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.

Repeat After Me: Zakaria, Plagiarism and Magnanimity

Fareed Zakaria, the host of the CNN news show GPS and a Washington Post columnist, is on the hot seat for the second time in two years for allegations that he plagiarized material for use in his written work. Some of you will recall that in August 2010 Zakaria was briefly suspended for posting a passage in his Time magazine column that bore a close resemblance to a passage written by Jill LePore in her New Yorker article on the same topic. Zakaria admitted that the event was a “terrible mistake” and was briefly suspended, but was reinstated after his editors deemed it a one-time event.  At the time the original accusation occurred, I posted this response that, while not necessarily defending Zakaria, certainly expressed some empathy for how that mistake could occur, since I had nearly made a similar mistake myself.

Now, however, two anonymous bloggers at the Our Bad Media website are claiming that Zakaria “has a history of lifting material in his work across several major publications – despite public assurances from his employers that a previous plagiarism scandal was only an isolated incident.” This is the same duo who accused Buzzfeed’s Benny Johnson of multiple instances of copying material verbatim from various online sources.  Johnson was subsequently fired.

It is not clear that Zakaria is even guilty of the charges, never mind that he might suffer Johnson’s fate. In a communication sent to Politico he vigorously denied the accusations, arguing that he did in fact cite sources and otherwise drew on material that was clearly part of the public record. Here is part of his defense: “My usual procedure with a piece of data that I encounter is to check it out, going as close to the original source as is possible. If the data is government generated (GDP, spending on pensions, tax rates, defense spending, etc.) then I often don’t cite a source since it is in the public domain. If it is a study or survey produced by a think tank, then I usually cite the institution that conducted the survey. In many of these cases, there was a link in my column to the source. This was not always possible, however, because Time magazine, for example, did not always allow for links. My columns are often data-heavy, so I try to use common sense, putting a source into the text when it was necessary. In many of the columns cited by the bloggers, I found the data they refer to in a primary source not the secondary one that they highlight.” Fred Hiatt, Zakaria’s boss at the Washington Post has already dismissed the one case cited by the bloggers that involved a Zakaria column for that paper.  As I noted in my earlier post on this topic, I’m not completely objective here, but I find some of the latest claims against Zakaria to stretch the meaning of the term plagiarism as I understand it. However, I’ll let you be the judge.

So why take up this topic in a blog devoted to analyzing the presidency and American politics, if not to debate Zakaria’s guilt or innocence?  One reason is that this topic is increasingly relevant to those of us who blog – and to those who read our blogs. The charges against Zakaria are likely to resurrect an earlier debate triggered by the Johnson case regarding what constitutes plagiarism in the digital age. While some participants dismissed Johnson’s actions as a trivial copying of fluffy material, the New York Times’ public editor Margaret Sullivan did not: “It’s pretty simple, at BuzzFeed or at The New York Times: Write your own stuff; when you can’t or won’t, make sure you attribute and link. Use multiple sources; compare, contrast, verify.” She went on to point out that with the availability of online search programs, it is becoming increasingly easy to catch cases of plagiarism.

The flip side of that, however, is that in the digital age, the temptation to cut and paste, or more typically to closely paraphrase on-line sources, is all the greater. Anyone who blogs frequently, as I do, is aware of this. As I noted in my earlier post on Zakaria’s initial plagiarism charge, “the proliferation of news aggregators has made it easier to justify using other writers’ material without attribution. I am not immune to this temptation. Almost every day I post an 800-1,500 word comment that more often than not is based in part on someone else’s research and/or insights. I work without an editor, and although I am careful to follow journalistic norms by citing other’s work (thanks to my year as a cub reporter for a daily paper, I have some journalistic training), I live in constant fear that I will have forgotten a link, or dropped a reference such as “As so-and-so said” in my blog post. And once I hit the send button, it’s very hard to make corrections.”

