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Election Day is Only 110 Days Away

July 20, 2016

“Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

– Senator Lloyd Bentsen to Vice President Dan Quayle in 1988

When I was a little kid and learning about American history, I memorized the names of the country’s presidents. It wasn’t that difficult – there were only thirty-six of them. I knew them in order. I couldn’t list all of them today, let alone chronologically. But then, I also can’t tell you where my spare key to PO Box is at the moment. And all these passwords that I need to remember? Forget it. Some things don’t come as easily as they once did.

But when I was young, remembering lists came pretty easy. Not only could I have told you the presidents’ names, I was also familiar with the names of the country’s vice presidents. I could have only told you in a kid-like way what the presidency was all about and even less about the number two position. In my mind, the vice presidents were the guys that the country believed were the next best choice to the presidents. They were the people who were just as worthy of The White House, but fell short due to the vagaries of our democratic system I couldn’t appreciate without a simpler write-up in the Encyclopedia Britannica. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, venerable figures from the nation’s revolution, were vice presidents before they were presidents. Didn’t that tell a child all he needed to know?

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The correct order of things

I remember thinking that there was a hierarchical structure to this. If Washington was the first president, he must have been the best man for the job. Since Adams was the first vice president and was then president, he must have been the next best. Jefferson was vice president when Adams was president and the country’s third president, so he must have been next in line. It all broke down for me after that, however. Even though I knew that James Madison and James Monroe were important to the country’s history, Madison hadn’t been Jefferson’s vice president and Monroe wasn’t in office with Madison. Why that was, I didn’t know.

It was also a bit confusing that Abraham Lincoln wasn’t a vice president before he was elected president. I knew that he was a poor country boy who walked long distances to get his books from the library, had a house in Springfield, debated someone named Stephen Douglas, made a great speech at Gettysburg and told other Americans that slavery was wrong.

My childhood understanding of the vice president election process wasn’t that far off from the system initially used by the country. Electors from the 13 original states each cast two votes for president. The process was simple. The person with the most votes was named president and the person with the next most was named vice-president. Washington won handily with 69 votes, more than twice the number Adams received, 34. This wide-spread was due in large part to a quiet undertaking by Broadway’s favorite American founder, Alexander Hamilton. With stealth and care not to upset Adams, Hamilton worked diligently to convince electors that it was in the country’s interest to elect Washington as the country’s first president.

To me, all the presidents must have been competent and worthy of the office; it was just that Lincoln and Washington were better than others. If these weren’t the country’s two best presidents, why else were there two days off from school each February to celebrate each of their birthdays? As any Illinois school kid in the mid-twentieth century could have told you, Lincoln was the country’s best president ever. Washington, with the misfortune of not being from our state, came in second. American historians in the 1960’s agreed with my conclusion, so maybe I was just picking up on the country’s zeitgeist back then.

The fact of it is, I never really thought that there were such a thing as a bad president. How could I have known? (More importantly, why should someone have tried to persuade a child one way or the other?)

Schoolkids were also taught that Lincoln was killed with a gun by somebody named John Wilkes Booth while he was sitting in the theater. This was the part of the civics lesson where we were told that the vice president automatically assumed the position if the president died in office. Of course by the time we were learning this in the classroom, we had already lived through a current day transition when John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

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Such a grim moment

Now of course, the parties hold their conventions and delegates cast their votes for the joint ticket of nominees for the president and vice-president. The presidential nominees select their running mates. The parties used to wait until the convention to form the ticket. That changed in 1976, Ronald Reagan, who although he wasn’t the presumptive nominee headed into the convention, named his choice for vice-president. He tried to convince the Republican party rules makers to force Gerald Ford to do the same. Reagan lost that fight and didn’t win his party’s 1976 nomination either. But ever since then, voters have known the candidates for vice president before the conventions start.

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Trump says that John McCain is a loser for spending years in a cage during the Vietnam War, while at the same time praising McCain’s VP choice, Sarah Palin. It’s just the opposite for me. Foisting Palin on the country is unforgivable.

