How James Comey Could Run in 2020…and Win

By Kaleena Fraga

Former FBI Director James Comey made some social media waves Monday morning when he posted a picture of himself on Twitter. This was remarkable for a couple of reasons. The internet had long speculated that the twitter handle “Reinhold Niebuhr” belonged to Comey–the photo seemed to be an outright confirmation. Secondly, the picture depicted Comey standing among the corn in Iowa, wearing athletic shoes. Twitter responded with: “he’s running.”*

Regarding Comey, is it really that crazy of an idea? Many Americans are sick of both parties, as evidenced by the strong trend toward third party and outlier candidates during 2016. If Comey were to run in 2020, he could present himself as someone who always puts country first–and he certainly has the enemies on both sides of the aisle to prove it.

Comey could, in theory, try to create an Eisenhower like aura around his candidacy. He is someone who is accomplished in his field, who is seen by most as trustworthy and honorable, and he knows the ins and outs of Washington as well or better than other possible 2020 candidates. He is seen as steady and straightforward (a contrast to the current administration) and has the history to prove that he’s not partisan. Comey stood up to George W. Bush, refused to be rattled by Hillary Clinton, and kept his cool around Donald Trump.

Of course, he does have enemies. Democrats blame him for throwing the election to Trump by reviving Clinton’s email issue in the waning days of the campaign. Many Republicans see him as a “showboat” (Trump’s word) and disloyal for his conduct during his time in the Trump administration. But if Comey’s campaign were able to spin this as a positive, as an indication that he has always gone with his country over his party, no matter the consequences, he could be an appealing candidate for Americans tired of partisan rancor. And they’re sure to see plenty of that during the 2020 campaign.

It’s early. Still, stranger things have happened.

*For those who don’t know, the twitter comment “he/she’s runningis used ironically, and can be posted about almost anyone doing almost anything. It’s a mockery of the rampant speculation surrounding 2020.

Make American Political Ads Cute Again!

By Kaleena Fraga

Political ads have come a long way since the Eisenhower era. This jingle is impossible to forget–even the most stalwart Democrat will find themselves humming it.

A lot of things contributed to Ike’s victory in 1952–fatigue among Americans of the Democratic party (after all, Dems had been in power since 1933), a feisty and well defined campaign by the Republicans (Ike’s VP pick, Richard Nixon, was able to emphasize the three “Cs”–China, Communism, Corruption), and the disdain of Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic nominee, toward ads like Ike’s. Stevenson refused to be “sold like soap.”

Although this ad is the most famous, Eisenhower also utilized television to reach out to Americans by producing dozens of 20 second videos called “Eisenhower Answers America,” in which he’d respond to a question posed by a sympathetic citizen.

In this way, Ike was way ahead of the curve when it came to using television to advertise and promote a political campaign. Who knows what he might have done with Twitter.

That Was Close: TR, Jackson, & Would-Be Assassins

By Kaleena Fraga

A handful of American presidents have been assassinated while in office–Garfield, Lincoln, McKinley, and Kennedy. More, however, have survived attempts on their life–often in stunning ways.

Andrew Jackson, known today perhaps because of the controversy surrounding his place in history (and on the twenty dollar bill), was no less polarizing as president. He holds the dubious honor of being the first president to experience an attempt on his life. Jackson was leaving a funeral at the Capitol building when his would-be assassin, Richard Lawrence, ran up to him and shot his gun–but the gun misfired. Jackson, never one to back down from a fight (it was Jackson who said, “I was born for the storm; calm does not suit me”) began to beat Lawrence with his walking cane. Lawrence pulled out a second pistol but–incredibly–this gun also misfired. Experts later claimed that the odds of both guns misfiring were 1 in 125,000.

