When Gerald Ford Pardoned Richard Nixon

By Kaleena Fraga

Former FBI director James Comey made waves recently when he suggested that Joe Biden may want to think about pardoning Donald Trump

Asked about the likelihood of a Trump pardon, Comey said that it could be a “part of healing the country.” He acknowledged that Trump might take it as “an admission of guilt” and refuse to accept.

When Gerald Ford assumed the presidency following Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974, he faced a similar decision. Ultimately, Ford decided to pardon Nixon—to the outrage of many. The Ford pardon was so unpopular that it may have even cost him reelection.

So, how did Ford reach his decision? And how do Americans regard Ford’s pardon of Nixon today?

Why Did Ford Pardon Nixon?

American political history is full of odd honors—shortest presidency (William Henry Harrison); most impeachments (Donald Trump); etc—and Ford’s claim to fame is that he is the only unelected president. He was plucked from Congress when Richard Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, resigned, and became president when Nixon followed suit in August 1974.

Gerald Ford, taking the oath of office following Richard Nixon’s resignation | Wikimedia Commons

Ford’s first week in office was bizarre. For the first 10 days of his presidency, he commuted from his family’s house in Alexandria, Virginia. All the while, he was weighing what to do about his predecessor.

Ford had been considering the possibility of a Nixon pardon since before he became president. Al Haig, Nixon’s chief of staff, had approached Ford 10 days before Nixon’s resignation and proposed a deal—the presidency, in exchange for a pardon. That is, Nixon would step down if Ford promised a pardon. Ford said no.

Speaking later to Bob Woodward—who uncovered the Watergate scandal and writes prolifically about presidencies—Ford said, “It was a deal, but it never became a deal because I never accepted.”

When Ford was hastily sworn in following Nixon’s resignation, he called for unity. My fellow Americans,” Ford famously said, “our long national nightmare is over.”

He went on to say: “As we bind up the internal wounds of Watergate, more painful and more poisonous than those of foreign wars, let us restore the golden rule to our political process, and let brotherly love purge our hearts of suspicion and of hate.”

But Watergate’s wounds were still fresh. Conflict raged over Nixon’s tapes and files, which the ex-president claimed as executive privilege; the House Judiciary Committee released their damning report on Nixon’s conduct; and Nixon’s lawyer claimed that his client could not receive a fair trial in the United States.

The White House counsel and a friend of Nixon, Leonard Garment, even feared that the former president might kill himself. On August 28th, he wrote Ford a memo which warned that: “The national mood of conciliation will diminish…the whole miserable tragedy will be played out to God knows what ugly and wounding conclusion.”

Garment urged Ford to pardon Nixon—and soon.

Ford had yet to make any decision. But an afternoon press conference pushed him toward issuing a pardon. He spent most of the session with the press deflecting questions about Nixon. Afterwards, Ford recalled thinking: “Every press conference from now on, regardless of the ground rules, will degenerate into a Q&A on, ‘Am I going to pardon Mr. Nixon?'”

Tw days later, Ford gathered a group of advisors in the Oval Office. “I’m very much inclined,” he told them, “to grant Nixon immunity from further prosecution.”

His reasons were varied. Ford thought it would be a “degrading spectacle” for a former president to go to prison and that the press would continue to drag out “the whole rotten mess” of Watergate.

His advisors largely agreed, but argued against pardoning Nixon so soon after Ford had assumed office.

Ford asked, “Will there ever be a right time?”

Ford Pardons Nixon

Ford announces the pardon of Nixon | Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum

On September 8th, 1974—roughly one month into his presidency—Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon.

“[Watergate] is an American tragedy in which we all have played a part,” Ford said. “It could go on and on and on, or someone must write the end to it. I have concluded that only I can do that, and if I can, I must.”

Ford went on: “My conscience tells me clearly and certainly that I cannot prolong the bad dreams that continue to reopen a chapter that is closed. My conscience tells me that only I, as President, have the constitutional power to firmly shut and seal this book. My conscience tells me it is my duty, not merely to proclaim domestic tranquillity but to use every means that I have to insure it.”

He finished by saying, “Finally, I feel that Richard Nixon and his loved ones have suffered enough and will continue to suffer, no matter what I do, no matter what we, as a great and good nation, can do together to make his goal of peace come true.”

Ford then read a proclamation, and signed it, granting Nixon a presidential pardon.

A month later, Ford explained to Congress that his primary motivation in issuing the pardon was to help the nation close the door on Watergate.

“I was absolutely convinced…that if we had had [an] indictment, a trial, a conviction, and anything else that transpired after this that the attention of the President, the Congress and the American people would have been diverted from the problems that we have to solve. And that was the principle reason for my granting of the pardon,” Ford said. He spoke with confidence, but later acknowledged that the pardon had been his most difficult domestic decision.

Ford speaks about the pardon to the House Judiciary Subcommittee | Library of Congress

Ford had another, less understood, reason to pardon Nixon. Benton Becker, who served as Ford’s lawyer at the time, explained in a 2014 panel that Nixon’s acceptance of Ford’s pardon acted as an admission of guilt. He cited Burdick vs. United States, a 1915 Supreme Court ruling in which the court decided that a pardon carried an “imputation of guilt”. Therefore, accepting a pardon was an “admission of guilt.”

Becker—who had the unenviable task of explaining this to Nixon—recalled that Nixon—after some convincing—agreed to the Court’s interpretation. Ford carried a part of the Burdick decision in his pocket after he left the White House, in case anyone asked him to explain the pardon.

How Did The Country React To Ford’s Pardon Of Nixon?

The immediate reaction to Ford’s announcement was outrage. Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward’s investigative partner, called Woodward and snarled: “The son of a bitch pardoned the son of a bitch.”

Ford paid an immediate price for his actions. According to a series of Gallup polls, Ford’s approval rating dropped from 66% in early September to 50% later that month; by January 1975, he’d sunk to a 37% approval rating. In the months leading up to the 1976 election—which Ford would lose to Jimmy Carter, after fighting off Ronald Reagan during the Republican primaries—Gallup reported that 55% of Americans thought that Ford had done the wrong thing in pardoning Nixon.

But over time, opinions about Ford’s pardon of Nixon changed. Bernstein acknowledged in 2014 that Ford’s pardon had taken “great courage.” Woodward likewise called the pardon “an act of courage.” In 2001, Senator Ted Kennedy awarded Ford the “Profile in Courage” award at the John F. Kennedy Library. Kennedy recalled that he had come out against the pardon in 1974. “But time has a way of clarifying past events, and now we see that President Ford was right,” Kennedy said. “His courage and dedication to our country made it possible for us to begin the process of healing and put the tragedy of Watergate behind us.”

In 2006, Richard Ben-Veniste, a former Watergate prosecutor and a Democrat wrote: “Did Ford make the right decision in pardoning his predecessor? The answer to that question is more nuanced than either the howls of outrage that greeted the pardon three decades ago or the general acceptance with which it is viewed now.”

That is—like most things in history—the ultimate legacy of Ford’s decision is complex.

Ford pardoned Nixon and paid the political price. Will Biden pardon Trump? Should he?

Some outlets, echoing Ford’s argument of national unity, say yes. The Baltimore Sun called the possibility of a pardon “tension calming.” The Independent went even further, calling a Biden-Trump pardon: “the only path forward.”

