Sunday, February 21, 2021

A Tale Of Three Transitions: Part II, Hoover To FDR (On 3Q)

 By Michael Liss

Adlai Stevenson, in the concession speech he gave after being thoroughly routed by Ike in the 1952 Election, referenced a possibly apocryphal quote by Abraham Lincoln: “He felt like a little boy who had stubbed his toe in the dark. He said that he was too old to cry, but it hurt too much to laugh.”

Stevenson got over it sufficiently to try again in 1956 (he stubbed a different toe, even harder), but the point remains the same. Losing stinks. Having to be gracious about it also stinks. So, it’s not unreasonable to assume that having to be gracious about it when you are the incumbent stinks even more, but that’s the job. The country has made a choice, and (let us keep our eyes firmly planted in the past for now), it is incumbent on the incumbent to cooperate, even if it is not required that he suddenly adopt the policies of his soon-to-be successor.

Last month, I wrote about the fraught transition from Buchanan to Lincoln, which ended with secession and, shortly after Lincoln’s Inauguration, led to the Civil War. Lincoln, and all that he represented, was clearly anathema to Buchanan, who, when he got up the nerve, acted accordingly. This month, I’m turning to the potent clashes of ideology and ego that went into the transition between Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Hoover was once one of the most admired men in the world. He had earned that through his service in World War I, first by aiding thousands of American tourists stranded in Europe, then, as Chairman of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, by helping to feed millions of people. He returned home in 1917 to take a role as Food Administrator for the United States, and, without much statutory authority, accomplished logistical feats on food supply and conservation. Woodrow Wilson sent him back to Europe to head the American Relief Administration, where he led economic restoration efforts after the war’s end, distributed 20 million tons of food to tens of millions across the continent, rebuilt communications, and organized shipping on sea and by rail. His efforts were so extraordinary that streets were named after him in several European cities.

All this before he was 45, and, being someone who did not lack confidence, he set his eyes on the White House in 1920. Both parties were interested in this man of extraordinary ability, but, in a political misstep that perhaps sprung from a touch of hubris, he announced that he would accept the Republican nomination if they adopted a platform reflecting his priorities. The party bosses who ruled in that time chuckled at his naiveté and exhaled a bit at their escape from the possibility of Hoover running as a Democrat. After a series of inconclusive votes at the 1920 GOP convention, they ducked into a smoke-filled room and picked the estimable Warren Harding of Ohio, with Calvin Coolidge to be his running mate.

As a consolation prize, Hoover accepted a role as Commerce Secretary, building out that department during a term in office that stretched more than seven years and through two Presidencies. In 1927, Coolidge tapped him to organize relief efforts in the Midwest after a gargantuan flood of the Mississippi covered 25 thousand square miles of normally dry land. He did superb work, once again putting his name in the public view.

Hoover won the 1928 Republican nomination, then went on to crush Al Smith (the first Catholic candidate) in the general election. His victory was comprehensive: 444 Electoral Votes to 87 (Smith didn’t even carry his home state of New York) and a Popular Vote margin of over 6.4 million. He was an extraordinarily popular man the day he took office.

Roosevelt’s path to the 1932 nomination took an entirely different route. Hoover had truly been a self-made man. FDR, not. Born to the gentry, educated at Groton, Harvard, and Columbia, he served (with Hoover) in Wilson’s Cabinet as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. In one of the stranger ironies, he approached Hoover in 1920 to run as a ticket, with Hoover for President. After Hoover declared himself a Republican, Roosevelt pursued and got the Vice Presidential nomination behind James Cox.

In 1921, FDR contracted polio, and the arduous rehabilitation seemed to add a certain dogged toughness to his sunny personality. He gradually returned to public life, giving nominating speeches at the Democratic Conventions in 1924 and 1928, and allowed himself to be convinced to run for Governor of New York in 1928 (he expected, correctly, that Democrats would be routed). Despite the national tide, Roosevelt won by one percent. As Governor, he pushed for things like unemployment insurance and farm aid that would later be helpful in the 1932 campaign. He was a frontrunner at the 1932 Democratic Convention, eventually winning the nomination on the fourth ballot, after he was endorsed by John Nance Gardner, then Speaker of the House, soon to be the (far less powerful) Vice President.

Hoover initially misjudged Roosevelt, thinking him the easiest of the potential Democratic nominees to beat. He saw Roosevelt as unserious and ignorant of policy and thought the nascent New Deal dangerous. Hoover lacked the inner eye that the best politicians have—he was unable to judge himself and recalibrate when necessary. His early speeches, often dense, were filled with self-praise for a recovery simply not experienced by most people on the ground. In late October, after being urged by supporters to get tougher, he laced into Roosevelt in a stemwinder at Madison Square Garden (“the grass will grow in the streets of a hundred cities”), declaring that the New Deal, would in effect, destroy the American way of life. Hoover’s closest advisors believed the tide had turned, and that California was certain and even FDR’s New York was within their grasp.

They were all deluding themselves. The 1932 Presidential Election was nothing if not decisive. Election Day brought Roosevelt 472 Electoral Votes to Hoover’s 59, and a popular vote margin of over 7.1 million. Looking closer at some of the states, you can see that there were huge swings from Hoover to FDR, some as much as 20%. California was particularly cruel, as FDR flipped the state, with a nearly one million vote differential from 1928. By midday, Hoover, on his way back to his home on the Stanford campus, knew he’d lost. He conceded, by telegram, at about 1:00 AM New York time.

If transition effectively begins the minute the result is clear, what’s truly fascinating is how little stock Hoover put in what was clearly a brutal personal repudiation. It’s not that he claimed fraud or tried to undermine the results. He just believed that the public was foolish, that his policies were the only rational response to the Depression, and (more quietly but equally firmly) that FDR was a lightweight unable to fill his shoes. In Hoover’s mind, his duty was clear: convince (or manipulate) FDR into adopting those Hooverian policies until 1936, when the genuine article could be restored to his rightful place in the White House. His closest advisors agreed; the public was too emotional to think clearly.

As in Buchanan’s transition to Lincoln, FDR’s Inauguration was still four months distant. In Hoover’s mind, those were four months where he could make his case to the public that they have erred, instruct FDR in the finer points of his policies, and tarnish FDR’s halo just a bit before he even got started.

Hoover saw an opportunity almost immediately with the issue of Britain and France’s debt payments to the United States. Hoover had previously suspended those payments and, for a variety of reasons, wanted that policy continued. He knew this was unpopular domestically, and, if he could get FDR on board supporting his policy, he could tag him with it. An exchange of telegrams raised the issue, and a meeting was set for November 22, 1932 at the White House.

What is so interesting here is how the two men seemed to size each other up instinctively. Hoover simply didn’t trust Roosevelt. Standing instructions were that any calls or meetings would require a stenographer and at least one “second.” There was a reason for this beyond Hoover’s almost irrational dislike of the man. Roosevelt was very skilled at being aimiable, but noncommittal, a talent which ended up being amply on display.

Hoover prepared obsessively before the meeting. After a few obligatory courtesies, the President launched into an hour-long soliloquy on international economic issues, while FDR sat quietly, pleasantly smiling and nodding. Hoover’s intention here, beyond further taking Roosevelt’s measure, was to use the appearance of access (a “joint board”) in return for FDR’s giving Hoover a free hand to set policy. Hoover thought he had FDR hooked, but the following day learned that Roosevelt had rejected the idea. Roosevelt’s message was clear: Hoover was still President for the next few months and should set his own course, as FDR would when he took office.

Hoover tried again in December, attempting to interest FDR in appointing a delegation to a World Economic Conference in London. Roosevelt demurred, and Hoover struck back by releasing the telegrams between the two men, hoping to make Roosevelt look bad in the press.

There were deeper issues than just public relations. As 1932 was drawing to a close, the political situation in Europe was deteriorating rapidly, with the Nazis gaining in influence. FDR wanted to discuss foreign policy, and Hoover’s Secretary of State, Henry Stimson, wanted to discuss it with him. The problem was that Hoover didn’t want the exchange of information to take place, and, despite all of Stimson’s requests, even to Hoover’s patriotism and sense of duty, he refused. Finally, a telegram to Hoover from Walter Edge, the Ambassador to France, broke the impasse by conveying Edge’s threat to resign unless talks were permitted. Word was sent to Roosevelt to ask Hoover respectfully for the meeting, giving the President the opportunity to gracefully agree.

On February 15, 1933, matters took a darker turn, as an assassin, Giuseppe Zangara, fired at Roosevelt, who was sitting in an open limo with Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak. A woman in the crowd grabbed Zangara’s hand just before he shot. He missed FDR, but fatally wounded Cermak.

Hoover was shaken by this, and quickly telegraphed FDR his concern, but he was not done with legacy-building. On February 18, he hand-wrote a long personal missive to FDR and had it delivered to his hotel in New York. The letter, perhaps a tad too pushy for the moment, warned Roosevelt of an impending catastrophe which could only be averted by his declaring for, and adopting, whole, Hoover’s policies. FDR sat on his response for 12 days before politely rejecting Hoover’s advice.

