Monday, November 28, 2011

Hoosier Buddy?

In the ongoing countdown to next year's election, there are 344 days to go until the votes are counted on Nov. 6, 2012.

That's 49 weeks from tomorrow.

Just think of all the things that will be determined — one way or another — between now and that night 49 weeks from tomorrow night.

In spite of that, though, there are a few things that can be taken for granted.

It is generally assumed, for example, that Barack Obama will receive his party's nomination. No challenger has emerged; in fact, no Democrat, prominent or otherwise, is even said to be considering a challenge.

Diehard Democrats have been saying for months that the absence of competition for the nomination is a good sign. Jimmy Carter was challenged for his party's nomination in 1980, they have pointed out, and went on to lose the general election. Bill Clinton, on the other hand, was not seriously challenged for his party's nomination in 1996 — and easily won a second term.

No challenger means Obama doesn't have to spend campaign resources on his pursuit of the nomination. He can hold the funds for the fall campaign, when he can concentrate on winning the battleground states and the states that he carried last time that Democrats rarely win — and he can start slinging mud, as an incumbent with an unemployment rate as high as the one in America today must (and, inevitably, will) do, at whoever is leading in the polls this week.

That wasn't Lyndon Johnson's problem. LBJ's nomination was never in doubt, but he did have some modest opposition. Primaries didn't play the pivotal role in the nominating process in 1964 that they do today, but there were a few, and Alabama Gov. George Wallace challenged Johnson — and did astonishingly well — in some primaries in Northern states.

In those primaries, historian Theodore H. White wrote in "The Making of the President 1964," Wallace sought "to test whether racism could magnetize votes in the North as well as the South."

In Indiana, Wisconsin and Maryland, Wallace got his answer.
"Wallace astounded political observers not so much by the percentage of votes he could draw for simple bigotry (34 percent of the Democratic vote in Wisconsin, 30 percent in Indiana, 43 percent in Maryland) as by the groups from whom he drew his votes. For he demonstrated pragmatically and for the first time the fear that white working–class Americans have of Negroes. ... in the mill town of Gary, Indiana, he actually carried every white precinct in the city among Democratic voters ..."

Theodore H. White
The Making of the President 1964

Barring the most wildly improbable of developments, Obama will be the Democrats' standard bearer in 2012. No suspense there.

But the identity of Obama's opponent remains a mystery, and no one knows what the economy will be like when people go to the polls next fall.

So there is some suspense as America prepares for the start of the primary/caucus season.

The conventional wisdom is that people make up their minds about a presidency, not necessarily a president, about six months before an election. And, while today's Democrats would like to think that people will make their voting decision based on whether they like Obama on a personal level, the fact is that liking an incumbent and approving of the job he has done are two entirely different things.

It does help if voters like the president, and survey after survey shows that Americans tend to like Obama personally. But those same surveys show that most Americans think the country is going in the wrong direction.

That can be decisive in places where the outcome is in doubt — in the modern–day battleground states, where many voters may feel torn between the fact that they like Obama but don't like where they think the country is headed.

For many reasons, I feel safe in predicting that the Republican nominee — whoever that turns out to be — will win Indiana next year.

Indiana was an unexpected bonus for Democrats on Election Day 2008. The state votes for a Democrat about once in a generation — if that. Obama's victory there was the first for a Democratic presidential nominee in 44 years.

If Johnson hadn't carried Indiana in 1964, Obama would have been the first Democrat in his lifetime to carry the state.

LBJ was the only Democrat to carry Indiana in the lifetime of Obama's mother. She was born in 1942, and the last Democrat to carry Indiana before Johnson was Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936.

Indiana voted for FDR in 1932, too. It took something as big as the Great Depression to get Indiana to vote Democratic in consecutive elections. Before the 1930s, the last time Indiana voted Democratic in consecutive elections was in the years just before the outbreak of the Civil War — in the middle of the 19th century.

Indiana did vote Democratic four times in the 20th century. In addition to LBJ's 1964 landslide and FDR's landslides of 1932 and 1936, Woodrow Wilson won the state in 1912 — when Republicans were divided between President William Howard Taft and former President Theodore Roosevelt.

If the Republicans had been united that year and either Taft or Roosevelt had been their nominee, their share of the vote combined would have exceeded Wilson's by nearly 35,000 out of more than 650,000 cast — a narrow margin, sure, but more substantial than the margin in Indiana for the Republican running against Wilson when he sought re–election four years later.

When he wrote about Johnson's landslide nearly 50 years ago, White also wrote about patterns he detected in the election returns, including the "ripples and bubbles of protest" spawned by the civil rights movement and the general racial unrest across the nation.

Such "ripples and bubbles," White wrote, were so hard to spot that one was forced to "pore over charts to find them." But he did observe evidence that the Democrats, as LBJ himself would say the following year, were handing the South to the Republicans for half a century.

