The Best and Worst Vice Presidents Ever

Published: Fusion (October 4, 2016)

As Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, and Republican Indiana Governor Mike Pence prepare to square off in this year’s sole vice presidential debate, it’s worth taking a moment to analyze the history of the office they seek to occupy next year.

The story of the vice presidency, like that of the presidency, is perhaps best told through the experiences of those individual vice presidents who left the biggest mark on the office. While there are many presidents whose names are widely known, only a handful of vice presidents are remembered—and with good reason. As one vice president famously remarked, the authors of the Constitution so neutered the position that in its own right it is “not worth a bucket of warm spit.” More than two centuries later, however, the position is much stronger than our forefathers had ever conceived of it—although even during the early years of the republic, it was always full of colorful characters.

Hall of Fame

John Adams – The first vice president

John Trumbull's portrait of John AdamsJohn Trumbull via Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

We can start with America’s first vice president, John Adams. Although best known for going on to become America’s second president, Adams left his mark on the vice presidency in notable ways—even if it wasn’t always for the best. As his biographer points out, Adams was seldom consulted by President Washington when it came to either policy or politics, setting the precedent for veep powerlessness that would last for a century-and-a-half. When he tried to take on a more active role presiding over the Senate—one of the vice president’s constitutionally-designated responsibilities—he was criticized for his pompous lectures. Despite casting the tie-breaking vote a record 31 times, he ultimately became despondent about just how little influence he really had. He later complained to his wife Abigail Adams: “My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.”

Thomas Jefferson – The vice president who really hated his boss

Rembrandt Peale portrait of Thomas JeffersonRebrandt Peale via Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

Unlike his immediate predecessor, Thomas Jefferson didn’t mindlimiting his role as vice president to maintaining procedure during Senate debates. Indeed, because he had been fascinated by parliamentary rules for most of his adult life, he actually enjoyed presiding over debates and impressing both sides with his impartiality. That said, Jefferson was bound to be a controversial figure during his vice presidency due to a quirk in the Constitution that awarded that office to the loser in the previous presidential election. This meant that Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican, had to serve under the administration of a Federalist, John Adams. Perhaps inevitably, Jefferson tried to undermine Adams’ policies throughout his administration, resulting in a rift between the two old friends that lasted until after Jefferson’s presidency ended more than a decade later. Fortunately for our country, the Twelfth Amendment corrected this flaw and was ratified in enough time to impact the very next presidential election.

John Tyler – The vice president who made the office matter

Daguerrotype of John Tylervia Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

John Tyler may be our most important vice president, since he was the first one whom history required to ascend to the office of the presidency. Although he had a reasonably cordial relationship with President William Henry Harrison, there was no reason to believe that he would be any more powerful under Harrison’s administration than any of the previous vice presidents had been during their tenures. One month into his presidency, however, Harrison unexpectedly took ill and died, immediately elevating Tyler to his place per the Constitution. Because no vice president had reached the presidency in this way, many of Harrison’s cabinet officers and advisers wanted to minimize his role. Tyler, however, insisted that he wasn’t merely an Acting President, but the legitimate President of the United States, and that he deserved the same respect and commanded the same authority as the nine presidents who came before him. Although his presidency proved tempestuous, Tyler’s interpretation won out, forcing future generations of American voters to consider their vice presidents as seriously as they did their presidents when casting their ballots.

Richard Nixon – A surprisingly solid vice president

American vice-president Richard Nixon talking to the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (1959)via Getty

Despite his infamous presidency, Richard Nixon’s vice presidency was actually one of the nation’s finest. After keeping his place on the Republican ticket through a brilliantly performed televised speech, Nixon became President Dwight Eisenhower’s de facto ambassador to the world, a role which he excelled in fulfilling. For instance, when touring Latin America in 1958, Nixon faced angry Marxist mobs in both Lima, Peru and Caracas, Venezuela, on the latter occasion even coming close to death. The following year, when touring the Soviet Union in a goodwill tour, he held his own in an impromptu debate with Premier Nikita Khrushchev in what were subsequently dubbed the “Kitchen Debate.” Although Nixon’s power as vice president was later minimized when Eisenhower couldn’t remember any major ideas that Nixon had contributed which the president adopted, this was unfair not only because Eisenhower’s remark was taken out of context, but because Nixon actually did a great deal to make the vice presidential office more influential.

Joe Biden – The vice president who should have run for president (again)

Democratic National Convention: Day ThreeGetty/Justin Sullivan

With a favorable rating of 57 percent, I suspect some Democrats deeply regret Joseph Biden’s decision to not run for president in this election—and those regrets would no doubt be increased if Biden’s performance as vice president was more widely known. When it was time to save America from the fiscal cliff or push for necessary (if ultimately unsuccessful) gun control legislation, Biden served as President Barack Obama’s point man, trusted aide, and friend. He also saved Obama from a potential loss in his reelection campaign against Mitt Romney through his stellar debate performance against the Republican vice presidential nominee, Congressman Paul Ryan. While Biden avoided crossing the lines of propriety that George W. Bush’s veep, Dick Cheney, regularly transgressed, he nevertheless became an integral player in the Obama presidency and has earned the right to be ranked as one of the better vice presidents our nation has had.