Approximately 105 years ago, on October 14, 1912, Teddy Roosevelt also survived an assassin’s bullet. Roosevelt was campaigning for president, having decided to run for a non-consecutive third term against his former friend and the incumbent Republican president, William Howard Taft. Arriving at a campaign event, Roosevelt was making his way through the crowd when John Schrank fired. Roosevelt was knocked down, but he struggled back to his feet and asked that the man–apprehended by his stenographer–be brought over. Roosevelt looked his would-be killer in the eyes and asked, “What’d you do it for?” When he got no response, he said,”Oh what’s the use. Take him away.”

teddy's papers
TR’s speech

Although his staff wanted him to go immediately to the hospital, Roosevelt insisted on giving his planned speech, since he could breathe fine and he wasn’t coughing up any blood. To the audience, Roosevelt announced that he’d just survived an assassination attempt but that “it takes more than that to kill a bull moose!” He withdrew his speech–fifty pages of thick paper, folded in half, from his breast pocket. Although Roosevelt had escaped the incident (mostly) unscathed, the speech had not. It, and an eyeglass holder, had deflected the bullet from hitting Roosevelt in the heart.

It Can’t Happen Here?: A Brief History of Third Parties in American Politics

By Kaleena Fraga

Since its founding, and despite a famous warning from George Washington, the United States of America has almost always been a two party system. In Washington’s day, it was the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans. Today, through much evolution, we have the Republican and Democratic Party, and more distance between them than ever before.

Aside from the 1850s, which saw the fall of the Whig party, the rise of the Know-Nothing party, and from this conflict the birth of the Republican party, the United States has usually had two major candidates to choose from. But today there is growing discontent toward the two major parties and the so called “establishment” class of politicians. Many Americans are itching for something different. Indeed, this longing is one of the reasons for Donald Trump’s election. But how feasible is an American third party, and when in history has the country attempted it?

Third parties have always been around. In the 1890s the Progressive Party pulled the political conversation to the left and William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic candidate TR-SQUARE-DEALin 1898, 1900 & 1908, flirted with many of their proposals. In the election of 1912 Teddy Roosevelt upended the process by storming out of the Republican National Convention and creating the Progressive Party, or the Bull Moose Party. After failing to convince the delegates to nominate him, instead of the incumbent president William Howard Taft, Roosevelt thought he could still win the election as a third party candidate. All he did, however, was divide Republican votes and give the election to the Democratic nominee, Woodrow Wilson. A Republican operative at the time remarked that the drama between Taft and Roosevelt was like complaining over which corpse got more flowers—the party division would surely give the election to the Democrats. Fun fact: although Roosevelt called the party the Progressive Party, he’d been widely quoted as saying that he felt “as fit as a bull moose” following an assassination attempt. Bull Moose stuck.

Indeed, most candidates haven’t gone as far as Roosevelt in creating their own party when seeking to change the political conversation. Although George Wallace ran as the American Independent Party candidate in 1968, he sought the Democratic nomination in 1964, 1972, and 1976. Barry Goldwater, although holding more extreme views than many Republicans, still sought (and won) the Republican nomination in 1968 over the more moderate republican candidate Norman Rockefeller. In 1976 when Ronald Reagan ran against the incumbent president Gerald Ford, he did so as a Republican, not as a third party candidate. Likewise, Ted Kennedy ran against Jimmy Carter in 1980 as a Democrat. During this race one Democratic operative remarked that the party needed some unity medicine—to turn around three times and say out loud President Ronald Reagan. And, indeed, in both the Reagan-Ford and Carter-Kennedy case the party dynamics divided the party and contributed in the elections of Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Ronald Reagan in 1980.

George H.W. Bush, Ross Perot, Bill ClintonThe election of 1992 saw the impact a third party could have—Ross Perot ran against Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush as the Reform Party candidate. Despite dropping in and out of the race, Perot participated in the debates and won nearly twenty percent of the vote, making him the most successful third party candidate since Roosevelt and the Bull Moose party. Perot arguably drew away Republican votes, and Clinton won an unexpected victory against an incumbent president. Despite the success, the Reform party is no longer a heavyweight in American politics—although it continues to nominate candidates.

