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.

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.

“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. 

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? 

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.

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.