Publick Occurrences 2.0

November 2, 2008

Nervous Musings, I

Filed under: 2008 elections,Historians — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 11:45 pm

I am far too into my superstitious avoidance of unhatched chicken-counting to write much more about the election right now, but I will collect here a few last musings:

The Tightening
Polls really do seem to be more accurate than they have any right to be, but the last-minute tightening of the race probably does not mean that much. It is normal for the undecideds to finally stop eeny-meeny-miney-moeing and ‘fess up in these last days, and everyone involved in the process (especially the media and the campaigns) has a strong interest in maintaining suspense until the end. Also, the idea that the first black major party nominee was going to win by a landslide was a political hothouse fantasy. The true state of things shows in the fact that John McCain has remained within 10 points in most polls (though not in most of the national ones tonight) despite running one of the worst campaigns in modern history and generally trashing his carefully nurtured positive public image in the process. The “New McCain” is the sort of guy (angry red-baiting sleazebag) that Richard Nixon invented the “New Nixon” to stop being.

One thing the New McCain and the New Nixon do have in common is the lack of confidence in their own product. Hence the McCain braintrust’s willingness to throw away their whole experience argument on a cheap base-goosing stunt and then to let said stunt, Sarah Palin, turn John McCain into a sideshow in his own campaign. Add in their willingness to send literally any goofball they could find on the street (Joe the Skinhead) out on the trail. Unfortunately, the very lameness of McCain’s campaign has turned the election into almost purely a referendum on the racial views of white Americans.

A Referendum on Race
What I mean is, given the quasi-collapse of capitalism that is going on around us, 2008 seemed destined to be a heavily Democratic-leaning election year. McCain and Palin have only been able to rally their base — that is all their attacks on Obama have really accomplished — while most state and congressional Republicans are running away from the party. Voters seem inclined to throw the rascals out. The main barrier to their doing this, in the present case, is racism. To put it another way: in many states, such as the one I am sitting in, the presidential voting seems likely to turn on the willingness of white voters to embrace a black man as their national leader/elective monarch. (I throw in the latter phrase because the president’s role as embodiment of the nation seems to be the main reason the office generates such passions, far beyond its actual connection to the most of the themes and issues that are trotted out in presidential campaigns. In what substantive way will domestic race relations likely even enter into the policies Obama might actually pursue as president?) Of course, Frank Rich made the good point in his column today that the media has been projecting a lot in its coverage of the Obama campaign, in essence looking for racism in Middle America so they don’t have to express it themselves:

Our political and news media establishments — fixated for months on tracking down every unreconstructed bigot in blue-collar America — have their own conspicuous racial myopia, with its own set of stereotypes and clichés. They consistently underestimated Obama’s candidacy because they often saw him as a stand-in for the two-dimensional character Poitier had to shoulder in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” It’s why so many got this election wrong so often.

And yet the race problem in this election is hardly a media invention. In my state, there are a clearly a number of former Clinton and repentant Bush voters who just don’t “trust” Obama, as they are apt to put it. Now where I sit Obama seems far more trustworthy than either of those other two, but we know that the kind of “trust” they are talking about has nothing to do with what a politician has or has not done.

At any rate, Tuesday night will be either a very great or very sad moment in the history of American race relations.  “Something new under the sun,” or more of the same for another generation or more. Thanks to McCain’s horrible campaign, I am not seeing a third option. Unless . . .

Unblissful Ignorance
Alternatively, if the progressive taxation=”socialism” argument really sticks, the election may turn out to be a successful plebiscite on American political ignorance. The historian’s natural thought is to wonder if anyone under a certain age knows or cares a thing about creeping socialism in this day and age. Of course, no one does, other than that it is bad in some general way. We historians may share a little of the blame for allowing public historical ignorance to grow so deep that a major candidate can apply the socialist label to the progressive income tax — a matter of bipartisan consensus a century ago — and not be laughed out of the race. All the positive changes in what textbooks and survey courses cover has obscured the fact we are probably worse than ever at imparting to our students the basic information about U.S. political and institutional history they need to properly evaluate stupid, inaccurate claims like this one.


