“From Time to Time”: Pelosi, Trump, and the State of the Union

By Kaleena Fraga

(To check out this piece in podcast form, click here)

Amid a contentious government shutdown, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has written President Trump a letter, suggesting that in lieu of delivering a State of the Union speech, as the president intends, he submit his address in writing.

Although Americans today are accustomed to seeing the president deliver the SOTU, Pelosi notes in her letter that “during the 19th century and up until the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, these annual State of the Union messages were delivered to Congress in writing.” Pelosi also notes that a SOTU has never been delivered amidst a government shutdown.

“I suggest,” Pelosi writes, “that we work together to determine another suitable date after the government has re-opened for this address or for you to consider delivering your State of the Union address in writing to Congress on January 29th.”

Although the State of the Union started as an oral address–both George Washington and John Adams delivered speeches to Congress–Thomas Jefferson was the first to balk at the tradition.

Jefferson had several reasons why he believed a written address was superior to a speech. First of all, the third president nursed a fear of public speaking. He also believed that a letter was more efficient than a speech–that it would take less time to read than to listen, and that a written document would give legislators time to think about their response. Historians have also noted that giving a speech had a king-like aura, something that a republican like Jefferson would abhor.

Then again, Jefferson could have simply found trudging to Congress to give a speech inconvenient.

In any case, the tradition that Jefferson set remained for over one hundred years, until Woodrow Wilson decide to return to the ways of Washington and Adams, and give a speech before Congress instead of simply sending a letter.

At the time this was considered far outside the norm. The Washington Post reported that “Washington is amazed” and that “disbelief” was expressed in Congress when members heard the president intended to give a speech. At the time, the paper seemed confident that such displays would not “become habit.”

Since then, a spoken SOTU has indeed become a national habit, even more so than in Wilson’s day thanks to mass communication tools like radio, television, and internet.

That’s not to say that the written version of the SOTU has been abandoned entirely–as lame duck presidents, Truman, Eisenhower, and Carter chose to submit a written message instead of giving a speech before Congress.

Whether or not Trump will heed Pelosi’s advice has yet to be seen, and certainly a president might balk at giving up the bully pulpit power of television. In any case, we’ll leave you with a cartoon of Theodore Roosevelt, who was thoroughly dismayed that Wilson had the idea of a SOTU speech, something that Roosevelt himself would have enthusiastically embraced.

To Biden or Not to Biden

The former vice president has run before, never successfully. Could 2020 be different?

By Kaleena Fraga

(To check out this piece in podcast form, click here)

Should Joe Biden run for president? That’s the question the former vice-president is asking himself, according to his allies. He wants a Democrat in the White House in 2020, but Biden doesn’t believe there is anyone capable of preventing a Trumpian second term. That is, except himself.

We’ve covered in depth the historic difficulties that vice presidents face when running for the presidency themselves. So out of the gate, Biden would face challenges vis-a-vis Obama’s legacy, and the fickle fatigue of Americans when it comes to prominent politicians. He might have the best name recognition–and early polls favor Biden ahead of other presidential hopefuls–but the road to the White House would be a rocky one.

Aside from the above, Joe Biden is simply not good at running for president. That could be different this year. Biden could have learned from past mistakes, or mellowed in old age (at 75, he would be amongst the oldest in the field. Elizabeth Warren, the only major Democrat so far to declare is 69). But if history is any indication, a Biden run in 2020 could be something to see. Let’s just say he may give the headline-producing Trump a run for his money.

Election of 1988

In 1987 Joe Biden became the second of two Democrats to drop out of the race due to scandal. The first was Gary Hart, who left the race after the press exposed an extramarital affair. Biden’s reasons were less salacious–they might have not even made waves, in today’s political climate–but they were serious enough for him to end his bid.

