Digging for History

I often joke about how my memory, with three children age five and under, fails me as often as my knees and ankles these days. It is why I marvel at people like my father who can recite passages from Shakespeare from memory even though he and my mother raised four children in under five years.

The old image of King Richard III

The old image of King Richard III

I have acquired my dad’s love of quotations and a few through the years remain with me today. Maybe it was because of an English teacher in high school and one in college who stressed all things Shakespeare or maybe it was because of what I heard from numerous protesters around Wisconsin two years ago or maybe it’s because I’m a Chicago Cubs fan, but a single quote from the play, Richard III,  has stayed with me: “Now is the winter of our discontent.”

Besides that quote, the only thing I remembered from that play was that the former English monarch was malformed, disfigured, hunchbacked, a not-so-pleasant fellow at all. As wonderful a bard as Shakespeare was, he apparently played loose with some facts as he described the last English king of the Middle Ages.

The stories from the University of Leicester this week about the successful digging up a parking lot and identifying through DNA testing that a skeleton found there was Richard III read like a modern-day combination of Indiana Jones and CSI. There are ten terrific videos in all from the university chronicling its efforts. The science shows he was not disfigured at all. His arms were the same length.

New image of King Richard III

New image of King Richard III

Here’s a PBS video link to its story on the discovery by the way.

It’s a fascinating combination of modern science and ancient history and reminds me of a great metaphor I once heard from the preeminent historian in the state of Colorado, Dr.  Tom Noel, or Dr. Colorado as he’s affectionately known.

Sitting in Dr. C’s basement in high red leather chairs discussing a project I was working on, he said point-blank to me, “What are you going to do with everything you know?” I hemmed and hawed, stating that I still had numerous questions to answer. He interrupted and said, “The best thing a historian can discover is ground fertile enough that future historians wish to dig there in the future.”

Take Abraham Lincoln for example. Dozens of new books seemingly are released on his life, his presidency every single year, many with new interpretations of old facts or even with new facts altogether. Authors continue to find fertile soil time and again.

In the case of Richard III, fertile soil literally preserved a story and re-wrote a legacy. It’s a nice lesson for all of us, that our knowledge can evolve, sometimes even centuries later.

In all likelihood, this latest tale won’t be the last one about the former king. In fact, I was sent this little meme on Facebook just yesterday by a good friend. Maybe that’s the next story we’ll hear about 🙂

Laws like Sausages?

sausagesI have a mea culpa to issue this morning.

For years, I have publicly made the comparison that the creation of television journalism was much like that of making laws and sausage: an often un-pretty process that can be uncomfortable to witness with an end result that is hopefully palatable for all involved.

The aphorism dates back, not to the 1930’s and former German leader Otto von Bismarck, but instead to 1869 and American lawyer-poet, John Godfrey Saxe who was quoted in a Cleveland newspaper saying, “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.” The more common quote, almost always attributed these days to the Iron Chancellor, is “Laws are like sausages. It’s better not to see them being made.”

I was planning on making the assertion again in describing the measure introduced in the current legislative session to streamline Wisconsin’s mining rules, but then I ran across this 2010 article from The New York Times in which, and I’m not making this up, a former CIA agent turned sausage maker, describes the process of preparation in a far more streamlined fashion than anything I’ve ever seen in newsrooms or legislatures. What he describes clearly articulates how my analogy for years has been flawed.

“I’m so insulted when people say that lawmaking is like sausage making,” said Stanley A. Feder, president of Simply Sausage, whose plant here turns out 60,000 pounds of links a year to The Times. “With legislation, you can have hundreds of cooks — members of Congress, lobbyists, federal agency officials, state officials… In sausage making, you generally have one person, the Wurstmeister, who runs the business and makes the decisions.”

Then again, as I consider a Republican majority in both the State Senate and State Assembly following the leadership of Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wisconsin),  maybe the analogy is more apt today than ever before. If the governor were to serve in this process as the “Wurstmeister” and the majority group of lawmakers as the assembly line creating the legislation, there won’t be hundreds  of cooks participating in this creation unless they want them there.

If you listen to critics of the proposed mining legislation, their main contention, besides that Wisconsin’s environment will suffer if it passes, is that they are not and have not been consulted in this process. So, for now, and in this particular instance, we’ll just have to wait and see if the correlation of sausage-making and legislating is fair.

All that said, if you’ve ever taken four hours of videotape and smushed it into a two-three minute story on television, you’ll know my original comparison to one of Wisconsin’s favorite foods remains spot-on.

Historical Advice for Lawmakers

The Wisconsin Legislature opened up its 2013-14 session this week with speeches of grandeur and promises of public service from its leaders. The first week lawmakers meet, there is never a shortage of advice shared with new members about how to do their jobs with a focus on things like keeping their word, maintaining their integrity.

Former Arizona Governor and Senator Paul Fannin (R)

Former Arizona Governor and Senator Paul Fannin (R)

In the process of researching a project on a former Arizona governor named Paul Fannin, I came across the Republican’s words of wisdom to his legislature more than 50 years ago when he was the state’s chief executive. It seemed germane today.

In reality, his thoughts were posed as questions lawmakers should ask themselves when considering a piece of legislation. I’d love to hear your thoughts about the list. Please submit them below.

Former Gov. Paul Fannin’s (R-Arizona) questions for state lawmakers to ask as they began their annual session and found proposed legislation crossing their desks.

1)      Is it necessary?  Or is it something that is not really needed, or perhaps being provided for already.

2)      Can we afford it? Remember, there is no limit to what we would like, but there is a limit to what we can afford.

3)      What will it cost ultimately? Many proposals are like icebergs—only a small fraction of the total cost is apparent on the surface.

4)      How will it affect basic liberties? If it imposes unreasonable or illegal restrains on your life or that of others, it should be vigorously opposed. Realize—a free society isn’t perfect. Yet, it is by far the best there is or ever has been.

5)      Is it in the best balanced interest of all? If it is designed to benefit a small group or special interest while taking unfair advantages of others, work for its defeat.

6)      Is it a ‘foot-in-the-door’ proposition? Compromising a little now may bring an oppressive burden later in more regulations or more taxes or a combination of both.

7)      Does it place too much power in the hands of one individual or group? Once decisive power is granted to a non-elected public official, a commission, board or council, the private citizens lost effective control.

8)      Does it recognize the importance of the individual and the minority? This is a cornerstone of our republic.

9)      Is its appeal based on emotional propaganda or facts? The farther a proposition gets away from the facts, the more critical one should be.

10)   Does it square with your moral convictions? If so, work for it; if not, oppose it.