Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of
The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (OUP) and
Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: George Washington to Barack Obama . His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. His website is giltroy.com. His next book “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published this fall by Oxford University Press.
Most Americans are surprised that Margaret Thatcher’s death and funeral proved so divisive in Great Britain. In the United States, the eulogies hailing the “Iron Lady” for resurrecting British spirit, saving England’s economy and helping to defeat the Soviet Union, paralleled the warm farewell Americans gave Ronald Reagan when he died in June 2004. The more contentious British reaction -- including the surprising campaign to propel “Ding, Dong the Witch is Dead” to the top of the charts -- reveals differences in Thatcher’s and Reagan’s leadership styles, as well as enduring contrasts between British and American political culture.
Most Americans forget, but Ronald Reagan’s popularity during his presidency from 1981 through 1989 often wavered as dramatically as Margaret Thatcher’s did during her premiership from 1979 through 1990. In 1982, with the economy stagnating, with liberals attacking Reagan as a budget-cutting Scrooge, and with Democrats having increased their Congressional majority by 27 seats, many pundits wondered whether Reagan would be a one-term president. In late 1983, presidential trial heats still predicted that the Democrat Walter Mondale would unseat Reagan. And the Iran-Contra scandal that broke in November 1986 triggered a record drop in presidential popularity.
Nevertheless, Reagan had a lighter personal touch and a more pragmatic political approach than his British colleague. Reagan’s aw shucks, nice guy persona made him a hard politician to hate. He mollified rivals such as the Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, while Margaret Thatcher seemed to enjoy collecting enemies.
Moreover, America’s checks and balances worked. The division of power, with a Republican president restrained by a Democratic Congress, as well as the Supreme Court, along with Reagan’s own populist instincts, led him to make compromises Britain’s combative “Iron Lady” never would have made. Thatcher’s England therefore lurched right, privatizing dramatically after decades of social-welfare statism; while Reagan’s America steered rightward more gently, like a majestic ocean liner making a slight mid-course correction.
Reagan’s retirement and death were also smoother and, in a characteristic stroke of Reaganite luck, better timed. Following the American tradition of set presidential terms, Ronald Reagan retired elegantly after eight years, with his vice president George H.W. Bush winning the presidency in 1988. Reagan celebrated the peace, patriotism and prosperity he delivered, then flew out west to retire.
Reagan’s subsequent announcement of his Alzheimer’s disease, followed by his carefully choreographed funeral in 2004 -- when the economy was still booming -- allowed him to be buried in non-partisan dignity, with a nation mostly united in mourning. Contradicting its own editorial line, the New York Times front page hailed Reagan for “projecting the optimism of [Franklin D.] Roosevelt, the faith in small-town America of Dwight D. Eisenhower and the vigor of John F. Kennedy. The Massachusetts Turnpike, a central artery carrying tens of thousands of Reagan opponents daily, flashed an electronic sign saying “GOD SPEED PRESIDENT REAGAN.”
Reagan’s monarchical funeral procession affirmed the unique American mix in the presidency whereby the head of state also serves as head of government. Although George Washington's will detailed his “express desire” to be interred “in a private manner, without parade, or funeral oration,” Americans gave the first president a grand finale too. They gathered in services nationwide, honoring their hero whose birthday was already was being celebrated nationally and would be called America’s “political Christmas.”
Since then, especially when a chief executive dies in office, presidential funerals have been elaborate, patriotic affairs. Even the disgraced Republican Richard Nixon had a dignified public funeral. Over 4,000 mourners massed into the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, including the incumbent president in 1994, Bill Clinton, a Democrat, with all the living ex-presidents at the time, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and Reagan, making what turned out to be his last public...
The particle accelerator of Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science. Credit: Wiki Commons.
Today, as Israel celebrates its sixty-fifth anniversary, it should be the toast of the world. A model “new nation,” the Jewish State may be the most successful of the post-colonial states that emerged in the twentieth-century’s wave of nation-building as the great nineteenth-century empires collapsed. Starting with little, Israel quickly developed a thriving democracy, a booming economy, and a list of impressive technological and pharmacological achievements that have made life worldwide easier, safer, happier, and longer-lasting. Yet, for all its accomplishments, the start-up nation has also been the embattled state, built on contested territory, surrounded by hostile enemies many of whom seek to destroy it.
The duality of this high-tech Athens yet tough Sparta helps explain the intense, polarizing, sometimes-hysterical emotions the country often stirs. And this defining paradox also results in two different ways of periodizing its history, telling its tale. The conventional approach tells Israel’s story as the story of the Arab-Israeli conflict -- going from war to war, and peace prospect to peace prospect, starting with the 1948 Independence War until today’s no-real-peace-no-real-war stalemate. But that narrative of war-making and peace-processing must be complemented with a happier story, showing how the society grew from the austere 1940s and 1950s to the lush and plush 2000s and 2010s.
When David Ben-Gurion first declared the state on May 14, 1948 (Israel’s birthday celebrations are keyed to the Jewish calendar), the state’s prospects for surviving looked dim. Despite the excitement triggered by the United Nations’ decision on November 29, 1947, to partition Palestine and create a Jewish State, many believed that once Great Britain withdrew from the region, the Arabs would overrun the Jews. As Ben-Gurion read Israel’s Proclamation of Independence, five Arab armies -- from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, joined the local Arab irregulars hoping to destroy this new state.
Israel was badly outgunned and outmanned, underfed and underfinanced. But with the slogan “Ein Breira,” there’s no choice, the 600,000 Jews of Palestine-now-named-Israel fought to victory. The price was steep – including 6,000 deaths, one percent of the population; the loss of the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City, dividing the Jewish people’s ancient capital; and hundreds of thousands of Arab refugees, spawning a problem that remains unsolved.
Thereafter, this country, forged amid gun blasts and mourning wails, remained besieged. In the 1950s, Fedayeen, guerillas from Egypt, continually raided Israeli settlements in the South, culminating in the 1956 Sinai campaign, wherein Israel overran the Sinai Peninsula, but then withdrew under American pressure. Tensions in the 1960s culminated in Arab vows to push the Jews into the sea in the tense spring of 1967. Instead, Israel’s Six-Day War victory that June resulted in a dramatic expansion geographically, as Israel seized control of the Sinai in the south from Egypt, the Golan Heights in the north-east from Syria, and the West Bank including Jerusalem, due East from Jordan, which had controlled the territory without international approval for nineteen years.
The Six-Day War polarized positions in the Middle East. The humiliated Arabs embraced the “Three No’s of Khartoum”: no negotiation, no recognition, no compromise. And the triumphal Israelis believed they did not need to compromise. Moreover, Israel’s decision to develop Jewish settlements in the 1967 territories has proven to be explosive. Some settlements are for security, some reflect ideology, some reestablished overrun settlements and some contain Israel’s population overflow. But Western critics and the Palestinians defined all as obstacles to peace, changing the moral calculus for many.
The 1970s shook the region up in three ways. First, the Egyptian-Syrian surprise attack in October 1973 represented the last major conventional military attempt to eradicate the Jewish State -- it almost succeeded but the Israelis fought back in three bloody weeks of battle. Second, the Palestinians, led by Yasir Arafat, used spectacular terrorist attacks to improve their diplomatic and popular standing. And finally, the Yom Kippur War’s aftermath, by boosting Egyptian pride, propelling Egypt from the Soviet orbit into the American orbit, and convincing Egypt’s military leaders that their undermotivated invading army would never destroy the Jews who were defending their home, encouraged Egypt President’s Anwar Sadat to visit Jerusalem in 1977.
The resulting Camp David Accords of 1978 and Egypt-...
Daniel Patrick Moynihan died ten years ago this week, on March 26, 2003. His remarkable career took him from Hell’s Kitchen to Harvard, from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to the Nixon and Ford administrations, and from serving as America’s U.N. Ambassador for only eight months, starting in July 1975, to New York’s senator for four terms, from 1977 to 2001. But Moynihan “was not interested in power,” his widow Elizabeth Moynihan recalls, “Pat was interested in access for his ideas.” His unconventional ideas continue to illuminate public debate, his patriotic vision of liberal national greatness remains relevant, and his towering presence is sorely missed.
