A profile of Mike Pence, Indiana’s new governor

[Indianapolis Monthly]

In the January issue of Indianapolis Monthly, I’ve got a 5,000-word profile of Mike Pence. On January 14, Pence will be sworn in as Indiana’s new governor, and I talked to more than 30 of his friends, acquaintances, and former aides in an attempt to understand the guy.

The strange thing is, I still don’t think I do. I mean, I understand his belief system — “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order,” as he frequently puts it. And I understand his political past, which includes two early (and ugly) congressional campaigns and a legislative record, once he did make it to D.C., that’s as rigid and far-right as they come. But what I don’t understand is how Pence could set so much of that history aside during his run for governor. When I started my reporting, I admired Pence for possessing a consistent and coherent world-view — especially when one compares him to other Bush-era conservatives like Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell. By the time I finished, however, it felt like he had become more . . . malleable. Or, as I put it in the story: “During his run for governor, Pence marshaled his considerable political talent in a brand-new way — not to champion his beliefs, but to obscure them.”

One of the juicy tidbits in my profile is that, more than a year before the election, Pence made a calculated decision to smooth over his previous positions and methods. There’s other good stuff, as well, including some stuff we couldn’t fit in. Since Pence is such an important Hoosier (and since there’s a good chance [a very good chance, in my opinion] that he’ll run for president), I’m going to spend the next few days writing a series of supplemental blog posts. So check back for more on the following topics — and please read the profile itself.

  1. Pence’s famous “Confessions of a Negative Campaigner” essay (with the full text)
  2. Pence’s personal faith (and how he’s become more secretive about it)
  3. Pence’s rigid conservatism (plus far more on farm aid than you’d ever want to know!)
  4. Pence and the press (with some thoughts about the reduced size of Indiana’s political media)

Stop cluttering our state constitutions!

[Slate]

At Slate today, I’ve got a story on Kentucky’s newest constitutional amendment, which enshrines, of all things, the right to hunt. I started digging into this topic because it’s a perfect example of how more and more people are overloading our constitutions with  unnecessary or deeply ideological amendments. To me, at least, that’s not what constitutions are for.

The story’s focus shifted a bit once it became clear how hands on the NRA had been (and once the NRA itself became a more urgent story). Still, I wanted to write here about the state-level pressures behind this new amendment. We know why the NRA wanted the right to hunt — but why did Kentucky legislators like Speaker of the House Greg Stumbo?

Stumbo wouldn’t return my emails or calls, but I heard several interesting theories from statehouse insiders. One was that Stumbo, a Democrat, hoped the amendment would boost his party’s rural legislators in this year’s election. Republicans made their biggest push in decades to take back the Kentucky House, which meant trying to (nonsensically) link their opponents to federal initiatives like Obamacare. But things got uglier still. Robert Damron, another Democrat state rep, told me that one group visited the churches in his district and left fliers on the cars claiming that he supported Obama and abortion. “People would call me and ask about the leaflets,” Damron told me, “and I would say, ‘I’m a Christian—I was in Church on Sunday morning. I wonder where they were?’ But welcome to Republican politics in the South.”

The Democrats ended up holding on to a 55-45 advantage in the House, though no one I talked to thought the right-to-hunt amendment had much to do with this. After all, most voters didn’t care because they didn’t see a threat in the first place. But there’s another (and, to me, more persuasive) theory about why Stumbo wanted the amendment. It centers on Kentucky’s Republican-controlled Senate — and on a little-known piece of legislation called the “21st Century Bill of Rights.”

In 2011, Kentucky’s Senate passed its own proposed constitutional amendment — a list guaranteeing ten new rights, including the right to mine coal, the right to post the Ten Commandments, and the right not to buy healthcare. Senate Republicans knew the bill would never pass the House, but they hoped it would appease the local Tea Party and maybe bolster Senate President David Williams as he ran for governor. One of those new rights turned out to be the right to hunt, and several people told me that Stumbo created his own right-to-hunt bill as a strictly defensive measure. By proposing the amendment, the thinking went, House Democrats could table the 21st Century Bill of Rights without any fear that their election-year opponents (or the NRA) would attack them for being anti-hunting.

