It’s a confusing one, but Andrew Johnson was a Democrat.
The reason for the.confusion stems from the fact that Johnson was elected Vice President in 1864 alongside Abraham Lincoln, who was a Republican. Lincoln and Johnson ran in 1864 under a unified party ticket — they were nominated as the National Union candidates, in fact.
But Lincoln was a Republican, of course, and Johnson’s ties to the Democratic Party were no secret. Actually, that was the appeal. To balance the ticket better in 1864, Lincoln dumped his first term Vice President, Hannibal Hamlin, a Republican who came from about as far North as one could come from — Maine.
The Republicans, gathering under the National Union banner in 1864, wanted to balance the ticket better because there were worries about a strong challenge from the Democratic nominee, former General George B. McClellan, and McClellan’s running mate, George H. Pendleton of Ohio.
The National Unionists were made up of the Republicans who had supported Lincoln since 1860 and Democrats supportive of Lincoln’s leadership in prosecuting the Civil War and wary of what McClellan might do if he happened to be elected President. Johnson fit right in with the National Unionists — a Democrat who supported Lincoln and, better yet, a running mate who could balance the ticket politically and geographically.
Despite belonging to a different party, there was no doubt about Johnson’s loyalty to Lincoln and the Union. Johnson was the only Southern Senator to remain loyal to the Union and hold on to his seat after secession, the formation of the Confederacy, and the outbreak of Civil War. Johnson spent most of the war as Military Governor of Tennessee.
Johnson only served as Vice President for 42 days, succeeding to the Presidency upon Lincoln’s assassination. Once Johnson became President, the fact that he was actually a Democrat eventually caused him major problems. Johnson clashed with his Cabinet, most of whom were holdovers from the Lincoln Administration. His battles with Congress, particularly the Radical Republicans, helped contribute to his failures as President, and after the House of Representatives impeached him in 1868, Johnson was narrowly acquitted in his Senate trial. The Senate was just one vote short of the two-thirds necessary to convict him and remove him from office.
As President, Johnson wasn’t quite a “President without a party” like John Tyler, but his election alongside Lincoln in 1864 on the National Union ticket did put Johnson in an awkward position once he assumed the Presidency. After all, Lincoln and Johnson DID defeat opponents duly nominated by the Democratic Party. Johnson was also in a strange position because the Democratic Party was so weak following the Civil War and throughout Reconstruction.
But Johnson was indeed a Democrat. Before the.Civil War, Johnson won elections as a Democratic candidate to become Mayor of Greenville, Tennessee, a Member of the Tennessee House of Representatives, a Tennessee State Senator, a U.S. Representative, Governor of Tennessee, and a U.S. Senator. And, despite his disastrous Presidency, Johnson found some redemption shortly before his death as he once again won election (as a Democrat) to the U.S. Senate.
Even if Hillary and Obama hadn’t run for President in 2008, I don’t think John Edwards would have been the Democratic nominee. If there’s one thing that I know it’s that is really tough to be the frontrunner for your party’s nomination as President of the United States when you knock up a member of your staff while your wife is dying of cancer and then try to get one of your aides to fall on the sword for you.
Without the heavyweights (Hillary and Obama), another Democrat would have emerged from the field — maybe Joe Biden or Bill Richardson, or maybe someone who didn’t run in 2008 like Howard Dean or General Wesley Clark or even Al Gore.
First of all, I personally don’t think that there is a frontrunner for the 2016 Republican Presidential nomination yet. The GOP is a mess right now. Of course, we hear certain names being tossed around, but a lot of those names are the Tea Party Republicans. People like to talk about the Tea Party Republicans as if they are credible Presidential candidates because they are adept at capturing headlines, but I will confidently and adamantly continue to say this: none of the politicians who are identified as leaders of the Tea Party wing of the GOP will be elected President of the United States. They make a lot of noise, they get a lot of TV time, and they might even raise a lot of money…but they cannot win a national election. They can’t even win the GOP nomination. It’s not going to happen. Maybe they can stretch out the primary process by splitting the GOP, but that’s only going to hurt the Republican Party, not result in a Tea Party candidate as the nominee.