Literally days before the Inauguration, the economic situation was growing increasingly dire, and as it did, Hoover’s outreach to FDR grew more intense. The pitch was always the same: Roosevelt must publicly renounce the New Deal in order to instill confidence. While this standoff was taking place, the banking crisis was getting more acute on almost a moment-by-moment basis. Hundreds of banks had already failed, in many cases taking their depositors’ life savings with them. Now thousands more were ready to follow. Hoover had refused to step in, saying that the market would sort out winners and losers, and the strongest banks would survive. Desperation grew for a bank holiday—a nationwide closure for a period of time, so that outflows would cease long enough to determine which banks could survive (with propping up, if necessary) and which would need to fold. The Federal Reserve Board went on record asking Hoover for one, and the old Congress, on its last days, stayed open to process a request from the President. One state after another declared bank holidays or restrictions on withdrawals, but, without a national policy, these efforts weren’t enough. Hoover wouldn’t do it—all he would consent to was to forward a request by Roosevelt and his team, and to send yet another letter to Roosevelt asking him effectively to renounce the New Deal.

FDR wouldn’t bite, and he was right. In just a few days, he would be sworn in, and could set policy (and accept responsibility) as he chose.

Hoover tried one more time. He scheduled a tea the day before the Inauguration, which quickly veered from the ceremonial to the substantive, as Hoover had brought along the Treasury Secretary and Federal Reserve Board Chair for additional leverage. The meeting deteriorated rapidly, as Hoover pressed FDR to agree to make a joint announcement on a bank holiday. It was a fascinating endgame. The meeting broke up with more than a little anger, but Hoover kept at it, phoning FDR well into the night to ask him to agree. In the meantime, the Federal Reserve Board, frustrated with Hoover’s insistence that FDR must sign on, regardless of whether he had any statutory authority, drafted a letter to the President with a proposed proclamation. Hoover wouldn’t sign it. To the end, he wanted the bank-holiday policy to appear to be FDR’s.

Why? What possible reason could Hoover have had to extend the crisis? Stimson believed that Hoover had given in to his anger at being ousted and could not bring himself to do the right thing. It’s also reasonable to think that Hoover utterly despised FDR, who possessed in abundance the political gifts that Hoover never had.

Yet, to just look at the last few moments of a failed Presidency is to miss something larger. What had happened to the humanitarian Hoover of 1917-20, who worked tirelessly to ameliorate the suffering of literally hundreds of millions of Europeans? Where was Hoover in 1929, after the Crash, and in 1930-32, with massive unemployment, collapsing purchasing power, devastated farms? Why did he not act?

There is a tendency now to think of him as true to a cohesive economic philosophy, principled although wrong. But even this falls short: Hoover unquestionably deepened the Depression by doing things that a true free-market capitalist would never have done: He signed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, which inevitably led other nations to retaliate. Hoover also raised taxes, supported a tight money policy (when money was already desperately scarce), and walked away from the banking crisis. It’s not hard to see an astringent logic to Hoover’s approach—wash out the weaker hands; let the strongest survive; let the system right itself. Yet, there is also a disturbing undercurrent of the scold in Hoover—he’s the type who thought a lecture, a cold bath, and going to sleep without supper brought out the spine in a man. It was not just the transition, his dislike of FDR, and his bitterness at losing. The uncomfortable conclusion one can draw is that Hoover didn’t act in 1933 for the same reasons he didn’t act in 1930: because he didn’t want to, and, as President, he had the luxury of compelling his country to endure his particularized philosophical and personal morality.

The political historian Richard Neustadt wrote that “Presidential power is the power to persuade.” At this fraught moment in American life, the public was persuaded by Roosevelt. His extraordinary gift for communication, for speaking in a language that was both intimate, yet conveyed seriousness, was something that Greatest Generation people would remember more than a half-century later. Above all, Roosevelt wouldn’t just speak, he would act. His team would relentlessly experiment, sometimes hitting, often missing, but with a purposefulness from which the country drew strength. The public found the choice between the two men easy to make.

On March 4, 1933, literally just hours after his last call to FDR to convince him of the error of his ways, Hoover joined Roosevelt in an open car as it made its way to what should be the last stop of all Presidential transitions, the podium at the Capitol. There, in a moment of political grace, the outgoing President is given the opportunity to remind us of the gesture of George Washington, and publicly and voluntarily yield to his successor. In this final act, Herbert Hoover played his part. Franklin Roosevelt then rose, and rose to the occasion, delivering an Inaugural Address punctuated by a single phrase: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” The 100,000 in attendance cheered him, and the hope that he brought.

Special thanks to fellow @3QD author Bill Murray, who sent me Professor Eric Rauchway’s “Winter War” after reading my piece on FDR’s Fala Speech. He rekindled an interest in Presidential transitions, and particularly this one, with its unique intellectual and political struggle between winner and loser.

A Tale of Three Transitions: Part II, Hoover To FDR first appeared on Monday, January 4, 2021 at

You can follow Syncopated Politics on Twitter @SyncPol

Monday, February 1, 2021

A Tale of Three Transitions: Part I, Buchanan to Lincoln

By Michael Liss:

Editors Note:  This is part 1 of a series of three on Presidential Transitions.  It is followed by a second on Hoover to FDR, and the last is Trump to Biden.   

November 6, 1860. Perhaps the worst day in James Buchanan’s political life. His fears, his sympathies and antipathies, the judgment of the public upon an entire career, all converge into a horrible realty. Abraham Lincoln, of the “Black Republican Party,” has been elected President of the United States.  

Into Buchanan’s hands falls the most treacherous transition any President has had to navigate. The country is about to split apart. For months, Southerners in Congress, in their State Houses, in newspapers ranging from the large-circulation influential dailies to small-town broadsheets, had been warning everyone who cared to listen that they would not abide an election result they felt was an existential threat to their Peculiar Institution. Lincoln, despite what we now consider to be his notably conservative approach to slavery, was that threat. 

The task is made more excruciating because the transition, at that time, was longer—not the January 20th date we expect, but March 4th. Four long months until Lincoln’s Inauguration. Thirteen months between the end of the regular session of the outgoing Congress and the first scheduled session of the incoming one, unless the President calls for a Special Session. Each day, the speeches become more radical, the threats blunter. Committees are formed in many states to consider secession. By December 20, South Carolina leaves the Union. It is followed in short order by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and, on February 1, 1861, Texas. The Upper South (Tennessee, North Carolina, and all-important Virginia) holds back, as does Arkansas. Unionist sentiment is strong enough to keep them from bolting, but the cost of their loyalty is that nothing aggressive be done by Washington to bring back the seceding states. In reality, that means an acceptance of secession for those that cannot be wooed back. 

Buchanan is not the man for the job.

Nearing 70, ill, perceived as both politically and morally weak, rumored to be behind the unpopular Dred Scott decision, he is reviled in much of the North as a Doughface who allowed himself to be ruled by the Southerners in his Cabinet, and despised in the South for his querulousness. That he was not on the ballot (he had pledged himself to one term in his Inaugural Address) merely spared him the likely humiliation of being decisively rejected by the electorate.

Be that as it may, Buchanan is also still the President of the United States, with a Washington newspaper (the Washington Constitution) to act as house organ, patronage to distribute, policies that could reward or punish, and, most importantly, control over the Army and Navy. Would he use his powers to keep the Union alive?

Where does Lincoln fit in as President-elect? What is fascinating about this period is that, while Lincoln is an essential figure, even a precipitating one, he is also a mostly quiet actor. The custom of the day is for candidates and the newly elected (but not yet seated) to maintain a dignified silence. Lincoln largely sticks to that, even when asked to offer either soothing words, or tougher ones. He is convinced that his policies have been well-aired during the campaign, and any statement he makes would be either misinterpreted or hyperbolized. When informed of the many efforts made by well-meaning men of both regions and all parties to find some compromise short of war, his attitude is more one of acceptance than of encouragement. He would offer the South the assurances he had always offered, but never bargain away what he, and the Republican Party, had just won.

That leaves the field to the primary actors of this period, Buchanan and the Cabinet members he relies on, the Fire-Eaters in the South who crave an independent nation, and an ever-shifting group of men of various political persuasions and even motivations, who desperately search for some way out of the present crisis.

There were really four phases to Buchanan’s approach; the first pre-election, the last three governing his conduct as President. 

His pre-election choices may very well have increased the odds of the very disaster he was facing. Buchanan did not support his fellow Democrat, Steven Douglas. The two men disliked each other, having been rivals for the nomination before, and Douglas’s advocacy of Popular Sovereignty made him unpopular among slaveholders and the Doughfaces who voted with them. There was a potent internal conflict going on inside the Party that mirrored the one going on in the nation at large. While there were many issues driving North and South apart—tariffs, internal improvements, the value (or superiority) of an agrarian lifestyle over sheer economic growth—only slavery packed the emotional heft that would lead men to take up arms.

