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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

No-bama Drama: Putting the Denver Debate in Historical Context

Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon during the first televised U.S. presidential debate in 1960.

Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon during the first televised U.S. presidential debate in 1960. Credit: National Park Service. 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.  

            Traveling for a lecture trip on the night of Election 2012’s first presidential debate, I wasn’t among the nearly 70 million viewers of the event.  But as I raced through the Charlotte airport, I glimpsed a gaggle of fellow travelers gathered around a restaurant television.  Pausing for a few minutes, I noticed that President Obama looked uncharacteristically uncomfortable, with his eyes turned downward toward the podium, while on the split screen Governor Romney animatedly presented his case.  Little did I realize that my instant analysis of the debate’s image would become the accepted postmortem.  Whereas the president had earned the moniker “No Drama Obama” for his unflappable campaign persona in 2008, four years later opponents and supporters alike concluded that he was missing in action on the Denver stage: No Obama had become the drama.

            It remains to be seen whether that lackluster performance will contribute to his loss of a second term, but the odds in his favor have lowered, along with his standing in the polls, since his Rocky Mountain breakdown.  In 2008 the young senator had been compared favorably with John F. Kennedy and had received endorsements from both JFK’s daughter Caroline and his brother Teddy.  For the first debate in 2012’s contest, Obama could have used the support of parents like Rose and Joe Kennedy.  Jack’s devoutly Catholic mother prayed the entire day of Jack’s first presidential debate in hopes that her intercessions would boost her son over Richard Nixon, the more experienced debater.  She was thrilled when her prayers were answered!  After his victorious performance, JFK phoned his father who gave him a rave review.  Jack turned to his alter-ego, Ted Sorensen, and explained, “If I had slipped and fallen flat on the floor, my dad would have said, ‘The way you picked yourself up was terrific!’”

Progressivism, Conservatism and the Revival of Battle for the Soul of America in 2012

President Barack Obama delivers remarks in Osawatomie, Kansas, White House Photo, Pete Souza, 12/6/11

President Barack Obama delivers remarks in Osawatomie, Kansas, White House Photo, Pete Souza, 12/6/11. PD.

This post is adapted from remarks delivered at a special GAGE Colloquium on “The 2012 Presidential Election in Historical Context.”

While American democracy is often prosaic, from time to time it gets caught up in an ongoing battle between progressivism and conservatism. Elections, such as 1912, 1936, 1964 and 1980, ask voters to choose between profoundly different visions of the nature’s future, raising such fundamental questions about the nature of rights and the meaning of the Constitution. This election year seems to promise, or portend, another surrogate constitutional convention.  President Barack Obama and the Democrats and Mitt Romney and the Republicans have invoked and drawn inspiration from the election of 1912, the origins of the contest between Progressivism and Conservatism that has reverberated through our own political time.

            Last December, President Obama took up the mantle of Progressivism in an address delivered in Osawatomie, Kansas – the same site where in 1910 Theodore Roosevelt delivered the important “New Nationalism” speech that launched his final election battle, as the standard bearer of the Progressive Party, which he famously dubbed the Bull Moose campaign. Although TR did not win the election, the Bull Moose Campaign had the best showing of any third party before or since, garnering 27.4% of the electoral vote, and spearheaded a three-decade progressive advance against the “gilded age” Republican Party– and its “stand pat” defense of industrial capitalism – culminating in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s triumph of 1936. The Progressive Party introduced the idea of economic rights, including national health care, and promised to advance the rights of African-Americans, immigrants, and, especially women. With his December 2011 speech, Obama sought to ensure that he first term would not be judged on his record alone, but also would make clear the historic differences that divided Democrats and Republicans. A “ruthless pragmatist” during the first three years of his presidency, he now echoed TR’s Bull Moose Campaign in seeking to rediscover the message of hope and change of his 2008 campaign – and to set the tone for his re-election.

E.J. Dionne: Time to Restore the Balance Between Liberty and Communitarianism

E.J. Dionne, Jr.

E.J. Dionne, Jr.

