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Archive for January, 2009

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

Gil Troy “Barack and Michelle: A more perfect union? First Couple-to-be could be relationship role models for nation, experts say”

Source: MSNBC, 11-29-08

The Obamas have the best of both worlds, said Gil Troy, professor of history at McGill University and author of “Mr. and Mrs. President: From the Trumans to the Clintons.” “The Obama marriage is a modern partnership between equals; they are a working couple just like the Clintons,” he said. “But, unlike the Clintons — and more like the Bushes — the Obamas appear to be a solid couple, devoted to each other, with no fidelity questions hovering overhead.”

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 1-21-09

Inauguration Day, 2009 in Washington, DC was grueling but inspiring. The minus 8 degree cold was bone-chilling. The crowd of two million plus was frequently suffocating. The 20,000-officer security cordon was smothering. Yet people endured the discomfort good-naturedly. Neither cold nor crowds nor mile-long detours from blocks of blocked off streets would deter Obama’s faithful from celebrating his historic ascent.

Fueled particularly by Washington, DC’s African-Americans, who came out in droves, Obamania gripped America’s grand but all too frequently cynical capital city. The outer lane of “K” Street, infamous for its slick lobbyists, became a bazaar with hawkers selling cheap knickknacks emblazoned with messianic sentiments: “Yes We Did” on a bumper sticker; “Never Give Up on Your Dreams,” on a commemorative booklet”; “The Healing Process Has Begun” on a banner; “A Legacy of Hope” featuring beatific images of Barack Obama and Martin Luther King on a poster; and “Thank You Jesus, We Never Would Have Made It Without You” on a T-shirt. One Moroccan immigrant kept saying, “Only in America, only in America,” as he watched the self-described skinny kid with a funny name become president amid such a worshipful crowd.

At the inauguration, Obama seemed sobered by America’s unrealistic expectations despite such crushing challenges. While Obama’s inauguration was moving, his address was muted. Now, Obama is such a master speechmaker that, as with Babe Ruth swinging a bat, anything less than a game-winning homer disappoints. Still, Obama seemed determined to manage Americans’ expectations, warning that America’s problems could not be solved simply by sloganeering.

Obama understands that the growing cult of personality surrounding him is a great asset, giving him a mandate to succeed. But he also knows that hope is like a balloon, if properly inflated it soars into the sky, dazzling, delighting, and elevating; but if overblown, it pops. The frenzied hopes his election triggered could sour.

Shrewdly, pragmatically, constructively, Obama wants to channel this energy into a badly needed sense of communal renewal. His campaign slogan was “Yes We Can,” not “Yes I Can.” He is continuing the initiative he began with his lyrical, extraordinary 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, trying to articulate a vision of liberal American nationalism that works for the 21st century. Obama’s repudiation in 2004 of the “red America” versus “blue America” division, his inaugural celebration of “our patchwork heritage” as a “strength not a weakness,” seeks to forge a new nationalist center that heals America’s wounds, and revives a sense of community.

Barack Obama is a great nationalist. He understands that while nationalism can be ugly and destructive, it can also be a force for good. Nationalism is community writ large; it can pull individuals out of their selfish orbits, launching them into a universe of good works and great achievements. In his inaugural address, trying to solve the decades-long debate about the size of government, Obama reframed the question, saying, “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.” He then articulated an activist nationalist vision that empowered the people, saying “For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent’s willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.”

Similarly, regarding foreign policy, Obama tried to resolve the fight between realists emphasizing America’s needs and idealists hoping to spread democracy and other American ideals worldwide. Thanks to the backlash against George W. Bush’s overselling of democratic hopes in Iraq and elsewhere, the realist school is ascendant – frequently displaying a strong isolationist streak. Obama’s initial campaign focus on just getting out of Iraq played to Americans’ historic isolationism. But minutes into the job, Obama already acknowledged that the world looks very different when viewed from the Oval Office’s big, bullet-proof, picture window. Moreover, the surge’s success in Iraq stabilized the situation, precluding a quick withdrawal. And while Obama relies on some realist advisers, he is imprisoned by his own soaring rhetoric and aspirations. Obama does not just want his administration focusing on what is right for his country; he wants what is right for his country to be right for the world. Just as true isolationism is impossible for the world’s only superpower; neither can any American, let alone Obama the hope-generator, avoid the idealistic impulses in the country Obama’s hero Abraham Lincoln deemed “the last best hope of earth.” For all those reasons, Obama declared when inaugurated: “As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.”

