Archive for August, 2008

Obama has made his mark by seizing leadership of the party that was once the bastion of racists

GIL TROY, The Montreal Gazette, HNN, Friday, August 29, 2008

The moment when Hillary Rodham Clinton suspended the state-by-state roll call vote she had demanded, moving for the 2008 Democratic Convention to nominate Senator Barack Obama by acclamation, was extraordinary.

Network cameras, inevitably, zeroed in on African-Americans, young and old, beaming, as tears poured down their cheeks. For the first time in U.S. history, a major political party had nominated a black man to be president. Critics have ample time left to bash Obama for various shortcomings. But this week, anyone who cares about justice, equality, democracy and the American dream can rejoice that Barack Obama was nominated to lead the Democratic Party, once the voice of America’s ugliest racists.

Yes, we can appreciate the extent of America’s turnaround on race by exploring the Democrats’ shameful history. America’s progressive party today – which boasts of being the world’s oldest continuous democratic political party – was founded by Thomas Jefferson, the prince of U.S. paradox, whose slaves waited on him as he wrote the magical words that would eventually free them: “All men are created equal.” By contrast, the Republican Party is the party of Abraham Lincoln, founded in the 1850s to abolish slavery.

Thus, before the Civil War, as the party of the South, of a weak central government, and of Jeffersonian liberty, the Democratic Party defended Southern plantation owners’ freedom to own slaves. After the Civil War, Democrats celebrated the “Lost Cause,” misremembering the attempt to keep human beings enslaved as a noble fight against Big Government and for private prerogative. In the 1930s, the Democratic Party was the party of the powerful southern senators who opposed federal laws banning lynching.

In the 1960s, the Democratic Party was the party of the powerful southern senators who opposed the Civil Rights Movement. Some tried torpedoing the now legendary 1964 Civil Rights Act by adding a sweeping amendment promising women equality, too. These southern racists assumed their fellow sexists in the North would never accept such an absurdity. The strategy backfired. The 1964 act has benefitted women and African-Americans.

Of course, by the 1930s, thanks to Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Democratic Party was becoming the party of the forgotten, the oppressed, the left behind. For three decades, Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson tried propping up the collapsing coalition between northern Democratic liberals, including blacks, and the recalcitrant Southern racists. When Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, he understood that the Democrats would lose the white South for decades – resulting in today’s diversity-obsessed party, now led by the son of a white woman who married a black African.

Barack Obama has campaigned as a leader of all Americans, not the great black hope. But, inevitably, in multicultural democracies, the lines blur. True, Obama’s biggest problem has been being too green – inexperienced – not too black. True, he is of a new post-baby boom generation, freed of Jesse Jackson’s anger, Al Sharpton’s antics, Louis Farrakhan’s hatred. But whenever an individual from a distinct, historically oppressed, sub-group bursts through a glass ceiling, it is both an individual and group achievement.

And so, with Barack Obama having received the Democratic nomination, Americans and freedom-loving people everywhere honour his individual achievement – along with the welcome breakthrough for people of colour and oppressed minorities everywhere. We toast apostles of freedom like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, whose love of liberty laid the groundwork to free their country from the great contradiction of slavery.

We recall the millions who suffered through slavery, and the 600,000 who died in the Civil War to end America’s original sin. We can finally bury “Jim Crow,” the horrific system white Southeners then improvised to imprison freed blacks in a maze of local laws keeping them second-class citizens.

We mock the slavery-loving 19th-century Southeners like Vice-President John C. Calhoun of South Carolina and the “Segregation Now, Segregation Forever,” 20-century racists like Alabama Governor George Wallace, who tried their hardest to put off this day.

So many of us, black and white, Democrats and Republicans, Americans and Canadians, have waited our whole lives for this moment. Barack Obama’s slogan “yes we can,” was a hope and a prayer, a challenge and a yardstick. Much work remains to be done. The United States is is not perfect, racism is certainly not eliminated. But this 47-year-old self-described “skinny kid with a funny name” had proven to us all that “yes we can,” change things for the better; and “yes we can” live long enough to see things improve.

