I have been reading historian William Leuchtenburg’s excellent The American President: From Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton. It’s a hefty meaty book and a good read. I’m purposely taking one president at a time, pausing between them to read something else while considering their individual legacy. Being born into and raised in the twentieth century, the book covers a good chuck of my lifetime. So it’s familiar territory put in perspective by an astute observer. Professor Leuchtenburg, in his vigorous 90s, is hard at work (mostly here in Chapel Hill) on a Washington to McKinley volume. I look forward to it.
Assessing presidencies is tricky business. Who were truly the best, who the worst, requires some time and distance. It also involves, even for the historian, a dose of subjectivity. What strikes me in reading of their collective tenures is how imperfect, even flawed, each of them were. Faced with momentous decisions, they often made significant steps forward, but at times each also made disastrous mistakes that took decades, if ever, to set right. We like to think of our leaders, particularly the ones for whom we have voted and supported, as something special. Some of them are, of course, but always in the context of being human. They may play on history’s stage with breathtaking brilliance but at times with dazzling ineptness. Of course, while in hindsight we may see their missteps clearly, they were often far from self-evident at the time. They could lead us to victory but could also snatch defeat out of a victory that had been it hand. One prime example was when Harry Truman, after successfully achieving his stated goals in Korea, disastrously extended the war into what remains an unresolved stalemate. We still suffer the consequences.
To be sure times change and with them our view of things, sometimes leading to some ironic twists even in how we add color to the scene. Reading about the 1950s under Truman and then Eisenhower brought back especially vivid memories. They were my formative school years. For today’s nostalgia buffs, let me tell you that the 50s were not a great time in American. They were dominated in large measure by an obsessive fear of communism. That obsession impacted both our foreign and domestic policy for decades to come. Communism had a color: red.
Our ears and eyes were exposed to scarlet words, attributes and slogans. There was red by itself, “the Reds”, “red states” (especially Red China), “red bating”, the “red scare” and, of course, the “red menace”. The Cold War was in its infancy in 1950 and Truman himself submitted to the hysteria. The House Committee on Un-American Activities (first established in the 1930s) infamously grew in reckless power running roughshod over individual rights. Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin became a national largely unchallenged finger-pointing figure. The lion’s share of this terrible decade was presided over by war hero Dwight Eisenhower supported by fellow Republicans an right wing Southern Democrats (who would switch over to the GOP a decade later).
That history brings me back to the color red. It’s no wonder that in reading about those years in a current context I couldn’t help but think of a supreme irony. While the GOP in the 1950s derisively referred not only to communists as red and liberals as at least “pink”, today’s Republican dominated states are, of all things, labeled red. They wear the red designation with pride hoping to spread it across the land. How times change us and how we talk.
I am not of the “history repeats itself” school. That said, it’s not surprising that echoes of other ages — of human behavior — find their way into the present. The Soviet Union is no more and the meaning of “red” has clearly taken a sharp attribution turn, but there is something of the 1950s in our present discourse. And it’s something no less disturbing or, if it gets out of hand, threatening to our democracy. Today Islamophobia has replaced our 1950s irrational fear of Communism and people who sound increasingly like the purveyors of a “red scare” are seeking to fill us with twenty-first century terror. The idea of barring Muslims from entering our borders or seeking that citizens who happen to follow Islam should take some kind of loyalty oath or disavow tenants of their faith and practice are chilling reminders of past trumped-up bad times. Yes, I know what you’re thinking but “trumped-up” is the good English language term to describe what happened during the late Truman and Eisenhower years. It fits again.
This is the year of an appeal to fear. It’s what we heard or read about all last week. And it’s not over. Just as Trump and the Republicans stoked up fear of the Other whether an implied Islamic “third column” or its equally dangerous Mexican criminal immigrant counterpart, Clinton and the Democrats are sure to invoke the fear of what his presidency would bring. Now don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a matter of being even handed — there is no moral equivalency in these two candidates or their present party configurations — but to state how things are likely to go down between now and November. Objective reasoning will probably go out the window because it simply won’t work in the present national mood. Lyndon Johnson’s infamous 1964 “Daisy Commercial” was the ultimate presidential election appeal to fear. It helped bring down Barry Goldwater. And by the way, don’t let anyone tell you that going viral is something new, the exclusive domain of our digital age. Daisy aired only once, but its power reverberated to such a degree that it remains controversial more than fifty years on. Despite a lack of social media and instant communications everyone knew of it and even those who didn’t see it aired in real time can still picture that little girl picking daisy pedals in a countdown that ends in a mushroom cloud. Some version of Daisy is likely to raise its ugly head during the current campaign.
I know what I’d like some future historian to be writing as the 2016 election. My only hope is that a majority of Americans feel the same. I think my hope will be fulfilled, but there is no guarantee. Absolutely none. We have had demagogues on the scene throughout our history and some, like Huey Long and Joe McCarthy, were elected to statewide public office. We’ve had bitter campaigns with poisonous rhetoric since John Adams and Thomas Jefferson contended in the early days. But we’ve never had the likes of Donald Trump nominated for the presidency by one of our two major parties. Nothing is sure in elections and his being on the ballot represents a real and meaningful risk. He appeals to those who want a return to an America that once was. That’s impossible. So his big lie is that his victory will almost certainly insure an America that neither they nor we have ever seen before. And looking at what happened in Cleveland last week, it will be a very dark America.
The color red was considered dangerous to America in the 1950s. As things have evolved since the 1980s its morphed redness, most especially since John McCain brought the person and ilk of Sarah Palin to the national ticket, seems no less so. At least that’s how I see it and hope a majority of my fellow citizens will as well. We’ve taken down the demagogues and fringe politicians in the past. Hopefully, we will have the will, the courage and most importantly that we will make the required effort, to do so again.