Today, E. J. Dionne, Jr., senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a columnist for the Washington Post, spoke at the Miller Center Forum on his new book, Our Divided Political Heart. In the Progressive tradition, the thesis of the book and of Dionne’s remarks is that from the beginning, Americans have been torn between the core values of individualism and community. While we cherish liberty, individual opportunity and self-expression, we also uphold the values of community obligation and civic virtue. The ongoing efforts to balance and reconcile these values have shaped the character of the nation.

Dionne argued that the Tea Party rose from sense of spiritual crisis and fears of decline, and it was a response to the perceived and real failures of George W. Bush, not only a reaction to Barack Obama’s ascendance to the presidency. The Tea Party’s solution was to reach back to the founders and the Constitution. Dionne acknowledged that is useful to go back to the founding to figure out who we are and those on progressive side need to engage with Tea Party about this. However, Dionne’s criticized the Tea Party and conservatives in the Republican Party for jettisoning the nation’s communitarian traditions in favor of individualism and thereby breaking from their own best traditions. Dionne made the case that America is a freer society when we take care of “freedom from want” and he argued for a return to the balance between individual and community values that characterized most of American ­history.

The World’s a Stage: Presidential Addresses to the United Nations General Assembly

President Barack Obama addresses the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. Headquarters in New York, N.Y.

President Barack Obama addresses the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. Headquarters in New York, N.Y. September 23, 2009. Official White House photo by Samantha Appleton. PD.

Today, President Barack Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly. Like previous presidential speeches to the United Nations, President Obama’s speech focused on one of the most important contemporary international issues – the democratic transitions in the Middle East, as well as the violence and turmoil in the region. Obama paid tribute to Ambassador Chris Stevens, and addressed the “crude and disgusting video” that sparked the recent uprisings throughout the region. More broadly, he used the platform to highlight development around the world as well as democratic progress, noting the competitive, fair and credible elections in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, as well as the peaceful transitions of power in Malawi, Senegal and Somalia. Yet, he also reminded the audience that democracy takes hard work and called for honestly addressing “the tensions between the West and an Arab World moving to democracy.” The President called for greater international engagement in Syria and once again drew a red line on Iran’s nuclear program, saying the United States would not allow the country to obtain a nuclear weapon.

Overall, the speech was intended just as much for a domestic audience as it was for an international one. The president reminded people that the “war in Iraq is over, and our troops have come home,” that the transition in Afghanistan has begun, and that “Al Qaeda has been weakened and Osama bin Laden is no more.” President Obama derided the politics of division – a reference no doubt to domestic politics (what’s “on the news and that consumes our political debates”), and a more explicit reference to those seeking to incite violence by pitting “East against West; South against North; Muslim against Christian, Hindu, and Jew.” He also emphasized American values, such as support for democracy, freedom, and international law. Yet, his speech was a re-articulation of the Democratic Party’s position on America’s role in the world – that the United States should lead by example and work in concert with allies.

Mr. Obama’s speech is very much historically in line with presidential speeches to the UN General Assembly, though I would argue it is not likely to be remembered as one of the most consequential, unlike his 2009 address. Presidential addresses to the Generally Assembly usually highlight foreign policy goals and accomplishments, emphasize American values and define what the United States considers the greatest threats to itself and the international community at the time. We culled through our archives and found some of the most consequential presidential speeches to the UN General Assembly. Key factors that distinguish some speeches from others are the moment in history in which the address is delivered and the leader's response to that historical context.

Myth and Reality in the Life of Obama

David Maraniss, associate editor at the Washington Post and author of Barack Obama: The Story, spoke to a standing-room only crowd at the Miller Center’s Forum this morning. Maraniss explored some of the myth’s surrounding Barack Obama, the roots of who he is as a person and implications of his biography for his governing style.

