August 30, 2008

Tough Call

You know, I'm beginning to think that the history of American presidential elections might be a very interesting subject indeed. Everybody knows that 2008 is a historic election year; even more so now, because at the end of it we will have either the first African American president, or the first female vice-president (not counting Glenn Close, of course). Fewer people realize that this will be the first election to see a senator ascend directly to the presidency since JFK in 1960 . . . but I've seen it mentioned here and there.

What I haven't seen anyone talk about was a discovery I made last night, as I contemplated the difficulty of knowing exactly how either candidate might handle himself in the White House. In the last 56 years, there has not been a presidential election where the public could not simply cast their vote either for or against the policies and accomplishments of the previous administration. Every election since 1952 has involved either a president up for re-election, or that president's vice-president. Check out this blurb about the '52 election and see if it sounds familiar (yes, it's paraphrased from Wikipedia):

National tension and weariness after two years of bloody stalemate in the Korean War set the stage for a hotly-fought presidential contest. The Democratic Party nominated Governor Adlai Stevenson II of Illinois; Stevenson had gained a reputation in Illinois as an intellectual and eloquent orator. The Republican Party countered with popular war hero General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Of course, there are a lot of interesting differences. This was at a time when "war hero" meant World War II, in those heady, patriotic days before Vietnam. Then, too, it was the Democrats who were the unpopular incumbent party, coming off of 20 years in power with Harry Truman at a record-high 66% disapproval rating (later surpassed by Nixon and Bush II).

During the campaign, Stevenson ran on a contrast between America under Herbert Hoover and the Republicans at the height of the depression and America under the Democrats at the beginning of the prosperous 1950s. His speaking style was eloquent and thoughtful, but he was branded an "egghead" and an intellectual . . . not the best label at the height of McCarthyism. Ike, meanwhile, chickened out and embraced McCarthy publicly, though he loathed the man and his tactics in private. His campaign blamed the Democrats for the trouble in Korea, and for the encroaching malaise of global Communism.

The Republicans hit a portentuous snag when Eisenhower's running mate, Richard Nixon, was accused of accepting large, undeclared gifts from donors after he had accused the Democrats of similar ethical lapses. Ike nearly dropped him from the ticket, until Nixon gave a stirring TV address that came to be known as the "Checkers" speech (see below, particularly from about 6:06 to 7:23 . . . it's crackerjack).

Anyway, I'm about to hit a tangent in earnest and be researching and writing for hours, so I'll just stop there. The point is . . . pay attention. This is going to be unique.

Posted by Jared at August 30, 2008 12:31 PM | TrackBack