In June of 1860, at the Democratic Convention in Baltimore, these conflicts came to a head.  Southern Democrats would not accept a Douglas nomination, and, encouraged by Buchanan and egged on by the Fire-Eaters, many bolted, set up a rival convention, and nominated Vice-President John Breckinridge. As if three parties were not enough, a fourth, the compromise-inclined Constitutional Union Party then emerged, and nominated Tennessee Senator John Bell.  

It was soon realized that this split would likely be fatal to the South’s chances, as Bell would draw off support in the upper South and Border states. There were discussions between the Breckinridge and Bell camps and outreach to Douglas to combine forces, but that would have required Douglas to withdraw, and, quite understandably, he was unwilling to do that, so the talks fell apart.

We can speculate about what a two-man race might have looked like, but it should not be assumed Lincoln would have lost. In nearly sweeping the North, he actually took enough states by absolute majorities to win the Electoral College. Whatever the outgoing President may have wished for, the prize was Lincoln’s, and cleanly won.

Buchanan was faced with a critical decision—accept Lincoln’s win and plunge into trying to ameliorate the damage, or remain passive and resentful. His first problem was to ascertain reality. In this chaotic time, few people were able to ignore the noise and gain a clear-eyed view of what public opinion really was. Hindsight tells us that both sides sorely underestimated the willpower and ability of the other. 

Buchanan meets with his Cabinet for the first time on November 9, and there the battle lines are clearly drawn. His Secretary of the Treasury is Howell Cobb of Georgia, former Speaker of the House, and future President of the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States. Secretary of the Interior is Jacob Thompson, who, while still in the Cabinet, is soon to be appointed by the state of Mississippi as a “secession commissioner” to North Carolina, charged with convincing that state to secede. Secretary of War John Floyd, is a former Governor of Virginia, later accused by Grant in his memoirs of scattering the Army to places where they could be more easily captured, and redistributing military supplies from Northern locations to the South. In this phase of Buchanan’s response, it is clear he is more influenced by Southerners inside the Cabinet and out. Buchanan is, in a sense, a Unionist, but his policy, at least at this point, is one of appeasement and at least tacit acceptance of secession. Cobb remains in the Cabinet until December 6, Floyd resigns December 29, and, astoundingly, Thompson is not forced to resign until January 8, 1861. 

Buchanan proposes a national convention of the States, as authorized by Article V of the Constitution. There, he suggests, a compromise could be worked out to satisfy the South, and, if the South is not sufficiently appeased, it would be justified in separating. Reaction to this is mixed—Lewis Cass of Michigan, then Secretary of State, and Jeremiah Black of Pennsylvania, (then Attorney General, later Secretary of State) approve of the idea, so long as it is coupled with a willingness to enforce federal law; Cobb and Floyd refuse to commit; while Thompson and Secretary of the Navy Isaac Toucey of Connecticut support it.

November 10, the Cabinet meets again, and here is where the power of Southern members exerts itself. Buchanan has been working on a state paper of sorts, combining three concepts: acceptance of Lincoln’s election by the South, rejection of secession, and the implication that some sort of federal force might be necessary to enforce basic law, such as the defense of army posts/forts and collection of tariffs. The Southern members argue violently against it, and Buchanan, unfortunately, withdraws it.

It is important to realize what a critical turning point this is. What Buchanan is proposing is the minimum of what any President should insist on. There is no right of secession in the Constitution—it is not a transitory, voluntary compact where any state may leave if it’s unhappy with an election result or even just a law. Certainly, a seceding state has no right to use force against federal property and expect no response. For the Southerners to insist on such a course should have required their immediate resignations, yet none is offered and Buchanan doesn’t demand them. It is a critical early failure of leadership, and one that has broad ramifications. 

What Buchanan does do is a lot of nothing. He doesn’t reorganize his Cabinet, and he doesn’t push for a national convention. One can understand his fears in ejecting the Southerners and possibly further inflaming the Fire-Eaters, but what he fails to grasp is that they are likely beyond appeasement. By retaining them, by accepting the reality of secession and allowing them to influence policy to the nation’s detriment, he is broadcasting this weakness.

In light of this position, just how successful could a national convention be? The forces of Unionism and the interests of the North (even without taking into account that of the electorate that had just picked Lincoln) would have nothing left with which to bargain. The abstract concept of “Union” holds much less sway than many (including Lincoln) believe. You need at least a “whiff of grapeshot” to be taken seriously. The result is no national convention, and not the slightest hint of Southern acquiescence. 

A month after Lincoln’s election, Buchanan, and the country, continue to drift toward oblivion. For some bizarre reason, the Administration’s newspaper, the Constitution, continue to publish wildly inflammatory and disloyal articles and editorials. Still, even with them, Buchanan’s timorousness manifests itself in paralysis. It is not until Christmas that he informs the editor he is withdrawing support.   

What is Buchanan doing all this time, besides wringing his hands? Not following the advice of General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, who suggests reinforcing federal facilities in several Southern states. Not taking a firmer hand with his Southern advisers. Not putting the prestige of the President’s office behind a national convention. Instead, he continues to work on his state paper, thinking that perhaps words would help.  In mid-November, he turns that work over to his able Attorney General, Jeremiah Black. Black’s draft, however, is continually watered down to meet the objections from the Southerners (and Buchanan) until it is ready. The end product only goes so far as to say there is no right of secession. Beyond that, it kneecaps itself by saying that, if all federal officeholders in a seceding state refused to obey the law, there is no explicit Constitutional power in Congress (or in the Executive) to compel them to obey. Any attempt to do so, in effect, would be an act of war by the federal government on the seceding state. 

This construct is soon tested in South Carolina (it’s always South Carolina). Despite continual entreaties to Buchanan to reinforce the forts around Charleston Harbor, he remains too concerned that firmness would ruffle feelings. He focuses on his annual Address to Congress, while the South Carolinians prepare to take the forts. Almost daily arguments break out in the White House about how to respond, with Buchanan seemingly open to whomever is the last person to make an argument. In the meantime, Floyd is communicating privately with South Carolina Governor Gist, informing him of Buchanan’s plans and reassuring him the forts will not be reinforced. Buchanan, of course, does nothing besides fret and polish his language. In a moment of extreme historical irony, he invites Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis to view his draft and suggest changes. 

The Address is completed by December 2nd. Inside the Cabinet, the Union men are losing issue after issue. Lewis Cass is arguing the forts have to be maintained. Buchanan brushes him off (Cass is later to resign over this). Black asserts that, if Buchanan cannot support the offensive use of force to defend the forts, he must at least assert that the soldiers there have a right to defend themselves. Black also insists that, should a state secede, Congress has the power to take “necessary and proper” actions to deal with it. Buchanan turns him down on both.

The final Message to Congress is a monument to bad governing. Buchanan does agree that there is no right to secede, but, on point after point, he sides with Southern interests. In an extraordinarily polarized era, Congress (which still includes the vast majority of Congressmen and Senators from soon-to-secede states) finds much to hate. It’s a contradictory paper, asserting certain federal rights, but insisting that the government, and particularly the Executive Branch, has no power to enforce those rights—a quintessentially Buchanan position. 

There is more. Buchanan can’t rise to the occasion. He barely gets past his opening before launching into a denunciation of the North. “The long-continued and intemperate interference of the Northern people with the question of slavery in the Southern States has at length produced its natural effects.” He praises the Dred Scott decision, and goes on to offer what compromises he believes essential for the North to make to woo the South back, if it will come back. You would be hard-pressed to find a single balanced, constructive moment in all 6600+ words of it. 

Whatever this is, it is not leadership, and it is not Presidential. Buchanan just doesn’t have it in him. He punts the responsibility to Congress, yet advises that it, too, has little authority to act. Congress, hopelessly divided, and without Executive Power, can do nothing substantive. 

The stalemate only begins to break when Southern politicians decide to return home. With Cobb, Floyd and Thompson’s departure, Buchanan’s Cabinet gains new spine, but the two months lost are critical. It’s not one state anymore, but seven, and by February 4, 1861, they are already forming a government. Buchanan’s window for action to resolve the matter without violence is almost certainly closed. By the time Lincoln is Inaugurated, General Scott, and Secretary of War Holt must arrange for guns to line Pennsylvania Avenue and cross streets placed under guard. 

Each incoming President steps into the shoes of the one who is leaving. That places an enormous burden on the outgoing one; they must be caretakers in the best sense of the word—they owe it to their successors, and the American people, to leave as strong a country as they can. History’s verdict on how James Buchanan discharged that particular duty has been harsh, but well-earned.  

The original of Buchanan to Lincoln was published on on December 7, 2020.  You can find it at

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Tuesday, December 29, 2020

The 2020 Annual Ditty: The Donald

We Are Glad 

(with profuse apologies to Shakespeare and King Henry V)

We are sad The Donald is so unpleasant with us;

His presence a double bogey we won’t say thanks for:

When we marched our voters to the polls,

We did, perchance, escape the sand, take the match

And strike his bilious frown as just the hazard.

