Lincoln’s Gettysburg “dud” Friday, Sep 19 2014 

In a prior life and century I worked for a controversial Vice President named Spiro Agnew who delivered fiery speeches denouncing, among other things, what he called “instant analysis” of presidential speeches.

Instant analysis, a feature of the television age, took place when, immediately following a presidential address, a panel of talking heads appeared on TV screens to tell us not only why the President said what he said, but what was wrong with it. In short order that practice spread to the print media as reporters, once given only to reporting the news, felt it necessary to interpret it for what a new generation of  journalists viewed as the dim-bulb masses.

Agnew’s speeches on the subject, delivered in Des Moines, Iowa, and Montgomery, Alabama in October 1969, were in turn instantly analyzed by his media critics as being “an attack on the First Amendment.” The Vice President, it was written and said by media pundits from Walter Lippmann to CBS’s Eric Sevareid, aimed at producing a “chilling effect” that would inhibit if not stifle critics in a free American press.

If that was Agnew’s aim, he missed his mark badly. Far from being chilled, media critics of presidential speeches since that time have been, if anything, overheated. Take, for example, the instant analysis of President Obama’s speech last week on the ongoing crisis in the Middle East.

Though no fan of Obama’s loquacious style of making a point, I thought his speech that night, while predictable, was direct and effective. But no sooner than he finished, a bevy of instant analysts, notably led by CNN’s David Gergen (of Gerald Ford speechwriting fame) and Chris Matthews (of Jimmy Carter speechwriting fame) were on-screen to tell us how bad it was.

All of which brought to mind a piece I wrote back in my Agnewesque days, imagining what a 20th century (now 21st century) press would have to say about a presidential speech made in a small Pennsylvania town in mid-autumn of 1863 . . .

GETTYSBURG, Pa. – Nov. 19 – President Lincoln, in what White House aides billed as a “nonpolitical” speech, dedicated a military cemetery here today before a sparse, unresponsive crowd estimated by local authorities as fewer than 300 people.

In a tactical move clearly designed to get the political jump on Gen. George B. McClellan, his probable Democratic opponent next year, Mr. Lincoln made one of his rare trips outside Washington to visit this vote-rich Keystone State. Judging by early reaction to his appearance, however, the White House strategy appears to have backfired.

Not only was the President’s address sharply criticized by political experts for being too brief, but he was upstaged by the main speaker of the day, the brilliant public orator Edward Everett. Moreover, Mr. Lincoln’s glaring failure even to mention McClellan or Gen. George Meade, the victorious Union commander of the battle fought here in July, cast doubt on White House staff claims that the trip was “purely nonpolitical.”

One veteran political observer, noting recent charges that the Lincoln Administration has created a “credibility gap” between itself and the public, termed the President’s omission of McClellan’s and Meade’s names from his speech text “a serious blunder that will come back to haunt him in next year’s election.”

“This is another example of the sloppy White House staff work that has plagued the Administration since the day Lincoln took office,” commented another observer on receiving news that the President’s speech has been hurriedly scribbled on the back of an envelope en route to the speech site.

White House spokesmen vehemently denied this rumor, claiming that Mr. Lincoln had “worked over two drafts of the speech before he left Washington.”

While debate went on regarding the manner in which the speech was drafted, there was general agreement with the opinion rendered by a visiting professor of oratory from the University of Pennsylvania that the President’s address was “a dud.”

Mr. Lincoln delivered his remarks in the same high-pitched, vaguely irritating Midwestern inflection that has characterized his past public addresses. Another criticism was that the speech, in the words of one Gettysburg resident, “didn’t say anything we haven’t already heard.”

“My family and I came out here to see and listen to the President of the United States and all we got was a puny two minutes,” said one outraged localite.

Mr. Lincoln remained unsmiling throughout his visit to this small eastern Pennsylvania village. Aides claimed the President’s solemn demeanor was simply “appropriate to the occasion,” but knowledgeable Washington sources have indicated that serious problems in Mr. Lincoln’s home life more likely account for his grim public visage in recent months.

In support of this view, it was noted that Mrs. Lincoln did not accompany the President here.

Another significant absentee from the speaker’s platform was Vice President Hannibal Hamlin. Rumors persist that Mr. Lincoln plans to dump Mr. Hamlin as a running mate next year in favor of a Border State Democrat who would be more helpful in pursuing his Administration’s Southern Strategy.

The President, who has not held a major news conference in two years, refused reporters’ requests that he answer questions following his address. In the speech itself, Mr. Lincoln said that the men who died in the battle here gave their lives in order “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

However, the President, who was elected three years ago on a pledge to preserve the Union, once again failed to provide details on any fresh Administration initiative to achieve this objective.