Maraniss exposed two particular myths that have been exploited for political purposes. First, according to Maranniss’ research on the ground in Kenya, it was evangelical Christians that made the rise of the Obamas possible. Barack Obama, Sr. was trained in Anglican school. Furthermore, Obama Sr.’s mentor, Betty Mooney, was an evangelical Christian who was part of a faith-based literacy movement and whose grandfather was one of the founders of Texas Christian University. Muslims have nothing to with Mr. Obama’s existence.  The revelation of the family’s relationship to the evangelical Christian movement undermines the credibility of those who employ the claim that the President is a Muslim as a political scare tactic.

The story that Obama’s grandfather was tortured by the British is another myth the president himself innocently perpetrates in his own book, Dreams of My Father. There’s a sliver of possibility that it happened. However, there are no documents to prove it and Maraniss interviewed six people who said it didn’t happen.  Maraniss referred to a “sick American culture” that has exploited this myth as means to portray the president as basing policies and governance on an anti-colonialist victimhood worldview.

Why CSPAN’s Brian Lamb Likes Fox and MSNBC – Tell Us Your Thoughts

Brian Lamb, Chairman of CSPAN Networks

Brian Lamb, Chairman of CSPAN Networks

Yesterday, CSPAN Chairman Brian Lamb spoke at the Miller Center’s Forum.  Since its founding in 1978, CSPAN has made an important contribution to the revolution in communications, which in turn has enormously impacted the way in which people receive information and relate to government. Two things in particular set CSPAN apart from other media outlets. First, unlike public television or radio, it is truly separated from government. Second, unlike cable news shows, CSPAN airs policy and political events (such as the recent conventions), as well as government proceedings without filtered commentary. While CSPAN has been a pioneer in the communications revolution, Lamb noted that Twitter and Facebook are the sources of news for the next generation and the freedom they offer is even more extraordinary. The main take-away from Lamb’s talk was his belief in the absolute need to maintain a free market of ideas in the media, whether as individuals we agree with those ideas or not.

Greatest Hits in the Modern History of Republican Conventions

Ronald Reagan, “A Time for Choosing,” October 27, 1964

As the Republican Party convenes in Tampa (albeit a day late), it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on past gatherings.  Here are my nominations for greatest hits of GOP conventions in the modern era:

1. Barry Goldwater, acceptance of 1964 presidential nomination

A touchstone in the history of the Republican Party and the American conservative movement, the Arizona Senator’s unapologetic speech rallied the faithful and exacerbated the GOP’s internal ideological split.  It also diverged from the standard acceptance speech formula.  Goldwater’s address pulled no punches and was devoid of the customary vapid overtures to one’s political opponents.  Instead, “Mr. Conservative” reminded the country that “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice…Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

2. Pat Buchanan, 1992 Keynote Address

In a now-infamous speech delivered after Buchanan’s failed attempt to wrest the GOP nomination from sitting President George H.W. Bush, the former Reagan staffer alleged a “culture war” was on.  The enemy was clear: “the malcontents” at the Democratic convention, “environmental extremists,” the media, “radical feminism,” and the Clinton agenda calling for “abortion on demand, a litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, [and] women in combat.”  Many Republicans argued that Buchanan should never have been given such a prominent speaking role and were convinced his nationally televised remarks cost the Bush-Quayle ticket independent votes in November.

3. Zell Miller, 2004 Keynote Address

The Georgia Senator filled the unofficial Disillusioned Democrat slot at the Republican Convention eight years ago.  With the Iraq War in full swing, Miller’s scathing address focused on foreign policy and his party’s alleged abandonment of national security and capitulation to terrorists:  “I can remember when Democrats believed it was the duty of America to fight for freedom over tyranny…Time after time in our history, in the face of great danger, Democrats and Republicans worked together to ensure that freedom would not falter.  But not today.  Motivated more by partisan politics than by national security, today’s Democratic leaders see America as an occupier, not a liberator.  And nothing makes this Marine madder than someone calling American troops occupiers rather than liberators!”