So, with that said, who is a dark horse from the GOP that could surprise people? Well, right now it seems insane to suggest that a Republican member of the House of Representatives or U.S. Senate could be a Presidential contender, but I’ve been worried about Senator John Thune of South Dakota since 2007. Senator Thune didn’t run in 2008 or 2012, but Thune would be a formidable candidate. He is experienced, he is well-respected, he isn’t a bomb-thrower, he comes across as Presidential, he’s solidly Conservative and should appeal to the GOP’s base, yet he doesn’t come across as an extremist. John Thune could absolutely be elected President if he decided to take a shot at the White House.
As for the Democrats, President Obama still has three years left in his term, yet Hillary Clinton has been all but crowned as his successor and the leader the party. Nearly everybody thinks that she’s going to run and, if so, that she will win. Vice President Biden, who has been a loyal, hard-working, efficient, and important partner to Obama, is waiting in the wings just in case Hillary decides not to run. Hillary and Biden are the obvious frontrunners.
But the Democrats have a superstar-in-the-making who also has nowhere to go but the White House and, quite frankly, with the right campaign, with the perfect introduction to the American people, and if he caught the right breaks since anything can happen in Presidential primaries, Maryland’s Governor Martin O’Malley could shock the establishment and steal the nomination from Hillary Clinton and Vice President Biden.
Governor O’Malley is Bill Clinton in 1992, except O’Malley is more experienced, tougher, and doesn’t have the “weaknesses” that almost cost Clinton the Democratic nomination in ‘92 and ended up leading to his impeachment. Like Senator Thune, O’Malley looks like a President. Now, being telegenic and charismatic doesn’t make someone a good President, but it sure as hell helps with getting elected. O’Malley is a proven executive with a record he can run on while also pointing out that he isn’t part of Washington’s business-as-usual. He’s had a successful political career with a variety of significant experience, but he’s never served in American’s least popular institution — Congress, his name isn’t Bush or Clinton, and he hasn’t served in previous Presidential Administrations like many of Washington’s other recycled bureaucrats. Could Martin O’Malley be President of the United States? Without a doubt.
It’s only October 2013, and the more famous 2016 contenders will continue to hog headlines until Iowa and New Hampshire, but keep your eyes on Senator John Thune and Governor Martin O’Malley.
Bobby Kennedy? No, I don’t think so. In my opinion, the greatest President that we never had was probably either Charles Evans Hughes or George C. Marshall.
I should probably be careful with what I am about to say because as a lifelong Democrat — and quite a Liberal (with a capital “L”) Democrat at that — the personal opinion that I am about to give may result in somebody revoking my membership in that wing of the party. Now, I know that Robert F. Kennedy was becoming the idealistic, anti-war hero of the Democratic Party who picked up the torch of his slain brother’s Camelot before he too was murdered by an assassin’s bullets. Because of the political dynasty he belonged to and because he was cut down while he was still a young man in the midst of fighting to lead the country through turbulent times, there is and will always be a romantic perception of RFK — just like there will always be one of JFK.
With all of that said, I have to admit that I think Bobby Kennedy is vastly overrated as a politician and I am certain that if he had lived, not only would he not have been elected President in 1968, but he wouldn’t have even won the Democratic nomination.
It is important to remember that RFK had made it clear on numerous occasions that he would not challenge LBJ for the Democratic nomination in 1968. But as soon as Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy made a strong showing with a second-place finish as the anti-war candidate in the New Hampshire Democratic Primary (a result that is partly explained, as I have written before, by the fact that LBJ won despite being a write-in candidate), RFK jumped into the race and usurped McCarthy’s position as the peace candidate. RFK really screwed McCarthy over in the process. LBJ, of course, announced that he wouldn’t seek reelection soon afterward and Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey (the main opponent of John F. Kennedy in the 1960 Democratic primaries) jumped in the race.
While RFK and McCarthy battled each other in primary contests, HHH shored up support amongst surrogates in non-primary states and built up a solid bloc of delegates. In a way, RFK and Senator McCarthy were canceling each other out, splitting primary states and sharing the anti-war support while Vice President Humphrey gave himself a foundation of the important Democratic leaders that he needed in his corner in order to control the Democratic National Convention and win the nomination. Had Robert F. Kennedy lived, the DNC probably would have started with Humphrey enjoying a sizable advantage in delegates with RFK needing McCarthy to release his delegates to Kennedy in order to have a shot at the nomination. McCarthy had refused to bow out of the race and the fact that RFK blindsided him by jumping into the campaign as another anti-war candidate after pledging to stay out gave McCarthy added incentive for denying RFK his help. Even if Kennedy had lived and McCarthy had thrown his support behind RFK and released his delegates to him at the Convention, Humphrey most likely would have still won the nomination because his lead was too strong.
