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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, HNN, 1-28-12

Toward the end of Thursday night’s debate in Florida, which viewers were told repeatedly would be high stakes and very serious, CNN’s moderator Wolf Blitzer asked the candidates to assess their wives as potential First Ladies. Blitzer’s question was valid and relevant.  For decades now, Americans have seen a presidential candidate’s life partner as a window into the soul of the man or woman seeking to lead us. Furthermore, experience shows that controversial First Ladies like Hillary Clinton in the first years of the Clinton administration can distract from the president’s agenda, while popular First Ladies like Hillary Clinton in the later Clinton years can be helpful advocates and effective buffers for their spouses. Unfortunately, Blitzer conveyed the impression that the topic was trivial, a fleeting, entertaining diversion from the weighty affairs of state at hand.

Blitzer bracketed the discussion by saying: we “want to get right back to the rest of the debate, but first, on a lighter subject, I want to ask each of these gentlemen why they think their wife would make a great first lady.” Without mentioning her first name, Carol, Ron Paul described her as wife, mother, grandmother, and “the author of a very famous cookbook, ‘The Ron Paul Cookbook.’”

Mitt Romney echoed Blitzer’s breeziness by first saying, in response to Paul’s quick list, “I’ve got to take a little bit more time, a little more seriousness.” Catching himself, not wanting to show disrespect to Paul on this issue, Romney said to Paul: “nothing wrong with what you said—I’m sorry.” Mitt Romney then described his wife Ann, “My wife,” in fuller terms as “a mom” but also “a real champion and a fighter,” battling her own health ailments and helping young women “in troubled situations.”

Newt Gingrich actually mentioned his wife Callista’s name and described her “artistic flair” and media savvy. Reflecting the now-classic divide between working women and stay-at-home-moms, Newt Gingrich described Callista’s work achievements but had no family tidbits to tout. The former Speaker actually was the most gentlemanly by hailing all spouses involved as “terrific.”

Rick Santorum spoke most movingly, describing his wife Karen as “my hero.” Rick Santorum described his wife both as “a mother to our seven children,” and as a nurse, a lawyer, an author, but someone who “walked away” from her profession “and walked into something that she felt called to do, which was to be a mom and to be a wife.”

In truth, each answer could have invited rich follow-ups, raising discussions of gender roles, of family dilemmas, of core values. The candidates could have discussed what it means to be a First Lady as well as the symbolic importance of the President as head of state. But the token moment had passed.

“Very nice,” Wolf Blitzer said. “All right, let’s get back to the debate….”

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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, 8-4-11

Barack Obama turns fifty today, August 4th.  Both he and his country appear battered these days, as Obama’s White House recuperates from the bruising debt ceiling showdown and the United States remains stuck combating two wars along with one long-lasting recession.  But the progress Obama and America have made since 1961 is extraordinary—and should remind Obama, along with other doubters, that it is premature to count out America.

The United States into which Barack Obama was born in 1961 was deeply segregated due to an endemic, seemingly unchangeable racism, and profoundly scared due to an implacable, seemingly indestructible foe, the Soviet Union.  Just days before young Obama’s birth, on July 25, President John F. Kennedy addressed the nation about the growing showdown in Berlin, warning that the United States would go to war, even nuclear war if necessary, to stop the Soviets from overrunning West Berlin.  Nine days after Obama’s birth, on August 13, the Soviets began building the Wall dividing Berlin which would symbolize the Cold War stalemate for the next three decades.

Obama was also born into a world still shellshocked by World War II and the Holocaust—in Israel, Adolph Eichmann’s trial for crimes against humanity was winding down.  Demographers count Obama as a Baby Boomer, part of the population explosion and surge in family building that began in 1946 when more than 16 million American GIs began demobilizing.  And it is sobering to compare America’s family stability, traditional values, and communal interconnectedness in 1961 with today’s age of disposable relationships, indulgent impulses, and self-involvement.  Still, Obama is not a classic Baby Boomer, like Bill and Hillary Clinton.  He was too young to watch Howdy Doody as a child, too young to draft-dodge or fight in Vietnam, too young to march for civil rights, too young to lie about having been at Woodstock—in 1969 when he was nine.  Instead Obama, and his wife Michelle, watched the Brady Bunch when they were kids—it was Michelle’s favorite show—and came of age politically during Ronald Reagan’s 1980s.

Becoming an adult in the Reagan era—Reagan became president in 1981 when Obama was twenty—Obama learned from liberalism’s excesses in the 1960s.  In his book Audacity of Hope, Obama shows a sensitivity to cultural forces that his politically-obsessed Baby Boomer elders lacked.  He saw the failures of the Great Society, economically, politically, culturally.  He learned the limits of liberalism and Big Government, discovering that politics cannot shape everything, that culture, tradition, patriotism, religion, community matter.  Yet, as a product of the politically correct 1980s—and by the late 1980s Harvard Law School at the height of PC-mania—Obama absorbed a series of assumptions that continue to color his worldview.  Domestically, the intense opposition to Ronald Reagan caricatured the Republican Party as the party of greed, corporate America as more irresponsible than innovative, and white male culture as bitter and bigoted.  Regarding foreign policy, the fights against nuclear proliferation, South African apartheid, and Reagan’s policies in Central America, crystallized biases against American power and in favor of the Third World, even as Reagan’s military resurgence helped bankrupt the Soviet Union, leading to America’s victory in the once-seemingly unwinnable Cold War.

This mishmash of impulses, recoiling from classic Sixties liberalism and the Reagan counter-revolution, explains some of the paradoxes and blindspots in Obama’s presidency so far.  He can infuriate his liberal allies by accepting budget cuts, and by championing moderation, because he saw in 1980, 1984, and 1988 how addictions to liberal orthodoxy killed Democratic presidential prospects.  But by blaming the financial crash on corporate greed and Republican deregulation, without acknowledging Democratic culpability in demanding easy access to mortgages, he could fill his team with Clinton-era retreads who helped trigger the crisis, and, when pressured, resorts to a politics of petulance and finger-pointing that belies his more moderate impulses. In dealing with the world, his PC-politics explain his apologias for America’s alleged sins, his unconscionable preference for an illusory engagement with Mahmound Ahmadinejad rather than bravely endorsing freedom when Iranian dissidents first rebelled, his instinctive sympathy for the Palestinians, his inexplicable dithering on the Syrian file, and his penchant for disappointing American allies.  At the same time, he learned enough from Reagan’s assertiveness, and was traumatized enough a decade ago during September 11th, that he has given the kill order when confronting pirates at sea, intensified the technique of assassination by drone aircraft, reinforced America’s presence in Afghanistan, and hunted down Osama Bin Laden unapologetically.

The poet T.S. Eliot called the years between fifty and seventy “the hardest” because “You are always being asked to do things, and yet you are not decrepit enough to turn them down.”  For the next year and a half, and possibly for the next five and a half years, Barack Obama will be asked to do heroic things, daily, lacking the luxury of refusing most requests.  When he started campaigning for the presidency, had he anticipated how devastated the U.S. economy would be, he would have shorted the market.  Instead, he has had a much tougher slog in office than he ever anticipated.  As he passes his personal milestone, and anticipates his re-election campaign, he should reflect on all the changes America has experienced in his brief lifetime.  In particular, communism’s defeat, and racism’s retreat, along with the dazzling array of technological miracles Americans engineered, should remind him of America’s extraordinary adaptability, steering him toward a more Reaganite faith in the American people and American nationalism, and away from his current, Jimmy Carteresque doubts about Americans and their ability to continue to prosper and to lead the world.

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On the Gores’ breakup, the Clintons’ survival, and the marital toll of a lost election

Presidential expert Gil Troy in conversation with Kate Fillion

by Kate Fillion, Macleans, Wednesday, June 16, 2010 10:00am

Yoray Liberman/Getty Images

A professor of history at McGill and a visiting scholar affiliated with the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, Gil Troy is the author of several books on the U.S. presidency, including an examination of Hillary Clinton’s tenure as first lady and Mr. and Mrs. President, a study of presidential marriages in the modern era.

Q: Why are people shocked that Al and Tipper Gore are separating?
A: People want to believe in marriage, and the Gore marriage was part of the national furniture. Starting in the mid-1980s, with Tipper’s involvement in the movement promoting warning labels for records [with explicit and violent lyrics], the Gores set themselves up as an iconic couple representing family values—significantly, from the left. They were saying, “Republicans do not have a mono­poly on faith, flag and family.” Especially during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the Gores emerged as the counter to the Clintons’ famously dysfunctional marriage, culminating in 2000 at the Democratic National Convention with the famous smooch.

Q: What do you make of that kiss?
A:
Al Gore’s line was, “I wasn’t trying to send a message to the American people, I was trying to send a message to Tipper.” But it was very much a message to the American people. Everybody was joking about how wooden he was, and the issue on the table was: is he a full-blown personality or a Gore-bot? That prolonged kiss was the easiest, most dramatic way to respond. It got people talking, and telegraphed a disdain for Bill Clinton’s behaviour while reinforcing this narrative that the Gores were the Democrats who would not embarrass you.

Q: Well, Tipper looked pretty alarmed.
A:
Here you are on national television, glaring lights, blaring music—it’s not necessarily the most romantic of settings.

Q: In this cynical age, why would people fall for such obvious political stagecraft?
A:
Canadians do this less, but all of us in modern, celebrity-oriented democracies tend to project onto our leaders some dimensions of our lives and dilemmas. In general, Americans are torn between wanting to progress and still wanting something old-fashioned. That’s how Al and Tipper Gore became the soothing background music in this cacopho­nous age: see, there are some couples and families that still work. Marriage, whether you’re getting married in Vegas with an Elvis impersonator or in front of 400 people in the most traditional Catholic ceremony, is a leap of faith. To have totems is reassuring, and the Gores set themselves up as totems.

