Signs of our times

Two geezers were having lunch the other day at a local restaurant/craft beer emporium and the conversation turned to the Five Man Electrical Band.   Right away, you know these two brilliant conversationalists had to be geezers because they immediately remembered the group’s biggest hit, Signs, which reached number three on the Billboard chart in 1971.

Metrolyrics has this version of the lyrics (which we are using because it cleaned up one line):

And the sign said “Long-haired freaky people need not apply” So I tucked my hair up under my hat and I went in to ask him why He said “You look like a fine upstanding young man, I think you’ll do” So I took off my hat, I said “Imagine that. Huh! Me workin’ for you!” Whoa-oh-oh

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?

And the sign said anybody caught trespassin’ would be shot on sight So I jumped on the fence and-a yelled at the house “Hey! What gives you the right?” “To put up a fence to keep me out or to keep mother nature in” “If God was here he’d tell you to your face, man, you’re some kinda sinner”

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?

Now, hey you, mister, can’t you read? You’ve got to have a shirt and tie to get a seat You can’t even watch, no you can’t eat You ain’t supposed to be here The sign said you got to have a membership card to get inside Ugh

And the sign said, “Everybody welcome. Come in, kneel down and pray” But when they passed around the plate at the end of it all I didn’t have a penny to pay So I got me a pen and a paper and I made up my own little sign I said, “Thank you, Lord, for thinkin’ ’bout me. I’m alive and doin’ fine” Woo

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign

Five Man Electrical Band—uh—disbanded (add that to the list of old jokes such as “Old doctors never die, they just lose their patients,” and other puns about the ends of careers) in 1975, so you know that these two guys still without hearing aids but still WITH most of their teeth, quit being young in every place but their own minds a long time ago.

One geezer hauled out his pocket encyclopedia/camera, a device usually marketed as a telephone but which he seldom uses that way, and showed the other geezer a picture he took of a sign at a tourist junk shop in Limon, Colorado a few days earlier and suggested there are many venues where this sign should be posted:

Both geezers reflect that the sign is highly reminiscent of the four-way test of the civic organization, Rotary International, which is:

Is it TRUTH? Is it FAIR to all concerned? Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS? Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

But then, Geezer one did the two-fingery thing on the encyclopedia/camera screen to widen out the image to show two other signs on either side of the “Think” sign.  The expanded image seems to capture the contradictions in our social dialogue, which too often take the shape of individual diaTRIBE.

To save you the trouble of doing your own two-fingery thing to expand the image, we’ll tell you that the sign on the left says, “If you can read this you are in range,” and shows an apparent double-barreled shotgun, and the sign on the right says “The average response time of a 911 call is 23 minutes. The response time of a .357 is 1400 feet per second.”

The other two signs might be true and helpful—somehow. We suspect they are seldom necessary. They aren’t real inspiring except in a pretty anti-social sort of a way.  And forget about kindness.  But in years to come they will provide fodder for sociologists, psychiatrists and other “ists” studying the American mind in the late Twentieth and early Twenty-first Centuries.

Geezer One saw another sign a few days earlier at Dot’s Diner, a sandwich place in Nederland, Colorado—a few miles above Boulder—where the proprietors think the music of the Grateful Dead is appropriate background for a meal.  The sign wasn’t mean or threatening.  It just asked people to respect other diners who were having their sandwich with a Touch of Grey, or their omelet with Sugar Magnolia.

Maybe Geezer One was just feeling mellow during his lunch because he’d just ridden a pig on the 1909 restored carousel that is Nederland’s biggest attraction.  A fellow named Scott Harrison had rescued the carousel from the scrap heap and had spent more than twenty-five years carving all of the creatures for it.  The Carousel of Joy, it’s called.  And you are NOT too old to enjoy riding it and listening to the original Wurlitzer mechanical band organ as you go.

The discussion reminded one of the geezers of the kindly little signs that vanished from our roads about the time the interstate highway system came along.  The last Burma-Shave signs went up in 1963.  You might find a few in museums here and there today.  Some thought they were distractions to drivers and made the two-lane roads they populated less safe.  But now in these days with the pleas for drivers to ignore the distractions of Facebook, or Twitter, or the telephone itself—-at the same time that cars all have video screens in the middle of the dash loaded with all kinds of information—the concerns about Burma-Shave signs seem mild.

Some of the signs, in fact, promoted highway safety.  Frank Rowsome, Jr., put out a little book in 1965 that contained all of those messages, The Verse By the Side of the Road.  It has all of them, including the first ones in 1927. All had the company name at the end of each series and most promoted using the product when you were shaving with a blade.  But some were highway safety messages:

Don’t Lose/Your Head/To Gain a Minute/You Need Your Head/Your Brains Are In It

Or:

Dim Your Lights/Behind A Car/Let Folks See/How Bright You Are.

Then there was:

Thirty Days/Hath September/April/June And The/Speed Offender 

Would signs like those do as much good, or more good, on our highways than the electric signs telling us how many fatalities we’ve had each month, or reminding us to buckle up?   Or maybe they’d make some good light-hearted but meaningful reminders.  And monotony-breaking moments on the crowded, straight-as-a-string interstates.

Perhaps something such as:

Buckle Up/Don’t Be Silly/Don’t Be Under/A Stone With/ ACarved Lilly/MODOT.

If you have some Burma-Shave inspired signs that you think would be useful for MODOT, or that would meet the four-way test for general civil discussion, send them along in the “comments” section below.  If they meet our standards of civility (as we outline on this page) we’ll post them.  And then you can tell your friends YOU are a published poet!  A Roadside Laureate!

(Burma Shave sign image by G. D. Carrington)

The founders and the 501(c)(4)s

We honor fifty-six men today who were unafraid of being known although they knew their lives were at risk and an enemy was nearby. We should ask ourselves today how poorly we are keeping faith with them.

Your observer is intrigued by the idea advanced by some that people giving large sums of money to organizations that influence political decisions should be protected while the people on my quiet street who might give twenty dollars to a campaign cannot hide.

The issue came up late in the regular legislative session when some senators defending a colleague who was personally attacked by a dark money political action committee tried to pass a bill requiring such committees to disclose their donors.  Regular campaign committees have to list their donors in filings with the Missouri Ethics Commission.  But the Super PACs, as they’re called, are formed for people who don’t want anybody to know who they are or how much they give. And these organizations appear to attract big-money donations that can finance anonymous personal attacks on other individuals in the political system or influence leaders to see things their ways.

Defenders of the dark money organizations say the secret organizations are necessary to protect donors from political retaliation.  It’s a freedom of speech matter, they say; these people would not be free to express their political positions if they had to do so publicly.

