Archive for September, 2008

By Gil Troy, HNN, 9-28-08

Both presidential nominees and the American people failed to follow the typical script for the first presidential debate on Friday night — to all their credit. Usually, an hour-and-a-half of policy talk ends up being reduced to a four-word slam, a grimace, a gaffe, a gesture. This time, the debate about the debate, the analysis of ninety minutes of foreign and domestic policy talk, ended up being about the ninety minutes of foreign and domestic policy talk.

This news was particularly welcome because both candidates’ behavior was disappointing in the two weeks leading up to the debate. During the week of the financial meltdown, as Washington insiders ranging from the former Wall Street titan Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson to the crusading liberal Congressman Barney Frank cooperated with each other seeking a bailout, the candidates acted ridiculous. Here was a leadership opportunity for both Barack Obama and John McCain. Either of them could have risen to the challenge, offering a thoughtful and thought-provoking analysis of the problem – and proposing a creative solution to the troubles of both Wall Street and Main Street. Instead, both offered simplistic, idiotic, demagogic postures scapegoating Wall Street — and the other guy.

Both needed to start with some risky, bipartisan criticism. Democratic Senators such as Chris Dodd and Charles Schumer, who happily took millions from lobbyists and bankers to protect Wall Street’s and the two Freddies’ interests, are as responsible for the lax federal oversight as the most ideological anti-big-government Bushies. Had either candidate pointed out the sinners in his own party as well as in the other party, had either then worked with the financial whiz kids surrounding each campaign to present a bold solution, the American people would have cheered enthusiastically. Instead, both abdicated, allowing the leadership and statesmanship to come from the White House, the Federal Reserve Bank, and Capitol Hill.

By week two, when both helped improve the bailout package, Senator McCain stood out as a particular bumbler. Attempting to appear bipartisan, he announced he was suspending his campaign and wanted to cancel the debate to avoid playing politics at a time like this. Obama wisely held his ground, insisting on showing up for what could have been a ninety-minute televised freebie on all the major networks. There was no reason why McCain could not take time at 9 PM on a Friday to address the American people. American democracy puts a premium on sticking to its quadrennial presidential electoral timetable. If Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt could run for reelection during the Civil War and World War II respectively, John McCain could show up to debate. Fortunately, for his sake and for history, McCain came to his senses, hid behind the figleaf of “progress” on the bailout talks, and showed up.

The results were impressive. While neither delivered a memorable line or a knock-out punch, both acquitted themselves honorably. John McCain was dominant, especially in the second, foreign-policy-oriented, half. He showed he was vigorous and fast on his feet, not at all the plodding septuagenarian he appeared to be during the summer. Barack Obama was equally impressive, refusing to concede or be cowed by McCain’s body blows. In fighting the older, more experienced foreign policy expert to a draw in the debate devoted to foreign policy, Obama repeated John Kennedy’s accomplishment in simply sharing the stage and appearing to be the equal of his better-known and more experienced rival Richard Nixon in 1960 (although in that case, Kennedy and Nixon actually were peers; it was just Nixon’s eight years as Vice President that set the two apart so dramatically).

The American people gained by watching such a substantive discussion by two clearly talented candidates during a crisis. It was instructive to see where the candidates agreed as much as where they disagreed. Both candidates’ horror at the thought of a nuclear Iran, their criticism of Russia’s invasion of Georgia, their concern over the excesses of Wall Street, demonstrated a common “Main Street” sensibility. The two candidates’ clashes, particularly about the Iraq war, revealed that the American people have a clear and significant choice to make in November. Here, McCain was particularly strong, having been vindicated by the surge. Obama faltered, trying to repudiate the Iraq invasion without disrespecting the troops.

The first debate may not have ensured a victory for either candidate but it may have helped Americans realize that regardless of who wins in November, the new president will be smart, sincere, and ready to lead.

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The Financial Times, 9-26-08

….Professor Gil Troy, a historian specialising in US presidents at McGill University in Montreal, points to several modern presidencies in which geography played an important role, shaping the narrative of the administration “both symbolically and substantively”. Jimmy Carter’s portrayal of himself as a peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia, was, Troy says, “a good way of telegraphing that he was old-fashioned, not part of Washington and a man of core values”.

