Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Publications’ Category

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Categories:

DAR, Branches, Boston, Massachusetts, Events, Learn, Reads

Event Details

McGill on the Move with Gil Troy (Boston alumni branch)
Import event:
iCalendar
Subscribe
General information:
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

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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!”

Read Full Post »

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, HNN, 10-4-12

Barack Obama’s listless and hesitant performance in the first debate gave Mitt Romney a  twelve-day gift. Until their next debate on October 16, we can expect a turn towardident  more positive coverage of Romney and his campaign.  The insta-polls suggest that Romney’s confident, upbeat, persistent point-making in the debate paid off – and the pundits agree. Words like “zombie,” “throat-clearing,” “downward glancing,” “disjointed,” “convoluted,” popped up in the post-debate reviews of Obama’s performance.

But just as Romney’s people went in hoping to recreate the Carter-Reagan debate, which shifted the winning margin to Ronald Reagan in 1980, Romney’s people should remember Walter Mondale’s victory over President Reagan in the first debate of 1984, and John Kerry’s victories over President George W. Bush twenty years later.  Debates can be determinative but rarely are. Obama is perfectly capable of coming back. And the election remains close with sobering swing state math for Romney.

Yet while this kind of handicapping is what generates the headlines, the real headline should be that the debates once again worked. They offered substantive exchanges that focus much more on issues, statistics, and philosophy than the passing gaffes which reporters are forever seeking in their perpetual “gotcha” game. Not only did both candidates come across as smart, caring, patriotic individuals who love America and are trying to do their best, they shifted the campaign discussion from nonsense to substance. The debates, with each question triggering a tidal wave of details, invite looks at the candidate’s philosophies, their visions of government, their plans for the next four years.  The silly sideshows from partisan extremists look absurd in contrast to the high level discussion Jim Lehrer conducted so well. It is hard after ninety minutes of such seriousness and intensity to return to questions about Obama’s birth or Romney’s riches. The questions and the answers got me – and I daresay most Americans – thinking about who is right and who is wrong, who will be more effective, what are they offering the American people – and what pressing issues remain unaddressed. And so, ultimately, while Obama did give Romney this twelve-day gift, even more important is that both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney gave the American people an even greater gift, at least ninety minutes befitting the majesty of the country and the needs to this moment.

Read Full Post »

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, HNN, 10-2-12


Ronald Reagan campaigning in Columbia, South Carolina, on October 10, 1980, a few weeks before the only debate of the 1980 election. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Happy October, which every four years becomes debate month in American presidential politics. On October 3, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will debate domestic policy in Colorado. On October 11, their vice presidential running mates, Paul Ryan and Joe Biden, will debate in Kentucky. Five days later on October 16, voters at a town meeting in New York will question the two presidential candidates about any issues and on October 22 — two weeks before Election Day — Obama and Romney will debate foreign policy in Florida.

These debates — which are more like side-by-side press conferences with some exchanges — are usually the political equivalent of military service: long bouts of boredom punctuated by bursts of melodrama. Usually, they reinforce media narratives and voter impressions. But they have sometimes changed outcomes, particularly in 1980, when Ronald Reagan’s aw shucks, “there you go again” dismissal of President Jimmy Carter’s attacks triggered a Reagan surge — and the largest last-minute switch in poll results since polling began in the 1930s.

Treating history as an authoritative tarot card rather than a subtle source of wisdom, Mitt Romney’s supporters have been touting that ten-point swing as proof that the Republicans will win. The 1980 moment appeals more broadly to Republicans as indication that a gaffe-prone, ridiculed, seemingly out-of-touch former governor can defeat an earnest Democratic incumbent afflicted by a sagging economy, Middle East troubles, and accusations that the twin pillars of his foreign policy are appeasement and apology not power and pride.

The 1980 debate should sober Obama and buoy Romney. In his recent book, The Candidate: What It Takes to Win — and Hold – the White House, Professor Samuel Popkin, an occasional Democratic campaign adviser, recalls his failure coaching Carter in 1980. Playing Reagan in debate “prep,” Popkin echoed the Republican’s devastating anti-Carter criticisms. Popkin describes the kind of careful criticism Romney should launch against Obama, knowing that if the challenger is too aggressive he looks angry and insolent but if he is too deferential he seems weak and intimidated. Reagan, Popkin writes, “resorted to more subtle, coded criticisms that were harder to defend against. He appeared respectful of the office and the president, suggesting that Carter was hamstrung by defeatist Democrats in Congress.” This approach forced Carter to rebut the premise — and plaintively claim he was strong — or the conclusion — by insisting Democrats were not defeatists. “Contesting one point left him tacitly conceding the other,” Popkin writes.

Obama’s caveat is in Carter’s reaction. Offended and embarrassed by the criticism, Carter ended the session after eleven minutes. Popkin as Reagan had pierced Carter’s “presidential aura,” unnerving everyone in the room. Trying to dispel the tension, Carter’s chief domestic policy advisor, Stuart Eizenstat, himself Jewish, resorted to ethnic humor by pointing to Popkin and joking, “You didn’t know Governor Reagan was Jewish, did you?” Popkin, who quickly replied “Well, Governor Reagan is from Hollywood,” realized that many of Carter’s people, including the aggrieved president, were unfamiliar with Reagan’s attacks because the majesty of the presidency insulated Carter from serious criticism or serious study of his challenger.

Of course, in an ideal world the debates would emphasize issue flashpoints not gaffe-hunting. In Denver, Romney should, Reagan-style, subtly question President Obama as to when he as president will take responsibility for the anemic recovery and lingering unemployment rather than scapegoating his predecessor. At Hofstra University, Romney should ask Obama to explain to the voters present and the American people how his increasing reliance on the heavy hand of federal regulations and big government does not reflect doubt in the traditional invisible hand of individual entrepreneurial Americans and the markets themselves. And in Boca Raton, Romney should prod Obama on the Arab Spring, asking him at what point he would concede that his policy failed rather than simply dismissing the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the murder of American diplomats in Libya, and other Obama-orchestrated disasters as “bumps in the road.” In response, Obama should emphasize his successes in halting the economic freefall, his faith in American ingenuity guided by the government’s occasional, competent, and gentle helping hand, and his muscular defense of American interests in hunting down Osama Bin Laden, boosting troops in Afghanistan, and reprimanding Egypt’s president for delays in defending America’s Cairo embassy. Meanwhile, reporters and voters should push both candidates to explain what sacrifices they will demand from Americans, where they will deviate from their party’s orthodoxy, how they will end partisanship, and what bold solutions they have to American debt, demoralization, and decline.

While such substantive exchanges would allow Americans to weigh the candidates’ dueling philosophies and records, it is more likely that the debates’ verdict will pivot around some theatrical moment. Since televised presidential debates began in 1960, when John Kennedy’s aristocratic calm contrasted with Richard Nixon’s sweaty, herky-jerky intensity, style has usually upstaged substance in debate reporting and debate perceptions.

