Friday, January 30, 2009

Sullivan, Obama and Bush

No, not still another Washington law firm. I'm reacting to this post by Andrew Sullivan.

I'm not diametrically opposed to Sullivan's point of view, but I have some comments:

The jury is still out on President Obama. He may turn out largely to be the type of president that Andrew describes, but one cannot judge his presidency on the basis of his inaugural address. Sullivan was also strongly supportive of Bush toward the beginning of his administration. He may want to, as they say, curb his enthusiasm, this time around.

Chances are, we will remain, de facto, at war, for much, if not all, of Obama's presidency. In that sphere of activity, a president would be negligent if he did not exercise his power. That power is constitutionally based, but is also constitutionally limited. To state that the presidency is not about power goes too far, as I see it. Obama might exercise his power differently than Bush did, but as he is challenged in the international arena (e.g., North Korea's saber-rattling today) my guess is that he'll find it more difficult to differentiate himself from Bush than he did during the campaign.

I think it's safe to say that all presidents provoke charges of trampling on the prerogatives of the other branches of the federal government. Again, they probably would not be doing their job properly, if that never happened. The "time will tell" concept also applies here; it will be interesting to see how Obama handles such situations.

I find one of Sullivan's comments especially interesting: "Hence the obvious shock of some Republican Congressman at debating with a president who seemed interested in actual conversation, as opposed to pure politics."

Americans tend to use the words "politics", "politician", etc., in a pejorative sense. I take this comment by Andrew to mean that he's becoming Americanized. His compatriots in Britain routinely use those words to describe the process of self-government, and the people who work in that process, with no negative connotation. That's similar to their use of "scheme" to mean a plan that does not necessarily involve wrongdoing.

I would like to suggest that perhaps the problem has been too little politics, not too much. Bush has been fond of saying that he didn't take opinion polls to decide what course of action to take. In a limited sense, that's proper. But the practice of politics in a democracy involves translating the political will of the people into government policy. At some level, in some way, public opinion needs to be taken into account. I would argue that Bush did too little of that, which was, of course, reflected in his declining poll numbers.

That's what Sullivan describes as Bush's "monarchical sense of the office". But it's a delicate balancing act between being a "decider", and considering public opinion. And Obama has not yet proved that he can strike that balance.

Thursday, January 29, 2009


Baseball fans on the South Side of Rod Blagojevich's home town are fond of singing Steam's hit "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye". Now, all 59 members of Illinois' Senate have given Blagojevich essentially the same message. That body unanimously voted to convict him on the charges on which the House had impeached him. As a result of that vote, he is immediately removed from office.

Pat Quinn, who had been lieutenant governor, has been sworn in as the new governor of Illinois.

However, a consensus seems to have developed that Roland Burris, whom Blagojevich appointed to replace Barack Obama in the U.S. Senate, was an innocent bystander in relation to activities that formed the basis for the legislature's action.

Burris has taken up his duties as Illinois' junior senator.

Partisan Stimulus

Yesterday evening, the U.S. House voted 244 to 188 in favor of President Obama's economic stimulus plan.

Looking at the roll call in detail, the Republicans closed ranks against the new president. No Republicans voted for the bill, and 11 Democrats joined the Republicans in opposing it.

Of those 11 Democrats, six are from southeastern states, and six were first elected in 2006 or 2008.

As the Democrats have increased their numbers in both houses of Congress since 2006, and have made a modest rebound in the southeast, I've wondered whether that will decrease their ideological solidarity. If it still leaves them with a working majority of 244, as in this vote, that won't be a problem for them. But we'll see whether they're more divided on other planks of the Democratic platform.

The Republican minority in the House will need more than 11 Democratic votes to block any legislation. However, if they can similarly hold their party's caucus together in the Senate, their 41 (maybe 42 eventually, but I doubt it) votes can block any bill that they consider important enough to oppose by filibuster.

One historical note: Bill Clinton ran into similarly solid Republican opposition to his economic plan at the beginning of his presidency. Whether Clinton's tax increases, or a temporary bulge in capital gains tax receipts resulting from the dot-com bubble, were responsible for balanced budgets in the later years of his tenure, is still debated.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


I saw the Frost/Nixon film over the weekend.

I thought it was very well done. I had not thought about David Frost's interviews of Richard Nixon in quite some time. I now remember watching with fascination as Nixon came as close as he ever did to a confession of guilt regarding Watergate.

Today, I watched a DVD of the actual Watergate interview, to get some perspective on the accuracy of the portrayal in the film.

Michael Sheen, who plays Frost, told David Letterman that David Frost considers the film about 85% true-to-life. Sheen went on to say that they followed the transcripts of the actual interviews, but "we play it slightly differently".

My impression of the actual interview is that Nixon appears less emotionally bombastic than Frank Langella portrays him in the film. But Nixon's eye movements, nervous smiles, and verbal miscues betray his emotional reaction to being pressed by Frost to say more than he wants to say about the scandal.

And anyone who thinks that the portrayal of James Reston, Jr., who worked with Frost on research for the interviews, was overdone, should read my description of how common such reactions to Nixon were, at that time.

Looking for a Relief Pitcher?

Here's a situation that points up the difficulties that a national party machine has, in trying to shape its party's campaign for the U.S. Senate.

Politico reports about statements made by Republican Senate leaders about Senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky, whose second term ends next year. That article speculates that those leaders are trying to ease Bunning out of the Senate.

Each party organizes a committee in each house of Congress, to coordinate the campaigns of its candidates. Those committees raise money, that is doled out to individual campaigns, to supplement each candidate's own fundraising. Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, currently chairs his party's campaign committee in the upper house.

However, an incumbent's decision on whether to seek reelection is entirely his or her own. And I suspect that hints, however subtle, that an incumbent should contemplate retirement, are likely to backfire.

Of course, here in southeastern Pennsylvania, we have a connection with Senator Bunning, as I described here. Although I was in Minnesota when his place of business was the Phillies' pitcher's mound rather than the Senate Chamber, I can't help but take Bunning's side, in any dispute with fellow members of our party.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The confirmation was late, but so were the taxes

The Senate has confirmed Timothy Geithner as secretary of the treasury.

The vote was 60 to 34. When I first heard those numbers, I wondered whether that vote could be taken as evidence that President Obama would be able to put together 60 votes to break any Republican filibuster of any part of his economic program.

But, looking at the details of the roll call vote, I don't think that's the case. The senators did not break out clearly along ideological lines. Four members of the Democratic caucus voted against him; I would describe them as independent-minded left-wingers. Centrist and conservative Republicans were on both sides of the vote.

Broad economic issues did not seem to play a role. The question was how much emphasis to put on the question of late tax payments by the nominee for a job that includes collecting taxes from the rest of us.

I don't think it's clear yet whether 1) Republicans will filibuster the economic proposals, and 2) Democrats can put together a 60-vote coalition to end any such filibuster.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Former Presidents 7: Now

No former president has had a permanent job in government, since William Howard Taft retired from the Supreme Court in 1930.

There has been some talk about them doing so. Bill Clinton was mentioned, not terribly seriously, as a candidate for the U.S. Senate from either Arkansas or New York. The possibility of his going on to the Supreme Court was also discussed. But, aside from questions that would probably have been resurrected about his behavior toward the judicial branch in the Paula Jones case, many thought that that job would not fit his active personality.

On the other hand, the talk about Gerald Ford becoming Ronald Reagan's running mate in 1980 was quite serious. But, frantic negotiations between their representatives, during that year's Republican National Convention, did not come to a successful conclusion.

During recent decades, a template has emerged of activities in which former presidents engage, that George W. Bush has said he will follow. That is especially true of presidents who retire relatively young. Bush is in the middle in regard to age. He is 62, putting him older than Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton at that stage, but younger than his father, as well as Ronald Reagan.

Writing at least one book, and founding a presidential library, constitute the bare minimum. The more recent presidents have created a larger structure centered on their libraries, with names akin to "presidential center". Those centers have carried on some combination of scholarship and political/charitable activism.

