Friday, April 24, 2015

Chasing steeples

The following was published yesterday in The Morning Sun.

Exploring the old churches scattered across small villages and hamlets in the 100-square-mile Romney Marsh in Kent, a history-rich county in southeastern England, was alluring enough to bring me across the pond.
Admittedly, church touring seems like an uncommon vacation, but it is a popular English pastime that seems to be right up there with gardening, at least judging by the scores of guidebooks written for those who chase steeples, stained glass windows and architectural details dating back more than a thousand years to the Normans and Saxons.
Out of Romney Marsh’s 14 churches — distinct even in a country with thousands of notable old churches — it is St. Thomas à Becket Church in Fairfield that stands out, not least because getting there is an adventure in and of itself.
It required me driving down one-lane country roads, where semi-trucks or lorries, as the locals say, seemingly came out of nowhere and forced me to pullover in hopes the oncoming truck wouldn’t hit the mirrors of my rental car.
Back on the road, I spotted what appeared to be a house or two in the distance and then something that looked like a church off to the right in the middle of a field.
As I drove closer, St. Thomas à Becket Church, which dates to the 1200s, came into full focus.
It stood alone in a somewhat muddy field with hundreds of nearby sheep seemingly its only parishioners.
I quickly realized Fairfield is but a name on the map — the village long ago disappeared, likely a result of the Black Death, with the church being the only evidence of what once existed here.
St. Thomas à Becket consists of a Georgian-era brick building encasing an earlier wooden structure. While a restoration a little over a hundred years ago replaced some of the older wood, the simple interior with its timber arches and tie beams, box pews and triple-decker pulpit looks barely changed since the 18th Century.
When my guide arrived, I asked him what he made of the fact that people seem more interested in visiting than worshipping.
He said it would be a mistake to consider the churches as strictly historical artifacts of a bygone time, when rural life dominated England and religion was much more prominent in daily life. I pressed him for more of an answer.
“I couldn’t say why someone visits,” said Dr. Nicholas Hudd, a past chairman of the Romney Marsh Historic Churches Trust, who was showing me St. Thomas à Becket, St. George in Ivychurch and St. Augustine in Brookland. “People come through the doors for all sorts of reasons.”
Many of the churches remain houses of worship, Hudd said, albeit with a limited schedule of services due to centuries of depopulation and budgetary realities that force churches to share clergy.
Most astonishing is the fact that the churches of Romney Marsh have seen off just about everything — the Reformation, kings and queens, civil war, empire, the Industrial Revolution, great social changes and two world wars  — as countless generations over the centuries have gathered together in these sacred places.
If you go
Some churches have limited opening hours. Others require visitors to get a key from the keyholder, who often resides in the house closest to the church. As a result, give yourself three days to see all of Romney Marsh’s churches.
The Romney Marsh Historic Churches Trust, founded in 1982, is an invaluable source of information. Another useful resource is a leaflet produced by Visit Kent.
Be sure to also visit Canterbury Cathedral, seat of the archbishop of Canterbury, and the lesser-knownRochester Cathedral.
The best time to visit Canterbury is during the cathedral’s daily services, as admission charges are suspended. While at Rochester (always free admission) be sure to visit the new £5.7 million (about $8.5 million) exhibit in the cathedral crypt on Textus Roffensis, the oldest surviving English legal code in existence.
Where to stay
Cranbrook is about 30 minutes by car from Romney Marsh. The George Hotel, located above a good pub and restaurant, has a good view of St. Dunstan’s Church (itself worth a visit).
Breakfast is included with rooms from £80 (about $120). Consider splurging for the Crimson Room (£95 or $142) with its splendidly carved four-poster bed that is literally fit for a queen, as Queen Elizabeth I stayed in the same room during a visit in 1573.
For something statelier, Eastwell Manor (also about 30 minutes away) is a 23-room, four-star hotel with grand architecture. There is even a ruined 14th Century church on the other side of the estate. The hotel offers a special rate of £195 (about $293) that includes breakfast, a three-course dinner and admission to Canterbury Cathedral.
How to get there
Airfares out of Detroit, Flint and Lansing through summer are around $1,400, according to multiple searches on Kayak and Google Flights.
If you are willing to take multiple connections with somewhat creative routing, you can save about $200 flying into London Gatwick. Another way to save is traveling in September, when airfares drop to $996 for travel out of Detroit on JetBlue to Boston and then on partner Icelandair to Heathrow via Reykjavik, Iceland.
For a rental car from Heathrow, Hertz has midsize cars (think Volkswagen Jetta) with automatic transmission and unlimited mileage for £22.16 (about $33) per day, according to Hertz.com. A GPS navigation device is an additional £16.67 (about $25) per day.
— Dennis Lennox

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Griffin funeral a reminder of Michigan's glory years

The following is from today's edition of The Morning Sun.