As social scientist, public intellectual, and professorial politician, someone, who George Will quipped, wrote more books as senator than most senators have read, Moynihan enjoyed defying the conventional wisdom. In truth, it cost him dearly in 1965 when his “Moynihan Report” warning about “the Negro family’s” deterioration was called racist. Five decades later, as four of ten American babies are born to unmarried mothers, we have indeed “defined deviancy down,” the phrase he forged in 1993.
In the Senate, Moynihan also offered a forward-thinking, creative alternative to gun control. Realizing there were too many guns on the street already, he proposed increasing the tax on hollow-tipped bullets by “Ten thousand percent” to limit the ammunition supply. He proclaimed: “Guns don’t kill people; bullets do.”
More broadly, Moynihan struggled to save liberalism from the extremism of his fellow liberals as well as conservatives. During the 1960s and 1970s, when so many on the hard Left escalated their national self-criticism into collective self-loathing, he thundered: “It is past time we ceased to apologize for an imperfect democracy. Find its equal.” In 1976, he ran for Senate using the campaign slogan: “This is a society worth defending.” Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama won as liberal Democrats in post-1960s America, by distancing themselves from the hard left’s self-abnegation.
Beyond the apologetics, Moynihan acknowledged that in the persistent “tension between liberty and equality,” he favored “liberty.” Political totalitarianism worried him more than social inequities. Thus, he identified as a Wilsonian progressive, an FDR liberal, or a Great Society activist but not a neo-conservative. Moynihan suggested to “Punch” Sulzberger, the New York Times’ publisher, that whenever reporters called Moynihan a “neoconservative,” they should instead write “a liberal who votes for the defense budget” or simply a “liberal patriot.”
For all his skepticism toward liberals, Moynihan defended the welfare state during the Reagan era. He remained committed to the “great idea” at the heart of the Democratic Party, “that an elected government can be the instrument of the common purpose of a free people; that government can embrace great causes and do great things.”
In that spirit, before he became senator, Moynihan defended American values in November, 1975, as U.N. ambassador, when the Soviet Union helped push through General Assembly Resolution 3379 calling Zionism racism, trying to humiliate the United States six months after South Vietnam fell. Moynihan’s politics of patriotic indignation galvanized Americans during a time of national despair. Courageously condemning this “big Red lie,” that one form of nationalism, Jewish nationalism, in a forum of nationalisms, was somehow racist, paved the way for the patriotic resurgence of Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” 1980s.
Left to right: New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, President Jimmy Carter, New York Governor Hugh Carey, and New York City Mayor Ed Koch at the White House on November 2, 1978. Via Flickr.
The rapturous praise for the late New York Mayor Ed Koch tames his legacy, overlooking the fact that in 1988 the Atlantic called him “disgraceful” while the New York Times declared his “relentless … truculence” and “tantrum[s],” embarrassing and “inflammatory.” Beyond the kind sentiment, caricaturing Koch as a feisty lone gunslinger wisecracking his city back to health misses the deeper historical significance of Koch’s attempt to save liberalism from itself, as well as the broader ambivalence Americans have had with political anger.
Ed Koch, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and other practitioners of the politics of patriotic indignation understood, especially in the 1970s, that sometimes anger is the rational response to challenges -- and can certainly pay off politically. They used flashes of anger -- and wit -- to inspire Americans while seeking to preserve a more muscular, patriotic liberalism under assault from the more self-critical, McGovernik, identity-politics-driven New Left.
At the time, many Americans were demoralized by inflation roaring, crime soaring, family breakdown spreading and the specters of Watergate and Vietnam haunting the country. The Big Apple, New York, appeared rotten, one big gritty, grimy, terrifying crime scene slouching toward chaos, oozing toxicity, reeking of decay, teetering toward bankruptcy. As students of the urban scene, as traditional Franklin Roosevelt liberals, and as patriots who fought in World War II and eventually opposed the Vietnam War, both Ed Koch and Pat Moynihan understood that Americans -- and New Yorkers -- craved proud, affirmative, edgy leadership.
Moynihan paved the way as America’s ambassador to the United Nations in 1975. Offended by the Soviet-orchestrated Arab-endorsed General Assembly Resolution 3379 singling out one form of nationalism in that body of nationalisms, Jewish nationalism, meaning Zionism, as racism, six months after the fall of South Vietnam, Moynihan let loose. In his historic speech on November 10, 1975, Moynihan proclaimed that his country “does not acknowledge, it will not abide by, it will never acquiesce in this infamous act” -- echoing Franklin Roosevelt’s fury at the Japanese “day of infamy” which decimated Pearl Harbor.
Told that he was not being diplomatic enough, advised to “tone down” his defense of democracy and decency, Moynihan asked, “What is this word toning down; when you are faced with an outright lie about the United States and we go in and say this is not true. Now, how do you tone that down? Do you say it is only half untrue? What kind of people are we? What kind of people do they think we are?”
Even in the era of the smiley face and the “Have a Nice Day” mantra, even amid America’s characteristic stability and widespread liberty, there was a surliness to seventies culture. The fall 1975 television season’s top show -- for the sixth consecutive year -- was All in the Family, set in Queens, NY, with the gruff Archie Bunker, while the children’s hit Sesame Street was making Oscar the Grouch a national icon.
In 1976, a year after Resolution 3379, there were more echoes of Moynihan’s approach in the Academy Award–winning movie Network, starring Peter Finch -- and written by the Bronx-born Paddy Chayefsky. Finch, as Howard Beale, the avenging news anchor, commanded his viewers to stand up, open the window, “stick your head out, and yell, ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!’”
Chayefsky’s slogan captured the 1970s’ Zeitgeist. Many of the 1970s’ most successful politicians understood that many Americans were indeed mad as hell. Big-city Democratic mayors such as Koch, elected in 1977, and Philadelphia’s Frank Rizzo, perfected an aggressive in-your-face leadership style. Calling himself a “liberal with sanity” demonstrated Koch’s prickly independence, and his refusal to allow liberalism to become defined by weakness or appeasement.
Many American WASPs and rationalist American historians have been ambivalent about anger. Americans have long tried repressing this emotion rather than channeling it. The most famous historical analysis of anger stigmatized it. “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds,” Richard Hofstadter wrote in “The Paranoid Style in American History,” in Harper’s in 1964. He chose the word “paranoid” to evoke “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and...
This week, both America’s inauguration and Israel’s election demonstrated democracy’s vitality. Both special moments offered valuable lessons about the rational and mystical elements of this extraordinary form of government, based on liberty, mutual respect and consent of the governed.
The inauguration was a legitimizing ceremony and a healing moment, inviting Americans to cheer their system’s stability, their government’s continuity, and the opportunity every fresh start represents -- even second terms. The U.S. president is both king and prime minister, head of state and head of government. Those kingly aspects have a magical, otherworldly dimension. The pageantry, the oath, the red, white and blue bunting, the inaugural balls, and, these days, the requisite dash of celebrity with Beyoncé lip-synching the Star Spangled Banner as Bill Clinton beamed in the background, reinforced the president’s place in America’s pantheon, linked to his legendary predecessors. The range of politicians on the podium, followed by the bipartisan Capitol Hill lunch -- rather than a Tea Party -- emphasized the celebration’s non-partisan patriotic character, as even disappointed Mitt Romney Republicans hailed their president.
The inaugural address was both state paper and partisan spur. Barack Obama quoted from the Declaration of Independence and forged a new holy trinity of milestones in the fight for equality by celebrating the women’s movement, civil rights movement and gay liberation movement with his “Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall” phrasing. He then elbowed his Republican rivals, snapping: “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.”