Q: Why did they continue doing that, with the publication of Joined at the Heart, even after Tipper ruled out her own Senate run in 2002?
A:
It makes sense in modern American celebrity culture to cash in on your identity, and the central signifier of the Gores’ lives was their togetherness. It was very much a baby-boomer togetherness, not an Ozzie and Harriet we-never-fight togetherness. It was, “We’re different: he’s a bit of a stiff, and I’ve had some emotional ups and downs.” They’ve always competed with the Clintons in the popular imagination as contrasting symbols of their generation. The Gores were preaching “it’s hip to be square” while the Clintons seemed buffeted by the turbulence of the sexual revolution, which is one of the baby boomers’ signature cultural contributions. It’s the irony of ironies that the Clintons are still together while the Gores are splitting, because, of course, divorce is an iconic baby-boomer act.

Q: Why has the Clintons’ marriage endured?
A:
I think it has to do with the bar of history. When you become president, in the same way that your family is suddenly the first family and you don’t just work in an office but in the Oval Office, you become extremely aware of the fact that there’s going to be a presidential library, there’s monumentalism about the whole experience, and I think it becomes that much harder to divorce. Especially with the Clintons, where people were constantly saying, “The marriage is a sham,” there’s hesitation to give their enemies any satisfaction. Plus, there’s a bond there.

Q: It’s not just a political alliance?
A:
I was never part of that school of thought. Their commitment to Chelsea kept them together; they very rarely rolled her out as a political prop, they protected her to an extraordinary degree. And throughout all the ups and downs, Bill Clinton always made it clear Hillary was the smartest woman he’d ever met and had a kind of discipline he lacked, and she often talked about his tremendous people skills, which she lacked. They worked together, they fed off each other and built off each other. Those are parts of the recipe that make for a marriage.

Q: Why does campaigning put such a strain on a marriage?
A:
It’s a combination of the hellishness of being apart and the hellishness when you’re together. The hellishness of being apart is Betty Ford counting that when Gerald Ford was House minority leader, he was away from home 256 days in a year so she was on call 24 hours, seven days a week for their kids. Even when the couple is together, there’s a certain apartness; the drug of public adulation makes it difficult [for the candidate] to come down. It’s not a whole heck of a lot of fun being in a room where all eyes are on your spouse, you’re the prop, and your mandate is a variation of the Hippocratic oath: do no harm. And this guy that you married 25 years ago when you were just students, there are ego issues—and simply the insanity of the campaign trail, the late nights, the jumping from hotel to motel. But the White House is a surprisingly healing place for a marriage.

Q: How?
A:
The couple is finally living above the store, as they say. There’s less travel, they’re entertaining more, so she’s no longer just a prop. Also, you’re in this glamorous mansion with servants galore—there’s a fairy-tale nature to the existence. The other thing that heals presidential marriages, and probably to some extent vice-presidential ones, is that it’s hard when you’re president to get straight advice, especially if it’s critical. Even some of your closest friends clam up. Nancy Reagan reported that during the Iran-Contra scandal, she asked Robert Strauss, a Democrat and one of the wise men of Washington, to explain to her husband how serious the issue was. But as soon as Strauss sat down he got all “Mr. President” and couldn’t deliver the message. So she had to do it. Presidents love the adulation, but also understand the need to be grounded, and the spouse is often the conduit to reality. It’s a key bond.

Q: So if you go through the hell of campaigning and then lose, like Gore, you don’t get that healing opportunity?
A:
It was a devastating public blow. Al Gore was raised for the presidency, and they came so close to getting the White House.

Q: Was it crushing for her, too, after decades as the Good Wife?
A:
Absolutely. The job of first lady is alluring because you do have a certain kind of power, you can make a difference in people’s lives. You bring a lot of political capital to the table as the spouse, through the entertaining, through creating the narrative. We don’t really know what goes on even in our best friends’ marriages, so we don’t know to what extent did she blame him for the loss in 2000? Did she think he could’ve campaigned more effectively? We have no idea.

Q: Would she have grounds for blaming him?
A:
It wasn’t just that forces beyond Al Gore’s control stole the election. Al Gore lost it. Two things were going on: the press was very hard on him, and his campaign was a nightmare—poorly planned, poorly run. There were all kinds of ridiculous things that came out, like he was thinking of dressing more in brown, because it’s an earth colour. How did we even hear about that? There was competition among Gore’s campaign staff, and also a failure to lead on his part. Part of the reason he didn’t run in 2004 is that a lot of his fundraisers just wouldn’t work with him again.

Q: What is it like to have to leave your home, Washington, after a loss like that?
A:
Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter wrote very powerfully about how devastating it was to be repudiated by the American people [in 1980], especially after they had such an amazing run in 1976, and to come home to Plains and think, “Now what?” There’s also the comedown, which the Gores would’ve experienced after eight years of having staff at their beck and call. It’s not just that you’re not in the White House but that all these goodies you’ve become accustomed to disappear. Harry Truman talked about coming home after his time in the White House and having to drag his own luggage, though he was the kind of person who enjoyed it. But few of us enjoy going backwards.

Q: Has any other losing candidate for the presidency reinvented himself as Gore did?
A:
No. He hit the celebrity trifecta: bestselling book, Nobel prize, Academy Award. He’s had political impact, cultural impact, international impact—which takes us back to why their separation is generating water-cooler conversations. The Gores remained in the popular mind; they didn’t fade away. But maybe, like Pat Nixon, Tipper had had enough. Once they left the White House, Pat Nixon said, “You can do what you want, but I’ve paid my dues and I’m not going to be a public woman anymore, no more speeches.”

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Assumptions Go Asunder as Gores Split

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Al Gore with his wife, Tipper, in 2007.

By MARK LEIBOVICH, NYT, 6-1-2010
…Al and Tipper Gore’s announcement Tuesday that they would be separating after 40 years together underscores, yet again, a basic truism about any marriage, particularly political ones: You just never know. The point is made as vividly by the fraught political partnerships that remain intact — the Spitzers, the Clintons — as those that do not.Still, when the Gores circulated a joint e-mail message to friends announcing that “after a great deal of thought and discussion, we have decided to separate,” the news landed with some shock.

“We obviously have learned that the public is not always private and the private is not always public,” said Gil Troy, who teaches American history at McGill University in Montreal and has written about political marriages. “But you want to believe that there are certain marriages that will last. And the Gore marriage seemed to have become part of the national furniture in the best of ways.”…

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A version of this article appeared in print on June 2, 2010, on page A14 of the New York edition

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By Gil Troy, Globe and Mail, 9-18-09

[Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University and visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, is the author of Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents and The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.]

Barack Obama’s election to the presidency was supposed to usher in a new, more mature era of race relations, but it could not evoke nirvana. There’s a growing chorus complaining that this summer’s hostility to his stimulus package, to his health-care reform and to Mr. Obama himself is racist.

“I think it’s based on racism. There is an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president,” former president Jimmy Carter said, clearly forgetting the euphoria when Americans elected a black president.

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd said she heard “an unspoken word in the air” when Republican Representative Joe Wilson shouted “You lie!” during the President’s speech to Congress last week: “You lie, boy!” She also located Mr. Obama “at the center of a period of racial turbulence sparked by his ascension.” In fact, Mr. Obama is at the center of a political storm sparked by his leadership – as all presidents have been.

American politics is a contact sport. The long, rich tradition of American centrism does not negate the equally long colorful tradition of American mudslinging and partisanship. It is unfair and itself divisive to impute racial motives to Mr. Obama’s opponents without evidence. The shrill opposition reflects the high stakes surrounding the current debate, Americans’ enduring ambivalence about big government and the ugly way modern politics plays out in the media, within the blogosphere and on the streets.

Mr. Obama is controversial because he is seeking big changes. He’s no Bill Clinton in his second-term incarnation, focusing on minor policy “Band-Aids” such as the “V-chip” and school uniforms. Mr. Obama wants to be a transformational president like Ronald Reagan. During the transition, faced with the unexpected economic crisis, Mr. Obama read books about how Franklin Roosevelt re-engineered the U.S. economy. Headlines celebrating “Franklin Delano Obama” launched Mr. Obama’s ambitious first hundred days. Spending nearly a trillion dollars to stimulate the economy, taking over the U.S. auto industry, and now trying to solve the perennial health-care riddle – while protecting America and seeking world peace – are sweeping goals. No wonder there’s pushback.

The conservative counterattack is particularly intense because Mr. Obama seems to forget that Americans have mixed feelings about big government. There’s a strong individualistic streak in American thought. Every major jump in the government’s mandate has encountered fierce resistance. Conservatives denounced FDR as a Mussolini and even a Hitleresque dictator.

In 1993, Hillary Clinton was shocked at the vitriol directed her way when she led health-care reform efforts. The Clintons, in fact, endured far more abuse than Mr. Obama has – so far. The Clintons were accused of drug-running, murder, faked suicides, financial corruption, rape and cover-ups galore. After his impeachment, Mr. Clinton lamented Republicans’ descent into the “politics of personal destruction.”

Mr. Clinton and his fellow Democrats suggested these attacks were a conservative Republican tic. The implication then – as now – was that liberals disagreed as rational, reasonable human beings; conservatives were harsh, hysterical, character assassins.

Unfortunately, the loony left can be as vicious as the ranting right. In the 1980s, Mr. Carter and the Democrats called Mr. Reagan a war-mongering racist who would deprive blacks of civil rights while bumbling into nuclear war. One of the Democratic Party’s grand old men, Clark Clifford, called Mr. Reagan “an amiable dunce.” Respected liberal writer Garry Wills called him “Mr. Magoo.”

George W. Bush endured even more vicious attacks. Mr. Carter himself was one of many Democrats who said America’s leaders lied in the buildup to the Iraq war. During the 2004 campaign, an Internet ad compared Mr. Bush to Hitler. Bushophobia became so intense that critics often seemed more disgusted by Mr. Bush than by Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden. “There is something profoundly wrong when opposition to the war in Iraq seems to inspire greater passion than opposition to Islamist extremism,” Senator Joe Lieberman, [then] a Democrat, said in 2007.

Vice President Richard Cheney was even more hated, and routinely compared to Darth Vader. Much of this enmity stems from the ever-accelerating news cycle, the blogosphere’s nastiness and Americans’ ability to speak, text and listen only to those with whom they agree.

