Here at History First we are thinking about instituting a “First Lady Friday” but in the meantime, this Thursday’s trivia features the truly remarkable first lady Lady Bird Johnson.
(Bonus trivia: LBJ’s entire family had the initials LBJ. Their beagles were named Him and Her.)
This trivia comes from the delightful book “Lady Bird and Lyndon” by Betty Boyd Caroli which History First highly, highly recommends. It provides a fresh look at the LBJ presidency, the LBJ/Lady Bird marriage, and Lady Bird herself, who has not received the accolades she deserves.
Today the American public is used to seeing first ladies holding the Bible on Inauguration day. Melania Trump did it, Michelle Obama, Laura Bush, etc., etc., The first woman to do this was none other than Lady Bird Johnson. Before 1964, a Congressional aid had held the Bible. LBJ wanted Lady Bird.
In January 1969, Nixon asked the same of Pat Nixon. And thus a tradition was born.
Donald Trump’s apparent willingness to negotiate with Democrats has sent shockwaves through Washington. Conservatives are alarmed, Trump’s base are burning their MAGA hats, and many in the country are wondering if the party will move towards a schism between conservative and moderate Republicans.
The truth is, however, that there has long been tension between moderates and conservatives in the Republican Party. This tension most often becomes apparent during a Republican presidency, when the president must wrangle with more conservative members of his own party.
Perhaps the starkest example in modern American history comes from the Eisenhower administration. Ike had faced Robert Taft during a tough presidential primary (Taft, the son of a president literally went by the nickname Mr. Republican). Now as president, Ike needed to work with Taft and the GOP coalition known as the “Old Guard.” This group of conservatives protested the country’s swing to the left during the Roosevelt years and the emerging international world order. Ike, on the other hand, aimed to govern from within the parameters of the New Deal and believed in the importance of NATO. Ike then faced resistance both from Democrats mourning their loss of power and conservatives members of his own party.
Eisenhower is famous for scolding this wing of his party, saying that any political group that sought to abolish New Deal benefits was “…a tiny splinter group, of course…their number is negligible and they are stupid.”
Still, Eisenhower’s Republican credentials weren’t impeccable. Before he ran, no one knew if Eisenhower was a Republican. Truman once even tried to get him to run on the Democratic ticket. Thus rose the frustration from conservatives who’d supported Taft as a “true” conservative.
A study of the recent history of the GOP—from Eisenhower on—will reveal a similar pattern. In the 1960s, there was Barry Goldwater and there was Nelson Rockefeller. In the 1970s, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. In the 1990s, George HW Bush and the conservative speaker of the house, Newt Gingrich. A Republican president, it seems, must always face a wing of his party that is more conservative, more stubborn, and more aghast at the idea of bipartisanship.
It may seem like a modern phenomenon, but this tension has existed in American conservatism since the early days of the country. Thomas Jefferson, who supported states’ rights and feared the reach of a powerful central government, would probably identify more with today’s Republicans than the Democrats who claim his legacy. Before he came to power in 1800, Jefferson was content to criticize the Washington and Adams presidencies and to defend the rights of states against the federal government. But once he became president, Jefferson had no qualms about exerting executive power himself, much to the chagrin of the conservative wing of his party.
The revolt was led by Jefferson’s distant relative John Randolph in March of 1806. Randolph was alarmed by Jefferson’s use of executive power, and he wasn’t alone. He and his faction believed that Jefferson was no longer Republican enough. This should be a familiar refrain to anyone who follows today’s politics, where GOP nominees like John McCain and Mitt Romney faced criticism for lacking in conservative credentials.
Randolph’s faction was called the Quids, named for “tertium quid” which means “third something” in Latin. They were also called the “Old Republicans”—sound familiar? Randolph accused Jefferson of compromising with Federalist ideals. Moderation, he declared, was the mask which ambition has worn. In 1964, Barry Goldwater echoed this idea when he claimed that: “Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue, and extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” For today’s conservatives, like yesteryear’s, principle is everything and compromise is a dirty word.
Enter Donald J. Trump
Trump was a controversial candidate but an effective one. He successfully wielded conservative discontent in order to cut down more traditional and more moderate Republican rivals. In doing so, in bringing the conservative wing of the party to the presidency, it seemed that Trump may have irrevocably changed the face of the Republican Party. It seemed that, finally, a “true” conservative had come to the White House, unwilling to compromise, and determined to force through principled, conservative ideas.
Yet it’s become clear that Trump will face the same ancient tensions as his Republican predecessors. He struggled to gather votes for health care because of the opposition of the Freedom Caucus, the most conservative group in Congress. Trump, in what may be a predictable move to observers of this phenomenon, reached across the aisle instead to the Democrats.
