2020 Election, Biden, Trump

Give Thanks…

A strange air of normality returned to American politics last Saturday in Wilmington, Delaware: Joe Biden went to Mass

The “protective pool” of reporters whose job it is to shadow the president-elect wherever he goes complained that Biden’s staff hadn’t given them an adequate heads up as to the late Saturday afternoon movements of the next president of the United States. An Associated Press reporter actually complained on Twitter that the whole business was “unacceptable,” since the American people have a right to know about all activities of the president-elect. 

On the one hand, I agree. On the other hand, given the chaos of Donald Trump’s refusal to accept defeat not to mention his four shambolic and corrupting years, how quaint that reporters were complaining that they didn’t have adequate notice that Joe Biden was, wait for it – going to Saturday Mass.

Biden will be, of course, only the second Catholic president and it should be obvious to even the most casual observer of his political and personal life that his faith is very much at the center of who he is. 

“I’m as much a cultural Catholic as I am a theological Catholic,” Biden wrote in his 2007 memoir. “My idea of self, of family, of community, of the wider world comes straight from my religion. It’s not so much the Bible, the beatitudes, the Ten Commandments, the sacraments, or the prayers I learned. It’s the culture.”

In that same book Biden wrote, as many Catholics will recognize, about the cultural traditions of the church. “My attendance was not optional,” Biden said of his childhood as an Irish-Catholic kid. “The entire Finnegan clan (Biden’s mother’s family) rode over to Saint Paul’s Catholic Church together, and the church felt like an extension of home.” 

As an adult convert to the faith, I had none of Biden’s childhood immersion in the ways of the Catholic Church, but like him – and like many fellow Catholics I suspect – I was drawn to the church’s message of social justice. 

In an article in The Christian Post just before the election Biden wrote: “My Catholic faith drilled into me a core truth – that every person on earth is equal in rights and dignity, because we are all beloved children of God. We are all created ‘imago Dei’ – beautifully, uniquely, in the image of God, with inherent worth. It is the same creed that is at the core of our American experiment and written into our founding documents – that we are all created equal and endowed by our creator with inalienable rights.”

Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden bows his head in prayer during a visit to Bethel AME Church in Wilmington, Del., Monday, June 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Donald Trump won election in 2016, in part, on the strength of his support from Catholic voters and evangelical Christians. He failed to win re-election in 2020, in part, because significant numbers of those voters rejected him. Trump still won large majorities among evangelicals, but where Hillary Clinton won 14 percent of Michigan evangelicals in 2016, Biden won 29 percent of those voters this year. Biden tripled Clinton’s share of the white evangelical vote in Georgia. One could argue that these voters elected him president. 

Perhaps, just perhaps, some of these voters realized they were taken in by a thrice married reality television performer who promised to protect religious freedom but ended up trashing basic Christian values: vilifying Muslims, separating refugee children from their parents and not knowing Corinthians from Colonel Sanders. Maybe some of them realized walking the faith is a lot different than talking it.  

When Jimmy Carter, a born-again Southern Baptist who still teaches Sunday school and builds houses for people who need them, was elected president in 1976, the enjoyed wide support from evangelicals. Those same voters, some heavily influenced by a New Right social agenda articulated by a very conservative Catholic like Paul Weyrich and an extremely conservative Baptist like the Reverend Jerry Falwell, abandoned Carter for Ronald Reagan in 1980. In many ways, this evangelical pivot was opportunistic. Carter’s faith didn’t change, but conservative politics did after 1980 and many Christians went along for the ride. 

In one famous incident, Falwell, whose son Jerry, Jr., a major Trump supporter, was recently forced to step down from heading the college his father founded amid allegations of, as one publication noted, “sexual games and self-dealing,” fabricated an elaborate story about Carter in 1980. 

The senior Falwell, eager to buttress his position with the emerging New Right, “lied,” as Carter confided to his diary, about a private meeting that never happened between the two men in the Oval Office. Falwell told supporters that Carter told him he supported a homosexual agenda and was committed to having homosexuals on his White House staff. “I’ve never had a private meeting with him,” Carter said, “he’s never been in the Oval Office, and I’ve never had any conversation.” It was a calculated lie for purely political purposes. 

Immediately after the 1980 election, then-Idaho Senator Frank Church confronted Falwell about the widespread claim in that year’s Senate election – Church lost to Republican Steve Symms – that the four-term, pro-life Democrat was “a baby killer.” Falwell denied – lied through his teeth more correctly – that his group and those affiliated with it had used such language. But anyone in Idaho at the time remembers the church parking lots leafleted with the vile smear. Religion and what passed for Christian values increasingly became just an ugly extension of politics. 

Falwell, Sr. with Ronald Reagan

Few Americans, even Trump supporters, can honestly deny that the current president profoundly coarsened our politics over the last four years; slinging insults, aggressively pitting one faction against another, appealing not to better angels, but to worst instincts. Joe Biden, his life defined by the personal loss he has suffered – the early death of his wife, a daughter and a son – and by his Catholic faith, offers America a reset. 

