Hitting the big time

DSCF0718This blog has now had a mention in the Washington Post. I hope I can weather the traffic spike. I would add more entries, but I’ve been reading a lot about medieval history, so it doesn’t quite fit in here.

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A Catholic Runs for President: The Campaign of 1928 by Edmund A. Moore

catholicrunsforpresidentThe Presidential election of 1928 was not a close one. Yet, it was memorable for the reason that the losing Democratic candidate, New York Governor Al Smith, was the first Catholic to be nominated for the Presidency by a major party. Although Smith’s religion was not the main reason he lost, it certainly didn’t help. And it gave Smith’s opponents, who distrusted him for his stance on the repeal of Prohibition and for being from New York City, even more ammunition to use against him.

In 1956, a political scientist named Edmund A. Moore looked back to 1928 and examined the election strictly in terms of Smith’s religion. It’s not a particularly relevant book to us today since: 1) a Catholic, John F. Kennedy, would be elected President in 1960, 2) there have been subsequent Catholic nominees for the Presidency and Vice-Presidency (John Kerry in 2004, Geraldine Ferraro as Vice President in 1984, and current Vice President Joe Biden), 3) Catholics appear all over the political spectrum now (Dennis Kucinich and Rick Santorum were both Catholic candidates in 2012.) and 4) there was a major party Mormon nominee in Mitt Romney and the U.S. was practically in a state of war against that religion during the 19th Century. America has come a long way in hating religion and we save our dumbest and most vile invective for Islam.

When we last saw Smith in 1924, his delegates at the Democratic Convention in New York successfully blocked the nomination of William McAdoo and forced the Democrats into nominating a compromise candidate, John W. Davis, who … did not win.

In 1928 Smith was the presumptive nominee. Anti-Smith forces decided that the best way to stop the Catholic “wet” governor of New York was to find a “dry” Catholic. Montana senator Thomas Walsh took a few delegates to the convention in Houston, but it was not nearly enough to stop Smith’s momentum. The Democrats finished their business in three days. Arkansas Senator Joseph Robinson was the Vice Presidential Nominee.

The Republicans were running the very popular Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, who was generally considered to be the brains behind the very popular Calvin Coolidge. Senator Charles Curtis of Kansas was nominated for Vice President.

In 1928, American Catholics were a scary bunch to many for a variety of reasons, although not many of them made a lot of sense. There was a general fear of people who tended to live in big cities (as Smith did). There was a widely-held belief that a Catholic president would be more obedient to the Pope than to the American people.

Smith tried to react to the religious arguments against him, but he never could find the right approach. The problem facing him was that some of the arguments were so outlandish (like turning the White House over to the Pope) that it was hard to argue against something so outlandish without sounding foolish. Magazines like The Atlantic Monthly had long articles with discussions of Smith’s “Catholic problem.” 

Another problem Smith faced was that with the focus on his religion as well as his opposition to Prohibition, nobody really knew what Smith’s positions on other matters were. Also, because Smith sounded “ethnic”, Republican opponents reveled in pointing out his lack of education and dearth of foreign policy experience as compared to the Stanford-educated and world renowned Hoover. (This book doesn’t discuss Smith’s positions on any matter in any depth.)

With the American economy booming, Smith faced an uphill battle in 1928. But, with Southern Democrats fearful of a Catholic because he was, for lack of a better word, different, Smith’s base of support was gone. Hoover routed Smith by a 444-87 margin in the electoral vote and by a 58%-40% margin in the popular vote. Hoover was able to pick off the Southern states of Texas, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Smith even lost his home state of New York. The only states that Smith won were states in the Deep South with almost no Republican voters as well as two narrow wins in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Smith was hoping that by running in 1928, he would still be popular among Democrats and be considered a top candidate for 1932. That idea had one problem that Smith didn’t foresee. With Smith running for President, the Democrats found a new man to run for New York Governor. His name was Franklin D. Roosevelt, a longtime Smith ally. When 1932 rolled around, the two men were no longer allies. They were competitors.

American politics has never been pretty. Mud has been thrown since the Election of 1796. My impression from this book is that it was clear that there was a significant part of America that didn’t want a candidate like Al Smith to win. His Catholicism was just one facet of why people feared him. The fact that he was from a city, and not just any city, but THE BIGGEST CITY still left a good chunk of America afraid. If Smith hadn’t been Catholic, there would have been some other reason to go after his character.

The Election of 1928 showed that America was, for the most part, full of shallow, fearful bigots who were easily manipulated by more powerful forces. Would Al Smith been a good President? Probably not. After the election, Smith went to work for those same big business concerns that he campaigned against. The losers were all the people who were manipulated into believing the worst things about a large part of the American population. Or do the American people just prefer to be told whom to hate?

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By One Vote: The Disputed Presidential Election of 1876 by Michael F. Holt

holbyoMost of the previous books about the hotly disputed 1876 election focus on partisan matters. Both Democrats and Republicans think that their side back in 1876 was either robbed of the election by nefarious means or ended up winning in spite of the other side using nefarious means. The nuts and bolts of the election are laid out in Michael Holt’s book, who looks at the election in terms of the actual important political issues of the day, the most important one being one that would make little sense to us today.

Today, we think of the Reconstruction Era as one marked by: 1) Southern Republican governments propped up by Federal military force, 2) widespread corruption in government, and 3) the uneasy return of Southern Democrats into Congress. But, there was even more going on, especially with the economy, which was trying to regain its footing after the trauma of the Civil War. The national debt had soared and the method for the repayment of the debt to those holding securities was the hot button issue of the day.

