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!

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?

Mudslinging in the South: The 2000 Smear Campaign

As voters in South carolina turn out to cast their ballots in the 2020 primary, we look back at the much dirtier contest in 2000

By Kaleena Fraga

Democrats slung mud during last week’s debate. It wasn’t pretty—two hours of arm waving, raised voices, and crosstalk. But the candidates largely stuck to the issues. They attacked each other on health care, tax returns, foreign policy, and gun control. The barbs rarely became personal.

Twenty years ago, political attacks in South Carolina meant to mortally wound—and would, in fact, spell the end of John McCain’s 2000 bid for the presidency.

Smears in South Carolina: The 2000 Primary

Bush and McCain | New York Times

John McCain arrived in South Carolina in 2000 with a spring in his step. His campaign had surged to victory in New Hampshire, snatching a 19-point win over George W. Bush. Bush had won in Iowa (McCain skipped the caucus there) but political commentators noted that: “[Bush] got a good victory, but not a blowout.”

In other words, Bush’s nomination was far from certain. McCain’s strong performance in New Hampshire threatened to upset the whole thing.

As the two candidates began to campaign in South Carolina, a trickle of attacks began. They claimed that McCain had not accomplished much in the Senate and that his values did not match up with conservatives in South Carolina. (A perception not helped by McCain’s statement that the Confederate flag was “offensive” and “a symbol of racism.”)

Protester in South Carolina 2000 | KGOU

It didn’t take long for the trickle to become a tidal wave. Soon, South Carolinians were getting calls asking if they “would be more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain for president if… he had fathered an illegitimate black child?” People began to find leaflets on their cars with the same accusation.

The McCains did have a nine year old daughter with darker skin than their other children—a girl they had adopted from Bangladesh.

The attacks continued. They declared that John McCain had committed treason while a POW in Vietnam. Or that his time there had made him mentally unfit for office. They sneered that he was a homosexual—and that his wife was a drug addict.

At a town hall in Spartanburg, SC, a woman stood up and said that her 13 year old son had taken a call from a pollster, who told him that McCain was a liar and a cheat. “‘My son had admired you, and now he doesn’t know what to believe.”

McCain left the town hall visibly shaken. He told his campaign to pull all negative ads. Not that his attempts to fight back had worked—Republicans in South Carolina became enraged when McCain dared to compare Bush to Clinton, grouping them together as dishonest men.

His campaign felt powerless to stop the attacks. Any response risked putting a spotlight on a smear. And—in any case—it was impossible to tie the Bush campaign to the mudslinging.

***

In the end, McCain lost in South Carolina.

He dropped out of the race less than a month later, citing weak performances in the subsequent contests.

Today’s campaign has remained civil by comparison. Attacks are more likely to be about tax returns or NDAs than illegitimate children or treason.

But South Carolina still has the potential to bury a candidate. A victory in the first contest of the South retains its significance. And with Super Tuesday around the corner, we could see certain campaigns end tonight—or in the next few days.

No dirty tricks required.

Heartbreak and Triumph in New Hampshire

Three stories of campaign-changing moments in the New Hampshire primary

By Kaleena Fraga

New Hampshire, the second state on the primary circuit, is a dangerous place for presidential campaigns. After clearing the threshold of Iowa, it’s here that many campaigns seem to falter or break down—and create room for challengers to surge ahead.

We look at three stories of heartbreak (and triumph) in New Hampshire, from Ed Muskie’s tears in 1972 to Bill Clinton’s comeback in 1992.

The Tears of Ed Muskie (1972)

Senator Edmund Muskie (D-ME) arrived in New Hampshire with something to prove. He had won the Iowa Caucus—but the media had found George McGovern’s surprising show of strength a more compelling narrative. To cement his place as the front-runner, Muskie needed New Hampshire to go well. It didn’t.

Two weeks before the New Hampshire Primary, the Manchester Union Leader published a letter to the editor, which alleged that Muskie had laughed when someone referred to Americans of French-Canadian descent as “Canucks.” In New Hampshire, Americans of French-Canadian descent made up 40%-50% of Democratic voters.