That’s kind of hard for the twenty-dollar donor who lives next door to understand.  How is it that somebody who lives in a big mansion can afford MORE freedom of speech than the people who live on my street in nice but modest homes can afford?  Are not we all equal under the First Amendment?

Apparently not in today’s political climate.  Twenty dollars donated to a candidate or a cause requires your name be on a list that your neighbors of differing political beliefs can see.  And if the candidate you support makes irresponsible claims, you can be held partly responsible.  On the other hand, if your candidate shows inspirational leadership, you can take some of the credit.

It takes courage to donate twenty dollars in the sunshine.  Cowardice lurks in the dark where much bigger donations flow. Our nation was not born in such cowardice.

Let us ponder how different our nation would be today if fifty-six men in 1776 anonymously issued a broadside accusing King George III of all kinds of awful things. Suppose the accusations carried the tag line, “Paid for by Citizens for Free Colonies,” an eighteenth century Super PAC that was not required to file any reports showing who was behind the attack.

But they didn’t do it.  Various sources estimating the wealth of those 56 signers show Oliver Wolcott, John Witherspoon, George Walton, Robert Treat Paine, and Samuel Adams were estimated to be worth 100 British Pounds in 1776.  University of Wyoming professor Eric Nye, on his Pounds Sterling to Dollars: Historical Conversion of Currency website, calculates those five men would be worth $16,358 today.  On the other end, Charles Carroll III of Carrollton, Maryland and Robert Morris of Pennsylvania were worth 110,000 British Pounds in 1776 (http://www.raken.com/american_wealth/encyclopedia/1776.asp), which Nye calculates would be just short of $18 million today.  John Hancock of Massachusetts, whose signature is the boldest, was the third wealthiest at about $12.8 million in today’s money.

Five men who were well below today’s poverty level were joined by men who could buy my entire neighborhood in speaking freely to absolute power.  And they knew full well what “political retaliation” could await them.

Fifty-six men who knew they were risking the noose or the firing squad were unafraid to let it be known what they were supporting politically. They were unafraid to pledge their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.

Our founders had the courage to proclaim their positions in the most public manner of their times. We became a nation because rich men and poor men, those living in privilege and those living in poverty, alike shared the personal courage to speak freely and openly.

What kind of people have we become that some of us are so afraid of “political retaliation” that is so mild compared to what our founders risked? What kind of people have we become that we will tolerate the argument that freedom of speech, the freedom to criticize those we elect, as well as the freedom to support those we select, should place those who can afford to attack from the darkness into a protected status?

Dare we continue to tolerate the noise from unknown voices in that darkness, and their defenders, and allow them to overcome the quiet sound of quill pens writing signatures on our founding document if we are to consider ourselves true descendants of those fifty-six men who had the courage to stand in the light?

no one cares

An extraordinary writer has written an extraordinary book you should read, especially if you are in a public policy position, particularly if that position involves holding public purse strings.

He begins his book bluntly: “This is the book I promised myself I would never write. And promised my wife as well.”

Why?

“I have kept that promise for a decade—since our younger son, Kevin, hanged himself in our basement, a week before his twenty-first birthday in July 2005, after struggling for three years with schizophrenia.”

Then, three years later, his eldest son, Dean, developed symptoms of schizophrenia, too.

Several weeks ago, while driving to Columbia to do some research at the State Historical Society, I heard Ron Powers being interviewed on National Public Radio about this book. I knew instantly I had to read it:  no one cares about crazy people, which draws its title from a “ghastly” remark made in 2010 by a campaign aide to Scott Walker, who was running for Governor of Wisconsin.  Even the lower-case print used on the cover and title page is a message.  Crazy people are lower-case people, ones we prefer to ignore, ones easy to lose.

It should be explained that Ron and I have been friends most of our lives although that friendship became strained for reasons that are now clear from reading his book, a circumstance that might not be unusual when friends do not realize the cumulative effects of life circumstances upon other friends.  If you’re not familiar with him, Google him.  He’s a Hannibal native. Look at the long list of his books. Read about his Pulitzer Prize and his career with Charles Kuralt on the CBS Sunday Morning show.

Early in his book, Ron writes of an experience he had in a Vermont legislative committee hearing (He lives in Vermont) that equals one of the most vivid memories I have of covering thousands of hours of committee meetings in four decades as a statehouse reporter.  I recall a father testifying in one of the committee rooms on the first floor of the Missouri Capitol about this state’s inadequate services for the mentally ill.   He recited the struggles of his son whose deteriorating mental health eventually led the son into crime and then to state prison.  The point the father made that day should have been disturbing to anyone facing him from the committee table: the only place his son could receive treatment for his mental disease was in a prison.

Ron and his wife, Honoree, had gone to the lovely, small, Vermont Capitol in Montpelier in January, 2014 to testify about whether mental patients should be institutionalized against their will when their conditions reach certain levels of desperation and danger, or whether such action violates the individual’s civil liberties and exposes them to questionable drug therapies perceived by some as being prescribed by doctors who receive financial rewards from “Big Pharma” for prescribing those drugs.  We’ve heard the same arguments here. He heard people such as the father I had listened to here in Missouri.

Just three weeks after the Powerses attended that hearing came the revelation of the callous pronouncement from the Walker aide.  And that’s when Ron began to re-think his vow about not writing the book, reconsidering his desire to protect the privacy of his sons, and reconsidering his feelings that he did not want to exploit them.  I am glad that he made the difficult decision to write it after that hearing jolted him out of his introspection and into what he realized is “a simple and self-evident and morally insupportable truth: Too many of the mentally ill in our country live under conditions of atrocity.”

The book is not just a recounting of his family’s personal journey.  It also is an excellent journalistic recounting of the way societies have treated the mentally ill for centuries. Early in his book, Ron writes, “For centuries those who have been struck by madness have always had their own cruel nomenclature to bear, names intended to separate them out, divide us from them: lunatics, imbeciles, loonies, dips, weirdos, wackos, schizos, psychos, freaks, morons, nutcases, nutjobs, wingnuts, cranks.  The mad one, then, is something between a clown and a demon.  Unless that mad one is a gift of God made flesh.”

Such as a child.

Ron mixes the deeply-personal narrative of his family’s eventual shift from one of being normal, proud parents of gifted sons to a deepening search for hoped normality in the face of increasing and inescapable reality, with perceptive accounts of the years of society’s shifting thought on mental illness and the coining of the phrase “schizophrenia” by Eugen Bleuler in 1908.  Ron demonstrates his extensive journalistic story-telling skills to track the attitudes toward mental illness from the days of  demons and shamans; from Hippocrates to today’s researchers; from Bedlam, the first madhouse dating to 1247, to today’s asylums; from Sigmund Freud, Dorothea Dix, and Charles Darwin, to the disciples of Eugenics, and to Julian Jaynes’ Twentieth Century thoughts on the origins of madness—and research and policies in the forty-years since then, including mental illness deniers such as L. Ron Hubbard and Thomas Szasz..  It was mortifying to read that one Albert Priddy, the superintendent of the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, was a strong advocate of eugenics and a leader of the effort to defend the Virginia Sterilization Act.  It is only slightly comforting that his name does not show up on our particular branch of the family tree.

