Monday, October 27, 2014

A Rendezvous With Destiny

"If we lose freedom here, there is no place to escape to. This is the last stand on earth."

Ronald Reagan
Oct. 27, 1964

It was 50 years ago today that Ronald Reagan gave the speech that is often credited with launching his political career — "A Time for Choosing."

"There are perhaps four speeches in American history that so electrified the public that they propelled their orators to the front rank of presidential politics overnight: Abraham Lincoln's Cooper Union Address of 1860, William Jennings Bryan's 'Cross of Gold' speech at the 1896 Democratic convention, Barack Obama's keynote address to the 2004 Democratic convention and Ronald Reagan's 'A Time for Choosing' speech," writes Steven F. Hayward in the Washington Post.

You may disagree with some — or all — of those choices. I certainly do. But all should be in the conversation.

Of course, there have been people whose political careers clearly began with a single speech or a single event, but, in my experience, most followed a gradual path to political prominence — if, indeed, it could be said that they achieved prominence. And Reagan certainly did, defeating a sitting president and winning re–election by a landslide four years later.

But most went into politics — or politically oriented fields — early in life. I suppose it is somewhat ambiguous in Reagan's case. He began his professional life as an actor and spent the better part of the next three decades making movies. His first political office, I guess, was in the early 1940s when he was an alternate to the Screen Actors Guild's board of directors. He later served as SAG's vice president and president.

Reagan was a Democrat early in his life and campaigned for Democrats, but the last Democrat he actively supported for the presidency was Harry Truman. He supported Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon before officially switching parties in 1962.

And 50 years ago today, he revealed his political ideology. It didn't help Republican nominee Barry Goldwater, who went on to lose to President Lyndon Johnson in one of the most lopsided landslides in American history, but it laid the foundation for Reagan's rise to the presidency.

"The Founding Fathers knew a government can't control the economy without controlling people," he said. "And they knew when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose. So we have come to a time for choosing."

If the emergence of modern conservatism can be traced to a single event, it is Reagan's speech. He put the choice in the starkest terms he could.

"This is the issue of this election," he said, "whether we believe in our capacity for self–government or whether we abandon the American revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far–distant capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves."

American Rhetoric ranks the speech higher than any of Reagan's speeches as president — except the one he gave following the Challenger disaster.

But the speech that Reagan gave 50 years ago today was different, as Hayward (the Ronald Reagan distinguished visiting professor at Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy) observes.

"The Reagan whom Americans saw ... was not the avuncular, optimistic Reagan of his film roles, or of his subsequent political career that emphasized 'morning in America' and the 'shining city on a hill,'" Hayward writes, "but a comparatively angry and serious Reagan."
"In this vote–harvesting time, they use terms like the 'Great Society,' or as we were told a few days ago by the president, we must accept a greater government activity in the affairs of the people."

When I read the text of Reagan's speech today, I cannot help but see stark parallels between that time and this one, particularly with an election only a week away — as it was when Reagan delivered his speech.

"This is the issue of this election," Reagan said. "Whether we believe in our capacity for self–government, or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far–distant capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves."

As he wrapped up his speech, Reagan told his listeners, "You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We'll preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we'll sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness."

A columnist for the Paris (Tenn.) Post–Intelligencer says Reagan's words "ring true to this day, though the magnitude of today's problems dwarf[s] those faced then."

That may or may not be an exaggeration. Every generation is warned that it is taking the path to destruction. It hasn't happened so far.

But the fact that it hasn't happened doesn't mean that it won't.

For that reason, I guess, messages like Reagan's "a time for choosing" will always find an audience, just as there will always be an audience for the message of "hope and change."

How loudly the message resonates depends upon the nature of the times — and the appeal of the messenger.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The View From Ground Zero ...

I remember the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

That was a traumatizing experience for the whole country, but it must have been especially brutal for the folks who lived where those planes did their devastation. In fact, I often wondered, as I watched news reports from New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, what must it feel like to be at ground zero?

Now I think I know.

Well, the casualty rate isn't anywhere near as high as it was on that day — not yet, anyway. And no buildings have been destroyed. Otherwise, though, it seems to be pretty much the same.

I live a few miles east of Dallas' Texas Health Presbyterian hospital. The original Ebola patient didn't come to my apartment complex when he (knowingly? unknowingly? does anyone know for sure?) brought the virus to America ... but he could have. From what I have seen, there is little except geography that separates that apartment complex from the one in which I live or hundreds of others in this city, for that matter. His girlfriend happened to live in a complex that is south of the hospital so that is where he went.