It is too easy just to blame the press — although broadcasters and reporters will be seeking “gotcha” moments when a candidate stumbles and “grand slams” when a candidate dominates. Moreover, American voters respond more to debate theatrics than polemics. The mass reaction reflects one of the realities of modern leadership, which too many academics ignore and editorialists lament: image rules, style counts, a successful president or prime minister must communicate effectively not just administer smoothly.

This season, as the American campaign peaks and the silliness surges, it will be easy to mock American politics. But the presidential campaign remains a remarkable effective and dramatic ritual that gets two individuals conveying their messages to a polity of 300 million people.

Read Full Post »

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, HNN, 9-30-12

In his recent speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad joined the general pile on against the American presidential campaign. Trying to mock American democracy, he asked “Are we to believe that those who spend hundreds of millions of dollars on election campaigns have the interests of the people of the world at their hearts?” Well, I argue, the answer is “yes.”

Without millions of dollars spent in political campaigns, it would be impossible for candidates to communicate with the people — and make their case that their vision is indeed best not only for Americans but for others throughout the world. Ahmadinejad said that  “Despite what big political parties claim in the capitalistic countries, the money that goes into election campaigns is usually nothing but an investment.” Here, he is correct. The money is an “investment”; an investment in the democratic process.

I am not naïve. I know that too many plutocrats hold too much sway over the American political conversation. I know that too many politicians spend far too much time dialing for dollars rather than politicking with the people. Still, it is hard to take advice from a political hooligan who used violence to secure his own re-election, which a majority of the Iranian people seems to have opposed. And it reflects a lack of proportion in the rhetorical world of the UN, that Ahmadinejad would be tempted to take a very legitimate criticism that raises important questions and dilemmas regarding the mechanics of the American campaign and use it to try delegitimizing American democracy and America itself.

This tyrant’s tirade should remind us to view our current frustrations with the current campaign in context. Yes, there is much that could be improved in the campaign. Yes, the debates we are about to witness will pivot far too much on theatrical skills rather than political messaging. But we should not take the magic of the campaign for granted. This includes the power granted the people to change course, the efforts the President of the United States and his opponent are investing in communicating with the people, and the stability, peace, harmony, and order underlying what has been and will probably continue to be a non-violent, surprisingly efficient, deeply democratic exercise involving tens of millions of voters either validating the incumbent or gently but firmly replacing him, with no tanks in the streets, no thugs manipulating results.

Read Full Post »

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, The Globe and Mail, 9-20-12

(L) Mitt Romney pictured in Lansing, Michigan May 8, 2012 and U.S. President Barack Obama in Port of Tampa in Florida, April 13, 2012. (REUTERS/Rebecca Cook and REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS/Rebecca Cook and REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

America’s presidential campaign is turning surprisingly substantive. True, tomfoolery also abounds, with Democrats mocking Mitt Romney’s rendition of God Bless America, and Republicans questioning Barack Obama’s patriotism. Nevertheless, Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney are offering a dramatic electoral choice, rooted in conflicting visions of government’s role in American life. Even Mr. Romney’s recently revealed comments at a fundraiser, dismissing 47 per cent of Americans as too dependent and too hostile to him, reflect this divide.

Mr. Obama recognized this twist in his acceptance speech, saying: “I know that campaigns can seem small and even silly.” But, he insisted, Americans “face the clearest choice of any time in a generation.” This sentiment was one of the few Obama points echoed in Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s acceptance speech.

Although the candidates disagree about much, they keep debating government’s size and reach. Mr. Ryan, whose selection sharpened the two campaigns’ contrasts, described the choice as “whether to put hard limits on economic growth or hard limits on the size of government, and we choose to limit government.” He added: “After four years of government trying to divide up the wealth, we will get America creating wealth again.”

Mr. Romney, who only mentioned the word “government” three times (to Mr. Obama’s 10 mentions), said Americans “look to our communities, our faiths, our families for our joy, our support, in good times and bad.” In the fundraiser video, Mr. Romney’s resentment of Big Government was palpable; as the gaffe flap has grown, he has tried to shift the focus to the question of who gives and who gets in modern America.

Mr. Obama’s response to this anti-government rhetoric has been withering. “Over and over, we have been told by our opponents that bigger tax cuts and fewer regulations are the only way; that since government can’t do everything, it should do almost nothing,” he said. “We don’t think government can solve all our problems. But we don’t think that government is the source of all our problems – any more than are welfare recipients or corporations or unions or immigrants or gays or any other group we’re told to blame for our troubles.”

Ridiculing years of Republican calls for tax cuts, during booms and busts, Mr. Obama joked: “Feel a cold coming on? Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations and call us in the morning!”

In that same spirit, Mr. Obama’s most effective non-spousal surrogate, Bill Clinton, who upstaged the President at his own renomination party, challenged Americans to “decide what kind of country you want to live in. If you want a ‘you’re on your own, winner take all’ society, you should support the Republican ticket. If you want a country of shared opportunities and shared responsibilities, a ‘we’re all in it together’ society, you should vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden.”

Many Americans root this debate in the 1980s’ backlash against the 1960s’ Great Society “every problem requires a big government program solution” approach. When inaugurated in 1981, Ronald Reagan declared that not only was government not the solution to the problem, government was the problem. Fifteen years later, Mr. Clinton declared the era of big government over. But Americans have been debating this question for much longer.

The American Revolution rebelled against heavy-handed government and executive authority. The country’s first governing plan, the Articles of Confederation, so feared government that the central authority lacked any real power. The constitutional counter-revolution of 1787 offered a limited government compared to Europe, but a more vigorous government compared to the revolution’s initial, impotent entity. “We the people” formed the government, with power divided into three branches, each with checks and balances over the other.

This divided governing plan was not enough for some. Ten amendments to the Constitution, mostly restricting the state while guaranteeing more individual freedoms, quickly emerged. The original plan remained so restrictive that a 16th amendment was required in the early 20th century so Congress could impose a national income tax.

As government expanded, following the centralization of the Civil War in the 1860s, and then with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal responding to the Great Depression, America’s individualistic, entrepreneurial culture also thrived. American leaders consistently sought to provide just enough government to keep up with changing Western conceptions of what basic services a state should provide.

Today, governmental services that most Republicans and Democrats take for granted – such as Social Security guaranteeing old-age pensions (and which Mr. Romney included in his 47-per-cent remark) – would surprise America’s founders. Still, Republicans retain more of the evolutionary skepticism, while Democrats retain more of the Constitution’s political activism.

To use a presidential campaign to revisit this debate takes one of American democracy’s most sacred acts, voting, and consecrates it further, rooting it in meaning and substance, even amid all the charges and counter-charges, the silly ads and the daily candidate squabbles.

Gil Troy is a professor of history at McGill University, co-editor of History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-2008, and author, most recently, of Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

Read Full Post »

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, HNN, 9-13-12


Mitt Romney shaking hands with supporters in Belmont, MA, on Super Tuesday. Credit: Flickr/BU Interactive News.