Those fears have, if anything, become slightly more magnified now that I’m posting almost daily at the Christian Science Monitor and weekly at U.S. News. I appreciate the broader audience, and I would not be able to produce material on an almost daily basis for their consumption were it not for the fact we live in the digital age, where a world of information is available at a keystroke – even here, in God’s Green Hills, where woodchucks outnumber people. But it’s not just bloggers who have to remain vigilant against falling into sloppy attribution practices.  My students are returning to campus, and if the past is any guide, more than one of them is going to wrestle this year with the issues that have gotten Zakaria in hot water.  So that I might prevent a trip before the judicial board (never mind Our Bad Media!), let me reiterate some simple but important guidelines that students might find helpful as they navigate through the Brave New Digital world.

1. When I directly quote anything, I put it in quotations marks and cite the source. Even if I paraphrase, my general rule is to err on the side of caution and cite the source if this can be even remotely construed as someone else’s material.  You are never going to get in trouble by crediting someone else for inspiring what you wrote, no matter how trivial the material.

2. When I come up with a wonderful idea (say, the special theory of relativity) but am vaguely aware that someone else might have discussed this too (that Al guy?), my default option is to be generous and cite the previous work. I’m cognizant that my “original” idea might in fact owe something to someone else’s research. Moreover, citing related work helps situate my argument in the broader literature, and gives reader a way to assess the intellectual background associated with the particular topic.

I’m acutely aware that the pressure to publish regularly, and to drive audiences to one’s site can tempt one to take shortcuts when it comes to citing sources for ideas and information. “I was first!” is an emotion that dates back to kindergarten, if not earlier. I suspect those pressures are magnified as one moves up the media food chain. However, I know from experience that my students feel similar pressure when they realize that the 5-page paper analyzing Obama’s sources of power is due the next morning. My advice under those circumstances is to be magnanimous – cite your sources, no matter how tangential to your argument. You’ll be glad you did. And it just might keep you from becoming the inspiration for the new website Our Bad Student.

Obama’s Michael Brown Address: I Won’t Do Stupid Things

The sense of disappointment among many progressive pundits yesterday, particularly denizens of the twitterverse, to what they viewed as President Obama’s tepid remarks  on the Michael Brown killing was palpable. Rather than attempting to condemn the actions of the white police officer who shot Brown, or to place Brown’s death in the larger context of police shootings of black men and race relations more generally, the President gave a decidedly more measured response, stressing the need to maintain the peace in Ferguson while the facts are gathered. Perhaps the most noteworthy takeaway from the press conference is that he is sending Attorney General Eric Holder to Missouri.

Needless to say, this was not the response many progressives wanted to hear, and they weren’t shy about making their disappointment known, as this sampling from my twitter feed and other sources indicates:

“Barack Obama is either very tired, doesn’t believe a single word he’s saying re: Michael Brown, or both.”

And this:

“The suggestion that My Brother’s Keeper could have helped save Michael Brown is ludicrous to the point of being willfully ignorant.”

And this:

“Barack Hussein Cosby”.

Ouch. And when asked whether he would personally travel to Ferguson, instead of a dramatic version of Eisenhower’s “I shall go to Korea”  the president was noncommittal, prompting twitter responses like this:

“Even Bush didn’t take this long to get down to Katrina. Jesus.”

In trying to explain the President’s failure to take a more strident stand, some progressives defended him by suggesting he was likely hiding his true views in order to avoid inflaming an already unstable situation. Ezra Klein’s take is not uncharacteristic of this perspective: “The problem is the White House no longer believes Obama can bridge divides. They believe — with good reason — that he widens them. They learned this early in his presidency, when Obama said that the police had ‘acted stupidly’ when they arrested Harvard University professor Skip Gates on the porch of his own home. The backlash was fierce.”

