Rip Walsh is an Adjunct Professor at Long Island University who writes about U.S. History and Politics.
Epilogue- Let Us Move Forward
CHAPTER FIVE- EPILOGUE
LET US MOVE FORWARD
The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today. Let us move forward with strong and active faith.
- Franklin Roosevelt
These were the words of FDR in a speech he was working on a few days before his death on April 12, 1945. Right now in 2020, heading into 2021, the doubts of today are somewhat crowding out the realization of tomorrow, and it is very understandable. What keeps a person from losing all hope is the belief that the American people are fundamentally decent and good. Our leaders in recent history have not risen to the occasion, while Washington as a whole has been a stagnant, political wasteland with little that is positive emanating from it. How will history judge the first three presidents of the 21st century? In the long term, I do not think it will be a pretty picture. Two of the three were decent and honorable men, while the third is hard to judge in anything but negative terms. Something he brought entirely upon himself.
From all one hears and reads, George W. Bush appears to be a good guy. That, however, did not qualify him to be president of the United States. Mr. Bush supposedly liked to read biographies of eminent people (he allegedly consumed 13 books on Abraham Lincoln while president), yet did not seem to draw meaningful lessons or insights from them. 9/11 presented new and extraordinary circumstances to contend with, but Mr. Bush never developed a well-thought out or coherent strategy on how to combat Islamic terrorism. Critics would accuse George W. of being overly influenced by advisors like vice-president Dick Cheney and Carl Rove. In the end, the president must assume full responsibility for the actions of his administration. His wars in the Middle East were sloppily planned and executed, the fault not lying with the military but with their civilian bosses above them giving the orders. There is no excuse for the employment of torture and black sites against our adversaries. That method of warfare made us no better than the enemy we were fighting. Domestically, George W. displayed no creativity but just followed the tired Republican doctrine of tax cuts for the rich with a rising tide lifting all boats. It has never worked that way, which Mr. Bush found out. The American people as Franklin Roosevelt so emphatically stated want action; do something, if it fails, admit it honestly, discard it and try something else; above all act and lead the nation, that is why the American people elected you. Hurricane Katrina emphasized that George W. Bush did not govern forcefully or respond energetically in a crisis when the nation needed it. As a result, History may rate him accordingly as a poor and indecisive president.
Readers of this book may have noticed that I was a bit harsher on Barack Obama than on Mr. Bush or Mr. Trump. From the very talented, more is expected. I did not put high hopes on either a Bush or Trump presidency, and my expectations were fulfilled. Mr. Obama will undoubtedly shine more brightly to prosperity for having served between two of the weakest leaders in our history. Obama unquestionably was a better president than his predecessor or successor. Although not overly successful in carrying out his legislative agenda, Barack attempted to put the nation back on the right road after the foibles of George W. To me, Barack Obama was a good enough president, to make one wish, he had been even better. Perhaps Mr. Obama’s supporters did not push him hard enough to do more. This was plausible, as the constant criticism from the right and Fox News made the left overly sensitive, prone to defend and exalt Mr. Obama’s every move, instead of providing an objective analysis about actual accomplishments. To his credit, Barack advanced civil rights for all Americans during his terms, and recognized the importance of climate change to the future. What was lacking might have been the fire and passion of a Theodore Roosevelt to rally the American people or the consummate political skill of a Franklin Roosevelt to prod a gridlocked Congress. Maybe it is too much to expect such transcendent leaders to emerge more frequently in our history. In the end, Mr. Obama could not raise the nation above the paralysis and inertia which have descended on Washington like a dark cloud.