“If we look to politics to find reasons to be offended, we’ll never come up empty-handed,” says Michael Wear, an evangelical who worked on faith-based initiatives in the Obama Administration. “But this is not only an unproductive way to think about politics, but a destructive one. People of faith should be at the very center of making our politics about the common good, about service. I hope we take that opportunity.” 

Or put another way, you don’t have to embrace all of Joe Biden’s policies, but you may want to give his “equal in rights and dignity” approach a chance. It is, after all, the season of thanksgiving. Be thankful for a renewed commitment to decency. 

I’m again able to grab a bit of optimism about the near-term American future, and I’m hoping even my fellow citizens who don’t like the outcome of the presidential election will think about the upside of a Mass going, cultural Catholic who easily quotes Ecclesiastes and carries his late son’s Rosary in his pocket moving into the White House in a few weeks. 

—–0—–

Additional Reading:

Some additional Thanksgiving week reading…

‘Loser’: How a Lifelong Fear Bookended Trump’s Presidency

Dan Barry has an excellent piece on how the loser hates to be a loser.

“… the citizens have cast their ballots, baseless lawsuits alleging electoral fraud have been dismissed and states have certified the vote. Still, the loser of the 2020 presidential election continues to see crowds that the rest of the country does not.

“It ends as it began.”

Definitely worth your time.


Doughnuts or Donuts? Krispy Kreme or Dunkin’? All of the Above?

A deep dive – or is it a deep dunk – into doughnuts (or donuts).

“Doughnuts’ rise continued through the 1930s. In 1934, the same year Clark Gable started dunkin’ up a storm on the silver screen, they were named the ‘Hit Food of the Century of Progress’ at the World’s Fair in Chicago. Even more monumentally, that year 19-year-old Vernon Rudolph opened the very first Krispy Kreme Doughnut Company store in Nashville, Tennessee, with his uncle Ishmael, who’d purchased a yeast doughnut recipe from a New Orleans chef with the whimsical name of Joe LeBeau.”

Make mine maple. Read the whole thing here.


Anthony Hopkins: “I wanted to be famous. I wanted to be rich”

Anthony Hopkins

Kyle Buchanan profiles the great actor Anthony Hopkins in The Irish Times and includes some gems. 

“A chance encounter with actor Richard Burton, who had also grown up near Port Talbot and somehow became the toast of Hollywood, would help prod Hopkins toward performance. A gifted mimic, Hopkins saw plenty in Burton’s trajectory that he was desperate to emulate.

“I wanted to be famous. I wanted to be rich,” Hopkins says. “I wanted to be successful, to make up for what I thought was an empty past. And I became all of those things.”

Great actor, excellent profile.


Hope your Thanksgiving was all it could be in these crazy times. Thanks for reading. Be well.

2020 Election, Biden, Books

Joe and Jill…

From this morning’s Politico Playbook:

“Today marks the beginning of the post-Trump era in American politics. To the extent that he still has political currency, it dwindles every day as Jan. 20, 2021 draws closer. Members of his own party are already suggesting his time is up. His staff is looking for new jobs. Markets are looking up, and analysts say it’s because of the expected calm in U.S. politics. In the U.K., government officials are now saying the Trump era was not good for them, and they vow to forge a good relationship with Joe Biden.”

“Around the world and at home, Trump has been written off.”


Many political consultants, journalists, students of how campaigns win and lose – political junkies in other words – consider the late Richard Ben Cramer’s book What It Takes: The Way to the White House to be the very best single book about the meat grinder we put people through who aspire to the highest office in the land. 

Richard Ben Cramer published his classic in 1992

Cramer’s celebrated volume – I’ve written about it before – is a doorstop of a book, ringing in at 1,047 pages even without an index and footnotes. It’s a classic of what was once called “the new journalism,” the kind of reporting that gets to the granular detail of candidates and campaigns. The book still inspires writers of political history.

Cramer’s focus was on six men who ran for president in 1988: two Republicans, Bob Dole and George H.W. Bush and four Democrats, Richard Gephardt, Gary Hart, Michael Dukakis and, yes, Joe Biden. 

I took down my well-thumbed copy of What It Takes on Saturday night shortly after Biden made the speech he’s been hoping to make since at least 1988. I wanted to revisit Cramer’s insights into Biden, and particularly a concise little section of the book that deals with the Biden marriage. It seemed especially relevant given what Biden said in his “victory” speech about his wife Jill. 

 “Folks, as I said many times before, I’m Jill’s husband,” Biden said to the raucous crowd assembled in Wilmington, Delaware on November 7. “And I would not be here without the love and tireless support of Jill and my son Hunter and Ashley, my daughter, and all our grandchildren and their spouses and all our family. They’re my heart. Jill’s a mom, a military mom, an educator.

“And she has dedicated her life to education, but teaching isn’t just what she does. It’s who she is. For American educators, this is a great day for y’all. You’re gonna have one of your own in the White House. And Jill’s gonna make a great first lady. I’m so proud of her.”

