Archive for the ‘Lincoln’ Category

For the People

lincoln_abrahamOne reason, I think, so much has been made of the 50th anniversary of John Kennedy’s murder in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963 is the pervasive sense of political longing for a time when, whether true or not, it seemed almost anything was possible.

Put a man on the moon in the decade of the 1960′s and return him safely to Earth – no problem. Create a Peace Corps and send idealistic young Americans to the world’s poorest nations to deal with hunger, disease and ignorance – done. Reach real arms control agreements that dramatically reduce the threat of nuclear war – possible and likely.

University of Virginia political scientist Dr. Larry Sabato is correct, as his new book The Kennedy Half Century makes clear, that the martyred young president – his style, rhetoric and easy optimism – has had more impact on American politics since his death than anyone else in the last half century. Arguably Kennedy’s 1,000 days lacked enduring accomplishment. His deft handling of the Cuban missile crisis notwithstanding, there is little in JFK’s abbreviated first term to suggest real presidential greatness, yet many Americans regard him as the best president since Franklin Roosevelt. That cannot entirely be written off to the glamour of Camelot.

And before there was November 22, 1963 there was November 19, 1863 – Kennedy’s death and Abraham Lincoln’s great speech at Gettysburg separated by almost exactly 100 years, but at the same time the presidencies of the two great martyred chief executives united in a way by what seems to me a hunger for what we might call a politics of meaning.

A brilliant Washington Post essay by Harvard president and Civil War historian Drew Gilpin Faust recently asked if our government “by the people and for the people” is truly alive and well in the United States. Faust reminds us that Lincoln used his his taut, elegant and enduring speech 150 years ago tomorrow to call on his constituents to “persevere in the ‘unfinished work’ before them.”

Another fearful year and a half of war lay ahead, with yet again as many deaths to come,” Faust wrote. “But Appomattox would not end the work he envisioned. It was the obligations of freedom and nationhood as well as those of war that he urged upon his audience. Seizing the full meaning of liberty and equality still lay ahead.”

Lincoln knew that the awful war had to result in something better, something greater or else all the blood and treasure lost and never recovered would surely condemn the still youthful American experiment to failure. Lincoln used the rhetoric of his presidency, as John Kennedy did a century leter, to summon the country to something greater, something bigger than mere partisan politics.

Is There More than Partisanship…

There is no doubt that Kennedy was late to the struggle for civil rights for black Americans and only came fully to what he eventually termed “a moral issue” after the protests in Birmingham and elsewhere turned ugly and violence. In his now justly celebrated speech in June of 1963 where Kennedy called on Congress to pass civil rights legislation the young president made the issue bigger than partisanship or even politics.

“This is not a sectional issue,” Kennedy said. “Difficulties over segregation and discrimination exist in every city, in every State of the Union, producing in many cities a rising tide of discontent that threatens the public safety. Nor is this a partisan issue. In a time of domestic crisis men of good will and generosity should be able to unite regardless of party or politics…we are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution.”

Near the end of his nationally televised civil rights speech Kennedy began remarkably to ad lib and in doing so his words became even more urgent, summoning images that still haunt America 50 years later.

“Today, there are Negros unemployed, two or three times as many compared to whites,” Kennedy said, “inadequate education, moving into the larger cities, unable to find work, young people particularly out of work without hope, denied equal rights, denied the opportunity to eat at a restaurant or a lunch counter or go to a movie theater, denied the right to a decent education, denied almost today the right to attend a State university even though qualified. It seems to me that these are matters which concern us all, not merely Presidents of Congressmen or Governors, but every citizen of the United States.”

As he had in his first speech as president, Kennedy was calling the country in 1963 to live out its potential and to not merely be content to act as though it were fulfilling its highest moral and legal obligations. Lincoln repeatedly did the same during the Civil War reminding Americans that in their country they did possess the “best hope” on Earth for a better way to live.

“These are responsibilities that belong to us still,” Drew Gilpin Faust wrote in the Post. “Yet on the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s immortal speech, where is our stewardship of that legacy? After beginning a new fiscal year by shutting down the government, we are far from modeling to the world why our — or any — democracy should be viewed as the ‘best hope’ for humankind. The world sees in the United States the rapid growth of inequality; the erosion of educational opportunity and social mobility that ‘afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life’; the weakening of voting rights hard-won over a century of post-Reconstruction struggle.”

The Politics of the Short-Term…

Where indeed is the high public purpose in the politics of either of today’s major political parties; parties that are almost entirely focused on short-term tactical approaches designed only to address the next election cycle. With President Obama hopelessly bogged down in health care problems largely of his own making and, so far in his second term, failing to call the country to sustained action of anything the not-s0-loyal minority counters by offering, well, nothing.

