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Posts Tagged ‘Presidents’

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, 1-11-11

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University. He is the author of “Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents” (Basic Books, 2008). His latest book, co-edited with Vincent J. Cannato, is “Living in the Eighties” (Oxford University Press, 2009).

The Tucson, Arizona, rampage left Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords critically wounded, six citizens dead, and millions of Americans jumping to the right conclusions for the wrong reasons. Yes, we need more civility in our politics. But no, we should not use one crazy gunman’s random fixations and horrific violence to trigger the kind of reform modern political culture needs.

I confess, having written in 2008 Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, calling for centrism and civility, I am tempted to flow with the conventional wisdom this time. Right after this mass shooting at one of Gifford’s “Congress on Your Corner” citizen meet-and-greets, preaching pundits began blaming the vitriol in general, and Republicans in particular. The fact that Sarah Palin’s website featured Giffords’s district in crosshairs in in 2010, supposedly symbolized everything wrong with politics today.

Human beings love stories, we crave causality. We rubberneck at traffic accidents trying to divine the triggering chain of events, hoping to avoid that fate ourselves. After President John Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, its seeming randomness magnified the national trauma. Back then, many Texans vilified Kennedy, but no evidence linked those particular critics with Kennedy’s murder.

Politics is a domesticated form of verbal, ideological and personal warfare, frequently explained with fighting words. The word “campaign” originated in the 1600s from the French word for open field, campagne. With contemporary soldiers fighting sustained efforts, often on the wide country terrain, the term quickly acquired its military association. The political connotation emerged in seventeenth-century England to describe a lengthy legislative session. In nineteenth-century America, “campaign” was part of the barrage of military terms describing electioneering: as the party standard bearer, a war horse tapping into his war chest and hoping not to be a flash-in-the-pan—a cannon that misfires—mobilized the rank-and-file with a rallying cry in battleground states to vanquish their enemies.

In 1940, Franklin Roosevelt rallied the troops—his Democratic supporters—by saying, “I am an old campaigner, and I love a good fight.” In 2008, America’s modern Gandhi, Barack Obama himself, telegraphed toughness at the start of his campaign, saying of his Republican rivals: “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.”

“Targeting” opponents and even drawing crosshairs on rival candidates is not the problem. As candidates, both Roosevelt and Obama also spoke creatively and constructively. Political civility comes from tempering toughness with openness, seeking consensus, acknowledging complexity, varying tone, and periodically agreeing to disagree agreeably. Politics sours when the tone is constantly shrill, when enemies are demonized, positions polarized.

There is too much shouting in American politics today, from left and right, against George W. Bush and Barack Obama, on MSNBC and Fox, by reporters seeking sensation and by bloggers stirring the pot. Too many Americans have forgotten George Washington’s enlightenment teaching that his reason could lead him to one conclusion, while someone else’s reason could lead, reasonably, to an opposite conclusion. Politics becomes scary when dozens of complex crosscutting issues are reduced to one with-me-or-against-me worldview. As a Democrat who opposes gun control, Gabrielle Giffords herself refuses to be doctrinaire. New York’s colorful former Mayor Ed Koch, once 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.”

To our credit, most Americans understand when to holster partisan anger—even righteous indignation. And Americans excel at mounting the patriotic tableaus we witnessed on 9/11 when Democrats and Republicans spontaneously sang “God Bless America” on the Capitol steps, on Election Night 2008 when John McCain and Barack Obama spoke so graciously of each other, and this Monday when the nation stopped for a moment of silence.

“Democracy begins in conversation,” the great American educator John Dewey taught. The conversation should be passionate but tempered with a touch of humility, an acknowledgment of complexity, a reminder of the humanity of one’s opponent, and an appreciation for the enduring values, common history, and shared fate that bind fellow citizens together. If within that solid consensus parties quarrel over economic theories, policy details, leaders’ personalities, or government’s exact dimensions, that is natural and healthy. It is the slash and burn, all or nothing, red versus blue, my way or the highway rhetoric that has been so unnatural and unhealthy. Political parties work when they help individuals solve problems together; coalition building works best when people have a range of affiliations, when people might pray together one morning and go to competing political meetings that night. Political parties become destructive when they demonize and polarize, becoming one of a series of reinforcing elements that pit half the country against the other half.

