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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

Legal History Shows Tactical Shifts of Right-to-Work Movement

Leon Bates (UAW leader) handing out UAW—United Auto Workers literature during the 1941 organizing drive at Ford.

Leon Bates (UAW leader) handing out UAW—United Auto Workers literature during the 1941 organizing drive at the Ford Motor Company - River Rouge plant - gate #4 on Miller Road. PD.

This week, the state of Michigan passed and Governor Rick Snyder signed into law new right-to-work legislation. The two measures ban unions from requiring workers to pay membership dues. The tactics employed by supporters to pass the measures show they have learned from recent efforts. The measures were attached to an appropriations bill, which exempts it from being taken to a referendum. The measures also exclude firefighters and police, groups that were critical in overturning similar measures in Ohio. The right-to-work effort underway in a number of states also demonstrates the power of conservatives at the state level, despite the Republican loss in the presidential election.

Last week, Sophia Lee, an assistant professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, presented a chapter on her forthcoming book at the Miller Center’s GAGE Colloquium. Lee’s new book provides insight into the current situation by examining the history of two important and powerful, but competing movements since the 1930s – the civil rights movement and the right-to-work movement.  Her book explains why the state action doctrine survived the civil rights and conservative revolutions, and explores the implications of this history for the workplace and beyond.

The thriving right-to-work movement at the state level today has its roots in the 1940s. Though it hasn’t always been politically successful, the right-to-work movement has been deeply intertwined with the conservative and anti-New Deal movement. Lee documents one of the earliest conservative efforts to apply the Constitution to the workplace. In 1944, Hollywood impresario and showman, Cecil B. deMille brought a lawsuit to the court challenging the constitutionality of a one-dollar fee levied on him by his union. Lee notes that this was the first of many campaigns to pass a right-to-work law banning mandatory support for unions in the state of California.  According to Lee:

Like the black railroad workers of his day, deMille struggled to articulate why the Constitution reached his workplace. To say he was unsuccessful would be an understatement. The California courts found his claim near incomprehensible. But deMille was not deterred. He spent the rest of the 1940s building a foundation to champion the right-to-work and taking his constitutional theories to the prominent public pulpits at his disposal.

In the 1950s, right-to-work advocates, with the help of deMille, formed their first organizations dedicated to getting the Supreme Court to declare mandatory support for unions “in conflict with the Bill of Rights.” Although the right-to-work movement won potentially promising precedent in the Supreme Court, it didn’t achieve all that it had hoped for.

1857: The Inaugural Before the Tempest

Photograph of James Buchanan's 1857 presidential inauguration at the US Capitol in Washington, D.C. First ever such photograph

Photograph of James Buchanan’s 1857 presidential inauguration at the US Capitol in Washington, D.C. First ever such photograph. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress. 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.

“To the Patriot Buchanan / The tribute we owe, / Til the people proclaim it again to bestow, / And the fourth day of March be again made to yield, / A harvest of Glory in Liberty’s field.”

-Col. W. Emmonn, an Ode composed in honor of James Buchanan’s inauguration

History has not been kind to James Buchanan. Historians in the business of ranking presidents generally place him near the infamous bottom of the list - beyond the relative harmlessness of being completely unknown (Millard Fillmore) and sometimes even the disgrace of scandal (Warren G. Harding). Arguably, he his lowly rank is, in part, due to his proximity to the near-universally accepted “best” president, Abraham Lincoln. The contrast does not serve Buchanan’s legacy well. To summarize his historical portrait: he is the president who believed that the South had no right to secede from the Union, and that the president had no right to stop them. Not surprisingly, his inaugural address gets very little attention from presidential scholars. While there is no use in arguing for renewed attention to Buchanan, it is worth noting that the inaugural addresses of “failed” presidents are at least as interesting as those of successful ones.

At the time, Buchanan’s inaugural did not enjoy a warm reception. The front page of the New York Times featured the speech the next day, together with an article entitled “Narrow Escape of the President Elect from a Violent Death,” which included unflattering details of Buchanan suffering from diarrhea as a side effect of accidental arsenic poisoning. Even more recent, evenhanded, considerations of Buchanan and his inaugural add only slight modifications to his “reviled” legacy. “James Buchanan,” writes Michael Carrafiello of Miami University, “was tragically ill equipped to become the nation’s chief executive at a time of burgeoning crises.”

The speech lives up to expectations, though it can be read two ways. It can be read as the best attempt of an incoming president to serve as an arbiter in a time of growing sectional conflict, or it can be read as a tragic miscalculation of an inept president-elect.

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.

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.

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.

Inaugural History Feature of the Week: Abraham Lincoln

The second inaugural address of Abraham Lincoln, given on 4 March 1865 on the east portico of the U.S. Capitol.

The second inaugural address of Abraham Lincoln, given on 4 March 1865 on the east portico of the U.S. Capitol. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress. PD.

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.

November 19th will mark the 149th anniversary of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and it, as well as Lincoln’s second inaugural in 1865, are acknowledged to be among the great orations in American history. Given the upcoming anniversary, this week RTT highlights the importance of both of these speeches.

Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865 was delivered just over a month before his assassination and as the end of the Civil War was rapidly approaching. The address was brief, but profound.  Abolitionist Frederick Douglass called the speech a “sacred effort” and praised it  for sounding "more like a sermon than like a state paper." Lincoln used the address to “look with high hope to the future” and to unite the country by propounding a providential interpretation of the cause, duration and consequences of the war for both sides. While the President rejected the triumphalism of radical Republicans, he also denounced slavery in concrete terms:

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.

