Category Archives: Politics

They’re not doctors, but sometimes they play them on tv

The caller wanted to know what makes members of Congress think they’re so smart. Those use of us in the news biz are used to this question, except we’re  usually asked why we think WE are so smart.

But this caller was talking about members of Congress who want to ban travel from places in West Africa where Ebola is a problem, even though the people who are paid to know such things say that would be a bad idea.

Why, the caller asked, would someone with no background in medicine or science think they know about germs and stuff than actual scientists and doctors?

Ah, I answered, you don’t seem to realize that getting yourself elected to Congress automatically makes you smarter than anyone on the planet, including the president of the United States, all the Ph.D.’s lined end-to-end, and the Dalai Lama, all mind-melded together.

Ha, ha, the caller said. This is no joking matter.

I did not bother telling him I wasn’t entirely joking. As far as I can tell, a person summoned to appear before a congressional hearing on the subject of Ebola or anything else is rarely there to explain things. They are there either to be told how wrong they are — especially if they happen to be associated in any way with the opposite party — or as props for whatever dog and pony show is being trotted across the stage.

The caller was not exactly a neutral observer. He had pretty much decided this particular member of Congress was a dummkopf long before cable news, bloggers,  and then the rest of of us news types turned one fatal case of Ebola into so many spinoffs of The Walking Dead. But he had a point — namely, that some people seem to be going to extreme and maybe dangerous lengths to exaggerate the situation for the sake of some votes on Nov. 4.

Ebola is absolutely a serious and scary disease. Especially if you’re in West Africa, where it’s actually an epidemic. And it could be here, too, if we’re unusually careless — which seems to be what happened with the one fatal case here in the U.S. In that instance, a Dallas hospital was able to accurately diagnose the patient as uninsured, but not as infected with a painful, deadly disease that the entire planet is afraid of catching.

So yes, Ebola is dangerous and not to be taken lightly. But an American is more likely to be struck by lightning in the next year than killed by Ebola. They are certainly more likely to die of stroke, heart attack, cancer, AIDS, suicide, the common flu or even bee stings. They are more likely to be hit by a drunk driver or die of a drug overdose or from falling out of a window.

The fact of the matter is, in nearly 50 years the most deadly outbreak of an infectious disease other than HIV/AIDS — admittedly, a very big exception — was a round of whooping cough that killed 9,400 Californians in 2010. Nothing else has been close.

Americans have a hard time keeping things in perspective, and we news types don’t help, especially when everything depends on ratings points and page views. Politicians understand this, and sometimes try to exploit it.

But I must admit I heard a surprising response to the current situation from one of our esteemed members this week. Someone asked him about Ebola. He wasn’t that worried, the congressman said. There’s always been something, from legionnaires’ disease to SARS to the new strains of TB, and the Centers for Disease Control has had a very good record controlling them. The congressman said he would trust them on this, too.

Imagine that.


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Pitchforks and politics in early Oklahoma

Five years ago, I wrote a column for the Tulsa World about one of the most poignant and largely ignored events in Oklahoma history. It happened in August 1917, and was called the Green Corn Rebellion.

The rebellion, such as it was, stemmed from rural Oklahoma’s long-simmering discontent with the social, political and economic conditions of a young state founded on the promise of opportunity. Socialist Party organizer Oscar Ameringer said Oklahoma’s sharecroppers, tenant farmers and small land-holders lived in greater poverty than the immigrants of New York’s Lower East Side.

Ameringer found a receptive audience. Mostly from default, many rural Oklahomans called themselves socialists, although the capital-S Socialists weren’t so sure they agreed. Oklahoma Socialists didn’t want to collectivize the farms, they wanted to own them. They wanted banks and railroads and landlords that didn’t cheat them, real schools for their kids, seed and equipment at fair prices, and to be paid enough for their grain and cotton to turn a decent profit.

Fred Holt, the Socialist candidate for governor in 1914, got almost 53,000 votes — 21 percent of the total — in an election decided by less than 5,000. Six rural Socialists were elected to the Legislature, and more than 170 won local and county offices.

A discriminatory (and unconstitutional) literary test targeting African Americans had been enacted a few years earlier. Now the Democrat-dominated Legislature went after poor whites by limiting access to voter registration. The move guaranteed political control but only intensified frustration in the hinterlands. Masked riders terrorized small-town bankers and local authorities. Rural radicals, shut out of the Industrial Workers of the World, formed a rag-tag organization called the Working Class Union.

U.S. entry into the Great War, and especially the draft that went with it, did not go over well in rural Oklahoma. Farmers saw no reason to fight for Wall Street and European royalty; a shadowy organization known as the “Jones Family” actively encouraged and assisted in avoidance of the draft.

Matters came to a head in early August 1917 when several hundred men converged on a remote farm about eighty miles southeast of Oklahoma City. The idea was to march on Washington, cutting telephone and telegraph lines and burning bridges along the way, picking up strength and living off “green corn” scavenged from fields on their route.

Misguided, delusional, ill-planned, ill-led, the rebellion disintegrated almost immediately, put down by local posses even before the National Guard arrived. Authorities used the uprising as a pretext to crack down on all dissidents, whether they had anything to do with the rebellion or not. Some four hundred men were arrested and 150 were sent to prison.

Radical politics in Oklahoma essentially ended with the Green Corn Rebellion. But the radical’s ideas did not. The Working Class Union’s outrageous demands had included an eight-hour work day, child labor laws, a workers’ compensation system, protection from predatory banking practices, and decent schools.