Israel’s election harked back to Americans’ drama during their presidential contest. In our world, with so many dictators and terrorists undermining liberty and disrespecting the people’s right to rule, every smooth, peaceful, democratic Election Day is a miracle to applaud, especially when it occurs in the Middle East. This time, many particularly enjoyed watching leading politicians, sophisticated pollsters and know-it-all pundits confounded.
Love him or hate him, fans of populism had to appreciate how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political miscalculations reinforced the people’s power. Netanyahu erred by uniting his Likud Party with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beteinu Party -- Lieberman’s thuggery offended moralists while being dropped too low on the list demoralized Likud activists. Similarly, it was fun watching pollsters stumble, demonstrating that not everything is so predictable in our overly monitored, statistic-driven world. Most polls predicted 11 to 12 seats for Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid -- There Is a Future -- Party. The surge that gave him 50 percent more seats reflected the non-ultra-Orthodox Israeli middle class’s frustration with being over-taxed, over-worked and under-inspired as well as Election Day’s alchemy: moods shift, turnouts count, campaigns matter, democracy works.
Moreover, partisan commentators’ simplistic laments in Israel and abroad about “Bibi’s Israel” being anti-democratic, theocratic and hopelessly right-wing were wrong before Election Day, but more demonstrably false afterward, when the country’s polarization, liberal vitality and democratic volatility could no longer be overlooked, no matter how deep one’s prejudice toward Netanyahu or Israel. And Netanyahu will have to listen to the real Israel, middle Israel. The electoral math will allow him to form a right-wing-religious coalition -- but the people’s will demands a broader, more centrist government.
Neither America’s inauguration nor Israel’s election could obscure the deep divisions in both countries, their persistent problems, and one common challenge facing U.S. and Israel, that even polite Canada is starting to share -- today’s toxic partisanship. As a historian, I know that partisanship and mudslinging have old pedigrees. But democratic toxicity ebbs and flows. Moments of deep, dysfunctional division alternate with moments of majestic unity. In addition to whatever issues fragment individuals in the three countries, the modern media’s 24/7 news hysteria, the emerging blogosphere’s anything-goes nastiness, and our individuated, often selfish, advanced capitalist societies are giving politics today a particularly sharp, uncooperative edge.
It is easy, when examining these three allies, to criticize constantly, despair deeply and discount the inauguration’s magic, Election Day’s power, and the daily miracles that make the United States, Israel, and Canada members of today’s embattled minority of smooth, safe, functioning democracies. As we learn from each other to appreciate the good and try limiting the bad, we...
As Barack Obama drafts his second inaugural speech, he should remember the speeches that made him president. He should ponder the vision of multicultural nationalism in his 2004 Democratic Convention keynote. He should revive the controlled but righteous indignation in his 2008 address on race relations that defused the Reverend Jeremiah Wright controversy. And he should tap into the lyrical patriotism that made his first victory speech soar. He also should ignore his first inaugural address -- which replaced the eloquent, electrifying, inspiring “Yes We Can” candidate he was with the technocratic, overwhelmed, sobering president he has become.
The contrast on Inauguration Day 2009, between his restrained speech and the crowd’s near messianic expectations was striking. Fans hailed Mr. Obama for recognizing the challenges. But after four years of pedestrian appeals to Americans as sensible “folks,” Americans need less schoolmarm and more romance, less presidential cod liver oil and more rhetorical bubbly.
True, Mr. Obama’s sober response was logical. When succeeding Franklin Roosevelt as president in 1945, Harry Truman said he felt as if the “moon and stars” had fallen upon him. Mr. Obama telegraphed similar combinations of humility and fear -- and has continually emphasized his constraints. After the Sandy Hook massacre, reflecting many Americans’ frustration with Mr. Obama’s caution, this time regarding gun violence, ABC’s Jake Tapper asked: “Where have you been?” Mr. Obama answered, characteristically, by mentioning “the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, an auto industry on the verge of collapse, two wars.” He then said, “all of us have to do some reflection on how we prioritize what we do here in Washington.”
Mr. Obama’s prioritizing prudence is reminiscent of Martin Luther King’s initial stiffness when speaking at the August, 1963, civil rights march. The singer Mahalia Jackson, who had heard him mesmerize crowds before, yelled, “tell them about your dream Martin.” Mr. King did -- and made history.
Mr. Obama must now let loose, offering the lyrical leadership Americans crave -- and which they originally hired him to deliver. Americans want a public educator and consensus builder, not a technocratic grind.
Mr. Obama should use moments like the Newtown massacre to channel public indignation into action. He should learn from eloquent predecessors like Mr. King, and like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the former Harvard professor and America’s Ambassador to the UN who denounced the 1975 Zionism is racism resolution, even though his boss Henry Kissinger ordered him to be less confrontational and it was not clear that attacking the UN would be popular with Americans. Mr. Moynihan’s moment also made history. “An issue of honor, of morality, was put before us and not all of us ran,” Mr. Moynihan explained.
This politics of patriotic indignation should mix with a grandeur of moral imagination. Unlike Mr. Obama, John Kennedy ignored the hopes his presidency generated. In 1962, when briefed about new ideas mobilizing young African Americans, Mr. Kennedy asked “where are they getting them?” His adviser Louis Martin exclaimed: “From you!” Still, only in June, 1963 did Mr. Kennedy define civil rights as “primarily” a “moral issue,” as “old as the Scriptures” and “as clear as the American Constitution.”
Decades later, even when Mr. Obama helped pass landmark health care legislation, he failed to define the issue clearly. His phrasemakers’ toolbox always seems locked, his sense of drama muted. When confronting Republicans, even when faced with fiscal cliffs and uncontrolled guns, “No Drama Obama” often seems more miffed than mad, more politically inconvenienced than morally indignant.
Americans do not just want melodrama. America needs a muscular moderate, an artful orator, to capture the moment, forge a national consensus, and brand it effectively. Abraham Lincoln did it in his second inaugural by envisioning a Reconstruction based on “malice toward none.” Franklin D. Roosevelt mixed indignation with imagination in his second inaugural when he tackled the...
Historical mythology treats it as one of America’s shining moments. Amid a searing civil war, the saintly president freed America’s slaves with the stroke of a pen, and a moving commitment to equality, which went into effect one hundred fifty years ago. In fact, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of September 22, 1862, slated to go into effect January 1, 1863, is more prose than poetry, more a cautious state paper than a sweeping declaration. Historian Richard Hofstadter scoffed that it had “all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading.” Indeed, this limited document only freed “all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States.” There is, however, a deeper lesson here. Much of Abraham Lincoln’s greatness -- and his effectiveness -- stemmed from such caution. The remaining slaves in the Union were freed eventually and -- thanks to Lincoln -- inevitably. But even during America’s great Civil War, Abraham Lincoln remained rooted in America’s centrist political culture, preferring an incremental pragmatism to zealous extremism.
A passionate nationalist, committed to America’s founding documents and defining ideals, Lincoln became a leader seeking balance at a time of turbulence, a man of measure tempering a politics of passion. Lincoln ably balanced his Western populism with an Eastern go-getterish ambition, his homespun frontier sensibility with more polished statesmanlike eloquence, a lawyerly commitment to constitutionalism with a progressive commitment to change, the fight for union with the crusade against slavery, the proslavery border states with the abolitionist New England states, the need to triumph with the hope to heal. Lincoln functioned as the great American gyroscope in a critical time, steadying his reeling nation. Yet rather than worshiping an outdated status quo, Lincoln propelled the nation forward, understanding that the revolutionary changes America needed were best implemented slowly, thoughtfully, deliberately -- or at least as deliberately as possible. His modest statement in 1864 captures it beautifully: "I claim not to have controlled events but confess plainly that events have controlled me."
The statement is wonderfully, constructively, disingenuous. If Lincoln had been as humble as he liked to sound, he never would have entered politics. Moreover, he would not have been so effective. A master yachtsman, Lincoln rode the winds roiling his country, sailing forward where he wished to go -- while attributing setbacks or slowdowns to natural forces beyond his control.
