Posts Tagged ‘John McCain’


By Gil Troy, NYT, 12-2-11

To select someone worthy of sitting in George Washington’s chair, sleeping in Abraham Lincoln’s bed and governing from Franklin Roosevelt’s desk, Americans crave a substantial presidential campaign, as long as they don’t have to endure too many boring speeches. Like every human decision-making process, presidential campaigns seesaw between the serious and the silly.

Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience, political science and the dismal science demonstrate what we know intuitively, that human decision-making involves our heads and our hearts. We are neither fully rational nor totally emotional. Similarly, campaigns fluctuate between profound policy exchanges and trivial personality clashes, between significant indicators of future presidential performance and serious idiocy.

A substantial campaign is most likely when history conspires to offer high stakes with stark choices or an incumbent seeks reelection (and it helps if the candidates avoid defining gaffes or temper tantrums). Re-election campaigns in particular are usually well-focused, because at least one nominee presents a defined track record.

The 2012 campaign seems primed to be portentous, with an embattled incumbent confronting an opponent from an ideologically-charged party amid economic turmoil. But every campaign, no matter how high-minded, flirts daily with farce. “Unfortunately, when you run for the presidency your wife’s hair or your hair or something else always becomes of major significance,” John F. Kennedy said, when Walter Cronkite asked about his forelock. “I don’t think it’s a great issue, though, in 1960.” Actually, the Kennedys’ good looks brought John Kennedy great political luck.

Hair has been the subject of political debate for Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, left, just as it was for John F. Kennedy, right.
Jim Watson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images, left; Associated PressHair has been the subject of political debate for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, left, just as it was for John F. Kennedy, right.

The first substantial presidential campaign — which brought about America’s first transition from a ruling party to the opposition — also teetered between frivolity and philosophy. An ugly brawl between two founding fathers preceded the great deadlock of 1800, which you may remember hearing about during the election standoff in 2000. Federalists called Vice President Thomas Jefferson an atheist, a libertine, a traitor, “the infidel.” Democratic-Republicans called the short, fat pompous president, John Adams, “His Rotundity.” But the election also contrasted Adams’ centralized government championing industrial development against Jefferson’s vision of limited government with limited growth.

The 1800 election was the first to show how presidential re-election campaigns crystallize issues and polarize positions. A challenger need not be as doctrinaire as Barry Goldwater to offer “a choice not an echo,” when pitting boundless hopes against a first-term president’s adjustments to reality. Running for re-election in 1936, Franklin Roosevelt admitted there would be only one issue: “It’s myself, and people must either be for me or against me.” Running a referendum on Roosevelt, the Republican candidate, Alfred M. Landon, called himself “the direct antithesis of the present executive.”

Winners beware, though. The binary choice most American elections offer frequently overstates differences and oversimplifies results, especially when presidents win re-election. Most of the twentieth-century’s most lopsided wins kept incumbents like Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan in power, but frequently helped spawn the dreaded second-term curse.

Campaigns fluctuate between profound policy exchanges and trivial personality clashes, between significant indicators of future presidential performance and serious idiocy.

Even landslides do not offer the political equivalent of a blank check, however much it might feel that way. Roosevelt overstepped during his second term, especially when he tried packing the Supreme Court. He wrongly interpreted his 523-8 electoral-vote triumph as a more sweeping mandate for his New Deal than voters intended. Lyndon Johnson went from feeling, “for the first time in all my life,” truly “loved by the American people,” marveling at “millions upon millions of people, each one marking my name on their ballot, each one wanting me as their president,” to being hounded out of office.

Sometimes campaigns turn serious by coinciding with serious trouble, especially impending wars, ongoing hostilities or economic busts. Voters in 1860, in choosing Abraham Lincoln, knew that they were empowering abolitionists and risking war. Four years later, a worried President Lincoln needed battlefield victories to woo voters who were doubting him and his war. Ultimately, bullets swayed the ballots as General William T. Sherman’s conquest of Atlanta two months before Election Day helped vindicate Lincoln’s war strategy, leading to his re-election.