His writing on the deinstitutionalization movement started in a Ronald Reagan-signed law while Governor of California, the effects of which remain obvious to those will but see, is damning.  Ron calls the Lanterman-Petris-Short act “the national gold standard for clueless, destructive government interference in the interest of mentally ill people.” And he offers studies showing that our prisons have become the largest treatment facilities for those with mental illness since the national adoption of the act’s philosophy.

Ron doesn’t want you to “enjoy” the book—and you won’t.  But read it anyway. FEEL his book.  Have the courage and the empathy to read it from beginning to end including the preface, especially if you deal with public policy—particularly health and mental health issues and budget issues.

Too rarely, I asked legislative committee chairmen and women how they could listen to real people plead for the kind of help that only government can provide and then ignore the humanity behind those pleas.  The answers always were basically, “Well, we only have so much money.”  In recent years, their successors have moved to assure the state will have even less.

It is sad that so much of the process of government—at all levels—and citizen participation in a society that is greater than the one behind our front doors seems to look only at dollars and not at the real people next door or across the street. National and international health studies indicate one in four of us experience, or will experience, some kind of mental illness. All of us know someone who is one of those. But it’s okay to see the face of only one person—George Washington, whose benign gaze greets us on the front of the dollar bill.

This is a book of humanity that every health and mental health committee member in every state legislature should read.  It’s a book ALL of us should read.  We should be uncomfortable throughout it, and after it.

Thank you, Ron and Honoree, for your courage and your strength with this book.  We hope others can draw courage and strength of their own to see people, not just dollars.

Story-tellin’

One of the great things about being a journalist is the stories people tell you, often stories that aren’t exactly “news,” but are interesting enough that you file them away to tell to others later. In my case, I used to have in the newsroom several boxes carrying the ghoulish label, “Prospective Death Box.”  Through the years my staff and I put recordings of interviews, speeches, and events into that box so we would dig them out and play parts of them back in our coverage of the death of a prominent person or the anniversary of an important event.

Some of those recordings are, as far as I know, the only preserved telling of a story, the only known recording of an event, the only sample of someone’s now-stilled voice.

One of those recordings is of the only man ever to serve three terms as State Treasurer.  He did it in the days when the Treasurer could not succeed himself, which makes his service even more remarkable.

M. E. Morris was a Dadeville native—southwest Missouri’s Dade County—who founded in 1928 the People’s Bank in Miller. He was elected to the Missouri House for the first of his two terms in 1932, after which he became the CEO of the Trenton National Bank. He left the bank in 1945 to become Commissioner of the state Division of Finance.

When the 1945 Constitution created a new agency for collecting taxes, the Department of Revenue, Morris became the first Director of Revenue for Missouri, serving under Governor Phil Donnelly.  This was in the days when Governors could not succeed themselves and therefore keep patronage-appointed department heads so when Donnelly left office, Morris ran for and was elected State Treasurer for the first time.  He could not succeed himself but fortunately Donnelly decided he wanted to be Governor again, so when Donnelly became Governor a second time, Morris became Revenue Director again.  When  Donnelly’s second term ended, Morris ran for Treasurer and won a second term.  The Revenue Director while Morris was in his second term was Milton Carpenter who became the state Treasurer in 1961, at which point, Morris replaced Carpenter as Revenue Director under Governor John Dalton.  When Carpenter’s term ran out, Morris ran again, and won a third term as state treasurer.

He retired from state government after almost 25 years as either revenue director or state treasurer, a pretty remarkable career that few people recognize.

Name recognition is important in politics and M. E. Morris felt he had a leg up on any candidate.   Although known as M. E. to the press, and “Monty” to friends, his real name, you see, was MOUNT ETNA Morris.

On March 23, 1984, a little more than four years before he died, I went to his home in Jefferson City to interview him for my book about Thomas Hart Benton.  The interview was pretty frustrating because Morris had little information to offer and furthermore spoke in a slow, low, halting voice and provided no useful details.  At the end, however, I asked him to explain how he got the name “Mount Etna.”  I listened back and transcribed it. And here, from his lips to my ears, from my keyboard to your eyes, is what he told me:

“Seems there was a Welsh captain on a ship, sailing ship, of course, back in the Mediterranean back in the old days, and he was off the coast of Sicily.  A storm came up and he was about to lose his ship, did lose his bearings.  Mount Etna was in eruption at that time, there on the coast of Sicily there.  So he got his bearings from the stream of lava flying up over there.  Got his bearings and saved his ship.  So when he got back home, his first boy baby, he named him Mount Etna.  That name has been in our family for many years.

“And I know about four or five Mount Etna Morrises are buried in south Missouri there.  That’s where they finally hung up.  In fact I sent a check this morning to the old Morris Cemetery down in the county just this morning.  They’re getting ready for Decoration Day down there. 

“My grandmother’s name was Mount Etna Morris.  That’s where the name originated.  It’s a good story.  And as far as I know it’s a true story because there’s been some Mount Etna Morrises in the past.  I know where four of them are buried. 

“I told that story many times in campaign speeches just so they would remember it.”  

Let’s face it, if you’re a voter and you go into the booth aren’t you more likely to remember a man named for a volcano than somebody named Smith, Or Jones, or whatever?

Mr. Morris died in 1988, at the age of 87.  I doubt there are many recordings of his voice, let along many, or any other, recordings of the story of his name.

I intend to donate these recordings to the audio history collection of the State Historical Society.

———————–

As I was writing the book about the art of the Capitol, it dawned on me late in the process that I had not written about the three paintings in the Senate Lounge of Senators A. Clifford Jones, Richard Webster, and Michael Kinney.  In writing the story of Kinney, I recalled that I had on tape a fascinating story about him that Webster had told me.

Michael Kinney served 56 years in the state senate, longer than any legislator in the nation served in one chamber of any state legislature.  He was a Democrat from the rough and tumble “Kerry Patch” Irish neighborhood of St. Louis once dominated by two Irish gangs, the Hogans and Egan’s Rats, a group that’s been described as “the first full-time gangsters to make regular headlines.”   He succeeded his brother, Thomas, an Irish tavern-keeper known as “Snake,” who handled the political issues for the gang before he died in 1912 during his second term in the Senate.