Hall of Shame

Aaron Burr – The vice president who killed someone

Duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. After the painting by J. Mund.J. Mund via Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

Aaron Burr, without question, deserves to be ranked at the very top of the Hall of Shame. As the last vice president elected before the ratification of the Twelfth Amendment, Burr schemed behind the scenes to get Congress to choose him as the new president instead of Jefferson. If the matter had not been resolved before Adams’ presidency ended, America (at that point less than a quarter-century old) would have had to continue without a president and almost certainly been plunged into crisis. When his last-ditch attempt to salvage his career—namely, becoming Governor of New York as a Federalist—was thwarted by Alexander Hamilton, Burr famously challenged Hamilton to a dueland then shot him to death. Oddly enough, this wasn’t the last time that a sitting vice president would make headlines by shooting someone (more on that later).

Andrew Johnson – The drunk vice president

pres_andrew_johnsonvia National Archives

Although Andrew Johnson is best known as the man who took over after President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, his ascension to the vice presidency is one of the most embarrassing our nation has ever seen. To understand why, turn to the words of an eyewitness who attended his inauguration, abolitionist Senator Zachariah Chandler of Michigan: “The inauguration went off very well except that the Vice President Elect was too drunk to perform his duties & disgraced himself & the Senate by making a drunken foolish speech.” Not surprisingly, Johnson kept a low profile in the weeks after this speech, and the likelihood is that his vice presidency would have been an insignificant one had it not been for John Wilkes Booth’s bullet less than two months later. While Johnson’s sympathies for the Southern states would have likely doomed his presidency even if he hadn’t made a spectacle of himself as vice president, his bout of highly public drunkenness certainly didn’t help matters.

Thomas Marshall – The vice president who had one job (and failed)

thomas_r-_marshall_cph-3a40666via Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

Thomas Marshall served under Woodrow Wilson. When President Wilson went overseas to negotiate the Treaty of Versailles (which ended World War I), he asked Marshall to preside over cabinet meetings—the first time any president had ever done so—and it seemed that Marshall’s influence over the office would be a positive one. After Wilson had a debilitating stroke in October 1919, however, civic duty compelled Marshall to inform the public and lead the nation for the final 17 months of the president’s term. Because Marshall felt insecure about his ability to effectively govern, however, he instead became complicit in a ruse by Wilson’s closest advisers to conceal the president’s condition and secretly govern the nation in his stead. Considering that a vice president’s main job is to take over in the event of the president’s death, resignation, or incapacitation, Marshall’s unwillingness to rise to the occasion wasn’t just a personal failure, but a national disgrace.

Spiro Agnew – The most corrupt vice president

Nixon And Agnew Wave On Campaign, c. 1968.Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Another disgraced vice president, Spiro Agnew, is best known for being one of two vice presidents to resign. Unlike John Calhoun, though, who stepped down to protest President Andrew Jackson’s policies, Agnew left office because he was about to be indicted by the Justice Department for political corruption, including accepting bribes. Because he was the first president to step down after the passage of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, he was replaced by Congressman Gerald Ford, and since Richard Nixon would have to resign due to Watergate less than a year later, Agnew’s corruption forced America to live under the presidency of its only unelected president (i.e., Ford). Ironically, because of Agnew’s trailblazing attacks on the so-called liberal media’s bias, he would have been in a prime position to lead America’s burgeoning conservative movement after Nixon left office. By failing to uphold ethical standards, Agnew denied himself the possibility of being Ronald Reagan before Ronald Reagan.

Dick Cheney – The vice president most like Darth Vader

Bush Makes Statement On War SupplementalGetty/Chip Somodevilla

It’s impossible to discuss the evolution of the vice presidency without arriving at Dick Cheney, who served as vice president under George W. Bush. Along with playing an instrumental role in convincing Bush to invade Iraq, Cheney was one of Bush’s chief overall policy advisers. In fact, he was so powerful that Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert provided him with an office near the floor of the House of Representatives. Cheney’s ability to concentrate policymaking power in his own hands—and his disturbingly secretive disposition—became so notorious that The Washington Post won the Pulitzer Prize for a four-part series of articles detailing just how much he had become the true President of the United States, despite Bush officially bearing that title. In addition to foreign policy, Cheney also upheld conservative orthodoxy in the development of economic policy and worked to promote business interests over environmental regulations. Of course, Cheney may ultimately be remembered best for sharing an odd distinction with Aaron Burr: having shot someone while in office—in his case, in a quail hunting accident.


If there is anything we can learn about the vice presidency for the upcoming debates, it is that the office has grown immensely since the days when it was “not worth a bucket of warm spit.” he precedents established by Cheney and Biden make it very likely that Kaine or Pence would play a meaningful part in the administrations of their Commanders-in-Chief. The vice presidency may not be as interesting as the presidency, but it matters—making it worthwhile to pay attention to what Kaine and Pence say on Tuesday night.

The best and worst moments in modern presidential debates

Published: Fusion (September 26, 2016)

As millions of Americans prepare to watch one of the most anticipated presidential debates ever, between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, it’s worthwhile to evaluate previous debates for a sense of what we should look for this year. What have been the best moments? What were the worst? When did our presidents and presidential candidates remind us of the best that our democracy has to offer—and when did their gaffes make us cringe for our country?

The Best:

John Kennedy (1960): Of all the televised presidential debates that have since become the stuff of legend, none are as important as the very first one. Seventy million people tuned in on September 26, 1960, to see Democratic candidate John Kennedy face off against Republican candidate Richard Nixon. The expectations couldn’t have been higher for Kennedy, whose comparative inexperience caused many to doubt whether he was up to the job of being president. Fortunately for Democrats, Kennedy instinctively understood what it took to excel in this format—namely, that you had to talk to the camera rather than your opponent. As journalist and historian Theodore H. White laterexplained, “For Mr. Nixon was debating with Mr. Kennedy as if a board of judges was scoring points; he rebutted and refuted, as he went, the inconsistencies or errors of his opponent. Nixon was addressing himself to Kennedy—but Kennedy was addressing himself to the audience that was the nation.”

