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Leader of the Pack

“I want to be able to go out at the top of my game…I don’t want to be a 42-year-old trying to become a designated hitter.” – Baseball fan Harry Reid on his decision to retire from the Senate.

It is often said that being president of the United States is the “toughest job in the world.” If that is true then being the Senate Majority Leader is certainly the second toughest job in Washington, D.C.

Harry ReidHarry Reid did the job longer than most and during a time – he shares the blame, of course – that marked one of the most partisan periods in the history of the Senate. Now in the minority, Reid announced last week that he will hang it up when his term ends next year.

Reid’s expected successor as Democratic leader, hand-picked it seems by the former boxer from Searchlight, Nevada, is New York Senator Charles Schumer who, one could expect, will extend the sharply partisan tone once his desk is directly across the aisle from Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

A Rare Big State Leader…

Schumer, should he be successful in replacing Reid next year, will be the first Senate leader in either party (majority or minority leader) to hail from New York. In fact, it is a historical Schumer-Reidcuriosity that the leaders of both parties in the Senate most often come from smaller states; states like Harry Reid’s Nevada.

The role of “Senate leader” is relatively new, at least in the long history of the United States Senate. The first formally designated “leader” was elected by the then-minority caucus of Democrats is 1919. The “Majority leader” title at that time was only informally conveyed on Massachusetts Republican Henry Cabot Lodge, who also chaired the powerful Foreign Relations Committee. The GOP majority made “the leader” an official designation in 1923 and since that time politicians from smaller states have for the most part occupied the top jobs in the Senate.

Of the biggest states, only Illinois has had two senators, Republican Everett Dirksen and Democrat Scott Lucas, in leadership. Meanwhile, Maine, Kentucky, Tennessee and Kansas have each had two senators in top jobs, while South Dakota, West Virginia, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Indiana, Oregon, Arizona and Mississippi each have had senators in leadership.

There are but a handful of exceptions to the small state leadership rule, most notably Texas (Lyndon Johnson), California (William Knowland), Pennsylvania (Hugh Scott) and, very briefly, Ohio (Robert Taft). Schumer will be another exception. Interestingly, with the exception of LBJ (who held a leadership position for eight years) and Scott (minority leader for six year) none of the big state leaders have held the job for long.

The longest serving leader remains Montana’s Mike Mansfield who served for sixteen years, all Mansfield_Dirksenas majority leader. By the time Reid is done, at least in terms of longevity, he’ll be in the company of Arkansas’ Joseph T. Robinson (fourteen years) and West Virginia’s Robert Byrd and Kentucky’s Alben Barkley (twelve years).

It is also interesting that Democratic leaders tend to last longer than Republican leaders. Reid’s tenure in leadership will put him in the top five of longest serving Senate leaders, all Democrats. Republicans Bob Dole of Kansas and Charles McNary of Oregon are the longest serving GOP Senate leaders, each having served eleven years.

So, why do smaller states tend to produce more Senate leaders? Could the Senate as an institution have a bias against senators from larger states? Could it be that serving as a senator from a large population state is more demanding than doing the same job in a smaller state therefore leaving more time for other duties like herding Senate cats as a leader?

My own theory – unburdened by any real evidence – is that small state senators just might be better at the skills of “retail” politics; the meeting and greeting, remembering names and faces, the attention to details that Mansfield, Johnson, Dole and Howard Baker put to such good use. Perhaps small state senators also regularly meet more voters, hold more town hall meetings, deal with more small town mayors and eat more tough chicken at Rotary Club meetings. Senators from larger states tend to operate on a more “wholesale” basis, often communicating with constituents largely through the media. Perhaps they just aren’t as good at the “soft” people skills that make for good leaders.

Mike’s Approach…

The legendary Mansfield’s approach to his job as a U.S. senator might support my thesis. Mansfield, a bit of a loner all his life, would routinely show up in various Montana cities, Mansfieldsmoking his pipe, sitting alone in a coffee shop or hotel lobby just waiting to be engaged by a voter and “accepting conversation from whoever happened by.” Mansfield’s biographer Don Oberdorfer has written that the then-Senate Majority Leader’s “favorite haunt in the university town of Missoula was the Oxford Bar and Grill, where gambling took place in the basement, reachable through a meat locker.”

Mansfield became legendary in the Senate for his ability to listen, understand competing points of view and treat everyone with patience and respect. Did he hone those skills sitting at the bar of the Oxford in Missoula?

In the rarified, clubby environment of the U.S. Senate, people skills – modesty, ability to listen, empathy, and fairness – still matter, even in this age of poisonous partisanship. I suspect it also helps to know how to find the card game going on in the basement.

 Tomorrow: Love him or hate him, Harry Reid leaves a substantial legacy.


The Water’s Edge…

“…the president may serve only two 4-year terms, whereas senators may serve an unlimited number of 6-year terms.  As applied today, for instance, President Obama will leave office in January 2017, while most of us will remain in office well beyond then — perhaps decades. – Letter from 47 Republican senators to Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Can’t We Just Agree on This…

Amid the persistent partisan rancor dominating Washington, D.C. you might think that the one issue that would lend itself to a modicum of bipartisanship would be an effort to prevent Iran from developing the ability to manufacture a nuclear weapon.

In the hands of a regime that since 1979 has proclaimed the United States as its great enemy, a nuclear weapon would represent an existential Iran-map-regionthreat not only to the U.S, but also to the continually troubled Middle East. Indeed, Iranian nuclear capability is a threat to the entire world.

