Author Archives: Matthew Dickinson

President Griswold? The Nation Lampoons Vacations

I vowed that this year I would not engage in the annual “The President is on Vacation Now?!” madness. In past years when I’ve participated in this debate, I felt a little like Clark Griswold persuading his family to go to Walleye World (more on that below). As I’ve noted in previous columns, the “discussion” is typically a partisan exercise in which both sides defend the necessity of their guy taking a vacation and/or point out that the other team’s guy took many more. It is a silly debate, beginning with the effort to numerically document “vacation days”. The New York Times is the latest media outlet to fall prey to this infantile exercise. Let’s be clear – the purported measures that papers like the Times report regarding how many vacation days each president took are really only measuring the presidents’ time away from the White House – a number that, as far as I can tell, says more about whether a president owns a second home that is easy to secure than it does about his propensity to go on vacation. By the logic underlying media measures of vacation time, Kennedy was taking down time when he was browbeaten by Nikita Khruschev at Vienna in 1961. (Yes, I’m guilty of repeating those numbers – see below.) In truth, presidents are almost never on vacation. Sure, golfing with Alonzo Mourning probably represents a form of pure recreation, but as Tony Soprano proved, you can conduct a lot of business even on the golf course.

So, if I vowed not to engage in this debate, why am I writing this post? Because I’m on vacation and needed an easy writing day. However, rather than repeat myself, I’ve decided simply to repost my last discussion of this issue – this came out August 19, 2011 under the title “Vacation Advice to the President: Avoid the Nude Beach”:

If it’s August, I know three things will happen:

1. France will essentially shut down;

2. I’ll be late writing my APSA paper;

3. The President will be criticized for taking a vacation.

And right on cue, the lead story in most media outlets today centered on the critical reaction to the First Family’s departure for a 10-day stay at Martha’s Vineyard. It is, of course, now customary for the political opposition to rail against the President’s willingness to take time off while the country’s future is at stake. And at taxpayer’s expense, no less! (Never mind that the lodging is paid for privately – what about all those security and transportation costs!) President Bush’s travels to his Crawford, Texas ranch elicited the same indignant reaction, as did Bill Clinton’s vacations (which often included trips to Martha’s Vineyard as well), George H. W. Bush’s frequent stays at the family compound in Kennebunkport (where he terrorized the locals in his speedboat) and Ronald Reagan’s regular trips west to his California ranch to clear brush, and ride horses with Nancy.

I don’t know when taking a vacation started becoming bad politics, although I think it began with Reagan’s trips to California. Of course August is always a slow news month, which makes it easier to justify running the “Should the President Be on Vacation At a Time Like This?” story. Although this is the Obamas’ third trip to Martha’s Vineyard, the attacks on him seem more intense this time. I think this is for at least two reasons. First, the stock market’s recent roller-coaster ride has entered another downward plunge, amid continuing reports of weak job growth. Second, we are deep into the invisible primary season, and his vacation timing and locale provides ample fodder for Republican candidates out on the campaign hustings to scold the president for his seeming obliviousness to the plight of the common man. For example, consider Mitt Romney’s remarks from two days ago: “if you’re the president of the United States, and the nation is in crisis, and we’re in a jobs crisis right now, then you shouldn’t be out vacationing.”
Of course, the choice of locale doesn’t help. Much of the criticism centers on the message the President seems to be sending by staying in opulent vacations digs hobnobbing with the glitterati at a time when almost 1 in 10 Americans lack jobs. As one columnist put it, “Which begs the question – why did the president go ahead with his vacation despite the worst approval ratings of his presidency, plunging stock markets, falling consumer confidence, and overwhelming public disillusion with his handling of the economy? I think the answer lies in Obama’s professorial-style arrogance, and a condescending approach towards ordinary Americans.”

Forgive me if I don’t share the outrage. The reality is that presidential vacations aren’t like the ones you and I take (if I ever took one)! Sure, there’s some recreational downtime. But it’s mostly much of the same daily grind: the intelligence briefing, the meeting with staff, the constant stream of memoranda and official documents. In terms of intensity, I think it’s a lot closer to vacationing with Clark Griswold and his family: things are always going wrong, and the stress level is very high.

