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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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