January 29, 2009
I'm doing final edits for my book (tentatively called Founding Fictions and forthcoming in 2010 from the Rhetoric, Culture& Social Critique Series at the University of Alabama Press) and I'm experiencing waves of loss from having to cut large chunks of text. Here is a story that won't make my book, but was researched with care and written with love, enjoy!
Americans loved to tell tales of Andrew Jackson’s heroism, adventure, and violence. One of his most famous duels, for example, involved fellow Tennessee lawyer Charles Dickinson in 1806. Dickinson foolishly antagonized Jackson, who was then Major General of the Tennessee Militia, by publishing in the May 21, 1806 Nashville Impartial Review that Jackson was “a worthless scoundrel, ‘a poltroon and a coward’—a man who, by frivolous and evasive pretexts avoided giving the satisfaction which was due to a gentleman whom he had injured.” Jackson replied in the same paper three days later that he hoped to “obtain speedily that satisfaction due me for the insults offered.” In other words, a duel was on. Dickinson was known as an experienced dueler who fired quickly and had already bested many opponents—Dickinson was so sure of himself that he reportedly placed a $500 bet on his duel. Jackson knew that he could not out draw him, so he resolved to let Dickinson fire first, accept the hit, and then fire at his leisure. James Porton, who claimed to have gotten the story directly from someone who heard the story from Jackson’s second Thomas Overton wrote in 1860 that Dickinson shot and Overton “saw a puff of dust fly from the breast of [Jackson’s] coat, and saw him raise his left arm and place it tightly across his chest.” “Erect and grim as Fate,” Jackson stood, “his teeth clenched, raising his pistol.” Then, “Jackson took deliberate aim, and pulled the trigger…Dickson’s face blanched; he reeled; his friends rushed towards him, caught him in their arms, and gently seated him on the ground, leaning against a bush.” Jackson was seriously wounded, but his friends would not discover it until they had “gone a hundred yards” and Jackson’s doctor noticed that his shoe was soaked in blood. Upon inspection Jackson’s friends found that “Dickinson’s aim had been perfect. He had sent the ball precisely where he supposed Jackson’s heart was beating.” Jackson reportedly walked back to his lodgings, drank a cup of fresh buttermilk, and dressed his wounds. When asked how he had had the fortitude to withstand a direct hit to his chest and still manage to shoot Dickinson dead, Jackson pronounced “I should have hit him, if he had shot me through the brain.”
January 28, 2009
Big news out of 1600 Pennsylvania today? Sure, something about a stimulus. Yeah, there may have been some discussion of the president nearing a decision about continued strategy in Iraq. Yep, Secretary Gates mentioned something about troop allocations to Afghanistan. But all these things get in the way of the big development, which is that ....
Booze is back!
That's right, the Teetotaler-in-Chief has ridden (or flown) off into the Texas sunset, and the new gun in town likes to imbibe like the rest of us. Slate has a neat little piece about the development, which manages to talk about why this development is actually important (in a slightly tongue-in-cheek manner) and at the same time, put the practice in historic context. Clearly, this was not a piece written by Jacob Weisberg.
In case you don't like to do the whole "click on links and read things" thing, here's what I think is the best paragraph of the entire article, talking about LBJ's penchant for booze:
After Kennedy, LBJ carried on the presidential carrying on, though in his own inimitable style. Joseph Califano tells the story of drinking while riding around Lyndon Johnson's ranch. "As we drove around we were followed by a car and a station wagon with Secret Service agents. The president drank Cutty Sark scotch and soda out of a large white plastic foam cup. Periodically, Johnson would slow down and hold his left arm outside the car, shaking the cup and ice. A Secret Service agent would run up to the car, take the cup and go back to the station wagon. There another agent would refill it with ice, scotch, and soda as the first agent trotted behind the wagon. Then the first agent would run the refilled cup up to LBJ's outstretched and waiting hand, as the president's car moved slowly along."
There are little ditties in there about JFK (as hinted at above), Nixon, Truman, U.S. Grant, and a priceless reference to one hell of a party thrown by the Framers after they called the convention during which they swapped out the Articles of Confederation for the eponymous Constitution. So, all in all, a nice assortment for those of us that measure history in months and those that do it in centuries.
For those of you that may be aghast at all this changiness going on, fear not - some songs remain the same. While everyone else was focusing on the booze and the bullets and the bailouts, the intrepid Ben Feller of the AP noticed that despite the change in administrations, one continuity persists: people in the White House still abuse the heck out of baseball metaphors.
Over the last several years, my expectations for the media elite to adequately and accurately process the events of the world and pass them along to the mass public in a consumable yet meaningful way have diminished. Dramatically. I don’t need to point to anything other than the media’s response to the Bush Administration’s Iraq War sales pitch to make my case, though an offhand mention of the cavalier and superficial nature of the 2008 election coverage makes the point, too. Although my shaken faith in the media establishment extends to just about every nook and cranny of the newsroom, from investigative reporters to lifestyle columnists, I am especially troubled by the performance of our leading print pundits, the folks that grace the editorial pages of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and online periodicals like Salon and Slate.
