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  • OPINION - Examining Lincoln

    Posted by Chris Conley

    Lincoln the movie.jpg


    NEWS BLOG (WSAU) Steven Spielberg has already made his epic to The Greatest Generation. Saving Private Ryan is among the best World War II movies of all time. But that’s a crowded area of our national cinematography. This film stands out because of its storytelling. We know how the war ended. We’re told the story of James Ryan amid that backdrop.

    The life of Abraham Lincoln has also been documented in the movies – but not as often, and not as well. Spielberg is trying for another epic. He falls short. But there is still much for us to learn.

    The film has two major shortcomings. First and foremost, it isn’t about Lincoln at all. It’s about the debate over the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery. Spielberg has much to say about it – it’s still the moral stain upon our nation, and the debate over how it ended is a worthy topic. But this narrow treatment drowns out all other parts of Lincoln’s life in this film. Stories and brief dialogue fill in the rest. If you’re not good with history, you only get a glimpse of Mary Lincoln’s poor mental state, her lavish spending at the White House, the War Cabinet stacked with political opponents, the draft riots up north, and Lincoln’s rise through politics. His largely unsuccessful early political career is ignored completely.

    And this film is slow. One review called it “C-Span with whiskers.” Indeed, it is. I have a good tolerance for movies that deliberately unpack their tale. With Lincoln, you wish you could pull the string that might tug the story along.

    There is still much to like. This is probably the most realistic approximation ever of how Lincoln looked and spoke. That’s mostly because of a perfect-pitch performance by Daniel Day-Lewis. We’re also reminded two things about our legal process: the law, dealing with the here-and-now practicalities of governing, is slow to deal with the great moral issues of the times. And the process of making law is indeed like making sausage, even in the mid-1800s.

    I also have a personal regret while watching Lincoln. I enjoy history. It was my favorite subject in high school. In college, I sought out history classes as electives whenever I could. This movie reminded me that my own knowledge is woefully incomplete, and people with less of an interest than me have an even larger blind-spot about our nation’s story. Many of the cabinet members, congressmen, and civil war generals could have their own movies to study their lives and times. And yet I’m amazed at how I didn’t really know them. The captions that flash across the screen giving us dates, places, and settings were almost like movie-goer crib notes. They constantly tapped me on the shoulder – telling me things I probably should know, but don’t.

    Without that context, it’s hard to understand the words atop the Lincoln Memorial: “In this temple, and in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.”

    Chris Conley

  • OPINION - Andy Dean

    Posted by Chris Conley

    I've been out sick today.

    On Sunday, I saw Lincoln. I'll have some thoughts in Tuesday's News Blog, when things should be back to normal.



    Andy Dean

    There’s a programming change on WSAU starting tonight. America Tonight with Andy Dean will be airing Monday through Friday from 8pm to 11pm, replacing The Rusty Humphries Show.

    Rusty Humphries no longer does his show live at 8pm CT. I think you’ll enjoy Andy Dean, who prides himself on talking about new content – new thing that happened during the day.

  • OPINION - Going on strike for someone else

    Posted by Chris Conley


    A box of Hostess Twinkies is pictured in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters November 14, 2012. REUTERS/INTERSTATE BAKERIES CORPORATION/Handout

    NEWS BLOG (WSAU) The bankruptcy, strike, and now liquidation of Hostess Bakeries has provided a lot of radio morning-show fodder. You’ll no longer be able to get a Twinkie or a Ho-Ho. Well, not really. As part of the company’s break-up, someone will buy they licensing and rights to continue baking, distributing, and selling those brands.

    The financial problems at Hostess shouldn’t come as a big surprise. Their Wonder Bread brand is a much bigger seller than Twinkies. And the white and wheat bread market is full of competition. Almost every supermarket chain has a non-union bakery providing its own bread, buns, and rolls at much lower cost. Wonder Bread is always among the most expensive brands on the shelves, and to many consumers, bread is bread.

