Miller Center

Riding The Tiger

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Harry S. Truman

This Week in History: The Speech that Won Lincoln the Republican Nomination

Photograph of Abraham Lincoln

The most famous of the beardless poses, taken by Mathew B. Brady on Monday morning, February 27, 1860, only a few hours before Lincoln delivered his Cooper Union address. That speech and this portrait, Lincoln afterwards said, put him in the White House.

Last night, Daniel Day Lewis took home an Oscar for his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln and became the first actor to win three lead Oscars. This week also marks an important milestone in the life of the real Abraham Lincoln, without which there likely would have been no president, and perhaps no movie or third Oscar for Lewis.

On February 27, 1860, Abraham Lincoln delivered a speech that played a pivotal role in his gaining the 1860 Republican Presidential nomination. In the well-researched Cooper Union Address, President Lincoln argued that of the 39 signers of the Constitution, 21 had voted at least once, some more than once, for the restriction of slavery in National Territories, thus “showing that, in their understanding, no line dividing local from federal authority, nor anything else, properly forbade the federal government to control as to slavery in federal territory.” The address was a stunningly effective argument demonstrating that the founding fathers intended Congress to regulate slavery and it provided a coherent justification for the Republican Party's opposition to slavery's extension.

Lincoln told the crowd of 1,500 New Yorkers, some of them prominent members of the Republican Party:

It is surely safe to assume that the 39 framers of the original Constitution, and the 76 members of the Congress which framed the amendments thereto, taken together, do certainly include those who may be fairly called "our fathers who framed the government under which we live." And so assuming, I defy any man to show that any one of them ever, in his whole life, declared that, in his understanding, any proper division of local from federal authority, or any part of the Constitution, forbade the federal government to control as to slavery in the federal territories. I go a step further. I defy any one to show that any living man in the whole world ever did, prior to the beginning of the present century, (and I might almost say prior to the beginning of the last half of the present century,) declare that, in his understanding, any proper division of local from federal authority, or any part of the Constitution, forbade the federal government to control as to slavery in the federal territories. To those who now so declare, I give, not only "our fathers who framed the government under which we live," but with them all other living men within the century in which it was framed, among whom to search, and they shall not be able to find the evidence of a single man agreeing with them.

Miller Center Celebrates President’s Day with Panel on 2012 Election

The Elections of 2012, President’s Day Panel

In a special Presidents’ Day event last Monday, the Miller Center brought together top scholars to reflect on and analyze the 2012 elections. Participants included the Miller Center's Oral History Program Senior Fellow and Editor Michael Nelson, Rhodes College, as well as Nicole Mellow, Williams College; Marian Currinder, Georgetown University; and David Mayhew, Yale University.  The session was moderated by the Miller Center's Director of Democracy & Governance Studies, Sid Milkis. Read on for highlights of the session and watch the video for more in-depth analysis of the 2012 election.

This Day in History: Only Nixon could go to China

President and Mrs. Nixon visit the Great Wall of China and the Ming tombs.

President and Mrs. Nixon visit the Great Wall of China and the Ming tombs. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration. Photo by Byron E. Schumaker. PD.

On this day in 1972, President Richard M. Nixon and his entourage, including National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and Secretary of State William Rogers, landed in Beijing for an historic trip to China. It was "The week that changed the world," as President Nixon called his eight-day trip that included official meetings, cultural visits, and sightseeing in Beijing, Hangchow, and Shanghai. According to Nixon biographer Stephen Ambrose:

He knew that when his old friend John Foster Dulles had refused to shake the hand of Chou En-lai in Geneva in 1954, Chou had felt insulted. He knew too that American television cameras would be at the Peking airport to film his arrival. A dozen times on the way to Peking, Nixon told Kissinger and Secretary of State William Rogers that they were to stay on the plane until he had descended the gangway and shaken Chou En-lai’s hand. As added insurance, a Secret Service agent blocked the aisle of Air Force One to make sure the president emerged alone.

