Friday, January 14, 2011

Condoleezza Rice visits Utah and shares some interesting thoughts

Residents of Provo, Utah heard yesterday from Condoleezza Rice, former United States Secretary of State and National Security Advisor to President George W. Bush. Dr. Rice spoke at a special Brigham Young University forum that took place on campus. I thought I would share some interesting thoughts she had with members of the audience:

  • As Secretary of State from 2005 to 2009, Dr. Rice kept the portraits of four former Secretaries of State in her office: Thomas Jefferson, George Marshall, Dean Acheson and William Seward. She hailed the men, saying they were often underestimated and heavily criticized in their time, though history would show that their accomplishments to America and the world were invaluable. (For example, William Seward was deeply mocked in his time for organizing the purchase of Alaska from the Russian Empire. His critics called the purchase a waste of money — Alaska would eventually become the 49th state, and an economic and national security bastion for the U.S.)
  • We are so very fortunate that American men and women volunteer their time and, sometimes, their lives to protect us. Dr. Rice also noted that if we abandon the people of Afghanistan, we will pay for it.
  • Dr. Rice hailed democracy and noted that when democratic institutions are not in place, only violence exists to change the status quo. “Authoritarian regimes are always fearful of the moment when their people are no longer fearful of them,” she said. Democracy is the product of the creativity and innovation of human beings.
  • Dr. Rice said that the key to economic recovery in America is lower regulation and lower taxes for businesses.
  • China will never overtake America in economic and political power, despite what the pundits of today may theorize. China’s political system is much too rigid. Dr. Rice wondered aloud: Is a country like China, that is so terrified of the Internet and going to extreme lengths to censor and imprison obscure political dissidents in far-away provinces, really confident enough to lead today’s knowledge-based revolution?
  • America’s only real threat is America itself…an America that rejects exceptionalism, creativity, risk-taking, innovation and democracy.
  • Our greatest national security threat doesn't come from Al-Qaeda, but from the poor state of our K-12 educational system.
  • We need energetic and ambitious immigrants to continue coming to the United States.
  • Our intellect and our spiritual faith are not enemies of one another. To integrate the knowledge of “what is” with the belief in “what might be” is the essence of being human.
  • We must stay true to the defining principle that every other country admires about America: It doesn't matter where you come from, it only matters where you’re going. This idea (the American Dream) is what binds us together as a people. We the People are not held together by religion, blood or nationality, but by the ideals of freedom, prosperity and individual progression.
  • Americans are optimistic by nature, and we must stay that way. There are so many times this country should have never succeeded when it did. Dr. Rice said that America is an extraordinary testament to turning what seems impossible to what becomes inevitable (she cited examples like America's victory in its revolution against Britain, the peaceful end to the Cold War and the successful desegregation of the American South in the 20th Century).
  • And finally, Dr. Rice said that just because someone disagrees with you it doesn't mean he or she is morally flawed. In fact, if you’re only around people that agree with you all the time, you should find someone else to talk to. Then you can learn how to respectfully debate and formulate arguments…and you might just change your mind about something, which may not be a very bad thing at all.
What do you think about what former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in Provo? Do you agree? Disagree?

Monday, February 1, 2010

In Utah, Jobs are Scarce and Patience is Thin

Healthcare who?

