“From Time to Time”: Pelosi, Trump, and the State of the Union

By Kaleena Fraga

(To check out this piece in podcast form, click here)

Amid a contentious government shutdown, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has written President Trump a letter, suggesting that in lieu of delivering a State of the Union speech, as the president intends, he submit his address in writing.

Although Americans today are accustomed to seeing the president deliver the SOTU, Pelosi notes in her letter that “during the 19th century and up until the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, these annual State of the Union messages were delivered to Congress in writing.” Pelosi also notes that a SOTU has never been delivered amidst a government shutdown.

“I suggest,” Pelosi writes, “that we work together to determine another suitable date after the government has re-opened for this address or for you to consider delivering your State of the Union address in writing to Congress on January 29th.”

Although the State of the Union started as an oral address–both George Washington and John Adams delivered speeches to Congress–Thomas Jefferson was the first to balk at the tradition.

Jefferson had several reasons why he believed a written address was superior to a speech. First of all, the third president nursed a fear of public speaking. He also believed that a letter was more efficient than a speech–that it would take less time to read than to listen, and that a written document would give legislators time to think about their response. Historians have also noted that giving a speech had a king-like aura, something that a republican like Jefferson would abhor.

Then again, Jefferson could have simply found trudging to Congress to give a speech inconvenient.

In any case, the tradition that Jefferson set remained for over one hundred years, until Woodrow Wilson decide to return to the ways of Washington and Adams, and give a speech before Congress instead of simply sending a letter.

At the time this was considered far outside the norm. The Washington Post reported that “Washington is amazed” and that “disbelief” was expressed in Congress when members heard the president intended to give a speech. At the time, the paper seemed confident that such displays would not “become habit.”

Since then, a spoken SOTU has indeed become a national habit, even more so than in Wilson’s day thanks to mass communication tools like radio, television, and internet.

That’s not to say that the written version of the SOTU has been abandoned entirely–as lame duck presidents, Truman, Eisenhower, and Carter chose to submit a written message instead of giving a speech before Congress.

Whether or not Trump will heed Pelosi’s advice has yet to be seen, and certainly a president might balk at giving up the bully pulpit power of television. In any case, we’ll leave you with a cartoon of Theodore Roosevelt, who was thoroughly dismayed that Wilson had the idea of a SOTU speech, something that Roosevelt himself would have enthusiastically embraced.

Trump, Polk, and Political Posturing at the Border

By Kaleena Fraga

(To check out this piece in podcast form click here)

The Trump administration has begun to push its case that the situation on the Mexican border is in such crisis that the president needs to declare a national emergency. This action would allow the president to fulfill a campaign promise and build his wall, which is currently the subject of a stalemate shutdown in Congress.

Political posturing at the border, and the exaggeration of crisis, is reminiscent of another president who sought to use the Mexican border for political and territorial gains. As president, James Polk stirred up a fake crisis with Mexico that triggered a war, and resulted in the acquisition of 525,000 square miles of new land.

Polk had many detractors. Abraham Lincoln, then a young Whig Congressman, considered the war a political ploy meant to expand slavery into new territory. In a speech on the House floor, Lincoln detailed how Polk had created a crisis at the border in order to provoke a war. Lincoln was joined in his dissent by John C. Calhoun, a democrat (and a fierce anti-abolitionist), and by Alexander Stephens, who would later act as the vice president of the Confederacy of the United States. Ulysses S. Grant, who served in the conflict as a young man, would later call the Mexican-American war the “most evil war.” In his memoirs, he wrote: “Even if the annexation itself could be justified, the manner in which the subsequent war was forced upon Mexico cannot.”

Still, the office of the presidency is a strong one, and Polk had his war. On May 13, 1846, Congress voted overwhelming to support the president. This came after Polk sent General Zachary Taylor to a provocative position on the Rio Grande, which prompted Mexico to attack. Polk, declaring that “American blood” had been shed on “American soil” had his justification for an expanded conflict.

Polk expected a short war and a quick victory, but the conflict would go on for two years. Ironically, the war would boost the political fortunes of Taylor, of the opposite Whig party. He would succeed Polk in the next election.

Writing about the war at the end of his life, Grant drew a line between the conflict with Mexico and the subsequent war between states.

“To us it was an empire and of incalculable value; but it might have been obtained by other means. The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war. Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.”

If President Trump declares a national emergency in order to build his wall, that may open a whole new can of worms. But one thing is for sure–he’s not the first president to use politics at the border as a means to an end.


Reagan & the Radio; Trump & Twitter: Provocative Statements & the Path to Peace

By Kaleena Fraga

When Donald Trump tweeted about North Korea’s Kim Jong-un last year, mocking him as “Little Rocket Man” and a “madman”, some worried that Trump’s cavalier attitude could lead to a nuclear war. The president often speaks off the cuff, without prepared remarks vetted by advisors. During a meeting on the opioid crisis, Trump improvised the now infamous line “fire and fury” to describe the American response to any North Korean provocation.

Trump isn’t the only president to spark fears of war through idle talk (or tweets). Ronald Reagan did the same in 1984. Now, Trump finds himself similarly faced with the possibility of peace after much stone-throwing on both sides.

In the age before Twitter, Reagan gave weekly radio addresses every Saturday starting in 1982. He would give 331 such addresses during his time in the White House. (In his first year as president, Trump tweeted 2,461 times). During a sound check for one of Reagan’s radio addresses, the president joked:

“My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”

News of the remark quickly leaked, to the outrage of American allies and adversaries abroad. The central Soviet news agency, TASS (Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union) released a statement condemning “this unprecedented and hostile attack by the U.S. president…this kind of behavior is incompatible with the great responsibility borne by heads of nuclear states for the destinies of their own people and mankind.”

Likewise, when Trump tweeted:

North Korea responded by calling the president a frightened “lunatic.” Many in the American political class condemned the president’s tweet as overtly provocative and undiplomatic.

Reagan would go on to develop a close relationship with the Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, and the two of them would work together to reduce the number of nuclear weapons–boosting Reagan, but dooming Gorbachev. Trump likewise is flirting with peace in North Korea. His recently appointed Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, met with Kim Jong-un over Easter, and high-level talks seem imminent.

Trading barbs is the easy part–now the Trump administration, like Reagan’s, must see if they can find diplomatic footing with the North Koreans in search of stability on the Korean peninsula.

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.