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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.


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.

For the People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is There More than Partisanship…

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Politics of the Short-Term…

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

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

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

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


The Presidents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lessons from Lincoln

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Go see the movie and take the kids.


Action This Day

The (Almost) Case for Unilateral Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




A Simple Story of a Battle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Dumping the Veep

Pulling a Garner or a Hannibal Hamlin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hillary just might be a game changer.


Historic Politics

A Very Old, Very Modern Campaign

Thomas E. Dewey, the one-time mob busting New York City prosecutor and later governor of New York, made three different runs at the White House, twice winning the Republican nomination. He never won the biggest election and the question of why is pertinent to our political life now, long, long after Dewey is mostly forgotten.

On a handful of occasions in American history – 1864 during the decisive year of the Civil War being one of the earliest and 2004 during the tough early days of the Iraq war begin the latest – the country has chosen a president during wartime.

I’ve long argued that Abraham Lincoln’s re-election in 1864 was the most important presidential election in our history. Had Lincoln lost that election to Gen. George McClellan it is altogether possible that the winner would have sought a negotiated end to the War of Rebellion, while maintaining the status quo regarding slavery. Lincoln won, thanks in part of Sherman’s timely victory at Atlanta, and refused to consider anything other than the complete capitulation of the rebellious states. America history was set on a course as a result.

In 1944, Tom Dewey won the Republican nomination for president and with it the chance to deny Franklin D. Roosevelt a fourth term. That election occurred at a decisive moment during World War II. As an insightful new book on that election – FDR, Dewey and the Election of 1944 by David M. Jordan – makes clear, Dewey failed to make a compelling case against either Roosevelt’s handling of domestic or war issues and instead ran a campaign, one of the first, that attempted to exploit the threat of Communism influencing the federal government.

As Jordan notes, the “campaign of running against the Communists” was “a preview of what would become a standard of Republican campaigns in the years ahead, but in 1944 it did not play all that well.” In 1944, after all, Soviet Russia was a U.S. ally and the Red Army was bleeding the Nazi Wehrmacht white on the Eastern Front.

Jordan’s book, filled with insight into how both FDR and Dewey approached the election and particularly how FDR rather unceremoniously dumped Vice President Henry Wallace from the Democratic ticket in favor of Harry Truman, also puts the lie to the old notion that debates over foreign policy once stopped at the water’s edge. Dewey bitterly criticized FDR’s handling of the war, in particular suggesting that the administration was short changing the war effort in the Pacific to the detriment of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who willingly engaged in the sort of partisan politics that we would find completely inappropriate from a senior military commander today.

Republicans also eagerly circulated rumors, more accurate than not, regarding FDR’s health, but the GOP candidate and campaign were no match for the great campaigner – Franklin Roosevelt. By Jordan’s account, with which many historians agree, Roosevelt turned the entire 1944 campaign with one memorable speech delivered to the Teamsters Union on September 23. Today’s it’s remembered as “the Fala speech,” because of FDR’s humorous use of a story about his little Scotty dog – Fala.

Roosevelt opened that Teamster speech brilliantly: “WELL, here we are together again – after four years – and what years they have been! You know, I am actually four years older, which is a fact that seems to annoy some people. In fact, in the mathematical field there are millions of Americans who are more than eleven years older than when we started in to clear up the mess that was dumped in our laps in 1933.”

Dewey couldn’t keep up with such rhetoric in large part because FDR’s taunt rang so hard and true and because Dewey couldn’t begin to match Roosevelt’s personality as a candidate. Dewey suffered from a frequently deadly political malady. He was stiff and boring. Think John Kerry or today’s GOP contender Mitt Romney. Dewey also had a Romney-like tendency to quote FDR completely out of context, while modifying his own position on issues like the scope of a post-war United Nations.

At the end of the 1944 campaign, and remember that the Allied invasion of Normandy occurred just before Dewey was nominated in Chicago, American voters were unwilling to “swap horses in the middle of the stream.” FDR won his closest election polling 3.5 million more votes than Dewey. The contest was no contest in the Electoral College. Roosevelt won a 36 state landslide, including Idaho, Montana, Washington, Oregon and Utah. The war election of 1944 was also the last election where a Democrat won every state in the solid south.

There are many what ifs associated with 1944. What if the Democrats had not dumped Wallace from the ticket? The very liberal Iowan was very popular with the organized labor constituency of the Democratic Party and deeply resented his dumping. Some speculate Wallace would have been more accommodating of the Soviet Union than Truman turned out to be and that he would never have authorized the use of the atomic bomb on Japan.

And what if Dewey had won? Would the post-war world have been different? Would the humorless new president, a man unknown to Churchill and Stalin have gone to Yalta and done better – or worse – than Roosevelt who was clearly in seriously failing health?