George W. Bush's library and center will be built on the campus of Southern Methodist University, in Dallas. For some reason, the Texas presidents have followed that pattern. Lyndon Johnson's library is at University of Texas--Austin, and George H.W. Bush's is on the campus of Texas A&M University, in College Station.

As far as I know, none of the other presidents' libraries are as closely tied to universities. I thought I had heard that the Kennedy Library was somehow affiliated with Harvard, but their press office has confirmed to me that that is not the case. However, they sponsor the New Frontier Award, jointly with Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

I'm reminded of the old saying: there are three ways to do anything: the right way, the wrong way, and the Texas way. For whatever reason, the Texas way is to site presidential libraries on college campuses.

Some time ago, I noted with interest that, while former members of Congress often stay in the Washington area, former presidents usually do not. I later realized that that was primarily because the former members of Congress often got jobs as lobbyists. I suppose such work would be considered unseemly for a former president.

Former presidents have either moved back to their home states, or migrated to places such as New York or Southern California.

Live, from St. Paul, it's Monday afternoon!

The trial of a lawsuit brought by Republican former Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman, challenging a recount that showed that his Democratic-Farmer-Labor opponent, Al Franken, had won their U.S. Senate race, begins today, in St. Paul.

Minnesota Public Radio describes the trial in this report.

Meanwhile, the Senate has been considering seating Franken on a provisional basis, pending the outcome of the litigation.

Democrats cite the precedent of Senator Mary Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana, who was provisionally seated, pending a challenge to her 1996 victory. That race was not as close as the Coleman-Franken contest, and it revolved more around fraud allegations. No precedent is ever exactly on point, but I reluctantly concede that this one could arguably justify seating Franken.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Former Presidents 6: Baby Ruth

Continuing the story I left off here, Grover Cleveland joined a New York law firm after he first left the White House in 1889.

Then, in 1891, Cleveland, and his young wife Frances, did something that ended up giving them an odd sort of immortality. Their daughter, Ruth, was born. According to the some accounts, at least, that inspired a widely-misunderstood name of a candy bar. A website that markets the candy carries the following explanation:

Introduced in the early 1920s by Curtiss Candy Company, Baby Ruth was said to be named after President Grover Cleveland's daughter, Ruth. At the time, the child was endearingly referred to as "Baby Ruth". The trademark was patterned after
the engraved lettering used on a medallion struck for the 1893 Chicago World's Colombian Exposition. The image pictured the President, his wife, and young daughter Baby Ruth.

Some, however, are skeptical. Either way, their family is still talked about, more than a century after Ruth's untimely death.

But, I digress.

In 1892, the parties set up a rematch between Cleveland and the Republican incumbent President Benjamin Harrison.

One aspect of that 1892 campaign that intrigues those of us in the Minnesota diaspora who are interested in political history, is that that year's Republican National Convention was the only one held in that state, until that party returned in 2008, and gathered in St. Paul. I wrote about that, here and here. Is it mere coincidence that both candidates nominated in the Gopher State, Harrison in 1892, and John McCain in 2008, lost the general election?

Tariffs were an issue in the 1892 campaign. At that time, the Democrats were the free-trade party, while the Republicans led the charge for protectionism. By now, that situation has largely been reversed. Congressional votes on international trade don't tend to fall exactly along party lines but, for the most part, the Republicans are now the free-trade party.

Advocates of an inflationary monetary policy, an issue that would get even more attention four years later, were fighting against supporters of the status quo, i.e., the gold standard. James Weaver ran a strong third-party campaign on the Populist ticket, largely on an anti-gold standard, a.k.a. free silver, platform.

Cleveland won a plurality of the popular vote, as he had in 1884 and 1888. But, unlike 1888, he also won an Electoral College majority in 1892. Cleveland took back his home state of New York, which Harrison had carried four years earlier.

Weaver won 22 electoral votes in some western states, but that was not enough to deadlock the Electoral College.

It was all downhill from there, for the once and future president. The so-called Panic of 1893 ushered in an economic depression. Apparently, the phenomenon of presidents getting too much credit for a good economy, and too much blame for economic problems, existed as much then as it does now. Unemployment was still in double digits at the time of the next presidential election, in 1896, and the Republicans, under William McKinley, took back the White House, which they would not relinquish until 16 years later.

Cleveland lived in retirement in New Jersey, until his death in 1908.

He is the only president to have served non-consecutive terms, and he set a record for consecutive popular-vote victories (three) that stood until Franklin Roosevelt won four consecutive popular and electoral vote majorities, between 1932 and 1944.

This website (and, if you see it on the Internet, it must be true) says that an Act of Congress settled the question of whether Cleveland would have two presidential numbers, i.e., that he would be called both the 22nd and 24th president.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

International Relations

Another aspect of an American presidential transition involves the new president's contacts with his counterparts in other countries.

The BBC reports on President Obama's first post-inauguration phone conversation with U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown. That piece is an indication of the importance that foreign media place on such contacts.

Whatever one believes about any diminution in American economic and geopolitical influence in recent years, the U.S. is still the dominant player in major arenas of power in the world. Consequently, other countries recognize the importance of their political leaders' relationships with an American president.

A new president's schedule of his first face-to-face meetings with foreign leaders is considered to be of symbolic, as well as substantive, importance. Obama has confirmed that he will follow tradition, and visit Canada in his first trip outside the country during his presidency.

No matter what is said about a "special relationship" with Britain, or a need to forge better relationships with emerging world powers such as China and India, the long U.S.-Canada border, and the huge trading relationship between our two countries, still put the U.S.-Canadian relationship in a category separate from relationships with other countries.

Friday, January 23, 2009

New New York Senator

It seems all but official. New York Governor David Paterson reportedly plans to appoint his fellow Democrat, Congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand, to fill the U.S. Senate seat that had been held by Hillary Clinton.

Gillibrand, 42, represents an upstate district that includes Glens Falls and Saratoga Springs.

She is said to be a centrist. The American Conservative Union gave her a rating of 8 on a scale of 100, for her 2007 House voting record. So she seems not exactly to be what one would call a right-winger, but that is the most conservative rating of any New Yorker in the U.S. House for that year.

On the other side, the latest numbers published by the Americans for Democratic Action, which were for 2008, gave her a 70% rating (100% being the far left of the scale), which was the least liberal rating of any New York member of the House.

My guess is that Paterson might be taking the following two considerations into account:

Shoring up his right flank, in preparation for his own run for a full term next year, and

Finding a female candidate to replace the female former senator. This revives the debate that took place when Justice Sandra Day O'Connor announced her intention to retire from the federal Supreme Court in 2005. President Bush originally appointed Harriet Miers to the position that eventually went to Samuel Alito.

UPDATE: The reports that had begun circulating by this morning were correct. Paterson has now publicly announced his appointment of Gillibrand. This account in a Wall Street Journal blog gives more detail, and gives us a lesson in the wondrous flexibility of the English language. I never knew that "to primary" is a verb, as in "if no one goes and primaries her, I will primary her".

CORRECTION: I incorrectly described how Gillibrand fits in, with the ratings of her voting record. She has the highest conservative score, and the lowest liberal score of any Democrat in the New York delegation. The small minority of New York House members who are Republicans are rated more conservative than she is.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Former Presidents 5: The Second Time Around

I'm not sure whether this fits the category I've established here and here, regarding former presidents who have again served in public office. What do you think?

In one case the public office in which a former president went on to serve was: president.

I'm referring to the only person to serve non-consecutive terms as president of the U.S.: Grover Cleveland.

Cleveland, a Democratic lawyer from Buffalo, New York, served as mayor of that city, and then, in 1882, was elected governor of New York. Two years later, his meteoric political rise continued, when he was elected president of the United States at the age of 47. He was, up to that time, the second youngest president (Ulysses Grant was the youngest) at first inauguration.

Cleveland's official White House biography gives a concise summary of his actions as president, some of which angered key constituencies.