In response to this very real threat, the Obama Administration has attempted to do what former President George H.W. Bush did when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 – build an international coalition to confront the threat. In dealing with the Iranian nuclear menace the United States has joined forces with France, Great Britain, Germany, China and Russia, but the U.S. has clearly taken the lead in the talks.

While Republican critics of Obama’s foreign policy often criticize the president for “leading from behind,” in the case of Iran the U.S. is clearly out front pushing hard for a diplomatic agreement. That fact alone, given GOP criticism of Obama’s approach to foreign policy, might argue for Republican cooperation and encouragement that could foster true bipartisanship. In fact, and in a different political world, the circumstances of the coalition led by the U.S. to prevent the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon seems like the epitome of a foreign policy issue where Republicans and Democrats might actually cheer each other on in expectation of an outcome that would be good for the country, the Middle East and the world.

Politics is always about fighting over the details, but stopping Iran from having nuclear weapons seems like a fundamental strategic goal that every American could embrace. But not these days. Just when it seems that American politics can’t make me any more discouraged about theCotton future of the country, Arkansas sends Tom Cotton to the United States Senate. Cotton is the architect of the now infamous letter to the Iranian ayatollahs that has both undercut Obama’s international diplomacy, while revealing the depths of blind partisanship in Washington.

Senate Republicans are so dismissive of Obama’s presidency that they are willing to risk blowing up the nuclear talks with Iran and happy to completely jettison any hint of bipartisanship in foreign policy. Ironically the GOP experts also set themselves up to take the blame if the Iranian talks do come apart. At the same time, Republicans offer no alternative to the approach Obama has taken (well, John McCain once joked about his desire to “bomb, bomb Iran,” as if that were a real option).

The GOP’s approach also centers on dismantling a long tradition of bipartisanship regarding Israel and giving encouragement to the current Israeli prime minister – who happens to be fighting for his political life – to take his own unilateral action against Iran. That is a prescription for World War III, but that seems to pale in the face of the Republican compulsion to de-legitimize Obama and show the world just how small and petty our politics have become.

When Country Came Before Party…

The U.S. Senate is a place of great history and great tradition. Some of that history is worth remembering in the wake of the truly unprecedented “open letter” 47 Republican senators directed this week to the leadership of Iran. That letter, of course, has now become controversial and may well mark a new low point in failure of responsibility and leadership by the senators who signed it.

In January 1945, with the end of the Second World War in sight, Franklin Roosevelt was about to set off for an historic meeting at Yalta with Josef Stalin and Winston Churchill. The critical subject at that conference was the formation of a post-war organization that might have a chance to prevent another world conflict. Then as now, many senators in both parties distrusted Roosevelt believing him too secretive in his dealings vandenbergwith other world leaders and too dismissive of Congress. An influential Republican Senator from Michigan, Arthur Vandenberg, had long been a skeptic of FDR’s approach to foreign policy, but the rapidly evolving world order – a powerful Soviet state, a diminished British Empire, a hugely powerful United States – caused the once-isolationism minded Vandenberg to reassess his thinking. (Something, need I note, that few politicians dare do these days.)

The result of that re-thinking was one of the greatest speeches in the history of the Senate. Famously declaring that, “politics stops at the water’s edge,” Vandenberg re-defined, literally in a single speech, the shape of American foreign policy in the post-war world. Pledging support to the Democratic president, the Republican Vandenberg said: “We cannot drift to victory…We must have maximum united effort on all fronts…and we must deserve, we must deserve the continued united effort of our own people…politics must stop at the water’s edge.”

Vandenberg, who desired the presidency as much in his day as Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz or Rand Paul do now, nevertheless worked closely with Harry Truman to flesh out the creation of the United Nations and implement the Marshall Plan to help Europe recover from the ravages of war. It was a remarkable example of bipartisan leadership from a man who, had he wanted to do so, might have created political havoc both domestically and internationally.

Vandenberg was reportedly surprised by the impact of his “water’s edge” speech, modestly saying: “I felt that things were drifting. . . Somebody had to say something, and I felt it could be more effectively said by a member of the opposition.”

Imagine a Republican senator saying such a thing today.

Arthur Vandenberg, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate, knew that an American president must have the ability to deal directly and decisively with foreign leaders. The president – any president – is also entitled to a to be free of the constant undertow of partisan politics on the home front, particularly when the stakes are so very high. Vandenberg also knew that the United States Senate has a particular ability to shape the national debate about foreign policy thanks to the Constitution’s requirement that the Senate “advise and consent” on treaties and the appointment of ambassadors.

Imagine for a moment the Senate behaving differently than it does. Imagine for a moment a Senate populated by senators like Arthur Vandenberg. In such a Senate Republican leaders might go to the White House regularly for private and candid talks with the president where they might well express profound concerns about a potential agreement with Iran. They might even make speeches on the Senate floor about what kind of agreement they expect. The Foreign Relations Committee might conduct detailed, bipartisan hearings on the challenges and opportunities contained in an agreement. The Committee might invite former secretaries of state or national security advisors from both parties to testify. (By the way, at least two former national security advisors, Brent Scowcroft, a Republican, Zbigniew Brzezinski, a Democrat, support the diplomatic effort underway.)

MansfieldMike_DirksenEverett4271964The once impressive Foreign Relations Committee, haunted by the ghosts of great senators like J. William Fulbright, Mike Mansfield, Frank Church and Howard Baker who once served there, might hear presentations from and ask questions of academics and foreign policy experts from the United States and our foreign partners. They might actually undertake a bipartisan effort to understand the nature and timing of a threat from Iran.

