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

Could Conservatives Overthrow Boehner? What History Can Tell Us

U.S. President Barack Obama is greeted by Speaker of the House John Boehner before delivering the 2011 State of the Union

U.S. President Barack Obama is greeted by Speaker of the House John Boehner before delivering the 2011 State of the Union Address. Official photo by Pete Souza. PD.

On Monday, the Republican Steering Committee, at the behest of Speaker John Boehner, removed four Republicans from prime committee assignments in advance of the convening of the 113thCongress: Justin Amash (MI) and Tim Huelskamp (KS) from the Budget Committee and Walter B. Jones (NC) and David Schweikert (AZ) from the Financial Services Committee.  Reports suggest that these members were ousted because of insufficient support for leadership positions (i.e., low leadership support scores) on a set of key votes in the 112th Congress.  See here, here, and here.  In addition, three of these individuals (Amash, Huelskamp, and Schweikert) are considered among the more conservative members of the Republican Conference, suggesting that Boehner is trying to rein in the rebellious Tea Party tendencies that were so apparent in the 112th Congress.

This committee “purge” has elicited considerable outrage in conservative circles inside and outside of Washington.  The most radical suggestion, offered by Ned Ryun on the conservative blog Red State, is that a small group of Republicans signal their unhappiness with Boehner by voting against him in the speakership vote on the House floor.  Ryun argues that if 16 Republicans abstain from voting for Boehner for Speaker, based on the assumption that there will be 233 Republicans in attendance when the 113th House convenes in January, then he will fail to receive a majority – and, in time (assuming repeated, inconclusive speakership balloting), the Republican Conference will be forced to choose a new speakership nominee, one more amenable to the preferences of the dissident faction (and, presumably, conservatives more generally).

(One aside: Ryun argues that dissident members should simply abstain from voting.  But the rule for electing Speakers has been interpreted differently over time. At times the requirement has been a majority of all members-elect, and at other times it has been a majority of all members present and voting “for a person by name.”  The most recent interpretation has been the latter. For example, in the 105thCongress, Newt Gingrich was elected Speaker with 216 votes, which constituted a majority of all members present and voting for a person by name, but not a majority of all members-elect.  So Ryun’s strategy, to be safe, should direct dissidents to cast their protest votes for one of their own, rather than abstain.)

Highlight from the Recasting Presidential History Conference: Darren Dochuk on Religious Ecologies

Darren Dochuck, “There Will Be Oil: Presidential Politics, Wildcat Religion, and the Culture Wars of Pipeline Politics.”

Darren Dochuk’s paper and presentation at the Miller Center’s Recasting Presidential History conference in October is another terrific example of cutting edge work that points to the rich opportunities for conservation between political history, social and cultural history and the presidency. Dochuk, an Associate Professor in the Humanities at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis, asserts that there are relatively few historians who have foregrounded religion in their studies of the presidency and that those who have, have generally done so in ways that resonate with the old presidential synthesis of history that deemed the supreme commander the supreme force in American politics. There is a familiar narrative among historians who write of faith and presidency in which presidents, “humbled by sin, budding politician encounters God, dedicates life to civil service, appeals to his people with piety, then as the anointed governs with a firm imposition of will.” Faith in this popular storyline is an isolated impulse or a catalogued theology of the president that doesn’t track to the day-to-day muddles of real politics. The measurement of belief and action is usually done within the context of culture war issues like abortion and gay marriage. According to Dochuk, what remains is a rather superficial literature “in which priestly presidents still act as free-floating agents who dictate, not simply embody, the spirit of their age.”

Dochuk invites us to instead consider a new, more exciting dimension in our rendering of presidential history by examining how presidents have grappled with the sacred environments they have inherited. We need to look beyond spiritual biographies and “examine the religious ecologies that shape the politics of a place, and define the presidents and presidencies that emerge from them.” Recent innovations, for example, have shown how religious interests, especially Protestant ones, have influenced presidential politics and policy. Scholarly progress can be made by moving away from conventional renderings of the priestly president towards more textured political histories that embed presidencies and presidents in their deepest social contexts. Dochuk makes that case that a new generation of scholars should pay attention to the “moral geographies that presidencies and presidents inhabit and engage,” and in so doing, “we will also be compensated with histories that make it harder to differentiate between the social and political, the political and religious.”