October 29, 2008

Cotton Mather to Edmund Ruffin, the Musical Journey

Filed under: Music,Popular culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 12:06 pm

I am trying to be a serious person in these serious times, but permit me to take moment to follow up on the Early American History Band Names thread from a while back. Mention was made of the 90s power pop outfit Cotton Mather, out of Austin, TX.

I have just learned that Cotton Mather leader Robert Harrison’s new band, Future Clouds and Radar, has a new album coming out next week, and that the American history references continue, albeit to a later period. Song #2 on Peoria is something called “Old Edmund Ruffin.” The rumor is that FC&R is doing a little tour through my environs (Columbia, Chicago, St. Louis & Louisville) week after next, so I look forward to asking Harrison how he came to name pop bands and songs after Puritan theologians and hyper-secessionist editors.

Future Clouds and Radar’s eponymous debut album from last year is also very much worth seeking out. An epic two-CD set, the best song on that collection (video below) also has some geek value. It’s “Build Havana” and appears to use Fidel Castro’s capital city as a metaphor for the sort of relationship that the singer would like to have: “Our love’s in currency that I can’t hold.” I think this metaphor might qualify Robert Harrison as a socialist under current rules, so John McCain might want to look into that. Most struggling indie rock bands do stand in need of some wealth-spreading.


October 6, 2008

Annals of the Ideological Double Standard

Filed under: 2008 elections,Media,Military — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 7:02 am

Imagine a Democratic presidential candidate who was a veteran and had an incident like the following in his past. That’s right, you can’t, because he would never have been nominated, at least not in this century. (Amy Greenberg reminds us in the current issue of Common-Place that pro-slavery Democrat Franklin Pierce was haunted by charges of military cowardice, and poor horsemanship, but still managed to survive politically, perhaps because southern honor-baiters liked PIerce’s doughface attitude toward the South.) Poor John Kerry just threw his medals back and testified about war experiences, but McCain “talked” to the enemy, and pretty avidly, it seems.

Make-Believe Maverick : Rolling Stone
There is no question that McCain suffered hideously in North Vietnam. His ejection over a lake in downtown Hanoi broke his knee and both his arms. During his capture, he was bayoneted in the ankle and the groin, and had his shoulder smashed by a rifle butt. His tormentors dragged McCain’s broken body to a cell and seemed content to let him expire from his injuries. For the next two years, there were few days that he was not in agony.

But the subsequent tale of McCain’s mistreatment — and the transformation it is alleged to have produced — are both deeply flawed. The Code of Conduct that governed POWs was incredibly rigid; few soldiers lived up to its dictate that they “give no information . . . which might be harmful to my comrades.” Under the code, POWs are bound to give only their name, rank, date of birth and service number — and to make no “statements disloyal to my country.”

Soon after McCain hit the ground in Hanoi, the code went out the window. “I’ll give you military information if you will take me to the hospital,” he later admitted pleading with his captors. McCain now insists the offer was a bluff, designed to fool the enemy into giving him medical treatment. In fact, his wounds were attended to only after the North Vietnamese discovered that his father was a Navy admiral. What has never been disclosed is the manner in which they found out: McCain told them. According to Dramesi, one of the few POWs who remained silent under years of torture, McCain tried to justify his behavior while they were still prisoners. “I had to tell them,” he insisted to Dramesi, “or I would have died in bed.”

Dramesi says he has no desire to dishonor McCain’s service, but he believes that celebrating the downed pilot’s behavior as heroic — “he wasn’t exceptional one way or the other” — has a corrosive effect on military discipline. “This business of my country before my life?” Dramesi says. “Well, he had that opportunity and failed miserably. If it really were country first, John McCain would probably be walking around without one or two arms or legs — or he’d be dead.”

