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Archive for the ‘American History’ Category

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

Joanna Weiss, Boston Globe, 10-9-12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

Culture Warriors Don’t Win

By Gil Troy, NYT, 4-27-12

Campaign Stops - Strong Opinions on the 2012 Election

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, HNN, 2-4-12

Everyone’s having a grand old time mocking Mitt Romney for finally “admitting”: “I’m not very concerned about the very poor.” The quotation has been bandied about as proof that Romney is a greedy, unfeeling capitalist. And, in a presidential campaign which emphasizes optics over good sense, Romney has already retreated, saying he “misspoke.”

In fairness, the quotation was taken out of context. Romney said: “I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it. I’m not concerned about the very rich. They’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the very heart of America—the 90-95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling.” In other words, Romney did not intend to convey contempt for the poor. He was saying that there are programs dedicated to protecting the poor but it is the middle class that is being completely ignored.

This “gaffe” and Romney’s other rich-related verbal stumbles recall the unhappy political career of Dan Quayle, George H.W. Bush’s linguistically challenged vice president, who was dismissed as stupid for all kinds of doozies. Remember the time, when he was in Hawaii, and said, “When I meet with world leaders, what’s striking—whether it’s in Europe or here in Asia…” even though Hawaii’s a chain of islands far from the Asian land mass, and is at best called Oceania. Or the time he said, “We’re the country that built the Intercontinental Railroad” when it was the transcontinental railroad. Or the time he said, “The Middle East is obviously an issue that has plagued the region for centuries.” Or, my personal favorite, the time he said in Beaverton, Oregon:  “I’ve now been in 57 states—I think one left to go.”

Don’t remember Dan Quayle saying these? Well, you’re right—it was Barack Obama. These and other verbal pratfalls, compiled by Daniel Kurtzman, are not all that well-known. This is because even his opponents agree that Barack Obama is smart and eloquent. When he stumbles, most people understand that anyone forced to talk as often as he is before cameras is bound to make the occasional error.

Romney on the wealth issue, and Quayle on the intelligence issue, ran into what I call the “O-Ring Factor.” Just as that particular part on the space shuttle Challenger eroded only because of specific weather conditions, most gaffes only stick where politicians are vulnerable. Obama is rarely tongue-tied, so he can get away with the occasional vocabulary or linguistic malfunction. But reporters and rivals loved questioning Quayle’s intelligence, just as reporters and rivals are now enjoying questioning Romney’s sensitivity to the other 99.9 percent of Americans less wealthy than he is.

Unfortunately, such pouncing comes at a price. It sets candidates on edge, making all of them even more superficial and artificial. None of us would fare very well with cameras recording our every statement. This campaign is seeking a chief executive not a robot. Let’s have an honest debate about the impact of Romney’s wealth on his worldview—but spare us this tomfoolery, or Dan Quaylery.

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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, HNN, 1-19-12

After months of debating, fundraising, positioning, posturing, and polling, America’s Republican candidates are finally facing the voters – with Election Day still nearly ten months away. As always, there is much to mock. But despite its flaws, America’s electoral system is working, managing a complicated, intense, continent-wide conversation among millions of voters seeking a leader.

Admittedly, the Iowa-New Hampshire con  is absurd, with two, small, unrepresentative states starting the voting process earlier and earlier so they can be first in the nation. Both political parties foolishly enable this childish behavior. And yes, the Republican debates often seem more like Bart Simpson versus Sponge Bob than Abraham Lincoln versus Stephen Douglas. The most memorable moment so far from hours of talking by America’s aspiring chief executives has been Texas Governor Rick Perry’s excruciating “brain freeze,” when he could not remember the third federal agency he wanted eliminated, culminating with his now infamous “Oops.”  But this year, especially, the electoral system is not the issue – the frustrations come from the historical context and the candidates themselves.

This election comes at a particularly unhappy moment in American life. The economy has languished for nearly four years.  As during all recessions, Americans fear the downturn is permanent, forgetting the business cycle’s resilience while losing faith in their economy and themselves. The last decade has been clouded by fears of terrorism and the petty harassments at airports and elsewhere from living in a lockdown society. Americans overlook George W. Bush’s greatest achievement, which is a non-achievement — there were no successor attacks on American soil to the 9/11 mass murders. The war in Afghanistan still festers, the withdrawal from Iraq was joyless, even Barack Obama’s triumph in greenlighting the daring operation that killed Osama Bin Laden, brought only temporary relief. It was the dulled enjoyment of a chronically ill patient who had a rare, good day, not the long-sought healing or closure.

Meanwhile, Barack Obama’s upbeat, historic, transformational, “Yes We Can” candidacy has bogged down in the muck of amateur-hour governing, producing a weary, spasmodic, sobering, “Maybe We Can’t” presidency. Obama has now appointed his third-and-a-half chief of staff in three-years. Most recently, the now-retiring chief of staff William Daley shared duties, after his first demotion, with Pete Rouse.

Amid this depressing context, the Republicans promising to rescue America have been more empty suits than white knights, super-cranks not superheroes. The front-runner, Mitt Romney, has been a Ford Escort-kind of candidate, competent enough but not exciting, rolling along smoothly yet frequently stuck in neutral. He has yet to generate the kind of excitement Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Bill Clinton in 1992 each needed to unseat an incumbent president.  Different Romney rivals have successively zoomed ahead sporadically only to crash, sputter, or run out of gas.

