This is what Cinderella looks like in September

[SB Nation]

jammers

In Boston a few weeks back, I met a librarian who, like me, hails from Indiana. Actually, she hailed from Terre Haute, and like everyone else who’s lived there she had a Larry Bird story. Her dad used to work at Indiana State University, in the bookstore, and one day in the mid ’70s a young, peach-fuzzed Bird ducked through the door and bought his first batch of school books. That’s it — that’s the whole story. “But my dad still tells it all the time,” the librarian said.

Today I’ve got a nearly 5,000-word feature up at SB Nation. It previews the upcoming season for Indiana State’s basketball team. (In short, they’re going to surprise some people and maybe even make some noise in March.) But it also examines the larger dynamic of what it means to root for — or coach for, or play for — a school whose defining moment happened decades ago and who must now build for success in four-year cycles.

One point I make in my feature is that we need to stop thinking of the Gonzagas and Xaviers of the world as “Cinderellas.” After all, those programs  spend more money on basketball than many high-major schools. Certainly, they spend more money than Indiana State. The hoops-first schools do so by dropping or deemphasizing football, and one thing I couldn’t fit into my story is that Indiana State hasn’t done this. In fact, the Sycamores AD has doubled down on the school’s Division II program. The university’s latest ten-year plan sets the goal of constructing a new stadium downtown — a place that will ultimately be the campus symbol and post-card view. “Football’s kind of the crown jewel of the athletic part of that ten-year plan,” one school official told me. But to me, that seems misguided. Indiana offers so much tradition and in-state talent for basketball, and I wonder whether the Sycamores would be better off pouring those resources into creating a top-notch mid-major basketball program.

For now, though, they’ll have to settle for being a top-notch team this year. Read about it in my feature. A lot of their success flows from Jake Odum, a local kid who made his name starring for an obscure AAU team known as the Terre Haute Jammers. That picture up top is of the Jammers a few years back. Odum is on the front row, kneeling right next to the trophy.

The real facts on Indiana’s health insurance rates

[Indianapolis Star]

In today’s Indianapolis Star, I’ve got a short op ed on the claim that health insurance will go up by 72 percent under Obamacare. I’ve got a personal stake in this story since I’m moving back to my homestate later this year. But after doing some digging I found that this 72 percent number is totally misleading — and disappointingly political. It comes from Indiana’s Department of Insurance, an outfit that, in the words of one of my statehouse sources, “has traditionally preferred to do its work out of the public and political spotlight, regardless of which party controlled the reins of government.”

But that’s changing as Governor Pence’s administration makes one final push against Obamacare. Check out the op ed for more.

Also, if you want more context, the New Republic, the Washington Post, and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities have you covered. My previous reporting on Pence may be of interest, as well.

A review of Edward McClelland’s Nothin’ But Blue Skies

[NUVO]

In this week’s issue of NUVO, Indianapolis’s alt weekly, I’ve got a review of Ted McClelland’s new book on the rise and fall of manufacturing in the Midwest. It’s an important book, even though it’s not a perfect one.

If you want more on this topic, check out my review last year of Mark Binelli’s Detroit City is the Place to Be. It’s still the best of the Detroit books. But one of the key things about McClelland’s book is that it expands its scope beyond that one city.

Is Bob Castellini the best owner in baseball?

[New York Times]

In yesterday’s New York Times, I made the case that, yes, the Reds’ boss  is the best in the baseball — and certainly the best in the Reds’ recent history. There’s some fun stuff in there about Marge Schott and Carl Lindner, but the main point is what a difference Castellini has made.

If you’re interested in more on Cincinnati sports, check out my features on the Reds’ efforts to draw more fans and on their enigmatic All-Star, Aroldis Chapman. Or check out my feature on the Bengals’ stadium fiasco — a good reminder that, even during the Schott era, the worst owner in Ohio was Mike Brown.

Frank Bill and the new Midwestern lit

[The American Prospect]

photo

In the latest issue of The American Prospect, I’ve got a long review of Frank Bill’s novel Donnybrook. I also consider a small but growing number of Midwestern fiction writers, including Donald Ray Pollock and Bonnie Jo Campbell, and write a bit about growing up there myself. (That’s my family’s house, in the picture above.)