No matter what happens the rest of the campaign or for the rest of his life, for this achievement alone, Barack Obama deserves and has earned historical immortality.

– Gil Troy is a history professor at McGill University and the author, most recently, of Leading from the Centre: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

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Gil Troy, The National Post, Thursday, August 28, 2008

Joe Biden accepting the Democratic Vice-Presudential nomination


As they are gathered in Denver this week to nominate a presidential candidate, Democrats are feeling a bit woozy — and it is not from altitude sickness. Convention-goers are realizing that the conventional wisdom about this election is wrong. For months we have heard that 2008 will be a Democratic year, with Americans fed up with George W. Bush ready to repudiate any Republican candidate. Most reporters, blinded by Obamania, have treated Barack Obama’s lead in the polls over John McCain as permanent, predicting an easy victory for the young, charismatic Illinois Senator over the ageing, pro-Iraq war imperialist.

Yet, the Obamomentum has slowed. Obama’s poll ratings have softened. The criticism is mounting. John McCain suddenly looks like a contender. The Democrats have a race on their hands — thanks to Hillary and Bill Clinton’s lingering anger, the world’s constant chaos and Barack Obama’s lost summer of missed opportunities.

Presidential campaigns mix the high and low deliciously — high stakes and noble ideals combine with base motives and lowball tactics. Obama’s Clinton conundrum — how to handle Hillary — reflects this range of motives that makes politics so compelling. Many women were bitterly disappointed that the strongest female presidential contender in their lifetimes failed. Their discontent mixes with the Clintons’ personal pique at this upstart who ruined their plans to create a significant anti-Obama sentiment. The more than 17 million votes Hillary Clinton amassed in her campaign for the nomination demonstrated a tremendous political force that Obama must manage.

On Tuesday night, Clinton gave an effective speech about party unity, but the “catharsis” she nonetheless demanded through a roll call vote last night stole the spotlight from Obama, and injected a Clintonesque psychodrama Democrats do not need barely two months before election day. Every interview with Bill or Hillary Clinton, every journalistic reading of their flat tones or hostile body language, diminishes Obama.

Even before the convention, reality intruded on Obama’s campaign. Russia’s invasion of Georgia — and John McCain’s forceful denunciation of Russian aggression — reminded Americans about the treacherous world they face. Even the summer’s feel-good story, the Olympics, showcased America’s growing rival, China. Here, the conventional wisdom applies:

The more Americans worry about world affairs, the more they will prefer the experienced war hero, John McCain, to the young upstart. The foreign policy concern is not that Obama is black — but that he might be too green.

While Obama may blame Hillary and Georgia for his softening polls, he contributed to this slide himself. After a nearly flawless winter and spring, Obama made three basic mistakes this summer. Like too many of us in vacation-mode, he spent too much time planning his grand trip abroad without properly tending to business back home. The European tour stirred loyalists — and non-voting foreigners — but struck many swing voters as premature and presumptuous.

At the same time, Obama fumbled the traditional post-primary move to the centre. Lured by the money streaming in from private individuals, he violated a core principle by spurning public financing for his campaign. Meanwhile, he allowed other, constructive adjustments on national security and energy to be dismissed as flip-flops. Obama needed to state forcefully that playing to the centre is not always pandering — and is an essential move when trying to unite 300 million people behind one leader.

This failure to embrace his centrism played into his larger mistake — he did nothing this summer to advance the narrative, to give Americans a new reason to vote for him. In the absence of a new plot dictated by Obama, the growing case of buyer’s remorse dominated the headlines, and shaped the pre-convention plot lines.

Just as it was a mistake to count out McCain prematurely, it would be foolish to underestimate Obama’s chances. Four years ago, a self-described “skinny kid with a funny name” wowed the Democratic National Convention–and most Americans — with the greatest convention speech since William Jennings Bryan’s populist Cross of Gold speech in 1896. That 2004 speech catapulted Barack Obama into the Democratic stratosphere.