History does not repeat; but it does rhyme—and Trump and Nixon are not the same president. In a piece in the Dispatch, Professor Mary Stuckey of Penn State notes that: “There was no violence associated with Richard Nixon or Watergate.” The stakes, in other words, are different. Professor Sean Wilentz of Princeton also notes that Ford pardoned Nixon for his role in the Watergate scandal alone; a pardon of Trump would “[halt] further investigation and possible prosecution concerning the serious violation of several important federal laws arising from several distinct episodes dating back to the 2016 campaign.”

Biden may be eager to clear Trump from the American headspace, but Trump won’t be going anywhere for awhile—on January 19th, his impeachment trial is set to begin in the Senate.

That all but ensures that the first several days of Biden’s term will be cluttered with Trump news.

The First Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln

By Kaleena Fraga

We’ve talked about awkward presidential transitions before—we even dove deep into the chilly exchange of power between Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

But nothing quite tops Abraham Lincoln’s first inauguration in 1861. By the time Lincoln took the oath of office on March 4th, seven Southern states had seceded from the Union.

The Election of 1860

The Election of 1860 was split between four men. Abraham Lincoln ran under the banner of the Republican party—a new organization which united Know-Nothings, Whigs, and others under one roof. The Republicans largely opposed the expansion—not the existence—of slavery.

(The party had denied William Seward the nomination. Seward had thundered against slavery, noting that Americans should answer to a “higher law” than the Constitution. The Republicans prefered Lincoln, a moderate from a battleground state.)

Shattered by questions around slavery, the Democrats were a party divided. Democrats in the north nominated Stephen Douglas. However, Democrats in the south nominated John C. Breckinridge, the current vice president. Senator John Bell also threw his hat into the ring, as the nominee for the new Constitutional Union party.

Facing a divided opponent, Lincoln easily swept to victory—even though Southern states omitted Lincoln from the ballot.

Abraham Lincoln in 1860 | Library of Congress

“Well, boys,” Lincoln is alleged to have said to reporters after his victory, “your troubles are over now—but mine have just commenced.”

Lincoln’s “troubles” would be greater than he predicted.

The 1860 campaign had been bitter. Even though none of the candidates—except Douglas—openly campaigned, tensions skyrocketed over questions about slavery and its expansion. Newspapers in the South launched deeply racist attacks against Lincoln and, all the while, Southern states rumbled with the threat of secession.

Following Lincoln’s election, they made good on their threat. On December 20th, 1860 South Carolina seceded from the Union. Six more states followed. In February 1861, they formed the Confederate States of America.

Abraham Lincoln’s 1861 Inauguration

Days after Jefferson Davis was elected president of the new Confederacy, Abraham Lincoln set out from Springfield to travel to Washington D.C.

He arrived in the city at the crack of dawn on February 23rd. Because of a possible assassination plot, Lincoln had taken a night train. Rumors, unfounded, quickly spread that the new president had snuck into the city in disguise.

On March 4th, he prepared for his inauguration. Inauguration Day always draws crowds, but a different kind of tension sparked the air in 1861. Elizabeth Keckley, a Black dressmaker and confidante of Mary Lincoln’s, wrote in her memoirs:

“The streets of the capital were thronged with people, for this was Inauguration day. . . Never was such deep interest felt in the inauguration proceedings as was felt today.”

As Lincoln made his way to the Capitol, he was surrounded by heavily armed cavalry. One reporter noted that the president’s carriage was “closely surrounded on all sides by marshals and cavalry, so as almost to hide it from view.”

A young Julia Taft—who would write about Lincoln as an adult—stood in the crowd with her mother. They took care to not get too close—it could be dangerous. She recalled that as they took their place on the edge of the crowd “a file of green-coated sharpshooters went through up to the roof. The whisper went round that they had received orders to shoot at any one crowding toward the President’s carriage.”

In Taft’s recollection, the crowd seemed hostile toward Lincoln. She heard a woman sneer: “There goes that Illinois ape, the cursed Abolitionist. But he will never come back alive.”

In his inaugural address, Lincoln struck a firm but moderate tone. He promised to not interfere with slavery where it existed, but warned that the federal government would “hold, occupy, and possess” its property. Secession, he told the crowd, was “the essence of anarchy.”

Inauguration Day, March 4, 1861 | Library of Congress

Lincoln warned the South that if conflict were to break out, it would be because of their actions. “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict, without being yourselves the aggressors.”

Lincoln ended his speech—at the suggestion of Seward, his new secretary of state—with “words of affection” toward the South. His words would echo through the ages:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

A little over a month later, shots were fired at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. The Civil War had begun.

Abraham Lincoln in 1865

Abraham Lincoln, before and after the Civil War | Reddit

The Civil War changed the country. It changed Abraham Lincoln. He was no longer a moderate from a battleground state; he was the commander-in-chief during a conflict that would kill 600,000 Americans. Lincoln went from assuring Border States that the war wasn’t about slavery to championing the Emancipation Proclamation.

By the time he was inaugurated for the second time in March 1865, the war had begun to limp to its bloody end. A Union victory was in reach.

“At this second appearing to take the oath of the presidential office,” Lincoln noted during his inauguration, “There is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first.” He gave a short speech—about 700 words—denouncing slavery in searing, religious terms as figures like Walt Whitman, Frederick Douglass, and John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s soon-to-be-assassin, looked on.

Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration in 1865 | Library of Congress

Just as he had four years earlier, Lincoln ended his speech with a call for peace and goodwill: “With malice toward none with charity for all with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

It’s true—as Keckley said, and as Taft noted—that inauguration days are always fascinating affairs. The upcoming inauguration of Joe Biden is sure to strike a slightly different tone than normal, however.

The nation—rattled by the events of January 6, 2021 at the US Capitol—awaits his swearing-in with apprehension. Despite possible threats that may exist, Biden has avowed that he is “not afraid” to take the oath of office outside.

Out with the old, in with the new—what will the Biden era bring?

What Did The World Look Like In 1921?

By Kaleena Fraga

Well, 2020 has been a wild ride. What will 2021 hold? Last year, we discussed what the world looked like in 1920—now, let’s take a look back at how things were in 1921.

Since we’re all about American presidents at HF, we’ll start with the presidency in 1921:

Who Was President in 1921?

Warren G. Harding in June 1920 | Library of Congress

In 1921—just as in 2021—there was a new man in the White House. In January 2021, Joe Biden will be sworn in as president, replacing Donald Trump. In March 1921, Woodrow Wilson left the White House, limping to the end of his term after a devastating stroke. He would be succeeded by Warren G. Harding.

Harding is considered by some to be one of America’s worst presidents. His administration was marked by impropriety (the Teapot Dome scandal) and Harding often admitted he felt overwhelmed by his duties. He once described himself as “a man of limited talents” and once said “I am not fit for this office and should never have been here.”

In fact, Harding may be better known for dramas that emerged after his presidency came to an early end—he died in office in August 1923 of a heart attack. Rumors quickly spread that his wife, Florence Harding, had had something to do with his death. She was the last person with him, she refused an autopsy, and she inherited his estate. Some speculated that she’d killed her husband to spare him from looming corruption charges.

Later, it came out that Ms. Harding may have had another reason to kill her husband: The president had been having an affair. In 2009, many of Harding’s love letters to his mistress, Carrie Fulton Philips, were published. The letters are…quite steamy.

