Archive for the ‘FDR’ Category

Playing the Hand

Patient-ProtectionI’m not sure, but this photo may be the last time Democrats smiled about the Affordable Care Act or, if you prefer, Obamacare. President Obama put his signature on his signature legislative accomplishment on March 23, 2010 and, until the last few weeks, from a political standpoint the news has been pretty awful.

First the admissions: Democrats – thank Nancy Pelosi as well as the president for this – completely lost control of any coherent message about the law. Republicans did a masterful job of characterizing the ACA as government run amok. Obama, so the story goes, has Socialized health care in America and shredded the Constitution in the process. Sarah Palin chimed in with her nonsense talk about “death panels.” Democrats failed to respond or failed to respond effectively. Obama fumbled, screwed up, mislead, fabricated (chose your word) the business about liking and keeping your health plan. The roll-out was a first-class mess and we all know about the stupid website. Fundamentally the law, thanks to log rolling in Congress with the drug companies, the device manufactures, doctors, hospitals and insurance companies, is a massively complicated pile of legalize. It was almost as though the president and his supporters were saying, “We could tell you how it will work and how you will benefit, but you’d have to get sick first…”

More importantly from a political point of view the supporters of the law, chiefly including the Commander-in-Chief, never adopted a coherent, consistent, engaging message that might have allowed them to talk to the American people about an issue that has been on the agenda of every Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt. The debate became about process, ideology and partisanship and not about a better more secure future.

In politics, as in corn flakes, you can’t sell an idea without a believable message. The failure to offer a coherent, believable story about the law is nothing short of political malpractice. Critics will say, of course, that the law is such a mess that it can’t be defended or marketed, but I don’t buy that. Even George W. Bush, initially at least, sold the invasion of Iraq. Creating a system for millions of Americans to have health insurance and a more secure life is surely an easier sell than a war.

Still, four years later the law is the law, upheld by the Supreme Court (or at least by five justices), a survivor of a hundred different efforts by Republicans to repeal it or, better yet from their perspective, use it as a blunt instrument to pummel Democrats in another mid-term election. Apparently – crank up the irony meter – Americans now hate the law so much they have signed up in numbers that have even surprised the law’s biggest supporters. The polls tell us the law is a huge loser – although repeal is even more unpopular – and yet the GOP has placed nearly all of its mid-term eggs in the “we hate Obamacare” basket. All of the party’s 2016 hopefuls have bought into the notion that Obama’s law is the worst things since, well, maybe since Social Security, yet they offer nothing in the way of a better alternative.

In one of his pithy and incisive essays Garry Wills points out that supporters of the law will likely never turn the opponents around. Obama, Wills writes, “made the mistake of thinking that facts matter when a cult is involved. Obamacare is now, for many, haloed with hate, to be fought against with all one’s life. Retaining certitude about its essential evil is a matter of self-respect, honor for one’s allies in the cause, and loathing for one’s opponents. It is a religious commitment.”

Wills reminds us that Social Security was once almost as hated as the ACA, but somehow nearly 80 years on it still stands. “Repealing Obamacare will eventually go the way of repealing the New Deal,” Wills opines. “But the opposition will never fade entirely away—and it may well be strong enough in this year’s elections to determine the outcome. It is something people are willing to sacrifice for and feel noble about. Creeds are not built up out of facts. They are what make people reject all evidence that guns are more the cause of crime than the cure for it. The best preservative for unreason is to make a religion of it.”

The editorial page of the Wall Street Journal with an almost daily discourse on the “failures of the law” or any given George Will column easily serve as the Bible for this new religion. Will’s most recent column excoriating the law and the president concludes with this sweeping indictment of all things Obama: “progressivism is…a top-down, continent-wide tissue of taxes, mandates and other coercions. Is the debate about it over? Not quite.” Reads like a sermon to me.

But let’s talk politics. If Garry Wills is right (and George Will is his proof point) and it follows that Republican voters who have made a religion out of hating Obamacare are the most likely to turn out and vote in the November Congressional elections, what are Democrats to do?