Once the Vietnamese realized they had captured the man they called the “crown prince,” they had every motivation to keep McCain alive. His value as a propaganda tool and bargaining chip was far greater than any military intelligence he could provide, and McCain knew it. “It was hard not to see how pleased the Vietnamese were to have captured an admiral’s son,” he writes, “and I knew that my father’s identity was directly related to my survival.” But during the course of his medical treatment, McCain followed through on his offer of military information. Only two weeks after his capture, the North Vietnamese press issued a report — picked up by The New York Times — in which McCain was quoted as saying that the war was “moving to the advantage of North Vietnam and the United States appears to be isolated.” He also provided the name of his ship, the number of raids he had flown, his squadron number and the target of his final raid.

You can see why McCain is sensitive on topic of publicly suggesting that a war is not going well: one of his first-ever public quotes came from a North Vietnamese press release!

Actually what the double-standard regarding military valor shows is that “symbolic politics” in these cases is often not symbolic at all. The real issue is support of a military-based U.S. foreign policy, not anybody’s actual military service. Any service record that is used to cut against that policy is going to be ignored or trashed, as John Kerry discovered. Still, the extent of the whitewash that McCain’s military service has been given is pretty amazing.


October 2, 2008

The “New York Times” Catches Up with “Publick Occurrences”

Filed under: 2008 elections,GOP — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 11:50 pm

I would be lying if I said that I have consistently maintained full confidence in my Palin Day One judgment that vice-presidential picks never matter, but after the Delmar Donnybrook tonight (St. Louis reference), I am feeling fairly good about it. Sarah Palin did fine if you enjoy spirited note-card readings and chirpy North Country accents, but I suspect this was the last night of her run as national obsession, barring a nasty turn in John McCain’s health or the televised vice-royal shotgun wedding some have feared might be among possible future McCain stunts.

At any rate, I would like to welcome the New York Times aboard my analytical bandwagon. From Adam Nagourney’s post-Veep debate analysis:

Election Day is now just a month away, and if this presidential race follows typical patterns, people are now making decisions — and, again if this election is true to form, they will be making their choice between the two people at the top of the ticket. Matthew Dowd, who was chief strategist for President Bush in 2004, recalled when he was working for Senator Lloyd Bentsen, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate in 1988, when he — by every account — beat Dan Quayle in that vice-presidential debate.

“We were sitting in the audience, I was sitting between Al Gore and Dick Gephardt, and everyone was like ‘Oh that’s, great, great,’ ” Mr. Dowd said. “But it didn’t matter anymore. You’re 30 days or so out and people are stating to look at the presidential candidates. The race had formed.”

“You’re in a race right now that is beginning to solidify into a five- or six-point Barack Obama lead,” he said. “And each day forward with lead holding is not a good day for McCain. It doesn’t contribute to what they really need to do. They have just a little over 30 days to start to make up some serious ground, at a time when people are already starting to vote.”

That, Mr. Dowd said, was why an adequate performance from Ms. Palin Thursday night fell short of what Mr. McCain needed and will probably be forgotten before the presidential candidates meet for their second debate next Tuesday in Nashville.


September 28, 2008

St. Louis not good enough for Palin “debate camp”

Filed under: 2008 elections,Missouri — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 11:21 pm

Be insulted, my fellow Missourians and swing-state voters, be very insulted.


Gov. Sarah Palin will now spend two and a half days near Sedona, Arizona, to prepare for Thursday’s debate, instead of prepping in St Louis, as originally planned.

Sarah Palin will be at John McCain’s rustic creek side home outside Sedona [a.k.a. his 5-building "Sedona compound"] for what a top aide calls “debate camp.”

Gee, I went to debate camp in Emporia, Kansas and I survived. That’s where I learned that you could eat anything an institutional kitchen produced if you just added enough steak sauce. Call me a liberal elitist, but that’s how I saw it.

Actually, I suspect this has more to do with keeping Sarah away from reporters and voters, and near at hand for Daddy Mac, where she won’t be able to say anything he has to retract.


September 10, 2008

The Deference Strategy

Filed under: 2008 elections,Conservatives,GOP,Media — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 5:10 pm

I linked to one of my recent deference posts on the blog for my “Age of Jefferson” course, and the comment below was submitted. I thought I would answer it here, in a somewhat more comfortable environment for overt politics. At any rate, “cheese” had this to say:

I think in this situation she wants to have a fair interview. His choice of words probably could have been better but all in all everybody on both sides reads way too much into these small comments. I think he is just trying to talk about the media being respectful and courteous.