Most everyone who has been paying attention knows that just before Christmas 1972 Biden’s first wife, Neilia, died in an automobile accident along with the couple’s daughter, Naomi. The two Biden sons were seriously injured but survived. Biden had just been elected to the United States Senate and, not surprisingly, the tragedy, as he would say years later, altered his world forever

Whatever your politics, I defy you to read the chapter in Richard Ben Cramer’s book – he titled it simply “Jill” – and not get a little misty. It starts on page 712 and ends on 714. The punctuation is unusual, signaling pauses and reflection, more like someone speaking than writing, which is perhaps why Cramer’s descriptions ring so true. 

Jill and Joe Biden

“It was a couple of years after Neilia died,” Cramer wrote, “before Joe ever got himself back. Not that he was a basket case. Thirty-two years old, a Senator, rising star in the Party…that was fine.” But, as Cramer put it, there was “a hole in his life.” 

People encouraged him to go out, meet other people, but Biden insisted on being a father first…and last. Being a politician was just his day job. 

“He tried to go out, tentatively…it was hard. In Washington, he felt…well he had to go home. In Delaware, it was almost too close. Everybody knew, or thought they knew. Not to mention, all those eager …well, Mrs. Johnson thought her daughter would make a perfect match for a Senator…”

Meeting Jill Jacobs – she was 24 years old teacher – was a serendipitous thing. Joe saw a photo of her – “she was blond, young, smiling…she was gorgeous.” Biden’s brother “knew someone who knew her” and got Joe her number. He called her. She broke a date to see him for dinner. Biden showed up in a suit, bought dinner and afterward escorted her to the door and they shook hands. 

“She hadn’t gone out with a guy in a suit for – probably since high school.” And Jill told her Mom: “My God, I think I finally met a gentleman.” 

After the second date, “he called and told her he didn’t think they should date anyone else…after two dates! Then he wanted to bring the boys. Then he wanted to take her out with the family, the brothers, Val [Biden’s sister], his folks…that’s where Jill held back. She didn’t want to get involved with the family, to feel she was under inspection. Only later she figured out: Joe didn’t want an inspection. It wasn’t any special trip for here to meet the family. The family was how ‘we Bidens’ lived.” 

Cramer’s description of Jill Biden: “She could talk with anyone. Not that she believed everyone. No, she believed what she believed. She had backbone. She was private – Joe liked that, her cool way of hiding the girl inside, and the old hurts…he could see that. She had that way of looking at you, to make sure you meant what she thought was so funny…and then that quick shy smile, half-doubting – she could sniff out bullshit. She’d tell him, too – especially when it was his bullshit – she’d tell him straight. Very soft of manner was Jill, but smart: she knew who she liked.” 

Cramer goes on: “She could do it…he could see it…and when that started, well, he could see things falling into place. If he could put that back together, if he knew they’d have their home, their family…then he could reach outward again. It wasn’t just the schedule – he could travel, he could speak. It was more like the center was in place…so he could lift his eyes. That’s how Joe talked about it – his words. 

“What Jill did…she was the one who let me dream again.”

——

A lot of ink will be spilled over the next weeks and months analyzing why Joe Biden won and Donald Trump lost the presidential election of 2020. Clearly, the president of the United States tried to employ the same fundamental strategy he used against his Republican opponents in 2016 and then against Hillary Clinton. 

It wasn’t subtle. He sought to demonize Joe Biden. But it didn’t work. And the election, as it should have been, became largely a referendum on Donald Trump’s chaotic, shambolic, demagogic four years in office. 

I think the demonizing strategy didn’t work because Joe Biden, even with his penchant for verbal gaffes, his occasional odd turn of phrase, his 47 years in public life, is fundamentally what you see: a very decent guy who loves his wife, adores his family and really cares about the country. Is he perfect? Of course not. We don’t get perfect in politics or anything for that matter, but we can choose character and experience. And we did. 

It’s odd to me, as the political scientist Larry Sabato says, that politics in the only place in our society where we disparage experience. If we ever have needed someone who displays fundamental competence, we need it now. If we ever need someone who can summon our better angels and who can comfortably quote scripture because he actually believes it, we need it now. 

Are there big challenges ahead? Of course. Biden will assume the most impossible job in the world saddled with the most difficult problems encountered by any American president since at least 1932. But, you know, America is a lucky place. We usually get what we deserve. 

The United States took a wild and dangerous four-year swing in an anti-democratic direction, embracing a man almost wholly lacking in character, self-reflection, decency and competence. We self-corrected. In the process we may well have gotten the one person who has a chance to lead us to better days. 

Jill Biden made the right call all those years ago. Millions of Americans affirmed her decision on November 3rd

—–0—–

2016 Election, Baseball, Biden, Clinton, Politics, Travel, Trump, World Cup

Worthy of Winning…

“Sincerity – if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

                                                    – Comedian George Burns

– – – – –

We’ve just experienced a week in politics that was in turn sincere and something a good deal less. For once during this pre-primary season the guy with the squirrel on his head didn’t completely dominate the news. Rather two guys who will never be president and one who might, but hasn’t – and maybe won’t – announce showed us what the “real” campaign has been missing.

Let’s call it sincerity or, if you prefer, authenticity.

