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Posts Tagged ‘John Kennedy’

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, HNN, 10-2-12


Ronald Reagan campaigning in Columbia, South Carolina, on October 10, 1980, a few weeks before the only debate of the 1980 election. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Happy October, which every four years becomes debate month in American presidential politics. On October 3, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will debate domestic policy in Colorado. On October 11, their vice presidential running mates, Paul Ryan and Joe Biden, will debate in Kentucky. Five days later on October 16, voters at a town meeting in New York will question the two presidential candidates about any issues and on October 22 — two weeks before Election Day — Obama and Romney will debate foreign policy in Florida.

These debates — which are more like side-by-side press conferences with some exchanges — are usually the political equivalent of military service: long bouts of boredom punctuated by bursts of melodrama. Usually, they reinforce media narratives and voter impressions. But they have sometimes changed outcomes, particularly in 1980, when Ronald Reagan’s aw shucks, “there you go again” dismissal of President Jimmy Carter’s attacks triggered a Reagan surge — and the largest last-minute switch in poll results since polling began in the 1930s.

Treating history as an authoritative tarot card rather than a subtle source of wisdom, Mitt Romney’s supporters have been touting that ten-point swing as proof that the Republicans will win. The 1980 moment appeals more broadly to Republicans as indication that a gaffe-prone, ridiculed, seemingly out-of-touch former governor can defeat an earnest Democratic incumbent afflicted by a sagging economy, Middle East troubles, and accusations that the twin pillars of his foreign policy are appeasement and apology not power and pride.

The 1980 debate should sober Obama and buoy Romney. In his recent book, The Candidate: What It Takes to Win — and Hold – the White House, Professor Samuel Popkin, an occasional Democratic campaign adviser, recalls his failure coaching Carter in 1980. Playing Reagan in debate “prep,” Popkin echoed the Republican’s devastating anti-Carter criticisms. Popkin describes the kind of careful criticism Romney should launch against Obama, knowing that if the challenger is too aggressive he looks angry and insolent but if he is too deferential he seems weak and intimidated. Reagan, Popkin writes, “resorted to more subtle, coded criticisms that were harder to defend against. He appeared respectful of the office and the president, suggesting that Carter was hamstrung by defeatist Democrats in Congress.” This approach forced Carter to rebut the premise — and plaintively claim he was strong — or the conclusion — by insisting Democrats were not defeatists. “Contesting one point left him tacitly conceding the other,” Popkin writes.

Obama’s caveat is in Carter’s reaction. Offended and embarrassed by the criticism, Carter ended the session after eleven minutes. Popkin as Reagan had pierced Carter’s “presidential aura,” unnerving everyone in the room. Trying to dispel the tension, Carter’s chief domestic policy advisor, Stuart Eizenstat, himself Jewish, resorted to ethnic humor by pointing to Popkin and joking, “You didn’t know Governor Reagan was Jewish, did you?” Popkin, who quickly replied “Well, Governor Reagan is from Hollywood,” realized that many of Carter’s people, including the aggrieved president, were unfamiliar with Reagan’s attacks because the majesty of the presidency insulated Carter from serious criticism or serious study of his challenger.

Of course, in an ideal world the debates would emphasize issue flashpoints not gaffe-hunting. In Denver, Romney should, Reagan-style, subtly question President Obama as to when he as president will take responsibility for the anemic recovery and lingering unemployment rather than scapegoating his predecessor. At Hofstra University, Romney should ask Obama to explain to the voters present and the American people how his increasing reliance on the heavy hand of federal regulations and big government does not reflect doubt in the traditional invisible hand of individual entrepreneurial Americans and the markets themselves. And in Boca Raton, Romney should prod Obama on the Arab Spring, asking him at what point he would concede that his policy failed rather than simply dismissing the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the murder of American diplomats in Libya, and other Obama-orchestrated disasters as “bumps in the road.” In response, Obama should emphasize his successes in halting the economic freefall, his faith in American ingenuity guided by the government’s occasional, competent, and gentle helping hand, and his muscular defense of American interests in hunting down Osama Bin Laden, boosting troops in Afghanistan, and reprimanding Egypt’s president for delays in defending America’s Cairo embassy. Meanwhile, reporters and voters should push both candidates to explain what sacrifices they will demand from Americans, where they will deviate from their party’s orthodoxy, how they will end partisanship, and what bold solutions they have to American debt, demoralization, and decline.

While such substantive exchanges would allow Americans to weigh the candidates’ dueling philosophies and records, it is more likely that the debates’ verdict will pivot around some theatrical moment. Since televised presidential debates began in 1960, when John Kennedy’s aristocratic calm contrasted with Richard Nixon’s sweaty, herky-jerky intensity, style has usually upstaged substance in debate reporting and debate perceptions.

It is too easy just to blame the press — although broadcasters and reporters will be seeking “gotcha” moments when a candidate stumbles and “grand slams” when a candidate dominates. Moreover, American voters respond more to debate theatrics than polemics. The mass reaction reflects one of the realities of modern leadership, which too many academics ignore and editorialists lament: image rules, style counts, a successful president or prime minister must communicate effectively not just administer smoothly.

This season, as the American campaign peaks and the silliness surges, it will be easy to mock American politics. But the presidential campaign remains a remarkable effective and dramatic ritual that gets two individuals conveying their messages to a polity of 300 million people.

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Gil Troy “G20: America’s golden couple Sarah Wildman: If Michelle Obama is the new Jackie Kennedy, will she upstage her husband on their European trip?”:

To be fair to the Obamas, there’s another reason the couple should shun the Kennedy comparison – one that historian Gil Troy shared in an email. When Kennedy famously declared himself simply the “man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris,” the line was barbed, not humble.

“True, Michelle Obama is generating the kind of excitement Jackie Kennedy generated, but Mrs Kennedy upstaged President Kennedy,” says Troy.

“JFK was making the best of a bad situation, but he envied his wife’s popularity, bristling a bit at Charles de Gaulle’s flirtation with Jackie. Even more ominous if the comparison holds, while that first European trip was triumphant for Jackie, it was a disaster for Kennedy.

“At the meeting which counted – a superpower summit with Nikita Khruschev of Russia in Vienna – Kennedy failed. ‘He savaged me,’ Kennedy later confessed to James Reston of the New York Times, bruised by Khruschev’s blustering performance when they met. For the first time in his life, it seemed, (or certainly in a long time), Kennedy met someone impervious to his charm. Obama may too.”

Source: UTV, 4-2-09

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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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