Mr. Obama promised to lower the volume – acknowledging how shrill politics was under Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bush, two white presidents. Obama supporters should not be shocked that Republicans are attacking Mr. Obama as vehemently as Democrats attacked his predecessor.

And it is dishonest for Mr. Carter, Ms. Dowd and others to play the race card, implying that anyone who dares disagree with Mr. Obama’s health-care plan or stimulus package is a redneck. American politics needs a different tone – these delusional, demagogic, racial recriminations only make things worse.

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Blogging from the Center as an Historian During a Contested Campaign: Politically Anomalous and Academically Tenuous?

By Gil Troy

Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and Visiting Scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, DC. He is the author, most recently, of 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. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN.

Mr. Troy delivered the following remarks at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians on March 26, 2009 at a panel considering “The 2008 Election as History.” A video of this talk will be posted in the coming weeks on HNN.

I am faced with an odd dual mandate today. I have been asked to reflect on my experiences as a blogger during the 2008 campaign, and to analyze that elusive concept of centrism during a hotly contested presidential campaign. I am comfortable talking about centrism to this audience, having recently written a book about it. But speaking autobiographically, using the first person rather than the third person on an OAH panel, feels illicit, like reading literature at a chemists’ convention or, even worse, preaching the Bible to a convention of atheists.

I am also uncomfortable talking about blogging because in truth, I am not a very good blogger. I blog regularly for HNN the History News Network – and I would like to acknowledge the extraordinary contribution of the superhuman force behind HNN, Rick Shenkman, who has done so much to forge a sense of community among historians – in a profession, I regret to say, where that sense is often lacking. After years of posting my occasional op-eds and reviews, Rick asked me to blog regularly for the campaign, starting in January 2008. I did it at least weekly, usually twice a week, and daily for two weeks in an exhausting marathon building up to Election Day.

But, as I said, I am not a very good blogger. I am not a good blogger because I write more in the style of an oped than a blog – my posts averaged 600 to 800 words rather than the ideal 300 to 500 words; and my style is more formal and less personal more historical and less hysterical, more complex and less black-and-white, than most bloggers.

I am also not a good blogger because I don’t try to be a “good citizen of the blogosphere,” as one of my blogging friends calls it. I do little cross-posting, blog-rolling, or any other insider blogging rituals. Rather than aggressively marketing my blog, I invest in the writing – coming more from the “If you build it they will come” school – although, in truth, I wrote it, and I’m not sure how many readers actually came.

Finally, and perhaps most relevant for today’s discussion, I am not a good blogger because I chose not to be a verbal flame-thrower, I preferred to write historically and from the center. I did not consider it my mission in my writing as an historian for the History News Network to elect either Barack Obama or John McCain president. To the extent I wanted to push an angle, I wanted to encourage both candidates to move to the center, with the hope that whoever won would govern from the center. But my priority was to bring some historical perspective to the discussion, to try placing these fast-moving events in historical context. Moreover, I wanted to inject some complexity into the discussion, to take issues which reporters and politicians usually reduce to simplistic either-ors and make them multi-dimensional ands-and-buts. I think that is part of our mission as academics – to acknowledge the messiness of this world, to resist the urge toward polarization, partisanship, and simplification, without, of course, being obtuse. And if that makes me – and us – counter-cultural, it’s a status – and a mission – I proudly embrace.

As a blogger, I applied the rules I had imposed on myself over years of writing op-eds and giving radio and television interviews. I should note that my impressions of insta-history, and of academic pundits, were formed in the late 1980s, when I was just finishing my Ph.D. – and Communism was collapsing. Suddenly, the same “Sovietologists” and “Kremlinologists” (which I believe was a worse media moniker than “Presidential Historian”) who had spent years explaining to us on TV and in the press that the Soviet Union would never fall, were now, without acknowledging their errors, just as authoritatively explaining why it was so obvious that the Soviet Union fell. (our modern equivalent of course, is all the Jim Cramers and Larry Summers of the world who went just as quickly from singing the song of never-ending prosperity to describing this downturn prematurely as “the worst crisis since the Great Depression”). With these cautionary tales in mind, I have followed (or tried to follow) these basic rules:

For starters, no predicting. I cannot tell you how many times producers have called me saying they want “historical perspective” on something, then, with the cameras rolling, the anchors asked “so what’s going to happen next?” I have my set response: “It’s hard enough to predict the past I cannot begin to predict the future.” But it is quite dismaying how much of the modern news business has become about anticipating what’s next rather than providing the proverbial “first draft of history,” rendering our historical judgment irrelevant.

Second, no roving – and that has nothing to do with George W. Bush’s “brain|” Karl Rove. I am an American historian. My job when commenting in the public sphere as an historian is to stick to my area of expertise and not to fall into another common media trap of appearing to be an expert on whatever is hot at the moment.

Third, no rushing to judgment. We are historians. Our job is to be the brakes on the conventional wisdom even when it speeds ahead to make premature pronouncements. Our professional commitment to patience puts us in conflict with the dizzying immediacy of the blogging world – and the media.

I was on CTV – Canadian Television – when the Supreme Court released its decision in Bush v. Gore 2000. The CNN feed showed a reporter leafing through the pages of the decision, seeking the relevant passages. After this incomprehensible spectacle, the anchor in Toronto asked me in Montreal, “Well, Professor Troy, what’s your analysis of this decision?” What could I say? I said – with a straight face I’m proud to add – “sometimes, in the life of a democracy you have to keep silent and listen to the sounds of democracy in action – let’s take a minute and appreciate the silence – we don’t hear rumblings of tanks in the streets, staccato shots being fired in the air, rather we hear reporters reading the words of the Supreme Court trying to decipher and analyze them.”
More recently, I was in the distinct minority of historians who refused – one-third, half-way, two-thirds, even three-quarters of the way through George W. Bush’s term, to answer the question whether W was the worst American president ever. That’s a parlor game for journalists – we’re supposed to be the ones who slow things down, wait for administrations to end, assess the data — and then start quibbling, labeling and oversimplifying….

Fourth, keep it historical. In almost every blog posting I write, as in every media appearance I do, I try to inject some historical perspective, some context, some dimensionality to the discussion. I try to avoid the Beschlossization of historical commentary – reeling off a series of historical parallels using history as window dressing.

Instead I try (I confess I don’t always succeed) to link events, ideas, personalities to more enduring historical phenomena, conversations, figures. It’s the difference between analyzing the McCain-Obama debates by saying the age difference reminds you of the Mondale-Reagan debates in 1984, versus comparing what McCain, Reagan, Obama and Mondale were saying about government’s role in American life, about the causes of their respective economic challenges, about their governing philosophies, then placing these resonances in a broader historical conversation.

Now, here’s where the instant feedback of the blogosphere – and the smart, demanding-in-the-best-sort-of-way readers of HNN keep you honest. Toward the end of my two-week pre-election day blogathon, I succumbed to a case of blogger’s envy. I saw how short, snappy, contentious entries – and titles – generated all the traffic. I was also exhausted, from juggling teaching, grading, family, and other writing commitments. So after Barack Obama’s closing infomercial, I wrote more of a quick reaction piece than an historical analysis, titled: “Barack’s Infomerical: Too Cheesy for a Potential President?” One reader objected to my punting, and immediately threw down a penalty flag: “The piece is OK, unlike its title, but where is the history? the sociological analysis? This is Troy’s reaction. I have mine. I didn’t write mine up, because it wasn’t a whole lot better than yours! Neither is Troy’s. To make the grade and get on HNN, shouldn’t a piece have some WORK in it? So we can LEARN from it?”

Fifth, and finally, keep ‘em guessing – as to where I stand politically. I have always said that the best compliment I can get, at the end of a contemporary US history class – or when invited back by a TV producer — after having tackled major, controversial issues, is when I am asked: “Professor Troy, I’m confused, are you a liberal or a conservative?” I believe my job in the classroom – and as a blogging historian – a historiblogger? — is to avoid plunging into partisanship, and to stimulate debate rather than dictate thought or preach to the converted. I also think that partisan positions have become too rigid and frequently simplistic in this country, whereas our job as academics is to embrace the complexity of reality even at the cost of ideological consistency. I take as my standard, the words of New York’s former Mayor Ed Koch, who said, “if you agree with me on nine out of twelve issues, vote for me. If you agree with me on twelve out of twelve issues, see a psychiatrist.”

In this spirit, I try to avoid what we could call the Zinn not Zen of History (Howard Zinn), marshalling the forces of history to prop up my own contemporary partisan position. Historians should use the public platforms we are privileged to be offered to give historical perspective rather than partisan screeds with some historical camouflage.

Our profession would benefit from a fuller discussion about the perils of insta-history, our dos and don’ts to follow when we are invited to appear in the media or blog as historians. As a lowly historian in the trenches, I am not aware of any OAH or AHA guidelines. (In preparation for this talk, I did search around. I found some relevant statements one could apply from the AHA Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct, and a fascinating set of guidelines on “The Rights and Responsibilities of Historians in Regard to Historical Films and Video” from 1992, but nothing else – and no one who knew of anything else).
More broadly, I think we would benefit from a more developed conversation about what we would call our fiduciary role if we were in the financial sector. (Ok, maybe this is not the time to hold up bankers as ethical role models…)

So many historians have spent so much time over the less few decades blurring the line between the personal, the political, and the professional. Nevertheless, it is worth asking what professional and yes specifically political constraints, if any, we impose on ourselves when we operate in our professional capacity as historians? (And let me emphasize that whatever restraints we consider should be self-imposed not dictated by Big Brother or Big Sister). I am well aware that I am in the minority here. Many of my colleagues disagree with my attempts to hover above the fray and champion the center.

In fact, my two most controversial posts during the campaign – one at the beginning, one at the end, illustrate this tension. Early on, I objected when the group “Historians for Obama” formed. I was not arguing against Obama or against individual historians supporting Obama as citizens. I did object to hijacking our collective credibility and giving any candidate our imprimatur as historians.