Abraham Lincoln’s story further suggests there may have been other, less bloody, ways to end slavery. Lincoln, the American leader who actually freed the slaves and saved the union, often clashed with the abolitionists and the radical Republicans. Both groups denounced him so fiercely he dismissed them as “fiends.” The story of Lincoln’s presidency and of the Emancipation Proclamation reaffirms the importance of presidential center-seeking, while acknowledging the constructive tension that can result from radical outsiders demanding change, especially when fighting a monstrous injustice such as slavery. Still, for this system to work, and for democracy to progress, the leader must channel the intense energies of the fanatics, transforming their high voltage vision into lower wattage practical policies suitable for domestic consumption.
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The Civil War proved much harder to win than Lincoln expected. In spring 1862, General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac failed to reach the Confederate capital of Richmond via the Virginia Peninsula. The defeat demoralized the Union.
Ironically, the Peninsula campaign setback liberated the president. The Confederate Army was using slaves on the battlefield to cook food, dig trenches, build fortifications, staff hospitals. This freed more Confederate soldiers to fight. Many slaves were running farms, helping the rebel homefront too. By defining the issue of freeing slaves as a “military necessity,” Lincoln could emancipate slaves in the rebellious territories by using presidential war powers. On July 13, 1862, Lincoln told Secretary of State William Seward and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles that emancipation was "absolutely essential for the salvation of the Union, that we must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued.” On July 17, Congress passed the Second Confiscation Act, freeing the slaves of those rebelling against the government. This Act, which violated the Republican platform’s promise that Congress would not end slavery, further emboldened Lincoln. As a politician, he read the shifting political winds. As...
Americans’ collective cry of anguish following the incomprehensible Sandy Hook school rampage has a special resonance this holiday season, four years into our devastating recession. Pundits are making the carnage in the ironically named “new” town the latest symbol of our troubles: our ugly politics, our vulgar culture, our frail economy, our frayed families, our strained psyches, our fragile society. Once again, we ask, is this what the American democratic experiment has wrought?
In burying these twenty pure children and their six noble adult protectors, we fear we are interring America’s innocence, that we have descended into a new state of irredeemable sin. America has long been the land of happy endings, a place so optimistic and romantic we could transform Europe’s dark, Grimm Fairy Tales into happy-dappy, technicolor Disney movies. But in our collective sense of guilt and inadequacy -- even when it was yet another lone crazed gunman -- him not us -- lies national salvation. Feeling responsible can redeem not just humiliate.
As a novus ordo seclorum, a new order for the ages, the United States has frequently inspired and frequently disappointed its citizens and fans. The Declaration of Independence combined a sober legal indictment of King George with a messianic call for national virtue, banking on “the rectitude of our intentions.” And during the Revolution, American patriots paraded their virtue by wearing homespun clothing, rejecting European decadence, wearing their commitments to this redemptive revolutionary vision on their no-longer-so-elegant sleeves.
Decades later, Abraham Lincoln’s oratorical grandeur as the national preacher helped Northerners work through their guilt of tolerating slavery then unleashing a mass slaughter to stop it. Thanks to Lincoln’s words, and his martyrdom, Americans emerged from the great Civil War with their sense of innocence intact, despite the mass carnage, with over 600,000 killed.
That naïve sense of American virtue persisted despite being severely tested through two world wars, the self-doubts of the Great Depression, and America’s affront to humanity in radiating Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Franklin D. Roosevelt, with his high-toned Four Freedoms to trump Nazi evil, followed by Harry Truman with his plainspoken justification "I want the Jap war won," restored Americans’ messianic sense of themselves.
Two simultaneous postwar ruptures threatened Americans’ seemingly ever-renewable sense of purity. The rebellions of the 1960s undermined Americans’ collective self-confidence, especially among the American elites who saw American racism, sexism, and class conflict as defining sins. Just as America started fixing these abuses, many lost faith in their country’s ability to do just that. Meanwhile, the great crime wave of the 1960s and 1970s violated many Americans' sense of personal security while raising doubts about the goodness of American individuals -- and humanity itself. Traditional liberals fighting New Left nihilism warned against this "failure of nerve" -- and loss of hope.
Ronald Reagan eventually came to town in the 1980s, singing a new patriotic song, spurring Americans to make their country a "shining 'city upon a hill.'" From across the aisle, both Bill Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s campaigns echoed that redemptive sense of hope. Americans swooned right then left when enticed with that vision.
This vision’s reforming, regenerative, power is a force energized by Americans' Western values, Christian roots, democratic mechanisms, and continental brawn. It is America’s cleanest renewable energy source. And it is the wellspring of the faith the grieving families, the scarred new-town, and our traumatized country must summon once again, aware that we risk being disappointed again, but unwilling to be paralyzed by self-loathing or self-doubt. We have no choice but to believe again, to heal.
When what then appeared to be a lone crazed gunman killed John F. Kennedy, the heartbroken journalist Mary McGrory sighed, "We’ll never laugh again." A Kennedy administration staffer, Daniel Patrick Moynihan replied, "We’ll laugh again, but we’ll never be young again." A decade later, in 1975, Moynihan became an American icon when by standing up as America’s UN ambassador against the General Assembly’s Zionism is racism resolution, he galvanized the nation, showing how to stand nobly, courageously, for justice. This redemptive moment echoed the freedom-loving Patrick Henry’s "give me liberty or give me death" speech, amplified the fury of Franklin Roosevelt’s "day of infamy" address, and anticipated the optimistic nationalism of Reagan’s "morning in America" and Obama’s "Yes we can."
The Newtown slaughter of six-year-olds has aged us all. But Moynihan...
Obama rally on election night in Chicago. Credit: Flickr/WCHI News.
On Election Day, Americans gave Barack Obama a second shot at immortality. Four years earlier, the achievement was in the election itself, the election of an African American who described himself as a skinny guy with a funny name. This time around, the achievement is going to have to be in the achievements.
Election Day taught those who had not already grasped this essential lesson that we now live in Obamerica. Obamerica is multiracial, not just white. It has many religions and many secularists, not just Protestants. It has many different forms of living arrangements, not just the mom, the dad, 2.2 kids, the white picket fence and the suburban garage. It is multicultural, multiethnic, less monolithic, more diverse sociologically, ideologically, politically.
Had Barack Obama lost, his election could have been dismissed as an Obamanomaly, a fluke -- or, more accurately, a premature warning. But the new America that Obama represents and leads was best illustrated in the competing optics of the two political party conventions this summer. The Republican convention looked like a Midwestern church social, overwhelmingly white, square, traditional. The Democratic convention looked like an urban club scene, multiracial, hip, progressive. And the numbers on Election Day confirmed this -- Obama’s army of African Americans, Hispanic Americans, young Americans, well-educated Americans, and women triumphed over Romney’s white-bread coalition of the well-bred -- and their wannabes.
Just as the classic American political movie The Candidate ends with an unexpected electoral victory and the unnerving question “What do we do now?” Obama must figure out “What do we do now?” Part of the answer is watch and wait. There is this phenomenon called the business cycle. Had Obama been forcibly retired this week, the 7.9 percent unemployment rate would have defined him. Now, he has four years to watch the markets continue to recover, and Americans retool, revive, and return to prosperity.
But passivity is not an option in 2012; waiting is not enough. The first major challenge Obama must face is the Republicans’ enduring enmity. The man who promised to change Washington and heal the nation cannot continue to be proof that Washington is gridlocked and the nation hopelessly divided. It is not just this looming “fiscal cliff” of nearly $500 billion in automatic cuts and tax hikes to fight the deficit. Obama’s legacy will be shaped by his ability to live up to his 2008 vow to create a new kind of politics. Blaming Republican obstructionism for his failure is not good enough.
