Friday, September 19, 2008

A Very Forgettable Vice Presidential Nominee

A Very Forgettable Vice Presidential Nominee
By David R. Stokes

As this year’s campaign moves toward the final stretch, the frenetic media-driven discussion about whether or not Sarah Palin is prepared for the presidency continues. Apparently, few have noticed that she is not actually running for that office. But how does she compare to others who have sought the nation’s number two job since World War II?

Once upon a time, the choice of a running mate was made in cloak-and-dagger secrecy - as little more than a political afterthought. Those who ran, and even those who eventually served as vice presidents, became for all practical purposes historical footnotes. Of course, the few who moved up to the highest office due to the death of a sitting president were notable exceptions.

Harry Truman was ill prepared to ascend to the presidency in April of 1945. This had little to do with whether or not he was up to the job. It was because his predecessor didn’t bother to give him the time of day. His selection was matter-of-fact and his interaction with President Franklin D. Roosevelt was – well – there really wasn’t any. Finding out about the secret Manhattan Project day or so into his presidency, Truman remarked: “I didn’t know.” There were many things he, in fact, didn’t know – and this was not really his fault. Fortunately for the nation, the man from Missouri was a quick study.

By 1952, a vice presidential candidacy was taken more seriously. Richard Nixon in many ways created the modern vice presidency. Though his relationship with President Dwight Eisenhower was not without its generational complications – including a measure of dysfunction – he was an energetic and effective team player who expanded the public’s perception of the vice presidency.

His conduct during Ike’s illnesses, and his global travel as the administration’s emissary, increased his stature, not to mention his political stock. Nixon’s transition to the Republican presidential nomination after eight years of playing second fiddle was virtually inevitable, late-minute machinations by his intra-party nemesis, Nelson Rockefeller, notwithstanding.

The 1960 presidential race has been analyzed and debated probably more than any other election in the past one hundred years. Even the protracted and polarized 2000 campaign fails to fascinate us as does what happened forty-eight years ago. Three men – all who would eventually become president – occupied center stage that year: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard M. Nixon.

Immortalized by the first book in Theodore White’s The Making of the President series, the race of ’60 has recently been revisited by historian-author David Pietrusza in his book, 1960: LBJ vs. JFK vs. Nixon. A sequel of sorts, at least in the genre sense, to his earlier book, 1920: The Year of Six Presidents, this new work brings one of the great political narratives to life weaving together well-worn stories and some material that is not as well known.

Parallels are already being drawn between Barack Obama’s recent rejection of Hillary Rodham Clinton and John F. Kennedy’s cold-calculated selection of Lyndon Johnson in 1960. If Obama eventually loses, this will no doubt be where blame will be placed. The ultimate vice presidential nominee mistake, however, may actually have been made that very same year nearly five decades ago - but it was on the Republican side.

The biggest VP crash-and-burn candidate in recent memory was a man by the name of Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. He was Nixon’s running mate as they battled the Kennedy-Johnson Democratic ticket in 1960. Though conventional historical wisdom generally suggests that Kennedy beat Nixon because of Nixon’s first debate performance, or his failure to call Coretta Scott King, or vote-fraud shenanigans in Illinois, the real story may have much more to do with Mr. Lodge’s role.

Writing about the Lodge vice presidential candidacy, Mr. Pietrusza says:

“On the surface he seemed quite impressive – articulate, handsome, experienced, a true public servant from one of the nation’s most distinguished families. But in the long history of vice-presidential nominees Lodge – though scoring extremely well in abstract popularity polls – ranked as among the more puzzling of selections. He was unable to carry his home state, nearly powerless to affect any outcome in his region, a toxin to his party’s conservative base, and, ultimately, a drag upon the ticket in a region – the South – where real breakthroughs might be gained.”

Mr. Lodge was described by chronicler Theodore White as, “like medicine – good for you, but hard to take.”

Why would Nixon - the consummate political strategist – choose someone who would go over like a lead-balloon? Well, the answer seems to be in his desire to base his decision on the qualifications to actually serve as president, more than political considerations such as campaign skills or the ability to help the ticket geographically and demographically.