As far as her not wanting to talk about her political record, this is simply not true. She is a candidate with an executive record who is intelligent enough to know that everything she has done is going to be called into question. The simple fact is that people like Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow are not going to give her a fair interview. She won’t do an interview with word twisting NBC commentators. I can guarantee that she will do Meet the Press with a real reporter of the news. No matter how liberal Tom Brokaw is he will still give a fair interview to Palin. I think we should let her pack her bags in Alaska and get out on the campaign trail full force before we start saying she is afraid of the media.

The gloves have come off in this election and the interesting thing is that Senator Obama has to fight it out with the VP nominee of the GOP. The top of the Dem ticket is fighting it out with the VP of the Rep ticket and the press but not so much with McCain. Palin does not feel the need to fight it out with the press like Obama is doing with Hannity. She is going after the Democrats and not after whatever commentator wants to take the gloves off and battle it out with her. It is more child-like to have this Obama-Hannity type of banter with the top of a ticket going after a political commentator rather then talking about actual policy. I believe this comment of “respect and deference” is more directed at commentators with outside agendas rather than true reporters.

For the record Palin has talked to the media and very intelligently about energy I might ad. As you can see from the interview she knows her information and has no problem answering the questions of a true reporter. It is very recent she mentions Obama and Biden.

I suspect “cheese” is right that Palin can handle herself quite well with the press. She is obviously an adept and feisty public speaker. (As far as energy issues go, that’s pretty much what Alaska’s political economy revolves around, so I should hope she is strong in that area.) Indeed, Palin’s obvious talent for public speaking, far outstripping that of the top name on the GOP ticket, makes the McCain campaign’s protective attitude a little mysterious.

The best explanation is that most of the recent McCain campaign’s “defenses” of Palin, including the demand for “deference” to her from the media and the howls of “sexism” over minor Obama comments that weren’t aimed at her personally — are all rooted in conscious political strategy. However capable Palin may actually be, the McCain people chose her as a symbol, of small-town motherhood, in an effort to pump up the GOP’s conservative Christian base and perhaps bring in some of the older female and Catholic voters who went for Hillary Clinton in the primaries. As a symbol, Palin’s family decisions are her qualifications more than anything she has or has not done or could or could not do in government. (Almost any other criteria for the veep pick would have generated a different result, especially if they were really looking for a qualified female Republican.)

As a symbol aimed at groups of voters who often perceive themselves as slighted and/or persecuted by the culture at large (especially small-town and exurban Christian women), Palin is actually better for McCain if she too is perceived as beset by sneering elitists and haters. Hence the rush to “protect” her, even if she doesn’t need it, from personal attacks that are largely not even being made, at least by the Democrats. NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen saw what was happening even before Palin made her now-famous convention speech last week:

John McCain’s convention gambit [the Palin pick] is a culture war strategy. It depends for its execution on conflict with journalists, and with bloggers (the “angry left,” Bush called them) along with confusion between and among the press, the blogosphere, and the Democratic party. . . . It dispenses with issues and seeks a trial of personalities. It bets big time on backlash.

Readers may remember the GOP self-pity party that went on all the day before Palin’s speech last Wednesday, with the McCain people moaning about their former buddies in the D.C. media being “on a mission to destroy” the Alaska governor. They screamed about the “smears” against Palin’s pregnant daughter, many of which the McCain campaign itself was the first to publicize. McCain campaign officials also went out of their way to tell the world about their threats to sue the National Enquirer for an upcoming story alleging that Sarah Palin had had an affair with one of her husband’s business partners. Last Wednesday may also have been the day many conservative Republicans first discovered the formerly liberal concept of sexism, as their vice-presidential nominee’s many quasi-scandals came out and her remarkably thin credentials were parsed. In retrospect it all looks like a set-up to bring the Christian Right’s blood to a boil at seeing one of their own pitched into the proverbial den of lions.

