Sunday, February 27, 2011

Finally: The last one-termer, George H.W. Bush.

George H.W. Bush taking the oath from Chief Justice William Rehnquist on January 20, 1989.  Onlookers include House Speaker Jim Wright, Senator Ted Stevens, boyish-lookingVice President Dan Quayle,  and Bush's wife Barbara. 

Two years after becoming president, George H.W. Bush assembled and led a multi-national military coalition against Saddam Hussein in the first Persian Gulf War, successfully ejecting Iraq from Kuwait with minimal US casualties and a prompt exit.  In its wake, April 1991, Bush's popularity soared to 89 percent, the 2d highest ever recorded by the Gallop Poll.  (Click here for the historical numbers.)  The highest score, 90 percent, would go to Bush's son George W. after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

But by June 1992, just one year later, Bush's poll number collapsed to 29 percent -- an amazing 60 point drop.  A few months later, he lost his presidency to Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton.  

What happened?  How did all that popularity disappear?  The lessons -- two of them -- are written in big red letters (literally): 

  • First, polls lie.  And lying polls can lull a president into the politician's worst enemy - complacency.
  • Second, budget deficits matter, sometimes more than wars.
Son of a US Senator (Prescott Bush, D.-Conn.), youngest Navy pilot in World War II, a Yale graduate, self-made Texas oilman, and two-term congressman,  George H.W. Bush in the 1970s was given the chance by Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald Ford to fill four key posts that made him a national figure: Ambassador to the UN, Republican Party chairman, chief US diplomat in China, and Director of the CIA.  In 1980, he ran well enough against Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination that Reagan gave him the VP spot, a role that Bush filled loyally for eight years before winning his own presidency in 1988.   

By 1992, Bush had used his presidency to become an accomplished world leader, presiding over not just the Persian Gulf War but also the collapse of Soviet Russia and other Communist dictatorships and a quick invasion of Panama -- all handled cleanly.      

Unfortunately for Bush, however, this was not quite the right mix for American politics.  American votes elect American presidents -- not the world -- and global feats often play second fiddle to local issues.  Republican conservatives never quite trusted Bush, who had famously referred to Reagan's tax cut plans in 1980 as "voodoo economics."   Then add in a few headaches under Bush's watch like these--

  • The collapse of the savings and loan industry, which required a clean-up costing taxpayers an estimated $500 billion, with scandals galore.  
  • The nomination to the Supreme Court of Clarence Thomas, the most controversial in modern history, complete with an ugly sex-harrassment scandal played out on national TV.
  • Finally, in late 1991, a six-month economic recession pushing unemployment to 7.8 percent and Americans in poverty to 14.2 percent.  Voters still felt pain into the 1992 campaign season. 

Ross Period explaining the budget definit in 1992.
And then there was the deficit.  A point of passion?  Absolutely !!  

During the 1980s, US federal budget deficits had ballooned -- a product of Reagan-era tax cuts combined with failure to control spending that caused national debt to triple during this era, from $900 billion to almost $3 trillion.  (It still sounds quint next to today's mid-2011 debt of $13.5 trillion, but that's another story.)    

Bush wanted to confront this problem, but he had tired his own hands during the 1988 campaign with his famous pledge: "Read my lips!  New new taxes!"  In the end, Bush broke this pledge and approved a $500 billion deficit reduction package in1990 that included tax hikes.  Click here for more about the pledge.

Breaking the pledge was bad enough, but then came something worse: Ross Perot.  

Perot, a cranky self-made Texas billionaire (founder of computer giant EDS), fed up with Washington incompetence, decided to launch his own self-financed independent presidential campaign in 1992 based on his own version of home-spun economic virtues: balanced budget, trade protection for US jobs, and direct town-hall-style democracy.  Partial to CNN's Larry King, he came to interviews and debates armed with charts and graphs to explain just how badly the deficit was hurting everyone in the country.  

Bush seemed lost in the crossfire, worsened by his disdain for what he called "the vision thing."  Perot won 19.7 million votes (about 18 percent)  -- the best popular-vote showing by any third-party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912.  This allowed Clinton to win with a 43% plurality. (See full results here.)

And that sky-high, 89 percent poll numbers after the Persian Gulf War?  They simply melted -- like the wicked witch in the Wizard of Oz.  They had been a mirage, what pollsters call a "rally around the leader" affect in times of crisis.  They had only served to hide Bush's weakness and allow him to get caught flat-footed and out-hustled by hungry Democrats. 