The South, White wrote, showed "significant" declines in Democratic support, and those declines clearly continued in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, through good years and bad years for both parties.

I guess it wasn't hard to identify that trend in the South in 1964. Five states in the Deep South voted Republican — some heavily — and the ones that remained in the Democratic column, as they had for generations, did so by much narrower margins than ever before, even when popular Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower were on the ballot.

Almost no other states, even traditionally Republican ones, voted against Johnson in 1964. Nevertheless, White identified some ethnic "ripples and bubbles" in some northern states like Indiana — "Polish working–class wards" where the Republicans "managed to shave the Democratic percentages" in spite of the fact that it was an overwhelmingly Democratic year.

White acknowledged that he could not determine "whether this was an echo of backlash" or "ethnic identification" with the Republican running mate's Polish–American wife.

But the next 10 presidential elections suggested that Indiana's support for the Democrat in 1964 was an aberration, not the start of political realignment there.

And there is no reason to believe that Obama's victory there in 2008 was a realignment, either. His coattails weren't just short in Indiana, they were nonexistent. While Obama was winning a squeaker (50% to 49%) against John McCain with the help of young and minority voters in the cities, the Republican governor was being re–elected with 58% of the vote.

In 2010, Republican Dan Coats, who spent a decade in the U.S. Senate previously, was elected the state's junior senator with 55% of the vote. Six of the state's nine House districts elected Republicans, most of them with more than 60% of the vote.

Indiana&apo;s roots are planted deep in Republican soil, and its support for the Democrat in 2008 was an aberration. Any state–by–state prediction for 2012 that suggests that Obama will retain Indiana can be dismissed as unreliable.

On the evening of Nov. 6, 2012, Indiana is likely to be one of the first states projected for the Republican nominee.

You can take it to the bank.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Cold Case Turns 40

It was 40 years ago today that a man known to history primarily as D.B. Cooper hijacked a Northwest Orient Airlines 727, demanded $200,000 and parachuted from the plane into legend somewhere between Portland, Ore., and Seattle.

The conventional wisdom for these last four decades has been that Cooper (who actually purchased his ticket under the apparent alias of Dan Cooper, but, because of miscommunication, is remembered almost exclusively as D.B. Cooper) couldn't have survived the jump, given the terrain and the weather at the time — and the fact that he was wearing an ordinary business suit that offered little protection against the subzero temperatures.

But, if he did not survive, no sign of his remains have been found, and neither has any sign of the money he jumped with — except for a few thousand dollars found in 1980 that are said to have been part of the ransom that was paid to Cooper.

The balance — nearly $195,000 — remains unaccounted for.

So, 40 years later, Cooper still commands the attention of the FBI, which has maintained an active investigation and continues to follow up on leads, however remote they may seem. Special Agent Larry Carr has been heading a citizens' research unit for nearly five years; that unit recently caused a bit of a stir when it was revealed that traces of pure titanium, aluminum, stainless steel and bismuth had been found on the neck tie Cooper left on the airplane.

There was also a claim made by a woman that Cooper was her uncle.

As Gar Swaffar of Digital Journal writes, those traces did provide some clues — not about where Cooper was when he leaped into popular lore on that cold, stormy night 40 years ago but where he came from.

"The primary use of pure titanium at the time was in the chemical industry," notes Swaffar, "and the other place it would be found was in the facility producing the titanium."

Swaffar doesn't really talk about bismuth, which may be the least familiar to most people. It has recently been found to be slightly radioactive, but that would not have been known to the people of 1971 — so, while the introduction of radioactivity into the conversation may invite all sorts of sinister thoughts, one must remember to focus on how bismuth was used in the early 1970s if one expects it to serve as a legitimate clue to Cooper's origin.

Its presence on anything in 1971 suggests to me a link to possibly cosmetics and some over–the–counter medicines like Pepto–Bismol (in which small traces of bismuth can be found).

Anyway, the examination of that trace evidence appears to have yielded nothing that could help close the book on the story of D.B. Cooper — and the woman's claim to be the niece of a man her family always called "L.D." appears to have been discredited as well.

Today, 40 years after his daring jump, D.B. Cooper's fate is still as mysterious as it was in 1971. Did he survive the jump? If he did, did he get away with the rest of the money? And, if he did not, what happened to the money? And what happened to his remains?

The world may never know.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The LBJ Factor

I've watched the rapid descent of the popular image of Barack Obama since he took the oath of office.

And I've been intrigued by his apparent public evolution — from the early days of his presidency, when he was widely seen as the reincarnation of Lincoln, Washington and/or FDR, to the recent comparisons between the president and (at best) Bill Clinton following his party's disastrous losses in the 1994 midterms or (at worst) Jimmy Carter's one–term administration.

