November 8, 2004: Headlines: Presidents - Kennedy: New Frontier: Election2004: History: Speaking Out: Roosevelt Institute: Theodore Sorensen says "I take some pride in recalling that it was in the 1960 campaign that JFK first proposed the Peace Corps, the U.S. Disarmament Agency, the Alliance for Progress, and a host of other concrete proposals that he later implemented" [Revised]

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Peace Corps Library: Election2004: November 8, 2004: Headlines: Presidents - Kennedy: New Frontier: Election2004: History: Speaking Out: Roosevelt Institute: Theodore Sorensen says "I take some pride in recalling that it was in the 1960 campaign that JFK first proposed the Peace Corps, the U.S. Disarmament Agency, the Alliance for Progress, and a host of other concrete proposals that he later implemented" [Revised]

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Theodore Sorensen says "I take some pride in recalling that it was in the 1960 campaign that JFK first proposed the Peace Corps, the U.S. Disarmament Agency, the Alliance for Progress, and a host of other concrete proposals that he later implemented" [Revised]

Theodore Sorensen says I take some pride in recalling that it was in the 1960 campaign that JFK first proposed the Peace Corps, the U.S. Disarmament Agency, the Alliance for Progress, and a host of other concrete proposals that he later implemented [Revised]

Theodore Sorensen says "I take some pride in recalling that it was in the 1960 campaign that JFK first proposed the Peace Corps, the U.S. Disarmament Agency, the Alliance for Progress, and a host of other concrete proposals that he later implemented" [Revised]

The 2004 Election in the Context of History: Lecture by Theodore Sorensen

November 8, 2004

Roosevelt University, Chicago, Illinois

It is a high honor to deliver this lecture at Roosevelt University; but a difficult assignment to place in historical context the presidential election completed less than six days ago, a lecture topic sufficiently formidable that preparation was necessary long before it was clear that the election would be won by George Bush. Although the lecture is a responsibility incurred when I was awarded the Schlesinger history prize by the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute in 2002, I may not be the ideal lecturer for this topic for several reasons:

First, I am not objective. Because I am a Democrat, you might expect me to have some explanation as to why the Democrats lost, after running neck-and-neck in the polls. I have two. Moreover, this election left the country bitterly divided, and I do not wish to divide it further or to second-guess my party and its candidate who are downcast enough.

Second, although I have some political experience, politicians are notoriously wrong in the conclusions they draw from previous campaigns, often attaching more importance to miniscule but highly publicized mistakes than to far more significant underlying trends. For example, no Republican nominee has rejected make-up for his presidential debate since Nixon in 1960. No Democratic candidate has climbed into a tank since Dukakis; no one dares sigh during a debate since Gore; and now it will be a long time before a Democratic nominee goes windsurfing.

Third, my state of residence is not one of the thirteen swing states upon which the candidates lavished virtually all of their speaking tours and television commercials which played so major a part in this election.

Fourth, while the Democratic Party continued to attract main line Protestants, Catholics and Jews, the single largest and most cohesive bloc of voters in this election was this country’s rapidly growing numbers of white evangelical/fundamentalist, “born again” Christians, a phenomenon whose faith I respect and whose strength I do not underestimate but with which I have had too little experience to understand fully.