William Howard Taft Attains His Goal

William Howard Taft as Chief Justice, 1925 | Library of Congress

William Howard Taft had a pretty great 1921. Taft had been president from 1909 to 1913—but all he’d ever really wanted was to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. His wife, Nellie, was behind his push into presidential politics. Taft was probably relieved when he lost his reelection bid in 1912, during a campaign that pitted him against his predecessor and former friend, Teddy Roosevelt.

When Taft became president in 1909, he noted to a friend that “if I were now presiding in the Supreme Court of the United States as Chief Justice, I should feel entirely at home, but with the troubles of selecting a cabinet and the difficulties in respect to the revision of the tariff, I just feel a bit like a fish out of water.”

In 1921, he finally achieved his goal. It had been a long time coming—he had been promised an appointment to the Supreme Court by President McKinley and by President Roosevelt. Other responsibilities had come his way, instead. And Nellie Taft wanted desperately for her husband to be president.

On October 3rd, 1921, Taft was appointed as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by President Harding. “This is,” Taft declared, “the greatest day of my life.”

Franklin Roosevelt Develops Polio

Franklin Roosevelt (upper left) one year before developing polio | National Archives

In 1921, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was thirty-nine years old and on the upswing. After seven years in the Wilson administration (he served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy from 1913-1920) he’d been picked to run as James M. Cox’s vice president under the Democratic ticket. Roosevelt and Cox lost to Harding and Calvin Coolidge—but Roosevelt was young, healthy, and popular.

Then, illness struck. During the summer, Roosevelt began to develop strange symptoms—what started as lower back pain alarmingly progressed to the point where Roosevelt could no longer support his own weight. Doctors presented Roosevelt with a surprising diagnosis: he had infantile paralysis. Polio. At the time, there was no cure.

Roosevelt withdrew from the public sphere. But with the encouragement of his wife, Eleanor, and his doctor, he decided to reenter politics in 1924.

By 1932, Roosevelt would make another run for the presidency—this time, on top of the ticket. He would win that race, and the three that followed, to become the longest-serving president in American history.

What Was Life Like in the US in 1921?

The 1920s were the beginning of a wild and turbulent decade in America—and the world. After the pain of the First World War and the 1918 Flu Pandemic, an age of prosperity had swept into place.

This was the decade of Prohibition, speakeasies, flappers, and extravagance—an era captured exquisitely by F. Scott Fitzgerald in his 1925 novel The Great Gatsby.

It was also a decade of horrifying racial violence. By 1921, the Civil War had been over for a generation. But scars of the conflict remained. Some were invisible; some were all too prominent. Between 1900 and 1920, the country erected a wealth of Confederate monuments.

Smoke in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921 | Library of Congress

In 1921, the Tulsa Massacre tore through the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In the last days of May and into June, White mobs ravaged the Black neighborhood, destroying businesses and killing citizens. The attack destroyed more than 35 blocks of businesses—a wealthy stretch of town considered “Black Wall Street”—and killed perhaps as many as 300. It is considered to be the worst incident of racial violence in American history. Reports of the attack were subsequently suppressed—it would take nearly a century for full details to emerge.

Dramatic moments reigned from the beginning to the end of 1921. The year saw high moments of American comedy (Charlie Chaplin and The Kid) and status-quo-shattering change (The Republic of Ireland won its independence at the end of year). Quiet events in 1921 planted violent seeds—Adolf Hitler became the Führer of the Nazi party that July, and fascists gathered power in Italy.

What will 2021 hold? Minor events today could blossom into something unimaginable tomorrow. Last year certainly gave historians plenty to parse through. We’re betting that 2021 will be another eventful year.

Grover Cleveland: The Only President to Serve Non-Consecutive Terms

By Kaleena Fraga

At a White House Christmas party this week, President Trump mused out loud that he might run for president again in 2024.

“It’s been an amazing four years,” Mr. Trump said. “We are trying to do another four years. Otherwise, I’ll see you in four years.” The crowd cheered.

If he were to run, and win, Donald Trump would become only the second president to serve two, non-consecutive terms. The first was Grover Cleveland, who was elected in 1884 and 1892, making him the 22nd and 24th president of the United States.

Let’s get into it!

The Election of 1884: Cleveland vs. Blaine

Grover Cleveland as governor of New York | Wikimedia Commons

Grover Cleveland’s second election in 1892 certainly sets him apart in American history. But his first election was also noteworthy. In 1884, Cleveland became the first Democrat to be elected since the Civil War.

Since Lincoln, the Republicans had retained the White House. But power seemed prime to shift in 1884. Cleveland—the governor of New York—was in a good position to carry his state. If he could win New York and the entire south, he could win the presidency.

What’s more, many Republicans disliked their own nominee: James G. Blaine. Anti-Blaine Republicans, called Mugwumps, were the #NeverTrumpers of their day. Blaine stood accused of using his office as Speaker of the House to obtain favors from the railroads. Mugwumps would not support their party’s nominee, warning that his election would “dishonor the nation.”

The Mugwumps made it clear that they were still Republicans—just not Blaine Republicans. “We do not ally ourselves with the Democratic party, still less sanction or approve its past” —a shot over the bow and a nod of the head toward the Civil War — “but its present candidate has proved his fidelity to the principles we avow…he commands and will receive our support.”

Democrats gleefully piled on. Soon, their campaign slogan echoed throughout the country: “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, The continental liar from the State of Maine.”

Republicans were not going to go without a fight. When it came out that Cleveland may have fathered an illegitimate child, they attacked with a slogan of their own: “Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa?”

An anti-Cleveland poster from the 1884 election | Wikimedia Commons

Cleveland admitted that he could be the child’s father. His supporters argued that, “Mr. Blaine has been delinquent in office but blameless in public life, while Mr. Cleveland has been a model of official integrity but culpable in personal relations.”

The solution? Elect Cleveland and his integrity to the presidency—let Blaine return to his innocent public life.

A supporter of Blaine’s made things worse at a rally in New York City. Attempting to rouse the crowd, he accused the Democrats of being the party of “rum, Romanism, and rebellion.” The city’s Irish Catholics, whom Blaine hoped to court, soured on the Republican candidate. (Blaine was not present—but did not denounce the remark, either.)

Antipathy toward Blaine and Cleveland’s New York roots helped propel the latter to the presidency. It was a narrow victory. Cleveland won New York—and, therefore, the presidency— by only 1,000 votes.

After the election, Democrats commandeered the Republican’s campaign slogan. “Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa?” was now answered by: “Off to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha!”

The Election of 1888: Cleveland vs. Harrison

Benjamin Harrison, circa 1896 | Library of Congress

In 1888, Cleveland faced Benjamin Harrison. Harrison was, in many ways, a more formidable foe than Blaine. He was a former Civil War general, a senator from Indiana, and the grandson of a president—William Henry Harrison, who is best known for dying one month into his presidency. Benjamin Harrison, however, had not been the party’s first choice. He won the nomination on the eighth ballot at the Republican convention.

Cleveland had also caused problems for himself. In December of 1887, he called on Congress to reduce high protective tariffs, believing them to be unfair to consumers. Cleveland was told that this would give the Republicans ammunition as they moved into 1888—tariffs were the issue of the day—but he didn’t care. “What is the use of being elected or re-elected unless you stand for something?” Cleveland asked.