“What we have done so far this year clearly hasn’t worked,” a GOP aide involved in 2014 planning sessions for House Republicans recently told Politico. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the Republican aide said, “wants to take us in a new direction, which is good. The problem is we don’t know where we are headed, and we don’t know what we can sell to our members.”

We remember our martyred presidents not just because awful fate took them at the zenith of their power, poised on the cusp of leading us forward, but because they seemed able to give meaning to a greater cause, while urging a nation and its people to a higher calling.

Aspiration and a call to greatness are largely missing from public life today and therefore it is little wonder so many Americans long for leadership – the leadership of a Lincoln or a Kennedy – that is able to give real meaning to our politics; a kind of meaning where the “better angels of our nature” are summoned to do not for ourselves but for our country.

 

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.

 

Lessons from Lincoln

First the obvious: Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln is a modern masterpiece and just maybe the best film about politics ever made.

Daniel Day-Lewis once again establishes himself as film’s finest living actor. Before Day-Lewis’ Lincoln, every film version of the life and accomplishments of our greatest president was a caricature, a cartoon. Now we have a living, breathing, dirty-story telling Lincoln who is both an extraordinary democrat – small “d” – and a tough-as-nails political leader. The Academy should phone it in – this is the best acting you can hope to see this year and an inspiring, even great, movie.

One reason Lincoln will have such impact – it’s already cleaning up at the box office – is because our current politics seem so small, petty and mean spirited, often for the sake of just being mean. We yearn for leaders with guts and eloquence, men and women willing to put country before career. Lincoln spent every day of his presidency dealing with a horrible, bloody civil war that threatened the very existence of a nation barely four score years old; a nation torn apart by slaves and slavery.

As Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural – perhaps the most profound speech every spoken in the English language – “These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.” In such light the petty squabbles over the so called fiscal cliff seem truly petty and stupidly partisan.

The single best moment in Lincoln – it’s a movie of many great moments – is when the president is explaining to his Cabinet why he must push Congress to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that will finally and forever outlaw slavery. Lincoln has already freed slaves in those states in rebellion against the United States – the Emancipation Proclamation - but with a lawyer’s precision he explains why, if he is to follow the law and the Constitution, he can’t leave it at that. He must amend the Constitution to make it clear to the courts, to the American public, the world and the future that slavery is dead, forever. Later in the film the president explains to Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens who is seeking a negotiated end to the killing that the rebellious states have lost – slavery will be no more – and the genius of Lincoln, the political genius, is fully evidence.

An old friend Barrett Rainey wrote recently that Lincoln should be required viewing for every high school student and not once, but twice. Once in the freshman year and again right before graduation. Barrett is right. History for many young people has become dry as dust, but Lincoln puts warm blood in the lessons, a particularly important achievement given the historical amnesia that fogs the perspective of too many Americans.

A CNN poll in 2011, for example, found that a quarter of those surveyed had more sympathy with the Confederate states than with the Union. The number rose to 40% among southerners. You can still gin up a spirited argument with the question; “What was the cause of the war?” Hint: it wasn’t state’s rights, or trade or the tariff. The cause of the great national calamity was slavery and the glaring contradiction between the language in our founding documents regarding slavery and the powerful notion that “all men being created equal.”

The Spielberg movie may for a whole new generation bury the idea that 800,000 Americans died for the cause of “states rights.”

Americans badly need remedial history education. For, as the New York Times reports, thousands of Americans of Texas origin have been petitioning the White House to let Texas succeed from the Union. Sorry, Texas, we settled that question at Appomattox Courthouse in April of 1865 and the movie deals intelligently with the fact that Lincoln refused to concede that any state could secede. The Constitution doesn’t contemplate such a move and the idea of Union can’t tolerate such a notion. Such talk, frankly, in the 21st Century is ridiculous.

The Lincoln movie is so valuable for many reasons, not least that it places the dreadful and defining event of American history in the context of what was really at stake when young American boys marched off to slaughter at Shiloh, Gettysburg, Franklin and Cold Harbor. Lincoln was fighting that awful war to win an idea – that a government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.

Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln - ironically the greatest portrayal of the greatest American president comes from a half Brit/half Irishman – shouts down the silly Texans of the 21st Century who dream of going their separate way. It doesn’t work that way. We settled that question a long time ago. We bled the nation – black and white – to establish for once and always that the United States of America is one. We have great debates, we vote, we win some and we lose some, but the United States goes on. Lincoln knew that it would. We should know it, too.

 Go see the movie and take the kids.

