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Presidential History

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Published: Sat, 29 Apr 2017 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Sat, 29 Apr 2017 15:48:14 -0400


What Washington's Farewell Address Tells Us About Trump's America (Reason Podcast)

Sun, 16 Apr 2017 10:00:00 -0400

When George Washington left the White House in 1796 and retired from public life, John Avlon explains, he wrote "this future generations in which he is consciously trying to marry the past, the present of 1796, the future, and the forces that had destroyed democratic republics in the past. The big three forces are hyper-partisanship, excessive debt and foreign wars." Avlon is the editor in chief of The Daily Beast and the author of Washington's Farewell: The Founding Father's Warning to Future Generations, a bold reinterpretation of the most widely read political speech in 19th-century America. For generations, Washington's 6,000-word long final speech was "civic scripture" that presidents and citizens alike used to steer clear of the excesses that might undermine the country. In a wide-ranging conversation with Reason's Nick Gillespie (a Beast columnist), Avlon argues that the country's only independent president created an "eerily prescient" roadmap that might allow 21st-century America to re-center itself when it comes to overseas wars and foreign alliances that serve other nations' interests above our own, ruinous debt created by entitlement spending, and moderate the excesses of vitriol that has led to a "deadlocked democracy." He also discusses his time as chief speechwriter for Mayor Rudy Giuliani and why The Daily Beast continues to gain traffic even as many legacy media outlets see shrinking audiences. Produced by Ian Keyser. Subscribe, rate, and review the Reason Podcast at iTunes. Listen at SoundCloud below: src="" width="100%" height="450" frameborder="0"> Don't miss a single Reason podcast! (Archive here.) Subscribe at iTunes. Follow us at SoundCloud. Subscribe at YouTube. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. This is a rush transcript—check all quotes against audio for accuracy. Nick Gillespie: John, thanks for talking to us. John Avlon: Hey, Nick. Sure. Nick Gillespie: I want to get right to it. You talked in the book about Washington's Farewell Address which is more kind of known in the abstract in the present. I want to hear you talk about why it's important that we read the whole 6,000 word bit today, but you talk about how Washington used his farewell address to proclaim first principles that could offer enduring solutions. The pursuit of peace through strength, the wisdom of moderation, the importance of virtue and education to a self-governing people, as he established the precedent of the peaceful transfer of power. I guess my first question is, how did Washington know what was going to happen in 2016? John Avlon: I'm not sure his crystal ball was that good, but John Adams famously said that there hasn't yet been a democracy that didn't die by suicide. Every attempt at a democratic republic had ended into failure and what I don't think we adequately appreciate today is that the Founding Fathers were very consciously drawing on history, an understanding of how democratic republics had failed in the past in an attempt to solve for some of those problems. They did not have perfect crystal balls. They couldn't have imagined necessarily America in 2017 of course, but they were trying to tap into deeper truths, eternal principles. That's why what's so fascinating about the farewell, it's this memo from the first Founding Father to future generations in which he is consciously trying to marry the past, the present of 1796, and the future, and the forces that had destroyed democratic republics in the past are eerily prescient. The big three forces are hyperpartisanship, excessive debt and foreign wars. We in America are a relatively young country still, but we do not exist on a plain larger than history and the larger forces of civilization. As we think about our country as a civilization as something to protect, defend, expand, to understand that these are forces that when we play with[...]

The Paranoid Presidency

Tue, 28 Feb 2017 09:50:00 -0500

(image) Donald Trump is famously prone to conspiracy theories, but that in itself isn't unusual in the executive branch. "Indeed, there's a long history of presidents and their inner circles obsessing about malevolent cabals. What's different about Trump isn't the fact that he talks about dubious conspiracies. It's the way he talks about them."

Who am I quoting there? Why, I'm quoting myself! Yep, this is one of those Hit & Run posts where we promote a piece we published elsewhere. In this case, The New Republic asked me to write something about presidential paranoia, and I obliged with a story that hops from John Quincy Adams' obsession with Masonic plots to Richard Nixon stewing about the Jews to Donald Trump's dark speculations about the death of Antonin Scalia. What makes Trump stand out, I argue, isn't the content of his theories so much as the fact that he spouts them without regard for elite mores:

Conspiracy theories tend to be disreputable. Indeed, in most circles of respectable opinion, the very phrase conspiracy theory is used as a pejorative. So when high-level officials embrace a position considered to be taboo, they often prefer not to talk about it. John Kerry has long rejected the official story about JFK's assassination, but when Meet the Press brought up the subject in 2013, the secretary of state clammed up. "I just have a point of view," Kerry demurred. "And I'm not going to get into that."

Our new president, to the delight of his supporters, presents himself as a man unshackled by such mores of polite society. Richard Nixon may have been prone to seeing plots everywhere, but it's hard to imagine him publicly promoting a transparently phony theory tying Rafael Cruz to Lee Harvey Oswald; it's harder still to picture him backing up his claims by citing the National Enquirer. For Trump, neither the story nor the source is something to be ashamed of.

There's a strong chance, of course, that Trump doesn't actually believe the Enquirer story, and that he only brought it up because Ted Cruz happened to be his chief political foe that day. That's where his cynicism comes in. Trump doesn't just spout unsubstantiated accusations; he often drops them as quickly as he brings them up, as though it never really mattered if they were true.