However, when he ran for reelection in 1888, he won a plurality of the popular vote, and his lead over his opponent, in percentage terms, was slightly higher than in 1884. But in 1888, Cleveland's Republican opponent, Benjamin Harrison, won a majority in the Electoral College. Both elections were close:


Cleveland 48.85%, 219 electoral votes

Blaine 48.28%, 182 electoral votes


Harrison 47.80%, 233 electoral votes

Cleveland 48.63%, 168 electoral votes

If you want to know what a plurality of the popular vote is worth, just ask President Gore.

Harrison's gain in electoral votes over what his fellow Republican Blaine had received in 1884, was achieved in Harrison's home state of Indiana, which Cleveland had carried in 1884, and Cleveland's home state of New York. Cleveland had barely defeated Blaine in New York (48.25% to 48.15%) in 1884. Then, in 1888, Harrison carried New York by 49.28% to 48.19%. And New York at that time was the largest state, with 36 electoral votes.

Next: Cleveland makes a comeback.

Because I Said So

The change in administrations brings further examples of a subject I addressed here: the power of a president or a state governor to make certain decisions on their own, without submitting them to the legislative branch.

Constitutional and statutory law give those executives the authority to do certain things.

Those aspects of federal abortion policy that are in this category, have become a tennis ball that is batted back and forth between Republican and Democratic presidents. Party positions on that issue had become solidified by the 1980s, after which the Democratic Party has nominated only pro-choice presidential candidates, and the Republicans have chosen only pro-life nominees. As the electorate has chosen alternating Republican and Democratic presidents, each White House newcomer has quickly switched abortion policy to his party's point of view.

President Obama is expected to follow suit, shortly.

The president of my alma mater likes to tell the story of visiting a Middle Eastern country, and reviewing a brief summary of facts about that country. Under the heading of "government", the document read "by decree". His democratic sensibilities were offended. But, when he later became a college president, he realized the advantages he would have had, had he been able to rule by decree.

Similarly, all of our presidents are democratic, even if they're Republican. But I'm sure they appreciate the extent to which they're able to rule by decree, rather than submitting their ideas to the slow legislative mill at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Sour Caroline

Ending her unusually open campaign for a gubernatorial appointment to the U.S. Senate, Caroline Kennedy has asked Governor David Paterson, Democrat of New York, not to appoint her to the seat that has been vacated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Kennedy issued a statement citing unspecified personal reasons. There has been speculation that the worsening health issues of her uncle, Senator Ted Kennedy, are behind her decision.

I wonder whether there's more to it than that. The serious nature of Ted Kennedy's cancer has been well known since it was first diagnosed. I wouldn't think that his family would consider his collapse at the inaugural luncheon for President Obama on Tuesday to represent a deterioration in his condition that is significant enough to cause such a change in plans.

History Repeats Itself

The new president from Illinois takes office. The Senate confirms his choice for secretary of state. That nominee is the senator from New York who was his main rival for his party's nomination.

Those things happened in both 1861 and 2009.

The two main differences are that William Seward was a Republican, and, as far as we know, he never wore a pantsuit.

Yesterday, the Senate took a roll call vote on Hillary Clinton's nomination for that office. She was approved 94-2. The two dissenters were Republicans Jim DeMint of South Carolina and David Vitter of Louisiana.

The main issue in the confirmation process was whether contributions by foreign governments and individuals to her husband's William J. Clinton Foundation create a conflict of interest.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Oath of Office: Take Two

It's the most high-profile public appearance that a chief justice makes. And John Roberts blew his lines, in front of a massive worldwide audience.

Today, he and President Obama repeated the presidential oath of office, so as to avoid any questions about the validity of the presidential inauguration. That was similar to Calvin Coolidge's second oath, that I described here.

What I want to know is: how can Roberts call himself a strict constructionist, if he's going to ad lib an oath that appears, word for word, in the Constitution?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Back in Texas

Did you see George W. Bush's speech to a "Welcome Home" rally in Midland, Texas, today? The video is available on the C-SPAN website.

I forget who this was, but someone was commenting a while back about Bush's seeming inability to express himself well, in Washington, DC. They were contrasting it to his style while governor of Texas. Not only was he reelected to that job, but his performance set him up, in the eyes of enough of his fellow Republicans, to get him nominated for the presidency.

Once in Washington, however, he seemed constantly to have trouble expressing himself, and projecting an image of ease and self-confidence in his presidential role. Yes, he was also reelected to that job, but by the narrowest of margins, and he was unable to maintain that support for very long.

Now, he's back in Texas. In that speech in Midland today, he seemed more at ease than I've seen him in at least eight years. Perhaps it reflects a sense of relief any former president must feel when the burdens of office are passed to someone else. But I think there was more than that. He had his drawl back, and was in a milieu in which he obviously felt comfortable.

What does all this mean?

When he couldn't get his voice in gear, that might have been his body telling him, and us, that Washington wasn't where he should have been. Had he stayed in Texas, continued as governor, maybe gone back into business, he could have kept on being good old "W" from Texas.

I'm very critical of his performance as president. But I stop well short of what his more extreme opponents say.

He's not an evil man. He's not stupid. I think the bottom line is that there was a mismatch of person and job.

What Does the Future Hold?

Paul Mirengoff on Power Line writes more subtly and concisely than I, about the issue I addressed here. When a party has the degree of power now possessed by the Democrats, sometimes they keep it for a long time, and sometimes things turn around remarkably quickly. Paul seems to foresee the former.


Today is a heavy traffic day on the blog, with the high degree of interest in the inauguration. Thank you for visiting.

Please leave a comment if there are subjects that you would be interested in having me write about, as the new administration begins. I plan to continue writing about how the political system works (or doesn't work), now that the election and transition are completed. I also plan to continue to write about the politics of countries other than the U.S.

In order to help me better connect with readers, please let me know what you're interested in.

Cabinet Not Full Quite Yet

President Obama made official the Cabinet nominations he has already publicly announced. He signed the paperwork for that, in the Capitol building, shortly after being sworn in as president. The Senate will go through its normal procedure this afternoon, confirming by voice vote those nominations that have been cleared. However, that excludes most of the major Cabinet posts, as described in this report from Congressional Quarterly.

There seems to be a consensus that all of the nominations will eventually be approved.

Obama has yet to announce a nominee for secretary of commerce, to replace Bill Richardson, who withdrew himself from consideration.

Moving Day

There's one aspect of Inauguration Day that, apparently, has been going on for quite some time, but I didn't realize the full extent of it until this year.

The White House residence staff is geared to move the outgoing first family's things out of the White House, and move the new first family's belongings in, all during a window of about five or six hours between the time the inaugural party leaves the White House for the Capitol in the morning, and the time the new president enters the house after reviewing the inaugural parade.

In a break from past practice, the Bushes began the moving-out process early, according to this CNN report. It seems that the more common practice has been to leave everything in place until the morning of the inauguration. When that has happened, the departing president's family has had everything still in place when they get up on the morning of January 20. And the new president's family has every last thing in place by late afternoon, as though it were not moving day at all.

This National Geographic article, to which I linked in an earlier post, also describes that process.

Even knowing a fair amount about the resources a president has at his disposal, for transportation, communication, etc., I still find amazing the degree to which they're spared the usual headaches involved in moving out and moving in. I'm not criticizing the practice; it would make no sense to distract a president from his duties. I just find it interesting how out-of-the-ordinary a president's life is.

If all is going according to schedule, the Bushes and Obamas should be exchanging pleasantries over coffee at the executive mansion right now. So, in addition to wishing the best of luck to the new president and first lady, I think it's appropriate to make the same wish for the staff who will perform that high-speed moving process.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Inauguration 1981: Go West, Old Man

On March 4, 1829, Andrew Jackson was inaugurated on the East Front of the Capitol (the side that now faces the Supreme Court building). With rare exceptions, that was the site of regularly-scheduled presidential inaugurations from then on, up to and including that of Jimmy Carter on January 20, 1977.

Then, when Ronald Reagan was inaugurated four years later, a custom began, which has been followed by all of his successors, of holding the event on the West Front of the Capitol.