That’s just politics, of course, but I’ll revive my original point: aren’t constitutions supposed to be one of the few arenas that remain free of such politics? These documents tend to have messy births, but as they mature they become more foundational, more philosophical. That’s how constitutions have worked for a long time, at least. But that may be changing — which would mean that right-to-hunt amendments are only the silliest example of what’s actually a serious and dispiriting trend.

No, seriously: Why do people run for president?

[Talk of the Nation]

I was on NPR’s Talk of the Nation yesterday, talking about my op ed on why presidents run. You can listen here, and you can read the original piece here.

The best caller was an older gentleman from outside Indianapolis, which felt strange since I was doing my end of the interview from Indy’s WFYI. I’m in Indiana right now working on a profile of Mike Pence. Expect more in the future on why people run for governor!

Josh McRoberts, by way of The Jefferson Bible

[Los Angeles Times]

In today’s Los Angeles Times, I’ve got an op ed on the Jefferson Bible — back in the news, thanks to a new edition from the Smithsonian, and more relevant than ever, thanks to the Republican presidential primary. I could say a lot more about the history of the Jefferson Bible, and somewhere down the line I will. For now, though, I’ll write about something else — another recent story in the Times, this near-crazy column about Lakers reserve Josh McRoberts.

The column comes from Bill Plaschke, a Fire Joe Morgan favorite who’s made a career out of getting things wrong. In fact, I single this instance out only because it reveals a lot about how the media continues to mythologize “Indiana basketball.”

Plaschke starts with a promising topic — how a prep and college star handles being a role player in the pros. There are some good details, too, like the fact that McRoberts moved to L.A. so quickly that he’s been taking an airport shuttle to games. Where the column goes off the rails, though, is when it addresses McRoberts’s Indiana roots. It doesn’t help that Plaschke relies on one of those lazy, column-by-number structures that FJM loved to hate. McRoberts is Josh McRambis, he’s Josh McFly, and, now, he’s “Josh McHoosier”:

He grew up swallowing wood chips that landed in his mouth from his splintered driveway backboard. His other childhood gym was a goal hammered to the side of his grandmother’s barn. He was the nation’s top-ranked player as a senior at an Indianapolis-area high school where, during the recent NBA lockout, he served as an assistant coach. And, oh yeah, he can’t stand to watch the movie Hoosiers anymore because, basically, he lived it. With his Indiana twang, he even sounds like it. “Where I came from, all I’ve been through, that’s made me who I am,” he says. “Hoosiers is about right.”

This is absolute nonsense. That “Indianapolis-area high school”? It’s Carmel High School in Carmel, Indiana, easily the richest city in the richest county in the state. The 4,600-student high school boasts a national reputation for college prep. The city just built a fancy concert hall known as The Palladium. Carmel isn’t famous for its hardscrabble Hoosier-ness. It’s famous for its roundabouts.

Now there’s nothing wrong with this. But McRoberts talking about the goal on his grandmother’s barn — and let’s note that his dad played basketball at Butler and his mom teaches at a Carmel school — makes as much sense as me talking about the rusted-out combine on my grandfather’s farm. Does it exist? Yes. Does it mean I deserve a Walker Evans portrait? Hardly.

It’s interesting that McRoberts can no longer watch Hoosiers. I heard the same thing from several high schoolers in Milan, Indiana, when I did a story on the town’s basketball legacy. In both cases, it seems like the natural, reasonable reaction of people who’ve seen the same lazy story line projected on them way too many times. If it’s basketball and it’s Indiana, then it must be Hoosiers — underdogs, outhouses, twangy accents. Honestly, I don’t even blame McRoberts for mentioning his grandmother’s barn. I’d bet you a pile of wood chips Plaschke was gunning for details of just that sort.

The Bengals, Hamilton County, and the world’s worst stadium lease

[Cincinnati Magazine]

Well, after a couple teasers — a miscellany of quotations from the county official who became a Bengals exec; an appreciation of Mike Brown as a “near-brilliant litigator” — my feature on the Bengals and their stadium lease is finally here. The story doesn’t break much news, other than a few hints about a potential solution to this 15-year mess. But I do think it synthesizes that mess into a coherent story.

It’s also a very depressing story. If you follow Cincinnati sports and want something a little more uplifting, check out the previous story I did for the magazine — on the Reds and their efforts to win back their fans.