Michael served until he lost a primary bid for re-election in 1968.  He seldom spoke in the Senate and when he did his voice was so soft that many of his colleagues could not hear him in those days before there was a public address system. But his seniority and his knowledge of Senate procedure gave him great power throughout his career.

He sponsored many bills that became laws in his career, the one that is his most visible legacy being the one that created the state cancer hospital in Columbia.  For most of three decades he was part of a Senate triumvirate that exerted enormous influence.  He, Senators Michael E. Casey of Kansas City, who served from 1909-1944 after serving six years in the House, and Senator Joseph Brogan of St. Louis, who was in the Senate from 1909 until his death in 1940, were Presidents pro Tem four times among them and chaired powerful committees throughout their careers.  The St. Louis Globe-Democrat said Casey “was the spellbinder of the group…Brogan..was the witty, nimble floor fighter, while Senator Kinney was the subtle, behind-the-scenes diplomat, string-puller and compromiser.”

Senator Webster, who was from Carthage, was in the House before moving across the rotunda to the other chamber.  He remembered when he and Kinney were on a conference committee of House and Senate members working on a compromise of a bill that had passed both chambers in different form and Webster—then in the House—was complaining about Governor Forrest Smith.  Kinney told him, “I’ve told every House member and every Senate member that’s arrived on the scene and got mad at whoever the Governor was, ‘He’s just a Governor.  Those fellows come and go.’”

Webster remembered that Kinney sat on a high stool in his office at 7 a.m. each day of the legislative session, stripped to his waist with a table cloth wrapped around his neck while his grandson-in-law, State Auditor Haskell Holman, shave him.  Kinney sat with his back to the open door.

“If you looked, you’d see a bullet hole in his back, “Webster told me.  It was a scar that Webster said remained from an assassination attempt during an Irish gang war.  Kinney was shot four times—in the chest, both arms, and in the jaw—in 1924.  He later identified a police photograph of a recaptured escaped mental patient as the man who shot him.  But there was considerable doubt even then that Kinney told the truth.  Although suspicions lingered for decades that his near-assassination was part of the heated rivalry between the Rats, of which Kinney remained a part, and the rival Hogans, Kinney never commented about the issue publicly.” 

Privately, though, according to Webster, he did talk about it.  And Webster told me about one of those conversations in the privacy of Kinney’s office.

“Someone would say, ‘Senator, do you remember a fellow named Jimmy O’Brien?’  And he would say, ‘Jimmy O’Brien.  He was a nice fellow.  Whatever happened to him?’”

“Well, what had happened to him was that Mike Kinney could never identify his assailant although his assailant was about three or four feet from him when he fired the shot.  But a month later, Jimmy O’Brien did rise to the surface of the Mississippi River.”   

There is, as far as I know, no other telling of that story except for the version Richard Webster related on tape to me that day.

Another case of the journalist collecting the first draft of history.

——————

I have in my tape library several hours of Senate floor debate in which one of the greatest Ozark story tellers ever to serve in the legislature embarked on some of his long, windy expositions on some subject that might or might not be related to the issue at hand.  There is no doubt that many of the stories Danny Staples told were pure fabrications or old jokes recycled for the moment.  But many of his stories came straight from his early life as the son of a grocery-store owner in rural southeast Missouri.

In March, 2002, the Senate was working on an election reform bill triggered by some of the big problems at the polls in St. Louis in 2000.  Staples launched into a story that was not particularly original except in the telling.

“I’m not going to say what country it was because I don’t think the statute of limitations have run out yet. But I can remember full well an old boy that was a sheriff down in one of the southeast counties.  And this young, handsome, debonair, good-lookin’ candidate was running against the incumbent state senator down there.  And the old retired official down there had named his successor and they came in and they both liked this young, handsome, debonair good-lookin’ fellow that was running the incumbent.

“One night it was raining, two days before the election, and the old man and the boy, his protégé, were out in one of those famous Civil War cemeteries down there in southeast Missouri.  One of them had a flashlight; the other one had a legal pad and a pen. And they were taking names off the Civil War cemetery headstones, been there since 1865.

“They were voting absentee ballots for this young, handsome, debonair challenger of this old retiring state senator. 

“And…the old official that was retiring had the flashlight and he was looking at a headstone there in the middle of the night and it was weather-beaten; it was worn from the hail, from the wind, from freezing rain, and the atmosphere.  And the young official that replaced the old official looked at him and said, ‘Hey. Pop, we can’t get the name off this headstone.  It’s been worn out. It’s no longer legible.  Let’s move over to the next one.’  The old man looked at the boy, and he says, ‘Cubby, this man has got just as much right to vote as this man.’’   

“That’s the way you run an honest election.”

Staples told the Senate after that, “You don’t need laws on the books to protect the innocent.  We only need laws on the books to protect those that would be corrupt and greedy and grafty in the greatest society in the world, and that’s the electoral process.”  I have read the transcript of that remark time and again and I’ll be darned if I can figure out the logic in it.

Staples usually tipped off his storytelling by asking a Senator who was handling a bill, ‘Would be interested to know, Senator….” Even if the Senator was NOT interested, Staples would proceed to inform him—and everybody else.

He decided to tell another story during this particular debate but the other senator—Doyle Childers who later became director of the Department of Natural Resources under Matt Blunt—answered “No, Senator, at this moment I’m not interested to know that, but thank you Senator.” At which point Staples stopped trying to debate and just asked to speak on the bill.

“Mr. President, it comes to my remembrance and my recollection now that they had another election in southeast Missouri…One day down in southeast Missouri, the day after the election, this man about fifty years old was sitting on the courthouse steps.  He was crying.  Tears rolling down his face.  A business partner of his walked by and he said, ‘What’s wrong?  Has there been a tragedy?’  He said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Yesterday was election day.’  He said, ‘My daddy’s been dead for nine years.  He come home and voted yesterday, didn’t even stop to see momma and I.’” 

(The Senate dissolved into laughter for several seconds on both sides of the aisle.)..

Staples went on:  “Now, I’ve won ten elections and lost one.  There was never voter fraud in the 20th Senatorial District.  Oh, sometimes we Democrats voted on Tuesday, sent out a press release, the Republicans would vote on Wednesday.  But the polls weren’t open on Wednesday as you well know. So the Democrats always won.”

Term limits finally got Danny Staples—one of the many egregious shortcomings of that misguided concept that relies on public apathy and civic irresponsibility for its support—after twenty years in the Senate preceded by six years in the House.  Not long after he was forced out of office, Danny Staples and his wife were getting ready for a trip.  He had taken the family motor home to town to get it all cleaned up and fueled up.  He drove it home and dropped dead of a heart attack on July 22, 2002. The legislature has been far too serious since he left.