They have two basic choices: Continue to flounder around and try to pretend they can whistle their way past the political graveyard without defending Obama’s law or they can embrace the obvious and begin – finally – to vigorously defend the law and its impact. One of this year’s imperiled Democrats, Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, has adopted Option Two.

“It’s a solid law that needs improvement,” Landrieu told the Washington Post. “My opponent [Republican Bill Cassidy] offers nothing but repeal, repeal, and repeal. And even with all the law’s setbacks, we’re seeing benefits for thousands of people in Louisiana.”

Landrieu continued, “I think the benefits that people have received are worth fighting for.” She citing an end to discrimination against preexisting conditions and extended coverage for young adults on parents’ plans. ”I think Bill Cassidy is going to be at a distinct disadvantage. He has insurance, but he’s also denying it to the 242,000 people” who would qualify if Louisiana expanded Medicaid as it can opt do under the Affordable Care Act.

Her opponent, Landrieu says, “also wants to take coverage away from tens of thousands who have gotten it for the first time.”

There is an old adage in politics that holds “being for something is better than being against something.” Democrats don’t have a choice. They can try to campaign this year by being for a law that admittedly is very controversial and almost universally misunderstood, but that is also of obvious advantage to millions of Americans or they sink again into the defensive crouch they have largely adopted since that smiling day back in March 2010.

Republicans are agin’ it. We know that for certain. Yet, voters must be just as confused about where Republicans stand on issues – providing health care for millions of uninsured, expanding Medicaid, keeping young folks on their parents insurance plans longer and providing coverage for preexisting conditions – as they are confused about what is and isn’t part of the controversial law. This is ground, as Sen. Landrieu suggests, for a real election year debate.

Democrats may not win a religious fight this year over Obamacare, but they won’t even have a chance unless they start throwing a few punches rather than trying to absorb those the other side will continue throwing. Defending a law that more than eight million Americans have embraced and that holds out the hope for a much improved quality of life for millions more seems like something worth fighting for because it really is better to be for something than against everything.

Many Republicans of the generation that created Social Security never came to fully embrace the program, but time, events and public opinion overtook them. Franklin Roosevelt, the father of modern American politics, loved to taunt his opponents by asking them what they would do differently and whether they had an alternative. Those are still good questions.

Power to the People

politifact_photos_rooseIn the second wave of New Deal legislation in the spring of 1935 – historians often refer to the period as the “Second New Deal” – Congress passed a massive omnibus bill – The Emergency Relief Appropriations Act. In a move that would be political poison today, Congress granted vast discretionary power under the Emergency Act to the president and Franklin Roosevelt got busy. With the stroke of a pen Roosevelt allocated millions to construct dams, build airports, bridges and tunnels.

Among the raft of Executive Orders signed by Roosevelt, and permitted under the Emergency Act, was the creation of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). As Stanford University historian David Kennedy has written, “when REA began its work, fewer than two farms in ten had electricity; a little more than a decade later, thanks to lost-cost REA loans that built generating plants and strung power lines down country lanes and across field and pasture, nine out of ten did.”

Before the REA’s low-interest loans changed the landscape, as Morris Cooke the first REA Administrator said, the typical American farmer was in an impossible situation. “In addition to paying for the energy he used,” Morris wrote, “the farmer was expected to advance to the power company most or all of the costs of construction. Since utility company ideas as to what constituted sound rural lines have been rather fancy, such costs were prohibitive for most farmers.”

One of the great and enduring myths of the American West, as the great writer Wallace Stegner liked to remind us, is the myth that the West was built by rugged individuals. Nonsense, Stegner said. The West was built by the federal government and there are few better examples of how an enlightened government changed the landscape and life of millions of Americans than the REA. This fascinating and still immensely important story, fundamentally a political story about the good government can do, is told with engaging flair and real insight in Ted Case’s fine recent book Power Plays.