Joe Biden with Stephen Colbert
Joe Biden with Stephen Colbert

Vice President Joe Biden’s wrenchingly candid visit last week with Stephen Colbert on late night television was the “authentic” political moment of the week – maybe the decade. Biden, still coming to grips with the too-early death of his son, Beau, talked from the heart (not from the talking points) about loss, love, politics and what’s really important. Only a complete cynic could have watched the conversation and not felt that the oft maligned, gaffe prone vice president wasn’t a real guy dealing with the kind of real loss only a father (or mother) can know.

The pundits are all over the map about whether Biden will make a “late” entry into the Democratic primary contest and I won’t hazard a guess, but regardless of what Biden ultimately decides to do he has shown the tired and hungry voters what a politician who is also human looks like.

Two Guys Who Will Never be President…

Rick Perry, the oft-maligned former governor of Texas, in a way did something similar. Facing reality, as in no money and no support, Perry became the first of many to exit the Republican race. He might have held on a while longer, gone through the motions of another debate, but it seems as though Perry knew he was toast and pulled the plug on his toaster, er, campaign. For a guy who stumbled and bumbled through the 2012 campaign and spent the last three years attempting to re-invent himself with new glasses and serious policy pronouncements, Perry’s announcement seemed like a statement of authenticity from a guy who always looked like a deer caught in the political headlights once he got north of Austin.

The Never Will and the Never Should Be...
The Never Will and the Never Should Be…

The other unusually authentic moment in recent days was, from of all people, the stumbling, bumbling governor of Louisiana Bobby Jindal. Jindal did what every other Republican presidential candidate and most every responsible person in the party wants to do – he went all Trump on The Donald.

During a speech in Washington, Jindal called Trump “unstable,” “a narcissist,” “unserious,” and “a carnival act.”

“I want to say what everyone is thinking about Donald Trump but is afraid to say,” Jindal said as he ripped Trump the same way Trump rips everyone.

“He is shallow, there is no substance. He doesn’t know anything about policy, he has no idea what he is talking about. He makes it up on the fly,” Jindal said.

Conservative columnist Kathleen Parker correctly said Jindal was a “1 percenter [in the polls] with nothing too lose.” But give the governor credit for candor even if he was playing his Trump card in order to gin up attention for a campaign that is going no where. For good measure Jindal condemned Trump’s latest broadside disparaging Carly Fiorina’s looks, a comment Trump, of course, denied, but also clearly said.

“I think it’s pretty outrageous for him to be attacking anybody’s appearance when he looks like he’s got a squirrel sitting on his head,” Jindal told CBS News. Thanks to Jindal we have a new metric for the campaign: Trump leading in Iowa and in also in squirrels siting on his head. At long last the GOP campaign is getting down to substance.

The chattering classes – yours truly included – have spent the summer trying to fathom the rise of the Bloviator from 5th Avenue and, I think, the answers are many, complex and disturbing. But nothing explains Trump and the current political season more than the American longing for something real, even if in Trump’s case “real” means beneath contempt.

Say what you will about Trump, and I’ll say more soon about where he may be taking the Grand Old Party, but what you see is what you get. A letter to the editor writer in a paper I regularly read said it pretty succulently.

“I like what Donald Trump is doing even though I could never vote for him,” she wrote. “He is busy bulldozing the barricades of political correctness. Donald “Trumps” them all with his bravado. His campaign is a momentary breath of fresh air — freedom to speak our minds; thus the high rating in the polls. He has cleared the way for men like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul to be even bolder without the media spinning their thoughts into unrecognizable smudge. Perception is everything. The number of people viewing the debates has doubled, and those voters are hearing the candidates for themselves. Yes.”

Yes, indeed. Trump may be a bully, a bore and buffoon, but he is a real bully, bore and buffoon. You can’t fake Trump’s kind of sincerity.

The Appalling Success of Trump…

Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan
Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan

The gifted historian Margaret MacMillan, a Canadian who understands leadership and American politics, correctly describes a significant part of Trump’s appeal.

MacMillan told the Globe and Mail newspaper: “I think there’s a real longing among the public for leaders who say, ‘Look, this is where I stand and this is what I think and, if you don’t like it, let me explain what I want to do and why.’ This dynamic is part of the appalling success of Donald Trump. He’s not afraid to say what he thinks, and people – in my view completely mistakenly – find this authentic and refreshing in a politician.”

Trump’s appeal is more complex and more troubling than his “truth telling” in the cause of destroying political correctness, but his say-what’s-on-his-mind approach to politics is so completely at odds with the poll tested sound bites of John Boehner and Hillary Clinton as to truly make him appear to be something special to a sizable group of Republican voters.

Clinton’s handlers meanwhile are so desperate to set free their inauthentic candidate from her stilted self that they have hit the re-set button for about the twelfth time in the effort to try and make Hillary human.

“They want to show her humor,” one Clinton adviser said recently. “They want to show her heart.” The coming months for the still front-running Democrat will “be a period of trying to shed her scriptedness.”

The latest Clinton makeover prompted the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank to quip, “Planned spontaneity? A scripted attempt to go off script? This puts the ‘moron’ into oxymoron.”