Muskie stood before a crowd in a snowstorm to defend himself, calling the conservative publisher of the Manchester Union Leader “a gutless coward,” and claiming that the letter “was a lie.” Muskie, relating to the crowd his own pain at being called a “Polack” as a boy, and protesting a separate article published by the Manchester Union Leader which had targeted his wife, seemed to begin to cry. The New York Times wrote: “The Senator broke into tears minutes later, his speech halting…” The Washington Post described Muskie as having “tears streaming down his face.”

Muskie, to the end of his life, denied crying. He said that snow, falling on his face and melting, only gave the impression of tears.

But in presidential politics, sometimes an impression is all that matters. Muskie’s status as the front-runner began to crumble. Although he won the New Hampshire primary, his campaign faltered. Muskie performed poorly in the contests that followed, and dropped out of the race.

As for the infamous “Canuck Letter”? Ken W. Clawson, deputy direction of communications in the Nixon White House, told a reporter: “I wrote that letter.”

Bush, Reagan, and the Microphone (1980)

Like Muskie, George H.W. Bush arrived in New Hampshire with an Iowa victory and hoped to cement his front-runner status. But Bush—like Muskie—would find that a single moment in New Hampshire could crater a candidacy.

The Nashua Telegraph wanted to sponsor a debate between Bush and Ronald Reagan. Reagan had narrowly lost to Bush in Iowa (31.6% to 29.5%). But the Federal Election Committee said that in order to sponsor the debate, the newspaper would have to invite all candidates. Reagan stepped in to finance a one-on-one debate—but secretly invited the others.

Bush didn’t want to muddy the field with other candidates. He wanted to take on Reagan himself, and the moderators of the debate (still from the Nashua Telegraph) agreed. Unsurprisingly, chaos erupted when Reagan, Bush, and four other candidates showed up on stage.

Reagan made his case for an inclusive debate. The newspaper editor and debate moderator, Jon Breen, didn’t want to hear it. He snapped: “Would the sound man please turn Mr. Reagan’s mic off for the moment?”

As the Reagan supporters in the crowd began to boo and jeer, Reagan leaned forward towards his (still functioning) microphone, and uttered a line which quickly became a star of presidential campaign history: “”I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!”

(Yes, Reagan got the name wrong!)

Ronald Reagan won the New Hampshire primary, which propelled him into front runner status—and to the nomination, and to the White House. Bush, who would lose 29 out of 33 contests to Reagan, went on to serve as his vice president.

Bill Clinton, The Comeback Kid (1992)

Bill Clinton arrived in New Hampshire in 1992 as a man in trouble. The governor of Arkansas had stumbled to fourth place in the Iowa caucus, earning only 2.8% of the vote. Rumors of Clinton’s draft-dodging and extramarital affairs also dogged the candidate, threatening to sink an already faltering campaign.

So New Hampshire mattered. Top Clinton advisors arrived in the state on February 10th, acknowledging that the campaign was “in meltdown” and that their polls “had really tanked.” They knew that they needed to “fight like hell” and have a “perfect eight days” in order to turn things around.

The campaign decided they’d work to control the narrative, by limiting press conferences and putting the candidate in front of crowds, where he could connect with New Hampshire voters on a personal level. “The strategy really was, be everywhere,” said Clinton advisor James Carville. “Shake every hand.” Clinton hit the trail, hard, meeting voters in person and participating in televised town halls.

It worked—Clinton outperformed expectations and zoomed to second place on February 18th. This led to Clinton’s famous moniker: “The Comeback Kid.”

Clinton went on to beat the incumbent president, George H.W. Bush, in the November election.

Does Winning in New Hampshire Matter?

The Answer is (surprise!) Complicated

In our last post, we asked if an Iowa victory had any significance in terms of winning the presidency. The answer is complicated—and certainly, this year, grows even more complicated when you throw in a messy and confused caucus, and two candidates in a virtual dead heat.

In New Hampshire, Iowa’s narrative can be reinforced—see Jimmy Carter in 1972. (Carter won Iowa and New Hampshire.) It can be thrown into doubt—see Hillary Clinton’s victory over Obama in 2008, after she lost in Iowa. Or, it can be torn up entirely in favor of a new one—see Bill Clinton’s resilient comeback in 1992.

In 2020, a win in New Hampshire for Bernie Sanders or Pete Buttigieg would cement their front-runner status. But the campaign is young—and anything could happen.

Bonus Note: A Win in new hampshire is better for the GOP

New Hampshire’s significance is also amplified depending on if you’re a Republican or a Democrat. No Republican who won the Iowa Caucus has gone onto be win the presidency—by contrast, it was Democrats (Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama) whose Iowa wins led them to the White House. (Bill Clinton also won in Iowa in 1996, but as the incumbent.)

For Republicans, winning New Hampshire has historically meant more than Iowa. This won’t matter in 2020—unless there’s a surprise dark horse about to jump in the race—but in the last 44 years, Republicans who win New Hampshire—even if they lost in Iowa—are more likely to reach the White House. This trend is especially strong in the election cycles between 2008 and today. In 2008 Mike Huckabee won Iowa; John McCain won New Hampshire. In 2012 Rick Santorum won Iowa; Mitt Romney won New Hampshire. And in 2016, Ted Cruz won in Iowa—Donald Trump won in New Hampshire.

Just a Number: Kennedy, Reagan, and the “Age Question” in 2020

The youngest candidate running for president in 2020 is 37. The oldest is 77. Whether or not voters will make age an issue has yet to be seen, so how has it played out in past presidential campaigns?

By Kaleena Fraga

(to listen to this piece in podcast form click here)

The candidates running for president in 2020 are incredibly diverse. There are men and women, white and black candidates, and candidates with different sexual orientations. There is also a diversity when it comes to age. On the younger side of the spectrum are Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg (46 and 37, respectively). On the other side there is Bernie Sanders, who is 77, and, if he were to run, Joe Biden, who is 76.

So what role has age played in past presidential campaigns?

It’s certainly come up in the past. The two most famous examples of candidates who wrestled with the “age question” were John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.

John F. Kennedy

Kennedy, when he ran for president in 1960, was 43 years old. Although his opponent, Richard Nixon, was just four years older, Kennedy faced a barrage of criticism and doubt when it came to the question of his youth. (Of course, by 1960 Richard Nixon had been vice president for eight years, in addition to his service in the House and the Senate, experience which Kennedy shared).

Criticism came from both sides of the aisle. Harry Truman, the last Democratic president, spoke out against Kennedy, saying:

“I am deeply concerned and troubled about the situation we are up against in the world now…That is why I hope someone with the greatest possible maturity and experience would be available at this time. May I urge you to be patient?”

Once Kennedy became the nominee, Truman changed his tune—sort of. He wrote to a former aide:

“[We] are stuck with the necessity of taking the worst of two evils or none at all. So–I’m taking the immature Democrat as the best of the two. Nixon is impossible. So, there we are.”

Experience was definitely a question in the election. Nixon ran ads stressing his 7 1/2 years experience in the White House as Eisenhower’s vice president. The ad ended with a line touting the experience of Nixon and his running mate, Henry Cabot Lodge: “They understand what peace demands” implying, of course, that Kennedy (with his youth and inexperience) did not.

The Democrats fought back. When Eisenhower infamously stated during a press conference that he’d need a week to think of an important contribution or decision made by his vice president, Democrats turned the fumble into an attack ad against Nixon.

Kennedy, for his part, turned his youth into an asset. When he accepted the nomination Kennedy said:

“The Republican nominee-to-be, of course, is also a young man. But his approach is as old as McKinley. His party is the party of the past. His speeches are generalities from Poor Richard’s Almanac. Their platform, made up of left-over Democratic planks, has the courage of our old convictions. Their pledge is a pledge to the status quo–and today there can be no status quo.”

The country, Kennedy said, needed young blood, new ideas, a fresh start. Using rhetoric that will be familiar to anyone who has lived through an American election, Kennedy pressed for change after eight years of Republican power.

It worked—but barely. The election of 1960 was one of the closest in American history.

Ronald Reagan

Reagan, like Kennedy, faced criticism concerning his age, but it came from the other direction. As he prepared to run for reelection, many wondered if the president had grown too old to serve his duties. At 73, he would be the oldest president ever sworn in.

Age had been a question for Reagan ever since he ran for president in 1980. In a debate that year with his future vice president, George H.W. Bush, the moderator asked Bush if he thought Reagan, then 69, was too old to hold office.

“No, I don’t,” said Bush.

“I agree with George Bush,” said Reagan.

Four years later, the question arose again, amplified, this time, by Reagan’s poor performance in the first debate against Walter Mondale. The New York Times wrote that “Mr. Reagan appears less confident than he customarily does on television.”

Reagan hit back against criticism over his performance, and against the line of questioning that he’d lost stamina in the last four years. “I wasn’t tired,” Reagan told the Times. “And with regard to the age issue and everything, if I had as much makeup on as he did, I’d have looked younger, too.”

But Reagan knew he’d had a bad night. As soon as Reagan walked off the debate stage that night he told an aide that he “had flopped.” Mondale, for his part, told an aide, “that guy is gone.” After the debate, Reagan dropped seven points in the polls. Fifty-four percent of Americans gave the debate victory to Mondale; just thirty-four percent thought Reagan had won.

So it was crucial for Reagan to perform well in the 2nd debate. Not only that, he needed to definitively put the “age” question to rest.

He got his chance.

“Mr. President,” said the moderator. “I want to raise an issue that has been lurking out there for two or three weeks…you are already the oldest president in history. And some of your staff say you were tired after your most recent encounter with Mr. Mondale. I recall yet that President Kennedy had to go for days with very little sleep during the Cuban missile crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?”

Reagan responded: “Not at all…I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

Even Mondale laughed (although he must have sensed, then, the power of Reagan’s line). It quickly became one of the most iconic of American presidential debates. Lost is what Reagan said next: “I might add that it was Seneca, or it was Cicero, I don’t know which, that said, ‘If it was not for the elders correcting the mistakes of the young, there would be no state.'”

Reagan won the election in a landslide. Although he would not be officially diagnosed with Alzheimers until 1994, speculation was rife that he suffered from the disease while in office. During the Iran-Contra affair, much of Reagan’s defense rested on the fact that he could not remember certain facts.

***

So how will age play out in 2020? Sanders, who would be 79 on inauguration day were he to win, acknowledged but dismissed the age issue. “I would ask people to look at the totality of who I am,” Sanders said, “[age is] part of a discussion, but it has to be part of an overall view of what somebody is and what somebody has accomplished.”

Although Joe Biden has not yet officially announced his own candidacy (he would be 78 on January 20th 2021) he and his team are reportedly considering measures that would help allay the question. Among them: choosing a running mate early (Stacey Abrams is rumored) and promising to serve only one term.

Pete Buttigieg, who is enjoying a bump in the polls, frames his youth (Buttigieg is 37) as an asset. “We’re the generation with the most at stake,” Buttigieg said, referencing climate change and the increasing issue of economic disparity. “[We] were out there in Afghanistan and Iraq, and I think we’ve earned place in this conversation.”

Age will definitely be a question on the Democratic side—and certainly it will come up as the election progresses. Donald Trump, after all, is 72.

From the Sidelines: The Role of Former Political Stars in New Campaigns

Those who have run for president, either successfully or not, play a curious role during new campaigns

By Kaleena Fraga

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

As the field of Democratic candidates running for president in 2020 begins to solidify, there is a heightened interest over who is meeting with whom. The New York Times recently published a piece entitled: Hillary Clinton Is Not a Candidate. She Looms Over 2020 AnywayThe paper also wrote about how former president Barack Obama has met with several Democrats running in 2020. Despite no longer holding office—despite, in the case of Clinton, losing her own bid for the presidency—figures like Clinton and Obama remain an important influence as the next big election looms.

So, historically, what role do former political stars—that is, either ex-presidents or those who got close to the presidency—play during a new presidential campaign?

The Role Ex-Presidents Play in Campaigns 

During the 2016 campaign, there was much discussion about the unique aspect of Barack Obama’s post-presidency life. Obama, who was only 55 when he left office, left at a much younger age than most presidents. With his former secretary of state running, pundits speculated the ex-president would play a strong role in her campaign, and he did.

Addressing a group of black voters in 2016, Obama said:

“I will consider it a personal insult — an insult to my legacy — if this community lets down its guard and fails to activate itself in this election. You want to give me a good sendoff? Go vote.”

Obama campaigned, hard, for Clinton. This isn’t always the case when an ex-president is put in the position of campaigning for the new candidate of his party.

When Richard Nixon sought the presidency after serving eight years as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice president, the president was, at best, lukewarm. When asked about Nixon’s specific contributions during their partnership, Eisenhower fumbled the question.

Journalist: “if you could give us an example of a major idea of his that you had adopted in that role as the decider and the final, ah….”

Eisenhower: “If you give me a week, I might think of one—I don’t remember.”

His fumble later became an attack ad.

Of course, this gets to a larger point about vice presidents running for a term consecutive to their vice presidency. We already know that it can be tough to move from the vice presidency to the presidency. While candidates need the president they served to point to their accomplishments, the president leaving office often doesn’t want to suggest that big decisions were made by anyone except himself.

Case in point: Eisenhower, in the same press conference, also said: “No one can make a decision except me.”

Even Obama, while he campaigned on Clinton’s aptitude for the presidency, also tied her victory to his own legacy.

Ronald Reagan, similar to Eisenhower, offered a somewhat tepid endorsement of his vice president, George H.W. Bush, fumbling his vice president’s name of eight years while announcing his endorsement.

Then there is Harry S Truman. Truman, who had been out of office eight years when John F. Kennedy ran for office in 1960, launched himself into the campaign. Although he had his doubts about Kennedy’s youth, he campaigned hard.

Truman’s case is slightly different than the above—unlike Obama, Eisenhower, or Reagan, he leaped into a race nearly a decade after his own administration.

Certainly, the party powerful often lend a hand—but it is rare to have a president campaign, simply because most of them either haven’t lived long after their presidencies (see Eisenhower or LBJ), they were unpopular post-presidency (Nixon, Ford, Carter), or their vice presidents didn’t want to rely on their help to win.

Vice Presidents Who Want to Forge Their Own Path 

If presidents are hesitant to relinquish their legacy to their vice presidents, then vice presidents can often be just as hesitant to use the same legacy as a step towards their own term in office.

In the election of 1992, the incumbent George H.W. Bush lost to Bill Clinton, ending twelve years of Republican power. Reports trickled out that Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, were “upset, even angry” over how Bush had steered his campaign. According to their friends, they saw his campaign as “seriously flawed” not least because he had “failed to use Mr. Reagan as a campaigner until late October.”

This was, perhaps, because Bush had been haunted by Reagan’s legacy during his presidency. As the economy soured, a vice chairman for Goldman Sachs noted:

“”[Bush] was trapped by the Reagan legacy. Most Presidents can make changes when they come into office by blaming their predecessor. He couldn’t do that.”

Then again, Bush’s reluctance to use Reagan during his campaign could have less to do with wanting to define his political legacy apart from Reagan’s, and more with the fact that their partnership had been a “marriage of convenience.” Once their shared term ended, longterm tensions came out into the open.

“[Bush] doesn’t seem to stand for anything,” Reagan is reported to have remarked, eight months before the 1992 election. Reagan saw Bush’s performance as a reflection of his own legacy. Bush saw Reagan’s presence as a hindrance to his independence. His aides sneered that Reagan was “too senile” to make public appearances supporting the president.

The dynamic would be similar in the election of 2000 when the incumbent vice president, Al Gore, decided to run for president, following eight years of Bill Clinton’s White House. Gore and Clinton had a tense relationship during that campaign. For his part, Clinton wondered “why Mr. Gore was not making more of the successes of the administration.”

During a blunt exchange after Gore’s loss, Gore told Clinton that it was Clinton’s sex scandal and his low approval ratings that had eventually hobbled Gore’s bid for the White House.

Famous Losers in Presidental Campaigns 

Presidents have a natural role in campaigns of their own party, even years after their own administrations—assuming, of course, that they are popular, and that the party or candidate wants their help. So what about the famous losers?

The questions seem especially pertinent as 2020 looms, and pundits wonder what role Hillary Clinton will play. The quick answer—if she’s anything like the losers of old, she will definitely play a role.

Adlai Stevenson ran for president twice in 1952 and 1956 and lost his bid for the nomination in 1960 to John F. Kennedy. He played a role—giving speeches in support of Kennedy, and maintaining a correspondence with the nominee about his “youth and inexperience.”

Another famous loser, Richard Nixon, who resigned from the presidency, was consistently consulted by presidents of both parties. (Even if they chose to keep these consultations private).

Clinton, who lost her bid for the presidency in 2016, and her bid for the nomination eight years before that, remains a powerful figure in the Democratic party. So far, many of the Democrats seeking the nomination in 2020 have consulted with Clinton—everyone from Amy Klobuchar to Joe Biden.

***

Whether a winner or a loser—if you ran for president once, there’s a good chance you’ll be involved in the next campaign. The 2020 primaries will be crowded with Democrats vying for the nomination. With figures like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and others, the actual race will be crowded too—this time, with winners, losers, and others looking to lend a hand to defeat President Trump.

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

By Kaleena Fraga

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

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

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

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

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

On the first page of his memoirs he insists: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Man After the Wall: George H.W. Bush and the End of the Cold War

By Kaleena Fraga

reagan wallOn this day in 1987, Ronald Reagan famously called on Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”–a wall which physically separated East and West Berlin, and symbolized the separation between the Soviet Block and the West.

Yet the wall did not come down in 1987, or in 1988. It would not be torn down until 1989, after Reagan had left office, and after his vice president, George H.W. Bush, had been elected as president.

A few months before the wall fell, Bush had also advocated for its destruction, albeit in a less dramatic fashion than Reagan. During a speech in Mainz, Germany to celebrate the 40th anniversary of NATO, he noted that barriers in Austria and Hungary had recently been removed, and so:

“Let Berlin be next — let Berlin be next! Nowhere is the division between East and West seen more clearly than in Berlin. And there this brutal wall cuts neighbor from neighbor, brother from brother. And that wall stands as a monument to the failure of communism. It must come down.”

On November 9, 1989 Bush received word that the wall had been breeched.

To Bush, the fall of the wall represented a great symbolic victory, but also a danger of violence. He worried that police in East Germany would fire upon demonstrators, and that this could turn a cold war into a hot one. From the Soviets, the Bush White House received a plea for calm, urging the Americans to “not overreact.” Bush later recalled that, “[Gorbachev] worried about demonstrations in Germany that might get out of control, and he asked for understanding.”

To the gathered press, Bush gave a prepared statement which welcomed the fall of the wall, nothing that the “the tragic symbolism of the Berlin Wall…will have been overcome by the indomitable spirit of man’s desire for freedom.”

But Bush, noted biographer John Meacham in his book Destiny and Power: The American bush briefs reportersOdyssey of George H.W. Bush, was more focused on what could go wrong rather than the symbolic triumph of the West over the Soviets, which led to a contentious exchange between the president and CBS reporter Lesley Stahl.

“This is a great victory for our side in the big East-West battle, but you don’t seem elated,” said Stahl. “I’m wondering if you’re thinking of the problems.”

“I’m not an emotional kind of guy,” Bush replied.

“Well, how elated are you?”

“I’m very pleased.”

Democrats in Congress also sought a stronger response from the president. Senate Democratic leader George Mitchell thought Bush should fly to Berlin so that he could make a statement about the end of Communism, with the fallen wall as a dramatic background. House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt said that Bush was “inadequate to the moment.”

From the Soviets, Gorbachev warned of “unforeseen consequences.” Bush heard reports of violence in other Soviet republics. In the days and weeks that followed, it appeared that Soviet power in Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia were also faltering. In his diary, Bush wrote that Mitchell had been “nuts to suggest you pour gasoline on those embers.”

When Bush met with Gorbachev at the Malta Conference that December, he was cautiously optimistic, and prepared.bush and gorbachev TIME

“I hope you have noticed,” he said to Gorbachev, “we have not responded with flamboyance or arrogance that would complicate Soviet relations…I have been called cautious or timid. I am cautious, but not timid. But I have conducted myself in ways not to complicate your life. That’s why I have not jumped up and down on the Berlin Wall.”

“Yes, we have seen that,” said Gorbachev, “and appreciate that.”

On December 3rd, the two men held the first ever joint press conference between an American president and a leader of the Soviet Union.

Expressing gratitude for Bush’s caution, and recognizing the danger of exaggeration, Gorbachev said that he and Bush agreed that “the characteristics of the cold war should be abandoned…the arms race, mistrust, psychological and ideological struggle, all those should be things of the past.”

Coming home, Bush found he faced criticism not only from the left, but also from the right–from within his own White House. Vice President Quayle, Bush wrote in his diary, saw a chance to become “the spokesman of the right,” a sort of disloyalty to Bush’s efforts that he had never been guilty of during his eight years as Reagan’s vice president.

Ultimately Bush’s caution about the fall of the wall allowed him to navigate fragile relationships with both Gorbachev and the Chancellor of Germany, Helmut Kohl. It allowed him to piece together a new, post-Cold War world order. His refusal to gloat despite pressure on both sides proved crucial, and can serve today as a lesson to other American leaders on the world stage.

Play Ball! George H.W. Bush, Baseball, and the Queen of England

By Kaleena Fraga

On this day in 1991, the Baltimore Orioles had an unusual fan at Memorial Field. Not only had the President of the United States and the First Lady shown up at the game, the Queen of England also graced the ballpark with her presence.

Queen Elizabeth’s appearance at the game came during her 13-day visit to the United States with her husband, Prince Phillip. The Queen’s parents had been the first reigning monarchs to visit American soil when they came at FDR’s invitation in 1939. The 1991 trip marked Queen Elizabeth’s 9th to the United States–her first being in 1958, and the most recent 15 years prior, in 1976, for the American Bicentennial.

The New York Times noted that at the game, “the Queen will be offered a hot dog, but she Queen Elizabeth II and President George Bush meet baseball pdoes not eat in public.” A waitress later told UPI that the queen did not eat, but she did drink a Beefeater martini.

The players of both teams were told to “be natural” while shaking hands with the four world leaders–Queen Elizabeth, Prince Phillip, George H.W. Bush, and Barbara Bush. Oakland player Jose Canesco reportedly felt so relaxed at the encounter that he chewed gum while meeting the foursome. The baseball commentators in the video above remarked that the players kept on their hats, but that “a lot of bowing and scraping before royalty is not the American way.” The Bushs and the royals then surprised fans by venturing out onto the field to wave hello.

The game was not without disruptions. Even before it started, protestors chanted “IRA, USA.” One group of protestors raised a sign that read: “Irish blood is on the queen’s hands,” and another group lofted a sheet saying, “One world, one struggle, free Ireland.” Once the game was underway, a group of protestors tied a sign that said “Bread Not Bombs” to a flagpole in right field along with several balloons, referencing the violence in Northern Ireland. UPI reported that although Orioles ushers were able to cut the sign and the balloons from the flagpole, it floated up “over center field in full view of the queen and the prince…”

While the game was a somewhat new experience for the royal couple–the queen was reportedly surprised to hear that Prince Phillip had played a little as a boy–President Bush is a well-known baseball fan. He and his father both played at Yale, and Bush was a frequent visitor to Orioles games. Why baseball? According to Bush, “it’s got everything.”

George H.W. Bush, Donald Trump, and the National Rifle Association

By Kaleena Fraga

The teenager survivors of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have taken to the streets to protest lax gun laws–laws endorsed by the National Rifle Association, which they say allowed their ex-classmate to legally and easily purchase a gun and murder 17 of their peers.

Although sixty-six percent of Americans have expressed support for stronger gun control, the rhetoric between the two sides is hotter than ever. Many conservatives have doubled down in their support of the N.R.A., going after the student survivors of the Parkland shooting as “crisis actors” or mocking them on Twitter.

george-h-w-bush-swearing-in-1So it’s worth noting that one prominent conservative, George H.W. Bush, walked away from the N.R.A. in 1995 when he found that their messaging had grown too fiery in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing. It’s the kind of quiet courage that defined much of his time in public life–and an action that would be met with scorn by many on the right today.

The N.R.A had been on the offensive since 1993, when federal agents stormed a compound belonging to a cult called the Branch Davidians. The siege left dead on both sides. In its aftermath, as the Washington Post noted, “the ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound only proved what [many N.R.A members] have been saying for years — that the Treasury Department agency is recklessly out of control, smashing into private homes to trample basic civil rights.”

In between the siege at Waco and the Oklahoma City bombing, N.R.A. executive vice president Wayne LaPierre (in the same role he holds today), wrote a “special report” in the magazine American Rifleman. Among other things, it alleged that LaPierre had received a “secret” document, which warned that “the full scale war to crush [Americans’] gun rights has not only begun, but is well underway.”