I don't know that there was any one reason for the change. I've variously heard that 1) more spectators can be accommodated on that side; 2) it's a nicer view, looking over the Mall, rather than a parking lot; and 3) Reagan preferred the symbolism of facing west toward most of the country, rather than away from it.

Whatever the reason, everyone seems happy with the change. This year's inauguration will also be held on the West Front.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Inauguration 1945: Middle Initial?

Harry Truman's middle name was "S".

Some erroneously assumed that he was named Harry Shippe Truman, after his paternal grandfather, Anderson Shippe Truman. Apparently, the "S" was intended to be ambiguous, so that his maternal grandfather, Solomon Young, could also claim to be his namesake.

When President Franklin Roosevelt died, on April 12, 1945, in Warm Springs, Georgia, Truman, his vice president, was at the Capitol attending a Board of Education meeting. The vice president was summoned to the White House, where Roosevelt's widow Eleanor told him that he had become president.

A spur-of-the-moment inauguration was arranged that evening. Chief Justice Harlan Stone went to the White House to administer the oath to Truman. While reciting the oath, Stone called the new president "Harry Shippe Truman", but Truman responded "I, Harry S Truman, do solemnly swear ..."

I thought I had heard that Truman repeated the oath a couple of days later, to correct the mistake, but I can't find any reference to that on the Web. Perhaps I have that confused with the similar story about Calvin Coolidge, that I mentioned in an earlier post.

Inauguration 1923: Sure, dad, I'll preserve, protect and defend the Constitution

President Warren Harding died in San Francisco on August 2, 1923. His vice president, Calvin Coolidge was, at that time, visiting his family in Vermont.

Harding had been ill for several days, in the midst of a west-coast trip, but his condition was not at first thought to be life-threatening. I presume that's why Coolidge felt free to vacation at what didn't seem to be a time of crisis.

As I wrote here, under those circumstances, one of the first questions is: who will administer the oath of office? In almost all cases, that has been a federal judge. However, there is a school of thought that says that anyone who regularly administers oaths can handle the task at the presidential level.

Coolidge's father, John Coolidge, was a notary public. John Coolidge had awakened his son, when a telegram arrived at the farmhouse that lacked electrical and telephone connections, bringing news of Harding's death. The decision was made that the father should swear the son into office.

The room in which the new president took the oath, is preserved at the Coolidge historic site in Vermont, and is rather grandly called "The Oath of Office Room". I visited the site five years ago. It's worthwhile for any presidential history buff to include it on a tour of New England.

When Coolidge returned to Washington, he repeated the oath before a federal judge, to forestall any questions regarding the validity of an oath administered by a state official.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Inauguration 1877: Seems Like Yesterday

The transition period between a presidential election and inauguration is about 10 weeks, under the modern schedule. A president-elect has so many details to attend to during that period that the time probably seems to move very quickly. When he stands up to take the oath of office, I suppose he thinks "it seems like only yesterday, that I found out I had been elected".

In 1877, it seemed that way for a reason. Rutherford Hayes took the oath on March 3 (because the 4th was a Sunday). A dispute about the outcome of the 1876 election had been resolved on March 2.

Hayes, who was then governor of Ohio, was nominated by the Republican Party. Governor Samuel Tilden of New York was the Democratic nominee.

Tilden won 51% of the popular vote, but the candidates' electoral vote totals were very close. There were disputes about the electoral votes in four states including, in what was a foreshadowing of events 124 years later, Florida.

A 15-member body called the Electoral Commission was appointed to resolve the disputes. It consisted of five members of each house of Congress, and five Supreme Court justices. In theory, the commission was to consist of seven Republicans, seven Democrats, and one independent. But, apparently the "independent" was really a Republican.

The commission voted along party lines to award the disputed electoral votes to Hayes.

The Civil War was a very recent memory at that time. Therefore, a fear that violence would ensue from a disputed result seemed very real. However, when Hayes repeated his oath in a public ceremony on March 5, all was peaceful.

During his single term as president, Hayes ended the military occupation of the southern states. That effectively ended Reconstruction, and set the stage for the "Jim Crow" regime of segregation and denial of African Americans' civil rights in those states, that were not effectively addressed by the federal government until the 1960s. The notion that that action by Hayes was part of a deal to secure southern electoral votes is still debated.

Inauguration 1865: Good thing the speech was short, because the VP was drunk

Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated for a second term on March 4, 1865. All seemed well, because victory over the Confederacy in the Civil War was just around the corner. Unfortunately, so was Lincoln's assassination, which happened the following month.

Therefore, although it wouldn't play out that way, Lincoln and his audience all expected that he would lead the first few years of the Reconstruction period. So, his task in his second inaugural address was to set the tone for that project.

During the 19th century, audiences routinely sat through long political speeches. Lincoln himself engaged in that practice. Two of his most famous pre-presidential speaking engagements were of that type. The format of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, during their Senate race in 1858, called for one candidate to give a one-hour opening statement, followed by an hour-and-a-half rebuttal, and then an additional half hour for the first speaker. Then, in the first major speech of his 1860 presidential campaign, at Cooper Union in New York City, Lincoln spoke for more than an hour.

Despite Bill Clinton's best efforts to revive that tradition toward the end of the 20th century, political speeches are usually shorter these days, than they were in Lincoln's time.

In light of all that, it's interesting that the two speeches that were probably the best ones Lincoln delivered during his presidency, the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural, were both very short.

Lincoln's hopes for the post-war period were summarized in his last sentence:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Bringing some comic relief to the solemn occasion, the man who actually would lead the government for almost all of the upcoming term, Vice President Andrew Johnson, showed up intoxicated. Here is an account of that, from the Senate Historical Office. It was an inauspicious start to what would be a very difficult four years for Johnson.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Inauguration 1841: Fatal Speech?

William Henry Harrison set a record for being the oldest president at the time of his first inauguration. His age was 68, when he was inaugurated on March 4, 1841. That record held for 140 years, before it was broken by the 69-year-old Ronald Reagan in 1981.

Many of the early inaugurations were held indoors, in either the House or Senate chamber. But, by 1841, the custom of having the event outdoors on the Capitol grounds had taken hold.

Accounts of Harrison's inauguration differ on some details. However, two things seem certain: 1) the day was wet and cold, and 2) his inaugural address was the longest in history. Various sources have it anywhere from 1 3/4 hours to more than two hours.

The big question is: Did Harrison's fatal illness result from exposure to the elements on his inauguration day? He died of pneumonia after one month in office.

His Wikipedia entry, as currently written, argues that his symptoms first appeared more than three weeks later, so it seems doubtful that he contracted the disease on March 4. Other accounts, such as this one, support the traditional story that he did contract the disease on the day he was sworn into office.

The tale of the fatal inaugural address makes for good storytelling. But we'll probably never know for sure.

Inauguration 1789: Showing Up

Woody Allen said "80% of success is showing up". The founding fathers were unsuccessful in bringing off George Washington's inauguration on schedule because, given the realities of transportation in those days, showing up was easier said than done.

According to the terms of the original Constitution, the members of Congress, as well as the president and vice president, were supposed to begin their terms on March 4. On the Senate side, only eight senators arrived on time in New York City, which briefly served as the capital city. The total membership was 22, because only 11 states had ratified the Constitution by then.

The House of Representatives finally achieved a quorum on April 1. In the Senate, that did not happen until April 6.

One implication of all this was that the presidential inauguration was postponed until April 30. Here are accounts of that event from the Library of Congress, and the Senate historians. Better late than never, I suppose.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Hail to the Chief, but he does make mistakes from time to time

The Encyclopedia Britannica Blog has started a series of posts entitled "Top 10 Mistakes By U.S. Presidents". The author notes the high expectations with which every new president enters the White House, and how those expectations are shared by his supporters (but not necessarily by the loyal opposition). Those expectations are at least as high regarding President-elect Obama, as they have been for other recent presidents. Perhaps it is properly humbling to remind everyone that, while some presidencies are more successful than others, all presidents make mistakes.

Washington Boomers

Following up on this post, I'll trace the ascent of my baby boomer generation to the top jobs in the federal government (using the standard definition of a baby boomer as anyone born between 1946 and 1964).

