The President’s Mind: Trump, Reagan, and Mental Health in the Oval Office

By Kaleena Fraga

On Twitter last week, President Trump accused his critics of “taking out the old Ronald Regan playbook and screaming mental instability and intelligence…” Trump later added “Ronald Reagan had the same problem and handled it well. So will I!”

These tweets were in response to reports in the new Michael Wolff book Fire and Fury, which suggest that the president is mentally unfit for his role. Trump’s response attempts to equivocate these suggestions with similar accusations levied against Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Reagan was later diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but there is no definitive proof that he suffered from it while in office, or that it inhibited him from performing his duties.

Reagan and Walter Mondale Shaking HandsStill, he did face speculation of diminishing mental capacity during his presidency. In the aftermath of a poor performance in Reagan’s first debate with Democratic challenger Walter Mondale, a New York Times op-ed wrote that there were “legitimate questions that arise when the oldest President in the history of the Republic is seeking re-election to a term that would last from the end of his 73rd year to the end of his 77th…the issue of aging and its effects cannot be avoided.”

Reagan seemed to shake off such doubts in the second debate, when he responded to a probing question about his age by saying:

“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.”

In 2011, Ronald Reagan’s son contested his father’s doctors who, at the time of his presidency, had denied seeing any signs of Alzheimer’s. In his book My Father at 100, Reagan suggests that his father did suffer from Alzheimer’s while in office and that, if properly diagnosed, he would have stepped down.

The 25th amendment is supposed to protect the country in the event that the executive is unable to react to the demands of the office. Although it’s been invoked a handful of times since its ratification in 1967 for events like surgery, it’s never been used to permanently remove a president from power.

Trump too faces accusations of a declining mental state. He, like Reagan, is a president in his 70s.  For now, at least, questions of the president’s health are all conjecture. Trump will undergo a physical on January 12th and, although there will be no psychiatric exam, the results will be released to the public.

Then again, according to a recent study, as many as half of all U.S. presidents have suffered from some mental illness. Most for depression–including John Quincy Adams, James Madison, and Abraham Lincoln–and others with probable bipolar disorders, anxiety disorders, and alcohol dependence.

A Busy Day for JFK (& RMN)

By Kaleena Fraga

January 3rd is a day that holds special significance for John F. Kennedy. In 1947, it was the day that he was sworn into Congress for the first time as a member of the House of Representatives. On January 3rd in 1960, 13 years later, it was reported that JFK had thrown his hat in the ring to be the next president.

JFK wasn’t the only young Congressman to be sworn in that day in 1947. He was joined by his future political rival Richard Nixon.

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Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, circa 1947

Although they would face each other in the bitterly contested election of 1960, Kennedy and Nixon were friendly in the House. According to the 2017 Nixon biography Richard Nixon: The Life by John A. Farrell, the two young congressmen once shared a train car back to D.C. after a cordial debate in West Virginia. They bonded over their passion for international affairs. “Neither one of us was a backslapper,” Nixon wrote later. “He was shy…but it was a shyness born of an instinct that guarded privacy and concealed emotion. I understood these qualities because I shared them.” The Nixons were later invited to attend Jack Kennedy’s wedding.

When Nixon ran for Senate he had the support of the Kennedy clan. According to Farrell’s biography, John Kennedy stopped by Nixon’s office with a check from his father for one thousand dollars. The message? Joseph Kennedy wanted Nixon to win.

By 1960, the two would be rivals. Although Kennedy had followed Nixon to the Senate, Nixon had become Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice president. While Kennedy finished his Senate term, Nixon spent eight years traveling the world on Ike’s behalf. In 1960 Nixon would argue experience; Kennedy would insist that after eight years of Ike, the country was ready for something new. Kennedy officially announced his candidacy on January 2nd–on January 3rd the announcement made front page news as Kennedy added his name to a growing list of White House-hungry Democrats. A week later, on January 9th, Richard Nixon likewise declared his candidacy.

jfkdeclares

On another January day in 1961, Nixon (the outgoing vice president) would stand behind Kennedy to watch his rival take the oath of office.

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January 1961. Nixon is standing behind Kennedy, to the right of the frame

Although the Nixon/Kennedy relationship soured, Nixon later penned a thoughtful note to Jackie Kennedy following her husband’s assassination in Dallas in 1963.

“Dear Jackie

In this tragic hour Pat and I want you to know that our thoughts and prayers are with you. While the hand of fate made Jack and me political opponents I always cherished the fact that we were personal friends from the time we came to the Congress together in 1947…If in the days ahead we could be helpful in any way we shall be honored to be at your command.