Case, the executive director of the Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association, argues that preserving the public institutions and the public good that the REA ushered in during Roosevelt’s day has required nearly 80 years of constant hand-to-hand combat with a variety of political forces, often including hostile presidents. The battle has been worth it, since it is not an overstatement to say that the region’s cooperative utilities, and the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) that serves them with power and transmission, really have built the Northwest.

As debates rage in Washington over the scope and role of government, it’s worth remembering that during some of the nation’s darkest days of Great Depression, presidential candidate Roosevelt came to Portland, Oregon in 1932 and made an eloquent argument for a government devoted to the “larger interests of the many.” The occasion was a campaign speech – billed in the day as a major policy address on public utilities and hydropower development – that turned out to be one of FDR’s most important policy pronouncements during his history making campaign against Herbert Hoover.

“As I see it, the object of Government is the welfare of the people,” FDR said during his Portland speech. “The liberty of people to carry on their business should not be abridged unless the larger interests of the many are concerned. When the interests of the many are concerned, the interests of the few must yield. It is the purpose of the Government to see not only that the legitimate interests of the few are protected but that the welfare and rights of the many are conserved…This, I take it, is sound Government — not politics. Those are the essential basic conditions under which Government can be of service.”

During his Portland speech Roosevelt pledged to develop the hydro resources of the Columbia River, proposed vast new regulation of private utilities and foreshadowed the creation of what became the REA, the agency that, as David Kennedy says, “brought cheap power to the countryside, mostly by midwifing the emergence of hundreds of nonprofit, publicly owned electrical cooperatives.”

The reason many Americans in 1932 lacked access to adequate or any electricity, Roosevelt said, is “that many selfish interests in control of light and power industries have not been sufficiently far-sighted to establish rates low enough to encourage widespread public use.” He might also have said that many private utilities in the 1920′s and early 1930′s were content to operate highly profitable businesses in relatively easy to serve urban areas and were simply unwilling to make the effort and expend the resources to deliver power to smaller communities and farmers.

It’s difficult to imagine today, when without thinking we enter a dark room and flip the switch, how long it would have taken to get affordable electricity to rural Northwest and its farms had Roosevelt not followed through on his powerful Portland speech on power. Imagine the Pacific Northwest without the power of the federal dams that FDR promised in1932 in Portland – and I know they have become controversial – or the legacy of public power. The region’s great public utilities have played their part in the region’s development for sure, but they often have a fundamentally different mission from public power, including the need to generate a rate of return on investments, while answering to shareholders and investors.

It is a re-occurring feature of American democracy that we debate and debate again the reach and responsibility of government. We are stuck in a particularly dysfunctional period of that debate right now. Almost always in our history these periodic debates have been resolved, to the extent they are ever fully resolved, in favor of what Roosevelt long ago called “the welfare of the people.”

In the last years of his life, as Ted Case points out in his political history of how cooperative utilities remade rural America, Lyndon Johnson remarked that “of all the things I have ever done, nothing has given me as much satisfaction as bringing power to the Hill Country of Texas. Today in my home county,” LBJ said, “we have full grown men who have never seen a kerosene lamp except possibly in a movie – and that is all to the good.”

Rugged individuals make for good movies, but aggressive action by a federal government devoted to the greatest good for the greatest number helped turned on the lights in much of the Pacific Northwest. The story Ted Case tells in his book Power Plays is a reminder of what truly enlightened public policy once looked like.

 

Why Politics Ain’t Fun…Anymore

ap320763252878Jack Germond, a classic ink-stained wretch straight out of The Front Page, loved politics and politicians until he didn’t any longer.

Germond, who died this week at age 85, was definitely of the “old school.” He knew how to change a typewriter ribbon and I’ll bet he once had a bead on every pay phone in Iowa and in New Hampshire. Germond once said that he covered politics like a horse race because, while most voters do want to know what a candidate stands for, they also really want to know who has the best chance to win an election. But Jack was also old school in that he wanted to know about candidates as real people. What motivated them? What did they really care about? Could they think?