Mr. Nixon also sensed that the crucial issue of the campaign was foreign policy – possibly a reflection of his own interest-bias. To try to go “toe to toe” with the Democrats on domestic issues would, he thought, give the natural advantage to his opponents. Lodge had, in fact, been a very effective U.N. Ambassador during the 1950s and had some good press recently. After the U-2 spy plane fiasco in May of 1960, he helped the U.S. regain the Cold War public relations initiative by highlighting the fact that the Soviets had been eavesdropping on our embassy in Moscow. A device was hidden inside a gift that had been given to our ambassador back in 1945 – a great seal of the United States carved in wood. Gotcha.

Yet, the choice of a running mate from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy’s home state, and, in fact, of someone who had already been soundly beaten by Kennedy in a senate race eight years earlier, seems in retrospect rather odd indeed.

In contrast to Richard Nixon’s energetic fifty-state marathon, Lodge’s hatred for the nuts and bolts of press-the-flesh campaigning translated into a monumentally lackluster performance. He took long naps after lunch, refused evening appearances, and regularly canceled those scheduled in the afternoon. One politico complained, “we didn’t mind him having a nap in the afternoon, but why did he have to put on his pajamas?”

Nixon had well-known problems with television that year, but Lodge’s work before the camera was far worse – the only redemption being that much of it never saw the light of day. During one of many attempts to produce shows or spots, he botched his delivery so badly that several expensive hours worth of work had to be completely scrapped.

Because Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. could not carry his home state, function coherently on television, or work a full day on the campaign trail, Richard Nixon, for all practical purposes, conducted a solo campaign by default. He was not helped at all by his running mate. In fact, Lodge was a dead-weight drag on the ticket. And as the campaign reached the end, the Republican vice presidential nominee gathered his team in advance of election night to prepare a statement. Margery Petersen, a Nixon secretary, was asked to type it up. She later recalled: “When I saw it, I just couldn’t believe my eyes. It was a concession statement! I refused to type it.” How’s that for a team player?

It is generally agreed that vice presidential candidates don’t usually affect the outcome of elections. That may be true, but in 1960 there was a notable exception to this political rule of thumb. Even Nixon himself reportedly admitted years later that his selection of Lodge was a mistake.

With all the talk about whether or not a vice presidential candidate is prepared for the presidency itself, the fact is that the most effective running mates have not been people who instantly resonated with voters as presidential. On the contrary, the best of the lot have been good team players, hard campaigners, and politicians who understood that it wasn’t about them. They balanced, complimented, and did their best to help the person in the top spot to win.

Whether or not a person who steps from some other duty to run for vice president is prepared at that moment for the actual presidency is not the real issue. If elected, the vice presidency itself will provide ample training.

Sarah Palin may have a few things to learn in her new role as Republican vice presidential nominee, but she is certainly no Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. She is a superb campaigner, compelling communicator, and charismatic crowd pleaser. If John McCain is elected, he will make sure that she is prepared to become president, should circumstances ever call for that.

Of course, the real question is: Is anyone ever completely prepared to be president of the United States?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Palin, Roosevelt, and American Originals

Palin, Roosevelt, and American Originals
By David R. Stokes

The rollout of Sarah Palin as the Republican vice presidential nominee appears to be morphing into a full-fledged juggernaut. Democratic strategists, not to mention their nominees, continue to scratch their heads while trying to play the familiar political games of catch-up and gotcha.

Governor Palin is a breath of fresh air to some, and a dangerous tornado to others. But all agree that she has changed the dynamics of a campaign that was beginning to have the appearance of inevitability. She has been compared to leaders of the past. During her now famous acceptance speech, she brought up the name of Harry S. Truman and talked about sharing a lot in common with the feisty Missourian.

Some, though, have allowed their reach to exceed their grasp in trying to suggest that Sarah Palin could be the second coming of Theodore Roosevelt. The lady from Alaska may very well prove to be the real deal and continue to demonstrate that she is a natural on the national political stage. She has great gifts and the potential to go down in history as one of those rare politicians who comes from nowhere to make an indelible mark on the times. But we must be careful about trying to see her as the reincarnation of anyone.

She may very well be something much more rare – and valuable.