Plus, with LBJ withdrawing from the race, the favored candidate of the Democrats who controlled the party (and, thus, the Democratic National Convention) was LBJ’s Vice President, Hubert H. Humphrey. Although he was no longer seeking the Presidency, Lyndon Johnson was still the incumbent President of the United States, still the leader of the Democratic Party, and still the most clever and effective politician in the country. LBJ would have rather seen anybody, including Richard Nixon, elected President than Bobby Kennedy. LBJ and RFK hated each other and President Johnson wouldn’t have lifted a finger to help Bobby but would have done everything in his power to deny the nomination to him.
Had RFK lived and won the Democratic nomination in 1968, it’s difficult to say how he would have matched up against Richard Nixon in the general election. But I am so convinced that RFK wouldn’t have been nominated in ‘68 that I don’t spend much time considering the options if he had.
As for the reasons that I think RFK is overrated as a politician, it’s always tough to make these arguments about someone who was assassinated because, as I said, their lives tend to be romanticized. But there’s also the simple fact that it’s almost unfair to judge someone on a political career that they weren’t able to see through because they were murdered.
RFK had definitely changed after his election to the U.S. Senate from New York, particularly after 1966. Kennedy was becoming more idealistic and progressive and since that aspect of his life and career was beginning to bloom right around the time of his Presidential run and assassination, that’s what we tend to remember best about him.
We tend to remember RFK as the voice of reason announcing the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. to a stunned crowd at an Indianapolis airport. Personalizing things by reminding the people that his brother had also been the victim of a senseless, violent crime, RFK urged the crowd to remain calm and remember Dr. King’s devotion to non-violent demonstrations at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. That’s the Bobby Kennedy we tend to remember rather than the Attorney General who authorized tapping Martin Luther King, Jr.’s phones and bugging his home and hotel rooms in order to help J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI gather dirt on the Civil Rights leader.
Before that progressive pivot in the last couple of years of RFK’s life, Bobby Kennedy was fairly conservative for a Democrat. He was JFK’s bulldog and rubbed almost everyone who didn’t know him really well the wrong way, especially those who worked for or around him. When his brother was elected President, he was named Attorney General despite cries of nepotism. RFK was the federal government’s top law enforcement official despite an absence of any courtroom experience on the federal or even state level. What RFK really was during JFK’s Presidency was his brother’s consigliere — not merely Attorney General but also Chief of Staff and whatever role he felt needed to be played no his brother’s behalf. He worked outside any traditional chain of command and was often disrespectful to those who were nominally his superior, particularly members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Vice President whom he treated with disdain. It was basically the same role that he played during JFK’s 1960 campaign for the Presidency, and it made him extremely unpopular with a lot of powerful people.
Before JFK ran for President, RFK had gained some notoriety going head-to-head with organized crime figures as the lead Senate counsel for the Rackets Committee. He went toe-to-toe with Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa in hearings and boosted his public profile, but it didn’t necessarily erase the fact that RFK’s earlier job as a counsel for the Senate was on the staff of Senator Joseph McCarthy. The bulldog role that RFK later played for his brother was refined during his time working with McCarthy, a man who Bobby Kennedy often expressed his admiration and “fondness” for.
I don’t mean to completely discredit Bobby Kennedy. He did inspire a lot of people and I do think that he changed his outlook — personally, professionally, and politically — following his brother’s assassination. Despite his early conservatism, the progressive track that he traveled during the last 18 months or so of his life was something that he truly believed in. Reaching out to the poor, to minorities, breaking bread with César Chávez in Delano after César’s hunger strike, vocally opposing the Vietnam War — all of these issues were obviously something that he started to feel strongly about. Some of the issues represented a change in his stance from what he supported or recommended as a member of his brother’s Administration to where he found himself as the 1960s continued.
I imagine that I’d have a much better appreciation for RFK if he just had more time to establish himself, move forward with those progressive changes in his political philosophy, and achieve some of the opportunities that he was robbed of by Sirhan Sirhan. Unfortunately, he didn’t. But as tragic and unfair as an assassination might be, we cannot judge a politician on what could have been. We have to judge him on what was.