In launching his administration, Obama has demonstrated that he just might govern as he speechifies, creating a “Yes We Can” muscular moderation that advances a substantive agenda in ways millions of Americans in the big, broad, pragmatic center can applaud. And during this hopeful moment, when the Obama presidency has only happy tomorrows ahead and no embarrassing yesterdays – yet – we should all join in hoping that this extraordinary politician can live up to the best of his rhetoric and the heady aspirations people are projecting on him, in the streets of Washington, and throughout the world.

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The challenges ahead

The new president must decide on the size of government, his foreign-policy philosophy and whether to govern from the center

By Gil Troy, Freelance, Montreal Gazette, January 21, 2009

Michael and Laurie McRobbie of Indiana were among the millions at the inauguration ceremony.
Michael and Laurie McRobbie of Indiana were among the millions at the inauguration ceremony.

Photograph by: JESSICA RINALDI, REUTERS, Freelance

The hoopla surrounding Barack Obama’s inauguration was moving. The challenges he acknowledged in his speech are sobering. But beyond the policy conundrums of today and the future hopes of tomorrow that Obama’s inaugural speech focused on, he must address three underlying dilemmas that continue to bewitch America’s presidents. Barack Obama is joining a two-century-old conversation about just how big government should be, just what kind of foreign policy America should have, and whether a president should lead as a partisan or lead from the centre.

Regarding the first question, President Obama – along with his predecessor George W. Bush – is trusting big government. Since the American Revolution, Americans have debated how much independence they should have as individuals and how much dependence they should have on government collectively. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan rejected the half century of government expansion that Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal jump started and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society intensified.

Reagan’s inaugural declaration that “government is not the solution, government is the problem,” proved so compelling that in 1996, preparing to run for re-election, it was a Democrat, Bill Clinton, who proclaimed “the era of big government is over.”

Actually, under both Clinton and Reagan, government continued growing, although more slowly. Even before the stock- market crash, George W. Bush had emerged, anomalously, as a Big Government Conservative. Bush’s interventionist foreign policy and occasional bursts of compassionate conservatism expanded government. Still, many people, especially Democrats, viewed the 2008 financial meltdown as history’s verdict on two decades of Reagan-Bush deregulation (overlooking Clinton’s role in it all). Bush himself put ideology aside to approve hundreds of billions in bailouts.

Obama has embraced the narrative and the policy. So far, his ambitious ideas for a fiscal stimulus, health-care reform, massive energy investment, suggest he is banking his administration’s success on repudiating the Reagan Revolution with a twist. In his writings and speeches, Obama has insisted he is not a Sixties-style, throw-money-and-big-programs-at-any-problem, kind of liberal. He has promised a new synthesis, with a more vigorous, effective government wary of big bureaucracies, avoiding unrealistic goals, and sensitive to the eternals of faith, family, friends as partners in nation-building. In that spirit, Obama said yesterday that we don’t need big government or small government, but government that works.

The second dilemma, regarding foreign policy, hinges on two longstanding debates. In his Farewell Address in 1796, George Washington warned Americans to avoid “entangling alliances.” It is often obscured with the U.S. so enmeshed in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, but the country has a strong isolationist streak. While arguing whether they should be more isolationist or interventionist, Americans also debate whether their foreign strategy should be realist or idealist. Realists emphasize U.S. needs; idealists focus on spreading democracy and other U.S. ideals worldwide.

Thanks to the backlash against Bush’s overselling of democratic hopes in Iraq and elsewhere, the realist and isolationist schools are ascendant. Obama’s initial campaign focus on just getting out of Iraq played to Americans’ historic isolationism. But 24 hours into the job, Obama already knows the world looks very different when viewed from the Oval Office’s big, bullet-proof, picture window. Moreover, the surge’s success in Iraq stabilized the situation, precluding a quick withdrawal.

Finally, while Obama relies on some realist advisers, he is somewhat imprisoned by his own soaring rhetoric and aspirations. Obama does not just want his administration focusing on what is right for his country; he wants what is right for his country to be right for the world. Just as true isolationism is impossible for the world’s only superpower; neither can any American, let alone Obama the hope-generator, avoid the idealistic impulses in the country Obama’s hero Abraham Lincoln deemed “the last best hope of Earth.” Or, as the new president put it, “we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.”