Ronald Reagan also worked the land, to portray himself as a vigorous westerner in spite of his age, and he created a “kitchen cabinet” of wealthy Republican advisers from his California social circle. These days, we’re accustomed to seeing photographs of President George W Bush clearing brush from his ranch in Crawford, Texas – a far cry from the preppy Kennebunkport, Maine estate his father frequented while in office.

As voters weigh their presidential choices and look for clues about their potential leader, “it’s a completely legitimate question to ask: ‘Where do they live?’,” Troy says. “Those kinds of things do affect a candidate’s world view.”….

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HNN, 9-24-08

I have often thought that the popular cliché describing war applies to presidential debates as well – long bouts of boredom punctuated by fleeting moments of great drama and sheer terror. Let’s face it. Most debates are dull, with candidates machine-gunning statistics and policy positions at each other at a rapid but mostly incomprehensible pace. I dare say that even the most educated of voters can follow very little of much of the debates. But voters have been conditioned to sit through sixty or ninety minutes of candidates nattering at each other, hoping for those two or three clarifying moments.

And if we think over the history of debates, the moments are frequently one-liners, and sometimes mere gestures. Ronald Reagan dismissed Jimmy Carter with just four words in 1980 – “there you go again” – and took a few more to dispatch Walter Mondale four years later, when the aging president promised not to make an issue of the Democratic challenger’s (younger) age. On the down side, Gerald Ford rhetorically liberated Eastern Europe with an ill-considered phrase in 1976 – thus reinforcing the Saturday Night Live-fed stereotype that this Yale-educated lawyer was a dummy. And Al Gore may have lost the presidency in the excruciatingly close 2000 race because of a few unfortunate winces and sighs that seemed to demonstrate a condescending attitude toward his rival George W. Bush. Of course, Papa Bush in 1992 was partially defeated by a sidelong glance – at his watch – during a debate, supposedly telegraphing impatience with the proceedings and disrespect for the American people.

So I, like most of my fellow Americans, will watch these debates on two levels. I will really, really try to follow the sometimes extremely technical exchanges. This will be particularly important this year because both candidates have responded to the recent financial meltdown with superficialities and demagoguery. I would love to hear a more detailed and substantive discussion between them, so I can learn about how they understand the Wall Street chaos and what they plan to do about it. Moreover, having just written a book on the importance of moderation, “Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents,” I will be hoping to hear signs of centrism (in fact, student volunteers from McGill will be monitoring the debates on our website www.moderometer.com to assess how moderate the various statements are).

Still, like a young kid watching a pitcher’s duel on a long summer afternoon, I and most other viewers will be enduring the back and forths, waiting for the big moment. But unlike in baseball, we may not even realize the import of a particular gesture, clash, gaffe or put down, until later, When President Ford misspoke in 1976 about the relative freedom of Eastern Europe, few people watching reacted initially. In fact, afterwards, most people surveyed said Ford had won that debate against Carter. But some savvy reporters seized on the gaffe – and the networks starting replaying that one particular snippet. In the Gerald Ford Presidential Library there are studies showing how with each turn of the news cycle – the “controversy” grew and Ford’s standing plummeted. Twenty-fours hours after the debate, the polls reversed and most Americans surveyed now perceived Jimmy Carter as the victor and Ford as the loser.

And that is the other duality most of us watching debates experience. We watch with our own eyes, listening with our own ears, assessing with our own particular balance sheets. But we will also be watching through the eyes of the media, seeing how reporters react and spin, knowing that their assessments will be so crucial in determining not just who wins the debates, but who wins the election.

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A look at the U.S. presidential race

On both sides of the border, there is an election going on. Like it or not, many Canadians are still more focused on the American one.