The trip was widely televised and viewed. On February 27, the U.S. and China issued a joint communiqué, later known as the Shanghai Communiqué, which pledged both countries to work for "normalization" of relations, and to expand "people-to-people contacts" and trade opportunities and for the United States to withdraw gradually from Taiwan.

In October 1967, when he was running for president, Nixon wrote in a Foreign Affairs piece:

Taking the long view, we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations. There is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation.

But the depth of Nixon’s commitment to a new relationship with China was difficult to judge. During his first years in office, Nixon sensed an opportunity as relations between the Soviet Union and China continued to deteriorate. Reversing Cold War precedent, he publicly referred to the country by its official name, the People's Republic of China.

In Spring 1971, Mao Zedong invited an American table tennis team to China for some exhibition matches. Following the breakthrough of sorts, Nixon sent Kissinger to China to engage in secret meetings with Chinese officials, thus laying the ground for Nixon’s trip the following year.

As one of the most anti-Communist politicians of the Cold War, Nixon was in a unique position to launch a diplomatic opening to China, leading to the birth of a new political maxim: "Only Nixon could go to China." It was only a first step, but a decisive one, in the budding rapprochement between the two countries.

Read more about Nixon’s presidency, including his trip to China, here.

Should We Celebrate the Federal Income Tax?

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the federal income tax. Curious about its origins and development? Molly Michelmore, an associate professor of history at Washington and Lee University and former Miller Center Fellow, offers her views in the Washington Post.

The federal income tax was once quite popular. According to Michelmore:

After the Civil War, the federal government relied on a combination of consumption taxes and high tariffs to raise revenue. Both bore most heavily on regular people while doing little to tap the fortunes of the Gilded Age’s robber barons.

 Popular hostility toward these moneyed interests helps explain the initial popularity of the income tax. In their 1892 platform, a group of agrarian radicals known as Populists demanded a graduated income tax to bring an end to “oppression, injustice, and poverty” and to restore “equal rights and equal privileges for all.” Republicans and Democrats took notice; in 1894, Congress imposed a 2 percent tax on incomes over $4,000.

After the Supreme Court ruled the legislation unconstitutional, Congress sent an income tax amendment to the states for ratification. On February 3, 1913, the 16th amendment was ratified. According to Michelmore, it wasn’t until post-World War II that income tax declined in popularity as a result of liberals divorcing economic security and mobility from the burden of taxation.

Read Michelmore’s full piece here. Michelmore is also author of Tax and Spend: The Welfare State, Tax Politics, and the Limits of American Liberalism.

Book Review: US Presidents and the Militarization of Space, 1946-1967

Sputnik I exhibit in the Missile & Space Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

Sputnik I exhibit in the Missile & Space Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. Sputnik, which means “satellite” in Russian, was the Soviet entry in a scientific race to launch the first satellite ever. USAF photo, PD.

In US Presidents and the Militarization of Space, 1946-1967, Sean N. Kalic examines the roots of American space policy from the post-World War II era through the ratification of the Outer Space Treaty. Kalic argues that presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson all sought to establish the use of space for peaceful purposes while at the same time sustaining the militarization of space to support military missions on Earth. Under each administration, according to Kalic, space was viewed as venue for military activities, but not for the conduct of warfare. An overarching theme that emerges across the different partisan administrations is the extent to which space policy and technological development were driven by the confrontation with the former Soviet Union, especially following the USSR’s detonation of a nuclear weapon in 1947 and the launch of Sputnik a decade later. The book provides an interesting and in-depth examination of the origins of U.S. space policy and the role of presidents in its formulation.