To say that Sarah Palin is no Teddy Roosevelt is not an insult – far from it. She may well prove to transcend him and other usual-suspect names brought up to try to describe her. Sometimes people are just themselves – and they become the kind of leaders others want to emulate. This was certainly the case with T.R.

There are some obvious similarities between the Barracuda and the Bull Moose – and these have led some to draw the comparison. She is young – so was Teddy when he became the Vice Presidential nominee in 1900 at the age of forty-one. She has served as a governor for only a couple of years. It was the same with T.R. - less than 2 years as chief executive of New York. She likes to hunt, so did Mr. Roosevelt. She has a passion for reform. Again, ditto Teddy. Mr. Roosevelt had a large family – so does Sarah. And there is a compelling similarity between the two in the idea of taking on their own party, if need be – the so-called maverick factor.

There are, however, some very clear differences between our twenty-sixth president and the woman who would be vice president next January 20th.

Garret A. Hobart died on November 21, 1899. That name may not ring the proverbial bell with many, but he was the Vice President of the United States at the time, serving under President William McKinley. They had soundly defeated William Jennings Bryan in 1896, and it was looking like the next election would be a rematch with the great orator.

With the political playing field suddenly wide open, Theodore Roosevelt found himself the subject of relentless speculation and discussion about the number two spot on the ticket in 1900. He was, at the time, completing his first year as governor of New York.

However, unlike Sarah Palin this year, Mr. Roosevelt was a well-known hero and already a household name by the time of his nomination to run with McKinley. This was largely due to his exploits during the recent Spanish-American War. The country was enamored of the man who led a ragamuffin regiment known as the Rough Riders to success in the Battle of Kettle and San Juan Hill (the latter name becoming synonymous for both actions).

When war broke out in 1898, T.R. was serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy (a post his distant cousin, Franklin, would hold during World War One). He used his time there to prepare for the coming conflict, one he welcomed and had advocated. Then he resigned to serve as a cavalry officer. He was pure energy.

His new found status as a hero-celebrity paved the way for his move to the governor’s mansion in Albany, just months after the famous July 1898 battle. And he hit the ground running there, as well - though he did find time to complete the writing of his thirteenth book. As governor, he was passionate about reform (read: change). In fact, one of the reasons so many New York Republicans liked the idea of Roosevelt running for Vice President is that they would not have to deal with his annoying reform agenda.

Kansan William Allen White, who would later be known as the Sage of Emporia and spokesman for America’s middle class, wrote in 1899:

“There is no man in America today whose personality is rooted deeper in the hearts of the people than Theodore Roosevelt. He is more than a presidential possibility in 1904; he is a presidential probability. He is the coming American of the twentieth century.”

He had his fans. But he had also made more than a few enemies over the years during his career climb from New York State Assemblyman, to service on the United States Civil Service Commission, to the presidency of the New York City Police Commissioners. Though he liked the idea of speaking softly and carrying a big stick, he was not actually known for a tempered-tongue. So it should not surprise us that some powerful people were less-than-impressed with Roosevelt and actually feared the idea of him anywhere near the White House.

Republican big-wig, Mark Hanna – U.S. Senator from Ohio and one of the most powerful politicians in the nation - famously remarked about Teddy’s nomination for the vice presidency: “Don’t you realize that there’s only one life between that madman and the White House?” He later told President McKinley, “your duty to the country is to live for four years from next March.”

History, of course, tells us that Mr. McKinley did not live that long. He was shot while visiting the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. He died eight days later. On September 14, 1901 Theodore Roosevelt, at forty-two years of age, became the youngest man to ever become President of the United States.

People do not compare Theodore Roosevelt to his predecessors. Similarly, you never hear it suggested that Ronald Reagan was like someone before him, or that Franklin Roosevelt reminded the nation of an earlier president. They were not wannabes or hero-worshippers. The nation had not seen their likes before. And their names have been regularly mentioned as gold standards for leadership comparison ever since.

They were, in fact, American originals.

It is too soon to tell about Sarah Palin, but searching for historical reference points to help us accept or understand any of the current candidates may actually miss the point.