One of the harder things to do in this review was to articulate what exactly these writers are up to — hard because, for whatever reason, they’re not too keen on articulating it themselves. What I ultimately settled on is that they’re trying to develop a new literary realism — and, more than that, to revive a literary naturalism.

Here’s Pollock in an interview

I can go out here and pick up the local newspaper, and bring it in here, and I can show you things that are just as bad or worse, probably worse, than anything that’s in my book. So what’s the big deal? I mean, I am maybe exploring something that a lot of people don’t want to think about, but people do live like this.

And here’s Bill:

For me to write all that stuff, I didn’t really have a general idea, or theme when I wrote. I just wrote what interested me about society and class as a whole. People who are still here, but you don’t see them or hear about them anymore. You read about them in small town newspapers, people who are jobless, and they disappear all over the place. You don’t read about people living in cars or camping spots in books.

The realism seems obvious enough — they’re making an effort to undercut our cultural assumptions about the Midwest. Where it crosses into naturalism, I think, is when it declines to grant its characters any inner psychology. Check out my review for more on this. And if you want to know more about Bill, read this great cover story in Indianapolis’s alt-weekly. Bill talks a lot about how, when he started writing fiction, he wrote pages and pages about the environments and nothing else. It doesn’t get more naturalistic than that!

Mike Pence’s religion

Time for my second supplemental post on Mike Pence. You can read the original Indianapolis Monthly profile here, and near the end of it I describe asking Pence for some specifics about his personal faith. It’s a fair and vital question for two reasons: because Pence comes with a fascinating (and slightly messy) religious past; and because that past continues to shape every choice he makes. Yet all Pence would say to me is “I’m a pretty ordinary Christian.” He even ducked my question about where he goes to church, and I think it’s worth comparing that vagueness to some of his older answers about his faith. Indeed, as Pence has become more prominent, he’s also become more committed to saying absolutely nothing of interest — even on a topic about which he’d presumably want to share.

It wasn’t always this way. In 1994, the Indianapolis Business Journal published a terrific profile of the 35-year-old Pence. There, he described his faith quite openly: “I made a commitment to Christ. I’m a born-again, evangelical Catholic.” You don’t see that combo every day, even in Indiana, but the Journal had caught Pence at a time when he was oscillating between his upbringing and his evangelical faith. Pence’s parents raised their children Catholic, and Pence served as an altar boy and went to a parochial school. In college, however, he fell in with a nondenominational student fellowship group — he wouldn’t tell me which one — and made his “commitment to Christ.” That didn’t end his commitment to Catholicism, and when Pence graduated in 1981 he worked as a full-time Catholic youth minister and even applied to D.C.’s Catholic University. The plan was to become a priest, he told the Journal, and while it didn’t work out Pence was still attending mass in the late ’80s, when met his wife at Indy’s St. Thomas Aquinas.

At some point in the mid ’90s, Pence and his young family switched to an evangelical mega church. (In 1995, he told the Indianapolis Star that they attended the city’s Grace Evangelical Church.) Whatever the route, though, the destination is pretty clear: Pence’s evangelical faith has informed every aspect of his political career. Here are a few of many, many examples, drawn from his early years in Congress:

  • During the 2000 election, the Star described Pence’s debate with Democrat Bob Rock: “Pence, who said he attends an evangelical Christian church, asked Rock, a Catholic, if he would support Richard Gephardt as speaker of the House if the Democrats gain control, even though Gephardt supports abortion rights. ‘I would never support him on the issue of abortion,’ said Rock. ‘I am as pro-life as you are and that is not an issue in this campaign.'”
  • In 2001, the newly-elected Pence talked to The Hill about his marriage: “He never dines alone with a woman who is not his wife. And when his wife is absent, he never attends events where alcohol flows. ‘If there’s alcohol being served and people are being loose, I want to have the best-looking brunette in the room standing next to me,’ Pence said. As it happens, Pence frequently turns down invitations for drinks or dinner from male colleagues. ‘It’s about building a zone around your marriage,’ he observed.”
  • In 2002, Pence talked to Congressional Quarterly about Israel: “‘My support for Israel stems largely from my personal faith,’ Pence said in an interview March 18. ‘In the Bible, God promises Abraham, “Those who bless you I will bless, and those who curse you I will curse.” So, in some way, I don’t fully understand [U.S. policy]. I believe our own national security is tied to our willingness to stand with the people of Israel.'”
  • In 2003, Pence talked to Human Events about whether or not he could block Medicare Part D: “I don’t know, but God has surprised me a few times since I got here, and I hope He’ll surprise me again.”