Indeed, the election of 1888 focused on what the two men stood for—instead of their moral failings. Republicans attacked Cleveland for his position on tariffs and for his aggressive use of the presidential veto, including the veto of a bill which denied pension increases to Civil War veterans.

By this time, the era of Lincoln Republicans had ended. Republicans of the 1880s were the party of big business. They found Cleveland and his ideas about tariff reductions incredibly threatening. So, they barnstormed the country. Republicans told voters that the Democrats did not understand money and that Cleveland’s reelection would cause people to lose their jobs. They also heavily emphasized their candidate’s political lineage, with campaign slogans like “The Same Old Hat – It Fits Ben Just Right.” (Democrats responded with their own slogan: “His Grandfather’s Hat – It’s Too big for BEN.”)

In the end, Harrison won the election. Cleveland lost his crucial state of New York as well as Harrison’s Indiana, which resulted in a lopsided Harrison victory—Harrison won the Electoral College but Cleveland won the popular vote. (47.9 percent to 48.6 percent.) That puts Cleveland in league with only four other candidates who have won more votes but lost the presidency: Andrew Jackson (1824), Samuel Tilden (1876), Al Gore (2000), and Hillary Clinton (2016).

(For our purposes of comparing Cleveland to Trump, this is significant. Cleveland won the popular vote. Given Trump’s loss of both the Electoral College and the popular vote in 2020, it’s possible he’d face an uphill battle in 2024. Trump may, however, be interested to hear that the 1888 election was likely rife with corruption. Black votes were suppressed. Other votes were bought. In one anecdote, Harrison thanked Providence for his victory. His campaign manager, Mark Hanna, noted to a friend: “Providence hadn’t a damn thing to do with it. A number of men were compelled to approach the penitentiary to make him president.”)

As Cleveland left the White House, his wife Frances, turned to face the staff. “I want to find everything just as it is now when we come back again,” she said. “We are coming back just four years from today.” 

Cleveland was down, but not out. Four years later, he’d run against Harrison for a second time.

The Election of 1892: Harrison vs. Cleveland

Grover Cleveland, circa 1892 | Library of Congress

According to historian Heather Cox Richardson, the Republicans moved aggressively after the election to ensure their hold on power. They had, after all, controlled the White House for decades. So, how to avoid another showing by a Democrat like Cleveland?

Add new states! That was the plan—add six new states, creating a Republican firewall. In 1889, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Washington joined the Union. In 1890, Idaho and Wyoming were established.

Republican operatives were sure this plan would work. But, as is wont in American politics, it backfired. In the 1890 midterm elections, the Democrats took the House of Representatives by a margin of 2:1. They swept to power bolstered by a bad economy and by the American West.

With the election of 1892 looming, Republicans threw their weight behind Harrison. But they weren’t happy with him. He could be cold and standoffish and refused to listen to advice. It’s possible that Harrison only ran for a second term out of spite—at the party convention, many Republicans tried to get James G. Blaine on the ticket instead of Harrison. Blaine refused.

After a quiet campaign, Cleveland swept to victory. For the first time since the Civil War, the Democrats won the presidency, the Senate, and the House.

We recently wrote about painful presidential transitions, and the Benjamin Harrison to Grover Cleveland transition deserves a place on that list. According to Richardson, it was the among the worst.

After his loss, Harrison threw up his hands. In Republican controlled newspapers, the embittered party told voters that Democrats didn’t know how to run the country—so everyone should take their money out of the stock market.

And thus began the Panic of 1893. Those who saw it coming begged Washington for help. But Harrison’s administration wouldn’t lift a finger. According to Harrison’s Treasury Secretary, they were only responsible for the economy until Cleveland’s inauguration.

In fact, the economy collapsed 10 days before Cleveland entered office. Cleveland was left to manage an economic crisis—which may have led him to regret returning to the presidency in the first place. According to the Miller Center, Cleveland left office a bitter man. When he died in 1908, his last words were “I have tried so hard to do right.”

What will happen in 2024? We don’t know—but it’s definitely too early for speculation. Or is it…?

Awkward Presidential Transitions

By Kaleena Fraga

On November 3rd, 2020 the United States had an election. By November 7th, it had a winner — and by November 23rd, a loser, when President Trump officially acknowledged the transition to Joe Biden’s presidency.

Now, January 20th, 2021 looms in the distance. What will the transition from Trump to Biden look like on Inauguration Day? If it’s awkward or stiff — or if Trump simply doesn’t show up — it would reflect a long tradition of a “chilly” January day.

Even before Inauguration Day moved to January 20th — it was previously held on March 4th but advances in transportation made assembling the new government easier and faster —presidential transitions were often awkward. John Adams left town before his once friend, now foe, Thomas Jefferson was sworn in in 1801. His son, John Quincy Adams, did the same on the day his rival Andrew Jackson took the oath of office in 1829. When Ulysses S. Grant was inaugurated, he refused to share a carriage with the deeply unpopular Andrew Johnson. During Grant’s inauguration in 1869, Johnson remained in the White House.

Today, we’ll take a look back at a few other awkward presidential transitions in the 20th-century.

Harry Truman to Dwight D. Eisenhower

President Truman and President Elect Eisenhower, Jan. 20, 1953 | Library of Congress

When Dwight D. Eisenhower won the 1952 election against Adlai Stevenson, he ended two decades of Democratic rule. And “Ike” had not just won—he swept to victory with 442 electoral votes to Stevenson’s 89.

Harry Truman, the incumbent, had worked with Eisenhower as World War II waned. Since then, their relationship had soured. Truman saw Eisenhower as dangerously anti-communist, especially since Eisenhower had done nothing publicly to denounce the rabble-rousing of Joseph McCarthy. Eisenhower had planned to denounce the firebrand senator in a speech in Wisconsin, but backed out. Truman fumed: “[It was] one of the most shocking things in the history of this country. The trouble with Eisenhower . . . he’s just a coward . . . and he ought to be ashamed for what he did.”

Still, Truman was gracious in defeat. He invited Eisenhower to the White House after the election, but felt that the former general seemed unsuited to the job. Frustrated, Truman wrote that everything he said to Eisenhower “went in one ear and out the other.” Later, Truman mused that Eisenhower’s military background would prove a disadvantage, writing:

“He’ll sit right here and he’ll say do this, do that! And nothing will happen. Poor Ike–it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.”

The former general, Truman noted coolly, “doesn’t know any more about politics than a pig knows about Sunday.”

Eisenhower also felt frosty. He saw Truman as an inept leader surrounded by cronies. When discussing the upcoming inauguration, he wondered aloud if he could “stand” sitting next to Truman. Eisenhower had a solution for dealing with people he disliked. He wrote their names on index cards and filed them under “To Be Ignored.” The next eight years would prove that Eisenhower meant it—the two presidents had little contact during Eisenhower’s two terms in office. (When Eisenhower was in Missouri and Truman tried to set up a meeting, he was told that the president had no room in his schedule. Reportedly, Truman could not refer to Eisenhower in later years without using profanity.)