Maybe the kindest thing that can be said about the Trump Presidency is that it was an experiment by the American people in electing a non-politician to the White House, but one that ultimately failed. Many in the country were fed up with the seemingly rudderless direction of Washington, and desired a change. The trouble became that the wrong non-politician happened to be picked. Donald Trump was not temperamentally suited to be president, something he displayed over and over during his four years. The calm and thoughtful maturity of a statesman was conspicuously absent from Trump’s make-up. His supporters loved his combativeness but he took it beyond the extreme into the gutter of petty and obnoxious vindictiveness. He proved his own worst enemy time and again, refusing to take advice or counsel from people with greater experience than him in many areas of government. Being president is not like hosting the Apprentice, he could not fire Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He did not have to like Congressional leaders, but the nation elected you to work and compromise with them to get important things done. The heads of foreign countries are not your pals or cheeseburger buddies, but people you negotiate with in the best interests of the United States as they look out for their own self-interest. Constantly insulting and berating perceived opponents does not help anyone. The Donald Trump presidency highlighted, once more, that the American people are better than leaders, and very resilient.
Returning to the question that is the title of this book, “What would Franklin and Teddy do?” I have provided examples of how they dealt with similar situations as those faced by our three 21st century presidents, but a deeper probe into their success as leaders boils down to a matter of approach. Teddy and Franklin were men of their times, but also transcended them, giving invaluable lessons for all future presidents. The Roosevelts carried an unbounding confidence if not conceit into the presidency. The difference, however, between them and Donald Trump was that they did not permit their cockiness to overshadow a sense of justice and fair play in governing. Theodore Roosevelt was an anomaly of human nature. Some medical experts have put forth theories that he suffered from a form of manic depression; one where the highs greatly outnumbered the lows. So much so, he could not turn his brain off, and was a constant whirling-dervish of activity. The man only slept 3 to 5 hours a night. A proponent of the rugged individualist lifestyle, TR not only participated in rigorous outdoor activities but intellectual ones as well. He read thousands of books (as president he always kept a book on his desk, to read a few pages in the two to three minutes between appointments at his office); he wrote 36 books himself and penned an estimated 150,000 letters in his lifetime. Theodore Roosevelt did not shy from leading, and, most importantly, his moral compass was strong and pointed in the right direction. Like his cousin, Franklin, TR loved being president and always regretted announcing he would not run in 1908 after winning a term of his own in 1904.
Franklin Roosevelt had tried to model his career after his illustrious cousin, but they were by personality polar opposites. TR was a locomotive going at full speed whose brakes had failed; FDR cultivated the image of the patrician squire; noble, charming, with his cigarette in its elegant holder; massive head tilted slightly back; beaming smile and booming laugh. His style employed circumspection and sleight of hand, avoiding the confrontation if possible that Theodore wallowed in. FDR’s critics accused him of being a devious and cunning backstabber. He undoubtedly knew how to play rough politics, as did TR. Franklin’s good qualities outweighed his bad to the point where the American people trusted him enough for four presidential election victories, obviously the most in our history. With the nation at its lowest ebb during the Great Depression, he exuded an unfailing optimism and cheerfulness that things would get better. FDR’s battle with polio extinguished the view he was a lightweight powder-puff or feather duster, and unleashed a well-spring of sympathy and sensitivity for the less fortunate that had been mostly submerged in his early years. In domestic affairs, the U.S. could do no better than either Roosevelt at the helm. For foreign policy, Franklin possessed an edge over his imperial leaning cousin. FDR championed freedom around the world and self-determination for all countries as a major goal of World War II. He was also instrumental in establishing the United Nations before the conflict ended, as a bulwark for world peace in the future.
Donald Trump lost the 2020 presidential election to former vice-president under Barack Obama, Joe Biden. Like 2016, the Democrat party went with an old guard candidate instead of the more progressive, Bernie Sanders. Biden was a safe if unspectacular choice, greatly assisted by the coronavirus pandemic to unseat the turbulent Trump. The only new and innovative thing to emerge from a pedestrian campaign would be Biden’s choice of California Senator, Kamala Harris, for vice-president. The first woman to be elected V.P., as well as the first African-American and Southeast Asian. Trump does have to be given some credit for getting people to go out and vote, if for no other reason than to vote him out of office. 2020 became the largest election in our history in terms of participants, and the biggest in percentage of voters for over 100 years. Biden garnered some 80 million votes, to Trump’s 70 or so million. True to form, Mr. Trump refused to concede the election, and at first, would not cooperate in the transition of power to the new administration. The Donald launched numerous lawsuits claiming voter fraud, only to watch each one be dismissed by judges as groundless. Just when you thought Trump could sink no lower, on January 6, 2021, he encouraged his supporters to protest the counting of the Electoral College by the Congress. The protesters stormed the capital building itself, causing the members to be evacuated, until police could regain control. Five people were killed in the violence. Another very black mark on Mr. Trump’s legacy. That Trump still retains a substantial following means Mr. Biden will have to work especially hard to unite a splintered United States. Good luck, Mr. Biden.
