Posts Tagged ‘George W. Bush’


By Gil Troy, New York Times, 11-6-11

There we go again. After nonstop headlines a year before Election Day and nine debates between the Republican candidates (number 10 is scheduled to take place on Wednesday in Michigan), Americans are already grumbling that the 2012 presidential campaign is ugly and interminable. But these quadrennial complaints about campaigning miss the point.  Presidential campaigns are nasty, long and expensive because they should be. Many aspects of campaigns that Americans hate reflect democratic ideals we love.

The presidential campaign’s length and fury are proportional to the electorate’s size and the presidency’s importance.  A new president should undergo a rigorous, countrywide, marathon job interview. Citizens need time to scrutinize the candidates. As David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s senior strategist, puts it: “Campaigns are like an MRI for the soul, whoever you are eventually people find out.” Already this year, “easy favorites” like Tim Pawlenty fizzled, while Rick Perry learned that years governing Texas do not provide as much political seasoning as weeks of presidential campaigning. Mitt Romney, his aides admit, worked out his campaigning “kinks” in 2008.  That year, Sarah Palin’s popularity waned while Barack Obama’s soared, the more each campaigned.

These nationwide courting rituals should be long enough to let great politicians flourish and bond with the nation. John F. Kennedy became a better president and person by encountering Appalachian poverty during the 1960 West Virginia Democratic primary. During his 18,009 mile, 600-speech campaign in 1896, the Populist Democrat William Jennings Bryan insisted that voters “have a right to know where I stand on public questions.” Franklin D. Roosevelt’s strategist advised his candidate in 1932 in strikingly modern terms: “You are you,” he said, and “have the faculty of making friends on a campaign tour.” Traditionally, candidates repeated stump speeches so frequently that, as Herbert Hoover noted, “paragraphs could be polished up, epigrams used again and again, and eloquence invented by repeated tryouts.”

A campaign is the defining democratic exercise for a country founded on the consent of the governed. Since the Jacksonian Democratic revolution against elitism in the 1820s, each revolution democratizing American life further popularized the campaign.  Democracy trumped dignity; mass politics required mass appeals that frequently became protracted, vulgar brawls.

Like automotive crash tests, nasty campaigns determine a potential president’s strength and durability.

Popular candidates stopped being passive kings-to-be, becoming active, articulate, prime-ministers-in-formation, introducing themselves to the people, who wanted to vet their leaders. Most Americans still yearned for George Washington’s dignified silence, even as they cheered candidates engaging in what Hubert Humphrey would later call “armpit politics,” intense and intimate.  In 1840, William Henry Harrison explained that “appearing among my fellow citizens” was the “only way to disprove” rivals’ libels that he was a “caged simpleton.” Similarly, in 1948, a century later, President Harry Truman traveled to California to give the locals a chance to examine him in person. “I had better come out and let you look at me to see whether I am the kind of fellow they say I am,” he said.

Like automotive crash tests, nasty campaigns determine a potential president’s strength and durability. George H.W. Bush deflected ridicule in 1988 as a “wimp,” a “weenie” and “every woman’s first husband,” by mudslinging. “Two things voters have to know about you,” his aide Roger Ailes advised. “You can take a punch and you can throw a punch.”

Alternatively, a well-placed blow can pulverize a vulnerable candidacy. Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, a ferociously partisan Democrat, twice devastated Republican contender Thomas Dewey. First, in 1940, Ickes said the 38-year-old New Yorker had “thrown his diaper into the ring.” Ickes was also popularly credited with suggesting four years later that the dapper, mustachioed Dewey looked “like the groom on the wedding cake.” Both barbs stuck, crystallizing concerns about Dewey.

Voters oversimplify, viewing presidential campaigns as presidential dress rehearsals. After Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory, the defeated Vice President Dan Quayle predicted:  “If he runs the country as well as he ran the campaign, we’ll be all right.” Actually, campaigns are auditions for certain aspects of the job. Although the contrast between Barack Obama as candidate and as president suggests that great campaigners do not always make great presidents, every great president must now be a great campaigner first.

Campaign budgets reflect the time candidates require to capture attention across America’s continental expanse. Candidates compete against the din of modern life, not just against each other. Considering that Procter & Gamble spent $8.7 billion in 2008 peddling detergents and razors, spending $4.3 billion for the 2008 campaign appears a reasonable price to pay for democracy.