No one knows with absolute certainty what will happen between now and next November; consequently, no one knows if the voters will deny a second term to Obama or if they will re–elect him with a rousing vote of confidence.

Thus, all these comparisons — while each has certain valid points — are based largely on self–serving speculation.

Republicans would like everyone to believe we are witnessing Carter Redux — because that would mean we are on the brink of the ascendance of another Reagan.

Democrats would like everyone to believe that, in spite of criticism of Obama, we are witnessing a reprise of the Clinton years — and, in 2012, will see a reinvigorated president win a second term by approximately the same margin in the Electoral College that elected him the first time.

Time will tell if either scenario is correct — or if an entirely new paradigm is being written.

My money is on the latter — because, while history truly does repeat itself, it never seems to do things exactly the way it did before. Times change.

In other words, we might be witnessing a Republican resurgence similar to the one that overwhelmed Carter and the Democrats in 1980 — but it might not necessarily produce another Ronald Reagan.

And, even if it did, the times are different. This isn't like a TV rerun (outside of syndication, do they still do that anymore?) — or even a remake. The people would be different. The circumstances — and, hence, the decisions they must make — would be different.

Perhaps the differences would be subtle. Perhaps they wouldn't be so subtle.

Likewise, we could be witnessing another rebound of an embattled Democratic president whose party suffered massive midterm losses (or perhaps, as some Democrats have been suggesting with fondness, another "Dewey Defeats Truman" election in which the incumbent scores a completely unexpected victory), but it doesn't necessarily mean that Obama's second term would be more successful than his first.

(Actually, second terms often seem to be worse than the first. It's worth remembering that Truman's popularity really began to sink irreversibly after his inauguration in 1949, and, while Clinton was re–elected two years after the GOP seized both chambers of Congress, his second term was largely mired in his impeachment defense.)

At the moment, if I am inclined to compare Obama to anyone, it is Lyndon Johnson. I see several similarities/parallels between the two presidents.

At what may be the most basic level, Johnson was the last Democrat to carry states like Virginia and Indiana — until Obama in 2008 (Carter was the only other Democrat to win North Carolina; Carter and Clinton were the only other Democrats to carry Florida).

Both Johnson and Obama won landslide victories in the Electoral College — but so did Clinton (twice). He just didn't receive a majority of the popular vote.

Voting patterns, like poll results, are not infallible indicators of what to expect — but they do provide a certain amount of guidance in the right direction.

It is not in the voting patterns, though, that I see the most striking similarities between Obama and LBJ. It's in their priorities as president — and the public's response, via its approval ratings.

One could say many things about LBJ — and, without a doubt, most, if not all, the good and the bad, were true — but one that is absolutely undeniably true is that he was a great admirer of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

And LBJ wanted to leave his mark on domestic policy — as he believed FDR had. He wanted to exceed what his idol had accomplished.

Oh, sure, there were contemporaries of Roosevelt who would tell you that his skill in foreign affairs was evident in his handling of American participation in World War II — both before and after America officially entered the conflict.

But you can still see his hand behind many of the programs and policies that were created to battle the Great Depression of the 1930s — and still exist today.

LBJ was raised in poverty. Such conditions strongly (and, often, adversely) affect how a man approaches the issues and relationships in his later life, and LBJ earnestly wanted to eliminate poverty. He appreciated FDR's courage in the face of a savage economy, which he witnessed as a young man in Texas and then as a member of the House. "[Roosevelt] was the one person I ever knew, anywhere, who was never afraid," he said after FDR's death in 1945.

When LBJ became president, his #1 goal was to expand on FDR's New Deal with his "Great Society."

And when he won a full term on his own — with a share of the popular vote that surpassed anything that Roosevelt ever received — it was seen by many as an endorsement of his domestic agenda, whether it really was or not.

That part probably was irrelevant because the times forced the American people — as the times so often do — to re–focus their attention.

In the 1960s, that meant Vietnam.

It may have been Johnson's misfortune to become president right when fate made foreign affairs the topic that was increasingly of the most concern to Americans, but presidents don't get to choose what kind of world exists when they are in office.

When LBJ won by a landslide in 1964, Vietnam was still a faraway land that most Americans knew nothing about. The campaign did not focus on foreign policy, but, before long, Americans were dying at a terrifying pace in the jungles of Southeast Asia, and the Johnson administration seemed powerless to do anything about it.

Much may stem from the fact that Johnson's military experience was so limited. Born in 1908, he was too young to serve in World War I, and his early life was influenced by poverty, not the battlefield.

When America entered World War II, Johnson was in Congress. He became a commissioned officer in the Naval Reserve and asked for a combat assignment but was sent to inspect stateside shipyards instead. The closest he came to actual combat was his short–term assignment to a three–man observation team that was sent to look into conditions in the Southwest Pacific.