The executive and judicial branches are headed by boomers. Barack Obama will be the third consecutive boomer president. His two predecessors are very early boomers; both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were born in 1946. Obama is a late boomer, dating from 1961.

Chief Justice John Roberts is the first boomer in that job. He was born in 1955.

There is no one head of the legislative branch, who would be comparable to the president and the chief justice.

So far, no speaker of the House has been born in 1946 or later. The current incumbent in that office, Nancy Pelosi, was born in 1940. The highest-ranking boomer in the Democratic leadership is John Larson (born in 1948), the new chairman of the Democratic Caucus.

The House Republican leader, John Boehner, is a boomer (1949). So all it would take to make him the first boomer speaker would be to elect a Republican majority at the next election (hint, hint).

One person formally heads up the Senate, but another one really runs the show there. I refer to the vice president of the U.S. (as ex officio president of the Senate), and the majority leader, respectively.

The two boomer vice presidents have been Dan Quayle (1947) and Al Gore (1948). Their two successors, Dick Cheney and Joe Biden, are both significantly older than the boomer presidents whose running-mates they were. Cheney, born in 1941, is five years older than Bush. Biden was born in 1942, and is 18+ years older than Obama.

The only boomer to be Senate majority leader was Bill Frist, who was born in 1952.

Patty Murray (1950) is secretary of the Senate Democratic Conference, making her the highest-ranking boomer in the current Democratic leadership.

John Cornyn, who was born in 1952, is Murray's counterpart on the Republican side, and is the senior boomer in that party's leadership.

Does all this mean anything? Is there a sort of chronological determinism that transmits the qualities for which our generation is (in)famous into public policy? Self-centeredness, a sense of entitlement? I prefer to emphasize (and it's my blog so I can write what I want, how's that for self-centeredness?) worldliness, precocity, self-assurance, etc.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Election

I'm so angry about the election!

No, not just another Republican, frustrated over his party's defeats over the past couple of years. This is more important, and goes back much further.

Sportswriters have elected new members to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Once again, one of the great pitchers of his era, Bert Blyleven, has been bypassed.

What about Blyleven's 287 wins, 3701 strikeouts, and two World Series rings? In addition to that, while Rickey Henderson, who deservedly won in his first year of eligibility, circled the bases more times than any other player, Bert has circled more fans than any other baseball analyst on television.

Foreign Relations

When I wrote this post in November, there was some uncertainty as to who would replace Vice President-elect Joe Biden as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. John Kerry has taken on that role.

This article in today's New York Times is about Kerry in his new position.

Today, Kerry will chair the most high-profile hearing so far, in his brief time at the head of that committee. Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton will testify at a confirmation hearing.

Even before she became a senator in 2001, Clinton had experience with congressional hearings. When, as first lady, she testified to the House Ways and Means Committee about the health care plan that she had developed on behalf of her husband's administration, she found herself face to face with Dick Armey, who at that time chaired the House Republican Conference. Armey had called the plan a Dr. Kevorkian prescription. This New York Times report tells of the exchange between Clinton and Armey at that hearing.

In part due to a backlash against what had come to be called "Hillarycare", the Republicans gained a majority in the House at the next election, and Armey became majority leader.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Oath of Office

Much has been said about how (relatively) young Barack Obama is. I wrote here about the emotional impact of that on those of us who are baby boomers (and, of course, with our generation, it's all about us).

But it just occurred to me that Chief Justice John Roberts, who will administer the presidential oath for his first time, next week, is also relatively young. According to this online biography, Roberts is the youngest chief since John Marshall.

So, with what is perhaps one of the most trivial of my presidential trivia items, I will examine the combined ages of presidents (at their first inauguration) and those who administered the oath of office to them.

The Constitution prescribes the language of the presidential oath (Article 2, Section 1, clause 8), but says nothing about who should administer the oath. It has become customary for the chief justice to perform that role. The Library of Congress provides a summary of presidential inaugurations, including the identity of the person administering the oath.

The chief justice has given the oath at every regularly-scheduled inauguration since 1797. That could not have been the case at the first inauguration in 1789, because the office did not yet exist. At George Washington's second inauguration in 1793, the oath was administered by an associate justice, William Cushing. My research came up empty as to why Chief Justice John Jay did not do so.

When presidents have died in office, it has not always been feasible to have the chief justice swear in the new president. That led to the only occasion on which a woman administered the oath. After John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963, there was a consensus that Kennedy's vice president, Lyndon Johnson, should take the oath before flying back to Washington. Judge Sarah Hughes gave him the oath, aboard the presidential plane, on the tarmac at Love Field.

Getting back to the age question: adding the ages of the 47-year-old Obama, and the 53-year-old Roberts, produces a sum of 100. That is the third youngest combined age of oath-giver and oath-taking-president in history. And it is the youngest such combination that includes a chief justice.

Theodore Roosevelt was the youngest president; he was the 42-year-old vice president, when William McKinley was assassinated in 1901. McKinley was shot in Buffalo, New York, and he remained there until his death. Roosevelt took the oath in Buffalo, from John R. Hazel, a 40-year-old federal judge. Their combined age of 82 makes them easily the youngest such pair in history.

The second youngest combined age was that of the George Washington, then 57, and Robert Livingston, whose title was chancellor of New York, which was a judicial position. Livingston was 42, so their combined age was just a bit younger than that of Obama and Roberts.

At the other end of the scale, the oldest pairing was that of President James Buchanan and Chief Justice Roger Taney, in 1857. Taney is infamous in American history as the author of the Supreme Court's opinion in the 1857 case of Dred Scott v. Sandford. The Court decided that an African American slave who had been brought into free states could not sue for his freedom, because he was not a citizen. That outcome was one of the actions around that time that soon led to the Civil War.

Taney was chief justice for 28 years, from 1836 to 1864. At the time of the 1857 inauguration, he was 79 years old, and Buchanan was 65. Four years later, Taney participated in his last inauguration; 83 years old in 1861 when he swore Abraham Lincoln into office, he was the oldest person ever to administer the oath.

A close second are Ronald Reagan, the oldest president, and Chief Justice Warren Burger. In 1981, when Reagan was first inaugurated, he was 69, and Burger was 73.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Former Presidents 4: Here Comes The Judge

As I mentioned here, three presidents had significant service in public office after leaving the White House.

The second such president was William Howard Taft. He was the only person to head up both the executive and judicial branches of the federal government.

Taft was unusual in that he was one of three 20th century presidents who had never been elected to any public office before becoming president. However, as was the case with the other two such presidents, Herbert Hoover and Dwight Eisenhower, Taft was appointed to high-ranking government jobs. He was a prosecutor, solicitor general, judge, governor-general of the Philippines, and secretary of war.

When Theodore Roosevelt declined to run for a second full term in 1908, he anointed Taft as his successor, and Taft easily won that year's presidential election. But he had a difficult term. Perhaps it was his lack of experience in elected office that left him as a bit of a fish out of water in the presidency.

In 1912, largely due to Roosevelt's comeback attempt, Taft suffered the indignity of being the only presidential nominee in the history of the Republican Party to finish in third place in a general election.

During the next few years, Taft taught at his alma mater, Yale, and did extensive writing.

By 1921, Taft's Republican Party was back in control of the White House and the Congress. When Chief Justice Edward White died in 1921, President Warren Harding appointed Taft to be chief justice of the United States. Taft continued in that role until he retired, shortly before his death in 1930.

Here is a brief overview of the Taft Court, from the Supreme Court Historical Society.

Taft's judicial legacy largely involves procedural and organizational reforms. Perhaps the most significant of those reforms was legislation for which he advocated, by which Congress gave the Supreme Court the right to decide which appeals it would and would not consider. Under the new system, still in use today, a party that wants to appeal its case to the Supreme Court must petition for a writ of certiorari, which is legalese for a decision on the part of the court to hear the appeal. Previously, the court was obligated to hear every appeal brought to it; as the country grew, the caseload became more unwieldy.

