BRIAN LAMB, HOST, Q&A: Presidential historian Richard Norton Smith, how should one look historically at this mid-term election?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Well, obviously, many will see it, rightly or not, as a referendum on the Obama presidency. Many people will be looking for aspects of the election that tell you, for example, where the Republican Party is going, where the conservative movement is going in America.
In some ways, though and there are unique aspects, obviously, about this election. But a lot of it boils down to the old tried and true, peace and prosperity.
LAMB: Can you pick another election that it resembles at all?
SMITH: No. I mean, not off hand, because we do have a very unusual combination of circumstances. We have a war we have two wars, let’s not forget we have two wars which are particularly unpopular among the president’s own base, which I think has contributed to this much talked about phenomenon of the enthusiasm gap. I would say the anger gap, probably, on the right is larger than the enthusiasm gap or enthusiasm presence on the left.
In addition to that, though, you have this age-old problem of an economy that, interesting enough, people by-and-large do not blame on Obama. They tend, by-and-large, to attribute responsibility for the weakness in the economy to the Bush presidency.
But they don’t give Barack Obama credit for avoiding something much worse, and they don’t feel in their own lives that, A, the economy is getting better, and, B, that the future of the country is inherently better. And that’s an article of faith with Americans. If you lose that, the odds are you’re not going to do very well at the polls.
LAMB: Presidential historian Doug Brinkley, same question.
DOUG BRINKLEY, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Well, I think it reminds me of 1994, Newt Gingrich, Contract of America. Bill Clinton came in. There was a thought that this kind of new, progressive era was going to occur. The pendulum had swung to the left. And whacko, I mean, Bill Clinton got hit hard by Gingrich and that particular movement. And it forced the Clinton administration to triangulate, to kind of move to the middle.
And I think what we’re going to see here to me, the narrative of this mid-term is the tea party mid-term. There’s no denying that the energy and politics this year is with the tea party movement. And just like Gingrich’s Contract to America was very historic, the tea party is.
The question will be, can the Democrats hold onto the Senate? I think that if Harry Reid and Barbara Boxer can hang on to their seats, it won’t be seen as a slaughter. If somehow they hold onto Congress, the Democrats could flip it as they’ve warded off this, the tea party wave.
But by and large, I see Sarah Palin as becoming very enhanced this December. She has a book coming out with Harper Collins. I guarantee it’s going to be number one. She has a reality show coming out called ”Sarah Palin’s Alaska.” And I still think she’s got some steam behind her for possibly running for the Republican nomination using the tea party as her basic platform.
LAMB: But what about in history. Does this resemble for you any other election?
BRINKLEY: Just the one in ’94, in recent memory, that Gingrich one. You know, that’s the one that it’s the closest of, because it’s a Democrat that comes in who came in with the feel of some kind of mandate.
Now, Clinton, of course, didn’t really have when he had the Ross Perot factor, which changed that election in ’92 as a third party. This time, Obama was able to win states like Indiana, North Carolina, Virginia. I don’t think he can win those states anymore.
What we’re being told is that we’re still living in the age of Reagan, that America is a center or center-right country. And for a progressive like President Obama to make a difference, he’s probably going to have to do what Clinton did, and that’s sort of triangulate.
SMITH: The difference between and that’s probably fairly (ph) well taken. There are certainly a lot of parallels with ’94.
A couple of differences going in and coming out. One, of course, Republicans had not controlled Congress for 40 years at that point. And whatever you think of Gingrich, then or since, one had a sense that they had very shrewdly cobbled together at least the semblance of a program, of an alternative program.
This Republican Congress I think is or this Republicans in Congress have really been more obstructionist and late to come to the idea that we have to put something forward.
The other thing, though, that I think is different is Bill Clinton master politician, who had, remember, been a New Democrat, who had been in the forefront of those trying to move the Democratic Party back to the middle of the road anyway felt, I think, comfortable in triangulation, felt comfortable in some ways stealing Republican clothes welfare reform, the era of big government is over, balancing the budget.
I mean, Bill Clinton masterfully took, quote, conservative themes and made them his own. But he also had Republicans who were willing to work with him.
One, I don’t think the left wing of the Democratic Party, I don’t think the blogosphere would let Barack Obama move as far to the right as Bill Clinton did. And two, even if he did, I’m not sure he would find willing partners who wanted to govern responsibly in a bipartisan way, because they scent blood in the water looking to 2012.
BRINKLEY: Yes, I agree with that. But I think you could argue, President Obama has already kind of moved away from his progressive base. He did a lot of compromising on health care. Again (ph), with Mary Landrieu and Senator Nelson and others, did not please some people on the left.
And more to the point, he didn’t close Guantanamo like he said. We’re still in Iraq and Afghanistan, although he’s winding down, trying to get out of both.
He seems to be torn, President Obama, between he’s angry. The president’s angry at his base. He’s angry that they don’t get that he’s got to move a little bit to the center or center-right to get some things done.
But most tellingly and I think the moment was when Senator Bennet of Utah went down. Obama was close to Bennet. He was a conservative, Bennet. But they could do business together. After Bennet left, nobody wants to do business with Obama.
And the difference between ’94 also, beyond the ones Richard said, is I think the power of Fox News has moved this political agenda, Rush and Fox. I think the tea party movement has a forum there. If you look at some of the news stories of the year, Glen Beck is one of the ones that has been kind of pushing, sort of a spokesperson for the tea party movement.
Gingrich didn’t have that back in ’94. There was CNN. You know, he didn’t have a media forum like that.