The time and money invested pay off because campaigns matter. The stakes in elections are high, the outcomes often in doubt. Despite frequently feeling powerless in modern America, voters can make history. The George W. Bush-Al Gore deadlock in 2000 reminded Americans that in close elections, old-fashioned civics teachers were proved right: every vote counts. When Truman upset Dewey in 1948, the St. Louis Star-Times saluted unpredictability as an “essential part of freedom.”

Ronald Reagan used his four presidential runs in 1968, 1976, 1980 and 1984 to become a better candidate – and the Great Communicator. He relished voters’ sweaty handshakes, sloppy kisses, hearty backslaps and soaring hopes, explaining simply, “I happen to like people.”  Reagan instinctively understood the Progressive philosopher John Dewey’s teaching that “democracy begins in conversation.”  That conversation can turn ridiculous, raucous or tedious, but it serves as both safety valve and social salve. Presidential campaigns historically have had happy endings, with America’s leader legitimized by the open, rollicking process.

So, yes, campaigns are excessive, part old-fashioned carnival and part modern reality show. But in these extraordinary, extended democratic conversations, a country of more than 300 million citizens chooses a leader peacefully, popularly and surprisingly efficiently. As Reagan told Iowans during his costly, nasty, lengthy – but successful – 1984 campaign, “It’s a good idea – and it’s the American way.”

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, just released by Facts on File of Infobase Publishing.

Read Full Post »


By Gil Troy, 7-10-11

Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (OUP) and Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents. His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s.

Do the Democrats have a double standard for Obama?

Of course they do.

So did the Republicans for George W. Bush—who tolerated much more idealistic national building and budget-busting spending than they would have from a Democrat.  And so did the Democrats for Bill Clinton—who would have pilloried a Republican president for establishing the kind of sexist atmosphere Clinton created in his White House.  This inconsistency is a fact of partisan life.  As long as most partisans build their party-affiliations into an identity rather than simply a series of policy positions, they will view their leader’s compromises as statesmanlike, not hypocritical, given how confident they are in their opponents’ shortcomings.

Still, the Democratic turnaround this time is particularly whiplash-inducing.  At the heart of the Bushophobia that consumed many Democrats since 2003 lay their disgust for George W. Bush’s national security policies.  Moreover, Barack Obama’s own political identity and great success in defeating Hillary Clinton stemmed from his opposition to the Iraq War—which raised expectations among at least some Democrats that he would be a pacifist, Nobel Peace Prize-winning president.

President Obama’s behavior in prosecuting the war on terror suggests we should rethink our understanding of presidential performance.  Most of us, historians, voters, and especially journalists, focus too much on the Three Ps of partisanship, personality, and promises.  As a result, we expect a revolution when there is a party turnover in the White House, and a fresh, young politician calls for “Change We Can Believe In.”  We forget the constitutional checks and balances which fragment power, making dramatic change more difficult in the American system.  And we forget that the world looks very different when you sit in the Oval Office as opposed to when you dream about winning the keys to it.

My uncle learned during half a century in the advertising business that, in America, “the one constant is change.”  But as citizens and observers, we should spend more time examining the presidency through a lens emphasizing convergence not divergence among administrations.  The many cosmetic changes sometimes mask the necessary—and unfortunate—continuities.  In Ronald Reagan’s administration, David Stockman was the most famous cabinet member frustrated by this convergence.  In Bill Clinton’s administration, Robert Reich played that role.  And under George W. Bush, the mantle was seized by Donald Rumsfeld, who could not impose on the military the sweeping changes he championed.

I confess, one of the best compliments I can give Barack Obama is that he responded to the challenges America faced, rather than sticking to the script he and his fans devised.  His muscular approach to fighting the war on terror does partially vindicate George W. Bush.  But, more importantly, Obama’s actions acknowledge the complicated challenges America faces abroad.  When Obama has approached this tough situation ideologically rather than pragmatically—contemplating  trying Khlalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York, or treating the Ford Hood terrorist as a mere criminal—he has stumbled.  Obama’s use of unmanned drones to hunt down terrorists, his successful pursuit of Osama bin Laden, and his support for some of the aggressive Bush-era initiatives to eliminate domestic threats all reflect realistic judgment.  That’s leadership.  That’s good governance.

