Bachelors, Boos, and Cory Booker

By Kaleena Fraga

If elected president, Cory Booker would join a small club of men who held the presidency without a wife

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

During a radio interview on February 5th about his 2020 White House run, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker acknowledged that he has a girlfriend. Still, Booker has endured speculation (much as Lindsey Graham did) about what his presidency would look like if he entered the White House as a single man.

It’s rare in American history, but not unheard of. The single men of the White House fall into a couple of narrow categories. They were widowers; men whose wives died during their presidencies; single or widowed men who married during their presidency; or presidents who never married at all.

Widowers 

Thomas Jefferson’s wife died almost twenty years before his presidency. Although the role of first lady was not strongly defined, various women close to Jefferson resided over social functions at the White House. These included his daughter, Patsy, and the wife of his best friend, Dolley Madison. Dolley Madison played an important role building relationships with the powerful in Washington D.C.–especially since Jefferson and her husband much preferred books to people.

Andrew Jackson’s case was a bit different. He and his wife, Rachel, had endured vicious attacks during the campaign over their marriage (Rachel had been married to another man when she met Jackson, and there was some overlap between her first and second marriages). She died shortly after his election in 1828. Although she’d always suffered health problems, Jackson blamed his political enemies and their attacks for exacerbating her illness and causing her death.

“My mind is so disturbed,” Jackson wrote to a friend, shortly after his election and Rachel’s death, “that I scarcly [sic] write, in short my dear my heart is nearly broke.”

Martin Van Buren, like Jefferson, entered the White House as a widower. His wife similarly died almost two decades before his presidency, and Van Buren never remarried.

Chester A. Arthur’s wife, Nell, died about a year before Arthur entered the White House–although he initially did so as James Garfield’s vice president in 1881. Arthur, who ascended to the presidency after the assassination of Garfield, never remarried.

Tragedy at the White House 

John Tyler, Benjamin Harrison, and Woodrow Wilson all lost their wives during their administrations.

White House Weddings

There’s an overlap between the last category and this one. John Tyler and Woodrow Wilson remarried during their presidencies. (Harrison also remarried, but not until after his presidency).

Grover Cleveland entered the White House as a bachelor in 1884. He also arrived on a wave of controversy surrounding the paternity of a child born of wedlock.

Cleveland, at 49, would eventually marry the daughter of his former law partner, Frances Folsom. Folsom had known Cleveland since she was 12. At 21, she would become the youngest first lady in American history.

Bachelor for Life

James Buchanan, while regarded as one of the nation’s worst presidents, is perhaps best known as the nation’s only bachelor president. Buchanan never wed, and presided over the White House alone. Today, there is speculation that Buchanan may have been America’s first gay president.

Buchanan’s bachelorhood did not go unnoticed by the American public (and certainly not by his opposition). One campaign ditty went:

Whoever heard in all of his life,

Of a President without a wife?”

Andrew Jackson once sneered that Buchanan, and his close friend Rufus William King, who died before Buchanan’s presidency, were “Miss Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy.”

There’s no definitive proof that Buchanan was gay–especially since male friendships of the era were largely more intimate than today. Still–the two men shared a fifteen year friendship, a room in a Washington boardinghouse as congressmen, and letters, which their respective nieces burned.

***

As for Booker? After admitting he had “someone special” in his life, the exchange went on:

“Oh, so Cory Booker’s got a boo?”

“I got a boo,” Booker responded.

Will Cory Booker’s boo follow him to the White House, should the 2020 race lead him there? Perhaps. But if Booker does arrive at the White House, and if he arrives solo, he certainly won’t be the first to preside over the presidency alone.

“The Question”: Ted Kennedy & the Pitfalls of Running for President

By Kaleena Fraga

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

One of the most obvious questions a candidate may be asked is why do you want to be president? Why you? Why now? This isn’t the 19th century, after all, when presidents had to be dragged to the White House under the guise of modesty. Why do you want to be president is a simple question with a complex answer–and candidates should be prepared to offer one.

Failing to do so could be fatal to any campaign. Just ask Ted Kennedy.

“Why do you want to be president?” Roger Mudd of CBS asked Kennedy in November of 1979. Kennedy had not yet announced, but was gearing up to–he would make a formal announcement the next week.