Highlight from the Recasting Presidential History Conference: Grace Elizabeth Hale

As we noted in a post last week, RTT is highlighting papers and presentations from the Miller Center’s Recasting Presidential History conference in October that point to the rich opportunities for conservation between political history, social and cultural history and the presidency. One such presentation worth highlighting is that delivered by Grace Elizabeth Hale, a professor of History and American Studies at the University of Virginia. Her presentation, “Outsider in Chief: Presidents and the Politics of Authenticity and Emotion,” traces the cultural development of the President’s outsider persona. Observers of contemporary American politics need only look at each new batch of Republican primary candidates to witness the irony of individuals attempting to become the foremost political insider--while all simultaneously claiming to be outside the fray. Hale traces this proclivity to the desire to appear “real” before the electorate, while showing how presidents like Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush have touted their own outsider credentials. Her presentation invites us to consider the cultural roots of their presidential authenticity (or lack thereof).

The Warped Estate

Richard Nixon’s “Checker’s Speech,” September 23, 1952

First hand access to the daily life of President Obama has become the new hot ticket among political journalists. Americans have four more years of Democratic leadership. Correspondingly, they want to know more about thee somewhat shadowy figure pulling the strings inside the Oval Office. Just what is the Commander-in-Chief up to?

Results have been mixed. Brian Williams chose the angle of fellow traveler on the campaign trail fairing on NBC’s “Rock Center.” From his travels, we garnered little, save for the fact that modern politicians fly quite a great deal.

Michael Lewis, writing for Vanity Fair, added a piece of his own. Like Williams, much of the focus seemingly whiffed at a pitch that others might have taken a harder swing at.

For instance, the Moneyball and Blind Side author spends an extended period of time covering Obama’s Spartan taste in furniture. He then documents Obama’s well-covered love of basketball in great detail. However, to say that his was nothing more than a puff piece undersells it. Indeed, there were some highly interesting moments to note. One in particular stuck out.

Friday Feature: Ronald Reagan in Santa Claus Land

Is it holiday time already? Young Ronald Reagan looks surprised by it too in this photo from 1955. He is pictured visiting Santa Claus Land (now Holiday World  Splashin' Safari) in Santa Claus, Indiana. Santa Jim Yellig is on the left, Louis Koch, founder of the park, is on the right.

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

1841: The Irony Inaugural

Lithograph of William Henry Harrison

Lithograph of William Henry Harrison. PD.

Each week leading up to President Obama’s second inauguration, which will take place on January 21, 2013, RTT is featuring an inaugural address by a president from the Miller Center’s archives.

The Inaugural Address of William “Old Tippecanoe” Harrison is possibly the most popular and least examined speech of its kind. The story of the address is one of the best (and most morbid) jokes in presidential history: an elderly president, in an attempt to display his youthful stamina, gives an inaugural speech nearly twice as long as any other, catches pneumonia during the address and subsequently dies. Setting aside the fact that it was probably not much of a side-splitter at the time, this post is my attempt to unearth some of the lost substance of Harrison’s speech.

The most obvious attribute of Harrison’s Inaugural is its length. The speech is well over 8,000 words – double that of any other. Harrison’s predecessor, Martin Van Buren, gave a speech of 3,800 words. Andrew Jackson, in his second inaugural address, managed only 1,100 words. Contemporary presidents typically give speeches in the 2,000-3,000-word range. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, arguably the most examined in history, was only 700 words. So, what message did Old Tippecanoe need 8,000 words to convey?

Harrison took the opportunity to lay out a framework for a more limited presidency – one that scaled back the “monarchical” tendencies of Jacksonian Democracy.