As he defines his domestic and foreign policies, Obama will be demonstrating just how he wants to lead. Bush, coached by his political guru Karl Rove, spent much of his presidency mobilizing the conservative base, playing to partisans. This strategy helped Bush win re-election in 2004 but lose big in the court of public opinion, retiring with a dismal 22 per cent approval rating.

Despite having strong, big-government-oriented, liberal roots, Obama has displayed a more pragmatic and moderate leadership vision. He seems committed to leading from the centre. So far, he filled his government with pragmatists, especially Hillary Rodham Clinton, nominated as Secretary of State, and the economic gurus Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers. Obama believes in muscular moderation, in being rooted in principle but reaching out, building bridges, seeking unity.

This leadership tradition stretches back to George Washington, who urged Americans to work together in building their “common cause,” and Abraham Lincoln, who emancipated the slaves slowly, gradually, to avoid alienating the critical, still-slave-holding Border States.

Inauguration Day is a day of potential, with the new administration facing a bright, golden wave of tomorrows. As Obama begins to govern, he will have to navigate some tough days and, inevitably, end up with some failed yesterdays.

In going from campaigning to governing, from speech-making to policy-making, Obama will have to find what works in the moment to build toward a better future, ever sensitive to the echoes of the past, as by virtue of his position and his power he starts shaping – and being shaped by – history.

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

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CTV Post-Inauguration Coverage

Barack Obama’s presidency will not only make history because of his ancestry, it also marks a generational gap in the leadership of the United States.

Will history be kind to Obama’s inaugural speech?

SHOW: CANADA AM CTV Television, Inc. 8:18:30 ET January 21, 2009

ANCHORS: BEVERLY THOMSON

GUESTS: GIL TROY, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN

US PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken. You cannot outlast us. And we will defeat you.

[Taped segment ends]

THOMSON: President Barack Obama took a hard line against the threat of terrorist attacks. And he also signalled that the United States is tired of war and wants to leave Iraq to its own people. He also talked about Afghanistan in that speech.

For more on Obama’s inauguration, joining me now is presidential historian Gil Troy.

Great to have you on to discuss this. There are so many different measuring sticks as to the success or the impact that this speech is having or will have. What did you think of it?

TROY: I agree with most people that it wasn’t as lyrical and as soaring as people expected, as people have come to expect from Obama who’s just an extraordinary orator.

But I think the more we read the speech, rather than just thinking about it and listening to it, we see that there was a lot of substance in it. And it’s important to see that what he was trying to do — he was the one person in that sea of 2 million people who was saying: Whoa, slow down. I’m not the Messiah.

And I think that was important. But he also was showing the way that he’s going to govern. He’s going to not be someone who’s just going to be a mindless 1960s liberal. He’s going to bring back government but with thoughts. And he wanted to say also “I am not a wimp” — which was the message in that opening quotation you used.

THOMSON: You know, he also talked about a nation of Christians, Muslims, Jews and Hindus. And he spoke about everybody needing to come together. And that was one of the points within this speech that the crowd just erupted in applause.

Have you ever seen — certainly there may have been more, you know, out-of-the-park speeches that you’ve seen in your time. But have you ever seen a reaction like that where a crowd that big, so many reduced to tears out of hope and faith?

TROY: You’re absolutely right, the crowd was the star of the day. Or a co-star with Obama and his family.

There were 2 million people there. And it was cold. And it was crowded. And it was really unpleasant. But there was something so magical about it that people didn’t grouch, they didn’t grumble, they were just so excited to be a part of it.

There have never been so many people at an inauguration. And I think it showed that the very essence of Obama, the very fact that he was becoming president — and not just because he’s the first African-American, I think that in some ways has almost been overplayed — but also because after eight years of Bush, because he’s young, because he’s charismatic, because the nation is facing such serious challenges, all these things came together and created this remarkable, magical moment.

And the hope is that he can actually now turn that magic into serious governance.

THOMSON: Well, certainly a lot of chatter about the first 100 days. What will you be watching for?

TROY: I think two things: how he plays the symbols and then turns it into substance. And most important, of course, he’s got to get a grip on the nation’s economic trouble. It was very sobering that the stock market dropped yesterday. It also dropped after his election. And I think he’s watching that. He knows that the bankers are worried, that the finance people are worried.