4. Sarah Palin, acceptance of 2008 vice-presidential nomination

It’s easy to forget that there were several days when John McCain’s running mate selection appeared to be the stuff of political genius.  The high point for the Alaska Governor—and perhaps for the 2008 McCain campaign—was her riveting convention speech accepting the vice-presidential nomination.  Even those who didn’t like the message were impressed with the delivery, and the Obama-Biden campaign was reportedly concerned that they’d been outmaneuvered by her surprise addition to the GOP ticket.  Despite Code Pink protesters in the audience and a broken teleprompter, she didn’t miss a beat.  Of course, the wheels came off shortly after the Straight Talk Express pulled out of Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Palin never fully recovered from her interview with ABC’s Charlie Gibson and her discussion of newspapers with Katie Couric.  But for one night at least, Palin appeared to be just the game changer McCain was looking for.

Honorable Mention: Ronald Reagan, “A Time for Choosing” aka “The Speech,” 1964

Technically, the most legendary Republican convention speech wasn’t a convention speech at all.  It’s a common misconception that this Reagan classic was delivered at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco.  In fact, the Democrat-turned-Republican and future president actually gave his most famous address in a made-for-TV special in the campaign’s closing days.  And while “The Speech” may not have been enough to save Barry Goldwater from an historic landslide defeat at the hands of President Lyndon Johnson, it made Reagan a GOP star and became a manifesto for the conservative movement.

Will there be any additions to the list this week?  We’ll know soon enough.  The best bets: “Hurricane” Chris Christie’s Keynote Address tonight and Paul Ryan’s Vice Presidential acceptance speech tomorrow.

Scholarly Response: “Remember the 1990s? Partisan Rancor, Volatile Electorate, and Balanced Budgets”

On Sunday, August 19, the Miller Center partnered with ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” on the third of six special episodes examining some of the key issues heading into the 2012 Election.  On Sunday, six distinguished panelists discussed and debated whether or not the U.S. is headed towards bankruptcy.  Today’s guest post is from political scientist and former Miller Center Fellow Jasmine Farrier offering her assessment of the arguments presented in the debate.

Let’s reconcile the harsh sound bite and glib wrap-up – both telling moments in the Miller Center panel this past Sunday on ABC News’ “This Week”.  First, Grover Norquist called President George H.W. Bush a liar for breaking the infamous 1988 “no new taxes” pledge in 1990.  Second, despite profound disagreements over entitlements, revenue, and discretionary appropriations, some of the other panelists concluded that somehow America will muddle through the current economic and political crises and stave off European-style bankruptcy. 

While this final sentiment may strike some as naïve in light of the deep partisan and policy divisions showcased on the program, Norquist’s barb inadvertently served as a reminder that it is OK to indulge in this bit of optimistic fantasy.  

Scholarly Response: “Tax Increases Essential to Fiscal Balance”

On Sunday, August 19, the Miller Center partnered with ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” on the third of six special episodes examining some of the key issues heading into the 2012 Election.  On Sunday, six distinguished panelists discussed and debated whether or not the U.S. is headed towards bankruptcy.  Today’s guest post is from historian and former Miller Center Fellow Molly Michelmore offering her assessment of the arguments presented in the debate.  

The exchanges during the Miller Center’s debate “Is America Headed Toward Bankruptcy” proved one thing: the supply-side faith is still alive and well in the United States.

Join the Debate: Is the U.S. headed toward bankruptcy?

This Sunday, August 19, the Miller Center is once again partnering with ABC’s “This Week” for a debate on the question, “Is the U.S. headed toward bankruptcy?” Panelists include:

·         Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA)

·         Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD)

·         Neil Barofsky, Former Special Inspector General for Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP)

·         Austan Goolsbee, Former Obama Economic Adviser

·         Grover Norquist, Americans for Tax Reform

·         Kimberley Strassel, Wall Street Journal Editorial Board

Jake Tapper, senior White House Correspondent at ABC News and a regular contributor to ABC programs “Good Morning America,” “Nightline,” and “World News with Diane Sawyer” will moderate.

The panel will take questions via twitter and Facebook. Join the conversation by posting your question by Friday on Twitter to @ThisWeekABC and @Miller_Center and on Facebook here and here.

Check ABC’s This Week for airtimes in your area (scroll down to the bottom of the web page).

