The Greatest Generation just lost another great character

My husband’s dad died this morning. It wasn’t completely unexpected—he fell and fractured his pelvis a couple of weeks ago, starting that downhill slide that so many old folks face when they get frail and wobbly. So in some ways, to have him relieved of his suffering in fairly short order is a small comfort, as other family members have lingered on in pain for months.

Russell L. Bufkins was born in Boonville, Indiana January 3, 1920. It’s the same town my dad was born in 5 years earlier—in fact the families knew each other and it was on our first date that Bill and I discovered our common roots in a small coal-mining town on the Ohio River. My dad and Russ’s older brother had many escapades in their youth, and my dad even had pictures to prove it.

Pop, as we knew him, was the only one of the 6 kids to go to college—he earned a master’s degree in Journalism at Indiana University, and worked as a radio newsman before being called up for WWII. The family name was actually Bufkin, but when the Navy misspells your name, that’s what it becomes for life.

Assigned to a minesweeper in San Francisco Bay, Pop learned he suffered from debilitating seasickness, and begged for shore duty of any kind. That’s what launched his storied career as a Navy Public Affairs officer.

He spent a good part of the war at Ulithi Atoll, the south Pacific staging ground for the invasion of Japan. There he met legendary journalist Ernie Pyle, played tennis with Bobby Riggs as part of a USO tour, was given a photo of the Marines raising the flag on Mount Suribachi signed by the photographer Joe Rosenthal, and saved a late night dinner party with a British Admiral by singing Gilbert and Sullivan songs with the Admiral during a storm. Yes, he was quite a character.

In the 1950’s he was the chief PAO at NATO command in Naples, Italy, where he reluctantly staged a fake press conference because a visiting Admiral insisted on it. Knowing there was no news, he filled the room with coached ringers, and more or less bribed an AP correspondent friend to show up. Turns out the Admiral had a major announcement, the AP guy got a huge scoop on the Rome-based press, and Pop was a friend for life.

He did a couple of stints at the Pentagon, one working for Admiral John S. McCain Jr., whom he also coached in tennis. From the stories, the good Admiral wasn’t too easy to coach, especially by a lower-ranking officer. Pop also ran the Navy Book and Magazine office, and knew, or drank with, all the great journalists, screenwriters and authors of that day. His list of media contacts reads like a Who’s Who of the National Press Club in the 1950’s and ‘60’s.

After retiring from the Navy, Pop became national PR Director for the Boy Scouts of America, and helped shepherd their relocation to Irving, Tx in 1979. If you think the Navy is full of PR war stories, you should hear about the Boy Scouts.

Among his accomplishments with the Scouts was creation of the famous ad campaign with distinguished former Boy Scouts—people like President Jerry Ford, baseball great Hank Aaron, and Hollywood legend Jimmy Stewart. Family legend has it that the Boy Scout shirt provided for Pres. Ford didn’t fit, so Pop gave him his, which he then wore home. So I guess you can say Pop gave the shirt off his back to the President!

His years with the Navy and the Boy Scouts took him all over the world, with some interesting adventure stories and many treasures brought home to keep the memories strong.

In the early ‘80s he retired and spent his time researching the family genealogy, including visiting the Bufkin family ancestral estate in County Kent, England. Pretty much everyone named “Bufkin” in the U.S. is decended from that clan. Unfortunately, he never compiled all his research, so that’s something for Bill and me to do in the future.

He ran the Denton Tennis Association for years, was an avid bridge player, and volunteered as coordinator of the book sale at the Denton Library—this resulting in many, many books finding their way home. He enjoyed the concerts, recitals and operas put on by the music school at UNT, and never passed a garage sale without stopping and bringing home some “treasure.”

He was a character, like so many of his generation. Good solid people who won the big war and worked to keep the free world free. He was a great storyteller, and lived a life worth telling.

He joins in heaven his firstborn, Dorothy, who died of leukemia at age 6, and his wife Dorothy Clewlow Bufkins. Russ is survived by his sons Bill and Jim, both of Denton, his younger sister Ruth, many friends and the dog and cats who loved him and made his last months happier and warmer.

We are ALL Special Interests

I haven’t posted anything in quite a while, but I’ve had plenty of time to read and listen to the news and am beginning to grow weary of the constant harping about lobbyists and special interests. Maybe it’s because the Texas Legislature is finally finished—until a special session is called—and the lobbyists are now lining up with the campaign contributions from PACs and individuals (corporate contributions are illegal in Texas).

Let’s face it, whichever side of the debate you’re on, the other side is always catering to “special interests,” or so it would seem from the rhetoric. Comments after articles on Web sites, blogs, and in social media forums often include epithets like “I don’t have a lobbyist, why should _______ benefit from a lobbyist?” Even better, “Who’s looking out for the little guy who can’t pay for a lobbyist?”

I’ve got news for those folks—unless they live in a cave, don’t have a job or bank account, never buy insurance or food or gasoline or clothes and don’t belong to any organizations, they’ve got a lobbyist that they are paying for. That lobbyist may or may not be working directly for you (think “insurance companies”) but you’re paying for them just the same.