Instead, driven by the hyper-partisan needs and far right wing tilt of the coming presidential campaign, Republicans are making the question of “who can be tougher on Iran” their foreign policy litmus test. The inability to embrace even a hint of bipartisanship seems rooted in the stunning belief that Obama (not to mention former Senator and now Secretary of State John Kerry) would literally sell out the country – and Israel – in a potential deal with Iran.

The debate over the now infamous Republican letter to Iran will no doubt continue and time will tell whether it provides Iran an out to abandon any agreement, but at least one aspect of the letter – how it came to be and who created it – deserves consideration in the context of the history of the United States Senate.

Since When Does a Rookie Get to Call This Play...

The letter was the brainchild of the Senate’s youngest member, a senator who ranks 93rd in seniority, a senator who took office less than three months ago. Freshman Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton is an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran who is frequently described as a strong advocate for greater defense spending and a darling of the party’s farthest right wing.

In a different Senate operating under adult supervision the young Gentleman from Arkansas would have been told to file his letter in a recycle bin, but in the Senate we have the Cotton letter was signed by a number of Republican senators with substantial seniority that should have known better, senators like Idaho’s Mike Crapo and Arizona’s McCain. After noting that McCain now says the letter “wasn’t exactly the best way to do that,” the New York Times editorialized that the Cotton missive “was an attempt to scare the Iranians from making a deal that would limit their nuclear program for at least a decade by issuing a warning that the next president could simply reverse any agreement. It was a blatant, dangerous effort to undercut the president on a grave national security issue by communicating directly with a foreign government.”

Arthur-Vandenberg---resizedAfter researching the history, the Senate historian says there is no precedent for such a letter. And Alan Hendrikson, who teaches at the prestigious Fletcher School of International Relations, agrees that the Cotton letter “undercuts” the whole idea of American foreign policy. “Neither the Senate nor the House has sought to interfere with actual conduct of negotiations by writing an open letter to the leadership of a country with which the U.S. is negotiating,” Henrikson told McClatchy News.

The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank joked that perhaps Cotton, who denied that his epistle was one-of-a-kind, would undercover “an open letter from American legislators written to King George III in 1783 warning him that the efforts of Benjamin Franklin, John Jay and John Adams might be undone with the stroke of a quill.” But, of course, no such letter was ever written, just as Cotton’s should not have been.

Give credit to Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who did not sign the letter and may yet help his party lead rather than posture. Against all evidence about what the United States Senate has become, perhaps Corker can channel Arthur Vandenberg, a staunch Republican and a frequent critic of Democratic presidents, who could still put his country above his party.


Assessing LBJ

johnson200-62fbf6627cd90a3d7677dbcd0b201aa00477e8bb-s6-c30One of the best biographers of Lyndon Johnson, the presidential historian Robert Dallek, has often said that it takes a generation or more once a president has left office for us to truly begin to assess his presidency. Historians need access to the papers. Those in the presidential supporting cast, the aides, the associates, the enemies, need time to write and reflect on the man. Once those pieces start to come together, we can begin to form history’s judgment. LBJ’s time seems more and more at hand.

Dallek titled one of his volumes on Johnson – Flawed Giant. That, I suspect, will be the ultimate verdict of history. A big, passionate man with supremely developed political skills and instincts who was, at the same time, deeply, even tragically, flawed.

Frankly it is the juxtaposition of the greatness and the human failings that make the 36th president so endlessly fascinating and why contemporary and continual examination of his presidency – as well as his political career proceeding the White House – is so important.

All that Johnson accomplished as part of his domestic agenda from civil rights to Medicare is balanced – some would say dwarfed – by the tragedy of Vietnam. His deep compassion for those in the shadows of life is checked by the roughness of his personality. Johnson could both help pass the greatest piece of civil rights legislation since the Civil War and make crude jokes about blacks. He could turn on his Texas charm in cooing and sympathetic phone calls to the widow Jackie Kennedy and then issue orders to an underling while sitting on the toilet.

Johnson presents the ultimate challenge to those of us who like to handicap presidential greatness. Does it automatically follow that a great man must also be a good man? Few would measure up to such a reckoning. And just how do to assess greatness?

I think I’ve read every major biography of Lyndon Johnson: Dallek’s superb two volumes, Robert Caro’s monumental four volumes and counting and wonderful volumes by Randall B. Woods and Mark K. Updegrove. I’ve read Johnson’s memoir The Vantage Point and Lyndon Johnson & the American Dream by the young Doris Kearns before she was Godwin. Michael Beschloss has dug through the Johnson tapes and produced great insights into the man and his politics.

You can’t study LBJ without going deeply into the American experience in southeast Asia. Biographies of Senators Mike Mansfield, J. William Fulbright, Mark Hatfield and Frank Church, among much other material, helps flesh out Johnson’s great mistake. More recently I’ve gorged on the reporting of activities surrounding the 50th anniversary of passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, undoubtedly Johnson’s single greatest accomplishment.

Through all of this sifting of the big record of a controversial man I’m left to ponder how we fairly assess the Texan who dominated our politics for barely five years in the Oval Office and left in his wake both great accomplishments and the legacy of more than 58,000 dead Americans in a jungle war that a stronger, wiser man might – just might – have avoided.