Today, there’s no question that Pence’s religion continues to shape Pence’s politics. Andrew Phipps, a Hoosier politico who also hosts gospel TV and radio shows, put it to me this way: “I don’t think Mike will ever forsake his core values — the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, and our great heritage of faith, family, and freedom.”

What has changed is Pence’s willingness to discuss just what makes up that religion. This has always struck me as somewhat shady — in a case like Pence’s, it’s essentially a politician who refuses to disclose his politics. Then again, the pattern now applies to almost every subject with Pence. He used to be a frank and fascinating interview. In 1994, he described his pre-Reagan politics like this: “[Carter] was a good Christian. Beyond that, there was a sense of, ‘Why would you elect a movie star?'” In 1995, he openly criticized Rush Limbaugh: “Conservative media, including Rush, have a tremendous blind spot when it comes to making a distinction between differences in public policy and personal differences.”

Someone might be able to get Pence to say things this detailed and interesting today, but I sure couldn’t. Instead, I got a guy — a guy who will likely run for president in 2016 or 2020 —  who did this:

Then something strange happened. Mike Pence, the guy who, the night before, had seemed to shake every single hand in Lucas Oil Stadium, the guy whose aides budget extra time in his schedule because he’s such a talker (“He’s Irish,” one of them explained)—Mike Pence, exactly 20 minutes into a 45-minute interview, said, “We gotta roll in about five, don’t we?”

Mike Pence’s “Confessions of a Negative Campaigner”

On Friday, I linked to my long Indianpolis Monthly profile of Mike Pence. Today, I’ll post the first of four supplemental blog posts on Indiana’s new governor.

While Pence served in Congress from 2000 to 2012, he took his first two shots at national office in 1988 and 1990. In my profile, I note how nasty those campaigns became, and we could spend hours piling up examples. “Mike Pence’s gutter brand of politics has sunk to a new low,” read one editorial in the Shelbyville News, “and for the Pence campaign, that’s saying something.”

In the aftermath of those races, Pence’s reputation bottomed out. But in the summer of 1991 he published a short essay called “Confessions of a Negative Campaigner.” The essay, which has not been available online (and which I’m posting in full, after the jump), offered a savvy first step in the rehabilitation of his political career. After all, most journalists today cite it, then glide right past the campaigns’ actual events. (Check out the “Confessions” Google trail here.)

That doesn’t mean those journalists have read the essay. “I haven’t read it,” one source told me, right before he expounded on its text, “but I’ve heard the general gist.” Given the way “Confessions of a Negative Campaigner” is frequently described, I’d guess this is true of most Hoosier journalists and political insiders. Because what you’ll notice, if you do read it, is that it’s not much of a confession. Pence sounds like he’s still smarting a bit from ’88 and ’90. He shows remorse, but not about his slimy tactics — instead, it’s about the missed opportunity to argue for his political beliefs.

Now there’s certainly something laudable about this second point, and from ’91 up to his recent run for governor Pence rarely wasted any similar opportunities. During that time, however, he also began describing his early regrets in a striking new way. “My faith says if someone strikes you on the cheek, turn the other,” he told the New York Times in 2006. “My response, after being attacked by my opponent, was to empty the silos on this guy.” I talked to multiple people close to Pence who dispute his chronology — that the opponent started it — but the key point here is that Pence started framing his political conversion in terms of forgiveness and sadness. That’s not what you’ll find in the 1991 essay, which you can see by clicking on “continue reading.” But it is a perfect example of how Pence will simplify and even rewrite his life narrative — something we’ll get into in my next supplemental post.

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