TRAVERSE CITY — The death of Robert P. Griffin, the former U.S. senator and state Supreme Court justice, was more than just the natural end of one man’s remarkable life.
It was the end of a remarkable era in Michigan’s history, when the Wolverine State not only defined post-war America, but her politicians led the national discourse on both sides of the political aisle.
Just how powerful Michigan was during Griffin’s time in public life became fully apparent as I sat in blonde wooden pews, staring at the soldier, statesman and jurist’s flag-draped coffin laying gracefully underneath the church’s chancel arch and intensely listening to the eulogies given during a funeral Tuesday here at First Congressional Church.
Think about it. Griffin served with and alongside arguably the most prominent leaders of the post-war period.
Soapy Williams, George Romney and Bill Milliken were national figures during their respective times in the governor’s mansion. All were also actively touted at one point or another as possible presidential candidates for their respective parties.
In the U.S. Senate, Michigan had Democratic icon Philip Hart working alongside Griffin, the Senate Republican whip who arguably did more than anyone else in the halls of Congress to bring down President Richard Nixon. And last, but certainly not least, was Gerald Ford, the first and only president from Michigan. Of course, Ford and Nixon weren’t the only presidents Griffin knew. Until his death, he was one of our few living connections to Ike, J.F.K. and Johnson.
When Griffin went to Washington after winning a seat in the House of Representatives in 1956 — he was appointed to the Senate in 1966 by Romney — Michigan led the United States by almost every measure, including Detroit being the richest city in America. Unfortunately, anyone born after he took office would never experience the Michigan he served with the utmost of honor and integrity.
Michigan was home to the Big Three automakers. And it was on the assembly lines of Chrysler, Ford and General Motors that good, honest and hardworking Michiganders achieved the middle-class dream much to the envy of so many others across the country.
“As G.M. goes, so goes the nation” wasn’t the old adage that it is today. It was reality.
All of Michigan’s economic and industrial might gave those she sent to Washington a tremendous amount of hard power to leverage.
Not anymore. Sure, the state has been represented in Congress by leading politicians in the ensuing decades, but these successors — Carl Levin, who beat Griffin in 1978, John Dingell, John Conyers, Fred Upton, Dave Camp, Mike Rogers — achieved their power as committee chairmen largely by virtue of congressional seniority. As a consequence, their power was temporary and came to an abrupt end when Levin, Dingell, Camp and Rogers left Congress at the end of last year. Only Conyers and Upton remain.
Moreover, it is unlikely Michigan will regain the prominence she once enjoyed at any time in the near future.
This is because long-term demographic declines have resulted in the loss of five congressional seats since 1980, reducing the state’s clout in Congress and its votes in the Electoral College to pre-1930s levels.
As a result, expect another House seat and presidential elector to be lost after the next U.S. Census in 2020.
— Dennis Lennox

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Rick Snyder for president?

The following is from today's edition of The Morning Sun.

I’ve said it before. I’ll say it again. Rick Snyder will not be president.

Michigan’s governor is once again in the national spotlight after the Associated Press, Detroit News and Politico all reported over the weekend that Snyder has been quietly working with major Republican donors, leaders and operatives to raise his profile in much the same way as every other prospective presidential candidate.

Months after saying he would take “the Michigan story to the rest of the country,” Snyder is planning a national rollout with the assistance of Republican adman Fred Davis, according to sources and published reports.

Ask those close to Snyder and they will tell you he wants to be president. This shouldn’t be a surprise considering pretty much every governor or U.S. senator — especially those from purple states — looks into the mirror and sees a president looking back.

On paper, Snyder is more impressive than many of the declared and all-but-declared White House hopefuls. So, it’s really no wonder he looks at the competition and says, “I can totally do this.”

Snyder could have done it a couple of decades ago, when the two national party conventions actually decided the nominees as opposed to simply ratifying the winner of the Democratic and Republican primary processes. However, in today’s era of the permanent campaign it’s pretty difficult to see the governor spending the next 10 months at hustings and rubber-chicken dinners in Iowa, New Hampshire and other early states.

After all, Snyder barely campaigned last year. And that was when his very job was on the line.

Mt. Pleasant’s Kevin Cotter, the speaker of the state House of Representatives, sent Cindy Gamrat, a freshman legislator and self-anointed tea party leader from Allegan County, to time out last week.

Gamrat was kicked out of the Republican caucus for publicly revealing discussions that took place during closed-door, off the record caucus meetings.

Some think Gamrat, who is running for a position on the Republican National Committee that opened up after then-national committeewoman Ronna Romney McDaniel was elected chairman of the Michigan Republican Party in February, will be allowed back into caucus at some point. Others aren’t so certain.
Frankly, it really doesn’t matter because Gamrat wasn’t kicked out of the GOP. Rather, she has just been uninvited from the caucus meetings.