Mitt Romney “stepped in it” we are being told, with hasty remarks trying to slam Barack Obama as an appeaser as the horrific events in Libya and Egypt unfolded. “Romney’s Libya Response Fuels Foreign Policy Doubts,” Bloomberg news proclaims. In our rush-to-judgment gaffe-oriented media culture, reporters are having a grand old time finding Republicans mumbling about Mitt’s meltdown and his “Lehman moment.” The next step, of course, will be to rummage through the historical closet, and find other campaign-ending gaffes. Expect to hear “presidential historians” on the network news pontificating about Gerald Ford’s premature, rhetorical liberation of Eastern Europe from communism during the 1976 presidential debates — thirteen years before the Soviet Empire crumbled; about Jimmy Carter’s invoking of his teenage daughter Amy’s expertise when talking about nuclear issues four years later; and about Michael Dukakis’s ride in a tank which made him look more like Snoopy fighting the Red Baron than a man prepared to be Commander-in-Chief.

These recent memories build on the modern journalistic addiction to “gotcha” journalism, as well as the more longstanding tendency to explain campaign losses and wins by dramatic turning points. Campaigning history is filled with such moments — Henry Clay’s Alabama letters taught advisers explaining his 1844 loss to discourage candid candidates; James Blaine’s silence when he was introduced by the Reverend Samuel D. Burchard, who called the Democrats the Party of “Rum, Romanism and Rebellion” on the eve of the 1884 election, had future candidates paying more attention at campaign events, to avoid being “Burchardized” — and many party bosses trying to keep candidates at home away from any campaign risks. Campaign grand slams having included Franklin Roosevelt’s flight to Chicago to accept the nomination in 1932, putting to rest fears that he was too handicapped to act assertively, while advertising that his “New Deal” for the American public involved a new leadership style not just bold programs, and Ronald Reagan’s “There-you-go-againing” of Jimmy Carter in 1980.

Ironically, pundits and pols are doing the same thing they accuse Romney of doing — rushing to pronounce final judgment amid a changing and chaotic situation. Historic, devastating gaffes, like Limburger cheese, often need time to become truly pungent — and sometimes, seemingly devastating gaffes, become like bubble gum, stale and discarded surprisingly quickly. For example, according to polls and focus groups at the time, most viewers watching the debate did not react immediately to Gerald Ford’s 1976 statement that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” Reporters, however, pounced. In the Ford Library, Bob Teeter’s tracking polls show the gaffe problem growing with each turn of the news cycle. By contrast, during the 1980 campaign, Ronald Reagan terrified his advisers and delighted his deriders by suggesting that trees caused more pollution than cars and that Vietnam was a “noble cause.” Lo and behold, not only did Reagan win, but he helped changed the American conversation about Vietnam. Had he lost, these two statements would have loomed large in the why-Reagan-failed narrative, instead of functioning as sidebars to the main story.

So let’s hold off on predicting, barely 24 hours after Romney’s remarks, just what impact his reactions will have — especially considering that this crisis still has the potential to make the Obama administration look terrible. If Romney ultimately loses, the first comparison I will make of this stumble will be to John McCain’s hasty suspension of his campaign — which he then quickly rescinded — in 2008 as the economy tanked. The comparison might be apt as a moment that reinforced other moments, which built into growing, accumulated doubts about a candidate.

Ultimately, however, for now, I would say that this latest Mitt mess points to a broader, surprising, phenomenon we are seeing this campaign. Obama and the Democrats have robbed Republicans of the GOP’s decades-long edge on national security and foreign policy issues. The lingering fallout from the George W. Bush years, combined with Barack Obama’s success in presiding over the demise of Osama bin Laden and other terrorists killed by drones, has resulted in polls showing Americans having more confidence in the Democratic candidate than the Republican candidate on foreign issues, even as Romney usually takes the lead in confidence on economic issues. Romney’s misfires in London and over Libya only exacerbate the problem, but the twist is interesting — and potentially extremely significant. For now, however, we all have to do what we are loathe to do and await the people’s verdict before pundits and experts start pronouncing one way or another.

Read Full Post »

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

Associated Press, 9-4-12

 

Analysis: Obama has little choice but to persuade

Source: AP, 9-4-12

Remembered for soaring speeches at the last two Democratic conventions, President Barack Obama faces much tougher constraints Thursday when he accepts his party’s nomination for a second time.

Now he has a four-year record and must convince Americans to stick with the status quo in a climate of high unemployment, fallen home values and wide income disparity.

Given the tough environment, less lofty oratory is almost certain. And Obama has little choice but to walk a careful line as he unspools his vision for America’s future while picking apart Republican Mitt Romney’s plans for taxes, Medicare and the environment.

Overtly ambitious or novel proposals could invite an obvious rebuke: If it’s such a great idea, what hasn’t the president already done it?

“Obama is definitely in a presidential pickle,” said McGill University presidential scholar Gil Troy. “The candidate of hope and change now has reality to contend with, including disappointments and messes.”

The best re-nomination speeches — Ronald Reagan’s 1984 “morning in America” and Bill Clinton’s 1992 “bridge to the 21st century” — included “a heroic narrative of renewal,” Troy said. Obama must give a flavor of that Thursday, he said, despite a serious handicap: The economy lacks the obvious upward trend that boosted Reagan’s campaign.

“Obama has not gotten that statistical gift,” Troy said, “so he has to compensate with oratorical gifts.”

Great oratory has a mixed record in presidential campaigns.

Dwight Eisenhower and George W. Bush are among those who won two terms with lackluster speaking styles.

Obama excelled in big forums from the start. He rocketed to national fame at the 2004 Democratic convention, where his “one America” speech largely overshadowed the nominee, John Kerry.

“There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America,” Obama told the adoring crowd in Boston. “There’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.”

When he accepted the nomination four years later in a huge outdoor stadium in Denver, Obama deplored “the broken politics in Washington.”

“America, we are better than these last eight years,” he said. “We are a better country than this.”

Now, of course, Obama is the incumbent under the microscope. Unemployment is higher, Washington’s politics are more bitterly partisan than before and the notion of no liberal-conservative divide seems naive at best.

Reagan’s “morning in America” optimism might be ridiculed in today’s climate. And rhetorical flourishes by Obama could add fuel to Republican jibes that he is much better at talking than leading.

But Obama can hardly afford to assume the dour demeanor of Jimmy Carter.

A presidential challenger can use big speeches to criticize the incumbent in detail while offering less-specific, even gauzy, alternatives. That’s what Romney did last week in Tampa, Fla., say Democrats, who repeatedly cite his lack of detailed explanations for claims that he can cut taxes, increase military spending and reduce the deficit.

Obama doesn’t enjoy that leeway. He’s constrained in looking both backward and forward.