Recasting Presidential History

In October, the Miller Center hosted a two-day conference on “Recasting Presidential History.”  The conference sought to jump start a new generation of scholarship about the presidency, capitalizing on key insights of leading scholars, many of whom have not concentrated on the presidency but rather conducted path-breaking work in subdisciplines ranging from cultural to social history. The conference also sought to extend interest in the presidency from presidential historians and senior scholars to a to a broader range of historians just embarking on their careers.

Over the next couple weeks, RTT will highlight conference papers and presentations that point to the rich opportunities for a conservation between political history, social and cultural history and the presidency. As Miller Center National Fellowship Program Chair and UVa History Professor Brian Balogh notes in this video interview with the History News Network, we hope a new generation of scholars will be inspired to pursue of variety of analytical approaches to studying the American presidency and to draw on the presidency to inform the questions they will address in their dissertation. Watch all of the conference presentations online here.

The Biggest Myths of the 2012 Election

As part of the Miller Center’s Recasting Presidential History conference in October, the History News Network interviewed participants on presidential history. Following the conference, Dick Walsh, editor of the History News Network, conducted a post-election analysis interview with Ira Chernus, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado. The full video chat is available on the Miller Center’s website (click here to watch), but in this post, we survey key insights on the election offered by Prof. Chernus.

In the video chat, Chernus discussed the key myths told during the campaign. To clarify, what Chernus means when he says myths are “the stories that are told to create a sense of identity to make sense out of the American experience. They are a mixture of fiction and truth.” In 2012, the dominant myth that resonated was a story that hasn’t been seen on the national scene in quite awhile – the story of the gap between the super rich and the rest of us. The story first began to surface with the Occupy Movement in 2011. It’s been a long time since wealth and income inequality has been a story in the mass media. Obama began to speak about the difficulties of the middle class and the privileges of the rich about a year before the election. It is, of course, a story with deep historical roots, and has been used in the past by Franklin D. Roosevelt, as well as earlier progressive and populist movements. According to Chernus, the Obama campaign made very effective use of this myth to create a story about Romney as a vulture venture capitalist. Of course in politics you want to define your opponent before your opponent has a chance to define you. Obama defined himself as a champion of the middle class fighting against a predatory capitalist who would do to the whole nation what he had done to the workers of the companies bought out by Bain Capital.

The Romney campaign made some effort to rebut this myth, but for the most part their strategy was not to engage. When you rebut, you go on the defensive and reinforce what your opponent says about you. Instead, the Romney campaign’s effort was to define Obama as incompetent, and someone who had destroyed the economy and who didn’t know how to get us out of the recession. The Romney team went back to Reagan’s “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”  That is also a traditional story in American politics. In the spring and summer, most pundits thought it would be the story of the election. The intervening months since then have shown that was too simplistic an analysis. The idea that political fortunes are determined by the economy is a long-standing story, but Chernus hopes it will be harder to make that case in the future because it is too simple – there are too many other variables interacting in elections.

Is it Time for Filibuster Reform?

James Stewart in

James Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939). In the movie, Mr. Smith launches a filibuster to postpone an appropriations bill and prove his innocence. PD.

Another partisan battle appears on the horizon and, no, it’s not about the fiscal cliff. Battle lines are being drawn over rules in the Senate. For the next Congress, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is considering limiting filibusters on motions to proceed and debate bills (but not on votes to pass legislation), making filibusters shorter and requiring senators who want to filibuster to hold the floor of the Senate and talk. Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Kentucky), said even these narrow measures would marginalize the Senate minority. Quoting a 2005 speech by then-Senator Barack Obama, McConnell warned that if Reid changes the rules, hyperpartisan fighting and gridlock will only increase. Senate GOP Whip John Cornyn (Texas) went so far as to claim that the reform “will shut down the Senate. It’s such an abuse of power.” But, never mind the fact that the GOP threatened the same rule changes back in 2005 when they held the majority and Democrats were using obstructive tactics.