This is partly a reflection of Michigan’s electoral system, which allows pretty much anyone to run for political office under whatever party affiliation they want. Case in point: An unabashed Democrat could theoretically run as a Republican and there’s nothing the GOP could do. It also means an infamous character — say a KKK grand wizard — could get elected on the Democratic ticket.

It’s interesting to compare the actions of Republicans in the Legislature over Gamrat to how the state and national GOP handled ongoing controversies involving disgraced Republican National Committee member Dave Agema. Don’t forget that Gamrat will sit next to him at national party functions, if she wins the committeewoman post next month.

Despite being condemned by pretty much everyone with a formal position in the party, Agema remains in his post as a national Republican leader. Making it worse are signs that Agema will run for re-election at the Republican State Convention held after the presidential primary around this time next year.

Of course, Gamrat is hardly a bigot like Agema. Still, this is yet another distraction for Republicans who need to focus on keeping majority in the state House and winning back the White House after eight years of Democratic control.

Every moment the GOP spends talking about Gamrat or Agema is a missed opportunity to define the narrative.

— Dennis Lennox

Monday, April 20, 2015

In case you missed it: Presidential politics and more

This past weekend I was quoted in The Detroit News on Michigan Governor Rick Snyder's possible presidential campaign. Here's what I said:
"On paper, Rick Snyder is an outstanding presidential candidate," said Republican strategist Dennis Lennox. "But in reality, unless his interest in talking to the hustings and rubber-chicken circuit has changed since last year, he's not running."
Also over the weekend, I was on Tim Skubick's statewide television show "Off the Record." You can watch it below.


I also went on "Michigan's Big Show" this morning with host Michael Patrick Shiels. We discussed presidential politics, among other things. Here are two clips of the show:





— Dennis Lennox

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Clinton’s call to move forward

The following is from today's edition of The Morning Sun.

The contrasts couldn’t have been clearer during Hillary Clinton’s announcement of her candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The former first lady, U.S. senator from New York and secretary of state during President Barack Obama’s first term managed to get a lot right in her hardly unexpected announcement. Yet at the same time, she illustrated not only the pitfalls of her own candidacy, but also highlighted the state of the Democratic and Republican parties as the 2016 presidential campaign begins in earnest.

While the campaign on paper favors Republicans — eight years of a deeply unpopular Democratic president, an ascendant GOP with governing majorities in Congress and in the legislatures and governorships of the 50 states — the same was said at this point in the last campaign.

Ignoring the ongoing debate among pundits over Clinton’s chosen medium, the odds-on favorite for the Democratic nomination proved why the Clintons are arguably the most brilliant politicians of our time.

Clinton avoided overt references to partisanship and ideology, opting for subtle messaging in the just over two-minute video released on YouTube. She stuck to a strict, albeit vague, message of moving America forward.

She also checked off pretty much every box with those shown in the video: Hispanic entrepreneurs, expectant parents, a mixed-race couple, a mother moving so her child could go to a better school, another mother returning to the workforce after raising her kid, a soon-to-be retired woman and a blue-collar guy, who just happens to be bald and white — the ones Obama derided as clinging to God and guns when he was in a heated primary against Clinton back in 2008.

Mixed in between were lots and lots of women. The strategy behind this was actually simple. Chalk it up to electoral math.

Clinton needs female voters — 53 percent of voters in 2012 were women, according to exit polls — in record numbers for her to end up in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Not everything in Clinton’s announcement, however, was flawless.

After looking directly into the camera and declaring she was running for president, Clinton laughably claimed she was running because “the deck is stacked in favor of those at the top.”

Talk about being rich in hypocrisy. After all, Clinton is the very epitome of the established order. Think of it as the pot calling the kettle black.

Her populist line might have had some credibility if someone with a surname other than Clinton had said it.

This once again highlights the big and very real problem facing Democrats.

Clinton can talk about moving America forward all she wants, but it’s difficult for someone who has spent most of the last 38 years in government to bring about any sort of real change.

The reality is Democrats have no viable alternative to Clinton, at least one with any sort of national constituency.

Now compare this to the roster of presidential candidates for Republicans.

In particular, Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Florida Senator Marco Rubio stand out among all of the names.

Not only are they fresh faces with a record of pushing bold policy solutions, but both are also young enough to be Clinton’s sons.

Some might call such talk ageism. It isn’t. Rather, it’s about whether Clinton should lead America into the third decade of the 21st century.

Her presidency would be nothing more than a return to tired old ideas and politics of the past.

It would be a total rebuke of Obama’s failed post-partisanship.

You know, that whole bit about bringing together not just red states and blue states, but the United States of America.

— Dennis Lennox