Ronald Reagan (1980): While some observers believe the Clinton-Trump debates will break ratings records, at present the distinction for most watched presidential debate belongs to the single contest between incumbent President Jimmy Carter and his Republican challenger Ronald Reagan in 1980. As 80 million people watched throughout the nation, Reagan repeatedly humiliated Carter by reminding viewers of all his least popular qualities. When Carter attacked Reagan’s health care policy in shrill tones, Reagan cranked up his personal charm and quipped, “There you go again!” With the country amid an economic slump and chaos abroad, Reagan used his closing statement to ask voters the iconic question: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” A week later they answered by voting him into office.

Ronald Reagan (1984): Four years later, Reagan found himself in desperate need of a similarly fantastic debate performance. The first debate against Democrat Walter Mondale had been something of a disaster, with Reagan falling seven points in the polls after a performance that was widely regarded as lackluster and rambling (similar to criticisms made of President Barack Obama in his first debate against Mitt Romney in 2012). He needed to bounce back in the second debate—and he did. Asked by journalist Hank Trewhitt if his tired demeanor during his first debate against Mondale was the result of his age—Reagan was 73, making him the oldest presidential candidate in history up to that point—the former actor famously replied, “Not at all, Mr. Trewhitt, and I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” The reply didn’t address the substance of his critics’ concerns, but won over the audience by reminding them that their supposedly aging president could still employ his sharp wit.

Bill Clinton (1992): The town hall debate between Republican candidate President George H. W. Bush, Democratic candidate Bill Clinton, and Independent Ross Perot perfectly illustrates the importance of seizing on the opportunities arising from your opponent’s mistakes. After Bush was caught checking his watch during a question from an audience member, reinforcing the notion that he was out of touch, . Clinton showed off his personal charm At one point, the then Arkansas governor engaged with a voter who opened up about how people she knew had lost their jobs and homes during the ongoing recession. Clinton conveyed a sense of genuine compassion but also deftly transitioned to the themes of his campaign, including job creation, education, and health care reform. The moment encapsulated Clinton’s signature style—policy wonkery wrapped up in empathy—and propelled him to a win.

Lloyd Bentsen (1988) – Honorable mention: Though it is a vice-presidential debate moment, our next selection has nonetheless become one of the most quotable and iconic moments of televised political debates. Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis had selectedLloyd Bentsen as his running mate in large part because of the Texas senator’s extensive experience in Washington. A younger senator, George H.W. Bush’s running mate Dan Quayle, defended his thin resume by saying that he had as much experience as “Jack Kennedy.” Bentsen’s face could hardly conceal his horror, responding with an endlessly quotable put-down: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Quayle replied that the attack “was really uncalled for,” but Bentsen quickly rebuffed that by pointing out that Quayle had made the comparison. ”Frankly,” Bentsen said, “I think you are so far apart in the objectives you choose for your country that I did not think the comparison was well-taken.” Ouch!

The Worst:

Richard Nixon (1960): While Kennedy may have set a positive example for future candidates in the first televised president debate, Nixon wound up serving as a cautionary tale. Although he applied pancake makeup to conceal his facial hair during pre-debate preparations, he still appeared to have a heavy five o’clock shadow throughout the night. Even worse, the powder began to melt off of his face, causing visible beads of sweat to form that made him come across as anxious and uncomfortable. To top everything off, Nixon’s light gray suit only accentuated his pale skin tone, completing a sickly appearance that was made all the more unattractive when compared to Kennedy’s youthful vibrance. As media historian Alan Schroeder later wrote, “You couldn’t wipe away the image people had seared in their brains from the first debate.”

Gerald Ford (1976): Shortly before the 1976 Republican National Convention, President Gerald Ford was presented with a strategy notebook from many of his party’s top political minds (including then-Chief of Staff Dick Cheney). As reporter Jules Witcover later wrote, the notebook emphasized that his campaign had no room for “any substantial error.” Unfortunately for Ford, he committed a terrible error in one of his subsequent debates with the Democratic nominee, Jimmy Carter. Asked if the Helsinki Accords conceded dominance of Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union, President Ford infamously replied, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.” After a follow-up Ford reiterated that “each of those countries is independent, autonomous; it has its own territorial integrity. And the United States does not concede that those countries are under the domination of the Soviet Union.” Whatever Ford intended to say, his poor phrasing made it sound like he was unaware of this basic fact of 1970s geopolitics. For a president trying to fight an image of bumbling incompetence, this was exactly the kind of error he couldn’t afford.

Jimmy Carter (1980): To date, only one third-party candidate—Ross Perot in 1992—has ever appeared with both major party rivals on a nationally televised debate. But a dozen years earlier Independent candidate John B. Anderson, a liberal Republican congressman from Illinois, came close when he was accepted in a debate with both Carter and Reagan. Because Anderson was expected to take more votes away from Carter, though, the president opted not to appear on stage that night; his absence wound up doing tremendous damage to his re-election campaign. Both Reagan and Anderson seized on the opportunity to take the high ground, although Anderson’s observation was the more insightful one: “President Carter was not right a few weeks ago when he said that the American people were confronted with only two choices, with only two men, and with only two parties,” Anderson remarked. “I respect [Reagan] for showing tonight.” As Carter learned the hard way, losing votes to a third-party challenger is nothing compared to the risk of allowing your main opponent to look magnanimous.