He must defend his four-year record, of course. But fierce resistance from tea party-influenced Republicans has thwarted some of his key proposals, including jobs bills. His biggest legislative achievement, the 2010 health care overhaul, sharply divided the country and gave Republicans a new battle cry: “Repeal Obamacare.”

The same partisan dynamics could crimp Obama’s ability to offer a second-term agenda. With Republicans likely to retain control of the House along with filibuster powers — if not an outright majority — in the Senate, bold new Democratic proposals might seem implausible.

Still, a range of scholars and operatives urge Obama to err on the side of ambition and specificity.

“We think the country is desperate to know where the president wants to take the country — his vision and plan in the face of weak recovery but more important, the long-term problems facing the country,” veteran Democratic consultants James Carville and Stan Greenberg said in a memo released Tuesday. “The more robust and serious his plans are for American energy production and independence, for infrastructure and America’s modernization, for advancing education and innovation, for getting health care costs down,” they wrote, “the more the Republicans will look irrelevant.”

Carville and Greenberg urged Obama to hammer at Romney’s plans to preserve income tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans while also cutting taxes on investment income that applies mainly to the rich.

Voters “are rightfully angry and increasingly populist,” the two men said.

Troy agreed that Obama should risk being labeled too liberal if that’s what it takes to defend his stimulus plan and auto industry bailout. Both initiatives generally got higher marks from economists than from average Americans.

The president can talk about the bailout “as a reflection of a government that is good, a government that works,” Troy said.

He said the president should use Thursday’s speech to “invite Americans back into the Obama narrative. He has to sell Brand Obama.”

The president might skip many of the flourishes that wowed the crowd in Boston eight years ago. Instead, expect him to try to use the speech — one of the last remaining prime-time, heavily watched events of the campaign — to put the best possible face on a grim economy, and to convince voters that Romney would make it worse.

Read Full Post »

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, HNN, 9-3-12


Clint Eastwood at a Take Pride in America rally, 2005. Credit: U.S. Government.

All of us are having a grand old time laughing at Clint Eastwood’s all too breezy escapade in Tampa, where the veteran actor and national political rookie showed that he could never say goodbye to the GOP audience, blasting President Barack Obama any which way he could, as the teleprompter light flashed furiously. With the Hollywood icon now In the Line of Fire politically, journalists, pundits, bloggers and academics are mocking his performance, suggesting that rather than propelling the Romney-Ryan ticket forward with the magnum force of his celebrity, the Eastwood thunderbolt backfired, showing him to be a lightweight.

Clearly, as an academic, I resent the near absolute power Hollywood celebrities seem to have in our universe, and the fact that grace is gone, dignity sacrificed, and substance a thing of the past. Even Mitt Romney’s actual acceptance speech seemed more soundbite-driven than lyrical or statesmanlike, with his one-liners reminding me of the revelations in 1988 that Michael Dukakis’s speechwriters actually wrote addresses with the soundbites they hoped reporters would cull already highlighted in the candidate’s text.

But when I read the attack on Eastwood’s “truthiness,” snickering at his slam that the nation did not want to be governed by lawyers but by a businessman even though Mitt Romney went to law school, I started wondering whether we of the chattering classes were misreading the moment. Mitt Romney may have a law degree, but we all know which candidate is the one accused of being able to “argue everything and weigh both sides,” and which one is “the businessman.” Just as in 2000, most Americans preferred George W. Bush’s periodic assaults on the English language to Al Gore’s beautifully-sculpted paragraphs because Bush’s bumbling sounded more authentic, I started wondering about the real political effect of Eastwood’s antics on the audience that counted, the American voters. In a perfect world, actors would stick to their scripts and celebrities would stay in Hollywood without venturing into the Washington — or other grownup matters. But our political culture walks a tightrope between the popular and the absurd, between that which should work — and that which actually does.

Clearly, the sudden impact of Eastwood’s riffs was impressive. The convention goers laughed and cheered. Let’s wait for the polls and see if it is possible to discern whether millions of Americans were indeed the beguiled, charmed by Clint’s mix of comedy and politicking, which now goes down easier in the Jon Stewart-Stephen Colbert age of blurred boundaries. Or whether Clint Eastwood truly now is among the unforgiven, a celebrity who overshot, who embarrassed himself and those who sought his help by failing to remember that Hollywood heroes are fictional not real.

Read Full Post »

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

McGill News, 8-31-12

The battle for the White House

Source: McGill News, 8-31-12

Questions & Answers

Gil Troy is a professor of history at McGill and an expert on U.S. politics and the history of American presidential campaigns. Sylvain Comeau recently approached Professor Troy for his thoughts on the current race between Republican nominee Mitt Romney and U.S. president Barack Obama.

American politics seem to be polarized between right and left. Which side will “get out the vote” most effectively?

The biggest problem both candidates are facing, at the moment, is that neither of them has really excited the American people yet. When you compare Obama in 2012 to Obama in 2008, he’s not going to get the same kind of vote, the same passion and enthusiasm. As for Romney, he hasn’t shown an ability to stir the nation. I believe this will be a vote characterized by a little bit of exhaustion, and a sentiment that “we’d rather have him than the other guy.” My fear is that we won’t have a winner; we will have the one who doesn’t lose. And at this point in American history, I think the nation needs a winner.

So the election will be won by default?

The winner will be the one left standing. Obama should have increased his lead in the polls by now, but that hasn’t happened. On the other hand, Romney should have been able to [capitalize] on the current high levels of anxiety in the country. He hasn’t. So both of them are more distinguished by their weaknesses than by their strengths so far in this campaign. And that’s unfortunate.

Does the incumbent normally have some kind of built-in advantage?

In American politics, that is usually the case. Name recognition, a certain conservatism among voters, fund raising, infrastructure; all these are huge advantages. Also, in the last half-century, the only sitting presidents to lose the White House were the ones who faced very serious challenges in the primaries, before getting the nomination. This year, Obama got the nomination in a cakewalk, so historically, that means the odds are much more in his favour. On the other hand, the economic numbers are pretty weak.

How would you evaluate Obama’s first term?

It would not be controversial to say that it has been a disappointment. But that was inevitable, considering the incredibly high expectations surrounding him, and the set of problems he faced. It has been a very sobering first term. It’s interesting to note a certain convergence between the policy decisions of the Bush and Obama administrations. Bush responded to the initial housing crash and financial crisis by stimulating the economy by pouring in hundreds of billions of dollars. What did Obama do? The same thing. Bush locked away suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, a policy which Obama promised to eliminate; that never happened. The president who tracked down and eliminated Osama Bin Laden was not Bush, it was Obama. What do we learn from that? The world looks very different from outside the Oval Office, compared to inside. Outside the Oval Office, we emphasize the differences. But once in office, there is a lot of similarity [between administrations] when it comes to key government ideas.

Obama inherited many of his administration’s key economic challenges from the Bush administration; will that hamper his chances, or will the voters take that into account?

