JFK Transformed

This piece originally appeared in my column for Huffington Post Books on October 27, 2013.

On the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, with bookstore shelves overflowing with reexaminations and conspiracy theories, John T. Shaw takes a look at an important but under-reported period of President Kennedy’s life in JFK in the Senate: Pathway to the Presidency.

Shaw, a Capitol Hill correspondent for Market News International, focuses on the period from Kennedy’s first campaign for the House of Representatives in 1946 to his campaign for the White House in 1960. During those years, Kennedy built his foreign policy expertise, won a Pulitzer Prize, and became a media star.

JFK SenateShaw and I discussed his book last week by email, which I lightly edited below.

You wrote that the Senate was “a forum, a platform and a launching pad” for Kennedy to become president, but President Obama is the only other president in modern history to get elected from the Senate. Is that a historical accident, or is there more to it than that?

I believe that both Sen. Kennedy and Sen. Obama had a very shrewd sense of both the opportunities and limitations the Senate offered for those running for president. They both saw that it was wise to use the Senate’s visibility as a campaign asset but it was important to avoid getting ensnared in protracted legislative battles that almost always ended with messy results.

I’m convinced that then Sen. Obama and his campaign team in 2007 and 2008 looked at Sen. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign, at least in its broad themes if not its exact details. Obama saw that it was possible for a relatively junior senator to get his party’s nomination and win the general election without having an extensive legislative record. Obama also saw, as did Kennedy, that being viewed as a Senate insider, was an electoral liability rather than a political strength. Obama saw in 2008 as Kennedy did in 1960 that the political moment allowed for a different kind of candidate to run and win. Each sensed, I think shrewdly, that he had a unique opportunity to run for, and win, the presidency in the year they choose which might not be available four years later.

Even before Kennedy was in the Senate, he had higher aspirations. Why didn’t he run in 1956 when the Democrats nominated Adlai Stevenson, who had already lost to Eisenhower four years earlier?

Democrats generally agreed that Adlai Stevenson ran a strong and principled campaign against Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, deserved a rematch in 1956, and would be their best candidate against the politically formidable incumbent.

It’s important to recall that Senator Kennedy’s political career took off in 1956 – especially the second half of the year. Before then he was a little known junior senator from Massachusetts. But in 1956 his book, Profiles in Courage, was published and became a bestseller, and he was the star of the 1956 Democratic convention. He narrated the film opening the convention, nominated Stevenson to be the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, and came within a handful of votes of becoming Stevenson’s vice presidential selection. And within weeks of Stevenson’s defeat in November of 1956, Kennedy decided to run for the 1960 nomination.

By the end of 1956, JFK was a political rock star, but he was relatively unknown at the start of the year. Kennedy may have also sensed that Eisenhower was going to be get re-elected in 1956, probably by a landslide, and there was little to be gained by leading a Democratic ticket that got trounced.

There’s a fair amount of controversy about whether Kennedy wrote Profiles in Courage, which won a Pulitzer Prize. Did he write it?

Kennedy loved to read history and also aspired to write it, first as a Harvard undergraduate when he turned his honors thesis about England’s foreign policy into a best-selling book, Why England Slept. Nearly fifteen years later, while convalescing in Palm Beach after major back surgery, Sen. Kennedy decided to expand an article he had written about political courage into a book. Kennedy assembled a small research team of academics for the project, overseen by his aide Ted Sorensen.

Sorensen’s group gathered background materials and sent Kennedy memos and draft chapters which JFK honed into a manuscript. As I see it, Kennedy acted more as an executive editor of Profiles In Courage than a traditional author. Sorensen, in his 2008 memoir, credits JFK with playing a large role in writing the first and final chapters of the book, suggesting others did much of the work on the rest of the book. Allegations that Sorensen effectively wrote Profiles in Courage were first made in the spring of 1957 and they made Kennedy furious. So did Sorensen’s very carefully worded denials.

One thing that jumped out at me in the book is how good Kennedy was in his congressional campaigns at what we would now call grassroots work – knocking on doors, sending thank-you notes, keeping detailed contact information, etc.  Was that a surprise to you?

It was. In many ways, JFK was not a natural politician. He was a quiet, reserved, sometimes even shy man. He once said that when sitting on a plane he would prefer to quietly read a book than banter with the person sitting next to him. But when he decided to enter politics he swung for the fences. Even though he had ample family financial resources – and he used them – Kennedy worked from morning to night on his campaigns, shaking hands, speaking to political and civic groups, meeting with potential supporters, and making phone calls to party leaders. Both his brother Bobby and his top political aide, Larry O’Brien, built first class political organizations that were the gold standard of their time.