None of the campaigns were at the right time. That’s the problem. Poor Jerry Brown has been the victim of terrible timing.
In 1976, Brown had only been Governor of California for one year and was just 38 years old. In reality, it was way too early for him to make a step toward the Presidency. Oddly enough, it was also the closest that he ever got to winning the Democratic Presidential nomination. Brown had name recognition because he was making headlines in California, was a fresh face who appeared to be at the forefront of the next generation of American politicians, and was the son of a former California Governor. He made a good showing in some of the Democratic primaries in 1976, but he entered the race too late. Jimmy Carter had too much of a head start and Brown simply couldn’t catch him. Despite all of that, 1976 was probably his best shot.
The 1980 bid was rough because he was challenging an incumbent President for his own party’s nomination. Governor Brown wasn’t the only Democrat challenging President Carter in 1980 and he wasn’t the most exciting or buzzworthy with the media — that was Senator Edward Kennedy. Brown also faced backlash back home in California because it was the second time he sought the Presidency since being elected Governor. Californians wanted him at work in Sacramento rather than hitting the trail in Iowa and New Hampshire. Even if he had overcome Carter for the 1980 Democratic nomination (not an easy task despite Carter’s unpopularity since Kennedy couldn’t beat him, either), Brown would have most likely been trounced in the general election by the man who preceded him as Governor of California — Ronald Reagan.
Jerry Brown’s 1992 campaign for the Democratic nomination was a very interesting one, largely because of the genuine animosity between Brown and the eventual nominee (and President) Bill Clinton. There was a nasty confrontation in one of the Democratic debates where it looked for a moment like Clinton might actually punch Brown. Because of his low-budget fundraising, Brown shouldn’t have done as well as he did in 1992, but he started picking up some momentum in the later primaries. Unfortunately for Brown, he needed some of the earlier primaries to keep Clinton from clinching the nomination from the convention in order to force a brokered convention. The dislike between Clinton and Brown was apparent at the Democratic National Convention when Brown refused to endorse Clinton during Brown’s speech.
Of the three bids that Jerry Brown made — 1976, 1980, and 1992 — it was the first attempt in 1976 that was probably the closest Brown came to winning the Democratic nomination. The best chance that Brown might have had to become President was actually in a year that he didn’t run — 1988. The field was wide-open for Democrats and Republicans because the election of then-Vice President George H.W. Bush was no sure thing. As I said, however, Brown’s timing when it came to seeking the Presidency has been rather unfortunate.
That hasn’t changed, by the way. Right now, Jerry Brown looks like he will easily be re-elected as Governor of California in 2014. From what I have read (granted, I haven’t lived in California since 2010), Brown has been doing a better-than-expected job and his popularity is high. Because of the size of the state, its worth in the Electoral College, and the nature of the job, California’s Governors are always potential Presidential contenders. Unfortunately for Governor Brown, the man who was once the youngest Governor in California’s history is now the oldest Governor in California’s history and he’ll be 78 years old in 2016 — way too old to be a serious contender for the Presidency. If he were 15 years younger, Brown would be a frontrunner in 2016
A Governor’s office has definitely been a better launching pad for the Presidency — particularly in the last 40 years — than seeking the White House directly from either wing of the Capitol.
You’re correct about me not wanting to contribute to the beginning of the 2016 election cycle just yet and even the primaries are far enough away that it’s almost useless to speculate because so much can happen, but yes, there are definitely some Governors who could be contenders.
Unfortunately for some of those contenders the timing is going to be tough because the strongest pool of potential candidates are on the Democratic side. There are actually some really solid Democratic Governors who will probably be overlooked during the 2016 election cycle because the Democrats have two big-name, superstar frontrunners in line before they even start to consider other options. For a current Democratic Governor to break through and contend for the 2016 Presidential nomination, they’ll have to get by Hillary Clinton or Vice President Biden. That won’t be easy, it might not be possible, and I doubt either Hillary or Biden will step aside.
If so, however, there are more than a few Democratic Governors that would have a shot at making a splash on the nation stage. Of course, there is a pretty big-name Democratic Governor out there in New York’s Andrew Cuomo. I’m sure Maryland’s Martin O’Malley, Connecticut’s Dan Malloy, and Colorado’s John Hickenlooper are keeping their eyes on the plans of Hillary Clinton and Vice President Biden. I think Governor O’Malley would be a strong candidate in an open race.