Obama’s narrative is that he inherited all these Republican problems. He applied Democrat solutions to them, the economy has improved, and we will have improved health care now. The Republican narrative is that those problems were the result of both party’s policies, going back to Reagan and then Clinton, and that we have to take a long term view in order to understand how this mess developed.

What role will health care play in this election?

The Democrats are coalescing around health care as a new American right, and that plays well for Obama. In order to win, Romney has to mobilize the Republican base against universal health care. He has to help them overcome their doubts about him, by making them realize that they need him in order to overturn the health care reforms.

Do you think the bullying incident involving Romney will come back to haunt him during the vote?

So far, Romney appears to be a Velcro candidate: all kinds of negative stories have stuck to him. He has allowed the Democrats to define him by these negative reports. He needs to reintroduce himself to the American public, and to focus on basic issues such as the economy and health care.

What about his “silver spoon” image, in which he is said to be responsible for layoffs at companies where he worked, and to favour tax policies that benefit the rich?

During a time of depression or recession, it is very difficult for a super-wealthy person to succeed in American politics. And yet, [Franklin Roosevelt] pulled it off. How did he do it? He was able to turn his aristocratic air into a jaunty, breezy self-confidence that transcended class barriers. He turned a negative into a positive, and that’s what Romney has to do. Romney has to make the case that his skill set in business is not about outsourcing and destroying American jobs; he has to show that they’re exactly the kind of skills needed to lead the country into a healthy 21st century economy.

Has Romney deliberately positioned himself as a far-right candidate? For example, he said that he would eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood, and oppose gay marriages.

American candidates have a tendency to swing to the extremes of the right or left during the primary debates. Campaigns tend to bring candidates back to the centre, but Romney hasn’t really shown that ability yet. So his challenge will be: can he recalibrate and go back to the centre without appearing to be inauthentic? If he only plays to the right, he will not win.

How will his choice of Paul Ryan as vice presidential candidate change the campaign?

Ryan is an experienced congressman with a strong ideological record. This choice shows that Romney is not afraid to run with someone who is articulate, energetic and ideological. This was a bold way of defining the Republican ticket.

Was it a gamble, picking a running mate who is favouring big budget cuts for medicare, and is considered a fiscal hawk?

No matter who he picked, it was going to be someone who is more of a deficit hawk and more fiscally conservative than the Democrats — but picking someone like Ryan defines it very clearly. And I think Romney recognizes that Ryan is not afraid to fight and can articulate his vision — he won’t just sit there and absorb blows.

Romney could have made a “safer” choice. Did he feel that he had to do something, since he has been behind in the polls?

Yes, I think he needed to make a move that shows that this is not business as usual; that was equally important for the morale of the troops as it was for the campaign. This choice also means that the rest of the presidential race will focus on more substantive issues than where Obama was born or what Romney did to the family dog.

Do you think Obama’s handling of the financial crisis, including the unpopular bank bailouts and the ballooning deficits, will hinder his chances?

There is a gut feeling [among the American people] that not enough was done, and yet too much debt was taken on. Also, there is an impression that his decisions are too closely tied in with the philosophy of the Democratic Party, yet he dealt with the crisis in much the same way as Bush. So there are a lot of contradictory, mixed feelings when it comes to the financial crisis.

Do the Republicans face any challenges in this election associated with the fact that the last Republican president, George W. Bush, was not a popular figure when he left office?

I think Obama wants to cast Romney as Bush II — and even Republicans understand that the baggage from the Bush administration persists. Romney has to show — without disrespecting Bush, because some Americans still support the former president — that he is a true Republican, an effective Republican, a competent Republican, and that the Republicans have the answer.

Do you believe that any third-party candidates could dilute support for either of the main party candidates?

Six months ago, I could have speculated about all kinds of people. Today, it doesn’t look like any serious third party contenders are emerging. This is definitely the kind of election in which a third party candidate could have made some noise and possibly done some damage, but so far, that doesn’t seem to be the dynamic. On the Republican side, during the nomination process, the third party phenomenon played itself out. They gave a lot of room to a lot of voices, some of them quite extreme, and ultimately, those were defeated. On the Democratic side, the power of the Obama myth, and, frankly, his status as the first African-American president, means that it’s not viable for anyone on the far left to contend with him.

Since Reagan, every sitting president has presided over a ballooning deficit and national debt. Will that continue to colour both the campaigns and the terms of future presidents?

Reagan tried to start a conversation about deficits and limits, but even he failed. He only succeeded in limiting the growth of government. There has been an addiction to government spending and deficit spending, and no politician has had the power, the courage or the standing to really take on this problem. There have been government commissions and lots of good ideas are out there, but what it really take is leadership, and guts. It is a toxic mix of special interests trying to protect their turf, and politicians who are more concerned with the next election than with long term solutions.

Read Full Post »

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, HNN, 8-29-12


Mahalia Jackson, 1962. Credit: Library of Congress

On August 28, 1963, in front of a quarter of a million people massing at the Lincoln Memorial, a young 34-year-old orator felt a little intimidated, a little overwhelmed. Initially, he delivered a somewhat formal address from prepared notes. Suddenly, the singer Mahalia Jackson called out to Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Tell them about your dream Martin, Tell them about the dream!” Turning to oratory he had been perfecting for a decade, King delivered one of the great speeches of all time.

This week, Republicans are desperately in need of a modern-day Mahalia Jackson to liberate Mitt Romney. So far, Romney has failed to inspire many Americans with his life story. He often seems too stiff, too robotic on the campaign trail. Two things seem to be holding him back. First, he has a bit of the patrician George H.W. Bush in him. In 1988, when running for President, Bush was reluctant to get personal, go emotional, or even use the word “I.” His formidable 87-year-old mother, Dorothy Walker Bush, had taught him not to boast, not to focus on himself, not to be a peacock — and she was still watching him carefully. Eventually, Bush let loose — so much so that he ended up apologizing after the campaign, and after his victory, for being too aggressive.

A second factor reinforcing Romney’s personal and cultural restraint is his religion. Since entering public life, Romney has learned to be circumspect about his Mormonism. He understands that many evangelical Protestants have deep prejudices against Mormon theology. And while during his 2008 campaign he tried to echo John F. Kennedy’s famous Houston remarks about fighting religious bigotry, he has been too afraid of his skeptical base this time around to go there. But trying to explain the most interesting aspects about Romney, including his charitable initiatives and the lure of public service, without mentioning his Mormonism, is like discussing Barack Obama’s calling without mentioning his racial background or absent father.

Especially in American politics, culture counts. Biography counts. Words matter. We are a nation of story tellers and of rapt listeners. Hollywood — and American history — entrance hundreds of millions of people around the world with dramatic tales, inspiring moments, grand lives, compelling ideas. A presidential campaign is a forum for this kind of storytelling and wordsmithing. Americans want to be inspired. They want to know their leaders. They want to be swayed by a compelling narrative, a sweeping vision, and significant ideas. So far, Mitt Romney has failed to provide much of any of that to most Americans. So, when he accepts the Republican nomination for president, the call of history, the call of the people, will be an echo of Mahalia Jackson’s 1963 call to Martin Luther King, Jr.: despite your upbringing, your personality, your religious caution, “Tell them about yourself, Mitt. Tell them about yourself.”

