No conventional wisdom
Charlie Peters (the founder of the Monthly and the greatest living windmill tilter) portrayed it as the most important and dramatic political convention of the past century. His 2005 book, Five Days in Philadelphia, vividly recreated the 1940 Republican convention, which nominated Wendell Willkie on the sixth ballot over the isolationist Robert Taft.
Just two weeks before the Philadelphia convention was gaveled to order, the victorious Nazis had paraded through the Arc de Triomphe on what was the saddest day of World War II. With the British Empire standing alone, Willkie was the only GOP candidate willing to buck the tides of isolationism. As Charlie Peters put it, “If Taft had been nominated he would have vigorously opposed the efforts FDR made to aid Britain and to enact a military draft in this country.”
Willkie, a former utilities executive mocked as “the barefoot boy from Wall Street,” didn’t run in any primaries. Less than two months before the convention, Willkie was running at 3 percent in the polls. But in those days, voters were willing to defer to the judgment of party leaders as to who would be the strongest candidate in November.
Willkie and soon Donald Trump are the only presidential nominees in a century who have neither won World War II in Europe (Dwight Eisenhower) nor held political office (everyone else). Although no media conspiracy rivals the free ride that Trump has been granted by ratings-obsessed TV networks, Willkie’s candidacy was boosted by gushy over-coverage from Henry Luce’s empire. The May 13, 1940, issue of Life gave Willkie an unprecedented eleven-page spread that ended with this bit of puffery: “In the opinion of most of the nation’s political cognoscenti Wendell Lewis Willkie is by far the ablest man the Republicans could nominate for President.”The modern primary system was created from the tear-gassed wreckage of the 1968 Democratic convention, which was so undemocratic that 25 percent of the delegates were selected in 1967, long before Eugene McCarthy challenged LBJ.
I recalled the Willkie convention in early May as the remnants of the Republican establishment collapsed faster than the French army in 1940. Instead of carrying the battle against Donald Trump to the convention floor, the GOP hoisted the white flag nearly eleven weeks before the delegates will assemble in Cleveland.
Even if Trump had swept the last primaries, rational Republicans still would have had weapons at their disposal in Cleveland. Since the GOP delegates are free agents on all votes except the presidential balloting, the anti-Trump forces could have mounted credential challenges and even tried to pass a rule to allow the delegates to exercise their best judgment on a nominee.
That was the theory, anyway.
In reality, the exit polls consistently demonstrated that Republican voters refuse to accept the legitimacy of a political convention as a decisionmaking body. In Indiana, the final contested primary before the deluge, 67 percent of Republican voters stated that the delegates should nominate the winner of the most primaries if no candidate has a majority. Even in the Wisconsin primary, which represented the high-water mark of the Ted Cruz campaign, 55 percent of GOP voters believed that Republican delegates in Cleveland should rubber-stamp the frontrunner in the primaries as the nominee rather than selecting who they feel is the best candidate.
Four years ago, there was a stirring Broadway revival of The Best Man, a 1960 Gore Vidal play about an Adlai Stevenson figure wrestling with his conscience at a political convention. If it were updated now, it would abruptly end during the primaries and be titled The Worst Man.
The modern primary system was created from the tear-gassed wreckage of the 1968 Democratic convention, which was so undemocratic that 25 percent of the delegates were selected in 1967, long before Eugene McCarthy challenged LBJ. But few party reformers ever envisioned that the primaries would someday prove to be a vehicle for a hostile takeover of a political party by a demagogue bristling with contempt for democratic norms and any coherent ideology.
In 1940, Republican delegates chanted, “We Want Willkie!” and rejected America First isolationism. In 2016, the Republican voters picked a nominee who proudly embraces the America First label—and cowed party leaders like RNC Chairman Reince Priebus and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to object.
A Trump by any other name
As I wrote the prior item, I realized that I have succumbed to that dread malady known as Anti-Trump Adjective Fatigue.
It is still spring and I have already run out of new descriptions for the ignorant hatemonger who will be bathed in confetti at the Cleveland convention. In my guise as a Roll Call columnist, I have called Trump “the bilious billionaire” in every article. At times, I have gone further, depicting him, for example, as “a potty-mouthed, pathological liar whose ignorance is only exceeded by his arrogance.”
Journalistically, I stand by all these descriptions. I do worry that piling on the adjectives eventually will seem labored and false. But treating Trump as a normal presidential candidate (“Hopscotching across the Midwest, the Republican nominee lashed out at his Democratic rival . . .”) masks the horrifying reality of the . . . err . . .bilious billionaire.
What particularly galls me is the mock familiarity that accompanies references to Trump as “the Donald.” That was how Ivana Trump, the now-discarded trophy wife of the bankruptcy-prone real estate investor, referred to her husband in a 1989 interview with Spy magazine. It was one thing for the New York tabloids to overdose on “the Donald” jokes when he was a buffoonish self-promoter. But now that Trump is poised to be the nominee of a once-but-no-longer grand old political party, the joke’s on us with each clichéd “the Donald” reference.
Trump, like many Republicans from the Dick Cheney School of Incompetent Toughness, has a fondness for interrogation techniques that come out of the proud tradition of the rack and auto-da-fé. Asked about waterboarding before the South Carolina primary, Trump promised not only to restore it to a place of honor but also to promote techniques that are “so much worse.” As Trump put it, “Don’t tell me it doesn’t work—torture works.”
Or does it?
In mid-April, the New York Times ran an inspiring obituary of one of those half-forgotten, amazing World War II heroes. Frederick Mayer, who died at ninety-four, was a German Jewish refugee who enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1941. Dropped behind enemy lines in Austria in February 1945, Mayer posed as a German soldier for two months in order to radio Nazi troop movements to the Allies.
But, finally, Mayer was captured, in the waning weeks of the war. As Eric Lichtblau wrote in the Times obit, “His German captors tortured him for days, waterboarding and pistol-whipping him repeatedly to try to get him to reveal the locations of his American colleagues. He would not talk.”
If Trump read the stories of World War II heroes—or read anything else, for that matter—he might learn that the Nazis enthusiastically employed waterboarding, and that torture didn’t work.
Mitt Romney: An overdue appreciation
Liberals, like all political partisans, fall into the trap of automatically turning their electoral adversaries into one-dimensional cartoons.
Against the backdrop of the 2012 campaign, Democrats portrayed Mitt Romney as an out-of-touch plutocrat who only cared about the “1 percent” while demonizing the “47 percent.” Having flip-flopped on abortion and abandoned his signature Massachusetts health care law, the GOP nominee was also mocked as a political changeling with few core values.
But what liberals missed in 2012—and many still fail to recognize—is that Romney is an honorable public figure who happens to hold differing views on the economy and foreign policy. And just as it was commendable that his father, Michigan Governor George Romney, displayed political moxie in standing up to Barry Goldwater in 1964, so too does Mitt deserve plaudits for leading the reasonable Republican resistance to a Trump takeover.What liberals missed in 2012- and many still fail to recognize- is that Mitt Romney is an honorable public figure who happens to hold differing view on the economy and foreign policy.
In an early March speech, Romney said bluntly, “Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University.” After Cruz and John Kasich abandoned the primary fight against Trump, Romney was among the first Republicans to announce that he could not ever support the nominee.
Of course, sometimes partisan caricatures are dead-on. Dick Cheney, the architect of victory in Iraq, should be the kind of Republican appalled at Trump’s know-nothing isolationism—especially since Trump constantly ridicules the Cheney-orchestrated folly of the invasion of Iraq. But principled conviction is not a weapon in Cheney’s arsenal. In the latest example of his Wrong-Way Corrigan judgment, the former vice president went out of his way to tell CNN that he would be supporting Trump as the GOP nominee.
What are we so afraid of?
Ever since I stumbled on a March 1992 Time cover story on the death of the American Dream and “The Angry Voter,” I have been skeptical about glib linkages between economic anxiety and the trumpery of the primaries.
The loss of blue-collar jobs fails to explain why, according to exit polls, Trump won 60 percent of the votes of Indiana Republicans earning more than $100,000 a year. This was not an aberration. In Pennsylvania, Trump won 53 percent of the votes of upper-income Republicans. He even beat Cruz and Kasich among GOP voters with post-graduate educations.
When Obama took office after the greatest economic collapse since the Great Depression, no one would have guessed that unemployment would fall to as low as 5 percent in 2016 and that roughly two-thirds of the voters would still believe that the nation is “on the wrong track.” What no one has satisfactorily explained about the current glum national mood is the Fear Factor in the non-economic realm.
An early March Gallup poll, taken as Trump was galloping through the primaries, found that “Concern About Crime Climbs to a 15-Year High.” Even though the crime rate has been flat in recent years after a dramatic decline, 53 percent of Americans worry “a great deal . . . about crime and violence.” Just two years ago, only 39 percent of a national sample expressed similar worries. Seventy percent of those with a high school education or less are deeply fearful of crime, compared to 50 percent in 2014.
Since the days of Richard Nixon peddling “law and order,” fear of crime has often been a proxy for racial issues. So it seems likely that the rioting in Ferguson and Baltimore over police violence provides part of the explanation. But only part. The change in the polls is too dramatic (crime fears haven’t been this widespread since 2001) to be caused by memories of television footage from a year ago.
It also strains credulity to believe that these crime fears represent a racist backlash against an African American president. Four years ago, when Barack Obama was running for reelection, only 42 percent of adults worried a “great deal” about crime.
Equally baffling to me is why fears of a terrorist attack (48 percent of adults told Gallup they worry a “great deal”) are now as high as they were in 2002, a year after 9/11. The relevant Gallup poll was taken just before the latest wave of terrorist violence in Brussels, but clearly the Paris attacks have left Americans shaken, as have the killings in San Bernardino.
Okay, I confess to being an eastern elitist who lives in Manhattan and never thinks about the terrorist threat. So maybe I’m ill-equipped to understand why residents of, say, Enid, Oklahoma, are displaying a level of panic not seen since the days when everyone assumed that Osama bin Laden was about to launch a new assault on America.
While I cannot fully grasp its causes, the Great Fear of 2016 has to be a major reason why the Republican Party has given way with Trump to the authoritarian temptation that always lurks beneath the surface in a democracy.
Confessions of a hopeless book hoarder
Like many writers, I have an out-of-control book collection that legendary hoarders like the Collyer brothers might envy. Why have I saved from my days as a Monthly editor a Brookings volume titled Setting National Priorities: The 1973 Budget? Or held on to The Good Food Guide 1989, a memento from a trip to London when Margaret Thatcher was still prime minister?
The only book I ever deliberately threw out was a first edition of The Art of the Deal. A few weeks after I gleefully disposed of it in 1999, I found myself writing a newspaper column laughing at the wild rumor that Trump might run for president. In quest of an embarrassing Trump quote, I went to the bookshelf and reached for . . . gulp . . . the empty space between a biography of Tocqueville and a literary study of Mark Twain.
So if I ever find myself buried under a mountain of earnest policy tomes from the 1970s and clumsily written police procedurals, I will squander my last breaths cursing Donald Trump.
Every veep pick defies prediction
Every time I have the temerity to believe that I can guess Hillary Clinton’s VP pick, I recall the 1988 GOP convention in New Orleans, which I covered for Time. That was the moment when I absorbed the enduring journalistic truth: If you get back to your hotel room tipsy at 4 a.m., you probably will sleep through an 8 a.m. breakfast.
What did it matter, I figured, since the Time breakfast was with a backbench senator who never would be George Bush’s running mate. Later that week, when I was assigned the Dan Quayle cover story, I had to grovel and beg to hear a tape recording of the breakfast that I had so smartly skipped.That was the moment when I absorbed the enduring journalistic truth: if you get back to your hotel room tipsy at 4 a.m., you probably will sleep through an 8 a.m. breakfast.
Beginning with Quayle, most nominees for the heartbeat-away job seemed like outlandish or unlikely choices just a week before their unveiling: Al Gore (1992) was too similar to Bill Clinton and from an adjoining state to Arkansas. Dick Cheney (2000) headed George W. Bush’s veep search committee. Joe Lieberman (2000) was a hawkish, Jewish critic of Bill Clinton’s personal conduct. Joe Biden (2008) got exactly 1 percent support in the Iowa caucuses. And Sarah Palin (2008)—do I really have to explain?
But we live in an era when there are just three words that you can’t say on cable TV news shows: “I don’t know.” So brace yourself for weeks of pseudo certainty before Hillary Clinton announces that her running mate will be . . . I haven’t the faintest idea.