So, history will show the tea party and Fox working together, I think, helped to start this turn-back of Obama-ism.
The fatal mistake I think President Obama made, I think he did a good job out of the gate. I think he did the right thing by bailing out GM. I think the stimulus was right, and maybe should have been bigger.
But over that first summer, he did not take the right serious. And when they started those town hall meetings and the tea party movement started, it was kind of laughed at by the left, or by the East Coast elites. And they’re not laughing anymore.
And I think that was he needed to have done the health care quicker. The fact that it ate up an entire first year of his presidency, and ate up a lot of capital within the Democratic Party, does not bode well for the president.
A lot of Democrats don’t want to be in a photo op with President Obama right now. That’s never good.
SMITH: You know, it’s funny. Just as I was listening to Doug, it occurs to me, though, Barack Obama is in many ways in a great tradition. Democratic presidents always have problems with the left wing of their party. Bill Clinton certainly did. Jimmy Carter certainly did. I was talking about Ted Kennedy’s challenge, you know, as we meet.
But if you go back in time, John Kennedy said, the problem with the northern liberals is they want their arses kissed all the time. Harry Truman talked about professional liberals. Franklin Roosevelt, the ultimate liberal icon who, of course, was pushed to the left during his first term by people like Huey Long.
So, it’s interesting. I don’t know if there’s quite the same corresponding pressure from the right. I think there probably is on Republican presidents.
But in many ways, Obama is carrying on in a tradition he’d probably just as soon not be part of.
BRINKLEY: It might be that people will make a mistake by thinking Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservatives. There are just a lot of angry, dissatisfied people with Washington. And a lot of it has to do with these lobbyists. And it’s gotten out of control, and the way the money pours in here.
And so, it’s a very ripe time, in my view, for a third party movement in this country. I’m surprised it hasn’t truly started yet. I mean, it’s been it’ll be in ’12, 2012, will be exactly 100 years since Theodore Roosevelt created the Bull Moose Party, for very same circumstances, that people didn’t feel that they had their lives being answered by the right or the left, that extremists are kind of dominating both wings, when really there’s more of a centrist America out there. And nobody knows who that spokesperson is.
But if Perot can get 18 percent back in ’92, any decent candidate can walk in there right now, and a solid, serious third party candidate could walk in with 20 percent right out of the gate.
SMITH: But what’s the nature of that revolt? Is it anger channeled along, quote, constructive lines? Or is it classic centrism, which right now suffers from the fact that, among other things, it has no media?
BRINKLEY: I think it comes from I live in Austin, and I have neighbors that are very conservative neighbors, deep Republicans. I have liberal neighbors. We don’t sit around in Austin picking our friends by their political party. And I think the split-screen culture of arguing, and if you want to have high ratings you have to have a food fight on television we’ve all watched it, but I think it’s exhausting people.
Because friendships aren’t based on politics. And people just want somebody to get in there that’s competent, that gets a job done, that has America’s best interests at heart. And it’s a feeling that these whether it’s the, you know, MoveOn.org on the left, or whether it’s, you know, some of these extreme you know, 25 percent of the people think Obama is Muslim? Well, who are those people?
I mean, so, it’s kind of ugly out there. And I think when politics gets that ugly, people start looking for a third way, and hopefully a constructive one. A lot of third parties are of reaction. George Wallace’s was due to racism.
But the Perot Perot was an odd duck. And he did that well in ’92. And I think we’re at that moment now. If you get somebody who’s not an odd duck, this could be a three-way presidential race.
SMITH: The obvious contender would be Mayor Bloomberg, who obviously has the resources and who I think has the record.
But the question again comes. The deck is stacked against the kind of civil, thoughtful, substantive, in some ways non-ideological, pragmatic, consensus-seeking campaign that we might all adhere to. But it’s very difficult to imagine in this political climate.
The great and depressing change I used to talk to President Ford. I mean, the ’60s were not exactly an era of good feeling. But the fact is, the prevailing mood on Capitol Hill was, you fought all day, you were civil to one another at night. At the end of the day, you tried to find common ground. You were politically rewarded for making something happen.
Today, it seems as if it’s the exact opposite. The political process exists beginning with gerrymandered districts, through the primary system, through the entrance of cable TV, through the Internet it exists to produce exactly the opposite. Success is keeping things from happening.
BRINKLEY: That’s right. But there’s a lot of blood on the tracks, the Clarence Thomas hearings or Bill Clinton’s impeachment. I get embarrassed when I have to teach it in my class at Rice. You start talking about Monica Lewinsky and all that. It’s embarrassing what was done to Bill Clinton.
And then, look at how George W. Bush was just villainized by the left. It’s ugly. And I do think people are tired of that.
I think the right’s capturing the tiredness of federal spending and being taxed, and the economy. And those are ever green.
But there is something about our media culture now that people are really rejecting in a fundamental way. The just don’t have a voice of how to, you know, let people hear that frustration.
SMITH: You know, it’s revealing when you stop to think. You talk about this president’s polarizing. Well, George W. Bush was polarizing. Bill Clinton was polarizing. Ronald Reagan was polarizing.
The fact of the matter is, four of the last five presidents from both parties and diverse ideologies, and no ideology have all been characterized as polarizing. So, what is it about the last 30 years of American politics and popular culture has produced that result?
You have to believe that the media, including the Internet, play a significant role in that.
BRINKLEY: And, you know, if you had asked me a president that one would like to see right now, I would say Dwight Eisenhower. I think you need somebody that’s had a kind of stature. Ike had a stature of being Allied Supreme Commander.