While wartime campaigns often become votes of confidence — or no confidence — regarding the incumbent, the downswing in an American business cycle often yields an upswing in surprisingly theoretical, intensely polemical, debates about American capitalism. During a recession, suddenly everyone is an economics major — or a philosopher.  The Panic of 1893 triggered 1896’s “Battle of the Standards.” Americans escalated arcane questions about valuing paper money, silver coins and gold into a searing philosophical divide that stirred fears of civil war. The major parties nominated candidates with contrasting stands. Converting from currency to morality, William McKinley, the Republican goldbug, said “The American people hold the financial honor of our country as sacred as our flag.” And catapulting from economics to metaphysics, William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic-Populist silverbug defending “the producing masses of this nation and the world” famously cried: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” One Republican, John Hay, moaned: “The whole country has been set to talking about coinage — a matter utterly unfit for public discussion.”

Still, good intentions and clear visions do not guarantee Solomonic deliberations. In 1964, insisting that “I’m not one of those baby-kissing, hand-shaking, blintz-eating candidates,” Senator Barry Goldwater envisioned a “lofty, rational presentation of contending beliefs” against President Lyndon Johnson. Goldwater loved his campaign slogan:  “In your heart, you know he’s right.” But with Democrats sneering “In your guts, you know he’s nuts,” and his numbers tanking, Goldwater retaliated. By October he was snarling “Would you buy a used car from Lyndon?” and saying all Johnson did was “lie and lie and lie” — although the patriotic senator recoiled when crowds, riled by his rhetoric, booed the president. Time magazine deemed the 1964 campaign “one of the most disappointing ever.”

Just as ideologues can end up mudslinging, moderates do not necessarily sling mush. Mocking moderates is a great American tradition. Some, like Lewis Cass, the Democrats’ compromise nominee in 1848, earn the contempt. As Americans polarized over slavery, Cass ran as a “doughface,” a Northern man who molded his politics to satisfy Southerners, impressing few, alienating many. “And he who still for Cass can be,” one Whig wrote, “he is a Cass without the C.”

America also enjoys a rich tradition of muscular moderates. Barack Obama has already shown he can run an exciting, crisp campaign from the center. In 2008, both parties nominated centrist senators seeking the swing voters who could sway the election. These crucial voters, like the Reagan Democrats and the Clinton soccer moms before them, made a clear choice, this time for Obama. Interestingly, even though both Obama and John McCain played to the center, they clashed on foreign affairs, economic policy and governing philosophy, and in the process they offered voters two quite distinct alternatives.

President Barack Obama, left, was accused of being an atheist, as was Thomas Jefferson, right.
Pool photo by Kevin Dietsch, left; United Press International, right President Barack Obama, left, was accused of being an atheist, as was Thomas Jefferson, right.

The history of presidential campaigning reveals the ingredients that yield substantial campaigns, including a charged historical context, clashing world views and coherent candidacies.  Still, every candidate remains one slip of the tongue, one gotcha question, one feeding frenzy, away from the chaos that overwhelms so many campaigns. Americans genuinely yearn for an ideal democratic exercise, one-part university seminar, one-part town hall. Yet the blood rushes, the pulse quickens, interest peaks, when campaigning turns ugly, emotional, personal. The contradictions of popular politics, meaning mass democratic decision-making, don’t just mirror but magnify our all-too-human contradictions as personal decision-makers.

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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The History News Network recorded this video of Gil Troy’s talk at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians on March 26, 2009 in Seattle, WA. You can read a print version here.

Gil Troy: The 2008 Election as History (OAH) Part 1

Gil Troy: The 2008 Election as History (OAH) Part 2

Gil Troy: The 2008 Election as History (OAH) Part 3

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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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CBC Radio Canada International – The Link – Monday, November 3, 2008

Listen to the second part of the program 

Hour 2… 
VOTERS FROM U.S. MINORITY GROUPS SEEN AS PIVOTAL IN 2008: Throughout the U.S. Election campaign, we’ve heard much about American voters and what influences how they vote. But how do various ethnic groups, immigrant populations and other minorities figure in the 2008 presidential race? Gil Troy, a McGill University history professor specializing in modern U.S. political history and American presidential elections, joins Marc Montgomery to talk about the pivotal role ethnic and religious minorities could play in the outcome of the election, especially in the key states of Pennsylvania and Ohio.

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 11-5-08

On Thursday, in Georgetown, Delaware, the losing and winning candidates from the various contests around that state will assemble for Return Day. In a ritual tracing its roots to 1791, voters and politicians will hear the official electoral returns and make nice, no matter how bitter their campaigns may have been. In addition to parading together down the main street in antique automobiles, the rivals will bury a ceremonial tomahawk, quite literally burying the hatchet. Late Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning, President-elect Barack Obama and Senator John McCain mounted their own version of this reconciliation ritual, offering a magnificent display of the grace, civility, and patriotism that could heal America, even during these painful times.