Neither man had thawed by Inauguration Day. The clear, simmering hatred between the two was “like a monsoon”, according to White House advisor Clark Clifford. There were petty arguments over what kind of hats to wear—Eisenhower, without alerting Truman, wore a Homburg (similar to a fedora) instead of a silk top hat—and Eisenhower refused to enter the White House before he was sworn in, which meant he declined Truman’s invitation for a pre-inauguration cup of coffee

In fact, Eisenhower refused to even get out of the car. One CBS correspondent called it a “shocking moment.” The White House head usher, J.B. West, said “I was glad I wasn’t in that car.”

But despite the animosity between Eisenhower and Truman, Truman had gone out of his way to make Eisenhower’s inauguration special. Without Eisenhower knowing, Truman had invited the general’s son, John, to temporarily leave his post in Korea to see his father sworn in.

Eisenhower asked Truman who had invited John back. According to Eisenhower, Truman replied, “I did.”

Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan

President Reagan is sworn in. President Carter stands nearby. Jan. 20, 1980 | Wikimedia Commons

Ronald Reagan won the election in 1980 by setting himself up as the opposite of Jimmy Carter. Instead of “malaise” you had “Morning in America“.

The two men had traded razor-sharp barbs during the campaign. Carter suggested that Reagan was a racist who couldn’t be trusted with the nuclear codes. Reagan quipped, “The conduct of the presidency under Mr. Carter has become a tragic-comedy of errors. In place of competence, he has given us ineptitude.” Reagan claimed the country’s economic recovery couldn’t start until Carter lost his job.

The transition, then, was unsurprisingly tense. When the two men met after the election to discuss national security, Reagan listened without comment and took no notes — much to Carter’s chagrin. During the meeting, Carter noted that being president was different than being governor (a role both men had had). For one thing, CIA briefings started at 7am. Regan smiled and said, “Well, he’s sure going to have to wait a long while for me.” Carter was unamused. Reagan didn’t care. He wanted “nothing to do” with Carter.

Reagan’s family did nothing to thaw tensions. A rumor came out that Nancy Reagan had asked if the Carters could move out out of the White House early—so that she could redecorate. Reagan’s son, Ronald, told the press he wouldn’t shake President Carter’s hand because “[Carter] has the morals of a snake.”

On Inauguration Day, Carter cut a weary figure. He had been up for forty-eight hours attempting to free the American hostages in Iran — who had been held in captivity for 444 days.

As they rode in a limousine together on the morning of Reagan’s inauguration, Carter was quiet, deep in thought about the hostages. Several hours earlier, he’d informed his successor that their release was imminent—indeed, they would be released that day. Reagan filled the silence. Later, Carter called Reagan’s anecdotes “remarkably pointless.” One story involved a former studio executive named Jack Warner and as Carter emerged from the car he muttered to an aide, “Who is Jack Warner?”

During Reagan’s presidency, the two men continued to attack each other. Reagan often invoked Carter to show how bad things used to be. “Remember, we were told it was a malaise, and we just had to get used to doing with less?” Reagan said during his presidency. “Well, the people knew different.” Carter also did not restrain from critiquing Reagan’s performance as president.

Still, when Carter opened his presidential library, he invited his former foe to the dedication ceremony. Reagan agreed—perhaps out of presidential duty. One of his staffers quipped that it would be strange to see the two men together, “kind of like mixing peanuts and jelly beans.”

Bill Clinton to George W. Bush (the Staff)

George W. Bush is sworn in, Jan. 20, 2001 | Wikimedia Commons

The transition between Bill Clinton and George W. Bush was fairly civil—especially given the controversy of the 2000 election, which came down to a recount in Florida and a Supreme Court decision.

There were a few instances of awkwardness. When President Clinton invited President-Elect Bush to coffee at the White House, Clinton arrived 10 minutes later. This irritated Bush, who was so punctual that he often locked doors once a meeting had begun. What’s more, Clinton also invited his vice president—Bush’s campaign rival, Al Gore.

But the real tension came from Clinton’s White House staff. Angered by remarks by Bush during the campaign—especially his insistence that he would restore honor and integrity to the Oval Office—they did their best to make life difficult for their replacements.

The Washington Post reported that departing Clinton staffers left quite a welcome for the Bush people, including scattered bumper stickers, obscene voicemail greetings, damaged furniture, dismantled keyboards (some people removed the “W” from their keyboards), vaseline smeared on desks, unplugged refrigerators, writing on the wall, missing TV remotes, telephones and drawers glued shut, and locks smashed.

One Bush staff member described the office space as “filthy” and one room contained a “malodorous stench.” The Clinton people left behind “unopened beer and wine bottles, a blanket, shoes, and a T-shirt with a picture of a tongue sticking out on it draped over a chair.

One Clinton staffer admitted gleefully to what they had done, telling the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that he had: “left a voicemail greeting on his telephone indicating that he would be out of the office for the next four years due to a decision by the Supreme Court.”

The prank cost the government somewhere between $13,000 and $14,000 to fix.

The campaign of 2020 was certainly a bitter one—even to the end. So, it’ll be interesting to see how President Trump leaves and how President Biden arrives. Will it be as frosty as Eisenhower and Truman? Or will Mr. Trump take a page out of the Adams’ book, and skip town before the celebrations begin?

When Presidents Hide Health Scares

Hmmm…I wonder why this subject has come to mind. In any case, presidents have a tendency to hide their health concerns from the American public. We take a look at two examples of American presidents who hid health scares.

Woodrow Wilson’s Stroke (1919)

Woodrow and Edith Wilson, June 1920 | Library of Congress

One of the most striking moments of obfuscation from the White House belongs to Woodrow Wilson. In 1919, the president suffered a devastating stroke.

On September 3rd, the president had embarked on a country-wide train trip. He wanted to convince his fellow Americans to support the League of Nations. During the trip, Wilson’s health suffered. He lost his appetite and his asthma began to bother him.

On September 25th, Wilson took a turn for the worse. His wife, Edith, noticed that her husband’s facial muscles were twitching and Wilson complained of nausea and a splitting headache. On September 26th, Wilson’s speaking tour was canceled. On October 2nd, back at the White House, the president suffered a devastating stroke that left him partially paralyzed.

Although news of the president’s stroke began to come out in February 1920, most Americans did not realize its severity. They didn’t realize that—as Wilson struggled to recover—his wife had taken over as de facto president. After all, this was decades before the 25th amendment would put a process in place for what to do when the president is incapacitated.

Edith Wilson, who described her role as a “stewardship” denied that she made any decisions on her own. But she admitted that she decided “what was important and what was not, and the very important decision of when to present matters to my husband.”

Grover Cleveland’s Jaw Surgery (1893)

President Grover Cleveland print, 1884 | Library of Congress

Grover Cleveland, who holds the amusing honor of being the only American president to serve two, non-consecutive terms, also hid his health problems from the nation.

Shortly after his inauguration—his second, that is, in 1893, eight years after his first—Cleveland noticed a strange rough spot on the roof of his mouth. A few months later it had grown in size and his doctor confirmed what Cleveland feared. The president had cancer. “It’s a bad looking tenant,” Cleveland’s doctor told him. “I would have it evicted immediately.”

Cleveland knew he would have to hide his condition from the public. In 1893, a considerable stigma existed around cancer, called the “dread disease.” In addition, Cleveland feared that revealing his illness would send the already suffering economy into a tailspin.

The solution? Cleveland told the public that he was going on a fishing trip. And although the president would spend a few days on a yacht, he would not be doing any fishing. Doctors had been summoned to remove the cancer from his mouth.