The full article is here. My book on conspiracy theories is here. And the last article I wrote for The New Republic is here. It's from March of 1998, so my appearances there, like the ancient Greek calendar, appear to be based on a 19-year cycle.

How Trump Affects the Presidential Rankings

Thu, 23 Feb 2017 00:01:00 -0500

Any president can change the future. Donald Trump stands out for his ability to change the past, without even trying. He's already altered perceptions of what happened in America decades and centuries ago. We know that because of a new survey of presidential historians conducted by C-SPAN, asking them to rank presidents on various attributes and overall performance. The latest scorecard, which included responses from 91 historians, is similar in most respects to those compiled in C-SPAN's first two, in 2000 and 2009. But it holds some surprises that suggest that things look different with Trump in the picture. Some things are fixed. The greatest president is Abraham Lincoln, who has finished first in each poll. Coming in second, for the second straight time, is George Washington. Franklin Roosevelt is third, just ahead of cousin Theodore. The worst, three times running, is James Buchanan, who preceded Lincoln and whose indulgence of pro-slavery forces is blamed for helping to bring on the Civil War. Second-to-last each time has been Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln and was the first president to be impeached (though he was not convicted). This is the first poll to include Barack Obama, who came out ahead of his most recent predecessors. Obama is ranked No. 12, three spots below Ronald Reagan but ahead of George W. Bush (33), Bill Clinton (15) and George H.W. Bush (20). Obama is one of the lowest-rated presidents in terms of relations with Congress—worse, somehow, than William Henry Harrison, who died a month after taking office—and got mediocre marks on foreign relations, but he scored high on pursuing equal justice for all. The biggest improvement was registered by Dwight Eisenhower, ranked ninth in 2000 and eighth in 2009. He landed at fifth, jumping over John Kennedy, Thomas Jefferson and Harry Truman, who were ahead of him the last time around. The biggest decline was that of Andrew Jackson, who slid from 13th in 2000 and 2009 to 18th. Richard Norton Smith, a presidential biographer and member of C-SPAN's advisory team, suggests that the changing fortunes of Eisenhower and Jackson are both partly the product of a "Trump effect." Eisenhower, Smith told me, benefits from being "the anti-Trump—massively competent, self-effacing, moderate." He had been supreme Allied commander in Europe during World War II, and despite his Army background—or because of it—he warned, "A nation's hope of lasting peace cannot be firmly based upon any race in armaments but rather upon just relations and honest understanding with all other nations." Eight years of comparative peace and prosperity made his administration a stark contrast to those of Obama and George W. Bush, which featured endless war and a deep recession. The disappearance of centrism in the Republican Party doubtless elicits a nostalgia for Ike, who triumphed over Joseph McCarthy and others on the far right. Jackson, Smith suspects, has declined in public estimation as his slave ownership and brutal policies toward Native Americans have acquired new significance. It probably doesn't help that Trump's approach to foreign relations has been described as "Jacksonian" for its pugnacity, unilateralism and contempt for human rights considerations. Unlike Alexander Hamilton, Jackson inspired a Broadway musical (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) that never found an audience. Nothing about Trump, however, affects the standing of the highest-ranked presidents. Why not? Because he only highlights their well-known virtues. Lincoln is revered for his humanity, his unflagging resolve and his capacity for profound thought and eloquent word. Washington was a master of dignity and statesmanship. Franklin Roosevelt had a capacity to inspire and unite Americans during the worst of times. They have as much in common with Trump as they do with Daffy Duck. Trump might find a role model in Theodore Roosevelt, a fellow wealthy New Yorker with a taste for bold actions and expansive use of presidential power. It might be said of Trump,[...]

Songs of the Presidents

Mon, 20 Feb 2017 09:40:00 -0500

Usually we mark Presidents' Day here with some sort of quiz or game, but this year I thought I'd play DJ instead. Below you'll find some songs about our nation's chief execs, from Washington to Trump. Needless to say, this just scratches the surface of all the presidentially themed music out there; you are encouraged to recommend more tracks in the comments. George Washington Cox and Combes, "Washington" Not safe for work. Possibly not historically accurate in every respect either. src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Abraham Lincoln Camper Van Beethoven, "(I Don't Wanna Go to the) Lincoln Shrine" An ode to a boring field trip. src="" width="100%" height="450" frameborder="0"> Franklin Pierce The Two Man Gentlemen Band, "Franklin Pierce" The saddest song on the list, but only if you listen to the words. The same duo did a ditty about Taft too. src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> James Garfield Johnny Cash, "Mr. Garfield" An assassination ballad. src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> William McKinley Bill Monroe, "White House Blues" Another assassination ballad. Vassar Clements later revamped it for the presidents of the 1970s; to hear that version, go here and jump to the 5:00 mark. src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> John F. Kennedy Steinski & the Mass Media, "The Motorcade Sped On" Yet another assassination. src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Richard Nixon Margo Guryan, "The Hum" From Dallas to Watergate. This was the first of Guryan's trilogy of songs inspired by the Nixon scandals; you can hear her whole trio here. src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Gerald Ford James Brown, "Funky President" The lyrics defy interpretation, but Brown insists that the song's about Ford. src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Jimmy Carter Blue Mountain, "Jimmy Carter" Carter gets the heroic-ballad treatment. Strangely catchy. src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Ronald Reagan MDC, "Bye Bye Ronnie" Reagan has gotten the heroic-ballad treatment too—check this out—but the guy inspired something like 60 percent of the punk records of the '80s; it seems wrong to go with any other genre here. src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Barack Obama Mariachi Aguilas de Mexico, "Viva Obama!" A bid for the Latino vote. This musical ad from the 2008 Texas primary fascinated me so much that I interviewed an anthropologist about it. src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Donald Trump Ice-T featuring Rhyme Syndicate, "My Word Is Bond" I'm wrapping up with this one because of the lyric at the 3:39 mark: "Yo Ice, I did a concert in the White House/And after that me and Donald Trump hung out." This record is from 1989, people. The signs were all there; we just weren't prepared to understand them. src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0">[...]