We might just be seeing someone who does not need to remind us of “so and so.” Maybe there is a fresh American original on the political stage right now.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

It Didn't Start With Palin

VP Frenzies Started in 1952
By David R. Stokes

It has become an all-too-familiar and sadly predictable pattern in modern life – the media feeding frenzy. It starts with the news of someone being elevated to a position of prominence and potential national leadership, but quickly enters a period of bipolar analysis and coverage. The story goes viral. Talking heads giggle with the kind of glee reminiscent of the witch on the Wizard of Oz gloating over plans for her “little pretty.”

The saga of Sarah Palin is, of course, the latest example of this. Before her came all those good, bad, average, and not-so-average people who found themselves tried by similarly ferocious fires.

Anyone doing a background-check these days on a potential major political candidate should do so with just one eye on the actual office being considered. The other eye should be on the political butterfly effect. What storm could emerge from this? And anything and everything can be grist for the media mill in our age of 24/7 News.

Long before Sarah Palin was born, there was a man named Thomas Eagleton who was drummed off the Democratic ticket in 1972. Years later, J. Danforth Quayle was famously dubbed to be “no Jack Kennedy.” And who could forget (ok, probably a multitude of people who aren’t political history wonks) commercials featuring a laughing voice for thirty seconds with just word on the screen – Spiro Agnew. Vice Presidential nominees have for years been easy targets.

And it all began with a man named Nixon.

The year was 1952 – often noted these days as the last time the political planets lined up as they have this year. We were faced with two major party tickets absent anyone from a prior administration. But what is often missed is the other connection between then and now. We also saw that year, for the very first time, a public media circus over a Vice Presidential nominee.

Richard M. Nixon was a rising political star when party leaders worked behind the scenes to get Dwight D. Eisenhower to put the thirty-nine year old senator from California on the Republican ticket. His mentors and fans were people like Thomas Dewey (two-time presidential nominee). Though he had served but two terms as a member of the House of Representatives, and had been a U.S. Senator from California for a mere eighteen months, Nixon was perceived to be the perfect bridge between the Eastern-Establishment wing of the GOP and old-guard conservatives, led by “Mr. Republican” – Senator Robert Taft.

All was proceeding according to plan, with the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket leading in the polls after their Chicago convention. That is, until a rumor that had been percolating in the early days of September burst into full public boil with a New York Post headline: SECRET RICH MAN’S TRUST FUND KEEPS NIXON IN STYLE BEYOND HIS SALARY.

Ultimately, even those who opposed and widely-criticized Nixon, writers such as Tom Wicker, had to admit that, “no evidence ever justified any part of that headline, because the $18,000 fund (scarcely a vast sum even in 1952) was public, audited, reserved for legitimate campaign expenses not chargeable to the taxpayers, and had been raised from donors of no more than $500.00 each.” But it took awhile for the truth, not to mention reason and fairness, to catch up with a media-swollen appetite for scandal.

For a period of ten days, the nation read about the story on front pages of newspapers, heard about it on the radio, and even saw coverage on that relatively new device finding its way into millions of American homes – television. It was the political story of the year. And soon – even diehard Republicans were jumping on a fast-moving “dump Nixon” bandwagon.

Mr. Eisenhower was largely noncommittal and remained above the fray. He had not been all that involved in the Vice Presidential nominee selection anyway. The general loved to delegate. Political reporters traveling on the GOP candidate’s train voted 40 to 2 that Nixon should be dumped, prompting Ike to tell them that it was important that his campaign be “as clean as a hound’s tooth.” That made good copy – even in the days before sound bites.

Political opponents were, of course, gleeful. The Democratic ticket of Adlai Stevenson and John Sparkman certainly looked forward to closing the gap in the polls, maybe even overtaking Ike and Dick. The brewing Nixon scandal was a stroke of good fortune.

As the story morphed into a perfect political storm, it was decided that Richard Nixon should deliver a televised speech making his personal case to the American people. He broke off campaigning in Portland, Oregon on Monday, September 22nd, and flew to Los Angeles. Sitting on the plane, he reached for some note cards in the seat pocket in front of him. They were advertisements for the airline - with some room in the margins and on the back. He began to jot down some notes. He scribbled random thoughts such as, “Republican cloth coat” and “common people” and “lay out for everyone to see my entire personal financial history.”

