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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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