Ironically, perhaps the one thing each party’s polling leader shares is a need to behave like an authentic real person. Trump needs to begin to act and talk like a mature adult and not a completely self absorbed teenager who meets every challenge with a put down, while Clinton needs to act and talk like she’s not the political equivalent of the voice of GPS system in your car – all business and no humanity.

Joe Biden’s favor to the country last week was to show us how much we dislike phonies and appreciate authenticity. Being human after all shouldn’t require practice or makeovers.

The famous photo of Stevenson with a hole in his shoe...
The famous photo of Stevenson with a hole in his shoe…

“I’m not an old, experienced hand at politics,” Democrat Adali Stevenson said as he was about to lose the presidency for the second time in 1956. “But I am now seasoned enough to have learned that the hardest thing about any political campaign is how to win without proving that you are unworthy of winning.”

Most of us intuitively know that Trump’s deliberate bluster and Clinton’s scripted calculation are manufactured characteristics that have more to do with their own deep seated insecurities than with the qualities we actually admire and seek in a leader. Real leadership is about being secure enough to listen, not just talk. It’s also about sincerity, humility, self-awareness, humor, empathy and decency. Gosh, those sounds like human characteristics.

Neither candidate currently leading the polls is likely during the interminable campaign to convince a majority of voters that they are real people with real human characteristics and are deserving of leading the country. Neither seems likely to win, as Adali Stevenson said, without proving they are unworthy of winning.

While fearing that we’ll be forced to settle for something less we keep looking for someone who doesn’t need to re-invent themselves in order to be “authentic,” we keep looking for a winner worthy of winning.

 

Biden, Mortality

Death Leaves a Heartache…

Any death, it is said, diminishes all of us and we instinctively know the wisdom of that truth even if we rarely acknowledge the diminishment. Whether it’s a refugee fleeing the madness in Syria or a homeless person under a bridge death is the great equalizer and the one absolute all of us share.

Great wealth or rarified position might set you apart in life from those without either, but we all end up in the same place.

Death is news. A typhoon, a shooting or a capsized boat in some far away place catches our attention, perhaps for only a moment, and we pause to think of those touched by the mortality we all share and then, as we must, we carry on with life.

John Nash - the brilliant mind
John Nash – the brilliant mind

Occasionally the reality, the sadness, the finality and yes, even the hope of the great equalizer touches us more profoundly, more personally. We lose a friend or a friend loses a parent. Someone we admire – a John Nash, the Nobel winning mathematician – or someone worthy of our contempt – a Tariq Aziz, the cynical apologist for Saddam – dies and we mark the passing.

The passing of Vice President Joe Biden’s son Beau last week was such a moment for me even though I know those involved only from long distance and by observation.

Beau and Joe Biden
Beau and Joe Biden

Young Biden just forty-six years old, died of brain cancer leaving a wife and two small children. He’d been attorney general of Delaware and served an Army tour in Iraq. By every account he was a truly exemplary young man. The outpouring of condolences and support for the Biden family was of such a magnitude that in their home state, the family published a full-page thank you in the state’s largest newspaper. The gesture was so classy, personal and obviously heartfelt that it will make you cry.

Joe Biden has often become and not always unfairly, a political punch line, an old school pol that works a room by slapping backs, kissing babies and occasionally tripping over his nearly always moving tongue. He has the gift of gab and unlike so many people who have spent their lives in full public view, Biden seems to relish being where he is. It was painful, moving and somehow also profoundly uplifting to watch the grieving and sorrow of such a public man done in such an obviously authentic and personal way. Biden has had more than his share of the sorrow of unbearable parental loss.

Joe Biden, 1972
Joe Biden, 1972

When Biden, the ridiculously young senator from Delaware, was sworn in back in 1973 he took the oath at the bedside of his son Beau who was still recovering from the injuries he sustained in the automobile accident that killed Biden’s first wife and infant daughter. One photo from that day shows four-year-old Beau with his left leg in traction and his single parent dad hovering nearby. Biden wrote to one correspondent that he doubted he would ever get over the loss or understand why it had happened. Now he must endure it all again.

Biden and Obama at Beau Biden's funeral
Biden and Obama at Beau Biden’s funeral

In his moving and plainspoken eulogy for Beau Biden last Saturday, President Obama said this: “We do not know how long we’ve got here. We don’t know when fate will intervene. We cannot discern God’s plan. What we do know is that with every minute that we’ve got, we can live our lives in a way that takes nothing for granted. We can love deeply. We can help people who need help. We can teach our children what matters, and pass on empathy and compassion and selflessness. We can teach them to have broad shoulders.”

How awful to lose a child and Joe Biden has lost two.

A remarkable informal talk the vice president gave to families who have lost loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan went largely unnoticed back in 2012, but to listen to the speech now in the context of more unthinkable loss for Biden is, well, stunning. Only the hardest heart would not be moved and impressed by his understanding and empathy.

“No parent should be pre-deceased by their son or daughter,” Biden told the military families as he recounted his own Catholic struggle to overcome being “mad at God.” Biden said the loss of his wife and daughter made him understand how someone confronted with such loss and grief could contemplate suicide.