The United States Constitution is one of the great documents in World History, its enduringness partially indebted to the flexibility the authors gave it, to change with the times through the amendment process. The early 21st century is not the first time the federal government has seemingly ground to a halt. The late 1800’s are another prime example of when conditions permitted the machinery to malfunction, with the cost being paid by the American people. Then as now, the blame did not fall on the document itself, but with the excess baggage that had grown up around it, and the people entrusted to carrying out its mandates properly. I claim no expertise on governmental workings or bureaucracy, but will offer suggestions for each branch of government which might hopefully help to break the logjam. My only criteria are “What makes the system more democratic, truer to its origins, and what has inhibited not only the Constitution but the government under it as well.”
THE EXECUTIVE BRANCH
As could be said during the Gilded Age of the late 1800’s, when the Robber Barons or Titans of Industry (depending on one’s views) controlled the federal government with their immense wealth, so might be stated today. It can be argued that the presidency has fallen under the sway of wealthy self-interest groups, who bankroll candidates’ runs for the White House. Campaigns that stretch two full years and require exorbitant amounts of money to finance, upwards of a billion dollars. The recommendation to sever the iron grip of the moneyed interests on presidential elections is not a new idea, but one whose time has perhaps come. Eliminate all private funding of presidential elections. Each candidate would receive a reasonable amount of public funding to conduct his or her campaign. In this digital age of instant access to all information, there is no need for mega-financed bids for the White House. Providing each candidate with the same amount of funding also permits the American people to judge who spent their allotment more wisely, a measure of fiscal responsibility that Washington desperately requires. Unquestionably a tough sell in this time when the Supreme Court declared money is equated with free speech, but something the United States would greatly benefit from. Besides saving the nation billions of dollars, the election cycle could be reduced to a more manageable one year instead of the numbingly repetitive two-year length, and better qualified candidates, chosen on their merits and not their fundraising ability, might be nominated and elected.
A second proposal which would make the presidential election process more democratic is to dump the Electoral College. Conceived by the founding fathers as a buffer between the average voter and the selection of the president, the College has never been used as intended. The notion was people voted for prominent and well-known citizens from their states, who would then meet to dispassionately and objectively pick the president. George Washington won the first two presidential elections in 1788 and 1792 by unanimous votes, not requiring the employment of the College for its proscribed purpose. By the third election in 1796 between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, political parties had formed and Electors announced beforehand who they would vote for, negating the effect of the Electoral College. Supporters claim it protects small states against the larger ones, but there is no real evidence for that assertion. The creation of the Senate with 2 representatives from each state had been the founders’ guardian of small states’ rights. In 2016 and 2020, the major candidates spent nearly 95% of their time and financial resources in less than 15 states, the so-called battleground ones, putting a fork in the belief that the Electoral College shields small states. A presidential election is the only national election we have, where people cast their ballots not as members of a state, but American citizens, choosing our country’s leader. During this ultra-technology era, one person, one vote never made more sense and manifests fairness for all Americans.