    So why would the union strike against a bankrupt company when they know the company is likely to be destroyed in the process? The answer isn’t about Hostess. It’s about national standards and a domino affect at other union-bakeries.

    In bankruptcy a company has no secrets. Its finances are made public in its court filings. The union, as one of Hostess’ creditors, gets to call witnesses and ask questions if they wish. The union leaders know exactly what the company’s cash flow is like, and how much needs to be cut to stay afloat. In a case where all cards are on the table, you’d think it would be easier to make a deal.

    The problem is the cuts and givebacks would be so deep that the owners of other union bakeries would demand similar terms. A union deal with Hostess sets the bar nationally for future agreements with everyone else.

    This happened once before. The Florida East Coast Railroad was hit by a bitter strike in 1963. The railroad, which was a short-line from Miami to Jacksonville, said it would not be able to survive under the work rules and contracts that other railroaders had already received from larger, national railroads. The FEC would have shut down under those national rules. The unions said any below-market-rate deal with the FEC would lead to givebacks elsewhere.

    The FEC story has a different ending than Hostess. Management had access to new investment capital. They were able to outlast the strikers, eventually hiring replacement workers and making changes to work rules and operations that allowed them to survive. The FEC today has drawbridges that open and close by remote control, centralized dispatching from remote locations, and industry-leading asset utilization rates. They have a corporate culture of lean-and-mean. Other railroads have used those changes as a model, phased in over many years, one union contract at a time.

    Hostess doesn’t have the cash reserves to wait out a strike. And unlike a railroad, there aren’t a lot of areas for potential cost savings in a baking operation. There are ingredients, equipment, distribution costs, and labor. Labor is the obvious area for cost-savings.

    The fascinating part of this equation is the union workers. They will lose their jobs. Their next job as bakers will probably not be as good as what they’re rejecting. They’re being asked to fall on their swords to uphold the pay and benefits of other workers – who get to keep their jobs. I understand going on strike for a better deal for you. This is a strike for a better deal for someone else. You can be sure the workers don’t realize that. If they did, what they’re doing is even more irrational.

    Chris Conley

  • OPINION - Spending political capital

    Posted by Chris Conley

    U.S. President Barack Obama makes a statement on health care and climate change at the White House in Washington December 19, 2009. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

    "After the election, I have political capital, and I intend to spend it". And then George W. Bush spent it on Social Security privatization, a fine idea that went nowhere. His political capital account was empty for the rest of his presidency.

    Political capital is like that -- it's highly perishable.

    Barack Obama thinks he has some to spend, too.

    What he wants to spend it on is strange: things that he could be defeated on.

    Obama says he will fight over the fiscal cliff, with a big tax increase hanging in the balance. Obama said he'll propose comprehensive immigration reform in early 2013. And he's defiant about sending a controversial name - Susan Rice - the U.S. Senate to be confirmed as Secretary of State.

    Some thoughts, in reverse order.

    A Rice domination is a waste of political capital. Her nomination is dead on arrival, and all it would take is one Senator to put a member's hold to tie the process up indefinitely. It would be foolish to pick a fight with Congress that can't be won. Rice is hopelessly tied up in the obviously not-true videotapes-cause-the-riot story about the Libya attacks. She's damaged goods.

    Immigration reform is a more interesting question. There may be enough Republicans who think amnesty will win Hispanic votes that the issue could be in-play. The question is whether the President 'goes big' or 'goes small'. I think a narrow bill focusing on the Dream Act (the children of illegals who were brought here by their parents) could pass with GOP support. Broader amnesty is probably a non-starter.

    A deal on the fiscal cliff is a tangled mess. The compromise probably lies in allowing a smaller percentage of the Bush tax cuts to stand for the wealthy -- maybe households over $250,000 would keep half the tax cuts from four years ago -- allowing middle income residents to keep all of it. A deal would still have to be tied to rolling back sequestration cuts and raising the debt ceiling.