*  *  *

One more thing: I should elaborate on one part of my stadium-fund story — the end, where I claim the Bengals’ mistreatment of Carson Palmer “tells you everything you need to know about Brown.” After the issue went to press, the Bengals traded Palmer in one of the most slam-dunk deals of all time. That might seem like a vindication of Brown’s pettiness. After all, the Bengals now have two extra draft picks to go with their promising rookie quarterback. But I think this misses the larger picture. Throughout this saga, Brown treated Palmer, maybe the best (and certainly the nicest) player he’s ever drafted, with zero class. After the trade, Palmer took time to call the Cincinnati media, saying all the right things and handling the whole thing like a professional — like an adult. What did the Bengals do? Well, in the team’s statement — and you could obviously forget any interaction with the media — Brown didn’t even bother to thank Palmer for his years with the team. Marvin Lewis stooped even lower, bashing Palmer to reporters.

So here’s a question: how do you think players around the league perceived this? The Bengals have long struggled to lure free agents to Cincinnati. This offseason, Jonathan Joseph, a free agent and one of their best defensive players, bailed on the team despite its best efforts to resign him. Right now, it seems the Bengals can’t give their money away. Here’s a second question, then: What happens in five or six yeas when those two new draft picks become free agents?

Christmas is only three months away!

For their December 1990 issue, the editors of The American Spectator did the same thing they’d done every year since 1976: they asked a few famous writers, academics, and political types to provide book recommendations for the holiday shopping season.

One recommender in that 1990 issue was former First Lady Nancy Reagan. She spoke highly of two books by Rosamund Pincher (The Shell Seekers and September), one book by Mark Twain (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) — and one book each by Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

Here, from the Spectator‘s archives, is Nancy’s rationale on those last two:

An American Life, by Ronald Reagan. The fascinating story of a young boy from Dixon, Illinois, who worked for a construction company as an 11-12 year old for 25 cents an hour; at fifteen he became a lifeguard to help work his way through college; in college he worked to pay his way, and afterwards finally landed a job as a sports announcer in Iowa. He then became a star in movies, the Governor of California for eight years, and finally President of the United States for eight years. Incredible story.

My Turn, by Nancy Reagan. An honest book answering all the charges that had been made against her for eight years and she didn’t feel she could answer at the time; a picture of what life was like at the White House and her relationship with her husband.

Presidents and Their Limited Editions

[Boston Globe]

I’m a little late in linking to this, but I wrote another story for the Boston Globe‘s Ideas section — this one on the crazy, opulent history of deluxe presidential memoirs, books that typically come with autographs, artificially limited print runs, and price tags as high as $1,500.

Along with my text, you’ll find some great photos from Jim Hier, a Portland man who works in finance — and who owns more than 400 different volumes autographed by presidents. Hier filled me in on the rise of presidential book collecting, and, while there wasn’t room for that in the story, I’ll sketch it here.

Nineteenth-century autograph hounds lusted after George Washington’s signature, so there is a history here. Still, for most of that history, collectors didn’t care about an autograph’s context. Hier remembers that, for a long time, books with presidential autographs actually came cheaper than letters or random squibs. “A lot of dealers looked at books as a bit of a nuisance,” he told me. “They were bulky, heavy, and hard to transport. One time, I got Eisenhower’s two-volume set at the end of a show for a big discount, just because the dealer just didn’t want to pack it home.”

Two things changed this. First, in 1982, Stephen Koschal published a book titled Collecting Books and Pamphlets Signed by the Presidents of the United States. It helped focus and drive the interests of collectors like Hier. The second change was the Internet, and websites like eBay and AbeBooks helped Koschal’s readers connect with each other. Rare and autographed presidential books still make up a small part of the book collecting universe, but Hier says interest (and prices) have grown substantially. In the 1970s and 1980s, Hier found new items all the time. “Now, I’m lucky if I can add one or two good books a year.”

That’s partly because Hier already owns so many amazing titles. (In addition to the mass produced books I talk about in my story, Hier owns unique books like a copy of Benjamin Henry Harrison’s This Country of Ours that the president signed for his wife.) But that’s also because, today, Hier has plenty of company.