The Making and Unmaking of Presidents

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Shortly after the 1960 election (in which John F. Kennedy narrowly defeated Richard Nixon), Theodore White wrote the first of what would become a defining series on American Presidential elections. He was a journalist and something of an old time liberal from that era. Normally, the books that are whipped out quickly following a political event are of interest only for a season or two.

White’s series of books remain great and valuable reading. He was there on the scenes; his writing displays flair and color; he was able to capture the drama and tensions of the times. In some cases, he was proven to be magnificently wrong in his judgments, but often he is a great window into both the times and the issues of those days. He was writing journalism, but his series have proven to be fine historical readings.

The Making of the President 1960 was followed by books with same pattern of title and content in 1964, 1968, and 1972. Sometime later, he wrote a book that sought to give a bigger picture, titled America in Search of Herself: The Making of 1956 to 1980.

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Since his time, book show up following each election that seek to explain and define what the previous election was all about. I have read a few of them, but have not found anyone quite as good as White. Craig Shirley’s books, Reagan’s Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign that Started It All and Rendezvous With Destiny: The Campaign That Changed America, are two favorite reads on political campaigns, but these books were more focused on Ronald Reagan and not the broader scope of the campaigns.

Hardcover Reagan's Revolution : The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All Book
Paperback Rendezvous with Destiny : Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America Book

Without a doubt, the 2016 Presidential election was one of the most amazing and interesting (although irritating) ones in all of American history. I have bypassed scores of books that are either slams on the Trump campaign or hagiography on Donald Trump because I am not interested in TDS (Trump Derangement Syndrome), Never-Trumpers’s hand wringing, nor Trump idol worshippers.

I did read John Fea’s book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump and found it to be one of the most stupid books I have ever come across. It is embarrassing to me that it was written by a able historian and Christian thinker.

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Far better, far more entertaining, and far more insightful was P. J. O’Rourke’s How the Hell Did This Happen?

All of this brings me to the recently completed 2020 Presidential election. I suspect that for historians, political scientists, political journalists, and any of those kinds who write enjoyable books, this year (although miserable to have lived through) will make for the best political campaign stories since the days of Andrew Jackson’s 3 Presidential campaigns.

I look forward to the book or books that will come out in two to ten years that give some analysis of this year’s politics without losing the sound and the fury of it all. Joe Biden’s “success story” is one for the record books. I counted him out time and time again. No one has lost the Iowa Caucus and the New Hampshire primary and then received his party’s nomination. No one since William McKinley in 1896 spent most of the election in his home. And McKinley came out on his front porch to campaign and didn’t hide away in a basement. No one has had more verbal gaffes and goofs, lies and backtrackings and survived the press. No one has had as many serious concerns for his mental state and yet was able to win.

The only political biography of our time that parallels Biden’s is that of Donald Trump. His capture of the Republican nomination in 2016 was an incredible story. (I was sick over his wins from start to finish of the nomination process.) His election, against all odds, against all polling, and against all political wisdom, was either the stroke of a political genius or the perfect storm of political calamities. I think it was both.

The four years of the Trump Presidency have been both surprising and terrifying. Even a reluctant Republican loyalist like me often cringed, winced, and agonized over President Trump’s words and deeds. But then he made some amazing appointments and nominations both for his administrative agenda and the judicial branch. He could seem totally out of touch with reality, but then turn around and make some monumental ahievements.

“We love him for the enemies he has made” was one of the slogan used of President Grover Cleveland. If trut of Cleveland, it was many times more true of Trump. He wasn’t just a bit stand-offish toward the media, but was confrontational. Okay, go ahead and say “rude, vicious, and unbending.” He didn’t just “go along to get along,” an old political mantra, but he marched to a different drummer. He often seemed to have no convictions, no moral political compass, no metrics to guide his agenda, but then he would doggedly work, connive, and command that his campaign promises be implemented.

Seemingly devoid of understanding of the ways and means of Washington life, negligent or ignorant of American history, and painfully un-Presidential in conduct and character, he actually accomplished quite a bit during his term. And he drove his opposition batty. The Democrat Party had its best opportunity ever to present itself as a reasonable, history-grounded, careful, and deliberate alternative to the world of Trump, and it responded with the most leftist insanities and bizarre reaction imaginable.

Concerning the 2020 Presidential election, I will say this: Donald Trump defeated Donald Trump. Right now, there is hand wringing on both sides. The Democrat Blue Wave landslide didn’t happen. While Joe Biden broke all records for the sheer number of popular votes, the second place trophy goes to President Trump. Some eleven million more voters turned out for Trump in 2020.

The question is “Why wasn’t it 12 million?” Trump could have won with a few more hundred thousand votes in a few key states. Here is why he did not succeed:

  1. The Corona Virus changed everything. One can argue both favorably and unfavorably about how the Trump administration and the President himself responded, but it was a game changer.
  2. President Trump’s first debate was a disaster. The old saying in the 1980s was “Let Reagan Be Reagan.” When Reagan, who was always carefully prompted and advised by wife and staff, was free to be himself, he was magnificent. But Trump has too often proven to be unwilling to listen and learn and unable to hear and see himself correctly. He whipped up a frenzy in that first debate that likely pleased segments of his base. But what was needed was for those on the sidelines to see that the President was Presidential, wise, caring, and a leader.
  3. President Trump failed to win friends and influence people in all too man circumstances. His feud with the late Senator John McCain was stupid from the start when Trump criticized McCain for having been captured in war. Lots of political people don’t like each other, but the wise ones know when to bury the hatchet. Did Trump’s never-ending diatribes against McCain cost him Arizona? Maybe. It sure didn’t help.
  4. Perhaps this was too deliberate and too carefully orchestrated to counter, but the Trump campaign found itself being hammered week after week by narratives that made the President look bad. His niece wrote a book about her bad uncle. Unnamed sources said that he had bad mouthed military veterans. Trump people who left spoke critically of him. He and his family got the Corona virus. An aging and increasingly senile Bob Woodward came out with a book where Trump had shown reservations about revealing the dangers of the then impending virus. Trump got off track again and again in his rallies and tweets where he badmouthed his medical experts and others.
  5. President Trump failed to reach out to people who could have helped him. He should have been wooing and speaking with people like former President George W. Bush, Senator Mitt Romney, former VP Richard Cheney, and others all along. He could have been willing to listen, willing to praise, willing to learn, and yet not have to sacrifice his own style. A President has to be a leader and that involves a big dose of humility to be done right.

I will await the book or books that confirm what I am saying or that proves that I am yet once again wrong on politics.

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