Kalic begins by examining the period immediately following World War II, which laid the foundation for the military’s use of satellites for non-aggressive purposes. According to Kalic, President Harry S. Truman and his administration were far less interested in the research and development of satellites and other space experiments. Rather, Cold War strategic considerations and reducing the defense budget in the wake of WWII were the overriding concerns of the administration. Competition between the Army and Navy and the Army Air Force’s desire to maintain a close working relationship between universities and military scientists in the post WWII era were the primary drivers of early research and development. The air force and the RAND Corporation were the central actors in promoting America’s use of satellites for military applications, such as collecting data and intelligence (as opposed to killing or destroying targets). According to Kalic, “Despite the administration’s reluctance to support the development of satellites, the air force and RAND built the theoretical foundation to use space for military and scientific purposes” (pp. 17).

Unlike Truman, Eisenhower firmly embraced the use of satellites and space systems as a central tenet of the national security strategy of the U.S. and he established a national space policy. Countering threats from the former Soviet Union was the overriding driver of space policy. Eisenhower and his administration believed that the U.S. should use space technology as a means to maintain and expand the international prestige of the nation. In the wake of the Air Policy Commission’s miscalculation of when the USSR would test a nuclear weapon, Eisenhower also wanted to improve intelligence gathering and reconnaissance capabilities. Thus, he directed the National Security Council to define a space policy and to move forward with satellite construction, but Eisenhower chose not to deploy space weapons. Unlike future presidents, Eisenhower maintained that the U.S. should maintain separate military and civilian space programs.

One key question the book raises but might have explored further is why President Eisenhower sought to keep the American public unaware of the nation’s military developments despite public demand for a response to the Soviet Union’s Sputnik launch.

Friday Feature: Warren G. Harding Riding the Tiger

In case you missed it: This week in 1922 Warren G. Harding installed the first audio recording equipment in the White House. Little could he have known how ubiquitous these recordings would become for later presidencies… and how consequential they'd be for administrations such as that of Richard Nixon.

Harding's recordings were limited to about 5 minutes because of technological limitations. What would White House communications be like today if we were limited to 5 minutes of spoken word?

Read more about this week in history and visit the Miller Center's Warren G. Harding Speech exhibit.

Stay tuned! Every Friday we'll highlight an interesting item from presidential history.

This Day in History: TR Signs Bill Creating Department of Labor and Commerce

Group portrait of the cabinet of President of the United States Theodore Roosevelt

Group portrait of the cabinet of President of the United States Theodore Roosevelt (at far left). March 4, 1909. Photo courtesy of M. A. DeWolfe Howe (1919), PD.

On this day in 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt signed a bill creating the Department of Commerce and Labor, the ninth Cabinet office. In his first State of the Union address delivered on December 3, 1901, Roosevelt called for the creation of the department. Although there had been a long-standing dispute between labor forces and business interests, Roosevelt did not believe that labor and capital were in conflict with one another. Rather, he thought that combining the functions of various information and statistics bureaus into one department would be more efficient. Roosevelt told Congress in his annual message:

There should be created a Cabinet officer, to be known as Secretary of Commerce and Industries, as provided in the bill introduced at the last session of the Congress. It should be his province to deal with commerce in its broadest sense; including among many other things whatever concerns labor and all matters affecting the great business corporations and our merchant marine.

The course proposed is one phase of what should be a comprehensive and far-reaching scheme of constructive statesmanship for the purpose of broadening our markets, securing our business interests on a safe basis, and making firm our new position in the international industrial world; while scrupulously safeguarding the rights of wage-worker and capitalist, of investor and private citizen, so as to secure equity as between man and man in this Republic.

Senator William P. Frye (R-Maine) translated these ideas into legislation, which he introduced in the 57th Congress. The bill passed despite Democratic minority opposition to the bill on the grounds that Labor would be submerged and that the distrust between labor and business would destroy the usefulness of the Department. President Roosevelt appointed his private secretary, George B. Cortelyou, the first Secretary of Commerce and Labor.

Memorable SOTU Addresses in the Modern Presidency

President Barack Obama delivers the 2011 State of the Union Address to a joint session of the United States Congress.

President Barack Obama delivers the 2011 State of the Union Address to a joint session of the United States Congress. Photo by Lawrence Jackson, PD.