Moreover, Obama’s “vacationing” no more frequently than did his immediate predecessors. Indeed, at this point, Obama’s vacation time (I don’t count time spent at Camp David) seems about average for presidents. By one count, in their first year as president, Reagan (42 vacation days) and both Bushes spent more time on vacation than did Obama, while Clinton and Carter spent less. (I’ve never been to Plains, GA, but perhaps the locale partly explains Carter’s aversion to vacationing? Or maybe Democrats just work harder.)

In any case, Obama has a ways to go to match his immediate predecessor’s vacation time. Across his eight years as president Bush took 77 vacation trips to his Texas ranch, spending 69 days there during his first year alone. By comparison, Obama only vacationed 26 days during year one of his presidency. And this doesn’t count the more than 450 days Bush spent at Camp David. Similarly, Clinton spent 171 days “on vacation” during his eight years. Keep in mind as well that Obama has two kids, and something tells me they have some say in the vacation decision.

But there’s a more important reason why I’m not sympathetic to the “no time for vacation” crowd. History suggests that these trips help presidents cope with the burden of being president. And if they cope better, the nation benefits as well. Have you seen before and after pictures of the President? He’s clearly aged at a rapid clip since taking office. It’s worth remembering that at one time presidential vacations were viewed in a more positive light. Franklin D. Roosevelt made forty-one trips to his cabin in Warm Springs, Georgia during his presidency, often spending a week or more in a working vacation. He had purchased the property there shortly before reentering politics, in large part because he believed the warm springs to be therapeutic. Aides noted that Roosevelt invariably came back from these working vacations reinvigorated. (We now know, of course, that he spent his last visit to Warm Springs secretly rendezvousing with his former mistress, Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, who had to be quickly secreted away when the FDR suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage and died). Of course, media criticism of FDR may have been muted because the visits to Warm Springs could be linked to the foundation he established there to treat polio victims.

But Harry Truman made 11 separate trips to the “Little White House” in Key West Florida, often staying three weeks or more at a time. (Here is an exterior shot of the building which is open to visitors).

key-west-white-house

During the day he would sit by the beach, while aides played volleyball, in between work sessions. (The shorter guy holding onto the post is presidency scholar [and my dissertation chair] Dick Neustadt, author of Presidential Power, for which this blog post is named).

 

truman-team

Most evenings Truman played small stakes poker (he was reputed to be a middling player) in a small room with close friends. (Truman sat in the corner with his back to the wall. The table is still there, complete with playing cards, if you want to visit.) Today, of course, the thought of the President gambling with his cronies at “seaside resort”, while the stock market dropped 500 points, would elicit howls of outrage from the chattering class. But somehow the republic survived Truman’s trips. As I suspect it will survive the next ten days.
Unless the President has a Clark Griswold moment (pardon his French!).

Now, back to my paper. Au revoir!

 

Small States, Malapportionment and Electoral Independence

I’m up today at U.S. News with an analysis of Republican Senator Jim Jeffords’ decision in 2001 to declare as an independent and caucus with the Democrats. As I noted in yesterday’s post, his political career was largely defined by this decision which threw control of the Senate to the Democratic Party for the next 18 months and elevated Jeffords to “rock star status” – he was on the cover of Time – at least for the moment. As Shelly Sloan notes in his comment to yesterday’s post, however, it also infuriated many Republicans who felt Jeffords had betrayed his constituents since he had just won reelection by running as a Republican. Although support for Jeffords’ decision was mixed in national public opinion polling, it was received much more favorably for the most part in his home state of Vermont. As I note in today US News post, research by Frances Lee and Bruce Oppenheimer indirectly suggests that the fact that Jeffords represented a small state probably was an important factor in his decision to leave the Republican Party.