And where are the Eisenhower Republicans? Just people that are moderate in the center of the country that are fiscally conservative, but yet, you know, Eisenhower built the interstate highway system and the Saint Lawrence Seaway, and did a lot of great things with infrastructure in this country. And we need somebody that focuses like that.
It’s not just the it seems we’re tormenting ourselves too much in this country and not finding a way to unify. And Iraq and Afghanistan could have been unifiers. But instead, 50 percent of the people think Iraq was a terrible mistake.
SMITH: But you know, Doug, I yield to no one in my admiration for Dwight Eisenhower. But Dwight Eisenhower was a product of a time. John Kennedy remember 1960. Arthur Schlesinger had to write a book. You know, it doesn’t make a difference, in effect, because people thought Kennedy and Nixon were in many ways two peas from a pod.
There was a consensus enforced not only by the Cold War, but, you know, we’d been through the generation that voted for Ike, and then for Kennedy they’d been collectively through the Great Depression and World War II, and they were going to enter collectively a civil rights revolution and a host of other transforming changes. It was a water cooler nation. We spoke the same language in many ways.
Forty, 50 years later, it feels exactly the opposite. It’s a terribly fragmented country. And what is it that the media purport to bring us together around? You know, Lindsey Lohan’s going to jail. And I mean, whatever trivial the polarization of America is dangerous. The trivialization of America is worse.
LAMB: What do you think it would feel like, or feel different, if you were back inside the White House in 1934? FDR had just been elected in ’32. The Depression was upon them and everything.
What do you and factor in the media thing there. How would it look differently if you were FDR?
BRINKLEY: Well, I mean, he inherited a Great Depression. We’ve been in a mini recession. He had to deal with Hoovervilles and people struggling. Some places, you know, 25 percent unemployment. It was a much rougher game that FDR had.
And our wars, like Vietnam and Korea, had been taking many more American lives than Iraq or Afghanistan.
We’ve got to be careful to not keep thinking our times today are uniquely oppressive. People have had it rough before us.
FDR, though, was able to use media. He was able to use the radio and connect the country through his voice. Because to have a man in a wheelchair struck with polio to say we have nothing to fear but fear itself, and to look at his kind of undaunted bravery in fighting his own personal illness and applying it to the nation, and showing innovation. What everyone had to say about the New Deal, it was doing something.
But that was an era that believed that maybe government was the answer. Today, it’s a roll-back sentiment. People are saying, all of that New Dealism and Great Society-ism has got us in debt, and we’ve got to start rolling back. So, it’s a totally different energy we’re dealing with.
But everything is better in America right now for the average person than it was in the 1930s. We have electricity. You know, we’ve got more people with medical access. Jim Crow has been smashed. Women have equal pay and equal rights. Our country has really gone a long ways in the last decades, and we should never lose sight of that just because we’re troubled right now.
We’ve had we’re still, I believe as Reagan said, our better days are coming. I don’t think we should bask in despair.
But somebody’s got to say, cut out all the noise, and let’s get some kind of leadership here that can try to work on some consensus. It may be a General Petraeus figure out of the military. I don’t know.
But it’s not working right now with the way the right-left paradigm is with the blog sites.
SMITH: Yes, let me pick up off of that.
Franklin Roosevelt controlled the nation’s agenda to a degree that modern audiences would find astonishing. He decided what was news. He decided what was on the record, what was off the record. And he enforced that.
He had the nation’s press corps in Washington fit inside the Oval Office. That’s where he had his press conferences. He had them regularly he had them for morning newspapers, and he had them for afternoon or evening newspapers. He controlled the flow of information in a way that any modern president would envy.
And again, if you look at the current and the last president, opposite sides of the political spectrum, very differing agendas. And yet, both producing polarization and angst.
I think cable TV, which enshrines conflict. Consensus doesn’t sell dog food. And cable TV is all about often people scream at each other. At the very least, it’s all about reducing arguments to an absurd level of simplicity.
LAMB: But didn’t you have back then all this competition among newspapers where you were getting yellow journalism and people screaming at each other in newspapers?
SMITH: But the president but the president it was a different culture. It was a more reverential culture, I suppose. Everything Doug says is true about you cannot overestimate the emotional bond that Franklin Roosevelt built almost overnight. And when he took office and said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, it was it’s easy to sentimentalize.
But the reality is, after three years of seeming inaction, frozen unconcern on the part of an administration, and the nation spiraled ever deeper, suddenly this buoyant, optimistic convincingly optimistic man with a flair for action. Try something. If it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else. Classic American pragmatism.
Roosevelt banked capital that he could draw upon in later times of crisis and controversy. And I think it’s one lesson.
Great presidents don’t manage crises. They use them. They exploit them to build this emotional bond.
Lincoln in the early months of his presidency or I think of Churchill in the Battle of Britain. I mean, that’s an acid test of leadership. And I’m not sure we’ve seen that from recent presidents.
BRINKLEY: One thing that’s heartening right now I’m sure Richard would agree is that one unifying factor in the country is armed forces. People love the troops. People love our soldiers. And there’s a feeling that the Army and the Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard are by and large doing an incredible job. And I think there’s some unity there.
I had an opportunity to talk to President Obama not long ago, and we were talking about surprised him and how many things can be broken. But not the military. You know, they get the job done. It’s that old can-do spirit is there in the military. And so, that’s a big part of American life, the reverence we have towards our soldiers.