    President Obama feels emboldened because his ideas won the election. That's not so cut-and-dry. Congressmen like Sean Duffy and Reed Ribble were elected with the expectation that they wouldn't raise taxes. Ballots cast for them are no less legitimate than votes cast for Barack Obama.

    Chris Conley

  • OPINION - 'Yes' to health care exchanges

    Posted by Chris Conley

    The California Health Benefits Exchange expects to start enrolling Californians in October 2013 with coverage to take effect in January 2014.

    NEWS BLOG (WSAU) Governor Walker doesn’t like Obamacare. The last polls suggested that about 50-percent of us don’t like it either.

    Walker’s position was clear. He hoped Mitt Romney would win the election and would repeal or scale back health care reform. The Governor delayed setting up the required health insurance exchanges because of it. Obviously that isn't the way things worked out. After the Supreme Court ruling last summer and the election results last week, Obamacare has survived and is indeed moving forward.

    Walker now has a choice to make. He can set up the health exchanges, or the feds will do it for us. His deadline is Friday. His decision is coming in the next 48-hours.

    This shouldn’t even be a hard choice. Of course the state needs to set up its own exchanges. Doing so doesn’t mean the Governor had a change of heart. And it doesn’t mean he’s bowing down to Washington.

    States are being given a chance to shape the kinds of health care policies that will be offered to their residents. States and the feds are going to subsidize the costs of insurance for those who can’t afford them. I can think of three specific areas where state taxpayers would benefit. First, the state can set up low-cost insurance that meets only the minimum federal requirements. Having the least coverage for the lowest cost should, indeed, be an option for people who are young and healthy. The federal ‘low cost’ option would likely include much more than the state’s ‘low cost’ choice. Second, the state can offer high-end expensive coverage that might be beyond what the feds would ok. We can stipulate that state subsidies for the Cadillac coverage would be limited, and people who choose it will have to pay the freight on their own. Still, having the option available could help attract smaller, start-up companies to the state that may want to dangle that lavish perk in front of new employees. Lastly when the state sets up its own exchange, it will have control over how many options are offered and how much competition there will be between those plans. The competition to get people within the exchange to choose one plan over another is one of the best tool we have to control quality and costs. The state should not give that up to another layer of government.

    Critics of health care reform have had their wake-up call. They lost. Obamacare is a reality. Allowing the feds to set up our exchange where they control the choices and costs is foolish and counter-productive -- making a bad situation worse. It ultimately hurts the taxpayer. Governor Walker knows this. He’ll shed his ideology, and will set up a Wisconsin exchange.

    Chris Conley

  • OPINION - A test for bus supporters

    Posted by Chris Conley

    NEWS BLOG (WSAU) Technically, the Weston Village Board is breaking the law. They openly admit it. The question of restarting bus service between Weston and Wausau was put on the ballot, the referendum was approved, and the busses must run.

    But the referendum called for a specific type of bus service: 12 trips a day between Wausau and Weston. The village board voted to do something else. Instead they will run 7 trips a day. And the bus will run from Weston-to-Schofield-to-Wausau. Fewer trips and the longer-than-it-has-to-be route will allow Weston and Schofield to work together, share the costs, and save their taxpayers some money.

    So will the bus supporters sue? They’d probably win.

    They’d also show themselves as incredibly selfish. The village is facing a $750,000 budget shortfall. Residents were asked, in a separate referendum, if they’d be willing to pay higher taxes to fund the bus service. The answer was a resounding ‘no’. Some taxpayers wanted something… other taxpayers said they didn’t want to pay for it. Typical.

    The cost of the bus service is about one-sixth of the overall deficit.

    The buses are never full; and, for many trips, are empty.

    Other services will have to be cut to make up for the shortfall. (The village also has a novel idea to shift some costs onto local utility bills. That would, indeed, bring in more money. But it’s a lousy idea, and is bad public policy. More on that in a separate blog.)

    Against that backdrop, going to court over how often a bus runs and which route it runs on is absurd. The question is quickly becoming how much does everyone else have to sacrifice for someone else’s pet project?