Be sure to also check out additional background materials prepared by the Miller Center, including information on the panelists.

Quayle: Vice Presidency ‘a Stepping Stone’ to the Presidency

President Bush walks along the colonnade with Vice President Quayle enroute to the Oval Office

President Bush walks along the colonnade with Vice President Quayle enroute to the Oval Office, March 20, 1992. Photo by David Valdez, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration. PD.

Today marks the anniversary of President George H.W. Bush’s selection of J. Danforth Quayle as his running mate for the 1988 presidential election. Bush had chosen a team of inner-circle Republicans, including Jim Baker and Kim Cicconi, to conduct his veep search. Bush made the announcement of his choice on the second day of the Republican National Convention. In March 2002, the Miller Center’s Presidential Oral History Project interviewed Quayle and he discussed at length the process of being selected and serving as George H.W. Bush’s vice president. Below are some relevant insights from that interview that apply to the vice presidency and selection process today.

Regarding the selection process, Quayle observed:  

One, you can never pick when you’re going to be selected for Vice President…You can choose when you’re going to run for President. You cannot really select when you’re going to be—or choose when you’re going to be selected Vice President… You want to be in a position. I was positioning myself to eventually run for President. Now, obviously, the Vice Presidency was a stepping-stone to that. I mean, that’s why people want to be Vice President. That’s why nobody really turns the job down.

Quayle also remarked on both George H.W. Bush’s expectations for and support of him in the role of vice president. In the interview, Quayle noted that Bush was very firm against leaks, but he was also easy to get along with.

With him having been Vice President, it was very helpful to me because he knew the constraints and the opportunities of the Vice Presidency. The constraints are obvious—it’s the President’s agenda and that’s it. It’s not your agenda, and loyalty is to be practiced and adhered to. It wasn’t difficult with me or with him. There are two requirements of being Vice President, that is to be prepared and be loyal.

Quayle also offered this advice on using a vice president:

What you want is to have a Vice President who will do a lot of things that you can’t do, but in your capacity. You want him to be able to go to a lot of the political events that you don’t want to as President. You want him to be able to go up to Capitol Hill as much as possible, because it’s so important to have good relations up there. You want someone who is going to be able to travel around the world, who will go to places that the Secretary of State might not be able to get to…You pick up interesting information and insights by having your Vice President out there… you want somebody who you can feel comfortable working with on a day-to-day basis, because you’re with him a lot. If you don’t have that comfort level, it makes it difficult because you’re stuck—you’re attached at the hip.

Read the Miller Center’s full interview with Quayle here and check out RTT’s previous post on Quayle’s vice presidency.

Friday Feature: President Harding Not Riding a Tiger

President Harding riding his horse, Harbel, in Potomac Park, Washington, D.C., with a secret service man riding alongside. c. 19

President Harding riding his horse, Harbel, in Potomac Park, Washington, D.C., with a secret service man riding alongside. c. 1921

President Warren Harding was among the first presidents to record their speeches, and he did so by shouting into a large horn affixed with a recording device. The speeches were limited to five minutes because of the equipment.

Check out the Harding exhibit here, then view the Miller Center's full multimedia archive of presidential speeches.

Stay tuned! Every Friday we'll highlight a whimsical item from presidential history.

Why Aren’t the Candidates Addressing Poverty?

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Poverty Bill (also known as the Economic Opportunity Act).

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Poverty Bill (also known as the Economic Opportunity Act) on August 20, 1964. LBJ Library photo by Cecil Stoughton. PD.

This month marks the anniversary of the passage of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, the legislative centerpiece of President Lyndon Baine Johnson’s War on Poverty.

President Johnson declared the War on Poverty in his State of the Union Address on January 8, 1964:

This administration today here and now declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join me in that effort...

Poverty is a national problem, requiring improved national organization and support. But this attack, to be effective, must also be organized at the State and local level.

For the war against poverty will not be won here in Washington. It must be won in the field, in every private home, in every public office, from the courthouse to the White House.

Very often, a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom.

Our aim is not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty but to cure it–and above all, to prevent it.