I came away from the book with a sense that Kennedy wasn’t much of a senator in the traditional sense but that his years in Congress were a phenomenal preparation for the White House – particular on foreign policy. Was that your take?

Yes. Kennedy never had any desire to be a traditional senator. He never aspired to be a “Master of the Senate” such as Lyndon Johnson who drove the institution. Kennedy was much more interested in being a “Statesman-Scholar” along the lines of Winston Churchill who shifted between the worlds of ideas and action – and helped frame the policy debate.

As a senator, Kennedy made surprisingly rich and interesting contributions to the foreign policy debate. For example, his speeches on France’s policies toward Indochina and Algeria were remarkably impressive and stand the test of time. And he saw about thirty years before many others did that Poland was the weakest link in the Soviet Empire.

But there is little dispute that JFK’s youngest brother, Ted, was easily the best senator in the family. [Robert Kennedy was elected to the Senate in 1964 and served until he was assassinated in 1968.] Ted was more far more patient than either JFK or RFK and seemed to genuinely relish the back-and-forth of legislative and Senate life.

How was your experience researching presidential history in the internet age?  Has the Kennedy Library largely moved online, or did you have to spend a lot of time in Boston?

I’m still edging my way out of the 20th century and so while I did take advantage of the growing availability of online resources I conducted a lot of my research the old fashioned way. I read biographies about JFK, memoirs by Kennedy’s contemporaries, and the three major books that JFK wrote. I also spent a lot of time reviewing original documents in the Senate Historical Office, the Senate Library, and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston.

The Kennedy Library offers some of its collections online and I found important information there. I spent a week at the Library in Boston and stumbled into a number of valuable documents, including a speech that Sen. Kennedy gave to the Mississippi Valley Historical Association in 1958 in which he described his love of history in a remarkably clear and vivid way. I’ve never seen this speech quoted before and I just stumbled into it as I thumbed through a JFK speech file. Sometimes good accidents happen!

What were the best Kennedy books you came across?

My research into John F. Kennedy’s Senate career propelled me into the seemingly endless, always expanding, universe of Kennedy literature. The books that best help me understand Sen. Kennedy were: John Kennedy: A Political Profile by James MacGregor Burns (1961), Jack: The Struggles of John F. Kennedy by Herbert Parmet (1980), An Unfinished Life by Robert Dallek (2003), The Strategy of Peace by John F. Kennedy (1960), Counselor by Ted Sorensen (2008), Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye by Kenneth O’Donnell and David Powers (1970), My Twelve Years With John F. Kennedy by Evelyn Lincoln (1965), Master of the Senate by Robert Caro (2002), The Passage of Power by Robert Caro (2012) and Kennedy Versus Lodge by Thomas Whalen (2000).

Are you working on anything now?

I have become deeply interested in the Senate of the 1950s. What an incredible cast of characters: Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, Mike Mansfield, Robert Taft, Richard Russell, Everett Dirksen, etc.  My next book will return to this world but I haven’t settled on a specific topic yet.

Review Rewind: Robert Frank’s ‘Richistan’

Review Rewind is an occasional look at backlist titles of interest.

Americans are enamored with the wealthy.

We take national pride in the rags-to-riches story, the mom-and-pop store that makes it big. We say things like “only in America” and call the United States a “land of opportunity.” We value the better mousetrap and laud its inventor with gobs of money.

But those are more the marks of success than of wealth. What really fascinates us is the money. We drive by McMansions and wonder what the owners do for a living, how much money they make, and how they spend it.

Since 2003, The Wall Street Journal has devoted a full-time reporter to chronicle the comings and goings of America’s New Rich – the dot-com billionaires, hedge-fund managers, CEOs, etc., that are redefining America’s upper-upper class.

Journal reporter Robert Frank got the idea in 2003 when he discovered a report from the Federal Reserve Bank that said the number of millionaire households in the United States had more than doubled since 1995.

“After seeing the Fed numbers,” Frank says, “I started to wonder about all these rich people. Who were they? How did they get rich? How was money changing their lives? Most importantly, how were they changing life for the rest of us?”

The answers have come in the form of the Wealth Report column and blog that Frank writes for the Journal and his new book, Richistan: A Journey Through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich (Crown Business, 2007).

Frank’s premise – that America’s rich have formed an insular, separate country unto themselves – came from his reporting at a 2004 yacht convention in Ft. Lauderdale. A yacht owner from Texas told him: “You look at all these boats and you’d think everyone’s making loads of money. It’s like a different country.”