George W. Bush (2004): Like Ford in 1976, President George W. Bush needed to shake his image of ineptitude during his re-election campaign in 2004. While he ultimately prevailed over the Democratic candidate, Senator John Kerry, the Republican nominee was nearly derailed by a wardrobe malfunction that confirmed many voters’ suspicions about his intellect—or lack thereof. As television viewers and Internet commenters quickly pointed out, a black bulge was plainly visible on the back of the president’s suit during their first televised debate. Although the White House tried to laugh off the allegations that this proved he was having answers secretly transmitted to him, a NASA photo analyst soon declared, “I am willing to stake my scientific reputation to the statement that Bush was wearing something under his jacket during the debate.” Common sense confirms this assumption, and even though this wasn’t a disaster for President Bush, it remains one of the most obvious and shameful moments of chicanery ever exposed during a televised debate.

Bernard Shaw (1988) – Honorable mention: When the story of the 1988 presidential election is told, much focus is placed on the ineffectual campaign waged by the Democratic candidate, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukaki. Yet while Dukakis did make many mistakes, he was also the target of one of the most tasteless questions ever posed by a debate moderator. Referring to his wife, Kitty, Bernard Shaw asked Dukakis, “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” The inappropriate question put Dukakis in the lose-lose position where he would either come across as overly-emotional if he became visibly upset, or insensitive if he stuck to his policy positions. For better or worse, Dukakis opted to do the latter, reiterating his opposition to capital punishment. In retrospect, his composure was admirable, but he still walked away as the perceived loser that night, and unfairly so.

What to watch for tonight: If Clinton and Trump can learn anything from these past contenders’ debate experiences, it is that you win debates by playing to TV as a medium—looking good, producing memorable lines, exuding empathy—and that you lose by being unprepared or behaving in a transparently unethical manner. Sometimes factors beyond one’s control also intervene, be they overactive sweat glands or unfair questions from the moderators. But for the most part, televised debates offer candidates an ideal opportunity to sink or swim based entirely on their own efforts.

Hillary’s health and history: She’s not the first candidate to face major medical questions

Published: Salon (September 16, 2016)

After Hillary Clinton nearly collapsed at a 9/11 ceremony earlier this week, allegedly due to pneumonia and overheating, the American public is naturally concerned. On the one hand, people wonder whether Clinton is healthy enough to assume the presidency. On the other, they face the fact that ruling Clinton out for health reasons may lead to the election of a truly dangerous man. What should the voting public do?

In situations like this, recent history can be a useful guide. Although many presidents have struggled with health issues, there are three from the last century or so who did so during the thick of an election campaign: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy.

When Roosevelt sought an unprecedented fourth term in 1944 against Republican candidate Thomas E. Dewey — a young and inexperienced New York governor best known as a prosecutor who took down several organized crime syndicates — America was still waging World War II, transitioning toward a postwar economy and girding itself for an impending military rivalry with the Soviet Union. Needless to say, the fate of the world literally hinged on making sure the right leadership was in charge during this time, which observers were quick to note when pointing out that Roosevelt looked gravely ill throughout the year. Rumors of health problems swirled around the beleaguered Democrat, who nevertheless selected an inexperienced Missouri senator named Harry Truman as his running mate. As it turns out, the whispering campaign had merit — Roosevelt had received a doctor’s note that July warning that he likely would not survive four more years in the White House, and he wound up dying of a stroke less than three months into his new term. Whilehistorians generally believe Truman did an adequate job assuming Roosevelt’s responsibilities (deciding whether to use the atomic bomb against Japan being one of the first), that had more to do with good luck than deliberate planning on FDR’s part.

This brings us to the election of 1956. In September 1955, before President Dwight Eisenhower had decided whether or not he would seek re-election, he suffered a serious heart attack and was hospitalized for six weeks. During that time, Vice President Richard Nixon worked closely with Eisenhower’s advisers to keep the government running despite the commander-in-chief’s absence. Because Eisenhower was forthcoming about his medical condition, the voting public was able to engage in open debate over the implications of this unexpected crisis throughout the ensuing election cycle. Eisenhower’s Democratic opponent, for the second consecutive election, was Illinois Sen. Adlai Stevenson, a moderate intellectual widely regarded as mentally and physically fit for higher office. But voters were satisfied enough with Eisenhower’s performance — and, presumably, with Nixon’s interim administration during Eisenhower’s convalescence — that they re-elected him by an even larger margin than he had received four years earlier.

Finally there is Kennedy. When JFK sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960, he was forced to ward off rumors that he suffered from Addison’s Disease, or adrenal insufficiency, due to his adrenal glands being almost completely gone. Not only did Kennedy deny that he had the condition, he frequently mentioned the fact that his chief rival for the nomination, Lyndon Johnson, had had a heart attack five years earlier.

After Kennedy’s death, however, two pathologists confirmed that he had Addison’s, and it was subsequently revealed that he medicated himself by taking adrenal hormone, cortisone and other supplements. Although the disease was treatable, it was still potentially fatal, and the hormone therapy could cause mood swings, stomach inflammation and ulcers. Had the public known about this when Kennedy faced off against Republican candidate Richard Nixon in the extremely close general election of 1960, it’s entirely possible he would have lost.