“Not because they were deranged, not because they were nuts,” Biden said, but “because they’d been to the top of the mountain, and they just knew in their heart they’d never get there again, that it was never going to get – never going to be that way ever again.”

Writing recently in The New Yorker Evan Osnos observed, “In a town [Washington] where ‘family’ is often brandished as a political prop, the Bidens have never attracted a cynical reading. In their tragedy, their striving, their survival and their improbable optimism, the Bidens are a deeply American family—a clan that, even as it edged into privilege, has never looked out of reach or out of touch.”

Such loss as Joe Biden has sustained, one suspects, never goes away. It is amazing when we take time to stop and think about it that the resilience of the human spirit allows us, somehow, in the face of such tragedy to struggle on. That kind of human spirit was evident with the Bidens over the last week.

Joe Biden, the gabbing politician with the flair for saying things that get him in trouble, will never be a laugh line for me again. In a business that so often and so completely lacks “authenticity,” the guy has proven at his most vulnerable moments that he is the real deal. His loss is ours. He’s a dad hurting as only a father (or mother) can. His grace and candor in handling the worst kind of loss a parent can imagine, let alone experience, is not just ennobling, it is a testament to how good people carry on when unthinkable things happen to them.

As the old Irish prayer says:

Death leaves a heartache

no one can heal;

Love leaves a memory no

one can steal.

I’m praying for those Bidens.

 

2016 Election, Biden, Lincoln, World Cup

Teaching Old Dogma New Tricks

Start with the obvious – all politicians pander to one degree or another. It is an occupational hazard of the political art that admittedly some do more adroitly than others. Still staking out a position in order to maximize political support or to appeal to a particular slice of the electorate is as old as Lincoln.

As he maneuvered for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860, Lincoln attempted deftly tab30460.jpgo manage the only issue that really mattered in that election – what to do about slavery and particularly whether slavery would be allowed to expand into new western territories. Ultimately elected with just 40 percent of the vote, Lincoln made his political appeal to the anti-slavery crowd, but also carefully attempted to reassure worried southerners and state’s rights advocates that he believed in working in the political process to settle big national disputes.

Lincoln’s political management of the slavery issue was both principled and pragmatic, which is what good politicians do. Lincoln had to appeal to northern Republicans, but at the same time attempt not to alienate another vast segment of the population. The stakes were beyond high. One might argue that Lincoln, one of the most skillful politicians to ever occupy the White House, was unsuccessful, but the fault sits with those who refused to believe Lincoln’s election was legitimate and his motives principled. Even before Lincoln was inaugurated in March 1861 seven southern states had voted to secede from the Union and a bloody civil war became inevitable even as Lincoln tried to head it off.

So much of Lincoln’s approach to the political arts – principles fused with pragmatism – still rings true 150 years after his death. It also rings true that the great man would not recognize the modern party that sponsors dinners in his name this time of year, but seems to act less and less in his spirit.

From unrestricted money to endless campaigns there is much to dislike about modern American politics, but perhaps there are few things more unsavory, and less like Lincoln, then the increasing tendency of candidates to embrace positions that they must know are unsustainable over the long run, but they embrace them nonetheless in the interest of short-term appeal to a narrow, ideological band of political activist. A variation on this theme is to simply refuse to answer questions about issue that if answered “incorrectly” might cause a flutter among the politically active in a suburb of West Des Moines, Iowa or in downtown Columbia, South Carolina.

This is the very definition of pander and it has almost nothing to do with principle.

As the Republican “shadow primary” continues to unfold and with the media focus constantly shifting walkerto lavish attention of the GOP “flavor-of-the week” the current not-ready-for-prime-time contender has become Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Walker’s Tea Party flavor has taken him to the top of the latest polls in Iowa of Republican contenders largely on the strength of adopting – or refusing to specify – positions that he can’t sustain all the way to the White House, but might position him solidly with the element in his party that Teddy Roosevelt once called “the lunatic fringe.”

In the space of a few recent days Walker refused to say whether he believed in evolution, said “I don’t know whether Obama is a Christian,” and declined to offer a comment on Rudy Giuliani’s silly assertion that the President of the United States doesn’t love his country. For good measure and during the same period Walker doubled down on his opposition to abortion and engendered controversy in Wisconsin by trying to change (and dumb down) the mission statement of the state’s widely respected higher education system, while also proposing drastic cuts in that system.

Walker’s motives for failing to answer basic questions are as subtle as Vince Lombardi’s famous Green Bay Packer Sweep – he’s powering farther and farther to the right in the Republican contest for 2016 believing apparently that politics has suddenly become a game of subtraction rather than addition.

What Walker might have said to such basic questions seems so obvious. On the president’s religion, for example, he might have said: “It’s my understanding that the president has said many times that he is a Christian. I accept that since I am, too.” Or he might have said, as Jeb Bush essentially did, with regard to Obama’s patriotism: “I don’t presume to question the president’s loyalty or love of country, but I do disagree with him on policy.”