Is It Cool To Call the President a Bastard Again?

Tue, 24 Jan 2017 06:10:00 -0500

President Trump is a piece of crap. Former President Obama was a bastard. And Hillary Clinton, who everybody thought was going to be president, is utterly worthless too. Oh, that is so refreshing! For years, we were told that criticizing the occupant of the White House was "rank disrespect," as Jonathan Capehart wrote in the Washington Post. Opposition to the sitting president was very likely motivated by racism, Charles M. Blow mused in The New York Times. "Openly defying and brazenly disrespecting your president, while hoping that he fails, is not called patriotism… It is called treason," insisted one particularly moronic meme by Occupy Democrats. But a few years of experience can have a wonderfully transformative effect on political culture. One election later, and Americans who once insisted that saying mean things about an elected official was unseemly and unforgivable have rediscovered the liberating potential of dissent. Maybe. Even before Donald Trump took office as the 45th president of the United States, California Governor Jerry Brown (D) vowed to pursue his own foreign policy on environmental issues, bypassing the White House. His fellow state officials want to extend that independent spirit to all sorts of policies. "We must be defiant whenever justice, fairness, and righteousness require," State Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) told his fellow legislators. Likewise digging in its heels, Boulder, Colorado, declared itself a sanctuary city for illegal immigrants in defiance of federal law and the new president's border-warrior stance. Political leaders in roughly two dozen other cities, including Chicago, New York, and Seattle, have taken the same position in opposition to the new administration. And, where once Hollywood celebrities issued a thoroughly creepy "pledge to serve Barack Obama" when he took office as president, eight additional years of seeing the duties of that office exercised led us to singer Madonna saying she's thought a lot about "blowing up the White House." Madonna made her comments at a massive Women's March the day after Trump's inauguration during which hundreds of thousands of regular Americans promised to resist the new chief executive before he's even had a chance to start rivaling the damage inflicted by his predecessor. It's all such a welcome change. "The vision of the president as national guardian and spiritual redeemer is so ubiquitous it goes virtually unnoticed. Americans, left, right, and other, think of the 'commander in chief' as a superhero, responsible for swooping to the rescue when danger strikes," Gene Healy wrote in the pages of Reason in 2008. Healy, a vice president at the Cato Institute and the author of the Cult of the Presidency, published during the excesses of the George W. Bush years, warned that Americans place unrealistic expectations on the office of the presidency, and invest messianic faith in their preferred candidates, making it inevitable that White House residents will seize ever-greater power in response. "Relimiting the presidency depends on freeing ourselves from a mind-set one century in the making," he added. Embracing the value of dissent and the right to tell presidents and the government they administer to go to Hell is a necessary part of breaking that mind-set. It clearly states that the dissenters expect not great things of the latest winner of the national popularity contest, but terrible things instead. Dissenters clearly don't want the targets of their defiance to exercise power, let alone to accumulate more. To criticize government officials—and to embrace the right of others to do the same—is to step back from the cult. Well, it is if you do it right. That many of the new resisters who have rediscovered the joy in calling the president a bastard don't quite get it is obvious from their all-too-ubiquitous "still with her" signs and chants. An unfortunate proportion of the people eager to take the winner of th[...]

Could Trump Lose the Way Gore Lost?