Lincoln concluded the address with a defense for a pragmatic approach to Reconstruction and reconciliation: 

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the fight as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

The Agony of Victory: Behind the Scenes on Election Night

President Lyndon B. Johnson at the 1964 presidential election night with reporters.

President Lyndon B. Johnson at the 1964 presidential election night with reporters. The president shows the Victory-Sign following his landslide election victory against republican candidate Barry Goldwater. November 3, 1964. Photo by Cecil Stoughton, PD.

President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney have campaigned formally for the better part of a year. When this election is over, the total amount spent by their campaigns or on their behalf will approach $2 billion. They have traveled with few reprieves, been coached for debates, and endured attacks from television advertising (which has been 87% negative overall). And, once it is finished, Obama or Romney will have to move past it—and presumably, govern.

With Election Day just one week away, we wondered how previous candidates have reacted and felt to the culmination of the campaign season. We dug into our archives here at the Miller Center and found phone conversations that provide a glimpse of Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon on the eve of victory. Given the years LBJ and Nixon would endure following their success on election night, we are reminded that being up on the mountain and riding the tiger are each their own agony. Impending victory did not bring instant relief for Johnson and Nixon. Instead, election night conversations centered on the nerve of the opponent, the absence of complete victory, and one “sore hip.” This profoundly humanizing fact sheds light on the impending winner of November 6th, 2012.

Responder-in-Chief: Presidential Leadership and Disaster Politics

President Lyndon B. Johnson addresses members of the press while deplaning in New Orleans.

President Lyndon B. Johnson addresses members of the press while deplaning in New Orleans to survey damage done by Hurricane Betsy. September 10, 1965. Photo by Yoichi R. Okamoto. Courtesy LBJ Library, PD.

Hurricane Sandy is threatening millions on the East Coast and dominating the headlines and airwaves. With just eight days until the election, Sandy is also impacting the presidential campaign. Both presidential campaigns have canceled planned stops and are urging people in affected states to take precautions. Some may find the change in tone, even if forced by disaster, a relief. Rather than bashing each other non-stop, the candidates are more focused on demonstrating leadership in the face of a disaster, showing concern and empathizing with those in harm’s way. Hurricane Sandy is no doubt a test of leadership for both President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. However, as the head of government, the President will be particularly challenged with the responsibility for how the government responds. However, the President has not always held the role of “Responder-in-Chief.”

The greater transformation of the public’s expectation for presidential response to disasters is rooted more broadly in the development of the permanent campaign. Amidst the height of the presidential campaign in 1972, Richard Nixon was criticized for his response to Hurricane Agnes that affected the Atlantic states, especially Pennsylvania, New York and Northern Virginia. Pennsylvania Democratic Governor Milton Shapp, Democratic Presidential Candidate George McGovern and others seized on the opportunity to sharply criticize Nixon for what they called the government’s incompetent response. Nixon moved quickly to mitigate the damage, but was only able to do so when he took the reins and choreographed the government’s response from the White House. If not for the campaign season and the politicization of the government’s response, we may not have seen a broader expansion of the President’s role of “Responder-in-Chief.”

Miller Center Commemorates 50th Anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis

President Kennedy meets with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko in the Oval Office.

President Kennedy meets with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko in the Oval Office. The President knows but does not reveal that he is now aware of the missile build-up. October 18, 1962. Photo courtesy of The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston, PD.

On Monday, the Miller Center hosted a Forum to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Heather Michon blogged about the panel on Knowing Charlottesville. The panel revealed that the Cuban Missile Crisis was much more than a stand-off between the United States and the Soviet Union. Furthermore, the opening of Soviet and Cuban archives has revealed that President John F. Kennedy was much more willing to negotiate than previously understood by the public. As Marc Selverstone put it, “Diplomacy, not force, turned the tide.” Castro was also kept in dark about back channel negotiations between the U.S. and Soviet Union. While Americans moved on from the terror of the crisis fairly quickly, the shadow of those October days lingered over Cuban-Soviet relations for decades.

Read on for Heather’s full summary of the Forum.

The (Imperfect) Value of the Debates

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama on stage at the first presidential debate. October 4, 2012.

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama on stage at the first presidential debate. October 4, 2012. Photo courtesy of Voice of America, PD.

On Sunday, October 14, a special edition of ABC’s This Week, produced with the Miller Center, focused on the question, "Do presidential debates change elections?" Today’s guest post provides a scholarly response to the question.        

The September 26, 1960, edition of the Washington Post did not even mention that night’s scheduled debate between presidential candidates John F. Kennedy, the Democratic senator from Massachusetts, and Vice President Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee.  The three broadcast networks’ evening news programs barely mentioned the event.

            Surprise: the audience for the first Kennedy-Nixon debate—the first debate in history between two candidates for president—was the largest for a political event in human history up to that time.  More than 60 million saw it on television and millions more heard it on the radio.  About 100 million saw or heard at least one of the four debates.

            And then . . . nothing.  No debates when President Lyndon B. Johnson ran against Arizona senator Barry Goldwater in 1964.  None when Nixon faced Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey and an independent candidate, Gov. George Wallace of Alabama, in 1968.  Or when Nixon ran for reelection against Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota in 1972.

            Only in 1976 did the stars align once again and debates occur.  The main reason: for the first time since 1960, both candidates—President Gerald Ford, who was trailing in the polls, and Gov. Jimmy Carter, who like all challengers wanted a stage on which he could face the incumbent as an equal—saw an advantage in debating.  Nineteen seventy-six also brought an innovation: the debate between Ford’s running mate, Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas, and Carter’s vice presidential nominee, Minnesota senator Walter Mondale.  Not a bad idea, considering that fourteen vice presidents—nearly one third of them—have gone on to become president.