Biden withdrew only three months after announcing his candidacy, once charges of plagiarism derailed his campaign. Biden was accused of copying speeches of political figures like Bobby Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. When the press started digging, they found accusations of plagiarism dating back to his days at university. As he exited the race, Biden called out the “exaggerated shadow” of his past mistakes. In a piece about the end of Biden’s campaign the New York Times noted that “new video technology” made even “the most intimate living-room campaign gathering into a national political event.”

Election of 2008

When Joe Biden announced his candidacy for the second time, in 2007, it did not take long for him to stir up controversy. On the day Biden announced his intention to run, the New York Times ran the headline: “Biden Unwraps ’08 Bid With an Oops!” The controversy? Biden had described his opponent and future running mate, Barack Obama, as “the first mainstream African-American [to run] who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy”

Biden spent the entire first 24 hours of his campaign trying to talk down his comments, to such an extent that political insiders wondered if his would be the “shortest-lived presidential campaign in the history of the Republic.”

The New York Times pointed out that Biden’s words had prompted reporters to look back at some of his other remarks, including a quip from the year before that “you cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I’m not joking.”

Once Biden was picked as Obama’s running mate, Ed Rogers, a staffer in the Reagan and H.W. Bush White Houses, mused in the Washington Post: “On any given day, there is a good chance that [Biden] will say something that could destroy the Democratic ticket or at least hurt its chances in November. The media will be on gaffe watch with fine-tuned antennae for Biden to be off-message. This should be interesting and fun to watch.”

Certainly, one needs only to Google “Biden gaffes” to find lists of them online.

***

Will Joe Biden run? That’s up to Joe Biden. He’s not wrong for thinking he may be the only Democrat who can defeat Trump–recent polling put him 5 points ahead of the president in a hypothetical match-up.

Then again, 2016 taught the country that polls are only a part of a much bigger picture.


Trump, Polk, and Political Posturing at the Border

By Kaleena Fraga

(To check out this piece in podcast form click here)

The Trump administration has begun to push its case that the situation on the Mexican border is in such crisis that the president needs to declare a national emergency. This action would allow the president to fulfill a campaign promise and build his wall, which is currently the subject of a stalemate shutdown in Congress.

Political posturing at the border, and the exaggeration of crisis, is reminiscent of another president who sought to use the Mexican border for political and territorial gains. As president, James Polk stirred up a fake crisis with Mexico that triggered a war, and resulted in the acquisition of 525,000 square miles of new land.

Polk had many detractors. Abraham Lincoln, then a young Whig Congressman, considered the war a political ploy meant to expand slavery into new territory. In a speech on the House floor, Lincoln detailed how Polk had created a crisis at the border in order to provoke a war. Lincoln was joined in his dissent by John C. Calhoun, a democrat (and a fierce anti-abolitionist), and by Alexander Stephens, who would later act as the vice president of the Confederacy of the United States. Ulysses S. Grant, who served in the conflict as a young man, would later call the Mexican-American war the “most evil war.” In his memoirs, he wrote: “Even if the annexation itself could be justified, the manner in which the subsequent war was forced upon Mexico cannot.”

Still, the office of the presidency is a strong one, and Polk had his war. On May 13, 1846, Congress voted overwhelming to support the president. This came after Polk sent General Zachary Taylor to a provocative position on the Rio Grande, which prompted Mexico to attack. Polk, declaring that “American blood” had been shed on “American soil” had his justification for an expanded conflict.

Polk expected a short war and a quick victory, but the conflict would go on for two years. Ironically, the war would boost the political fortunes of Taylor, of the opposite Whig party. He would succeed Polk in the next election.

Writing about the war at the end of his life, Grant drew a line between the conflict with Mexico and the subsequent war between states.

“To us it was an empire and of incalculable value; but it might have been obtained by other means. The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war. Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.”

If President Trump declares a national emergency in order to build his wall, that may open a whole new can of worms. But one thing is for sure–he’s not the first president to use politics at the border as a means to an end.