Two years after Johnson won more than 60% of the popular vote and about 90% of the electoral vote, his Democrats suffered a severe setback in the midterm election, losing 47 House seats. The war had been escalating and, in spite of his efforts to combat poverty, Johnson's domestic agenda didn't seem to be all that successful, either — with race riots occurring from coast to coast.

(Interestingly, one of the freshman Republicans elected to the House in 1966 was George H.W. Bush, the future president and father of another.)

LBJ's popularity dropped sharply, so sharply that, even though he could have run for another term in 1968, he decided not to.

It must have been a disappointing — not to mention dizzying — decline for LBJ. I really believe he wanted to be remembered as a great domestic president — and instead he was consumed by an ugly little war in Vietnam.

LBJ probably benefited enormously from the sympathy and good will of Americans following the assassination of President Kennedy. His popularity never dropped below 60 — and often was much higher — in his first two years as president — but then began its perilous decline in 1966 after Johnson said U.S. troops should remain in Vietnam until Communist aggression had been stopped there.

And when a president's approval numbers go in the tank and stay there for awhile, my experience is that it is really hard to pull them out.

We'll never know if Johnson could have overcome those numbers. By the end of April 1966, a quarter of a million American troops were in Vietnam, and Johnson's approval rating dropped below 50 for the first — but far from the last — time. Less than two years later, he dropped out of the race for the 1968 Democratic nomination.

Fast forward 40 years.

Obama is kind of Lyndon Johnson in reverse — at least when it comes to his policy preference. He wasn't interested in domestic policy. He certainly wasn't interested — or experienced — in economics. He wanted to be a foreign affairs president.

I'm not really sure what drove him to focus on foreign policy. Critics would say it was the political angle, that it was the topic everyone wanted to talk about in 2008. But I think it goes deeper than that.

He never served in the armed forces — but that isn't unusual for people in his age range or younger. Selective service was stopped at the conclusion of the Vietnam War, then registration resumed in 1980, but it's been an all–volunteer service ever since. The most Obama was obliged to do by law was register for a nonexistent draft after he turned 18.

Maybe it has something to do with the multicultural environments in which he grew up. Perhaps it is rooted in his biracial parentage. Whatever the influence was, he specialized in international relations when he studied political science at Columbia University in the early 1980s.

Clearly, that interest was there long before it may have been expedient for a presidential campaign. And it was reflected in his Senate committee assignments when he announced his intention to seek the presidency — Foreign Relations, Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs, Veterans Affairs.

And recent polls suggest that it is one of the few areas in which Americans tend to give him positive marks.

But the times don't call for a foreign affairs president.

That doesn't mean foreign affairs isn't important. It is always important, and, most of the time, the need for an international leader is sudden and unexpected — after all, even with Osama bin Laden gone, who knows when or if another 9–11 will occur?

But poll after poll after poll reports that the voters are overwhelmingly concerned about pocketbook issues, and Obama brought no practical experience in that to the White House. When Obama entered the 2008 race, the unemployment rate was about half what it is today. There were — as there always are — economic naysayers who claimed that this policy or that one would lead the country to ruin.

No one really took that kind of talk seriously when Obama launched his seemingly quixotic campaign in February 2007. In fact, the other Democrats who were lining up to run for the 2008 nomination — including Obama — were intent upon foreign policy, too — specifically, ending American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But once again, fate intervened. In the month before the first primaries and caucuses of the 2008 election season, a recession began. It wasn't clear to most Americans how severe things would get, how many jobs would be lost in the months ahead, but a recession had begun that would gather momentum and plunge America into an abyss.

The frustration has grown.

Obama isn't going to bow out of the race the way LBJ did. I don't think he is that pragmatic. He probably still thinks he can win — and maybe he can. But I strongly doubt it.

In the early days of his presidency, polls showed Obama's approval in the 60s, but, with the exception of a brief uptick following the death of Osama bin Laden, his ratings have been below 50 in most surveys for a couple of years now.

The numbers aren't quite as bad as LBJ's — and they are comparable to Clinton's — but I can't help but think that, even if Obama fights it out to the end, he faces essentially the same fate as LBJ.

Perhaps their mutual legacy is that they and the times in which they served were mismatched.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

When They Liked Ike

Americans are a puzzling bunch.

They can be hopelessly nostalgic, yearning for the simplicity of the past, yet demanding and unforgiving when things don't happen as quickly as they would like, ignoring completely the fact that speed is often achieved at the expense of other things.

It is a lesson that history has taught us repeatedly, but each generation seems intent upon re–learning it, and modern presidents are often the whipping boys, deservedly or not.

Since the midway point of the 20th century, nine different men have been elected president and only five have been re–elected.

One (John F. Kennedy) was assassinated before he could seek a second term so I suppose he really doesn't count. His successor (Lyndon Johnson) served less than a year before winning a full term on his own, but, although he could have sought a second term, he was so unpopular that he chose not to.