For a long four seconds, Kennedy hesitated, his eyes sliding to the ceiling. “Well,” he said, “uh. Were I to make the announcement to run, the reasons that I would run…” and thus commenced a rambling answer which may have derailed his entire candidacy.

The Washington Post wrote at the time that Kennedy “appears at points uncomfortable, faltering, almost dazed.” (Although their review of the interview focused more on Kennedy’s discomfort with Mudd’s line of questions concerning Chappaquiddick). The interview, thought the paper, could have the same effect on the 1980 campaign as the 1960 televised debate between Nixon and John F. Kennedy.

Whatever the Washington Post thought of the interview, Kennedy himself recognized it as a mistake. Decades later, Mudd wrote that he had heard that Kennedy never forgot the question, and that he blamed Mudd for it.

“…thirty years later, Kennedy was still upset that I had asked him why he wanted to be president, even though it was widely believed among politicians and journalists alike that the only thing missing from his candidacy was a formal announcement.”

Kennedy’s failure to answer this softball question has become a thing of political lore. The West Wing even aired an episode where the president’s staff celebrates a political rival’s inability to answer “the question.”

“Can you answer it?” C.J. Cregg, the press secretary, later asks the president.

“Why do I want to be president?” says President Bartlett

“Yeah.”

“I’ve been thinking about it for the last couple of hours,” the president responds, and pauses. “I almost have it.”

Today, many prospective Democratic candidates have sought to answer this question in their campaign launch videos or in interviews (perhaps aiming to preempt an awkward interview exchange).

Elizabeth Warren talks of her experience fighting big business, and how she would bring that fight to the White House. Cory Booker on The View said: “I’m running to restore our sense of common purpose, to focus on the common pain that we have all over this country.” In his campaign video, he focused on his credentials as a man of the people–living among his constituents, in Newark, New Jersey.

Even Howard Schultz, asked by John Dickerson of CBS This Morning for his “big idea” trumpeted a line about bringing people together (Schultz aims to do this as a candidate from the center). Dickerson replied that most politicians would say that, too. Still–Schultz’s answer wasn’t as bad as Kennedy’s rambling response, which began about how America was great because of its vast natural resources.

The pitfalls of running for president are many and varied. But at the very least today’s candidates can learn from the past. When someone asks you why you want to be president–know the answer.

Origin Stories: Where do Presidents Come From?

By Kaleena Fraga

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

The election of 2020 is underway! So far it is the most diverse election in American history. The people running (or who will probably run) represent a mix of genders, sexual orientations, and race. One thing many of them have in common is that they serve or have served in the U.S. Senate.

The Senate has not, historically, been the best jumping off point to the presidency. Only Warren G. Harding, John F. Kennedy, and Barack Obama went directly from serving in the Senate to the White House (although many other presidents served in the Senate at some point in their career before the presidency). With this in mind, we’ve decided to look at where presidents came from: that is, what office did they hold, or what career did they leave, before entering the White House?

The Military : 5

George Washington, Zachary Taylor, Franklin Pierce, Ulysses S. Grant, and Dwight D. Eisenhower all transitioned from military careers into the presidency. Washington, Taylor, Grant, and Eisenhower were strictly military men who left this life to be president.

In the case of Eisenhower and Taylor, their party preference was initially unknown. Eisenhower was especially cagey about his politics, and Harry Truman even floated that they run together with Eisenhower on top of a Democratic ticket in 1948. Taylor had never voted in an election–feeling that, as a military man, it wasn’t right to choose a party.

Of the five, only Franklin Pierce had prior political experience. He served in both the House and the Senate before enlisting in the Mexican-American war.

Vice Presidency :14

You can check out our great collaboration with Periodic Presidents to learn more about how the vice presidency doesn’t guarantee an easy path to the presidency. Still, many have made the leap (or have been pushed after the death of an incumbent).

John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Van Buren, and George H.W. Bush directly succeeded a president in an election. Richard Nixon lost his election in 1960 directly after his vice presidency, but won in 1968.

John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Calvin Coolidge, and Harry S. Truman became president after the incumbent died of natural causes.

Andrew Johnson, Chester A. Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson became president after an assassination.