Obama plans to accept the nomination tonight on the 45th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s now-legendary “I have a dream” speech. Obama actually has the skill to match that historic moment. The race is indeed on — but in order to win it, Barack Obama will have to use his tremendous assets, both personal and political, to overcome his disappointing summer. –

Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and the author, most recently, of Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

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HNN, 8-27-08

Remembering the two great convention concessions of modern times – Ronald Reagan’s speech in 1976 after losing to Gerald Ford and Ted Kennedy’s speech in 1980, after losing to Jimmy Carter, Hillary Clinton’s Denver speech fell flat. What was missing was what George H.W. Bush infamously dismissed as “that vision thing.” Reagan’s address, speculating about how future Americans would judge the Americans of 1976, inspired his supporters with a powerful vision of a smaller government but a more confident nation reviving economically, facing down the Soviets and managing the nuclear threat. Kennedy’s oration eloquently argued the opposite, dreaming of a future liberalism as confident, humane and popular as his brothers’ ideology had been. Both speeches helped shaped the discourse of the times, allowing each candidate’s ideas to transcend the campaigning failures – and in Reagan’s case it launched his successful 1980 run. Both speeches can be taught decades from now as coherent and compelling ideological road maps that millions of Americans happily followed.

Instead, Hillary Clinton mostly provided a laundry list. She ticked off various programs she advocated, particular policies she liked, and specific individuals she met on the campaign trail. She did what she needed to do, getting in a few good shots against George W. Bush and John McCain, urging her disappointed supporters to vote for Barack Obama. In fairness, she was also commanding, charismatic, and quite moving when she linked her campaign to women’s historic aspirations for equality. But even when she spoke about women’s rights – and quoted Harriet Tubman so effectively – she offered no vision of what women could do for America as women, she triggered no thoughts deeper than “it’s our turn,” and “our time has come.”

The speech again illustrated one of the reasons why Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the nomination failed in the first place. There was no overriding idea propelling her candidacy forward, nothing deeper than “it’s MY turn,” and “MY time has come.” Observers can argue about whether Barack Obama is an old-fashioned liberal or a post-baby-boomer synthesizer transcending the black-white, red-blue divisions of yesteryear. But at least there is something substantive behind his various stands, some broader, deeper, thought-provoking and soul-expanding message.

Hillary’s speech was that of the diligent grade grubber not the romantic poet, of the hardworking ant not the soaring eagle. It was in keeping with her history as Bill Clinton’s dutiful behind-the-scenes supporter rather than a Clintonesque riffer who can at once charm and inspire, making Americans feel good about themselves while being challenged to think about how to better their nation.

And speaking of duty, Hillary Clinton fulfilled her obligation to Barack Obama and the Democratic Party. In fact, she was far more gracious – and far less destructive – than Reagan was in 1976 or Kennedy was in 1980. Still, it was quite obvious that she was following the party script not speaking from her heart. She had specific compliments for Michelle Obama and Joe Biden, Obama’s life-mate and running mate, but was quite vague when it came to Obama himself. Hillary Clinton endorsed Barack Obama generically as a fellow Democrat not specifically as a candidate.

Of course, the whole scene must have been excruciating for her, and she deserves credit for handling it so well. In fact, watching her, it was striking how far she had evolved from the brittle, insecure, angry woman she was when she debuted on the national stage in 1992. Hillary Clinton seems to be having a great time as her own woman, as her own politician – her opening riff about the pride she took in her various roles mentioned “mother” but skipped over “wife.” If she could only find a little more poetry in her prose-laden politics, if she could only learn to bring the various pieces of her policy jigsaw puzzle together into a compelling package, she could be an even more formidable politician – and a greater threat to both of the current candidates.