We journalists not only get to witness events as they unfold and capture the stories that people tell in that process, the journalist also comes across long-forgotten stories in the course of our curiosity. I don’t remember how I stumbled on this last story but I filed it away, knowing I’d have a chance to tell it to somebody sometime. And son-of-a-gun, here is that opportunity.

Missouri history has LOT of wonderful animal stories.  Here’s one.

Many years ago I knew the first three-time Speaker of the House.  He served in the 1930s, was the Speaker for three of his four terms, and one night my longtime friend Clyde Lear and I sat down with him after dinner and recorded him telling some stories.   He told us about a day that the House and the Senate met together to see a special guest who was multi-lingual, including Morse Code, and apparently was clairvoyant to boot.

His name was Jim. Jim the Wonder Dog.  Folklorist and folk song-teller Bob Dyer wrote a song about “Jim, Jim, Wonderful Jim.  Never was a dog smarter than him.” At least not according to Bob Dyer.

Former House Speaker John G. Christy, who later was Mayor of Jefferson City for twelve years, recalled that there was no way Jim’s owner, Sam VanArsdale, could have given the dog any signals that day in the House of Representatives when—during an informal joint session—he was told in Morse Code to find the man known as the “Beau Brummel of the House.”   Jim trotted down the main aisle, paused, then turned in and wound his way through a row of desks and put his paw on the leg of a state representative who WAS known as the Beau Brummel of the House.  He was also told to find the sponsor of the horse racing bill, and he picked that man out from the crowd in the House Chamber.  That’s another story I recorded more than 35 years ago.

I love the way Bob Dyer concluded his song about Jim:

“So the next time you hear about man’s best friend,

            Think about that wonderful dog named Jim.

            And remember,

            Dogs can be just as smart as some humans are….dumb.”  

God gave people one mouth and two ears for a reason. Journalists are blessed by working in a profession that relies on that statement and having the tools to capture the stories that prove its truth.

 

A t-shirt, a tweet, and history

Seen at a truck stop in Effingham, Illinois:

A grey T-shirt with the pictures of former Illinois Governors Rod Blagojevich and George Ryan and the words, “Illinois, Where our Governors Make Our License Plates.”

For historical accuracy, future t-shirts might include Governors Otto Kerner, Jr. (mail fraud), and Dan Walker (bank fraud) among those whose careers took them from having license plate number one to a place where they wore a number stitched onto their clothes.  Walker capitalized on his name by walking the state during his 1971 gubernatorial campaign, inspiring Jackson County, Missouri, prosecutor Joseph P. Teasdale to become known as “Walking Joe Teasdale” during an unsuccessfully 1972 primary campaign for governor.  Teasdale didn’t walk as much during his successful 1976 campaign, but supporters wore lapel pins showing a shoe with a hole in the sole, an idea borrowed from a pin used by Adlai Stevenson in his 1952 Presidential campaign.  Stevenson was a Governor of Illinois who did NOT go to prison. Instead, he went to the United Nations as United States Ambassador during the Kennedy/Johnson administrations.  He is remembered for the dramatic moment when he unveiled aerial photographs of Russian missile installations in Cuba and directly asked Soviet Ambassador Valerian Zorin if the country was installing nuclear missiles there and proclaimed he would be waiting “until hell freezes over” to get an answer.

It was Stevenson who proposed the agreement that ended the Cuban Missile Crisis—our removal of Jupiter missiles from Turkey (they were obsolete anyway) if the Soviets took their missiles out of Cuba, a deal that did not become public for many years.  He knew that some of President Kennedy’s advisors would consider him a coward for making such a suggestion, but he commented, “Perhaps we need a coward in the room when we’re talking nuclear war.”

Wonder how many people who see those t-shirts ever think about all the real history behind the sardonic message on them and the resonance some of that history might have in today’s world.

We stopped for fuel in Effingham on our way back from watching the first Japanese driver win the Indianapolis 500.  By then, a Denver sportswriter had taken to Twitter to say he was uncomfortable with a Japanese driver winning the race on Memorial Day weekend because of the death of one of his father’s Army Air Corps colleagues in the Battle of Okinawa.  He later issued a public apology and noted his father had flown many missions including unarmed reconnaissance missions over Japan during World War II.  But the Denver Post has fired him.

We resist today writing of Twitter’s capacity to bring out the worst in us—and the best although your observer considers it generally to be “The Theatre of the Inane”—and others have written about the decency of Takuma Sato (who is celebrating at the “Kissing the Bricks” post-race ceremony at the start-finish line) who has spoken of his concern about a quarter-million people in his homeland who are still suffering from the earthquake and tsunami a few years ago.  Instead we refer you to an entry in the old Missourinet blog that we posted three years ago about a place 225 miles or so southeast of Denver that tells a different story from the unfortunate Denver tweets.

http://blog.missourinet.com/2014/09/30/summits-sewers-and-students/

History has many parts.  As we see in this year’s story of the Denver sportswriter and in the 2014 stories of high school students and a high plains historical site, there often are shadows over it.

There is danger lurking whenever any of us try to distill the past or the present into 140 characters.

 

Who has left the stadium

No, there’s no question mark.  It’s a statement, not an inquiry.

I became worried as baseball’s spring training neared its end and fairly concerned when opening day arrived.  So, finally, I asked a friend at Downtown Book plus Toy if they had seen it.   Nope.  They handle so many books and magazines they hadn’t missed it. But I sure did.  So they tried to order it for me.

It’s not going to come in.  Maybe it’ll never be back.

And baseball won’t be the same.

One of the signs that winter can’t last forever has been the appearance on the magazine rack of my local book store of the red-covered annual publication with baseball players on the front and the team picture of the World Series winner on the back.  Who’s Who in Baseball, a publication letting readers immerse themselves in the career statistics of just about all the guys who put on major league uniforms each year, has gone away.

The months of February, March, and early April had a big hole in them this year for people who love baseball.  During those last dark days of winter and through those first tantalizing days of early spring, baseball fans could immerse themselves in seeing who was close to a milestone.  Could somebody get to their 600th home run this year?   Or their 300th win as a pitcher?  Is there any pitcher close to 3,000 strikeouts?  In today’s home-run culture, how many guys have 300 or 400 stolen bases?  Who was traded for who in 1999?  What was the last year that aging pitcher had a winning record or a respectable ERA?  Who’s Who in Baseball was the annual hint that better days were coming even if you rooted for a team you knew was probably going to be one of the worst.  Now, apparently, it’s gone.  And at this house, baseball season is a little bit incomplete.

Maybe we should blame the Chicago Cubs.  Who’s Who in Baseball began four years after the Cubs won the World Series in 1908.  Could it be that the possibility of putting a picture of the Cubs on the back cover of the publication was just more than the publishers could bear?  Is publication death preferable to admitting the Cubs won the World Series?