The past month has given political pundits much to talk about. Republican Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts seems to have critically injured the Democrats' healthcare ambitions, galvanized President Obama's populous agenda and thrown 2010's congressional election into a whirlpool of speculation. The cable news pundits and editorial writers are tantalized by the relentless healthcare drama.
Utahns where I live couldn't care less.
This Ruthless Recession, like a slow, demonic vacuum, has sucked the talent, energy and hopes out of so many men and women in Utah and across America. Callous, constant and crushing, the Recession has created a new kind of cynical culture in Provo, a college town known for its youth and innovation.
Two examples:
I have a close friend who moved here from Arizona to take advantage of the exceptional educational opportunities Provo has to offer. He's an outstanding student at Brigham Young University, ranking in the top of his class, with a particular prowess for finance and accounting. He volunteers at his church. He's a newly-wed. He's everything this nation needs--bright, hard-working, driven, kind. And he couldn't find a good job if his life depended on it. Last I heard, he was struggling to make ends meet as a flower delivery boy. Every bank, accounting firm and grocery store in the Provo area turned him down for a job. Three years ago, such a talented student with so much potential could easily find a good internship or part-time gig that corresponded with his academic pursuits.
I have another friend living in Salt Lake City that completed law school and is currently searching for employment in her field. She's disillusioned by all the work, money and time she put into law school with nothing to show for it after a year of looking for a job. She doesn't know what to do. She's considering leaving Utah to find work elsewhere. There's no dignity for her here.
No, nobody I talk to anymore really cares about healthcare reform battles, Supreme Court decisions or climate change legislation. Eyes are glazed over to partisan politics and ears are numb to words like stimulus, job creation and recovery. The Recession has lasted too long, done too much damage. Defeatism is the new reality for so many young people, all members of an astute, modern-day Joad family. Their only message to Washington: It's the economy, stupid. Fix it. Now.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Tourism in Utah still suffers from economic downturn

The state of Utah is a stunning exhibition of vast mountain ranges, lush forests, deep canyons and the most spectacular rock formations found on our planet. Its five national parks, numerous resort towns and countless cultural attractions give it a unique place in American tourism. But is Utah’s renowned recreation and otherworldly beauty enough to keep tourism strong during the recession? Apparently not.

I was speaking about the economy with a nice man yesterday in the mountain town of Heber, just down the road from trendy Park City (and about 30 miles from Provo). He owns the Invited Inn, a bed and breakfast in the quiet Swiss village of Midway, Utah—a lovely alternative to Park City’s winter hustle and bustle, soon to swell for the ski season. But all is not well in his fairytale town. Tourism has been heavily hit by the economic downturn, and few people come to stay at his once-packed inn. He talked about how it’s now just him and his wife (both of whom are in their 60s or 70s from what I can guess) that manage the inn. They would love to hire some outside help to assist in the cooking and cleaning and landscaping, but they can’t afford any additional staff unless tourism picks up.

Other hotels and resorts in Midway are suffering too, he admits. Larger establishments are laying off everyone from cleaning staff to administration. So he’s grateful his little bed and breakfast has less upkeep and he and his wife are still able to get by for now. He thought the summer would bring more guests, but business was slow. He hopes the upcoming ski season will help his business.

And so the recession continues here. Like always, folks are optimistic things will eventually improve. And when tourists finally do return to Utah, our tremedous scenery will be waiting.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Boycotting the Great Recession, one by one

Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke said last month that the recession in the United States is likely over. He may be right on technical grounds, but it is painfully evident here in Provo that the local economy will not return to its pre-2008 glory for quite some time.

High-rise developments in downtown Provo are postponed. Plans for a new shopping center, once hailed as a vital addition to the local economy, are stagnant. And north of Provo in the small town of Lehi, proposals for a hotel complex designed by Frank Gehry (which would have included the tallest building in the state) have all but disappeared.

People around here are still optimistic about the future. There is no panic in the streets. But nobody really knows when recovery will come.

I personally know of at least five individuals that decided to boycott the recession and start their own business. It’s also what I did. After graduating from Brigham Young University at the end of 2007, bright-eyed and delighted with my fancy PR degree, the world quickly told me it wasn’t hiring. I searched for a job over the space of a year, traveling from Washington to Los Angeles and interviewing with dozens in between. There was nothing.

I finally decided to start my own business with a colleague of mine. Using skills and experience I already possessed, and turning my back on an ugly economic reality, I founded my own social media agency earlier this year.

Moral of the story: Folks here are tired of the recession. They want economic change, even if they have to fuel it themselves. They hear Mr. Bernanke say the recession is over, but their pockets and purses tell a different story.

For now, at least.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Can't We All Just Get Along?

President Obama’s speech to school children on September 8 and his remarks to a joint session of Congress on September 9 regarding health care reform have inspired scores of strange and unenlightened remarks from the House floor, on blogs, on community comment boards, and for me . . . in the dentist’s waiting room. These remarks all have something in common: they are a reflection of U.S. politics as usual. Here’s what I mean:

A few days ago I drove my daughter’s friend, Emily, to the dentist to have her wisdom teeth pulled; I had brought a friend’s crime-fiction manuscript along with me to edit while I waited for Emily, knowing she might be awhile. When I sat down near a coffee table full of magazines, I noticed a recent Newsweek on the top of the stack with a baby’s photo on the cover and the headline, “Is Your Baby Racist?” spread across the top. I rolled my eyes at the dramatics of magazine journalism, and went to work on my friend’s manuscript with my green pen.