The Democrats also have some lesser-known (maybe even widely unknown) Governors who I think are showing themselves to be fantastic chief executives and who could probably raise some eyebrows if the country had an opportunity to know them. Governor Markell of Delaware was re-elected with nearly 70% of the vote in November. Arkansas’s Mike Beebe is consistently rated as one of the best Governors in the nation. Steve Beshear has done some good work in Kentucky and Governor Bullock of Montana and Governor Shumlin of Vermont live in states where the spotlight doesn’t shine, but if it did it would show states with citizens very satisfied with their man in the statehouse.
California’s Jerry Brown is a big-name and is the Governor of a big state where he has done a far better-than-expected job — not because people doubted him, but because people doubted that anyone could turn things around in California. Unfortunately for Brown, he’ll be 78 years old in 2016. Vice President Biden, who will turn 74 a couple of weeks after Election Day 2016, will have enough trouble with the age issue. It’s something Brown definitely won’t be able to overcome. If Governor Brown were ten years younger, he’d be a front-runner for the Presidency (even with Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden in the race).
On the Republican side, New Jersey’s Chris Christie is going to be a contender if he steps into the race for the GOP nomination in 2016. Rick Perry (Texas) should be too damaged from his disastrous primary bid in 2012 to ever run again, but he can probably rehabilitate himself and Republicans will give him a pass because he looks like a President is supposed to look and is from Texas. Governor Kasich of Ohio is from a battleground state that the GOP needs, but Kasich might not even be able to win Ohio’s votes for Governor if another election was held tomorrow. Michigan’s Rick Snyder is in a better position, but it would be pretty tough to say, “If you want to fix the economy, elect our guy — the Governor of Michigan.”
The Republican Party’s movers and shakers love Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and would love for him to be the new face of the GOP because he’s from the South but he’s brown and changes the perception of the party as one of old white men. Unfortunately for the GOP, everytime I hear Governor Jindal speak, I get angry because it sounds like he’s being condescending and reading me a bedtime story. Jindal simply doesn’t come across well on anything that I have ever seen him on. He did the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union address a few years ago and I still remember it solely because I thought he could be a contender in the future and it ended up being so terrible that I actually felt bad for him.
He’s not flashy or exciting or all that well-known, but the Republicans have a very solid executive in their ranks with Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. He looks like the type of guy that the GOP would nominate for President, and I know that the GOP is actively trying to avoid that and shake things up, but Governor McDonnell does his job well, doesn’t rock the boat, has really good approval ratings, and has the credentials and the resume to lock up the base. That’s the type of candidate that I’d be afraid to run against. Also, I think Nevada’s Brian Sandoval is a potential superstar for the GOP. Again, like McDonnell, he’s not flashy or anything, but Governor Sandoval is Hispanic and young and if you don’t think that’s enough for the Republicans to want to put him on their posters, well, you haven’t met Reince Priebus (who sounds like he was named after a Norwegian hybrid car). Sandoval still needs to do more, but he has potential for the Republicans, and he would definitely be able to be a top fundraiser.
But if the Republicans really want a chance at winning in 2016, they need to nominate a former Governor — Jon Huntsman — and just let the nation get to know him.
Just because I voted for Barack Obama doesn’t mean that I want to see Mitt Romney destroyed, or even hurt. I don’t agree with Governor Romney’s politics, but I don’t wish him ill and I certainly wouldn’t disrespect him.
This is the problem with American politics — Americans like the person who asked this question. They are on both sides of the aisle and they are equally horrible for our country. Last night, I found no glory in the fact that Mitt Romney lost; instead, I was hopeful and happy that Barack Obama won. I didn’t go to the polls to vote against Mitt Romney; I was there to vote for Barack Obama.
Much like John McCain four years ago, Mitt Romney went out with class last night, and he deserves our respect. I have never thought that Mitt Romney was a bad man. I thought Obama would be a better President, but there was never any hatred on my part for Romney. We can disagree with his politics or the way he campaigns, but there is no reason to look at Mitt Romney as a villain.
