Journalist John Hockenberry, this year’s inaugural speaker in the Institute for Working Journalism’s “Meet the Press” series, spoke about the Tea Party movement in America through a lens that most people in the audience had not considered.
But before he revealed what that lens would be, Hockenberry said on October 5 that journalists today need to do more than just report on current events. They need to study history, draw comparisons, and place events in a context “so they can be understood as an outgrowth of historical narratives and traditions and almost rituals in American democratic life.”
Then the four-time Emmy Award-winning commentator asked the audience, “Does anyone have some change in their pocket? A penny, perhaps?”
Bound to a wheelchair since he was a teenager, the 54-year-old host of Public Radio International’s morning news program “The Takeaway” shunned the lectern during his 40-minute talk—which felt more like an unscripted conversation than a formal lecture—and during nearly an hour of questions and answers that followed.
After a few audience members pulled out their one-cent pieces, Hockenberry remarked how ironic it was that Lincoln should end up on the copper penny. Why? Because the Copperhead movement was Lincoln’s nemesis for most of his presidency, he said. Also known as the Peace Democrats, the Copperheads opposed the Civil War and advocated restoration of the Union. They controlled the 1864 Democratic national convention and inserted a plank declaring the war a failure. Particularly strong in the Midwest where many families had Southern roots, the Copperheads controlled one chamber in the Illinois Legislature, blocked a bill in Indiana state government, and even saw their candidate, Horatio Seymour, elected governor of New York. (New York’s Seymour should not be confused with our Horatio Seymour, the Middlebury resident and United States senator who lived during the same time.)
“The discourse of the Copperhead movement was very much like the Tea Party movement of today,” Hockenberry said. He cited the typical anti-Lincoln rhetoric: “The war is destroying us”; “Government is growing too fast”; “Too many taxes”; and “Go back to the way it was.” For each slogan from the 1860s, Hockenberry drew an analogy to the Tea Party’s rhetoric about the war in Afghanistan, the TARP program, the size of the federal deficit, and the desire for freedom.
Lincoln imprisoned one Copperhead leader, Clement L. Vallandigham of Ohio, in an act that Hockenberry said would be akin to President Obama putting Glenn Beck in Sing Sing to silence him today.
In the 1864 presidential election, the Democratic Party’s candidate was Union General George B. McClellan, whom Lincoln had removed from command of the Army of the Potomac two years earlier. From this historical event Hockenberry drew a comparison to Barack Obama’s recent removal of General Stanley McChrystal as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
As November neared, Lincoln’s re-election was very much in doubt. The Copperheads won some primary elections, which Hockenberry likened to the Tea Party’s recent success in Republican primaries. But then what happened? On September 2, 1864, the North won the Battle of Atlanta and the tide of war turned. A Union victory was assured and Lincoln gained credibility. He won re-election handily.
At this point Hockenberry looked around the room and inquired, “What will be the Fall of Atlanta moment that will propel Obama to office in 2012?” Capturing Osama bin Laden? Strengthening the economy? A decisive military victory in the Middle East?
“Does Barack Obama need a Fall of Atlanta moment?” Hockenberry asked. “And perhaps the Fall of Atlanta deprived us of seeing what would have happened to Lincoln. In a way, the 2012 presidential election for Barack Obama will be the conclusion to a story that Lincoln knew in 1864.”
And with that the guest speaker opened the floor to questions. Erudite and patient, he responded to questions about his coverage of the Gulf War and Kosovo War, key races in November 2010, journalism as his form of civic engagement, and the need for contextualization in reporting today, which was exactly what he did for the Tea Party movement during the first half of his program.