Sound Bites to Remember

“Nattering nabobs of negativism.”
— Spiro Agnew’s description of Democratic critics of the Nixon Administration, words written by speechwriter William Safire, 1970.

“An effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.”
— Spiro Agnew’s description of antiwar demonstrators, words written by Spiro Agnew, 1969.

Goldwater for President Wednesday, Sep 3 2014 

Today marks the date of the 50th anniversary of the kickoff to Barry Goldwater’s general election campaign for the presidency. The place was Prescott, Arizona, the small desert town Goldwater’s family had settled in when they arrived from Poland more than a century before. It was where Goldwater had kicked off his first campaign for national office, running for U.S. senator and upsetting Democratic Senate Majority Leader Ernest McFarland in 1952.

There would be no upset in the presidential race against Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and Goldwater knew it. Issues aside, he told those close to him, the country was still recovering from the shock of the Kennedy assassination, and wasn’t in any mood to have three presidents in two years.

Not that there were any issues put aside in the campaign the Johnson White House waged against its Republican opponent. Goldwater, having won his party’s nomination running as a heartland conservative, made an easy target for Democratic speakers (and journalists) by telling senior citizens in Florida that if elected he’d privatize social security and voters in Knoxville he’d sell off the Tennessee Valley Authority.

As if that weren’t enough to make Republican strategists cringe, the Arizona senator’s blunt talk about dealing with the Soviet Union inspired TV ads implying a Goldwater presidency would lead to nuclear war.

An electoral disaster was looming, but as the Republican candidate told his cringing advisers, “I’m going to lose this election and lose it big, but I’m going to do it my own damned way.”

And that he did, in one of the biggest landslides in presidential campaign history, the conventional wisdom being that Barry Goldwater was hopelessly behind the times. As it turned out, however, Goldwater’s problem (apart from unvarnished candor) was that he was ahead of his time. Sixteen years later Ronald Reagan would win the presidency on virtually the same conservative platform Goldwater had run on.

Easy to explain, said the Republican presidential candidate of 1964. “If I’d believed everything they said and wrote about Barry Goldwater (during that campaign), I’d have voted against the sonofabitch myself.”

Sound bite to remember

“Politics is like bullfighting and every once in a while you get gored. Forget about it.”

— Barry Goldwater, reassuring his young press aide Vic Gold after Gold had blown an assignment, September 1964

If I die and go to hell…. Friday, Mar 21 2014 

Reubin Askew, two-term governor of Florida during the 1970s, died last week. But for the breaks of history, he would have made a good, possibly a great president.

It all goes back to air travel connections in what someone of my age, in an addled remembrance of the past, thinks of as the good old days.

Airline travel in the South half a century ago was best characterized by the frequent flyer’s complaint that if he died and went to hell, he’d have to layover in Atlanta. This was true of national reporters sent down to cover the political and social upheaval taking place in the region during the ongoing civil rights revolution. A layover in Atlanta? What better way to spend time in the Georgia capital than visiting its progressive new governor, Jimmy Carter, and getting his views on the state of the nation?

So it was that after more than a year of interviews with stopover national correspondents, the always available Carter was hailed on the cover of Time magazine as the leading voice of the New South.

Meanwhile, a few hundred miles downwind as the crow and Delta Airlines flew (but didn’t stopover), another new face of the changing South, Reubin Askew, was running the show in Tallahassee, Florida.  How successful a Southern governor was Reubin Askew in the turbulent Seventies? As his obituary in the Washington Post told us:

“Defying political custom, party loyalties and entrenched business interests, Mr. Askew launched a series of reforms designed to make state government more open and to increase opportunities for the poor and disenfranchised. . . . A supporter of racial equality (he) integrated the state highway patrol and other state agencies, supported busing to end school segregation, despite overwhelming opposition, appointed the first African American to the state supreme court . . . and the first African American cabinet official since Reconstruction.”

And more: Following Askew’s eight years in office, one of his leading opponents in the state legislature conceded, “He has exhibited a kind of morality in office that causes people to have faith in the governor’s office to a higher degree than we have seen in a long, long time.”

Askew served two terms as Florida’s governor. Jimmy Carter, after one term in Georgia (deemed by Atlanta Constitution editor Reg Murphy as politically disastrous), launched his campaign for the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination the moment his foot touched ground outside the Georgia statehouse.