Even in Richistan, there is a class structure – “upper-class warfare between the haves and have-mores” – that Frank divides into Lower ($1 million to $10 million net worth), Middle ($10 million to $100 million) and Upper Richistan ($100 million to $1 billion). Billionaireville, the have-mosts, has grown from 13 American families in 1985 to more than 1,000 today.

And no one is content. When asked how much money they would need to feel secure, millionaires routinely give an answer that is twice their personal wealth, whether that is $5 million or $50 million. Middle and Upper Richistanis call Lower Richistanis “affluent” as a pejorative.

Even billionaires get insecure. Timber baron Tim Blixseth – worth $1.2 billion and ranked No. 322 on the Forbes 400 – had a multi-billionaire buddy over to his estate to play a round at his private golf course. Afterward, the multi-billionaire made a $400 million offer for the entire estate. Blixseth politely declined. “Now that guy,” Blixseth said, “he was rich.”

The book’s chapters are narrative anecdotes that describe particular facets of life in Richistan, from a college for butlers (now “household managers”) to a clash of new money vs. old money in a Palm Beach ballroom to innovative approaches to philanthropy to multi-millionaire support groups.

Richistan’s cast includes predictably self-congratulating boors – including one who gave Frank a spreadsheet of his charitable giving and “permission” to write about it – but also fascinating characters who illustrate the complexity and variety of life in Richistan.

Blixseth is one of the more interesting. He made a fortune in timberland speculation in the 1980s, lost it all by getting over-leveraged, started over, and by 1990 was again worth millions. He now has 500,000 acres of real estate holdings, luxury destination clubs, a record label, and a strict no-debt philosophy. For his wife’s 50th birthday party, Blixseth put on a lavish Wizard of Oz production – Munchins and all – and Paul Anka sang a special version of “My Way.”

Ed Bazinet, who founded the company that makes Snow Village ceramic cottages, mocked his devotees by stamping “Get a Life” – he had a special stamp made – on effusive letters from collectors. Retired since 1997, Bazinet built a $30 million Manhattan penthouse that became a constant frustration to him: he sued the contractor, cannot understand the lighting and security systems, and obsesses over a scratch in the glass stairwell. He recently put the penthouse back on the market.

There are undoubtedly boring billionaires who live in modest homes and watch soap operas all day, but a chapter about stealth Richistanis would have cut against Frank’s definition of New Rich as not just rich but flamboyantly rich. Still, the modestly wealthy are out there, and the contrast could have been compelling.

Frank gives little attention to the question he said was most important – how the rich are changing life for everyone else – but in his summary chapter he talks of the growing divide between the rich and poor that presidential candidate John Edwards has called “Two Americas.” Franks seems to agree, noting that median household income in America fell for the fifth straight year in 2005 and that the rich have, essentially, education and healthcare systems that are far superior to those available to the poor.

(Cornell economics professor Robert Frank – same name, different guy – covers this ground more thoroughly in Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class (University of California Press, 2007), which recently became available on Kindle.)

Richistan has factoids galore: North Carolina has more millionaires than India. Lower Richistanis skew Republican, but Middle and Upper Richistanis skew Democratic. The inflation rate for the super-rich is triple the national inflation rate because of soaring demand for luxury goods. A pair Iranian immigrant brothers started Hot Pockets (frozen pizza snacks) in the 1990s and sold the company to Nestle in 2002 for $2.6 billion.

Frank covers the New Rich like a foreign correspondent or Atlanta Braves beat reporter, providing a close-up perspective of a topic with wide interest and narrow access. Whether the topic merits the attention (or this kind of attention) is open for debate, but Frank certainly makes wealth feel important, as American an institution as baseball, SUVs and apple pie.

‘Wilson,’ Obama and Dealing with Congress

This piece originally appeared in my column for Huffington Post Books on October 10, 2013.

Here’s one tried and tested way for a president to deal with a difficult Congress: Go to your private office on Capitol Hill and stay there until a deal is done.

Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president of the United States, lobbied Congress from his private room in the Capitol Building – called the President’s Room – that has seldom been used in the nearly hundred years since and is now largely forgotten to history. One of Wilson’s innovations that did stick was the State of the Union Address, which previously been a written address to Congress.

Wilson“Wilson wanted to put a face on the presidency,” said A. Scott Berg, whose new biography Wilson is a comprehensive and deeply human portrait of the former president. “He wanted to Congress to see a person who has an agenda of ideas that they might enact together.”