Another (Gerald Ford) was never elected; he was appointed to fill a vacancy in the vice presidency and then became president when the duly elected president resigned. When he ran for president 35 years ago, it was for the first time — even though he had been president for more than two years.

But even when you allow for those exceptions, America still has seen — in my lifetime — three sitting presidents (including the unelected Ford) who asked voters for four–year terms and were refused.

Such a thing was practically unheard–of for people of my parents' and grandparents' generations.

Of course, before 1950, one man (Franklin Roosevelt) was elected four times. And my grandparents were old enough to remember Woodrow Wilson, who was narrowly re–elected in large part because he had kept America out of war — only to be sucked in to World War I the following year.

A third president, William McKinley, was re–elected in 1900 but was assassinated the following year.

In the first half of the 20th century, two presidents (Theodore Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge) decided not to run a second time, and one (Warren Harding) died before he could make the decision.

Two sitting presidents were refused re–election in the first half of the 20th century, and there were extenuating circumstances for each. One (William Howard Taft) didn't like the job and, from the accounts I have read of his re–election campaign in 1912, didn't make much of an effort to keep it. The other (Herbert Hoover) had presided over the start of the Great Depression.

Otherwise, the American people seemed willing, if not eager, to renew a president's contract in the first half of the 20th century. They just didn't always have the opportunity to do so.

Times change, of course, but I think it is fair to conclude that modern Americans have grown impatient. Perhaps it is due, to a certain degree, to the instantaneous nature of modern society.

When I was a child, it was a given that just about anything that was worth doing or worth having would take some time as well as an investment of money. Somehow, though, the investment of time seemed to make the achievement that much more special and valuable.

For instance, when I became old enough to receive an allowance and start making money decisions for myself instead of asking my parents for things I wanted, I had to start making decisions, when appropriate, to hold on to my money and accumulate it for larger purchases.

And sometimes I had to make sacrifices. I remember once in the late spring, when I was perhaps 9 or 10, and the neighborhood kids and I were idly tossing small rocks at the roof of my house, trying to get them to land on the roof and stay there.

Why were we doing that? I haven't a clue. Why do kids do anything?

My house was a two–story building, and it took considerable effort for a 9– or 10–year–old to heave even a small rock as high as our roof.

I remember throwing one as hard as I could — and hearing a sickening "cra–a–a–ack!" as it struck the window in my parents' bedroom.

My father came rushing out the front door minutes later, demanding to know what had happened. We were all too stunned by what had happened, I guess, to make up an alternative story, and the truth came tumbling out.

I was told that I would not receive my allowance until a new window had been paid for. As I recall, the window cost $3, which doesn't seem like very much now, but it represented a summer's worth of allowance money for me at the time. I wasn't able to buy baseball cards all summer.

When the window was paid for and I began receiving my weekly quarter again, I felt a genuine sense of accomplishment. In many ways, the time I had sacrificed in pursuit of this goal was as significant to me as the money itself.

When I was in college and I was working on a research paper, I had to spend hours, if not days, in the library, following leads that might or might not contribute much to my paper. A "term paper" was frequently descriptive — the work often did take an entire term to complete.

The same research, in the internet age, can be done in minutes.

Things are different today. We eat pre–cooked meals that we heat in microwaves, or pick up fast, artery–clogging food on the run. We record TV programs and watch them at times that are convenient to us instead of sharing the experience with millions at the same time. We take pills if we have even a slight pain or if sleep doesn't come to us right away.

We are a highly fragmented culture, obsessed with ourselves as individuals and our needs. It really isn't surprising that the names of some of the more popular magazines in the United States focus on the individual or small groups — i.e., Self, Us, etc.

The people of my parents' day became known as "the Greatest Generation" because of their dedication to long–term group goals and their willingness to sacrifice themselves for each other.

My generation was more self–centered, and it seems to have become easier to exist in that mode as time has passed. I've noticed that the people who have come along since my generation are even more prone to this kind of behavior.

We want what we want when we want it.

That's what makes what happened on this day in 1956 so intriguing for historians.

It may well have been the last time a president was elected almost entirely according to the standards that motivated the "Greatest Generation." Dwight Eisenhower, who was re–elected president 55 years ago today, had no political background when he ran for president the first time. He'd been an Army man most of his life, and he was in charge of the "Greatest Generation" when it stood up to the Germans, Italians and Japanese.

It probably didn't require much effort on the people of that time who had entrusted their lives and futures to Eisenhower to trust Ike with the presidency as well.

In many ways, it is the world of the 1950s to which people have been trying to return ever since. It was a world before my time so I can't say whether life was preferable then or whether the leaders of that time were more successful at selling the concept to people as the way things should be.

My thoughts are that it was a time like any other time. There were new and seemingly miraculous inventions, and there were the almost constant growing pains of an evolving culture. The civil rights movement was beginning to blossom, which meant white America had to start coming to terms with its racial past.