    Chris Conley

  • OPINION - An important story

    Posted by Chris Conley
    Bulldozer shoveling gravel

    NEWS BLOG (WSAU) It sounds like a scandal. A multi-billion dollar public works project misspent federal dollars. People who live near the project may have been ripped off, perhaps by tens of thousands of dollars. Public outrage. Heads will roll. Elections may turn. Resignations may follow.

    Instead, none of that will happen.

    The Wausau Daily Herald did some investigative reporting on the widening ofThomas StreetinWausau. The city misspent a federal block grant. People whose property was bought up for the project weren’t told that they had a right to appeal the value of their land. They also had the right to ask for additional money to cover relocation costs.

    The city might argue that the rules for spending federal dollars are complex. Who can possibly keep track of them all? Fair enough, but… The city followed these rules for other projects. That reasoning doesn’t wash.Thomas Streetwas handled differently.

    This fall-out from this story is on someone’s radar screen at City Hall. Mayor Jim Tipple held a news conference about it last week. The city’s response: the reporting is wrong.

    But, no, the reporting is correct. The city didn’t follow the federal rules. The city takes issue with the aftermath, saying the consequences aren’t as severe and are more manageable than the Wausau Daily Herald claims. And there’s no way to know about that. The consequences are still playing out. In the end the city may indeed say a mea culpa and get back in the good graces of the Federal overlords. That’s usually the way these things play out, and is certainly what the city is hoping for.

    But there’s another part to this. Our local newspaper has uncovered a legitimate investigative story. The public response? Mostly indifference. There’s no apparent outrage. It doesn’t appear that anyone will step down or resign. This will be a non-story by the time the next election comes around. Why?

    This is newspaper story. It’s not the type of reporting that translates easily to TV or radio. You could read it on-line --- but when you go to a news-based web site, theirs, ours, anyone’s --- you get a menu of stories where you pick and choose what you’re interested it. This is not an often-picked story. But when you pick up the newspaper, actually hold the newsprint in your hands, they tell you what’s important. Bold headlines that dominate the front page tell you, ‘hey, look at this. But very few people actually read the newspaper that way anymore. The messenger is diminished, to the point that an important message is met with a shrug of the shoulders.

    Chris Conley

  • OPINION - Let's not outsource Veterans Day

    Posted by Chris Conley

    NEWS BLOG (WSAU) The 11th day of the 11th month is Sunday. It’s Veterans Day.

    This year there are many corporations that are offering special deals for current or former soldiers. It’s patriotic. It’s a good trend.

    Applebees offers free dinners for vets.

    Chili’s is also offering free meals.

    Denny’s has free pancakes for vets on Monday.

    Golden Corral is also letting vets eat at the buffet for free on Monday.

    Subway will make a donation to veterans charities

    Texas Roadhouse has a special vets lunch on Monday

    Olive Garden is offering free vet entrees on Sunday.

    There are far more deals-for-vets than I can list here.

    I commend all the companies that are doing this. But let’s not outsource Veterans Day to companies that also have a marketing motive. Our personal salute to veterans – by thanking them in person for their service to our country – is far more important.

    Chris Conley

  • THEATER REVIEW - A bawdy good lesson about human nature

    Posted by Chris Conley

    Best Little Whorehouse In Texas - Musical

    NEWS BLOG (WSAU) The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, a fun, rollicking, and occasionally melancholy musical, tells us something about human nature. Even the most prudish among us tend to be live-and-let-live kinds of people. It’s too exhausting to deny everyone else their guilty pleasures. To do so is considered bad form.

    Some kids are smoking in the boys room at school. The guy who runs the neighborhood diner takes bets on this week’s football game. Illegal slot machines spin in our bars. Wives and girlfriends know their men might visit the strip club on their way to deer camp. And the women sometimes sneak off to the all-male-revue while their hunters are away. And, for generations, everybody knew what was happening in the big white house outside of Gilbert, Texas. They’re not bothering anyone. Madam Mona Stangley runs an orderly business. Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd doesn’t mind as long as there’s no trouble out there. In fact, Mona and Ed Earl have a long-term relationship of getting on just fine. And it’s an open secret, until someone yells – really loud.