The co-existence of partisanship and the filibuster are nothing new in the Senate. Indeed scholars have shown that partisanship and filibusters frequently went hand-in-hand in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century on issues ranging from important to trivial. For example, the 1880 election produced a narrow split between Republicans and Democrats and both parties sought to use parliamentary maneuvers to their advantage. Between March 24 and May 6 of 1881, 114 dilatory motions were made to prevent Republicans from replacing Democratic officers in the organization of the new Congress. The filibuster only ended when President Garfield agreed to remove certain appointments. In modern times, the filibuster has been increasingly used by the minority party in the Senate to block presidential appointments. For example, between 2001 and 2003 and again in 2005, Democrats utilized the parliamentary maneuver to block George W. Bush’s judicial nominees. Republicans have similarly used the maneuver to prevent Barack Obama’s appointments.

The South’s New Electoral Fault Line?

Barack Obama addressing a crowd at the Virginia Beach Convention Center in 2008.

Barack Obama addressing a crowd at the Virginia Beach Convention Center in 2008. Photo by SyalAntilles. CC-SA.

In a new article, Douglas A. Blackmon, contributing editor at The Washington Post and chair and host of the Miller Center Forum, analyzes the role of the South in the 2012 election. According to Blackmon, President Obama’s strong finish in the South presents a surprising story and underscores another challenge to the GOP, which has relied on Southern whites as their base of national support. In the 2012 election, Obama outperformed every Democratic nominee since Carter in Southern coastal states and significantly narrowed past gaps between Democratic and Republican candidates. Furthermore, the 2012 election revealed a deepening voting divide between blacks and whites. For example, Blackmon cites exit polls in Mississippi where nearly nine of ten white voters cast their ballot for Mitt Romney and 96 percent of black voters cast their ballots for Obama.  Differences in turnout rates amongst black and whites in Southern states also contributed to Obama’s strong finish. While Southern whites voted overwhelmingly for Romney, far fewer went to the polls in at least six Southern states on Election Day compared to 2008. Meanwhile, black voters came out in droves, contradicting expectations of Republican pollsters. The results reveal that the Republican Party will need to address the concerns of African Americans, in addition to Hispanics and other minorities if it wishes to be competitive in future elections.

Read the full article by Douglas A. Blackmon here.

Presidents and the Institutionalization of Thanksgiving

1939 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation issued by Franklin D. Roosevelt.

1939 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation issued by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Photo Courtesy of the FDR Library, PD.

How have Presidents institutionalized Thanksgiving? There are three critical moments in the development of Thanksgiving as a formalized, national holiday. Not surprisingly, they center around three of the most studied presidents: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt.

At the request of Congress, Washington issued the first Thanksgiving Day proclamation on October 3rd, 1789:

“Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.”

His statement is indicative of the both the character and structure of the holiday in early American history. Thanksgiving was--as it is today--a day of thanks; but specifically, it was an expression of gratitude toward “that great and glorious Being.” This first presidential thanksgiving took place on the last Thursday in November--a precedent that the next fourteen presidents would only loosely follow.

Nearly 75 years later, Lincoln, at the urging of a newspaper editor Sarah Josepha Hale, would issue another Thanksgiving Proclamation, which nationalized the holiday. The statement, which was written by Secretary of State William Seward, called upon Americans in the midst of civil war to remember the gifts they daily received:

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.

Between 1789 and 1863, states issued their own thanksgiving proclamations, and dates of the holiday varied. After Lincoln, Thanksgiving became an annual presidential responsibility, which charged future presidents to proclaim the last Thursday of November a holiday.

That precedent held for another 75 years, until FDR faced a crisis of calendar in 1939. In that year, there were five, not four, Thursdays in November--which, if Roosevelt had followed tradition, would have shortened the Christmas shopping season (retailers considered Christmas advertising prior to Thanksgiving improper). Fred Lazarus Jr. of Federated Department Stores successfully lobbied Roosevelt to move Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday in November in order to lengthen the Christmas shopping season in years in which November had five Thursdays. The executive move angered a number of states enough that in some places two Thanksgivings were celebrated. In 1941, Congress passed and Roosevelt signed into law a joint resolution making the fourth Thursday in November “a legal public holiday to all intents and purposes and in the same manner as” Christmas, New Years, and the Fourth of July.