When the gruff, opinionated, smoking, steak-eating, Martini-drinking reporter hung it up in 2001 he told NPR’s Bob Edwards that he had grown “sick of politics.”

“I got sick of politics, Bob,” Germond said. “I particularly got sick of these two candidates this year. You know, you get to the point — you know, you’re 72 years old and you’re covering George W. Bush and Al Gore and you say, ‘How do I explain that to my grandkids?’ I mean, that’s terrible.”

Like a lot of us, I suspect, ol’ Jack grew tired of the phony rituals of modern politics, the lack of authenticity and the campaigns that have become almost completely driven by too young men (and some women) in suits and iPads who think they know everything there is to know about survey research, but have never met a sheriff or walked a precinct for a state legislative candidate.

Candid, Opinionated, Unpredictable

Ask any reporter – or voter – the type of politician they most appreciate and you’ll often hear that they like the candid, opinionated guy (or woman) who isn’t over programmed and not completely predictable. But increasingly we get just the opposite. If you’ve heard one Mitch McConnell speech or one Harry Reid soundbite you’ve pretty much heard all they have to offer, or at least all they think they can offer safely. The typical modern politician is so scripted, so committed to “staying on message” and so determined not to offend “the base” that they often say virtually nothing of importance. In place of real thinking that might generate a new idea the typical pol – the guys Germond got sick of – falls back on the safe and practiced. It may be boring, but it’s poll-tested.

Germond told the Washington Post that he got pretty stiff drinking Scotch with presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy during a plane ride in 1968. “We started talking about the kids we’d seen in the ghetto that day,” Mr. Germond said years later. “He wasn’t trying to plant a story. He was really interested in the subject and really affected by what he’d seen.” Imagine that. A politician letting the human side show through. It used to happen, but not much anymore.

The statute of limitations has long since expired so I can safely reveal that former Idaho state senator, Lt. Governor and eventually Gov. Phil Batt used to drink with reporters. He actually seemed to like it, too. Years ago when Idaho Statehouse reporters were first consigned to quarters in the deep basement of the Capitol Building, Batt would often come down on a Friday night when the business of the legislative session was done for the week and have a pop or two with the scribbling class. As I remember it Jim Fisher, then a political reporter for the Lewiston Tribune, had a deep desk drawer that could accommodate a bottle of something that was technically illegal to consume on state property. Those of us fortunate enough to sit in on Phil Batt’s off-the-record “news conference” quickly discovered all the stories we’d missed during the week, the latest lobbyist out of favor and which legislator with a wandering eye was hitting on which committee secretary. I don’t remember that any stories were planted, but much insight was gained.

Politics was fun then, but rarely is anymore.

Obama the Predictable

The cerebral and increasingly buttoned-down Barack Obama seemed about as fun as a root canal when he took questions from the White House press corps before flying off to his Martha’s Vineyard vacation the other day. Obama was asked about Republican threats to shut down the government or even default on government obligations rather than approve funding for the hated Obamacare. Obama, of course, gave a completely predictable response.

“The idea that you would shut down the government unless you prevent 30 million people from getting health care is a bad idea,” the president said. “What you should be thinking about is how can we advance and improve ways for middle-class families to have some security so that if they work hard, they can get ahead and their kids can get ahead.”

“Middle-class families” must be the most focus group tested terminology in American politics, but it has almost nothing to do with what you know Obama is really thinking. Regardless of what you think of Obamacare wouldn’t you like the Commander-in-Chief to show a little emotion just once in a while? Imagine the cool POTUS popping his top with some Harry Truman-style rhetoric.

“Let me tell you what I think  of this kind of threat: let them try it,” Obama might have said. “The Affordable Care Act – Obamacare – is the law of the land. John Boehner has tried more than 40 times to undo it, but he can’t and he won’t. Shutting down the government or defaulting on our debt is just plain crazy. If my GOP friends want to be out-of-power for a generation, I’d advise they listen to the crazy caucus on the fringe and shut down the government – again. It worked so well for them last time.

