not a failure or a personal rejection.  Politicians offer their services, but someone has to lose.  I disagree completely with those politicians who assert that their first obligation to their supporters is to win the election.  Their supporters have no right to insist that a candidate doing anything more than campaign hard and smart.  The voters will decide who can represent them best.

Parenting

 

There’s an old protest song from Vietnam days with the lyrics, “You can’t even run your own life; I’ll be damned if you run mine.”  (Sunshine by Jonathan Edwards.)  I thought of those when I read about Bush-43 deciding whether to leave Austin and the Texas governorship to run for president.  Surprisingly, Laura was quickly on board, but his daughters weren’t.  Finally, one night George sat down with Jenna (who was soon graduating from high school) on the patio of the Governor’s Mansion and said, “I know you think that I’m ruining your life by running for president.  But actually your mom and I are living our lives – just like we raised you and Barbara to do.”  

That is so refreshing and politically incorrect.  Yes, parents need to put their children first, but there needs to be consideration for the parents, too. 

Growing up

Bush has a reputation as a slacker, which he denies “My philosophy in college was the old cliché: work hard, play hard.  I upheld the former and excelled at the latter.”

Something I share with Bush is his dislike of campus politicians – “I had no interest in being a campus politician.”  When describing a young Karl Rove, “I assumed he would be another one of the campus politician types who had turned me off at Yale.  I soon recognized that Karl was different.  He wasn’t smug or self-righteous, and he sure wasn’t the typical suave campaign operator.”

Bush has a reputation as a young boozer, and he accepts that – “In reality, I was a boozy kid and [Dad] was an understandably irritated father.”  Even after marrying, this happened – “As we were eating, I turned to a beautiful friend of Mother and Father and asked a boozy question: ‘So, what is sex like after fifty?’….  Years later, when I turned fifty, the good-natured woman sent me a note to the Texas Governor’s Mansion: ‘Well, George, how is it?’  Laura saw a pattern developing, too.  What seemed hilarious or clever to my friends and me was repetitive and childish to her.” 

Although Bush graduated from Harvard Business School, he never bought into those people – “I knew what I did not want to do.  I had no desire to go to Wall Street.  While I knew decent and honorable people who had worked on Wall Street, including my grandfather Prescott Bush, I was suspicious of the financial industry.  I used to tell friends that Wall Street is the kind of place where they will buy you and sell you, but they don’t really give a hoot about you so long as they can make money off you.”

Nepotism?

Many believed that Bush was unqualified to run for governor, but he persuasively disagrees – “My experiences on Dad’s campaigns and running the Rangers had sharpened my political, management, and communication skills.  Marriage and family had broadened my perspective.”  That makes perfect sense. 

In the final days of the campaign, this so-called lightweight was ready for a broadside from Ann Richards – “She did her best to set me off.  She called me ‘some jerk’ and ‘shrub,’ but I refused to spark….  On debate night, Karen and I were in the elevator when Ann Richards entered.  I shook her hand and said, ‘Good luck, Governor.’  In her toughest growl, she said, ‘This is going to be rough on you, boy.’”

Personnel

An entire chapter in the book is devoted to Bush’s philosophy regarding personnel.  I think the following encapsulates that philosophy – “I was looking for integrity, competence, selflessness, and an ability to handle pressure.  I always liked people with a sense of humor, a sign of modesty and self-awareness.” 

I couldn’t agree more with those qualities, including the sense of humor. 

This chapter also contains a comment ostensibly on the selection of Cheney, but it seems more applicable to McClain’s selection of Palin – “The vice presidential selection provides voters with a window into a candidate’s decision-making style.  It reveals how careful and thorough he or she will be.” 

Stem-cell research

Another chapter in the book is devoted to Bush’s decision to deny federal spending for stem-cell research except for already existing stem-cell lines.  I have read other book reviewers commend Bush’s thorough and open-minded research prior to making this decision.  I disagree.  Bush may have conducted thorough research, but I’m not sure about it being open-minded.  To describe his pro-life position, Bush quoted from former PA governor Bob Casey, “When we look to the unborn child, the real issue is not when life begins, but when love begins.”  As a committed, staunch, pro-lifer, this was really a no-brainer for George Bush.  

Warts?

Any warts?  Yes, I noticed three – one substantive, one personal, and one trivial:

  1. Mental illness.  I’ve always resented that the federal government required employer-provided health insurance to cover treatment of mental illness as generously as it covered treatment of physical illness.  I think that one is more essential than the other.  Imagine my surprise at reading about Bush’s pride in signing the law that required this.  His pride was based on his relationship with a Texas Ranger partner Rusty Rose, who suffered from a chemical imbalance that caused anxiety.  My question (and probably Rick Perry’s) to George Bush would be, “Did you think about federalism and whether you and the federal government had any business telling businesses what to do regarding this?”
  2. 