There are two main lessons to be learned from these historical incidents. First and foremost, every presidential candidate has an ethical responsibility to disclose potential health problems that could compromise his or her ability to serve as president. One has to wonder whether Roosevelt rationalized not revealing his doctor’s concerns because he had spent more than a decade hiding his paraplegia. , Regardless, there is a considerable difference between concealing an irrelevant disability and concealing an ailment that could impair one’s physical or mental fitness. Roosevelt’s myriad health problems and Eisenhower’s heart attack both raised the question of whether they could live out their terms in office, while Kennedy’s hormonal problems raised doubt as to his emotional fitness. For better or worse, the public has the right to know these things so it can make an informed decision about how to vote.

As Eisenhower demonstrated, a presidential candidate can be open about serious medical problems and still win an election. Even electing an ailing president can often be better than choosing someone with serious character or ideological flaws. While there is no way of knowing for sure how Dewey, Stevenson or Nixon would have performed had they won their respective elections, we can safely infer a few things. Dewey would have taken more isolationist positions than Roosevelt, because of where the Republicans stood on foreign policy at that time. Nixon, who was never favorably disposed to racial minorities, would have been much less sympathetic to civil rights than Kennedy was.

That said, the differences between Roosevelt/Truman and Dewey, Eisenhower/Nixon and Stevenson, and Kennedy/Johnson and Nixon are nothing compared to the gulf separating Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine from this year’s Republican nominee. Throughout this campaign, Trump has blatantly pandered to racism, heaped praise on Vladimir Putin and demonstrated a terrifying willingness to start nuclear war, to name only three of the many things that work against him. When a candidate like Trump is one option, both Clinton and Kaine emerge as far superior alternatives, regardless of any potential health issues. While history makes it clear that Clinton should be more forthcoming about her current health problems, it also teaches us that there are consequences to elections which transcend such questions.

If there is any benefit to the sudden focus on Clinton’s health, it’s that this moment offers Americans another opportunity to place current events in historical context. The questions raised by Clinton’s crisis at the 9/11 memorial aren’t black-and-white. It is troubling that the Democratic nominee has been so secretive about her health, given our experiences with past presidents. Clinton’s doctor has now said her medical problems are minor, and that she should be fine once the pneumonia clears up. Yet even if the worst is true regarding Clinton’s health, that doesn’t end the conversation regarding whether she should win this election. Consider the alternative.

The Age of Tangents

Published: The Good Men Project (August 30, 2016)

When I wrote this article on my personal blog almost six years ago, I had no idea that it would remain so prescient today. There is very little that I would change from that post, so I’m publishing it unchanged here.

John Kenneth Galbraith, an influential liberal economist who served under four Democratic presidents, once made this observation about the nature of leadership:

All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership.

This quote, though wise in any period of history, struck me as being particularly prescient when I began to reflect on the legacies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. After all, the historian in me knows that the final assessment rendered in textbooks about America’s presidents usually comes from their success or failure in confronting the major crises of their time. When Abraham Lincoln is regarded as among our greatest leaders, it is because of his triumphs in eradicating slavery and preserving the Union; when Franklin Roosevelt is similarly lauded, it is because of his creativity and effectiveness in guiding America through the Great Depression and Second World War. Inversely, the presidents who preceded each of these men – James Buchanan and Herbert Hoover, respectively – are often regarded as dismal failures precisely because they fell short in their struggles to deal with the pressing issues of the day (Southern secession in the case of Buchanan, the Great Depression in the case of Hoover).

How do Bush and Obama measure up to this standard? When their presidencies are viewed through the Galbraithan lens, an interesting theme becomes apparent: i.e., not only that both men failed to successfully address the crises that defined their tenures, but that in lieu of this, they squandered the enormous political capital with which those crises had temporarily endowed them in order to pursue digressionary policies.

Simply put… instead of providing America with leadership, Bush and Obama went off on tangents.

The defining issue of George W. Bush’s presidency came on September 11, 2001, when Osama bin Laden led a group of Muslim radicals in a series of bloody terrorist attacks that took thousands of American lives. As was the case with Woodrow Wilson after the exposure of the Zimmermann telegram or Franklin Roosevelt after the Pearl Harbor bombing, George W. Bush’s mission was now clear – to bring to justice the individuals and organizations responsible for wronging America. In Bush’s case, the most important facet of this mission rested in apprehending Osama bin Laden.

In that mission, Bush was a failure. This was certainly not for want of political capital; Americans tend to cast aside partisan differences and unite behind their leaders when the danger of a crisis makes it clear that this is necessary, and Bush benefited from this much as Wilson and Roosevelt had before him. Yet rather than tap this solidarity so as to launch the military campaign required by the needs of the times, Bush focused instead on waging a war against Iraq and its dictator, Saddam Hussein. This decision was noteworthy for two reasons:

The biggest danger of a Trump victory in November is not a Trump presidency; it’s what comes next

Published: Fusion (August 5, 2016)

When Rep. Richard Hanna became the first sitting Republican congressman to endorse Hillary Clinton instead of Donald Trump, he observed that his party had “largely alienated women, Hispanics, the LGBT community, young voters and many others in general.” While this comment wasn’t the focus of his editorial, it spoke to a larger truth about the significance of this presidential election.

Every quarter-century or so, there is a single milestone presidential election that defines our national political scene for the next generation. This year’s contest will be that landmark election for our generation. Which is to say, there’s more at stake than four or eight years of President Donald Trump. The outcome in November will likely usher in a new political era that could last for decades — just as the major milestone elections of our recent past have done.