“And while I’m on the subject, the next time a Republican says they want to do away with health insurance for all American ask them what they intend to replace it with? Does the Speaker or Sen. Rubio or Sen. Cruz have an answer to millions of Americans without health insurance? Do they like the idea that we have the most expensive health care in the world and far from the best health care in the world? What do they suggest would happen to the hospitals, doctors and insurance companies who are months into implementing a law that Congress passed and the United States Supreme Court reviewed and upheld? Boehner and Rubio and Cruz are without ideas. All they are sure of is that they don’t like me. I’m used to it. Now they should get used to the idea of me being in the White House for another three years.”

OK, I made all of that up, but you get the point. Authentic can’t be polled tested. You can’t easily fake being steamed. Candor in our politics has become as rare as Scotch in a desk drawer.

FDR is Still the Gold Standard

In her excellent new book – 1940 – FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler and the Election Amid the Storm – historian Susan Dunn tells the gripping story of one of the most consequential presidential elections in our history. With war raging in Europe, the 1940 election came down to two issues – a third term for Franklin Roosevelt and the direction of the nation’s foreign policy. Late in his campaign against businessman Wendell Willkie, FDR took on his opponents with candor, humor and their own words. It is what politicians used to do.

“For almost seven years the Republican leaders in Congress kept on saying that I was placing too much emphasis on national defense,” Roosevelt said in an October 1940 speech at Madison Square Garden. “And now today these men of great vision have suddenly discovered that there is a war going on in Europe and another one in Asia! And so, now, always with their eyes on the good old ballot box, they are charging that we have placed too little emphasis on national defense.”

Then, to use his word, FDR indicted his Republican opponents using their own words and their own votes. Roosevelt listed by name the GOP leaders, including Willkie’s running mate, who had voted repeatedly against defense appropriations. Then, with perfect timing, the president made his audience laugh along with him at the poetic mention of three of his most partisan and obstructionist opponents.

“Now wait,” Roosevelt said with a big smile, “a perfectly beautiful rhythm – Congressmen Martin, Barton and Fish!”

Willkie later said, “When I heard the president hang the isolationist votes of Martin, Barton, and Fish on me and get away with it, I knew I was licked.”

The old school politics that Jack Germond loved have gone the way of the pay phone, replaced by 30 second attack ads, robo calls and bland and completely predictable rhetoric that is virtually devoid of passion, substance and humor. No wonder Jack got sick of politics. He could remember when it was fun and better.

Politics shouldn’t be blood sport, but having a little blood flowing in your veins is entirely appropriate. Modern politics would be a good deal more interesting and a lot less dysfunctional if politicians quit thinking that authenticity, candor, a little fire in the belly and a dose of humor were somehow political liabilities.

How about a little more passion like “Martin, Barton and Fish” and a little less babble about “middle class families.”

 

Jim Crow’s Playmates

One of the best things about the new film about baseball great Jackie Robinson is actor Harrison Ford’s portrayal of baseball executive Branch Rickey, the man who found the guts in 1945 to sign Robinson to a minor league contract with the Montreal Royals and then in the 1947 season, against all odds, brought the first African-American player to the major leagues.

By all accounts Mr. Rickey, as everyone called him, wasn’t much of a ballplayer himself. He only played in the majors for four seasons, had a career batting average of .239 and hit only three home runs. Granted it was the “dead ball” era, but those numbers don’t get you to Cooperstown.

Rickey got to the Hall of Fame on the strength of his success as a baseball manager and executive. He had a hand in three great and enduring innovations – the establishment of the farm system to identify and nurture talent, breaking the color line with the signing of No. 42 and late in his life helping start the Continental League, a proposed third major league that failed to get off the grass, but nevertheless ushered in expansion of baseball to new markets.