Here’s what happened.

Last spring, about the time the 2016 season was starting, Harris Publications shut down. It’s official farewell statement talked about the struggles the magazine industry has had “in the face of the rapid ascendance of digital media, changing consumer content preferences, magazine wholesaler struggles and consolidation in the supply chain. We have tried mightily to persevere against these forces, but have been unable to overcome these challenges.”

Last July, the assets of Harris Publications, including rights to seventy-four titles, were acquired by Athlon Media Group. That doesn’t mean those titles will survive. A company spokesman didn’t hold out much hope for Who’s Who in Baseball or many of the other Harris titles after the acquisition by putting out this statement:

“We’ll continue to evolve our content from print centric platforms into over-the-top (OTT) media to gain knowledge and strength in visual platforms. Vertical titles, such as Harris Publications, are a perfect venue for this space.”

Yeah, whatever.

Fact is, we can go to the internet and look up all kinds of stats on any player past or present.  But there’s something about browsing through a print version of WWIB as some call it (we think it’s kind of sacrilegious) just to see what catches the eye.  “Browse” shows up on web pages sometimes but it’s just not the same with a tablet or a smartphone.  At least not to this writer’s generation.  But this writer’s generation is kind of like the dinosaurs after the big meteor hit, aren’t we?

The oldest edition in my collection includes a player whose career began in 1942.  It includes people such as Hoyt Wilhelm, Robin Roberts, Warren Spahn, Vic Davalillo, Mike Cuellar, Dick Hall, and Gaylord Perry.  Leafing through those old editions brings these guys back to life, back to a time when they were throwing smoke and spitters and dashing about the base paths and the outfields.  There’s something about looking at their stats when they were our heroes.

But it’s gone now.

February and March are going to seem a little colder from now on.

The first special session, and an echo (Corrected and enlightened)

Governor Greitens talked in his post-session news conference last Friday evening of calling a special session of the legislature to take up issues he was disappointed the legislature didn’t act upon this year.  He spoke of “summer school,” although some legislators are likely to suggest to him that a special session, if he decides to call one, would be more economical and might be more productive if it ran concurrently with the veto session in September.  Extraordinary Sessions, as they are formally termed, are seldom called immediately after exhausted lawmakers drag themselves home after a regular session, even a relatively non-contentious one.

Governors are seldom as pleased as legislative majority leaders (whatever the majority might be) with results of a legislative session.  And although they, and several others, can think of some issues that deserve special session consideration, governors most often have decided to let things cool down, to do some between-sessions discussions, and try again in January.

We have counted sixty times that the legislature has been summoned back for special sessions—although other scholars might have a different number.  We are not counting the two times the Rebel legislature met after fleeing from Jefferson City ahead of Union troops’ arrival.  Some would argue they were not special sessions, just continuations of the regular session by the elected legislators.

The FIRST special session happened before we were a state and some things in state government that are part of our political genes today were there at the beginning.  Some of the attitudes that we saw in this 2017 session were there almost two centuries ago and the sentiments behind one piece of 2017 legislation are an echo of what happened in that first special session in 1821.

A two-hundred year old document in the state archives is the first petition from the citizens of the Territory of Missouri to ask for statehood.  Two years later, in 1819, Congress was debating the issue when New York Congressman James Tallmadge tried to add an anti-slavery amendment to a bill authorizing the territory to write a state constitution that would, upon Congressional approval, clear the way for statehood.  Senator Henry Clay led the compromise effort that was approved on March 3, 1820.  Missouri Constitutional Convention delegates met on June 12 and in the next thirty-eight days drafted the document, which was sent to Washington for approval.

The first state legislature met from September 18-December 12, 1820, passing the first laws that would apply to Missourians as citizens of the United States—once Congress approved the State Constitution. But a provision in that constitution had become a sticking point.

Passionate debate in Congress about whether slavery would be allowed in Missouri when it entered the union had taken a new direction. Although Missourians had welcomed the Missouri Compromise that allowed slave-holding Missouri to enter the union with the simultaneous admission of Maine to keep the free state/slave state balance, many chafed at the power of Congress to become involved in “an internal matter,” in this case, whether slavery could exist in the state.  U. S. Senator-to-be Thomas Hart Benton, in fact, argued that Congress had no right to ban slavery anywhere—although the Missouri Compromise did exactly that.

The issue of slavery, per se, was therefore transformed into an issue of states’ rights when delegates were picked to write the first State Constitution.  Although some historians suggest the majority of the delegates opposed slavery, the state’s rights issue shaped part of that first document, which is why it contained provisions prohibiting the legislature from ever passing laws prohibiting the entry of slaves into Missouri, forbidding emancipation without permission of a slave-holder, AND requiring the legislature to pass a law forbidding any free Negroes and Mulattoes from living in Missouri “under any pretext whatsoever,” although about 300 free Negroes already lived here.

That contrary spirit is what led to the first special session of the legislature—because Congress was not going to tolerate Missouri limiting the movement of any free people into any state where they wanted to live.

Congress, after some tense discussions that included some talk of secession by southern states, refused to approve the constitution until that provision forbidding free Negroes and mulattoes from moving here was removed. That’s why state lawmakers returned to St. Charles in the summer of 1821 to meet a congressional mandate to make sure the legislature “never pass any law preventing any descriptions of persons from going to, and settling in, the said state, who now are, or hereafter may become citizens of any states in this union.”

Do it or you can’t join the union, said Congress.

Missouri’s legislature did it.  But it made sure Congress knew Missouri didn’t like being forced to do it.  The delegates at that special session meeting in June, 1821 maintained Washington had no power to attach any conditions to statehood and they refused to change the Missouri Constitution.  However, they did pass a resolution promising the state would not pass any laws limiting the rights of free Negroes and Mulattoes.  The House committee that came up with the resolution said in its report:

…The general government have no right, when a territory, as Missouri was, shall have been authorized to form a constitution of state government for herself, to interfere with the free and unrestrained right, by imposing any previous conditions or restrictions whatever.

The resolution also complained Congress had not applied extra standards to any other state, calling the requirement regrettable and noted that Negroes and Mulattoes “had no pretention [sic]” of citizenship in any of the 23 other states and could not be considered full citizens of Missouri even if they chose to live here. Lawmakers reluctantly approved it on June 26, 1821.

Congress felt Missouri had slapped it in the face but Henry Clay convinced Congress to accept the resolution instead of starting a new fight.  President James Monroe signed the proclamation admitting Missouri to the Union on August 10.

Forty years later, to the day, the worst battle of Missouri’s Civil War was fought on the Oak-covered hills around Wilson’s Creek, south of Springfield.  The first special session of the Missouri legislature is seen by many historians as the concluding segment of the first of a series of ultimately futile efforts to keep the union from falling apart.