Yes, Governor Romney is incredibly wealthy and was probably out-of-touch with “average Americans” like you and me. But with all of that money, Romney could live a life of leisure and never have to work at anything again. Instead, what did he do? He devoted himself to public service. There’s no question that he loves his family and has a great relationship with them. He spent a significant amount of time in a leadership role with his church — not just by sitting in a pew every Sunday but by taking a leadership role where he gave up time to help the families and people of his community. Saving the Salt Lake City Olympics, serving as Governor of Massachusetts, running for President in 2008 and 2012 — none of those things were token jobs where Romney was a figurehead that got the credit while others did the work. They were all challenges that Romney tackled with hard work and, in each instant, he “left everything on the field”, as he said in his concession speech last night.
Make no mistake about it — running for President is one of the most difficult, exhausting, and thankless journeys that an American can take. Everyone who runs for President makes tremendous sacrifices, and nobody seeks the Presidency because they are bad people who want to do harm to the United States. Candidates for the Presidency like Mitt Romney — win or lose — are patriots. They have a vision for this country and the passion to put themselves on the frontline. To serve all of us.
Laugh at Mitt Romney? Taunt him? No, I would thank Mitt Romney. I’d tell him that I may not have cast a ballot for him, but that I appreciate the sacrifices he made in order to try to move our country forward. I’d admit that I disagree with his politics, but that I respect his beliefs and admire his passion for going after what he felt was right. I’d tell him that I know last night was probably one of the most difficult experiences of his life, but that he conceded with class, he demonstrated a remarkable work ethic throughout the campaign, and that I hoped that my fellow Democrats would have offered their support of him if Obama had lost as seamlessly and earnestly as he offered his support for the President during his concession.
We cannot and will not bridge the divisions in this country if we continue to be ugly towards each other. Politics alone will not take us where we need to be. There must be some magnanimity, some cooperation, some compromise between all of us — from the President and the Congress to the State Governors and Legislatures, and right on down to you and me and our neighbors. “Politics” and “compromise” are dirty words because we drag them through the mud along with anyone connected to those ideas. That has to stop. It has to stop between the Democrats and Republicans in Congress, it has to stop between the talking heads on cable news networks, and it has to stop with people who anonymously leave messages on blogs encouraging a celebration over the heartbreaking defeat of someone who put everything on the line to serve his country. Celebrate Obama’s victory, not Romney’s defeat. Congratulate Obama and his supporters, but don’t hesitate to appreciate Romney’s work ethic and devotion to service.
We are at our best when all of us — or at least the largest majority of us — are moving forward. We are at our best when we remember the first word in our nation’s name is “United”. The idea of a constant conflict pitting Democrats vs. Republicans where one side must win and one side must lose is not progress. It’s Civil War without violence — but not without casualties. As someone who knew something about Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant, once said, “Let us have peace.” We should follow General Grant’s advice and add, “Let us have progress.” With peace and progress will come prosperity for all of our people.
Well, I’ll only be 36 years old — Constitutionally eligible to be President, but just barely — and woefully inexperienced, so I’d need someone who is respected and has a solid resume. How about Leon Panetta?
Actually, Panetta would be a damn good running mate for someone (not just in the hypothetical “Anthony for President” silliness). Panetta served eight terms in Congress, was President Clinton’s OMB director and White House Chief of Staff, and is now President Obama’s Secretary of Defense after serving the first two years of the Obama Administration as CIA Director. That’s about as solid of a resume for a present-day American public servant as I can think of. Any Democrat running for President in 2016 should have him on their short list for Vice President.
So, there you go, that’s my ticket: Bergen/Panetta 2016 (although “Bergen/Panetta” kind of sounds like the name of a concentration camp.)
(And the previous sentence is a clear example of why I could never be President.)
George McGovern, the former South Dakota Senator, 1972 Democratic Presidential nominee, and longtime advocate for minorities, the poor, and the hungry, died this morning in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The 90-year-old former Senator’s death was not unexpected as recent reports have detailed his failing health, but McGovern was actually quite active in politics and the issues he believed in until earlier this year.
McGovern was nominated by the Democrats to face incumbent President Richard Nixon in 1972 and routed in both the popular vote and Electoral College, winning only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. But McGovern’s legacy extends far beyond his unsuccessful 1972 bid for the Presidency. As liberal as Barry Goldwater was conservative, McGovern was a tireless advocate for the poor and the hungry, not just during his career as an elected official, but throughout his life and up until his death.