If I have a trend that I don’t like to see happening, as a historian I find the federal government’s made mistakes, but they’ve been Herculean in the 20th and 21st century, whether it was whether when I eat my food, I know it’s inspected. We have people checking what drugs are safe and what aren’t safe, where we have clean air and water standards, where I can fly out of D.C. today and feel there’s some kind of semblance of a regulation.
And I don’t believe that it’s good to be anti-regulatory. Look what anti-regulatory gives you a BP spill. I mean, we’ve got to be a regulatory society, and the federal government’s done a good job.
And I’m an American historian. I love my country. I like buildings where American flags fly. And this kind of constant dissing on the federal government that’s going on right now, I think it’s not historical, and I think it’s playing on people’s fears and emotions.
SMITH: And that (ph) your historical parallel it’s very reminiscent of the early ’60s and the rise of the Goldwater movement on the right. And people tend to forget, because in his later years, Barry Goldwater became every liberal’s favorite conservative. He became very libertarian and outspoken on a number of things, surprisingly like gay rights, for example.
But the fact is that, not Goldwater, but many in the Goldwater movement were blatantly racist. I mean, that is simply reality. There were extremists in the early ’60s, as there were extremists in the early ’30s.
One of the things that I think and it’s hard to get your arms around it or to quantify it one of the things that is contributing to the ferocity of this anti-government phenomenon, I think it’s too simple to say it’s race. I think race is an element, without a doubt.
But I think there’s a sense on the part of many people that the rug is being culturally taken out from under them, that we live in a society that they don’t recognize, or that their parents certainly would not recognize. And I’m not talking about the issue of race.
They see marriage being redefined before their eyes. They see the family, in their view, under assault sometimes from government policies. They worry genuinely they worry that the federal government, often with the best of intentions, can produce the worst of results.
And I think it’s that vague but intensely felt discomfort with the course of history that is a significant part of what’s going on right now.
BRINKLEY: Yes, and look. The federal government has wasted a lot of tax dollars. I mean, you can find $5,000 hammers, and you can find, you know, housing projects that never should have been built. And we can go on and on.
But if you’re just going to spend your time looking at the mistakes the federal government’s made and not recognize that we live in this incredible country and you travel all around, the C-SPAN bus goes around vibrant communities. And how lucky we are to be alive in the United States in the 21st century, and how protected we are in this country, and how privileged we are to live here.
And to take that privilege and turn it on the government who’s helped us get where we’re at, who’s forced issues like integration on us, and who’s been able to, by and large, do the right things most of the time. When I teach history, in the end, the government gets pushed into doing the right things.
Have mistakes been made? Sure. But this constant dogging of the federal government right now, I don’t find it helpful.
LAMB: But let me say this. If you listen to the conservative right talk shows and I do listen to liberal talk shows the anger you both talk about is often, on the right, at the way the government spends their money, at the way regulation intrudes in their life. In other words, the things that you like about the government, that’s one of the reasons they’re angry, because they don’t feel like they’re getting a fair deal for their buck.
SMITH: You know, part of this this will sound odd part of the dynamic here, though, is that this president and frankly, his predecessor averted a second Great Depression. There are all sorts of studies out now, economists right and left, who will tell you that, if the hated bailouts and the stimulus which, by the way, was so mismanaged politically as to become a pejorative.
It’s like detente in the 1970s. I don’t think you’ll hear a politician calling for stimulus for a very long time which is not to say it wasn’t necessary or successful. But the fact is
LAMB: Well, how was it mismanaged then?
SMITH: There are lots of people who believe well, I’ll give you a specific example. How many people out there know that a significant part of it was tax cuts?
Or another factor, people understand building things. People would rally around, I think, a New Deal-ish program about
BRINKLEY: Yes, I agree (ph).
they know the infrastructure in this country has been neglected. They know that the pipes under the streets are breaking. They know that the bridges are in danger of falling down. That could have been a nationally unifying, assertive, almost Kennedy-esque kind of forward-looking program that would have simultaneously addressed the immediate crisis.
But the impression that I think a lot of those people have is that the president, for whatever reason, outsourced much of the stimulus program to his allies on Capitol Hill. And I think they mismanaged it.
BRINKLEY: Well, and that becomes politics. And I agree. I think that the Obama administration and Bush before him needs to do something to get the people going.
What people are doing now is complaining. And, you know, Dean Acheson used to say, complaints are a bore and a nuisance to all, and undermine the serenity essential for endurance.
We’ve got to endure. Our country’s had a lot worse times right now than mild recessionary times. The 9.5 percent unemployment is not acceptable. We’ve got to bring it down. But there’s a lot of positive things going on in the private sector, at research universities.
And just to pick on the federal government for it what about core (ph) companies that have been outsourcing? Well, the companies will say, well, that’s the labor unions’ fault, that we were forced to outsource. The blame’s there to go around why we’re in the mess we’re in, why these investment banks have gotten so rich.
So, what we need is some leader and maybe Obama couldn’t do it because there is a lot of racism. Maybe there’s 25 percent of the people that think he’s a Muslim. And lot of there may be a lot more racists than we think. I mean, George Wallace ran in ’68 and could win the South on a segregationist ticket.
But for whatever reason and it may be his own shortcomings and not giving what Richard’s calling a large infrastructure program, packaging it we seem to be kind of at a stalemate right now. I don’t and the rhetoric is getting fierce and ugly, and I’m not seeing where our country’s headed in a positive way with it all.
SMITH: Two quick things. There’s a reason they call the Greatest Generation the Greatest Generation. They dealt with enormous crisis crises that threatened the survival of the country and the survival of millions of households. And they demonstrated extraordinary character in the process.