Mon, 07 Nov 2016 00:01:00 -0500

New Hampshire is a tiny state with about 1.3 million people. California has eight counties with larger populations than that. But in presidential campaigns, size doesn't matter. Donald Trump and Barack Obama will be in New Hampshire on Monday. The 39 million residents of California can only watch from afar. In most political races, candidates spend the most time where they can reap the most votes. In presidential campaigns, however, they often seem to shun any place where large numbers of ballots are cast. California, Texas and New York are the most populous states. But from the number of candidates they've seen lately, they might as well be Siberia. The reason for this weird pattern is a weird institution—the Electoral College, which is what we actually use to choose presidents. Each state has as many votes as it has members of Congress, and 48 states are winner-take-all. Whoever can amass 270 electoral votes becomes president. This unusual formula has the effect of steering candidates away from large states that have a strong bent toward one party or the other. Lose by one vote or a million votes in most places and you get the same electoral harvest: nothing. No one campaigns in California, despite its 55 electoral votes, because it's a haven for Democrats. No one wastes time in Texas, with 38 electoral votes, because it's almost impossible for Republicans to lose. New Hampshire could go either way. So it's worth fighting over despite the meager reward at stake: four electoral votes. A few big states, such as Florida and Ohio, find themselves swarmed with candidates and carpet-bombed with TV ads every four years because neither party can take them for granted. But in other vote-rich places, it's almost possible to forget there's an election. Worst off of all are low-population states that are reliably red or blue. Democrats turned angrily against the Electoral College in 2000, when they discovered it's possible to win the popular vote and lose the election. They might have seen it coming. Back in the 1980s, Republicans were said to have a lock on the Electoral College because they had a clear advantage in 39 states that accounted for 441 electoral votes. Democrats wondered whether they would ever overcome that handicap. They have. These days, it's Republicans who face a nearly impregnable electoral fortress. The 17 states that have voted for the Democratic nominee in each of the past four presidential elections command 242 electoral votes. The 22 that have gone Republican every time have only 180. That's why you keep hearing about Trump's "narrow path to victory." He has to capture several states that Mitt Romney lost in 2012 to win, including Florida, Ohio, Iowa, Nevada and, yes, New Hampshire. Hillary Clinton just has to hold on to one of them to be practically assured of victory. The Electoral College tilt means she could plausibly lose the popular vote and still take the oath of office Jan. 20. Trump couldn't. NPR calculated that in 2012, it was possible to win the presidency with 23 percent of the popular vote. It's a strange mechanism that we accept only because it so rarely affects the outcome. The winner of the popular vote almost always wins the electoral vote. But as President Al Gore can attest, there are glaring exceptions to the rule. The only reason for the lengthy postelection court battle in 2000 over how to count the votes in Florida was the Electoral College. Without it, the hanging chads in Palm Beach County would have been a trivial curiosity—because Gore got nearly 544,000 more votes nationwide than George W. Bush. Traditionalists regard the Electoral College as a sacred creation of the Founding Fathers, whose genius must be respected. But the Framers really had only the dimmest idea what they were doing. Historian Carl Becker wrote in 1945 that "their grasp of political realities, ordinarily so sure, failed them in this instance. Of all the provisions of the [...]

Meet Mike Pence, Possible Donald Trump Vice President

Tue, 12 Jul 2016 21:03:00 -0400

Republican Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, says the Washington Times, has a "95 percent probability" of being named Donald Trump's vice presidential candidate. So what kind of pol is the 57-year-old Pence, who has a law degree in his back pocket? He served five terms as a congressman from the Hoosier State, where he distinguished himself as a budget-cutter and a hard-core social conservative before succeeding Mitch Daniels as governor of Indiana in a tight election (he won with less than 50 percent of the vote in 2012). He's locked in a tough re-election battle and has to file papers by the end of the week if he wants to be the GOP's vice presidential nominee. He describes himself as "a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order." Some highlights—and lowlights—from his public career so far: He served as president of the free-market Indiana Policy Review Foundation and hosted a state-wide TV show in the early 1990s. The IPRF lists its mission as trying to "Exalt the truths of the Declaration of Independence, especially as they apply to the interrelated freedoms of religion, property and speech; Emphasize the primacy of the individual in addressing public concerns; and Recognize that equality of opportunity is sacrificed in pursuit of equality of results." He succeeded the awful Dan Burton as an Indiana congressman in 2001 and became the head of the budget-slashing Republican Study Committee and he supported numerous free-trade deals along with the Iraq War. In 2014, Pence was one of just four governors to earn a grade of A in the Cato Institute's Fiscal Policy Report Card, mostly because he proposed spending increases of less than 2 percent and revenue decreases (tax cuts) of just under 2 percent. In 2015, he expanded Medicaid under Obamacare, though unlike most governors, he held out for something other than a straight-up expansion, claiming he introduced a "market-based" plan that Peter Suderman said was "actually a deal between hospital lobbyists and the [Obama] Administration." He also tried to create a state-operated news organization called Just IN that would have produced "free" news and feature stories for news outlets. From Ballotpedia: "Matthew Tully of the [Indianapolis] Star...criticized the initiative by saying, 'The state's conservative governor is creating his own news agency, one that will seek to compete with the traditional media and be funded by taxpayers. You can't make this stuff up, unless you work at the Onion, I guess.'" Also in 2015, he helped cause a shitstorm over Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) by simultaneously insisting that the law didn't sanction discrimination but did preserve the rights of businesses to deny service to LGBT customers under various situations. Come on, gov, it's one or the other, noted Jacob Sullum. The law was subsequently revised in a way that struck "the worst possible balance" between individual rights and state action, according to Shikha Dalmia. More recently, in his 2016 State of the State address, he said, "I will not support any bill that diminishes the religious freedom of Hoosiers or that interferes with the Constitutional rights of our citizens to live out their beliefs in worship, service or work." That was widely understood to mean that he would not sanction the addition of sexual orientation or identity to antidiscrimination laws, a position in keeping with all his public statements on marriage and sexuality. A key line in that same speech was "Jobs, the economy, schools, roads and confronting drug abuse. These are my priorities." He laid out various spending proposals on such issues and bragged, "Our state has been leaning into the war on drugs and will continue to go hard after those who would profit from selling drugs to our kids." In March, he signed legislation increasing mandatory minimums for drug dealers. So where does all of this leave libertarians? Pen[...]