No single piece of legislation, however, is going to suffice.

Johnson made the War on Poverty the central concern of the nation, but as he noted in his SOTU address, it also required several bills and acts to create programs meant to alleviate poverty and improve the living standard for the poor. It also required presidential leadership and partisan compromise.

A half a century later, poverty has fallen off the national agenda. Furthermore, according to a recent Associated Press survey of economists, think tanks and academics finds that the poverty rate is set to rise to 15.7 percent this year, the highest levels since the EOA was adopted. What’s more, the presidential candidates aren’t addressing the poor in this election. Instead, both the Obama and Romney campaigns are battling for the middle class.

Presidential Power and the Nuclear State

President Harry S. Truman signs the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 establishing the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.

President Harry S. Truman signs the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 establishing the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. August 1, 1946. Photo Courtesy DOE, PD.

Sixty-seven years ago this week, the United States was the first country (and the only since) to use nuclear weapons in war. On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped “Little Boy,” a uranium atomic bomb, on the Japanese city of Hiroshima instantly killing 80,000 to 140,000 people and seriously injuring 100,000 more. Three day laters, on August 9, 1945, the United States dropped a second plutonium atomic bomb on Nagasaki, killing over 75,000 people. Although the bombings have been credited with ensuring Japanese surrender and American victory in World War II, the development of the nuclear weapons was also politically significant domestically because it increased the power of the presidency and set a precedent for government secrecy on national security matters. Nuclear weapons development has also been consequential for the rise of the national security state. Finally, the nuclear era raises important Constitutional questions regarding checks and balances of power and compatibility of nuclear weapons in democracy. As we remember the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki this week, it also worth considering how the development nuclear weapons have altered governing relations in the American state. Given the alterations of Constitutional powers, secrecy and costs borne by citizens, are nuclear weapons compatible with democracy?

Taxation Without Persuasion

Ronald Reagan addresses the nation on federal tax reduction legislation, July 27, 1981.

Ronald Reagan addresses the nation on federal tax reduction legislation, July 27, 1981. PD.

Just about everyone is talking taxes this week. On Capitol Hill, Congress has been feuding over tax rates that are part of the “fiscal cliff” towards which the nation is headed post-election. Republicans want to keep the Bush-era tax rates for all individuals, while Democrats seek to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans, largely repeating the president’s tax message.

Meanwhile, on the campaign trail, President Obama is making the case for tax equality and framing Romney’s plan as a tax burden on the middle class. Citing a Brookings Institution study while stumping in Mansfield, Ohio, President Obama told supporters that Romney “is not asking you to contribute more to pay down the deficit. He's not asking you to pay more to invest in our children's education or rebuild our roads or put more folks back to work. He’s asking you to pay more so that people like him can get a big tax cut.” The Obama campaign is also launching a new campaign ad that will air in eight key states. Citing a report by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, the ad argues Romney has paid a lower proportion of his income in taxes than many people of lesser means: “He pays less, you pay more.”

Mitt Romney isn’t taking the punches sitting down though. Romney advisor Eric Fehrnstrom called the report “a joke,” challenging its impartiality and methodology. (Ezra Klein has a worthwhile post on why Romney’s tax plan and the campaign’s response to report are problematic here.) The Romney campaign is also attempting to shift the focus away from the tax issue to the economy, charging that the president has not fulfilled promises made in the 2008 campaign.

Although Article 1, Section 7 of the Constitution gives Congress the power of introducing bills to raise revenues, a brief survey shows that modern presidents have been a powerful force in proposing and selling tax policy to Congress and the American public, especially as part of broader plans for economic recovery. Presidential persuasion is requisite when it comes to attempts at major tax reform. The Miller Center has compiled an online exhibit demonstrating how presidents have used the bully pulpit over the years to sell tax policy -- sometimes successfully, but not always. Although modern presidents have played an important role in crafting and selling plans, since the Kennedy administration, compromise with Congress and across party lines was necessary to achieve major policy reform.  Check out the exhibit or read on for highlights.