I’m a boomer, but I don’t feel, on balance, particularly proud about the attitude of a lot of boomers who look at 9.5 percent unemployment and indeed, there are millions of people out there who are hurting. And it’s a role of government to address that.
But to put it in context with earlier economic or threats to the survival of the country one idea. Imagine how things might have been different if Barack Obama, in a counter-intuitive way, in his first week as president had said, you know, I’ve implied that I’m a different kind of liberal, a different kind of Democrat. I know that right now, we’re spending money to meet the emergency. We can’t sustain this. We all know that.
I’m going to appoint a Hoover commission. I would say Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, but they probably wouldn’t work together very well. But maybe, say, Jimmy Carter and Colin Powell two figures of enormous public respect, if not veneration. And they’re going to come back to me in 18 months. They’re going to look at every government program. And we are going to, from top to bottom, examine not only what we spend, but the rationale for spending it.
It would have at least bought him some time. It might have inoculated him against some of the more extreme and it frankly would have sent the message to his allies on Capitol Hill that we’re going to sink or swim as 21st century liberals.
BRINKLEY: You know, I mentioned Eisenhower before, Brian. And, you know, this January will be the 50th anniversary of Eisenhower’s farewell address when we talked about a military-industrial complex.
And I was looking carefully at the whole BP spill, and you look at the oil industry. They are the government. You can’t really even be too punitive on BP, because it’s a British company that’s just intertwined with the government.
And so, the corporations and the government have such they are so linked now through money, that I think part of the frustration of the tea party people that at least I hear that I am in agreement with, is I’m tired. I don’t like that there’s just one what’s happened to the individualism? You know, it’s very hard on and where are minority rights and individual rights headed in this?
I mean, people all the time, there’s identity thefts and this Internet of information. I don’t think we’ve learned how to control it properly.
And Obama’s president at a time when everybody wants their thing. We’re the Facebook generation. Everybody’s like, look at me. Look at my Facebook. Here’s how special I am.
Let’s go work. You know? I mean, let’s put in a 12-hour day. Work’s good.
SMITH: Oh, yes. More work, less Twitter.
SMITH: There’s a motto for
BRINKLEY: I that’s a
SMITH: Less self-absorption. Let’s get rid of the mirrors, you know, electronic and otherwise. And what’s missing is a sense that we’re all in this together, that the overriding motto of what’s in it for me might somehow be superseded by, you know, what’s in this for us.
LAMB: So, in effect, you’re really say that FDR had it better, and the country had it better, because he could control the media.
SMITH: Well, no. He was
LAMB: And a message.
SMITH: A, he controlled the media. But B, he was handed a crisis so profound that he didn’t have to explain, and critically, three years in which the American people got rid of the gods of Wall Street and were prepared to accept a radical expansion of the role of government, because they were desperate.
What didn’t happen in this crisis, we didn’t go over the cliff. And in a curious way, what I continue to find astonishing is that, with all the rage emanating from the tea party and others, as well that so much of it is directed at Washington and, relatively speaking, so little of it is directed at Wall Street.
LAMB: When did we
SMITH: It’s a strange
BRINKLEY: Yes, I agree (ph)
kind of populism.
LAMB: When did we have the greatest individualism in the country?
BRINKLEY: Back when Theodore Roosevelt was president. I think that generation, when people that was a really amazing period in American history, where people judged you on your individual activities, your behaviors. We’ve lost some of that.
I think just work ethic. I sound old when I say that. But I mean, everybody wants three day I can’t tell you. You’re trying to do work, and everybody’s off on three-day weekends. And there’s no more two-week vacation. People are going on six-week vacations. And people do half-days and three-hour lunches. And we’re not making things in this country anymore.
And there’s an inherent kind of I think it’s from our success, the post-World War II economic success of the United States, the marvel of it has made us a nation of very high expectations. And I’m hopeful that the students now that I have in their 20s, they’re getting these dark warnings, like there are no jobs for humanities students.
So, what are they doing? They are getting much more civic-minded suddenly. They’re looking at how can we work and do extreme humanitarianism, help people at an earthquake. Or how do we go and volunteer my time, you know, working in a national park or something?
Maybe this new post-baby boom generation will be a little less self-referential and start they’re even getting tired of Facebook already. The 21-year-olds are starting to say, that’s even becoming old.
So, there’s something in the air, I think, with the people in their early 20s now, this new generation, who’s and I’m amazed they’re not angry at us baby boomers for squandering so much of their heritage.
SMITH: God knows they ought to be.
It is true. Prosperity is very often a greater test of character, both individual and national, than adversity.
Adversity particularly if it’s extreme enough and it’s inherently shared. And there has to be a shared response. And one of the obviously great aspects of American history is, over and over again, you know, you throw the worst at us and we respond with the best. But extended periods of prosperity don’t challenge us in that sense.
The only thing that I would say, if I could wave a magic wand and undo something and the media again are enormously responsible we’ve lost the distinction in this country between fame and celebrity.
Teddy Roosevelt was famous, because he accomplished things. He challenged things. He did things. He wrote books. He went up San Juan Hill. He became a trust buster and environmentalist.
The astronauts became famous because they risked their lives in exploring the heavens.
Fame I don’t know. Maybe around Lindbergh, maybe that’s where we begin to lose it. But certainly today, to get the fame for 15 minutes, I mean, celebrity we are drenched in celebrity and faux celebrity.