Maybe. But here’s a radical thought. Perhaps there’s another explanation for the President’s muted response – one that is admittedly more outlandish than what progressive pundits would have us believe: it’s that the President actually meant what he said yesterday. Maybe – just maybe – he really does want to wait until all the facts are in, rather than following the Twitterverse into a headlong rush to judgment. Maybe he understands that the circumstances surrounding this incident may not be as black and white as the armchair analysts twitting their views from their computers thousands of miles from the scene of the shooting would have one think. Maybe he sincerely believes that the best way to defuse the tension is to let the investigation run its course, rather than trying to force facts and rumors of facts into a pre-existing framework of analysis designed to confirm what some pundits are certain happened.

Shocking, I know. But, as I have argued from day one of Obama’s time in office, this pragmatic, show-me-the-facts – dare I say “moderate”? – take on the presidency is exactly what we – progressives included – should have expected from Obama, based on his prior history. And it is entirely consistent with a President whose operating mantra is captured in the phrase “don’t do stupid things.”  Yes, there may yet be a time for the President to reprise his stirring 2004 keynote address at the Democratic National Convention – “There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America” – or to echo the theme of racial harmony that characterized his Reverend Wright condemnation speech – “As such, Reverend Wright’s comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems.” But those speeches were made by a man who dreamed of becoming president and they were, in large part, designed to further that goal. As President, however, Obama no longer has the luxury to be quite so self-indulgent. Yes, there may come the moment when he can use the Michael Brown tragedy as an opportunity to talk about race relations, civil rights, police shootings and the myriad other issues that progressives wish Obama had addressed yesterday. But as President he has evidently concluded that this moment is not now. Some find this disappointing. Others, however, may interpret the President’s reticence as a sign of true leadership.

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The Arrogance of Power and the Case For Presidential Term Limits

A week ago Larry Summers, the former Clinton Treasury secretary and Obama economic adviser, came out with this op ed piece that proposed a way of “ending presidents’ second term curse.” By curse, Summers’ refers to a recurring pattern of both legislative gridlock and political scandal that he believes characterizes the second term of presidents dating back at least to FDR’s presidency. As he summarizes, “Second presidential terms are almost without exception very difficult for the president and his team, for the government and for the country.” To break this pattern, Summers argues that we should consider a single presidential term of perhaps six years: “Would the U.S. government function better if presidents were limited to one term, perhaps of six years? The unfortunate, bipartisan experience with second terms suggests the issue is worthy of debate. The historical record helps makes the case for change.”

To be sure, Summers acknowledges that one reason second terms are problematic is that the 22nd amendment  essentially relegates presidents who win reelection to four years of lame-duck status. Restricting a president to a single-term without the possibility of reelection would only mean the president becomes a lameduck that much earlier. For Summers, however, the “problems caused by lame-duck effects are much smaller than those caused by a toxic combination of hubris and exhaustion after the extraordinary effort that a president and his team must exert to achieve reelection.”

What are we to make of Summers’ proposal? To begin, as Andy Rudalevige points out, there’s nothing particularly novel about Summers’ recommendation. In fact, delegates to the 1787 constitutional convention charged with drawing up a framework for the presidency initially gravitated toward establishing one seven-year presidential term.  Since then amendments to this effect have been proposed in Congress on at least 160 different occasions, dating back at least to 1826. Of perhaps greater significance, at least 15 presidents have endorsed a single presidential term. Clearly Summers’ proposal has a long and impressive pedigree.:

So why hasn’t it been implemented? To begin, not everyone agrees with Summers’ diagnosis, never mind his proposed solution. As Jonathan Bernstein points out, the roots of some of the second-term scandals and policy fiascos, such as Watergate or Bush’s Iraq debacle, actually trace back to a president’s first term. Moreover, it’s not clear that the imposition of formal term limits via the 22nd amendment significantly weakened a presidency whose previous occupants almost always adhered to the two-term limit by tradition. To this I would add that one reason second terms seem less productive is that most of the low-hanging legislative fruit is typically picked early during the president’s time in office, leaving the problems that lack either a ready solution, or political support – or both – for the second term. In short, the lack of legislative productivity may be more a function of dwindling opportunities for success, and not a president’s weakened political state. More generally, James Hedtke  finds no convincing evidence that second-term presidents are weaker as a result of their ineligibility to run again.