Sincerely,
Dick Nixon”

Jackie later replied, thanking Nixon for his note, and writing:

“Dear Mr. Vice President –

I do thank you for your most thoughtful letter –

You two young men – colleagues in Congress – adversaries in 1960 – and now look what has happened – Whoever thought such a hideous thing could happen in this country –…please be consoled by what you already have – your life and your family…

Sincerely

Jacqueline Kennedy”

See full letters here and here

 

Millions of Cracks in the Glass Ceiling: Women, the White House, and the Path Ahead

By Molly Bloom

The American political system has changed significantly in the nearly one hundred years since the passing of the 19th amendment in 1920 that granted women the right to vote. Not only were women provided a new right to contribute to the government, but slowly, women began to occupy federal positions as well.

jr for congressFour years before the 19th amendment was ratified, Jeanette Rankin became the first woman elected to the House of Representatives. Six years later, Rebecca Felton filled an interim seat for only one day as a United States Senator (an activist and suffragette, Felton’s seat was largely symbolic). It was not until ten years later in 1932 that a woman was truly elected to serve in the Senate when Hattie Caraway secured a seat from Arkansas.

Simply having women in Congress is not necessarily a symbol of progress in the women’s rights movement. Just under 1/5 of the seats in the House of Representatives are currently occupied by women. This is the highest percentage in the history of the House. Only since 1978 has a woman consistently filled a seat in the Senate, and it wasn’t until 1992, over seventy years after the passage of the 19th amendment, that three out of one hundred Senate seats were held by women at one time. With the appointment of Tina Smith to fill Al Franken’s Senate seat, there will be more women in the Senate than ever–twenty-two.

Sandra Day O’Connor famously became the first female Supreme Court Justice when she was appointed by Ronald Reagan in 1981. O’Connor’s appointment was viewed as a major victory for the women’s rights movement, demonstrating that a woman could serve on the highest court in the country. With women employed in Congress, as governors, and at the local level, the Supreme Court was the latest governmental barrier to break. Today, three of the nine justices are women. 

With the legislative and judicial branches populated with women, only the metaphorical glass ceiling of the executive branch has yet to be shattered. Hillary Clinton was the first woman to make a run for the presidency as a candidate from a major political party; however, women have been denied even lateral access to the White House prior to 2016.

In the presidential election of 1984, Geraldine Ferraro joined the ticket of Walter ferraroMondale, who won the Democratic nomination. Formerly a member of the House of Representatives, Ferraro was the first female vice presidential candidate for a major party. Not surprisingly, the media focused on the novelty of a female on a major ticket and critiqued her on inexperience. Reporters called into question her marriage, family finances, and even tried to invent a connection to the Italian mob based on her family’s heritage. The campaign never recovered, and Reagan/Bush went on to win decisively in November.

Sarah Palin received scrutiny as well when she became John McCain’s running mate in the 2008 presidential election.  Beyond inexperience, the media had a seemingly endless supply of drama-filled topics and attacks; her intelligence, her teenage daughter’s pregnancy, and her history in beauty pageants. Likely voters had divided opinions about her, especially after a story that the Republican National Committee had financed her wardrobe. Although she later became an icon of the conservative movement, McCain/Palin lost to Obama/Biden 52.9% to 45.7%

Transcending party lines and spanning decades, attempts to elect a woman into the White House, either as the president or vice president of the United States, have fallen short. The closest we have come is seeing intelligent, accomplished first ladies take on projects during their husbands’ time in office, at least gaining some platform to enact change. This tradition started largely with Lady Bird Johnson’s national beautification initiative and has continued ever since. Before Lady Bird made the tradition official, Eleanor Roosevelt was an outlier in her determination to use her platform to make a difference. When she spearheaded an anti-lynching campaign during her husband’s presidency, a New Jersey woman wrote FDR’s assistant, asking if the president couldn’t “muzzle [his wife]…she talks too damn much.” 

Political scientists and sociologists can speculate about whether voters are threatened by powerful women, more comfortable with “traditional” gender roles, or perceive women as having weaknesses ill-suited for executive power. Yet given Clinton’s near miss in 2016, it seems likely that there will be another great shift in American political culture, as in the 1920s, which will finally see a woman win the White House.

Roy Moore, Grover Cleveland, and Morality in American Politics

By Kaleena Fraga

In 2014, the French president François Hollande was photographed visiting his mistresshollande via scooter. The French barely blinked. In the 1990s, when Bill Clinton faced accusations of adultery while in office, the affair consumed the country. For Americans, the private lives of politicians and public officials are often important indications of their character.

Over the past few months, a dam has been breached in American culture and politics concerning sexual harassment, outing powerful figures like Roger Ailes, Kevin Spacey, and Louis C.K. Roy Moore, running for Senate in Alabama, and Al Franken, the current Senator from Minnesota, are the latest public figures to face accusations of sexual impropriety.