Tonight President Obama will deliver the first State of the Union Address of his second term. As we learned from former presidential speechwriters, under the modern presidency, the objectives of the SOTU are to set the president up for what he is trying to achieve that year, to get a bounce in public approval, to inoculate the public when introducing controversial policies and to generate support for those policies within Congress. Yet, because the SOTU attempts to do so much, it rarely makes history, serving instead as a laundry list with few memorable moments or lines. Thus, the SOTU tends to contribute to the idea that presidents are remembered more for what they do than what they say. Still, the SOTU is valuable since it lays out a president’s objectives and provides a basis by which we might measure his accomplishments. We combed through our archives and offer in this post what we think are the the memorable SOTU addresses in the modern presidency.

Presidential Speechwriters’ Perspectives on the SOTU

Terry Edmonds (Clinton speechwriter), Lee Huebner (Nixon and Ford speechwriter), and Clark Judge (Reagan and Bush speechwriter)

A speech is part theater and part political declaration; it is a personal communication between a leader and his people: it is art, and all art is a paradox, being at once a thing of great power and great delicacy.

-Peggy Noonan, Former Speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, from What I Saw

On February 12, President Obama will deliver the annual State of the Union (SOTU) address to a joint session of Congress. What distinguishes the SOTU from other presidential speeches is that it is the only constitutionally mandated speech. This post offers historical perspective on the SOTU based on insights from former speechwriters for presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and William Jefferson Clinton.

The State of the Union was transformed with the onset of the television age. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson moved the SOTU from midday to evening in order to attract a larger television audience. Indeed, tens of millions of Americans (roughly 30% of households with television) are expected to tune in to watch the address. But televising the speech has meant that presidents are more limited in what they can say. Televised State of the Union addresses delivered from Dwight D. Eisenhower to present have ranged from 3,500 to 9,200 words. One way that Richard Nixon dealt with this limitation was to limit what he said about foreign policy and draft a separate “State of the World message.” In 1970, for example, Nixon gave only a broad outline of his foreign policy in the SOTU, but on February 18 of that same year, he transmitted the “First Annual Report to Congress on United States Foreign Policy for the 1970s.”

According to Lee Huebner, speechwriter for Richard Nixon (and corroborated by the National Archives), it was President Franklin D. Roosevelt who popularized the term “State of the Union” in 1935. From 1790 to 1934, it was simply called the “Annual Message.” Even though the most memorable speeches tend to be short, like Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the SOTU has essentially become a laundry list of wide-ranging policies on the president’s agenda for the year.

So what purpose does the SOTU fulfill? The answer tends to vary by president.

This Day in History: Warren G. Harding Installs Radio in White House

In 1921, President Warren Harding spoke into a recording apparatus to create a phonographic copy of one of his speeches.

In 1921, President Warren Harding spoke into a recording apparatus to create a phonographic copy of one of his speeches. PD.

On this day in 1922, President Warren G. Harding had a radio installed in the White House. On June 14 of the same year, Harding became the first president to have his voice transmitted to the American public by radio. Although President Harding’s address was not radio-specific (Calvin Coolidge was the first to deliver a presidential address on radio in 1923), the broadcast of Harding’s speech dedicating a memorial site for Francis Scott Key heralded a revolutionary shift in how presidents addressed the American public.

Check out the Miller Center’s Warren G. Harding Speech Exhibit, which features 14 audio excerpts of speeches given by Harding before 1922. The audio clips were recorded from 1917 until 1921 during three stages in Harding’s career—as a U.S. Senator from Ohio, as the Republican Party’s presidential candidate, and finally as President of the United States. The recorded collection was first assembled by President Harding’s nephew, Dr. George T. Harding III.

Madeleine Albright Offers Insights and Advice to Student Leaders

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright addresses student leaders in a session at the Miller Center.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright addresses student leaders in a session at the Miller Center, February 4, 2013. Photo by Amber Lautigar Reichert.