  3. Silver spoon.  Bush was considered by many to be an aristocrat because of his family and connections.  Ann Richards famously commented about his dad being born on third-base and thinking he hit a triple.  One of the charges of aristocracy against Bush-43 was that he used connections to avoid Vietnam service by getting in the National Guard.  Bush’s description of this incident included a quote that sounded aristocratic to me:
    • I informed the Alabama National Guard commanders that I would have to miss several meetings during the campaign.  They told me I could make them up after the election, which I did.  I didn’t think much about it for another few decades.”

I don’t think most of us would “inform the commanders”; rather, we would humbly ask for permission.  Maybe it’s just me, but that quote was jarring.   

          3.   UT law school.  Before going to Harvard Business School, Bush tried unsuccessfully to get into the University of Texas Law School.  I think he should have mentioned that fact somewhere in this book because it makes the UT Law School look good and it makes me look good.  Only in America would I be able to go to a graduate-level school that George W. Bush could not get into.  Of course, it also reveals UT to be more of a meritocracy that admits a Kueber, whereas Harvard admits the Bushes, Obamas, and Castros of the world

Based on what I’ve read thus far, Bush has not disappointed me.  Despite the aristocratic trappings, Bush is more Texas than Connecticut.  His self-deprecation is frequent; his hubris is rare.  Of course, much of this is due to his mom and dad.  A perfect description of their parenting style occurred at Mile 19 of his first marathon.  He was running at an 8:33 pace as his parents cheered him on.  Dad – “That’s my boy.”  Mom – “Keep moving, George. There are some fat people ahead of you.”

A person’s most important quality, in my opinion, is that they be comfortable in their own skin.  They need to like and respect themselves.  The insecure and egoists do neither.  People who are comfortable in their own skin are better able to deal issues and challenges.  I look forward to reading about W. dealing with 9/11.

October 1, 2010

Game Change – a book review

Voracious readers often read several books at the same time, but not me.  I have never been voracious.  Several days ago, however, I had a strong urge to read three books that were on my reading table:

  • Game Change, a play-by-play account of the 2008 presidential election;
  • The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand’s precursor to Atlas Shrugged; and
  • Conservative Victory, Sean Hannity’s prescription for defeating the Obama agenda.

Because I couldn’t pick which book to read first, I started with all three and would occasionally switch from one to the other to the other.  That lasted only for a short time because the Hannity book simply wasn’t as interesting.  Then I went back and forth from Game Change and The Fountainhead for about 250 pages each.  At that point, although The Fountainhead remained absorbing, I couldn’t set Game Change aside.  As a political junkie, I love reading about the backroom political process more than I enjoy the substantive issues of government, and Game Change is as good as it gets in describing the process.

Game Change reminds me of a book that I read as a kid, The Making of a President, 1960 by Teddy White.  The White book described the 1960 presidential contest between Nixon and Kennedy.  Game Change, which was written by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, describes the 2008 presidential campaign.  In the Authors’ Note, Heilemann and Halperin concede that Game Change would not be the definitive book on the 2008 election because they lacked distance and perspective, but their claimed objective was to occupy that useful place between history and journalism.  Based on over 300 interviews with virtually all of the players, the authors have clearly achieved their objective.

As a conservative partisan, I have only one complaint about the book – namely, it focuses on the Democratic primaries (and caucuses) and gives short shrift to the Republican primaries.  Game Change starts with the Democratic primaries and doesn’t get to the Republican primaries until Page 271 in a 436-page book.  The Authors’ Note explains that the focus was on Obama, Clinton, Edwards, and McCain (and their spouses) because, in the authors’ opinion, those were the only candidates with a reasonable chance of winning.  Serious Republican contenders Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and Rudy Giuliani were relegated to the also-ran category that included one-and-done Democrats like Dodd, Biden, and Richardson. 

Aside from the short shrift given to the Republican primaries, I think the authors played it straight.  Their portrayals of Obama, Clinton, and McCain are so balanced that I have no idea who the authors voted for.  Furthermore, I think that reading this book would change very few votes.  McCain voters would not be less likely or more likely to vote for him, and the same would apply to Obama and Clinton voters.  (The one exception would be John and Elizabeth Edwards.  No one reading this book would ever vote for John Edwards; nor would anyone buy a book written by Elizabeth Edwards.)  But the book certainly changes a reader’s depth of understanding.  After reading this book, I know so much more about the candidates (and their spouses).  

What do I know now that I didn’t know then?