And there was a nuclear tension between the superpowers. Of course, terrorism was not part of the equation then — so I guess that's kind of a wash.

I remember, though, when the Happy Days show was on the air, and some of the kids in my class asked one of our teachers if the 1950s really had been "happy days."

He pondered the question for a minute, smiled, shook his head and said, "No."

I guess it's really all a matter of perspective. When Happy Days was on the air, I knew many people who would watch it and tell you, wistfully, that the 1950s really were happy days.

Those times would seem primitive — no cell phones, no computers, no cable TV — and hopelessly naive — no security procedures to speak of in most airports, even in the largest cities — to 21st century Americans if they could go back in time like Michael J. Fox in "Back to the Future."

But, from what I have read, the Eisenhower years were a time when Americans felt they had a paternal role model in the White House, a kindly father figure who could be trusted.

With the possible exception of the Reagan years (which is kind of ironic in itself), there has been no period like it in my memory.

Was it better? Was it happier? Who knows?

But that hasn't kept Americans from pursuing it, anyway.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Promise Fulfilled

My mother was a Democrat.

I have written here before of her death in a flash flood in 1995 — and I mention it now only because I have been thinking of a conversation I had with her the last time I saw her.

It was mid–April of 1995. I was living in Oklahoma at the time, and I had come to Dallas to spend Easter weekend with my parents. Through the course of that weekend, I had several conversations with my mother on a range of topics.

One of the topics was the new Republican Congress that seized power in the 1994 midterms. Mom was worried that Clinton, like the previous Democratic president, would be defeated when he sought a second term.

"Don't worry, Mom," I told her. "Clinton will win."

To this day, I'm not sure why I said that to her. Clinton's job approval ratings were in the mid–40s at the time — hardly encouraging.

I guess I was speaking from the perspective of having watched Clinton's rise, fall and subsequent rise again in Arkansas politics. (I watched it up close as a young reporter. I covered his runoff campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination when he sought the office after being voted out in the previous election.) Maybe I wanted to reassure Mom that Clinton would not be another Jimmy Carter.

Deep down, though, I guess I must have believed it.

We never spoke about it again. She died a few weeks later — on May 5, 1995.

But I thought of that conversation often in the next year and a half.

I thought of it exactly 18 months later — on Nov. 5, 1996, the day Clinton was re–elected over Bob Dole. He didn't receive 50% of the vote, but he won as many electoral votes as he did four years earlier against the first President Bush.

There really wasn't any suspense to speak of that night. The outcome was a foregone conclusion, as I recall.

There was simply no compelling reason to change presidents. Some troubling issues were raised during the campaign, most notably concerning Democratic fund–raising practices, but the economy was sound and foreign relations were relatively stable.

It was a different kind of relation that sidetracked the Clinton administration during its second term.

After Clinton won re–election, he returned to Washington following a victory celebration in Little Rock and was greeted on the White House lawn by his staff.

Among those who lined up to greet him was a then–unknown intern named Monica Lewinsky. She embraced the president as he made his way along the line of well wishers, an embrace that was seen by millions on TV although practically no one knew who she was.

That would change in the years ahead. So would the economic and international stability — after Clinton left office.

I still miss Mom, but I am glad she missed all that.

Nevertheless ...

The day Clinton returned to Washington and embraced Monica on the White House lawn, I went to the cemetery and stood next to Mom's grave for a few minutes.

"We won," I said, probably to no one in particular. I just felt a need to do that.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Obama Is No Truman

I was wading through the daily columns criticizing Barack Obama (which come from all sides these days) when I stumbled onto an intriguing piece by Michael Haydock in American History magazine.

Haydock's topic is one that is bound to be of some interest, especially to those who are promoting Obama's candidacy for re–election in 2012 — Harry Truman's upset victory over Tom Dewey in 1948.

If you aren't up to speed on 20th century American history, let me briefly recap the story for you. Sixty–three years ago this week, Truman won a presidential election that most people believed he would lose — and it has achieved something of mythical status in the years that have passed since.

Truman has become something of an inspirational figure, the political patron saint of lost causes.

I've been following political campaigns all my life, and candidates who are widely expected to lose inevitably invoke Truman's spirit in their stump speeches and exhort the faithful to go to the polls on Election Day — in spite of dire forecasts — because anything can happen.

No doubt there are many Democrats who have been demoralized by the economy and Obama's handling of it and would like to see the president pull off a similar victory a year from now — and, to be sure, there are some similarities between Obama's bid for a second term and Truman's campaign for his first full term (although there are many dissimilarities, too):
  • Obama is the incumbent, as was Truman.
  • Obama is a Democrat, as was Truman.
  • Both presidents enjoyed large Democratic majorities in the first halves of their terms only to lose them in the midterms. Their losses in the House were almost identical (Obama, at least, retained a slim majority in the Senate; Truman lost his majority in both chambers).
  • Polls in 1948 indicated more people disapproved of Truman's job performance than approved. The same is true of Obama today.
But a year out from the election, there are still a lot of unknown variables. And, frankly, I'm dubious about Obama's ability to re–connect with many of the voters he has lost. Truman seems to have been much better at that kind of thing.