So, with the tip of the presidential signing pen, Thanksgiving Day has gone from an informal religious celebration, to a national holiday that marks the beginning of the holiday shopping season.

Was the Presidential Election a Progressive Win?

2012 Presidential Election Results by State. Map by Ernesto Barahona.

2012 Presidential Election Results by State. Map by Ernesto Barahona, November 8, 2012. CC-SA.

On the surface, President Obama’s reelection appears to have been the electoral equivalent of a progressive exclamation point. Obama not only won 8 of the original 10 battleground states (winning: CO, FL, IA, NH, NM, NV, OH, VA; losing: IN and NC), but also earned a whopping 332 electoral votes.

A cursory comparison of CNN’s exit polls from 2008 and 2012 also seems to suggest that the “emerging Democratic majority” first described by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira is beginning to take hold. Latinos, Asians, and young people (18-29) made up a larger share of the electorate in 2012 than they did in 2008 (each group gained a percentage point), while whites made up a smaller share (72% in 2012 instead of 74% in 2008). Further, President Obama’s margins among Latinos and Asians grew between the two elections by four (from 67% to 71%) and 11 percentage points (62% to 73%), respectively. Some have even gone further to argue that the country is now “center-left” because “the Republican Party lost the middle everywhere, and as a result the map got slightly bluer everywhere.”

But is this the correct interpretation of the trends above?

The simple answer to this question is “not exactly.”

As James E. Campbell, SUNY Buffalo, noted during last weekend’s Northeastern Political Science Association Conference, the 2012 exit polls also revealed that 51% of the electorate believes that the government is doing too much, while only 43% believe it should do more. Additionally, more of the electorate said that the Affordable Care Act should be repealed than not (49% to 44%).

Beyond these data, Sean Trende at RealClearPolitics.com pointed out the real issue that neither progressives nor conservatives can afford to ignore in their interpretations of the results: “The 2012 elections actually weren’t about a demographic explosion with non-white voters. Instead, they were about a large group of white voters not showing up.”

So who didn’t show up?

Inaugural History Feature of the Week: JFK

John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961

Each week leading up to President Obama’s second inauguration, which will take place on January 21, 2013, RTT will feature an inaugural speech by a previous president from the Miller Center’s archives.

This week marks the 49th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination while riding in a motorcade through downtown Dallas, Texas. With this anniversary in mind, RTT highlights JFK’s inaugural address as well as some of our resources on his assassination.

In preparing for his Inaugural Address on January 20, 1961, JFK sought to capitalize on the moment to both inspire the country as well as to discuss the challenges confronting the country in the Cold War. He wanted the speech to be both concise and devoid of partisan rhetoric. JFK tapped his speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, to study previous inaugural speeches, especially Lincoln’s Gettysburg address in order to help the president craft a successful speech. JFK told Sorenson, “I don’t want people to think I’m a windbag,” and he also enlisted suggestions from friends and advisors.

A few years ago, Sorenson surmised that the speech “was not Kennedy's best” and “may not even have been Kennedy's most important speech historically, in terms of its impact on our planet.” However, it was “world-changing.” In Kennedy, Sorenson wrote that JFK thought that earlier drafts of the speech focused too heavily on domestic issues and the following lines were cut from the speech:

We must begin by facing the fact that history’s most abundant economy has slackened its growth to a virtual halt. That the world’s most productive farmers have only suffered for their success. . . . That too many of our cities are sinking into squalor.

One of the most significant cuts from earlier versions of the speech was a reference to civil rights:

Our nation’s most precious resource, our youth, are developed according to their race or funds, instead of their own capability.