Recently, in Tucson, Arizona, a sweet nine-year-old girl named Christina Taylor Green was elected to her student council. Born on September 11, 2001, Christina was always a particularly welcome symbol of hope to her friends and family. Last Saturday, a neighbor invited Christina to meet Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and “see how democracy works.” Christina ended up murdered, shot in the chest.

We should cultivate a politics of civility, not because of the insane murderer but because we all want to show “how democracy works,” in Christina’s memory, to honor Gabrille Giffords’ lifework, and for our common good.

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Source: The Canadian Press, 7-6-10

…Where presidents vacation is part of their story, said Gil Troy, a professor of American history at McGill University in Montreal.

Most U.S. presidents have a private summer home they use for vacation. George W. Bush had both his ranch in Texas and a home in Maine. The Kennedys had the famous Hyannis Port.

“There are definite dynamics connected to vacationing,” Troy said.

“Ronald Reagan was the oldest man ever elected president and he had to show that he was vacationing, not doddering.”…

But family dynamics help some leaders, says Troy.

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By Gil Troy, Bipartisan Policy Center, Aug. 20, 2009

Coach Vince Lombardi famously proclaimed: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Actually, in American democratic politics, winning is only half the battle. Presidents need a workable consensus, not just slim victories. That is why bipartisanship is not just a posture. It must be more than serving cookies to opponents in cozy settings. And bipartisanship is not just a tactic. America’s greatest presidents understood that bipartisanship is crucial because leadership is not just about imposing a policy on the people but getting it accepted and implemented.

Although we usually talk about “consent of the governed” only when we learn about the American Revolution, no American leader should forget that our democratic system rests on a voluntary bargain between the leader and the led. Winning big fights by small margins, imposing radical changes on the people despite slim margins of support, risks the goodwill that helps “the governed” grant their “consent.” Al Gore has challenged us to beware our “carbon footprints”: leaders must avoid leaving a “toxic footprint” when wielding power in a democracy. The bigger the change a president seeks, the more important it is for the president to build consensus.

American’s greatest presidents were often visionaries who understood that winning elegantly by building a broad coalition was as important as whether they won. At a key moment during the struggle to pass the Social Security Act of 1935, one of Franklin Roosevelt’s key advisers, Rexford Tugwell stopped opposing the payroll tax. He still believed it was regressive, unfairly burdening the poor. Nevertheless, he recalled, he and another Roosevelt ally Harry Hopkins realized they “wanted a social security system much more than we wanted our own bill. And when the time came we stopped arguing.” Roosevelt himself took a long-term, consensus-building view. He described Social Security, his masterpiece, as a “cornerstone in a structure which is being built but is by no means complete.” In that spirit, the Social Security Act passed by lopsided votes of 371 to 33 in the House and 76 to 6 in the Senate.

The Social Security Act broke with America’s constitutional tradition of small government and political culture of self-reliance. The bipartisan backing this radical piece of legislation received was critical to its becoming perhaps the most important law passed in the 20th century, and a given in the American system. Within two decades, the first Republican president to serve since the Democratic New Deal, Dwight Eisenhower, was explaining to his brother Edgar Eisenhower, a doctrinaire conservative, that the number of Americans opposing the welfare state, including Social Security, was “negligible and they are stupid.” President Eisenhower warned that any political party that failed to accept the new consensus would wither. Franklin Roosevelt’s instincts for bipartisanship in the 1930s – reciprocated by most Republicans then — flourished into a lasting consensus.

Both Democrats and Republicans who want to solve the health care crisis – and other crises in America today – should learn from FDR that going broad and bipartisan is the way to go.

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Miller McCune, 2-7-10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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By Gil Troy, History News Network, 7-25-09

In one his many riffs this week against Barack Obama’s health care reform initiative, titled “This is a Very Dangerous Time: Socialized Health Care is Not Dead,” on July 21, Rush Limbaugh explained himself, saying: “So this is an attempt by me to keep people inspired and motivated rather than on the sidelines and analyzing it, the brave moderates! The brave moderates? (laughing) By definition, moderates can’t be brave! They don’t have opinions. (interruption) Dawn doesn’t like me saying things like that. But, I mean, brave moderates? Great Moderates in American History? Show me the book!”

Rush Limbaugh is triply wrong here. American history is filled with great moderates. The story of moderates in American history and in the American presidency makes for a great book subject. And Limbaugh’s celebration of extremism is one of the many reasons why Republicans are failing to get any traction in opposing the Obama Administration.