Fifth, the presidential election with which I am most familiar, the race between Kennedy and Nixon in 1960, was totally unlike the 2004 election campaign. · Although 1960 was the closest presidential election in 76 years, with Kennedy’s popular vote margin less than one-half of one percent of the total two-party vote, it was completed without the bitterness and legal challenges that arose in 2004. Speaking in Chicago, I must take this opportunity to refute the myth that Kennedy won the White House only because of voter fraud here in Cook County. Nixon’s closest friend was William Rogers, the attorney general of the United States, whose Justice Department investigation found either insufficient evidence to justify a legal proceeding or so much more Republican fraud in downstate Illinois that he thought it best to leave the matter alone. Moreover, Kennedy would have won the national election even without Illinois. For years, Nixon’s decision not to challenge the Illinois outcome has been hailed by his admirers as proof of his statesmanship; but I see it a little differently. · In that 1960 election (coincidentally, 44 years ago this very day), religion also played a role; but in a very different way. Then, the religious right warned darkly that a Catholic president would subordinate his public policy and constitutional views to his religious vows and permit church leaders to decide public matters and dictate how their parishioners voted – in short, warning that Kennedy’s election would permit the Catholic Church to engage in the very same breaches of the wall between church and state that the religious right now insists upon perpetrating themselves. · Also in 1960, there were plenty of negative accusations by both candidates, but at a very different level. The Democratic candidate that year was also called a big-spending liberal from Massachusetts who was a captive of the left and labor unions. Kennedy replied: “In the last seven days, he has called me a spendthrift, a liar and a Pied Piper – I just confine myself to calling him a Republican; and he says that is really getting low.” In the campaign’s last week, when defense plant workers in San Diego were handed leaflets reading “Kennedy is after your job”, JFK called that “desperate and despicable – I am after Mr. Eisenhower’s job.” “Desperate and despicable”? Not compared to 2004. When former President Truman said any farmer ungrateful enough to vote Republican should go straight to hell, Nixon made a pious speech about the example that candidates and their surrogates should set for the tiny tots brought by their mothers to political rallies; and he urged Kennedy to repudiate Truman’s words. Kennedy replied that he did not think he could do much at that stage about Mr. Truman’s language, but maybe Mrs. Truman could, and he added that he had reminded President Truman that “our side should not raise any religious issue.” · Finally, the 1960 campaign, unlike 2004 and most other recent presidential campaigns, actually discussed ideas and issues, some of them real, partly because neither nominee listened to so many outside hired guns. But I take some pride in recalling that it was in the 1960 campaign that JFK first proposed the Peace Corps, the U.S. Disarmament Agency, the Alliance for Progress, and a host of other concrete proposals that he later implemented.

 Theodore Sorensen

This year, politicians, pundits, and both presidential nominees frequently said this was the most important election of our lifetime, the most important since FDR was elected in 1932, a crossroads election, a potential turning point in American history. We may not know for another four years whether that was true. It could have been. It should have been. Had both candidates utilized the campaign to educate the voters on their choices and responsibilities, as JFK sought to do in 1960, it could have been a grand debate on a grand strategy for the 21st Century, in our first post-9/11 election, on how to replace the irrelevant strategic doctrines that were dominant during the 20th Century and the Cold War, a serious dialogue on great choices like war and peace.

In fact, both nominees talked about their war-like abilities, but neither said much about peace. Yet, this country in the last few years has drastically reversed its foreign policy without any true national debate or even dialogue, switching from multilateralism to unilateralism, preferring war to negotiations and diplomatic solutions.

This year’s campaign could have been a clear-cut elevated examination of those basic choices at last. But it was not. This campaign was characterized more by disinformation than information, focused more on what each candidate did or did not do during the Vietnam war 35 years ago than on what our nation must do today if we are to combat, cope with or even comprehend the threat of global terrorism. Never before have so many millions of dollars been spent for so many television commercials conveying so little information that was true and relevant. Certainly it was not a proud moment for democracy – certainly it was not a model for other nations.

Had it not been for the three televised presidential debates, most voters would not have had a glimpse of either presidential candidate except in the millions of 12 to 30-second commercials containing largely denigrating accusations about an opponent’s lack of character, courage or integrity.

In short, instead of an illuminating national dialogue, we had the nastiest, most negative, most expensive, most divisive, most vituperative, most excessive and meanest campaign in modern American history. Both candidates fudged their positions on these crucial issues; the opposition party did not explicitly hold the administration accountable for its disasters; and the news media failed to put the major issues in their historical context. In short, the fundamental issues were not clearly framed or even defined; and consequently there is now no clear mandate for the nation moving in either of the two opposite directions in foreign policy that it faced. Oh, there was plenty of talk about military power, but I thought the security of this country has long depended more on the power of our ideas and ideals, as communicated abroad by our government. What are those ideals to be? Are we to become an imperial power, seeking perpetual war? Are conventional weapons and sovereignty still relevant issues?

In a bitterly divided country, too much of this year’s campaign was aimed not at bridging gulfs, but at exasperating differences of race, religion, class and culture. Every public opinion poll tells us that voters do not like negative attack commercials on television; nevertheless every hired campaign consultant still uses them, convinced that they work; and, alas, they do.

Instead of focusing on real domestic issues like the persistence of poverty and the lack of access to affordable health care, the campaign turned in large part on non-issues such as the futile attempt to amend our beloved Constitution to limit the rights of American citizens – amendments unlike every amendment to that document in our national history except for the disastrous experiment with Prohibition almost 90 years ago. This non-issue was put forward in part to mobilize the religious conservatives, whom I previously mentioned, not by emphasizing unjust wars, greed, hunger, and other ills against which all churches traditionally warn, but by appealing instead to the kind of cultural intolerance that can bring conservative voters to the polls. I resent the gross overstatement made by one partisan that this election was a contest between the faithful and unbelievers (but clearly that is what many thought).