If we remember what we learned in graduate school about the 1896 campaign, and remember Robert Wiebe’s Search for Order,we will note that Mark Hanna’s masterstroke in organizing what we would now call interest groups and reference groups in favor of William McKinley, was a clever attempt to build on the emerging identity and shared expertise of professionals in service of a presidential candidate. I suggested that we be more cautious when we act as historians collectively, not frittering away our scholarly authority on divisive partisan issues and fleeting candidacies. Many respondents strongly disagreed, arguing that they were exercising their democratic rights and following the rules of the game that so many others followed.

Toward the end of the campaign, my most controversial post was: “A Partisan Myopia Test: Who is Willing to Denounce both Sarah Palin and Al Franken as Unqualified?” Few respondents objected to the doubts I cast on Governor Palin’s credentials. But, boy, were respondents steamed by my daring to suggest that Al Franken was unqualified to be a senator, that his brand of simplistic, punch-line driven, vulgar, polarizing political rhetoric harmed the American political system and was precisely the kind of approach we as intellectuals, as educators, as academics, should reject. Franken would be thrilled to know just how many Al aficionados there are among history Ph.Ds. I, for one, was disappointed by how difficult it was for Republicans to question Palin’s suitability and for Democrats to question Franken’s.

I say disappointed, but of course, not surprised. These days, in the historical profession and beyond, it is not easy being a moderate. Despite widespread grumbling that President George W. Bush was too headstrong and polarizing, both John McCain and Barack Obama were scorned this summer whenever they played to the center. Reporters mocked McCain’s “Macarena,” sliding right then left, along with Obama’s “policy pirouettes.”

More disturbing, we saw how the gravitational physics of American politics pulled candidates to the right or to the left – there were few institutional, ideological, or media forces pulling them to the center. In mid-June, when John McCain insisted on reading the Supreme Court’s Guantánamo decision before condemning it, conservative bloggers blasted his “tepid” response. In the all-too-familiar media echo chamber that reinforces the conventional wisdom, the New York Times reported the NRO’s verdict on McCain, to reinforce the pre-Palin narrative of the restive Republican conservatives. Now, maybe I’m a little off, but isn’t it a good thing to have a candidate who reads a Supreme Court decision before bashing it (or praising it)?

Similarly, Obama’s musings that by visiting Iraq, he might refine his position angered so many supporters he backpedaled quickly. You will recall that on the eve of his visit to Iraq, the simple suggestion that he needed to consult with U.S. commanders and do a “thorough assessment of the situation,” triggered such a firestorm that he hastily called a second press conference on July 3 in Fargo, ND, saying, “We’re going to try this again. Apparently I wasn’t clear enough this morning on my position with respect to the war in Iraq. Let me be as clear as I can be. I intend to end this war.” Once again, maybe it’s me, but on the eve of a trip to a war zone, isn’t it admirable to have a potential president willing to adjust his positions based on realities he encounters on the ground?

Watching the vacuum in the center, seeing how the moveon.org crowd pulled Obama left and the National Review-Rush Limbaugh types pulled McCain right, I sought metrics to assess moderation – and forces to encourage centrism. I invited student volunteers to develop a “moderometer” to gauge a candidate’s centrism both tactically and ideologically, charting particular positions and moves on a color coded spectrum between red and blue, with the elusive purple the desired spot in the middle.

More broadly, in my book, Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, I argued that our constant descent into partisanship is destructive. America needs muscular moderates—nimble and adaptable but anchored in core values. We need presidents who think first and bluster later, who adjust positions based on often messy facts. Running toward the center to lead from the center is the right thing to do and the shrewd political move to make, especially with the contest so close and the issues so serious. Neither McCain nor Obama was a Johnny-come-lately to centrism—moderation was central to their political identities. Both appealed to independents disgusted by the perpetual fights pitting Fox News cheerleaders against MoveOn.org critics. Like most Americans, both candidates understood that crises in finance, healthcare, energy, immigration, and national security require thoughtful analysis, not shrill attacks, complicated compromises, not partisan sloganeering.

Barack Obama first wowed Democrats as a lyrical centrist. The son of a white American and black African, celebrating a purple America, promised to heal the red-blue and black-white divides. In The Audacity of Hope, Obama crossed ideological wires, fusing the normally conservative critique of American cultural excess with liberals’ faith in government.

John McCain was even better known for legislative bridge-building. From leading the “Gang of 14,” breaking the logjam over judicial nominations, to spearheading the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, McCain long was one of Washington’s most passionate moderates. That track record, plus his reputation as the Republican maverick, propelled his candidacy.

Historically, muscular moderates, not spineless centrists, inhabited the great American center. This moderation is rooted in principle, tempered by practicalities, anchored in nationalism, modified by civility. In the White House, it included George Washington’s reason, calling on Americans to rally around their “common cause,” Abraham Lincoln’s pragmatism, focusing on union, not abolition, to keep the border states in the Union, Theodore Roosevelt’s “bully, bully” romantic nationalism to inspire the people, Franklin Roosevelt’s visionary, experimental incrementalism to solve the Great Depression, and Harry Truman’s workmanlike bipartisanship in the face of the Cold War. On Capitol Hill, Henry Clay’s tradition of great compromising inspired the roll-up-your-sleeves horse-trading of Sens. Bob Dole and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose bipartisan “Gang of Seven” saved Social Security in 1983.

Presidents preside most effectively over this diverse country by singing a song of centrism rather than indulging in partisan sloganeering. Following the George W. Bush-Karl Rove 2004 strategy of using slim majorities to impose radical changes violates the implicit democratic contract between the leader and the people. Great presidents –and shrewd candidates — aim for the center, targeting the popular bull’s-eye, sometimes after repositioning it.

During the general presidential campaign, with the nominees wooing swing voters, not party warriors, this push to the center is frequently tonal and tactical. As nominees realize that selling simplistic solutions to complicated problems may shackle them when governing, many moderate their policy positions and philosophies, too. Alas, partisans yank their nominee left or right while journalists caricature policy refinements as pandering.

American citizens tired of the toxic red-blue bickering must push for the center. Finding energy alternatives, fighting terror, stabilizing Wall Street, and ensuring quality healthcare are national needs. Always seeing issues through Democratic or Republican prisms distorts reality. Some issues beg for bipartisanship.

Not all adjustments are betrayals. In accepting a different FISA domestic surveillance bill from the one he initially opposed, Obama was nuanced. By contrast, his turnaround from supporting public campaign financing to spurning it was dizzying. Similarly, many Republicans’ recognition that the Wall Street crisis required government intervention reflected maturity, not spinelessness.

The push for moderation is ultimately a push to reinvigorate American nationalism. This approach of minimizing clashes, of seeking the public good, depends on a vigorous, romantic faith in American nationalism. Nationalism is a dirty word among too many academics and too many liberals these days, tarred by the cruelty which aberrant forms of nationalism unleashed in the twentieth century. But nationalism has also fueled many modern miracles, with American’s liberal democratic experiment perhaps the greatest success story. Without appeals to the national conscience, without a strong sense of a national purpose, Americans might not have healed the sectional divide, settled the West won world wars, explored outer space, formed successful businesses or created the Internet. We need a creative leader to tap into that spirit of American nationalism at its best, and renew a sense of collective mission even as we retain our individual freedoms and prerogatives.

Moreover, in the last generation, we as historians have become so skilled at explaining America’s shortcomings, we have too often forgotten that our job is also to explain America’s many successes – without idealizing, but also without always criticizing.

By blogging through this election, by watching up close and occasionally plunging into the fray, I like to think that I sharpened my ability to interpret this election in the future, as they say, for the history books – without compromising my integrity (too much). For starters, I have a kind of writer’s diary; I have a log of my impressions as Hillary Clinton – remember her — sputtered then surged, of John McCain’s shifting identities, of Barack Obama’s remarkable discipline and charisma. When I get to researching this election, I will be able to compare more sharply what I thought was happening with what insiders saw and tried to accomplish. I can see how my appreciation for Obama’s skills grew, and also see how the economic tsunami that so few foresaw, roared through this campaign in remarkable ways.

Moreover, in blogging from the center during this campaign, in watching the remarkable rise of this young, talented, hope-generating politician, I as an historian, felt privileged to see America’s strengths not just weaknesses, to see a vision of American nationalism that was not narrow but broad, and to help –in my small, insignificant way – try shifting the conversation – in our profession and beyond – from focusing on the margins to celebrating the center, from an obsession with extremists to an appreciation for moderates, from too many attempts at polarization and partisanship to Barack Obama’s – and John McCain’s joint attempts – at their respective bests – to build a broad, inclusive, inspiring narrative, for a nation that badly needed it, as an initial step in emerging from the economic, diplomatic, social, cultural, and existential muck of the Bush-Clinton years.

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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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By Gil Troy, HNN, 11-3-08

When this campaign began so many months and $4.3 billion ago, many pollsters and pundits predicted that Election Day would be the final round of the battle of the New York titans, pitting Hillary Rodham Clinton against Rudy Giuliani. Back then, when we thought about waking up at 3 AM, we usually associated it with an unwelcome run to the john, not the test – as described in Hillary Clinton’s campaign commercial – of who was ready to lead the nation. If we imagined a ceiling with 17 million cracks in it, we assumed it would shatter, especially if the ceiling was glass; when we worried about meltdowns, it was because our kids were overprogrammed or undersupervised, not because our financial markets were overstretched and under-scrutinized; and when we talked about Joe the plumber we grumbled about the guy who charged too much and came too slowly not some idealized version of the people’s wisdom incarnate. In those days when we thought about the largest state in the union, we wondered what its connection was with baked Alaska, we did not think about the half-baked ideas of the governor from Alaska and the conventional wisdom in Washington described Joe Biden as a blow-dried, blowhard politician, (who barely won 11,000 votes when he ran in the 2008 primaries) rather than the ultimate democratic ideal, a working class kid from Scranton conjured into Beltway foreign policy guru. The most famous Barak in the world was Ehud, the Israeli Defense minister, and –dare I say it — the most famous Hussein was either Saddam or the late King of Jordan. Moreover, most Americans agreed that the most decent, nonpartisan, moderate member of the United States senate was… John McCain.