Read Full Post »

Unconventional Wisdom

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, New York Times, 8-27-12

With fewer Americans interested in party conventions and television executives providing less prime time coverage, the calls to “just scrap ’em” are mounting.  This summer, CBS announced it preferred broadcasting a rerun of “Hawaii Five-0” to convention speeches, while Chris Wallace of Fox News toasted the good old days when “real business got done.”

Primary voters, not convention delegates, select the presidential nominees. The nominees announce their running mates before the conventions begin. Nearly everyone seems to agree: these party parleys risk irrelevance.

But the conventional wisdom about conventions is wrong. Conventions still count. They help define the candidates, frame the debate, command attention and inject some communal moments into an increasingly atomized political process.

Maintaining traditional rituals is an important, unappreciated element of the campaign as a whole, a key part of its legitimizing function. The way we mobilize citizens, build candidate credibility and reaffirm party identity in two parallel rituals — despite all the partisan enmity — helps explain America’s quicksilver shift from vicious campaigns to peaceful, often rapturous, inaugurations. These familiar political ceremonies broadcast a reassuring continuity and stability even as candidates promise change, and partisans warn of disaster if they lose.

Since the 1830s, these matching, deliciously democratic rites have shaped campaigns, enhancing the dialogue between candidates and voters. Until Andrew Jackson’s democratizing revolution, “King Caucus” reigned, as Congressional leaders picked party nominees secretly. The conventions reflected nineteenth-century Americans’ emergence as partisans and not just voters. Popular party politics became the first great American national pastime. Then as now, convention delegates were both mediators and validators, conveying messages to candidates from their constituents, while bathing the candidates in populist love with hoopla and huzzahs.

True, conventions were once kingmakers, selecting the party’s nominee, often to the people’s surprise — and occasionally to party elites’ chagrin.  Originally, delegates chosen by local party leaders convened in elaborately festooned halls, like the “Wigwam” in Chicago, where Abraham Lincoln was nominated by the Republican Party in 1860. Back then, nominations and even the basic character of the party were up for grabs, as local political bosses squabbled over the platform while choosing the party’s “standard bearers” – the campaign’s military metaphors announced the party’s commitment to mobilizing manpower while maintaining discipline.

More power-hungry than idea driven, the bosses were angling for “spoils” and protecting turf, not just advancing policy positions. And the defining convention cliché — when delegates from the “great state” of LouWHEEziana or CaliFOURRRnia or wherever else praised their home bases effusively — affirmed regional sensibilities while uniting an increasingly centralized polity.

Ticket to the 1928 Democratic National Convention, held in Houston, Texas.Library of CongressTicket to the 1928 Democratic National Convention, held in Houston, Texas.

Seeking a “balanced ticket” to reflect both parties’ traditional self-image as broad, umbrella coalitions, conventions often produced awkward shotgun marriages. The Republicans in 1904 paired the staid William McKinley with the bombastic Theodore Roosevelt. The Democrats in 1928 mismatched the Northern Catholic city slicker Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York with a “favorite son” candidate from Lonoke, Ark., Senator Joseph T. Robinson.

Divided and disputatious, conventions frequently deadlocked. In 1928, the Democrats took 103 ballots to nominate a candidate. Sometimes, the stalemates reflected the party’s fragmented politics, producing “dark horses” — unexpected, inoffensive compromise choices — such as the Democrat James Knox Polk in 1844 and the Republican James A. Garfield in 1880. Sometimes, great ideological divisions were at play. In 1852, the Whigs, splintering over slavery, nominated the antislavery General Winfield Scott on the 53rd ballot, even as the platform appeased Southerners by endorsing states rights. Antislavery Whigs supported their nominee while “spitting upon the platform” in Horace Greeley’s memorable phrase. Twelve years later, during the Civil War, when the nominee George McClellan reversed the pacifist Democratic convention’s priorities by saying “the Union is the one condition of peace,” vice presidential nominee George H. Pendleton was so furious that McClellan would not end the war unconditionally, he boycotted his running mate’s campaign events.

Originally, nominees rarely attended the conventions, and never addressed the delegates once chosen. Believing a candidate’s reluctance and passivity reflected his virtue and suitability, the party offered the nomination by mail, which the nominee accepted with a formal reply. In 1848, Zachary Taylor’s acceptance was delayed for weeks because the notification committee’s invitation, sent postage due, languished in the Dead Letter office. The thrifty Taylor only accepted letters with prepaid postage.

By 1852, Scott used a new invention — the telegraph — to accept immediately, becoming the first nominee to address a convention directly, albeit remotely. When the rival Democrats chose Franklin Pierce after 49 ballots, the notification committee’s visit to him created a tradition of sending a party delegation to make the offer in person.

Pierce kept quiet that day. The post-convention notification ceremony later grew into a spectacle, as large delegations representing the diverse party interests visited the nominee, who, increasingly, endorsed the party and the platform with a full speech. By 1892, the Democratic financier and strategist William C. Whitney rented out Madison Square Garden so that the ex-president Grover Cleveland, seeking a comeback, could accept in front of 20,000 people.  Democrats rejoiced that this ceremony “indicated that the candidates were in touch with the people.” Republicans mocked Cleveland as “Jumbo” the circus elephant playing Coney Island.

Even before they could be transmitted live, dramatic convention moments united Americans. After William Jennings Bryan’s electric “Cross of Gold” speech in 1896, the once-obscure 36-year-old Nebraska Congressman became a national celebrity.  From then on, his wife recalled, they lost their privacy: “The public had invaded our lives.”

In the twentieth century, the proliferation of primaries increasingly shifted the focus from the convention delegates to the people. Franklin Roosevelt’s decision to fly to Chicago and accept the nomination in person in 1932 was a twofer: it illustrated his vigor despite his polio and it signaled his readiness to offer a daring “New Deal.”  Functioning more as coronation ceremonies than anointments, conventions now climaxed with acceptance speeches. Especially with the televising of the conventions starting in 1948, the Republican and Democratic gatherings became more about what the candidate stood for than who the nominee would be.

In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt, trying to recapture the presidency, championed direct primaries to bypass the party bosses who opposed him. The major issue, Roosevelt said, is “the right of the people to rule.” While these primaries were “beauty contests” sporadically reflecting voter appeal, candidates began arriving at conventions with established national reputations and independent power bases.