The great sportswriter Jim Murray said Rickey “could recognize a great player from the window of a moving train” and the great man’s nickname, “The Mahatma,” was recognition of his pioneering ways and the deep Christian faith that he wore on his sleeve. One contemporary said when Rickey met you for the first time he wanted to know everything about you, then set out to change you.

In the wake of seeing the Robinson movie – it’s a must for any baseball or history buff – I read a splendid piece by another great sportswriter Red Smith. Writing in 1948, the year after Robinson broke the Jim Crow barriers around baseball, Smith was reporting – and not with any surprise – about how little support Rickey had received from the other leaders of the national past time.

“A curious sort of hullabaloo has been aroused by Branch Rickey’s disclosure that when he went into the ring against Jim Crow, he found fifteen major league club owners working in Jim’s corner,” Smith wrote. “It is strange that the news should stir excitement, for surely it couldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone.” Those other owners – Red Smith called them “Jim Crow’s playmates” – were worried about alienating fans, suffering public abuse or hurting their investments. Most likely all three. Questions of morality often get snagged on the sharp edges of commerce. Morality wins, as it did in 1947, when a big man – make that two big men – act with a sense of righteousness and with history on their side.

It’s hard, I think, perhaps even impossible, for anyone born after the awful era of Jim Crow to grasp the degree to which economic, political and cultural forces were aligned to keep black Americans from jobs, health care, public services, the ballot box and the sense of decency that goes with simply being respected. It was a shameful, nasty and profoundly disturbing period of American history. One reason for young people to see the Robinson film, in addition to the well-told heroic story, is to get a taste of the appalling racism that Robinson and so many other Americans of color deal with every hour of every day.

A spectacular new book by Columbia University historian Ira Katznelson expands on the political implications of the Jim Crow era, and yes the implications still echo today, by exploring in detail the Faustian bargain Franklin Roosevelt entered into in order to push his New Deal agenda through a southern dominated Democratic Congress in the 1930′s. The Robinson story fits squarely in the history lesson Katznelson tells so well.

As Kevin Boyle wrote in reviewing Fear Itself in the New York Times, “[FDR's] calculation was simple enough. Thanks to the disfranchisement of blacks and the reign of terror that accompanied it, the South had become solidly Democratic by the beginning of the 20th century, the Deep South exclusively so. One-party rule translated into outsize power on Capitol Hill: when Roosevelt took office, Southerners held almost half the Democrats’ Congressional seats and many of the key committee chairmanships. So whatever Roosevelt wanted to put into law had to have Southern approval. And he wouldn’t get it if he dared to challenge the region’s racial order.”

Franklin Roosevelt, Katznelson argues, made a “rotten compromise” with the southern politicians of his own party who dominated Congress in exchange for being able to govern effectively in a time of depression, war and deep and persistent fear. While FDR didn’t challenge a segregated culture, ironically the New Deal served to both prolong Jim Crow and made its demise inevitable. FDR’s “rotten compromise” fails as a profile in courage, but the Hudson River valley aristocrat who fancied himself a Georgia farmer eventually made so many changes in the way we use and view government that his New Deal made Harry Truman and eventually Lyndon Johnson possible.

In the same way that Branch Rickey, The Mahatma of baseball, saw a wrong and tried to right it, first Truman and later Johnson, fully understanding the political consequences, abandoned the old Democratic Party of Jim Crow and ushered in the civil rights era; an era of unending struggles, that still dominates politics and culture today.

Every time I read or hear about another effort to make voting more difficult for minorities in America or hear a politician suggest that “American exceptionalism” makes it clear we don’t have to worry about race and class in this “post-racial” time in our history, I’ll remember Jackie Robinson’s one-time Brooklyn Dodger teammate from Alabama Dixie Walker. Walker, a fine ballplayer and a career .306 hitter who lead the league in hitting in 1944, also led the push back against Robinson playing with the Dodgers. Walker demanded to be traded and drew up an anti-Robinson petition that he and other Dodger players were determined to present to club president Branch Rickey.