It has been quite the ride. Political scientists who doubt the impact campaigns can have on votes will need to take this roller-coaster of a campaign into account. Neither Barack Obama nor John McCain coasted to their respective party’s nomination and the lead in the general campaign switched at least three times. Judging by most polls, Obama led for much of the summer, McCain surged just before and during the Republican National Convention. Then Obama pulled into the lead thanks to the financial meltdown and Obama’s steadier debate performances.

Tomorrow, American voters will find themselves shaped by the 1960s’ revolution as they judge – but also partially try to replicate — the 1980s revolution. Both nominees represent the tremendous progress the country has made since the 1960s. As one of America’s most famous Vietnam veterans, John McCain represents the seachange in attitudes towards Vietnam vets, partially due to his own efforts. Although the claim that soldiers returning from Vietnam were spat at has never been proven, in the 1970s, many felt neglected and rejected by the country they had served. McCain’s iconic role in American culture as a symbol of patriotism, selflessness, and sacrifice illustrates that many of the national wounds from that war have healed.

Obama, who has spent much of the campaign remarking about how young he was during the 1960s, is in so many ways a child of that decade. The civil rights movement made his candidacy possible. Standing on the shoulders of the movement’s giants, Obama has gone farther and faster than any of them dared to hope. Martin Luther King, Jr’s audacity was in dreaming his children would be treated as the equal of whites, not that they would be in a position to lead.

As the sixties casts its shadow on this choice, the decade of the eighties looms large as well. When John McCain is not paying homage to Theodore Roosevelt, McCain speaks of Ronald Reagan. Both Roosevelt and Reagan offer the kind of muscular, nationalist, leadership McCain admires. Obama admires that style of leadership too, even if he dislikes Reagan’s policies. In a January interview in Nevada, Obama said Reagan had “changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.” In defending these remarks against the inevitable Democratic – and Clintonesque – onslaught – Obama explained that he was not embracing Reagan’s positions, just admiring Reagan as a “transformative leader.” Again and again, at his most powerful campaigning moments, Obama has demonstrated a similar potential.

Of course, the financial meltdown put the legacy of the 1980s into contention more directly. In the summer, the Soviet invasion of Georgia and the continuing worries about Iran and Iraq made 2008 look like it was going to be a foreign policy-oriented election. That assumption helps explain Obama’s selection of Joe Biden as a running mate. This choice – like so many other assumptions – seemed unnecessary once the stock market started plummeting.

Alas, despite the leadership opportunity the financial crisis provided for the candidates, neither rose to the occasion. Both remained cautious, simplistic demagogic. Of course, that was par for the campaigning course. But the campaign hoopla is almost over. Tomorrow, the president-elect has to start planning how to help the country – a task that will make the challenges of even this campaign seem downright trivial.

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 10-28-08

Here’s a fantasy for Americans exhausted by this endless presidential campaign. Imagine a campaign limited to six weeks. Imagine a campaign that cannot bombard voters with advertisements, because each television station makes available 390 minutes for political commercials which a broadcasting authority allots based on the various parties’ relative strengths. Imagine a campaign with restrictions on fundraising and campaign spending – that candidates actually follow. Imagine a campaign run by already designated and experienced party leaders, so the messy process of choosing a standard bearer does not run right into the messier process of choosing a leader. Well, Canadians just finished such a campaign – yet, they too were miserable.

News reports from up north said that Canadians suffered from a severe case of “election envy.” Many Canadians wished their candidates were more colorful, their campaigns were more exciting. It seems that many Canadians wished their elections were, dare we say it, more American.

Yes, even though most Americans did not notice, Canada just finished its own national elections. The incumbent Prime Minister Stephen Harper, riding high in the polls, announced the elections on September 7, eight months and fours days after the Iowa caucus and nearly sixteen months after Democrats hosted 2008’s first primary candidates’ debate. Canadians voted on October 14 three weeks before Americans finally voted. Harper was returned to office, although the stock market implosion deprived him of the majority in parliament he sought.

One exceptional phenomenon in the race was that more Canadians than usual admitted their feelings of inadequacy vis a vis the Americans, at least electorally speaking. Canadians – like so many Americans – have been swept up by the 2008 campaigning drama, scrutinizing the Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton soap opera, wondering how different John McCain might be from George W. Bush, alternately fascinated and appalled by the political rookie of the year, Sarah Palin. Besotted by European-style pretensions to cosmopolitanism, Canadians like to pretend they are not nationalistic. They believe that unlike their American neighbors, they have evolved, beyond such primitive feelings. Yet conversations about the United States inevitably bring out Canadians’ inner chauvinist. Canadians assert their patriotism by caricaturing America as a land of gun-toting, health-care-deprived red state-rednecks. Thus, this admission of election envy was surprising and significant.

The green-eyed view of the land of the red, white, and blue makes sense when you compare the leading candidates in both races. Barack Obama’s eloquent, historic quest to become America’s first black president induces goosebumps, while John McCain’s trajectory from five and half years suffering in the “Hanoi Hilton” to the cusp of living in the White House is cinematic. On the Canadian side, the incumbent prime minister who called the election, Stephen Harper, of the Conservative Party, is a steadfast Canadian bloke, as solid as an oak, as charismatic as the country he leads. The first great campaign controversy he triggered stemmed from donning a baby blue sweater for a campaign photo op at a suburban home. Critics felt it was phony from such a jacket-and-tie kind of guy. And he was the exciting candidate running. Harper’s main rival, Stephane Dion, heading the Liberal Party, is a colorless academic – at the risk of being redundant – whose mediocre English speaking skills only provide a partial excuse for his lack of campaigning talent. A fierce defender of Canada’s federal union, he is even less popular in his French-speaking home province, Quebec, where they can understand what he says, than he is in what locals call ROC, the rest of Canada.

Still, despite the Canadian candidates’ lack of flash, and despite campaign rules that American progressives fantasize would turn our pols into Solons and Solomons, Canadians endured a nasty battle. This was the third election in four years – and the current Conservative government was and remains a minority government. As Americans know too well, divided polities and tight races cause intense political combat, no matter how noble the candidates’ intentions. Moreover, operating in a parliamentary system, Canadian prime ministers lack the awe-inspiring majesty and physical insulation the American president enjoys. For all their reputed niceness, Canadians have a vigorous tradition of questioning, even heckling, the prime minister in Parliament. And the Canadian televised debates, which are much less choreographed with far less journalistic interference than American debates, degenerated into shouting matches with charges of “liar” aired.

Americans and Canadians share a common embarrassment in that both countries have among the Western world’s lowest voter turnout rates, hovering around sixty percent. For Americans, that rate represents a recent surge; for Canadians, a disturbing drop. And yet, the United States and Canada are two of the world’s safest, richest, and freest democracies. Just as George W. Bush learned in Iraq and in Gaza that it takes more than a vote to make democracy succeed, North America’s frustrating, often ferocious, and frequently alienating politics shows that it takes more than complaints about voting and campaigning to deem a democracy a failure. Maybe, just maybe, we love to complain about the intensity of electoral battles – but love the fights even more.

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 10-24-08

Where is Michelle Obama? Since the Democratic nominee’s wife delivered her warm, charming, effective address at the Democratic National Convention, she has remained remarkably low profile. The Obama campaign has used her sparingly and – to the Democrats’ good fortune – she has triggered no controversy. This quiet is a remarkable contrast to the tumult that surrounded her during Barack Obama’s primary campaign. It reflects some of the particular dynamics surrounding the Obama partnership in private and in public. But Michelle Obama’s demeanor also reflects the broader strategy in the Democratic campaign this fall. If Barack Obama wins on November 4, it will feel more like a victory by default than a sweeping mandate for change.

When Barack Obama first emerged as a serious presidential contender, his wife Michelle had an important, if reluctant, role in the narrative. For a politician who was triggering near messianic fervor, she was the reality check, proof that he put his socks on one foot at a time, like the rest of us mortals. It was a role she seemed to relish – and took a little too far. Her comments about her “stinky, snorey” husband in the marital bed triggered collective shouts of “TMI” – too much information. They were far too reminiscent of both Clintons at their worst, combining Hillary Clinton’s occasional flashes of anger about her husband’s tomcatting with Bill Clinton’s willingness to answer the undignified question posed to him as president, “Do you wear boxers or briefs?” Still, Mrs. Obama did what candidate spouses have done for decades. She helped humanize her husband. Michelle Obama filled out the profile of Barack Obama as a regular guy with two adorable children and a smart, capable, if occasionally neglected wife.

As the primary campaign heated up and became a two-person struggle pitting Barack Obama against Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama’s role expanded. Bill Clinton’s controversial involvement in his wife’s race helped shine the spotlight on Barack Obama’s spouse. Michelle Obama’s now infamous comment that her husband’s rise made her proud to be an American for the first time in her life hurt the Obama effort. Although Mrs. Obama’s gaffe was less destructive than Mr. Clinton’s egocentric, race-baiting antics, the comment played into the Clinton narrative that the Obamas were unpatriotic, supercilious, elitists, privileged Ivy League types bashing America while enjoying her bounty. Well aware of how much Hillary Clinton’s frankness detracted from Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign in 1992, the Obama campaign sought to reposition and then silence Mrs. Obama.

The effort has largely succeeded. In her convention tour de force, Michelle Obama used her life story to normalize her husband’s biography. Her stories of local Chicago girl made good helped tailor Barack Obama’s less conventional biography to fit the more classic contours of the American dream. Her delivery was as good as her content, and she came across as warm, supportive, accomplished but not threatening – not an easy task given the many racist and sexist stereotypes she must overcome.

Since then, it has been relatively quiet on the Obama home front. Barack Obama did one round of interviews with his daughters, which he immediately regretted. Michelle Obama has dutifully accompanied her husband when necessary, but even Cindy McCain has generated more national attention. More broadly, the Sarah Palin phenomenon has been the distaff story of this campaign. It seems that Americans – or journalists – have a limited quota of attention they will pay to women during a campaign, and both potential First Ladies seem to have had less scrutiny than usual, partially because of all the Palin controversies.