While rituals help us navigate life’s highs and lows, often elevating our actions, they also risk imprisoning us in rote behaviors. Concession speeches and victory speeches are usually mechanical, more formulaic than transcendent, because everyone knows that the speech-maker is play-acting. Few losers or winners are as gracious as their election night speeches suggest.

Happily, both Barack Obama and John McCain rose to the occasion, ending the drawn-out, often bitter 2008 campaign on a high note. McCain conceded with the grace and non-partisanship for which he had been famous – and which often seemed MIA during his campaign. Hopefully, he will honor his constructive vow to support the president-elect. McCain could be an essential ally in the Senate, and could help a President Obama lead from the center, as he needs to do. In America, we lack the institution of the leader of the opposition. All too often, losing nominees vanish from the scene. Neither Al Gore nor John Kerry offered the kind of national and party leadership they should have following their respective losses, considering how many millions of people supported them. Although he is not the Senate majority leader, John McCain could play Lyndon Johnson to Obama’s Dwight Eisenhower, replicating the best aspects of that cross-the-aisle senator-president relationship that produced bipartisan triumphs in the late 1950s, including launching NASA.

For his part, Obama’s speech was masterful. Although it started a tad grandiose, as he associated his personal triumph with America’s redemption, the rest sparkled. Understanding the daunting challenges ahead, he called, Franklin D. Roosevelt-style, for a spirit of community and self-sacrifice. Acknowledging the more than 48 million voters who voted against him, he reached out to his opponents. And, distancing himself from the Bush Administration, Obama also appealed to the good people around the world listening in – while warning America’s foes not to underestimate him. As an added bonus for historians, his story about Ann Nixon Cooper, the 106-year-old African American woman who voted for him, offered a wonderful trip-tych of twentieth century history, punctuated by the supposedly “timeless” but actually quite contemporary and Obamian credo “Yes We Can.”

Many of us who study the presidency, are suckers for charismatic leaders singing a compelling, optimistic song. The office’s unique mix of king and prime minister makes generating hope part of the skill set for a successful presidency. The hope that a Franklin Roosevelt or a Ronald Reagan brought to the American people boosted the country’s sense of well-being as well as each leader’s popular and historical standing. We need an arm-twister-in-chief to get things done, and a cheerleader in chief to make us feel good about our country and ourselves.

The outpouring of emotion when Obama clinched his victory was thrilling. Little more than a decade ago, when O.J. Simpson was found innocent of two murders, cameras recorded cheering blacks and morose whites, emphasizing a split-screen America. On this Return Night, the cameras showed blacks and whites crying together, laughing together, celebrating together, hoping together, in a tableau of healing.

You would need a heart of stone not to be moved by watching the joy that swept America – but you need a head of straw not to worry about just how Obama will succeed. His calls for unity will only last if he understands that he must govern in the same expansive and moderate spirit his speech stirred.

Hope is like a balloon, able to entrance and elevate but also easily over-inflated or easily destroyed by just the right pin prick. Politics itself is an odd mix of noble aspirations with ruthless ambition, high-minded ideals with thuggish tactics. Placing too much hope on any one mortal invites disappointment. Sixteen years ago, a young, charismatic candidate came, quite literally, from a place called Hope. Within weeks of his election, Bill Clinton had frittered away much of the positive emotion surrounding his candidacy, primarily by backpedaling on the gays in the military issue, which stemmed from an off-the-cuff Andrea Mitchell question he should have dodged. Amid the other great challenges Barack Obama faces is the danger of disappointing the millions who have placed so much faith in him.

Still, all these worries vanished on Election Night, albeit temporarily. In the classy way McCain and Obama buried the hatchet, the goals of Return Day were achieved, the rivals unleashed the spirit of patriotic and bipartisan healing. May it prove contagious – and lasting.

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An historic election

Echoes of the ’60s and ’70s in yesterday’s choice of Obama

The campaign might seem like a cakewalk compared with governing. CREDIT: CHRIS HONDROS, GETTY IMAGES

A voter fills out ballot at poll in Columbus, Ohio yesterday: The campaign might seem like a cakewalk compared with governing.