The historian Mike Kazin wrote recently in The New Republic that LBJ doesn’t deserve any revisionist treatment for his “liberal” record because what really mattered was the war. “The great musical satirist Tom Lehrer once remarked,” Kazin writes, “that awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger made political satire obsolete. The same might be said for those who would turn the President most responsible for ravaging Vietnam into a great liberal hero.”

Historian David Greenberg, also a contributing editor for The New Republic, takes a somewhat different and more nuanced view, a view more in tune with my own, when he wrote recently: “No one can overlook anymore (for example) Washington’s and Jefferson’s slave holding, Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policies, Lincoln’s and Wilson’s wartime civil liberties records, or FDR’s internment of Japanese Americans. We know these men to be deeply flawed, in some cases to the point where celebrating them produces in us considerable unease. But, ultimately, we still recognize them as remarkable presidents whose finest feats transformed the nation for the good. So if in calling someone a hero it’s also possible to simultaneously acknowledge his failings, even terrible failings, then Lyndon Johnson deserves a place in the pantheon.”

Peter Baker, writing recently in the New York Times, asks perhaps the best question about the on-going reassessment of Lyndon Johnson. Given the state of our politics today, the small-minded partisanship, the blinding influence of too much money from too few sources and the lack of national consensus about anything, Baker asks “is it even possible for a president to do big things anymore?”

For better or worse, Baker correctly concludes, LBJ represented the “high water mark” for presidents pushing through a big and bold agenda and no one since has approached the political ability that Johnson mastered as he worked his will on both Republicans and Democrats in Congress. The reassessments of Lyndon Johnson will go on and I suspect the “flawed giant” will continue to challenge our notions of greatness for as long as we debate the accomplishments and the failings of American presidents.

The Speaker of the Whole House

1382122553000-AP-Obit-Tom-Foley-001Thomas P. Foley of Spokane, Washington was the first and still the only Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from west of Texas. He was also the last real “Speaker of the House” as opposed to every speaker since who has really been the Speaker of the Majority Party.

Tom Foley’s death this week at 84 reminds us that the leader of the House of Representatives was once a courtly, civil, decent guy who, as Politico noted, was “a man too gentle for modern Washington.” Stories about Tom Foley more often contain words like compromise and civility rather than adversary and attack.

We can mark the serious decline in the quality of public life to Foley’s defeat in the 1994 Republican sweep that brought Newt Gingrich and his swelled head and bitter partisanship to the center of Washington and American politics. The Gingrich-inspired style – hyper-partisanship, win at any cost, destroy your opponent – is now the norm and those of us who remember Foley can only wonder what might have been had the inconsequential George Nettercutt not defeated Foley in the Fifth District of Washington at a pivotal moment in recent American political history. Nettercutt’s entire legacy in five terms in Congress – he campaigned on serving only three, but changed his mind – is that he defeated Tom Foley. The Gentleman from Spokane will be and is better remembered.

Foley’s defeat was a function of tough votes he made on the budget and taxes, the North American Free Trade Agreement and, after a mass shooting at Spokane’s Fairchild Air Force Base, a ban on assault weapons. It also didn’t help, as Adam Clymer recalled, that Gingrich authorized a smear campaign that scurrilously suggested the married Foley was homosexual.

As Clymer wrote in the New York Times obit of the former Speaker, just days before the 1994 election the Republican National Committee (RNC) and a Gingrich aide “put out a memo labeled ‘Tom Foley: Out of the Liberal Closet,’ equating his voting record with that of Barney Frank, the gay representative from Massachusetts, and the Gingrich aide urged reporters to investigate Mr. Foley’s sexuality. Mr. Foley denied he was gay.

“President George Bush said he was ‘disgusted at the memo,’ but he also said he believed the R.N.C. chairman, Lee Atwater, who had been Mr. Bush’s presidential campaign strategist, when Mr. Atwater said he did not know where the memo had originated. Because of Mr. Atwater’s own reputation for attack-dog politics, the president’s belief was not widely shared.”

Foley’s career touched and influenced national agricultural policy, foreign relations, regional energy issues and tax and budget policy. While Congressional conservatives rail against an out of control federal budget today it is worth remembering that Tom Foley rounded up the votes in the House in 1993 – against unanimous GOP opposition – that made Bill Clinton’s budget and tax policies law. How soon we have forgotten that the Clinton-era yielded a balanced budget, a surplus and a decade of economic growth before George W. Bush’s tax cuts and endless wars left the federal budget in a shambles.

The great Montana Senator and Majority Leader Mike Mansfield wrote the foreward to the book – Honor in the House – that Foley and one of his long-time aides Jeff Biggs wrote in 1999. “Tom and I came from Irish immigrant stock,” Mansfield wrote, “which probably meant we were destined to be Democrats. But the legacy also meant we had to see more than one side in any argument. I could feel right at home with former Speaker Tip O’Neill’s comment that Tom Foley could always see ‘three sides in any argument.'”

“He never put politics ahead of country. Never, never, never,” said Tom O’Donnell, a former Democratic leadership aide during Foley’s time. “We would never have seen what we’ve seen in the past few weeks” with Foley in the House.

Asked following his defeat in 1994 what advice he would give the incoming Speaker, Foley responded in typical Foley style – civil, thoughtful and correct. “When one becomes Speaker of the House, you are Speaker of the whole House and not just one party. You have responsibility to be fair and impartial to all members, to enforce the rules without regard to party, and to uphold the traditions and honor of the institution.” Unfortunately no Speaker since has behaved that way.