It has polluted the way politics operates, the way politics are covered. It’s a malignancy, and I don’t know how you cut it out.
LAMB: Was politics ever to use the pejorative a clean business? I mean
BRINKLEY: No. But I think we’re at a point now where people are looking for we’re not working for a collective issue like Richard was talking about with infrastructure.
What about the war on cancer? Now, that should be something. Why doesn’t our country put all of our resources who wanted want to pay a few extra tax dollars for a real war on cancer? We’re getting close. It’d affect everybody that’s listening right now is affected by cancer. Let’s do something big together as a country.
And unfortunately, the post-9/11 reaction going into Iraq didn’t do it. It divided the country. And I still think President Obama needs to find something like that, that we really all that we all wake up, say we’re Americans and we’re doing it again.
Kennedy used the moon shot that way. Johnson tried it with the War on Poverty got a little success, but Vietnam derailed it. But maybe the time’s right to pick something like a medical thing, because the doctors in Mesquite (ph) ask me, would I rather be alive in 1933 or today. With medicine, modern medicine, I’d much rather be alive today.
I mean, just think of dentistry, how it’s changed. And I mean, real things. But we take it for granted, even sitting here and with air conditioning all over the country. I mean, we have it easier now.
So, let’s get our fight back in something that unifies us. Border issues, Mexico are not going to unify us. You know, this you know, I think if we have wars often have unified people, when the whole country said we’re all in it together, the slogan of World War II. I think we need to pick something like a war on cancer, and really go after it, because our R&D and our medical facilities in this country are the best in the world.
SMITH: But I just think I could not agree with you more. But I think the practical difficulties of implementing such a policy and I don’t mean to single out this president any modern president, I think, confronts so many obstacles in the way of, you know, the old bully pulpit, the notion that a president could rally us, particularly on issues of moral authority.
There are so many discordant voices. There are so many instant critics. There are so many people making a living off of tearing down whatever the president may say, of either party.
BRINKLEY: That’s why something like a war on cancer, though, who wouldn’t join that? I don’t care whether you’re Newt Gingrich or Sarah Palin, or Joe Biden or Obama. I think you could get them to stand at a microphone and say, let’s do it together.
And I think we’ve got to bring we may, instead of constantly trying to push these parties apart, we may as a country have to start bringing our politicians back together. I don’t think it could be done on a lot of issues right now. But I do think we could pick something big that we focus on and get everybody involved with it.
SMITH: Let me throw out one idea about fundamental reform of the political process.
If you could wave the proverbial magic wand and take the redistricting process away from the politicians, and turn it over to a computer or judges, as is currently done in a couple of states imagine how overnight that could change the political landscape.
If you had competitive districts that were not decided in political primaries, thereby driving both parties to the extremes, but in fact, if you redistricted the country to recognize that the majority of Americans are not ideologically driven, that they do want to find common ground, that they are interested in finding solutions rather than slogans to run on wouldn’t that be an enormous step in the right direction?
BRINKLEY: Yes, it would be. And look, we’re going to get this. The mid-term’s, you know, getting over. And I think President Obama is going to be the Democratic nominee, and the Republicans now are going to have to I mean, I don’t think their Pledge for America did it. It seemed like Contract to America Lite. It seemed recycled.
But I think they’ve done a marvelous job with the tea party movement of expressing public dissatisfaction with the way things are going in Washington. And I really think this lobbying I used to love being in D.C. Every time I’m with lobbyists here. You go to a dinner or a talk, you just start feeling, I want to get out of the nation’s capital.
I don’t feel that when I’m in Denver or in Houston or Seattle. I feel good. But you get up (ph) here (ph) and you just feel like a lot of money’s being mismanaged, and a lot of it’s even with non-profits that just raise all this money, just so they throw annual banquet dinners so their coffers grow, but they’re not spending the money in these (ph) non-profits.
We’ve got a fundamental problem, and we don’t really have the leader that’s the unifier. President Obama is a historic figure, but I’m not sure he’s been able to clearly, he hasn’t been able to unify the country for a number of reasons.
SMITH: Well, I wonder. Because we don’t know what’s going to happen on Tuesday. But I wonder if there are people in the Obama White House who are in some ways consoling themselves.
You know, Jack Kennedy famously looked forward to running against Barry Goldwater in 1964, for obvious reasons. Goldwater was seen as an extreme, albeit personable, conservative.
I’m wondering if the Obama administration from the very beginning, by really putting Limbaugh and Beck and Palin out there as the face of the Republican Party, doesn’t, in fact, have a strategy to encourage a latter-day Goldwater. Obviously, they’d like to run against the most vulnerable, most ”extreme” Republican candidate.
And the real test will be whether the Republican Party sort of falls for that, or whether there is a conservative candidate who may not set their hearts pounding, but who is acceptable, because they want to win badly enough.
BRINKLEY: Yes, I agree with that. I mean, it’s easy right now in mid-term to talk about President Obama’s failures. But, boy, he has not sunk below 45 percent, and it’s not hard for him to get back to 50 percent after the mid-term.
And then you’ve got the Republican Party having to beat him with somebody. And right now, if it’s Sarah Palin, and you go into, let’s say, Iowa and New Hampshire, and then South Carolina. She goes into Iowa, and if she runs, and you have Palin and Huckabee and Pawlenty and Newt Gingrich, she’s going to win, because all of those guys the Romney they’re all going to go off of each other. And if she wins Iowa, and maybe Romney beats her in New Hampshire, she’s going to win South Carolina, because she has the right.