Underlying the theatrics and personality questions is a serious referendum about the Republican Party’s character. Romney appears to be the most reasonable, presentable, electable candidate. Voters looking for an anybody-but-Obama candidate should rally around Romney, as the Republicans’ best chance to recapture the White House.  The other candidates – especially now that Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry quit – are ideologues, representing doctrinaire strains within the Republican Party.  Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, in particular, hold fringe views.  In a general campaign, Democrats and the media would easily caricature either as yahoos, while Newt Gingrich remains an unguided conversational missile, who has now been tagged by his ex-wife as an advocate of “open marriage.”

The surges of the Santorum and Paul campaigns demonstrate that in the US today, a growing gap separates fundamentalist provincials and cosmopolitan moderates. The extremes are diverging, submerging the center.  Ron Paul’s libertarianism and Rick Santorum’s fundamentalism epitomize the reddest of the red state sensibility, which is deeply alien to the New York-California East Coast-West Coast blue state sensibility.  In an age of niche media – to each his or her own Facebook page and shrill corner of the Blogosphere — members of each social, cultural, political fragment in a society can have their own echo chamber. As they whip each other into self-referential frenzies, and as the headline-driven media amplify their shouts, they drown out the increasingly silent majority, making it harder to forge a common, constructive social, cultural and political conversation.  Of course, the primary campaigns in particular favor the shrill partisans. General election campaigns often help candidates find the center as they woo swing voters.

So let the games begin. As the Republicans battle it out, it will be interesting to see whether Mitt Romney’s safe, lowest common denominator politics wins, or Republicans turn to an edgier, pricklier candidate. And as Republicans pummel one another, President Barack Obama will be watching from the sidelines but trying not to get sidelined.  Hovering above the fray is nice but Obama cannot afford to be too removed – he is too vulnerable and risks irrelevance.

Republicans seek a new Reagan –a Republican upstart who unseated President Jimmy Carter in 1980.  Democrats should be hoping for 1996 Redux, when a flawed, unpopular Democratic incumbent, Bill Clinton, was blessed by an even more flawed, less popular Republican challenger, Bob Dole. For Obama, even winning by default will represent an historic, and possibly redemptive, achievement, as Clinton learned.

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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, HNN, 1-12-12

A crisis is looming for political reporters desperate for a drawn out, dramatic presidential campaign.  Republican voters may be less crazy and more predictable than the conventional wisdom suggests.  If Mitt Romney continues his winning streak because Republicans realize he is the most electable candidate, we might have a much abbreviated presidential nominating season thanks to voters making a rational, non-doctrinaire decision.

Anxious to keep things going, programmed for conflict, reporters have tried to place a big asterisk on Romney’s New Hampshire victory, warning that the emergence of Republicans criticizing his time at Bain Capital proves that in the week he won Romney also witnessed that which will guarantee his loss to President Barack Obama in November.  History suggests otherwise.  Hashing the issue out now just might inoculate Romney against succumbing to the attack in the general election.

The historical analogy most worrying to the Romney camp comes from the 1988 campaign, when George H.W. Bush decided to “go negative” after discovering he trailed behind Michael Dukakis by 17 points in the polls and was saddled with a “negative rating” of 40 percent, twice that of his opponent. In a move that would become legendary in the annals of political consultants, Bush’s campaign director Lee Atwater gave his director of research James Pinkerton a three-by-five card and said:  “You get the stuff to beat this little bastard and put it on this three-by-five card.”  One of the negatives Pinkerton discovered was an issue Al Gore had raised during the Democratic primary campaign—the prison furlough program that enabled a convicted murderer to rape a woman and terrorize her fiancée—and the devastating Willie Horton attack ad followed.

But there’s a flip side to this tale.  In both 1992 and 2008, primary attacks against Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, as unpleasant as they were during the time, ended up being defused by the general election.  In 1992 the Gennifer Flowers adultery allegations and the Vietnam draft dodging charge had largely lost their sting by the Democratic Convention.  In 2008 Barack Obama brilliantly dispatched the Jeremiah Wright problem in March, so that it was not much of a factor in the fall.

In fact, John Kerry might have become president in 2004 had his primary opponents done a better job of attacking him more viciously.  When Kerry ran for the Democratic nomination in 2004, he ran as a war hero and was treated as such.  The Republicans “Swift Boated” him effectively during the general campaign, turning his war record into a liability.  Had Democrats tried that tack during the primary, Kerry might have been able to pull the patriot card on them and deflected the attack—just as Romney has to continue pulling the capitalist card on Republican critics, to squelch the criticism and try to unite his party behind free market values.

The Swift Boat campaign could inspire a great attack and a great defense on the Bain Consulting issue.  The Swift Boat campaign was so effective because the attackers mobilized dozen of fellow veterans, who stood there condemning Kerry.  If I were running against Romney, I would look to get as many individual, heartbreaking stories of job loss on tape, and then try to get as many of his victims as I could together in a room for a day of melodramatic, tear-jerking filming.  If I were running Romney’s, I would look to get as many individual, heartwarming stories of job creation on tape, and then try to get as many of his beneficiaries as I could together in a room for a day of melodramatic tear-jerking, filming.

Romney has to look at these attacks as opportunities—to preempt attacks that might appear again from Democrats and to strut his stuff, as they say. Attack ads are sometimes just what a candidate needs to come to life.  Romney has to demonstrate that he is winning these primaries because of his skills and vision, and not simply backing into the nomination, if indeed, he is “the one.”

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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, New York Times, 1-10-12

Right now, while we indulge New Hampshire’s childish insistence on its presidential primary being “first in the nation,” Americans should decide to bury this tradition. Nearly a century is enough: the Granite State has somehow turned a fluke into an entitlement. Worse, its obsession with primacy prolongs, complicates and distorts the presidential nominating process. In a democracy, no state should be first forever.