The Preacher and the President: Weekend TV Draws from History, Comic Books

Fri, 20 May 2016 15:00:00 -0400

All the Way. HBO. Saturday, May 21, 8 p.m. Preacher. AMC. Sunday, May 22, 10 p.m. For weeks I have been brooding about the imminent departure of my guiltiest television pleasure, Cinemax's purely bat-guano insane Banshee, a Parents Television Council anchovy-pizza nightmare of mangled organs and Amish nymphomania. (Not a typo.) It's a psycho crime drama that takes place in a tiny but diverse rural Pennsylvania town that is simultaneously home to the Russian Mob, the American Indian Mob, the Amish Mob, a Colombian cocaine cartel, an armed neo-Nazi bund, and a serial-killing Satanist coven. The town's female population is awesomely busty, relentlessly promiscuous and—if FBI agents—surprisingly receptive to the meditative potential of smoking crack. The interactions of these various demographics are lurid, sanguinary, and a serious challenge to theories of spontaneous order. Alas, Banshee's geometrically progressing body count is bringing it to an end this weekend. The good news is I may have found a replacement. AMC's Preacher, a preposterous goulash of drunken vampires, exploding clergymen, and small town psychosexual kink, seems to share the same cheerily bedlamite DNA that made Banshee such a hallucinatory good time. I knew I was in for something special when a laconic church-goer, discussing the suicide of another parishioner, observed: "Cuttin' your own heart out, that's one thing. But doin' it in front of your own mom, that's strange." Preacher is adapted from a book of the same name in the odd DC Comics line of action-theology titles that also produced FX's Lucifer, an aberrantly entertaining cop show in which Satan takes a break from Hell to join the LAPD. Less high-concept and a bit more complicated to sort out, Preacher is set in a sun-blasted little town called Annville, lost in a forgotten corner of the West Texas desert where the favorite whiskey is called Ratwater and the idea of civic participation is lynching Pedro the Prairie Dog, the PC replacement for the high school's Chief Red Savage mascot. Practically everything in Annville is dead or dying, including the tattered All Saints Congregational, recently taken over by a new minister, Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper, My Week With Marilyn) with an ecclesiastically dubious past (the townfolk speak, vaguely but ominously, of how he once "did things") and a primitive set of pastoral skills. Approached by one troubled member of his dwindling flock who wants to talk, Jesse demands: "Don't tell me you're here to bitch about the air conditioning." To be fair, the parishioners have not exactly wandered over from Going My Way, either; a son in need of help with an abusive father says he's not interested in counseling: "I want you to hurt him." Custer's languid ministry is about to be disrupted by three forces converging on Annville: A slaughterous ex-girlfriend named Tulip (Ruth Negga, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), whose version of a Hallmark homily is that a woman must cultivate fortitude "so that on the day your love is selfish enough or weak enough or frickin' stupid enough to run away, you have the strength to track him down and eat him alive"; a substance-abusing Irish vampire known as Cassidy (BBC regular Joseph Gilgun), often amiable but given to outbursts inspired by his motto "wrath is love"; and a gang of burly men of uncertain intention but displaying an inauspicious affection for chainsaws. Television these days is littered with comic-book adaptations, from the superheroes dominating The CW's primetime schedule to AMC's own impressive stable of post-apocalyptic zombies. But no show has aped the comics style as authentically as Preacher, with its garish violence and cunning ability to cram visual jokes into practically every frame. (Always keep an eye out w[...]

Learning from 1896: Why an Anti-Trump Third Party Will Flop

Mon, 28 Mar 2016 09:00:00 -0400

If the anti-Trump third party plotters want a clue on how they might fare, they can learn from events in another realigning presidential election. Many elements of the story are familiar. Populist insurgents, often backed by low income new voters, seized control of one of the two major parties. Though caught completely off guard, the toppled elite and activists of the original party eventually fought back. They united in a third party intended to be the "true" embodiment of the old. They nominated two prominent politicians and generated substantial media coverage and praise, including from the last standard bearer of the old party. Despite this, the new party was a bust in November, garnering less than one percent of the vote.  These events, though dating to more than a century ago, should give pause to advocates of an anti-Trump third party. In 1896, the old leadership of the Democratic Party had watched in horror as a group of outsiders, led by the young and charismatic William Jennings Bryan, captured the national convention and jettisoned the party's traditional support of the gold standard. Bryan charged that past Democratic policies had destroyed American jobs, compromised U.S. sovereignty, and enslaved the U.S. to British economic interests. Rhetoric on all sides was toxic and no reconciliation appeared possible. Democratic Senator Benjamin Tillman, one of the best known of these "Popocrats," even promised to skewer the pro-gold Democratic sitting president, Grover Cleveland, with a pitchfork. Bryan went on the hustings speaking to large and boisterous crowds about how a "cross of gold" was crucifying mankind. Once over the initial shock, anti-Bryan's Democrats expressed determination to never support either him or the Republican alternative, William McKinley, who, though a recent convert to a strict gold standard, championed the protectionism they had long abhorred. They formed the National Democratic Party (NDP), drafted a pro-gold standard platform, and nominated two former governors. The rebels were a diverse coalition of party regulars, such as Senators William Vilas of Wisconsin and Donelson Caffery of Louisiana, former Mayor John P. Hopkins of Chicago, former U.S. Representatives William D. Bynum of Illinois and William C.P. Breckinridge of Kentucky, as well such pro-gold/pro-free trade ideological pundits as Edward Atkinson and Oswald Garrison Villard. Many of the contradictions that characterized the NDP are already appearing in the nascent anti-Trump third party. Among these is an emerging tension between advocates of building a permanent party to replace the GOP, such as Randy Barnett, a professor at Georgetown Law School, and those who, in the words of Bill Kristol, want a "one time, emergency adjustment" allowing voters "to correct the temporary mistake of nominating Trump." Using rhetoric much like current anti-Trump third party advocates, former governor John M. Palmer, the NDP's presidential candidate, hoped to create a "nucleus around which the true Democrat....can rally once more, and to preserve a place for our erring brothers, if the time comes when they repent." Revealingly, Kristol suggests the "Latter Day Republicans" as the party's name. The rebels of 1896 had much the same idea in selecting "the National Democratic Party" as their brand. A major flaw in both the Kristol, and to some extent, the Barnett strategy is already apparent. The stated goal of splitting a major party just to defeat its official candidate clashes with the natural desire of voters in that party to not throw away their votes or help the candidate in the party that remains united. In October 1896, for example, one NDP activist, expressing a widely shared frustration, reported that many Democrats were "almost persuaded" to vote for Palmer "but hesitate at the fear that the National Democracy is but a [...]