Taft also successfully pushed for the Supreme Court to get its own building. Previously, it had met in the Capitol, and the justices had done most of their work in their individual homes. The decision to build the new structure was made while Taft was chief justice, with strong lobbying on his part; but it was constructed after his death, and was completed in 1935.

Presidential Trivia Question: Air Force One

As Barack Obama's inauguration approaches, the news media are paying attention to certain aspects of the presidency, such as the inner workings of the White House, and the president's Secret Service protection. This article in the January National Geographic is one example.

One part of the presidential infrastructure that tends to fascinate those of us who pay close attention to the presidency, even more than the White House itself, is Air Force One. One of my favorite presidential trivia questions involves that subject.

As you may know, "Air Force One" is not the name of an airplane. Rather, it is a radio call sign that the Air Force uses with air traffic control to designate any of its aircraft on which the president is a passenger.

The Air Force maintains two 747 aircraft for presidential use. This page on the Air Force's website gives more details.

When either of those plane flies without the president on board, it is simply called "28000" or "29000", even though it's the same plane that, under other circumstances, is called "Air Force One".

OK, all of that sets up the question: What were the circumstances of the only flight of a plane that was Air Force One when it took off, but was not Air Force One when it landed?

Friday, January 9, 2009

India 2: Independence

Continuing the history that I began here: When India became independent of Britain in 1947, it existed for a brief period as the Dominion of India. That left it in a position somewhat similar to that of Canada, being self-governing, but with the British monarch as head of state.

India then became a republic, when it adopted a new constitution in 1950.

The head of state is a president, who is elected by members of the federal parliament and the state legislatures. The current president is Pratibha Patil, who was elected in 2007, and is the first woman to hold that office. The limited political role of the Indian president is similar that of the British monarch.

The head of government is a prime minister, who is selected in a manner similar to that of the British prime minister. Since 2004, Manmohan Singh has held that office.

So far, I've pointed out similarities between the Indian system and that of its former colonial ruler, Britain. However, India takes a different approach toward regional government, the implications of which include the following:

India has a federal system, i.e., it consists of 28 individual states, whose governments are sovereign within the scope of responsibility left to them by the federal constitution. While, in practice, the states' autonomy is more limited than that in other federal systems, such as that of the U.S., it is, in theory at least, a less centralized structure than that of the U.K., even after devolution of power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The governments of those states elect most of the members of the upper house of the Indian parliament, which is called the Rajya Sabha, the Council of States. That contrasts with the British House of Lords, where succession was traditionally hereditary, and now is mostly done through appointment by party leaders.

In that regard, the Indian system is more similar to that of Germany, where the states elect members of the Bundesrat, their federal upper house. It is also somewhat similar to that of the U.S., where the states, as such, are represented in the Senate. There is an even greater similarity to the original U.S. Constitution, under which senators were elected by the state legislatures.

Elections to the Indian lower house, the Lok Sabha, House of the People, are similar to those for the U.K. House of Commons. One member is elected from each parliamentary constituency. There is, under normal conditions, a maximum five-year interval between general elections. The next one is to be held by May of this year. Another similarity to the U.K. is that the Lok Sabha has more of the legislative power than does the upper house.

Next: history of elections and parties under that political structure.

37th President

Richard Nixon was born on this date in 1913.

I have written a fair amount on this blog about the man who was president of the United States from 1969 to 1974, including his unprecedented resignation from that office, after he was engulfed in scandal.

One question about Nixon has always interested me, and I have rarely heard it discussed in exactly these terms by major political commentators: why was the hatred of Nixon, at least among a certain left-wing faction, so strong?

I recall an incident from my days on my high school debate team. This must have been at some point during 1974 or 1975. A debate judge (the judges at a tournament generally consisted of debate coaches from other schools, most (if not all) of whom were teachers) asked the names of those of us on the opposing teams. Merely attempting to make a silly joke, I introduced myself as Richard, as in Richard Nixon. The mere mention of that name set the judge off on a tirade about how awful Nixon was. That was a particularly sensitive time regarding opinions about the man, and few teachers would have been Republican supporters anyway. And my adolescent political views were in synch with the substance of that tirade. Even so, I was taken aback by his vehemence, and, obviously, the memory has stayed with me, decades later.

Chris Matthews wrote a book entitled Kennedy and Nixon: The Rivalry That Shaped Post-War America, in 1996. Matthews addressed the question I posed above. I don't have the book in front of me but, as I recall, his argument was along these lines:

Was it Watergate? No, because the phenomenon predated that scandal.

Was it because Nixon was too conservative? Nixon's presidential record does not bear that out. He signed the first major environmental legislation, and he did not, to any major extent, undo the expansion of federal programs that had been brought about by his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson.

Was it because of his anti-communist stance? Not exactly. Leading Democrats during Nixon's time in Congress, including John Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey took similar positions. And, while many Democrats attacked Joe McCarthy's tactics and statements, Kennedy's position on McCarthy was ambiguous.

Matthews ties it in to the case of Alger Hiss. He asks his readers to put themselves into the mindset of 1940s leftists. Hiss, although not aristocratic in background, was the epitome of the Eastern Establishment. He had worked in Franklin Roosevelt's administration, and was a key State Department figure involved in the development of the United Nations, and in the Yalta Conference of Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill in 1945.

Hiss was subsequently accused of spying for the Soviet Union. He was convicted, not of espionage, but of perjury. In addition to his criminal trial, he was investigated by the House Unamerican Activities Committee, and freshman Representative Nixon played a major role in that.

Matthews's thesis is that it was the contrast between the images of Hiss, the handsome eastern sophisticate, and Nixon, the (shall we say) plain-looking newcomer from the backwoods of the west, that turned at least a certain faction of the left violently against the new congressman.

While many people in the East today have negative opinions about southern California, those are different from the disdain that must have been felt in the 1940s. California was still only the fifth largest state in population, according to the 1940 census. And, while the motion picture industry was, by then, fully established in Hollywood, the eastern intelligentsia would probably have identified it with conservative studio moguls such as Louis B. Mayer. It was not yet a world with which they would have wanted to associate themselves.

Matthews concludes that Nixon got off to a bad start with that crowd, and all that came later was not the root cause of their hatred, but merely fuel that kept the fire going. That's the most plausible explanation that I've heard.


The Illinois legislature is not letting any grass grow under its feet, in carrying out the impeachment process against Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

The House of Representatives has voted, nearly unanimously, to impeach the governor. I wonder whether, if the Illinois Senate can complete its trial soon enough, the U.S. Senate will hold off on seating Roland Burris, Blagojevich's appointee to the vacant Senate seat. That would allow Pat Quinn, who would succeed Blagojevich, to make an appointment with no appearance of impropriety, while still not letting the seat remain vacant for too long.

So far, it has seemed increasingly likely that the U.S. Senate will agree to seat Burris.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Democratic Majority

No, I don't mean the Democratic majority in the Congress.

When I took another look at photos of the meeting of The Club of presidents at the White House yesterday, something occurred to me. After Obama's inauguration, a majority of them will be Democrats. The Club will have five members: Democrats Obama, Carter and Clinton, and the two George Bushes, both, of course, Republican.

That has not been true since Harry Truman's death on December 26, 1972. From March 28, 1969 (Dwight Eisenhower's death) to December 26, 1972, The Club consisted of Democrats Truman and Lyndon Johnson, and one Republican, the then-incumbent President Richard Nixon.

There was also a Democratic majority after Herbert Hoover's death on October 20, 1964, until January 20, 1969, when Nixon was first inaugurated. The Club's members during that period were Democrats Johnson and Truman, and Eisenhower, a Republican.

We have to go back a century to find the last previous such period. Some of the pre-Civil War Democrats died during the 1860s, including Martin Van Buren, James Buchanan and Franklin Pierce. By 1869, The Club was split between Democrat Millard Fillmore and the Republican incumbent Ulysses Grant. (I'm leaving Andrew Johnson out of this analysis, because he's difficult to classify.) Not until 1964 was there another Democratic majority.

As I noted earlier, these data are tracked on Wikipedia.