Campaigns are social stress tests. U.S. presidential campaigns are regularly scheduled exercises highlighting the country’s social, cultural and political strengths and weaknesses. This year’s campaign – to the world’s sorrow – also demonstrated devastating economic weaknesses. Still, campaigns also breed optimism, as candidates invite their fellow citizens to remember the past and assess the present, then invest one mortal with the future dreams of 300 million people.

For all the foolishness and frustrations of the two-year, $4.3-billion presidential quest, Americans should enter the 21/2-month transition to Inauguration Day proud of the peaceful, thorough, and open process that selected their next president.

In this campaign, tens of millions participated and shaped the historic outcome. Neither Barack Obama nor John McCain coasted to their respective party’s nomination and the lead during the general campaign switched at least three times.

From the “invisible primary” seeing who could raise the most money that began after the 2006 mid-term congressional campaigns through the first votes cast in the Iowa caucus in January, 2008, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton seemed liked the Democrats’ inevitable choice.

Simultaneously, John McCain’s quest for the Republican nomination faltered. Only once the voting started did Barack Obama soar. Only after he won the caucuses of the overwhelmingly white state of Iowa did most people start believing that this young, first-term senator, who often described himself as the skinny guy with the funny name, just might win it all.

In this rollicking, gruelling, unpredictable 2008 campaign marathon, America’s voters – and politicians – found themselves particularly shaped by the 1960s’ revolution as they judged, but also partially tried to replicate, the 1980s revolution.

Both nominees embody America’s tremendous progress since the 1960s. John McCain represents the sea-change in attitudes toward Vietnam veterans which he helped trigger. During the war, many returning soldiers felt neglected and rejected by the country they had served. McCain’s iconic role in U.S. culture, symbolizing patriotism, selflessness and sacrifice, helped heal many of that war’s national wounds.

Obama, who spent much of the campaign emphasizing how young he was during the 1960s, is a child of that decade, born in 1961. The civil-rights movement made his candidacy possible. Standing on the shoulders of the movement’s giants, Obama has gone farther and faster than most dared to hope. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s audacity was in dreaming that his children would be treated as equals by whites; even he did not believe Americans would consider a black president so soon. And despite Hillary Clinton’s loss, her campaign – along with Sarah Palin’s – advanced the women’s revolution of the 1960s to the upper reaches of national politics.

As the 1960s cast its shadow, the 1980s’ Reagan Revolution loomed large, too. When John McCain was not channeling Theodore Roosevelt, he invoked Ronald Reagan. Both Roosevelt and Reagan offered the muscular, nationalist, patriotic leadership that McCain admires.

Obama admires that leadership style, too. Interviewed in Nevada in January, Obama said Reagan had “changed the trajectory of America in a way that … Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.” Responding to the inevitable Democratic – and Clintonesque – onslaught, Obama explained he was not embracing Reagan’s policies, just admiring Reagan as a “transformative leader.”

At his most powerful campaigning moments, Obama demonstrated a similar ambition and potential. Obama did not run to be a caretaker. Having matured during the Reagan Revolution, Obama wants to redefine liberalism as more community-oriented and more sensitive to tradition than the liberalism the 1960s produced; balancing rights and responsibilities, government power and individual prerogative.

Of course, the financial meltdown directly challenged the 1980s’ legacy. During the summer, the Soviet invasion of Georgia and the continuing worries about Iran and Iraq made pundits predict 2008 would be a foreign policy-oriented election. That assumption explains Obama’s selection of Joe Biden as a running mate. That hedge – and so many others – diminished in value with the stock market’s collapse.

Alas, despite the leadership opportunity the financial crisis provided for the candidates, neither rose to the occasion. Both remained cautious, simplistic demagogic on economic issues. That is what tends to happen during campaigns.

Today, America’s new president-elect has to start preparing to govern. The 11-week transition to Jan. 20 is a gift, an opportunity for a healing honeymoon but also a test. And come Inauguration Day, the economy must be revived, the Iraq mess must be fixed, the challenges of a potentially nuclear Iran must be faced, the continuing threat of Islamic terror must be countered. Perhaps most important, the U.S. people need reassuring and reuniting after the anger and alienation of the George W. Bush years.

This campaign showed that Americans hunger for change and inspiration. Inspiring while making hard decisions that might entail sacrifice is an Herculean task. In the inevitably rough days ahead, the new president might start yearning for the clarity and simplicity of the campaign trail, where oratory could substitute for policy and soundbites could trump substance, even if the accommodations were less plush than those the White House offers.

Gil Troy teaches history at McGill University.

© The Gazette (Montreal) 2008

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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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