Finally -- Lesson for Obama?

Stay tuned for the series finale -- lessons for Barack Obama in 2012.   Coming tomorrow morning.  I  promise!!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The next presidential one-termer: Jimmy Carter.

Jimmy Carter answering questions as president.  
[Clirk here for (a) part I of this series, the first eight one-term presidents: John Adams to William Howard Taft and (b) part II, on the ninth one-termer, Herbert Hoover.]

Remember all the good feelings of optiimism and relief in January 1977 when Jimmy Carter was sworn in as president of the USA.  (You guys not born yet, trust me on this.)   

After the house-of-horrors presidency of "Tricky Dick" Richard M. Nixon - his enemies list, spying on his own staff, wiretaps of news reporters, his "plumbers unit," IRS audits of political enemies, plus Vietnam, the Cambodia invasion, the shootings at Kent State, and all the lying and deceit of Watergate that finally did him in (I won't pretend to be neutral about RMN) -- after all that, Jimmy Carter seemed a breath of fresh air, even after the interlude of Gerald Ford's relatively calm brief presidency.  

Honest Jimmy, he came across as down-home and normal, truthful, grounded, at ease with his wife and cute little daughter, a peanut farmer, nuclear engineer, and Navy submariner, willing to get out of his car and walk on his own two feet during his inaugural parade.  Carter was an "outsider" --a one-term governor from Plains, Georgia, with no taint of Washington experience.  He promised to deliver "a government as good and honest and decent and compassionate ... as its people."  And he said "I will never lie to you."

Sound slightly arrogant?  Slightly smug?  Like an accident waiting to happen?  By 1980,barely three years later, Carter's popularity had plummeted, his poll numbers at around 20 percent -- close to Richard Nixon's own lowest point during Watergate.  

[Full disclosure: At the time, in the late 1970s, I was a young staff lawyer for Republican Senator Chuck Percy (R-Ill.) on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee -- scene of much Carter-era action -- so I had a nice ring-side seat.]

To his credit, Carter compiled a pretty nice legislative record.  He won major deregulations of the airlines, trucking, and natural gas prices, created the Energy and Education Departments, took major energy conservation steps and pushed through the Alaska Lands Act and bans on ocean dumping and strip mining.  He negotiated peace between Egypt and Israel, pardoned Vietnam-era draft evaders, and won a treaty to return the Panama Canal to Panama (still a sore point with conservatives).  

This was all good.  Put it on the plus side of the ledger.  Now for the rest ....

So what was the accident waiting to happen? 

Almost from the start, things under Carter seemed chaotic, out-of control.  In his first year as president, Carter's team stumbled into a first-rate scandal that forced the resignation of Carter's long-time crony and OMB Director, Bert Lance.  After that, a veritable cascade of toubless followed --   

  • First, the economy sank into a swamp of high inflation, high interest rates, sagging markets, and low growth -- a new phenomenon called Carter "stagflation."  Rubbing sand in the wound were repeated hikes in the price of oil (gasoline) dictated by the OPEC cartel of Arab countries.  Then, in late 1979, the Hunt Brothers of Dallas, Texas, cornered the silver market, driving prices of silver and gold to historic highs before crashing in early 1980.  No, the economic mess wasn't all Carter's fault.  And to his credit, his Federal Reserve chief Paul Volcker had plans to fix it.  But there's more;
  • Then, as things kept going wrong, Carter decided to closet himself for a week-long, high-profile secret enclave at Camp David after which he (a) first conducted a purge of his staff, sacking five cabinet secretaries, and (b) then followed it with a national televised speech in which he decried the country's "crisis of the spirit" - known to posterity as the "malaise" speech; 
  • Then, in late 1979, militants in Iran seized the US embassy there and held 52 American hostages for what would be 444 days.  Carter ordered a military rescue (causing his Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to resign in protest) which failed because of a helicopter crash that, costing the lives of eight servicemen;
  • Then came the late-1979 Russian invasion of Afghanistan, causing Carter to (a) cancel US participation in the 1980 Moscow Olympics (pissing off sports fans all across America) and (b)  embargo grain shipments to Russia (causing US grain prices to tank, pissing off farmers all across America); 

  • Then, finally, just when he needed friends the most, came a revolt from within his own Democratic Party as Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass) decided to challenge Carter for the 1980 presidential nomination.  Carter beat him (he was, after all, an incumbent president), but only after an ugly fight.
By 1980 when the ran for re-eleciton, Jimmy Carter seemed reduced to one last voter appeal:  That as bad as things might be under his own leadership, his opponent, Republican Ronald Reagan, was worse -- too inexperienced, too right wing, too extreme.  Voters didn't buy it.  When Reagan and Carter debated face to face, Reagan came across as calm and reasonable.  He won by a landslide.