 Theodore Sorensen

Both candidates spoke about hunting down and killing terrorist leaders; but neither spent much time addressing the sources and causes of terrorism. That’s too complicated, too nuanced. It’s much easier to shout: “Shoot first and ask questions later.” Especially if we are shooting foreigners. That appeals to the inherent streak of isolationism and nativism masquerading as nationalism and unilateralism that has never been far beneath the surface in the psyche of many American voters.

I realize that every American presidential campaign has been full of unfounded accusations, character attacks, exaggeration, and vituperation. No presidential candidate in history, including JFK, would want his mastery of either statesmanship or oratory to be measured by the hasty, weary, angry or pandering statements he inevitably makes on the campaign trail. Every four years journalists, politicians, even scholars, say that that year’s campaign was the worst presidential campaign in memory, or the nastiest or the dirtiest. As far back as 1800, Thomas Jefferson was assailed as a non-believer and Jacobin who, if elected, would have bibles confiscated and churches closed and American streets filled with French troops. This was too much even for his opponent John Adams, who repudiated these attacks, saying that he no more expected to see the French army in America than in Heaven.

But I do know that presidents like Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Reagan and the first George Bush, even when taking controversial positions and making debatable proposals, did not arouse the kind of fury and intense bitterness that has divided this country ever since George W. Bush became president by the action of those Supreme Court justices who were appointed by his father. In part, this was because those prior presidents, unlike this one, reached out to their opposition and critics.

Not all changes in the electorate this year were nasty. Women, sensitive to security issues and immigrants, many of them deeply religious, were more likely to vote Republican than in the past. College educated voters, whose economic station in the past put them most often in the Republican column, have increasingly turned Democratic. Political scientists, who have long deplored voter turnout levels in this country should rejoice at the increase in voter registration and turnout this year, even if it was fueled by such intense and often bitter passions.

No doubt precedents were set in the campaign in part because of precedents set by the President during the last four years – the first time a president cut taxes in war time; the first time the national debt reached so many hundred billion in peace time; the first time since World War II that we abandoned our alliances and openly defied international law, the first time we so brazenly repudiated international treaties and obligations; the first president in over 100 years to take office despite losing the two-party popular vote.

Almost fifty years ago, I had the task of analyzing past presidential elections to determine for each state the base Democratic Party vote in a typical presidential election. I discovered that there was no such thing as a typical presidential election. 2004 has reinforced that. Historical statistics are not much of a guide. Four years ago Mr. Bush received only a minority of the two-party popular vote in this country. His party continues to be a minority of all registered voters in this country. Historically, an incumbent whose approval rating ever falls below 50%, or who’s told by the polls that most Americans think the country is not on the right track or moving in the right direction, will not win reelection -- unless his polls show he has a double digit lead (which Mr. Bush’s did not); historically the incumbent’s share of the two-party vote declines between his convention and election day, as the undecided vote breaks for the challenger. So much for history.

Historically, an incumbent needs an economic growth rate at least one percent over normal during the three quarters prior to the election if he is to increase his party’s share of the vote. He also needs to avoid even a one percent increase in the inflation rate over the fifteen quarters prior to the election. On economics, Mr. Bush’s success last Tuesday was consistent with history. (Not surprisingly, those economic historical indicators proved to be more valid than the old superstition that the incumbent always loses if the Washington Redskins lost the previous Sunday.)

I had assumed that, like Truman bogged down in Korea, LBJ bogged down in Vietnam, and Jimmy Carter bogged down in the Iranian hostage crisis, President Bush would find his popularity seriously damaged by his inability to extricate the United States from the continuing dangerous quagmire in Iraq, by his inability to apprehend Osama bin Laden, the leader of the terrorist organization that attacked us, by his inability to persuade the allies he initially shunned to help us out now in Iraq, and by his inability to stem the flow of body bags back to a grieving country, by his inability to pacify Afghanistan, and his inability to end the continuing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians that fuels radical Islamist terror. Based on history, I assumed all that would hurt him; but I was wrong.

Domestically, President Bush was unable to restore the economy to its previous levels, unable to reduce either the national debt or the annual budget deficit, unable to conceal the unwarranted shortages of flu vaccine and reasonably priced gasoline and home heating fuel, unable even to prevent major splits within his administration, and he continued to receive bad news during the campaign. If a presidential reelection campaign is normally a referendum on the record of the incumbent more than an examination of the qualities of his opponent, then this incumbent’s record of astonishing debt, continuing war, a net loss of jobs -- particularly in manufacturing – and a legacy of budget and trade deficits without end, all would seem to have made it historically logical if not inevitable that a referendum on Mr. Bush’s record would end in his defeat. But it did not. Why?