From the Front Porch to Instagram Live

Presidential campaign tactics: then and now

By Kaleena Fraga

(To check out this piece in podcast form click here)

As the 2020 election season gets underway (we know, we know, but it’s here) Instagram seems to be the new communication tool of choice. Maybe this is because Twitter is the domain of President Trump. Perhaps presidential hopefuls have seen the success of freshman Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Instagram use. In any case, as one snarky Twitter user noted, the glut of Instagram live videos showcasing Democrats talking policy while cooking might make the 2020 primaries look like “Top Chef”.

2020 candidate Elizabeth Warren discussing her candidacy on Instagram live

In the age of the Internet, social media represents the newest wave of campaign tactics. Trump arguably used Twitter to win the election, just as Barack Obama used Facebook to raise grassroots support for his campaign. It’s a long ways from what used to be considered revolutionary in presidential campaigns.

The 19th century saw the beginning of genuine electioneering, including sex scandals, fan clubs, and insults. But elections were still subdued affairs. In the election of 1884, Grover Cleveland gave only two speeches. In 1868, Ulysses S. Grant didn’t campaign at all. (of course, as a famous, war-winning general, he did not need to raise his public profile).

James Garfield was the first presidential potential to make the race more personable. Given the precedent that men should not seek the presidency, the incumbent Rutherford B. Hayes advised Garfield to “sit cross-legged and look wise until after the election.” When Garfield returned home from the nominating convention, he walked straight into the next trend of presidential campaigns–the front porch.

Known to the public as a hero from the Civil War, people flocked to Garfield’s Mentor, Ohio home to wish him well on his candidacy. Garfield, in turn, would give speeches to the people gathered outside his home, which generated even more interest in his campaign. It wasn’t quite so spontaneous as it sounds–Garfield and his people carefully exchanged letters with different groups to arrange exact arrival times, so that Garfield could tailor his remarks to each visiting group.

The front porch campaign was a new phenomenon in American politics. And it worked–between 15,000 and 17,000 people traveled to Garfield’s hometown (which at the time had a population of less than 600 people) to hear the candidate speak.

This technique was considered such a success that Benjamin Harrison adopted it in 1888, and William McKinley adopted it in 1896. McKinley decided to conduct a front-porch campaign for two reasons. One, his wife Ida was unwell and he wanted to remain close to her in their native Ohio. Two, he would be running against William Jennings Bryan, who had decided to throw tradition to the wind and actively campaign. Bryan planned on traveling the country via train to whip up support for his candidacy. This technique would later be repeated by other presidential hopefuls, including Eisenhower and Truman, but at the time it was considered quite outside the norm.

What’s more, Bryan was thought of as one of the great orators of the age. “I might just as well put up a trapeze on my front lawn and compete with some professional athlete as go out speaking against Bryan,” McKinley argued to his campaign manager, Mark Hanna. In any case, McKinley added, “I have to think when I speak.”

Thus, the campaign strategy became tried and true (McKinley) vs. showy and untested (Bryan).

McKinley’s staff went about carefully orchestrating a front porch campaign that would capture attention away from the barnstorming Bryan. Mark Hanna portrayed the McKinley home as one of political pilgrimage for Republicans. Delegations from all over the county came to see the candidate, and in return, McKinley would listen to their (pre-edited) remarks, and then give relevant remarks of his own, to great fanfare. Hanna and McKinley took the Garfield model and reworked it–McKinley saw some 750,000 people cross his front lawn.

Bryan lost the election in 1896 (and 1900 and 1908) but ultimately his form of campaigning would become the preferred choice of presidential hopefuls. By 1960, Richard Nixon took a page out of Bryan’s book and pledged to visit all 50 states (a promise which thoroughly exhausted the candidate, and may have cost him the election).

Yesterday it was considered uncouth to campaign at all–today politicians are literally letting us into their kitchens via Instagram and Twitter. In the age of the Internet, the campaign of 2020 will undoubtably be conducted across social media networks.


Why Mitt Romney’s Op-Ed Matters

By Kaleena Fraga

Many on the left are frustrated by Republicans like Jeff Flake, and now, Mitt Romney, who speak out against the president but support his policies. It’s easy to dismiss their speeches, articles, and tweets as empty politicking, meant to let them toe the line of Trump’s conservative base, while courting Republican voters who are dismayed at the behavior of the president.