In reviewing the tributes that poured in after Jeffords’ death, one in particular caught my fancy.  Some of you will recall that Jeffords was part of the Singing Senators, a barbershop quarter featuring senators Jeffords, Trent Lott, John Ashcroft, and Larry Craig.  According to Jeffords’ son Leonard, Jeffords was the only one of the four that couldn’t carry a tune.  “He thought he could sing, but he was horrible,” Leonard Jeffords recalled. “The dogs would start howling. Lott could really belt it out; Larry Craig had a nice voice. John Ashcroft was pretty good. My dad, I think, was just there.”  Here’s a brief clip of them on the Chris Matthews show (from a video clip of them on the Today Show). You be the judge.

Rest in peace, Jim Jeffords.

Why I Love Politics: Jeffords, Perry and Zakaria

This Sunday’s Shorts:

Somewhat surprisingly, I’ve received more email and twitter responses regarding my posts about allegations that Fareed Zakaria is guilty of plagiarism than I have about any of my Michael Brown-related posts. The OurBadMedia website that published the original accusations against Zakaria has now posted a second set allegedly “showing how Zakaria blatantly and repeatedly plagiarized in not just what is his most popular book, but two different cover stories for the magazines he used to serve as editor for, Foreign Affairs and Newsweek.” As yet, however, as Politico’s Dylan Byers notes, the charges do not seem to be gaining much traction in the national press, in contrast to the allegations from two years ago which led to Zakaria’s suspension. This may be because it is not clear that this is outright plagiarism or – as some readers have suggested – it may be that media members are reluctant to condemn one of their own. Among those on my twitterverse feed, however, most of the comments are along these lines: “Wait, @MattDickinson44, are you seriously pretending this might not be plagiarism???? pic.twitter.com/WbEyTN2Wg9” Whatever the merits of the charges, the bottom line remains this (my students, take heed!): when in doubt, quote and cite!

In this era of a polarized punditry, it was perhaps surprising to see agreement among pundits on the Left and the Right regarding Texas Governor Rick Perry’s recent indictment, and it is not just because of his mug shot. While it may not be the case that, as a RedState pundit claimed, “If Perry has the right team in place, which it looks like he does, he can ride this Democrat overreach into the top slot of the 2016 GOP primary”, this does seem to be an instance of a Democratic prosecutor trying to criminalize a political act. Or, as one columnist drawing on legal expertise put it, the “Rick Perry indictment is the dumbest thing since Rick Perry.” The Perry campaign wasted no time on milking the charges for political gain, with everything from campaign ads to t-shirts publicizing what they claim is partisan-driven prosecutorial excess.

Still, not everyone sees this as a win for Perry. And, in fact, if the charges do stick – most legal experts think this is farfetched – it’s hard to see how Perry’s presidential aspirations will be helped. In the meantime, however, he’s wasting no time in trying to capitalize on this free publicity.

Finally, former Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords’ funeral was held yesterday. Almost every one of his obituaries led with reference to his decision in 2001 to bolt the Republican Party and caucus with Senate Democrats, thus giving Democrats a Senate majority. While it is probably not true that his decision “singlehandedly bent the arc of politics” – Democrats retained their majority for a mere 18 months – it did create a national sensation at the time of his announcement. In announcing his decision, Jeffords stated that, “I have changed my party label, but I have not changed my beliefs. Indeed, my decision is about affirming the principles that have shaped my career.”  He may have meant that.  However, left unsaid in the countless obituaries was just how far Jeffords’ voting record moved left during his remaining four-plus years as a Senator. In fact, in the years after he declared as an independent, his voting record was consistently more liberal than not just every Senate Republican’s – it was to the left of most Senate Democrats as well. I will go into more detail about this in a separate post, but it is a reminder that small state Senators typically have a deeper electoral cushion than do their large-state colleagues, and hence more flexibility in how they cast their votes.

Jeffords, Perry and Zakaria.  You can’t make this stuff up.  It’s why I love politics.