We receive the same gibberish from all the presidential candidates about the care involved to find the best person for the job and that their only concern was selecting the person who could take on the duties of the president on day one should that be necessary. What we usually get instead are decisions driven purely by politics. Candidates try to “balance” the ticket to attract voters by any number of attributes – gender, religion, geographical regions, education, race, age and such. If there’s a hole, they try to plug it. Governors running for president like to have a Washington insider on the ticket. Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, and Mitt Romney all named members of the US Congress to their tickets.

In 1984, Walter Mondale made history when he selected a woman as his vice presidential nominee. Mondale tried to convince voters that Geraldine Ferraro, a three-term Congresswoman from New York, was the very best person for the job. Mondale, for all his passionate commitment to some of the core Democratic positions at the time, wasn’t known as a risk-taker. He was more the guy who dared to be cautious. So selecting a woman was a pretty big deal for him.

I was at the Democrats’ San Francisco convention that summer. While I was thrilled to be there, I wasn’t convinced that Mondale had things right when he selected Ferraro. I was hanging on to my childhood notion that the vice president should be the very best next qualified person to be president. This of course was an odd way to think about things, because you could argue that the neither of the parties were capable of offering the best candidates for the office of president. Her speech at the convention didn’t dissuade my first thoughts, but what did I know? Mondale was the pro. I was just a kid enjoying the big wide world from the peanut gallery.

I had nothing against Ferraro. It was just that I didn’t know much about her. In the weeks that followed, Ferraro handled herself well on the campaign and seemed to be as sharp and smart as we were promised. However, nobody was comparing her with Adams or Jefferson. (Although Republicans continue to confuse Reagan with Washington.) It didn’t help that Mondale’s team only made a modest effort examining Ferraro’s background. They emphasized the remarkable. Ferraro was from a hard-working immigrant family, she was a school teacher and put herself through law school at night, went on to be a tough and effective prosecutor, and by all counts, was widely respected in her district and in the Congress. But they skimped when they looked at her family’s income taxes and finances. She was dogged by questions about various irregularities throughout the campaign and eventually became a drag on a campaign that had an uphill battle from the start.

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I spent July 15 – 19, 1984 at the Democrats’ Convention in San Francisco. What a blast!

Even though it was never Mondale’s intent to bring us the most qualified candidate for vice president, I was happy to cast a vote for the Mondale-Ferraro ticket and do what I could to send Reagan back to California. But little that did. The country preferred to ride it out with four more years of Reagan. Nor were people in the mood to go along with Mondale’s political shenanigans. While Ferraro was named for the primary purpose of exciting and mobilizing women voters, that plan landed with a heavy thud. In November, 58% of women voters chose Reagan over Mondale.

Tonight, we’re scheduled to hear from the person the Republicans want to put next in line to accept responsibility for the president’s duties. His name is Mike Pence. According to a Gallup poll, 44% of voters have never heard of him. That’s what he gets for not having a TV show. He served in the US House of Representatives for twelve years before he was elected Indiana Governor in 2012. In the House, he sponsored ninety bills, none of which became law. He introduces himself as “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican in that order.” He’s not nearly as unpopular in Indiana as Governor Chris Christie is in New jersey, but doesn’t have tailwinds either.

We’re still not sure why Donald Trump selected Pence as his running mate. We’ve heard all the stories about this being the “responsible” thing to do, the party unity, another example of the quality of Trump’s leadership and other ridiculous assertions. Talking heads try to make this sound like a reasoned and wise decision.

We’re told that his kids helped him choose. These are the same people who couldn’t be bothered to vote in the New York primaries in April, which of course shouldn’t be shocking after all these months of craziness. Who really knows the reason Trump selected Pence? There’s one thing that we can know. We can be sure that he doesn’t believe that Pence is the next best choice to be President of the United States. And on that important matter, Trump and I agree.

 

23 Comments
  1. 110 will seem like an eternity, I’m thinking.

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  2. I just tweeted this and it will go up on Facebook, too. Keep writing before the election. Love your thoughts. I am in Minnesota this morning, working to reset.