This is mainly attributable to the fact that, during the period that the two-party system as we currently know it has existed, i.e., since the 1856 election, there have been twice as many Republican presidents as Democrats (again, excluding Andrew Johnson).

Up to and including George W. Bush, there have been 18 Republican presidents during that period, and only 9 Democrats. However, those Democrats have been in office for an average of 6.7 years, while the Republicans averaged only 4.9 years. In terms of years, it's about a 60/40 split between Republican and Democratic presidents, respectively.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Former, Incumbent and Future Presidents

I wrote here about The Club of presidents, shortly after Barack Obama had visited George Bush in the White House.

I mentioned in that post that funerals of presidents and first ladies, presidential library dedications and inaugurations are the standard occasions for meetings of The Club. But every once in a while, there are other occasions that draw them together.

Today, Obama was back in the White House, and The Club had lunch together. Here is a New York Times report.

I recall at least two other past occasions, outside of the categories named above, when they got together:

When President Anwar Sadat of Egypt was assassinated in 1981, it was considered necessary to have top-level American representation at the funeral. However, due to security concerns, the incumbent president, Ronald Reagan, did not attend. Instead, all three living former presidents, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, represented the United States. They flew over on the same plane. I've read that it was on that trip that Ford and Carter, who had run a somewhat nasty campaign against each other in 1976, buried the hatchet and started a friendship that lasted for the remainder of Ford's life.

On November 20, 2000, there was a White House dinner to observe the house's bicentennial. There were two months left in Bill Clinton's presidency. He and Hillary hosted Lady Bird Johnson, Jerry and Betty Ford, Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter, and George and Barbara Bush. Had the 2000 election been decided by then, I suppose they might have invited the president-elect and his wife, but the Florida electoral vote dispute was still going on.

First Day of School

The 111th Congress convened yesterday.

On the Senate side, the biggest issues involve the vacant Senate seats from Illinois and Minnesota.

The Senate has rejected Roland Burris's certificate of appointment because it was not signed by Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White. White refuses to sign, because he opposes having Gov. Rod Blagojevich make any appointment to the Senate seat that the governor is accused of having tried to sell.

I'm not a lawyer, and have not researched the law on this topic. But it seems to me that the signature requirement is not intended to allow a secretary of state to veto a governor's choice. Burris has commenced legal action to overcome the obstacles to his being seated in the Senate and, on that particular point, seems to be on solid legal ground.

However, he still faces the Constitution's elections, returns and qualifications clause that I discussed here in the context of the Minnesota case. As noted in that post, the courts have refused to second-guess the houses of Congress when they make decisions under that clause. Perhaps, if the Senate so desired, it could block Burris's appointment, even without citing a legal technicality such as the signature requirement.

This article in Politico describes how Senate Democrats' political will might be weakening on that question.

Regarding the disputed Minnesota election between Norm Coleman and Al Franken, the Senate is, for the time being at least, laying back, pending Coleman's court challenge to the recount that found Franken to be the winner. If push comes to shove, I suppose that the Senate's constitutional authority could trump that of the judicial branch, and the Senate might act to seat Franken at some point. However, Franken still does not have a certificate of election from Minnesota, so the Senate's Democratic majority will apparently need to wait at least a little while before taking any such action.

My gut feeling is that Franken will eventually emerge as the winner, but there is no certainty as to whether that will happen and, if so, how long it will take.

There were no such personnel issues on the House side. The biggest story over there was the adoption of the House's rules for the 111th Congress. One change is that they abolished the six-year term limit on committee chairmen that was imposed when the Republicans took control of the House in 1995. I wrote about that issue in this post regarding the congressional seniority system.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Spy Chief

I happened to mention earlier this week, in discussing Bill Richardson's situation, that Jimmy Carter had been forced to withdraw his nomination of Ted Sorensen to head the CIA, in 1977.

Now, President-elect Obama has announced his choice for that job, and I find myself tempted to quote Yogi Berra for the second time this week, in wondering whether this is "dėjà vu all over again".

Leon Panetta, like Sorensen, had his largest involvement with intelligence work as a top White House staffer. Panetta was White House chief of staff under Bill Clinton, from 1994 to 1997. John Kennedy did away with the chief of staff position during his presidency, but Sorensen was one of his senior aides.

The New York Times report to which I linked above, tells of a mixed reaction to Panetta, even among Democrats. Some question his lack of experience that is relevant to the job. That was one of the criticisms aimed at Sorensen, as well.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Former Presidents 3: Back to Work

I will discuss three former presidents who had significant service in public office after leaving the White House.

The first was John Quincy Adams. He served one term as president (1825-9) and reached the presidency in an odd way. Adams is one of only two presidents who were elected by the House of Representatives, because no candidate received an electoral college majority.

Andrew Jackson led in both popular votes and electoral votes in the 1824 election. However, his electoral votes were only 37.9% of the total. The House, pursuant to the 12th Amendment, voted among the top three candidates, and chose Adams.

The two-party system was in a state of flux at that time, in transition from the earlier Republican/Federalist two-party system, to one involving the Democratic and Whig parties. That's why the electoral vote was splintered in that manner.

Adams was not reelected in 1828. Jackson finally achieved the presidency in that election.

Before he became president, Adams had had a diplomatic career, culminating in his tenure as secretary of state in the Monroe Administration. He also had one term in the U.S. Senate. While his place in history is cemented by his having been president, albeit for only one term, Adams is more respected for his achievements in those other jobs. So, perhaps it's not surprising that he decided to return to non-presidential public service.

In 1830, Adams was elected to the House of Representatives. No other former president has ever done that. His Massachusetts constituents continued to reelect him until he died in office in 1848. In fact, he died in the Capitol building, having been moved to the Speaker's Room after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage in the House chamber. The House website provides this information about Adams's time in the House.

A brief footnote: the only other former president to serve in Congress was Andrew Johnson. The Tennessee legislature elected him to the Senate in 1874, but he served less than five months, before he died on July 31, 1875. The main significance of that is that it briefly returned Johnson to the legislative body that had come within one vote of removing him from the presidency in the impeachment trial of 1868.

... until it's over

The Minnesota State Canvassing Board is expected later today to call Al Franken the winner of the U.S. Senate race in that state. The Board has done as much recounting as it considers appropriate, and has found Franken to be ahead by 225 votes.

But, as is so often the case, the wisdom of that great American philosopher Yogi Berra fits this situation: "it ain't over until it's over".

Franken's opponent, Republican Norm Coleman, who has held the seat for the past six years (and is now, I suppose, correctly described as a "former senator") has two possible avenues to challenge the decision: 1) the courts; and 2) the U.S. Senate.

Coleman has already challenged certain recount procedures in Minnesota courts. If the Board acts as they are expected to do today, that will mark the beginning of a seven-day period during which the result can be challenged. It seems certain that Coleman will make such a challenge.

The Senate could also take up the case, pursuant to its constitutional authority, granted by Article 1, clause 5 of the Constitution, which provides in part that "each House [of Congress] shall be the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members".

It seems unlikely that the Senate, with its large Democratic majority, will come to Coleman's rescue. On the other hand, I suspect that Senate Democrats are wary of creating the impression that they are implementing a power play to finalize a Democratic victory. That could create a backlash in favor of Republicans in Minnesota, and perhaps more widely.

However, there is a precedent in the House of Representatives that suggests that a majority party incurs no lasting damage from such a decision. The dispute to which I refer involved a 1984 House race in Indiana. For more details, see this decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, when that court declined to intervene in the controversy. (One interesting sidelight: the court's opinion was written by Antonin Scalia, just before he moved to the Supreme Court.)

I happened to be visiting Washington when the House voted along party lines to seat the Democratic candidate Frank McCloskey, and I listened to much of that debate from the House Gallery. Despite much harsh rhetoric from Republicans, who tried in vain to force a special election, the action by the Democratic majority seemed to have no lasting effect. McCloskey continued to be reelected, until he was caught up in the Republican landslide of 1994.

As another demonstration of one of my favorite political maxims, "a week is a long time in politics", it's possible that any action that the Democratic Senate majority might take in favor of Al Franken might be largely forgotten by the time of the next election.