Obama’s challenge, our psychologist friends would suggest, is to “own” this convergence with Bush-era policies, rather than deny it.  By acknowledging the continuities, Obama can then also show how he has put his own, Democratic, civil libertarian, more engagement-oriented, stamp on the policy, thus offering what he believes to be a mature alternative to George Bush and John McCain—while still imposing a reality-check on the too-pacifist, pie-in-the-sky idealists in his own part.

Read Full Post »

Miller McCune, 2-7-10

Calls to work together for the common good during the current crises have been emanating at breakneck pace from the Obama administration. Academics discuss how to get the results of a Roosevelt, and not a Carter.

Historian Gil Troy of McGill University in Montreal also finds that instructive, noting that gearing people up for a metaphorical war can be an effective way of asking them to sacrifice.

In recent decades, “We’ve had an unfortunate tradition for decades of presidents soothing us,” he said. “We have sort of an addiction to having our cake and eat it too. Clearly Bush missed the moment after 9/11. That was a time when Americans might have been willing to give something up. The nation was ready to take collective action.

“Now, Obama has an opportunity to succeed where Bush failed. There’s nothing like a financial meltdown to sober people up! You don’t have an enemy like after 9/11, but you have more pinched circumstances. Obama’s sense prior to the crisis was that Americans were yearning for this sense of community, sense of engagement. Now he may have the conditions that will allow him to achieve that.

“In Obama’s inaugural address, he said America is a place where people are willing to work fewer hours so their friend won’t lose their job. That was a very explicit call to sacrifice — much more explicit than Kennedy’s ‘Ask not what your country can do for you.’ We haven’t had that kind of specifics since Franklin Roosevelt.”

Well, we did have Jimmy Carter, whose failed presidency coincides with Obama’s coming of age. Troy is convinced the new president has learned from his peanut-farming predecessor’s missteps.

“Carter’s mistake was his rhetoric of sacrifice was disconnected from
a sense of hope,” he says. “He allowed himself to be tagged as the
man of malaise. He was preaching the gospel of limits. What FDR did that Carter missed was preach a gospel of self-sacrifice in the context of ultimate salvation.

“FDR’s message was we’re rolling up our sleeves and making sacrifices because we’re going to have a better tomorrow. With Jimmy Carter, you got the sense that we were being asked to put on another sweater, but we would still be cold.”

In contrast, Obama is overtly linking the need to sacrifice with the hope of a better future. If he can continue that balancing act, Troy believes people just may respond. “Americans don’t want to be told we are entering an age of limits,” he said. “We want to be a nation of limitless hope. That’s in the American DNA.”

Read Full Post »

The hardest part of being an ambitious president at a moment of crisis and opportunity is contriving not to overshoot.

by Jonathan Rauch, National Journal Magazine, 3-28-09

….Well, Obama did campaign on “change.” And it is natural for a politician to press every advantage and make use of every opportunity. But the presidency is surrounded by what the historian Gil Troy has called invisible trip wires. Step beyond them, and you get zapped. Maybe not right away, but soon enough….

Read Full Post »

Gil Troy: Will deft shoe-dodge improve Bush’s image?

National Post, 12-15-08

According to Gil Troy, a history professor at McGill University, Mr. Bush handled the potentially embarrassing situation with a grace that could benefit the way people remember him. “One of the things that he has always had as an advantage as part of his skill set has been a very fluid and smooth physicality,” he said. “At his best, when he’s been most effective, he has been able to use a kind of sheer physical presence and fluidity, the grace of an athlete — and he has the grace of a jogger. I think that helped him in this incident.”

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

By Gil Troy, HNN, 11-12-08

Historians have to navigate carefully when entering the strange, alluring world of media commentary. To maintain our integrity, we need boundaries. Presumably, those of us who comment believe that offering historical perspective even as history unfolds can elevate public debate, using current events as “teachable moments.” But most of the time journalists want us – especially on television – to do things we should not do, namely predict the future or determine the historical meaning of fleeting events as they unfold. Even on the air, historians should dodge certain questions. We should never predict. And we should sidestep premature queries such as “Is George W. Bush the worst president ever,” halfway through his term. Anyone who survived oral exams should be able to handle it. During last week’s remarkable redemptive moment as Barack Obama won the presidency, it seemed that most of the media wanted to trot out historians to certify that this election was indeed “historic.”