While the others can dip out of the spotlight, or “seek treatment,” as many of them have, Moore is facing an election in less than a month. Out of these men, he is the only one who Americans have a chance to judge. For many Alabamans, the choice between Roy Moore, accused by several women of inappropriate behavior when they were children, and Doug Jones, a Democrat, is a choice with no easy out. Representative Mo Brooks of Alabama stated (while being stubbornly pursued by a reporter) that he would still vote for Roy Moore because, “Democrats will do great damage to our country.”
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When in history has a candidate’s morality become an issue in an election?

One good example is the campaign of Grover Cleveland in 1884. Cleveland faced accusations of having a baby out of wedlock with a woman named Maria Halpin. When the baby was born, it was put up for adoption and Halpin was committed to a mental asylum–despite doctors there finding nothing especially wrong with her. Halpin said that their encounter had not been consensual, that he’d put the baby up for adoption, and forced her into the hospital.

Ma_ma_wheres_my_paCleveland claimed that the paternity was uncertain; his supporters dismissed the allegations as “boys being boys” although in 1884, Cleveland was 47 years old. Republicans reveled in this, and would gather to chant “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?” at Cleveland rallies.

But the Republicans had problems of their own. Although Cleveland was morally problematic, his opponent, Republican James Blaine, had been roasted over the public coals for his corruption concerning the nation’s railroads. The choice, then, was whether the voters wanted a man who had corrupt morals, or one who was just corrupt.

Cleveland narrowly defeated Blaine, becoming the first Democrat since the Civil War to be elected president. Victorious Democrats answered Republican’s taunts with, “Off to the White House, ha, ha, ha!”

There’s no evidence that Doug Jones is corrupt as Blaine was, but the anecdote does suggest that a candidate, even one as problematic as Moore, could be elected. Especially if some voters in Alabama see electing a Democrat as just as bad, if not worse, than someone accused of sexually harassing young girls.

Veep 2020

Joe Biden is back in the news this week, raising two questions. One, will he run in 2020? Two, if he had run in 2016, would he have won?

Vice presidents have had mixed luck in seeking the office themselves. If Biden had run in 2016 and won, he would have joined a somewhat exclusive club of men who were elected president directly after being vice president. Not counting those who became president after a death, only four men have served as vice president and then directly ascended to the vice presidency. John Adams succeeded George Washington in 1786; Thomas Jefferson succeeded John Adams in 1800; Martin Van Buren succeeded Andrew hw and rrJackson in 1836. This feat would not be repeated until 152 years later, when George H.W. Bush became president after serving as Ronald Reagan’s VP for eight years.

In recent history, the country has seen vice presidents fail at achieving the presidency–Al Gore attempted to succeed Bill Clinton in 2000 and lost to George W. Bush and Hubert Humphrey attempted to succeeded LBJ in 1968, but lost to Richard Nixon.

So, if history is any indication, it would have been a challenge for Biden to ascend to the presidency in 2016 after serving two terms as Barack Obama’s vice president. But following that logic, it would be statistically even less likely for Biden to become president after waiting out a term. Only Richard Nixon has done so–he ran for president after serving as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president but lost to John Kennedy in 1960. It wasn’t until 1968 that Nixon was elected president. Surprisingly, he’s the only vice president to have followed this particular path.

Indeed, the vice presidency doesn’t seem to at all guarantee an easy road to the presidency. The most direct path from vice president to the presidency seems to be the jfk lbjdeath of the incumbent–eight vice presidents became president this way, including Calvin Coolidge, Teddy Roosevelt, and LBJ, who once eerily remarked before Kennedy’s inauguration that he’d accepted the number two spot because, statistically, there was a one in four chance Kennedy could die in office.

Vice presidents face a myriad of challenges when running, especially when attempting to run for president directly after being vice president. For one thing, presidential elections often seem to inspire a desire for change among the electorate (especially after eight years). It’s a juggling act for any candidate of the same party of the incumbent, as they must define themselves apart from the president, and respond to criticism of the president without damaging his legacy. Al Gore faced this challenge when struggling to decide if he should campaign more with Bill Clinton–Clinton fatigue was in the air, so Gore decided against it. But in such a close election, Clinton’s support could have helped.

Presidents are also generally protective of their legacy. Vice presidents, especially when trying to make the leap from VP to POTUS, need to embrace the accomplishments of their administration. Yet it can be hard to define exactly what a vice president accomplished during office, whereas most big accomplishments are claimed by the president. A stark example of this came out in the 1960 election, when Eisenhower was asked to name a decision that Nixon had made during his two terms as Ike’s VP. Despite Nixon’s loyalty to Eisenhower, his work as a liaison between the White House and Congress, and his successful trips abroad, Eisenhower stumbled on the question. He gave the infamous answer: “Give me a week, I might think of something,” providing plenty of fodder for the Democrats defending their candidate (Kennedy) from accusations of youth and inexperience.