This game of strategically stoking up white Middle America’s sense of moral superiority and victimization by sinister elites has a long history, which I will blog about soon. In recent times, it has worked out a lot better for the Republicans politically than it has for small-town America in reality. Read Kansas City native Thomas Frank’s Wall Street Journal essay, “The GOP Loves the Heartland to Death,” for an eloquent explanation of what I mean.


September 9, 2008

More Deference

Filed under: 2008 elections,GOP,Media — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 11:20 am

The Anchorage Daily News suggests some questions that ABC’s Charlie Gibson will doubtless not be asking between licks of Sarah Palin’s cute ankle boots later this week. Our friend “deference” makes a reappearance:

There’s no polite way to say it: Sarah Palin has been hiding out from hard questions. [Who does she think she is, George Washington?]. . .

McCain’s camp has handled their vice-presidential pick like some celebrity who will only deign to give an interview if conditions are favorable. McCain campaign manager Rick Davis told Fox News Sunday, Palin would take questions “when we think it’s time and when she feels comfortable doing it.” . . .

Here are some of the questions Palin should be answering, for Alaskans and the rest of the country: . . .

• McCain spokesman Rick Davis told Fox News the media didn’t show you enough “deference.” How much deference do you expect to get from Vladimir Putin or Hugo Chavez?

It seems like the McCain people may have been a bit too open in their contempt for the media, their own supporters, and elementary standards of honesty.  Palin’s flat-out lies about her record on the “bridge to nowhere” and earmarks are being widely reported. The bridge, particularly, has a bit too much mainstream notoriety for even the MSM to let that pass. It would be nice to think there are some limits.


September 5, 2008

From Old Tip to Old Mac: “Bragging War Heroes” Then and Now

Filed under: 2008 elections,GOP,Military,Music,Past campaigns,Political culture,Presidency — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 3:37 pm

Today there was an incendiary post by M.J. Rosenberg at TPM Cafe called “Bragging War Heroes.” The post got quite tough with the McCain campaign’s heavy reliance on their candidate’s POW experience, in the acceptance speech and before. Rosenberg made some claims about past war heroes and their comparatively modest political use of their military backgrounds that are devastating, if true (to paraphrase my old graduate adviser). I would be interested to know what other historians think:

You would never know it from the media coverage, but John McCain is not one of America’s greatest war heroes. He is a former POW who survived, heroically. He deserves to be honored for that heroism.

But one thing distinguishes McCain from other war heroes, the kind whose heroism changes history rather than their life stories.

America’s two greatest war heroes were Ulysses Grant and Dwight Eisenhower. Grant saved the union. And Ike saved civilization.

And neither one ever bragged about their experience. (Can you imagine Ike smacking down Adlai Stevenson by saying that while Adlai ran a nice medium-sized state, he was the Supreme Allied Commander who ran D-Day, defeated Hitler, and liberated Europe?).

Impossible. Like Grant, Eisenhower did not brag.

Actually, modesty about military accomplishments is typical of war heroes and not just here. In Israel, it is unheard of for great military leaders to brag about their service.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak was the most decorated soldier in Israel’s history (he was a commando who, among other amazing feats, dressed as a woman — with a handful of soldiers — invaded a terrorist stronghold in Beirut, killed the terrorists, and then fled to a waiting dinghy and headed home). Yitzhak Rabin led the IDF in its Six Day War victory. Ariel Sharon saved Israel from destruction in 1973 when he snuck up behind the Egyptian army and encircled them in the Sinai.

None of these guys talked about it. McCain does. Continuously. His lack of modesty — about something war heroes tend to be modest about — does not become him.

Now it might well be true that Grant and Eisenhower were this reticent about using their military careers, but if so their modesty stands apart from a long pre-existing tradition. Perhaps President-Generals Washington, Jackson, Harrison, and Taylor did not personally make speeches about their war experiences, as far as I am aware, but the people who campaigned for them had no such compunctions, to say nothing of their lower-ranking successors Frank Pierce and Teddy Roosevelt. In the middle of the 19th century, bragging about war heroism was practically the default strategy of American presidential politics. There were campaign biographies galore, but probably more important were my true love (historical evidence division), the campaign songs. It was “The Hunters of Kentucky,” promoting Andrew Jackson’s role in the Battle of New Orleans, that really launched the trend:

I s’pose you’ve read it in the prints, how Packenham attempted
To make old Hickory Jackson wince, but soon his schemes repented;
For we with rifles ready cocked, thought such occasion lucky,
And soon around the general flocked the hunters of Kentucky.