Told him he hath offended both friend and stranger

Packed all the courts so rule of law will be disturb'd

Ah, Censorious faces. Now we understand him well,

How he lorded o'er us and denied his wilder days,

Admitting not what sore use he made of them.

We ne’re before deeply valued this poor seat of POTUS;

And therefore, in ’16 took the chance, and gave ourselves

To trust in process; as 'tis ever common

That men are elevated when in The People’s House.

But tell the Donald we will keep our States,

We won them true and will spurn his tweetings

We need not rouse ourselves so chance begins anew

Or plod like duffers unable to make the shot  

Yea, show the Donald bold to look on us.

And tell the putrid prince this mock of his

Hath turn'd his hopes to rubble; and his soul

Be held sore charged for his wasteful vengeance

That shall fly with them: for many a thousand victims

Shall this his mock mock out of dear husbands and wives;

Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down;

And even some yet ungotten and unborn

That shall have cause to curse the Donald's scorn.

But this lies all within the Founders’ will,

To whom we do appeal; and in whose name

Tell you the Donald, we are coming on,

To cleanse the ground as we may and to put forth

A rightful hand in a well-hallow'd cause.

So get you now to Pence, and tell the Donald

His jest will savor those but of shallow wit,

When thousands jeer more than did laugh at it.

We give you now safe conduct. Convey it well.

Let's hope for a better 2021


Wednesday, December 23, 2020

The Night Several Days After Christmas

 Twas the night before New Years, when outside my flat

The Pols were stirring, but I said “no, no, not that.”

Screens were a’ flicker, with cheer and not Fox,

In hopes that the ball would shimmy, and glisten, and drop.

The children were rolling their eyes as I peek,

Just a few surveys, and op-eds that I seek

And M in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,

With Iowa’s numbers tucked in the nap.

When out from the street there arose such a clatter,

I sprang from the couch to see what was the matter.

Away to the window I flew like a flash,

Newspaper truck with deliveries, perchance?

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow

Reflected the pale visage of Michelle B. below.

I rubbed my eyes, when what should appear,

Michelle became Sarah, and eight tiny reindeer.

Ah, I cried, not her, I pled,

McCain, you idiot, go back to bed.

More rapid than sled dogs his coursers they came,

And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name!

"Now Perry! Now, RonPaul! Now, Rickster and Mitten!

On, Huntsman! On, Newter! On, T-Paw and Hermen!

You’ve had your fun; you’ve run your race!

Now dash away! Dash away! Save your face!"

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof

The prancing and pounding of a rather large hoof.

As I drew in my head, and was turning around,

Out the elevator came Christie came with a bound.

He was dressed in a suit, red tie with a flag

And his shoes were bright polished, he carried a bag.

A bundle of stickers he had on his back,

And he looked like a lawyer, just opening his pack.

His eyes-how they twinkled! His dimples how merry!

He said, not to worry, it won’t be Perry!

I said, “how ‘bout Newt?” He gave me a grin

“Not Newt, and not Ron, after I begin.”

“You picked Mitt, I replied, endorsed him well.”

“So I did,” said he, “It made him feel swell.”

He had a broad face and quite a big belly,

That shook when he giggled, like a bowlful of jelly!

Chris spoke no more words, but went straight to his work,

Pasting stickers on doorways then turned with a jerk.

And emptying the bag of his precious load,

And giving a nod, down, down the elevator he rode!

My kids, hearing sounds, called out my name.

“Dad, please come back, have you no shame?

I turned on my heel, Mitt’s up by three I declare

D, stop that, they beg, you’ll go mad, we don’t care.

Watch football, they said, not the Jets, they will lose.

Pick college, Northwestern, something to soothe.

So I turned my thoughts to the upcoming bowls

Hawkeyes and Gamecocks? What are the polls?

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Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Biden Wins: America Passes the Marshmallow Test

By Michael Liss

Put a small child in a room with a single marshmallow.    Tell him that, if he can wait for five minutes, he gets a second one. Leave the room, and see what he does.  Can he sit there, staring at that scrumptious-if-a-tad-rubbery mound of goo and powdered sugar and just fight off the urge to grab it, tear it to bits, and, like the Cheshire Cat, leave nothing but a smile?We, the voters, did it. We passed. Joe Biden will be our next President. America voted for stability and cohesiveness, for deferral of the pleasure of an adrenaline rush in return for a better outcome.  We will, on January 20, 2021, be a better country for it.   

We need to be better. Love him or loathe him, few could argue that President Trump was not a perpetual disrupter. Time may bring the perspective for more dispassionate analysis of his policies, but, right now, perhaps for just the next year or two, we need a different path.

There is an enemy at the gates we must confront and subdue. To do that, it’s increasingly clear we need an intense effort on the medical side, acceptance of public health measures, and system-wide cooperation. If we don’t get COVID-19 under control, we will not only let death walk amongst us unchallenged, but wreck our economy and our children’s future.

This is simply a truth. What is also a truth is that this is something Trump could not master. No virus ever succumbed to bluster, just as blunt force trauma is not universally effective as a negotiating strategy or in encouraging civic virtue.

As is appropriate in our system, eventually the voters get to choose. It is clear that Trump wanted to make the 2020 election about him, and he did. But in doing so, he assumed he could, once more, defy the laws of political gravity. Presidents are not just judged on demeanor and policy, but also how they handle crises. We did choose, and enough of us rejected his self-promotion as a sort of swashbuckling Albert Schweitzer to show him the general direction of the door.

This all seems a little unreal, both in the moment, and in hindsight. Against all odds, Joe Biden proved to be a serendipitous choice to face off against Trump’s unique skill set. I wasn’t thrilled with Biden’s entering into the nominating process. I thought him too old and too dated on policy, and I was desperate for Democrats to find new blood and resolve the disputes between the moderate and progressive wings of the Party. What’s more, while I wrote last September that Biden’s service had earned him the right to compete and that, like Lincoln, he was, in David Brooks’ phrase, “a very poor hater,” I questioned whether he could win the General Election with a candidacy that was based mostly on affect.

This was a fair concern. Biden was weak in the early primaries and, on the debate stage, he took attention from the other, more articulate and vigorous moderate candidates like Klobuchar, Harris, and Buttigieg. I feared his continued presence would splinter their support, while leaving Bernie and Warren clear shots at the nomination. This wasn’t what I wanted—the Left had passionate spokespeople; the Center needed a strong front-runner.

Then, a miracle and a nightmare. Representative Jim Clyburn stepped in with a critical endorsement, right before the South Carolina Primary, and Biden stomped the field. Centrist candidates dropped. A few days later, on Super Tuesday, Biden did it again. Then, hospitals (and mortuaries) in the Northeast began to fill up with victims of a disease that no one really seemed to understand.

Hindsight, as the virus now rips through states that were initially spared, is easy. Trump first saw COVID as a distraction from his central messaging, which was a steroidal mix of traditional Republican orthodoxy on economic and social issues, and a Pat-Buchannan-inspired, closed-fist approach to enforcing them. What is truly fascinating about Trump’s appeal (and what is indecipherable to Democrats) is how many of his supporters approach him as they would an all-you-can-eat barbeque. Take as much of the stuff as you like, skip the things you don’t, and go away happy. Trump, the long-time entertainer and casino-owner, instinctively understood it. Give the customer a thrill, and leave the moralizing to others.

Like it or not, it’s fair to say that, without COVID, Trump would have swaggered to reelection, while Democrats dithered and second-guessed one another about their search for the perfect mate. In light of Trump’s eternal quest for grievances, if I were he, I think I’d shake my fist at the sky. Jim Clyburn may have given him a weak-at-the-time opponent, but fate, and his own hubris, made that opponent formidable. Joe Biden won, convincingly, and Donald Trump lost, convincingly. As Larry Sabato tweeted,

This was NOT an especially close election. #PresidentElectBiden won 306 EVs plus a 4-5 million-votes plurality. You want close? Look at 1960,1968,1976,2000, among others. NETWORKS—Stop feeding this false storyline.

What’s next? Well, first we have to get through the thicket of Republican challenges and the toxicity of their language. Trump owns the GOP and few of its elected officials can chance not echoing the claims he makes. Both Lindsey Graham and Ron Johnson have promised investigations. There will be avid forum shopping to find Trump-favorable judges to issue Trump-favoring rulings, perhaps all the way up to the Supreme Court. But many Republicans privately acknowledge that this is being done largely to soothe Trump’s ego, and in their desire to delegitimize Biden and rough him up. The voters may have spoken, but nothing beyond common decency requires Republicans to acknowledge it, and there’s a shortage of that right now.

The noise may continue, but our Presidential-succession magic act will as well. A President at the end of his term goes into a box, a wand is waved, and another one comes out. Joe Biden will be inaugurated and the nuclear football will be passed to him. There are whispers that Trump will simply refuse to leave the White House. It won’t matter. Presidential power comes from the office, not from the place. Joe Biden will be President, and Donald Trump will not.