People have been grumbling about this and other undemocratic anomalies for years. But the standoff between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008 gave the nominating process the equivalent of a stress test, which it failed.

We can find redemption via randomization. Every four years — in March, not January — four different states, from the North, South, East and West, should begin the voting.

Since 1920, each presidential primary season has started with New Hampshire. Primaries to select national convention delegates first emerged for the 1912 campaign. When New Hampshire officially embraced this democratizing alternative to boss rule for the 1916 contest, the timing served voters’ needs, not state conceit.

The primary occurred in March during “mud season” — after the snow, before the plowing — the traditional time for New England politicking. As the New Hampshire Almanac proudly explains, the legislature scheduled primary day on town meeting day, the second Tuesday in March, because “frugal New Hampshirites” loathed lighting “the Town Hall twice.” By 1920, Indiana, which originally voted earlier, decided to vote in May, making New Hampshire’s primary the first.

A voter stepped out of a town hall in Canterbury, N.H.
T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty ImagesA voter stepped out of a town hall in Canterbury, N.H.

When New Hampshire officially embraced the primary system, the timing served voters’ needs, not state conceit.

New Hampshire continued to hold presidential primaries, even as the number of primaries dwindled and voter turnout plummeted. New Hampshire’s primary, like most in those days, selected unpledged national convention delegates. In 1949, the legislature popularized the process by allowing voters to designate favorite candidates, too, in what amounted to a non-binding straw poll.

Suddenly, in 1952, this “beauty contest” became significant. General Dwight D. Eisenhower proved his viability to Republicans, while Senator Estes Kefauver’s surprise victory in the Democratic primary inspired President Harry Truman to please his wife Bess and retire.

The legend of the cataclysmic “Live Free or Die” primary grew when President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968 and Senator Edmund Muskie in 1972 each won but faltered by performing worse than expected. Four years later, Jimmy Carter soared after his “better than expected” win – by only 4,663 votes. In 1980 Ronald Reagan stopped George Bush’s “Big Mo.” From 1952 through 1988, every winning presidential candidate first won New Hampshire.

During the 1970s, the politics around this first presidential beauty contest started turning ugly. The New Hampshire primary – and its Iowa caucus doppelganger – was tainted by greed. With primaries proliferating nationwide to allow party members more democratic input in selecting their nominee, media scrutiny of the early contests intensified. Motel owners, car rental companies, printers, advertisers and caterers enjoyed the resulting bonanza, while otherwise obscure political hacks and journalists reveled in playing kingmaker.

This quaint ritual became a state fetish. In 1975, a state law passed protecting the prerogative. Statute RSA 653:9 now mandates that the primary be scheduled at least seven days before all other primaries.

Jealous states like South Carolina and Florida tried front-loading their primaries to enhance their voters’ influence. New Hampshire advanced its primary date into February, then January — goodbye rain boots, hello snow shoes. The shifts prolonged presidential campaigns unnecessarily, annoying millions. In 1999, New Hampshire bullied candidates into signing the New Hampshire Primary Pledge boycotting states that pre-empted New Hampshire. For this current 2012 election cycle, New Hampshire’s zealous Secretary of State, William Gardner, even considered a December date to pre-empt Nevada’s caucus, until the Westerners caved.

In 2008, this silly situation became scandalous. When two large, important states, Florida and Michigan, dared to hold January primaries, New Hampshire and Iowa state officials demanded that candidates promise not to campaign in either state. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama cravenly complied. Obama’s name did not even appear on the Michigan ballot.

Hillary Clinton won Michigan’s primary on Jan. 15 and Florida’s two weeks later.  Clinton’s Michigan vote of 328,309 was more than New Hampshire’s entire Democratic vote total of 287,542.  Still, the punitive Democratic National Committee initially refused to seat any delegates from those states. Desperately seeking delegates, Clinton rediscovered the democratic ideal of “one person, one vote” and insisted on counting the delegates she won in those states. Ultimately, the Democrats awarded Florida and Michigan delegates half a vote each. This compromise affirmed party officials’ scheduling power over state legislatures, while at least partially involving these two states’ citizens in the nominating process.

New Hampshire patriots describe their primary as downright Jeffersonian. Like their Iowa counterparts, they claim the state’s size favors humbler candidates who “make their case door-to-door,” intimately, substantively. Yet New Hampshire campaigns are as frivolous as any other American elections. Candidates spend days flipping pancakes, driving tractor-trailers, slurping chowder, sucking lobster claws. No worse but no better than other states, New Hampshire merits equal but not special treatment.

Once the New Hampshire primary ends, reporters, rather than locals, start behaving badly, exaggerating this one minor, peculiar state’s significance. Speaking in percentages magnifies margins. Hillary Clinton’s slim 7,589-vote victory sounded more impressive when rendered as 39 to 36 percent. Further amplification comes from the media echo chamber as words like “triumph,” “disappointment” and “momentum” transform minor tremors into electoral earthquakes.

In 1787, the “bundle of compromises” that created the Constitution repeatedly balanced small states’ prerogatives with those of big ones. Presidential elections are too important, and first impressions too lasting, to cede so much power to one small state today. Potential presidents must handle a huge, diverse, continental America. A randomized rotation, with four different states starting the nomination process every four years, would test the candidates fairly.

Fetishizing New Hampshire’s primary position has become big business, but it’s bad politics. An idiosyncratic state’s aggressive assertion of an absurd claim, indulged by two spineless national parties and a compliant news media, effectively disenfranchises other voters while exaggerating the importance and the effect of tiny wins of a few thousand votes in a nation of more than 300 million. We can do better. After all, we are selecting candidates for what is still the most important job in the world.