I’d read through maybe eight pages when a man in his fifties wearing a blue cap and dusty work clothes sat across the table from me. Even before he sat down he started cataloging the selection of magazines before him, directing his comments to me, so I looked up just long enough to acknowledge him before turning back to my work.

But he was not so easily appeased and continued our conversation without me, saying in a loudish voice, “You gotta love Newsweek.” Then, “Is My Baby Racist?” Slurpy laugh. “Well, some people would say my baby probably is because I listen to Rush Limbaugh every afternoon.” Another slurpy laugh.

I glanced up again, to be polite, and he sort of smile-chuckled at me—which is when I noticed he had an upper tooth missing. Probably why he came to Emily’s dentist, I thought.

Again, I turned back to my friend’s manuscript, trying not to engage this man about whom I’d already made some instant judgments like uneducated, narrow-minded, ultra-conservative. And who, it seemed, was relentless in his pursuit of an audience. Preferably one that agreed with him.

I kept working, ignoring his chatter.

So he threw out his piece de resistance: “Oh, here we go,” he said and picked up another magazine with a photo of Ted Kennedy as a young man on the front. He held it up to me. “What I want to know is how well he could swim with all the windows rolled up and the doors locked.” I didn’t get his meaning exactly, but I understood the implication all too well.

I stared at him for a second. “You mean Chappaquiddick?” I said.

“Yeah, Chappaquiddick. He couldn’t swim any better than his brother . . . but I guess his brother saved all those men in his boat.”

I raised an eyebrow and continued to stare without saying a word, not knowing if he wanted me to agree or if he was trying to start something. He didn’t say anything either, and I wondered if he’d assumed something about me, too.

The nurse called his name before I had the chance to confess my thoughts, so he walked out as happy as he’d walked in. Slurpy laugh, still chattering away until he disappeared behind a door.

His ad hominem comments pushed my mind back to my girlhood in Kansas, when the iconic stories of the Kennedy family always had a seamy bent, when political discussions degenerated too quickly into choosing up sides, with everyone jumping into their traditional camps like the Hatfields and the McCoys.

Even on the ride home I couldn't purge my mind of this chatty, opinionated man with the chip on his shoulder. I had also chosen sides, though, whichever one he wasn’t on; I recoiled at what I considered to be his ignorant opinions, and refused to see him as a person worth listening to. I think he left the dentist’s office believing I agreed with him because, after all, we’re both from the same red state, aren’t we?

My maternal grandparents didn’t agree on politics; Grandma is a democrat and Grandpa was a republican. They’d been married for nearly 70 years before my grandfather died, and I never heard them argue about anything as silly as platforms. They’d say their piece, and be done with it. Back to work.

My Utah friends and I have differing opinions about President Obama’s health care plan: those who are chronically ill are hopeful and positive and eager for change in the current system, regardless of which party brings it about. Those who are more conservative but don’t currently have health insurance are softening toward President Obama’s ideas, waiting with a jot of skepticism to see what happens. They’re worried about what the public option will lead to if it ends up in the bill, and they make occasional references to Socialism and FDR.

I’m generally supportive of the reform versions I’ve seen and am willing to give President Obama a chance, as are many others in my circle. Still, there are those who can only see the Hatfields and the McCoys and so line up with their traditional party. End of discussion.

But the strangers who call into Talk of the Nation on NPR and my students and friends (conservative and liberal) and that random woman interviewed on the six o’clock news and me and my family agree on one thing: we are sick of the fighting between political parties. We’re sick of the name-calling and the nose-pulling and the eye-gouging and the decades of stalemate.

And we'd all like to get out of the waiting room.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Obama's Problems Run Deeper Than a Simple Speech to Students

Not only is the honeymoon over—the in-laws are livid.