And Obama-Palin really looks good for Barack Obama. And so, right now, it may be that this strategy, as bad as it is, of making the Republican Party the Rush Limbaugh-Glenn Beck party, it’s costing the Democrats right now in the mid-term, but in ’12, it may be the only thing that saves the Obama administration, since they don’t have somebody more center to represent the party.
SMITH: And that’s why, speaking of historical analogies, I think if the Republicans do make big gains on Tuesday, or if they take over one or both houses, what you’ll see over the next two years is not Bill Clinton. I think they’ll see Harry Truman, who brilliantly exploited the opposition and their inclination to go too far in trying to roll back the New Deal.
And in failing to understand that America had been permanently as much as these things are permanent had been transformed by the New Deal.
BRINKLEY: And I’ll make a prediction. Historians aren’t supposed to do it, but here we go.
Obama will put Hillary Clinton on as Vice President. It’s going to be Obama-Clinton. Joe Biden will go on and be secretary of state, the job he’s always wanted. Nobody knows more about Afghanistan than Biden, and particularly how to extricate ourselves from there. So, you’re dealing with an Obama-Clinton would be historic. It’d be the first woman vice president in American history.
Now, if the Republicans are putting Palin and/or Romney, if those are the candidates, I mean, Obama-Clinton could be hard to beat, particularly if unemployment drops down to 8.9, and they’re showing a little bit of movement there.
SMITH: But it’s interesting that you said Palin and Romney in the same breath. Because I guess I don’t see them as having the same kind of
a (ph) future (ph).
I don’t either.
BRINKLEY: I’m just saying, one of those two look like the two most likely ones right now.
SMITH: OK. So, my question is, a lot of people would view that it might be brilliant. It might make a lot of sense. But, you know, there are a lot of people who would see it as almost an act of desperation.
Is it necessary to do, if Palin is the Republican candidate? Is it more necessary to do
BRINKLEY: I just think it’s
if Romney is the Republican candidate?
it’s just smart politics.
Hillary Clinton’s deserved it. She’s done a great job as secretary of state. And they need to have somebody who can run for president.
Biden’s not going to run in 2016. So, it’s her moment. And it would unify. The Clintons still have great inroads in blue collar communities, places like Pennsylvania and Ohio. It brings Bill on the campaign trail. He’s been he’s done a marvelous job for the Democrats the last couple of years.
SMITH: But it can be seen as a tacit acknowledgement that I made a mistake
BRINKLEY: Well, maybe.
in picking Biden.
BRINKLEY: Maybe. But he didn’t make a mistake of bringing Hillary into the administration. And it was bold to let her be that. And I think it unifies the Obama brand and the Clinton brand. It shows a unified Democratic Party.
With a Republican Party has Palinites and the tea party angry at Romney, and then they show that Romney’s been a liberal all these times.
All I’m suggesting is the mid-term results here keep in mind, it’s easy for them to score, Republicans, in this mid-term. But Obama still, I think, has an excellent chance of winning the second term.
SMITH: And I’ll make one prediction. I’ll even go further out on a limb, and that is that Palin won’t run for president.
BRINKLEY: That’s the big question. I think if she decides not to run, and just as a cheerleader on the side, keeps her job at Fox News.
And I think Mitt Romney’s handled himself very well the last couple of years. He gets out there in the media a little, then backs off, and then gets somebody who can get the base excited besides Romney, maybe somebody with a little maybe even Huckabee somebody that would bring in Christian evangelical movement in real ways, a Romney-Huckabee ticket, for example would be competitive.
It’s all going to get down to, we all know, five or six states. It’s all going to be about employment. And so, who can win Ohio?
John Kasik is, you know, is the real future, I think, of the Republican Party. He someday could be president.
SMITH: It is true, the Republicans are classically portrayed as the more hierarchical party. And so, Romney, it’s his turn.
The question arises, what will define 2012, at least in the GOP is, are people in fact willing to take a retread? Or do they want really something fresh?
Keep an eye, dark horse for 2012, Senator John Thune of South Dakota.
LAMB: Let me, before we wrap this up, I want to show you a clip of an interview we had with the president a couple of months ago, because it leads into a discussion of historians. Let’s watch this and be right back.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: You quietly on two occasions snuck in a bunch of historians, a little bit of an off-the-record meeting over I believe it’s over in the dining room
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Yes, that’s right.
over in the state (ph) dining room.
What’s your relationship with history? Obviously I know one (ph) says there were nine of them.
LAMB: And tell us about the way you feel about the history.
OBAMA: Well, you know, when you occupy this office, you are constantly reminded that you are just one of the series of people who dedicated their lives to protecting the country and making our democracy function. It’s a very humbling experience.
And so, I spend a lot of time reading history, just to remind myself of the standards I have to live up to also, mistakes that have been made in the past by occupants of this office.
Then, having the chance to talk personally to some of these historians ends up being helpful to provide some perspective, because, particularly in this 24-hour news cycle that we live in here in Washington, so much of the attention is on the daily ups and downs of politics.
And my job is to constantly remember that what I do here is on behalf of not just tomorrow, but on behalf of the next generation.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAMB: In ”U.S. News” after the first meeting, Ken Walsh is the only one that I could find that’s reported this on June 30. And it was off the record. And he says, those attending were Michael Beschloss, H.W. Brands, Douglas Brinkley, Robert Caro, Robert Dallek, Doris Kearns Goodwin, David Kennedy, Kenneth Mack and Garry Wills.
Did you attend that one? And I understand there’s I’ve heard there’s been a second one.