Dixie Walker’s career dried up after 1947. Rickey traded him to the lowly Pirates and he retired in 1948, but would come back to coach in the majors often working  without issue with black ballplayers. In his 2002 book The Era, the great writer Roger Kahn quoted Walker as saying: “I organized that petition in 1947, not because I had anything against Robinson personally or against Negroes generally. I had a wholesale business in Birmingham and people told me I’d lose my business if I played ball with a black man.”

Fear is a great motivator. History has a tendency to reward people who push back against it. Rickey and Robinson are in the Hall of Fame. Truman’s stock at a great president continues to rise. Johnson’s place as the president who sacrificed his party’s once invincible regional base in the south in exchange for civil rights legislation is secure. Dixie Walker told Roger Kahn the anti-Robinson petition was the “stupidest thing he had ever done,” and he regretted it for the rest of his days.

Dixie Walker was by all accounts a devoted family man who, as Harvey Araton wrote in 2010, was “without much formal education, [but] he was curious and informed. Representing N.L. players, he helped devise the major leagues’ first pension plan, suggesting its revenue be generated from All-Star Game proceeds.” None of that has helped erase the stigma of what Dixie Walker did when driven by his own fear during the season of 1947.

Time may heal wounds, but reputations are much harder to repair. The playwright said it:  “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.” Fear itself stands in the way of so much.

 

The Presidents

Every president, well almost every president, eventually gets his reappraisal. It seems to be the season for Calvin Coolidge to get his revisionist treatment. The 30th president, well known for his clipped Yankee voice and a penchant for never using two words when one would do, does deserve some chops for agreeing to be photographed – the only president to do so, I believe – wearing a Sioux headdress.

Ol’ Silent Cal came to the Black Hills of South Dakota to vacation in the summer of 1927 and the magnanimous native people who considered the Hills sacred ground made the Great White Father an honorary Chief. The president fished in what later became Grace Coolidge Creek in South Dakota’s Custer State Park – the Sioux were not as gracious to the park’s namesake – and a fire lookout is still in use at the top of 6,000 foot Mt. Coolidge in the park. The Coolidge summer White House issued the president’s famous “I do not chose to run in 1928″ statement to the assembled press corps a few miles up the road from the state park in Rapid City.

But all that is just presidential trivia as now comes conservative writer and historian Amity Shlaes to attempt to rehabilitate the diminished reputation of Silent Cal. Shaels’ earlier work The Forgotten Man is a conservative favorite for its re-telling of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal; policies that in Shlaes’ revisionist hands helped prolong the Depression and made villains of the captains of Wall Street who, she contends, deserved better treatment at the bar of history.

Shlaes’ new book, predictably perhaps, is winning praise from The Wall Street Journal - “The Coolidge years represent the country’s most distilled experiment in supply-side economics—and the doctrine’s most conspicuous success” – and near scorn from others like Jacob Heilbrunn who writes in the New York Times - “Conservatives may be intent on excavating a hero, but Coolidge is no model for the present. He is a bleak omen from the past.”

As long as we debate fiscal and economic policy we’ll have Coolidge to praise or kick around. The best, most even handed assessment of Coolidge is contained in the slim volume by David Greenberg in the great American Presidents Series. Greenberg assesses Coolidge as a president caught in the transition from the Victorian Age to the modern. “Coolidge deployed twentieth-century methods to promote nineteenth-century values – and used nineteenth-century values to sooth the apprehension caused by twentieth-century dislocations. Straddling the two eras, he spoke for a nation in flux.”

Two facts are important to putting Coolidge in context: he took office (following the death of the popular Warren Harding in 1923) in the wake of the American experience in World War I, which left many citizens deeply distrustful of government as well as the country’s role in the world.  Coolidge left office on the eve of the Great Depression. A nation in flux, indeed.