After the turbulent 1960s, as the Democratic Party was reshuffling itself demographically into what it has been for the past 40 years, it was George McGovern who welcomed and embraced minorities, women, young voters, and gays. Some people call this “progressive” in 2012; George McGovern thought that way in 1972. He was way ahead of his time — even for many Democrats. As he later joked about his landslide loss to Richard Nixon, “I opened the doors of the Democratic Party — and twenty million people walked out.” Indeed, in the 1972 election, nearly 1/3rd of all Democrats voted for Nixon instead of McGovern.
The GOP successfully painted McGovern as a radical, peace-seeking pacifist in 1972, and tried to portray him as somewhat of a wimp. McGovern was a dove on Vietnam, but he was no radical, no pacifist, and certainly no wimp. Several days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, McGovern enlisted in the Air Force and flew 35 combat missions over Germany, Italy, and Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe during World War II, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Yet, peace was certainly an aspect that drove McGovern throughout his career, and helping those who were less fortunate was his ambition for public service. The war that McGovern constantly sought to fight was a war on hunger. It was a concern that he was vocal about during his time in the House and later in the Senate, and President Kennedy appointed McGovern as the first director of the Food For Peace program. Later in life, that fight to feed the hungry continued. Nearly 20 years after leaving the Senate, President Clinton (who, along with Hillary, managed the McGovern campaign in Texas in 1972) named him as the U.S. Ambassador to the UN’s Agencies for Food and Agriculture. For the last decade of his active life, McGovern was a United Nations’ Goodwill Ambassador on World Hunger for the UN’s World Food Programme.
Though the Democratic Party distanced itself from McGovern following the 1972 election because of the magnitude of his defeat and the Nixon campaign’s successful portrayal of him as a radical, McGovern’s impact on today’s Democratic Party cannot be denied. The voters that helped elect Barack Obama in 2008 — African-Americans, women, Hispanics, gays, and young voters — were the people that George McGovern opened the doors of the Democratic Party to in 1972. He was a monument to American Liberalism and his legacy cannot be denied. Nearly all who worked with or against George McGovern — Democrats, Republicans, or Independents — respected his honesty, his ability, and his heart. In a divisive time when many politicians have forgotten the definition of public service, they should look to people like George McGovern and Bob Dole who personify the true intent of public service.
In the bipartisan spirit that he worked while seeking solutions that would help the most people possible, we should honor and remember George McGovern — not as a forward-thinking father of modern American Liberalism, and not even as a war hero — but as an American who represented the best of what our country can be and dedicated his life to the most faithful definition and purpose of public service.
Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives
Hardcover. 327 pp.
April 24, 2012. Free Press.
John Dingell, a Democrat from Michigan who represents the western suburbs of Detroit, Dearborn, Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and Monroe in the United States House of Representatives is the Dean of the House. In a couple of months, Congressman Dingell will celebrate his 86th birthday. If he wins his campaign in November, as he has done the last 28 times he’s been on the ballot, and serves past June 8, 2013, he will have spent more time in Congress than any American in history. Right now, only two Americans in 223 years of American History have served longer in Congress. Nobody has spent more time in the House of Representatives. Dingell joined the House on December 13, 1955, succeeding his father, John Dingell, Sr., who had died a few months earlier. Between the current Congressman Dingell and his father, somebody named John Dingell has represented Michigan in the U.S. House of Representatives for almost 80 consecutive years.
If anybody is an expert on the lower chamber of Congress — the people’s chamber — it is John Dingell. If anybody can give an educated opinion on the state of America’s legislative branch, it is this aging World War II veteran who has held office in Washington, D.C. through the Administrations of 11 Presidents (Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama). John Dingell’s ties to the House of Representatives even include five years as page where he watched his father work alongside legislative titans and stood transfixed on the floor of the House during the joint session of Congress where President Franklin D. Roosevelt mourned the “day which will live in infamy” and declared war on Japan.
After nearly 57 years as a member of the House of Representatives and 75 years as a keen observer of Congress’s lower chamber, John Dingell has seemingly experienced it all, but the 112th Congress — the current session, which began on January 3, 2011 and saw Republicans take control of the House after the disastrous 2010 midterm elections for House Democrats — is difficult to deal with. In Robert Draper’s new book, Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives (Free Press, 2012), Dingell admits that “I’m more frustrated than I’ve ever been in my career.” The Dean of the House tries to flip through the pages of political history that he has personally experienced, yet he can’t find another example of an organization or individual who had approval ratings as low as the 9% approval rating that Americans have for the 112th Congress. In fact, Dingell finally says, “I think pedophiles would do better.”