You’ve heard, I s’pose, how New Orleans is famed for wealth and beauty
There’s girls of every hue, it seems, from snowy white to sooty.
So Packenham he made his brags, if he in fight was lucky,
He’d have their girls and cotton bags in spite of old Kentucky.

But Jackson he was wide awake, and wasn’t scared at trifles,
For well he knew what aim we take with our Kentucky rifles;
So he led us down to Cyprus swamp, the ground was low and mucky,
There stood John Bull in martial pomp, and here was old Kentucky.

A bank was raised to hide our breast, not that we thought of dying,
But then we always like to rest unless the game is flying;
Behind it stood our little force, none wished it to be greater,
For every man was half a horse and half an alligator.

Jackson won two terms against non-military opponents partly on the strength of such epic bragging. But his opponents were not to be outdone, unseating Jackson’s hand-picked successor in 1840 with an elderly veteran named William Henry Harrison. The Whigs’ campaign songs boasted even more broadly and folksily about Old Tippecanoe’s triumphs during the War of 1812 than Jackson’s had. Everybody knows “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too,” but there were many more, like “The Buckeye Song“:

In the end, I have to demur from M.J. Rosenberg’s broader interpretation of past American political practice. What is more unique and distinctively modern about John McCain’s politicization of his wartime service is the McCain story’s emphasis on suffering and endurance in the midst of military failure. There is a personal triumph there, to be sure, and a spiritual and psychological success. But surely there is a tremendous difference between the war record of a long-term POW in a losing cause and success as a field commander in a winning one. One might be said to make a bit more sense as a qualification for Commander-in-Chief than the other. Truly it took our modern therapeutic culture, in which people routinely publicize their past personal traumas as badges of honor and the subjects of best-selling books, to turn McCain’s sort of war heroism into a recommendation for high national office. [Probably the closest previous example at the presidential level would be the carefully retailed legend of JFK and PT-109. Even there, the war was won even if the boat was sunk.]


August 29, 2008

Vice Grip

Filed under: 2008 elections,Democrats,GOP,Past campaigns,Presidency — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 7:33 pm

. . . on the media’s imagination, blogosphere included.

Finally, we come to the sense-shattering climax of Veepstakes 2008. It does give the TV & blog people something to talk about, at least until the hurricanes hit. I don’t mean to be a killjoy. I have long been a fan of Joe Biden, despite his serial hopeless presidential candidacies, and choosing him was a nice, low-key way to address Obama’s East Coast Catholic and foreign policy flanks. And with this Sarah Palin pick, we finally have our 49th & 50th states represented on a national ticket (if we count Obama for Hawaii). Of course, I have not looked to check that North Dakota, Idaho, Rhode Island, and such have been covered, but we now can rest assured that Delaware and Alaska are in the bag.

Yet I would lose my political historian’s license if I did not emphasize just how little vice-presidential picks matter, electorally speaking. Voters vote for president, the top, nation-embodying office, and always have, even back in 1796 when only local electors were actually running.

Now, the fact that the Veep might have to assume the main office, we should take seriously. [Something McCain, apparently, does not take seriously.] The Whigs wished they could have had a do-over on that John Tyler pick, and the Radical Republicans nearly succeeded in doing Andrew Johnson over. Yet electorally, and barring presidential death, it has almost never been a big thing. Lyndon Johnson and John Nance Garner brought some Texas-style political muscle to their respective tickets, yeee-haawww, but Texas was still a Democratic state back then.