Incidentally, the “free negro and mulatto” agreement lasted only four years.  Once Missouri was in the Union, it would not be voted out, and in the regular session of 1825, the legislature adopted a law requiring any free Negroes or Mulattoes to produce written certificates of their free status before they could live here.

With the help of King Marc Powers, ruler of the Kingdom of Arcania, a small territory set aside within the Missouri Capitol, and Dana Miller, the Assistant Chief Clerk of the House, we have looked back at the last twenty years of special sessions and have come up with these examples of reasons and seasons:

In 1997, Governor Mel Carnahan called two special sessions. One session began thirty minutes after the adjournment of the regular session on May 16 because two appropriations bills were not passed by the deadline.  The legislature acted quickly and adjourned six days later.   He also called lawmakers back for a special session coinciding with the veto session in September to enact acceptable sections of an economic development bill he had vetoed and to pass a new law allowing local tourism taxes to be enacted after the Missouri Supreme Court ruled the original law unconstitutional. 

Governor Holden, in 2003, vetoed four appropriations bills and called a special session to re-pass them.  Before that special session adjourned, he signed two of the re-passed bills but vetoed two others which the legislature re-passed.  Holden signed them although he objected to them but the legislature would not change them and another special session was out of the question, so he signed them.  He called another special session, however, for September to consider revenue increases the legislature refused to consider in the regular session.  The legislature wasn’t interested in September, either, further supporting the idea that the governor proposes and the legislature disposes. 

Governor Blunt called a special session in September, 2005 to pass new abortion restrictions the legislature had been unable to pass in the regular session.  In 2007, he called a special session to let contracts have access to bond money for bridge repairs and to pass new economic development taxation.

Governor Nixon’s special session history was a mixed bag.  He called a special session in June of 2010 to pass $150 million in tax incentives to keep the Ford Claycomo plant at full production.  He called a special session for September, 2011 for tax credit overhauls and incentives for making Lambert-St. Louis Airport a hub for trade with China.  But majority Republicans could not get together to pass those bills and they called it a day and let the sixty-day schedule run out. (Note to Governor Greitens: Make sure you have the votes to pass the legislation you want before convening a special session.) The legislature was called back in December, 2013 in an effort to pass last-minute tax incentives to convince Boeing to move production of its 777X airliner from the state of Washington to St. Louis. The legislature rushed the incentives through by Boeing’s deadline, but the company got a better deal from Washington and stayed there.   In late 2014, Nixon called a special session to allocate money to pay the Highway Patrol and the National Guard for the security services it provided in Ferguson. But he cancelled the call three days later when legislative leaders pointed out a way to pay those bills from the existing budget.

Incidentally, Governor Hearnes holds the record by calling three special sessions in 1970—before Missouri’s constitution was changed to provide for annual sessions. 

The first Missouri Constitution and the ensuing first special session set a pattern of contrariness that was played out in this year’s reluctant approval of a law allowing driver’s licenses that comply with the federal Real ID law, passage of which is the latest example of Missouri’s defiance of federal regulations that eventually crumbles after lengthy grumbling.

In 2017, Missouri lawmakers finally buckled to federal pressure—as their legislative ancestors did in that first special session—and passed a Real ID compliance law.  But they, as did their ancestors, attached some language to prove they weren’t just getting in line.

Take that, Washington.

Again.

Under the sun

–the place where there’s nothing new, as we were reminded the other day while doing some research with microfilmed newspapers.

This article appeared a century ago in the weekly Cassville Republican.  It was on page one.  Newspapers then did not identify wire service stories but this probably was from the Associated Press.  It happened in the temporary capitol where lawmakers met until the current capitol was completed.

                   Jefferson City, Mo., March 3—Lieut. Gov. Crossley, moved by the bitter personalities which have been indulged in this week by several senators, in a speech today, served notice he would call a half to such proceedings, even if it became necessary to summarily adjourn the Senate.  Crossley said that the conduct of some of the senators would not have been tolerated in a well-regulated barroom.

              Crossley’s warning was issued in the following statement:

            “Senatorial dignity has been dragged into the dust, and the reputation hitherto borne so proudly by this distinguished arm of state government has been tarnished, even blackened, not by outsiders, but by your hands. 

            “Senators have forgotten, in their selfish zeal, that respectful attitude they should hold toward one another within this chamber; senators have violated the rules of decorum and debate; senators, representing a sovereign constituency of righteous, God-fearing Missourians, have not only been guilty of unseemly conduct and intemperate language, but have hurled epithets and insulting charges across the floor of this Senate, which would not be tolerated in a well-ordered barroom.

            “The motives of senators have been impugned, their integrity assailed, their characters attacked by innuendo, and more than one senator without being called to order has demeaned himself in a manner unworthy of the position he holds.

            “Such scenes as we have witnessed here, language as we have heard, are impossible, intolerable, and will be permitted no longer.  I am your servant, senators, but I am the servant of the people, responsible to a large extent for the conduct of the Senate, and the enforcement of its rules, and I say to you now, that patience with me has almost ceased to be a virtue.  We are here for deliberation and decision, not for vituperation and delay.

            “We have a program before us, including the great constructive measures of the administration, and the time is short.  Henceforth, so far as in my power, acting within the rules, the real business of this Senate will be expedited, even though we brush aside with this gavel, as a practical, potential argument, many technicalities, obstructions, tactics, obvious and palpable suggestions for delay. We will consider the measures that come before us, and our work shall be done in an orderly manner.

            If disorder prevails, I shall use the authority given me under the constitution and the rules of this Senate, and failing in gentler means, if ugliness and rude behavior again lift their heads during the sittings of this Senate, this gavel will strike them down, under the power of adjournment possessed by the presiding officer.”              

Budget crunch time

We are at the point when much is written about the looming statutory deadline for the legislature to pass a budget.  It has to be done by 6 p.m. Friday night.   Under the law. 

Whenever budget crunch time hits in Washington, there is usually much wringing of hands and concerns about a federal government shut down. But what we’ve been seeing and hearing about from Washington recently isn’t likely in Missouri.  Let’s look at why is isn’t.   

Some reports have noted new Governor Eric Greitens didn’t submit his budget proposal until February 2, the latest budget submission since annual legislative sessions began in 1971. But your faithful observer isn’t sure that is, or has been, much of an issue.

Remember the old adage: “The governor proposes; the legislature disposes.” 

