Michael Beschloss & Richard Norton Smith: Their Commentary on the Republican Convention
By Bonnie Goodman
Ms. Goodman is a graduate student at Concordia University and an HNN intern.
As part of PBS’s coverage of the Republican National Convention in New York last week, historians Michael Beschloss and Richard Norton Smith provided historical perspective. The first day of the convention the discussion focused on war presidents, the second on party perspectives, the third on the effect of outside events on the course of the election, and the fourth on acceptance speeches. The following is a summary of their commentaries.
Day One: War Presidents
The discussion on the first day of the convention focused on war presidents, the advantages and disadvantages of being a war president. In their discussion on Abraham Lincoln’s re-election effort in 1864, Beschloss commented on Lincoln’s fear that he would lose the election because of the lack of decisive victories, but argued that “people were larger-minded enough to see he was doing it the right way.” Smith noted that the Republican Party this year is not attempting to broaden its appeal in the same dramatic ways the party undertook in 1864, when Lincoln insisted on running with a Southern Democrat.
Smith saw parallels between Richard Nixon’s 1972 re-election and George W. Bush’s. Smith pointed out the various strategies that Nixon employed to change the subject from Vietnam. He brought hundreds of thousands of troops home, “casting himself as a peacemaker.” He opened up U.S. Soviet relations and U.S.
China relations. He proposed “ending the draft, which of course had been at the heart of much of the intense opposition to the war.”
Beschloss noted that Nixon had additionally distracted the public from the war by having his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, claim that “we believe that peace is at hand.” Beschloss said that this was “cheap politics that presidents should not follow.”
Another parallel the historians discussed was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s re-election campaign in 1944. Beschloss argued that the parallels were suggestive. Despite tangible successes in the war, Roosevelt was being scrutinized as officials probed the reason the nation had been caught sleeping when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Thomas Dewey in a speech “suggested that Roosevelt was in some way responsible for Pearl Harbor,” which Beschloss pointed out put Roosevelt in a “very risky situation.”
In commenting on the Vietnam War and the 1968 campaign Beschloss claimed that “Nixon was pretending that he was likelier than [Hubert] Humphrey to pull troops out of Vietnam if he was elected. A lot of peaceniks voted for Nixon, bizarrely enough, and Humphrey who would have really done that, was scared into suggesting in public that he followed Johnson on the war because Johnson called him up and said, ‘Hubert, you oppose me on Vietnam, I’m going to dry up every Democratic dollar from Maine to Hawaii.’ Humphrey was already broke, he couldn’t do it.”
Day 2: Party Perspectives
On the second day of the convention California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and First Lady Laura Bush spoke. Both historians observed that Governor Schwarzenegger’s views on social issues do not resemble the positions of that other famous Republican actor turned governor of California, Ronald Reagan.
Beschloss said Schwarzenegger’s liberal social views most clearly reminded him of California Governor Earl Warren. Schwarzenegger, according to Smith, is “post ideological” and “transcend[s] party labels in a lot of ways.” But the governor also resembles Reagan in the way he can get away with such comments as “girley men.”
Beschloss argued that that there may be a future for Schwarzenegger in presidential politics “if the Constitution is amended some day and if the Republican Party does feel it wants to move back to the center.” They thought he might be particularly helpful winning the immigrant vote. Schwarzenegger is sponsored by Pete Wilson, who supported propositions in the 1990s that were considered hostile to immigrants. Smith said Schwarzenegger, an immigrant himself, could change the perception that party is anti-immigrant.
Also discussed was the issue of first ladies as a political asset in a campaign. Smith mentioned that after Betty Ford’s explosive “60 Minutes” interview, conservatives were concerned that she might cost Ford the presidency. But she may indeed have helped improve Ford’s support among women; “by 1976 there were buttons all over the country that read Betty’s husband for president.” In regard to the present first lady Beschloss commented that “Laura Bush speaks rarely on politics, so when she speaks people listen.” Some of her views differ with the president’s and may be more liberal, helping Bush win over centrists. Smith agreed that “a lot of people find it reassuring to think that someone that close to the president, maybe shares some of the concerns.” Lady Bird Johnson according to Smith also “managed to straddle the divide between a traditionalist and activist.”
Day 3: The Importance of Outside Events on the Course of the Election
On the third night the discussion focused on events outside the candidates’ control that can affect the election, including the possibility of an October Surprise.
According to Smith, Johnson’s 1964 campaign worried about Walter Jenkins, “who was a very close aide to President Johnson, [who] was arrested in a YMCA in Washington under compromising circumstances.” When news leaked out about the arrest the Goldwater conservatives believed they could make a strong case that the country faced moral decay under LBJ. But foreign issues quickly wiped the Jenkins story off the front pages. China, noted Smith, “successfully tested their first nuclear device; and in Moscow the politburo overthrew Nikita Khrushchev.” Beschloss added that the World Series and a change in government in London also helped Johnson.
Beschloss argued that for events like these to influence an election the contest has to be close “in those last weeks in October; and it also has to be an event that’s really at the center of the campaign.” Such was the case in 1968 when on October 31 Johnson halted bombing in the Vietnam with peace a possibility, “so for a couple of days, Humphrey zoomed in the polls, and then the South Vietnamese government said they would not negotiate, and Humphrey plunged,” and he lost the election. Beschloss said it was not clear if a terrorist attack on the United States in October would help or hurt President Bush.
Smith pointed out that events helped Lincoln in 1864. By August Lincoln did not believe he could win. However, when the Democratic Convention met and “they adopted a peace platform, calling for a negotiated end to the war and repeal of the Emancipation Proclamation, that shocked millions of voters. And then, two days after that convention, General Sherman took Atlanta.” Winning the war was possible and Lincoln’s “victory became almost a forgone conclusion.”
Beschloss observed that in 1992 Lawrence Walsh indicted members of the Bush administration in connection with the Iran-contra scandal, and suggested George H.W. Bush was more involved than originally believed. “Bush the elder had been getting traction on the issue of honesty and integrity against Bill Clinton. At that moment his polls began to go down, and there was not much chance that he would win.” In 2000 Bush’s son’s integrity was also cast in doubt at the last moment when it was revealed that he had been arrested for drunk driving in the mid-1970s.
Another case of a revelation in the last week prior to an election that hurt the candidate’s chance for winning according to Smith came in 1976, during the Ford-Carter race. By the last weekend of the campaign Ford had managed to turn a thirty-three point deficit in the polls into a one-point lead. Ford claimed there was an economic recovery, but when unemployment statistics came out that suggested otherwise, this “caused second thoughts in enough voters so that at the very last minute they moved back and Jimmy Carter narrowly won.”
Beschloss discussed the origin of the term October Surprise. He traced it back to the 1980 campaign and the Iran hostage crisis. “The Reagan people were worried that Jimmy Carter would commit some kind of October surprise, meaning something that would suddenly cause the hostages to be released and Carter to win the election against Ronald Reagan.” There was also suspicion that vice presidential candidate George Bush “flew to Paris in an SR-1 spy plane to have a secret meeting with some French people and some Iranians to try to foil this.”
Day 4: Acceptance Speeches
In anticipation of the President’s acceptance speech the discussion focused on “what makes a great re-nominating acceptance speech, or one a president or his campaign may come to regret.” In the last century the acceptance speech that has perhaps made the most lasting impression was Roosevelt’s in 1936, though Smith added that “that year FDR could have read the phone book and he would have carried every state but Maine and Vermont.” According to Smith “the incumbent has one advantage–they always go second. And the other advantage is, they’re an incumbent. Truman was able to use this advantage as to not run against “Tom Dewey, his nominal opponent, he ran against the so-called do-nothing 80th Congress. He said he was going to call them into session on what they called Turnip Day back in Missouri. He put the ball in their court knowing Congress would not adopt the liberal platform and then driving a wedge right down the middle between Dewey and his allies.”
Beschloss noted that Clinton’s 1996 speech, which “was 66 minutes, [was] one of the most boring speeches I have ever heard.” It was “this laundry list of proposals like cleaning up toxic waste dumps, it wasn’t very interesting.” But the purpose of the speech was to get the voters who would watch the speech for a couple of minutes to tune in, and hear a few proposals that would prompt them to vote for Clinton, and “the speech worked in that sense.” On the other hand Smith pointed out that Bush the elder failed to do the job in 1992. He had given his speech at a negative kind of convention, where “the economy was in the doldrums” and because of his foreign policy strengths he appeared disengaged on domestic policy. Smith commented that “he got up there and he had a speech that frankly was a bit of a mishmash, not very thematically coherent.”
Beschloss said that in Nixon’s speech in 1972 “the language was not memorable, but what he was conveying was with the I’m the guy who made the opening to China, who was doing diplomacy with Russia, on the verge of ending the Vietnam War. If you all want to throw that away, fine with me but I don’t think you should.” Smith brought up FDR’s speech in 1944. “FDR gave a war speech. He didn’t speak at the convention hall. It was announced he was speaking from an undisclosed location. A military installation on the West Coast.” In Beschloss’s opinion, “the one thing is that if a wartime president makes himself seem indispensable he can get Americans to vote for him even if they may not like his domestic policies.”
In his reaction to President Bush’s acceptance speech, Smith said it was “sort of a state of the union address, plus an inaugural address, it had a lot of policy but it was also very personal.” Bush’s speech focused on policy primarily, and was a “Reaganesque speech in the optimism, in looking to the future.” Smith “thought it was a very powerful speech. We won’t know for two months whether it worked or not, but it certainly worked tonight.”
Beschloss said it helped establish Bush’s position on issues: “there’s no chance that he’s going to be accused of having failed to present an agenda for the second term, a very long list of domestic proposals.” As for foreign policy, what Bush’s speech communicated was that “We’re staying on the offensive, striking terrorists abroad so we do not have to face them here at home.” The tone reminded Beschloss of offensive military policy harking back to the Cold War era Republican campaigns from 1972 to 1988, when the Republicans would stress that their party was tougher on communism and more trustworthy on defense than the Democrats. “We are in a war, a fight for our lives; I, George W. Bush, I’m the one who can keep you safe, John Kerry can’t for all sorts of reasons. And if people believe that they are likely to forgive a lot of things they don’t like about George Bush, even domestically. If people see it that way he’s going to win the election.”
Smith said that “much of that week you had a feeling that there was an attempt to blur” the differences with the Democrats by trotting out moderates. But Bush’s speech was “actually very ambitious, an attempt to recast the Republican Party and conservatism generally, almost along Thatcherite lines. You know, I think of Margaret Thatcher when you hear about the ‘ownership society.’ That’s more than a slogan, potentially. That’s a fairly radical redefinition of conservatism.”