One is whether there will be a third–party candidate who might be capable of drawing votes away from either Obama or his eventual Republican challenger. When Truman was nominated by the Democrats in the summer of 1948, he was the standard bearer for a party that had won the four previous presidential campaigns with Franklin Roosevelt heading the ticket. Democrats were mostly united in those four campaigns, but, in 1948, the party gave every appearance of being splintered. Conservative Southerners, angered by the party's support for civil rights, walked out of the convention hall and proceeded to nominate South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond for the presidency. Meanwhile, the man Truman had replaced as Roosevelt's running mate in 1944, Henry Wallace, was nominated for the presidency by the Progressive Party. With the Democrats divided three ways, it was assumed by most that Dewey would glide into the presidency with the support of a united Republican Party. In fact, it was considered such a slam dunk at the time that pollsters, who were still honing their craft in 1948, stopped sampling a couple of weeks before the election — and, as a result, completely missed the last–minute movement in Truman's direction. In fairness to the pollsters, though, they weren't the only ones who believed Truman was on a quixotic quest. Even with the benefit of hindsight, I can understand why the observers of 1948 believed Truman was certain to lose — and why they were astonished when he won. Obama supporters who hope history will repeat itself in 2012 point to the fact that Truman campaigned against a "do–nothing" Republican Congress and speak of Obama doing something similar, claiming that an obstructionist Congress has been preventing him from enacting his proposals. But that's going to be a risky strategy, given Obama's reluctance to act decisively on much of anything except his health care plan when Democrats controlled both the White House and Capitol Hill — let alone after the midterms. Truman could point to a boatload of proposals he sent to the GOP–controlled Capitol Hill, proposals on which the Republicans of the time refused to act. Obama's legislative agenda since the midterms has largely been his job creation package. Truman also had the benefit of the support of Dwight Eisenhower, who would be elected president as a Republican four years later. Eisenhower was widely regarded as the man who had saved the free world during World War II, and his backing certainly must have helped Truman. I can think of no similarly beloved American figure whose support could boost Obama like that. Obama might be helped if the Republicans nominate someone who turns out to be as passionless as Dewey apparently was in 1948. Dewey had been advised to avoid making mistakes, and his campaign was the very definition of playing it safe — too safe. The texts of his campaign speeches are dull and flat — and must have seemed even moreso when Dewey recited them. His most famous statement during the campaign was "You know that your future is still ahead of you." That was about as bold as it got for him. In an editorial, the Louisville Courier–Journal wrote sneeringly of Dewey, "No presidential candidate in the future will be so inept that four of his major speeches can be boiled down to these historic four sentences: Agriculture is important. Our rivers are full of fish. You cannot have freedom without liberty. Our future lies ahead." Dewey did himself no favors. The election was his to lose, and he did — in large part because he never articulated a vision for the future. It seems unlikely to me that, whoever the 2012 Republican nominee turns out to be, he or she will duplicate that mistake. The 1948 campaign also featured a new twist. If something similar presents itself in 2012, it might have an impact on the race. In 1948, movie theaters agreed to show short films produced by both campaigns. Dewey's film was made by professionals with a huge budget, but it reinforced Dewey's public image as a distant, if not disengaged, leader. The Truman staff, operating on a much smaller budget, used stock footage to create a film that reinforced the image of an active president involved in all phases of his job.

Some historians have cited the films as important factors in the outcome. I guess the thing people remember about the 1948 campaign, whether they were alive at the time or have only read about it in their history books, is the "whistle stop" train tour that Truman took, speaking to enthusiastic crowds and promising each audience that he would win the election. Maybe he truly believed that — but, if he did, he appears to have been the only one. From all accounts I have read, no one in his staff — not even his wife — believed he could overtake Dewey. When he did, he took great pleasure in flashing the infamously premature "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline that ran in the Chicago Daily Tribune the next day — and reciting the tale of hearing NBC radio commentator H. V. Kaltenborn confidently tell listeners, even late into the night on Election Day, that, although Truman did have the lead, there was no way it could hold up when the later returns came in.

There is no doubt that Truman had some good fortune during that campaign. His foreign policy was popular with the voters, and the country was emerging from a recession that saw inflation go up significantly and GDP tumble just as precariously in 1946 and 1947.

It also helped that Thurmond and Wallace did not receive as many votes as expected.

Perhaps as a side effect, Democrats recaptured both chambers of Congress.