These blows to the conventions — and party bosses — boosted democracy. The spread of Republican and Democratic primaries, especially after the party reforms of the 1960s, popularized the nomination process. The drama of conventions now stemmed from what politicians said and did rather than which presidential aspirant lost or won. The Democrats’ divisive, disruptive conventions in 1968 and 1972 helped elect Richard Nixon to the presidency, twice. In 1968, Hubert Humphrey could not recover from the generational conflict that erupted in riots between mostly Democratic working class Chicago cops and mostly Democratic radical student protestors. The botched convention helped him lose the presidency by a slim margin.

Four years later, the convention defined George McGovern as the candidate of “amnesty, abortion, and acid.” As one McGovern supporter put it later, “we should have had a coat-and-tie rule,” as many of the 50 million viewers at home saw too many long-haired hippies in tie-died T-shirts on the convention floor. McGovern became the first candidate since polling began to drop by two points rather than enjoy a “convention bump.”

In 1992, Pat Buchanan’s alienating, shrill call for “religious” and “cultural” war to “take back our country” taught Republicans the political dangers of convention extremism. By contrast, that year, Bill Clinton tapped into the convention’s contemporary power as a forum for communicating with the masses, strolling toward Madison Square Garden with his wife and daughter in tow, as part of an image makeover that helped him find his way.

Like the Olympics opening ceremony they always follow, these televised party carnivals forge party solidarity and launch the campaign, but they can still make or break candidacies. We could do without them because like the Olympics they are often overblown and self-important, but we would miss them (and we’d miss complaining about them too).

The conventions are part of the real action. Try explaining George Bush’s turnaround victory in 1988 without his convention call for a “kinder, gentler nation,” or George W. Bush’s surprisingly narrow 2004 victory without his joke that his “swagger” was merely considered walking in Texas, or Barack Obama’s entire career without his 2004 Democratic convention keynote speech proclaiming that “we worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states.”

Maintaining a democratic dialogue with 300 million citizens is hard. Using this traditional medium — resounding with history and the echoes of earlier speeches, incorporating the battles resolved and the triumphs achieved — roots the often stressful election in America’s proud and ongoing democratic heritage. The mirror image convention rituals of the seemingly hostile parties eloquently broadcast a message of commonality even amid the many policy differences.

Ultimately, these dueling conventions remind us that presidential campaigning is not just about choosing a winner, or debating the national future. It is also, like every good national ritual, about binding a community together through symbols and stories and reaffirming our joint past, common ties and shared fate.

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. His most recent book, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism,” will be published this fall.

Read Full Post »

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, The Montreal Gazette, 8-8-12

Gil Troy, an American who is 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.

Gil Troy, an American who is 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.

Photograph by: unknown

With Americans reeling from the “Joker’s” movie massacre in Colorado and the Sikh temple slaughter in Wisconsin, the disconnect between what they are thinking about and what their presidential candidates are talking about has grown.

During this nasty nadir in the election cycle, the campaigns paused briefly as the nation grieved over the Colorado shootings. President Barack Obama visited Aurora and gave the nation the defining image of young Stephanie Davies pressing her fingers over her best friend Allie Young’s neck wound amid the gunfire, refusing Allie’s pleas to flee, saving Allie’s life.

After the Wisconsin murders, Obama said he was “deeply saddened,” while Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney joined in “mourning” the dead. But there was something missing in Obama’s and Romney’s remarks. Their words, while heartfelt, lacked the resonance of the greatest presidential responses to tragedy, which focused Americans on the particular loss, provided a renewed sense of purpose and blazed a trail toward transcendence from anguish.

Obama’s Allie-Stephanie tale did capture the extraordinary heroism of ordinary people that often emerges in such situations. It illustrated his message that what matters most is “how we choose to treat one another and how we love one another.” But nothing Obama said matched Abraham Lincoln’s characterization of the Civil War as “this mighty scourge of war” or Franklin Roosevelt’s description of the Pearl Harbor attack as “a day which will live in infamy.”

Lincoln and Roosevelt, among other presidential orators, understood they could not simply mourn. They had to motivate, they had to propel a huge, complicated and newly fragile country forward. Lincoln, at Gettysburg, spoke of “unfinished work” and “a new birth of freedom.” Roosevelt, who conjured the “warm courage of national unity” to fight the Great Depression, swore to avenge American deaths from Japanese treachery.

Finding a national purpose is hard enough; greatness comes from transcendence, soaring beyond the trauma. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address promised: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.” Lyndon Johnson laced his eloquence after John Kennedy’s assassination with inspiring idealism, seeking to create an America where “the strong can be just in the use of strength, and the just can be strong in the defence of justice.” And Bill Clinton, after the Oklahoma City terrorist bombings, showed that great presidential oratory often fuses the national with the theological, saying: “Those who are lost now belong to God. Some day we will be with them. But until that happens, their legacy must be our lives.”

A shooting at a mall and even a loner attacking a temple cannot be compared proportionately with wars, presidential assassinations, or mass terrorist attacks. Individual crimes, no matter how heinous, are not national assaults. And following the hasty attempt to politicize the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz., in 2011, when many reporters and Democrats wrongly blamed another crazed gunman’s sins on the red-blue political divide, politicians need to tread cautiously. But since the two shootings, millions of Americans have been going beyond the individual stories to ask broader, deeper, more disturbing questions.

And instinctively, in this secular age of the media-magnified presidency, they look to America’s pastor-in-chief or pastor-in-chief-to-be to minister to their wounded souls and provide the kind of transforming sermon many of their parents and grandparents once received from preachers.

Just as Obama, in 2008, used the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy to address the country’s tortured history of race relations, Americans need a candidate this year to address America’s values crisis. Americans need a leader to push the conversation beyond the left-right divide. Character questions should not be political but they can be shaped constructively by wise politicians. With Wall Street exposed and Joe Paterno deposed, with the economy flagging and political credibility sagging, Americans want a conversation about culture and belief and values that does not degenerate into debates about gay marriage or abortion rights.

The common revulsion at the Colorado and Wisconsin crimes, along with many Americans’ growing fears that somehow these latest mass murderers from among us reflect something institutionally and ideologically broken, are building blocks for a national conversation. All Americans — all moderns — need “warm courage” to improve ourselves and our respective nations. Americans need a leader. And if done right, we will honour the victims.

Gil Troy, an American who is 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.

Read Full Post »

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2012

They’re long, exhausting, and sometimes appalling, but America’s raucous presidential campaigns are also testimony to the success of its continually evolving democracy.

“The people have nominated you without any pledges or engagements of any sort . . . and they want you to do nothing at present but allow yourself to be elected,” the poet and newspaper editor William Cullen Bryant told Abraham Lincoln in 1860. “Make no speeches, write no letters as a candidate, enter into no pledges, make no promises.” As Americans grumble, in what has become a quadrennial ritual, that the presidential campaign is too long, too nasty, and too frivolous, they should consider whether they would really prefer a return to the 19th-century rules of the game that are so often held up as an alternative.