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    • Hi Mat, Thanks. If only you could bump into Walter Mondale while you are up there and get his unvarnished thoughts on things over a cup of coffee. But then, that may fall outside your scope of resetting. Putting a line in the water with a cold beer at your side might be more relaxing.

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  3. Surprised you didn’t bring Sarah Palin into your discussion, Bruce. I wonder sometimes if McCain doesn’t have nightmares about that decision. One of the questions I posed to my Republican friends was “Do you want Palin to step in as President if McCain’s health goes south?” It wasn’t out of the question, given McCain’s age. Another question I asked was “Do you want to vote for a person who chose Sarah Palin as a potential President?” You are right of course. VP candidates tend to be chosen on their ability to bring in votes more than any sterling qualities they may have. Thoughtful post, as always.–Curt

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    • Curt, McCain’s involvement with the S&L scandal is one thing (bad as that was). His desire to bring Palin to the national stage is another. This was the height of cynicism about the country’s voters and the future of the Republican party. He bears some responsibility for the train wreck it has become. Who knows how he really thinks about Palin now, but it seems that he has never said a bad word about her publicly, no matter what stupid thing she has said or done. This public loyalty is one-way, however. Recall when Trump said that McCain was a loser because the plane he was in during the war was shot down and he was subsequently imprisoned and tortured. Shortly thereafter, instead of criticizing Trump, Palin rushed to Iowa to give him support. Look, we could go on and on about her. It goes without saying that she is the absolute last type of person we should have in public office.

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  4. I may vote Green party for Jill whatshername. Dad is voting for Franklin Roosevelt. Again.

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    • Carl, Jill whatshername and Gary who could create all sorts of crazy twists and turns. It’s all offstage right now, but if Gary who gets his qualifying 15% in the polls and makes it to the debates, the media and social media will have a hey day. Fueled by this, suddenly, there will be a whole new dynamic. The nutty environment will get nuttier.

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  5. There are obviously 101 reasons a person could or could not be picked these days. Some of which, we’ll never be privy to…including the potential pick wanting to have nothing to do with train wrecks. Something tells me that may be a larger factor than normal for the R’s this year…but I digress. Something also tells me Pence may fall into this leftover category to some degree, but it’s also clear from his history – from the “Christian first” thingy to his regressive stances on things from religious liberty to a woman’s right to choose – that he was picked to raise the frothy level from the Cruz side of the party. The response to his speech last night confirms it to me. But as we have learned in the last 24 hours, Trump went hard at Kasich to take the slot. Why? Well, according to news reports, to handle “domestic and foreign policy. Yes, you heard that right. What would The Donald be doing while Kasich did all the heavy lifting, you ask? From Donnie Jr’s mouth to your ears…”Making America Great Again.” I have a headache. http://thehill.com/blogs/ballot-box/presidential-races/288471-report-trump-camp-offered-to-make-kasich-most-powerful-vp

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    • I saw that article. Don’t think for a minute, they weren’t serious about it. Best cure for headaches these days seem to be a walk on the beach, in the woods, on the golf course… anywhere there’s no “news.”

      Dan Quayle looks like Jack Kennedy these days. Close enough for 2016.

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  6. Ah, the good ole days when presidents were heroes, and VP’s were good people too. I agree will all you say here. I had a much more entertaining time last night at Fenway, where the fans of both teams were respectful with each other and just enjoyed the game. Sigh.

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    • A mid-week trip out the yard can go a long way, Pamela. I’m glad that you had a good time. There were plenty of hits and home runs to keep even the casual 🙂 fan’s attention.

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      • So true! I’ll admit, I got caught up in it all and danced and screamed and high-fived in my seat. For both teams, so I kinda got in trouble from time to time. 🙂

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  7. Interesting look back at history and the old history through the eyes of our timeline. Good stuff. It’s been a strange election year … probably the most strange I’ve encountered. Take any of the candidates – especially the main two – I wonder how many of their votes are pro-them vs. anti-the-other. So sad. Meanwhile, I hope you are enjoying Johnny Cueto.