If Biden were to run in 2020, it could be an uphill battle. He could embrace Obama’s legacy, but would need to define himself outside of it. Like Nixon, Biden would likely benefit from his time out of office. If Trump’s first year in office is any indication, 2020 could wrap up a volatile four years–Americans may seek familiarity and the “insider” credentials that Biden possesses. Then again, the electorate is fickle, and it may continue its search for the next, new candidate.

Voodoo Economics & the Myth of the Reagan Tax Cuts

By Kaleena Fraga

Sometimes, it seems that the lure of tax cuts is all that is keeping the Republican party going. The House Speaker, Paul Ryan, has consistently tuned out the political storm around him–Russia! Collusion! Roy Moore!–holding instead a feverish focus on his goal of cutting taxes, half-joking that it’s what he wanted to do since he was drinking from kegs.

Ryan duly follows the Reagan era wisdom that a tax cut, largely benefitting the richest Americans, will drive economic growth for all. In his plan, 80% of the benefits would go to the top 1%. The average tax cut of the top tenth of the top 1% would be $1 million dollars annually. The plan would additionally slash the corporate tax rate, even though corporate profits are at an all time high. Although there is some feeble insistence from the White House that this is a tax cut for the middle class, it clearly has its roots in ideology from 1980s.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan ran on the idea of a large tax cut in order to spur economic growth after a lagging decade. His opponent in the primaries (and future vice president) George H.W. Bush, labeled this idea “voodoo economics” during a debate at Carnegie Mellon University. As a candidate for vice president, Bush had to backtrack. He later got in trouble himself when, as president, he promised to not raise taxes (the infamous “read my lips” statement), but felt so strongly that they were necessary that he went back on his word.

After the Reagan tax cuts were passed in 1981, the U.S. government developed huge deficits. In fact, one of Reagan’s advisors and an architect on the 1981 tax cut recently wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post to warn that tax cuts do not equal growth.

In addition, the country can look to Kansas as a canary in a coal mine. Similar trickle-down tax cuts in that state slowed growth, produced less than expected revenue, and forced cuts to government programs.

The GOP–desperate for a legislative win–seems determined to push the cuts through. Democrats are united against the plan, but would need Republican support to stop their passage. Until then, it would be prudent for President Trump to look to history, to a living member of his exclusive club, to see just how tricky voodoo economics can be.

Jeff Flake: A Welch or a Rockefeller?

By Kaleena Fraga

On Wednesday, Senator Jeff Flake did a remarkable thing–he stood up in front of his colleagues and denounced the president of his own party. Flake called President Trump’s policies “destructive.” He declared he would no longer be “complicit or silent.” And Flake said he hoped that his words would have the same effect as Jack Welch in 1954, when Welch turned to Joe McCarthy and asked the question that ended McCarthy’s career–“have you no sense of decency?”

Welch expressed what many in government thought but feared to say and his words carried weight with Americans who’d watched the McCarthy hearings on TV. McCarthy’s popularity quickly dried up. He was censured by his colleagues in the Senate and died three years later at 48, an alcoholic. It was a spectacular downfall for a man who’d once cowed Eisenhower into dropping remarks praising McCarthy enemy John Foster Dulles.

For Flake to say he hoped his words would produce a similar reaction seems to suggest that Flake is gunning for impeachment. He joins his colleagues John McCain and Bob Corker in their outspoken disapproval of the president’s behavior (if not, judging by their votes, his policies). Flake seems to think that his words may encourage others to voice their opinions, since it’s widely acknowledged that many GOP senators share Flake’s view but are not willing to air their grievances in public. After all, aside from their dislike of the president, Flake, Corker & McCain have one other thing in common–none of them are running for reelection.

Flake’s words could turn the tide. He could be the Jack Welch in this saga. Or he could be the Nelson Rockefeller.

In 1964, Barry Goldwater won the Republican nomination through tough talk, endorsements of extreme methods, and his blasé attitude toward using nuclear weapons–he was the inspiration for LBJ’s “<a href="http://”Daisy” ad and he once said the U.S. should “lob one into the men’s room at the Kremlin.” The Republican party faced a struggle for its soul over his nomination but given the ferocity of his popularity among many Republican voters, no one wanted to speak out against him. Nelson Rockefeller, who’d run but lost the nomination tried. During the GOP convention in which Goldwater declared, “extremism in the pursuit of liberty is no vice,” Rockefeller denounced “extremists” in the Republican ranks.

His words were drowned out by boos.

It’s too early to tell if Flake will encourage his colleagues to speak out or if he’ll be shunned by Republican voters. It certainly seems that two kinds of Republicans are emerging from the Trump presidency. But then again, maybe this all started in 1964, when a Republican had to decide if s/he were a “Goldwater” Republican, or something else entirely.