We should mourn the passing of a good and decent man, a power in the life of the Northwest for many years, and a man who wore the title politician without sullying the word. But at Tom Foley’s passing let us also hope for more of his kind in public life. They cannot come on the stage too soon.



Enduring Legacy and Debate

The abbreviated presidency and unfinished life of John Fitzgerald Kennedy is, 48 years after his murder in Dallas, one enduring subject in our politics that can launch a thousand debates.

Was Kennedy a mediocre, adequate or great president?  Is the “myth” of Camelot or the “substance” of a star crossed and tragic tenure just so much rosy memory or was Kennedy’s short presidency a grand testament to a simpler, elegant, even better time?

Would Kennedy have avoided Vietnam or would his hawkish anti-Communism have taken us precisely where Lyndon Johnson eventually did? And just who was Kennedy? Was he the pampered, womanizing son of vast wealth who floated through his 1,000 days with little to show for it or was he the tough, demanding, even brutally efficient Irish-Catholic intellectual who overcame debilitating health problems to be the cool head in the room handling the Cuban Missile Crisis?

Since everyone seems to have a Kennedy opinion these days, I’ll offer my own: Kennedy was all of the above and, curiously, the complexity of the man, the inability to fit him neatly into a liberal box, the roguish charm masking a unrelenting ambition make him all the more interesting. Like all truly fascinating people, Jack Kennedy was many men – all touched by unthinkable tragedy – and that, I believe, is why the fascination with him never seems to diminish.

The Kennedy Cult

Ross Douthat, the young conservative columnist for the New York Times set off the most recent round of Kennedy introspection with a piece entitled “The Enduring Cult of Kennedy.” Douthat set out to debunk three of what he sees as the most offensive Kennedy “myths” – that JFK was a good president who, had he lived, might have been a great one; that he would have kept us from the awful Vietnam disaster and that Kennedy governed during a time of vitriolic right wing hatred of everything he did and stood for.

Summing up, Douthat wrote of Kennedy: “We confuse charisma with competence, rhetoric with results, celebrity with genuine achievement. We find convenient scapegoats for national tragedies, and let our personal icons escape the blame.”

Kennedy’s best and most even handed biographer, Robert Dallek, felt compelled to respond to Douthat’s “anti-Kennedy overkill” with a letter to the editor.  Dallek’s book – An Unfinished Life – was the first to report in detail on Kennedy’s health problems and remains the best and most comprehensive story of the man.

“No serious historian,” Dallek wrote to the Times, “would suggest that John F. Kennedy’s unfinished presidency deserves to be ranked with those of Washington, Lincoln or Franklin D. Roosevelt. But he deserves better than Mr. Douthat gives him.”

Dallek has written elegantly and convincingly about why it is that Kennedy’s reputation still soars and Ronald Reagan’s, as well. Dallek argues it has less to do with bills passed or wars won than with the sense of hope and possibility both men brought to the bully pulpit of the White House.

“What gives Kennedy and Reagan such a strong hold on American imaginations is not what they did but what they said and still stand for,” Dallek wrote recently. “Both presidents are remembered as optimists promising better futures. Kennedy had the New Frontier; for Reagan, it was Morning in America. Both remain inspirational voices that in a time of doubt give people hope. And when you put either man alongside Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, they seem especially appealing.”

“The national embrace of Kennedy and Reagan is at one with the attraction to nostrums,” Dallek wrote. “All we need is the right man with the right formula and all will be well again. If only it were that easy.”


For as long as we debate the legacy of Vietnam there will questions of whether Kennedy, had he lived to be re-elected in 1964, would have been smart enough to keep the U.S. commitment to southeast Asia in check. The late Idaho Sen. Frank Church was convinced, as he told me in the late 1970’s, that Kennedy would never have committed U.S. ground troops in the way Johnson did. Church’s opinion was also held by Robert McNamara and Theodore Sorensen, among many others.

Truth be told there is no way of knowing what he would have done, but the lessons he learned from both the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the missile crisis surely had an impact on Kennedy who may have been, in terms of American and world history, the best read president since Teddy Roosevelt.

Best Sellers

Kennedy is also the subject of two current best sellers by Stephen King and Chris Matthews. King’s massive new book titled simply 11/22/63 imagines what might have been – the Kennedy assassination foiled by a time traveler. Matthews’ book – Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero – is an unabashed valentine to a kind of political leader that Matthews argues no longer seems to exist.

As to the times when Kennedy governed, Frank Rich’s recent piece in New York Magazine draws parallels between 1963 and 2011. “What defines the Kennedy legacy today,” Rich writes, “is less the fallen president’s short, often admirable life than the particular strain of virulent hatred that helped bring him down. After JFK was killed, that hate went into only temporary hiding. It has been a growth industry ever since and has been flourishing in the Obama years. There are plenty of comparisons to be made between the two men, but the most telling is the vitriol that engulfed both their presidencies.”

Rich has been defending his piece against, among others Ross Douthat. Rich’s “delusional” piece, in the view of another conservative commentator, uses “tortured logic” to show that “President Kennedy was a victim of hatred coming from the far right.” Lee Harvey Oswald was, of course, to the extent he had a political philosophy, more a Communist sympathizer than a John Bircher.

Still what really struck me in reading Rich’s take on 1963 were the selection of letters to the editor of the Dallas Morning News printed over the weeks before Kennedy made his fateful trip to Texas 48 Novembers ago.