The first milestone election of the modern era was in 1932, when the onset of the Great Depression doomed Republican President Herbert Hoover to defeat. His successor, Franklin Roosevelt, shrewdly spent his administration passing economic and social reforms that earned the allegiance of blue-collar workers, low-income Americans, and ethnic minorities, even while retaining the Democrats’ traditional support in the South. This so-calledNew Deal coalition kept the Democrats in control of the White House for 28 of the next 36 years, right until the party’s support for civil rights and other left-wing social programs in the 1960s alienated the South as well as conservative white voters from all economic backgrounds.

Although some scholars trace the dawn of our current era with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, I personally believe that it began with the election of 1968. That was the year when Republican Richard Nixon capitalized on Southern and conservative white disenchantment with liberalism to not only defeat Democrat Hubert Humphrey, but forge a durable right-wing coalition that allowed Republicans to dominate presidential politics for 20 of the following 24 years. By the 1992election, however, the ugliness of the party’s bigotry against African Americans, Latinos, women, and other marginalized groups began to take its toll. Although Democrat Bill Clinton’s defeat of Republican President George H. W. Bush was largely fueled by the floundering economy, the GOP had started to self-destruct by allowing its fringe elements to increasingly control its internal politics. Democrats recognized this, drew attention to it, and used it to help win four of the six presidential elections from 1992 to 2012 – five if you count the 2000 election, in which they won the popular vote but lost due to chicanery in Florida. As the nation grew alienated from the Republicans’ reactionary reputation, and as the angry white men who had formed their core support since the Nixon era began to shrink compared to women and non-whites, a “Blue Wall” began to emerge.

If you haven’t heard the term “Blue Wall,” it refers to the 242 electoral votes that Democrats have been able to reliably win in every election since 1992… and it brings us to the stakes in the 2016 election. Because Trump polls very poorly among women,Hispanics, and basically any other group that isn’t already conservative, white, and male, his only chance of winning this year is to pick up the two largest states outside of the Blue Wall (Florida and Ohio) as well as Pennsylvania, a state that hasn’t voted Republican since 1988 (before the last milestone election). In addition to this, he must keep all of the states that Mitt Romney won for the Republicans in 2012, including ones that are very close, like North Carolina. This will not be easy given Trump’s polarizing reputation; even though both he and Clinton have high unfavorability ratings, Clinton has the luxury of being able to fall back on an electoral model that has worked well for her party’s nominees over the past quarter-century. Trump, on the other hand, has to break those precedents.

What if he does, though? Because he has staked his presidential campaign on bigotry against Mexicans and Muslims – and was nominated over the fierce opposition of the establishment in his own party – Trump’s ability to be elected despite the Blue Wall, or by breaking it, will almost certainly result in a transformation of the American zeitgeist. Instead of overt prejudice being viewed as politically toxic, it will instead be perceived as a potent way to shake things up and achieve victories. Rather than future Republican candidates looking at Trump as a latter-day William Jennings Bryan – i.e., as someone whose model needs to be avoided at all costs (he was the loser in the landmark presidential election of 1896) – it will be perceived as one to be emulated, redefining our political culture for years to come.

There are already early signs of this in Republican moderates like Chris Christie casting their lot with Trump, no doubt because they see his path as the way of the future. If Trump becomes president, however, he will be empowered by the existing Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, and can mold the judiciary with at least one new Supreme Court pick (he’ll quite likely have more, as three of the sitting judges are over 75). This will give him an unprecedented amount of power over American policy, and will further compel the GOP to tow his line. The Tea Party revolution, instead of merely being able to throw sand into the gears of government, will have complete mastery over all three branches of the federal state.

By contrast Trump’s defeat will, at the very least, reinforce the notion that appeals to bigotry don’t play anymore on the presidential level. This was a conclusion that Republican leaders had already reached after the 2012 election, when the party’s postmortem analysis concluded that they needed to stop dismissing the concerns of women, the LGBT community, and minorities. Because many in the party’s base are unwilling to abandon their prejudices, they flouted the GOP leaders’ wishes and nominated a man who goes against the grain of that logic. They can only do this so many times, though, before it becomes clear that it will merely continue the electoral drought that they have suffered, largely, since 1992. If they want to win, they’ll need to find a candidate who espouses conservative ideals without tying them into racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and various other forms of hatred. It will behoove them to think more like Rep. Hanna and less like The Donald.

When you hear people talk about how the 2016 election is one of the most important in our history, this is why. Yes, there are legitimate concerns about Trump’s intellect and authoritarian tendencies – and both do raise significant fears about what would happen if the man actually becomes the leader of the world’s greatest superpower – but in terms of American political history, the real threat is that he will reshape American politics in his image. If he manages to defy a generation of precedent and defeat Hillary Clinton, he will usher in an age of Trump that will last long after his tenure in the White House has expired. America’s electoral map will have been redrawn by Trumpism, and it is his nation that we will inhabit for the generation to follow. The only way to prevent this from happening is to make it clear that America is still a nation that takes pride in its diversity … and that those who run against it will always lose.

Avoiding the mistakes of conventions past: Can the parties steer clear of these historical pitfalls?

Published: Salon (July 16, 2016)

In anticipation of the upcoming Democratic and Republican conventions later this month, it seems appropriate to brace ourselves for something historic. After all, Hillary Clinton is the first woman ever to be nominated by a major party, as well as a traditionally polarizing figure who only recently managed to win the endorsement of her chief rival, Bernie Sanders. Meanwhile, Donald Trump is, if anything, more controversial, so much so that many of his rallies have been marked by outbursts of violence.