 

Action This Day

The (Almost) Case for Unilateral Action

In September 1940, just in front of the election that would make Franklin Roosevelt the first and only third-term president, FDR engineered an audacious deal with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

In exchange for gifting 50 aging, World War I vintage U.S. destroyers to the besieged British, Churchill granted the American president 99 year leases on a number of military bases in the Western Hemisphere. The destroyers for bases deal was loudly condemned by FDR’s critics who called it a raw presidential power play. As critics correctly pointed out, Roosevelt acted on his own motion, going behind the back of Congress to cut his deal with Churchill. History has for the most part vindicated FDR’s power play and many historians think the U.S. actually got the better of the deal.

The 1940 action by Roosevelt may be one of the greatest examples of a president acting unilaterally, but our history is replete with similar examples of presidential action on a unilateral basis. One of Theodore Roosevelt’s gutsy unilateral moves as he was nearing the end of his term created millions of acres of forest preserves – today’s National Forests – and protected the Grand Canyon. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was an act of presidential leadership that is almost universally praised today, but at the time the Great Emancipator cut Congress out of the loop and acted alone.

Now come criticism of Barack Obama’s unilateral action to order the end of deportations for certain young people who might otherwise be sent packing for being in the country illegally even as they have gone on to get an education, or work in order to become contributing members of our society. Critics charge the president acted for the most transparent political reasons or that he acted unconstitutionally or that he has now made legislative action on immigration more difficult. That last charge seems a particularly hard sell given the inability of Congress to act at all regarding immigration, but the real beef with Obama is that he acted alone.

Jimmy Carter used presidential action to protect the environmental crown jewels of Alaska, an action that ultimately forced Congress to get off the dime on that issue. Harry Truman informed Congress, but did not seek its approval regarding his 1948 decision to desegregate the U.S. military.

Of course all presidents overreach, but most do so by acting unilaterally in the foreign policy field, and that a place were unilateral action is often decidedly more problematic, at least in my view. It may turn out that Obama’s immigration action will be successfully challenged in a court of law or the court of public opinion, but don’t bet on it. I’m struck by how often in our history when a president has taken a big, bold step on an issue were Congress can’t or won’t act that the bold step has been vindicated by history.

The American people have always tended to reward action over inaction. Ronald Reagan’s unilateral decision to fire striking air traffic controllers near the beginning of his presidency in 1981 is a good example. Now celebrated, by conservatives at least, as a sterling example of a president acting decisively in the public interest, the decision was enormously contentious at the time it was made. Now its mostly seen as an effective use of unilateral action by a strong president.

The early polling seems to show that Obama’s recent “dream act-like” action on immigration is widely accepted by the American public. The lesson for the current occupant of the Oval Office, a politician who has displayed little skill in getting Congress to act on many issues, might be that a little unilateral action on important issues is not only good politics, but good government.

George W. Bush got this much right about the power of the presidency: the Chief Executive can be, when he wants to be, the decider on many things. The great Churchill frequently demanded “action this day” in his memos to subordinates. The great wartime leader knew that power not used isn’t worth much; but action properly applied is indeed real power.

 

 

Shiloh

A Simple Story of a Battle

April 6, 1862 – 150 years ago today – Americans came to understand that their Civil War would be not be over easily or soon. Edward Ayers, a fine historian of the war, has written that the battle near Shiloh Meeting House in Tennessee changed everything about the war.

“Thousands of men with little training and no experience in war were thrown against one another in days of inexpressible suffering and waste,” Ayers writes. When the two armies disengaged, 23,000 Americans were dead, more in a few hours than in all the wars the nation had fought to that point.

Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant “won” the battle, but the slaughter that went with the victory – 13,000 of his soldiers died – brought demands on Abraham Lincoln that Grant be removed from command. Lincoln refused, famously saying he could not spare Grant because “he fights.”

“Up to the battle of Shiloh,” Grant would later write, “I as well as thousands of other citizens believed that the rebellion against the Government would collapse suddenly and soon [if] a decisive victory could be gained over any of its armies. [But after Shiloh,] I gave up all idea of saving the Union except by complete conquest.”

As horrible as Shiloh had been, Grant began to make his reputation as a fighting general on April 6, 1862. He had been initially surprised by a Confederate attack, but by force of will and battlefield smarts he recovered. The southern army left the field and suffered a grievous loss with the death of perhaps its best solider Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston. I’ve always wondered how history might have turned out differently had the events at Shiloh been reversed and Grant died on the battlefield and Johnston lived on to command increasingly important Confederate armies.

The 19th Century writer Ambrose Bierce, one of the great writers about the conflict, captured the awful essence of Shiloh in his enduring essay “What I Saw at Shiloh.” The first line of Bierce’s story was “this is a simple story of a battle,” but, of course, it was very far from simple. The last line of his essay told the real story.