Michelle Obama’s passivity is also a reflection of the relatively subdued campaign Barack Obama has run — to his great benefit. In many ways, since the convention, he has shifted gears. The flamboyant, exciting, “yes we can” candidate of last spring has become the calm, unruffled, cool customer of today. Since the financial meltdown, Obama has – publicly – taken the lead by default. He has let John McCain stumble more than anything else. At the same, Obama has run a brilliant ground game, raising money prodigiously, and organizing his ground troops. The upside is that it just may win him the presidency, as people’s perceptions of his maturity and readiness to be chief executive have grown. The downside is that he is smoothly gliding his way toward the White House rather than taking it by storm. If he wins, he will need to work harder during the transition to shape – or even retroactively create – a mandate.

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HNN, 9-18-08

Senator Hillary Clinton’s refusal to attend the major rally called for Monday September 22 in New York against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s UN appearance is outrageous — as is the organizers’ subsequent decision to disinvite Sarah Palin. Back in August, Senator Clinton had agreed to attend. She abruptly pulled out this week because the Republican nominee Sarah Palin also agreed to appear. This move suggests that Senator Clinton hates Governor Palin and the Republicans more than she hates Iran’s Ahmadinejad, despite his sexism, homophobia and advocacy of genocide.

The explanation Senator Clinton’s office gave for the shift was petulant and ignorant. Apparently, Clinton felt blindsided by news of Palin’s appearance. Palin’s “attendance was news to us, and this was never billed to us as a partisan political event,” Mrs. Clinton’s spokesman, Philippe Reines, told the New York Times. “Senator Clinton will therefore not be attending.” Upset by the controversy, a day later the organizers declared that no elected officials would attend, to keep the event “nonpartisan.” But as Senators John McCain and Barack Obama showed in their joint appearance on September 11, sometimes political rivals have to stop opposing each other, even during election season. Imagine how powerful a message the American people would have sent to Iran had their two leading women politicians stood together during the presidential campaign against Ahmadinejad and Iran’s nuclear-hungry mullahocracy.

Of course, Palin’s planned appearance was not simply altruistic and of course it had partisan aims. Politicians never stop prospecting for votes, especially during tough elections. And Palin’s willingness to protest against Ahmadinejad was part of her quest for legitimacy in foreign policy as well as a play for Jewish votes. Hillary Clinton’s initial decision to attend the rally also was partisan as was her decision to boycott this important round in the popular fight against Iran. It is not surprising that Clinton recoiled at the thought of helping Palin’s quest in any way, but it is disappointing that Clinton succumbed to those feelings, given the seriousness of the Iranian threat.

The organizers did not need the rally to be nonpartisan but bipartisan. A nonpartisan rally limits the guest list to apolitical people such as the writer Elie Wiesel, who is planning to lend his powerful moral voice to the effort. But the organizers initially understood that in the United States, power resides with partisan politicians. The rally would have been most effective had it been bipartisan – with influential representatives from both sides of the aisle. It is surprising that Senator Clinton and then the organizers failed to understand that distinction between bipartisan and nonpartisan. It is also unrealistic for Senator Clinton to walk around pretending that Sarah Palin has not become America’s newest political superstar.

The comic sensation of the week is a skit from NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler imitating Palin and Clinton, respectively. The skit imagines the two of them uniting to battle sexism. On Monday, life could have outdone art. In fact, in addition to denouncing Ahmadinejad, Senator Hillary Clinton could have helped remind Americans of the many things that unite them, even during this campaign. Instead, Hillary Clinton played the partisan – and diminished her own moral standing in the process.

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Obama has made his mark by seizing leadership of the party that was once the bastion of racists

GIL TROY, The Montreal Gazette, HNN, Friday, August 29, 2008

The moment when Hillary Rodham Clinton suspended the state-by-state roll call vote she had demanded, moving for the 2008 Democratic Convention to nominate Senator Barack Obama by acclamation, was extraordinary.

Network cameras, inevitably, zeroed in on African-Americans, young and old, beaming, as tears poured down their cheeks. For the first time in U.S. history, a major political party had nominated a black man to be president. Critics have ample time left to bash Obama for various shortcomings. But this week, anyone who cares about justice, equality, democracy and the American dream can rejoice that Barack Obama was nominated to lead the Democratic Party, once the voice of America’s ugliest racists.

Yes, we can appreciate the extent of America’s turnaround on race by exploring the Democrats’ shameful history. America’s progressive party today – which boasts of being the world’s oldest continuous democratic political party – was founded by Thomas Jefferson, the prince of U.S. paradox, whose slaves waited on him as he wrote the magical words that would eventually free them: “All men are created equal.” By contrast, the Republican Party is the party of Abraham Lincoln, founded in the 1850s to abolish slavery.

Thus, before the Civil War, as the party of the South, of a weak central government, and of Jeffersonian liberty, the Democratic Party defended Southern plantation owners’ freedom to own slaves. After the Civil War, Democrats celebrated the “Lost Cause,” misremembering the attempt to keep human beings enslaved as a noble fight against Big Government and for private prerogative. In the 1930s, the Democratic Party was the party of the powerful southern senators who opposed federal laws banning lynching.

In the 1960s, the Democratic Party was the party of the powerful southern senators who opposed the Civil Rights Movement. Some tried torpedoing the now legendary 1964 Civil Rights Act by adding a sweeping amendment promising women equality, too. These southern racists assumed their fellow sexists in the North would never accept such an absurdity. The strategy backfired. The 1964 act has benefitted women and African-Americans.

Of course, by the 1930s, thanks to Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Democratic Party was becoming the party of the forgotten, the oppressed, the left behind. For three decades, Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson tried propping up the collapsing coalition between northern Democratic liberals, including blacks, and the recalcitrant Southern racists. When Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, he understood that the Democrats would lose the white South for decades – resulting in today’s diversity-obsessed party, now led by the son of a white woman who married a black African.

Barack Obama has campaigned as a leader of all Americans, not the great black hope. But, inevitably, in multicultural democracies, the lines blur. True, Obama’s biggest problem has been being too green – inexperienced – not too black. True, he is of a new post-baby boom generation, freed of Jesse Jackson’s anger, Al Sharpton’s antics, Louis Farrakhan’s hatred. But whenever an individual from a distinct, historically oppressed, sub-group bursts through a glass ceiling, it is both an individual and group achievement.

And so, with Barack Obama having received the Democratic nomination, Americans and freedom-loving people everywhere honour his individual achievement – along with the welcome breakthrough for people of colour and oppressed minorities everywhere. We toast apostles of freedom like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, whose love of liberty laid the groundwork to free their country from the great contradiction of slavery.

We recall the millions who suffered through slavery, and the 600,000 who died in the Civil War to end America’s original sin. We can finally bury “Jim Crow,” the horrific system white Southeners then improvised to imprison freed blacks in a maze of local laws keeping them second-class citizens.

We mock the slavery-loving 19th-century Southeners like Vice-President John C. Calhoun of South Carolina and the “Segregation Now, Segregation Forever,” 20-century racists like Alabama Governor George Wallace, who tried their hardest to put off this day.

So many of us, black and white, Democrats and Republicans, Americans and Canadians, have waited our whole lives for this moment. Barack Obama’s slogan “yes we can,” was a hope and a prayer, a challenge and a yardstick. Much work remains to be done. The United States is is not perfect, racism is certainly not eliminated. But this 47-year-old self-described “skinny kid with a funny name” had proven to us all that “yes we can,” change things for the better; and “yes we can” live long enough to see things improve.

No matter what happens the rest of the campaign or for the rest of his life, for this achievement alone, Barack Obama deserves and has earned historical immortality.

– Gil Troy is a history professor at McGill University and the author, most recently, of Leading from the Centre: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

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Gil Troy, The National Post, Thursday, August 28, 2008

Joe Biden accepting the Democratic Vice-Presudential nomination

Reuters

As they are gathered in Denver this week to nominate a presidential candidate, Democrats are feeling a bit woozy — and it is not from altitude sickness. Convention-goers are realizing that the conventional wisdom about this election is wrong. For months we have heard that 2008 will be a Democratic year, with Americans fed up with George W. Bush ready to repudiate any Republican candidate. Most reporters, blinded by Obamania, have treated Barack Obama’s lead in the polls over John McCain as permanent, predicting an easy victory for the young, charismatic Illinois Senator over the ageing, pro-Iraq war imperialist.

Yet, the Obamomentum has slowed. Obama’s poll ratings have softened. The criticism is mounting. John McCain suddenly looks like a contender. The Democrats have a race on their hands — thanks to Hillary and Bill Clinton’s lingering anger, the world’s constant chaos and Barack Obama’s lost summer of missed opportunities.

Presidential campaigns mix the high and low deliciously — high stakes and noble ideals combine with base motives and lowball tactics. Obama’s Clinton conundrum — how to handle Hillary — reflects this range of motives that makes politics so compelling. Many women were bitterly disappointed that the strongest female presidential contender in their lifetimes failed. Their discontent mixes with the Clintons’ personal pique at this upstart who ruined their plans to create a significant anti-Obama sentiment. The more than 17 million votes Hillary Clinton amassed in her campaign for the nomination demonstrated a tremendous political force that Obama must manage.

On Tuesday night, Clinton gave an effective speech about party unity, but the “catharsis” she nonetheless demanded through a roll call vote last night stole the spotlight from Obama, and injected a Clintonesque psychodrama Democrats do not need barely two months before election day. Every interview with Bill or Hillary Clinton, every journalistic reading of their flat tones or hostile body language, diminishes Obama.

Even before the convention, reality intruded on Obama’s campaign. Russia’s invasion of Georgia — and John McCain’s forceful denunciation of Russian aggression — reminded Americans about the treacherous world they face. Even the summer’s feel-good story, the Olympics, showcased America’s growing rival, China. Here, the conventional wisdom applies:

The more Americans worry about world affairs, the more they will prefer the experienced war hero, John McCain, to the young upstart. The foreign policy concern is not that Obama is black — but that he might be too green.