Nonetheless, as I have noted elsewhere in an argument that foreshadows Summers’, second terms do seem to present their own problems, usually in the form of policy overreach or scandal. The explanation seems rooted in part, I think, by a decline in presidents’ and their aides’ political sensitivity combined with a heightened focus on their historical legacy as their time in office winds down. The result is a greater tendency toward risk taking during a second term. If this diagnosis is true, however, it is not clear that a single six or seven-year term will obviate the problem since presidents who are ineligible to run again would lack any incentive to remain sensitive to constituents’ concerns. This has led some reformers to advocate repealing the 22nd amendment, thus effectively returning to the Founders’ original constitutional framework that allowed presidents unlimited eligibility to seek reelection.

Before embracing that proposal, however, it is worth looking more closely at why the 22nd amendment was passed. Analysts often assume it was Republican payback for the Democratic Franklin Roosevelt’s long tenure as president. But, as Michael Korzi’s excellent study of presidential terms limits reveals, while partisan payback was part of the impetus for the 22nd amendment, the debate in 1947 over the proposed reform was far more nuanced, and in many respects reprised the arguments for and against presidential term limits that were aired during the constitutional convention. Essentially, the debate pitted the Republican/Whig “constitutionalists’” concern to limit executive power against the Democrats’ “plebiscitary” model of leadership that sees a popularly elected president as, in Korzi’s words, “the engine of the U.S. political system, with the president deriving power from a strong connection with the American people.”

In assessing these competing visions, both sides too often forget that we have one empirical case in which to assess a president who broke the two-term limit: Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In assessing the Roosevelt case, supporters of unlimited reelection often cite how the nation benefited from FDR’s willingness to serve a third term on the eve of World War II.  They argue that had the 22nd amendment been in place, we would have been prevented from drawing on his experience, with potentially catastrophic consequences.

However, rather than FDR’s decision to run for a third term in 1940, the more telling case for me is FDR’s decision to pursue a fourth term in 1944 despite obvious health issues. My concern here is not that FDR hid his failing health from the public – we have ample examples of presidents doing just that at all times in office.  Instead, the more worrisome aspect of his decision to run again is that FDR, and his aides, seemed not to fully grasp the implications of his failing health. As Korzi writes, “The impression one is left with is that FDR and advisers engaged in self-delusion on a rather large scale.” Despite FDR’s haggard appearance, not to mention his cardiologist’s diagnosis in March 1944 that FDR had serious heart disease, Korzi argues that the “artificial atmosphere” associated with FDR’s long tenure as president “promotes arrogance and even self-deception, as if the normal rule – in this case, the simple laws of physiology – are not applicable to the president.” One consequence of that arrogance is that FDR didn’t seem to pay much attention in 1944 to who his vice president was going to be, and after Truman was chosen, FDR failed to include him in any discussions of the major issues with which the President was grappling.

In magisterial study of the Presidency , Richard Neustadt notes approvingly, “Roosevelt had a love affair with power in that place.” Roosevelt, Neustadt writes, viewed the White House as “almost a family seat….and he regarded the whole country as almost a family property.” That conception of his place as president made FDR acutely sensitive, Neustadt argues, to protecting his sources of power in any decision he made. But there is a potential risk in this type of love affair – one exemplified, I think, by FDR’s decision to seek a fourth term. It is that presidents, and their advisers, may delude themselves into thinking they have become indispensable to the well-being of the nation. For most of our nation’s history, that temptation was held in check by virtue of the two-term tradition. As the plebiscitary mode of leadership has gained prominence, however, can we trust tradition alone to prevent presidents from seeking a third term? I, for one, am not willing to take that risk. If the 22nd amendment serves any purpose, then, it is to protect the nation against the arrogance of power associated with long tenure in office.

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