To understand what might occur when each candidate is nominated, it helps to look at other national conventions from our recent history.
Conventions that have led to third-party insurgencies (Republicans in 1912, Democrats in 1948)
The two most conspicuous examples here include the Republican convention of 1912and the Democratic convention of 1948. On both occasions, an incumbent president who had just been renominated faced staunch opposition from interparty factions that opposed large sections of his agenda: In 1912, it was President William Taft, who was accused of being too conservative on economic issues by former president Theodore Roosevelt and the progressives, and in 1948 it was President Harry Truman who was criticized for taking too strong a stance in favor of African-American civil rights by predominantly Southern segregationists. Because neither faction got what they wished, both conventions ended with the dissatisfied bolting and running third-party alternatives — although it’s notable that, while the dissident progressives wound up winning more votes than the actual Republican nominee in 1912 (in part because Roosevelt had always intended to challenge Taft in the general election if he couldn’t get nominated himself), Strom Thurmond’s third-party campaign as a Dixiecrat failed to thwart Truman’s election in 1948.Could either of those things happen in 2016? Now that Bernie Sanders has endorsed Hillary Clinton, it seems much less likely that this will occur on the Democratic side. That said, the burden will rest on Sanders to deliver a helluva nomination speech, and even then there is the looming risk that many in the Sanders camp will vociferously refuse to accept a candidate whose ideology is a moderated version of their own. By contrast, if any of the anti-Trump Republicans are going to bolt from the GOP, it is quite likely that they will do so for the candidate already nominated by one of America’s main third parties, Libertarian Gary Johnson. That said, because party luminaries like Mitt Romney are already openly contemplating exactly that, Trump will have his work cut out for him.

Conventions that have embarrassed the party with outbursts of violence (Republicans in 1964, Democrats in 1968)

On the last occasion that the extreme right-wing took over the Republican Party and nominated one of its own as their presidential candidate (Barry Goldwater), the year was 1964 and the resulting GOP convention was nothing short of a televised debacle. The spectacle of moderates like Gov. Nelson Rockefeller being jeered in the most vulgar language from pro-Goldwater delegates — to say nothing of the threats of physical violence that lurked beneath the surface — marred Goldwater’s coronation and cemented the nation’s image of him as a dangerous radical. Things were even worse for the Democratic convention in 1968, when the party’s inability to mollify critics of the Vietnam War led to outbursts of violence among protesters in the streets of Chicago, helping destroy the candidacy of Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

Both of these outcomes seem quite possible in 2016 — but definitely more so on Trump’s side. Certainly, Clinton’s supporters will be magnanimous in victory and, so long as Sanders can rein in the Bernie Bros, it’s unlikely that his backers will openly embarrass him with rhetorical or physical violence against Clinton and her supporters. By contrast, it is no secret that many in the Trump camp are openly contemptuous of the Republican Party establishment and vice versa, and given the vulgar language commonly used by both Trump and his alt-right supporters, it won’t take much for an incident to humiliate them on national television. Similarly, because Trump’s incendiary rhetoric has inspired violence among his supporters and because America has already seen ugly relations between law enforcement and racial minority citizens, the likely presence of Black Lives Matter and other protest groups to object to Trump’s political message could prove to be a political powder keg … although unlike Humphrey, who abhorred violence and was devastated by the bloodshed at his convention, Trump’s hyperviolent brand may actually benefit from his knack for stirring a tempest and then blaming the victims who were tossed.

Incompetent conventions (Democrats in 1972, Republicans in 1992)

Although Democratic nominee George McGovern was likely to lose the 1972 presidential election regardless of the convention because of his left-wing views (which would be considered moderate by modern standards), it didn’t help that his inept campaign staff chose a vice presidential running mate with an undisclosed history of mental illness and scheduled his nomination speech for 3 a.m. ET. TheRepublican convention in 1992 wasn’t much better, foolishly allowing the far right-wing Pat Buchanan — President George H. W. Bush’s chief rival for the nomination that year — to speak without removing the more inflammatory misogynistic and homophobic rhetoric from his endorsement speech.

Frankly, both sides seem capable of committing similar acts of incompetence in 2016. Although Bernie Sanders’ democratic socialist language may wash well with the Democratic Party base, it could have a toxic effect on national audiences, a possibility that Clinton needs to take into consideration when vetting his inevitable speech. Similarly, because the Trump campaign is largely run by neophytes not dissimilar to the crew that nominated McGovern in ‘72, it will be especially imperative for them to stay on top of the ball when it comes to the nuts-and-bolts of making sure all the gears of the convention click into place.
If one positive can be said about the 2016 presidential election, it is that it’s shaping up to be one of the most memorable contests of all time. Unfortunately, when previous national conventions have made history, it has usually been for ugly reasons rather than uplifting ones. With any luck, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will be nominated by their respective parties without incident.

America has had a tyrant like Trump before: We fought a revolution to get rid of him

Published: Salon (July 4, 2016)

As America celebrates its 240th anniversary, the Donald Trump campaign confronts us with the vivid possibility that our democracy could look vastly different if he’s elected.

No, I’m not implying that Trump is another Adolf Hitler. You don’t need to be a latter-day Fuehrer to hold positions antithetical to the spirit of the Declaration of Independence. That said, when you look at Trump’s avowed ideology, it becomes apparent that he has inadvertently aped the very tyrant whose reign prompted the American Revolution in the first place… King George III.

To understand why, let’s look at three of the grievances identified by the Continental Congress in 1776:

“He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.”