In addition to fording the gap with Republicans and not falling off the economic cliff, Obama has to worry about the unemployment pit, the health care fog and the Middle East morass. Too many Americans are unemployed and need to rejoin the work force. Obamacare still remains too complex, and too undefined -- now the Ppresident has a chance to oversee its implementation. And the messes in Iran and Syria, Libya -- and who knows where next -- still loom large.
Finally, Obama has to worry about the second term curse. Second term presidents quickly become lame ducks -- and have recently run into real trouble: Richard Nixon with the Watergate hearings, Ronald Reagan with Iran-Contra, Bill Clinton with the Lewinsky scandal, and George W. Bush with the great crash. Presidential power starts ebbing as inauguration day ends. Obama has to figure out how to show the people that he is in charge, that he has a vision, and that he can do the difficult, complex but critical job, Obamerica just rehired him to do.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
As we end this searing presidential campaign, rather than offering an historian’s analysis or a pundit’s prediction, allow me to make a patriotic American’s plea. Growing up, we frequently heard the sexist sports cliché “may the best man win.” My plea to Democrats and Republicans, to Leftists and Rightists, to Blue Staters and Red Staters, to Americans -- is “let the winning candidate win,” meaning accept the American people’s verdict on Tuesday.
No matter what happens, tens of millions of people will be deeply disappointed; it has been that kind of campaign. The enmity, the bashing, all the talk of how different the candidates are and how polarized America is, combined with the fact that since the first debate each camp’s partisans could taste victory, will all but guarantee bad feelings if, as usually happens, one clear winner emerges on Election Day. Even before the campaign ended, murmurs started bubbling up, with some Democratic partisans ready to shout “voter intimidation” and some Republican partisans ready to shout “voter fraud.”
In truth, American politics is remarkably corruption-free these days. We have come a long way from “swilling the planters with bumbo” in eighteenth-century Virginia, the blatant manipulation of the “blocks of five, Dudley, scandal,” which custom-ordered votes in nineteenth-century Indiana, the crass “honest and dishonest graft” of Boss Tweed’s New York, Mayor Richard Daley’s Chicago of “vote early and vote often” or Richard Nixon’s Washington of bugging, break-ins and cover-ups.
This year’s candidates are honorable, stable family men. Barack Obama has run a seemingly corruption-free White House while Mitt Romney has been accused, at worst, of taking advantage of bad unfair laws, not breaking them. In general, compared to nineteenth-century America, post-Sixties, post-Watergate, 24/7 media-scrutinized twenty-first-century America has better, cleaner government, even though faith in the government’s purity and efficacy is at record lows -- thanks to some of those very phenomenon that keep the government in check.
If recent history is the guide, the outcome on Election Day will reflect the people’s will not a cheater’s skill -- and the accusation “we wuz robbed” will most likely reflect partisan frustration rather than the actual situation
So, my fellow Americans, please accept the people’s verdict on Tuesday and acknowledge the winner’s legitimacy.
Losing partisans should be gracious in the tradition of George Washington, who acknowledged that rational people can reason their way to differing conclusions, and of Abraham Lincoln, who even promised to handle a rebellious South “with malice toward none and charity toward all.”
They should accept their fates in the tradition of Samuel Tilden, who in 1876 conceded his heartbreaking, unfair loss to Rutherford B. Hayes, to avoid risking another Civil War, and of Al Gore, who battled up to the Supreme Court in 2000, then helped his opponent transition smoothly into power.
They can try laughing off their agony as George McGovern did in 1972 when he said he had wanted to run for president in the worst way -- and did -- or as John McCain did in 2008 when he said that after the campaign he “slept like a baby,” waking up periodically -- and crying hysterically. One McGovern obituary reported last month, when asked when you finally get over losing a presidential campaign, McGovern said, “you never fully get over it” -- and he died at ninety.
Meanwhile, the winners should be magnanimous in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson, who after the first transition from a ruling party to an opposition party in American history declared “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists” and of U.S. Grant’s Native American aide Ely Parker, who, when greeted by the defeated Confederate General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox with the words “I am glad to see one real American here,” grandly replied: “We are all Americans, sir."
America’s rituals of political warfare are precious to us all, from the stump speeches and debates, which can sometimes elevate, to the mudslinging and the recriminations, which frequently demean us all. But our reconciliation rituals are precious to us too -- with a healing process that usually begins with the losing nominee’s phone call to the winner and gracious concession speech, then culminates with bipartisan participation in the inauguration ceremony. And this year in particular, a quick end to the extended conflict is particularly necessary. Our leader will have a country to run -- and we all have a world to fix.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
As Hurricane Sandy pounds the East Coast, endangering as many as 60 million Americans, just days before Election Day, it is reasonable to worry about possible disruptions next Tuesday. States have a responsibility to protect their citizens, while democracies have a responsibility to hold fair elections. And especially after such a high stakes campaign, every voter who wishes to vote should be able to cast a ballot safely and comfortably. L.V. Anderson on Slate offers a thoughtful overview of the legal issues involved if areas are out of power, roads are blocked or polling stations are inaccessible. I hope, however, that Election Day goes off smoothly, with no postponements, no disruptions -- as it did in 1864 during the Civil War, as it did in 1944, during World War II.
The thicket of state and country regulations -- and the relative irrelevance of the federal government here -- reminds us that these are 50 state-by-state elections, thanks to the Electoral College. True, presidents have wide emergency powers, and Congress could enact an emergency law, but any decision about extending polling hours, postponing Election Day, or other improvisations will most probably be made by governors, state judges, secretaries of state, or even county election officials.
I wish I could say that I and my fellow Americans have total faith in the probity and professionalism of these civic leaders, and that I and my fellow Americans would trust that only health and safety issues will be at play. However, especially since the 2000 electoral deadlock, we have an epidemic of mistrust in America -- and, I regret to say, many political and judicial leaders who have earned that mistrust fair and square.
Legitimacy is one of the most precious assets a democracy can enjoy. I have long marveled at the speed with which Americans have gone and still go from fighting vigorously during an election, and then accepting the people’s verdict. In the nineteenth century there were actual reconciliation rituals, parades, special election cakes, to mark the shift from fighting for power to legitimizing the new powers. To me, the most powerful recent legitimizing tableau we witnessed was the scene of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Bill Clinton and Al Gore, all playing their parts magnificently in the 2000 inauguration, just weeks after the sloppy Supreme Court ending to the 2000 campaign.
I fear that this natural disaster could easily turn into a political disaster. I fear a wave of Election Day improvisations and accommodations will lead to a tsunami of recriminations and lawsuits. So my plea to state and country officials is: when in doubt, tough it out -- let Election Day proceed as normally as possible. Just as our juries are only supposed to convict when the evidence is overwhelming, electoral officials should only make changes when the need to is compelling. And just as I hope that partisans on the day after Election Day accept the overall decision without crying foul, I hope that partisans on the day after Election Day will not feel compelled to doubt any changes made due to the chaos wreaked by Sandy.
Could it be that despite all that tension and testosterone, that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney agree a whole lot more about foreign policy than they disagree? I learned from the debate that both candidates hope to stop Iran, contain China, support Israel, and magically conjure up a peaceful solution in Syria while seeing a flourishing Democratic Arab spring. I also learned that both candidates would prefer to speak about domestic issues than foreign issues, as they repeatedly segued into their economic and education programs, claiming that achieving a “strong America” is a foreign policy issue too. These shifts reflected the American people’s mood – this election is much more about domestic policy than foreign policy.
True, at heart Barack Obama is more an idealistic internationalist, preferring multilateralism and global cooperation, while Mitt Romney is a muscular isolationist, yearning for American autonomy and insisting on American strength. But these differences pale before the fact that it is difficult to assess any candidate’s foreign policy ideology – let alone how that candidate will act as president. Predicting how a president will function in foreign affairs is as reliable as guessing how first-time parents will act when their children become teenagers – lovely theories succumb to tumultuous unforeseen squalls.