To celebrate President’s Day we also have new books, of course, on Lincoln, as well as the weirdly fascinating political and personal relationship between Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. There is also a fascinating new book on the relationship among former presidents – The Presidents Club. David Frum writing at The Daily Beast wades in today with a piece on three presidents who make have been great had they had more time – Zachery Taylor, James Garfield and Gerald Ford. Three good choices in my view.

Even William Howard Taft generally remembered for only two things – being the chubbiest president and being the only former president to serve as Chief Justice of the Supreme court is getting his new day in the sun. The sun will be along the base paths at the Washington National’s park where the new Will Taft mascot will join Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt for between inning races. Talk about revisionism. At 300 pounds Taft never ran for anything but an office.

One enduring truth is that every president is shaped by his times. (One day, I hope, we can say “their” times.) And over time we assess and reassess the response to the times. Reappraisal is good and necessary. A robust discussion of whether Calvin Coolidge’s economic policies were a triumph of capitalism or a disaster that helped usher in the Great Depression is not only valuable as a history lesson, but essential to understanding our own times and the members of what truly is the most exclusive club in the world – The American Presidency.

By the way, The Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University will convene a major conference on “The State of the Presidency” on February 28, 2013 in Boise. The day-long event is open to the public, but you must register and can do so online. Hope to see you there.

 

Themes That Repeat

When Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for re-election in 1936 the American economy was in very tough shape. Unemployment was over 16%, farm prices were awful and American big business, staggered to its knees by the Wall Street crash of 1929, was recovering, but still limping badly.

Yet, amid the dismal economic news, Roosevelt had succeeded in his first term in passing tough new banking regulations, massive public works projects like Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River in Washington State were employing thousands and Congress had endorsed something called Social Security. FDR ran for re-election 76 years ago with a decidedly mixed record. He could tout major legislative accomplishments, but lots of Americans were hurting badly. Given the awful state of the economy and voter penchant for throwing out the incumbent when the economy stinks, the conventional political wisdom would hold that Roosevelt should have lost re-election. Obviously he didn’t.

Roosevelt scored one of the greatest political triumphs in U.S. history in 1936 when he crushed the Republican ticket by winning more than 500 electoral votes and failing to carry only two states. FDR’s campaign manager quipped, “So goes Maine, so goes Vermont” – the only states the Landon-Knox ticket carried. The president’s historic landslide also pulled dozens of congressional candidates along and the House and Senate were overwhelmingly Democratic.

If the broad outlines of the United States in ’36 exhibit a more than passing resemblance to the country this year then I believe you’re identifying some of the “themes” in American politics that have an endlessly fascinating way of repeating themselves. This is a subject I’ll be exploring this week during a public talk at Boise’s Main Public Library. The Wednesday, September 12th event is free and open to all. I hope you might consider coming out for a dose of politics and history. My talk is entitled: FDR and Obama: The Difficulty of Winning a Second Term.

But, back to themes. Social Security, broadly debated and badly mishandled in 1936 by FDR’s Republican opponent, Kansas Gov. Alfred E. Landon, is clearly a recurring theme in our politics. Social Security’s sister programs, Medicare and Medicaid, keep coming round again and again and are once more in the middle of the current presidential campaign. The GOP political talking point that a left-of-center Democrat – like Roosevelt or Barack Obama this year – is pushing the country to socialism is an argument as old as the New Deal. FDR’s critics went even farther with one saying the 1936 election was a contest between “Washington and Moscow.”

The evil excesses of big business or the heavy hand of regulation thwarting business is a steady theme in our politics, as is the role of the U.S. Supreme Court. The nastiness of race and religion are also recurring themes and each played a role in 1936 and each does today.

Roosevelt used the power of his anti-big business argument, his personal likability and his amazing communication skills to win re-election in 1936. Faced with many of the same issues and armed with many similar skills, will Obama be able to pull off what Roosevelt accomplished in remarkably similar conditions three quarters of a century ago? I hope you’ll join me Wednesday for a lively discussion of how the themes of our political history run smack into the current campaign.