So, if you are Joe, what do you do when you actually get to sit in the big chair? You start by remembering that the Presidency is a unique blend of pastoral and policy initiatives. You do what he’s already signaled he is going to do: Aim right at COVID-19 with a laser focus, and give assistance without looking first as to whether or not the state voted for you. That’s an immediate break from the past, and a healing one. While you are doing that, rejoin the WHO as a sign that we will be reentering the world. Push out those Executive Orders to reverse Trump’s vandalism. Don’t waste time arguing about them, just do them.

Find a way for Kamala Harris to be relevant, and pick a quality Cabinet—people of ability with the intellectual capacity to be adaptive. Joe faces multiple crises at the same time, and he needs every type of help he can get. That kind of Cabinet starts with a superior Secretary of State, yet another signal to the world that America is ready to re-engage with them, applying a combination of open-mindedness and strength.

While Biden appointees are doing the spadework on the policy side, Joe truly is Commander-in Chief of the pastoral. Preach bipartisanship and comity on every issue. Make a legitimate effort to negotiate with Republicans over legislation—give them a chance, and some goodies.

Will Republicans accept this? Doubtful, at least at first. McConnell expects to resume his role as master obstructor, and Donald Trump is not going away, and will put their feet to the fire if there’s even a hint of “fraternizing with the enemy.”

This is where Joe’s backslapping may have to be with a slightly firmer touch. The limits of Executive Power have just been redefined by Trump, and those goalposts won’t be moved back all that easily. McConnell has created a minefield of conservative judges for any Democratic President, but many of them came out of the Federalist Society’s farm system, and have professed a belief in an Imperial Presidency. Of course, we expect some of them to be selective in their application of that belief, but most go-it-alone Biden moves will stand. A strong Chief of Staff and legislative aides can make that point to McConnell and McCarthy, while letting Biden float above the fray.

Then, after Joe has conquered the virus, and brought about world peace, there’s the Democratic Party. In an election where their candidate won the Presidency, their performance everywhere down-ballot ranged from poor to appalling. This, only two years after they had a terrific Midterm Election. There are reasons for this: Democrats have a blurred message, say a lot of scary stuff, and don’t seem to stand for very much beyond fighting with one another. Abby Spanberger (7th CD, Virginia) had it right when, on a conference call, she called leadership out for undercutting moderate incumbent Democrats, many of whom were Freshman in just won-for-the-first-time seats. This is something that needs to be fixed. If Democrats don’t get their act together, 2022 will be a bloodbath.

Biden should never get involved in intramural struggles between ideological wings, but he can help deliver a better farm system with well-chosen appointments that will elevate future candidates. And he can frame a message through his own policy choices. For far too long, Democrats have mouthed “we care,” without concrete proposals to show that care. Biden actually does care, and he should make it a priority.

And the GOP? There is a fantasy held by some liberals, and even some Never-Trumpers, that some type of evil spell has been cast upon the Party, and, when the King is dead, the curse will be lifted and they (and political life) will return to regular order. This is a fairy tale. I do believe many elected Republicans would prefer not to join in the excesses of the Trump Era, but they have, and they continue to do so. Trump has managed to create an entirely new army of voters (with whom he communicates constantly) to meld with the business and Evangelical wings of the Party. Voters mean winning elections, and those who put their integrity and principles in a blind trust for the duration are now faced with an uncomfortable truth: They have lost the Presidency, but not Trump. They still work for him. The Republican Party you see now is the Republican Party.

What’s the next chapter? First, the obvious. Trump will never genuinely concede, will never participate in any transition, and will do as much damage (and feather as many nests with public assets) as he can. Then, Joe, Kamala, and Company will get down to work. What people should realize right now is that a President’s success is every American’s success, and his/her failures are everyone’s failures. So, if you are a Democrat, and Joe is too moderate for your tastes, root for him to win anyway and support someone else in the 2024 primaries. And, if you are a Republican, indulge yourself in criticism, oppose him where you need to, but hope he can make some headway against our problems.

In closing, I’m going to quote from an email I got from a Millennial reader.

All those with political power have demonstrated over the course of my entire life is their ability to get more and more vicious towards the other side—a dynamic, which, by 2020, has developed to the point of abject refusal to entertain the humanity and legitimacy of those you don’t agree with. And there are already too many people my age who have learned that lesson—to quote a former colleague of mine from a conversation a year ago, ‘some people are too evil to humanize.’ When the election was called yesterday afternoon, I was relieved Trump would no longer be President. After Biden’s acceptance speech, though, I began to be just a little bit hopeful that those in power might begin the process of disarming the conflict and governing together for the whole country.

May it be so.

Biden Wins: American Passes the Marshmallow Test was first published on November 9, 2020 at

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Thursday, October 15, 2020

The Consummately Corrupt Election of 1876

By Michael Liss  (October 12, 2020,

There are times where we are simply unable to surpass our elders. 

“Corrupt” doesn’t capture it. Neither does any other epithet or adjective or modifier you care to couple with corrupt. When it came to ballot stuffing, voter suppression, intimidation, bribes, and just garden variety mendacity, the Election of 1876 had it all.

In some respects, this all makes perfect sense. In 1876, America is seething. It is the last year of the (impressively corrupt) Grant Administration, early in the Gilded Age, where the buying and selling of virtually everything is more a question of price than right or wrong. Reconstruction has been a mess: eight of the former Confederate States have thrown off their “Carpetbagger” governments and are now controlled by “Redeemers,” the same old folks that seceded from the Union after Lincoln was elected. The substantive meaning of the 14th and 15th Amendments as they relate to former slaves has evaporated in most places. There is xenophobia and anti-Catholic agitation and the continued threat of violence. And there is a dawning realization that the two-party system no longer sorts itself out with consistency when addressing the growing divide between the rich and poor, labor and capital, industrialized vs. agrarian, hard money vs. soft, lavish spending on internal improvements vs. frugality, and so on. It is still possible for Republicans to ”wave the bloody shirt” and recall the Civil War, but a surprising number of former adversaries are finding common interests that seem to supersede allegiance to whatever uniforms they previously wore. Democrats have been shut out of the Presidency since James Buchanan, but, in 1874, at the height of the recession caused by the Panic of 1873, they rode a Blue Wave to control of the House. Is 1876 the year they can break the Republicans’ iron lock, especially with federal troops still propping up Reconstructionist governments in Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana?

It is November 8, 1876, the morning after Election Day. In this pre-exit-poll, pre-electronic-tabulation era, while the results are still trickling in, it looks like the Democrats have finally taken the Presidency. The extraordinarily dull Samuel J. Tilden, the present (and future) Governor of New York, not only has a lead of 300,000 in the popular vote, but also at least 184 Electoral Votes, just one short of a win. Rutherford B. Hayes, the present Governor of Ohio (and no live wire himself), has no more than 165. Three States are quite close—Florida (of course), which is leaning toward Tilden, South Carolina, with a slight margin for Hayes, and Louisiana, with a significant margin for Tilden. In a fourth, Oregon, a Republican Elector has turned out to be ineligible, and the Democratic Governor claims the right to replace him (with a Democrat). Twenty Electoral Votes out there, and all Tilden needs is one.

The Hayes people are initially depressed. If the reported margins are correct, if either Louisiana or Florida go to Tilden, then the game is over. It is General Dan Sickles who first grasps that, if the Pacific-rim States come in for Hayes, and those three wayward Southern States can be swung in his direction, and whatever bizarre thing that is happening in Oregon can be averted, than Hayes would hit 185 and win the White House.

Sickles might have been one of the most colorful personalities 19th Century America produced (and there was a lot of competition for that crown). Among his many notable accomplishments were leading a heroic, if ill-chosen, stand at Gettysburg (where he lost a leg), serving in the House of Representatives and as Minister to Spain, and, my personal favorite, being the first person in the United States acquitted of murder by reason of temporary insanity. Sickles had accosted Phillip Barton Key II, nephew of Francis Scott Key and then U.S. Attorney, across the street from the White House, and shot him dead for sleeping with Sickles’ (much younger) wife. After a dramatic trial, he was set free.

Fortunately, that little dalliance with unreality was past, leaving Sickles ready for the moment. He quickly roused other Republican powers, including Zachariah Chandler, the Chairman of the Republican National Committee (who apparently had fortified himself with a substantial quantity of spirits the evening before, and was not entirely coherent). These men contacted Republican elements in Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana (all three still under federal control as part of Reconstruction, with “Carpetbagger” governments), plus Nevada and Oregon, and told them all to hold fast. The Cavalry might still be coming.

One of the Republicans’ real vulnerabilities in this fight (beyond the fact that Tilden had a sizable lead in Louisiana) was that they had been absolutely pulverized in the 1874 Midterm Elections. The loss of the House was critical, since the House was where all contested Elections were supposed to end. So it had been in 1824, when John Quincy Adams bested Andrew Jackson with some assistance from fellow candidate Henry Clay. So it would be in 1876, if the Republicans weren’t careful. The pesky 12th Amendment clearly said so. Hayes needed to get to 185.