In my book, “Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make Great Presidents,” I show that America’s greatest presidents succeeded by aiming for that presidential sweet spot, either finding the center or reconstituting it. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt were not wimps. They had opinions – contrary to Limbaugh’s caricature. But again and again they demonstrated that important insight that an effective and constructive leader in a democracy has to build as broad a coalition as possible, rather than simply playing to the margins, or being satisfied with “50 percent plus one” of the vote. George Washington, pulled in opposite directions by his squabbling subordinates, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, repeatedly urged them — and their fellow citizens – to be reasonable, to remember America’s “Common Cause.” During the traumatic battle over slavery, Abraham Lincoln endured harsh attacks from abolitionists because he understood that America’s survival hinged on working toward emancipation gradually, and keeping the Civil War a fight for union not for black freedom. Theodore Roosevelt – who was spasmodic, flamboyant, and not at all a moderate by temperament – built his presidential reputation by mediating during a great mining strike and finding a settlement to the Russo-Japanese War. And Franklin D. Roosevelt worked hard to build consensus during the New Deal – and even more painstakingly inched Americans toward involvement in World War II.

Even Rush Limbaugh’s great hero, Ronald Reagan, understood he had to lead from the center. Reagan was elected to be president of the United States not president of the Republican Party or the conservative movement. To keep the nation united, Reagan infuriated conservatives by backing away from their “ABC agenda,” focused on fighting abortion, busing, and crime. Instead, Reagan emphasized economic issues over social and cultural issues. When conservatives yelled “Let Reagan be Reagan,” they erred. When he was singing his broad patriotic song, when he was compromising, when he was building consensus as his role model Franklin D. Roosevelt had done, Ronald Reagan was being Reagan.

Barack Obama also needs to remember the importance of leading from the center – and his promises to transcend the polarizing politics of his baby boomer elders. But shrill extremists like Limbaugh have made it easy for Obama to veer left and still appear reasonable. Having Rush Limbaugh and Dick Cheney function as the public face of the Republican Party is a recipe for Republican disaster – and national trouble. Democracies need effective oppositions as much as they need smart, reasonable, temperate, center-seeking leaders who appreciate the importance not just of winning but of maintaining the consent of as many people as they govern as they can.

So, yes, Rush, moderates make great presidents, great Americans, and great book subjects. I leave it to others to determine whether they also make for great books, although I appreciate Geoffrey Kabaservice’s suggestion on the New Majority Blog that my book may be the right text to prove Rush wrong.

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By Gil Troy, History News Network, 7-22-09

Barack Hussein Obama has now been President for six months – when campaigning he avoided using his full name, now he embraces it. As President Obama passes this half-year milestone, his honeymoon with the public may be ending – although America’s media remains gaga about him. Obama is readying for a major fight over health care. His popularity is starting to sag. As he enters what was a difficult phase for new presidents, Obama should learn from history not to bank only on his charisma. Other presidents have learned the hard way that depending too much on personal magic can prove tragic for the country.

Thus far, simply getting elected has been Obama’s greatest achievement. On Election Day, and with his inauguration, Barack Obama brought hope to a depressed country. Counterfactuals are impossible to prove, but it is hard to believe that electing John McCain or Hillary Rodham Clinton would have generated the excitement of Obama’s victory. A McCain win in particular, probably would have triggered rounds of recriminations and accusations of racism, especially considering most reporters’ pro-Obama bias during the campaign – and since.

Obama played his part magnificently. “Yes We Can” inspired a country demoralized by George W. Bush’s lethargy, Iraq’s complexity, New Orleans’ devastation and the financial collapse. As both candidate and rookie president, Obama demonstrated perfect political pitch on the racial issue, never indulging in racial demagoguery or anger, refusing to run as the black candidate, but embracing his historic role as an agent of healing and change when he won.

Governing, of course, requires more than winning election by spinning an uplifting personal narrative. In fairness to Obama, when he started running he – and most everyone else – believed these years would be times of continued prosperity. Few anticipated the financial crash, although that secured Obama’s victory, given that the debacle occurred on the Republicans’ watch. Obama has also been blessed by his predecessor George W. Bush’s unpopularity and the Republican opposition’s stunning impotence.

