The Presidency & the Power of Nature

When considering the power of the presidency in the conservation of nature, Theodore Roosevelt is often the first name that comes to mind. Rightly so. After touring the Grand Canyon in 1903, during a national debate over preserving the land or using it to mine precious medals, he insisted:

“Leave it as it is. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it…Keep it for your children, your children’s children and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American should see.”

He said it would be a tragedy to cut down the great redwoods of California to make decks or porches. To those who advocated progress over preservation, he stated that:

“There is nothing more practical, in the end, than the preservation of beauty, than the preservation of anything that appeals to the higher emotions in mankind.”

TR GC
Roosevelt at the Grand Canyon

Yet we would be remiss to forget Lady Bird Johnson’s legacy of conservation. Although it’s largely a given today that first spouses will work on projects of their own, Lady Bird was the first person to put this into practice. She decided to pursue something that made her “heart sing.” As a little girl, Lady Bird had grown to deeply love the outdoors, and especially the flowers from her native Texas.

Although she’d never particularly liked the term, thinking it too indicative of cosmetics, the project became known as beautification. Writing in her journal in 1965, Lady Bird explained why she thought the project so important: “All the threads are interwoven– recreation and pollution and mental health, and the crime rate, and rapid transit, and highway beautification, and the war on poverty, and parks — national, state and local. It is hard to hitch the conversation into one straight line, because everything leads to something else.”

Lady Bird believed, simply, that people would be happiest surrounded by trees and flowers and greenery (she was right). Lady Bird and Lyndon Johnson took the project national with the Highway Beautification Act–an attempt to clean up the nation’s highways, and take down the billboards. Although watered down, the bill did pass. Lady Bird also focused much of her efforts on cleaning up Washington D.C.

Lady Bird
Lady Bird at the Wildflower Center

After LBJ’s presidency had ended, and after he had died, Lady Bird continued to work on the project. In 1982, Lady Bird started the National Wildflower Researcher Center in Austin, which was renamed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center on her eighty-fifth birthday. Although it started with Lady Bird’s donation of sixty acres, the Center now stretches across 284 acres and contains more than 800 kinds of native Texas plants.

Preserving nature and protecting federal lands wasn’t always a partisan issue. Theodore Roosevelt was a Republican. Lady Bird and Lyndon Johnson were Democrats. Richard Nixon, whose administration created the EPA, was a Republican. Given that Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act, which gave the executive the power to protect federal land as a monument, and Lady Bird believed so strongly in the importance of beauty and nature, one has to wonder what they would think about the Trump administration’s decision to reduce the Bear’s Ear Monument by eighty-five percent. Trump, no stranger to unprecedented moments, is the first president to seek to modify a natural monument since the signing of the Antiquities Act in 1906.

Special thanks to Betty Boyd Caroli’s “Lady Bird & Lyndon” and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “The Bully Pulpt: Theodore Roosevelt and the Golden Age of Journalism” for providing the background for this post.

Roy Moore, Grover Cleveland, and Morality in American Politics

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.”
mo brooks.gif
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

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.

Remember Him?: Legacy and Historical Memory

Last week, President Bush gave a speech defending traditional American values, which many interpreted as a veiled attack on President Trump. The twittersphere was full of comments and memes about how Bush was no longer the worst president, how he had “joined the resistance”, and that, compared to the daily twists and turns of the Trump administration, Bush’s was almost idyllic.

It’s a strange thing, since Bush left office in 2009 with an approval rating in the mid 30s.

johnson & truman
Johnson & Truman

Still, Bush is not alone. Aside from Richard Nixon, whose legacy continues to suffer, most presidents who leave office as unpopular figures see their approval rating climb as the nation moves on. In 2017, Bush now has an approval rating of 59%. Harry Truman also left office with an approval rating in the mid-30s. Yet today he often finds himself in the top ten of lists of the best presidents. Lyndon Johnson, likewise, decided that he would not run for reelection in 1968 because of his deep unpopularity and his failure to end the war in Vietnam. Yet today he is lauded for his work on the Great Society and civil rights, and also often ranks high among the “best” presidents.

In this era of immediate news it seems society is expected to form opinions as fast as possible. Still, it’s worth noting that legacy is something alive, something that can change with time and perspective. It’s difficult to see how actions today can alter the events of tomorrow. Trump is currently one of the most unpopular presidents of all time, especially so early in his term. He does not seem to have the capacity or desire to change the course he’s on–yet it’s impossible to say whether this unpopularity will endure or whether Trump’s legacy, whatever that is, will be given the same, gentle treatment of his modern predecessors.

Then again, he might join universally acknowledge duds–duds like James Buchanan and Warren Harding, who through their ineffectiveness and corruption consistently find themselves at the bottom of presidential rankings.

Jeff Flake: A Welch or a Rockefeller?

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, 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 ““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.

How James Comey Could Run in 2020…and Win

Former FBI Director James Comey made some social media waves Monday morning when he posted a picture of himself on Twitter. This was remarkable for a couple of reasons. The internet had long speculated that the twitter handle “Reinhold Niebuhr” belonged to Comey–the photo seemed to be an outright confirmation. Secondly, the picture depicted Comey standing among the corn in Iowa, wearing athletic shoes. Twitter responded with: “he’s running.”*

Regarding Comey, is it really that crazy of an idea? Many Americans are sick of both parties, as evidenced by the strong trend toward third party and outlier candidates during 2016. If Comey were to run in 2020, he could present himself as someone who always puts country first–and he certainly has the enemies on both sides of the aisle to prove it.

Comey could, in theory, try to create an Eisenhower like aura around his candidacy. He is someone who is accomplished in his field, who is seen by most as trustworthy and honorable, and he knows the ins and outs of Washington as well or better than other possible 2020 candidates. He is seen as steady and straightforward (a contrast to the current administration) and has the history to prove that he’s not partisan. Comey stood up to George W. Bush, refused to be rattled by Hillary Clinton, and kept his cool around Donald Trump.

Of course, he does have enemies. Democrats blame him for throwing the election to Trump by reviving Clinton’s email issue in the waning days of the campaign. Many Republicans see him as a “showboat” (Trump’s word) and disloyal for his conduct during his time in the Trump administration. But if Comey’s campaign were able to spin this as a positive, as an indication that he has always gone with his country over his party, no matter the consequences, he could be an appealing candidate for Americans tired of partisan rancor. And they’re sure to see plenty of that during the 2020 campaign.

It’s early. Still, stranger things have happened.

*For those who don’t know, the twitter comment “he/she’s runningis used ironically, and can be posted about almost anyone doing almost anything. It’s a mockery of the rampant speculation surrounding 2020.