But any of us could have been put at risk. It was just the luck of the draw that we were spared and the other apartment complex was not.

A similar thought must have passed through the minds of many New Yorkers in 2001. Clearly, people died at the World Trade Center simply because they were at the wrong place at the wrong time. Many victims worked there; if one's workplace is targeted, it's really more a matter of time than the luck of the draw for that person, even if that person doesn't know, but in a large facility like the WTC, there are always people on the premises who don't come there every day. They are just there conducting business of some kind. In the North Tower of the World Trade Center, some were eating what turned out to be their last meal in the Windows on the World restaurant at the top of the tower.

Perhaps those who are in the wrong place at the wrong time only plan to be there a few minutes or a few hours, but they get caught in the event.

I was near another ground zero in the 1990s. I was teaching journalism at the University of Oklahoma, which is located in Norman, about 25 miles from Oklahoma City, at the time of the bombing of the federal building there. I was about half an hour from the start of a class when that bomb went off that morning. Some people said they could hear the explosion from that far away. I couldn't. Maybe that was because I was indoors.

Anyway, on that occasion, I had that dodged–a–bullet kind of feeling. I had been to Oklahoma City many times. Frequently I went to do some research at the Oklahoma City library, which was just a few blocks from the federal building. I had walked past the federal building several times.

I thought of those occasions early on, when speculation centered on the possibility that a gas line had blown up or something like that, and I thought, that gas line could have blown up when I was walking past that building. Of course, we know now that it was a bomb — and that a young man named Timothy McVeigh was responsible.

That was the extent of my connection to the federal building.

Many of my students, though, came from Oklahoma City. It was much more personal for them than it was for me, whether they had been to the federal building or not. One of my students, who now works in the Dallas broadcasting media market, lost her father in the bombing.

Even so, I still had that ground zero feeling. There were many people in that building who lost limbs — or lives — simply because they were there, however briefly, for some reason that day.

And, as the unofficial adviser for the newspaper, I was proud of my students for putting their personal feelings aside and producing all their own coverage — their own articles, their own photos, their own graphics — in reporting on a once–in–a–lifetime news event. A journalist must find ways to remain detached from a story, no matter how difficult that may be.

And I know how difficult it was for my students. In addition to unofficially advising the newspaper staff, I was the unofficial counselor for many of them, too.

When you observe from afar, you have no idea how rough it gets, how raw emotions can become at ground zero. Perhaps that is why I hear so many speak so disparagingly of the fears of people here on the front lines — and I am angered and frustrated.

Those of us here at ground zero have never been through anything like this before. We've heard about Ebola, how so many people who get it die, and not long after the original patient died came word that two of the nurses who cared for him were infected. The news sent a wave of fear through this city; we turned to our "leaders" for reassurance, and we encountered what appeared to be an indifferent president — who appointed a political flunky with no medical background to be the Ebola czar — and an equally unconcerned director of the CDC, who could only keep repeating talking points like "we know how Ebola is spread" ad nauseam.

No one to whom I have spoken was the least bit reassured by any of that.

Well, now we're reaching the point where people who were isolated because they came in contact with the original patient have made it through the 21–day incubation period without showing any signs of infection and are free to resume their lives. I hope that continues and that no one else is diagnosed with this disease. Perhaps that will reassure people that it really is difficult to catch this disease, that perhaps we have contained it here.

Because the people who are supposed to reassure us at a time like this have let us down. Big time.

Back in the Saddle Again

For two weeks, the pundits of 1984 spoke of little else but whether Ronald Reagan, at nearly 74, was too old to be president.

They did so primarily because of his performance in the first presidential debate with former Vice President Walter Mondale. What little traction Mondale did get following that debate was more or less halted a few days later when Vice President George H.W. Bush and Democratic vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro spent 90 minutes debating each other, and then neither was perceived to be the winner.

That meant that, to beat the already longshot odds against him, Mondale would have to beat Reagan decisively in the second debate, held 30 years ago tonight in Kansas City.

The debate was intended to be about foreign policy, and it started out that way with questions about Central America, the Soviet Union and regions that were crucial to American interests. The age issue didn't come up right away. It was the elephant in the room, though, that Henry Trewhitt of the Baltimore Sun finally confronted.