The budget message from the governor in January is only one person’s recommendations. It is made based on state revenue projections through the first half of the fiscal year. What emerges in May from the 197 people in the legislature is the budget that counts based on ten months of state fiscal reports and updated projections for the last six or seven weeks of the fiscal year. It’s a budget based on substantially better numbers.  However the checks and balances allow governors to withhold funds or veto them (subject to legislative overrides) to make sure the state does not spend more in the state business year that starts July 1 than it has money to support.  That’s why governors normally wait until about mid-June before acting on budget bills—so they have even later numbers.

The House and the Senate have passed their versions of the budget.  They agree on quite a bit.  It is not unusual for a joint negotiating committee to start working out differences a week before the budget deadline. 

History tells us why failure to pass all of the budget bills by the deadline Friday night is not a catastrophic event.  Any such failure does not mean Missouri government will come to a halt on July 1.  

Twenty years ago the legislature didn’t pass appropriations bills for the Departments of Health and Mental Health.  They also didn’t provide funding for themselves or statewide office-holders, or for the judicial system.  Lawmakers hold off approving money for themselves and top state office-holders until the end, after the financing of services and programs of government is taking care of.   

Remember, the law sets a deadline for budget action during the regular legislative session—so lawmakers can work on policy matters during the last week.  But the law does not prohibit special legislative sessions to finish budget work.  Twenty years ago, Governor Carnahan called a special session to take care of the two bills that didn’t make it during the regular session.  The work was finished in six days.

Another complication that we’ve seen is when a governor vetoes an entire appropriation bill, or bills.  Bob Holden did that in 2003. He didn’t like spending cuts for social services and education.  When a special session sent him new spending plans for those agencies, Holden approved the social services, health and mental health and senior services bill but vetoed the education bill, triggering another special session that started June 24.

The legislature sent him the same bills for K-12 education and for higher education three days later.  Holden decided to sign the bills, saying the consequences of another veto would be worse than those if he signed the bills. But he announced the budget was millions of dollars out of balance and that he was going to withhold enough money to keep state spending in balance.  

Holden finally agreed to sign the bills, and did on June 30.

So if Friday gets here and there’s no state budget, it’s no big deal.  It just means a mini-economic boomlet for Jefferson City when lawmakers soon return for a few days of a special session to finish the job. 

So don’t sweat it, folks. 

The filibuster 

How did a word that once meant “piracy” become a valuable tool in the American political system, then a weapon, and now a word that some hold in such low regard that they think it should be eliminated from our political process?  Let us offer a subjective examination.

We turn to William Safire, a reporter then speech-writer for President Nixon (Pat Buchanan gets a lot of credit for the most serious flame-throwing remarks of that administration) and later a columnist for the New York Times whose column “On Language” was always a favorite read for this correspondent.  A year before his death in 2009, the last version of Safire’s Political Dictionary was published by Oxford University Press.  It’s a wonderful resource for any who follow politics and want to understand its lingo.

Back in the 1500s, governments such as Britain and France contracted with private ship owners known as “privateers” to, in effect, wage war on ships flying enemy flags—at the time, Spanish ships.  More often than not, says Safire, these privateers became just plain pirates.  “Privateer” is rooted in a Dutch word, “vrijbuiter,” which translates to “freebooter,” a word equated to “pirate.”   In French, the word became “flibustier.”  In Spanish, it was “filibustero,”  words that were translated into English as “filibuster.”

In the mid-1800s, American filibustering expeditions took place in Central America, private military expeditions that sought to seize control of countries.  One of those taking part in one of most famous, or infamous, such expeditions was James Carson Jamison who was part of William Walker’s filibustering effort and wrote With Walker in Nicaragua. He later served the Confederacy in the Civil War and was the state’s Adjutant General (1885-1889) under Governor John S. Marmaduke, a former Confederate General.

It appears the word was first applied politically was during debate in the U. S. House on January 3, 1853.  Democrats favored organizing an expedition to take Cuba away from Spain.  Whigs were opposed.  One Democrat, Abraham Venable of North Carolina, crossed over to the Whig side, arguing that the United States should not engage in piracy to acquire Cuba.  A Venable opponent, Congressman Albert Brown said, “When I saw my friend standing on the other side of the House, filibustering, as I thought, against the United States…I did not know what to think.”  The word quickly became identified with efforts to block passage of legislation.  It remains so today.

Your observer has observed that tactic being applied numerous times consuming hours of his life that added nothing to his knowledge or entertainment.  Some had memorable moments but most were as interesting as three-day-old dry toast.

Filibusters work best when they are respected as tools that protect the minority and give it valuable weight in shaping public policy. They are their worst in times of agenda-driven super-majorities that see no reason to recognize the validity of minority positions.

Filibusters have been useful in forcing compromise, sometimes broadening the public policy under consideration, sometimes protecting the rights and privileges of those who feel a piece of legislation lessens their standing within society or in the economy, sometimes avoiding mistakes that otherwise would be enacted with the original proposal, sometimes forcing order into a proposal that endangers services beneficial to a broader public while granting a perceived unfair advantage to a particular segment of the people.

The filibuster works best in a partisan body in which the numbers force a recognition that the goals of one side cannot be attained without the cooperation of the other.  While a simple majority might be reached by one side alone, the limits imposed by the clock and the calendar lessen that possibility if the minority side consumes hours and days, particularly as the hours and days of a session dwindle.  The utility of a filibuster increases as time grows short—as it is now in the legislature—because the scenario not only involves the issue at hand but other issues that might never be reached because the time to reach them is being consumed by those holding the floor.

There are ways to end filibusters—a cloture vote in Washington, a previous question motion in Jefferson City that seeks to immediately end debate and immediately go to a vote. In previous years, when the partisan breakdown of the legislature was more balanced than it has been in recent years, the PQ—as it is called—was almost never used because both sides knew that it could be used against them if the majorities switched. Additionally, there was an acknowledgement that today’s enemy has to be tomorrow’s friend if you hope to get your bill passed.  But as the majority-minority margins increase, the need for reciprocity dwindles and in time becomes irrelevant.

As that happens, the minority has a tendency to become more strident, more irritating to the majority—which is more tempted to shut down the minority with a parliamentary motion. Who cares about friendships in such situations?  It also should be noted that the majority is less likely to shut off debate if the filibuster involves members of the majority party.

The minority, however, is not completely disarmed in such situations. A couple of years ago, the minority in the senate reacted when the previous question was called on a bill in the last week of the legislative session and nothing passed the rest of the way.

Many observers in Washington have pronounced the filibuster dead after the confirmation of Judge Gorsuch.  Perhaps it is in a climate in which sixty votes, not just the majority, was required for action on some issues.  But back here in the states, it remains a tool—some say, a protection—in simple majority climates where there are no rules that otherwise limit debates but where unwritten rules about honoring the tradition and the reasons for filibusters usually prevail. Usually.

Has Washington killed the filibuster?  Or has it just turned organized participants there into privateers?