Are there other ways to make the president more accessible to the people he or she serves? Obviously, security concerns make it difficult to bring our chief executive out from the bubble they seemingly occupy in the White House. The time when anyone could seek an audience with the president, as when Abraham Lincoln lived in the Executive Mansion are long gone, but what else? An idea might be to reduce if not totally eliminate the position of Press Secretary. In this hectic and chaotic world, our presidents are very busy. Could they not, however, come off the golf course for one hour, twice a week to provide news conferences in person? During his 12 years in office, Franklin Roosevelt gave 998 press conferences, an average of a bit less than 2 per week (1.7 per week to be exact). He began with two a week upon becoming president, but the later demands of World War II sometimes caused only one a week to be held. It is one of the most important aspects of the presidency, communicating with the people who elected you, and needs to be taken more seriously by current presidents. Checking abuse of presidential power is the responsibility of the Congress in our system of checks and balances, and thus will be discussed in that section. I hope the suspension of Twitter accounts for presidents while in office remains just a suggestion. Do we think Congress might be motivated to mandate it? After Trump, maybe.
The major suggestion for Congressional change is the same as that for the president, severing the ties between special interests and elections to Congress. Term limits for members of Congress has been put forward as solution but perhaps that is too easy a fix. Congress people who are good at their jobs should not have to give them up after one or two terms, but the method of gaining election and winning re-election requires change. Under the current system, House representatives possess a two-year term in office, which basically means they are running for re-election constantly. In consequence, they spend the vast majority of their time fund-raising instead of concentrating on what their constituents sent them to Washington to do. Senators have a longer period in Congress, six years, but the bulk of them also engage in money-raising almost non-stop, not fulfilling their true function as law-makers like they should. Each election cycle, those Representatives and Senators good at accumulating cash and who can gain re-election, build up their campaign war chests, making it ever more difficult to unseat them from office. Abolishing private funding of campaigns removes special interests from the playing field, puts all incumbents and challengers at the same starting point, even if they have been in Congress over 30 years, saves the nation billions of dollars, and allows Congress to direct their attention on the important issues the country faces. Today, Washington has a class of professional politicians whose primary objective is to stay in office, not necessarily carrying out the business of the United States.
One area in the Constitution where perhaps the Founders made in error of judgment was in the decree that the Senate could enact its own rules and procedures. I do not think they had in mind that a Senate Majority leader such as Mitch McConnell (one last Ah-Yup) should possess as much power as the president, with his ability to block or stall bills from being brought to the floor of the Senate for a vote. Yurtle the Turtle has made a career out of being an obstructionist, more concerned with killing legislation than in passing it. He is a senator elected from one state, Kentucky, not by the American people as a whole, and should not have that much control over pending bills. An alteration to the Committee system is required to make the current format more democratic, and to prevent the Turtle and future Senate Majority leaders from paralyzing the process. I have some ideas as to changes to the Committees, including getting rid of them entirely, but believe experts in Congressional functioning are better suited to implement the necessary improvements. As with the president, the Senators are not that busy that they can’t spend more time in the Senate chamber debating and voting on legislation.
Since World War II, Congress has abdicated some of its responsibilities as spelled out in the Constitution to the Executive. Maybe most importantly in the conduct of foreign affairs, specifically in the area of sending U.S. troops on combat missions. The president is Commander-in-Chief and does have the authority to direct conflicts. The power to declare and start a war, however, rests with Congress under the Constitution. In the nuclear age, a mistaken belief arose that the president needed the ability to move quickly if a crisis requiring a military response developed. Act fast and then get Congress to vote on it afterwards. The length of our military engagements since 1945 casts significant doubt on the assertion that the president must strike quickly, without Congressional authorization. The Korean War lasted three years, 1950-1953; Vietnam 10 years, 1965-1975; The Gulf War, 1991, actual combat operations were brief, but the build-up offered plenty of time for mature consideration beforehand; Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, 17 and 19 years respectively and still counting. Congress should take this power back from the president, as enshrined in our national governing document. The president can always call Congress into special session if it happens to be on recess when fighting breaks out. Congress may also help matters by enacting more legislation so our leader does not feel the necessity of issuing Executive Orders to accomplish anything, as has become commonplace in the 21st century. The Constitution made Congress the lead branch of the government, it must act like it.
A position on the Supreme Court has become a political one, and should thus be treated as such. At nominating hearings for potential appointees, questions on legal knowledge and procedures are almost non-existent, while inquiries into their views on social issues such as abortion, separation of church and state, immigration status, among others, predominate. I do not think the founders made a mistake in granting life-long appointments to the Supreme Court as life-spans were much shorter in the late 1700’s than today. Having jurists in their late 70’s or 80’s in itself is not the problem, if they remain mentally agile, and wish to stay on. We would hope to avoid the situation that occurred with Ruth Bader Ginsberg. A judge in her 80’s, who was very ill, but yet feels she cannot retire because of the conservative composition of the Court and a conservative president in Donald Trump. The poor lady, if she so wanted, should have been able to step down and spend her remaining time with her family.
The suggestion for the Supreme Court might hope to inject greater turn over into the Court, making it more responsive to public opinion and acknowledging its status as a political body. Supreme Court justices should be limited to an 8 or 10-year term, which guarantees periodic injection of new ideas for the Court and prevents stagnation if judges hang on beyond a reasonable amount of time and a deterioration of their skills. The appointment process could remain the same, as well as the number of judges at nine. The country would not have to contemplate a court-packing scheme like the one envisioned by FDR in the 1930’s or in 2020 for new President Biden to consider adding more justices to off-set the conservative majority because Trump got to add several more conservative jurists during his term. The main point is the Supreme Court serves the people, all the people, not just segments or special interests.
New President Biden faced a tough challenge upon taking office on January 20, 2021. The nation basically lost a year dealing with the Coronavirus as former President Trump took no beneficial steps to combat it, along with 280,000 of our fellow citizens dying from the disease by December, 2020. Mr. Biden said he would follow the advice of the medical experts, which in conjunction with the roll-out of a vaccine should hopefully bring the pandemic under control. The new president also stated more relief for the American people would be enacted, as it is desperately needed. Congress, as per its nature, deadlocked over another relief package after the first one ran out of money in the summer of 2020. One can only feel a sense of sadness and nausea (anger too) at the ineptitude and hypocrisy of our legislative branch lying idle while millions suffer. One, if not several more, stimulus packages may be necessary to lift the economy back on its feet. Change in Congress cannot come fast enough, and it will require public pressure as the engine of reform. Could we expect the Congress to institute changes on its own? I do not think so.
In addition, President Biden will have to confront severe dissatisfaction in the population concerning race relations and police brutality toward minorities. It is difficult to know what to say about race relations. The old platitudes of “It will take time and patience”, “Attitudes must change” hold no water anymore. The Civil War ended 155 years ago, and the laws guaranteeing equal rights for all citizens, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity are on the books. The United States, on every level, must act like we are all equal and accept no variation of that standard. Calls for defunding the police cannot be dismissed lightly after the rash of minority shootings by officers in 2020, but is that a practical and reasonable solution to the problem? Perhaps a better approach might be, and it will be a hard sell in our gun rights country, for police personnel on day-to-day patrol activities to not carry weapons like is done in some other countries. Knowing they are unarmed will mandate police departments to concentrate on negotiating, confrontation and tension reducing skills to defuse situations. This might help as well in the process of re-building community trust as people will comprehend they do not have a chance to be shot in a random meeting with police. Armed units could remain on call at the station, to be summoned if an encounter escalates to the appearance of weapons. The job of the officers on the scene at that moment would be to protect themselves and escort innocent citizens to safety, until armed back-up arrives. Such an initiative would require a corresponding program on gun control.
This is another issue where it is almost incomprehensible that steps have not been taken to better protect the American people. Yes, the Constitution offered protection for gun ownership but times have changed dramatically since 1787. One might think today that it should not be necessary to privately possess a firearm in our supposedly enlightened society. In 2020/2021, the question boils down to this, does the right to own a gun outweigh the right to go to school, the market, a church or synagogue, nightclub, concert, even a garlic festival without the fear of being shot. A possible compromise solution that protects 2nd amendment rights while increasing safety for the rest of the population might be- a person can own as many guns as they desire, but only a pistol and hunting rifle may be kept at their home. Any other weapons they possess, from assault rifles to bazookas to tanks must be stored at a range under lock and key, until the owner wishes to use them. The only legitimate use of such powerful firearms is at a range, there being no reason to have them in houses. Putting them back in locked storage after use would reduce the risk of them falling into the hands of the ill-intentioned. The compromise is that people can still exercise their gun rights, while keeping them at a range provides an added safeguard for the population as a whole. Assault weapons must be taken off the streets and permanently out of circulation. I think we could survive without having Sean Hannity protect us with his AR-15 or whatever he owns as the mass shooter reloads his AK-47. It is hard to fathom that in the 21st century so many of our fellow citizens have died senseless deaths from gun violence. We can do better.
President Obama was on the right track with his approach to our relations with foreign nations, though unfortunately, Mr. Trump set us back 4 years with his America First policy, which harkened back to the Isolationism and Appeasement of the 1930’s. The final result of that misguided philosophy of course became World War II. The United States has to craft new guidelines in dealing with the rest of the world. The Cold War ended 30 years ago. The Age of the Superpowers is over. We must adjust accordingly. In the period since 1945, the U.S. squandered any moral authority we accumulated thorough our heroic efforts to save the world from Fascism. There is no need, as politicians in Washington still do, to spout that the United States is the greatest nation and guardian of the free world. Other countries do not believe that hype, nor why should they? We have not acted as an enlightened beacon of democracy and must create new patterns of behavior to regain the trust of the globe. To lead in international affairs, it should be by example, not military might.
A good starting point would be to reduce our military spending, which currently is larger annually than the next 5 biggest countries combined in terms of yearly budget devoted to national defense. Our military is already perfectly capable of protecting this nation against its adversaries. We do not need to expend over $700 billion a year to maintain this posture. Efforts should be concentrated on making our forces more efficient, improving the small scale operations that have predominated since 2001. The era of large scale ground conflicts appears to be in the past, and we need to change with the times. If a war requiring massive numbers of troops erupted the U.S. could create the necessary army at that moment. At the beginning of World War II, United States forces numbered less than 200,000, by the end, 16 million men and women were in uniform to defeat Nazi Germany and Japan. Maybe the United States might see itself not as the top of the pyramid, but as one member of a community of nations striving together to improve the Earth for all its inhabitants.
Diminishing defense spending would permit the United States to put its resources towards cleaning up our own house. If the military budget was even just cut in half, hundreds of billions of dollars could be employed in creating a better and more equal education system for all Americans, along with programs in affordable health care, housing, and other beneficial initiatives. We have the means, but at the moment, are pointed in the wrong direction. Private enterprise will still be the main spring of the American economy, yet why not take a page from FDR’s New Deal. Work programs to fix the infrastructure of this nation, which desperately needs it, providing gainful employment to anyone who wants to work. A win-win for everybody, just as it was during the Great Depression. The rich will still be rich, but the rest of us will possess a greater stake in our own country after re-taking control of the people’s government. These ideas have been called different things in our history- The Square Deal, The New Deal, The Fair Deal, for today, how about, The Time is Now, The Right Deal. Then the United States might be on a more secure and happier road and have re-gained its moral authority.
In offering these suggestions, I in no way presume to know all the answers, but only wish they might lead to greater discussion and debate about how to help our country move closer to the ideals set forth by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. A national effort is required. I will end with parts of a prayer Franklin Delano Roosevelt read to the people over the radio the night of D-Day, June 6, 1944. By substituting “All Americans” where it says, “Our Sons” and “Humanity” for “Men”, it is still relevant today and might be a rallying call to a new mighty endeavor for the United States.
Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our Nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.
Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith.
They will need Thy blessings. Their road will be long and hard. For the enemy is strong. He may hurl back our forces. Success may not come with rushing speed, but we shall return again and again; and we know that by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph.
With Thy blessing, we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy. Help us to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogancies. Lead us to the saving of our country, and with our sister Nations into a world unity that will spell a sure peace, a peace invulnerable to the schemings of unworthy men. And a peace that will let all of men live in freedom, reaping the just rewards of their honest toil.