A letter writer from Wichita Falls wrote in 1963: “The Kennedy regime tends to lead toward socialism, as shown in its soft policies regarding the Cuban situation and its constant concessions to the Soviet Union in nuclear-test-ban-treaty negotiations. The many failures of the administration are clearly shown to the public. The inefficiency of its policies has lost America prestige and has weakened our bonds with the major European countries.

“Any person who supports John Kennedy in 1964 not only is illiterate of the means of democracy but is supporting a truly socialistic regime.”

And this from a Kennedy opponent from Waco, who referred to the president as “One-Term John,” a politician so unpopular in “Central Texas that in the past three weeks I have had only one customer threaten to cease doing business with me because of remarks made concerning the dynasty and its accomplishments.

“In fact, I now expect business to pick up as the full impact of the truth finally makes its impression upon the party faithful who heretofore could neither see, hear, nor speak of the evils in a socialistic dictatorship until the confrontation by Gov. Wallace of naked federal power and encroachment upon state and individual rights at Tuscaloosa, Ala.”

The last reference, of course, was to Kennedy’s efforts to enforce federal law and permit two black students to enroll – over the schoolhouse door protests of Gov. George Wallace – at the University of Alabama.

(Kennedy’s role – some would say Kennedy’s reluctance – to push harder on civil rights is still regularly debated, as Ross Douthat and others have noted. Yet, appreciating Kennedy’s well-developed sense of humor, it’s easy to believe that he would appreciate the irony of the Crimson Tide’s quest for a national football title riding on the broad shoulders of team that in 2011 starts only five white players.)

The letters make a striking point. The hatred for John Kennedy, like Obama, was real and the misrepresentation of his views – JFK was no more a socialist than Obama – was palpable. A moderately dispassionate conservative today, one who dislikes everything Obama has done, would have to admit that those letters to a Dallas newspaper nearly a half century ago bares an eerie resemblance to today’s doings on FOX News.

The Kennedy Cult, or whatever you care to call it, persists because his presidency – both style and substance – still matters. It’s impact survives through generations. We don’t have great debates about the Cult of Warren Harding or William Henry Harrison because they did not help define a generation or bring a particular power of personality and passion to our politics. Few presidents have. Kennedy did.

We will be debating the importance of Kennedy – or Reagan for that matter – for as long as we care about what can occasionally be the uplifting quality of our politics. As Bob Dallek says, and this is particularly true at a time when our politics seem so polarized and unproductive, we hanker for the “right man (or woman) with the right formula.” If only it were that easy.


Perhaps the true enduring legacy of a John Kennedy is really much less complicated than it might appear. At his core Kennedy was serious and incredibly ambitious. He had an approach to the job of being a senator and a president. He was a genuine and talented student of history. He wrote and spoke well. He was curious and tough as a politician and demanding as a boss. Matthews relates the story of Kennedy firing a long-time friend who he came to believe wasn’t doing his job well enough. At the same time he inspired tremendous loyalty and great affection and still does.

In short, the Kennedy legacy is one of leadership lifted by inspiration. The guy had it and we still gravitate to it and that is the real Cult of Kennedy.


JFK…What If

Said Death Would Protect Legacy

John Kennedy’s best biographer made a startling revelation recently that was both ominous and eerie and says a good deal about Kennedy’s appreciation of how history works.

Robert Dallak, author of An Unfinished Life, the best book on the 35th president, gave a speech recently in Ireland where he said Jackie Kennedy was told by her husband a year before his death that his assassination would protect his legacy. “If someone is going to kill me,” Kennedy told his wife, “it should happen now.”

The Kennedy comment is contained in an oral history interview that Mrs. Kennedy did in 1964 with historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.  The comment came shortly after Kennedy’s success defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis. Jackie Kennedy sat for a series of seven interviews that have been held all these years under lock and key. The material will finally be made public in September and will be featured in an ABC broadcast.

According to Dallek, Kennedy had one of Abraham Lincoln’s great biographers, David Herbert Donald, to the White House for a lecture. Kennedy asked the distinguished historian whether Lincoln would be as fondly remembered today if he had not been shot and killed by John Wilkes Booth as his second term was just beginning.

Donald said no. In all likelihood, Donald said, had he lived, Lincoln would have become caught up in the messy and protracted fights over Reconstruction, the post-Civil War period where southern states were brought back into the Union and bitter battles raged over civil rights. As a result, Lincoln’s reputation as a great war leader may well have suffered. Kennedy, reflecting on that “what if” of history, then told his wife if someone was going to kill him, they best do it soon as his legacy would be more secure.

A few months later, Kennedy died at the hands of Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas, Texas. Kennedy, therefore, is remembered as the glamorous and martyred young president who blundered into the Bay of Pigs, but took responsibility for the mess, who served as the cool head in the room during the Cuban Missile Crisis and expressed grave doubts about American involvement in Vietnam even as he sent U.S. advisers there.

So, what if? How would we think about JFK today had he lived to defeat Barry Goldwater in 1964 and serve out a second term? Would he have avoided the quagmire in southeast Asia? Liberated from re-election pressures, would Kennedy have stood up to the “domino theorists” who argued, mostly successfully, that the U.S. had to make a stand against Communist expansion in Indochina or the entire region would fall under influence of Moscow?

Would Kennedy have been as successful – or as committed – as Lyndon Johnson was in passing civil rights legislation? Would Kennedy have found a way to rapprochement with Castro? He loved his cigars, after all. And what of the Soviet Union? After taking the measure of Khrushchev during the Cuban crisis, would JFK have been able to cut a nuclear arms deal with the blustery, but very smart, Soviet leader?