During the 90-minute surgery, a team of six surgeons aboard a moving vessel extracted the tumor, five of Cleveland’s teeth, and a section of the president’s left jawbone. They did this through the roof of the president’s mouth—which left no marks to alert the public. Indeed, keeping Cleveland’s famous moustache intact was a stipulation of the surgery.

The American public was kept entirely in the dark. When an astute journalist named E.J. Edwards published the truth of the matter in the Philadelphia Press, the president and his team firmly denied it. The public turned against Edwards, labeling his story a “deliberate falsification.”

Edwards’ reputation was in tatters—but, twenty-four years later, he would be redeemed. In 1917, one of the surgeons from the boat acknowledged that Edwards had been right, noting that the journalist had been, “substantially correct, even in most of the details.”

By then, however, Cleveland had left office and died of a heart attack.

Other examples of American presidents hiding their illnesses abound throughout the country’s history. John F. Kennedy struggled with Addison’s disease and back issues. Some close to Ronald Reagan—including his own son—claim that the president suffered from Alzheimer’s while in office, although the majority of those close to Reagan deny this.

Franklin Roosevelt also presents an interesting case. Despite a persistent belief that he hid his polio from the public, the president’s condition was not a secret—newspapers had published articles that included information about his wheelchair and leg braces. The president’s disability was discussed often.

However, Roosevelt believed it was important that Americans did not see him in a wheelchair. He wanted Americans to believe that he was capable. That’s why he would stand to give a speech, even at great cost to himself. (If you look at photos of Roosevelt speaking while standing, you may notice how tightly he grips the edges of the podium.)

Roosevelt also asked the press to avoid taking photographs of him walking or being transferred into a car. They didn’t always follow the rules. But if someone did snap a photograph of Roosevelt that the president didn’t like, the Secret Service leapt into action.

In 1936, Editor & Publisher reported just how the Secret Service would react to an aggressive photographer—by taking the camera and tearing out the film. In 1946, the White House photography corps backed this up. They acknowledged that if they took the kind of photographs that the president had asked them to avoid, they would have “their cameras emptied, their films exposed to sunlight, or their plates smashed.”

In any case, hiding health scares seems to be a strong tradition among American presidents. It makes sense. It’s easy to draw a line between the health of the nation and the health of its executive.

Calvin Coolidge Goes to Cuba

By Kaleena Fraga

Some of you may know that I’ve started a podcast with a former colleague of mine. Yesterday in Travel focuses on moments in travel history—but there’s quite a bit of overlap with what we like to discuss here at History First.

In our last episode, my co-host and I discussed President Obama’s 2016 trip to Cuba. As part of our discussion, we touched on Calvin Coolidge’s 1928 trip to Cuba and man—that’s a fantastic story.

Today, we’re going to delve into Coolidge’s 1928 trip. At the time, it seemed like a rather serene affair. The wild truth about the trip didn’t come out until decades later.

Why did Calvin Coolidge go to Cuba?

Thirty years before Calvin Coolidge visited Cuba, Theodore Roosevelt charged up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War in 1898. Since then, the United States, empowered by the Platt Amendment, reserved the right to intervene in Cuban affairs. (The 1903 amendment also leased Guantanamo Bay to the Americans.)

By 1928, attitudes toward the Americans had soured. Even Coolidge, who expressed little interest in foreign affairs, recognized the need for action. His term in office lasted between 1923 and 1929—a lull of a decade between WWI and WWII—and many of the foreign affair issues of the day had to do with American intervention in Latin America. (Coolidge himself had only left the country once before—for his honeymoon in Canada.)

Coolidge went to Cuba in 1928 to attend the Pan American Conference in Havana. The president and his entourage sought to persuade delegates away from passing anti-U.S. resolutions. Many Latin American countries critiqued American military interventions in places like Panama, Hondorus, Nicaragua, and Haiti, and Coolidge wanted to keep the peace. (This was not helped by the fact that Coolidge ordered an invasion of Nicaragua as he prepared to depart for Cuba.)

In Cuba, Coolidge extended an olive branch. He emphasized—in an attempt to quell criticism—that all the countries in the Pan American conference were equal. Coolidge focused on “peace and goodwill” in his public remarks—although he arrived in Cuba on a massive WWI battleship called Texas.

Overall, Coolidge saw the trip to Cuba as a way to begin a campaign for world peace. The ensuing Kellogg-Briand Pact, a worldwide peace treaty that banned war, hoped to avoid the violence of WWI in the future. Of course, sadly, the world leaped into the bloody conflict of WWII not soon after the Pact was created in 1928.

What happened during the trip to Cuba?

If you read the newspapers of the day, you would have the impression that a serious president had conducted his serious mission, seriously. After all, this was a serious time, right in the apex of the Prohibition era in the United States—not that Coolidge was much of a drinker.

But thirty years after the trip, one of the traveling members of the press revealed that Coolidge’s trip to Cuba wasn’t the stodgy affair that it had seemed in the papers. Beverly Smith Jr. had accompanied the president as a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune. In 1958, he revealed that much of the trip never made the papers.

The 6 day junket to Cuba and return had in it elements of pageantry, drama, comedy, and farce…it became, in its latter stages, a large scale smuggling operation. The whole show took on a special illicit zest because it was conducted under the dour, dead-pan aegis of President Coolidge—Silent Cal, Cautious Cal, austere symbol of the old Puritan virtues, staunch upholder of the Prohibition Amendment.

Beverly Smith, Jr.

The trip got wild from the get-go. Once the party traveling with the president arrived in Key West, they quickly realized that—despite the strict state of Prohibition around the country—alcohol still flowed freely in the bars of this Floridian city.

The president went to bed at a respectful hour. After all, people called him “Silent” Cal not “Fun” Cal. (Someone—perhaps Alice Roosevelt Longworth, although she later denied it—once described Calvin Coolidge as having the expression of a man “who has been weaned on a pickle.”)

When Coolidge’s secretary announced that the president had gone to bed, the party began. “With these words,” Smith wrote thirty years later, “the dignity of the tour began to crack. It was as though mice had been informed that the cat was away.”

The party lasted all night, with many people stumbling home in the wee hours of the morning. The next day, one reporter was so drunk that he fell into the ocean while boarding the ship to Cuba. Smith, looking back, noted that at the time many Americans saw it as their patriotic duty to “[sluice] down any drinks within reach.” Clearly, the traveling press corp felt up to this particular patriotic challenge.

Once the USS Texas landed in Cuba, Coolidge and his party were greeted by a massive crowd—perhaps up to 200,000—of cheering Cubans. In her biography of Calvin Coolidge, Amity Shlaes wrote, “Thousands climbed onto the Morro Castle and the rooftops of buildings, craning their necks to get a glimpse of the battleship USS Texas as it moved into the harbor.”

Smith noted that even the usually subdued Coolidge cracked a smile at the reception. “[The president] showed more animation than usual. He bowed, he smiled, he took off his silk hat.” The crowd included—to Coolidge’s horror, once he made the realization—an enthusiastic group of “highly painted young ladies” from a nearby brothel.

The president once again retired early. Once again, the press took to the streets. There, the group of reporters made a thrilling discovery. One of their own had an uncanny likeness to the president. “I suspect,” wrote Smith, “that there are some older Havanas who believe that Cal, outside office hours, was a gay dog.” (Remember—this was the 1920s!)