“Give me but one touch of thine artist hand upon the dull canvas of the Present; gild for but one moment the drear and somber scenes of to-day, and I will willingly surrender an other life than the one that I should have thrown away at Shiloh.”

The sesquicentennial of the horrible war gives us reason to think again about the legacy of the American Civil War and reassess the conflicts lasting meaning. The awful bloody reality of the war that never ends truly became clear to Americans on a Sunday in April 1862 – 150 years ago today.

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The Vermont Humanities Council is producing a marvelous weekly piece on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. I salute them for the effort and for the rich content this week on the Battle of Shiloh.

 

Dumping the Veep

Pulling a Garner or a Hannibal Hamlin

John Nance Garner is mostly forgotten now days. If he’s remembered for anything it was for his alleged pity comment that the “vice presidency isn’t worth a bucket of warm spit.” There is some debate around whether he actually said that or whether spit was what he was really talking about.

In any event, Garner – Cactus Jack – was Speaker of the House, a two-term vice president, a serious presidential candidate in 1932 and one of the few incumbent vice presidents in American history to be dumped from the ticket. Garner didn’t think much of his boss Franklin Roosevelt running for an unprecedented third term in 1940 and would have run himself had FDR not run. That challenge to FDR’s leadership coupled with Garner’s generally conservative political outlook, was enough to convince the supremely confident Roosevelt to send Jack back to Uvalde, Texas in 1941.

I’m reminded of this little history lesson by virtue of the political story that won’t go away – should Barack Obama dump Joe Biden from the 2012 Democratic ticket and replace the somewhat gaffe prone Veep with, say, Hillary Clinton?

Dumping a running mate is rare, but FDR – one of the greatest presidents by most measure – actually did it twice. Abraham Lincoln did it too in 1864 when he dumped a down east Republican from Maine with the wonderful name of Hannibal Hamlin from the ticket and replaced him with a Tennessee “war” Democratic by name of Andrew Johnson. The rest is history as they say.

Roosevelt second dumping took place in 1944 when the man he had handpicked to be vice president four years earlier, Henry Wallace of Iowa, was demoted and a not very well regarded Missouri Senator name of Harry Truman replaced him. On such decisions history turns.

In each case, the incumbent president made the decision to change vice presidents in order to strengthen the ticket. FDR wanted to run with a known liberal in 1940 and by 1944 Wallace had become a liability to the Democratic ticket so the safe Truman was ushered in. In 1864, facing a serious challenge from a “peace” Democrat Gen. George McClellan, and with the Civil War not going all that well, Lincoln aimed to create a national unity ticket by inviting a loyal Democrat from a southern state to balance the ticket. Once could argue that in each case the reshuffling strengthened the ticket and the president who made what must be a tough call was re-elected.

(Gerald Ford dumped Nelson Rockefeller in 1976 and replaced him with Bob Dole, but the circumstances were much different than the FDR or Lincoln scenarios. Neither Republican was elected for starters.)

So, will – or should – Obama shuffle the ticket this year? New York Times columnist Bill Keller says he should since the move would do “more to guarantee Obama’s re-election than anything else the Democrats can do.”

Columnist Jonathan Alter wrote last October that “if it’s clear that Democrats need to do something dramatic to avoid losing the White House, the Switcheroo will happen” simply because everyone involved will bury their pride to keep the GOP from taking over all three branches of the federal government in the next election.

Most of the speculation about “the Switheroo” has Biden getting a better consolation prize, the State Department, than Garner, Wallace or Hamlin did. Garner left public life in 1941, Wallace took the less than glamorous job of Secretary of Commerce and later ran for president on the Progressive Party ticket, and Lincoln briefly considered, and didn’t follow through, on the notion of making Hamlin Secretary of the Treasury. Hamlin eventually returned to Washington for two terms in the U.S. Senate before retiring for good in 1880.

For her part Clinton – and her husband – seems to disavow any interest in making the big switch, even while folks like former Labor Secretary Robert Reich make the case for it.

So what will President Obama do? Hold tight with Biden? Make a big splash with a switch? Obama, apparently not much of a hands on manager who clearly doesn’t like drama, will want to practice the first rule of vice presidents – do no harm. If he thinks he can win with Biden he’ll stick with him.

If, on the other hand, come July Republican nominee Mitt Romney has the lead in the polls and momentum, Obama might go for the big gesture. He is a student of history and surely knows that dumping a vice president, if done with a certain calmness and style, actually helped the two presidents he most admires – FDR and Lincoln. Putting Hillary on the ticket would, of course, generate as much buzz as John McCain sparked when he plucked Sarah Palin out of Alaskan obscurity. But Obama won’t have to worry about Clinton answering Katie Couric’s question about what newspapers she reads.

Hillary just might be a game changer.