James Thurber once wrote an alternative history describing the fate of a frustrated young Napoleon born thirty years after the French Revolution, his gift as a great military leader unused and unwanted. For Reubin Askew it wasn’t a matter of living in the wrong time, however, but in the wrong place. Had Delta or United marked just a few of their flights from New York and Washington for stopovers in Tallahassee, we might be looking back at the good old days when President Askew was in charge.

Sound bite to remember

“I did the best I could with what I had.”

–Former heavyweight champion Joe Louis, on being asked to sum up his legendary boxing career, circa 1951.

Aboard the Good Ship Lollipop Thursday, Feb 13 2014 

The candidate’s husband met me at the San Francisco airport that August day in 1967 with what he considered good news: According to the latest poll we were riding high, with a 2-to-1 advantage over our nearest opponent in the special election to fill a congressional seat.

So went my first morning as campaign advisor to Shirley Temple Black, explaining to her husband, Charles, on the drive from the airport that the poll he thought was good was in fact awful. True, we had a 2-to-1 advantage over Pete McCloskey, but it was 12 to 6 percent, with no fewer than eight of 10 voters undecided. That wasn’t bad in itself, but brought on heartburn when the numbers also told us that our candidate had an astounding 98 percent recognition factor among registered votes in San Mateo County.

In short, voters knew her, even liked her (the favorable ratio was just as good), but 80 percent couldn’t see her as their representative in Congress. Though now a mother with two growing girls, people still saw her as adorable little Shirley, dancing with Bill Robinson aboard the Good Ship Lollipop.

It would not, I’d learn in the weeks ahead, be an impression easy to overcome. Thanks to Ronald Reagan, the myth has grown that being an actor gives a candidate a decided edge in campaigning for office. Not so if the candidate, like Shirley Temple Black, is reluctant to play the role set out by professional political handlers (like me).

Shirley had her own ideas about the way she wanted to run for office and that was that. No superficial sound bites, no hedging on the issues, no campaign rallies between the hours of 5 and 8 p.m. because the most important thing in her day was to be with her children at dinnertime (remembering, she told me, her own young days when work at the studio came before family gatherings).

Who could argue with that? I’d worked with Barry Goldwater three years before and knew the style: She might win the race, she might lose it, but in either case she was going to do it her own way. What beat us, however, wasn’t so much her style as the Vietnam War. Pete McCloskey, a Vietnam veteran, was against it and had the best of both political worlds on the most important issue of the day.

My candidate that summer and fall of 1967 went on, as we know, to make her contribution as an ambassador overseas, her good cheer and earnest approach to the job serving her and her country well. But had she been elected to Congress, I’m sure, the skipper of the Good Ship Lollipop would have made an outstanding Member – and who knows where it might have gone from there?

Sound bite to remember

“He doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t drink, and both his children are adopted.”

–Florida legislator, circa 1970, explaining why Governor Reubin Askew’s political opponents weren’t likely to catch him in any political scandal.

Is the Tea Party “Populist”? Sunday, Nov 17 2013 

Its members claim it is, and political reporters describe it as such. But the record says otherwise.

Take the recent race for governor in Virginia. The Republican nomination went to Ken Cuccinelli, the Tea Party favorite chosen not by popular vote in a primary – that was an option, but Cuccinelli and his Tea Party followers rejected it in favor of a closed convention, the old-fashioned party boss way.

Had there been a primary, chances are that Cuccinelli would have lost the nomination to Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, not considered conservative enough for the Tea Party bosses. (And who, if nominated, would by all odds have defeated Terry McAuliffe in the general election.)

But evidence that the Tea Party is simply masquerading as a populist movement doesn’t stop there. Beyond Virginia, there is the national Tea Party movement, spearheaded by the ideological harebrain Rand Paul, to repeal the 17th Amendment of the Constitution, which provides for the popular election of United States senators.

That is, the Tea Party would take the power to choose who represents the people in the United States Senate away from the people and put it back in the hands of state legislators.

The irony – or more appropriately, the hypocrisy – in all this is that passage of the 17th Amendment was and is considered the signature achievement of the grassroots Populist Party of a century ago.

Soundbite to Remember

“No, I took journalism. It was easier.”

 Jets quarterback Joe Namath on being asked by a New York sports reporter whether he had majored in basket-weaving at the University of Alabama (circa 1965)

Why 2012 Should Be a GOP Year Monday, Jan 9 2012 

“Why 2012 Should Be a GOP Year”

— Headline, George Will’s New Year’s column

The Oracle has looked into his crystal ball and foreseen the future. According to the Washington Post‘s pre-eminent conservative pundit, Republicans should “stride confidently” into the coming election year, with nothing but good news ahead – unless you include losing the presidency again to Barack Obama.

