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Archive for April, 2012

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Montreal Gazette, 4-30-12

It was the kind of big, fancy cocktail party I attend rarely enough that I enjoy the occasion. I was looking forward to this one because, in addition to liking the honoree and his family, there were half a dozen friends whom I rarely see amid the 1,500 guests, just enough to make for an interesting evening.

Yet as soon as I arrived, I wanted to leave. I felt nervous, vulnerable, endangered. For the first time in my life, I entered a crowded room full of partying people enjoying themselves and not really thinking about who they might bump into – literally – while I was hobbling on crutches.

Less than a week before, I had been soaring, running in the Jerusalem halfmarathon while on academic leave in Israel this year. Running with thousands of people with this ancient city as the backdrop was magical. Unfortunately, an undiagnosed and improperly healed fracture from a bicycle accident two years before turned into a stress fracture, and I collapsed at the 20.5-kilometre mark of the 21-kilometre race. I ended up with emergency surgery, a plate, and five screws in my femur two days later.

Ironically, both the bike accident and this stress fracture resulted from a health kick. For decades I had a sedentary professorial lifestyle that resulted in no hospital runs. I started jogging and occasionally biking with dramatically mixed results – weight and blood pressure down, heart rate excellent – but two sports injuries.

Fundamentally, I am fine. This setback is temporary. But my two crutches – the low-forearm kind, not the painful under-the-armpit type – offer a visa to the world of the handicapped. In this alternate universe, innocuous settings like cocktail parties can feel dangerous, and so many actions that most of us take for granted must be thought through and planned out, or sometimes skipped because the extra effort is not worth it.

As I am still in post-op recovery, I frequently fall into an unusually deep sleep. Whenever I awake, I assume I am fine and can stand – until I see those darned crutches. Hobbling about with them invites sympathetic stares, stopped cars when I cross the street, and far too much discussion when I socialize.

When I am using the crutches, my hands are helping me walk and can’t do much else. Even breakfast is an ordeal, although I can now grasp the big orangejuice container with my fingertips while gripping the crutches with my fist. What was once an easy, automatic morning routine now requires three laborious round trips: yogurt and OJ from fridge to table; glass, bowl and spoon from cabinet to table; and cereal from pantry to table. Of course I could ask my wife or children, who have been extraordinarily helpful. But when you ask for so much so frequently – because everything is always in the wrong room or on the wrong floor – you also want to do something yourself.

My breakfast trial is repeated morning, noon and night. Getting dressed, showering, fetching the newspaper – each action requires too much planning, too much strain, too much improvisation. After two weeks of this, I should feel cranky. Yet I am more often humbled and awestruck.

I am humbled because I know my visa will lapse soon and I will return to “normal.” I have friends with permanent passports to this challenging world of the disabled. Some have always lived there, while two friends in particular are learning to cope with dramatically more limited and more lasting limitations. All I need to do is remember their predicaments – or those of countless others – and my drops of self-pity transform into tidal waves of empathy for them and their families.

Moreover, while as a historian I am more the rationalist than the mystic, my visit to this demanding, draining world has made me awestruck by the miracles of the everyday. We take for granted our health, our functioning, the many things we do instinctively, automatically. Our brains process so much and orchestrate so many actions hour by hour, flawlessly, and our bodies co-operate magnificently. I would wish my experience on no one. But I want to share with everyone my new-found appreciation for what most of us do have, for what most of us can do.

In modern society, despite all we have materially, technologically and politically, we are enduring epidemic levels of unhappiness, discontent and psychological distress. The therapy business is booming; we consume psychotropic drugs by the warehouse-full. I have long believed in Vitamin P: perspective. We need to view our concerns, challenges, worries and fears in a broader context. North Americans should see their problems – as pressing as they may feel them to be – in comparison to the poverty and the sanitation and safety challenges that most humans in Africa and Asia endure.

And those of us lucky enough to be healthy – and I still define myself as belonging to that happy club – should appreciate the simple joys of getting breakfast, going to work, being able to play, and living the basic miracle of life.

Meanwhile, my sojourn in the land of the disabled has helped teach me that those with physical limitations also find joy and meaning in the important things of life – relationships, ideas, values, achievements – despite their challenges.

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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

Culture Warriors Don’t Win

By Gil Troy, NYT, 4-27-12

Campaign Stops - Strong Opinions on the 2012 Election

Ronald Reagan campaigned for governor on Nov. 5, 1966 in<br /><br /> Hawthorne, Calif.,
Associated Press Ronald Reagan campaigning for governor on Nov. 5, 1966 in Hawthorne, Calif.

Mitt Romney’s apparent nomination proves that Republican voters are more pragmatic and centrist than their reputation suggests. The Republican candidates this year fought a classic political battle. Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul campaigned as purists, echoing Henry Clay’s famous expression from 1844, “I’d rather be right than president.” The realist Romney updated the belief of nineteenth-century partisans that a candidate’s most important ability is what they called his “availability,” as in “his ability to avail” – and prevail.

Gingrich and Santorum frequently justified their extremism by invoking the modern Republican demigod, Ronald Reagan. Gingrich is just now giving up on campaigning as a “Reagan conservative” against Romney, the “Massachusetts moderate.” In March, Santorum visited a Reaganite holy site – the Jelly Belly factory in Fairfield, Calif., which produced Reagan’s favorite jelly beans. “They’re asking you, people of principle, to compromise your principles and to be for someone who is less corely convicted than Ronald Reagan because we need to win,” Santorum said. He had a pragmatic argument too: “Every time we run someone that the moderate establishment of the Republican Party said we need to win, we lose.”

Santorum’s diction – corely convicted? – is as flawed as his historical memory. Republican voters have rejected culture wars and fanaticism in presidential campaigns repeatedly – they know culture warriors don’t win. Despite the talk about the rightward lurch of their party, a majority of Republicans have learned Reagan’s central political lesson. A Republican candidate can only win by wooing the center, and a president must govern as a national leader, not a factional chief or a cultural crusader.

Even when it began in the 1850s as an ideological anti-slavery breakaway group, the Republican Party favored more “available” nominees. The first Republican nominee, John C. Frémont, was most famous as “The Pathfinder.” In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was the compromise candidate, defeating the zealots Salmon P. Chase and William Henry Seward. Lincoln’s strategy was “to give no offence to others – leave them in a mood to come to us, if they shall be compelled to give up their first love.” He even made his acceptance letter “sufficiently brief to do no harm.”

There has been a more substance-oriented counter-tradition, epitomized by Grover Cleveland’s challenge, “What is the use of being elected or re-elected, unless you stand for something?” But the need to appeal broadly to America’s diverse electorate has usually prevailed. American voters’ weakness for popular icons over articulate ideologues ultimately frustrated even Henry Clay, the conscience of the Whig Party. As the Mexican War hero Zachary Taylor, who had never even voted for president before, conquered his party in 1848, Clay, well aware that Americans loved turning soldiers into presidents, moaned, “I have thought that I might yet be able to capture or to slay a Mexican.”

In the twentieth century, Ronald Reagan delivered his best lines as a culture warrior, including the grand slam — “A hippie is someone who looks like Tarzan, walks like Jane and smells like Cheetah” – while governing California, not while he was running for president. Reagan won in 1980 by moving beyond Barry Goldwater’s cranky conservatism, which had triggered the Democratic landslide of 1964.

Reagan’s conservatism with a smiley face emphasized economic issues. Within weeks of his inauguration in 1981, conservatives were complaining that Reagan’s Cabinet was too moderate. Their cry — “Let Reagan be Reagan” — demanded a more ideological and confrontational “corely convicted” leadership. But in compromising and popularizing, Reagan was being Reagan.

Nevertheless, conservatives revered Reagan because they never doubted his essential conservative identity. In Puritan terms, Reagan had a “covenant of grace” with conservatives, not a “covenant of works.” His salvation came from sharing core beliefs not engaging in particular acts.

Since Reagan, conservative ideologues like Santorum have inspired voters, disrupted primaries, enraged Democrats, alienated independents, but lost. In 1988, the evangelical preacher Pat Robertson surged in Iowa, then faltered. In 1992, Pat Buchanan was only popular enough to hurt President Bush, not to win. This pattern has held, with flareups of varying incandescence from Alan Keyes to Gary Bauer to Mike Huckabee. George W. Bush did not run as the conservative ideologue many saw when he governed but as the Romneyesque “compassionate conservative” whom many on the right at first mistrusted.

Winning candidates need a broad national reach. The appeal of the culture warrior is far more limited than the Tea Party crowd claims. If Americans actually embraced Rick Santorum’s worldview, the rates of premarital sex, abortion, births to single mothers, divorce, and same-sex relationships would be much lower, especially in the “red states.” But these are not “blue state” phenomena or liberal Democratic behaviors.

Most Americans are not ready to jettison traditional moral strictures even as many live non-traditional lives. Especially in this election, with no particularly pressing social or cultural issue demanding the attention of voters, Santorum’s sanctimony functioned as a form of identity politics, telegraphing membership in a self-selected club of the “virtuous,” while churning divisive emotions.

Romney should be wary because culture warriors can sabotage presidential campaigns. When, at the Republican National Convention in 1992, Pat Buchanan declared a “religious war,” a “cultural war,” a war “for the soul of America,” it was President Bush who suffered. Karl Rove blamed the 2000 electoral deadlock on millions of evangelical voters who stayed home because harsh conservative attacks on George W. Bush made them doubt his ideological purity.

Romney also has to worry because when smartphones and Facebook make everyone a reporter and modern journalists can shamelessly eavesdrop at Palm Beach fundraisers, it gets harder to reconcile primary-driven genuflection toward the right with more moderate inclinations. Both Republican conservatives and liberal Democrats will resurrect his most extreme statements as he veers toward the center. But in recalibrating, he will be behaving like most nominees. As one Republican Party founder, the passionate, wild-bearded Gideon Welles, advised his ambitious friend Franklin Pierce in 1852, when Welles was an anti-slavery Jacksonian Democrat: “Be the candidate of all.”

In 1984, Reagan’s chief of staff, James Baker, offered a recipe for victory that was more apple pie than red meat: “Crime, Education, Economics – Unity.” Reagan understood that Americans had complex feelings about many issues. He knew that a presidential campaign was not a Christian camp meeting. His covenant of grace gave the conservatives a popular victory they never would have achieved otherwise. And it taught Republicans (and Democrats) that even in primary season, winning the center and the swing voter remains the candidate’s central mission; political purity is useless if you lose.

Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University, is the editor, with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Fred Israel, of “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-2008,” fourth edition.

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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, HNN, 4-4-12

Mitt Romney’s three state sweep this Tuesday is being touted as the tipping point in his surge toward the Republican nomination. The candidate whose greatest ability has been his inevitability now seems all but destined to become the Republican nominee. But in this moment of near-triumph, it is worth examining the great failure of Romney’s campaign so far. In a country that loves to see candidates grow and evolve, with a media primed to write the redemptive campaigning comeback story, Romney never seemed to get better as a candidate, never had that turnaround moment.

Instead, he has been the Steady Eddie of the campaign trail, grinding his way toward the nomination, surviving the occasional gaffe, with no appreciable improvement in his political skill set. His constancy is impressive but his inability to learn, to improvise, to get better, is disturbing. While it is fun to bash an inexperienced opponent by saying the presidency is no place for on-the-job training, the job is so different from any other job that on-the-job training is the only way to function effectively in office. Former governors like George W. Bush and Bill Clinton have had to work hard to adjust to the ways of Washington, while former senators like Barack Obama and John Kennedy have had to work equally hard to master the executive skills required.

Different presidents come in with different talents, but all need to adapt, to stretch, to grow. Either Romney does not have that ability at all, and is just too rigid, or he does not have that ability politically, and is just too patrician. Either way, this failure to kickstart his campaign, to turn it around, and to become the new improved candidate, is worrying.

As a result, Romney looks like he is on his way to inheriting the nomination rather than earning it. The last candidate to back his way into the nomination, Bob Dole, enjoyed higher popularity ratings in the spring of 1996 than Romney does. After months of exposure to the American people, after tens of millions of dollars spent, the latest polls suggest that only about a third of Americans view Romney favorably, and half view him unfavorably. Those low numbers and Romney’s  rigidity should be sobering to Republicans.

Of course, they can point to the Ford surge of thirty points or so in 1976, the Dukakis crash of twenty points or so in 1988, and even the repositioning Bill Clinton had to do in 1992. Campaigns are volatile. The stakes are high. The fight will be intense.  But unless Mitt Romney can start incorporating feedback, making adjustments, improving his political skills, he will be broadcasting a warning message to Republicans who desperately want to win in November, as well as Americans who desperately want to see strong leadership in the White House, in the event that he nevertheless does win in November.

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