The election of 2016 is a good indication of the power a third party can have, as well as a possible indication of future electoral trends. Voters, frustrated with both parties, turned out for 3rd party candidates like Jill Stein and Gary Johnson. Although both Johnson and Stein won only small portions of the overall vote, they gained thousands of votes in crucial districts. In Michigan for example, Johnson and Stein won approximately 222,000 votes. Trump won the state by only 15,000 (https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/2016-election-day/third-party-candidates-having-outsize-impact-election-n680921)

Even voting for Trump himself, a decidedly non traditional Republican candidate, is an indication of discontent among the American electorate, and a desire among voters for someone outside the traditional two party structure.

As the country speculates about the next election (it seems incredible, but the campaign will likely start next year, in 2018) the normal question to ask is who among the Democrats will run. For 2020 however, it seems that Democrats might not be alone in presenting a viable nominee to run against Trump. First of all, there’s a good chance that Trump, like Carter and Ford, will face a challenger from within his own party. Trump, at least today, is a historically unpopular president and it’s likely that the battle for the soul of the Republican Party will spill out into the 2020 primaries.

The Republicans aren’t the only ones infighting. Scars from the 2016 primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders continue to agitate Democratic voters and operatives. If Democrats cannot present a candidate who is sufficiently liberal, it’s certainly possible that someone from the Bernie Sanders wing of thinking could run as well. Given that Sanders is not technically a Democrat, this person could, in theory, run as an independent to the left of the Democratic candidate.

But what would be really interesting is if a candidate emerged to the center of both parties. Over the last half century, the country has seen the divide between the left and right deepen. The repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in the 1980s created an opening for right-wing talk shows and news networks like Fox News, which present a decidedly partisan view of the world. Meanwhile, the Democrats are also promoting liberal news agendas. Podcasts like Pod Save America are not timid in presenting and endorsing liberal ideas and interpretations of current events. Both parties are moving away from center; meanwhile many Americans feel left somewhere in the middle. There are purity tests on both sides and it’s become normal for someone to be challenged from the extreme wing of their own party.

It seems, then, like an ideal time for a centrist third party candidate. Discontent toward macronthe two party system is growing, the two parties are becoming more extreme in their ideology, and American voters are suffering from continuing partisan gridlock in Washington. Perhaps many voters imagined Donald Trump would be the kind of president who could break through the gridlock, without having a true allegiance to either party. But he’s proven himself to be a partisan with no interest in reaching out to voters outside his base. What the country needs in a third party candidate is someone more like Eisenhower—a person, not necessarily a politician, who is well-liked and well respected by Americans of both stripes, who is apolitical but accomplished. The world saw a similar phenomenon in the election of Emmanuel Macron in France—Macron created his own party and took down candidates to both his left and right.

But can it happen here? Only time will tell.

(Featured image credit: http://axiomamnesia.com/2012/02/28/americans-political-party-as-gonna-fix-american-politics/)

“If You Need a Friend in Washington–Get a Dog”

By Kaleena Fraga

Over the course of White House history, the American public has grown used to seeing an animal in the White House. No, we’re not referring to any occupants of the Oval Office–rather the plethora of beasts that U.S. presidents have brought with them, everything from Jefferson’s mockingbird “Dick” to Lyndon Johnson’s beagles “Him” and “Her”.

President Trump is something of an outlier in that he came to the White House pet-less, despite some rumors that he’d been given a dog named Patton. Harry Truman also had no desire to add a First Dog to the White House, and this got him in trouble.

The story goes (and we’d encourage everyone to check out the fantastic site http://www.presidentialpetmuseum.com/ for more) that a woman from Truman’s home state of Missouri sent the first family a dog named Feller. The gift made sense. After all,

FDR-Fala-White-House-1941-crop
FDR & Fala at the White House in 1941

Truman’s predecessor Franklin Roosevelt had famously kept his dog Fala at his side during his presidency. But Truman did not want the dog. After much fanfare surrounding the dog’s arrival, Truman re-gifted Feller to his doctor.