The reason for the omission of important domestic issues was JFK’s belief that they would inherently raise partisan divisions. Instead, JFK sought to demonstrate his grasp of global issues and the passing of the torch of leadership to a new generation. Thus, the final version of the speech stressed concern for global poverty and opposition to dictatorships. It also stressed America’s role as a champion of liberty throughout the world:

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

JFK’s Inaugural Address also emphasized America’s preference for negotiations and cooperation in the Cold War standoff with the Soviet Union. While attempting to downplay tensions on the one hand, JFK also sought to convey American resolve.

Friday Round-Up: “The Post-Election Dust Settling”

Barack Obama and volunteers at the Hyde Park, Chicago Obama campaign office make phone calls on Election Day 2012

Barack Obama and volunteers at the Hyde Park, Chicago Obama campaign office make phone calls on Election Day 2012. Photo by TonytheTiger. CC-SA.

  1. President Obama held his first media Q&A session on Wednesday, during which, he outlined a policy agenda for the beginning of his second term. He said that a proposal for comprehensive immigration reform would be the first item on the table after inauguration day. Obama said he was “very confident” he could pass a bill early in his second term. “We need to seize the moment.” He also took the opportunity to reiterate that he would veto any compromise on the ‘fiscal cliff’ that did not raise taxes on those making $250,000/year or more. Obama hinted at the possibility of compromise, emphasizing that if all the Bush-era tax cuts expired, it would be a “bad thing” that was “not necessary.”
  2. President Obama met with Congressional leaders today for discussions on reaching agreement to avoid the Fiscal Cliff. Following the hour-long meeting, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker John Boehner appeared together, a rare occurrence, and pledged cooperation. McConnell said Republicans “are willing to put revenue on the table,” while the Democrats said they recognized the need to curb spending. It’s likely that the two sides will forge a temporary agreement before December 31 to avoid fiscal contraction, but the agreement could provide a framework for a longer-term overhaul to major programs such as Medicare, as well as major tax code reform.
  3. Romney Explains Loss to Donors: Romney said Obama used the “old playbook” of directing specific official policies to “especially the African-American community, the Hispanic community and young people.” Several Republicans, especially those with an eye on 2016 including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, quickly denounced the remarks. “We have got to stop dividing American voters,” Jindal said. “I absolutely reject that notion, that description. … We’re fighting for 100 percent of the vote.”
  4. How did the Obama campaign approach the task of ad-buying in an election season with record spending? In the vein of sabermetricians in Major League Baseball, the Obama campaign bought airtime when they would receive the most ‘bang for their buck.’ That is, when they would reach most of the right kind of voters for the smallest price tag. This meant buying airtime outside of expensive primetime programming, and into daytime TV and stations like the Food Network, Hallmark, and Family channel.
  5. Gay voters appear to have been crucial to President Obama’s reelection. According to analysis of exit polls by Michael Cohen at Five Thirty Eight, five percent of voters claimed to be gay, lesbian or bisexual. Among those voters, 76 percent voted for Obama. Meanwhile, Libertarian candidates appeared to play a spoiler role for Republicans in at least nine close state-level races.

Friday Feature: President Nixon Riding the Tiger With Elvis

View a larger version of this photo or visit an exhibit from archives.gov, “When Nixon Met Elvis.”

A president rubs elbows with dignitaries, world leaders, and politicians, yes, but a president often also sometimes comes in contact with celebrities who function far outside the traditional political sphere.

This photo of President Richard Nixon meeting Elvis Presley is the #1 most requested image from the National Archive and Records Administration (surpassing even the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution). The meeting took place in December, 1970, after Nixon received a letter from Presley wherein Presley expressed interest in being named "Federal Agent-at-Large" for the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, wishing to do his part to fight the war on illegal drugs. The five-page letter is hand-written on American Airlines stationary. 

Interestingly, the meeting between Presley and Nixon was kept secret for two full years until the Washington Post broke the story in January 1972. 1972 was, of course, a big year for Nixon for other reasons… 

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