Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of
The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (OUP) and
Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: George Washington to Barack Obama . His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. His website is giltroy.com. His next book “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published this fall by Oxford University Press.
Mitt Romney's speech in Texas about religion and politics resurrected the ghost of John Kennedy, and his historic appearance in Houston during the 1960 campaign. But few have mentioned that Kennedy was following in the footsteps of Governor Alfred E. Smith. Smith was a Catholic who confronted the religious prejudices of his day when vying for the presidency during the 1928 campaign.
In the April 1927 edition of The Atlantic Monthly, a prominent lawyer named Charles Marshall wrote an open letter to Governor Smith, doubting a good Catholic's ability to serve the American people independently and honorably as president.
Al Smith, who loved to speak in the"dese, dem, dose," argot of New York's Bowery, but was an intelligent, and surprisingly refined individual, responded in the May issue. Smith's response was unequivocal and memorable, saying:"I should be a poor American and a poor Catholic alike if I injected religious discussion into a political campaign." Addressing Marshall"not as a candidate for any public office but as an American citizen, honored with high elective office, meeting a challenge to his patriotism and his intellectual integrity," Smith insisted there was no conflict between being a good Catholic and a good American.
John Kennedy was less hobbled by the religion issue than Al Smith was, because for all Smith's eloquence and alleged refinement, his political persona struck so many Americans as foreign. Governor Smith was too brassy, too Bowery, too much the immigrant New Yorker for many. Proving that Culture Wars in America are not new, the great American journalist William Allen White thundered:"The whole Puritan civilization which has built a sturdy, orderly nation is threatened by Smith." The evangelist Bill Sunday denounced Smith's male supporters as"damnable whiskey politicians, bootleggers, crooks, pimps, and businessmen," and his female supporters as"streetwalkers."
Like Kennedy, Mitt Romney comes across as all-American rather than as foreign or fanatic. If anything, whereas Al Smith oozed authenticity, Romney like Kennedy before him occasionally appears a bit too artificial, too programmed. Romney's campaign should rise or fall on half a dozen other factors than his Mormonism. Romney's courage and eloquence - like Kennedy's and Smith's - on this issue was admirable and a welcome contribution to the continuing American debate about religion and state, and the continuing American quest for a campaign and a country free of bigotry.
The Margarine Republicans include: Rudy Giuliani, whose positions on abortion and gay rights are far to the party’s left; Mitt Romney, whose Mormonism, unfortunately, makes him suspect in the eyes of too many evangelicals, and who also took unconventional stands as governor of what is sometimes called “The People’s Republic of Massachusetts”; and John McCain, who built a national reputation on his iconoclasm. Fred Thompson’s pre-September surge and Mike Huckabee’s recent popularity reflect Republicans’ search for a candidate they perceive as more authentic.
This question of party suitability and loyalty is an old one. Before the Civil War, a “doughface” was someone who twisted his words on the slavery issue depending on whether he was facing north or south. In 1896, the New York Democratic Party boss David Hill expressed his discomfort with the nominee William Jennings Bryan by saying “I am a Democrat still, very still.”
The contrasting stances of the candidates vis a vis their parties reflect the parties’ relative strengths going into the campaign. The Democrats are feeling confident while Republicans are reeling from the 2006 midterm election losses and from George W. Bush’s continuing unpopularity. Even as the candidates insist on their support of Bush and the broader Reagan Revolution agenda, most try to avoid cozying up too close to Bush. Many fear that the Republicans are out of synch with the nation on many social questions.
Predictions at this stage are poppycock. But while Republicans have to worry about the weaknesses all this iconoclasm reveals, it could redound to their benefit. Despite what Karl Rove and Matthew Dowd preached in 2004, elections are won in the center. Given the backlash against George W. Bush’s partisanship, a Margarine Republican may be the best chance Republicans have to continue dining in the White House Mess with the presidential seal carved into the very real and very rich butter balls.
Recently, more than 70 historians proclaimed their support for Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy under the banner headline: Historians for Obama. It triggered the predictable response: both A Historian Against Obama, then Academics for Ron Paul. Let’s put aside the question of whether it should be “a historian” or “an historian.” Although I have tremendous respect for many of the historians who signed the endorsement letter, I do not think that historians as a group should endorse candidates. Uniting on the basis of our professional expertise implies that somehow through applying the rigorous skills of our discipline it is obvious who should be the next president.
I am no shrinking violet and have taken many stands on public issues in newspapers. However, I try to keep my political activism out of the classroom – and out of my historical monographs. Taking a strong stand as an historian, with other historians, would breach the already admittedly shaky and permeable wall I’ve built between my scholarship and my activism.
I think there is great merit in trying to keep the mantle of objectivity as both a teacher and a scholar – if not as a citizen. To help stimulate what I think is a necessary and long overdue discussion about this question – on different terms than is usually debated – let’s think about journalists. Let’s start by admitting (without probing deeply “why” for now) most academics’ (unfairly) condescending attitudes toward reporters. If they are the ones who, as the cliché goes, write history’s first draft, we are the ones who supposedly write the more authoritative, objective version.
And yet, academics, especially these days, feel empowered to be political inside and outside the classroom – often with few internal or external constraints – while our most respected journalists follow careful “conflict of interest” guidelines. In 1989, when reporters from the New York Times and Washington Post participated in a pro-choice march, editors at both papers criticized them. More recently, when one of those reporters, Linda Greenhouse of the New York Times, who covers the Supreme Court, gave a partisan speech at Harvard University it triggered another controversy.
The NPR story covering that speech quoted the first public editor – or in-house journalism critic – of the New York Times, Daniel Okrent, who reportedly was amazed by Greenhouse’s speech, saying: “It's been a basic tenet of journalism ... that the reporter's ideology [has] to be suppressed and submerged, so the reader has absolute confidence that what he or she is reading is not colored by previous views.” Don’t our students – and readers -- deserve what newspaper readers deserve? Isn’t there value in trying to control ourselves, and not turn our professorial podiums into political platforms? At what point does blurring the line between scholarship and advocacy risk becoming educational and professional malpractice?
I pose these as questions because I acknowledge my own inconsistencies here. I remember as an undergraduate how exciting it was to hear Professor Archibald Cox lecture about Supreme Court cases he argued originally as Solicitor General or watching professors work on campaigns, advise presidents, or take public stands. But I also respected professors who kept their opinions to themselves, and kept their partisan politics out of their professional scholarship.
I am not critical of individual historians who plunge into the public arena – I struggle with the question of how intellectuals stay relevant and make a broader contribution. But I draw the line on these kinds of group statements in speculative political matters – just as I try to draw a line between my identity as an op-ed writer my students might read in the morning and as their professor whose hopefully far less political and polemical lecture they will attend in the afternoon.
HNN Hot Topics: Historians and the 2008 Election
Why Historians Can Help Campaign Coverage... Even Though This Political Reporter Apologized -- He Got His History Wrong
Cramer may have influenced Halperin. Still, Halperin reflects an all too typical, Clintonesque narcissism in conflating autobiography with history. The granddaddy of all “horse-race” reporters was Theodore H. White. White’s The Making of the President 1960 offered insider’s coverage of the battle between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy. It is the most important book that shaped political coverage over the last half-century – and its influence was reinforced by White’s succeeding volumes covering 1964, 1968, 1972, and 1976. By the time Cramer came along, reporters were already addicted to character studies, minor biographical details that could be magnified, behind-the-scenes anecdotes, insignificant gaffes that could be made into scandals, perpetual polls, and, most annoying of all, the tendency to try reporting what happened before it actually occurred.
Theodore White always provided deep historical perspective and incisive social commentary while producing masterpieces of reportage. Were he alive today, what he spawned probably would appall him, even though he would acknowledge the great skill of Cramer, Halperin and many of the reporters who perpetuate today’s many journalistic sins on the campaign trail. White would be particularly dismayed by the short historical memory Halperin and so many of his peers display.
The first voting in caucuses and primaries is a month away. We historians have an important role to play as America votes. The point is not to pretend that historians have a clearer crystal ball than reporters, or voters themselves. Rather, we can help offer context, comparisons, points of reference. This blog will try to help us look forward by looking backward, seeing how they ran in the past as a way of better understanding why they run as they do today – and what we can learn about this fascinating, frustrating, democratic marathon that has been going on for months already – but now is going to start making history.