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

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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, HNN, 1-5-12

Mitt Romney’s margin of eight votes highlights just how small and unrepresentative the sample at the Iowa caucus is – -and how marginal that exercise should be. My third grade class presidency was decided with a larger margin. And, once again, the state that made Pat Robertson a viable candidate – albeit temporarily in 1988 – and has made ethanol subsidies a pork barrel standard, has given us the “gift” of Ron Paul. That 21.4 percent of .004 percent of the American people wants this extremist with a racist past does not say much, although Paul’s popularity with the younger voters could be a worrying harbinger.

The big news from this small sample, of course, is Mitt Romney’s continuing stasis. Barack Obama’s campaign people should be studying Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign. Back then, Bob Dole was the inevitable, Republican establishment candidate, dutifully nominated because of his electability, who failed to beat an eminently beatable Democratic incumbent. Romney’s people are going to have to work harder in rifling through the historical files. The candidates who have unseated incumbents in the last half-century – Bill Clinton in 1992, Ronald Reagan in 1980, and Jimmy Carter in 1976 – were blessed with two advantages Romney lacks. First, each of the incumbents faced a tough nomination fight – Pat Buchanan ran against George H.W. Bush in 1992, Ted Kennedy combated Jimmy Carter in 1980, and Reagan opposed Gerald Ford in 1976. Furthermore, Clinton, Reagan, and Carter, in their winning campaigns, were able to generate an excitement among rank and file party members, and core committed partisans, that we have not yet seen propelling Romney.

At this point, the 1980 results, which were more an ABC – Anybody but Carter – vote than a referendum for Reagan, offer the most optimistic path for Romneyites (or should we call them, with a nod at Newt Gingrich’s McGovernik remarks, Mittniks?). Romney has to try casting Obama as Carter redux, failing to manage the economy, inspire Americans, or defend the nation affirmatively abroad, hoping to win the not Yoko but ONO vote – Only not Obama.

Meme Alert: We are now being told that Republicans are Divided. How is this shocking news at the start of a presidential nomination fight when Republicans have yet to choose a candidate? Isn’t that what the election process is all about, starting divided, fragmented, tied to many candidates, and then, through the democratic process, rallying around one nominee, then one winner?

Housekeeping Detail: This is the relaunch of my Blog which covered the 2008 campaign in detail, but has been much quieter lately as I finished a book.  As in 2008, I will post at least weekly through the presidential campaign, trying to provide some historical context to the discussion. My goal is to avoid three Ps – polemics, partisanship, and predictions –and provide a valuable fourth one, perspective. This entails not only rifling through historical files as I did above, but locating this important, nationwide democratic conversation in the broad sweep of American history and presidential campaigning history. I know dear readers, from last time, that if I ever deviate from the mandate, you will be there to chide me, correct me, and help me redeem myself. And we’re off….. Gil Troy on HNN

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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, NYT, 12-2-11

To select someone worthy of sitting in George Washington’s chair, sleeping in Abraham Lincoln’s bed and governing from Franklin Roosevelt’s desk, Americans crave a substantial presidential campaign, as long as they don’t have to endure too many boring speeches. Like every human decision-making process, presidential campaigns seesaw between the serious and the silly.

Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience, political science and the dismal science demonstrate what we know intuitively, that human decision-making involves our heads and our hearts. We are neither fully rational nor totally emotional. Similarly, campaigns fluctuate between profound policy exchanges and trivial personality clashes, between significant indicators of future presidential performance and serious idiocy.

A substantial campaign is most likely when history conspires to offer high stakes with stark choices or an incumbent seeks reelection (and it helps if the candidates avoid defining gaffes or temper tantrums). Re-election campaigns in particular are usually well-focused, because at least one nominee presents a defined track record.

The 2012 campaign seems primed to be portentous, with an embattled incumbent confronting an opponent from an ideologically-charged party amid economic turmoil. But every campaign, no matter how high-minded, flirts daily with farce. “Unfortunately, when you run for the presidency your wife’s hair or your hair or something else always becomes of major significance,” John F. Kennedy said, when Walter Cronkite asked about his forelock. “I don’t think it’s a great issue, though, in 1960.” Actually, the Kennedys’ good looks brought John Kennedy great political luck.

Hair has been the subject of political debate for Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, left, just as it was for John F. Kennedy, right.
Jim Watson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images, left; Associated PressHair has been the subject of political debate for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, left, just as it was for John F. Kennedy, right.

The first substantial presidential campaign — which brought about America’s first transition from a ruling party to the opposition — also teetered between frivolity and philosophy. An ugly brawl between two founding fathers preceded the great deadlock of 1800, which you may remember hearing about during the election standoff in 2000. Federalists called Vice President Thomas Jefferson an atheist, a libertine, a traitor, “the infidel.” Democratic-Republicans called the short, fat pompous president, John Adams, “His Rotundity.” But the election also contrasted Adams’ centralized government championing industrial development against Jefferson’s vision of limited government with limited growth.

The 1800 election was the first to show how presidential re-election campaigns crystallize issues and polarize positions. A challenger need not be as doctrinaire as Barry Goldwater to offer “a choice not an echo,” when pitting boundless hopes against a first-term president’s adjustments to reality. Running for re-election in 1936, Franklin Roosevelt admitted there would be only one issue: “It’s myself, and people must either be for me or against me.” Running a referendum on Roosevelt, the Republican candidate, Alfred M. Landon, called himself “the direct antithesis of the present executive.”

Winners beware, though. The binary choice most American elections offer frequently overstates differences and oversimplifies results, especially when presidents win re-election. Most of the twentieth-century’s most lopsided wins kept incumbents like Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan in power, but frequently helped spawn the dreaded second-term curse.