Gerald Ford became president after the only presidential resignation in American history.

The Cabinet :5

Although rare in recent history, a number of presidents came to the White House from next door–that is, they had served as a cabinet secretary before becoming president. In the early days of the Republic serving as secretary of state, not as vice president, seemed to be the best place for someone with presidential ambitions.

This group includes: James Madison (State), James Monroe (State), John Quincy Adams (State), Herbert Hoover (Commerce), and William Howard Taft (War).

Others used the secretary of state position as a stepping stone to higher office before the presidency. Thomas Jefferson and Martin Van Buren were secretary of state before becoming vice president. James Buchanan also held this office in the years before he became president.

In 2020, Julian Castro will be running after holding a place in Barack Obama’s Cabinet. He served as Obama’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

The Senate: 5

As we’ve established, the only sitting senators to move from the Senate to the White House have been Warren G. Harding, John F. Kennedy, and Barack Obama.

Andrew Jackson’s last stint in public office was in the Senate, but he resigned in 1825 after losing to John Quincy Adams in the election of 1824. He would not become president until 1828. Benjamin Harrison similarly lost reelection to the Senate in 1887, and decided to run for president a year later.

So far, the race for 2020 has quite a few candidates hoping to become the fourth sitting senator to become president. Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren are all current United States senators who have announced an intention to run. There is speculation that Senators Sherrod Brown, Amy Klobuchar, Michael Bennet, Jeff Merkley, and Bernie Sanders could also throw their hats into the ring.

Other presidents who served in the United States Senate include: James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon.

So, in terms of starting points, the Senate ain’t bad if you want to be president some day (although perhaps not some day soon).

Ministers/Ambassadors: 2

A few presidents previously served in diplomatic roles before they moved to the White House.

After a sparkling military career, William Henry Harrison had a rough time in politics before Henry Clay convinced John Quincy Adams to name him Minister to Colombia. Harrison had served two terms in the House, but had been passed over for diplomatic posts, and later lost a race for the governor of Ohio, as well as two races for the Senate,  as well as, a race that would have returned him to the House. When he did win a Senate seat, he used this to call on political favors, thus securing his posting in Colombia. He was ineffective as a minister, and spent his years before the presidency back on his Ohio farm.

James Buchanan also held significant political office before becoming Minister to England, the role which preceded his presidency. Buchanan served in the House, the Senate, and the Cabinet. Yet his time as Minister to England allowed him to avoid controversies surrounding slavery in the 1850s, which made him a desirable presidential candidate. As president, Buchanan’s inaction on the eve of the civil war made him one of the worst presidents in American history.

The House : 2

Although nineteen presidents served in the House of Representatives at some point in their career, it’s exceedingly rare to move directly from the House to the presidency. Only James Garfield made the consecutive leap in 1880. Serving in the House was Abraham Lincoln’s last public office before his run for the presidency, but in the decade in-between he mostly focused on his law practice.

Other House alum include: James Madison, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James K. Polk, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Rutherford B. Hayes, William McKinley, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush.

Governor: 10

The race for 2020 could see quite a few current or former governors in the mix. Although none have announced, some perspective candidates are Terry McAuliffe (VA), Steve Bullock (MT), John Hickenlooper (CO), and Jay Inslee (WA).

Although this was not historically a popular route to the presidency, governors have recently found success in catapulting themselves from the governor’s mansion to the White House. Recent examples of governors who left their states to become president are George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. In the 19th century, James K. Polk, Rutherford B. Hayes, Grover Cleveland, and William McKinley all went from being governor to being president.

President: 1

Grover Cleveland represents a special case. Yes, he was a governor before he became president the first time. But he is also the only nonconsecutive president in American history. After serving one term in office, he lost his bid for a second, waited four years, and then returned to power to fulfill a nonconsecutive second term.

Business: 1

Donald J. Trump is the only president to come directly from the world of business, without strong affiliations to politics or the military. In 2020 a run from Howard Shultz, the former CEO of Starbucks, could change this.

Mayors: 0

No one has served as mayor of a city and then become president, however there are a few candidates in 2020 who hope to do just that. Pete Buttigieg has officially announced his candidacy. Other mayors (current and former) such as Michael Bloomberg, Bill De Blasio, and Andrew Gillum are considered possible candidates as well.