(Carter managed to bungle even the debates.  When third-party candidate John Anderson asked to participate, Reagan agreed and Carter refused.  The debate when ahead with just Reagan and Anderson, and Carter's glaring absence make him again look petty and insecure.)

Lesson for Obama:

How to avoid being like Jimmy Carter?  Obama, let's start with this:  Please do not start thinking that you are smarter than everyone else.  The minute you do, you're lost. 

Here was Carter's trap:  Being an "outsider" and painting yourself as "better than" Washington might make you popular in the short run, even win an election or two.  But those same Washington "insiders" - most just as honest, decent, and civic-minded as you -- are the very people whose help you need to accomplish your goals, and whose friendship you need when things get tough.   Living in a White House cacoon surrounded by old friends from back home does little good when issues get complicated.

Yes, partisanship today is out of conttrol.  But the golden rule of Tammany Hall's George Washington Plunket from 1905 still holds today::  "The politicians who make a lastin' success in politics are the men who are always loyal to their friends, even up to the gate of State prison, if necessary...."

Jimmy Carter is celebrated today as an admirable former President.  Since leaving the White House, he and his Carter Center have helped sooth dozens of world crises, wining him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. This, of course, very nice.  But for now,  the key fact about Carter is this: 1980 Electoral Votes- Ronald Reagan, 489; Carter, 49. (C-SPAN 2009 poll rank: 22.)

Next up, the final one-term president: George H. W. Bush.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Next in the Pantheon of One-Termers: Herbert Hoover.

President Herbert Hoover with wife Lou Henry.  

[Click here for part I of this series, the first eight one-term presidents: John Adams to William Howard Taft.] 

There's a dark little secret about Herbert Hoover.  It's this:  Other than four terrible years as president of the USA, Hoover led a terrific, admirable, productive life as a leading 20th Century progressive.  

So why do so many people hate him?  How did this fine, up-standing man end up getting blamed for the Great Depression of the 1930s?

When Barack Obama reached the White House in January 2009 -- just after the US economy had tanked again in the Financial Meltdown of 2008 -- we heard comparisons to 1932 from all sides.  Obama friends tried to paint him as a new Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose 1930s New Deal used activist government to address the crisis and made him a Democratic hero, re-elected three times.  Now, increasingly, opponents are trying to link Obama to FDR's predecessor Hoover -- the goat.  

Obama, if you don't want to end up being tagged another Herbert Hoover, then listen up !

First, the disconnect:  Before he became president, Americans admired Herbert Hoover.  From Sanford University, Hoover went out and built a fortune as a geologist and mining engineer.  He led gold and zinc-mining projects in Australia, China, and a dozen other countries while leaning multiple languages and writing two major engineering text books.   

In 1914, when World War I erupted in Europe, Hoover organized the rescue of 120,000 Americans initially stranded there, then stayed in Europe to lead massive food relief efforts for Belgium and other suffering countries.  When the US entered the War in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson called him home to lead the US Food Administration.  After the War, Hoover returned to the battle scene to feed millions of more refugees in devastated Eastern Europe.   Then he founded a center at Stanford University -- paid from his own pocket -- to study the War and its deadly effects on civilians. 

People called him "the great humanitarian."  Back home, he served eight years as a model Secretary of Commerce, leading a huge relief effort after terrible floods hit Mississippi in 1927.  He won the presidency in 1928 by a landslide and, at his March 1929 inauguration, he talked about ending poverty and restoring a Teddy Roosevelt-Woodrow Wilson style progressivism. 

Wall Street's stock crash came in October 1929 -- setting the stage for the Depression -- when Herbert Hoover had been President just seven months.  Nobody blamed it all on him --  just like nobody blamed the 2008 financial meltdown on Barack Obama.  The forces causing the 1929 crash had been building for years. And Hoover himself refused to just sit and let people starve -- the traditional US government response to Wall Street panics.  During his term, he launched public works projects, lowered some taxes, prodded business leaders to keep workers on payrolls, started a Reconstruction Finance Corporation, so on, so forth.    