You Think the 2016 Election Is Nasty? CNN Documentary Series Will Show You Nasty.

Fri, 04 Mar 2016 15:00:00 -0500

Race for the White House. CNN. Sunday, March 6, 10 p.m. Sick of the petty, scurrilous venality of the 2016 presidential race and its all-but-certain-to-be-catastrophic outcome? Take a trip back to 1960 with CNN's new documentary series Race for the White House for a respite that will dash away any nostalgic nonsense in your head about how politics, once upon a time, were noble, civic exercises. Scabrous name-calling! Empty-headed sloganeering! Religious bigotry! Vile dirty tricks! Zombie voters! If there's a crooked or sleazy element of American politics that the race between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon didn't have, I can't imagine what it would be. Race for the White House will explore a different election each week, going back as far as the Lincoln-Douglas race of 1860. (Plus side: No Facebook memes or reality-TV stars. Minus: It ended in a war that killed three-quarters of a million people.) But CNN couldn't have chosen more wisely for an opening episode than the Nixon-Kennedy election, which for millions of Americans too young to remember it has been mostly defined by what happened later: the martyrdom in Dallas and the odiferous cloud of Watergate. As White House shows, though, the story is more complex than that, especially with respect to Kennedy. Though young and glamorous—especially with his gorgeous wife Jackie on his arm ("they were the Beatles before the Beatles," as one political scientist notes) —Kennedy was also callow, more a carefully constructed image than an actual U.S. senator. His massive TV advertising campaign was built around catchy but meaningless jingles rather than issues. He was also unencumbered by excessive devotion to ethics. Kennedy's main opponent for the Democratic nomination was Minnesota's Sen. Hubert Humphrey, as yet untainted by association with the Vietnam war and widely considered the brightest light in American liberalism, a veteran of many bruising fights with the party's powerful Southern segregationist wing. Kennedy aides kneecapped Humphrey in the crucial Wisconsin primary by mailing out anonymous leaflets denouncing the Catholicism of their own man, then letting Humphrey take the blame. The huge backlash from Catholic voters obliterated the Minnesotan and he never recovered. Kennedy rolled over the last obstacle—questions about his health from a last-minute candidate, Lyndon Johnson—by lying through his dazzling teeth, denying that he had what he referred to as "so-called Addison's disease," as if it were a hypochondriac delusion. In fact, Kennedy had several times been pulled back from death's door at the hands of Addison's, an endocrine disorder that causes fever, weight loss, anxiety and violent mood swings, and survived it only with a massive daily cocktail of drugs that included steroids. "Had the American public known just how sick Kennedy was, he probably could not have been a presidential candidate," says his biographer Evan Thomas. But in Nixon, Kennedy faced a candidate with serious problems of his own, principally his weird introversion. Told he needed to spend more time grooming reporters, who loved Kennedy, Nixon went down to a hotel swimming pool where a press cocktail party was underway, waved, swam a few laps, and returned to his room without speaking a word to anybody. White House also debunks some myths about Nixon, particularly concerning his supposedly stiletto-sharp political instincts, which had served him well in the past (he survived a campaign-funding scandal that threatened his 1952 vice-presidential candidacy only by delivering a maudlin speech about his daughters' dog Checkers) but mysteriously went missing in 1960. His most notable lapse came at his first televised debate with Kennedy, which was a disaster. Nixon, unaccountably convinced that Kennedy was a poor T[...]

Attention, America! This Is Your 2016 Presidents' Day Thread!

Mon, 15 Feb 2016 12:10:00 -0500

(image) Welcome, one and all, to this year's Hit & Run Presidents' Day game/quiz/argument-starter:

1. Who do you think is the worst president since World War II? (House rule: You're not allowed to say Obama. I want you to exercise your history muscles. Anyway, his term isn't over yet, and for all you know he'll cure cancer next month.)