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HNN, 8-26-08

Michelle Obama had two tasks last night when addressing the Democratic National Convention, one positive and one negative. She had to offering a compelling narrative about her life and her husband’s while dispelling the rumors that the two were too elitist and not patriotic enough. To execute this unassisted double-play she uncorked that traditional, magical, American elixir: The American Dream.

In a lovely address that was more about setting a tone than solving problems, Mrs. Obama offered her more conventional biography of South-Side-Chicago-girl-made-good as a way of Americanizing her husband’s famously unconventional biography. Michelle Obama began by repeatedly emphasizing her humble origins, her parents’ values, her up-from-the-bootstraps life story. Standing by the podium radiant and – thank you Joe Biden – not just articulate but eloquent — Michelle Obama was implicitly saying to Mr. and Mrs. America, “I’m just like you. I began in a small room in an undistinguished neighborhood, and look how far I have come.” And then, rhetorically embracing her husband, blurring her story with his, she proclaimed: “And you know, what struck me when I first met Barack was that even though he had this funny name, even though he’d grown up all the way across the continent in Hawaii, his family was so much like mine. He was raised by grandparents who were working class folks just like my parents, and by a single mother who struggled to pay the bills just like we did. Like my family, they scrimped and saved so that he could have opportunities they never had themselves.”

Taking the American dream as their common lodestone, she said: “And Barack and I set out to build lives guided by these values, and pass them on to the next generation. Because we want our children — and all children in this nation — to know that the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.”

Prior to Michelle Obama’s warm, uplifting speech, Ted Kennedy, the perpetual crown prince of the Democratic Party, made his emotional plea for a Barack Obama presidency. Slower and bloated, but still passionate, Kennedy deputized the young Illinois senator as the heir to Camelot. Speaking of dreams, and channeling his own extraordinary, fiery, and heartbreaking “the dream will never die” consolation speech at the 1980 convention after losing the Democratic nomination to President Jimmy Carter, Kennedy proclaimed: “The work begins anew, the hope rises again, and the dream lives on.”

In the one false note in an otherwise powerful opening, the video tribute to Senator Kennedy spent a lot of time filming him as he steered various younger Kennedys on a majestic sailing ship. It seemed pretty clear that this schooner was part of the Kennedy fleet and not a one-time rental. In a week when Democrats were busy mocking Senator John McCain’s many houses, a quiet scene at home – or at the office — might have been politically wiser.

Of course, the beauty of the American Dream is that it allows our politicians to be far wealthier than ordinary Americans –as so many are. The Obamas have to emphasize their humble origins because, having converted Barack Obama’s newfound celebrity into newfound riches, they do not want to lose their once-common touch. American Dream rhetoric soothes have-nots with hopes of joining the haves, taking the sting out of class differences. The Kennedys have long been a family humanized by both heartbreaking tragedies and soaring liberal idealism despite their vast wealth. McCain erred by appearing doddering and out of touch, relying on his staff to count his and his wife’s houses.

While Americans are not always tolerant of the ways of the wealthy — as John Kerry discovered when he was mocked for windsurfing in 2004 – Americans frequently put up with loaded pols. Perhaps less acceptable are overloaded intellectual credentials. In his botched, sexist introduction of his wife during his debut as Vice Presidential nominee on Saturday, Senator Joe Biden seemed to mock his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, for being a braniac – or at least awkwardly try insulating her from those charges. He said: “Ladies and gentlemen, my wife, Jill, who you’ll meet soon, is drop-dead gorgeous. My wife, Jill, who you’ll meet soon, she also has her doctorate degree, which is a problem. But all kidding aside, my Jill, my Jill, my wife, Jill, and I are honored to join Barack and Michelle on this journey, because that’s what it is.”

The true American journey, which catapulted the Obamas, the Bidens, the McCains and the Kennedys to the stratosphere, acknowledges difference while seeking equality of opportunity. Great wealth is acceptable – but so should be great intellectual achievements, which certainly helped Michelle and Barack Obama get where they are today.