After all, people thought, who could possibly be better prepared to face the crisis than "the great humanitarian," "the great engineer," Herbert Hover?

So what went wrong?  

By the time Hoover ran for re-election in 1932, he had taken this initial good will and lost it almost totally, making himself a virtual public enemy in America.  Crowds booed him, threw eggs and rotten fruit at his train and limousines.  How did he make such a mess of things?  Here goes--

First, failure matters.    The truth is, very few economists in 1929 or 1930 really understood the developing financial collapse, let alone knew how to stop it.   It was something new and would take years to figure out.  

Hoover tried some new things, tried some old things, but nothing worked.  Instead, the economy teetered, tottered, then sank.   By 1932, banks were closing by the thousands, unemployment hit 24%, and panic spread.  Some Hoover decisions directly fueled the disaster: the Smoot-Hawlety Tariff (signed over objections from economists), badly-timed attempts to balance the budget, a tax increase.  

Hoover did not start the downturn, but three years of his "help" made it worse.  Was this alone enough for a pink slip?  Maybe not.   But there's more.  

Second, knowing what's going on matters:  Yes, presidents should show optimism and confidence in a crisis -- but not at the cost of looking stupid and uninformed.

Faced with growing panic after the 1929 stock crash, Herbert Hoover came forth with a chorus of happy talk.  "The crisis will be over in sixty days," he announced cheerily in 1930.  "People will work harder, live a more moral life," added his Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon.  There were "definite signs that business and industry have turned the corner," the president repeated.    (For your reading pleasure, click here for a longer list of wrong Hoover optimistic predictions from the period.)  

People stopped trusting him and resented him for either not knowing or not doing his homework. 

Third, caring matters:   The "great humanitarian" of post-World War I Europe never delivered similar relief to the starving unemployed of 1930s America.  Instead, in one dark episode, when a group of jobless World War I veterans came to Washington, D.C. seeking payment of a promised pension bonus (the "Bonus Army"), Hoover sent police and then army troops under General Douglas MacArthur to disperse them.  A violent melee followed, resulting in two marchers killed and hundreds more injured.  Hoover refused to reprimand MacArthur for the violence. (For a great read on this episode, see The Bonus Army (2004) by Paul Dickson and Thomas Allen)   

Finally, personality matters:  Hoover sank into frustration.   “Economic depression cannot be cured by legislative action or executive pronouncement.” he lamented.  His complaints sounded petty.   His name became an insult.  Shantytowns for homeless were Hoover-villes.  "I'm the only person of distinction who has ever had a depression named for him," he later said, trying to make a joke of it.

Lesson for Obama:

Now, a word for Obama:  Don't be fooled.  Being smart does not itself make you a good president.  Nor does being called a "great humanitarian."  Crisis brings out the best and worst in people. 

When things get frustrating, don't show it.  As president, you are the country's face.  Your confidence, optimism, and good nature -- magnified by TV -- matter as much as any 10-point economic program.  But so too does your credibility, and as president the accuracy of your every word is constantly tested by events and "gotcha" pundits.  So if prosperity is not around the corner, don't pretend it is, and don't gripe that it isn't.  

And don't complain about being unappreciated.  Whininess is the least attractive trait in any leader -- especially a president.

Our modern Great Recession of 2008 may not be over on time for the 2012 election, but Americans are smart enough to stick with a leader who shows he can finish the job.  Choose good policies, then sprinkle in some strait talk, empathy, confidence, focus, and good nature.  That,  along with a promising economic report or two, can make the difference.  

By the way, Herbert Hoover enjoyed a long and productive life after leaving the White House in 1933 -- living until 1964 when he was 90 years old.   Harry Truman invited him to assist food relief efforts in defeated Germany after World War II.  Hoover then led a two major federal Commissions on government reorganization (among the most successful ever), wrote three more books (including a best-seller on Woodrow Wilson), and managed the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

Still, most people remember him today only for the Hoover-villes, as the cranky, ineffective president who failed to address the Great Depression.  (C-SPAN 2009 poll rank: 34.)

Next up:  Jimmy Carter.  

Friday, February 18, 2011

Guest Blogger: Jewell Fenzi on the notorious Tea Pot Dome scandal.

Original 1924 campaign poster for Democrats John W. Davis and Charles W. Bryan, running for president and vice president vs. Republicans Calvin Coolidge and Charles G. Dawes, trying to capitalize on the great scandal.