But Obama has been cursed by this financial crisis’s depth and complexity. So far, he has blamed Bush. But, as Ronald Reagan learned, presidential success early on – and pie-in-the-sky promises about saving the economy – quickly make the incumbent responsible. In 1981, Reagan blamed Jimmy Carter and the Democrats for the great inflation, high interest rates and crushing budget deficits he inherited. After many legislative successes and hope-laden speeches that culminated in August 1981, seven months into his presidency, the economy nosedived. When Congress returned from its summer recess, Democrats blamed their constituents’ suffering on “The Reagan Recession.”

The $787 billion stimulus plan could end up being Obama’s albatross. He erred by allowing the Congressional pork-kings to dictate the legislation, burdening it with pet projects rather than smart stimuli. He further erred by forgetting his vows of bipartisanship and post-partisanship, thus failing to share responsibility with the Republicans. Ultimately, like Reagan, Obama has time on his side. All he needs is a recovery by spring 2012 and he can still claim a new, Reaganesque, “morning in America,” with his own liberal twist. But by veering as left as he has domestically, by playing the hard partisan game he has, he risks following in the footsteps of Jimmy Carter – who six months into his presidency scored about ten percentage points higher than Obama has in public approval surveys. And Obama is now entering a particularly difficult passage in his presidency as he tries to overcome the health care reform curse that stymied Bill Clinton, another young charismatic Democrat with great potential.

In foreign affairs, Obama’s addiction to his own rhetoric and charisma is more apparent, and more dangerous. Foreign policy has often been a refuge for modern presidents, an arena for bold actions, stirring speeches, and fawning headlines with less Congressional or press interference. But many major presidential disasters of the last half-century were rooted in foreign troubles. Most people forget that the phrase “the best and the brightest” – which has been used repeatedly to boost Obama and his Ivy League advisers – was more epitaph than tribute in David Halberstam’s classic work on Vietnam. John Kennedy’s people, despite his charisma and eloquence, despite their smarts and pedigrees, steered America into the bogs of Indochina.

So far, while his actions in boosting troops in Afghanistan and keeping troops in Iraq have been measured, Obama’s instincts abroad have proved troubling. Reacting feebly to in-your-face North Korean missile tests and initially dismissing heroic Iranian protests while belligerently targeting Israeli settlements further evokes unhappy memories of Jimmy Carter, who incompetently alienated friends and appeased enemies.

Obama’s Cairo speech revealed his characteristic tendency to hover above the fray, create moral equivalences between opponents, and promise to reconcile the unreasonable combatants. World affairs are rarely that simple. Naivete and moral obtuseness usually fail, even if George W. Bush proved too heavy-handed, simplistic, and incompetent.

Still, the presidential learning curve, especially in foreign affairs, can be steep. The presidency, despite being the world’s most scrutinized job, is also ever-changing, providing more plot twists than an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Nikita Khruschev bullied John Kennedy when they first met in Vienna, in 1961, only to be outmaneuvered by a more experienced JFK during the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis. And Israelis forget that George W. Bush, whose warm friendship for Israel seems to have put off Obama, did not enter the White House as an obvious friend. Well into Bush’s first year in office, Bush – or his Secretary of State Colin Powell – criticized nearly every Israeli action against Palestinian terrorism, which mounted with increasing intensity that awful year. Only the horrors of September 11, 2001 – followed in January 2002 by Yasir Arafat’s direct lie to President Bush claiming not to know anything about the Karine-A illegal arms shipment from Iran – changed Bush’s approach.

A now-famous you-tube video shows Obama killing a fly easily during a television interview. Obama gloats at his success, which was cool and impressive. As he governs, Obama has demonstrated great potential but even greater confidence. Whether his cool personality roots him, or his arrogance defeats him, remains to be seen. Ultimately, results not charisma will count.

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 4-21-09

Countering America’s tradition of moderate, bipartisan presidential leadership is an equally vibrant tradition of moderate masqueraders, partisans obscuring their sharp political elbows with bipartisan rhetoric. In 1968, Richard Nixon now the “New Nixon,” ran to heal his fragmented nation. Six years later, Nixon resigned, his presidency derailed by his partisan overreaction to student protests which triggered the Watergate scandal. In 2000, George W. Bush promised to unite America, only to govern as a divisive president. One hundred days into his presidency, Barack Obama wavers. At his best, he has wooed Republicans, seeking a new, welcoming center for a nation reeling from economic cataclysm, continuing foreign threats and Bush’s tumultuous tenure. At his worst, President Obama has indulged Congressional Democrats and party sensibilities rather than offering the moderate statesmanship America needs.