The example that seems to hang over the veep-stakes in recent times has been Missouri’s own Tom Eagleton from 1972. While the Democrats’ craven handling of that episode certainly did not help McGovern in November, the idea that a 49-state, 23-point pulping like 1972 could truly hinge on a momentary running mate snafu is the kind of thing that only a pundit could actually believe. Let’s just say there were some larger forces at work.

In most other presidential elections, even objectively disastrous picks have just not mattered. Dan Quayle, anyone? Take Dukakis running mate Lloyd Bentsen’s celebrated pantsing of Dan Quayle in 1988.

It became “one of the most famous moments in US political history” (per the YouTube caption) and entered the permanent cultural lexicon, all the way to getting referenced in children’s Christmas specials. Yet it hardly saved the Dukakis-Bentsen ticket, or even made any difference at all as far as I can tell. Perhaps a non-Quayle would have helped Bush père a bit more in 1992, but I am really just saying that to be nice.

1992 may only be the second-best example of why running mates don’t matter very much. The best one is probably 1836. Martin Van Buren’s controversial veep pick was Richard Mentor Johnson of Kentucky, a national hero in some circles for allegedly killing Tecumseh and fighting to keep the post offices open on Sunday. Suffice it to say that Johnson turned out to have some serious negatives. In a country where only white men could vote, and where questioning racism in any way drew vilification and mob violence, Johnson was exposed as having lived openly with an African-American woman named Julia Chinn and the couple’s two mixed-race daughters, whom Johnson educated and married off to white men. The Whig press, really still just proto-Whig at this point, heavily publicized Johnson’s private life and clucked that such race-mixing was the inevitable result of Democratic slumming and demagoguery. The U.S. would be seen as a “national of mulattoes” if Van Buren and Johnson were elected, one newspaper warned. A racist political cartoon was published depicting the Johnson family at home. [For an excellent article on the incident, see Thomas Brown, “The Miscegenation of Richard Mentor Johnson As an Issue in the National Election Campaign of 1835-1836,” Civil War History 39 (1993): 5-30.]

An Affecting Scene in Kentucky

Old Kinderhook’s problematic image down south was not improved by the controversy, but he won the election anyway, carrying Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Virginia, and other states not known for their open-mindedness on racial matters. Looking at the map, Johnson’s unorthodox living arrangements may have hurt Van Buren as much with northern bluenoses, also usually racists, as it did with southerners. At any rate, Van Buren was hardly doomed even by such a catastrophic pick as Johnson.

Andrew Sullivan’s take on the Sarah Palin pick seems about right. Ruth Rosen’s too, in a less happy vein:

Sarah Palin is the inexperienced woman Sen. John McCain has chosen as his running mate, hoping that she will attract the vital female vote. It’s the worst kind of affirmative action, choosing a person he barely knows, who is completely unprepared to assume any national office. It’s like nominating Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court.

You might even say it is the Republican version of affirmative action, where any member of the underrepresented group will do as along as they espouse GOP orthodoxy.

McCain’s “bold” move would also seem to be based on a fairly puerile piece of political analysis, as well: that disgruntled female Hillary supporters are so disgruntled they would now vote for any woman, even if she was only second place on the ticket and agreed with them on no issues. This seems based on typical old white guy assumptions about the narrow, shallow motivations of women and minorities seeking equality in votes and jobs.


August 22, 2008

The Regal Splendor of the Would-Be Presidential Palaces

Filed under: 2008 elections,Media,Past campaigns,Political culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 10:48 am

TPM and other center-to-left blogs are having a wonderful time with the story that has spun out of John McCain’s inability to remember just how many houses he and his wife own. (Start here and read up from there.) It has become a humorous way to highlight both the Republican candidate’s age and just how super-wealthy he and his wife actually are, to a degree that will surprise many voters who only know McCain from his maverick-esque talk show appearances. The count appears to be up at least eight luxury homes, but many more if you count separate dwelling units, and many many more if you use the spaces that most middle-class American families live in as your units.