An uproar ensued among the American public, who deemed Truman “anti-canine.”

A reporter later asked Truman what had ever happened to Feller. Confused, Truman responded, “To what?”

The reporter reminded Truman of the dog’s existence, and Truman replied, “Oh…he’s around.”

Fortunately for Feller, after changing hands a few more times, he spent the rest of his days on a farm in Ohio (yes, really!). All in all, it was probably preferable to the cramped quarters of the White House, especially with a master who didn’t especially care for dogs.

 

Spiro, We Hardly Knew Ye

By Kaleena Fraga

On this day in 1973, Spiro Agnew, VP to Richard Nixon, resigned in disgrace. He was the first vice president to do so.

Vice presidents are rarely remembered, but Agnew’s resignation had consequences because of what happened next. Gerald Ford was nominated by Nixon to fill the post vacated by Agnew because he was seen as well-liked and honest (Agnew, on the other hand, had been caught taking bribes). Both men might have remained footnotes of history had Richard Nixon not resigned less than a year later. Thus Gerald Ford because the first unelected president in American history.

If our friend Spiro had never been caught (or if he’d done his taxes), he could have become president in 1974.

Truman & the Television

By Kaleena Fraga

Last week marked the anniversary of the first televised presidential debate (September 26, 1960) between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. This is a moment that gets the most attention–it arguably altered American politics forever by bringing in a new level of stakes for candidates. Image became paramount. It’s an oft repeated anecdote that while radio listeners gave the debate to Nixon, television viewers awarded it to Kennedy. Any observers of the 2016 election would likely agree that the fever pitch around the debates (especially during the primaries) is indicative of the importance of image in today’s political culture.

But the real television trailblazer is Harry S Truman, who on this day (October 5th, 1947) gave the first televised address by a U.S. president. Pre-Marshall Plan, Truman was appealing to his fellow Americans to help support war-torn Europe by not eating meat on Tuesdays, not eating chicken on Thursdays, and to eat less bread.

Truman didn’t have a large audience–the television itself was still something of a commodity. But he seemed to have faith in the medium–the rest of his White House speeches were all televised.

TRUMAN
Truman’s televised inauguration in 1949

He also was the first president to have his inauguration televised. We can only speculate on what a Truman-Dewey debate might have been like!

(Thanks to “Truman” by my fave David McCullough)

 

 

No One Takes Down Teddy

By Kaleena Fraga

It’s a well known fact that the teddy bear came from the Teddy Roosevelt presidency. Legend has it a friend presented TR with a bear tied up for him to shoot during a hunt. TR refused, saying it was unsportsmanlike to shoot a tied up animal. The story spread, someone had the idea to make a toy from the story, and the teddy bear became wildly popular.

 

Taft and Possum
There were so many amazing Taft/Possum images. Hard to chose just one!

When William Howard Taft became president, conniving minds hatched a plan to launch a new, Taft themed stuffed animal. Because Taft apparently had a penchant for eating possum, it was decided that the Taft version of the teddy bear would be a stuffed toy possum

Hundreds were made, and a campaign was created to take down the teddy bear, but the stuffed possums were a complete flop. According to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent book “The Bully Pulpit” this was in large part because the stuffed toy looked like a giant rat, and it horrified its intended audience. Still, the whole debacle left us with a legacy of some pretty amazing depictions of President Taft and possums. Some of these toys still exist–they are terrifying. 

Any Hope for the Nixon Ghost?

By Kaleena Fraga

Upon leaving office, most presidents enjoy a reexamination of their legacy, unplagued by partisanship, varnished by time, and held astride the current occupant of the presidency and his struggles. Even George W. Bush, one of the most unpopular president of modern times, has seen his popularity grow as his tenure in the White House fades from collective memory. Yet Richard Nixon is denied the luxury of time.