Dear Ken - Your photo of Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding en route to Harding's inauguration in March 1921 (click here to see it) reminded me of a piece of memorabilia from the 1924 presidential campaign in the archives of the Woman's National Democratic Club:  a teapot, to exploit the Teapot Dome scandal that largely came to light after Harding's untimely death in 1923.

By the 1920s, it was clear that petroleum was becoming increasingly important to the national economy and security of the nation. President Harding had signed an executive order to create a reserve system to keep the oil under government jurisdictions. However, the management of these reserves began with a turf battle between the Secretary of the Navy and the Interior Department.  Albert Fall, Harding's Interior Secretary, secretly allowed private oil companies to tap the Teapot Dome oil reserve in Wyoming and the Elk Hills oil reserve in California in return for huge bribes to help support his extensive land holdings.  

The scandal broke in 1924, creating huge public embarrassment just in time for the next national election.  Even so, the teapot, with its request to "Hang me in the window or Hang me on the wall," did not signal victory for Democratic presidential candidate John W. Davis that year.  At the Democratic National Convention in New York's Madison Square Garden, Davis won the nomination as a compromise on the 103rd ballot, the longest balloting in U. S. political history.  Also in 1924, for the first time, radio played a major role in an election:  Voters, disgusted by broadcasts of fighting and raucous behavior by the Democratic delegates, returned Calvin Coolidge to the White House. (Click here for full 1924 election results.) 

Jewell Fenzi is chair of the Museum Committee at the Woman's National Democratic Club, 1526 New Hampshire Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20036.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Presidents Day warm-up 3: TR and the Panama Canal, 1906.

"The President in Panama," by Clifford Berryman for the Washington Star, 1906.

Just five more days till Presidents Day !!

A good president should enjoy the job, and make sure people see him enjoying it.  Here is Washington Star cartoonist Clifford Berryman's 1906 vision of Theodore Roosevelt relishing the sight of his presidential handiwork, the digging of the Panama Canal.  His one word reaction:  "Dee-Lighted!"  (Click on it to see it full size.)

I'm dee-lighted too.  What a great cartoon!

Monday, February 14, 2011

New friend on the Internet -- The Washington Independent Review of Books

Listen up !!!  This is important !!! 

This morning, an important new journalistic venture made its first appearance on the Internet: the Washington Independent Review of Books.   Follow the link and check them out.  (Click here.)

As everyone knows, not only are newspapers dying in today's short-attention media age, but so is the book industry.  And one chief cause is the rapid disappearance of newspaper book review pages.  The 2009 decision by the Washington Post to drop one of the stalwarts, its weekly Book World section, was an unnerving headliner for the trend.  (Click here for details.

Now, a dedicated group of Washington-area writers and readers has decided to fight back.  Under leadership of the AIW Freedom to Write Fund,  they have launched a new, self-standing, fully-independent book review based on the Internet.  Today was the first edition.  

David O. Stewart, president of the new
Washington Independent Review of Books
Here's the welcome message from David O. Stewart, president of the new Review who led the effort.  Give him a read and send them some money.  Tell them you saw it first on Viral History:

Dear Friends,

Welcome to The Independent, the newest voice in the community of readers and writers — a website dedicated to book reviews and writing about the world of books.  The Independent is a labor of love produced by dozens of writers and editors, mostly in the Washington area, who are dismayed by the disappearance of book reviews and book review sections in the mainstream media.

We love finding books we want to read.  We love reading reviews of books we don’t have time to read.  And we love finding out about the world of books, writers, and publishing.  That’s what we want to share with you.

We will be posting new content every weekday, which will include –
  • At least three times a week, a new thoughtful review of a book currently being released.
  • At least twice a week, a new feature, such as a Q&A with a leading author, an essay or blog on book topics by one of our contributors, or a podcast of an interview contributed by one of our radio partners.
  • Links to other sites providing book news and reviews, information about current bestsellers, and — as we find our sea legs with this new venture – much more.
The Independent is sponsored by the AIW Freedom to Write Fund, a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) organization.  We know that Dr. Johnson wrote that “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”  But we disagree.  We have taken up this effort to share with you the excitement and pleasure we find in the world of books, and we want to hear from you about The Independent: what you like, and what you don’t like, and what else you think we should try to do.  So please contact us at editor@washingtonindependentreview of books.  (If you like our site enough, we hope you’ll consider making a donation to help keep us afloat!)