Campaigns fluctuate between profound policy exchanges and trivial personality clashes, between significant indicators of future presidential performance and serious idiocy.

Even landslides do not offer the political equivalent of a blank check, however much it might feel that way. Roosevelt overstepped during his second term, especially when he tried packing the Supreme Court. He wrongly interpreted his 523-8 electoral-vote triumph as a more sweeping mandate for his New Deal than voters intended. Lyndon Johnson went from feeling, “for the first time in all my life,” truly “loved by the American people,” marveling at “millions upon millions of people, each one marking my name on their ballot, each one wanting me as their president,” to being hounded out of office.

Sometimes campaigns turn serious by coinciding with serious trouble, especially impending wars, ongoing hostilities or economic busts. Voters in 1860, in choosing Abraham Lincoln, knew that they were empowering abolitionists and risking war. Four years later, a worried President Lincoln needed battlefield victories to woo voters who were doubting him and his war. Ultimately, bullets swayed the ballots as General William T. Sherman’s conquest of Atlanta two months before Election Day helped vindicate Lincoln’s war strategy, leading to his re-election.

While wartime campaigns often become votes of confidence — or no confidence — regarding the incumbent, the downswing in an American business cycle often yields an upswing in surprisingly theoretical, intensely polemical, debates about American capitalism. During a recession, suddenly everyone is an economics major — or a philosopher.  The Panic of 1893 triggered 1896’s “Battle of the Standards.” Americans escalated arcane questions about valuing paper money, silver coins and gold into a searing philosophical divide that stirred fears of civil war. The major parties nominated candidates with contrasting stands. Converting from currency to morality, William McKinley, the Republican goldbug, said “The American people hold the financial honor of our country as sacred as our flag.” And catapulting from economics to metaphysics, William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic-Populist silverbug defending “the producing masses of this nation and the world” famously cried: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” One Republican, John Hay, moaned: “The whole country has been set to talking about coinage — a matter utterly unfit for public discussion.”

Still, good intentions and clear visions do not guarantee Solomonic deliberations. In 1964, insisting that “I’m not one of those baby-kissing, hand-shaking, blintz-eating candidates,” Senator Barry Goldwater envisioned a “lofty, rational presentation of contending beliefs” against President Lyndon Johnson. Goldwater loved his campaign slogan:  “In your heart, you know he’s right.” But with Democrats sneering “In your guts, you know he’s nuts,” and his numbers tanking, Goldwater retaliated. By October he was snarling “Would you buy a used car from Lyndon?” and saying all Johnson did was “lie and lie and lie” — although the patriotic senator recoiled when crowds, riled by his rhetoric, booed the president. Time magazine deemed the 1964 campaign “one of the most disappointing ever.”

Just as ideologues can end up mudslinging, moderates do not necessarily sling mush. Mocking moderates is a great American tradition. Some, like Lewis Cass, the Democrats’ compromise nominee in 1848, earn the contempt. As Americans polarized over slavery, Cass ran as a “doughface,” a Northern man who molded his politics to satisfy Southerners, impressing few, alienating many. “And he who still for Cass can be,” one Whig wrote, “he is a Cass without the C.”

America also enjoys a rich tradition of muscular moderates. Barack Obama has already shown he can run an exciting, crisp campaign from the center. In 2008, both parties nominated centrist senators seeking the swing voters who could sway the election. These crucial voters, like the Reagan Democrats and the Clinton soccer moms before them, made a clear choice, this time for Obama. Interestingly, even though both Obama and John McCain played to the center, they clashed on foreign affairs, economic policy and governing philosophy, and in the process they offered voters two quite distinct alternatives.

President Barack Obama, left, was accused of being an atheist, as was Thomas Jefferson, right.
Pool photo by Kevin Dietsch, left; United Press International, right President Barack Obama, left, was accused of being an atheist, as was Thomas Jefferson, right.

The history of presidential campaigning reveals the ingredients that yield substantial campaigns, including a charged historical context, clashing world views and coherent candidacies.  Still, every candidate remains one slip of the tongue, one gotcha question, one feeding frenzy, away from the chaos that overwhelms so many campaigns. Americans genuinely yearn for an ideal democratic exercise, one-part university seminar, one-part town hall. Yet the blood rushes, the pulse quickens, interest peaks, when campaigning turns ugly, emotional, personal. The contradictions of popular politics, meaning mass democratic decision-making, don’t just mirror but magnify our all-too-human contradictions as personal decision-makers.



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

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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, 6-30-11

On December 23, 1796, right after George Washington published his Farewell Address to the nation, the caustic editor Benjamin Franklin Bache, Benjamin Franklin’s grandson, published his farewell to America’s first president.  “If ever a nation was debauched by a man, the American nation has been debauched by Washington,” Bache wrote. “If ever a nation has suffered from the improper influence of a man, the American nation has suffered from the influence of Washington.  If ever a nation was deceived by a man, the American nation has been deceived by Washington.  Let his conduct then be an example to future ages. Let it serve to be a warning that no man may be an idol… let the history of the Federal government instruct mankind, that the masque of patriotism may be worn to conceal the foulest designs against the liberties of the people.”  Nearly 215 years later, on June 30, 2011, one of America’s leading political pundits, Mark Halpern, on live television, assessed President Barack Obama’s press conference performance by saying “I thought he was kind of a d**k” – using the four letter nickname for Richard, which also serves as a slang term for male genitalia.