    We see the worst in human nature in shock-TV-journalist Melvin P. Thorpe, who looks into the camera and screams “Texas has a whorehouse in it!” loud enough that looking the other way no longer suffices. No one dares yell back at the TV, “actually, Texas has hundreds of chicken ranches.”

    The Governor eventually has to decide if looking the other way will suffice. A finger in the wind will determine whether the charade can continue.

    Lisa Burgess is a fine Miss Mona. She’s a good singer, and is just strong-willed enough to keep order in her house while being just soft enough to win our sympathy. Jeff McDonald as the sheriff gets a year’s worth of cussin’ in a single performance, and still manages to make us feel sorry that he’s duty-bound. You’ll enjoy Larry Kirchgaessner as TV star Melvin P. Thorpe. 

    There are two supporting parts that are particularly well done. Michele Schlegel is Jewel, Miss Mona’s housekeeper and assistant. She’s the best singer on-stage, and is an undeniable talent. The role of the Governor is delicious. (Charles Dunning was nominated for an Oscar for his movie portrayal.) Scott Sargent eats up the role, and does an enjoyable side-step.

    We find ourselves rooting for a madam and a foul-mouthed sheriff – and, in between the fun, we learn that sometimes leaving good enough alone is the right choice. After all, you know what goes on under the high school football field bleachers, and what really happens inside the $40 a night motel room. You won’t make a big deal about it, right?

    Chris Conley



    You may hear word-of-mouth that there were technical problems with this
    performance. That’s true. There were several audio / microphone problems during
    the evening. Don’t let that keep you away. Those troubles are hard to fix
    during a performance, but are certain to be corrected for the remainder of the run.

    There are additional shows Friday and Saturday nights at 7:30 and Sunday at 2pm.

  • OPINION - Why don't more people go?

    Posted by Chris Conley

    Arena Theater

    NEWS BLOG (WSAU)  I was counting how many plays, musicals, and concerts I attend in a year. It’s probably 15 or 20. I attend almost every community theater performance in Central Wisconsin (and blog about them and write reviews for I wish I could attend more live concerts, too. If I could, I would.

    I’ve noticed something. Attendance at most of these events is down. A lot. Live events that I think are going to do big box office, don’t. In fact, I’ve been really off at predicting which plays and musicals would be popular locally. I think our community theater groups and other producers aren’t any better with their calculations than I am. They’re not interested in playing to half-empty halls.

    Wausau Community Theater’s Annie, the ultimate kid-friendly musical, didn’t attract a lot of kids to the audience. The bottom level of the Grand Theater was less than half-filled at the performance I attended. Last year’s production of ‘A Chorus Line’, which was WCT’s best show of the year, was nowhere near sold out. Just last month a high-quality production of ‘Camelot’ in Stevens Point also played to far too many empty seats.

    Why? Well, your theory is as good as mine.

    Maybe at $20 a ticket, it’s too expensive. I don’t think so. I night of community theater is no more expensive than a night at the movies if you include the overpriced popcorn and soft drinks. Besides, these community theater groups are all non-profit. Their shows are priced at break-even, and ticket prices probably can’t be lowered.

    Maybe we are demanding higher quality local entertainment. Admittedly, some community theater productions are uneven. I can’t promise you a triple-threat knock-em-dead star in every leading role. But none of these productions are flops. This is high-quality, well put-together entertainment. I don’t think people stay away because the shows aren’t done well.

    I suppose it’s always possible that people’s tastes in entertainment is changing – that movies, the internet, and sports are winning out over live stage productions. I doubt it.