It was kind of hard to work in. Trewhitt tried to "cast it specifically in national security terms." Nice try. It served only as a straight line for Reagan.

"You already are the oldest president in history," Trewhitt said to Reagan. "And some of your staff say you were tired after your most recent encounter with Mr. Mondale. I recall yet that President Kennedy had to go for days on end with very little sleep during the Cuban missile crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?"

It took maybe 25 or 30 minutes to get to it, but, when it did, Reagan had a disarming response that he obviously had been holding for just the right moment.

"I want you to know that I will not make age an issue of this campaign," Reagan asserted. "I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."

Everyone laughed, including Mondale, who must have realized that his last opportunity to seize the momentum was gone. Trewhitt gave Mondale an opportunity to speak about Reagan's age, and he did so, prefacing his remarks with his insistence that Reagan's age had not been made into an issue — which, of course, it had.

"What's at issue here," Mondale said, "is the president's application of his authority to understand what a president must know to lead this nation, secure our defense and make the decisions and the judgments that are necessary."

His argument wasn't terribly persuasive. I got the impression he knew that as he was giving his response.

To his credit, Reagan was more on top of things when he gave his closing statement than he had been when he made his closing statement in the first debate. It wasn't a meandering mess like the last one; it was the folksy kind of anecdote for which Reagan was famous. He told a story of how he was asked to write a letter that would be placed in a time capsule that would not be opened for 100 years.

Reagan spoke of driving along the California coastline, trying to organize his thoughts. It was made more complex, he said, by the fact that those who read the letter would know all about Reagan's time and whether the people of that time had met the many challenges they faced. He transitioned into a plea for another four years "to complete the new beginning that we charted four years ago."

Reagan ran out of time and was cut off before finishing his closing statement, but it was a huge improvement over the statement he made at the end of the first debate.

When the debate was over, both sides claimed victory. But both sides knew the truth. In the first Gallup Poll following the debate, Reagan's approval rating stood at 58% — precisely the share of the vote he would receive on Election Day, Nov. 6, 1984.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

A First in Presidential Politics

"Let me just say, first of all, that I almost resent, Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy."

Rep. Geraldine Ferraro
Oct. 11, 1984

Thirty years ago tonight, a woman participated in a vice presidential debate for the first time.

Actually, that isn't really as impressive as it sounds. There had been only one vice presidential debate prior to that — between then–Sen. Walter Mondale and then–Sen. Bob Dole in 1976. If Geraldine Ferraro had not been a participant, the debate probably never would have garnered the attention it did.

But it was part of the historic nature of the 1984 campaign. Ferraro, after all, was the first woman to be nominated to a major party's national ticket. Minor parties had nominated women before, but few of them managed to win even 1% of the popular vote. Most were mere footnotes in the annals of presidential politics. Even the first women to seek a major party's presidential nomination — Republican Margaret Chase Smith in 1964 and Democrat Shirley Chisholm in 1972 — were treated more as oddities than legitimate candidates.

Conventional wisdom holds that, in any election, a Democrat can count on winning one–third of the vote, a Republican can count on winning one–third of the vote, and the election will be decided by what that final one–third — the undecided, the uninformed and the easily swayed — choose to do. Consequently, Ferraro knew she would receive more votes for a national office than any woman before her — although, as it turned out, the Democrats lost that last one–third of the vote by a wide margin.

Conventional wisdom also holds that most people don't vote for the running mate. They vote for the candidate at the top of the ticket.

Now, personally, I have never been a big fan of vice presidential debates. What is there to debate? Vice presidents don't make policy. In fact, it is only in the last 40 years that the vice president has been treated as a legitimate and contributing member of the executive branch — but the transition has been a work in progress. Vice presidents still serve, as they always have, as the designated national representatives at foreign weddings and funerals. Vice presidents also preside over the Senate and cast votes when needed to break ties.

(That is why the distinction is made in this year's midterm elections that Republicans need to control 51 seats to take over the Senate whereas the Democrats need to control 50 seats. The decisive vote in a tie in the Senate belongs to the party in the White House because the vice president presides over the Senate.)

Otherwise, their chief responsibility is to stay awake during tedious Senate debates, even if they are battling jet lag from having just returned from a funeral halfway around the world.

But if vice presidential debates focused only on those experiences that qualify a person to be vice president, no one would tune in. After all, who wants to hear people talk for 90 minutes about their experience attending funerals or weddings or how they managed to stay awake through tedious legislative debates?