So alive is Berg’s depiction of Wilson that Warner Brothers has already optioned the film rights as a starring vehicle for Leonardo DiCaprio.

Berg, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Lindbergh, his biography of aviator Charles Lindbergh, spoke with me recently by phone from an Amtrak train en route from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., to speak at the National Book Festival. Berg talked about his research, comparisons of Woodrow Wilson to President Obama, and Wilson’s lessons for dealing with an obstinate Congress.

Did you start out to write a biography about Wilson, or did you happen into it?

He had been a great figure in my life growing up. I really admired him a lot as a teenager, and one of the reasons I went to Princeton was because that’s where Woodrow Wilson had gone. Wilson has really been with me since I was a proper reader. All that time, I had an image developing of Wilson in my own mind, which I had never seen in another book. And that’s ultimately the question a biographer asks before he falls off a cliff for – in my case – 13 years, which is: Do I have something new to say? And I felt I did.

I felt nobody had ever written a really emotional book about Woodrow Wilson. In part, because he was an academician himself, most of his biographers have been academics who have written, I felt, dusty books that never made him come alive. You get a lot of military history or diplomatic history or political history, but they never capture the personal history, which I felt informed every personal decision he ever made.

I wanted to write the most personal, humanizing biography of Wilson that I could – especially humanizing because he is usually depicted as this very cold, dour Presbyterian minister’s son, and he certainly had that streak within him. But he was a very full-bodied, red-blooded man. That’s what I tried to capture in Wilson.

How did you know about Wilson growing up? I assume your formative reading years were in the 1960s?

That would be correct. I read a book called When the Cheering Stopped by Gene Smith, which was about Wilson’s last few years. And it was really the first book to talk about the role the second Mrs. Wilson played after Wilson suffered the stroke, which was kept a dark secret from the world. I just remember reading that book and being hooked on him.

So at 15, which was in 1965, I really began reading a lot about Woodrow Wilson and books by Woodrow Wilson. By the time I went off to college at Princeton, Wilson was very much in my mind and in my life.

Did you always think you would write this book?

In the back of my mind I had always thought I might get to it, but I wasn’t sure there would be an audience beyond me. Wilson has fallen into disfavor in the last few decades especially. After I finished “Lindbergh,” I went to my editor and we discussed that I would do my memoir of Katherine Hepburn [Kate Remembered].

I went in to talk to my editor – Phyllis Grann, to whom the book is dedicated in part – and I said I wanted to do a Katherine Hepburn memoir that I had thought about for 20 years, and then we went through ideas for potential subjects. And I said, “Phyllis, you know, I must confess to you I have one secret idea I’ve been carrying around with me ever since I started writing, and that’s Woodrow Wilson. She said, “Oh, I don’t even need to discuss that. Done.”

She asked how I ever got interested in Woodrow Wilson, and I told her when I was 15 I had read a book called When the Cheering Stopped. And she went very quiet and welled up a little. She said, “Scott, that’s kind of amazing because in 1964 I was a secretary at William Morrow & Co., and my boss walked over to my desk and said ‘Phyllis, I know you want to be an editor, so here’s a manuscript. See what you can do with it.” And it was When the Cheering Stopped.

Since you already knew a good bit about Wilson, how did you start with this book?

I’ve been reading about Wilson for 40 years, so I had a lot of material under my belt. Starting in 2000, I sat down with his papers and began to go through them. I had a great stroke of fortune, which was a Princeton professor named Arthur Link, who spent 40 years of his life collecting all of the Wilson papers he could possibly find, and he printed Wilson’s greatest hits in 69 volumes. I bought a set of those books so I could work from home, then I visited libraries like the Library of Congress and the Princeton Library to go through the papers left out of the 69 volumes, and then traveled around to some other libraries.

In the last five or six years, two really important caches of personal papers surfaced – one being a couple of trunks of papers belonging to one of Wilson’s daughters, and the other being papers that belonged Woodrow Wilson’s personal physician and really most loyal friend, Dr. Cary Grayson. I had access to those that nobody else had.

I took notes for eight years, six months to sift through and sort it all out, and then about five years to write it.

For the op-ed that you wrote earlier this year in the New York Times about Wilson and Obama, did the Times come to you and say they wanted a history lesson for President Obama?

No, I went to them, actually, around January and said, “March 4, 2013, will be the 100th anniversary of Wilson’s inauguration. I would really like to write a piece to remind people that – A – Woodrow Wilson existed and was important and governed in a brand new way, and – B – I think I could really contemporize this story and really make it reverberate by writing a kind of open letter to President Obama.”