President Obama has a lot on his plate this week and he gets little sympathy from the people of Utah. His speech on Tuesday to the nation’s school children is ruffling more feathers than he anticipated, and nobody seems to be looking forward to what the U.S. Department of Education calls an "historic" event. Parents are angry. School administrators are nervous. Students are indifferent.

To its credit, the Obama administration released the text of the President’s speech. And from what I can see, it contains nothing overtly political or controversial. I actually liked it.

But to understand why so many Utahns mistrust Mr. Obama, one must recall the ‘Farmington Fiasco’. About ten days ago, the principal of an elementary school in Farmington, Utah was lambasted by incensed parents and teachers after showing the controversial (and creepy) “I Pledge” video to the students in her school. In the video, celebrities are shown pledging their service to President Obama along with a few controversial political causes. Perhaps movie stars don’t understand that the President serves the people? It’s not the other way around.

The video, created back in January, wasn’t sponsored by the Obama administration. And for some, it’s quite an inspiring message. But for many parents in Utah it was a palpable case of political propaganda. Orwellian, even.

The speech the President will give to schoolchildren on Tuesday has nothing to do with that video, but the Farmington Fiasco, combined with the now-retracted curriculum sent to teachers from the DOE encouraging students to write letters about “what they could do to help the President”, has left a sour taste in the mouths of Utah’s parents and teachers. They loathe the President’s alleged Big Government ‘socialist’ agenda. They don’t like that he hires people like Van Jones, a professed Marxist, to work in his administration. They can’t understand the moral justification for income redistribution or trillion-dollar government entitlements during a recession. They hate that he downplays or mocks conservative healthcare protesters. And they don’t trust him to speak to their children.

Is it all unwarranted hysteria? Probably. But Mr. Obama has brought this mess on himself.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Debate: Mormonism and Healthcare Reform

I was on Facebook the other day and I saw something extremely unusual. A colleague of mine posted a note urging his friends to support the President’s pitch for healthcare reform. [Insert shock and whispers here.]

Why is that so unusual? Because 70% of my 520 Facebook friends live in Utah and 99% of those individuals are devout Mormons, including my note-posting friend. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are notoriously conservative, and the vast majority are opposed to President Obama’s healthcare reform policies. Traditional principles of self-sufficiency and individualism, fiscal prudence and suspicion of Big Government combine to deter most Mormons in Utah from supporting a large, federal takeover of the healthcare system.

But enter Steven Thatcher. Steven’s pro-Obama Facebook note got me thinking about those few Mormons in the area that are vocally supportive of the Democrats’ healthcare agenda (he’s the only one I know of—and I know a lot of people). Who are these political outsiders? Are they frustrated by Utah’s shameless conservatism? Does their Mormonism have anything to do with their liberal-leaning ideologies?

Well, Steven had answers to all those questions. He runs a blog at where he often posts about his dedicated passion toward healthcare reform, frequently using his Mormon upbringing as the basis for many of his political views.

“Mormon theology is very interested in city and community-building—that we can’t get where we’re going without each other,” says Steven. “This principle underlies my belief that societies are richer and, in the long run, better off by healing the medically uninsured.”

Steven believes that a good Mormon is one that helps others in need, and that the 45 million or so Americans without health insurance are unquestionably in dire need. He insists it is society’s responsibility to care for those that cannot care for themselves, and that his Mormonism only augments his petition for universal healthcare. Steven’s background as a Special Ed teacher and his wife’s job as a nurse also contribute to his outlook, he says.

Steven doesn’t expect Obama’s original healthcare plan to pass easily in Congress, and neither to I. Town hall meetings and angry constituents are just the tip of this sizzling iceberg, especially here in Provo. Folks here are troubled with the idea that the government may play a larger, more expensive role in America’s healthcare system.

So do all those conservatives in Mormon Country chase Steven around with pitchforks and hymnals? Nah.

“I’m pleasantly surprised by how many of my LDS peers are friendly, if not supportive, of President Obama. Many seem unsure of their commitment, since Utah is the reddest state in the nation, and very likely the majority of them have conservative parents who do not support the President’s agenda. And though I’m sure I am still in the significant minority in Utah with a liberal leaning, I feel comfortable and open in expressing my views.”