The First Hundred Days is an artificial benchmark rooted in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Obama’s presidency is unfolding. John Kennedy proved more successful than his first hundred days suggested, marred as it was by the failed Bay of Pigs Cuban invasion; Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush ended their respective presidencies less successfully than each began. Still, a presidential character starts forming. The First Hundred Days launches many story lines that ultimately determine a president’s destiny.

President Obama’s debut has been less bold than he promised and, frankly, confusing. Regarding foreign policy, his rhetoric has veered left but his actions have stayed centrist. Domestically, his rhetoric has been more moderate than his policies.

Obama’s foreign affairs messaging has positioned him as the “unBush.” From apologizing for American “arrogance” in Europe to smiling with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez to denouncing torture, Obama has enraged conservatives. But Obama has not acted like the pushover he sometimes appears to be. He is keeping troops in Iraq. He has intensified the military push in Afghanistan. And he gave the shoot to kill order when Somali pirates held an American hostage.

At its best, Obama’s foreign policy has used George W. Bush as a straw man, to appear to be hitting the oft-mentioned “reset button,” without acting irresponsibly. Obama’s approach to the Durban anti-racism review conference exemplified his strategy. In sending diplomats to preliminary meetings, Obama showed he would engage the world, unlike his predecessor. By nevertheless boycotting because too many delegates from Muslim countries pushed their anti-Israel, anti-Western, and anti-free speech lines, Obama acted properly, but with greater credibility.

Ultimately, Obama must define his foreign policy more clearly. He will have to remind Muslims how many Americans died trying to protect Muslims in Kosovo, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than simply apologizing for Bush’s “war on terror.” And the Obama administration will have to find its moral center, rather than disappointing dissidents worldwide when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says human rights issues will not divide the United States and China. Still, this has been a clever, cautious start for a president with a thin foreign policy resume.

Obama’s greatest challenge has been righting America’s economic ship of state. Watching the confusion among our supposed experts, seeing how many very smart people made such a mess, the President probably is as baffled as the rest of us. Just as it is easy during boom times to forget that a bust may soon come, it is easy to forget downturns are cyclical and fleeting too. Of course, the President lacks the luxury of waiting it out. Obama argues that too little governmental response in the 1930s made matters worse – forgetting that too much governmental intervention in the 1970s was equally harmful.

Rhetorically, Obama has been thoughtful and reasonable. His April 14 speech at Georgetown was a model of moderate leadership. Acknowledging critics left and right, he sounded balanced, systematic and visionary. He invoked the Sermon on the Mount – not to perpetuate squishy liberal sentiments about helping others, but to explain the importance of rebuilding on firm foundations. He affirmed his liberalism by delineating new “pillars that will grow our economy and make this new century another American century,” including “new rules for Wall Street” and new investments in education, renewable energy and technology, and health care. But Obama showed he was a liberal who had learned from Ronald Reagan. He added a fifth pillar, “new savings in our federal budget” and insisted that like a good doctor, the government primarily must do no harm.

Unfortunately, on Capitol Hill and in practice Obama has been less artful. While he watched the Super Bowl with some Republicans, most Republicans resented how Democrats burdened the economic stimulus package with so many items that long lingered on Congressional wish lists. More broadly, Obama is trying to spend his way out of the recession with a classically Keynesian, big government approach. At Georgetown, Obama invoked Bush’s policies to justify his actions as centrist moves – even though conservatives criticized Bush’s big-spending deviation from Reaganite orthodoxy.

Given the economic bewilderment and despair, Obama is angling for a win-win. If the economy is not as broken as the conventional wisdom now suggests, all Obama needs is a recovery before 2012, which would be a very long recession. If the economy revives, he will replicate Ronald Reagan’s position in 1984, declaring a new “morning in America” that validates Obamanomics as he coasts to re-election.

Of course, much history could intrude between now and then, ruining this scenario. But considering the headaches he inherited, Obama is governing in the politically shrewdest way for him – shifting left while speaking reasonably domestically, then sounding more radical than he actually acts in foreign affairs. That strategy mirrors Ronald Reagan’s strategy in shrinking taxes but ultimately negotiating with the Soviet Union. Obama admires Reagan’s ability to transform the country. Clearly, Obama hopes he can do the same – in the opposite direction.

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