Trump’s presidency initially seemed that it would bring far right ideas to the forefront of American political conversation. Today, as he works with Democrats to find a solution to DACA, it seems instead that Trump may trigger a true war within the party, between conservatives and moderates. Conservatives have waited generations to see one of their own to rise to the presidency, someone who advocated for immigration restrictions, border security, traditional marriage, and strict abortion legislation. Yet now that he is in office, they are facing again that same, old disappointment—Trump is willing to abandon principle and make deals. As the GOP navigates the Trump presidency, and the growing tension between wings of the party, it should be aware that today’s battles are the product of an unrest as old as the country itself.
Perhaps the most famous presidential last words are those of John Adams, who purportedly called out on his death bed: “Thomas Jefferson survives!” Adams did not know that his fellow Founding Father had, in fact, succumbed earlier in the day. Even eerier, both men died on July 4th.
James Madison seemed to fear less for the Republic, and to leave the world in a calmer state than Adams. Surrounded by his family, one of Madison’s nieces remarked that he looked as if he was in pain. Madison remarked that it was “…nothing more than a change in mind, my dear,” before leaving the American experiment for good.
Chester A. Arthur (our star from yesterday’s #otd) wins the “womp womp” prize for his (purportedly) last phrase. According to a friend he said: “Life is not worth living.”
And perhaps the cheeriest last words were uttered by John Adams’ son, John Quincy Adams, who had a stroke in the House of Representatives where he served. He died in the Speaker’s Office, but not before uttering: “This is the last of Earth. I am content.”
On this day in 1881 Chester A. Arthur became president after James Garfield succumbed to wounds from an assassin’s bullet. The shot itself didn’t kill Garfield–sloppy medical care resulted in the infection that ended his life.
The assassin, Charles J. Guiteau, argued before the judge that he should not be hanged for murder, since it wasn’t his bullet that killed President Garfield. He declared: “The doctors killed Garfield, I just shot him.”
We probably hear most about Chester A. Arthur through frequent NYT Crossword clues about his middle name (Alan!) but there is a new biography coming out that should shed some light on this largely forgotten (and accidental) president.
Richard Nixon is known for a lot of things. Ask anyone his name and the first thing most people will mention is Watergate. Nixon was also well known for playing the piano, but his musical prowess goes beyond the keys. Nixon played five instruments in total:
In every presidential election there is a winner, and there is a loser. For the winner, the path is clear. Go on to the presidency, watch your approval rating crumble, hopefully get something done while in office and (most likely) gear up to run again. For the loser of the presidential contest, the future is foggy. Do they emerge a leader of their party? Do they prepare to run again? Do they fade into the background of political history, or quietly enter a life of public service?
Once, losers didn’t have a choice. John Adams lost to George Washington and served as his vice president. Thomas Jefferson lost to John Adams and served as his vice president. But today, a loser must go from being one of the most admired (or reviled) people in the country to last week’s headline.
President Trump has boasted often of his similarities to Andrew Jackson, and to the change election in 1828 that ushered Jackson into power. Jackson bested John Quincy Adams, who, as the son of a president and a founding father, belonged squarely to the Washington establishment. Jackson’s election shocked and horrified Washington elites. Henry Clay, the Speaker of the House, is purported to have taken ill, certain that Jackson’s election meant the end of the American experiment. Although devastated by his loss, Adams picked up the political flag two years later and went on to serve in Congress until his death in 1848—one of only two presidents to do so.
Perhaps the most famous loser of all is William Jennings Bryan. Bryan ran for president a record three times—in 1896 against William McKinley, 1900 against Teddy Roosevelt, and in 1908 against William Howard Taft. Bryan, a gifted orator, couldn’t seem to give up public life. He continued to speak widely after each defeat, amassing a large and loyal following. Although Bryan ran as a Democrat, he’d flirted with the Progressive Party before and many in his party resented his advocation of extreme measures. Many Americans saw him as above politics (not unlike Bernie Sanders in 2016) and as a man of the people. Bryan enjoyed a short tenure as Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State and became an advocate for prohibition. He later solidified a legacy as a hero of American Christians when he faced Clarance Darrow in a trial over whether or not teachers had the right to teach evolution in the classroom.
Later in the 20th century, Adlai Stevenson was known as the man who lost races to be president. He ran twice in 1952 and 1956 (almost three times, if he’d had his way in 1960). In the 50s Stevenson was bested by the tag team of Eisenhower and Nixon. In 1960, despite a strong backing from Democratic powerful like Eleanor Roosevelt, he lost the nomination to Jack Kennedy. Despite strained relations between the two men (Stevenson refused to publicly endorse Kennedy), Kennedy eventually appointed him ambassador to the United Nations. Stevenson is recognized today for his quick wit, with quotes attributed to him like:
“I will make a bargain with the Republicans. If they will stop telling lies aboutDemocrats, we will stop telling the truth about them.”
“You can tell the size of a man by the things that make him mad”
The most famous loser of our current time is, of course, Hillary Clinton. After losing to Barack Obama in the 2008 primary, she lost to Donald Trump in 2016. Clinton certainly has a legacy outside of her run for the presidency that will continue to define her. Today she remains as polarizing as ever, and it’s unclear what role she will play going forward. For now, she joins a group of distinguished men who, although losers, were extraordinary in their own way.