Foreign policy is particularly elusive due to the unpredictability of foreign events, the mushiness in American foreign policy ideologies, and the often-constructive tradition of presidents abandoning their preconceptions once they actually start governing. Barack Obama himself is proof of the haziness here. To the extent that Senator Obama had a foreign policy vision in 2008 as a candidate – when he had as little foreign policy experience as Governor Romney has in 2012 – his presidency has frequently succeeded by forgetting it. As Obama boasts about getting Osama Bin Laden and approving the Afghanistan surge, and as Guantanamo Bay remains open, pacifist leftists are understandably wondering what happened to their anti-war, human rights hero. If Obama is correct that the Republican candidate’s newly moderate domestic policies reflect “Romnesia”; pacifist leftists could mourn many such “Obaminations.”
Ultimately, the convergence offered a welcome reminder, as this campaign intensifies, that America’s greatest foreign policy victories, including winning World War II and the Cold War, were bipartisan moments uniting the nation not dividing parties. Whoever wins will have to lead from the center, in both foreign and domestic affairs – moving from the theoretical clashes of the campaign trail to the necessary reconciliations of governance.
While polls show that those surveyed consider Mitt Romney the winner of the first debate with Barack Obama by landslide proportions, the vice presidential debate will probably be perceived as more of a tie. Democrats who went in primed to like Joe Biden will applaud his slash-and-burn aggressiveness. Republicans who went in primed to like Paul Ryan will applaud his wonky Boy Scout earnestness. In the end, this vice presidential debate, like most, will have little impact on the electoral outcome. But the big question this debate raised is one of debating dignity. Biden’s performance – and he was clearly performing – included smirking, scoffing, chuckling, and guffawing, although he seems to have mostly skipped the sighing which hurt Al Gore’s standing in 2000 when he debated George W. Bush.
The quest for dignity is as old as the republic. It reflects America’s more elitist and character-oriented republican roots, as well as the monarchical dimensions involved in executive leadership. Originally, the candidate’s virtue as expressed through his dignity was so cherished it was considered undignified for presidential candidates to run, they stood for election, as George Washington did. But the waves of democracy that transformed America also changed campaigning protocols, launching candidates into the hurly burly of the political process.
Of course, these restrictions apply more to presidents and potential presidents than vice presidents. And there is a strong counter-tradition – which Biden clearly embraced – of the Veep or Veep nominee as tough campaigner, partisan mudslinger, and hatchet man – or woman. In 1900, when William McKinley ran for re-election against the charismatic William Jennings Bryan, McKinley’s running mate Theodore Roosevelt fought hard against the activist Bryan. Roosevelt delivered 673 speeches to an estimated three million people, while Bryan’s 546 speeches reached approximately 2.5 million Americans. As Roosevelt denounced Bryan and the Democrats for appealing “to every foul and evil passion of mankind,” resorting to “every expedient of mendacity and invective,” McKinley remained presidentially above the fray.
Half a century later, Richard Nixon did the dirty work for President Dwight Eisenhower – and then expected his vice president Spiro Agnew to fight the partisan wars of the late 1960s and early 1970s against those “nattering nabobs of negativism,” reporters and Democrats. Most recently, in the 2008 campaign, Sarah Palin’s rhetoric was far harsher than Barack Obama’s, her running mate John McCain’s, or her opponent, Joe Biden’s.
Republicans are already encouraging a backlash against Biden’s antics. Whether this will become a broader phenomenon remains to be seen. But, even with all the handwringing over Obama’s passivity last week, Biden should have been more restrained. His behavior turned ugly not just undignified at the end, when Paul Ryan tried to conclude on a gracious note of respect toward the Vice President, and Biden kept clowning rather than rising to the moment. Although his position is modified by the word “Vice,” America’s number two leader should still act like a president.
Obama’s twelve-day gift to Romney
Barack Obama’s listless and hesitant performance in the first debate gave Mitt Romney a twelve-day gift. Until their next debate on October 16, we can expect a turn towardident more positive coverage of Romney and his campaign. The insta-polls suggest that Romney’s confident, upbeat, persistent point-making in the debate paid off – and the pundits agree. Words like “zombie,” “throat-clearing,” “downward glancing,” “disjointed,” “convoluted,” popped up in the post-debate reviews of Obama’s performance.
But just as Romney’s people went in hoping to recreate the Carter-Reagan debate, which shifted the winning margin to Ronald Reagan in 1980, Romney’s people should remember Walter Mondale’s victory over President Reagan in the first debate of 1984, and John Kerry’s victories over President George W. Bush twenty years later. Debates can be determinative but rarely are. Obama is perfectly capable of coming back. And the election remains close with sobering swing state math for Romney.
Yet while this kind of handicapping is what generates the headlines, the real headline should be that the debates once again worked. They offered substantive exchanges that focus much more on issues, statistics, and philosophy than the passing gaffes which reporters are forever seeking in their perpetual “gotcha” game. Not only did both candidates come across as smart, caring, patriotic individuals who love America and are trying to do their best, they shifted the campaign discussion from nonsense to substance. The debates, with each question triggering a tidal wave of details, invite looks at the candidate’s philosophies, their visions of government, their plans for the next four years. The silly sideshows from partisan extremists look absurd in contrast to the high level discussion Jim Lehrer conducted so well. It is hard after ninety minutes of such seriousness and intensity to return to questions about Obama’s birth or Romney’s riches. The questions and the answers got me – and I daresay most Americans – thinking about who is right and who is wrong, who will be more effective, what are they offering the American people – and what pressing issues remain unaddressed. And so, ultimately, while Obama did give Romney this twelve-day gift, even more important is that both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney gave the American people an even greater gift, at least ninety minutes befitting the majesty of the country and the needs to this moment.
Ronald Reagan campaigning in Columbia, South Carolina, on October 10, 1980, a few weeks before the only debate of the 1980 election. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Happy October, which every four years becomes debate month in American presidential politics. On October 3, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will debate domestic policy in Colorado. On October 11, their vice presidential running mates, Paul Ryan and Joe Biden, will debate in Kentucky. Five days later on October 16, voters at a town meeting in New York will question the two presidential candidates about any issues and on October 22 -- two weeks before Election Day -- Obama and Romney will debate foreign policy in Florida.
These debates -- which are more like side-by-side press conferences with some exchanges -- are usually the political equivalent of military service: long bouts of boredom punctuated by bursts of melodrama. Usually, they reinforce media narratives and voter impressions. But they have sometimes changed outcomes, particularly in 1980, when Ronald Reagan’s aw shucks, “there you go again” dismissal of President Jimmy Carter’s attacks triggered a Reagan surge -- and the largest last-minute switch in poll results since polling began in the 1930s.
Treating history as an authoritative tarot card rather than a subtle source of wisdom, Mitt Romney’s supporters have been touting that ten-point swing as proof that the Republicans will win. The 1980 moment appeals more broadly to Republicans as indication that a gaffe-prone, ridiculed, seemingly out-of-touch former governor can defeat an earnest Democratic incumbent afflicted by a sagging economy, Middle East troubles, and accusations that the twin pillars of his foreign policy are appeasement and apology not power and pride.
The 1980 debate should sober Obama and buoy Romney. In his recent book, The Candidate: What It Takes to Win -- and Hold – the White House, Professor Samuel Popkin, an occasional Democratic campaign adviser, recalls his failure coaching Carter in 1980. Playing Reagan in debate “prep,” Popkin echoed the Republican’s devastating anti-Carter criticisms. Popkin describes the kind of careful criticism Romney should launch against Obama, knowing that if the challenger is too aggressive he looks angry and insolent but if he is too deferential he seems weak and intimidated. Reagan, Popkin writes, “resorted to more subtle, coded criticisms that were harder to defend against. He appeared respectful of the office and the president, suggesting that Carter was hamstrung by defeatist Democrats in Congress.” This approach forced Carter to rebut the premise -- and plaintively claim he was strong -- or the conclusion -- by insisting Democrats were not defeatists. “Contesting one point left him tacitly conceding the other,” Popkin writes.