Please join us on this adventure by reading The Independent and making it one of your daily online destinations.

David O. Stewart

(You also should know that leading Washington writers – including Alice McDermott, George Pelecanos, Kitty Kelley, Marie Arana, and James Swanson — are supporting The Independent.)

*** Full disclosure:  Yes,  I serve on the Board of the AIW Freedom to Write Fund.  Proudly so.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Presidents Day warm-up 2: The Lincoln-Douglas Debates

Period drawing of Abraham Lincoln debating Stephen Douglas, 1858.

Presidents Day is still another week from now.  But here's an early treat for those who can't stand the wait: A great period sketch of Abraham Lincoln in one of his epic 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas, both vying for that year's Illinois US Senate seat, Lincoln as the Republican, Douglas, in incumbent, as the Democrat.

Lincoln would win the popular vote, but Douglas would win the seat.  State legislatures still picked US Senators back then, and the Illinois statehouse in 1858 still tipped Democratic.

Lincoln spoke so effectively in his 1858 debates with Douglas -- there were seven altogether -- that they helped make him a national figure.  Lincoln and Douglas would face each other again in 1860, this time as rival candidates for President on the eve of Civil War.  

Click on the image to make it full size and enjoy the stunning detail -- the posture of the debaters, the banners, the faces in the crowd, the musical instruments of the brass band, the outdoor setting.   Could a photograph do nearly as well?

Friday, February 11, 2011

Guest Blogger: John R. Block on President Ronald Reagan's 100th birthday

Agriculture Secretary John Block with President Ronald Reagan on farm visit in the early 1980s.

As Americans, President Ronald Reagan, who would have turned 100 years old this week,  belongs to all of us as a national legacy.  I had the special privilege to know him personally and serve in his cabinet from 1981 through 1986. 

I met Ronald Reagan the first time -- other than at huge campaign events -- just after the 1980 election when his staff asked me to California to interview for Secretary of Agriculture.  Reagan didn't know me at all personally  back then.  Senator Bob Dole (R-KS) had recommended my name for the job because I was from Illinois, heartland America.  I remember coming to President Reagan's home in California and knocking on the door.  Nancy Reagan opened it.  She showed me inside, sat me down, and made me comfortable.  A small group was waiting for me: the President-Elect, Ed Meese, and one or two others. 

We talked for two hours that day.  Ronald Reagan asked questions to draw me out.  He wanted to hear me talk about myself, so he could get a feeling for me as a person.  I was the only one in the room who knew anything about agriculture, so instead we talked mostly about his philosophy of government, how government should and should not work.  He didn't preach or sermonize.  That wasn't his nature.  Instead, we conversed.

And he knew how to make decisions.  After we finished, I went back to the hotel and within thirty minutes the phone rang.  "Jack, this is Ronald Reagan, and I'd like you to be my Secretary of Agriculture," he said.   I told him I'd be proud to accept.

It didn't take long for me to get into my first big fight in the Reagan cabinet.  At one of the very first cabinet meetings, I raised a lightning rod issue -- the embargo on grain exports to Soviet Russia imposed by Jimmy Carter after the 1979 Russian invasion of Afghanistan.  Carter's Russian grain embargo was hurting American farmers far more than it was hurting anyone in Russia.  It was driving down prices for American wheat, corn, and other crops.  Russia, for its part, just bought its grain elsewhere, from America's competitors.  It made no sense, and Reagan, during the 1980 campaign, had promised to end the embargo if elected.  

I seconded the idea and asked when we could get started. 

Almost immediately, Al Haig, the Secretary of State, and Cap Weinberger, the Secretary of Defense, jumped in their seats and started giving me hell.  Russia was the enemy, they argued -- the "evil empire" as Reagan himself would later call them.  How could we make this concession without getting something in return?

This argument over ending the Russian grain embargo raged all through early 1981.  Haig and Weinberger kept the pressure up as I stood my ground and found other allies.  Even on March 30, the day President Reagan was shot by John Hinkley, we were haggling over it.  (At one point, I was supposed to ride with President Reagan in his car from the Hilton Hotel -- where the shooting occurred -- to talk about it.) 

The shooting delayed the issue as the president recovered.   But on April 24, President Reagan kept his promise to American farmers.  He put pragmatism and hard evidence ahead of ideology and lifted the embargo.  Reagan hated the Soviet Union, but understood the that embargo was only hurting the USA. 

