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. read more

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.” read more

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. read more

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. read more

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. read more

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. read more

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. read more

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: read more