Obama’s caveat is in Carter’s reaction. Offended and embarrassed by the criticism, Carter ended the session after eleven minutes. Popkin as Reagan had pierced Carter’s “presidential aura,” unnerving everyone in the room. Trying to dispel the tension, Carter’s chief domestic policy advisor, Stuart Eizenstat, himself Jewish, resorted to ethnic humor by pointing to Popkin and joking, “You didn’t know Governor Reagan was Jewish, did you?” Popkin, who quickly replied “Well, Governor Reagan is from Hollywood,” realized that many of Carter’s people, including the aggrieved president, were unfamiliar with Reagan’s attacks because the majesty of the presidency insulated Carter from serious criticism or serious study of his challenger.
Of course, in an ideal world the debates would emphasize issue flashpoints not gaffe-hunting. In Denver, Romney should, Reagan-style, subtly question President Obama as to when he as president will take responsibility for the anemic recovery and lingering unemployment rather than scapegoating his predecessor. At Hofstra University, Romney should ask Obama to explain to the voters present and the American people how his increasing reliance on the heavy hand of federal regulations and big government does not reflect doubt in the traditional invisible hand of individual entrepreneurial Americans and the markets themselves. And in Boca Raton, Romney should prod Obama on the Arab Spring, asking him at what point he would concede that his policy failed rather than simply dismissing the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the murder of American diplomats in Libya, and other Obama-orchestrated disasters as “bumps in the road.” In response, Obama should emphasize his successes in halting the economic freefall, his faith in American ingenuity guided by the government’s occasional, competent,...
The reaction to Ahmadinejad's 2009 visit to the UN. See a pattern here? Credit: Flickr/David Shankbone.
In his recent speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad joined the general pile on against the American presidential campaign. Trying to mock American democracy, he asked “Are we to believe that those who spend hundreds of millions of dollars on election campaigns have the interests of the people of the world at their hearts?” Well, I argue, the answer is “yes.”
Without millions of dollars spent in political campaigns, it would be impossible for candidates to communicate with the people -- and make their case that their vision is indeed best not only for Americans but for others throughout the world. Ahmadinejad said that “Despite what big political parties claim in the capitalistic countries, the money that goes into election campaigns is usually nothing but an investment.” Here, he is correct. The money is an “investment”; an investment in the democratic process.
I am not naïve. I know that too many plutocrats hold too much sway over the American political conversation. I know that too many politicians spend far too much time dialing for dollars rather than politicking with the people. Still, it is hard to take advice from a political hooligan who used violence to secure his own re-election, which a majority of the Iranian people seems to have opposed. And it reflects a lack of proportion in the rhetorical world of the UN, that Ahmadinejad would be tempted to take a very legitimate criticism that raises important questions and dilemmas regarding the mechanics of the American campaign and use it to try delegitimizing American democracy and America itself.
This tyrant’s tirade should remind us to view our current frustrations with the current campaign in context. Yes, there is much that could be improved in the campaign. Yes, the debates we are about to witness will pivot far too much on theatrical skills rather than political messaging. But we should not take the magic of the campaign for granted. This includes the power granted the people to change course, the efforts the President of the United States and his opponent are investing in communicating with the people, and the stability, peace, harmony, and order underlying what has been and will probably continue to be a non-violent, surprisingly efficient, deeply democratic exercise involving tens of millions of voters either validating the incumbent or gently but firmly replacing him, with no tanks in the streets, no thugs manipulating results.
Barack Obama in Columbus, Ohio, on September 17. Credit: Obama for America.
[This piece was originally published in the Globe and Mail.]
America’s presidential campaign is turning surprisingly substantive. True, tomfoolery also abounds, with Democrats mocking Mitt Romney’s rendition of God Bless America, and Republicans questioning Barack Obama’s patriotism. Nevertheless, Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney are offering a dramatic electoral choice, rooted in conflicting visions of government’s role in American life. Even Mr. Romney’s recently revealed comments at a fundraiser, dismissing 47 percent of Americans as too dependent and too hostile to him, reflect this divide.
Mr. Obama recognized this twist in his acceptance speech, saying: “I know that campaigns can seem small and even silly.” But, he insisted, Americans “face the clearest choice of any time in a generation.” This sentiment was one of the few Obama points echoed in Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s acceptance speech.
Although the candidates disagree about much, they keep debating government’s size and reach. Mr. Ryan, whose selection sharpened the two campaigns’ contrasts, described the choice as “whether to put hard limits on economic growth or hard limits on the size of government, and we choose to limit government.” He added: “After four years of government trying to divide up the wealth, we will get America creating wealth again.”
Mr. Romney, who only mentioned the word “government” three times (to Mr. Obama’s 10 mentions), said Americans “look to our communities, our faiths, our families for our joy, our support, in good times and bad.” In the fundraiser video, Mr. Romney’s resentment of Big Government was palpable; as the gaffe flap has grown, he has tried to shift the focus to the question of who gives and who gets in modern America.
Mr. Obama’s response to this anti-government rhetoric has been withering. “Over and over, we have been told by our opponents that bigger tax cuts and fewer regulations are the only way; that since government can’t do everything, it should do almost nothing,” he said. “We don’t think government can solve all our problems. But we don’t think that government is the source of all our problems -- any more than are welfare recipients or corporations or unions or immigrants or gays or any other group we’re told to blame for our troubles.”
Ridiculing years of Republican calls for tax cuts, during booms and busts, Mr. Obama joked: “Feel a cold coming on? Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations and call us in the morning!”
In that same spirit, Mr. Obama’s most effective non-spousal surrogate, Bill Clinton, who upstaged the president at his own renomination party, challenged Americans to “decide what kind of country you want to live in. If you want a ‘you’re on your own, winner take all’ society, you should support the Republican ticket. If you want a country of shared opportunities and shared responsibilities, a ‘we’re all in it together’ society, you should vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden.”
Many Americans root this debate in the 1980s backlash against the 1960s Great Society “every problem requires a big government program solution” approach. When inaugurated in 1981, Ronald Reagan declared that not only was government not the solution to the problem, government was the problem. Fifteen years later, Mr. Clinton declared the era of big government over. But Americans have been debating this question for much longer.
The American Revolution rebelled against heavy-handed government and executive authority. The country’s first governing plan, the Articles of Confederation, so feared government that the central authority lacked any real power. The constitutional counter-revolution of 1787 offered a limited government compared to Europe, but a more vigorous government compared to the revolution’s initial, impotent entity. “We the people” formed the government, with power divided into three branches, each with checks and balances over the other.
This divided governing plan was not enough for some. Ten amendments to the Constitution, mostly restricting the state while guaranteeing more individual freedoms, quickly emerged. The original plan remained so restrictive that a 16th amendment was required in the early twentieth century so Congress could impose a national income tax.
As government expanded, following the centralization of the Civil War in the 1860s, and then with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal responding to the Great Depression, America’s individualistic, entrepreneurial...
Mitt Romney shaking hands with supporters in Belmont, MA, on Super Tuesday. Credit: Flickr/BU Interactive News.
Mitt Romney “stepped in it” we are being told, with hasty remarks trying to slam Barack Obama as an appeaser as the horrific events in Libya and Egypt unfolded. “Romney’s Libya Response Fuels Foreign Policy Doubts,” Bloomberg news proclaims. In our rush-to-judgment gaffe-oriented media culture, reporters are having a grand old time finding Republicans mumbling about Mitt’s meltdown and his “Lehman moment.” The next step, of course, will be to rummage through the historical closet, and find other campaign-ending gaffes. Expect to hear “presidential historians” on the network news pontificating about Gerald Ford’s premature, rhetorical liberation of Eastern Europe from communism during the 1976 presidential debates -- thirteen years before the Soviet Empire crumbled; about Jimmy Carter’s invoking of his teenage daughter Amy’s expertise when talking about nuclear issues four years later; and about Michael Dukakis’s ride in a tank which made him look more like Snoopy fighting the Red Baron than a man prepared to be Commander-in-Chief.