And in general there’s always a problem with the Democrats — they sometimes don’t have the same credibility with Wall Street. Although Bill Clinton was able to get that kind of credibility. So, it’s very important that he show that he’s going to be someone who’s effective with Wall Street as well as with Main Street.

THOMSON: How tough is it going to be for him to meet these extremely high expectations?

TROY: Extremely tough. And I think he knows that. He knows, you know, “hope” is this balloon that gets inflated and inflated. And on the one hand it can elevate us. But it can also be easily overinflated and pop.

And we forget how much hope there was surrounding that Man from Hope, Bill Clinton. We forget how much hope there was surrounding that first Southerner elected since Reconstruction, Jimmy Carter. And both of them ended up with much more complicated presidencies.

So, Obama is smart. He knows his history. He keeps on invoking Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt because they were people who came in in some ways with low expectations and were able to soar. And I think he’d rather have that dynamic than the dynamic of yet another Democrat who comes in with incredibly high expectations and leaves people sort of disappointed and a little bit with a hangover.

THOMSON: Gil Troy, always great to talk to you about this. Thank you so much.

TROY: Thank you.

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Gil Troy “Religious Figures, Kennedy, Oprah Nab Hot Inauguration Seats Obama Families Seen Alongside Politicians, Celebs at the Hotly Anticipated Event “:

ABC News, 1-20-09

“The simple fact that they give a ticket to one person and not others … becomes tremendously important,” said Gil Troy, professor of history at McGill University in Montreal, and a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. “You are setting up a historic tableau. … Each one of them [the guests] is carrying a different part of the narrative, not just your personal narrative but being weaved into the political narrative of United States history.”…
“It needs to be used carefully and effectively so that you can turn all this symbolic hour into real political opportunity and power,” Troy said. “The inauguration has to be an opportunity of looking forward to starting the presidency.” 

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 1-18-09

Americans love a good speech and particularly a great inaugural address. As Barack Obama prepares for his inauguration, the stakes are particularly high. He is competing with ghosts of eloquent presidents past along with his own high rhetorical standards. He is taking office as the country’s first black president, healing centuries of racism and dehumanization, during a staggering economic crisis, with America bogged down in two difficult wars, with Islamist terrorists still threatening, and amid serious concerns about Iranian and North Korean nuclear weapons

Facing such troubles, it would seem that mere words can do little. But the magic of American democracy – and part of the alchemy of leadership – is that the right words and even the right gesture can make history. The inaugural address debuts the president’s Bully Pulpit, with hundreds of millions not just listening, but yearning for direction, especially today.

Back in April 30, 1789, a visibly nervous George Washington delivered the country’s first inaugural address. The great man’s humility – his awkward gestures and trembling hands — moved the crowd. Many rejoiced that they had witnessed virtue personified, with individual and national greatness reinforcing one another.

Twelve years later, Thomas Jefferson entered office during a highly divisive period. He made the moment with words not deeds. Jefferson’s patriotic pronouncement “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists” was healing, reassuring the losing Federalists that they remained Americans.

These two founders paved the way for a rich history of tone-setting inaugural moments. In 1861, Abraham Lincoln tried uniting the country by rhapsodizing about the “mystic chords of memory” binding Americans. Even though the effort failed and a bloody Civil War ensued, four years later, Lincoln welcomed back Southern rebels “with malice toward none and charity toward all.”

In 1933, facing horrific economic conditions, Franklin Roosevelt did three important things Obama should note. First, he reassured Americans, famously saying “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Next, he reoriented Americans away from materialism and excessive individualism back toward core and communal values, saying: “The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.” Finally, and practically, Roosevelt reaffirmed faith in the Constitution as enduring but flexible, suited to meet any emergency.

More recently, in 1961, John Kennedy defined the idealism of a generation by saying “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” And twenty years later, Ronald Reagan rejected Kennedy’s liberalism, launching the age of budget cutting and skepticism about government, saying: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

As Barack Obama speaks on Tuesday, he will repudiate Reagan’s skepticism and resurrect Kennedy’s idealism, endorse Roosevelt’s flexibility and display Lincoln’s humanity, echo Jefferson’s call for unity, and hope, amid all these grandiose aspirations, to channel Washington’s humility. A tall order, indeed. Then again, whoever expected Barack Hussein Obama to be elected?