On Monday, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright addressed a packed Miller Center Forum. Earlier in the afternoon, she was generous with her time and met with more than 50 students from politics, history, and other classes taught by Miller Center faculty and from the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. She was pleased to see such a multi-disciplinary gathering, and remarked on the importance of aspiring leaders to have such a wide and diverse background of study. Today, we bring you some highlights from her exchange with the students.

Albright began by noting that we are living in a very complicated time in which there are more forces that are less and less controllable and don’t lend themselves to the tools of statecraft that we possess. The tools of statecraft that we possess – aid, trade, sanctions, threat of force, force, etc. – work in relations between states. But now we are dealing with non-state actors and they are both difficult and bring different forms of war.

In a book she prepared for the president in 2008, she argued that there are five big umbrella issues the U.S. must effectively deal with:

  1. fighting terrorism without creating more terrorists. She noted that the death of Osama bin Laden was important, but we have to address the root causes of terrorism, including poverty, alienation and the remnants of colonialism.
  2. the proliferation of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.
  3. addressing the growing gap between the rich and poor
  4. energy, environment and climate change, and
  5. restoring the good name of democracy.

Today, she would add a sixth issue to that list – the global financial crisis.

The use of drones presents a tough challenge. Albright posited that they are are effective, but the decision making around their use is cloudy and this presents problems. Another significant challenge the United States and world faces is cyber war. For example, can a cyber attack trigger NATO’s Article V protection of collective defense? How do we retaliate in case of an attack? Should cyber attacks be included as a tool of statecraft?

This Day in History: Happy Birthday, Gipper

Head Shot of President Reagan during a meeting with members of Congress, 1983.

Head Shot of President Reagan during a meeting with members of Congress, 1983. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, PD.

On this day in 1911, Ronald Wilson Reagan (a.k.a. “Dutch,” “The Gipper,” “The Great Communicator”) was born in Tampico, IL. Check out the Miller Center’s resources on the Reagan Presidency:

  • The Ronald Reagan Oral History project includes some forty-five interviews with those most closely involved in Reagan’s political career, including Cabinet members, White House staff, and campaign advisors. Among those interviewed are Richard Allen, Frank Carlucci, James Miller, George Shultz, William Webster, and Caspar Weinberger.
  • Listen to and watch some of the most important speeches delivered by President Reagan.
  • Read in-depth essays on Reagan’s presidency.

Why the Obama Administration Has Issued Fewer Signing Statements

President Barack Obama signs into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 as Vice President Joe Biden looks on.

President Barack Obama signs into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, for which he issued one of 22 signing statements during his first term in office. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza, PD.

In light of the festivities surrounding President Obama’s second inauguration a few weeks ago, I have found myself thinking a lot about unilateral power during his first four years in office.  During his first term, Obama did not shy away from acting alone when Congress was unwilling to support his proposals.  Yet, the president’s frequent use of direct executive action should not come as a surprise.  As political scientists Terry Moe and William Howell claim, the president’s formal capacity to act unilaterally “virtually defines what is distinctively modern about the modern presidency.”  While there have been a number of interesting developments over the last few years in this regard, I wanted to spend some time discussing one unilateral tool in particular: the presidential signing statement.

A signing statement is written commentary on a bill that is being signed into law.  The scholarly literature has shown that these statements can serve a wide range of purposes (praise, criticism, credit claiming, legislative appeals, etc.).  Most controversially, presidents offer their opinion about the constitutionality of various provisions of law and allude to non-enforcement (or altered enforcement in order to avoid constitutional conflicts).  President George W. Bush made the constitutional challenges within signing statements (in)famous by citing problems with approximately 1,200 provisions of legislation; double the amount of all the previous presidents combined.  Those challenges can be found within Bush’s 112 first-term statements and his 50 second-term statements.

The Obama administration has only issued 22 statements during his first term.  While these statements are chock-full of constitutional challenges (Obama’s most recent NDAA signing statement challenges more than 20 sections of law on constitutional grounds), the lack of frequency with which the administration issues them leaves Obama nowhere close to Bush in terms of the number of provisions challenged over a similar timeframe.