That’s what the man said: Republicans will win the House and Senate but because of a flawed nominating process will lose the White House. They can then spend the next four years blocking everything Obama wants to do in a happy state of partisan gridlock.

Flashback: I recall a bright young Post columnist once summing up a dismal political situation with the trenchant observation that “if you set your standards low enough a train wreck can be counted a success.”

That columnist, if my octogenarian memory serves, was George Will. But of course George, as he confessed in another recent column, has now reached the septuagenarian stage of life, so he can be forgiven a few lapses; such as recommending, in his  second column of the new year, that a Romney-Santorum ticket is just what Republicans need to capture the key state of Pennsylvania come November.

That would be Rick Santorum, the Great Right Hope of the moment, who lost his home state of Pennsylvania by 17 points when he ran for re-election to the U.S. Senate. Small wonder why Will is touting a Romney-Santorum ticket for the fall: He’s out to make his prediction of an Obama victory a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But I digress — a common failing among those who have lived through too many presidential elections to take the promise of “change” seriously. My original point was that if the GOP loses to Obama in November it won’t be because of its nominating process but the fact that Republicans took over the House in the mid-term elections.

Lucky Barack Obama. What would the odds against his re-election be this new year if he didn’t have an out-of-control Republican majority in the House to blame for his failure to deliver “change you can believe in.”

A little political history is in order, if Professor Gingrich won’t mind my muscling into his territory:

In 1948 Harry Truman was so unpopular that both the left and right wings of his party broke off to nominate their own candidates for president. Yet he won re-election not by running against his nominal opponent, Tom Dewey, but a Republican Congress whose time and energy had been spent trying to repeal the New Deal.

Flash forward half-a-century to find another unpopular Democratic president rescued by the mid-term election of a Republican House that undid itself by closing down the government because, as its Speaker confessed, he was asked to leave Air Force One from the rear rather than the front exit.

In that case, it was lucky Bill Clinton. What would the odds against his re-election have been in 1996 if he hadn’t had an out-of-control Newt Gingrich to blame for his failure to deliver the New Covenant he’d promised.

Obviously the idea that elephants never forget doesn’t apply to pachyderms of the political species. On the other hand their Democratic opponents have taken heed: A front-page New Year’s headline in the New York Times tells us OBAMA PLANS TO RUN AGAINST CONGRESS.


Steele might become a reasonably good writer if he would pay a little more attention to grammar, learn something about the propriety and disposition of words and, incidentally, get some information on the subject he intends to handle.

                                 — Jonathan Swift on Richard Steele

Thirteen years? Unlucky (or unlikely) number Thursday, Dec 8 2011 

So Herman Cain has dropped out of the race for the Republican presidential nomination after a woman came forward with a lurid story of a 13-year sexual relationship with the one-time GOP frontrunner.

My cynical Louisiana-bred reaction? Big mistake to leave the race. In former Gov. Edwin Edwards’ famous formulation, there is no practical reason for any modern-day politician to quit running unless he’s found in bed with a live boy or a dead girl.

Consider David Vitter, still spouting platitudes on the U.S. Senate floor, despite being listed as a frequent guest at a wicked Washington call house. Or, for that matter, the private life of Cain’s successor as the Iowa frontrunner, Newt Gingrich.

No, what Herman Cain should have done on getting word of a pending sex scandal was punch in Edwin Edwards’ number to find out what Edwards advised Bill Clinton when a model named Gennifer Flowers claimed that she had a 12-year relationship with Clinton during his days as attorney general and governor of Arkansas.

As Edwards recalled the occasion, Clinton, then in the early stage of his run for the presidency, got news of the charge while on a fund-raising trip to New Orleans. Concerned about its impact, he asked his fellow Southern governor, Edwards, what he should do.

“I told him,” said Edwards, “that if that sort of claim were made against me I’d say, ‘12 weeks, maybe. Twelve months, maybe. But 12 years? Never.’”

Clinton, a simple Arkansas philanderer who lacked the flair of his Louisiana counterpart, said he didn’t think he could do that. Instead he and Hillary headed for “60 Minutes” and the first of what would be an eight-year series of “Stand by Your Man” reconciliations.

It worked, but I still prefer Edwards’ way. Mendacious perhaps, but it had the virtue of political wit, an element sadly lacking in the current race for the Republican nomination. For that reason alone, we’re going to miss Herman Cain’s presence in the field. He was the only candidate running who could at times be intentionally funny.

Sound Bite to Remember (Occupiers and Tea Party members take note)

“Every reform movement has a lunatic fringe.”

                               — Theodore Roosevelt (1913)

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