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By Gil Troy

HNN, 8-24-08

It is possible that liberals, conservatives and centrists who are not blinded by Obamania may all be able to agree that Joe Biden was a terrible choice as a running mate? Despite his contempt for George W. Bush, Obama seemed to be channeling the Cheney choice with this pick – trying to show that he really was not as inexperienced and unprepared as critics suggested. But Dick Cheney had at least one thing over Joe Biden – Cheney had not just run a presidential nominating campaign that demonstrated how unpopular he was.

It was one of the interesting anomalies of the 2008 Democratic race. There were three Washington veterans with decades of experience who went absolutely nowhere during the campaign. Senator Joe Biden, Senator Chris Dodd, and Governor Bill Richardson failed to get any traction, despite decades of governing and countless days and nights of hobnobbing with Beltway insiders. The three frontrunners, John Edwards, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had far better claims to outsider status – Edwards served only one term in the Senate, Clinton was just starting her second term, and Barack Obama was the most famous Senate freshman in decades.

Biden was a particular embarrassment on the campaign trail, shaming himself and his institution with his awkward, seemingly condescending remarks describing Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” After winning 9,000 votes and finishing fifth in Iowa, Biden left the race, proving how little American voters are impressed by a three-decade Senatorial resume. Obama’s ability to forgive Biden’s gaffe suggests a personal grace and generosity that is nice to see in politics; but this choice may fuel questions about Obama’s political and policy judgment.

Beyond this stunning – and recent — political failure, Biden’s supposed foreign policy experience may alienate both liberals and conservatives. Liberals will note that, unlike Obama, Biden voted for the war in Iraq – -just as Hillary Clinton and John McCain did. Thus, in the future, Obama will have to be a little more cautious when he mocks McCain’s judgment about initially supporting the war. At the same time, conservatives will note Biden’s failure to support the surge. This suggests that for all the media hype about Biden’s brilliance in overseas matters, he is just a conventional, finger-to-the-wind type, buffeted by the political trends of the moment. Holding fifty-plus Senate hearings and appearing repeatedly on Sunday morning television shows reveals a mastery of the Washington game not the intricacies of foreign affairs.

At the same time, centrists will mourn the fact that Joe Biden is neither a fresh face nor a bridge-builder. He lacks Obama’s outsider credentials and McCain’s track record in seeking bipartisan solutions. Biden is a good Democratic soldier, who has consistently stayed within party boundaries and helped create today’s destructive, angry, overly-charged Washington quagmire. In fact – and this we are told is part of his appeal – Biden knows how to throw hard political punches, as demonstrated by his partisanship during the Robert Bork and Samuel Alito hearings.

To be fair, Biden seems to be a decent man who has demonstrated tremendous personal grit over the years. The poignant story of the tragic loss of his first wife and daughter in an automobile accident shortly before he entered the Senate, his ability to raise his two boys on his own and eventually start a new family, his comeback from two brain aneurysms, and his record of thirty years in Washington without a major scandal – or it seems, a big payday – are all extremely admirable. But virtue does not always guarantee votes – as George H.W. Bush learned when Bill Clinton defeated him in 1992.

In fact, speaking of Clinton, Obama would have done much better had he learned from Clinton in 1992. That year, amid doubts about Clinton’s youth and inexperience, Clinton showed great moxie in refusing to nominate an elder statesman to compensate for his supposed weaknesses. Instead, Clinton thrilled voters by choosing another young Southern politician, Al Gore. This vice-presidential choice reinforced Clinton’s message of change; Obama’s choice, unfortunately, muddied the waters, suggesting that, at the end of the day, 2008 is going to be another conventional campaign and Obama may be just another conventional politician, like his new best friend, Joe Biden.