 

 

A President’s Dilemma: Race, Riots and Midterm Elections

With recent polling suggesting a slight hardening of opinion against demonstrators in Ferguson, we take our WayBack machine to September 1966, as President Lyndon Johnson struggles to balance pressure from activists advocating stronger leadership on civil rights against a growing backlash among moderate voters triggered in part by a series of race-related riots in urban areas. Heading into the fall midterms, Democrats running for office grew increasingly concerned that Johnson’s handling of civil rights was going to be a drag on the party’s fortunes.

On September 6, 1966 several thousand people rioted in the Summerhill neighborhood in Atlanta, Georgia after Atlanta police shot a black male suspected of being a car thief. White House Fellow Tom Johnson spent a week in the Southeast gauging political sentiments among opinion leaders in that period, and filed the following report with LBJ’s senior White House aide Bill Moyers.  Johnson drew two important conclusions from his meetings with opinion leaders during his trip: First, they felt the “President is not playing ‘fair’ on civil rights issues” and second, “The President should not come into the Southeast before the November elections.” Here are the first two pages of the three-page memo to Moyers:

race relations 9.66(1)

LBJ Johnson memo 2

What, according to these opinion leaders, should LBJ do to change the political calculus? “Treat Negro rioters with rebuke equal that given white troublemakers in past.”

Note that the “Carmichael riot” cited in the second page of the memo refers to the Summerhill area riot in Atlanta. Stokely Carmichael, a leader of SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), had been accused of inciting the riot in the immediate aftermath of the police shooting. (At this time SNCC had spearheaded a voting rights drive in Atlanta with the goal of electing a black to the Georgia legislature, but there was disagreement with SNCC regarding what role whites should play in the movement. That presaged a split in the civil rights movement regarding the most effective tactics for furthering the movement’s goals.)

As Johnson’s memo makes clear, not all of the displeasure with LBJ was due to civil rights; Johnson’s memo also notes the first signs of growing unease with the U.S. escalating military presence in Vietnam, and rising concern over inflation. All three issues proved increasingly intractable, and in combination helped fuel the end of the Democrat’s New Deal coalition and the rise of the “Republican majority”. In the 1966 midterm elections, Republicans gained 47 seats in the House, and three in the Senate, although Democrats retained majorities in both chambers. It was a harbinger of things to come. With the exception of Carter’s four years as president, Republicans – bolstered by support from an increasingly Republican south together with white, middle- and working-class Northerners (the so-called Reagan Democrats), would hold the Presidency for the next two decades, and control the Senate too from 1981-87. Despite losing popular support in presidential elections, however, Democrats were able to hold on their House majority throughout this period in part due to the increasing importance of incumbency which helped shelter party members from national currents.

It is far too early to draw firm conclusions regarding the implications, if any, of the Michael Brown shooting and subsequent Ferguson demonstrations on national politics.  But as the Johnson memo to Moyers reminds us, and as President Obama knows all too well, the effort to balance protection for civil rights with concern for law and order is an exceedingly difficult task – one for which presidents are unlikely to win any political rewards no matter what their stance.

What My Twitter Sources Told Me Really Happened To Michael Brown

We are in a revolutionary period when it comes to the dissemination of news in this nation. A recent Pew Research Center survey finds that as of this past January, fully 74% of Americans use social networking sites and, among online adults, almost 20% are on Twitter, an increase in Twitter use of 5% in two years.  This is still a relatively small number of Twitter users compared to those who get their news through other means, but the increase isuggests that Twitter’s influence as a platform for gathering and sharing political stories is on the rise. This is evident, for example, when comparing Pew’s estimate of the Twitter coverage of the Michael Brown shooting to that of Trayvon Martin’s two years earlier.

Political scientists are just beginning to assess how the growing use of Twitter and related social media platforms are affecting the coverage of and attitudes toward American politics. In that spirit, I’ve undertaken a comprehensive survey of my own Twitter feed regarding what actually happened in the Michael Brown shooting (with no pretense that my twitter sources represent a truly random sample of the twitterverse more generally). Here’s what I’ve been able to discern regarding this tragic event:

1. Officer Darren Wilson, who is white, unnecessarily provoked an altercation with Michael Brown, who is black, by ordering him to get off the street and onto the sidewalk. Michael Brown, who is black, unnecessarily provoked an altercation with Officer Darren Wilson, who is white, by initially refusing to respond to Wilson’s direction to get on the sidewalk and stop blocking street traffic.