This time, it’s different.

Mitt Romney’s forceful op-ed in the Washington Post called out the president for his behavior–for his diminishing of the office of the president. Yes, Romney will probably still vote for the Wall. He is a Republican, after all. But his words do matter. Why? Any impeachment vote is a likely given in the House, controlled by Democrats. The real battle will be in the chamber where Romney will sit, in the chamber controlled by Republicans. The Senate.

Impeachment is a political act, with political motivations. Yes, that’s not exactly what the founders intended, but that’s the form it’s taken. Andrew Johnson was impeached for breaking a law that Congress passed to spite him, and Bill Clinton faced impeachment over a stupid lie about a romantic affair–in other words, neither had committed the “high crimes and misdemeanors” that the Constitution demands.

(Nixon, of course, got much closer to this bar, although his case came down to obstruction of justice. There is no physical evidence that Nixon himself ordered the break-in.)

In any case, an impeachment trial against President Trump in the Senate would require strong Republican support. Romney writes that Trump has not “risen to the mantle of the office.” This in itself is not a crime. But the politics of the moment could shift, giving the Republicans political reasons to think that removing the president would be the best thing for their party. In 1974, it took Barry Goldwater listing off names of Republicans and Southern Democrats who would vote for impeachment for Nixon to decide to resign.

Indeed, the founders left no provisions for what to do if the president is simply bad at being president. The 25th amendment does allow for the vice president, the Cabinet, and a majority of Congress to remove a president they see as unfit. This has never been invoked. If it were, dissident Republicans in the Senate would certainly be crucial to the cause.

Happy New Year from History First!

A look at the world in January 1919

By Kaleena Fraga

One hundred years ago today, Woodrow Wilson stopped in Rome, Italy on his way to the Paris Peace Conference following the end of WWI. His voyage capped off years of incredible violence and uncertainty, and Wilson was greeted throughout Italy with cries of “Viva l’America!”

Wilson’s trip to Europe was part of a six-month journey (the longest any president had ever spent outside of the country) meant to end the war for good. He came home triumphant in July–armed with the idea of the League of Nations, which Wilson believed would prevent future world wars. It was perhaps the high point of his presidency. Unfortunately, there was no where for him to go but down.

Despite initial widespread support, political infighting would doom American participation in the League of Nations. Mere months after he returned to the States, Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke, and much of his presidential duties were secretly assumed by his wife, Edith.

Although the 1920 election was just around the corner, Americans in 1919 were not as eager to start the election process as they are today. In the waning days of 2018, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) announced her candidacy, and other Democrats are expected to quickly follow suit. Politics moved at a slower pace in 1919. That year had seen the loss of political giants–Theodore Roosevelt was now dead; Wilson, a shell of himself after his stroke, was an increasingly unpopular president. The election would not start in earnest until the next year.

Warren G. Harding of Ohio would be nominated in June of 1920 with a promise of a “return to normalcy”.

“America’s present need is not heroics but healing; not nostrums but normalcy; not revolution but restoration…not surgery but serenity.”

Although not explicitly said, Harding’s determination for the country to turn inward is reminiscent of the America First sloganeering of today.

Harding, Malcolm Gladwell later wrote, was popular despite his general incompetence (which he even noted himself, stating “I am not fit for this office and never should have been here.”) Gladwell attributes this to Harding’s physical appearance (a political insider at the time of Harding’s nomination argued that he looked like a president), personality, and commanding voice.

Harding and the Republicans would win in a landslide, in a direct rebuke to Wilson and his internationalist policies. Harding did not have much time to enjoy his new job, however ill-suited he found himself: he died unexpectedly in 1923 after a sudden stroke. This catapulted Calvin Coolidge to the presidency.

The candidate for the Democrats, James Cox, would go on to be a footnote in history. Things turned out differently for his running mate, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who would later win election to an unprecedented and unmatched fourth term in the White House.