While Obama may blame Hillary and Georgia for his softening polls, he contributed to this slide himself. After a nearly flawless winter and spring, Obama made three basic mistakes this summer. Like too many of us in vacation-mode, he spent too much time planning his grand trip abroad without properly tending to business back home. The European tour stirred loyalists — and non-voting foreigners — but struck many swing voters as premature and presumptuous.

At the same time, Obama fumbled the traditional post-primary move to the centre. Lured by the money streaming in from private individuals, he violated a core principle by spurning public financing for his campaign. Meanwhile, he allowed other, constructive adjustments on national security and energy to be dismissed as flip-flops. Obama needed to state forcefully that playing to the centre is not always pandering — and is an essential move when trying to unite 300 million people behind one leader.

This failure to embrace his centrism played into his larger mistake — he did nothing this summer to advance the narrative, to give Americans a new reason to vote for him. In the absence of a new plot dictated by Obama, the growing case of buyer’s remorse dominated the headlines, and shaped the pre-convention plot lines.

Just as it was a mistake to count out McCain prematurely, it would be foolish to underestimate Obama’s chances. Four years ago, a self-described “skinny kid with a funny name” wowed the Democratic National Convention–and most Americans — with the greatest convention speech since William Jennings Bryan’s populist Cross of Gold speech in 1896. That 2004 speech catapulted Barack Obama into the Democratic stratosphere.

Obama plans to accept the nomination tonight on the 45th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s now-legendary “I have a dream” speech. Obama actually has the skill to match that historic moment. The race is indeed on — but in order to win it, Barack Obama will have to use his tremendous assets, both personal and political, to overcome his disappointing summer. –

Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and the author, most recently, of Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

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HNN, 8-27-08

Remembering the two great convention concessions of modern times – Ronald Reagan’s speech in 1976 after losing to Gerald Ford and Ted Kennedy’s speech in 1980, after losing to Jimmy Carter, Hillary Clinton’s Denver speech fell flat. What was missing was what George H.W. Bush infamously dismissed as “that vision thing.” Reagan’s address, speculating about how future Americans would judge the Americans of 1976, inspired his supporters with a powerful vision of a smaller government but a more confident nation reviving economically, facing down the Soviets and managing the nuclear threat. Kennedy’s oration eloquently argued the opposite, dreaming of a future liberalism as confident, humane and popular as his brothers’ ideology had been. Both speeches helped shaped the discourse of the times, allowing each candidate’s ideas to transcend the campaigning failures – and in Reagan’s case it launched his successful 1980 run. Both speeches can be taught decades from now as coherent and compelling ideological road maps that millions of Americans happily followed.

Instead, Hillary Clinton mostly provided a laundry list. She ticked off various programs she advocated, particular policies she liked, and specific individuals she met on the campaign trail. She did what she needed to do, getting in a few good shots against George W. Bush and John McCain, urging her disappointed supporters to vote for Barack Obama. In fairness, she was also commanding, charismatic, and quite moving when she linked her campaign to women’s historic aspirations for equality. But even when she spoke about women’s rights – and quoted Harriet Tubman so effectively – she offered no vision of what women could do for America as women, she triggered no thoughts deeper than “it’s our turn,” and “our time has come.”

The speech again illustrated one of the reasons why Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the nomination failed in the first place. There was no overriding idea propelling her candidacy forward, nothing deeper than “it’s MY turn,” and “MY time has come.” Observers can argue about whether Barack Obama is an old-fashioned liberal or a post-baby-boomer synthesizer transcending the black-white, red-blue divisions of yesteryear. But at least there is something substantive behind his various stands, some broader, deeper, thought-provoking and soul-expanding message.

Hillary’s speech was that of the diligent grade grubber not the romantic poet, of the hardworking ant not the soaring eagle. It was in keeping with her history as Bill Clinton’s dutiful behind-the-scenes supporter rather than a Clintonesque riffer who can at once charm and inspire, making Americans feel good about themselves while being challenged to think about how to better their nation.

And speaking of duty, Hillary Clinton fulfilled her obligation to Barack Obama and the Democratic Party. In fact, she was far more gracious – and far less destructive – than Reagan was in 1976 or Kennedy was in 1980. Still, it was quite obvious that she was following the party script not speaking from her heart. She had specific compliments for Michelle Obama and Joe Biden, Obama’s life-mate and running mate, but was quite vague when it came to Obama himself. Hillary Clinton endorsed Barack Obama generically as a fellow Democrat not specifically as a candidate.

Of course, the whole scene must have been excruciating for her, and she deserves credit for handling it so well. In fact, watching her, it was striking how far she had evolved from the brittle, insecure, angry woman she was when she debuted on the national stage in 1992. Hillary Clinton seems to be having a great time as her own woman, as her own politician – her opening riff about the pride she took in her various roles mentioned “mother” but skipped over “wife.” If she could only find a little more poetry in her prose-laden politics, if she could only learn to bring the various pieces of her policy jigsaw puzzle together into a compelling package, she could be an even more formidable politician – and a greater threat to both of the current candidates.

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By Gil Troy

HNN, 8-24-08

It is possible that liberals, conservatives and centrists who are not blinded by Obamania may all be able to agree that Joe Biden was a terrible choice as a running mate? Despite his contempt for George W. Bush, Obama seemed to be channeling the Cheney choice with this pick – trying to show that he really was not as inexperienced and unprepared as critics suggested. But Dick Cheney had at least one thing over Joe Biden – Cheney had not just run a presidential nominating campaign that demonstrated how unpopular he was.

It was one of the interesting anomalies of the 2008 Democratic race. There were three Washington veterans with decades of experience who went absolutely nowhere during the campaign. Senator Joe Biden, Senator Chris Dodd, and Governor Bill Richardson failed to get any traction, despite decades of governing and countless days and nights of hobnobbing with Beltway insiders. The three frontrunners, John Edwards, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had far better claims to outsider status – Edwards served only one term in the Senate, Clinton was just starting her second term, and Barack Obama was the most famous Senate freshman in decades.

Biden was a particular embarrassment on the campaign trail, shaming himself and his institution with his awkward, seemingly condescending remarks describing Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” After winning 9,000 votes and finishing fifth in Iowa, Biden left the race, proving how little American voters are impressed by a three-decade Senatorial resume. Obama’s ability to forgive Biden’s gaffe suggests a personal grace and generosity that is nice to see in politics; but this choice may fuel questions about Obama’s political and policy judgment.

Beyond this stunning – and recent — political failure, Biden’s supposed foreign policy experience may alienate both liberals and conservatives. Liberals will note that, unlike Obama, Biden voted for the war in Iraq – -just as Hillary Clinton and John McCain did. Thus, in the future, Obama will have to be a little more cautious when he mocks McCain’s judgment about initially supporting the war. At the same time, conservatives will note Biden’s failure to support the surge. This suggests that for all the media hype about Biden’s brilliance in overseas matters, he is just a conventional, finger-to-the-wind type, buffeted by the political trends of the moment. Holding fifty-plus Senate hearings and appearing repeatedly on Sunday morning television shows reveals a mastery of the Washington game not the intricacies of foreign affairs.

At the same time, centrists will mourn the fact that Joe Biden is neither a fresh face nor a bridge-builder. He lacks Obama’s outsider credentials and McCain’s track record in seeking bipartisan solutions. Biden is a good Democratic soldier, who has consistently stayed within party boundaries and helped create today’s destructive, angry, overly-charged Washington quagmire. In fact – and this we are told is part of his appeal – Biden knows how to throw hard political punches, as demonstrated by his partisanship during the Robert Bork and Samuel Alito hearings.

To be fair, Biden seems to be a decent man who has demonstrated tremendous personal grit over the years. The poignant story of the tragic loss of his first wife and daughter in an automobile accident shortly before he entered the Senate, his ability to raise his two boys on his own and eventually start a new family, his comeback from two brain aneurysms, and his record of thirty years in Washington without a major scandal – or it seems, a big payday – are all extremely admirable. But virtue does not always guarantee votes – as George H.W. Bush learned when Bill Clinton defeated him in 1992.

In fact, speaking of Clinton, Obama would have done much better had he learned from Clinton in 1992. That year, amid doubts about Clinton’s youth and inexperience, Clinton showed great moxie in refusing to nominate an elder statesman to compensate for his supposed weaknesses. Instead, Clinton thrilled voters by choosing another young Southern politician, Al Gore. This vice-presidential choice reinforced Clinton’s message of change; Obama’s choice, unfortunately, muddied the waters, suggesting that, at the end of the day, 2008 is going to be another conventional campaign and Obama may be just another conventional politician, like his new best friend, Joe Biden.

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By Gil Troy

HNN, 8-22-08

Presidential campaigns make for compelling stories because they are so dynamic. In 1960, Richard Nixon was the obvious, experienced favorite over that rookie upstart John F. Kennedy. Americans began 1984 reading polls showing that Walter Mondale would whip the incumbent president, Ronald Reagan. And four years later, Michael Dukakis enjoyed a commanding lead over George H.W. Bush throughout the summer. Everyone who believed this summer’s hype about Barack Obama’s inevitable victory forgot this basic history lesson. So now that the Olympics are over, the running mates are being selected and the conventions are convening, the chaotic, intense, mercurial and delightfully unpredictable general presidential campaign can begin.

In some ways, both of the presumptive nominees are stuck in the same narratives that ended up in their respective party victories; yet this time, only one can win. John McCain spent much of the nomination campaign being eulogized, criticized, and counted out, only to surge when it counted on his way to a surprisingly easy victory. Barack Obama enjoyed a happy hurricane of hype after his Iowa victory, only to watch the predicted cakewalk get complicated as criticisms of him mounted and his opponent fought back tenaciously but ultimately unsuccessfully.

Still, no matter how self-confident he might be, watching the doubting Thomases proliferate cannot be fun for the presumptive Democratic nominee. Whether he wins or loses, this pre-convention period will be remembered as Barack Obama’s lost summer of missed opportunities. Rather than breaking away from McCain in a grand push toward political immortality, Obama is entering the campaign appearing to be just another political mortal, with a surprising number of vulnerabilities.