There are two reasons:

 Theodore Sorensen

First, incumbents are difficult to defeat. They occupy the “bully pulpit” of which Theodore Roosevelt spoke. It is his and his alone, to announce good news, good weather, and goodies for voters in every swing state, such as hurricane-torn Florida. It is his, especially, during a national security crisis when most voters feel obligated to support the commander-in-chief, even if he is struggling; and that trumps even such important domestic issues as jobs, taxes and health care. The terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 was the defining episode in Mr. Bush’s first term, and defined his presidency, causing many voters to hope and project for him strengths that he actually did not possess. If incumbents can be blamed for bad weather, it is only fair that they take credit for the sunshine.

As President Truman once said, “The average high school sophomore in Independence, Missouri equipped with hindsight is smarter than the President of the United States; and that is certainly true of presidential candidates. So I am reluctant to second-guess Senator Kerry, who, like Mark Twain’s remark about Beethoven, was better than he sounded. But the worst errors in a campaign, as in life, are more likely to be errors of omission than commission. Senator Kerry, who was generally superb in the debates, erred in banning “Bush-bashing” at the Democratic National Convention when all the country was watching. Apparently he forgot the conclusion of one-time baseball great Leo Durocher: “Nice guys finish last.” The duty of the opposition, said the Republican leader of 50 years ago, Senator Robert A. Taft, is to oppose – not blindly, not automatically, but with both tough questions and realistic options. As one American civil rights leader said this year: “If there is a reckless administration, we cannot afford a spineless opposition.”

In the third debate, Kerry passed up an opportunity to enlighten the country on homosexuality, instead referring to the Vice President’s daughter. As a flu shortage alarming every family in America began to emerge, Mr. Kerry answered that question only with his boilerplate medical insurance answer. Nor did he ever point out the administration’s responsibility for the widespread grumbling at the pump over gasoline prices. In truth, the economy during the last quarter or two was not as bad as the four-year picture painted by the Democrats. Scrambling both to explain his initial vote in favor of the Iraq war resolution, and to disprove the post-Vietnam mistaken conviction by most voters that Democrats are not as hard-line on security issues as Republicans, his statements on foreign policy were often – particularly near the end of the campaign – informed and penetrating, but prior to that too often inconsistent or incomprehensible.

Republican claims that Democratic complaints about the war in Iraq and failures to capture Bin Laden were “politicizing national security” were absurd – if the most serious issues facing the country and the next president cannot be debated in a democracy, then democracy has lost all meaning.

Second, this election year, whatever the incumbent’s natural advantages and the challenger’s inevitable errors, above all reminds us that, ever since the Democratic Party in the Kennedy-Johnson era conscientiously split North and South over the single greatest issue ever to confront our country, the status of our black citizens, the Republicans have won seven out of the last 10 presidential elections. (No northern Democratic nominee has won since Kennedy in 1960.)

Since that time, Democrats, while consistently making better presidents, have permitted the Republicans to make better presidential candidates. Republican candidates like Reagan and George W. Bush, who between them won four of those seven victories, have consistently been more appealing than the “policy wonks” -- like McGovern, Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Gore and Kerry – whom the Democrats tend to nominate. (Clinton being the major exception -- a policy wonk with charm.)

 Theodore Sorensen

Democrats forget that back in high school, the smartest boy in the class was rarely elected class president – that post more often goes to the star quarterback or even the class clown. Intellectual Democratic nominees speak from the mind, while Republican candidates speak from the heart; and the heart wins. Democrats make better presidents because they are better at answering the questions facing the nation; but Republicans make better candidates because they are better at framing those questions in simple understandable terms.

This year, the Democratic nominee not only had a longer face than his opponent, but also used longer words, longer sentences and longer paragraphs. In an era of rapid, unsettling, confusing and complex change posing a multitude of problems, Democratic candidates scatter their speeches with five-point program answers for all of those problems, while Republicans offer a few simple basic lines in the big picture, like lowering taxes, reducing government and killing our enemies. Democrats want their speeches to be noble and eloquent to impress New York Times editors and readers, to sound like Stevenson and Kennedy; the Republicans just want to win.

The Democratic “policy wonks” are better at sound analysis, but the Republican candidates are better at sound bytes. Democratic candidates exude learning; Republican candidates like Reagan and George W. Bush exude likeability, warmth and authenticity with no reservations or doubt, communicating certainty and clarity about the future with no hint of any problem, complication or error.