Despite the optimistic start of the year, 1919 would prove to be a tumultuous one. Half a million Americans would die from Spanish flu; Prohibition ushered in an era of bootlegs and speakeasies; violent race riots rocked the country. But it wasn’t all bad. The year 1919 also saw the introduction of dial telephones, the 19th Amendment which secured women’s suffrage, and new fiction by Sherwood Anderson and Virginia Woolf.

Certainly there are parallels to be drawn between 1919 and 2019–new technology making the world seem smaller, the precipice of another election year, the ongoing debate about America’s role in the world. No one can predict what next year will bring. Rather, we go into 2019 with Wilson’s words in mind:

“You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.”

“The High Road of Humility”: Modesty in American Presidents

By Kaleena Fraga

As the nation said goodbye to George H.W. Bush, America’s 41st president, his friend Senator Alan Simpson eulogized the former president by noting: 

“Those that travel the high road of humility in Washington are not bothered by heavy traffic.”

The line was met with laughter in the National Cathedral–packed with those who had spent their careers in Washington D.C.–and with a moment of reflection. Bush was famous for his aversion to the word I, an aversion with roots in the lessons of his mother to avoid self-aggrandizing. 

Bush led an exciting life. As a navy pilot, ambassador to the U.N., chairman of the RNC, envoy to China, vice president, and as president he certainly had plenty of stories to fill the pages. Family and friends urged him to sit down and pen his memoirs. “I was unpersuaded,” said Bush. A prolific letter writer and diary writer, Bush nevertheless saw no draw in writing a public memoir encapsulating his life. 

His reluctance to do so is reminiscent of another American president–Ulysses S. Grant. Grant himself wrote a remarkable account of his life and of the Civil War–but not because he wanted to write one. 

On the first page of his memoirs he insists: 

“Although frequently urged by friends to write my memoirs I had determined never to do so, nor to write anything for publication.”

Grant, at sixty-two, was suffering from lung cancer. He had been swindled by a former business partner and sought a way to support his family after he died. When approached to write articles about his life for Century Magazine, Grant agreed. Mark Twain later helped him market the complete memoirs. 

Grant, like Bush, internalized lessons he learned from his mother. In Ron Chernow’s biography of Grant, Chernow writes: “It seems crystal-clear that Ulysses S. Grant modeled himself after his mutely subdued mother, avoiding his father’s bombast and internalizing her humility and self-control.”

Grant’s memoirs are far from personal. He is not particularly introspective–for example, he never mentions issues with alcohol, despite rumors that dogged him during the Civil War and, later, his presidency. Rather, Grant describes battles and muses candidly about sentiments on both the Union and Confederate sides. Grant died five days after his memoirs were published. 

At this time, in 1885, it was highly unusual for a president to write a memoir. President Buchanan published the first ever in 1866, in an attempt to save his legacy. Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion didn’t work. Buchanan today is regarded as one of America’s worst presidents, for his inaction during the eve of the Civil War. 

But the 20th century saw a glut of presidential memoirs. Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover all wrote their autobiographies. Every president from Harry Truman to Donald Trump wrote some form of memoir–excluding John F. Kennedy, who died in office. 

It’s also becoming increasingly common for presidential candidates to release books–often before their candidacy is even declared. Barack Obama wrote two before he was nominated in 2008. Elizabeth Warren, a potential candidate for 2020, released a book in 2017. Bernie Sanders released a book in late 2018. John F. Kennedy, who did not have a chance to write a book reflecting on his presidency, released his book Profiles in Courage in 1955, which introduced him to a wider audience before his run in 1960. 

Today, there’s such an emphasis on personal brand that any politician going the route of Bush or Grant would risk being drowned out by others. Certainly Bush was criticized for failing to “sell” his accomplishments in the 1992 election, which he ultimately lost to Bill Clinton. Yet in our era of “Only I Can Fix it” perhaps some humility is just what the American political sphere needs.