During the Civil War, currency was issued without any gold to back it up, but after a massive recession in 1873, Congress passed the Specie Resumption Act, which would require the Treasury to accumulate gold reserves and pay back bonds with gold instead of more paper money. This issue turned out to be divisive. A gold-backed currency would greatly reduce the money supply, making it harder to lower class and middle class people to get access to capital. The issue of specie resumption turned out to be even more divisive than civil rights. Although it is far harder to explain. (See the paragraph above for proof!)  Continue reading

Eisenhower Decides to Run: Presidential Politics & Cold War Strategy by William B. Pickett

Guy who voluntarily joined the Army, wants to get drafted
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While looking for a book on the 1952 election, I stumbled across this one and it turned out to have a much narrower focus than I like when reading a book about an election. However, author William B. Pickett is definitely true to the words in the title. This book is solely about Dwight Eisenhower’s decision to run for President in 1952 against the backdrop of the Cold War. The general election of 1952 is never mentioned nor his Eisenhower’s Democratic opponent, Adlai Stevenson, ever turn up in the book.

If you are particularly fascinated with the inner workings of how Eisenhower changed his stance from being a somewhat apolitical figure who worked as both President of Columbia University and Supreme Allied Commander of NATO in Europe, this is an ideal book. I found it a little bit too much detail about one particular decision.

Eisenhower was floated as a candidate for President by the Democrats in 1948 because it was believed that Harry Truman was too unpopular to win reelection. Obviously, Truman was still somewhat popular.

By 1952. Truman’s unfavorable ratings were hovering around the 65% mark, a figure which would remain the lowest of any President until Richard Nixon came around. George W. Bush would match Truman’s mark. (At various times, some presidential approval ratings really crater. The only President who never dropped below a 50% approval mark during his term in office according to Gallup is John F. Kennedy. Polling for this figure though did not start until Truman took office.)

Pickett believes that Eisenhower wanted to run (while trying to look like he wasn’t running) because he feared that the Republicans would nominate Ohio Senator Robert Taft, who: 1) opposed the formation of NATO, 2) opposed U.S. involvement in postwar Europe, and 3) wanted to return the U.S. to a prewar isolationist foreign policy.

Eisenhower did not want to see all that he worked for in Europe to go to waste. And he also felt that the Republicans were almost assured of being reelected. At one point, Truman tried to convince Eisenhower to run for President as a Democrat and he would run as Vice President. Eisenhower did not seem to think that would be a good idea.

Although he was still a member of the Army, Eisenhower won the New Hampshire primary. And he started winning just about every other primary that did not have a favorite son candidate. However, coming to the convention in New York, the nomination was still in doubt between Eisenhower and Taft, who controlled a lot of delegates from state caucuses and party bosses.

The Eisenhower forces, borrowing the organization that Thomas Dewey had put in place for 1944 and 1948, were able to outflank Taft’s people again. The first ballot was a deadlock, but before a second ballot could be called, Minnesota, as planned, changed its vote to Eisenhower, setting off several other states to change their votes and make Eisenhower an easy winner.

The choice of California Senator Richard Nixon as running mate is not covered in the book, which means I don’t have to write about the Checkers speech. I am glad for that.

The Democrats are barely mentioned in the book, so, to fill you in on the process: Truman thought about running again, but fared poorly in New Hampshire and dropped out. Then everybody and his brother started running, but no one grabbed a lead. The Democrats waited until the third ballot to nominate Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson for President. Senator John Sparkman of Alabama was named as his running mate.

In the general election, the Republicans won big, winning 39 of 48 states for 442 electoral votes. Eisenhower and Nixon won 55% of the popular vote to Stevenson and Sparkman’s 44%. The Republicans also narrowly won control of both houses of Congress. Taft was able to return to the Senate as majority leader, although he would pass away from cancer in July of 1953.

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Reelecting Lincoln: The Battle for the 1864 Presidency by John Waugh

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Four more weeks! Four more weeks! And a couple more

It is safe to say that the 1864 Presidential Election was like no other before or after it. Despite the United States being torn apart by the Civil War, the states that remained part of the Union, still went about their regular political business, as the Constitution instructed, and held an election to choose a President.

It probably does not seem like a surprise that Abraham Lincoln won reelection fairly easily over Democratic challenger George McClellan. However, not everyone was completely sold on Lincoln as a successful president. And there was still a not insignificant amount of people opposed to the war, mostly because they did business with the South.

John Waugh’s 1997 book about this election tries to wring out a lot of drama from Lincoln’s second presidential run, but it does not always convince the reader that there is going to be much suspense to this story. The reelection of Lincoln is presented more as a drama rather than as an explanation of the politics behind the decision. Continue reading

What’s Up Next?

So the plan now will be to review a book about each Presidential election back to 1789. However, some years may not have a book written about them. I already have alternate plans for 1789 and 1792. The election of 1820, which was uncontested, may be tough also. There is a series of books written about elections, although they all haven’t issued yet. Some elections have a lot of books written about them, especially from 1960 to the present.

The books I pick won’t be done in random order, but more in the order that I can find them. The first one should be going up on Presidents Day.

#15 marries #35

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I have a couple of other writing tasks to catch up on, so it may be a couple more weeks before another post. There are 10 Presidents to go: 2 Harrisons, 2 Bushes, a guy on the $50 bill, the “other” Roosevelt, the non-Bush guy who won a highly disputed election, the guy who wasn’t a crook, the star of “Bedtime for Bonzo”, and the guy who wasn’t afraid to go nuclear. The current President won’t be part of the series. And it’s hard enough finding a book about Bush 43 that doesn’t look as if it were written by either Keith Olbermann or Sean Hannity.

I was hoping to finish before 2009 was up, but that proved to be a bit too ambitious. But, I can see the finish line!