Let us start with the good news. Then as now, the United States passed what the former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky calls the “public square test.” Having survived the Soviet gulag, Sharansky does not take for granted the freedom citizens in a true democracy like ours have to denounce their rulers publicly without being harmed.  MSNBC suspended Halpern “indefinitely,” from one of his TV talking head gigs. And Halpern faces a wave of public indignation and ridicule but not, thank goodness, the firing squad.

And now, we offer the bad news. Benjamin Franklin Bache was a mean-spirited hatchet man. He loved making trouble and he badly abused the first President of the United States. But his diatribe is poetic, panoramic, and powerfully political. The rhythm is Biblical in its denunciation, and the sweeping condemnation of Washington – with an eye on “future ages” — gets the reader thinking about leadership, patriotism, liberty, celebrity, and posterity. By contrast, Halpern gets us thinking in soundbites and vulgarities. Rather than elevating politics from the street to the salon as Bache did – in all his ugliness – Halpern – like so many others today – reduces us with his potty mouth from the Bully Pulpit to the public toilet.

To me, this issue is less about civility and more about substance. Halpern delivered his comment with a morning anchor’s smile; one imagines Benjamin Franklin Bache writing his passage with spleen and a sneer. Halpern’s “gaffe,” the verbal equivalent of a burp, is the inevitable result of punditry by punchline in an age of infotainment, when commentators feel pressured to entertain rather than enlighten, when it is better to be breezy than boring, when political talk is more about handicapping political horse races than crusading for political ideas.

The word “campaign” originated in the seventeenth century from the French word for open field, campagne.  With contemporary soldiers fighting sustained efforts, often on the wide country terrain, the term quickly acquired its military association. The political connotation emerged in seventeenth-century England to describe a lengthy legislative session. In nineteenth-century America, campaign was part of the barrage of military terms describing electioneering — as the party standard bearer, a war horse tapping into his war chest and hoping not to be a flash-in-the-pan — a cannon that misfires — mobilized the rank-and-file with a rallying cry in battleground states to vanquish their enemies. American politicians needed to conquer the people’s hearts because popular sovereignty has been modern Anglo-American government’s distinguishing anchor since colonial days. As with war, politics can ennoble or demean, but it is often epoch-making, historic. How pathetic it is, that with the entertainment imperative ruling us these days, we frequently experience politics simply as one more distraction, which is what the Halpern putdown was and the ensuing controversy about it in our media echo chamber inevitably will be.

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How Jackson healed America Performer used his celebrity to blur the lines between black and white

By Gil Troy, History News Network, 6-25-09 – Montreal Gazette, 6-27-09

Michael Jackson’s death at age 50 parallels Elvis Presley’s death in 1977, at age 43. By the time both performers died, they were walking punch lines, symbols of the coddled celebrity’s dissipated lifestyle. But each was the premier entertainer of his time, and each shaped history. It is not stretching to credit Michael Jackson as one of the trailblazers for Barack Obama, himself just three years younger than Jackson.

Michael Jackson Thriller - 25th AnniversaryLong after Michael Jackson’s tragic ending is forgotten, his important role bridging the gap between American blacks and whites will be remembered. Jackson used his celebrity to blur the lines between black and white, as well as between gay and straight. Jackson grew up in the public eye as the soprano of the Motown powerhouse, the Jackson Five. The group sold over 100 million records and inspired a Saturday morning cartoon. In the 1970s Jackson thrived as a solo artist too.

For those of us, like Obama, born toward the end of the baby boom in 1961, Michael Jackson was not just a phenomenon but our phenomenon. In the 1970s, amid Watergate corruption and Arab oil-induced gas lines, humiliation in Vietnam and aggression by the Soviets, here was someone our age, living the American dream. That our generation’s most famous person – until Obama – was a poor black kid from Gary, Indiana, reaffirmed America’s promise during a

decade of disillusion. That gift of hope to millions early in Michael

Jackson’s career trumps his own pathetic ambivalence about his racial

identity and his tragic ending, coming cinematically as the age of Obama began.

Jackson was a great dancer and a superb businessman. He choreographed the release of his 1982 album “Thriller” to undermine what the Washington Post called “the cultural apartheid of MTV and pop radio.” Rock and roll had become resegregated since the days of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. MTV was overwhelmingly white. On radio, “Rock and roll” was usually white; “R and B,” rhythm and blues, usually black. For three weeks running in October 1982, and for the first time since the pre-rock and roll era, no black singers made the top 20 charts.

Defying pigeonholing, Jackson’s enticing rhythms had great “crossover” appeal. Still, to ford the gap when marketing “Thriller,” Jackson first released “This Girl is Mine,” a playful duet with the Beatle great Paul McCartney. This pairing created “a Trojan horse to force white radio’s hand,” Steve Greenberg, the president of S-Curve Records, later explained. Jackson paved the way for other “crossover” hits including Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue” and Donna Summer’s “She Works Hard for the Money.”

Building “Michaelmania,” Jackson would market the usual T-shirts, posters and buttons, a million-dollar memoir – at the age of 25 – edited by Jacqueline Onassis, and an 11-inch doll, with Jackson in the “Thriller” outfit easily posed in his more famous dance steps.

“Thriller” was the fastest selling album ever, selling 40 million copies. “Michael Jackson is mass culture, not pop culture – he appeals to everyone,” said a radio program director. “This kind of performer comes once in a generation.” In 1984 alone, Jackson earned $30 million from record sales and another $50 million from tie-ins.

In typical 1980s style, “Thriller’s” marketing included a $1.1 million-dollar, 13-minute video. In one of the era’s most culturally powerful and technically sophisticated images, Jackson morphed into a monster. Here was an American icon, transforming himself from an inspiring symbol of how far a black man could go into the hateful stereotype of the black man as monster, as sexual predator.