A look back at the evolution of the presidential campaign since the early days of the Republic highlights the remarkable democratic achievements of the last two centuries. America’s presidential campaign process works. It sifts through candidates, facilitates a continent-wide conversation, and, most important, bestows legitimacy on the winner. Presidential campaigns are intense, long, and costly because they are popular, consequential, and continental in scope. Most aspects of the campaigns that Americans hate reflect the democracy we love….READ MORE

Read Full Post »

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, New York Times, 6-26-12

In running for re-election, Barack Obama commands the most powerful democratic platform in world history and the greatest backdrop, the White House. A seemingly casual announcement in a TV interview can trigger a political earthquake, as Obama did when he endorsed gay marriage. But the president’s magnificent residence can also be what Harry Truman called the Great White Jail.

Presidents are handcuffed by their power. Presidential statements can crash financial markets or start wars. The dignity of the presidency also inhibits, even in today’s brutal political environment. Obama’s campaign ad attacking Mitt Romney’s record at Bain Capital made some Democrats squirm as Republicans labeled the president “another gut-punching politician from Washington.”

The ambivalence about presidents politicking goes back to the nation’s founding. George Washington liked “going on tour,” getting “huzzahed” north and south – but, reflecting his contemporaries’ distaste for democracy, he avoided explicit political talk. When the less popular President Martin Van Buren toured before his 1840 re-election campaign, his fellow Democrats feted him. Nevertheless, the new partisanship polarizing American politics had Whig Party critics denouncing Van Buren’s activities as “undignified” and “insulting,” while mocking “His Majesty, King Martin the First.”

A cartoon depicted the obstacles facing President Martin Van Buren's reelection effort in 1840. Weighed down by a bundle labeled "Sub Treasury," Van Buren followed the lead of Andrew Jackson toward the White House.

Library of Congress

A cartoon depicted the obstacles facing President Martin Van Buren’s reelection effort in 1840. Weighed down by a bundle labeled “Sub Treasury,” Van Buren followed the lead of Andrew Jackson toward the White House.

In 1864, Abraham Lincoln said he was too busy to campaign for reelection — a common presidential posture. Still, “Honest Abe” was a crafty pol, who was “too busy looking after the election to think of anything else,” according to his treasury secretary, William Pitt Fessenden.

This posture of presidential passivity persisted, even after William Jennings Bryan’s 18,000 mile 1896 stumping tour ended the charade for challengers, who now campaigned openly and vigorously. The hyperkinetic President Theodore Roosevelt chafed under the restrictions in 1904, comparing it to “lying still under shell fire” when he was a Rough Rider. Still, T.R. understood that no matter what he did his election would be a “referendum on Roosevelt,” as one aide said.

The impression of energetic politicking Theodore Roosevelt conveyed — even while he felt constrained — propelled presidents more explicitly into politics. In the 1930s and 1940s, Franklin D. Roosevelt perfected the presidential techniques of campaigning by governing and scoring political points by pretending to be nonpolitical. Roosevelt showered voters with governmental goodies while parrying reporters’ political questions by saying “I don’t know nothin’ about politics.” Critics wondered how to criticize him as he saved starving children. Opponents “could only talk,” the Times columnist Arthur Krock marveled, as Roosevelt announced new initiatives in his campaign addresses. “The president acted.”

Unfortunately, F.D.R.’s act reinforced the traditional impression that politicking besmirched the president. Even while presiding over his party as adeptly as he presided over the nation, even while understanding how to sell policies not just develop them, Roosevelt disrespected the democratic dialogue. He treated the sacred act of soliciting voters’ support as a profane act of crass self-promotion.

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson, despite being a Roosevelt protégé, could not keep up the charade of acting presidential for long. “Get in your cars and come to the speakin’,” he yelled as he motorcaded – and showered farm aid, disaster relief, food stamps and pay raises on the communities he visited.

Eight years later, Richard Nixon took Roosevelt’s public prudishness and private ruthlessness to such extremes that he ruined his presidency. In 1972, President Nixon said that he would win re-election simply by “doing my job.” White House staffers froze out reporters who dared treat Nixon as a candidate, even as he privately called the campaign “a fight to the death.”

The Watergate revelations made all politicians look crooked. Nixon’s defense that every president acted ruthlessly resonated with the post-1960’s adversary culture epitomized by the hypercritical news media. Conflict-oriented stories emphasized politicians’ moral failings and the brutality of American politics.

The Watergate debacle prompted a new presidential primness. Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter each followed a “Rose Garden strategy” while running for re-election, obscuring their political calculations in moralistic claims that the nation needed them working in the White House. This return to a nineteenth-century delicacy culminated in Michael Dukakis’s 1988 campaign. Dismissed by one reporter as “just a brain in the jar,” the bloodless Massachusetts technocrat who was not even yet president was so busy declaiming what was and wasn’t “worthy of a presidential campaign,” he blew a 20-point summertime lead.

As both candidate and president, Bill Clinton combated the growing perception that the Democrats had become the party of high-minded, long-winded, weak-chinned wimps who could not take a political punch. Clinton combined a Rooseveltian charm and duplicity with a shameless Nixonian ruthlessness that reassured Democrats after so many Reagan-era losses. “I find it appalling that a lot of well-established people don’t understand how important political skills are to governing,” James Carville, Clinton’s chief strategist, complained. If you don’t win, “you are never going to get anything done.”

Even before he became President, Barack Obama struggled with these mixed messages. In 2008, some aides welcomed stories that this high-minded philosopher-politician could be the tough Chicago pol when necessary. Now, Obama’s supporters are using the recent backlash against his Bain ads to emphasize that Obama “didn’t survive and triumph in battles with Chicago politicians, some of whom resembled dockside thugs, because he’s made of cotton candy,” as the Democratic consultant Donna Brazile wrote recently.

Obama’s image is a hologram, sometimes hovering above the fray, sometimes plunging into the political muck. With his Dream Act-like executive order halting the deportation of illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children, Obama is campaigning by governing as F.D.R. did, approaching the shamelessness of L.B.J. and the desperation of Clinton, banking on Americans’ appetite for presidential remorselessness. No president can govern effectively without being a consummate politician, which includes knowing how to sell yourself, push your agenda, trim, spin, compromise, build coalitions, punish enemies and trash opposing ideas.

While presidents also need to act proportionately and be statesmen-like, the presidential primness that began with George Washington was antidemocratic, reflecting the founders’ fears of mob rule. In our more democratic era, we still should fear demagogues while cherishing popular politics. The challenge is particularly difficult these days when politics seems so poisonous and presidents shrewdly seek insulation from the toxicity.

Treating politics as disreputable demeans democracy. The expanded involvement of voters in politics and the increased pressure on presidents to communicate with voters are among America’s greatest democratic achievements of the last two centuries. Political skills in the White House are like guns in Dodge City. You want your guys to have them but worry when the bad guys wield them. Perhaps it’s time to resurrect the 1964 complaint of the historian James MacGregor Burns, as the White House yet again becomes a “round-the-clock, round-the-year campaign headquarters.”

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.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »