President, Public, and Press: A Romance Gone

Harry Dart’s charming cartoon from 1911 conjures up a vision of the US president, public, and press bound together in a happy if inescapable relationship.  William Howard Taft was then president, and the nation’s falling into a star-struck frenzy as he fled Washington to spend a few weeks at a “summer White House” in New England supplied the theme for Dart’s cartoon.  Between 1909 and 1912, the 300-pound Taft and his wife Helen summered in the Massachusetts town of Beverly, generating headlines and intense local curiosity.  In making a resort community “the nation’s summer capital,” Taft was following long-established custom.  Presidents at least as far back as Buchanan and Van Buren had traded stifling conditions on the Potomac for the salubrious pleasures of a few weeks by the sea, in the hills, or at a fashionable watering hole.

No matter how “ordinary” the Tafts sought to be, their presence turned the starchy enclave of Beverly all circus-y.  Journalists and others clogged its byways to glimpse the President passing in his car or the First Lady patronizing the local shops.  According to the Boston Globe, “motorists in goggles and dusters formed a half-mile line outside the president’s cottage awaiting his emergence for a Sunday drive.”  Gawkers paddled skiffs out into the harbor to inspect the grand presidential yacht, The Mayflower, a 273-foot vessel with a staff of 166 under eight officers.  Mrs Taft claimed that only by boarding the yacht and sailing up the coast could the president get a short interval of rest, “steaming away out of the reach of crowds.”

In fact, the pressure of the Tafts’ celebrity affronted Beverly’s carefully cultivated aura of exclusivity.  “Secret service men patrolled the grounds” around the president’s temporary residence, “trampling the flower beds and generally spoiling the serene summer atmosphere.”  Souvenir hunters snatched the prayer books the president had used while worshiping at the local Unitarian church.  All the while, Taft kept up with his official duties, visiting the executive offices set up for him at Pickering House when not indulging in his well-known passion for golf.

Yet the hoopla surrounding the president’s appearance spoke to the prestige of the presidency itself.  The comical aspects of the public’s love affair with the president are gently satirized in Dart’s cartoon, which imagines George Washington, the first president, similarly circumstanced at “the first Summer Capital” of Mount Vernon.  Messengers dart across the grounds, delivering urgent messages to an executive office set up in one of the plantation’s outbuildings, while on a veranda, man-servants tote trays of cold martinis.  Temporary quarters have been set up for the Departments of Justice, Treasury, and War on Mount Vernon’s front lawn, where Washington, dangling a tennis racket, ponders an urgent communique that has interrupted his game.

Radical dames crusading for the right to vote crowd around outside, bearing signs reading “Our Rights Are Paramount; Let Congress Wait” and “If We Don’t Get Our Rights This Year, We Will The Next” (which is funny because women’s perennial effort to gain the franchise had been going on for more than seventy years and would not culminate in success until 1920).  The president’s security detail is badly outnumbered, allowing groups such as the Daughters of the Revolution and suppliants for pensions to breach the sanctity of the presidential compound.  The presidents’ friends lounge at a table in the shade, trading political intelligence and waiting to get away with G. W. for a round of golf.

Dart’s cartoon evokes nostalgia, because no American would think of drawing or publishing such a cartoon today.  Over the past decades, changes in the press, the public, and the presidency have made the gentle affection that infuses this cartoon a rarity.  The press, the public, and the president are no longer united in a virtuous dynamic of mutual dependence and trust.  Above all, President Trump’s meanness and talent for alienating others makes such a happy scene unthinkable.


Image: Harry Grant Dart, “Mount Vernon, The First Summer Capital,”
Puck, vol. 70, no. 1798, 16 August 1911,
from this source.

Know Your Fears


My husband told me he plans to write out a list of what he fears from a Trump presidency.  It makes sense, given how much fear is in the air.  Until each of us gets a bead on the nature of our fears, chances are it won’t matter much what we do.

We are exhausted from a long and tortuous election season.  Our nerves are wracked, our moral compasses are twitching.  Our guts are writhing from a roller-coaster ride that isn’t over but barely beginning.

The presidential contest was close, but it was more than that: it was polarizing, salacious, and unedifying.  It was omnipresent and momentous, hauling us all in together in a stinking net of civic obligation.  Then it ended with an ugly surprise, revealing that the nation’s ‘leading citizens’ don’t deserve their reputation as a leading class.  Today, American minds are still traumatized and reeling.  People are depressed, resentful, angry, disapproving.  Most of us sense further calamity brewing. 

Who likes the feeling of powerlessness that sets in after ‘the people have spoken’?  We, the electorate (yes, we’ll all complicit) have tipped the political order upside-down.

So, instead of bringing relief, the outcome of the election brings a new host of worries.  Americans must continue to be attentive and mitigate the various forms of damage Trump’s presidency may cause.  Fissures have opened up in both political parties; they, too, are divided and dangerously weakened.  The next few years will see ongoing tumult and crisis, making it all the more urgent to clarify goals and conserve energies.

American politics requires stamina and organization.  No one person or organization can fight every battle.  So know your fears; name the nature of the danger as exactly as you can.  Let the list you write define the wisest course to pursue.

Feel free to state what you fear most from a Trump presidency
and what you think people who share your fear should be doing.
If you’re viewing this on a laptop, the comments link is in the left sidebar at top.

When A Party Divides: The Democrats in 1860

Stephen Douglas and James Buchanan as cocks fighting to the death.
This masterly drawing from 1860 captures the terror and ugliness of the break-up of the then-dominant Democratic party.  At the time, the Democrats were by far the nation’s oldest political party.  In fact, since the break-up of the fitfully successful Whig party a few years earlier, the Democrats had faced only a fractured opposition, a situation that the emergence of a new, national, anti-slavery party was about to change.  Shortly before this print was struck, the nascent Republican party had met in a convention at Chicago, where they had chosen an outlier, Abraham Lincoln, as their presidential nominee.

The Democrats had flourished by being laissez-faire on slavery.  They stood for a limited federal government, which, in their view, meant leaving slavery and slave-owners strictly alone.  The entire party had been organized around the goal of keeping the federal government from ‘interfering’ with slavery, a goal which enjoyed broad appeal in both North and South.  As slavery became more controversial, however, it became more difficult to rally around this leading idea.  Democrats had controlled the White House since 1852, but who could they put up to succeed the incumbent president, James Buchanan, an elderly former diplomat, who alone could conciliate the party’s fractious northern and southern wings?

In the presidential election of 1860, Democrats watched their party collapse, as its leading figures fought one another for the nomination and the power to chart the party’s future.  By Election Day, the Democrats had split into three parts, backing three rival candidates, opening the way for Lincoln’s unlikely victory.

Stephen Douglas, the strongest of the Democratic contenders, was so controversial a pick that the Democrats’ first nominating convention in Charleston, adjourned without selecting anybody.  Douglas had kept his lead through 18 ballots but could not muster the support needed for victory.  The party convened a second time in Baltimore, where Douglas was finally nominated. His opponents rebelled.  Fire-eaters who wanted a more vociferously pro-slavery candidate bolted to form the Southern Democratic Party, choosing Vice President John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky as their nominee.  A third faction, alarmed at the prospect of a national schism over slavery, eschewed these choices, banding together to form the Constitutional Union party, with Tennessee’s John Bell as their nominee (and the northerner Edward Everett as his running-mate).

The Democrats’ crisis hinged on a failure of leadership and ideology.  The party’s main idea was exhausted and untenable, while its chief figures, though able and patriotic, stubbornly clung to incompatible strategies.  None had the genius, nor the humility, to reconcile the party’s increasingly discordant aims.  Even as the crisis unfolded, observers knew it signified diminishing prospects for ‘the Democracy.’  The party was going to be smaller and weaker, a reality that the creator of the Currier and Ives ‘cartoon’ captures very effectively.

In the ensuing election, Lincoln would win, though receiving just 39.8 percent of all the votes cast.  The Democratic vote would have swamped him if combined.  Douglas won 1,380,202 votes; Breckinridge, 848,019; and Bell 590,901, for a total of 2,819,122, whereas Lincoln polled just 1,865,908.  He won in the North but nowhere else, leading Southerners to style his an illegitimate presidency.  By Lincoln’s inauguration, the Southern states had begun to secede.  With the bombardment of Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, the American civil war got underway.

Democrats felt justified in breaking with their party, but, in all of American history, no election-year choice proved more costly.  The Democrats feared the end of slavery, but, had they ignored their differences and rallied around Douglas, the transition to freedom might have been far less catastrophic and bloody.  Lincoln would not have been elected, and the Civil War as we know it might not have occurred.

As it was, an estimated 620,000 Americans lost their lives.  The Democratic party was dishonored and eclipsed.  It was not until 1885, with the victory of Grover Cleveland, that a Democrat again occupied the presidency.

Image from this source.

The cartoon, published just after Stephen Douglas’s nomination at Baltimore, portrays the struggle within his party as a life-or-death blood sport.  The triumphant ‘Illinois Bantam’ (Douglas) crows over a prostrate ‘old cock’ symbolizing President Buchanan.  The old bird is dying, his great size signifying the power of a united party.  Douglas, flush with victory, boasts of his ability to beat both Lincoln and Breckinridge, the head of the strongest rival Democratic faction.  But just as the victorious Douglas is much smaller than the tough old bird he defeated, so Breckinridge is much smaller than he.  The ‘Kentucky chicken’ looks openly afraid as his handler puts him in the ring.  On the left is a philosophical figure who might represent the machine politicians of Tammany.

The State of the Union? The President Was Too Hyped to Care

President Obama after the State of the Union (January 2016 screenshot), © Susan Barsy
I was disappointed in President Obama’s final State of the Union address.  Though I am generally appreciative of the president, in this instance he did a real disservice to the nation, wasting a key opportunity to acknowledge the true condition of the land, the economy, and the citizens.

How refreshing it would be to hear a factual State of the Union address, where the essential aspects of our collective existence were candidly enumerated, realistically described.  Though thoroughly out of fashion, an address so styled would reassure Americans that the president sincerely cared about their pain and discontents, that the guy at the top identified with what they were experiencing.  Offering such recognition consistently and in a heartfelt way is only right, given that the prospects of many Americans are shrinking.  Particularly imperiled is the prospect that Americans will enjoy personal autonomy and independence: that they will stay free of debt, realize their potential, and, as they mature and grey, have enough to sustain themselves and their families.

Instead of frankly acknowledging the trade-offs that the government constantly makes for the sake of global supremacy and national pride, the President exhorted citizens to ’embrace change’ and take comfort in the fact that ‘The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth, period,’ and that ‘We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined.’  Reasserting the vision that catapulted him to office in the first place (remember Change You Can Believe In?), President Obama urged Americas to have faith in the beneficent nature of change itself.   Even as he paid lip service to some of the nation’s glaring problems, his tone remained unduly up-beat and celebratory.  In the end, his platitudinous tone made me sad and uneasy.

Contrast his speech with Pope Francis’s somber eloquence when he similarly addressed a joint meeting of Congress last fall.  While the pope, too, paid homage to American dreams, his speech stood out for its moral discernment and honesty—the precision with which he outlined the great problems facing America and the world. His observations were at once compassionate and unflinching.  Perhaps it’s unfair to compare a pope and a president, but, in such a case, the president’s take on the nation comes off as almost callous, as willfully out of sync with the people he leads.

Running to see Taft

photo taken from the train during Taft's 1908 whistle-stop campaign.
It occurred to a photographer traveling with William Taft during the 1908 presidential campaign to take this picture of the people of De Witt, Nebraska, running to catch up with Taft’s slowing train.  Taft, a Republican and then vice-president, was running to succeed Theodore Roosevelt.  It was the hey-day of the whistle-stop campaign, which Roosevelt had taken to new extremes.  In an age when newspaper was the nation’s reigning mass media, seeing a leading politician in person was rare and precious.  In a small town, the visit of a future president generated universal excitement.

The image registers photography’s growing ability to capture the spontaneous action of everyday scenes.  Despite the movement of the crowd (and the train), the camera captures the running townspeople and the setting with remarkable clarity.  A woman in an enormous hat smiles while shielding her eyes from the sun; the flags’ stripes flap crisply over others as they run;  in the distance, a retreating train billows exhaust.  A decade earlier, such a photograph would likely have been an impossible blur.

Technical advances had widened the scope of photography, which in turn began comprehending more of the scene: not just frozen dignitaries but the living, breathing citizens they aspired to lead.

Image: from this source.