2. Who do you think is the best—or, if you prefer, the least awful—president since World War II? (House rule: You're not allowed to say Obama. I want you to exercise your history muscles. Anyway, his term isn't over yet, and for all you know he'll nuke Nebraska next month.)

3. Now try to say something nice about the person you picked for answer number one.

4. Now list some of the biggest problems with the person you picked for answer number two.

5. How about first ladies? Who's your favorite first lady?

6. Who's more annoying: People who tediously tell you it isn't really called "Presidents' Day," or people who tediously tell you the Nobel Prize in economics isn't really a Nobel Prize?

My answers, just to stoke the debates in the comment thread:

1. Bush II.
2. Eisenhower.
3. I kind of like his paintings.
4. Iran, Guatemala, Operation Wetback.
5. Betty Ford.
6. This one stumps me, so I'll wrap up with a seasonal video instead:

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Why Would Cruz Insult New Yorkers? Thank the Electoral College.

Mon, 25 Jan 2016 00:01:00 -0500

When it comes to votes, the state of New York is a gold mine. In the 2012 presidential election, more than 11 million New Yorkers were registered. By itself, New York accounted for half of Barack Obama's margin of victory in the popular vote over Mitt Romney.  You might think Republicans who want to win the White House this year would be trying to improve that performance by appealing to residents of the Empire State. But Ted Cruz is doing the opposite: He sneered that Donald Trump would be bad for America because he "embodies New York values." If Cruz gets the nomination, the state's residents, from Easthampton to Buffalo, won't forget the insult.  But you know what? Cruz doesn't care. He has no reason to care. That's because of a curious artifact known as the Electoral College. The fact that a major candidate is happy to write off so many Americans is just one more piece of evidence that this system is a bad way to elect a president—and that both parties ought to make it a priority to abolish it.  Under the Electoral College, we don't have a national election for president. We have 50 state elections, and nearly every one of them is winner-take-all. New York hasn't voted for a Republican for president since 1984—and even if Queens native Donald Trump heads the ticket, it won't do so this year.  That means all 29 electoral votes will go to the Democrats. It makes no difference if the GOP nominee gets nearly 2.5 million votes in New York, as Romney did, or zero: The Electoral College effect is the same. Democrats have been ready to scrap this undemocratic system at least since 2000, when Al Gore outpolled George W. Bush but lost the election. The surprise is that Republicans have yet to come around. They don't seem to have noticed that the Electoral College now provides an advantage to the other party.  In 2004, Bush got 3 million more votes than John Kerry—but if 60,000 votes had shifted Kerry's way in Ohio, he would have been president. In 2012, Republican strategist Matthew Dowd calculated that Romney could get a million more votes than Obama and lose. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have voted Democratic in each of the past six presidential elections. They command 242 electoral votes—just 28 short of the 270 needed to win. Republicans have states that are just as loyal, but they number only 13, with just 102 electoral votes. To win, the GOP has to carry almost all of the battleground states.  Partisan effects aside, there are plenty of reasons to retire this jerry-rigged antique. One is that this year's nominees will ignore vast hordes of voters in California, Texas, Illinois and other populous states where the outcome is not in doubt.  Almost all of their campaign efforts will be made in a handful of decent-sized states, like Ohio, Florida, Virginia and Colorado, that could go either way. If you're in Boston, Nashville or Phoenix, you have as much chance of seeing a presidential candidate in person as you have of shooting pool with the Dalai Lama.  Defenders of the Electoral College portray it as ingeniously designed to balance the multiplicity of interests in a large federal republic. In fact, it does nothing to strengthen federalism, since it confers no power on state governments. It doesn't protect small states, which get ignored.  The framers, surprising as it may be, were fallible humans groping in the dark, a long time ago. Stanford historian Jack Rakove, author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the Constitutional Convention, has said they "really had no good idea how the system would work."  We do: Not that well. We tolerate this mechanism only because it almost always yields the same result as the popular vote. If it often did the opposit[...]