Some perspective from Gil Troy, our U.S. analyst. — Click to View Video

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Toronto Star, TheStar.com, Sep 21, 2008| Federal Election | A winning formula?
Stéphane Dion visits candiddate Mark Holland’s riding of Ajax-Pickering on September 9, 2008.
The stratagems of the federal campaign often appear ‘as sentimental as they are strategic.’ Research, however, has quantified their impact. Find out how many votes a lawn sign is really worth
In a time when information can spin across the county in nanoseconds, there is something sweetly nostalgic about old-fashioned campaign practices like these.

“Does campaigning work and given the tremendous effort, is it worthwhile?” asks Gil Troy, professor of history at McGill University.

“Many of these tactics – knocking on doors and big rallies – are as sentimental as they are strategic. There is no scientific proof that they work, but we can’t give them up.”…

In the early years after independence, it was considered unseemly for American presidential candidates to appear at political rallies, says Troy, whose most recent book is Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

“They would stand in dignified silence, awaiting the call.

“Though, coincidentally, they might need to take a trip where there might be adoring crowds to greet them.”…

The door-to-door canvass This traditional campaign practice is especially effective for local politicians. “The smaller the job, it’s the most effective way of speaking to constituents – what are your concerns? This is how I’m going to help you,” says McGill’s Troy.

It’s also a useful way of getting people to the polls. “And getting them excited. We live in such an anonymous society, people appreciate the personal touch.”…

Despite studies such as these, the effects of campaign tactics remain unknowable. “Some of what we see is in the realm of anthropology,” says Troy. “These are rituals that make people feel good, affirm loyalties and hark back to political traditions, rather than being strategic moves that are proven to work their magic on voters.”

Ultimately, campaigners have to try a bit of everything.

“There are enough examples of particular campaigns that made a difference here and there,” he says. “You just have to plunge in.”

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McGill on the Move: Lecture with Gil Troy – SOLD OUT
(Alumni Education)

Gil Troy

Gil Troy

General information:



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”

Hosted by the Honourable Dwight Duncan, BA’81, Ontario Minister of Finance.

Before the lecture, please join us for an exclusive tour of the Legislative Building at Queen’s Park.

6:30 pm – Tour (optional; meet in the Main Lobby)
6:30-7:30 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 a 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”.



Tuesday, September 23, 2008 6:30 PM to 8:30 PM



Committee Room 2,
Legislative Assembly of Ontario, Queens Park, 111 Wellesley Street West
Toronto, Ontario



August 15, 2008 to September 17, 2008



General $15.00 CAD
includes light refreshments; cash bar




•  Toronto Alumni Office
Phone: 416-703-9795 x 223,
Email: toronto.alumni@mcgill.ca

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Canwest News Service

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

At a Halifax rally yesterday, Liberal MP Bob Rae referred to Stephen Harper as “Herbert Hoover in a blue sweater,” adding, “I think we can do better than that.”

Why that’s an insult: Within months of Mr. Hoover assuming the U.S. presidency in 1929, the stock market crashed and sparked the Great Depression. He was defeated in the 1932 election and became the scapegoat of that period of American history.

“What he was saying was that Herbert Hoover was kind of the master of disaster,” says Gil Troy, a history professor at McGill University. “He was the face of the great failure of the Republican party to keep the great prosperity of the 1920s, and was blamed as the man who failed to lead the United States effectively during the Great Depression.”

On a personal level, Mr. Hoover was known as a “dour, uncharismatic engineer who once had a kind of boy-wonder reputation,” Mr. Troy says.

The recent context: Amid disastrous news from the U.S. stock market on Monday, Mr. Harper — who wears a blue sweater-vest in a series of Tory ads — maintained the Canadian economy is on solid footing.

The problem: No one under a certain age is likely to understand Mr. Rae’s would-be zinger, Mr. Troy says.

“In the 1940s, if a Canadian politician were saying that, we’d all give a knowing laugh,” he says.

The jab is “not something I’d want to be called,” Mr. Troy says, but it’s an ineffective comment that may say more about Mr. Rae than anyone else.

“I think what Bob Rae did with that comment is show that he’s a well-read man, he knows his history, but he might not quite know where the voters are at.

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