  • John McCain, who was a bad student at Annapolis, is a reckless person who makes decisions based on his gut, whereas Obama and Clinton, who were excellent students, continually demanded comprehensive information and then made decisions based on their evaluation of all the information. 
  • McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate was an example of risky, gut-based behavior.  For several weeks, McCain was planning to pick qualified, liberal senator Joe Lieberman, but that pick was derailed shortly before the planned announcement.  With only a week to select a replacement, McCain reacted by selecting Palin, and because Palin hadn’t even been on his short-list, she received only a five-day vetting.  When the chief vetter concluded that Palin was, “high risk, high reward,” McCain responded that the vetter shouldn’t have phrased it that way because McCain always loved to gamble.
  • Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton have a close relationship.  Although the book does not discuss whether this couple has a loving relationship, it is clear that the Clintons are political partners who work closely together and have a strong emotional connection.
  • The mainstream press has a gentlemen’s agreement to ignore the sex lives of presidential candidates and their spouses.  Apparently there was strong evidence that John and Cindy McCain had been having extramarital affairs for years, with John living in D.C. and Cindy living in Arizona.  And the press was fully aware of John Edwards’ infidelity for months before The National Inquirer broke the story.  I think Americans have a right to know this stuff, and the press is failing to fulfill its constitutional responsibility.
  • Many people involved in the campaigns knew that John Edwards was, at best, an extremely weak potential president, and, at worst, a complete fraud.  Inexplicably, the mainstream media refused to play a role in bringing Edwards down (did they think this would make them more unpopular?), with the result that Edwards was free to attempt to make a post-Iowa deal with Obama for Edwards to be either Vice-President or Attorney General.    
  • The book suggests that Elizabeth Edwards is a complete fraud, too, but I am reserving judgment because I saw her interviewed on Larry King a couple of months ago and she seemed to be very sympathetic.  In fact, I remember her specifically challenging things that were written in this book.  I wish I could watch that King interview again now after reading the book.
  • The Camelot/Kennedy characterization for Obama is correct – i.e., he is a smart, hard-working politician like John Kennedy who waxes poetic to win the romantics and the media, but who practices politics with cold calculation and an iron fist.
  • Obama is not a religious person.  Instead he turned to religion as part of his push for social justice.  Thus, Reverend Wright was not a spiritual mentor, but rather a political bedfellow.  Wright’s liberation theology was acceptable to Obama until he needed to go more mainstream.  Jettisoning Wright was no big deal for Obama, especially since Michelle never like the guy who baptized their children.   
  • The media’s favorable treatment of Obama incensed both Clinton and McCain, but there was nothing they could do about it.
  • Clinton and McClain like and respected each other and would have loved to run against each other.
  • Raising money is perceived as crucial to running a viable campaign.  While McCain and Clinton abhorred having to solicit and struggled with it, Obama was naturally gifted and handled it as just another part of campaigning.  Part of this distinction is due to Obama mania, which made money flow almost effortlessly into Obama’s coffers, whereas Clinton and McCain had to earn their money the old-fashioned way – i.e., selling a piece of themselves to donors.
  • Clinton took her full-term Senate pledge seriously; Obama did not.

The authors loved using big words, many of which I had never encountered before.  While reading the book, I often wasn’t near a dictionary and had to move on without knowing what the authors meant.  One word that I saw multiple times was “cipher.”  Various people characterized Obama or Edwards to be ciphers.  I eventually looked up the word and discovered it meant “lightweight.”  I wonder why the authors didn’t use the word “lightweight.”  I would be surprised if the person making the characterization actually used the term “cipher.” 

Early in this review, I suggested that reading Game Change was unlikely to change many votes.  Did it change mine?  No, I voted for Obama and would do so again.  My rationale was that McCain behaved erratically during the campaign, not only by picking Palin, but also by proposing a gas-tax moratorium and suspending his campaign to address the financial crisis, but then doing nothing to address it.  By way of contrast, Obama was steady and analytical.  Obama is like a calculating athlete who works hard to put himself in the best position to succeed, whereas McCain doesn’t put a lot of stock into preparation and instead excels at playing the game.  McCain has been able to succeed in life because of his common sense, good judgment, and the force of his personality. 

I think McCain could have been a very effective president at a different time, but America wanted more change than McCain could deliver.  After eight years of Bush-43, the American Left had become so cynical that no Republican could bring us together as a country.  We had to give the Left a chance to rule.  That’s how America works – the 2nd-string quarterback is always the most popular player on the team; the savior who can change everything.  Well, Obama and the Left are having their chance, and this will be followed by Ronald Reagan’s quintessential question to America – are you better off than you were four years ago?  The jury is still out on that, but I expect a prompt return to America’s center of gravity – the center-right.