It was partly historical and partly editorial. It was basically: Obama, take a few pages out of the Wilson playbook. Look at the way he legislated. Show up in Congress more. Sit in the President’s Room [in Congress], which no president has really done since Woodrow Wilson. Co-operate the government the way Wilson did with the legislature.

Did Wilson reinvent the State of the Union address as a lobbying tool?

Less for lobbying, though that’s why he sat in the President’s Room day after day. It was mostly that he wanted to humanize, to personalize, the institution of the presidency. He believed governments were not just institutions but the people who worked in them. It’s what he used to say about industry: There aren’t corrupt corporations; just corrupt people who work within corporations.

You’ve been on the road a lot already for the book. Are you more promoting the book or promoting Wilson?

I’m sort of on a mission to reinstate people in Woodrow Wilson’s minds. I don’t mind so much if people love or hate Wilson, but I want them to be informed about Wilson. Until a few decades ago, he was always in the top four or five of the great presidents. Now, most people under 50 don’t have a clue who he is.

This is a man whose ideals are so much with us today. When Barack Obama gave his speech about Syria [on September 10, 2013], that whole speech was pure Woodrow Wilson. When he asked: Are we supposed to be the policemen of the world? When he asked: Can we just stand by while someone is gassing a thousand of his own people, killing children? Can the United States morally stand there and do nothing? Those were the very questions Woodrow Wilson posed on April 2, 1917, when he said the world must be made safe for democracy.

It’s not just foreign affairs. Our economy is built on Woodrow Wilson’s ideas and principles – the Federal Reserve System, the modern income tax, the eight-hour work day, workers’ compensation. That’s all Wilson.

If you take Wilson’s eight years in office and divide that into four congressional terms, did he have an agreeable Congress throughout those terms?

No. The trajectory was a downhill slide. He started big. In the second, he still had a Democratic majority. By his third Congress, things were pretty even. By the fourth, the Republicans were taking over. By the time he left office, a Republican landslide replaced him. [President] Warren Harding and Congress began to undo as much of Woodrow Wilson as they possibly could.

That happened to Johnson, to Clinton, and to Obama. Is there something built into the system that favors the challenging party?

I think it’s sort of the pendulum theory. Pendulums can only swing so far. When you look at the presidents you named – Johnson, Clinton, Obama – who came in like a house on fire and did as much business as they could. Republican’s say, “Let’s slow this down.” And then Congress become increasingly Republican. And then the pendulum swings back.

What’s the causation link? Is the president caught in an up-and-down wharp, or is it a response to the president?

Progress is generally incremental. Woodrow said the country is not really Republican or Democratic. There’s a big independent middle. Republicans and Democrats on either side are trying to move that big independent middle in one direction or the other. I think that’s why there can only be incremental progress. Periodically, a great progressive leader will push things one way, or a conservative will come along – Reagan – and push things the other way. But the public at large only wants so much change at a time. I think the only exceptions to that are times of extreme crisis such as a Great Depression or a war when the public is less inclined to change leaders mid-stream and really wants the leader to carry on with the full support of the country.

Do you see Obama’s presidency as far as the relationship of the three branches of government being analogous to Wilson or any other president?

I don’t think [Obama] exerts the power or the skill that Wilson did in working with the Legislative Branch. That said, Obama has been extremely effective when you start to tally up the legislation that has gone through during his administration. It’s pretty remarkable considering the contentiousness in Washington.

Did Wilson deal with that?

Oh, my God! You’ve got to get to the end of the book! You will see [Wilson] fighting with Henry Cabot Lodge – especially over the League of Nations – which literally killed Woodrow Wilson. Lodge was so hostile that Wilson felt he had to take his show on the road. He went on a 29-city tour for, I think, the greatest cause a president has ever fought for, and collapsed in the middle. None of that that would have happened if Henry Cabot Lodge and Woodrow had said down at a table and hashed things out.

The enmity was so great between them that when Woodrow Wilson died and Henry Cabot Lodge was going to show up for the state funeral as the leader of the Senate, Mrs. Wilson wrote him a note that said, “Please don’t show up.” And he didn’t.

Did you read John Milton Cooper’s Woodrow Wilson: A Biography?

I didn’t read it. I didn’t want to be influenced in any way or have anyone think I had been influenced in any way. I will confess I always had what I thought was a great beginning and end for my book. So when his book came out [in 2009], I went to a bookstore and read the two opening pages and two closing pages just to make sure my opening and closing were not the same thing, and mine were far from it.

Did you decide at some point that Wilson would be a single volume?