Today, the debate goes on about Ronald Reagan's legacy, with both Republicans and even some Democrats claiming him.  I think Reagan would get a good laugh if he could hear it, enjoying the praise from both sides.  Reagan won the support of plenty of Democrats in his landslide victories.  To me, there is no question where Ronald Reagan stood.  He was a true conservative.  His motto was smaller government, lower taxes, and personal freedom.  Yes, he went along with a few tax increases when pragmatism demanded it, but put his mountain of cuts next to the molehill of small increases and the message is clear.

Those years in the cabinet, the 1980s, had many difficult challenges, including a credit crisis that severely hit thousands of American farm producers.  But overall they were good ones, the Reagan years -- good for the country --and it's gratifying to see the outpouring of good will on the Gipper's 100th birthday.

To Ronald Reagan himself, my birthday greeting is simple.  We miss you.

John R. Block, 45 years old at the time, was the youngest member of Ronald Reagan's cabinet.  Today, he lives outside Washington, D.C. while continuing to farm in Illinois, and represents the agriculture community in government through his role at OFW Law.

Monday, February 7, 2011

For President's Day, a warm-up: Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding

Presidents Day, February 21, is just two weeks away.  To get in the mood, here's a favorite photo of a strange pair:  Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding, crammed awkwardly into the back seat of a car for the ride from White House to Capitol Hill for Harding's inauguration, March 3, 1921. 

What could these two possibly talk about?  Wilson the two-term progressive Democrat and Harding the "return to normalcy" Republican?  Wilson had little patience left at this point.  He had suffered a stroke (thrombosis) in late 1920, leaving him crippled and isolated during the last months of his Presidency as the US Senate defeated the Treaty of Versailles ending World War I and Wilson's own treasured, signature achievement, the League of Nations.  Bitter and distrustful, Wilson now walked with a cane; aides had to lift him physically to put him in the limousine that morning.  

Harding, for his part, had won a landslide election victory in November 1920, but he still felt nervous around Wilson.  So he started talking ... about animals.  He mentioned his fondness for elephants, based on his sister's having lived in Siam as a missionary, where she owned one as a pet.  Harding said he always wanted to own one himself.  Wilson shot back, "I hope it won't turn out to be a white elephant."

When they reached the Capitol Building, aides lifted Wilson from the car, placed him in a wheelchair, then pushed him to a freight elevator that carried him to the foyer where Senators had gathered.  Henry Cabot Lodge (R-Ma), the Foreign Relations chairman who had led the fight against Wilson's League of Nations, was one of the first to greet him.  "Well, the Senate threw me down before, and I don't want to fall down myself now," Wilson said, apparently meaning it as a joke.

Wilson signed a few final papers, then he told Harding he was fatigued.  A few minutes later, when time came for Harding to step into the sunlight and take the oath of office, Woodrow Wilson did not join him.  Instead, he left quietly through a side door and rode off to the new home he had purchased in Washington, D.C., at 2340 S. Street NW, where he planned to live his final days.

Harding himself would die in office in 1923, shortly before disclosure of the notorious Teapot Dome scandals that would tarnish his name for posterity -- despite the fact that no hint of personal corruption even touched Harding himself.  Harding's reputation as president has enjoyed a recent revival, buoyed by his strong record on economic stability, civil liberties (freeing of political prisoner and socialist icon Eugene V. Debs), and civil rights.  None less that John W. Dean of Watergate fame has lead the charge to restore Harding's good name in his 2004 biographyWarren G. Harding, followed by Jim Robenalt's excellent 2009 The Harding Affair

For the best recent book on Woodrow Wilson, check out Kristie Miller's terrific 2010 offering Ellen and Edith: Wordrow Wilson's First Ladies


Thursday, February 3, 2011

Stop whining about snow: New York's "Great Blizzard of 1888"

New York's West 11th street, at Waverly Place.
You think you've had a bad winter this year, Chicago  New York, or Boston?  Stop complaining.  You're not even close.  

Starting just after midnight on March 12, 1888, New York City broke the record.  What became the Great Blizzard of 1888 brought 75-mile-per-hour winds, zero-degree temperatures, and a rousing 40 inches of snow to the City.  Nearby New Jersey and Connecticut got fifty inches.  Snow drifts were measured up to 40 feet, burying entire houses.    Telegraphs and railroads broke down, communications froze, and over 400 people died in the cold, including 200 just in New York.  Thousands were isolated in their houses, unable to get out.  Many starved to death.  Estimated properly losses topped $25 million (over a billion in modern money).  