Sunday, while catching up on stories I missed toward the end of last week, I came across an example par excellence of the type of shoddy, incurious, inaccurate journalism to which I refer in the form of Jacob Weisberg’s slate.com article, “What Does Obama Think Government Should Do?,” an article with the suggestive sub-heading “He still hasn’t told us. That’s worrisome.” and filed under the laughable column title, The Big Idea.
Weisberg is a smart man and a seasoned journalist, as evidenced not only by his past work but also his career trajectory, from a staff writer at his college newspaper to a high-level editor at The New Republic in less than a decade and from there to his current position as chairman and editor-in-chief of the Slate Group in little over another decade. He’s a Rhodes Scholar, a graduate of Yale and a student at Oxford, the author of a few books that have received critical acclaim. In other words, he is no slouch. At least, not when he tries.
But apparently he likes to mail it in on occasion, and last Saturday’s piece seems to be a prime example. In the article I referenced, Weisberg endeavors to make the case that Obama lacks an ideological rudder, that his policy preferences and proposals are grounded in what will work best rather than what the new president believes to be the morally or philosophically right course of action. Weisberg alleges vagueness in Obama’s rhetoric, comparing his inaugural (which from my perspective was possibly the most specific and policy oriented we’ve seen in that genre in quite some time) disfavorably with nearly every other modern president. He specifically cites LBJ’s phrase, “In a land of great wealth, families must not live in hopeless poverty” and Bush 41’s reference to voluntarism as “a thousand points of light” as examples of clarity of ideological purpose.
Excuse me? Is there a single part of either example that seems like a firm statement of ideological rigor? At the same time, did you, Mr. Weisberg, miss the stinging indictment of the outgoing administration that permeated the speech? That indictment wasn’t personal, at least not fully – it was fundamentally ideological.
The knock on Obama as vague has been a much abused frame, understandably (if unfortunately and dishonestly) used by the new president’s political rivals as a minor line of attack. It has also been used by lazy journalists, as well as poorly informed ones, who choose to pass along a shallow meme rather than seek out the actual substantive positions that were easily accessible online, not to mentioned shoveled on a daily basis into every journalist still drawing a breath’s email inbox.
A journalist of Weisberg’s stature, skill, and experience should not need to rely so heavily on straw men, yet this is what his work has done, both in his coverage of the new president and much of his work on the recent president (see especially his book, The Bush Tragedy). Unfortunately, it seems he has become a writer led by his convictions, one who makes up his mind where a story is going to go and then structures the inferential logic around the initial premise.
Interestingly, in an article published three days previous in Time, Joe Klein referred to the same speech that Weisberg and many millions of other Americans watched as one that “contained few catchphrases for the history books but did lay out a coherent and unflinching philosophy of government.” In a fitting twist of irony, Klein quotes the very same sentence as Weisberg – “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small but whether it works – whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified” – but finds in it evidence of an operating political theory, rather than Weisberg's alleged indication of ideological ambivalence. I leave it to you to decide which writer is closer to the mark, though I don’t think there can be much of an argument.
It requires noting that Weisberg stretches out this particular quote a little longer, though, including the next two sentences, as well: “Where the answer is yes [to whether government is working], we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end.”
These two sentences are where Weisberg considers Obama damned, as the pragmatism embedded in it constitutes an invalidation of the liberalism one would expect to imbue the new president’s policy proposals and, indeed, the quite large component of the platform upon which he campaigned. According to Weisberg, Obama’s stated pragmatism risks blurring execution with intent. Weisberg concludes from this passage and from his years-long observation of Obama that the new president will simply delete programs that do not work, thus taking a hyper-literal interpretation of a particular phrase and, in doing so, willfully ignoring the body of written work, in both position papers and the admittedly small amount of thoughtful substantive journalism that exists on the matter.
In particular, Weisberg makes the case that simply because a program is not working does not mean the goal is flawed, as if Obama or any other sentient being would contend with that banal observation. Weisberg’s money sentence in making this case? “That the programs that constitute the war on drugs have mostly failed isn’t a decisive argument for legalizing heroin and cocaine.” Who on Earth suggested such a thing, Mr. Weisberg?
The notion that Barack Obama will simply identify unsuccessful programs and get rid of them, without reforming relevant agencies or policy or at least replacing them with something more likely to succeed is absurd. More than that, it is offensive and intellectually dishonest. Furthermore, it fundamentally rejects the proposals the Obama team went to great lengths to present to the media establishment during the campaign and the exceptionally rigorous efforts the transition team made over the last two months, creating 25-50 page reports on every executive branch agency, identifying strengths and weaknesses for each and containing structural and policy recommendations for enhancing the strengths and addressing the weaknesses.
Weisberg knows this, he just didn’t write it. Why, I can’t say, but I suspect it is because it got in the way of his hook. Or conflicted with the mind he had already made up. It is a shame, really, not just because this does an immense disservice to the polity, but also because it does a disservice to his own talent. America put a lot into Jacob Weisberg’s career, nurturing his talent and allowing him to climb and prosper. The very least he could do is write the easy truths and focus his challenges to the new administration on problems that actually exist.
January 24, 2009
In 2005 Professor Aune and I published an essay on a little known farmer and tavern keeper from Billerica, Massachusetts who wrote a political treatise called The Key of Libberty in 1798 to protest what he saw as the corruption of the few. We began our essay with this extract from Manning's treatise:
"In a free government the few, finding their schemes & vues of interest borne down by the many, to gain the power they cant constitutionally obtain, Always indevour to git it by cunning & corruption, contious at the same time that usurpation when once began the safty of the userper consists ondly in grasping the hole. To efect this no cost nor pains is spared, but they first unite their plans & schemes by asotiations, conventions, & coraspondances with each other. The Merchants asotiate by themselves, the Phitisians by themselves, the Ministers by themselves,the Juditial & Executive Officers are by their professions often called together & know each others minds, & all letirary men & the over grown rich, that can live without labouring, can spare time for consultation. All being bound together by common interest, which is the strongest bond of union, join in their secret corraspondance to counter act the interests of the many & pick their pockets, which is efected ondly for want of the meens of knowledge amounge them."
As you can tell from Manning's non-standard spelling, he was no educated gentleman. Rather, Manning was an average guy who worked for a living, yet still managed to find the time to critique the "cunning & corruption" of the few. What he saw in the machinations of power and in his fellow citizens' blind acquiesce not only angered him, but led him to take action. His Key of Libberty, much like many modern day blogs, was his attempt to critique the government, to expose the cabal of the few, and to educate the many so that they might also see the corruption that he saw. Jim and I argued that Manning's treatise was representative of what we called "vernacular republicanism," or a kind of republicanism "that views the few as corrupt and the many as the rightful rulers of the government."
January 22, 2009
Most folks think that the 2008 election was unusually long, but those of us who study American political history know that it was nothing compared to the 1828 grudge-match election between incumbent John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Jackson had won the popular vote in 1824, but not the Electoral College, which threw the election into the hands of the House of Representatives. Speaker of the House Henry Clay used his political capital to swing the presidency over to John Quincy Adams despite the fact that his home state of Kentucky was the only state in the Union to instruct its Representatives how to vote and it specifically asked Clay to vote for Jackson. But, Clay was the "Judas of the West" who had betrayed the will of the people in exchange for the office of Secretary of State. Jackson's home state of Tennessee re-nominated him for president almost as soon as JQA was inaugurated and Jackson spent the next four years attacking Clay and Adams, building a nationwide coalition of voters (with help from Martin Van Buren), and defending himself from the dirty smear campaign organized by Clay.
Jackson's organization paid off: this time he swept the Electoral College 178 to 83. Jackson was able to achieve his victory by taking advantage of the recent changes in suffrage laws and organizing the new (white, male) voters into Democratic partisans. While only 365,833 citizens had cast their vote in 1824, Jackson's campaign efforts lead 1,148,018 citizens to cast their vote in 1828. It's largely because of the dramatic increase in voter turnout that we often think of the election of 1828 as ushering in a new "era of the common man." Yet, while today we celebrate the rise of Jacksonian Democracy, the increase in political participation filled some members of the traditional elite with dread in 1828.
“My opinion is," wrote Daniel Webster as Jackson and his supporters made their way to Washington D.C. for his March 4, 1829 inauguration, "that when he comes he will bring a breeze with him. Which way it will blow, I cannot tell. My fear is stronger than my hope." When Webster saw the deluge of hungry supporters who crammed into Washington and--if we can believe the accounts of the traditional Washington elite--nearly destroyed the White House, then he knew that his worst fears had materialized and Jackson had brought the mob with him to govern.
What's all this got to do with President Obama's inauguration on Tuesday? Obviously the Democratic Party of Andrew Jackson and the Democratic Party of Barack Obama are not the same. Indeed, if Jackson had had his way, then there would have never been anything like a Barack Obama in American politics at all. Yet, there are the obvious parallels about the contentious election, the long and bitter campaign, and the dramatic increase in voter turnout. The democratic masses certainly deluged Washington, D.C. on Tuesday to witness history and take their place next to their hero's side, but I was thinking of something else: partisanship.
Of note in Obama's campaign, transition, and the first few hours in office is his professed desire to end politics as usual, to end partisanship, to end blind decision making based solely upon ideology and to take good ideas from wherever they might come. In other words, one way to think about what Barack Obama has been up to for the last two years is to say that he was trying to reverse the partisanship introduced into American politics by Andrew Jackson. Jackson used partisanship to rally the common man to support his candidacy while Obama used anti-partisanship to do the same thing. The results were the same: in both instances the nation rallied to support their hero and rushed to Washington to take part in the Inauguration.
In both instances the people viewed the triumph of the party as their own personal triumph.
President Jackson did little to empower the people, nor did the nation become a democracy with the rise of Jacksonian democracy. Andrew Jackson enabled partisanship, not democracy. Therefore, Barack Obama's election might have finally reversed Andrew Jackson's: Obama may have turned Americans from partisans back to citizens. We will have to wait and see whether or not President Obama encourages active citizenship, I for one, am hopeful that the Age of Jackson is finally over.