He also wrote the words: “little dog Fala.”

He spent the next day preparing for the speech of his life in his suite at the Ambassador Hotel. What he would have to say would forever define him. It would also change the face of American politics forever. Telegrams and calls were coming in from all over – words of support – some of doubt. When he had finally heard from Eisenhower the day before, support from the general was tepid at best. Nixon was, no doubt, under great pressure.

In fact, just an hour before Nixon left the hotel for the 20-minute ride to the NBC studio, Governor Dewey called to tell him that it was the collective opinion of party leaders around Eisenhower that the Vice Presidential nominee should end his speech by resigning from the ticket. How’s that for a way to psyche a man up before a major speech? Oh, and Dewey implied that Eisenhower felt the same way, too!

Against the backdrop of monstrous political turbulence, and with his own emotions no-doubt in turmoil, Richard Nixon entered the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood the evening of September 23, 1952 to make history. All 750 seats, usually filled with audiences watching “This is Your Life” or “The Colgate Comedy Hour,” were empty. Nixon sat at a desk and prepared his thoughts looking over his five pages of notes – no script, no cue cards. He preferred it that way.

The speech Nixon gave that evening has been analyzed and criticized in the decades since the famous broadcast. More than sixty million Americans watched that night – that’s nearly fifty-percent of all those who had access to a television. It was, by all accounts, “the largest witness to a political speech in world history.”

The candidate waxed personal. That was rare in those days. Now it is common for someone running for office to tell personal stories – back then, not so much. Recently, even the Democratic nominees have talked about how Sarah Palin has a “compelling story.” Such narratives are par for the political course today. And it was Richard Nixon – whatever one thinks of him and his legacy – who paved the way for all of it.

He talked about his finances in a way no one did at the time. He even challenged his opponents to do the same, correctly sensing a soft spot there. He defended himself and promoted his ticket. He spoke about the threat of communism and shared a letter from the wife of a marine serving in Korea.

But the thing most people remember about the speech, the part that transformed it from a political address into a legend, had to do with that little scribbled name “Fala.” It was a reference to the humorous way Franklin D. Roosevelt had, in 1944, accused the Republicans of attacking his little dog. It worked well for FDR, so Nixon thought to try it himself:

“One other thing I probably should tell you, because if I don’t they will probably be saying this about me, too. We did get something, a gift, after the election.

A man down in Texas heard Pat on the radio mention the fact that our two youngsters would like to have a dog, and, believe it or not, the day before we left on this campaign trip we got a message from Union Station in Baltimore, saying they had a package for us. We went down to get it. You know what it was?

It was a little cocker spaniel dog, in a crate that he had sent all the way from Texas, black and white, spotted, and our little girl Tricia, the six year old, named it Checkers.

And you know, the kids, like all kids, loved the dog, and I just want to say this, right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we are going to keep it.”

Nixon’s remarks that night have been forever known as “The Checkers Speech.

It quickly became fashionable in elitist circles to ridicule the speech – and the candidate. That continued throughout Mr. Nixon’s turbulent career of, as he called them, “peaks and valleys.” But the fact remains that this was one of the most effective speeches in the history of American politics.

In the immediate aftermath of the speech, the Republican National Committee in Washington, D.C. was inundated with 160,000 telegrams and eventually 250,000 letters. The sentiment ran 350 to 1 in favor of keeping Richard Nixon on the Republican ticket in 1952.

Nixon survived the crisis – as he would many others. He lived to see dreams fulfilled and to also experience defeat and deep personal pain. None of what happened in the years following 1952 – the good, the bad, and the ugly – would have been possible without that speech in September of 1952. The story of those days is one that should be studied afresh and anew by political operatives and pundits. The lesson is that you can fight the media frenzy – in fact, it’s the only real option. To surrender is to turn yourself and your cause into a footnote.

As politicians ponder media and opposition-driven suggestions about dumping a candidate, someone should visit a little pet cemetery in Wantagh, Long Island. There lies Checkers – more than a dog – in fact, a metaphor for surviving a political storm.