I decided at the beginning. There are several multi-volume [Wilson biographies], and that’s the last thing I wanted to do. I wanted to write a readable but historical biography of Woodrow Wilson, and I really tried to write it in a style unlike any other biography of Wilson. I wanted to write a page-turner, and I think it is.

<em><a href=”https://porchland.wordpress.com/&#8221; >Scott Porch</a> is an attorney and writer in Savannah, Georgia. He is writing a book about the historical impact of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.</em>

How is the Obama legacy project going?

This piece originally appeared in my column for Huffington Post Books on July 8, 2013.

Jonathan Alter said recently that the 2012 election was “the most consequential” of his lifetime.  In his new book, The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies, Alter describes this more in terms of the non-election of Mitt Romney than the re-election of Barack Obama:

AlterEven if Democrats blocked some of Romney’s bills, his election would have vindicated the Bush years and everyone associated with booting Obama, from Karl Rove to the Tea Party. It would have given comfort (and jobs) to those who considered climate change a hoax and the war in Iraq a noble cause. With Obama and his other achievements reversed, Obama’s residency might well have been seen by many historians as a fluke, an aberration occasioned in 2008 by a financial crisis and a weak opponent, John McCain.

Nearly all of Obama’s signature legislative accomplishments — Recovery Act, Affordable Care Act, Troubled Asset Relief Program, Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, GM and Chrysler reorganizations, repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” — were during his first two years in office.

Obama’s focused transition to the White House, a chief of staff (Rahm Emmanuel) with strong ties to the House leadership, and the requisite arm-twisting of holdouts on key votes certainly contributed to legislative success, but those were tiny slivers on the pie chart. “Like it or not,” the New Yorker‘s Ryan Lizza wrote in March, “for many years, Washington has been most productive when one party controlled both Congress and the White House.”

Lyndon Johnson’s celebrated legislative achievements were in reality only a function of the congressional election results—not his powers of persuasion. In 1965 and 1966, after the enormous Democratic gains of the 1964 election, Johnson was a towering figure who passed sweeping legislation. In 1967 and 1968, after he lost forty-eight Democrats in the House, he was a midget.

But Johnson’s significant legislative successes — Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965, Medicare, Medicaid — endured in the years after becoming law because Democrats had large majorities in the House and Senate for the next decade and because Richard Nixon was much more a reformer than his popular legacy would suggest.

Even after their respective years of big congressional majorities, Johnson and Obama both had legislative successes at the margins. Johnson’s Civil Rights Act of 1968 (Fair Housing Act) added enforcement teeth to anti-discriminatory housing laws, and Obama’s American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 preserved the expiration of the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts on the highest income-earners.

By the end of 2016 — regardless of what happens in the 2014 midterm elections — Obama’s legislative brag list will be only marginally different than it is today. Congress may or may not pass comprehensive immigration reform, but the prospects for tax code reform, entitlement reform, new environmental legislation, new energy legislation, an infrastructure bank, a jobs plan, or dozens of other priorities fall somewhere between not likely and fatally doomed. There are areas like Obamacare and financial regulatory reform where congressional tweaks could make the laws more effective, but those likely won’t happen either.

The House will almost certainly stay in GOP control until after the 2020 redistricting at the earliest, and Senate Democratic leaders have shown little spine in reforming the rules that allow the minority party to use filibusters and holds to unilaterally shut down legislation and may find themselves in the minority after 2014.

Even if the Obama White House had the machinery to push an aggressive new legislative agenda, doing so would be both unnecessary and counterproductive. There is only so much bandwidth in the administrative branch for absorbing new or different programs, and the Obama administration already has as much as it can handle. The implementation of Obamacare and financial regulatory reform are both enormous undertakings that will take years to absorb, and the implementation of Obamacare is somewhere between off schedule and a big mess.

Presidents, though, do not succeed by legislation alone. A congressional focus of the kind the Obama White House undertook in its first two years would distract from the usual second-term objectives: foreign policy, scandal management and judicial nominations.

Only six months into a second term, it’s far too early to tell what impact foreign policy and scandals (actual scandals — not non-scandals like IRS, Behghazi and Edward Snowden), but President Obama’s is already far behind the pace in leaving his mark on the judiciary. The White House has named only 31 nominees to fill 84 District Court and Court of Appeals vacancies. Of the 23 seats that have been vacant for 18 months or longer, the president has named only nine nominees — mostly in red states where issues important to President Obama like voting rights, Medicaid expansion, etc., are most at risk — effectively writing off many of those judgeships.