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The Grand American Narrative

As the united States prepares to inaugurate a new president, popular historian simon schama examines the country’s past to find hope in the present

By GIL TROY, Freelance, Canwest Newspapers, January 17, 2009

A conductor leads a military band rehearsing outside the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington last Sunday. Barack Obama is to be sworn in as president Tuesday.

Many Americans – and friends of the United States worldwide – are greeting the new age of Barack Obama with particular glee. The giddiness is partly due to

Obama’s youth, eloquence and rock-star charisma, and partly because Obama’s inauguration Tuesday will

also mark George W. Bush’s retirement. In this early

example of what will probably become a library-full of Obama redemptive tales, historian Simon Schama identifies the Iowa Caucus that Obama won in January 2008 as the moment “when American democracy came back from the dead.”

Schama is one of today’s most readable and well-rounded historians. In an age of hyper-specialization, Schama has written lyrically and insightfully about the French Revolution and the African-

American slave crossing, about subjects as sweeping as the history of Britain and as specific as the works of Rembrandt. His histories are usually Rembrandt-like, vivid, realistic portraits displaying remarkable dimensionality and depth.

In this offbeat, journalistic yet nevertheless appealing book, Schama has produced an impressionistic work more akin to a Picasso during the artist’s rollicking, energetic, colourful Cubist period. This work finds inspiration for the future by sampling more than 300 years of U.S. history in a non-linear, creative way.

Reflecting the kind of efficiency that helps make Schama so productive, the book is a prose version of a similarly named BBC production. Back in his native England, Schama has become famous for narrating sprawling popular television documentaries. This project seems intended to reassure his fellow Brits that by looking at the United States’s proud history, they can rest easy about its future. The double-dipping may be responsible for the book’s herky-jerky and

occasionally obscure nature, as Schama seeks out particular sites and individuals who can illustrate his point, rather than developing his story chronologically.

Schama believes that the United States remains the beacon to the world, a magnet attracting more than a million immigrants

annually, a wellspring of liberal rights and noble ideals. The country works both because of its founding principles and because of its advantageous practical conditions.

Tackling the explosive issue of church and state, Schama praises the founders’ “daring bet” that “freedom and faith” could be

“mutually nourishing.” This delicious mix, Schama writes, “has made Americans uniquely qualified to fight the only battle that matters … the war of toleration against conformity; the war of a faith that commands obedience against a faith that promises liberty.” This tension, he believes, “turns out to be the big American story.”

Americans have struck the right ideological balance because they are blessed by what Schama calls “the wide blue yonder.”

Having so much space has always allowed Americans to move on, start over, find a new spot. He exults: “Say howdy, give it a good poke and up will pop your very own piece of plenty: a crop of corn, a magic glint in the stream, a gush of black gold.” Even today, in a more developed, bureaucratic and sclerotic country, America’s great expanse remains redemptive. Schama celebrates the United States’s stunning diversity and complexity as a source of healing, the spur to “rejuvenating alternatives,” neither impeding order nor reform. The many alternatives mean that Americans never hit a dead end: “Americans roused can turn on a dime, abandon habits of a lifetime … convert indignation into action and before you know it there’s a whole new United States in the neighbourhood.”

Predictably, Schama venerates the country’s great constructive subversives, ranging from founders like Roger Williams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin to civil-rights revolutionaries like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Fannie Lou Hamer. Less familiar to readers will be Schama’s fascination with the Meigs family, an American dynasty whose story traces back to 1636 and tracks “the history of America.” The most prominent member of this clan was Montgomery C. Meigs, the quartermaster general of the Grand Army of the Republic

during the Civil War. Meigs and his family embody all the great virtues Schama recognizes in his adopted country – pragmatism and altruism, creativity and adaptability, passion and candour.

Ultimately, this book is history for hortatory purposes, applying the grand American narrative of the past to find hope in the present.

If Obama’s presidency gets bogged down in controversies, if he becomes a leader whose governing abilities cannot match his lovely ideals or the high hopes he generated, Schama’s book will end up on the ash heap of history, a reflection of Obama’s great potential and a sobering reminder, once again, of problems unsolved, dreams

unfulfilled, messianic expectations dashed and believers in democracy disappointed.

On the other hand, if Obama transforms the U.S. mood, and the country’s condition and reputation, Schama’s book will be hailed as prophetic, as both anticipating and helping to realize this great, healing Obama moment so many crave.

Gil Troy is a professor of U.S. history at McGill University.

The American Future: A History

By Simon Schama

Viking, 392 pages, $34

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