BRINKLEY: Yes. I attended both of them, and it was a I was very proud to be there.
And Michelle and Barack Obama were basically hosting a book club with some historians. The second meeting, David McCullough was there, so we got to talk about John Adams and Jefferson. And Doris Kearns Goodwin was there, and she always likes to talk about John Kennedy and Lincoln, who the president loves a lot.
So, I would think of it I don’t think we influenced the president. I look at it more that he really does read presidential biography as a hobby, that he had us all come in.
It’s off the record what we talked about. But there’s nothing that secret about it. I talked a lot about Theodore Roosevelt, because I just wrote a book on T.R.
And I found it I think he uses it as a form of relaxation. And it helps to remember what other presidents went through. So, I think it’s very healthy that the president does this.
LAMB: Let me ask Richard to respond to this. This is from Garry Wills, who wrote this in the New York Review of Books, just a couple of weeks ago.
”It is time for me to break a silence I have observed for over a year against my better judgment. On June 30, 2009, I and eight other historians were invited to a dinner with President Obama and three of his staffers to discuss what history could teach him about conducting the presidency. I was asked shortly after by several news media what went on there, and I replied that it was off the record.
”I have argued elsewhere that the imposition of secrecy to ensure that the president gets ’candid advice’ is a cover for something else: making sure that what is said about the people’s business does not reach the people. But I went along this time, since the president said that he wanted this dinner to be a continuing thing. And I thought that revealing its first (ph) contents would jeopardize the continuation of a project that might be a source of information for him.”
Garry Wills was not invited back to the second dinner. Or if he was, he didn’t attend. The only one that didn’t come back, I believe. I don’t know whether you want to get into that at all.
What’s your view of the idea of the president meeting like this in secret meetings with historians?
SMITH: Well, I think it’s a wonderful idea, first of all. And quite frankly, far be it from me to pass judgment on Garry Wills’ conduct or standards, but I guess I’m old-fashioned enough to look upon it as a guest. I think if you’re a guest in someone’s house, including the people’s house, you know, you probably adhere to your host’s expectations.
I mean, I’m not sure. You know, I didn’t make the cut. I once wrote a piece for Life magazine in which I thought it was praise. I compared Barack Obama, then Kennedy and Obama, to Adlai Stevenson. And I still think there are parallels, which perhaps in some ways have come back to haunt him. But in any event, I’m not sure the president liked the piece.
In any event, I think it’s a great idea for any president inside the bubble to try to get outside the bubble, to look for the perspective that history not necessarily historians uniquely provides.
LAMB: Garry Wills went on to write, he said, the only thing achieved and there had only been one dinner when he wrote this has been this silencing of the main point the dinner guests tried to make, that pursuit of war in Afghanistan would be for him what Vietnam was to Lyndon Johnson. He says at least four or five of the nine stressed this. Nothing else rose to this level of seriousness or repeated concern.
BRINKLEY: Well, look. Richard kind of nailed it. I took it as kind of a handshake agreement in being off the record. We didn’t have to sign a waiver. But when people tell you it’s a dinner, and you just want to talk about history and it’s off the record, it seemed to me that to talk much about it except in vague terms isn’t proper.
I can promise you, none of us got into a huge deal with President Obama on anything. It was anecdotal stories about the past. It’d be no different than a wonderful segment here on C-SPAN where we talked about past presidents.
I don’t think any of us had any influence on the president on Afghanistan policy. Some people we did talk about, you know, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Korea in a historical way. But the president is very smart, and we weren’t coming in I would not say any of us there were being policy advisors, or telling him, watch it, Afghanistan’s your Rubicon.
There was none of that tone or tenor. It was all just a lighter historical fare than that.
LAMB: Just got a minute.
SMITH: I was just going to say, I don’t think we can talk about restoring civility to Washington if we don’t practice it ourselves. And that includes when, if we’re lucky enough to be invited for dinner at the White House and a conversation with the president.
LAMB: Last question. Which president in history had a historian the closest to him?
BRINKLEY: Boy. Well, there were many. I think John Kennedy with Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., is often, probably the model, because Arthur was involved with policy. You can see a lot of memos that he wrote. He was weighing in on the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam.
LAMB: Last point. You got one?
SMITH: Yes. And then, of course, the un-Schlesinger, the example of Edmund Morris with Ronald Reagan, which I think everyone agrees did not turn out very well.
LAMB: He had a meeting a month in the last term with him for 30 minutes.
SMITH: Yes. He was, in effect, designated to write the authorized account of the Reagan presidency.
BRINKLEY: Taylor Branch with Bill Clinton, who just did a book, ”The Clinton Tapes,” they had a very interesting relationship.
I think what President Obama has decided, instead of having one historian the way Clinton had Branch, or Kennedy had Schlesinger, that he was going to have a group, a salon group of, you know, eight or so of us.
LAMB: We’ve got to go, but did anybody take notes? Were they allowed to?
BRINKLEY: No. This was dinner. Really. Chops and a glass of wine, and conversation. And as Richard said, it was just nice to know that he cared enough to talk to historians.
LAMB: Ten seconds. You want to you have a follow-up?
SMITH: No. No, I was just going to say, it’s little known, but actually, President Ford gave John Hersey, the author of ”Hiroshima,” access, unlimited access to the Oval Office for a couple weeks or so, early in his presidency. He wrote a book, not terribly flattering.
LAMB: Richard Norton Smith, Doug Brinkley, thank you very much for this pre-election discussion.
BRINKLEY: Thank you, Brian.
SMITH: You bet.