Democrats have advanced several arguments for why nominees are getting bottled up in the Senate — most of which are variations of the Senate is laughably dysfunctional — but that doesn’t explain the Obama administration’s failure to identify nominees for even half the current vacancies.  If leaving more than half the judgeships empty is a strategic move by the White House, I can neither imagine an explanation nor have seen an explanation advanced for the upside of such an approach.

There are many things that Obama cannot control about his legacy — whether he gets to appoint another Supreme Court justice, who the next president will be, etc. — but he should use every tool available to leave the broad mark on the judiciary that he is constitutionally required to make.

Nibble on a Politico e-book snack

This piece originally appeared in my column for Huffington Post Books on June 25, 2013.

In the opening anecdote of Glenn Thrush and Jonathan Martin’s The End of the Line, their behind-the-scenes e-book about the last month of the 2012 presidential campaign, we join our regularly scheduled election already in progress:

It was more than an hour after the networks had called the election, and Mitt Romney had not addressed the media or made the traditional concession phone call to the winner.  David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett were agitated.  Obama’s campaign manager called the Romney campaign manager and got his voice mail.  “He’ll call,” Obama told his team.  Finally, at 12:30 a.m., after much of America had seen the outcome and gone to bed, Obama’s phone rang.  “Hello, Mr. President, it’s Mitt Romney…”

The End of the LinePolitico goes on on a limb to call the series “a new form of campaign chronicle, combining the in-depth reporting of a book with the immediacy of deadline journalism.”  I think that’s largely right, but the depth and immediacy necessarily work at cross purposes.

The e-book is the fourth in the Politico Playbook 2012 series that Politico and Random House published during — and this volume about a month after — the 2012 campaign.  (Politico Playbook is the name of Politico chief White House correspondent Mike Allen’s influential morning tip-sheet, which has quotes and links to news stories that are making the rounds, and — oddly — birthday wishes to D.C. political and media figures.)

The first e-book in the series, The Right Fights Back by Allen and historian Evan Thomas, was published in November 2011 as the Republican primary battle was heating up. It zig-zagged through the Republican challengers’ campaigns and included a lot of gossipy, anecdotal tidbits.

The second, Inside the Circus, also by Allen and Thomas and largely about the campaign for the GOP nomination, included a previously unreported story about Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who had back surgery shortly before jumping into the campaign and was taking pain medication, loudly singing “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” in a public restroom before one of the Republican primary debates.

The third, Obama’s Last Stand by Politico’s Glenn Thrush, focused on the Obama campaign. The fourth, The End of the Line, focused on the last month of the campaign and was published a month after the election.

If journalism is the first draft of history, the Politico Playbook 2012 series falls somewhere between the first draft and the second.  It lacks the narrative power of, say, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s best-selling Game Change.  But Game Change was published 14 months after the 2008 election; three-fourths of the Playbook 2012 series was published during the 2012 campaign.

The major innovation of the series was its availability on platforms like Amazon’s Kindle, Apple’s iBookstore and Barnes & Noble’s Nook. The e-books were inexpensive ($2.99 each on all platforms) and short without being insubstantial (50-60 book pages each). The quality of the reporting — the access, insight, scope, buzz-worthiness, etc. — is what you would expect from experienced campaign reporters like Glenn Thrush and Jonathan Martin, though they were not alone in taking a long-form approach to covering the campaign.

The New Yorker‘s Ryan Lizza produced a thoughtful and timely body of campaign reportage that included several longform pieces and an illuminating piece two weeks after the election that has been uncannily prescient on the Republican Party’s often conflicting efforts to make inroads with a growing Latino population by tackling immigration reform. John Heilemann’s May 2012 New York magazine piece about the Obama team’s framing of the campaign and Michael Lewis’s October 2012 profile of President Obama for Vanity Fair were important, agenda-setting pieces that were little different than short e-books in their length and scope.

A handful of other influential e-books were published during and immediately after the 2012 campaign, including Mother Jones reporter David Corn’s Showdown: The Inside Story of How Obama Fought Back Against Boehner Cantor and the Tea Party in March 2012 and 47 Percent: Uncovering the Romney Video that Rocked the 2012 Election. BuzzFeed reporter Michael Hastings (who died tragically a few days ago in an automobile accident) published one of the first lengthy accounts of the Obama campaign, Panic 2012: The Sublime and Terrifying Inside Story of Obama’s Final Campaign, in January.

The Playbook 2012 series is a breezy, fly-on-the-wall, real-time reporter’s notebook.  Campaign insiders retell and analyze events that we all watched in real-time — the stump speeches, the ads, the debates, and election night.  It is not a definitive history of the election and does not purport to be, but two themes do emerge: Obama’s early success in defining Romney and the Romney campaign’s certainty to the last minute that they were going to win.