Nowadays, the two parties send platoons of lawyers to dispute votes, but, in those days, lawyers were considered too scrupulous, so a collection of distinguished worthies (Civil War officers, men of means, newspaper editors, lobbyists, men of even more means) were dispatched to the contested States. These folks were called, apparently without irony, “visiting statesmen.” The visiting statesmen’s job was to twist (or massage) enough arms so that “returning boards” (which had the actual authority to decide what the exact tallies were) would be impressed enough with the justice of the candidate’s cause to display the appropriate amount of vision.

It was Hayes who needed serendipity, but, as was the custom of the day, neither candidate acted as a leadership voice in the argument. That would be considered unseemly, as personal campaigning was. Electioneering (and “influencing”) was a team sport, and, in 1876, the Republicans had the better team. They also had Grant’s troops to protect returning boards should those returning boards make the “correct” (but quite possibly unpopular) decision.

First, to the job at hand: securing the Electoral Votes of Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana.

South Carolina was the putatively the easiest—the unofficial count had Hayes up by between 600 and 1000 votes, but Democrats seemed to have won both the Governorship and control of the State Legislature. That wouldn’t do, so the five-man, all-Republican, South Carolina returning board got creative, and, on November 22, invalidated all (as in, “all”) the votes from two Democratic counties, Edgefield and Laurens. That both confirmed Hayes’ State-wide lead and managed to flip back the State Legislature. Then, the Republicans in the Legislature refused to accept the newly elected (and returning-board-rejected) Democrats from Edgefield and Laurens, and declared Daniel Chamberlain the winner of the Governor’s race. Angry Democrats then walked and set up a rival government (yes, a rival government) under Wade Hampton, a former Confederate General. This didn’t solve Hayes’ problem completely, as both parties would later send their slates of electors to Washington, but, since he had won the preliminary tally, it seemed sufficient.

Next, to Louisiana, and here’s where things were very dicey. Tilden held a substantial lead—roughly 6,300 votes, difficult simply to wave a wand at unless the person holding the wand (at that point, James Madison Wells, former Governor and then head of the returning board) was sufficiently pliant. Wells was particularly fond of money, and money was available in return for flexibility. On December 5, in a move that showed flexibility to the point of double-jointedness, the returning board tossed out enough votes to turn Tilden’s 6,300 vote edge into a Hayes margin of more than 5,000. In the same breath, it also flipped back the State Legislature. Just as in South Carolina, angry Democrats set up a rival government. As unfair as a net exchange of nearly 12,000 might seem to the objective eye, the well-meaning Hayes was convinced by his friends that the original Tilden (and Democratic) edge was the result of the Democrats having terrorized black voters, and so justice was done.

On to Florida. There, Hayes trailed by 94 votes, and, again, Democrats seemed to have won both the State Governorship and State Legislature. But Florida was ground zero for the more flamboyant forms of cheating—multiple voting, the odd dead person, stuffing some ballot boxes, “misplacing” others, even reports of Democratic ballots printed with Republican symbols to fool illiterate voters (in 1870, 20 percent of the total population was illiterate, 80 percent of former slaves). So there was every reason to believe that Tilden’s edge might not have been entirely earned. Of course, the Republicans did some of the same things leading General Lew Wallace, a Hayes visiting statesman and later the author of Ben Hur, to report back that he couldn’t tell which side was worse. Once again, Florida’s returning board (controlled by Republicans) found votes to flip (a net of about 1,000), and there went the State to Hayes.

Those three states gave Hayes 185 Electoral Votes, and the victory, if anyone would accept it. Except, not quite yet. Oregon provided the Democrats a last toe-hold, and they gripped it hard. In Oregon, Hayes clearly carried the popular vote, but one of his Electors was a federal employee, which was clearly prohibited by the 12th Amendment. Presumably, he would simply be replaced by another Republican—except that Oregon’s Governor (the colorfully named La Fayette Grover) was a Democrat, and, at the behest of DNC Chairman Abram S. Hewitt (also known as the Father of the New York City Subway System), he picked the replacement—a Democrat.

Under the 12th Amendment, all States needed to certify their Electoral Votes and send them on to Washington to be “counted” by December 6. Thirty-four of those States complied. Our four got creative—Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana sending completely rival slates, and Oregon with one slate having the all-Republican Electors, a second with one Democratic Elector.

Now it was time for the lawyers, because the two sides immediately disagreed on what the 12th Amendment actually meant. It says the “President of the Senate” (usually, the sitting Vice-President, unless he has passed away) shall “count” the votes sent in by the States in the presence of the House and Senate. No one was exactly sure what that meant, down even to the word “count.” Hayes, given that the Republicans still controlled the Senate, insisted that “count” meant, in effect, “decide,” and that the “counting” should be done by then President Pro Tem of the Senate, Thomas Ferry of Michigan (unsurprisingly, a Republican), standing in for the deceased Henry Wilson. Democrats, needless to say, disagreed, and said the “counting” should be done by either throwing it to the House (which they controlled), or, at the very least, to both Chambers, and “counting” should also include Hewitt’s suggestion, which was to reexamine how the returning boards made their decisions. One thing was certain: as long as Democrats controlled the House, no Republican Senator was going to decide, on his own, who got to be the next President.

The two sides squared off. Interestingly enough, although Hayes was insistent that the only “counting” could be done by Ferry (to his mind both the correct and winning decision), in those days, there was still interest in preserving Congressional prerogatives, and many of Hayes’ fellow Republicans pushed back.

The old adage that politics makes for strange bedfellows began to come into play. Not every Republican was with Hayes, and not every Democrat with Tilden. Both local and regional interests began to chip away at party discipline.

Hayes’ most serious individual defection was Roscoe Conkling, a powerhouse in New York, who insisted on controlling the State’s patronage, something to which Hayes would not accede. Some Southern Republicans were more wary of a Hayes Presidency than a Tilden one, as Hayes had expressed warm, conciliatory thoughts toward the South (although he had not openly made any hard commitments). These Southern Republican Senators worried about being isolated in a region dominated by hostile Democrats.

As for Tilden, not only did his cold-fish personality and detachment fail to inspire loyalty, there were also legitimate concerns coming from Southern Democrats. They wondered if it was better to cut a deal with Hayes—support in return for a hard commitment to Home Rule, getting rid of the troops, the Carpetbaggers, and (more quietly) any substantive rights for former slaves. With those in place, the South would be solidly Democratic in the span of a few years.

Not to be ignored were economic interests. Business wanted markets, infrastructure spending, and taxpayer favors. The most potent of the businesses were the railroads, already the beneficiaries of insanely rich subsidies. Their lobbying forces, led by Thomas A. Scott, the President of both the Pennsylvania and the Texas and Pacific Railroads, had their hands everywhere, using a variety of inducements to gain another round of largess. They were able to frame this as a regional issue for Southern politicians—the North had received the lion’s share of internal improvement money, and the South needed parity to have a chance to grow. But also lobbying was Scott’s sworn enemy, Collis P. Huntington of the Southern Pacific, who proposed to build West to East, without subsidies. Unsurprisingly, there was considerable resistance amongst Northern politicians of both parties to a big new round of grants, particularly to the South. The importance of railroad influence on the final election result has been debated by historians (I recommend C. Vann Woodward’s Reunion and Reaction: The Compromise of 1877 and the End of Reconstruction), but there is little doubt the railroads swung a big stick.

What the power brokers and regional interests were really seeking was more about leverage and less about party. Tilden’s ascetic campaign (he ran mostly on Reform in a time of economic depression) enthused few, so they looked to Hayes for clear commitments that their needs would be served.

Hayes wasn’t especially good at cutting deals. He still believed he was absolutely entitled to the win, without further ado, and he had talked himself into believing that “counting” simply meant “counting by my loyalist who will accept only results favorable to me.” That being said, he was also willing to allow close associates like John Sherman (then Senator from Ohio, later Hayes’ Secretary of the Treasury, and McKinley’s Secretary of State) to represent that they understood his private thoughts, while Hayes, himself, didn’t have to commit to anything.

All this jockeying back and forth was taking time off the calendar. It wasn’t so much that Tilden was growing stronger, as that the internal cross-currents were still being negotiated. In mid-December, the parties managed an ingenious, but highly questionable solution. The two sides decided to create a committee of 15, an “Electoral Commission” consisting of five members of the House, five of the Senate, and five Supreme Court Justices—in all, seven Democrats, seven Republicans, the 15th, a Supreme Court Justice considered “neutral.” In our politicized time, it’s hard to see this as anything other than a recipe for rank partisanship, but the two sides actually had someone in mind for that 15th slot—Justice David Davis, Lincoln’s friend and former campaign manager, who had sat on the Court for nearly 15 years, and was considered fair-minded. In effect, the Electoral Commission really consisted of one man—David Davis. What was amazing was that enough people had confidence in his principles that they would place their (political) fate in his hands.