Indeed, it’s far too easy to throw Nixon under the proverbial bus of history. Today, in an era ripe with scandal, pundits Richard M. Nixonare eager to add the -gate moniker to anything that appears to suggest impropriety. This knee jerk reaction to make Nixon the boogeyman of American political commentary is lazy, and unfair to his administration’s accomplishments in office.

It’s increasingly popular today to draw comparisons between the Nixon presidency and that of Donald J. Trump. Yet the two men could not be more different.

To start with the basics, one has to venture back to Nixon’s hometown of Whittier, California. Unlike Trump, who was born into money and coasted on his father’s coattails his entire life, Nixon was born to humble means—the son of a grocer. Nixon ascended because of his intellect—he consistently excelled in school and was offered a place at elite east coast universities, places he had to turn down to stay close to home. He served his country during WWII in the Navy (Trump infamously received five deferments for “ankle spurs.”) Despite the commonly accepted image of Nixon as painfully introverted, he was well-liked among his men and proved himself as an officer. Accepted to Duke University Law School after the war, Nixon lived in what amounted to a shack in the woods in order to afford his tuition.

Although dangerous to play the “what-if” game in the realms of history, one has to wonder what would have happened if Nixon had bested Kennedy in 1960. An able Vice President, he proved himself loyal to Dwight D. Eisenhower and a capable representative during his trips abroad. Nixon, doomed by a promise he’d made to visit all 50 states and a recurring knee injury, appeared sickly and unfocused during the first debate with Kennedy. Forgotten by history, he vastly improved in the next three. The election was one of the closest ever, and one in which Nixon and his confidents were sure had been rigged in Illinois and in Texas. We’ll never know how Trump would have reacted had he lost to Clinton, but Nixon chose not to agitate the issue of election tampering, instead stepping aside and allowing Kennedy, his once friend, now enemy, to become president.

During his own tenure as president, Nixon boasts an impressive list of accomplishments—many of which would have pleased today’s liberals. He sought to alleviate the tensions of the Cold War, becoming the first sitting president to visit Moscow. He opened up diplomatic relations with Communist China. Nixon created the EPA and oversaw the implementation of Title IX. It was under Nixon that a man went to the moon. And in 1972, the electorate rewarded him mightily, handing him a 49 state victory (only MA denied him a full sweep).

This is not to deny the wrongs Nixon committed in office, only to complicate them. Nixon was paranoid. He was secretive. He swore and used racial epithets. He escalated and expanded a war he’d promised to end. Still, his resignation from office shocked 

gettyimages-57655832_wide-2fb573c1d1392bc47fe7bb904357239a1b820fb4.jpg

the world. Stephen Ambrose notes that many Europeans greeted the news with dismay—they thought Nixon the best president that the United States had had in recent memory.

Nixon will always be a president (the only one thus far) who resigned from office. He’ll always be the man who let Watergate destroy his administration from the inside. But it’s important to recognize that these events were part of a larger picture of the Nixon administration. It’s easy but inaccurate to link Trump to Nixon. Rather, it would do the country good to examine the intricacies of Nixon’s legacy, and to recognize its failures alongside its successes.

But Who Holds the Bible?

By Kaleena Fraga

Here at History First we are thinking about instituting a “First Lady Friday” but in the meantime, this Thursday’s trivia features the truly remarkable first lady Lady Bird Johnson.

(Bonus trivia: LBJ’s entire family had the initials LBJ. Their beagles were named Him and Her.)

This trivia comes from the delightful book “Lady Bird and Lyndon” by Betty Boyd Caroli which History First highly, highly recommends. It provides a fresh look at the LBJ presidency, the LBJ/Lady Bird marriage, and Lady Bird herself, who has not received the accolades she deserves.

Today the American public is used to seeing first ladies holding the Bible on Inauguration day. Melania Trump did it, Michelle Obama, Laura Bush, etc., etc., The first woman to do this was none other than Lady Bird Johnson. Before 1964, a Congressional aid had held the Bible. LBJ wanted Lady Bird.

In January 1969, Nixon asked the same of Pat Nixon. And thus a tradition was born.