The Naturalization Act of 1740 was hardly an ideal immigration law, at least by modern standards, since it only extended to Protestants and (under certain circumstances) Quakers and Jews… and definitely not Catholics. Nevertheless, the statute held that any foreigner who resided in one of the American colonies for at least seven years without being absent for more than two months would automatically become a citizen. Considering that subsequent scholars extended the Declaration of Independence’s proclamation that “all men are created equal” to groups excluded by the founding fathers (including African-Americans and women), it stands to reason that we can do likewise with the importance of the rights of immigrants. When Trump demonizes undocumented Mexican immigrants who come here in the hope of creating better lives for themselves and their families, or when he threatens to bar all Muslims from coming to this country because of the terrorist acts of a small minority, he puts himself at odds with our formative document.

“He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.”

When Trump attacked U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel for being Mexican-American, he was rightly condemned as a bigot. That said, his comments also revealed a disturbing tendency to violate the doctrine of judicial independence that has been essential to curbing executive power. Trump’s comments about Judge Curiel weren’t just racist; they also contained the implicit threat that he would defy the court if it attempted to act against him during his presidency. Similarly, Trump has promised to “open up the libel laws” so that he can sue his critics, an act that would require him to disregard the entire judicial system when it attempts to protect citizens’ right to free speech. Combine these statements with his basic lack of knowledge about the structure of our Constitution, and it becomes disturbingly clear that Trump doesn’t view himself as beholden to the judiciary.

“He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.”

When Trump was told that the military would be obliged to disobey his orders if he told them to kill terrorists’ families (which violates international law), he ominously replied that “if I say do it, they’re gonna do it.” Like his comments about Judge Curiel, Trump’s response here belies a belief that upon being elected president, he would quite literally be the end-all of political power in this country. Bear in mind, this answer came from the same man who admitted that he might have supported interning Japanese-Americans during World War II. Although Trump’s supporters may be voting for an authoritarian, our government was formed in large part to prevent tyrants from using the armed forces to actively violate civil authority and civil rights.

Although this article has criticized Trump for violating the spirit of the Declaration of Independence, that doesn’t mean he would be the first president to do so. I’m sure that liberals, conservatives and everyone in between can point to past presidents and policies that they believe were similarly disrespectful to the intent of our founding document. Nevertheless, there is a spirit of overt radicalism to Trump’s campaign that has no parallel in American political history. Even the most overzealous conservative critics of Barack Obama or liberal critics of George W. Bush would have to concede that, despite their shrill declarations that these men would destroy our freedom, they at the very least put on the pretense of wanting to preserve the American way of government.

Trump, by contrast, seems to view himself and his movement as something fundamentally different. He wants to “make America great again” through the imprint of his own personality. To do this, he is telling the people that — as Thomas Jefferson wrote — “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” To do this, he says, we simply need to put him in power. This makes it all the more cruelly ironic that Trump has so much more in common with the tyrant we overthrew than the freedom fighters we celebrate today.

Grover Cleveland and the Current Political Climate

Published: The Good Men Project (July 2, 2016)

The context was the election of 1892. Cleveland had served a single term as president from 1885 to 1889, but had been defeated in his first re-election bid by former Senator Benjamin Harrison of Indiana. Normally that would have marked the end of Cleveland’s presidential career, as it had for the previous three presidents who had sought a second term and lost (John Adams, John Q. Adams, and Martin Van Buren). In Cleveland’s case, however, there were two extenuating circumstances that ultimately worked to his political benefit:

1) He had actually won the popular vote, albeit by a very small margin (0.7%), and could thus lay claim to a moral if not actual victory (which in a democracy is a very powerful argument indeed).

2) Cleveland’s four years in office had been marked by a strong dedication to reform that was in high acclaim at the time – he had put a stop to the corrupt spoils system that had contaminated politics for so many years, insisted on fiscal restraint and an end to pork barreling, vetoed legislation that he viewed as profligate or only serving the interest of individual special interest groups, and strengthened the policy-making and politcal landscape-shifting prerogatives of the presidency for the first time since Andrew Johnson by coming out in favor of tariff reduction (even though he could have easily skirted the issue) and thereby forcing the upcoming 1888 elections to be fought on the terms that he dictated. In short, Cleveland’s first term in office, though not perfect, had been a very definite success.

As such, Cleveland was able to win re-election handily in 1892, making him the first and so far only president to serve two non-consecutive terms. Given the high esteem in which Cleveland was held, Harrison’s own deep unpopularity, and the fact that the Democrat had been elected by the widest popular margin in sixteen years, the jubilation that greeted Cleveland’s victory was especially pronounced. Yet even as Cleveland’s supporters celebrated, the soon-to-be-restored leader was somber, for reasons that he soon articulated to his friends:

While we find in our triumph a result of popular intelligence which we have aroused, and a consequence of popular vigilance which we have stimulated, let us not for a moment forget that our accession to power will find neither this intelligence nor this vigilance dead or slumbering. We are thus brought face to face with the reflection that if we are not to be tormented by the spirits which we ourselves have called up, we must hear, above victorious shouts, the call of our countrymen to public duty, and must put on a gar befitting public servants.
 

The parallels between Cleveland’s election in 1892 and current presidential elections, though hardly precise, are nonetheless close enough in many important aspects to be relevant today. Grover Cleveland entered the White House on March 4, 1893, with the highest of expectations surrounding his impending leadership. Because of his inability to address the terrible economic crisis in which the nation was subsequently plunged, he would leave it four years later as a pariah. Regardless of whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump is sworn in on January 20, 2017, he or she will likewise face high expectations. Will they be able to live up to them? Perhaps – but only if they don’t allow the heady vapors of success to cloud their judgment.

A musing on this Saturday afternoon.