Ah, best laid plans. Before Davis could actually assume his duties, the Democratically controlled State Legislature of Illinois (possibly induced by Tilden’s thoroughly corrupt nephew) selected him to be their Senator, presumably also thinking that this might influence his decisions on the Commission. To modern ears, this sounds completely crazy: Who would step down from a lifetime appointment on SCOTUS to take a Senate seat—particularly in an era in which the State Legislatures, and not the voters, selected Senators? But Davis was an ambitious man who had previously expressed interest in being President, and, on January 25, he accepted.

Best laid plans, Part II. Davis really was honorable (if a bit of a lifetime operator) and promptly resigned from the Commission, because he didn’t want the implication he’d been bought. The Illinois Democrats had shot themselves, their Party, and Tilden in the foot. With Davis out, what the Electoral Commission got was a consistent eighth Republican vote, that of Justice Joseph P. Bradley. Why Democrats went along with this is unclear—likely they thought he was the best of a bad lot, given his previous decision on the unpopular-in-the South Enforcement Act, but it was Bradley who subsequently came in for most of the blame (including the unproven but tantalizing allegation that he changed his mind as to how to vote at the very last moment, under some influence).

February 1, 1877. It began. A joint session of Congress heard the reading of each State’s returns, until it got to Florida. The conflict was joined, the dispute was referred to the newly created Commission, and the Joint Session adjourned.

Immediately, the critical question was upon them. Should the Commission “go behind the vote” (as Hewitt had wanted and planned for)? More specifically, could (and should) they investigate whether the final vote totals as certified by Florida, in particular, and, by extension, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Oregon, did in fact reflect the popular will? In many respects, this was not only a threshold question, but a decisive one.

In fairness, this was not easy. No one, not even the fiercest partisan, seriously believed that Florida, or any of the disputed election tallies, was accurate. What the Commission’s decision on this point would come down to was, in essence, an irrevocable choice to favor slates certified by the then Republican-controlled States, and not those proposed by Democrats. This was, in effect, Hayes’ position from the beginning—or, to put it in less delicate terms, the side with the power to cheat last would win. Complicating this was that the Florida Supreme Court had already weighed in on December 14, saying that the Democrats had indeed been defrauded, and permitting Democrats to take control of the State government on January 1, 1877. But the Commission didn’t feel itself bound by the State court as it related to the counting of Electoral Votes, and it bought the argument of Republicans that a recanvass was essentially impossible, particularly given how little time was left to Inauguration Day (March 4, 1877). With that, on February 9, by an 8-7 decision, with Bradley in the majority, Florida went Hayes.

Anyone reading the tea leaves could have predicted what came next, and both candidates did. Hayes started planning his Cabinet and sketching out his policies. Tilden turned his attention to a European trip. Democrats were furious, but they were also basically powerless. Having agreed to let the Electoral Commission resolve the election, and having acceded to Bradley’s selection, they knew they were being cheated and also understood that, beyond a miracle in Louisiana, all they had left were procedural moves.

Democrats played the card they had—the threat of a filibuster, and delay. They wanted something, most particularly Home Rule and the end of Carpetbagger governance where it still existed. Railroad money was also being fire-hosed about, and roughly three dozen Democrats pushed for subsidies for the Texas and Pacific plan.

February 12, Louisiana, perhaps the last levee. In hindsight, it’s hard to say why the Commission didn’t take a harder look at the State, given the extent of what was clearly fraud, and being mindful of the shift of what amounted to about eight percent of the entire vote. But the game had been decided when the Committee refused to go behind the votes, and, with that construct, the Democrats’ Louisiana case was, in form and substance, identical to that of Florida…and just as hopeless. On February 16, the Commission went 8-7 for Hayes.

Hayes really started measuring the drapes. He now was faced with a new round of questions—how free a hand would he give the Redeemers in the South, when would all the troops be withdrawn, and what would happen to the rights of the former slaves? Also emerging, the growing insistence of the railroad forces, who were nominally backing Hayes as the perceived winner, for concrete promises on their deliverables.

Hayes continued to be coy. He seemed to be promising a great deal of “friendship” and “looking kindly on” to virtually everyone, but no one could pin him down. It’s hard to say whether it was out of principle or calculation, but it was shrewd politics, with his Inauguration seemingly assured.

Southern Democrats weren’t quite done. They wanted concessions, particularly in Louisiana and South Carolina, where Home Rule also meant to them the recognition of Democratic Governors Francis T. Nicholls and Wade Hampton. This was a tough pill for Hayes and the Republicans to swallow, especially since both Gov. Stephen B. Packard of Louisiana and Gov. Daniel H. Chamberlain of South Carolina were doing their utmost to keep their States Republican, even at the risk of their personal safety.

There was an intellectual point as well, one that went to the legitimacy of the Hayes Presidency. Packard and Chamberlain were the beneficiaries of the same vote-switching scheme as Hayes. If his claim to office was based on those tallies, why wasn’t theirs?

More dissonance, this time from an unexpected source. Southern Republicans, again angry about Hayes’ stroking of Southern conservatives, and fearful of being cut loose to Democrats’ tender mercies, threatened to bolt to Tilden if they weren’t mollified with some tangible goodies, like Cabinet positions. They were made some vague promises and then whipped in the Senate vote on the Louisiana decision on February 19.

Everyone was running out of time. Democrats had only the threat of not ratifying the Commission’s decisions, and only if they could hold through a filibuster. They realized the public would not be happy about the chaos that would occur on March 4 if there were no President, and they had absolutely no viable path to winning. The best they could do was negotiate around the edges.

Hayes wasn’t the easiest man to negotiate with. The soon-to-be President Elect was now right in the middle of trying to assuage everyone’s fears, while not conceding anything publicly. More anodyne statements without substance emerged from his spokesmen.

February 23, Oregon. Quickly disposed of (and possibly the only fair decision of the four), the Commission gave Hayes all three of Oregon’s Electors.

Then, a last minute gaffe came from an unexpected source. An editorial in the Ohio State Journal, considered very friendly to Hayes, called for Grant to uphold Packard’s Governorship in Louisiana with the use of federal troops. This was exactly what Southerners, who had thought they had extracted a promise of the end of “bayonet rule,” feared. If Hayes was behind this, it was a signal he wasn’t going to deliver. The day after Oregon was decided, fired-up Democrats forced a two day adjournment. They wanted what they thought was promised to them. President Grant then took an interesting step, saying that Louisiana Democratic Governor Nicholls should be entitled to stay in office.

It was time to work something out. Edward Burke, then the personal representative of Louisiana’s Democratic Governor Nicholls, huddled together with Sherman and a few others in Stanley Matthew’s rooms at the Wormley Hotel. Matthews, a future Senator and Supreme Court Justice, had been among those arguing Hayes’ case before the Electoral Commission. Everyone wanted something. Sherman needed to hear from Nicholls that the rights of blacks would be respected in Louisiana (Hayes would have insisted), and that outgoing Governor William Pitt Kellogg’s appointment as Senator would be left untouched (Senate Republicans needed the seat). A great deal of discussion took place between all of the parties, with other interests (including that of the railroad lobby) coming into play. Deals were made, some to which Hayes might not have agreed, like the abandonment of Packard. It’s not clear that any new ground was broken, but sometimes the appearance of activity is as important as the substance.

February 27, the Commission met again, and, again, by the same 8-7 margin, settled South Carolina for Hayes. With that formality, and the deals at Wormley, the stage seemed to be set for the closing act.

But the count did not go well. On February 28, the Democrats were back to filibustering, and forced the House to adjourn without taking action. On March 1, the session resumed with ferocity. Men jumped on desks and shouted at each other and at Speaker Samuel Randall, who ruled against the holdouts time after time. While the back and forth continued, Louisiana’s Democratic Congressmen sent a message to Grant, urging him to withdraw troops from their State immediately. Grant, through his Secretary, showed them a text of a telegram he would send to Republican Governor Packard, stating that he (Grant) would not support Packard’s government, provided that the count continued. William M. Levy of Louisiana rose, was recognized, and announced he had received sufficient assurances from both Grant and friends of Hayes that the new Administration’s policy toward the South would be one of “conciliation.”

The Democrats had played a weak hand well, and, with Levy’s remarks, they essentially read it into the record. The leadership called for a vote, but, even at this last moment, 57 diehards continued to obstruct, and final passage didn’t come until 3:38 a.m. It went to the Senate, and, at 4:10 a.m. on March 2, Hayes finally got his reward.

As March 4 was a Sunday, Hayes was sworn in privately at the White House on March 3, with a public ceremony on Monday March 5. At the same time as his private ceremony was taking place, incensed Democrats, not and never to be reconciled to what had occurred, introduced and passed a resolution declaring Tilden the winner of the 1876 Election. As is often true in politics with public responses to the seamy, it was an empty gesture.