2. Wilson knew, via a report on the police scanner, that someone had robbed nearby convenience store just minutes earlier and he saw that Brown was carrying cigars, which the scanner report indicated was one of the items stolen. Wilson had no idea that Brown had allegedly stolen some cigars and, even if he did, that does not excuse Wilson’s use of excessive force.

3. The police decision to release video of the robbery was needlessly incendiary and designed to turn public opinion against Brown. The police reluctantly released the video due to multiple media requests under the Freedom of Information Act, and in the goal of full transparency.

4. When Wilson tried to get out of his cruiser to question Brown, the 6-foot-4, 292 pound suspect pushed him back into the car, and then punched Wilson. In the ensuing struggle, Wilson’s gun went off, at which point Brown broke free and tried to escape arrest. Office Wilson, irked with Brown’s slow response to his directive, backed his cruiser alongside Brown. Then, without provocation, he reached out through the cruiser window and grabbed Brown by the throat, pulling him toward the cruiser, prompting Brown to struggle to break free. When Brown did, Wilson, while still in his cruiser, shot at Brown once.

5. After the initial shot (or shots), Brown turned around and raised his hands to surrender, but was shot multiple times by Wilson, who had chased after Brown, from a distance of about 7 feet. Wilson, pursuant to standard procedure, pursued Brown and his friend, ordering them to freeze. When they turned around, Brown ran at Wilson, prompting the officer to shoot him in self-defense from a distance of 2-3 feet.

6. Wilson reportedly has severe facial bruises consistent with a struggle. Preliminary autopsy results on Brown show no sign of a struggle.

7. In a clear sign of excessive force, Brown was shot six times, including two shots to the head, despite the fact that he was unarmed and trying to surrender. Consistent with police training, Wilson – fearing he was in imminent danger – used deadly force to protect himself.

8. Ferguson and St. Louis police faced a near impossible task of both respecting the right of demonstrators to peaceably protest while at the same time cracking down on those looters and others who were explicitly trying to provoke a police response. The subsequent mishandling by law enforcement of largely peaceful protests, including the use of tear gas and rubber bullets, exacerbated an already tense situation, and showed complete incompetence on the part of St Louis and Ferguson police.

9. Media coverage, particularly via Twitter, has helped pressure law officials to release information they otherwise would have concealed and generally made it harder for them to whitewash a clear violation of Brown’s civil rights. Media coverage, particularly via Twitter, has inflamed an already unstable situation by providing incomplete and sometimes inaccurate information, and by precipitating a rush to judgment. It will be almost impossible for Wilson to get a fair hearing.

10. President Obama’s decision to wait until all the facts are in before visiting Ferguson, or commenting on the case in detail, epitomizes the type of calm, restrained leadership we expect from our president. President Obama’s unwillingness to talk about the racial implications of the Brown shooting, never mind visit Ferguson, is a betrayal of everything we expect from the first black President.

11. Law enforcement should resist a rush to judgment, and instead take however long is necessary to fully assess the evidence before deciding whether to prosecute Wilson. The longer law enforcement waits to indict Wilson and bring him to trial, the more volatile the situation in Ferguson will become.

12. Unfortunately, a white cop shooting an unarmed black man is an all-too-common occurrence in this country, and it is evidence of the systemic racism that continues to cloud race relations. The immediate racialization of the Brown shooting and the concomitant rush to judgment both exaggerates the impact of race as a causal factor in the shooting, and needlessly undermines race relations in this country.

13. Finally (and here I am anticipating the twitter reaction to this post!), by trying to treat these dueling narratives as equally (in)valid, this post is another example of the false equivalency that characterizes reporting on the Brown shooting, when it is quite clear that one side of the story is true, and the other almost wholly made up.

And that’s the truth about what happened to Michael Brown in Ferguson, based on what I’ve read on Twitter.