Dewey lived to fight and lose the White House a second time. Today Dewey, who died in 1971, is best remembered as “the little man on the wedding cake,” a wonderfully snarky put down that is attributed to a half dozen wits of the 1940’s, and as the hapless candidate Truman beat in 1948.

Thomas E. Dewey, like so many who have run and lost the White House,was a fascinating, complicated man. He may have been just fine in the White House. Who knows. By the verdict of history Dewey was a two time loser, but also a victim of a great and almost always under appreciated factor of politics – timing. He ran an off key campaign against a brilliant campaigner in the war year of 1944 and, while Truman was stumping the country in a fighting mood four years later, Dewey tried to sit on a lead and run out the clock.

Where I advising any candidate today, I’d tell them to study both those elections. They each contain some enduring politic truths.


Trying Times

Leadership? Not So Much

At pivotal moments in American history it has often been the case that the right leader somehow emerged from the chaos of the moment and the nation was able to pass through trying times and set course for a better future.

Presidents Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan lacked the vision and courage to head off the steady drift in the direction of sectional strife in the 1850’s and, while there is a good argument to be made that Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 was the tipping point toward civil war, there is hardly any disputing that Lincoln brought to the presidency the powers of leadership that ultimately saved the country.

Likewise Franklin D. Roosevelt proved to be the right leader at the worse time in the 20th Century. FDR restored confidence and, I’m convinced, reformed American capitalism enough to save it. He was a leader made for his times.

There are a handful of other examples in our history. Andrew Jackson, with all his flaws, may qualify for a leadership award. More recently Ronald Reagan, invoked by every current GOP candidate for president as the leadership gold standard, had some of the FDR in him. He was a confidence builder when the nation needed a big dose. Washington stands, of course, in a special class of right leader at a trying time.

It’s hard to escape the reality that the nation is at another such crossroads and our politics and politicians hardly seem up to the task. The litany of problems is almost too big to fathom: stagnant economy, double-dip recession looming, crippling unemployment, increasing poverty and income gap, a national and international debt crisis, declining quality of public education, the need for entitlement reform, the European fiscal crisis, the uncertainty and unpredictability of the Arab Spring, climate change, terrorism, even the Red Sox have melted down.

The thinking man’s conservative, David Brooks, identified the heart of the problem in his New York Times column yesterday: “the ideologues who dominate the political conversation are unable to think in holistic, emergent ways. They pick out the one factor that best conforms to their preformed prejudices and, like blind men grabbing a piece of the elephant, they persuade themselves they understand the whole thing.”

The Democrats are all about tax increases on the most wealthy and increased spending to stimulate consumer demand. The Republicans can’t shake the gospel of tax cuts, controlling the deficit and whacking at regulation. What both sides miss is that we need to do all of that and more.

It may well be recorded at the supreme moment of missed opportunity in the Obama Administration was the president’s failure to grasp and champion the most important political and policy work to come out of Washington in a long, long time – the recommendations of Simpson-Bowles Commission. In the end, the discarding of the work of the former Wyoming Senator, Alan Simpson, and the Clinton-era White House Chief of Staff, Erskine Bowles, will be recorded as a failure of leadership. The bi-partisan commission called for doing it all – tax and entitlement reform, spending cuts, deficit reduction. The Commission prescribed exactly what every thinking American knows in their partisan heart must be done. Obama punted and Congressional Republicans did as well.

And meanwhile the country is hungry – desperate even – for real leadership. Many Republicans salivate over the prospect that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will turn his consistent “no” into an announcement that he’ll enter the GOP battle and it’s easy to see why. Christie delivered an inspirational speech last night at Republican hallowed ground, the Reagan Library in Simi Valley. His indictment of Washington leadership will surely resonate with Democrats and Republicans who long for leadership from someone.

“In Washington,” Christie said, “we have watched as we drift from conflict to conflict, with little or no resolution.

“We watch a president who once talked about the courage of his convictions, but still has yet to find the courage to lead.

“We watch a Congress at war with itself because they are unwilling to leave campaign style politics at the Capitol’s door.  The result is a debt ceiling limitation debate that made our democracy appear as if we could no longer effectively govern ourselves.”

Christie specifically jabbed President Obama for failing to embrace the Simpson-Bowles work noting pointedly that it was “a report the president asked for himself.”

I’m not at all convinced Chris Christie is the Lincoln or FDR we need, but I am convinced that genuinely honest talk about the enormous problems facing the country, with an unstinting focus on big solutions to big problems rather than what David Brooks calls “proposals that are incommensurate with the problem at hand,” would be the beginning of the leadership the country needs and hungers for.

The electorate is deeply unsettled. The evidence floats about everywhere you look. A new CNN survey says only 15% of Americans have confidence in their government; an all-time low. The Coca-Cola chief says China is a better business bet than the USA. There is an unmistakable sense that American power and influence is in decline.

Is anyone up to the task? Can anyone see beyond the next election? I’m betting if someone could look that far ahead – see ahead to real leadership – it would be the best possible strategy to win.