At one point during their stay in Cuba, Coolidge was presented with a diplomatic conundrum. At the estate of Gerardo Machado, the president of Cuba, Coolidge was offered an alcoholic drink. At least—someone tried to offer him one. And what was the president to do? He couldn’t take the drink in front of the press corps. But a refusal could be seen as a diplomatic faux pas. Smith wrote:

“Cal himself, of course, was the cynosure of the drama. As the tray approached from his left, he wheeled artfully to the right, seeming to admire a portrait on the wall. The tray came closer. Mr. Coolidge wheeled right another 90 degrees, pointing out to Machado the beauties of the tropical verdure. By the time he completed his 360-degree turn, the incriminating tray had passed safely beyond him. Apparently, he had never seen it. His maneuver was a masterpiece of evasive action.”

Beverly Smith, Jr.

As the presidential party prepared to pack up and leave—back to dreary, dry America—the press suddenly got word that they would not need to go through customs in Florida. So…if no one was going to check their bags…

Yes—a mad dash ensued to buy as much alcohol as possible to smuggle home. (They were just doing their patriotic duty, right?) Some reporters bought extra suitcases. Others threw out their clothing to make room for all that rum.

Smith wondered if the president secretly knew. “Was it, incredibly, Calvin himself, out of that quirky humor which was supposed to lurk behind the vinegary Vermont visage?” Smith wondered thirty years later.

Maybe Cal did have a secret sense of humor. He certainly had a simple, straight-forward way of doing things. One of History First’s favorite anecdotes about Silent Cal is that, when asked if he would run for a second term, he handed his press secretary a note that said simply: “I do not choose to run for president in nineteen twenty-eight.” (Probably a good decision. The economy crashed in 1929.)

Calvin Coolidge stated simply that he would not run for reelection | Library of Congress

If you’re curious to learn more about President Obama’s trip to Cuba in 2016, then I encourage you to take a listen to our podcast episode! We get into how the trip happened, what happened during the trip—spoiler alert: it wasn’t as wild as Cal’s trip, but, then again, maybe we’ll learn more in 30 years—and what Obama’s trip to Cuba means for Americans who want to go there today.

8 of the Most Iconic Campaign Ads

By Kaleena Fraga

‘Tis the season! The presidential campaign of 2020 is in full swing. That means—especially for you swing staters—political ads will soon be hard to avoid.

So what were the best campaign ads? What were the most controversial? We’ve come up with this list of the 8 most iconic campaign ads. Here, you can explore the irresistible jingle of I Like Ike (1952) as well as the highly controversial Willie Horton ad (1988).

#1: “I Like Ike!” (1952)

Can we bring back the political jingle? There’s tons of charm in this 1952 animated advert, which endorses Dwight D. Eisenhower over Adlai Stevenson.

The ad targets Adlai Stevenson as well other prominent Democrats of the day. Stevenson is shown riding a donkey to the left (while everyone marches to the right) as the jingle chimes: “Let Adlai go the other way.”

The ad also sings, “We don’t want John or Dean or Harry” over an animation of three donkeys. This is a reference to John Sparkman, Stevenson’s running mate, Dean Acheson, the Secretary of State, and Harry Truman, the current president.

#2: “Daisy” (1964)

When nuclear Armageddon looms, you can say it all with only a few words. This Lyndon B. Johnson spot revolutionized political campaign ads.

Without naming Johnson’s opponent, Barry Goldwater, it reminded viewers of the stakes of the election. Remember, in 1964 Goldwater infamously declared: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

Political attack ads were nothing new. But, as The Smithsonian notes, “In nearly every case…the attacks were rational, fact-based arguments.” The “Daisy” ad changed the game by playing to the viewer’s emotions instead.

#3: “Morning in America” (1984)

This simple, effective ad spoke to Ronald Reagan’s optimism. But it also drew a contrast between Reagan and his predecessor, Jimmy Carter. Carter oversaw multiple crises, including stagflation, the Oil Crisis, the Olympic Boycott, and the Iran Hostage Crisis. He famously (or infamously) gave his “Crisis of Confidence” speech in 1979, acknowledge the malaise that had overtaken the country.

Compare Crisis of Confidence with Morning in America. You can see what Reagan is doing in this quietly impactful ad. And just in case you don’t make the connection, the Gipper reminds the audience, asking them, “Why would we ever want to return to where we were?”

Note: The Lincoln Project, a group of anti-Trump Republicans, put out a twist on this classic ad. Theirs, called “Mourning in America” attacks President Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

#4: “Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy!” (1960)

There’s a fantastic scene in Mad Men where the advertising team watches this ad—then compares it to the incredibly dry spot that Richard Nixon put out. Like the I Like Ike! ad, this Kennedy ad is fun, charming, and…impossible to get out of your head.

It captures the youth and optimism around his campaign.

(Go ahead and compare the Nixon spot, below)

What’s fascinating about these two ads is the difference. You can see how political campaigning is beginning to shift and change.

By the time Nixon ran again in 1968, he used a different ad strategy. Below, you can see that his ad is more sophisticated and more dramatic. It lacks the charm of Kennedy Kennedy Kennedy but then again, so did 1968. (And so did Nixon!)

#5: The infamous “Willie Horton” ad (1988)

The Willie Horton ad played on racial fears among white voters. Run by the George H.W. Bush campaign, it claimed to draw a distinction between Bush and his opponent, Michael Dukakis. The ad portrayed Bush as tough on crime—a real “Law and Order” type—and Dukakis as soft on crime.

Lee Atwater, George H.W. Bush’s campaign strategist, told the team, “If I can make Willie Horton a household name, we’ll win the election.”

By 1988, the days of I Like Ike and Kennedy Kennedy Kennedy ads had long disappeared.

#6: “The Man from Hope” (1992)

Four years later, Bill Clinton’s simple, hopeful message echoed more Morning in America than Willie Horton. Speaking to the camera, Clinton draws a connection between his hometown (Hope, Arkansas) and the hope he has for the country.

Interestingly, both Clinton and his opponent, George H.W. Bush relied on simple ads like Hope. They spoke to the camera. They told stories of optimism. Ads in the early 1990s seemed to forgo the charm of the 1960s and the racism of the 1980s.

Here’s one of Bush’s 1992 ads:

#7: “The McGovern Defense” (1972)

Back to Nixon! This ad came out in 1972, when Nixon ran for reelection. Sponsored by “Democrats for Nixon” this spot uses some of the creativity we saw in the 1960s—along with the soaring orchestral numbers and compelling commander-in-chief images that we’ve come to expect in political ads.

#8: “Yes We Can” (2008)

The 2008 election changed so much campaigns, especially by bringing technology to the forefront. The Barack Obama campaign used the web more than anyone else had.

So, it’s appropriate that this “Yes We Can” ad ran only online. It quickly went viral. Within a few days, the ad had over 20 million views.

What’s next for political ads? Tik tok? Don’t dismiss it—at least one candidate in Canada used Tik Tok to boost his campaign!

The First History First Crossword!

Hi, History First friends!