Democrats express concern about our moral values as a nation, such as our compassion for the least fortunate among us, and our belief in world peace; while Republicans emphasize the language of personal morality and concern for individual sin. Cerebral Democratic candidates, including John F. Kennedy, are not comfortable wearing either their religious beliefs or their emotions on their sleeves, while Republicans connect more directly with many voters by doing just that.

Democrats make better presidents because they care more about policy and are more careful about dangerous decisions. But they are not as good in conveying their positions in 7 words or less in the age of bumper stickers and 12-second commercials.

Democratic candidates always say: “I have a plan,” while Republican candidates say “Let us march.”

It is not surprising that, in an age of fear and uncertainty, fanatics, familiarity and fundamentalism gain strength in both politics and religion, both at home and around the world. Democrats are too intellectually honest to promise certainty in a dangerous and unsettling age of traumatic change, uncertainty and complexity. In fact, diplomacy is more complicated than force. Economic issues in the globalized market are more complicated. Thus many voters are looking more for a savior than a savant, and respond better to demagogues than to technocrats.

The earnest campaign speeches of the Democrats appealing to reason instead of instincts, emotions and prejudice, are no match for the folksy charm of a Reagan or Bush. Even Michael Moore said of John Kerry: “Of course he’s a lousy candidate – he’s a Democrat!” Even more representative was the new Princeton political science graduate who thought he would use his education in a run for the state legislature. Inexplicably failing to unseat the long-time incumbent, he exclaimed to his opponent: “But I must have made speeches to eight thousand people!” “Yep”, came the reply “that was just about my margin.”

But enough of this Democratic doom and gloom. The Republicans have won seven of the last 10; but after Herbert Hoover the Democrats won seven of the next nine. Sometimes the pendulum swings. Sometimes the Democrats nominate a Roosevelt, a Kennedy or a Clinton; sometimes the Republicans nominate a Ford or a Dole.

It is not yet clear what history will say of Mr. Bush, who has not yet written or said anything likely to be remembered by history. If he carries through on his second-term agenda of perpetual war, the dismantlement of FDR’s social insurance programs, and the reversal of decades of progress on civil rights, environmental protection and medical research, he may become another Hoover; and the Democrats will campaign against him for three decades as they did against Hoover. In time, moderate-thinking Republicans, now an endangered species that no longer have any influence in their own party, may recoil from gigantic budget and trade deficits that mortgage the future of their grandchildren, and turn away from the increasing domination of their party by the religious right with its insistence on government poking into the bedrooms of America. Artificial electioneering devices, like fake constitutional amendments on the ballot, will not over the long run build solid support in the way substantive positions can. Democrats can connect with religious voters and values as they once did, on waging peace and combating poverty, greed and injustice, without abandoning their support of constitutional rights for women and minorities.

President Bush’s second term may be like the second deer hunting trip in 4 years that two burly brothers took on an island in a Rocky Mountain lake. When the seaplane pilot who came to collect them and two deer carcasses at the end of their week expressed doubt that his plane could carry such a load over the mountains, the older brother told him that “four years earlier, bro and I were just as heavy, and our kill were just as big, and we made it out – so of course you can take us.” The pilot reluctantly agreed, gunned his engine for all it was worth, and crashed half way up the nearest mountain. “Where are we, bro?” asked the younger brother as they climbed out of the smoldering plane, leaving the dead pilot behind. “About 500 feet further down the mountain than where we crashed last time,” said his brother.

 Theodore Sorensen

I do not want our nation and President to crash and burn. But neither do I believe the Democrats should give up. The Republicans did not give up when they lost seven out of nine. Just as Al Smith’s crushing defeat by Hoover in 1928 formed the reorganized, redirected and reformed Democratic Party that went on to victory under FDR, so this year’s eruption of new Democratic voters, donors, issue organizations and media may have laid the new foundation for future Democratic victories. The proportion of white evangelical voters may be growing, but so is the proportion of non-white citizens. Democratic presidential candidates can learn to be genuinely warm and authentic personalities on the campaign trail (or at least they can learn to fake it!).

This country was discovered by an intrepid Italian navigator whose daily log contained the very same message for the last two weeks of his voyage: “No sign of land – gave the crew the order to ‘sail on’.” I am confident that the Democratic Party will continue to sail on until it once again reaches the Promised Land of the Presidency.





When this story was posted in November 2004, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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Story Source: Roosevelt Institute

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; Presidents - Kennedy; New Frontier; Election2004; History; Speaking Out

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