Maybe Walker really believes Barack Obama isn’t a Christian or is fundamentally disloyal to his country, but I’m guessing he is really playing – not very skillfully as it turns out – the Republican dog whistle game designed to reassure the party “base” that a presidential candidate is in on the far right joke. If you’re jockeying for Republican primary voters you can’t be too sure about science and it is impossible to be too critical of Obama.

For his part Walker blamed the media for all the attention he received for his evasions, which were really just code signaling that Walker “gets” the GOP primary voter. The media is guilty, Walker said, of playing “gotcha games.” Then Walker immediately began raising money on the basis that he had adopted an adversary relationship with the well-known “liberal” media.

“To me, this is a classic example of why people hate Washington and, increasingly, they dislike the press,” Walker said. “The things they care about don’t even remotely come close to what you’re asking about.”

Welcome to the world of the Republican presidential primary or, more correctly, the mad sprint to the far, far right where “strategy” and “message” mean you refuse to disassociate yourself from the ridiculous ranting of a one-time big city mayor and then blame the press for asking. As for “gotcha” questions stay tuned governor you ain’t heard nothing yet. Many good reporters know that the very best question is often a simple question that forces the politician to reveal – or hide – core beliefs.

How else to explain Walker not answering a question served up by a British interviewer who asked if the Wisconsin Tea Party darling believed in evolution. There is an appropriate answer for that question and it would be – yes, but Walker said he would “punt” instead. Offering up the correct answer based upon science, after all, might signify that Walker isn’t being appropriately sensitive to the apparently increasing number of self-identified Republicans who say they don’t believe in evolution.

As the New Yorker’s John Cassidy says: “In a more just world, Walker’s indecent and craven antics would disqualify him from playing any further role in the Presidential race. But in the current political environment, his tactics, far from hurting him, may well bolster a candidacy that is already thriving.”

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul drove into this message RandPaulHuh2cul-de-sac recently when they tried to finesse, again for the benefit of the far, far right of their party, the question of whether parents ought to get their children immunized. The overwhelming scientific and medical evidence is that yes you should get your kids immunized. Vaccination for school children also happens to be the law in all 50 states and 83 percent of Americans according to a recent Pew survey believe vaccines are safe. But apparently the nine percent who don’t agree about the safety of immunizations (seven percent say they don’t know) all vote Republican in the Iowa caucus.

Both parties have their litmus test issues, but the Republican test is fraught with more political peril. When immunization, evolution and the patriotism of the man in the White House become questions GOP candidates need to bob and weave around you have a sense that a vast swath of the American electorate is already quietly shaking their heads and asking is this the best we can do?

As the usually astute political observer Charlie Cook pointed out recently, “Given that, since 2009, the organizing principle for most Republican campaigns for the White House, the House, and the Senate has been to oppose Obama, Obamacare, and most other administration policies, Republicans need to think about what they are going to stand for as the end of the president’s time in office nears, and after he’s gone.”

Cook suggests, and I agree, the defining issue of the 2016 campaign will be “real incomes” and the fact that “accounting for inflation, the median income for American households peaked in 1999, at $56,895, and has been going down since. The average American family has been losing ground for a decade and a half.” Try punting on that one.

The real peril for Republicans as they maneuver to replace Obama, and Scott Walker really is just the flavor-of-the-week, is whether they pander so much to the fringe of their party that they can’t generate credibility with the rest of the country on issues that, as Walker might say, “come close to what you are talking about,” including real incomes of middle class Americans.

The terribly witty Dorothy Parker long ago reportedly quipped – appropriately it would seem in Governor Walker’s case – “that you can’t teach an old dogma new tricks.” It’s a sad testament to the state of politics that no one, with the possible exception of Jeb Bush, is even tentatively challenging the old dogma that has come to define the modern GOP and led them to defeat in the last two presidential elections. Sadly Republican presidential candidates again seem to be locked into a long, twilight struggle to narrowly define themselves by the dogma they are convinced they must embrace in order to appeal to the party’s primary voters.

It was just that kind of thinking, after all, that got a socialist, Kenya-born Muslim, who is disloyal to America and probably believes in evolution elected President of the United States in the first place.

 

Air Travel, Al Gore, American Presidents, Biden, Books, Eisenhower, Hats, Idaho Statehouse, Immigration, Lincoln, Obama, Theodore Roosevelt

Not the Party of Lincoln

130205_abraham_lincoln_ap_605_605Abraham Lincoln is the one American president everyone claims, well almost everyone. Lincoln is the model of principled leader, the shrewd strategist navigating through the most severe crisis the nation has ever faced. His writing skills astound. His humor, much of it self deprecating, was a marvel. I can make the case that Lincoln invented the role of commander-in-chief and despite his lack of education in military matters he became a better strategist than any of his generals, including Grant.

Lincoln’s Social and Economic Policy

In one year of his presidency, 1862, Lincoln signed four nation changing acts. One was the Homestead Act, a massive transfer of wealth to thousands of Americans who, without the chance to own and live off the their own land, had little hope of improving their economic status. One of the beneficiaries of was my grandfather, a poor Missouri boy who staked out his homestead in the sand hill country of western Nebraska just after the turn of the 20th Century. He proved up his place and got married to a woman whose husband had abandoned her leaving my grandmother with two young sons to raise on her own. Their marriage produced my dad who would admire to the end of his days the grit and determination of his own father in carving a life out of the land. My grandfather later owned a successful business, became the mayor of his adopted home town and gave his own sons, including my dad, a big leg up on life. It all started with Mr. Lincoln signing that Homestead Act in 1862.

That same year, 1862, the president also put his A. Lincoln on the Morrill Act creating the great system of public higher education – Land_grant_college_stampthe land grant colleges – that helped further transform the country and cemented the idea that everyone had a chance to attain an education and acquire a profession. I graduated from a land grant college, so too members of my family.

In 1862 Lincoln also authorized the transcontinental railroad, a massive windfall for a handful of already very wealthy railroad barons, but also a massive public works project that created wealth from the bottom up as well as from the top down. Many of those who benefited from the homesteads and the education and the railroads were immigrants, Irish and German, Swede and Finn. All came to America looking for opportunity and many finding it thanks to enlightened Republican-inspired public policy created, hard to believe, in the middle of a great civil war. All told the social and economic policy made during that one year of Lincoln’s presidency transformed America.

The fourth great accomplishment of 1862 was, of course, the Emancipation Proclamation, an audacious expansion of presidential power that Lincoln’s many critics condemned as executive overreach. One wonders if that executive order will stand the test of time?

In an engaging and provocative new book – To Make Men Free – Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson tells the story of the creation of the Republican Party – Lincoln’s party – as an activist, results oriented movement that was determined to support “a la-la-ca-0919-heather-cox-richardson-087-jpg-20140924strong and growing middle class, whose members had fought to defend the government during the war and now used government money and owned government bonds, paid government taxes and attended government-funded colleges, and gave their wholehearted allegiance to the nation.” Oh, yes, Lincoln’s Republican Party also championed immigration.

It is a curious twist of history that the Republican Party of Lincoln, a party that began as a champion of the middle class and freed the slaves, now so closely identifies with the most privileged among us, while catering to older, white voters, many in the south. Democrats have undergone their own evolution, as well, transforming a white, southern-dominated party that once stood mostly for state’s rights and private privilege into a party that embraced civil rights and now commands the allegiance of America’s growing minority population.

As the Los Angeles Times noted in it’s review of To Make Men Free, “Richardson traces the [Republican] transformation from an egalitarian and broad-minded coalition into a narrow and disappearing one, increasingly trapped in a demographic isolation booth of its own making.” Richardson argues the Republican transformation from Lincoln’s party to the Tea Party has hardly been a straight line progression. Theodore Roosevelt with his efforts to cut monopoly down to size and Dwight Eisenhower with tax policy and the interstate highway system were other Republican presidents who tried to return the party to its founding principles. Those efforts did not last and now the GOP has fully embraced a philosophy that is almost entirely based on opposition to the current man in the White House and tax cuts mostly designed to benefit the Koch Brothers class. One doubts whether Republican icons like T.R. and Ike could get out of an Iowa caucus these days. They simply stood for too much that is foreign to today’s Republican Party.

And…Then There Was Immigration

Now that Barack Obama has finally pulled the pin on the immigration grenade and rolled it across the table to Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, the country’s poisonous partisanship instantly became even more toxic. As is usually the case with this president he did a masterfully inept job of setting up the showdown.

Six months ago Obama might have given his GOP adversaries a public deadline for legislative action and framed the debate in simple, stark terms. Congressional Republicans have a chance to prove, Obama might have said, that they are not completely captured by the xenophobia of their most radical elements. He could have added the hope that Republicans would chose carefully their approach and then stumped the country for a specific proposal. Of course I know the Senate long ago passed a bipartisan immigration bill, but that recent history is lost on all but the most inside players. Obama’s approach to both teeing up and framing the issue and the predictable Republican reaction just doubles down on do nothing. The political environment grows more heavily seasoned with rancor that breeds hatred.

While Obama remains a maddeningly aloof personality who displays a persistent unwillingness to engage in the grubby details of politics, it is also true that the modern Republican Party has been captured, as Heather Cox Richardson says, by its no-to-everything base and can “no longer engage with the reality of actual governance.”

Obama, one suspects, will ultimately win the immigration fight. Facts, logic and demographics are on his side, not to mention an American tradition of fairness and justice. But in the meantime the senseless and petty partisanship rolls on. Congressman Raul Labrador suggests a government shutdown “lite” that would stop confirmation of any Obama appointees and slash some budgets. Others whisper impeachment and House Republicans have sued the president.

The incoming Senate Majority Leader says the new Republican Congress will consider a range of alternatives to deal with the president’s unprecedented power grab, which is not, of course, unprecedented at all. Here’s an idea for Senator McConnell who promises “forceful action” – how about you all pass a bill to fix the immigration mess. What a novel idea. Lawmakers legislating. Almost Lincolnesque.

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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.

 

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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.

 

Biden, Civil Rights, Film, Lincoln

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.

 

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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.