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By Gil Troy

HNN, 8-22-08

Presidential campaigns make for compelling stories because they are so dynamic. In 1960, Richard Nixon was the obvious, experienced favorite over that rookie upstart John F. Kennedy. Americans began 1984 reading polls showing that Walter Mondale would whip the incumbent president, Ronald Reagan. And four years later, Michael Dukakis enjoyed a commanding lead over George H.W. Bush throughout the summer. Everyone who believed this summer’s hype about Barack Obama’s inevitable victory forgot this basic history lesson. So now that the Olympics are over, the running mates are being selected and the conventions are convening, the chaotic, intense, mercurial and delightfully unpredictable general presidential campaign can begin.

In some ways, both of the presumptive nominees are stuck in the same narratives that ended up in their respective party victories; yet this time, only one can win. John McCain spent much of the nomination campaign being eulogized, criticized, and counted out, only to surge when it counted on his way to a surprisingly easy victory. Barack Obama enjoyed a happy hurricane of hype after his Iowa victory, only to watch the predicted cakewalk get complicated as criticisms of him mounted and his opponent fought back tenaciously but ultimately unsuccessfully.

Still, no matter how self-confident he might be, watching the doubting Thomases proliferate cannot be fun for the presumptive Democratic nominee. Whether he wins or loses, this pre-convention period will be remembered as Barack Obama’s lost summer of missed opportunities. Rather than breaking away from McCain in a grand push toward political immortality, Obama is entering the campaign appearing to be just another political mortal, with a surprising number of vulnerabilities.

The modern presidential campaign is a struggle over competing story lines. For the last few weeks, the Republicans have been able to shift the plot-line away from talk about this being the Democrats’ year, to talk about how could the Democrats appear vulnerable in what is supposed to be a Democratic year.

Next week, despite the inevitable Clintonesque distractions, Barack Obama has an opportunity to seize control of the campaign narrative once again. He will start with his vice presidential choice. As George W. Bush acknowledged when he chose Dick Cheney, from the electorally insignificant state of Wyoming, in modern campaigns vice presidents are props. Obama’s choice will help shape the Obama story, as will general perceptions of the management of the convention. But for someone who has come so far so fast on his oratory, the big moment will remain Obama’s acceptance speech. Not one to shy away from the challenge, Obama has upped the ante historically, by choosing to deliver his speech on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. Obama has upped the ante dramatically, by shifting the venue to a 70,000-seat stadium.

When delivering the speech, Obama will not only be competing with Dr. King. He will be competing with himself, trying to outdo his rhetorical brilliance four years ago at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. The stakes are high. Given that the Republicans meet right after the Democrats, the Democratic bounce from the Convention could be minimal. Obama has to deliver big time to jumpstart his campaign and remind Americans why so many rushed to nominate him last spring.

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McGill on the Move: Lecture with Gil Troy

The McGill Alumni Association of Toronto extends a cordial invitation to graduates, family and friends to attend a lecture and reception with Gil Troy, Professor of History, McGill University.

“Understanding How They Run By Seeing How They Ran: A Historian’s Guide to the U.S. Elections”.

6:30 pm – Tour (Meet in the Main Lobby of Queen’s Park)
7:00 pm – Reception
7:30 pm – Lecture

Public parking is not permitted on the grounds of the Legislative Building. Street parking is located on streets adjacent to the building, and public parking lots are available within a 10 minute walk.

Once again, a hard-fought presidential campaign rages in the United States. With passions running high about both Senators Barack Obama and John McCain, it’s easy to predict that this will be an historic election. But to understand just how historic – and just how typical – we have to look backward as well as forward, appreciating the longstanding patterns at play this fall as well as the unique and unprecedented situations the media likes to emphasize. To make sense of it all, McGill historian Gil Troy, author of the recently released book “Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents”, will explain the techniques each candidate is using to show that he will make the best president.

A native of Queens, New York, Gil Troy is a Professor of History at McGill and a Visiting Scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, including “Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s” and “Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady”. He comments frequently about the American presidency on television and radio, and has published articles in the “Wall Street Journal”, “New York Times”, “Washington Post”, “Boston Globe” and “USA Weekend”.


Cost: $15.00 CAD

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