Special thanks to Professor Philip Klinkner of Hamilton College, who was kind enough to point me in the right direction after I received an email from a reader suggesting the 1876 election as a topic.

If you are interested in Rutherford B. Hayes (and the Election of 1876), you may wish to visit the website of his Presidential Library, where there are two excellent pieces—the first, the text of a speech by Michael Holt, and, the second, a chapter of a longer book, Disputed Election, by Ari Hoogenboom. 

The Consummately Corrupt Election of 1876 was first published on October 15, 2020 on

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Tuesday, August 18, 2020

A Joyous Bit of Politics: FDR's Fala Speech

 By Michael Liss

It is March of 1944, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt is dying. His physicians, Lieutenant Commander Howard Bruen and Vice-Admiral Ross McIntire, know it, as do a handful of others McIntire brought in. FDR probably knows it as well, no matter how much his doctors may have sugar-coated their findings. He has cardiac insufficiency, arteriosclerosis, congestive heart failure, an enlarged and failing left ventricle, and mitral valve issues. Modern medicine would likely have offered more productive years of life, but, in the era before sophisticated heart surgery, before the development of a heart-lung machine, and with a very limited formulary of drugs, it is just a matter of time, maybe a year at most. 

His decline was obvious. You could see it on his face, in the amount of time he needed to recover from exertion, in the loss of weight. He had undertaken a long sea trip on the USS Baltimore to visit American forces in the Pacific, but spent much of it in his stateroom, resting. An ordinary man of that time would have scaled back, gradually becoming a convalescent. But FDR was no ordinary man, and 1944 no ordinary time. Obviously, the Democratic Party would re-nominate him for an unprecedented fourth term, if he wanted it, but there was deep concern in the family that he would never survive. Eleanor Roosevelt was later quoted as saying, “If Franklin loses, I’ll be personally glad, but worried for the world.”

It was also a time of war-weariness. America was on the offensive, but the going was slow, progress not linear. Germany and Japan were wounded, but by no means anywhere near surrender. The public was unhappy. There had been reluctance to involve ourselves in the first place, and, while few people openly voiced resistance after Pearl Harbor, many of the old isolationists became critics of Roosevelt’s leadership. Republicans, still at an electoral disadvantage after carrying the legacy of Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression, nominated Thomas E. Dewey to oppose FDR. Dewey was credible. He had built a national reputation as an incorruptible crusading prosecutor who took on the rackets and convicted Lucky Luciano, then gone on to become New York’s 47th Governor by the time he was 40. This was Dewey’s second chance; he had run for the Republican Presidential nomination in 1940 and been considered a favorite, but his early non-interventionalist stand caused him to lose support as Germany marched through Europe. By 1944, having become more internationalist, he defeated Wendell Wilke (FDR’s victim in 1940) to obtain the nomination. 

Dewey was not a magnetic campaigner: If truth be told, he was more than a little bit of a stuffed shirt, with a routinized method of campaigning calculated down to the minute. His themes were ones he clung to as a prosecutor, things like corruption, mismanagement, and Communists, but Democratic wisemen thought him a serious threat to FDR, especially a weakened FDR. The omens were bad—in the 1942 midterms, with America fully engaged in a war that, at that point, was not going well, the GOP picked up 47 seats in the House and eight in the Senate.

More seriously, Roosevelt’s few extended public appearances gave them little comfort. There was no way to ease him out of the job (and the impact on the public would have been profound), but the possibility of his losing (or being unable to complete his term) had to be on their minds. He gave a particularly poor radio address from the Portland Navy Yard in Bremerton, Washington, on August 12, and, quietly, friends and close advisors began to urge him to find a venue to show the old magic. 

A bit of good luck occurred when, in early September, a Republican Congressman, Harold Knutson of Minnesota, accused Roosevelt of having left behind his dog Fala in the Aleutians when on his Pacific trip, and then sent back a ship (and then a plane) to retrieve him, at enormous cost to the taxpayers. Orson Welles, who was then campaigning for FDR, noticed it, and passed on to FDR the suggestion that Knutson’s remarks created an opportunity.  

FDR may have been physically diminished, but his political instincts were still sharp. He decided to give an address to a friendly audience (the Teamsters, who, by Roosevelt’s description, had “big hands” for applauding) on September 23, 1944. What followed was one of the best performances you will ever read or see (I’ve only been able to find a partial video, but even that is worth the time, particularly for the entirely serious demeanor Roosevelt keeps during the entirety of it). You may also find that very little is new in politics, not just in ideas and issues, but in the value of pure talent, which Roosevelt had in abundance. 

Roosevelt on Labor: 

We all know that certain people who make it a practice to depreciate the accomplishments of labor—who even attack labor as unpatriotic—they keep this up usually for three years and six months in a row. But then, for some strange reason they change their tune—every four years—just before election day. When votes are at stake, they suddenly discover that they really love labor and that they are anxious to protect labor from its old friends.

Roosevelt on flip-flopping: 

We have all seen many marvelous stunts in the circus but no performing elephant could turn a hand-spring without falling flat on his back…. What the Republican leaders are now saying in effect is this: ‘Oh, just forget what we used to say, we have changed our minds now—we have been reading the public opinion polls about these things and now we know what the American people want.’

Roosevelt on money in politics: 

But, you know, even those candidates who burst out in election-year affection for social legislation and for labor in general, still think that you ought to be good boys and stay out of politics. And above all, they hate to see any working man or woman contribute a dollar bill to any wicked political party. Of course, it is all right for large financiers and industrialists and monopolists to contribute tens of thousands of dollars—but their solicitude for that dollar which the men and women in the ranks of labor contribute is always very touching.

Roosevelt on voting: 

They are, of course, perfectly willing to let you vote—unless you happen to be a soldier or a sailor overseas, or a merchant seaman carrying the munitions of war. In that case they have made it pretty hard for you to vote at all—for there are some political candidates who think that they may have a chance of election, if only the total vote is small enough.

Roosevelt on blaming the other Party for what your guy did: 

For example, although I rubbed my eyes when I read it, we have been told that it was not a Republican depression, but a Democratic depression from which this Nation was saved in 1933—that this Administration this one today—is responsible for all the suffering and misery that the history books and the American people have always thought had been brought about during the twelve ill-fated years when the Republican party was in power.

Through all of this, his audience cheered and hooted, and he milked it for all he could. But he was saving the choicest cuts for later. He rolled through a fairly prosaic few paragraphs and then went for the jugular, with the timing of a comic genius.

These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or on my sons. No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala. Well, of course, I don’t resent attacks, and my family doesn’t resent attacks, but Fala does resent them. You know, Fala is Scotch, and being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers in Congress and out had concocted a story that I had left him behind on the Aleutian Islands and had sent a destroyer back to find him—at a cost to the taxpayers of two or three, or eight or twenty million dollars—his Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since. I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself—such as that old, worm-eaten chestnut that I have represented myself as indispensable. But I think I have a right to resent, to object to libelous statements about my dog.

The crowd (by this point thoroughly juiced up, both metaphorically and actually) went nuts, as, I would imagine, did millions at home listening to their radios. I doubt anyone paid much attention to the rest of the speech. Roosevelt had done his job. He was still the same old FDR, suave, virile, witty, tough, ready to fight the Germans, the Japanese, Dewey, and the Republicans all at once. He was still their hero.

The coverage was phenomenal. He got page one in the major dailies, even those who had opposed his running. Republicans foolishly took the bait, starting at the top. Dewey made some tone-deaf remarks about Roosevelt’s joking while our boys were dying overseas and insisted that he would “now campaign all the harder.” It just confirmed many people’s views of him as a stuffed shirt’s stuffed shirt. Paul Porter, who was serving as the DNC’s head of publicity for the 1944 campaign, wrote a memo saying that the race had become one between Roosevelt’s dog and Dewey’s goat. He then allocated a considerable amount of campaign funds to running a radio spot with the recording of the Fala portion of the speech, introduced by the old country song, “They Gotta Quit Kick’n My Dawg Aroun.’”

There is no question the speech changed the dynamic of the race. In an era before 24-hour television cameras, Roosevelt could limit his exposure through to November, with Fala the closing argument. Six weeks later, Roosevelt swept to victory, with an Electoral College margin of 432 to 99. Democrats lost one Senate seat, but picked up 20 in the House. The old man had done it again.

It was, in many respects, the last hurrah. FDR’s health continued to decline, and his evident weakness showed itself both privately and in public. He was a gaunt, hollow-eyed shadow at the Yalta Conference in February 1945, and arguably was taken advantage of by Stalin. On April 12, 1945, after several earlier health crises, he was felled by a massive stroke.  

Fala never quite got over it. At FDR’s private burial, he howled and turned over several times.  He lived until 1952, when his Scotch soul joined Franklin’s and, then again, at the FDR Memorial in Washington, where the two old friends talk of old times, and no one, ever, dares to pick on Fala.

A Joyous Bit of Politics: FDR's Fala Speech was first published on on August 17, 2020. 

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