As the saying goes, sometimes it is better to be lucky than good. Truman was lucky in 1948 — lucky that he didn't have to face the voters in 1946.

It remains to be seen whether 2012 will be lucky for Obama.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Day Jimmy Carter Was Elected

The day that Jimmy Carter was elected president is a day that is vividly imprinted in my memory — for a couple of reasons.

My father's mother died that day, and my father went to Dallas ahead of the rest of the family to work on the funeral arrangements. My mother, my brother and I followed the next day.

The 1976 election was memorable for me, too, because Election Day was the day that certain students from my school (myself included) were spending with various city and county officials. It was kind of a career day, except I don't think it was called that. Anyway, the students would report on their days at a local luncheon for the Jaycees or Kiwanis or whatever it was a couple of weeks later.

I had been assigned to the county clerk, who was very busy that day, dropping in on polling places to see if everything was on the up and up — so my memory of that day is of spending a lot of time getting in and out of the county clerk's car and following him into polling places where he shook hands with folks, talked about voter turnout, asked some routine questions and left.

We never paused to caution protesters about legal restraints at polling places or anything like that — even though we did see some people carrying signs for candidates for everything from president to city council. If they were standing closer to the polls than they should have been, the county clerk never said anything to them.

Oh, and my memory is that it was cold and overcast that day — not too cold (probably in the 50s) — and I don't remember if it ever started to rain, but the threat seemed to be an ongoing concern. I heard several people speculate that turnout might be suppressed by the possibility of bad weather.

Carter always enjoyed an enormous lead over Gerald Ford in the polls in Arkansas — I think the eventual margin of Ford's defeat there was second only to the margin in Carter's home state of Georgia — so turnout was never a factor.

Carter was a "born again" Southern Baptist, which was a subject of some concern in some quarters but not in Arkansas. Most of the people in Arkansas were Baptists then (and, presumably, most are still Baptists), whether they used the phrase "born again" to describe themselves (although most of the Baptists I knew did describe themselves that way).

It would have taken events of biblical proportions — a flood, say, that rivaled the one in Noah's day — to keep enough Carter supporters from going to the polls to give the state to Ford.

Never, not for one second, did I ever doubt that Carter would win Arkansas, but the race had narrowed considerably in the rest of the country in the closing weeks of the campaign. There were several other states where the outcome was far from certain, and the turnout in those states could hold the key to the outcome of the election.

That evening, I watched the election returns. I was unapologetically for Carter — as were most Arkansans that year — but I wasn't old enough to vote, and I watched, first with excitement, then with a growing sense of frustration, as Carter drew ever closer to the magic number in the Electoral College — and then seemed to stall.

Then, just before 3 in the morning, Mississippi was projected to be in Carter's column, pushing the Georgian over the top.

I probably got about three hours of sleep that night. The next day was a school day, and, since the family was going to be out of town for my grandmother's funeral, Mom wouldn't think of letting me stay home unless I was genuinely sick.

And she knew I wasn't sick — just tired.

My memories of that day after the election are hazy, but some things stand out. I remember greeting my friend Phyllis (of whom I have written here frequently since she died last year) with a warm embrace and the exclamation, "Thank God for the Solid South!"

Nearly every Southern state (with the exception of Virginia) was in the Democratic column. Such a thing has not happened again — even though Democrats have nominated Southerners for president and/or vice president in six of the eight elections since.

(In hindsight, it has been impossible for me to avoid comparisons between Carter's victory in 1976 and Barack Obama's in 2008 — and it has been equally impossible for critics of Obama's presidency to resist comparing his administration to Carter's.

(Carter's election in 1976 was hailed as a triumph for populism, as was Obama's 32 years later. It was a breakthrough for Southern politicians, who, for more than a century, had only become president when the incumbent died — not quite the same thing as being the first black president but similar in its symbolic value.)

I suppose Mom could have let me stay home that day. She withdrew my brother and me from school early, anyway, and we began the drive to Dallas — which took us about six hours. I guess Mom figured I could doze in the car.

Maybe I dozed off for awhile, but I don't remember it. I remember listening to the car radio and hearing, over and over again, news reports about President–elect Carter.

And after we arrived at my other grandmother's home, I watched on TV, for the first time, Carter's emotional return to his tiny hometown of Plains, Ga., where it seemed nearly every resident had gathered to await his arrival.

Upon seeing his friends and neighbors, Carter broke down, weeping in shameless gratitude for their unflagging support.

It was a moving moment just before the end of a year that had more than its share of moving moments. This one I had only heard about on the car radio, and it was so much more moving to see, even if it was on tape.

My grandmother was a Republican who wasn't pleased that Carter had beaten President Ford — but she didn't say anything. She knew how much I had wanted Carter to win.

The next four years didn't turn out the way I anticipated, but I've never regretted supporting Jimmy Carter in 1976.

And I have never forgotten how I felt when he won.