And there is the second term factor. Generally second terms in the White House are susceptible to fatigue, drift and an almost inevitable diminishment of presidential power, no matter who is in the office. Would JFK have had a successful second term? He might well have beaten Goldwater badly, as Johnson eventually did in ’64, and had a mandate to act on a broad range of issues, or he might have squandered a big mandate and his popularity, as Franklin Roosevelt did after his big re-election victory in 1936.

This much is known. John Kennedy had a deep appreciation of history. We now know his Pulitzer Prize winning Profiles in Courage benefited greatly from the deft wordsmithing of the late Ted Sorensen, but that hardly diminishes the reality of Kennedy’s understanding and insight into the wonderful political stories contained in his book. I’ve also always thought it interesting and telling that JFK had Schlesinger, a historian of the presidency, as a White House insider.

In surveys done in 2010, a third of Americans rank Kennedy as a “great president” and the vast majority says he was above average. The professional historians ranked him sixth in presidential leadership just ahead of Jefferson. Interestingly, Kennedy was the only president in the Top 10 ranked by historians who was elected only once.

As Bob Dallek has said: “For style and for creating a mood of optimism and hope — Kennedy on that count is as effective as any president the country has had in its history. The question for me is, 100 years from now, will he be remembered? … “

“At the moment, he does have this astonishing hold on the public mind.”

 Kennedy, it seems, also had an ability to visualize his own legacy.


What is it about Montana

MurrayGiants in the Senate

Fewer than a million souls live in Montana, the state that sprawls out under the Big Sky. Yet, during the 20th Century, Montana produced well more than its share of powerful, influential United States Senators.

The handsome and very liberal Jim Murray, a wealthy son of Butte, Montana, is one of a group of Democratic senators who wielded real power and have had lasting influence, while representing geographically massive, but population small Montana.

Murray’s pioneering role in pushing for universal health care coverage was recalled recently in a fine piece by Montana journalist Charles Johnson. Johnson notes that Murray occupied, from 1934 to 1961, the seat now held by Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a champion of the health care legislation recently passed.

“Jim Murray was a trailblazer as part of a trio of lawmakers who worked hard but ultimately failed to pass national health insurance bills under Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman,” Johnson wrote.

As proof that little really ever changes in American politics, Murray’s work more than 50 years ago with Sen. Robert Wagner of New York and Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, the father of the current Dingell in the House, was attacked as “socialized medicine” that was certain to usher in the ruination the country.

Johnson recalls that Sen. Robert Taft, the Ohio Republican now regarded as one of the all-time giants of the Senate, once interrupted Murray at a hearing to denounce the health legislation as “the most socialist measure that this Congress has ever had before it.”

Murray, never a great orator, shouted back at Taft: “You have so much gall and so much nerve. … If you don’t shut up, I’ll have … you thrown out.”

The charge of aiding and abetting socialism was perhaps an even more powerful accusation in the 1950’s than it is when hurled at President Obama today. Murray’s brand of progressive liberalism always brought with it a charge that he was a dangerous lefty. In his long Senate career he never had an easy election.

Charles Johnson notes the irony in the fact that while Murray’s most passionate opponents in the 1940’s and 1950’s came from the ranks of the American Medical Association, the AMA’s current president endorsed the recent legislation, noting that it “represents an opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of tens of millions of Americans.”

Now, it is Baucus’ turn to have his role in the passage of the health care legislation fiercely debated in Montana. Perhaps as as indication of the intensity of the furor, Baucus, who was re-elected just last year, has gone up on television in Montana today seeking to explain why the legislation that he had a major hand in creating and, that dates back to his Senate predecessor, is good for Montana.

Each of Montana’s most influential U.S. Senators were controversial in their day. In my read of the state political history, Murray and Baucus properly join Sen. Tom Walsh, the investigator of the Teapot Dome scandal; Sen. Burton K. Wheeler, the man who lead the fight to turn back Franklin Roosevelt’s assault on the Supreme Court in 1937, and Sen. Mike Mansfield, the longest serving majority leader in Senate history, as Montanans who have made a lasting mark on the Senate and on the nation’s business.

Few states can claim a larger collection of truly influential – or controversial – U.S. Senators. Big names, indeed, from the Big Sky State.

Dallek on Obama

dallekHealth Care Reform: A Lasting Legacy or Not

Robert Dallek, biographer of Kennedy and LBJ and skilled analyst of White House leadership, is, I believe, the best of the “presidential historians.” Dallek is evenhanded, accomplished and always engaging in making the historical connections between, say Barack Obama’s push this year for health care reform and Franklin Roosevelt’s advocacy of Social Security in the 1930’s.

Dallek’s op-ed piece this week in the Wall Street Journal is a fitting wrap-up of this year in presidential politics and a must read.

Here is a key section: “If the reform works as intended by expanding health insurance to an additional 30 million Americans and reducing the national debt, the Democrats will pillory the Republicans for the indefinite future. The GOP’s uniform opposition—only one congressman and no Republican senators supported the bill—will make it vulnerable to charges of wrong-minded thinking about the suffering of fellow citizens on a scale with Herbert Hoover’s failed response to the Great Depression. That cost his party five presidential elections.

“Should the bill fall short of promised gains, it will reinforce national prejudices against big government and facilitate another round of conservative Republican dominance of national politics.”