Former Presidents 2: What Do I Do Now?

What do you do when you're not president of the United States anymore?

In part, the answer depends on one's age.

The oldest president when leaving office was Ronald Reagan, who gave way to his successor George H.W. Bush on January 20, 1989, when he reached his term limit. Reagan, who was then nearing his 78th birthday, spent the following few years writing a book of memoirs, and engaging in limited public speaking. But after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 1994, he lived more or less as an invalid for a period of over nine years, until his 2004 death.

By contrast, the youngest man to leave the presidency alive was Theodore Roosevelt. He was 50 years old when his presidency ended in 1909. I wrote here about his decision not to seek a second full term in 1908, and how he later regretted that decision. He spent a good portion of his time as ex-president attempting to return to the White House. He never achieved that goal; Roosevelt was touted as an early front-runner for the 1920 Republican nomination, but he died on January 6, 1919. While Roosevelt's time as ex-president was more active than Reagan's, the relatively young Roosevelt ironically did not live as long after leaving the White House as Reagan did.

The longest ex-presidency was that of Herbert Hoover. He was 58 years old when he left the White House in 1933, having failed to win reelection the year before. By the time he died in 1964, he had been a former president for more than 31 years. Hoover's reputation eventually recovered from its low point, when he was blamed for the Great Depression during the 1932 campaign. (However, the question of Hoover's culpability is still fiercely debated.) Over the years, he settled in to an elder statesman role. His most high-profile public assignments involved chairing two separate presidential commissions on government reorganization. One of those was appointed by Harry Truman, and the other by Dwight Eisenhower. Those commissions did not seem to have much effect, but those appointments signaled a degree of rehabilitation of Hoover's public standing.

Next: ex-presidents who held public office.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Trouble in the Transition

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson has withdrawn his bid to be secretary of commerce in the Obama Administration. He cited an investigation of a company that has a consulting contract with the state as the reason for his action.

While Richardson denied any wrongdoing on the part of himself and his gubernatorial administration, he acknowledged that this development would complicate and delay the confirmation process.

New presidents face this sort of thing from time to time, for various reasons. I wrote here about the Senate's rejection of John Tower's nomination to be secretary of defense at the beginning of George H.W. Bush's presidency.

A couple of other examples that come to mind are Jimmy Carter's about-face on his nomination of Ted Sorensen to be director of central intelligence, and Bill Clinton's withdrawal of two nominations for attorney general, both because of the immigration status of nannies that the nominees had hired.

In the post-Watergate era, there has been increased scrutinty of candidates for top federal jobs. There has been much talk of avoiding even the appearance of impropriety. That might make a good sound bite, but it seems to me that it removes the presumption of innocence. In other words, I think it translates to deeming everyone who looks guilty to be guilty.

The Senate confirmation process is not a criminal trial. But, taking into account the potential impact on a nominee's reputation and career, I think it's appropriate to afford a nominee some degree of a presumption of innocence.

I'm still a Republican, despite my vote in the recent election, so I don't instinctively rush to the defense of a Democrat such as Richardson. And as to the question of whether he acted inappropriately, I fall back on the old saying, all I know is what I read in the papers (or more accurately, with Will Rogers long gone, on their websites). But I wonder whether we've lost perspective on the best way to handle this type of situation.

One effect of the heightened scrutinty of nominees has been that an incoming president cannot complete the process of filling subcabinet jobs until several months after his inauguration. I consider it to be arguably undemocratic, if the people have chosen a new president, but that president must wait for an extended period before his full team is in place to implement his policies. Here is a discussion of that issue from several years ago; I doubt that the situation can have improved in the meantime.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Junior Senator from Colorado

Governor Bill Ritter, Democrat of Colorado, has chosen Michael Bennet to serve the last two years of Ken Salazar's term in the U.S. Senate. President-elect Obama has selected Salazar to be his secretary of the interior.

Bennet, 44, is superintendent of the Denver Public Schools. He has previous Washington experience, which was in the Department of Justice during the Clinton Administration. He was counsel to the deputy attorney general.

This editorial in the Rocky Mountain News, a Denver newspaper, calls the appointment "stunning". But, apparently, they mean that in a good way.

No Can Do

I speculated in this post about whether Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty would appoint a senator as a temporary replacement, now that it's clear that the dispute over the Coleman-Franken Senate race will not be resolved before the new Senate convenes next week. Yesterday, Pawlenty told WCCO Radio in Minneapolis that the legal opinion he has received indicates that he cannot make such an appointment.

The Senate would need to declare the seat permanently vacant, as they did in this 1974 New Hampshire case that appears to be the most relevant precedent for the current Minnesota situation, before there could be a gubernatorial appointment. In the meantime, the seat apparently exists in a strange sort of limbo, neither filled nor vacant.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Former Presidents

Barring unexpected developments, after Barack Obama is inaugurated later this month, there will be four living former presidents: Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

The number of presidents alive at any one time (including the incumbent and former presidents) is tracked on Wikipedia.

The highest number of former presidents alive at one time is five. The most recent period during which there were five living former presidents lasted from George W. Bush's first inauguration on January 20, 2001, to Ronald Reagan's death on June 5, 2004.

The number has generally been high in recent years. However, in 1973 and 1974, there was a period during which there were no living former presidents. That period began when Lyndon Johnson died on January 22, 1973, and ended when Richard Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974. The number then consistently rose, until Nixon died on April 22, 1994.

Theoretically, with life expectancy having increased for the general population, the number of living presidents should stay above the historical average.

More to come, regarding former presidents, in future posts.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

World's Largest Democracy

Barack Obama received more than 69,000,000 votes in the presidential election. That is an all-time record. An impressive result, but what about a country in which the party with the highest vote total received 103,000,000 votes at the last parliamentary general election, with that being only 27% of the overall total?

In case you haven't guessed already, I'm referring to India. With their next general election coming up soon, I'm starting a series of posts on the political system of the world's largest democracy.

India's parliamentary system is similar to that of the United Kingdom, of which it used to be a colony. One aspect of that is that a general election date is determined by the prime minister, as I described here in the British context. The deadline for the next Indian general election is May 2009.

By the 16th century, European powers were trading with India, and they eventually came to vie for political control of the Indian Subcontinent. The main contenders were the British, the French, the Dutch and the Portuguese. The British gradually came out on top in that competition. The BBC website gives further detail on that process.

Not all that surprisingly, British domination of India was controversial. Here, the BBC describes a major rebellion against British rule in 1857. Then, the Indian National Congress was founded in 1885. By the early 20th century, the Congress had become the vehicle for an independence movement.

That movement's best-known figure was Mohandas Gandhi. Often called "Mahatma", which means "Great Soul", Gandhi advocated non-violent resistance to British rule.

The independence movement finally achieved success in 1947. But all did not go smoothly for either Gandhi or his followers.

The population of colonial India included large numbers of both Hindus and Muslims. So the main issue at the time of independence was how to deal with those disparate cultures. The solution was to partition the Indian subcontinent into two states, a largely Hindu India, and a largely Muslim entity called Pakistan.

The phrase "ethnic cleansing" was coined several decades after that partition, but it could plausibly be applied to ensuing events. There was mass migration of Hindus out of Pakistan and Muslims out of India (although a significant Muslim population remains there to this day). The process was accompanied by violence which resulted in a death toll that has been estimated in the range of 200,000 to 1,000,000.

This article on Emory University's website gives more detail regarding the partition.

In terms of its peaceful intent, and violent reality, the partition resembled a somewhat similar division of Palestine that was implemented the following year.

Violence also struck Gandhi directly. He was fatally shot by Nathuram Godse on January 30, 1948. Godse was a Hindu extremist who apparently felt that Gandhi had been too conciliatory toward the Muslim side in the partition debate. Gandhi had sought peaceful resolutions to both the Anglo-Indian dispute, and Hindu-Muslim religious hatred.

Of course, there are two sides to every story, and this BBC report, on the 50th anniversary of Gandhi's death, addresses criticism of Gandhi.

I will describe the political system and history of independent India in future posts.