Nevertheless, this inversion somehow helped seep some of the poisons from American society. This was especially true because – although it is hard to remember it now – Michael Jackson was incredibly likable then. In fact, Jackson was a central figure in one of the 1980s’ biggest do-good projects, helping to write “We Are the World.”

In December 1984 Bob Geldof of “The Boomtown Rats,” had organized some British stars to fight famine in Ethiopia by singing “Do They Know Its Christmas?” They sold 3 million copies and raised $11 million. In the United States, the singer Harry Belafonte assembled some black musicians to raise money for Africa. A producer, Ken Kragen, broadened the project, calling it “Live Aid.”

On January 28, 1985, the night of the American Music Awards, Quincy Jones produced a song Jackson wrote with Lionel Ritchie. “We are the world, we are the children, We are the ones who make a brighter day so let’s start giving” the chorus belted out, which also included Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Bette Midler, and 5 more Jacksons.

“We are the World” sold millions and won top Grammy awards. The popular video challenged viewers to identify the famous in a rhythmically bobbing sea of famous faces, and charmed viewers with the seemingly spontaneous, “private” glances, handclasps, and hugs these pop music demigods exchanged with the cameras rolling.

That July, 1985, “Live Aid” built on this megawatt munificence, with pop greats performing in London and in Philadelphia for sixteen hours, attracting 1.9 billion viewers from 152 countries. “I’m glad to be helping the hungry and having a good time” 22-year-old Kim Kates of Philadelphia told a reporter. The initiative inspired many imitators, including Willie Nelson’s “Farm Aid” and “Hands Across America,” a Coca Cola-sponsored venture raising money for America’s homeless by enlisting 5 million people, including Bill Cosby, Kenny Rogers and other celebrities, to create a human chain coast-to-coast.

Alas, by 1985 Jackson was already on his way to becoming an object of pity and disgust. As he approached his 30th birthday, he still seemed frozen in childhood. His friendships with older women, especially Elizabeth Taylor and Diana Ross, along with his smooth skin and high-pitched voice, generated this sense of sexual ambiguity. “I’m not like other guys,” Jackson told his girlfriend in Thriller. “’I mean I’m different.” Beyond the androgyny, Michael Jackson seemed to be getting “whiter” — his skin was getting lighter, his nose getting smaller. By 1987, many in the record business wondered, “What’s that guy done to his face!”

Even more impressive was what Jackson had done to the record business – which was booming – and to race relations – which were improving. Jackson, like all entertainers, rode a wave, himself benefiting from various historical phenomena including the Civil Rights Movement and the Sexual Revolution. Still, the King of Pop made his mark.

Adapted and updated from Gil Troy, Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 1-18-09

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Grand American Narrative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

unfulfilled, messianic expectations dashed and believers in democracy disappointed.

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

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

The American Future: A History

By Simon Schama

Viking, 392 pages, $34

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 1-12-09

A clever graphic in Sunday’s New York Times Week In Review adds some presidential ghosts to last week’s remarkable Oval Office photo of George H.W. Bush, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton standing amiably together, with Jimmy Carter characteristically looking awkward and standoffish. In the article “Welcome, 44, From 43, 42, 41, 40, 39, 32, 16…” the editors added photos of Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and Harry Truman to expand the meeting virtually. The text highlighted ways Obama had embraced their respective legacies on the campaign trail or during the transition. Barack Obama is an impressively literate politician with a rich historic imagination. In his book “The Audacity of Hope,” he mentioned other presidents too – and occasionally criticized some of the presidents who appeared in the Times graphic.

Most notably, Thomas Jefferson’s ghost was missing. Obama mentions Jefferson admiringly numerous times in “The Audacity of Hope.” Obama cherishes Jefferson’s commitment to separation of church and state, his willingness to expand the country and America’s governing powers with the Louisiana Purchase despite preferring in principle to keep government small, and his appreciation for an occasional revolutionary breeze blowing through government to shake things up. Jefferson entered office during a highly divisive and unstable period. His inaugural vision saying “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists” was healing and reassuring. This formula of bipartisan unity was essential during America’s first peaceful transition from the governing party to the opposition. Whatever awkwardness George W. Bush and Barack Obama may experience on Inauguration Day will pale compared to the tension between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in 1801. Vice President Jefferson had just defeated his old friend – and boss – in a harsh contest. They only reconciled years later. Finally, Jefferson also confronted sobering challenges overseas and at home, and had to adjust many intellectual and philosophical impulses to the brutal realities.

Harry Truman was a great choice because Obama admires Truman’s boldness and vision in forging a postwar order, in creating powerful, effective international organizations and adapting to an entirely new status quo. Obama liked the way both Truman and Dwight Eisenhower focused the nation on addressing big challenges and launched big government programs when necessary, including NASA and the great Federal Highway under Eisenhower.

Reagan was an essential addition. Interviewed in Reno, Nevada, in January 2008, Obama praised Reagan — as the Times noted – for changing “the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.” Obama wants to be that kind of Reaganesque leader. Obama also learned from Reagan not to rely too much on big government programs, and to value family, faith, and community. Obama respects Reagan as what I call in my book a muscular moderate, understanding the importance of leading from the center.

Obama also hails Clinton for leading from the center, and approved of Clinton’s Third Way attempt to move beyond the 1980s’ polarizing politics. But Clinton is like Obama’s sloppier, more fun-loving, older brother. Obama also fears replicating Clinton’s failures. Obama’s discipline contrasts with Clinton’s appetite for excess. Obama wants to accomplish great things and is wary of Clinton’s ultimate legacy as the woulda, coulda, shoulda kid — a president of tremendous talents but of unrealized potential.

