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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, The Globe & Mail, 10-26-12

(REUTERS)

The 2012 U.S. presidential debates did what debates are supposed to do: They shook up the election campaign in the best kind of way, forcing voters to reconcile the image of the candidates’ negative campaigning with the more direct impression they had from watching the candidates themselves.

While this, too, is an artifice – the days when people imagined television as an X-ray of the soul are long gone – it was a welcome corrective. It’s far better for a vote to be determined by direct impression than through media hearsay or a rival’s hostile caricatures.

Along the way, American voters gained at least four key insights into their presidential contenders. First, both are honourable, decent, talented and smart men – fast on their feet, extraordinarily poised, able to master the difficult task of sounding intelligent yet intelligible, staying reasonably consistent, and covering a dizzying array of topics, in a fast-paced, high-pressure format where millions are scrutinizing you when you speak, when your rival speaks, and long after the debate, too. From a human perspective, the three debates are brutal, relentless, stomach-churning – and both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama handled those challenges quite deftly.

We also learned where each goes when flustered or the pressure gets a little unmanageable. Mr. Romney goes to blusterville, speaking a little too quickly, letting his sentences lose their linearity and discipline, as one phrase circles into the next and words collide uncomfortably and randomly. Mr. Obama goes to peevishland, his voice sounds higher, his demeanour looks grimmer, his body language becomes tighter. At their worst, Mr. Romney risks looking too flummoxed or clueless, the chastened preppy seeking his footing in a newly hostile world; Mr. Obama risks looking too angry or arrogant, the Mr. Perfect Golden Boy unused to being corrected or confronted by others.

Substantively, the debates uncovered many similarities between the two that are only surprising to partisans who believe their respective party’s propaganda that the two have mutually exclusive visions for America. Especially in the final foreign policy debate: Americans discovered that both mistrust Iran, worry about the Syrian mess, are wary of China, support Israel, want to end the Afghan war, and hope to see the Arab Spring produce democracy. In the 1940s, Republicans and Democrats preached that partisanship should not go beyond the water’s edge. While neither candidate in 2012 was quite ready to launch a bipartisan foreign policy, each could have stolen many of the other’s lines, with Mr. Romney rhapsodizing about peace and Mr. Obama hanging tough.

Still, the drama in the debates came from the clashes, and they were substantive, not just stylistic. Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney disagree about some crucial fundamentals. Mr. Obama believes government can help Americans, Mr. Romney believes it often burdens them. Mr. Obama says his stimulus package and other measures righted the ship of state and America’s economy, Mr. Romney fears the growing Obama deficit will sink Americans. Mr. Obama celebrates his health-care legislation, Mr. Romney doubts it. Mr. Romney celebrates his tax-cut promises and job-creation plans, Mr. Obama doubts them. These differences will make for different presidencies, even as we know that Mr. Obama also believes in free enterprise, and Mr. Romney also acknowledges government’s important role in American life.

Ultimately, serious issues remain unaddressed. It’s unfortunate that this campaign has lacked substantive discussion about the growing polarization in politics and the corrupting role of money in the campaign. Each side caricatures the other as guilty without taking any responsibility for also perpetuating the problem. And while abortion gets lots of play, even though it’s a constitutional issue for the Supreme Court, both candidates and the debate moderators ignored other issues that the President could try addressing, such as the epidemics of family breakdown, of violence in the schools, of collapsing social structures, of the perpetually alienated, of the temporarily demoralized. The U.S. faces serious domestic challenges that go beyond taxes and health care; neglect will only exacerbate them.

In every presidential campaign, Americans assess the present and invest in the future, using history as their guide. In this campaign, Mr. Obama has been running against himself, haunted by the ghost – and hopes – of 2008 – that the complicated realities of his presidency have not been able to match. Mr. Romney has been haunted by the ghost – and successes – of Ronald Reagan, unable, so far, to measure up to the governor who unseated a Democratic incumbent during times of economic difficulty by displaying great charm and moderating his once harsh conservative image.

The debates gave both Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama opportunities to shine. And once a winner emerges, the great American myth-making machine will kick in, and magnify some moments from the victor’s debates into the stuff of legend.

Gil Troy, a history professor at McGill University, is the author, most recently, of Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: George Washington to Barack Obama.

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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, HNN, 10-23-12

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.

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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, HNN, 10-17-12

The editorial section of Real Clear Politics gives the ultimate verdict on the second debate. It shows the pro-Obama New York Times declaring Mr. Obama Comes Back. It shows the pro-Romney New York Post concluding Romney Wins on Points. And it has the middle of the road USA Today proclaiming Second Debate a Split Decision. In short, Barack Obama did not have a second debate debacle and Mitt Romney continued appearing solid, presidential, and far more moderate than the caricatures of him suggest.

The polls echo these findings, although they tend to be giving Obama a slight edge. Obama’s bigger win was in the campaign narrative wars. Predictably, proving Woody Allen’s insight that “Eighty percent of success is showing up,” when Obama showed up, loaded for bear, he launched hundreds of Obama is back campaign stories. This was a classic pseudo-event, a media-generated moment that fit into the narrative many reporters were looking to right, to keep the campaign alive.

In truth, stylistically, both candidates were more similar than different. They were well-prepared and well-spoken, assertive without being too aggressive, with neither giving much ground. The moment relatively early in the debate when they each looked like they were about to butt heads or chests over gas drilling, was great theatre – but not a game changer.

Substantively, serious issue differences persisted, with important clashes over Libya, taxes, immigration, and energy. Whereas some debates tend to diminish one or both candidates, this debate boosted both. Obama left feeling vindicated that his first-time stumble was a fluke. Romney continued feeling vindicated that the stereotype of him as a fanatic or a fumbler was fading. And the American people should feel vindicated that amid all the hoopla and distractions, this set of debates is proving entertaining and edifying, introducing the candidates and their positions to tens of millions of voters, building excitement and engagement toward Election Day.

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McGill on the Move with Gil Troy

Date: Tue, 10/23/2012 – 6:00pm – 8:00pm

Don’t miss your chance to hear one of North America’s leading presidential scholars discuss the upcoming US presidential election! McGill historian Gil Troy, author of the recently released book History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-2008, will give his take on the upcoming election in his talk, “Some things never change – The 2012 Presidential campaign in historical perspective.” For more than 200 years, candidates have campaigned for the highest office in the land, debating the major issues facing the country, capturing the attention of the voters, and reflecting the will of the people. Presidential elections are the centerpiece of American democracy, as citizens go to the polls every four years to choose a new leader. Professor Troy will take us through a fascinating political journey through American history, reflect on both the Obama and Romney campaigns, and postulate what might come to pass this November. 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 History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-2008, 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.

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McGill on the Move with Gil Troy (Boston alumni branch)
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Description: Don’t miss your chance to hear one of North America’s leading presidential scholars discuss the upcoming US presidential election!

McGill historian Gil Troy, author of the recently released book History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-2008, will give his take on the upcoming election in his talk, “Some things never change – The 2012 Presidential campaign in historical perspective.”

For more than 200 years, candidates have campaigned for the highest office in the land, debating the major issues facing the country, capturing the attention of the voters, and reflecting the will of the people.

Presidential elections are the centerpiece of American democracy, as citizens go to the polls every four years to choose a new leader.

Professor Troy will take us through a fascinating political journey through American history, reflect on both the Obama and Romney campaigns, and postulate what might come to pass this November.

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 History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-2008, 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.

Details: RSVP/Pre-Register: August 27 – October 19, 2012

Admissions: $15 (includes light refreshments and one non-alcoholic beverage)

Date/Time: Tuesday, October 23, 2012 6:00 PM to 8:00 PM
Location(s): MOITI (Boston Fish Pier),
212 Northern Avenue, East Building I, Suite 300
Boston, Massachusetts, 02210
U. S. A.
View map
RSVP/Pre-Register: August 22, 2012 to October 19, 2012
Admissions:
General $15.00 USD
Equivalent to $14.56 CAD charge per ticket.
(includes hors d’oeuvres, one non-alcoholic bev)
# of tickets
Web link: http://giltroy.com/
Contact: •  Event Registrar
Phone: 1-800-567-5175 x. 7684
Email: event.registration@mcgill.ca

•  Boston Alumni Branch
Email: boston.alumni@mcgill.ca

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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, HNN, 10-12-12

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.

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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Toronto Star 10-11-12

SAUL LOEB/AFP/GETTY IMAGES US President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney participate in the first presidential debate last week. (Oct. 3, 2012)

The fact that the first U.S. presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney changed the campaign narrative so dramatically reflects just how volatile the American electorate’s feelings are in 2012.

Before the first debate last week, reporters seemed ready to declare Romney’s campaign dead — more than a month before election day, Nov. 6. But after nearly 70 million Americans watched Romney dominate and Obama retreat, most pundits and many polls declared the race on again — and extremely close.

This abrupt plot reversal also confirms what should be any American patriot’s and any westerner’s fear regarding this campaign — that neither candidate will win this electoral contest; one of them simply will not lose. To face its many economic, political, diplomatic and structural challenges, the United States needs a strong, effective leader with a clear, affirming mandate. But the current president, enduring high unemployment and an anemic recovery, is facing voters with his negatives at historic highs for electioneering incumbents. And his challenger, handicapped by public skepticism and a divided Republican party, is going into the election with his popularity at historic lows for any major party nominee.

The huge television audience for the debate showed that Americans recognize this election’s importance and their own doubts about both candidates. Americans like falling in love with politicians. Obama’s 2008 Hope-and-Change euphoria was not only about Barack Obama’s eloquence and political pixie dust; it was about Americans seeking redemption through inspiration. Unlike the Canadian prime minister, the American president is both head of state and head of government, concentrating tremendous power and symbolism in one office. And the American story is one of high ideals and great faith in tomorrow.

A visit to the Tower of London the day after the debates reinforced this notion. Until the modern era, much of British history, with its succession wars between relatives, was a story of ruthless power struggles motivated by greed, jealousy and ambition, illustrated by beheaded queens, a Bloody Tower, the Traitors Gate. American mudslinging in campaign commercials, pamphlets and speeches does not measure up. American rhetorical daggers and blackened reputations are simply no match for severed British heads impaled on a stick.

Moreover, underlying most U.S. political campaigns — including this one — are fundamental questions about what Americans believe, how they see themselves and who they want to be.

During the debate, the two candidates kept clashing over the nature of American government.

Romney said: “In my opinion, the government is not effective in — in bringing down the cost of almost anything. As a matter of fact, free people and free enterprises trying to find ways to do things better are able to be more effective in bringing down the costs than the government will ever be.”

Obama then affirmed his belief that “the federal government has the capacity to help open up opportunity and create ladders of opportunity and to create frameworks where the American people can succeed.” Invoking the great American martyr, Abraham Lincoln, Obama said his predecessor “understood” that there are “some things we do better together.”

Romney and Obama are not extremists. Romney acknowledged the need for collective action, taxes, even government regulation — unlike his party’s fanatics. And Obama toasted the free enterprise system — unlike his party’s fanatics. Nevertheless, within their narrowed spectrum, serious philosophical differences that would translate into policy differences remain.

Amid this background, Barack Obama’s great debating failure was not in looking down so frequently, as many commentators complained, but in not helping Americans look up enough. Since his inaugural address, when two wars, a possible depression, and terrorist threats weighed down his once lofty rhetoric, Obama has been a more leaden leader than anyone anticipated when he was elected. The challenges are indeed sobering. The needs are pressing. The divisions are increasing. And the crises seem to be proliferating.

Throughout these next three weeks of high-level, first-rate, tough political combat, the memories of the first debate will be upstaged and its impact diluted. Romney and Obama will meet for two more rounds, one in a town hall forum with voters and one final confrontation on foreign policy. But the challenge for each will remain — can Obama provide a vision for a second term that inspires and can Romney offer a rationale for his election beyond not being Obama? Even amid all this trouble, the United States remains the great dream factory of the world, and Americans still want to believe.

Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and the author of eight books, including Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: George Washington to Barack Obama.

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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

Joanna Weiss, Boston Globe, 10-9-12

For those of you despairing about the nasty tenor of elections today, the ugly partisanship of politics, the polarity of the press: Be happy you weren’t around in the 19th century.

Fox News vs. MSNBC? That was nothing. The early 1800s were known as the “Dark Ages of Partisan Journalism,” says Gil Troy, a history professor at McGill University. Too much talk about Cherokees? Big deal. The fight between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, in 1800, got so ugly that Abigail Adams despaired that the shenanigans could have “ruined and corrupted the minds and morals of the best people in the world.”

So it went, at a time when the party apparatuses were as ruthless as any super PAC, the newspapers were proud to take sides, and outrageous charges went out in handbills, the precursor to TV ads and direct mail. The flip side: Everybody cared. Election season was “the great national pastime before baseball,” Troy says, filled with carnivals and rallies designed to get out the vote. Voting rates were high, and only started dropping toward the end of the century — at about the same time as a national move to clean elections up and talk more about the issues.

“The American heart itself is divided,” Troy says. “We want a campaign that is suitable for the salon and the seminar room, but we actually respond better to a campaign with mud and blood.”

Consider that while watching the next debate. And consider these highlights of 19th-century bare-knuckle politics.

Jefferson v. Adams, 1800: Attack of the Personal Attacks!

Remember those founding fathers, so brilliant, so inspirational? They were also mean. Jefferson was accused of being pro-French and running a “Congo harem” out of Monticello. Adams was accused of conspiring to marry his daughter off to the British king’s family, in order to establish a royal bloodline. Also, foes said he had smuggled British prostitutes across the Atlantic to serve his needs.

Andrew Jackson v. John Quincy Adams, 1828: Swift Boats + Birtherism!

Jackson was accused of murdering defectors in the War of 1812 — charges laid out in what becomes known as the “Coffin Handbill.” He was also accused of having an illegitimate marriage, because his wife, Rachel, had been divorced. Meanwhile, Jackson supporters accused Adams of serving as a pimp for the Russian czar. Jackson won, but Rachel died before the election, likely of a heart attack. Jackson believed the election had broken her heart.

Abraham Lincoln v. Stephen Douglas, 1860: Our Looksist Nation.

Yes, they had those rhetorically brilliant 1858 debates, but the election of 1860, waged in a fiercely divided country, also honed in on the candidates’ appearances. It’s hard to imagine political parties going there today: Lincoln supporters mocked Douglas, a stout man of 5’4”, for being “as tall as he is wide.” (Even Douglas’s allies call him “The Little Giant.”) Lincoln foes, well into his presidency, made fun of him for looking like an ape.

Grover Cleveland vs. James G. Blaine, 1884: Nasty attacks, plus rhyme.

Blaine, known for his corruption, had to put up with chants of “James G. Blaine, continental liar from the state of Maine.” (It’s a good thing he wasn’t from West Virginia.) Meanwhile, Cleveland was accused of fathering an illegitimate child, leading to chants of “Ma, Ma, Where’s my Pa?” When he won, his supporters came up with a response: “Gone to the White House, ha ha ha!”

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