Miraculously, the mainstream media (AP and CNN and ABC) are joining the story some, showing just a touch of shame for the DC press corps’ slavering promotion of McCain over the years. We can also hope that even some of the TV-star media types who have lavish lifestyle issues themselves may want to show their common touch by expressing some shock at the McCains’ wealth or even feel a twinge of jealousy that even they, nightly guests in every American living room, are not quite this rich. (The New York Times, however, continues to search for false equivalences. To paraphrase Steely Dan, the things that pass for objectivity I can’t understand.) What Obama really needs is for the late night comedians to pick this up.

Here is Obama hitting the theme cautiously, but reasonably well:


On to historical context: There is, of course, a long tradition in American presidential politics of attacking an opponent’s lavish lifestyle, especially in times of economic hardship. It will be interesting to see how badly this hurts McCain. In the past, the tactic has been most successfully used against incumbent presidents, often by opponents who were wealthier or represented wealthier interests than the candidate who was being attacked. So the forces supporting rich planter, slave dealer, and land speculator Andrew Jackson raked John Quincy Adams over his billiard table.

The most successful example from the Early Republic was the well-funded 1840 Whig campaign defining tavern-keeper’s son Martin Van Buren as a pampered aristocrat, while the country suffered through the depression following the Panic of 1837. The key document was a massive speech-turned-pamphlet about the furnishings and operating expenses of the White House, published under the title “The Regal Splendor of the President’s Palace.” Here is a little explanation from Common-Place‘s sturdy old precursor, American Heritage:

1840 One Hundred and Fifty Sixty-Eight Years Ago

. . . On April 14 the Whig congressman Charles Ogle of Pennsylvania addressed the House of Representatives on the subject of Van Buren’s White House. The President had asked Congress for $4,675 to renovate the Executive Mansion, and Ogle greeted the request with a three-day tirade in which he mercilessly vilified Martin Van Buren. The packed galleries laughed and cheered as the congressman described a plumed and perfumed dandy “strutting by the hour before golden-framed mirrors, NINE FEET HIGH and FOUR FEET and a HALF WIDE,” in a “PALACE as splendid as that of the Caesars, and as richly adorned as the proudest Asiatic mansion.” Van Buren was too vain to eat “those old and unfashionable dishes, ‘hog and hominy,’ ‘fried meat and gravy,’ … [and] a mug of ‘hard cider,’ ” Ogle said. On the presidential table instead were gold utensils and “Fanny Kemble Green finger cups,” into which the President dipped his “pretty tapering soft, white lily fingers, after dining on fricandaus de veau and omlette souffle.”

The only response from the White House was a simple certification that “no gold knives or forks or spoons of any description have been purchased for the President’s house since Mr. Van Buren became the Chief Magistrate of the Nation.” Ogle published his “gold spoon oration” at his own expense, and copies that circulated throughout the country made him famous. Ogle had set the tone for the Whig campaign that was to propel Gen. William Henry Harrison, the “hard-cider man” and war hero, to an overwhelming victory in November.

The American Heritage site also has an excerpt from Ogle’s speech, in fact more of a mini-edition of it. I am getting together a pdf of the whole thing, or perhaps we can convince the AAS to do that. Compare Ogle’s lovingly detailed descriptions of “the magnificent decorations of the Presidential palace”and its grounds matching “the style and fashion of some of the most celebrated royal gardens In England” to TPM’s post “Lifestyles of the Rich and Mavericky,” which includes a realtor’s listing of the McCains’ quite regal Phoenix mansion describing its “Finest entertaining backyard in the Valley – 3 ramadas (2 w/full bar set-up), BBQ, play house, cantera stone decking, pavillion, spa, and large lap/play pool.” Another parallel is that Ogle got the information he did not make up from a proud description of the White House from the pro-Van Buren Washington Globe and an administration appropriations request. Among the sources for McCain’s detractors are a spread in Architectural Digest about one of his pads and adoring video tours of the others from Fox News and McCain’s own campaign website.

McCain’s attacks on Obama as a celebrity, including an ad that jibed “Life in the Spotlight Must Be Grand,” would be more typical of the inversionist faux-populism that has worked in past campaigns. But it’s now looking (tentatively) like it may have backfired. People who live in eight glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, I guess.

This appears to be my 100th post on this blog, so I’m glad it was accidentally a double-size special issue.

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