These recent memories build on the modern journalistic addiction to “gotcha” journalism, as well as the more longstanding tendency to explain campaign losses and wins by dramatic turning points. Campaigning history is filled with such moments -- Henry Clay’s Alabama letters taught advisers explaining his 1844 loss to discourage candid candidates; James Blaine’s silence when he was introduced by the Reverend Samuel D. Burchard, who called the Democrats the Party of “Rum, Romanism and Rebellion” on the eve of the 1884 election, had future candidates paying more attention at campaign events, to avoid being “Burchardized” -- and many party bosses trying to keep candidates at home away from any campaign risks. Campaign grand slams having included Franklin Roosevelt’s flight to Chicago to accept the nomination in 1932, putting to rest fears that he was too handicapped to act assertively, while advertising that his “New Deal” for the American public involved a new leadership style not just bold programs, and Ronald Reagan’s “There-you-go-againing” of Jimmy Carter in 1980.
Ironically, pundits and pols are doing the same thing they accuse Romney of doing -- rushing to pronounce final judgment amid a changing and chaotic situation. Historic, devastating gaffes, like Limburger cheese, often need time to become truly pungent -- and sometimes, seemingly devastating gaffes, become like bubble gum, stale and discarded surprisingly quickly. For example, according to polls and focus groups at the time, most viewers watching the debate did not react immediately to Gerald Ford’s 1976 statement that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” Reporters, however, pounced. In the Ford Library, Bob Teeter’s tracking polls show the gaffe problem growing with each turn of the news cycle. By contrast, during the 1980 campaign, Ronald Reagan terrified his advisers and delighted his deriders by suggesting that trees caused more pollution than cars and that Vietnam was a “noble cause.” Lo and behold, not only did Reagan win, but he helped changed the American conversation about Vietnam. Had he lost, these two statements would have loomed large in the why-Reagan-failed narrative, instead of functioning as sidebars to the main story.
So let’s hold off on predicting, barely 24 hours after Romney’s remarks, just what impact his reactions will have -- especially considering that this crisis still has the potential to make the Obama administration look terrible. If Romney ultimately loses, the first comparison I will make of this stumble will be to John McCain’s hasty suspension of his campaign -- which he then quickly rescinded -- in 2008 as the economy tanked. The comparison might be apt as a moment that reinforced other moments, which built into growing, accumulated doubts about a candidate.
Ultimately, however, for now, I would say that this latest Mitt mess points to a broader, surprising, phenomenon we are seeing this campaign. Obama and the Democrats have robbed Republicans of the GOP’s decades-long edge on national security and foreign policy issues. The lingering fallout from the George W. Bush years, combined with Barack Obama’s success in presiding over the demise of Osama bin Laden and other terrorists killed by drones, has resulted in polls showing Americans having more confidence in the Democratic...
Clint Eastwood at a Take Pride in America rally, 2005. Credit: U.S. Government.
All of us are having a grand old time laughing at Clint Eastwood’s all too breezy escapade in Tampa, where the veteran actor and national political rookie showed that he could never say goodbye to the GOP audience, blasting President Barack Obama any which way he could, as the teleprompter light flashed furiously. With the Hollywood icon now In the Line of Fire politically, journalists, pundits, bloggers and academics are mocking his performance, suggesting that rather than propelling the Romney-Ryan ticket forward with the magnum force of his celebrity, the Eastwood thunderbolt backfired, showing him to be a lightweight.
Clearly, as an academic, I resent the near absolute power Hollywood celebrities seem to have in our universe, and the fact that grace is gone, dignity sacrificed, and substance a thing of the past. Even Mitt Romney’s actual acceptance speech seemed more soundbite-driven than lyrical or statesmanlike, with his one-liners reminding me of the revelations in 1988 that Michael Dukakis’s speechwriters actually wrote addresses with the soundbites they hoped reporters would cull already highlighted in the candidate’s text.
But when I read the attack on Eastwood’s “truthiness,” snickering at his slam that the nation did not want to be governed by lawyers but by a businessman even though Mitt Romney went to law school, I started wondering whether we of the chattering classes were misreading the moment. Mitt Romney may have a law degree, but we all know which candidate is the one accused of being able to “argue everything and weigh both sides,” and which one is “the businessman.” Just as in 2000, most Americans preferred George W. Bush’s periodic assaults on the English language to Al Gore’s beautifully-sculpted paragraphs because Bush’s bumbling sounded more authentic, I started wondering about the real political effect of Eastwood’s antics on the audience that counted, the American voters. In a perfect world, actors would stick to their scripts and celebrities would stay in Hollywood without venturing into the Washington -- or other grownup matters. But our political culture walks a tightrope between the popular and the absurd, between that which should work -- and that which actually does.
Clearly, the sudden impact of Eastwood’s riffs was impressive. The convention goers laughed and cheered. Let’s wait for the polls and see if it is possible to discern whether millions of Americans were indeed the beguiled, charmed by Clint’s mix of comedy and politicking, which now goes down easier in the Jon Stewart-Stephen Colbert age of blurred boundaries. Or whether Clint Eastwood truly now is among the unforgiven, a celebrity who overshot, who embarrassed himself and those who sought his help by failing to remember that Hollywood heroes are fictional not real.
Mahalia Jackson, 1962. Credit: Library of Congress
On August 28, 1963, in front of a quarter of a million people massing at the Lincoln Memorial, a young 34-year-old orator felt a little intimidated, a little overwhelmed. Initially, he delivered a somewhat formal address from prepared notes. Suddenly, the singer Mahalia Jackson called out to Martin Luther King, Jr.: "Tell them about your dream Martin, Tell them about the dream!" Turning to oratory he had been perfecting for a decade, King delivered one of the great speeches of all time.
This week, Republicans are desperately in need of a modern-day Mahalia Jackson to liberate Mitt Romney. So far, Romney has failed to inspire many Americans with his life story. He often seems too stiff, too robotic on the campaign trail. Two things seem to be holding him back. First, he has a bit of the patrician George H.W. Bush in him. In 1988, when running for President, Bush was reluctant to get personal, go emotional, or even use the word “I.” His formidable 87-year-old mother, Dorothy Walker Bush, had taught him not to boast, not to focus on himself, not to be a peacock -- and she was still watching him carefully. Eventually, Bush let loose -- so much so that he ended up apologizing after the campaign, and after his victory, for being too aggressive.
A second factor reinforcing Romney’s personal and cultural restraint is his religion. Since entering public life, Romney has learned to be circumspect about his Mormonism. He understands that many evangelical Protestants have deep prejudices against Mormon theology. And while during his 2008 campaign he tried to echo John F. Kennedy’s famous Houston remarks about fighting religious bigotry, he has been too afraid of his skeptical base this time around to go there. But trying to explain the most interesting aspects about Romney, including his charitable initiatives and the lure of public service, without mentioning his Mormonism, is like discussing Barack Obama’s calling without mentioning his racial background or absent father.
Especially in American politics, culture counts. Biography counts. Words matter. We are a nation of story tellers and of rapt listeners. Hollywood -- and American history -- entrance hundreds of millions of people around the world with dramatic tales, inspiring moments, grand lives, compelling ideas. A presidential campaign is a forum for this kind of storytelling and wordsmithing. Americans want to be inspired. They want to know their leaders. They want to be swayed by a compelling narrative, a sweeping vision, and significant ideas. So far, Mitt Romney has failed to provide much of any of that to most Americans. So, when he accepts the Republican nomination for president, the call of history, the call of the people, will be an echo of Mahalia Jackson’s 1963 call to Martin Luther King, Jr.: despite your upbringing, your personality, your religious caution, “Tell them about yourself, Mitt. Tell them about yourself.”