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    • Frank, you bet we are enjoying Johnny Cueto. He seems to like being here also. Seems to like his role, his teammates, the park, the fans. He says that he likes to throw to Buster more than any other catcher in his career.

      The low approval ratings for each of the Dem and the R are a real problem. Not just for them, but for the country too.

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  8. Wonderfully thoughtful and intelligent post, as usual. Thank you. And didn’t things get even crazier after you wrote this? (meaning last night’s acceptance speech)

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  9. Alice, There’s craziness with a new peak every time we hear from this guy. That it’s become normal is the scary part.

    Did you sit through all of it? I didn’t have the stomach for it. I turned it off and switched to the Oakland A’s game for some peace and quiet.

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  10. Well done, Bruce … thank you!

    I appreciated that Gov. Kasich told the media last week that during the VP vetting process Trump’s people asked him if he was ready to be the most powerful Vice President in history and in charge of all domestic and foreign policy. I’m so grateful that he thought it important enough to tell the media and I wonder what you would have thought of that VP job description as a child?

    Of course, it plays in to what many of us are thinking … not only is Donald Trump not qualified to be President, he doesn’t even really WANT to be President, intending to cede the real and important work to his VP, which would be sad enough if not also terrifying.

    As for the Democratic nominee, Senator Tim Kaine: As a Virginian, I have proudly voted for him for both Governor and Senator. He is a good man. And, my Facebook page has been filled all weekend with posts from my Virginia friends — of all political stripes — sharing their personal encounters with Senator Kaine over the years. And, regardless of their party affiliation or political leanings, every post of every encounter was a positive one.

    Plus, Senator Kaine is both a Dylan AND a Replacements fan, AND plays harmonica in local bluegrass bands. Win. Win. Win. 🙂

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  11. I realize I hit “post” prematurely. I didn’t mean to imply Senator Kaine is a good choice for VP because everyone likes him and he has good taste in music. I think his record of action speaks for itself. Here in Virginia, we have learned to appreciate him as smart, thoughtful, and compassionate public official. That he plays harmonica and likes good music is only a fun aside.

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    • Oh Jackie, you know there are no such things as mistakes with comment posts here. I knew you were not going to vote for someone only because they enjoy music from Minnesotans. It always had bugged me that for some reason, the capacity of “having a beer” with the man on the street was some sort of responsible test that a presidential candidate was supposed to pass. Same for musical taste, I guess. (I have to say however, just who picks some of the poppy music for these conventions and just why do they have to play it so loud?)

      I wonder, would Abe Lincoln have liked Dylan’s stuff?

      All of these politicians are careful to think about their future. It’s not always easy for us to know their reasons for doing the things that they do. Hats off to Gov. Kasich for staying home, no matter what his reasons. Separation from Trump and Trumpism is appealing on a political leader. There’s too much at stake here to fall in line with the demands of other party “leaders.”

      Always happy to have the Bloggess stop in.

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  12. Bruce, your mood is low in this post. I can commiserate. It is outstanding that you learned so much about the Presidents as a kid. You must have taken it pretty seriously from the beginning. It took me a long time to get a clue, and I was obliviously singing some mean song in the elementary school cafeteria line to the Oscar Meyer tune, “My bologna has a first name, it’s J I M M Y. My balongna has a second name, it’s C A R T E R. OH, I love to eat it every day. And if you ask me why I’ll say, that Jimmy Carter has a way of screwing up the USA.” I didn’t even know what it was supposed to mean. It made no sense – then or now.

    My cynical mind wanted to tell you that, for a couple of days, I was delighted with the prospect of a possible Trump-Palin ticket!! I mean, come on, if we’re gonna go down, let’s make it an epic fail! I giggled with glee at the idea.

    My ever-hopeful mind thinks that, no matter what, I love this damned country and it’s people. There is so much potential in a country packed full of good people. Even if our President ( or VP) steers us into dangerous waters, we’ve got a good system when it works, and one of these days we get to vote again. It feels like a tide turning, and the public mood is shifting into a place I don’t want to be, but I have to believe it can shift back one of these days.

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