Robert Draper is a top-notch journalist for publications such as the New York Times Magazine, GQ, and National Geographic, and his previous book, Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush (BOOK•KINDLE), was a fascinating insider account of the Executive branch as President Bush’s two terms were coming to a close. Do Not Ask What Good We Do is just as intriguing, perhaps more so because instead of a White House with one leader and nearly everyone else working toward the same goals, the House of Representatives is full of 435 very different Americans from very different parts of the country. And while the House is controlled by a Republican Party that currently holds on to a 52-vote majority over the Democrats, the two parties themselves have major ideological differences within them.
Do Not Ask What Good We Do focuses on a handful of House members. Some of Draper’s subjects are very well-known and very influential like current Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH), Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Dingell (D-MI), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), disgraced former New York Democrat Anthony Weiner, and the courageous Arizona Democrat Gabrielle Giffords who was nearly killed in an assassination attempt in her Congressional district at the beginning of the 112th Congress. But Draper also looks at some of the 87 freshmen who helped the Republicans take back the House in November 2010 thanks to their Tea Party credentials and relentless opposition to anything and everything that President Barack Obama has attempted to do, particularly Florida’s Allen West, Missouri’s Billy Long, Blake Farenthold of Texas, Renee Elmers of North Carolina, Raul Labrador of Idaho, and South Carolina’s “Four Horsemen” freshmen: Jeff Duncan, Tim Scott, Trey Gowdy, and Mick Mulvaney.
By introducing us to some of the personalities who are responsible for crafting and passing legislation, Draper helps us understand why John Dingell is so frustrated, why nothing is getting done, and why the approval rating of Congress is in single digits. We see Tea Party Republican freshmen whose intransigence not only provide headaches for the Democratic President, the Democratic Senate, or the Democratic House minority, but also for moderate Republicans or Congressional veterans who are never conservative enough for the newcomers who hold up bills and refuse to compromise. While there are admirable, hard-working, pragmatic legislators on both sides of the aisle, there are also Members of Congress — people that were somehow elected by a majority of Americans to represent their district in the House of Representatives — like Idaho’s Republican freshman Raul Labrador who is quoted in a Republican conference telling Speaker Boehner, “I didn’t come to Washington to be part of a team.” Or, Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee, whose obsession with tacking on amendments, need to make a floor speech about something every morning, and stubborn attitude is one of the most blatant examples I’ve ever seen of government waste.
Do Not Ask What Good We Do is a fascinating book, but tremendously frustrating. The frustration doesn’t come from Robert Draper’s first-class reporting or his ability to put personalities to the faces and names we see on C-SPAN; it comes from the frightening fact that if, as many Americans believe, our system is broken and needs to be fixed, the repairs should start with the House of Representatives. The Senate is the more deliberative body of Congress — designed to represent the states equally. The House is supposed to be the people’s chamber — designed to represent us, the average American voter or taxpayer, as directly as possible. I’m scared for my country if these are the best 435 people we have to represent us. Not all of the members of the House are equally horrible, but enough of them are bad that I worry for my country. I am saddened for my country if we can’t do better than many of these men and women that we send to Congress to represent the districts that we live in. We have to be able to do better. We must do better.
Draper’s title — Do Not Ask What Good We Do — comes from one of this country’s original members of Congress, Fisher Ames of Massachusetts, who wrote of Congress in 1796, “If we should finish and leave the world right side up, it will be happy. Do not ask what good we do: that is not a fair question, in these days of faction.” Thanks to Draper’s revealing account of the current House of Representatives, we can look at the 112th Congress and know not to ask what good they do, for there hasn’t been anything of note in the past two years that has made our lives better. We know that we don’t need to ask how bad they’ve been; the 9% approval rating answers that question clearly. Instead, we should ask ourselves: “Can we do better?” and “Is it January 3, 2013 yet?”.
Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives by Robert Draper is available now from Free Press. You can order the book from Amazon, or download it instantly for your Kindle. Robert Draper is a frequent contributor to the New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, and GQ. His previous book was the New York Times best-seller, Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush (BOOK•KINDLE). Robert Draper is also on Twitter @draperrobert.