I was having this discussion with someone over lunch some time ago, and he adamantly insisted that he does not have any lobbyists working for him, that lobbyists only work for special interests and all special interest groups are opposed to everything he is and stands for. The check came, and when he opened his wallet to get his credit card out, I got a glimpse of his National Rifle Association (NRA) membership card, and nearly laughed out loud.

I could quit here, but I won’t. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the NRA has a lobbying budget in excess of $35 million. This lobbying component includes one million citizen workers at the precinct level—community organizers, if you will, although the NRA calls them “political organizers.” The NRA also spent countless millions on issue advertising during various election cycles. Fortune Magazine has consistently listed the NRA as the most powerful lobby in the nation. They are so powerful that when the National Smokers Association (now the National Smokers Alliance) was formed by Phillip Morris, they adopted the NRA community organizer model.

(By the way, many “grassroots” organizations like the National Smokers Alliance are really “Astroturf” organizations funded by large corporations. If you were in Dallas/Fort Worth during the Wright Amendment debate, you’ll remember the dueling groups funded by Southwest Airlines and American Airlines.)

But let’s not just pick on smokers and shooters. How about old people? As a card-carrying member of AARP, I help to fund a $17 million lobbying effort on behalf of my fellow uh, er, chronologically mature folks.

And then there are we drivers—50 million of us pony up money to AAA for their roadside assistance program (which is getting worse, but that’s a subject for another blog) and unwittingly pay for lobbyists who work for such legislation as wider roads while opposing the Clean Air Act, mass transit systems, automobile airbags, and virtually every state, local and federal proposal aimed at cutting automobile air pollution. (I’m re-thinking my membership.) AAA also pays a huge amount of money into the Highway Users Alliance, an Astroturf organization purported to be working for drivers but is really representing the interests of the cement industry, the large automobile manufacturers, tire companies, bus and truck industry trade groups, and others with a vested interest in keeping the rubber on the road. Because of hidden memberships like this, it’s difficult to find out exactly how much AAA spends on lobbying each year, but it’s undoubtedly a lot of money.

Unless you’ve got your money (what’s left of it after the Crash of 2008) buried in a coffee can in the backyard, you probably use a bank, a credit union or a savings and loan. You probably pay an electric bill and maybe a gas bill, and if you’ve got a car and house you buy insurance. All those companies belong to trade associations which employ lobbyists, and most hire lobbyists directly. While they’ll say they are working for the customer, watch out—it’s not always the case, although I know from personal experience that many of these folks do go to bat for the customer—when it’s in their business’ best interests. (Can you spell ELECTRICITY DEREGULATION?)

If you work for a big company, they have lobbyists, and if you pay into the Political Action Committee (PAC) at that company, you’ll be contributing directly to the checks the lobbyists take to all those fundraisers. They’ll be working for the interests of the company, which theoretically at least will help you out by providing a business climate in which you can keep your job. (Tell that to General Motors and Chrysler workers facing plant closures.)

Now that health care reform is being considered, know that the pharmaceutical companies, doctor’s organizations, hospital trade groups and any company or organization even remotely related to the healthcare industry is getting the wagons in a circle around their position on the issue. If you buy aspirin, have been to a hospital or take a prescription drug (even the $4 WalMart ones) you’re paying for a lobbyist–and they may or may not be working for your position on healthcare reform.

But not all “special interests” are huge mega-organizations, and not all lobbyists work for big firms. There are thousands of organizations with lobbying activities. Pro-life groups (like the National Right to Life) and pro-choice groups all employ lobbyists in addition to producing issue ads around campaign time. And since 1990, computer and Internet interests have contributed more than $185 million to campaigns. So any Internet fees you pay mean you’ve got somebody, somewhere lobbying for that company and the industry.

If you live in a city you are represented in your state capitol and in Washington by representatives from your local council of governments, the Municipal League, and other state and national organizations of cities and municipalities. Small business owners have the National Federation of Independent Businesses (The #2 lobbying group in the US according to the website Top 10 Links). Duck hunters have Ducks Unlimited, birdwatchers the Audubon Society, hikers the Sierra Club, motorcyclists have the National League of Motorcyclists and bicyclists have the League of American Bicyclists. I could go on, and might in a future post, but bottom line—WE ALL PAY FOR LOBBYISTS. So what can we do about it? COMMUNICATE.

If you belong to an organization that employs lobbyists (and that’s easy to figure out via the Internet), communicate with the leadership. Let them know how you feel about the issues they’re addressing, supposedly on your behalf, before your elected officials. If you find out that the organization’s lobbying position is contrary to your personal position, seriously reconsider your membership, and let them know your feelings if you leave.

Yes, lobbyists are working on behalf of special interests, but we must never lose sight of the fact that each and every citizen is, or has, a special interest that we must work to represent. It is not enough to sit back and let others do the talking for us, or worse, complain about those who do the talking.

Never forget our right as citizens to lobby our legislators, whether at the local, state or federal level. Write, call and/or visit your elected officials’ offices as often as possible, and try to talk to the member as well as the staff person in charge of the issue. Insist they listen, and ask plenty of questions about why they feel the way they do about an issue. If you’re intimidated by this process, look at websites with civics instructions, such as http://www.acontrario.org/activism.

And remember, the next time you complain about special interests controlling Washington or Austin or City Hall, YOU are a special interest too.