The State of the Union Is Divided—as Usual

Mon, 18 Jan 2016 00:01:00 -0500

In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama lamented the deep divisions of our time and expressed regret that he hasn't done more to overcome them. His words had a nostalgic air, cloaked in memories of times when Americans were more united and less angry.  "Democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens," he said. "It doesn't work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice. It doesn't work if we think that our political opponents are unpatriotic or trying to weaken America. Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise or when even basic facts are contested or when we listen only to those who agree with us."  If that were true, American democracy would have expired a long time ago. Accusing your political opponents of being malicious and unpatriotic is as American as the Super Bowl.  Obama suggests that fierce hostilities are a new and ominous development. In fact, as Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley assured me, "American politics has been a mud-fest since the get-go."  He's not exaggerating. In the 1800 presidential election, a Federalist newspaper warned that under Thomas Jefferson, "murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught and practiced."  When was this innocent age that we trusted and listened to each other with respect? Not the 1990s, when Bill Clinton was impeached, Hillary Clinton detected a "vast right-wing conspiracy" and Newt Gingrich urged GOP candidates to label their opponents with such terms as "corrupt," "sick" and "traitors."  Not the 1980s, when Democrats reviled Ronald Reagan as a racist who hated the poor. Republicans charged that Democrats "always blame America first," and Pat Buchanan pronounced AIDS to be nature's revenge on gay men.  Not the 1970s, which brought fierce battles over Vietnam, Watergate, Black Power and the Equal Rights Amendment. Not the 1960s, when assassinations, riots and bombings became a scary part of the political landscape. Not the 1950s, when President Harry Truman tried to seize steel mills, Joe McCarthy accused his opponents of being communists and President Dwight Eisenhower had to send troops to integrate a Little Rock high school.  Not the 1940s, when our politics were so fractured that in the 1948 presidential election, the leftist Progressive Party and the white supremacist States' Rights Democratic Party each got more than 2 percent of the popular vote. Not the 1930s, when the Great Depression raised the specter that communism or fascism would take hold in America.  There have been times when political passions cooled and parties cooperated toward broad goals, such as winning World War II and landing on the moon. Ideological fissures were less visible back when the two major parties had considerable overlap. Brinkley noted that in the 1960s, liberal Democrats and moderate Republicans joined in passing civil rights legislation.  But the underlying conflicts were there, and they often boiled over. When segregationist George Wallace mounted a third-party presidential campaign in 1968, he got 13 percent of the vote and carried five states. After National Guard troops killed four students at an anti-war protest at Kent State University in 1970, a Gallup Poll found that most people blamed the students.  Americans have always been more pluribus than unum, separated by region, income, race, ethnicity and religion. That's why the nation nearly collapsed under the Articles of Confederation—and actually split apart during the Civil War.  The centrifugal forces have persisted through centuries. A 2014 Reuters poll found that 23.9 percent of Americans would like to see their state secede [...]

The State of the Union Address: Kings on Parade

Tue, 12 Jan 2016 12:25:00 -0500

The White House claims that tonight's State of the Union address will be "untraditional." Like Scott Shackford, I doubt it'll be very different from past SOTUs, but even if it is, I'll be deeply surprised if it's different enough. As I've written before, the president's annual speech is a tradition we'd be better off without:

(image) Thomas Jefferson considered it "kingly" to deliver his State of the Union report as a speech, so he sent the Senate and the House some written comments instead. Woodrow Wilson, never reluctant to play king, brought back the speechifying in 1913, and the modern custom of addressing a joint session of Congress was born.

The state of the actual union has improved in many ways in the century since then, but State of the Union addresses have kept heading downhill. Calvin Coolidge reversed many of Wilson's kingly policies, eventually including the oral address; before then, though, he made the mistake of broadcasting it on the radio, expanding the crown's audience even further. FDR brought back the speech (and the broadcast), the show came to TV in the Truman years...[a]nd then, just when you thought it couldn't get any worse, Ronald Reagan added the element of singling out people to praise in the audience, thus seasoning the bland proceedings with the flavor of a high school assembly. I'm trying hard to think of a way the State of the Union tradition has improved since FDR, and all I can come up with is the invention of cable TV: Now at least there's something else to watch.

I'll be MSTing the speech on Twitter with the rest of the Reason crew; if you want to check out the spectacle tonight, you're invited to tune in to us too. But if you prefer to skip the whole thing and just skim the SOTU transcript tomorrow for traces of news, I won't blame you. Be the change we're waiting for.

A Nixon Aide's Secret Archive

Mon, 12 Oct 2015 14:50:00 -0400

(image) Alexander P. Butterfield, the Nixon aide who revealed the existence of the president's White House tapes, thought he might write a memoir one day. So when he left his job, The Washington Post reports, he took boxes of documents with him, "everything from routine chronologies and memos to some top-secret exchanges with Kissinger and a few highly classified CIA bulletins."

He never did write that memoir, but he got Bob Woodward to write his story for him; Woodward's Butterfield book, The Last of the President's Men, is being released this week. Butterfield says he plans to deposit the documents in an archive.

I haven't seen the book, but the Post piece is pretty interesting. On the policy side, it shows Richard Nixon writing to Henry Kissinger that although the U.S. had enjoyed "10 years of total control of the air in Laos and V.Nam," the results had been "Zilch." This note came a day after Nixon told CBS that the bombing had "been very, very effective." It's a blunt case of Nixon lying for political gain.

On the personal side, Butterfield apparently paints a portrait of the president as a strange man. Here's an excerpt from the Post story:

Nixon dropped by a birthday party for Paul Keyes, a comedy writer and Nixon friend who had helped on the 1968 campaign. When Nixon entered the room, there was an unnatural hush. No one offered a handshake or a glass of wine. Nixon seemed at a loss. Keyes was wearing a solid green blazer. "Ah, ah, ah...uh," Nixon muttered, according to Woodward's account. "Then Nixon pointed down at the carpet, a worn, faded maroon. He spoke in a deep but barely audible voice. 'Green rug...Christmas colors.' He then wheeled around and strode out of the room to the Oval Office."

Woodward says Butterfield felt that "Nixon was quickly becoming the oddest man he'd ever known."

Are there yet more caches of Nixon-era material out there, waiting to be brought to light? Apparently so. According to the Post, "Butterfield, now 89, was in charge of preventing other Nixon staffers from leaving the White House with government documents, but he saw many, including the late Nixon counselor Arthur Burns, haul away boxes when they left."

Bonus link: I'm more interested in the prospect of these documents landing in an archive than the prospect of a new Bob Woodward book. This is why.