Some might say that the fight goes on.

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Oklahoma’s Ewe Lamb Rebellion

William Henry Davis “Alfalfa Bill” Murray generally wins the prize for Oklahoma’s most colorful and eccentric public figure. Born in Toadsuck, Texas, he became an intermarried citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, was president of the Oklahoma constitutional convention and first speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives. He served in Congress, started an ill-fated agricultural cooperative in Bolivia and hitchhiked his way to victory in the 1930 gubernatorial election.

Gruff, profane, ill-kempt, Murray denounced the Ku Klux Klan, called African Americans “coons” and sent the National Guard to keep Texas from opening a toll bridge across the Red River. He tromped around the governor’s office in his stockinged feet, had the executive mansion’s lawn planted to potatoes and made a delusional run for the presidency in 1932.

So yeah, he was pretty far out there.

But for sheer unadulterated weirdness, Henry S. Johnston runs a close second. A Biblical scholar, he also dabbled in Rosicrucianism, an esoteric and obscure philosophy allegedly based on “ancient truths” passed from Middle Eastern mystics to a medieval German named Christian Rosenkreutz. Johnston attended seances with his wife, consulted astrologers and numerologists, claimed to have been reincarnated at least twice, and counted his secretary’s canaries among his closest advisers.

In the end, it wasn’t the canaries that proved his undoing. It was the secretary.

These were hazardous times for Oklahoma governors. The previous elected chief executive, Jack Walton, last just 10 months before the Legislature removed him from office. Impeachment proceedings were initiated against two more of the state’s early governors, and a third had been indicted on federal fraud charges.

Johnston was elected governor in 1926. A dapper, scholarly man, he had been the first president pro tempore of the Oklahoma Senate, and for a short while it appeared  his term as governor would be a successful one. At his urging, the Legislature increased appropriations for common education and authorized the construction of a crippled children’s hospital.

But lawmakers used to speaking to the chief executive whenever they liked were at first annoyed and then outraged by Johnston’s appointment of an executive secretary, Mayme Hammond, who blocked the door to the governor’s office. More than that, they believed, she exercised undue and possibly even mystical influence over Johnston, and at times acted as the de facto governor. At the end of the 1927 legislative session they demanded Hammonds be fired.

Johnston, in his typically meandering manner, refused.

“If you came to me with a thousand sheep,” he said, “and I had only one ewe lamb and you wanted me to destroy that, do you think I would be so base as to destroy it? I repeat, gentlemen, it would be yellow, it would be unjust to Mrs. Hammonds to sacrifice her and her character on false charges.”

Thus began what became known as the Ewe Lamb Rebellion.

Hammonds’ opponents labeled her a “She-svengali” and initiated a special session for the purpose of driving her and Johnston from office. Hammonds probably didn’t help herself any by explaining her ability to keep track of goings-on all over the state through astral projection. It also didn’t help that her relatives, including her husband Dr. O.O. Hammonds, began showing up  and the state payroll.

The initial attempt to oust Johnston failed, but the continued presence of Hammonds and Johnston’s support of the Al Smith, the Democrats’ Catholic, anti-Prohibition candidate for president in 1928, eventually led to his undoing. In 1929, Johnston was convicted on a single count of incompetence and removed from office.

Thus, Oklahoma became and remains the only state to impeach and remove from office two consecutive elected governors.

Lieutenant Governor William J. Holloway, a level-head former state Senator, replaced Holloway and was able to put through several significant reforms during his short time in office. More importantly, he instilled a sense of order to state government despite the turmoil of the onset of the Great Depression.

But the Oklahoma constitution barred Holloway from seeking election to a full term in his own right, thus opening the way for Alfalfa Bill Murray — an eccentric, to be sure, but an eccentric no one dared impeach.

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A farewell to Senator Coburn

A farewell to Senator Coburn.

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Unlike father, states don’t always know — or do — best

Every time someone waxes poetic about the virtues of state and local government, especially in Oklahoma, I am reminded of three words.




In the early 1980s, some 230 current and former county commissioners and county contractors were convicted or pleaded guilty in a kickback scheme that remains the largest public official scandal in the nation’s history. The practice was so engrained some of the convicted seemed to think that county commissioners got their name because they worked on commission. “I swear I never took more than my 10 percent,” one of them is supposed to have said.

Far be it from me to defend the federal government. It’s big, it’s bulky, it’s clumsy and it’s not terribly efficient. Just today Sen. Tom Coburn chastised a federal agency that seems to have run out of things to do around 1988. And I don’t think anyone will argue the unhealthy influence of money in Washington, D.C. But, as national governments go, ours is not too bad. Afghanistan, any one?

The idea that local and state governments are inherently superior is just not borne out. State governments are at least as likely to give us bad government as the folks in Washington. State governments have given us Jim Crow, regressive taxes, lapdog regulators and corruption on an epic scale. Incompetence, greed and plain stupidity are as likely to show up in city hall as in Congress, and local schools boards, left to their own devices, have been known to go soft on algebra and hard on coaches who don’t play the right kids.

Lately I’ve heard many politicians say we Oklahomans would not dare damage our own water or land because, you know, it’s ours. I’ve wanted to ask if they’ve ever heard of the Dust Bowl or Tar Creek, or how the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board, which cleans up old oil and gas well sites, came to be.

In a perfect world, local and state governments would be better than national governments. They’re smaller, more agile and more knowledgeable about the people they govern.

But this is not a perfect world. In the real world, bad government is everywhere.

And so is good.

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