    Another community theater production opens tonight. It’s The Best Little Whorehouse inTexasfrom Wausau Community Theater. It should be a fun time. (No worries – everyone keeps their clothes on; I’ll leave it up to parents if their kids need to stay home tonight, but there’s nothing ‘R’ rated on stage tonight.) I’ll post a review after tonight’s performance.

    Chris Conley

  • OPINION - The day after

    Posted by Chris Conley

    Barack Obama speaks at the Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta on March 16. |Reuters

    NEWS BLOG (WSAU) Take a deep breath.

    The nation one day after Election Day is no different than one day before. Barack Obama is in the White House, Democrats control the U.S. Senate, Republicans control the House. Obama’s opponents have a buffer against higher taxes and big, new government programs. They won’t make it through Congress.

    Most conservatives I know aren’t worried about the day after. They’re worried about the size of our government and the shape of our economy after four years. These are legitimate. What’s open for debate is whether they’re catastrophic or not. Unknown. What is known is this: the expensive health care mandate will move forward, and the person who authored it will be in office as it takes effect in 2014. Government spending will continue to rise. The debt will grow. (It would grow regardless of who won on Tuesday, the issue is the speed of that growth.)

    Exit polls show us that the economy was the number-one issue. Those same polls also show that the ‘blame Bush’ drumbeat that’s been sounded by the President worked. Voters believed he inherited a bad situation; they’re betting that the small up tick we’ve seen in the last few months is something that can be built on and improved. There’s truth in that – a growing economy takes pressure off the federal budget and slows the rate of deficit spending.

    Second-terms are about a President’s legacy. Barack Obama will not want his legacy to be presiding over an economic collapse. He’ll be motivated by self interest to keep the nation’s precarious financial ship from taking on more water. We’ve done what we’ve done for the last few decades: kick the can down the road for another four years. Here’s to hoping our nations problems only fester instead of explode.

    Chris Conley

  • OPINION - Election Day thoughts

    Posted by Chris Conley

    American Flag (Pic: Reuters)


    NEWS BLOG (WSAU) Random Election Day thoughts – a few hours before the polls close.
    Even with no idea how my candidates did, I still can’t help but feel Election Day is a wonderful celebration of our democratic system. I wouldn’t mind if today was a national holiday, were everyone could focus on final campaigning and get-out-the-vote efforts. The only drawback is that too many people would try to make it an un-patriotic four day weekend.


    I reject the thinking that our country is ‘doomed’ if one candidate or another wins. Hypothetically, a Barack Obama second-term with a GOP controlled house means more of a stalemate than a foreboding. A Romney win with a democrat Senate also looks like incremental change rather than a total change in direction.


    I still think the Thompson-Baldwin senate race offers bad choices on both sides. Negative ads aside, these both seem like back-bench candidates. Russ Feingold, love or hate his politics, was more of an ideas guy that anyone running for Kohl’s current seat. Ron Johnson will still be a higher-profile representative for our state than whoever joins him in our delegation today.


    The Pat Snyder-Mandy Wright race is a fundamental change in how a state assembly seat is won or lost. It may be the most-expensive race for that office ever. The idea that you’d need a fundraising machine and political action groups behind you to seek a state assembly seat used to be unthinkable. It now may be the new norm.


    A behind-the-scenes you may not know about: The Wright campaign was frantically seeking a cease-and-desist court order over the Snyder rape/abortion commercial that aired in the final days of the campaign. Wright argues that she never brought up the issue of Pat Snyder’s nephew during the campaign. (Pat’s nephew, adopted as a child by his brother and sister-in-law, is the result of a rape. His biological mother carried her baby to-term and then gave the child up for adoption.) Unfortunately for Ms. Wright, PACs that support her did indeed use Pat Snyder’s on-air comments about his nephew to twist his comments about rape, sexual assault, and abortion. And Pat’s response ad is carefully written to refer to ‘Mandy Wright’s supporters’. Needless to say, the ad in question continued to run.


    Election coverage begins at 7pm tonight on WSAU AM-550 FM-99.9. Jerry Bader has an Election night webcast and we have results on-line here:


    Chris Conley