August 13, 2010

Further thoughts on patriotism

America, love it or leave it.”  I remember that catch-phrase being thrown at people who were opposed to the Vietnam War.  Somehow it didn’t ring true to me then.  Just like the phrase from war-hero Stephen Decatur in 1820, “My country, right or wrong.”  Were Americans supposed to be blindly supportive of our country when it was going down the wrong track?  That was not my idea of civic virtue.

A few days ago, however, I received some critical comments from a reader who thought I should be more understanding of Hispanics who have negative thoughts about the Alamo.  In the course of multiple exchanges on my Facebook account, the reader referred me to an article that articulated why Anglos should not expect Hispanics to glorify the Alamo – http://revcom.us/a/1237/alamo.htm.  The article is titled, “Remember the Alamo? Hell NO,” by Travis Morales. 

According to the Morales, the Texas War for Independence was caused generally by American imperialism (northern capitalists and southern slave-owners) and was triggered by the decision in Mexico City to abolish slavery.  He claimed that the defenders of the Alamo were mercenaries (and alcoholics, rapists, and murderers) who had been enticed to Texas by the slave-owners with promises of free land:

  • I want to say that these mother fuckers Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, William Barrett Travis and all the rest got exactly what they deserved–death! They were a bunch of professional Indian killers, slave traders, and mercenaries who invaded Texas, and then stole it from México so it could be a slave state. And the war waged upon them by México was a just war!”
  • “But to honor the Alamo is to honor a U.S. war of plunder and conquest, the theft of almost one-half of México, and the ongoing oppression of the Chicano people. What is the battle cry “Remember the Alamo!” except a battle cry to kill Mexicanos and Chicanos?”

After reading the article, I suggested to the reader that the author of the article seemed to hate America so thoroughly that “love it or leave it” might apply to him.  I did not make that comment lightly, but it did not make sense to me for a person to stay in America when he so clearly preferred Mexico.  The reader responded that a person shouldn’t have to leave America just because he is critical of important government policies, like slavery, imperialism, and exploitation.  When I pointed out that the author of article was a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, which wanted to destroy American as we know it, the reader responded that ad hominem comments don’t defeat the commie’s reasoning.

Which brings me back to the original question – can you be fundamentally ashamed of America’s past and present and still be patriotic?  First, we need to define patriotism. 

Dictionaries define patriotism as love and devotion to your country and willingness to sacrifice for it.  And they distinguish it from nationalism – patriotism is the ideal of social cohesion, humanitarianism, equality, and harmony within one’s own society, while nationalism is the struggle to put one’s own nation ahead of other nations, perceived as external rivals or threats. 

One survey that was comparing patriotism among countries asked a sample population, “Are you proud to be [insert nationality]?  America scored at the top; Germany scored at the bottom.  I think such a question measures nationalism more than patriotism.  I think a better standard for patriotism is a phrase from Kennedy’s Inaugural Address calling for patriotism – “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” 

With that in mind, I feel compelled to concede that people who have grave misgivings about America’s past or present may still be patriots.  Such people might still want America to succeed and may be willing to sacrifice for America to achieve that success. 

As Benjamin Franklin said at the close of the constitutional convention to a woman who asked Franklin what type of government the Constitution was bringing into existence – “A republic, if you can keep it.”  Dissidents may be trying their civic best to keep our republic functioning effectively.  But not Travis Morales.  He doesn’t want to improve America; he wants to destroy it.

July 14, 2010

Institutional loyalty vs. personal integrity

Filed under: Business,Philosophy — Mike Kueber @ 4:56 pm
Tags: , ,

Most of my career was spent working for a large company with 15,000 employees in the main office.  During my early years, I often commented critically about some co-workers for failing to show a characteristic that I called institutional loyalty.  Although my co-workers would show honesty and consideration when dealing with co-workers and the public, they would be niggardly when dealing with the company.  Because I had personally internalized my company’s well-being, I was disappointed when others showed they had not bought into John Kennedy’s directive – “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

Later in my career, after I had risen to a higher level, I noticed a significant increase in institutional loyalty, but unfortunately, this increase was accompanied by a decline in personal integrity.  In numerous instances, I witnessed colleagues take courses of action that were beneficial to the company but unfair to co-workers.  My conclusion was that these people cared more about their careers than about their co-workers.

It’s too bad we can’t have both institutional loyalty and personal integrity.  I think a company can establish a corporate culture where personal integrity remains paramount, but such a culture can thrive only when senior management quits rewarding ambitious employees whose first instinct is to ask, “How high?”