So vice presidential debates focus on issues that presidents are able to influence — sometimes — and other times are not able to influence. In short, a vice presidential debate is predicated on the assumption that one of the participants will one day become president, by assassination or election or maybe even resignation, and, consequently, it is necessary to know the candidates' views on abortion and guns.

Actually, the notion that it is inevitable that a vice president will one day be president is absurd. Forty–seven men have served as vice president; fourteen went on to become president. That's less than 30% — and most of them became president following the death of the incumbent. It is by no means certain that they would have been elected president on their own. Five only served out their predecessors' unexpired terms, then faded into obscurity. Only four (that's less than 9%) were elected to the presidency without the benefit of having ascended after the death or resignation of someone else — and two of them were elected before presidential elections started involving a popular vote in the early 19th century.

The vice presidency simply never has been the stepping stone to the presidency that you might think it would be.

Many vice presidents have gone on to seek the presidency on their own. Many failed to win their party's nominations — and all who did win the nomination after 1836 and before 1988 were defeated (with the exception of 1968, when Richard Nixon, running as a former vice president, won both the Republican nomination and the general election).

George H.W. Bush, of course, had sought the presidency before — in 1980, he had been Ronald Reagan's top rival for the Republican presidential nomination before being chosen to be Reagan's running mate. Ferraro, however, never had sought the presidency. She had barely sought the House seat she occupied, having won three terms, and was barely known outside her district.

So why was it important? It was important for Democrats to keep the momentum going after Mondale's first debate with Reagan. The polls showed the Democratic ticket trailing the Republican ticket by a wide margin — correctly, too, as it turned out — and the Democrats' hopes for victory depended on a perception of sustained momentum.

Bush's objective was simple — halt the Democrats' momentum, then Reagan could close the deal in the rematch with Mondale later that month.

My memory of that night is that neither candidate was the clear winner — which, in some ways, was a victory for Bush because it supported opposition arguments that the Democrats' momentum had stalled. If Bush had been the clear loser, the Democrats would have had momentum decisively on their side when Mondale faced Reagan in their second and final debate a week and a half later. But the absence of a clear winner changed the conversation.

For the next couple of decades, women were frequently mentioned as potential running mates for presumptive nominees — but such talk was mostly to appease women voters. A vice presidential debate has been part of every presidential election since 1984, but Ferraro remained the only member of the club of major–party female nominees for almost a quarter of a century.

It was a week shy of 24 years later — on Oct. 3, 2008 — that a female nominee participated in another vice presidential debate. That was the day that then–Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, the first female nominee on a Republican ticket, and then–Sen. Joe Biden met in their only debate of the 2008 campaign.

Once again, the conclusion was that the debate had been a draw. As nearly as I could tell, the 2008 vice presidential debate, like the one in 1984, had no influence on the outcome of the race.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Savoring a Short-Lived Triumph

"I would rather lose a campaign about decency than win a campaign about self–interest."

Walter Mondale
Oct. 7, 1984

On this night 30 years ago, Walter Mondale's presidential campaign seriously began to entertain thoughts of winning the election.

In hindsight, of course, such thoughts were ludicrous. On Election Day, Ronald Reagan won a 49–state landslide. No one has won the presidency with such a sweeping landslide since.

Mondale had struggled since the summer convention to be regarded as a plausible alternative to Reagan, but he hadn't gotten much traction. After their first debate on this night in 1984, though, it was said that Mondale's campaign staff had been "tap dancing down the aisle" of Mondale's campaign plane.

Why were they so enthused? Because Reagan, at the time the oldest man to be nominated by a major party for the presidency, had appeared confused and disoriented on that stage in Louisville with Mondale.

He had not been the sharp Reagan everyone had expected; instead, he more closely resembled the tired, disengaged old man his critics had said he was. But many people had dismissed that as political gamesmanship.

The first debate focused on domestic issues, an area where the Reagan campaign believed it had a clear advantage — as could be seen in the famous "Morning in America" advertisement that boasted of the economic progress that had been made in Reagan's first term.

When they saw with their own eyes, disbelief gave way to dismay for many, and, in the two weeks between debates, the Mondale campaign began to think and act like a campaign that might not lose after all. Mondale himself began to sound and act like a candidate whose fortunes were turning — who just might be able to achieve what had previously been thought to be impossible.