***

Power isn’t linear. Many presidents have jumped from one position to another, and have ended up in the presidency via unlikely avenues (see: James Garfield). Different historical trends promote different results. Two hundred years ago being secretary of state was a good move if you wanted to be president–today, it might be wiser to see a governorship.

Here’s what’s for sure: in 2020 candidates will come from a variety of backgrounds–all with the goal of ending up in the same place.

VEEP TO PREZ: The Path from the White House, to the White House

A collaboration with Periodic Presidents

We’re SO excited to present the above–a fun collaboration we’ve been working on with Periodic Presidents. Be sure to check out their site and twitter account–definitely worth a follow!

Graphic is based on our post “Veep 2020“, which sought to answer the question–how much does being vice president help someone become president? You can read it here. In the above you can learn about who made it to the presidency from the vice presidency & how–if they made it at all.

Predictability of the Unpredictable: Dark Horse Candidates & 2020

By Kaleena Fraga

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

There’s been much discussion about what form the election of 2020 will take, especially for Democrats. Will it be like 1976? Will infighting make the election look more like 1968? Or could a crowded field on both sides make the election more like 1824?

There’s really no saying what will happen. So far the race is remarkably diverse, with multiple women candidates and people of color. With the announcement of Pete Buttegieg’s candidacy this morning, 2020 will also have an openly gay candidate.

If there’s one thing predictable about campaigns, it is that they are unpredictable. Big names at the beginning sometimes don’t get far. Political giants cancel each other out, or burn out early on. A brief moment, a single misstep, can crater a candidacy (see Howard Dean or Ed Muskie).

With a diverse field on the left (and the possibility that the president will face a challenger from within his own party) there’s no telling who may come out on top. And indeed, dark horse candidates are a fixture of American political history.

James Garfield was one of the first dark horse nominees in American history, although he came to that position more as a consensus candidate than a total surprise. Garfield attended the convention in 1880 not as a candidate, but to nominate John Sherman of Ohio. When the convention deadlocked, Garfield’s name was surprisingly added to the mix, and on the 36th ballot he came out on top as the nominee. The day before his inauguration he noted: “This honor comes to me unsought. I have never had the presidential fever; not even for a day.”

Certainly as the power of party bosses dimmed, and as the primary process became more democratic, the possibility of a dark horse candidate grew. The nation saw a stark example of this in 1968, when Eugene McCarthy became the front runner by running against the president of his own party.

The election of 1968 was a race filled with political giants. Lyndon Johnson was set to run for reelection. There were rumors of a challenge from the left by Bobby Kennedy. On the right, Richard Nixon had begun his carefully executed comeback tour, and he faced opposition from George Wallace, the firebrand governor of Alabama who infamously declared: “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”

Eugene McCarthy was a senator from Minnesota. He had voted for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution but had become increasingly critical of the Vietnam war. As Kennedy wavered over challenging a sitting president, McCarthy announced his intention to hit Johnson from the left. When McCarthy won 42% of the vote in the New Hampshire primary, he exposed deep rifts among the electorate surrounding Vietnam.

LBJ says he “will not seek, nor accept” the nomination

From here, the race descended into one of the most dramatic in American history–Johnson dropped out, Kennedy jumped in, and the year saw violent riots, assassinations, and the election of Nixon. When Hubert Humphrey, then LBJ’s vice president, joined the race late and finally won the nomination, it struck many as decidedly undemocratic.

Other dark horse candidates dot American history. No one took John Kennedy seriously when he announced his intention to run–Harry Truman pressed Kennedy to “be patient” and Lyndon Johnson called his future running mate “little scrawny fellow with rickets”. Bill Clinton rose to the top of an uncrowded field because most serious Democrats accepted the logic of the day that George H.W. Bush was unbeatable–SNL even parodied the skittishness of Democrats who hesitated to challenge the president.

Of course, the most recent example of a dark horse candidate ascending to the presidency is that of 2016, and the election of Donald J. Trump.

With a crowded field, and the possibility of a challenge to a sitting president, there’s no telling what may happen next. History may offer some examples, but 2020 is shaping up to be a beast of its own.

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.