Last week marked the anniversary of the first televised presidential debate (September 26, 1960) between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. This is a moment that gets the most attention–it arguably altered American politics forever by bringing in a new level of stakes for candidates. Image became paramount. It’s an oft repeated anecdote that while radio listeners gave the debate to Nixon, television viewers awarded it to Kennedy. Any observers of the 2016 election would likely agree that the fever pitch around the debates (especially during the primaries) is indicative of the importance of image in today’s political culture.
But the real television trailblazer is Harry S Truman, who on this day (October 5th, 1947) gave the first televised address by a U.S. president. Pre-Marshall Plan, Truman was appealing to his fellow Americans to help support war-torn Europe by not eating meat on Tuesdays, not eating chicken on Thursdays, and to eat less bread.
Truman didn’t have a large audience–the television itself was still something of a commodity. But he seemed to have faith in the medium–the rest of his White House speeches were all televised.
He also was the first president to have his inauguration televised. We can only speculate on what a Truman-Dewey debate might have been like!
It’s a well known fact that the teddy bear came from the Teddy Roosevelt presidency. Legend has it a friend presented TR with a bear tied up for him to shoot during a hunt. TR refused, saying it was unsportsmanlike to shoot a tied up animal. The story spread, someone had the idea to make a toy from the story, and the teddy bear became wildly popular.
When William Howard Taft became president, conniving minds hatched a plan to launch a new, Taft themed stuffed animal. Because Taft apparently had a penchant for eating possum, it was decided that the Taft version of the teddy bear would be a stuffed toy possum
Hundreds were made, and a campaign was created to take down the teddy bear, but the stuffed possums were a complete flop. According to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent book “The Bully Pulpit” this was in large part because the stuffed toy looked like a giant rat, and it horrified its intended audience. Still, the whole debacle left us with a legacy of some pretty amazing depictions of President Taft and possums. Some of these toys still exist–they are terrifying.
Upon leaving office, most presidents enjoy a reexamination of their legacy, unplagued by partisanship, varnished by time, and held astride the current occupant of the presidency and his struggles. Even George W. Bush, one of the most unpopular president of modern times, has seen his popularity grow as his tenure in the White House fades from collective memory. Yet Richard Nixon is denied the luxury of time.
Indeed, it’s far too easy to throw Nixon under the proverbial bus of history. Today, in an era ripe with scandal, pundits are eager to add the -gate moniker to anything that appears to suggest impropriety. This knee jerk reaction to make Nixon the boogeyman of American political commentary is lazy, and unfair to his administration’s accomplishments in office.
It’s increasingly popular today to draw comparisons between the Nixon presidency and that of Donald J. Trump. Yet the two men could not be more different.
To start with the basics, one has to venture back to Nixon’s hometown of Whittier, California. Unlike Trump, who was born into money and coasted on his father’s coattails his entire life, Nixon was born to humble means—the son of a grocer. Nixon ascended because of his intellect—he consistently excelled in school and was offered a place at elite east coast universities, places he had to turn down to stay close to home. He served his country during WWII in the Navy (Trump infamously received five deferments for “ankle spurs.”) Despite the commonly accepted image of Nixon as painfully introverted, he was well-liked among his men and proved himself as an officer. Accepted to Duke University Law School after the war, Nixon lived in what amounted to a shack in the woods in order to afford his tuition.
Although dangerous to play the “what-if” game in the realms of history, one has to wonder what would have happened if Nixon had bested Kennedy in 1960. An able Vice President, he proved himself loyal to Dwight D. Eisenhower and a capable representative during his trips abroad. Nixon, doomed by a promise he’d made to visit all 50 states and a recurring knee injury, appeared sickly and unfocused during the first debate with Kennedy. Forgotten by history, he vastly improved in the next three. The election was one of the closest ever, and one in which Nixon and his confidents were sure had been rigged in Illinois and in Texas. We’ll never know how Trump would have reacted had he lost to Clinton, but Nixon chose not to agitate the issue of election tampering, instead stepping aside and allowing Kennedy, his once friend, now enemy, to become president.
During his own tenure as president, Nixon boasts an impressive list of accomplishments—many of which would have pleased today’s liberals. He sought to alleviate the tensions of the Cold War, becoming the first sitting president to visit Moscow. He opened up diplomatic relations with Communist China. Nixon created the EPA and oversaw the implementation of Title IX. It was under Nixon that a man went to the moon. And in 1972, the electorate rewarded him mightily, handing him a 49 state victory (only MA denied him a full sweep).
This is not to deny the wrongs Nixon committed in office, only to complicate them. Nixon was paranoid. He was secretive. He swore and used racial epithets. He escalated and expanded a war he’d promised to end. Still, his resignation from office shocked
the world. Stephen Ambrose notes that many Europeans greeted the news with dismay—they thought Nixon the best president that the United States had had in recent memory.
Nixon will always be a president (the only one thus far) who resigned from office. He’ll always be the man who let Watergate destroy his administration from the inside. But it’s important to recognize that these events were part of a larger picture of the Nixon administration. It’s easy but inaccurate to link Trump to Nixon. Rather, it would do the country good to examine the intricacies of Nixon’s legacy, and to recognize its failures alongside its successes.
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.”