Of course, it does not take a Ph.D. in history to note that the first elevation of a black man to the White House in a country with America’s racist past was momentous. Moreover, every presidential election is historic given the attention we pay to voting and the job’s significance. But this question of “was this election historic” was fishing in deeper waters. Reporters wanted historians to label 2008 as significant as 1980 when Ronald Reagan launched his revolution or 1960 when John Kennedy inspired a generation or 1932 when Franklin Roosevelt tackled the Great Depression. And historians can safely say that there never had been such a cataclysmic domestic event during a general election campaign as this Crash of 2008. But we all know that it is too early to know whether Barack Obama’s presidency will be as transformative as he hopes. He could be the next Franklin D. Roosevelt – or Jimmy Carter redux.

As we wait to watch, and assess the historical impact of Barack Obama’s administration, we should start debating just what caused his victory. Here we have a legitimate “teachable” moment – showing how historians start thinking about a problem, start solving an historical mystery. One debate I have started with my students is whether Barack Obama won this election, or John McCain and the Republican lost it?

In asking the question, we have to acknowledge its artificiality. The accurate answer is “yes,” meaning it was a combination of factors. But the question gets students thinking about what were the most significant causes. My next step is suggesting that we construct a timeline of turning points, which helps answer the question and gets us to start weighing historical significance. I propose four turning points in this election:

— The first is Obama’s extraordinary 2004 Democratic National Convention speech. I believe historians will deem it more significant than William Jennings Bryan’s 1896 speech because it launched Obama into the celebrity stratosphere and toward the presidency.

— The second turning point is something that did not happen – or happened subsequently. Had Hillary Clinton run a war room as tough and efficient as her husband’s, and had her campaign uncovered the Jeremiah Wright tapes in the winter of 2008 before the Iowa caucuses, I doubt Obama would have won Iowa. This is a mischievous turning point, which raises questions about how historians assess missed opportunities, and speculate about potential outcomes. It also helps raise the question that will emerge as we start debating George W. Bush’s legacy – how do we assess something that did not happen, in his case, the fact that as of this writing there has been no catastrophic terrorist attack on American soil since 2001. How much credit can someone get for a bell that did not ring, a fear that was not realized. As for Hillary, how harshly do we judge a candidate or a campaign for overlooking what could have been a knockout blow?

— The third turning point is the market implosion. Whatever momentum McCain enjoyed after the Soviets invaded Georgia during the summer and his energized convention (thanks to Sarah Palin’s debut) vanished. As the fourth major disaster under George W. Bush’s watch, following 9/11, Iraq and Katrina, the financial crisis made it all but impossible for a Republican to win.

— Finally, I point to Obama’s performance during the debates, especially the third debate. That the young, inexperienced upstart Democrat appeared to be the mature candidate against his older, more experienced rival, made Obama look presidential and helped allay many Americans’ anxieties about this relative unknown.

This list is intended to trigger debate. Others would mention Hillary Clinton’s Super Tuesday strategy that ignored the causcuses, Sarah Palin’s nomination, McCain’s decision to suspend his campaign, Obama’s opposition to the Iraq war. It is important also to go beyond this event-driven list and talk about Obama’s extraordinary strategy, his effective use of the internet, and his brilliant ground game, organizing thousands of workers across the nation. And while the four turning points offer two affirmative actions of Obama’s and two events beyond his control, I ultimately conclude that Obama was lucky to be blessed with two flawed opponents.

For all the skills Obama demonstrated and the forces he marshaled, I argue that Hillary Clinton, John McCain, George W. Bush, and the Republicans lost this election as much as Obama won. Just as Ronald Reagan won an ABC election in 1980 – anybody but Carter – Obama won a GO George – Get Out George W. Bush –election this year. This conclusion does not diminish from the dare I say it, historic nature of Obama’s victory. Rather, it is an early attempt to plunge into the debate assessing the outcome of the wild, rollicking, unpredictable, and potentially transformative 2008 campaign.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »