To Biden or Not to Biden

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

By Kaleena Fraga

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

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

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

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

Election of 1988

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

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

Election of 2008

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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


From the Front Porch to Instagram Live

Presidential campaign tactics: then and now

By Kaleena Fraga

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

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

2020 candidate Elizabeth Warren discussing her candidacy on Instagram live

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Happy New Year from History First!

A look at the world in January 1919

By Kaleena Fraga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Kaleena Fraga

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

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

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

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

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

On the first page of his memoirs he insists: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Kids in Town: Kennedy, Nixon & the 116th Congress

By Kaleena Fraga

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

The 116th Congress, set to convene on January 3rd, 2019, is one of the most diverse in American history. One hundred and twenty-three members are women–the largest class of female legislators ever. Some are already social media darlings–Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has revolutionized communication strategies by using Instagram live to share her journey; Republican Dan Crenshaw became a household name after being mocked on SNL, then invited to the show to offer a rebuke. 

Certainly, as political tides shift and the gaze of the nation turns towards 2020 and beyond, there are names in the freshman class of the 116th Congress to keep an eye on. If the 116th Congress is anything like the 80th, freshmen members could one day  ascend to the highest echelons of American political power. 

Who were the notable freshmen of the 80th Congress? Among them were two future presidents–Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Up to their election, Nixon and Kennedy had led different but parallel lives. Both came to Congress as veterans of the Navy, as men who had lost older brothers, and who had grown up with domineering fathers. Nixon had grown up in a poor family; Kennedy in one of the nation’s wealthiest. Kennedy, at 29, was the same age as AOC. Nixon, at 33, was only a few years older. 

Nixon played an active and public role in the Alger Hiss trial, which would solidify his credentials as a staunch anti-communist. As a freshman, he also traveled to Europe with congressional colleagues to assess the damage in WWII, an assessment which eventually led to the Marshall Plan. Kennedy’s congressional career was much less publicized–he engaged in political battles of the time, but didn’t make a name for himself like Nixon did. 

Nixon and Kennedy, who would famously debate each other in first televised presidential debate during the election of 1960, would first debate each other in 1947, over the Taft-Hartley Act. The debate took place in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. The two freshman shared a meal after the debate, and rode the train together back to Washington D.C.–oblivious of their looming, shared future. 

Both men aimed for higher office. In 1950, Nixon went to the Senate. In 1952, Kennedy followed him there. From there, they followed divergent and yet corresponding paths. Nixon would be picked as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice presidential candidate in the election of 1952; Kennedy, struggling with health issues, had one of the worst attendance records in Congress, and lost his own bid to become Adlai Stevenson’s running mate. 

The rest, as they say, is history. Kennedy would best Nixon in 1960, in one of the closest presidential elections in American history. Kennedy won 49.7% of the popular vote to Nixon’s 49.5%. Only 100,000 votes out of 68 million cast separated the two men. Nixon heard allegations of fraud, but declined to challenge the results of the election–although he nursed a grudge against the Kennedy machine for the rest of his political career. 

Kennedy and Nixon sought the highest office in the land only 13 years after their first national election. In a few weeks, the 116th Congress will convene. For all we know, the next Kennedy, the next Nixon, could be in their midst. 

Waiting In the Wings: LBJ, the Vice Presidency, and Odds

By Kaleena Fraga

Quotes abound on the uselessness of the vice presidency. John Adams once called it “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” Hubert Humphrey once said, “There is an old story about the mother who had two sons. One went to sea, and the other became vice president, and neither was heard of again.” 

When Lyndon Johnson became Jack Kennedy’s vice president, after a long campaign in which he believed he would eventually pull ahead, Johnson looked to his odds. He had his staff look up how many presidents had died in office in the last one hundred years–five out of eighteen–and later told a journalist: 

“I looked it up: one out of every four Presidents has died in office. I’m a gamblin’ man, darlin’, and this is the only chance I got.”

(This was not entirely accurate. Five out of eighteen presidents had died in the last one hundred years, but since 1789 seven presidents had died in office).

Johnson had heavily hinted about Kennedy’s various health issues during the campaign (Kennedy suffered from back problems and Addison’s disease, and in the waning days of the campaign Johnson described his future running mate as “little scrawny fellow with rickets.”) As such, although Kennedy was only 43 when he became president, Johnson may have felt his odds of succeeding JFK were greater given the new president’s many health struggles. 

When Johnson became vice president, only three vice presidents in American history had gone on to be president without the death of the incumbent. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Martin Van Buren became president in their own right after serving under George Washington, John Adams, and Andrew Jackson, respectively. A former vice president would not become president again until Richard Nixon did so in 1968; a former vice president would not immediately succeed the president he served again until George H.W. Bush became president following Ronald Reagan’s two terms in 1988. 

Otherwise put, without the death of the incumbent, the odds of the vice president becoming president are not good.

Even with the death of the incumbent, the odds are not good. In all of American history only eight have died in office, half from assassination, half from natural causes. 

That is, unless you’re Daniel Webster. Webster turned down the offer to become vice president from two presidents–William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor. When Harrison offered Webster the V.P. slot, he is reported to have replied, “I do not propose to be buried until I am dead.”

Both Harrison and Taylor died in office–the first two presidents to do so. What are the odds on that? 

Shifting Tides: The Midterms of 1966

By Kaleena Fraga

In terms of crazy presidential campaigns, 2016 has nothing on 1968. The election of 1968 saw horrifying violence, the shattering of the Democratic party along lines of civil rights and Vietnam, and the end of liberalism in the Republican party. The election of 1968 brought an incumbent president to his knees, and Richard Nixon to the White House. It changed everything, including how we think about presidential campaigns and state primaries.

Today, many Americans will cast a ballot. Midterm elections usually aren’t as attention-grabbing as presidential ones, yet this year Americans have been told that this is the most important election of their life. Certainly, given recent violence, the stakes feel high.

No, 2016 has nothing on 1968. But 2020 could be another wild-ride. As the country turns out to the polls, we look back at the midterm election of 1966, and the seeds planted that year that burst through the soil in 1968.

Two years earlier, Lyndon Johnson had won a landslide victory, winning the election in his own right after serving the rest of John F. Kennedy’s term. Meanwhile, the Republicans had suffered a terrible defeat under the banner of Barry Goldwater, who infamously declared at the Republican convention that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Johnson won a stunning 486 electoral votes to Goldwater’s 52. He took every state except for Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.

The Republican party, pundits declared, was done.

Controlling both houses of Congress and the White House, Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats seemed unstoppable. They passed Johnson’s Great Society programs, including Medicare, and legislation that strengthened civil rights and voting rights. But as Johnson’s Great Society expanded, so did the conflict in Vietnam.

In 1966, tides had shifted. The public paid more attention to Vietnam, where they could see scant evidence of American victories. The economy began to slow. Race riots erupted across the nation. Johnson saw his popularity drop to below 45%. Republicans saw their opportunity. And they fought. Hard.

Determined to help restore the party to power (and to set himself up as a presidential candidate in 1968) Richard Nixon leapt into the fray. Nixon had not won an election since 1956, as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president. After his failed bid for governor of California, he had bitterly told the press that they “would not have Nixon to kick around anymore.” And yet the former vice president had quietly been making moves behind the scenes. In the final months before the 1966 election, Nixon campaigned for 86 Republican candidates down the ballot. In the end, 59 of them won their elections.

“Tricky Dick”, thought to be politically dead, gained a lot of friends in 1966. Friends who would answer the phone when he called about running for president in 1968.

Although it was not enough to wrest control of the government from Johnson and the Democrats, Republicans won 47 seats in the House, 3 in the Senate, and 8 governorships. His majorities reduced, Newsweek wrote, “in the space of a single autumn day… the 1,000 day reign of Lyndon I came to an end: The Emperor of American politics became just a President again.”

In 1966, Ronald Reagan became governor of California. George H.W. Bush won a House seat in Texas. Gerald Ford won his reelection campaign and became House Minority Leader, increasing his prominence on the national stage. Republicans, wounded after 1964, suddenly believed they could win again. And they did–seven out of the next ten presidential elections were won by the GOP.

From 1966, Johnson became increasingly unpopular and unable to push legislation like he had in the first two years of his term. In 1968, he stunned the nation by announcing he would not “seek, nor accept” the nomination of the presidency.

The election of 1968 was the most dramatic of the 20th century, but it all started in 1966. Today, Americans vote. Who knows what seeds the nation will plant today, that may bloom in 2020 or beyond?