A week before the bombing in Oklahoma City, LaPierre also signed a fund-raising letter that warned that President Clinton’s ban on assault weapons would result in “jackbooted Government thugs [with] more power to take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property and even injure and kill us.” The N.R.A. in 1995 endorsed the idea that the government was coming for Americans’ guns and their freedom. They pointed to Waco as the prime example.

Six days later, Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City.

McVeigh had been an NRA member for four years. He embraced many of the same positions as the NRA—he was a gun owner and believed that the government wanted to take his guns away. The Oklahoma City bombing killed 168 people, many of them federal employees. The N.R.A. found itself under increased scrutiny—it had pushed the idea that government could be the enemy of the people, and someone had taken this rhetoric and acted upon it.

Yet even after the bombing, LaPierre refused to soften his language.  When asked if, Wayne LaPierrein light of the tragedy, he’d like to take back what he’d said, LaPierre replied, “That’s like saying the weather report in Florida on the hurricane caused the damage rather than the hurricane.”

To George H.W. Bush the rhetoric and the refusal by the N.R.A to repudiate LaPierre had crossed a line.

He wrote a letter to Thomas L. Washington, the president of the N.R.A. resigning his membership. The letter, in part, stated that Bush felt:

“outraged when, even in the wake of the Oklahoma City tragedy, Mr. Wayne LaPierre…defended his attack on federal agents as ‘jack-booted thugs.’ To attack Secret Service agents or A.T.F. people or any government law enforcement people as ‘wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms’ wanting to ‘attack law abiding citizens’ is a vicious slander on good people.”

Bush went on to name several Secret Service agents and A.T.F. members whom he knew, and whom he endorsed as honorable people. One man, a Secret Service agent named Al Whicher who had served on Bush’s security detail, had been killed in Oklahoma City. The men that Bush listed, he wrote to Washington, “were no Nazis.” The officers he had known, Bush went on, “would [never] give the government’s ‘go ahead to harass, intimidate, even murder law abiding citizens.’ (Your words).”

Bush acknowledged that he was a gun owner and an avid hunter. He agreed with the N.R.A’s objectives and believed in the importance of its education and training.

“However,” he wrote,  “your broadside against Federal agents deeply offends my own sense of decency and honor; and it offends my concept of service to country. It indirectly slanders a wide array of government law enforcement officials, who are out there, day and night, laying their lives on the line for all of us.”

In light of this, Bush wrote, he would resign from the N.R.A., effective immediately.

In between 1995 and 2018, the N.R.A.’s rhetoric hasn’t changed. If anything, it has become angrier, more reactionary. At the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) LaPierre warned that the “left -wing socialist brigade” sought to destroy “Western civilization.” At CPAC 2018, a few weeks after the Parkland shooting, LaPierre stated that the goals of the country’s “elite” was to “eliminate the Second Amendment and our firearms freedoms so they can eradicate all individual freedoms.” Gun control advocates, he said, “don’t care about our children. They want to make us all less free.”

Although Bush had been out of office for two years at the time of his resignation, he showed political courage that seems to be lacking in Washington today. Two days after the Parkland shooting President Donald Trump tweeted that “[La Pierre]…and the folks who work so hard at the @NRA are Great People and Great American Patriots. They love our Country trump gun controland will do the right thing.” Trump is the first president since George H.W. Bush to be a member of the N.R.A.

Yet for a few days after the shooting it seemed that the survivors of Parkland and other advocates of gun control might find a surprising ally in the president. During a televised meeting Trump stated that while he “loved the N.R.A.” action was needed. He also appeared to endorse the idea that guns should be taken from anyone who seemed to be threatening violence. “Take the guns first,” Trump said. “Go through due process second.”

But any hope at a bipartisan solution–or for the president to show any political bravery in the face of the N.R.A.–was short lived. Soon after a visit in the Oval Office between the president and N.R.A. representatives Trump reversed course, endorsing N.R.A ideas like arming teachers, and tweeting that gun control did not have “much political support (to put it mildly).”

To change the America’s gun laws, then, the nation looks not toward the White House or any political or moral leaders, but rather to a growing group of young students who are determined to end gun violence once and for all.