Both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton came into the White House triggering great, what we might now call Obamaesque, hopes – and disappointed millions. Both these Democratic presidencies should serve as cautionary tales for Obama even as he admires Carter’s commitment to human rights, and Clinton’s centrism (along with his extraordinary political skill). In fact, in “Audacity of Hope,” Obama slams Carter for responding to tremendous challenges including the energy crisis and the great inflation with feeble suggestions to lower the thermostat.

Finally, Obama admires George H.W. Bush for skillfully forging a broad worldwide coalition during the first Gulf War — and for his innate decency. Obama sensed Bush’s discomfort amid Republicans’ hyper-partisanship and hopes to inject more of that decency into American politics. Obama’s respect also reflects the general boon in George H.W. Bush’s reputation, as many built up the father to denigrate the son.

Obama loves presidents who embarked on big ambitious, visionary projects: Jefferson founding the University of Virginia and wanting that on his tombstone, Abraham Lincoln not just freeing the slaves but using government to aid laborers and homesteaders, Eisenhower responding to Sputnik by doubling federal aid to education, shaping a generation of engineers and scientists, then presiding over the formation of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA. These to Obama justify his sweeping vision for a grand national energy project, although he tries to avoid sounding like just another Lyndon Johnson Big Government liberal. Obama wants ambitious projects that harness American creativity not big government bureaucracies. He will happily commune with whichever predecessors he needs to define and promote his own grand legacy.

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 12-4-08

In yet another example of “blowback” actually undermining Islamist terrorism, the Mumbai mayhem may boost George W. Bush’s historical legacy. In the waning days of his presidency, the massacres highlighted one of Bush’s most significant but elusive achievements. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment is a non-event. After September 11, most Americans assumed they would endure a wave of terrorist attacks. Even those Americans who hate Bush must grant him at least some credit for the fact that not one major attack has occurred again on American soil.

Subsequent atrocities in London, Madrid, Bali, Jerusalem, and now Mumbai – among many others – as well as occasional warnings and arrests within the United States — suggest that the terrorists kept trying. In assessing a president’s legacy, it is hard to celebrate something that did not happen. It is hard to build a monument or even to write clearly regarding a threat that, while palpable and potentially lethal, never materialized. The Bush Administration cannot of course divulge details of most operations it thwarted. Still, the fact that so far the United States has avoided another 9/11 demonstrates that many of the Bush Administration’s anti-terror strategies worked.

A similar challenge faces Cold War historians. How do we explain the decades-long record of relative peace with the Soviet Union, despite repeated fears not just of confrontation but of nuclear confrontation? In analyzing this bell that did not ring, we assess the fears of Armageddon to see whether they were reasonable or exaggerated. We try to understand how the Soviets acted and reacted at the time. And we examine the American policies to see what worked and what failed.

This mystery of how we avoided the worst case scenario so many expected explains the enduring fascination with the Cuban Missile Crisis. The “Thirteen Days” in October 1962 continue to attract so much attention because we came so close to war – and because we can study the actors on both sides. Especially since the Soviet Union fell, scholars and retired policy makers have done an impressive job reconstructing and deconstructing the excruciating chess game that ended in a Soviet retreat rather than worldwide apocalypse. In some ways now we can appreciate how close the world came to the brink, and salute both John Kennedy’s and Nikita Khruschev’s moderation in determining the happy outcome.

Of course, the no-new-9/11s debate is shrouded in much more mystery. In addition to the Bush administration’s admirable reluctance to violate national security to score some PR points, the Islamist terrorists’ chaotic, secretive world remains obscured too. Still, it seems clear that the Treasury’s crackdown on the flow of funds into and out of the United States helped inhibit the terrorists. Similarly, the greater scrutiny in general, the tightened security at airports and other vulnerable targets, and the immigration crackdowns have helped.

More controversial, of course, is the Patriot Act and other moves that came at a higher cost, namely America’s tradition of maximizing individual civil liberties. Those difficult questions enter the realm of political theology. Given the fog around the facts, that debate more reflects individuals’ commitments to civil liberties balanced against their faith in the judgment of Bush and the broader national security apparatus. The arrogance, incompetence, arbitrariness, characterizing so much of the Bush Administration has undermined its credibility on this critical issue, where it may have achieved some great successes.

The terrorist attacks in India were equally mistimed regarding Bush’s successor. President-elect Barack Obama’s decisions to keep on Bush’s Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and to appoint Hillary Rodham Clinton as Secretary of State partially reflect Obama’s own realization of the seriousness of the terrorist threat. As a New York senator when the Twin Towers fell, as a mother who first did not know exactly where in Manhattan her daughter was on September 11, Senator Clinton has a heartfelt, sophisticated disgust for Islamist terrorism. Moreover, al Qaeda’s recent videotape using an ugly racial epithet to characterize Barack Obama as servile, may have been ignored by much of the media, but could not have escaped Obama’s attention. The combination, during a presidential transition, of a revolting display of Islamist racism and a horrific explosion of Islamist terrorism, proves that this ugliness persists – and that a reprehensible ideology unites these murderers who target Westerners and democrats wherever possible.

Despite all the hype during a presidential campaign about a candidate’s skills, judgment, character, experience, and potential, external events often define presidencies. George W. Bush himself entered office expecting to focus on domestic affairs. The horrific murders in Mumbai – along with the continuing economic roller coaster – illustrate that Obama’s legacy, like that all of his predecessors, remains in the hands of powerful actors and historical forces beyond his control, no matter how talented he is, no matter how focused on this one leader we remain.

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