So excited to share this with everyone—our very own Molly Bloom has created the below crossword. It has a theme that fans of HF may find familiar…

You can download the crossword by clicking below:

And if you need the answers, we’ve got those too:

4 Memorable Moments from US Political Conventions

By Kaleena Fraga

Last week, the Democrats rolled out the country’s first virtual political convention. This week, the Republicans will follow suit. It was weird—but sometimes charming—to see the DNC move online.

Conventions are historically pretty wild. (This has changed in the last several election cycles…they’ve become much more predictable). We look back at four memorable convention moments from the 20th-century—from the battle of Bull Moose in 1912, to a moment of Hollywood oddity in 2008.

#1: The Battle of Bull Moose (1912)

Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft | Getty Images

Today’s politics may feel unprecedented, but Americans in 1912 faced a truly unusual situation as they barreled toward Election Day.

Following William McKinley’s assassination in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt became president. He finished McKinley’s term and won one of his own before deciding to leave the White House in 1909. Roosevelt, although he loved the spotlight, was happy to see power transferred to his hand-picked successor and friend, William Howard Taft.

But as he watched Taft govern from afar, Roosevelt became increasingly unhappy with his friend’s performance. Roosevelt—who had eagerly promoted his “Square Deal” policies as president—believed in the importance of active government. Taft disagreed. The tension between their two outlooks burst into the open, and Roosevelt declared that he would run against his old friend—for an unprecedented third term in office.

At the convention, the two men went head-to-head. Things became bitter—even violent—with Taft supporters wielding clubs, and one Roosevelt supporter threatening a Taft man with a gun. Taft called Roosevelt “the greatest menace to our institutions we’ve had in a long time.” Roosevelt called Taft an agent of “political crookedness.” (He also referred to his former friend as a “fathead”.)

One Republican operator groaned: “The only question now is which corpse gets the most flowers.”

Indeed, the aftermath of the convention—during which Taft won the nomination—saw Roosevelt bolt from the Republicans to run under the Progressive Party. (The party would also be called the Bull Moose Party after a failed attempt on Roosevelt’s life during the campaign. Surviving a shot to the chest, Roosevelt declared: “It takes more than that to kill a bull moose!”)

Facing Woodrow Wilson, Roosevelt, and Eugene V. Debs, Taft won only eight electoral votes—the worst performance of an incumbent president ever. Wilson became the second Democrat elected to the White House since the Civil War.

#2: Could it be a Co-Presidency? (1980)

Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan | Hulton Archive-Getty Images

Gerald Ford was not a candidate in 1980. He had assumed the presidency after Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974, and lost the election of 1976 to Jimmy Carter. In 1980, Ford—like the rest of the country—watched Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush battle it out.

Yet the former president loomed large over the 1980 campaign.

Having won the nomination, Reagan began to search for his running mate. Although it seemed to many that picking Bush might make sense, Reagan didn’t get along well with his campaign rival. His people looked elsewhere, and found that Ford polled well with voters. Better, in fact, than Bush.

Ford wasn’t interested. He turned down Reagan multiple times. Yet, Ford lavished praise on the nominee during his convention speech, telling the audience:

“I don’t mind telling you all that I am not ready to quit yet. This Republican is going to do everything in his power to elect our nominee to the presidency. … So when this convention fields the team for Governor Reagan, count me in.”

Gerald Ford

Ford also noted in a subsequent interview that pride was not an issue for him when it came to the vice presidency. Reagan’s people thought Ford could be sending signals. Reagan asked Ford again; again, Ford said no.

At this point, Ford began to feel like returning to the vice presidency could be inevitable—despite his desire to avoid doing so. Looking to dampen speculation about the Reagan-Ford “dream ticket”, Ford sat down for an interview with Walter Cronkite. The former president later noted: “I tried to balance it out so there wouldn’t be any misunderstanding.”

But as Cronkite tried to work through Ford’s decision-making, he asked whether being vice president for Reagan would have “to be something like a co-presidency.” Ford did not contradict this. He told Cronkite that there would need to be a mutual understanding between the president and vice-president. “I would not go to Washington and be a figurehead,” he said.

Reagan, watching the interview, was “appalled” at the term of co-presidency. “Did you hear what he just said?” The future president exclaimed.

Any talk of Ford on the ticket quickly turned to dust. Reagan reached out to his old campaign rival, George H.W. Bush, and asked him to become his running mate.

#3: “It was f— ’em. To be blunt about it.” (1980)

Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy | Associated Press

To be sure, 1980 brought drama to the Republican convention. But the Democrats pulled a “hold my beer” moment when their turn came.

With echoes of 1912, their campaign pitted an incumbent—Jimmy Carter—against a member of his own party, Senator Ted Kennedy.

Even as the incumbent, Carter appeared a weak candidate. High unemployment and rising gas prices pummeled the country during his term. Issues like the Iran hostage crisis and the 1980 Olympic boycott did not help. The president himself noted a “crisis of confidence” among Americans. Kennedy—although he initially stumbled—saw an opportunity to win the White House.

Ted Kennedy brought with him the star-power of his political family. He ran to the left of Carter and generated support among voters. But on the eve of the convention, Kennedy had fewer delegates than Carter did.

The Kennedy people tried to get all delegates released from their prior commitments—they failed to do so. Still, they sought to embarrass Carter. They pushed a liberal platform far to the left of the president’s.

Harold Ickes, who ran the floor operation for Kennedy, manipulated convention rules to delay the proceedings. He sought to ruin the carefully planned prime-time speeches. “We just said, ‘F—‘ em,” Ickes recounted. “We weren’t thinking about the country…[or] the general election. It was ‘F—‘ em…To be blunt about it.”

Although Carter secured the nomination, things got worse. Kennedy gave a soaring speech—The Dream Shall Never Die, with clear invocations of his family’s political past—which awed the convention hall. Carter fumbled his own speech, mixing up Hubert Humphrey with Hubert Horatio Hornblower, a character from fiction.

Then, the balloons would not fall. “Forget the hostages, he can’t get the balloons down,” muttered someone on the floor within hearing distance of Dan Rather.

And, worst of all, Kennedy continued to avoid Carter on stage. Carter tried again and again to corner his campaign rival so that they could be photographed hand-in-hand, arms aloft, representative of the united Democratic party. It wouldn’t be—although the two men shared a stiff handshake. “Well, this is slightly awkward,” NBC’s David Brinkley said.

Carter would lose the election to Reagan, proving once more the lesson from 1912: infighting is rarely beneficial to political parties.

#4: The Problem with Props (2004, 2008)

We’ll finish with two lighter moments in convention history—albeit, ones that caused some drama at the time.

First, in 2004. As John Kerry accepted his nomination at the DNC, CNN caught the hot mic of the balloon operator. For several excruciating minutes, the operator screamed on live TV to drop the balloons—not the confetti!!—eventually breaking into a string of curse words as balloons trickled down from the ceiling.

Second, 2008. This infamous moment represents the importance of choosing your convention speakers wisely—and that bringing in Hollywood actors can come with its risks.

At the RNC in 2008, Clint Eastwood pretended to speak to Barack Obama—using an empty chair as a prop. Although the convention hall cheered and jeered, many at home found the performance odd and rambling. It also overshadowed a speech by (then) up-and-comer Marco Rubio.

We could go on. There are so many dramatic campaign moments, especially if you look at the 19th-century. (In 1860, Abe Lincoln won the day as a compromise candidate at his convention!). What are some of your favorite convention moments?