The modern presidential campaign is a struggle over competing story lines. For the last few weeks, the Republicans have been able to shift the plot-line away from talk about this being the Democrats’ year, to talk about how could the Democrats appear vulnerable in what is supposed to be a Democratic year.

Next week, despite the inevitable Clintonesque distractions, Barack Obama has an opportunity to seize control of the campaign narrative once again. He will start with his vice presidential choice. As George W. Bush acknowledged when he chose Dick Cheney, from the electorally insignificant state of Wyoming, in modern campaigns vice presidents are props. Obama’s choice will help shape the Obama story, as will general perceptions of the management of the convention. But for someone who has come so far so fast on his oratory, the big moment will remain Obama’s acceptance speech. Not one to shy away from the challenge, Obama has upped the ante historically, by choosing to deliver his speech on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. Obama has upped the ante dramatically, by shifting the venue to a 70,000-seat stadium.

When delivering the speech, Obama will not only be competing with Dr. King. He will be competing with himself, trying to outdo his rhetorical brilliance four years ago at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. The stakes are high. Given that the Republicans meet right after the Democrats, the Democratic bounce from the Convention could be minimal. Obama has to deliver big time to jumpstart his campaign and remind Americans why so many rushed to nominate him last spring.

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By Gil Troy, HNN, August 15, 2008

The news that Hillary Rodham Clinton’s name will be placed in nomination at the Democratic National Convention not only cheered her still-disappointed supporters. It also delighted television network executives saddled with the task of attracting viewers to the Democratic National Exercise in Rubber-Stamping. All of a sudden, the drama of the Obama-Clinton battle may be repeated. All of a sudden, both Bill and Hillary Clinton are back where they love to be, where they need to be – front and center, even if this convention was supposed to be Barack Obama’s star-turn.

The roll call charade will evoke conventions of yesteryear when these quadrennial gatherings actually made a difference and designated an often surprising nominee. But the modern message underlying this traditional ritual will be quite clear. After months in the spotlight, Hillary Clinton virtually disappeared from the public radar screens once Barack Obama eked out his victory over her. But Senator Clinton – and her ex-president husband – want to remind the American people that she won more than 17 million votes, and many of those votes came from enthusiastic women devastated by Hillary’s loss.

Whatever Hillary Clinton loses by appearing too brazen, she gains much more with this power play. Just as fighting to the last primary battle boosted her standing – and illustrated the depth of her support – the successful demand to star in this convention psychodrama underscores just how significant a role she and her husband continue to play in the Democratic Party.

Obama’s is the riskier move here. He cannot appear to be cowed by the Clintons. He has to be magnanimous without being swept up in the Clinton cyclone. Obama cannot play the stolid William Howard Taft to the charismatic Theodore Roosevelt. He cannot allow former-President Bill Clinton to undercut him as Dwight Eisenhower undermined Richard Nixon in 1960, by asking for a week’s time to remember any of Nixon’s Vice-presidential accomplishments. Obama also cannot allow Hillary Clinton to give the kind of soaring consolation speech which steal delegates’ hearts, as Ronald Reagan did in 1976 or Ted Kennedy did in 1980.

Of course, the alluring Obama is no Taft. He is banking on the fact that the renewed excitement and drama will redound to his benefit – after all, the conclusion is pre-determined (warning: spoiler ahead): Obama has enough delegates to win the nomination. Moreover, he is banking on the same constellation of forces that helped him win in the first place. He – not Hillary – is more likely to steal the show – and American hearts – with a dazzling display of eloquence. If Hillary Clinton had those skills, she would be the one doling out convention slots and figuring out how to satisfy her rivals – and would be well on her way to the White House.

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 8-8-08

Barack Obama celebrated his 47th birthday this week with minimal fanfare. The anniversary of his birth on August 4, 1961 highlights his campaign’s often-underappreciated generational dimensions. Obama was not just born later than most national leaders, he imbibed a different sensibility. Demographers may clump Obama – and his wife Michelle who was born in 1964 – together with “Baby Boomers,” but those of us born at the tail end of that population explosion know we are “Baby Busters,” often seeking to revive some of the faith, hope, morality and national unity, many Boomers scorned.

Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, both born in 1946, represent the two sides of the political fault line that the Baby Boomers 1960s’ earthquake triggered (John McCain, born in 1936, pre-dated the Baby Boom). Clinton and his buddies were traumatized by the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, tormented by the Vietnam War’s draft, yet inspired by their political and cultural revolution’s transformational potential. Others, like George W. Bush, enjoyed the “sex, drugs, and rock n’roll” moment, but, politically, triggered the conservative backlash.

As a Baby Buster, born as America’s birth rate stabilized, Barack Obama was too young even to lie as so many Baby Boomers did about being at Woodstock in 1969 – he was only eight. Rather than being children of the 1960s, we were children of the 1970s. We stewed in the defeatism of Viet Nam, the cynicism of Watergate, the pessimism of Jimmy Carter’s energy crisis rather than the triumphalism of the post-World War II world. Most of us did not experience “Leave it to Beaver” or “Father Knows Best” moments teaching us life was so simple; with the divorce revolution fragmenting families all around us, most of us watched Michelle Obama’s favorite show, “The Brady Bunch,” with knowing, pre-post-modernist smirks.

Moreover, thanks to Stagflation, that unique seventies combo of inflation and unemployment, we – and our Depression-era parents – were anomalies in modern America: we grew up doubting the fundamental American idea of progress, doubting we could fulfill the American dream of outdoing our parents and bettering our own lives. In college, many of us felt inadequate for being less radical and influential than our older peers, even as we considered them tiresome and self-righteous.

Surprisingly, after all the Baby Boomers’ experimentation, in our generation, the rebellious ones were the straight ones. For anyone in the left or the center who did not want to be tagged as – heaven forbid – a goody-goody – it was easier to “do it” than to abstain. Even today, when Barack Obama talks about traditional morality and political moderation he risks being mocked by his peers and his usual ideological allies among the “let it all hang out” Boomers.

Of course, demography is not destiny; the generational game – which the Baby Boomers typically overdid – should not be overplayed. Still, it is not surprising that it was Jon Stewart, born in 1962, who has been among the few public figures to champion moderation, blasting the hosts of CNN’s Crossfire for dividing America. And it is not surprising that Obama came to prominence with an un-Boomer-like call for unity and healing.

In his book “Audacity of Hope” and during the 2006 Congressional campaign, Obama emphasized this generational divide. But the Baby Boomer cohort remains too large to risk alienating during a tight presidential contest, so he has done less Boomer-bashing lately. Still, as he demonstrated in defeating Hillary Clinton, born in 1947, Obama is more nimble than many Baby Boomers. He is less starry-eyed and less battle-scarred, thus less doctrinaire, freer of the great Baby Boomer fault line and more anxious for national healing.

Those of us born in the early 1960s have long been upstaged by our louder, more self-righteous, older peers and siblings. Wherever we stand politically, many of us understand that Obama’s syntheses of tradition and innovation, his calls to transcend the usual divides, reflect a collective generational frustration. Many of us are fed up with the older generation’s media-hogging, polarizing, tendencies. Demographers called Boomers the pig–in-the-python because they stuck out demographically. Their attitudes often simply stuck in our craws as we yearned for a less bitter, less zero-sum politics – which is what Obama the birthday boy, at his best, is promising.

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From an online discussion on The Power Line Forum, July 9-10, 2008

Let’s distinguish between two different questions here. One, is Obama (or McCain) a centrist? What does that mean, is that a good thing? I start from the premise that both of them, in different ways, are more moderate than most of their party colleagues and that for each of them that centrism was a strength. Moreover, I find that moderation not surprising and actually a good thing, because I believe that centrist leadership is the right way to go – it’s both politically wise and constructive. Which is why I call my book Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents. (I confess, I constructed that sentence in response to the product placement remark).

Now, the second set of questions, is Obama repositioning – and is that a good thing. Well here too we’re seeing two things. One, a bit of a corrective after some of the absurdities of the primary battle. Note, for example, the ridiculous scapegoating both Obama and Hillary Clinton were guilty of with NAFTA… Second, we’re also seeing the “Oh, boy phenomenon,” where Obama says, “wow, this is real, I might actually become president, so sloppy sloganeering during the campaign about Iraq might actually lead to dead Americans (or Iraqis) – pretty sobering. I think that’s a good thing, no?  Don’t we want a president who can adjust a bit to changing circumstances?

Barack Obama on the campaign trail

Barack Obama on the campaign trail from http://www.barackobama.com

Well, for starters, to be technical, he hasn’t yet been nominated, but I know what you mean. George McGovern would certainly give Obama a run for his money in a leftist sweepstakes, and if you examine his ideology, rather than his track record in 1976, Jimmy Carter, too. So historically, there’s much to be debate there.  More pressing, I think Obama is a hologram. I certainly see his liberal voting record in the Senate, and the leftist academic milieu that nurtured him intellectually, socially, culturally and politically. At the same time, when you read Audacity of Hope, when you watch his great 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, not only a lyrical centrist emerges – but actually, a smart, post-Reaganite Democrat. In Audacity, Obama accepts major parts of the traditionally-oriented, family-values conservative cultural critique of America.  He also sees some limitations on government – that shows a more conservative side than, say, John Kerry, ever displayed. But Obama also believes that government can intervene constructively, and his agenda is very much a progressive one. So, in all, he’s more complex than the centrist or leftist caricature suggests. But I believe that if enough moderates voices push him, his inner centrist will come out – for the good of the country.

There has been much debate over labeling Obama. Is he a “Lefty”?? Is he a “Moderate”?  He claims he is “complicated,” but what does that really mean??

I believe that Obama — or McCain, or whoever becomes our next POTUS —- MUST remain in the middle. As I argue in my latest book, Leading From the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, America’s greatest presidents were maestros of moderation, who understood that the trick to effective leadership in a democracy is finding the middle, or creating a new middle.

Americans have a tradition of muscular moderation, and if we don’t figure out how to push our candidates towards the centre, rather than to the poles, we are going to deeply regret it.

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