That pretty well sums it up.

Watch for Bob Dallek’s new book in the new year: The Lost Peace – Leadership in a Time of Horror and Hope. HarperCollins is the publisher.

Obama’s War

afghanistanWar is the unfolding of miscalculations – Barbara Tuchman

I have a clear memory of an old basketball coach from high school who preached a simple strategy. Coach would say when someone was trying to make a particularly difficult play, for example, a flashy, behind the back pass when simple and straightforward would do, “Don’t try to do too much.”

I have been thinking about that old coach this week as I’ve watched President Obama ensure that America’s longest war – our eight years and counting in the graveyard of empires, Afghanistan – will last a good deal longer. Afghanistan is Obama’s war now and I cannot escape the feeling that the president has made the decision – for good or bad – that will define all the rest of his historic presidency. We all hope he got it right. There is a good chance he has made the mistake of trying to do too much.

A nagging sense of deja vu hangs over his decision. We have seen this movie before and, as one of the president’s critics from the right – George Will – suggests, we won’t like the way it ends. As an Idaho and Northwest history buff, I am also struck by a realization of something missing from the political debate aimed at defining the correct policy approach in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The missing element, it seems to me, is hard headed consideration of the limits of American power and influence. Deja vu all over again. We have seen this movie before, as well, and the end is not very satisfying.

An Idaho Perspective on Limits

Idaho has had two remarkable United States Senators who played major national and international roles in formulating our country’s foreign policy in the 20th Century. William Borah, a progressive Republican, served 33 years in the Senate and chaired the once-powerful Foreign Relations Committee in the 1920’s. Frank Church, a liberal Democrat, served 24 years in the Senate and chaired the same committee in the 1970’s.

The Idahoans wielded political power in vastly different times and a half century apart. In the broad sweep of history, we have to say both lost their fundamental battles to shape American attitudes about the limits of our power and influence. There is a direct link from that failure to the president standing in front of the cadet corps at West Point earlier this week.

Borah’s influence was at its zenith in the interval between the two great wars of the 20th Century when he served as chief spokesman of the non-interventionist approach to foreign affairs. Church’s time on the world stage coincided with the post-war period when international Communism dominated our concerns and Vietnam provided all the proof we should ever need about the limits of American power.

It can only be conjecture, but I would bet that neither of the men from Idaho, who once exercised real influence in the Senate, would be comfortable with the president’s course in Afghanistan. The reason is pretty simple. Both Borah and Church, passionately committed to American ideals and to representative democracy, believed that even given the awesome power of the country’s military, there are real limits to what America power can accomplish in the world. Historically, both felt America had repeatedly embraced the errands of a fool by believing that we could impose our will on people and places far removed and far different from us. Their approach to foreign policy and identifying American interests was defined by limits and certainly not by the belief that we can do it all.

In his day, Borah opposed sending the Marines to Nicaragua to police a revolution. It simply wasn’t our fight or responsibility, he argued, and the effort would prove to be beyond the limits of American influence. Church never believed that American air power and 500,000 combat troops could help the Vietnamese sort out a civil war. Both were guided by the notion that Americans often make tragic mistakes when we try to do too much.

Other Northwesterners of the past – the Senate’s greatest Majority Leader, Mike Mansfield of Montana, Oregon’s pugnacious maverick Wayne Morse and the elegant, thoughtful Mark Hatfield – counseled presidents of both parties to understand our limits. Those reminders hover over our history and this moment in time.

None of this is to say that there are not real and compelling American interests in shutting down the 21st Century phenomenon of Jihadist terrorism. We do have legitimate interests and we must keep after this strategic imperative. But, the foundation of any successful strategy is correctly defining the problem and understanding the limitations.

Is projecting an additional 30,000 American troops into one of the world’s most historically difficult places, in the midst of tribal, religious and cultural complexity, the right approach? And, does it address the right problem? We’ll find out. The British and Russians found out before us.

As Barbara Tuchman made clear in her classic book The Guns of August – the book centers on the miscalculations and unintended consequences that helped precipitate the First World War – wars never unfold as planned. Miscalculations and faulty assumptions always get in the way of grand strategy.

Assuming progress on a tight timeline, assuming better behavior from a stunningly corrupt Afghan government, assuming our brave and talented troops can “nation build,” where others have failed time and again, are calculations and assumptions that may just not go as planned.

Grant the president this: he inherited a mess and no good option. Also, like Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam and Harry Truman in Korea, he faces great political pressure not to display weakness or signal American retreat. It has never been in the presidential playbook to candidly discuss the limits of our power and influence. The American way is to believe we can do it all.

One of the great “what ifs” of 20th Century American history, particularly the history of presidential decision-making, is the question of what John Kennedy, had he lived and been elected to a second term in 1964, would have done with American involvement in Vietnam.

Many historians now believe, with a second term secure and political pressure reduced, JFK would have gotten out. We’ll never know. We do know what Johnson did, and his inability to confront the limits of national power and define precise American interests destroyed his presidency. History may well record that George W. Bush and Barack Obama failed to confront the same limits and correctly define precise interests.

Kennedy once said this: “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie: deliberate, continued, and dishonest; but the myth: persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.”

As we head into the cold and gray of another long winter in the rugged, deadly mountains of Afghanistan, we may again – I hope I’m wrong – confront the persistent, persuasive and unrealistic myth that America’s military – motivated, trained and determined as it is – can do everything.

As I said, I hope I’m wrong.