And that's just the start.  This was, after all, 1888.  That meant no snowplows, no street salt, no central heat, and no city help (unless you paid off your local Tammany Hall politico).  If you got cold, you snuggled with your spouse.  If you got hurt, you sucked it up and kept shoveling.  

Among the celebrity victims was Roscoe Conkling, the former US Senator  practicing law in at the time.  Conkling refused to pay $50 for a horse-drawn buggy to take him home that day.  Instead he fought his way for hours through two miles of chest-deep snow until reaching Madison Square Park, where he fell unconscious, dying a few days later.  A statute of Conkling marks the spot today.

The well-known photo above was shot by Cranmer C. Langill, a commercial photographer who at the time had a shop on East Fourteenth Street.  (Click on it to see full size and enjoy the detail.)  Who is the little girl standing on the sidewalk?  I wish we knew.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Egypt's "Free Officers" of 1952.

Leaders of Free Officer movement in 1952, shortly after overthrow of King Farouk.

We hope that yesterday's statement by Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's 30-year president, that he will not seek re-election is step one toward a happy outcome to this month's dramatic democracy uprising there (step 2 being to move up the departure date and safeguard an actual fair election).   If so, for Egypt, the moment will echo a similar one almost 60 years ago, the 1952 overthrow of King Farouk by the young military reformers who called themselves the Free Officers.

Their faded snapshot above, taken in 1952, was a fascinating window into the future.  Look close and see the faces of three future Egyptian presidents: Gamal Abdel Nasser (1956-1970, seated far left), Muhammad Naguib (1953-1955, on Nasser's left), and Anwar El Sadat (1970-1981, seated far right).   

King Farouk with wife and daughter in 1953.
Mubarak himself is not in the photo.  Mubarak in 1952 was still just a 24 year-old Air Force pilot who later would rise to become Air Force chief of staff, then Deputy Defense Minister, and finally Sadat's vice president before taking the top spot after Sadat's 1981 assassination.  (Click here for my post on Sadat from yesterday.)

The 1952 Young Officer coup was a turning point  for Egypt, fraught with promise and excitement.  King Farouk was the tenth ruler in a 150 year-old dynasty that had led Egypt into decline.   By the time Farouk took power in 1936, Egypt had long ago been invaded and occupied by Britian, which continued to dominate local affairs, especially regarding the Suez Canal.   

Farouq added incompetence, corruption, and personal squalor.  He weighed 300 pounds, described once as "a stomach with a head."  He had numerous romantic affairs, two marriages, and made no attempt to hide his lavish lifestyle: palaces, cars, huge estates, shopping sprees to Europe.  The last straw was Egypt's humiliating defeat in the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, widely blamed within Egypt on government incompetence.

In the late 1940s, a group of military officers, mostly young, educated, and middle class, began meeting  to plot change.  (Then as now, civilian opposition was badly disorganized as a result of Royal and British suppression.)   The officers saw their chance as public discontent began to peak in early 1952.  That January, after a bloody attack by British soldiers on a local police station, Farouk dissolved his government and failed for months to find a stable replacement.  On July 23, tipped off that they had been discovered, the Free Officers decided to strike.  They launched a pre-dawn coup, seizing key military and police command posts and rounding up  government  figures.  By 7:30 am, they announced the revolution in Cairo and, within two days, they controlled the country, forcing Farouk to abdicate and find exile in Italy.

The moment was ripe with possibilities.  Nasser emerged the dominant personality through the 1950s and 1960s, and his presidency became in lightning rod on the world stage.   The personalities of this small band of military friends, for good and bad, would define Egypt for the next half century. 

All of which begs the question:  Where are Egypt's Free Officers of 2011 -- the new generation of leaders, militray and civilian, ready to move the country past the Mubarak era?  Today's democracy uprising is no coup d'etat.  By all accounts, as yet it has no small clique of leaders like the Free Officers.  Instead, it reflects an explosion of wide popular discontent.  This likely will change as events crystallize over coming weeks and accepted leaders emerge.  A first rule of politics is this:  You can't beat somebody with nobody.

If things go well, I expect we will meet them soon -- possibly in a photograph like the one above. And their faces will be the best clue to "what comes next after Mubarak."