Nearly everyone who saw the debate 30 years ago tonight had to agree that Mondale was the winner. And that made news because Reagan was so far ahead in the national polls. Like Barack Obama in his first debate with Mitt Romney, Reagan didn't need to be perceived as the winner; his opponent did. And it gave his campaign a much–needed boost. The next day, when Mondale participated in New York's Columbus Day parade, thick crowds lined the street. When he had been there to kick off his campaign a month earlier, attendance was sparse.

At a rally, Mondale's running mate, Geraldine Ferraro, introduced Mondale as "the new heavyweight debater of the world, Fighting Fritz Mondale!" For his part, Mondale was eager to tell the voters, "Today we have a brand new race."

It was preferable to acknowledging the facts — it was the same old race with a new twist.

Well, not exactly.

Reagan still had a big lead in the polls. All the debate did was give the shaky elements of Reagan's coalition reason to give Mondale a second look. The twist was temporary at best. All that was needed on the incumbent's end was a little tweaking, a little fine tuning.

A big part of Reagan's problem had been a rambling, incoherent closing statement. At a point in the debate when a candidate needs to be as warm and appealing and visionary as possible, Reagan didn't use his folksy approach that had served him so well in the past.

Mondale took advantage of his opportunity. "The question is our future," he said. "President Kennedy once said in response to similar arguments, 'We are great, but we can be greater.' We can be better if we face our future, rejoice in our strengths, face our problems and, by solving them, build a better society for our children."

And Reagan's campaign staffers were pointing fingers at each other. Reagan had been overprepared, some argued. He had been mismanaged. His head had been crammed with facts and figures — when he was at his best communicating with the viewers in his folksy way. Let Reagan be Reagan, many said.

Reagan and Mondale would meet again in their second and final debate two weeks later. Ferraro and Vice President George H.W. Bush would meet in the second–ever vice presidential debate in a few days, and the momentum Mondale had gained in his first debate with Reagan would begin to fade.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Happy 90th Birthday, Jimmy Carter

I have been studying the presidency practically since I learned to read (really), and one of the first things I discovered in my very early studies was that only two American presidents had lived to the age of 90 — John Adams and Herbert Hoover.

They lived in different centuries so there is no way they could have run against each other.

I remember being very sad when Harry Truman died. He was within two years of making it to 90, and I was pulling for him. As a devotee of American presidential trivia, I hoped he would join that exclusive club.

It isn't that exclusive anymore. People live longer now than they used to. Not everyone does, of course, but, by and large, each generation does live longer than the one that came before. And among American presidents, the 90–and–Over Club has now added its sixth member, Jimmy Carter. He was born on Oct. 1, 1924.

Earlier this year, George H.W. Bush celebrated his 90th birthday. The other two men to join that club were Ronald Reagan in 2001 and Gerald Ford in 2003.

Considering how the club has grown, I began thinking about various firsts that these milestone birthdays created. For example, the first election in American history that featured two major party nominees who would both live to be 90 was the 1976 campaign between Carter and Ford. (Ford's running mate, Bob Dole, turned 90 last year, and Carter's running mate, Walter Mondale, is 86. If he lives until January 2018, the '76 campaign will be the first to feature four nominees who all lived to be 90.)

It will always be the first such election because all the major party nominees who preceded Ford and Carter are deceased.

Carter's milestone made him the first president to run against two candidates from the opposing party who both lived to be 90; he beat Ford in '76 and lost to Reagan in '80.

If Mondale lives until January 2018, Reagan will become the second president to run against two nominees from the opposing party who lived to be 90. He will be the first man to run against candidates who were destined to live to 90 in three consecutive elections — he challenged Ford for the Republican nomination in 1976.

We'll have to wait awhile to find out if Bush ran against someone who lived to be 90. The candidate he defeated for the presidency in 1988, Michael Dukakis, is 80 and won't turn 90 until November 2023 — and the candidate who defeated Bush four years later, Bill Clinton, won't turn 90 until 2036.

Of course, if Clinton lives to be 90, the 1996 campaign will join the list of elections that featured nominees who reached the 90th–birthday milestone since Clinton's opponent in that campaign was Bob Dole.

Carter has already set a record for the longest post–presidency — more than 33 years now. He surpassed Hoover in September 2012.

I figure that record is safe. Bush is his nearest competition, and he would have to live another 12 years to claim that record. Of course, if he does, he'll be the first American president who lived to be 100.