Why have we seen fewer signing statements during the Obama administration?

(Side note: anyone interested in this question should keep their eyes peeled for the work of Joel Sievert and Ian Ostrander who recently presented an interesting paper on this topic at the annual meeting of the Southern Political Science Association.)

Roughly speaking, the decline of the signing statement during the Obama administration can be attributed to four interrelated problems that President Obama has faced when aspiring to use this tool.

Friday Feature: Andrew Jackson Riding the Tiger

An etching of the Jackson assassination attempt.

Pictured: an etching of the Jackson assassination attempt.

This week, January 30, is the 178th anniversary of the first recorded attempted presidential assassination.

On January 30, 1835, Andrew Jackson was attending a congressional funeral held in the House chamber of the Capitol. As he exited, Richard Lawrence, an unemployed house painter, approached Jackson and shot at him. Incredibly, his gun misfired. Lawrence pulled out a second pistol and, again, a misfire. By this time Jackson was actively fighting back, reportedly clubbing Lawrence with his walking cane. Bystanders joined in, one of whom was Rep. Davy Crockett of Tennessee, and Lawrence was wrestled to the ground and disarmed.

It's generally accepted that Richard Lawrence was a deeply mentally unstable person, believing that Andrew Jackson was withholding funds that would allow Lawrence to take his rightful place as King Richard III of England (who died in 1485). At his trial, the jury deliberated for five minutes before finding him not guilty by reason of insanity. He spent the rest of his life in mental hospitals, and died in the Government Hospital (later renamed St. Elizabeths Hospital) in 1861.

In the 1930s, the Smithsonian Institution reportedly test fired Lawrence's derringer pistols… both of them fired normally on the first try.

Stay tuned! Every Friday we'll highlight an interesting item from presidential history.

A Citizen’s-eye View of the 57th Inauguration

Citizens and media file into Capitol Hill for the 57th Presidential Inauguration.

Citizens and media file into Capitol Hill for the Public Swearing-In of Barack Obama at the 57th Presidential Inauguration. Photo courtesy of Carah Ong Whaley.

The Presidential Inauguration is an important civic ritual that legitimizes election results and represents a peaceful transfer of power. Last week, I attended President Barack Obama’s second Inauguration with the purpose of providing a citizen’s eye-view of events for RTT followers. While there was a certain measure of pomp and circumstance surrounding the 57th Inauguration, it was off-set by the diversity of the crowd and the President’s liberal, populist appeal.

On the Sunday before the public swearing-in, I attended one of the many Inaugural events being held by non-profit organizations, PACs, lobbyists, and consultants throughout the DC area. These events ranged from black tie balls to more subtle affairs with the purpose of both celebrating political victory and raising more money. Members of Congress made cameo appearances and gave brief speeches to thank the organizations and supporters for helping them get re-elected. They were also already beating the drum to raise money for the 2016 election…the never-ending campaign. As one member of Congress revealed at the event I attended, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently sent out a memo telling all members of Congress that they are to spend four hours per day fundraising. By any measure, that is quite a bit of time to devote to fundraising, especially when Congress began 2013 with its approval rating at 14%. How can Congress actually engage in the hard work required to legislate, govern and serve constituents when so much of their time is expected to be devoted to raising money for the next election? Doesn’t this system only further ingratiate Congress to special interests?

At an event I attended, Angus King (I-Maine) emphasized that we are in a unique era of hyper-partisanship and polarization. As a political scientist, I wanted to point out that it’s actually not so unique. In fact, there have been many periods in American political history when the parties have engaged in deep struggles over the role and direction of government. But his broader point was worth noting. King noted that he was elected not to engage in partisan politics, but to make every attempt to get government working again.

Many other politicians and members of the media also made their cameos. The more liberal media, Senators and members of Congress pressed supporters to rally for a more liberal agenda in President Obama’s second term and to gear up for battle in the 2014 mid-term election. From their speeches, there would seem to be no end to partisan bickering in sight.