The Obama campaign started running battleground-state ads against Romney as soon as the Republican primary ended in May.  By branding Romney so early and with so much available bandwidth to get the message out before voters were sick of campaign ads, the Obama camp established Romney’s brand before Romney could do so himself.

The Romney brand?  Shortly after the election, former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour described the Obama team’s take on Romney as aptly as I’ve seen in The End of the Line:  “This was all personal: that Romney is a vulture capitalist who doesn’t care about people like you, ships jobs overseas, is a quintessential plutocrat, and is married to a known equestrian.”  Exactly.

Thrush and Martin describe Romney’s now-infamous 2008 “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” op-ed in the New York Times  as “the major impediment to seriously challenging Obama in the industrial Midwest — especially in Ohio” and as the impetus for Romney’s disastrous late-October TV ad that accused Obama of moving Chrysler jobs to China that drew a sharp, public rebuke from Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne.

All of the interviews for The End of the Line were conducted either after the election or before but with the understanding that the story would not be published until after the election, so it provides one of the earliest glimpses of the big moments of the campaign with the first layer of spin peeled away.  What emerges is a bizarre dual reality — both campaigns getting increasing confident of victory the closer they got to election day.

One of the campaigns, of course, turned out to be delusional and fantastically wrong — blindly relying on voter-turnout models that reality would not later bear out.

“I totally believed we were going to win,” Romney finance chief Spencer Zwick told the authors, “and I think everyone around [Romney] believed we were going to win.  If anyone tells you that they knew we weren’t going to win, I think they’re lying to you.”

Weeks before The End of the Line was published, I had read Politico and The New Republic‘s stories about the Romney camp’s election-night optimism. Still, it was jarring to see the conviction in Romney pollster Neil Newhouse the day before the election as he predicted wins in Florida, Virginia, Colorado, Iowa and New Hampshire — not in a booster-ish public statement but in a private, all-caps email to the Romney campaign senior staff.

The End of the Line’s real value is in the never-before-published personal anecdotes:  Obama driving Robert Gibbs’ Chevy Volt around the White House parking lot.  White House press secretary Jay Carney doing the “Gangnam Style” dance.  Obama getting drilled in mock debate after mock debate by Sen. John Kerry and then by Romney in the actual first debate.

The e-book shifts between the two campaigns, but the Obama story is a better read.  It’s hard to tell if that’s because Obama’s was the more interesting of the two campaigns to cover, or if the reporters simply had better access to the Obama staffers than to the Romney staffers.

I suspect it’s both.  The bulk of the the reporting on the Romney campaign showed it to be a corporate outfit with a small group of decision-makers.  And there’s no evidence that two of the more significant campaign figures — Romney’s wife Ann and oldest son Tagg — gave interviews to the authors.

Ultimately, The End of the Line is what it is — a $2.99, two-hour, behind-the-scenes read that casts some new reporting into the well of coverage of the 2012 campaign at a time when books like Jonathan Alter’s The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies (published earlier this month) is just joining the conversation and Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s  Double Down: Game Change 2012 (coming November) is still a ways off.

Amazon’s ‘Best Books of the Year So Far’

We are almost at the halfway point of 2013, and list-loving Amazon is out with its 2013’s Best Books of the Year So Far, including 10 history and 10 general nonfiction titles.


Guns at Last Light1. The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-45 (Liberation Trilogy) (Henry Holt) by Rick Atkinson.

2. The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) by George Packer.

3. The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (Viking Adult) by Daniel James Brown.

4. The Astronaut Wives Club: A True Story (Grand Central) by Lily Koppel.

5. Frozen in Time: An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War II (Harper) by Mitchell Zuckoff.

6. Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence (Knopf) by Joseph J. Ellis.

7. Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield (Nation Books) by Jeremy Scahill.

8. Daily Rituals: How Artists Work (Knopf) by Mason Currey.

9. The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II (Touchstone) by Denise Kiernan.

10. The Summer of Beer and Whiskey: How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants and a Wild Pennant Fight Made Baseball America’s Game (PublicAffairs) by Edward Achorn.


Gulp-cover-3501. Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (W.W. Norton) by Mary Roach.

2. The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) by Temple Grandin and Richard Panek.

3. Detroit: An American Autopsy (Penguin Press) by Charles LeDuff.

4. The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Grand Canyon (Scribner) by Kevin Fedarko.

5. Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction (Doubleday) by Annalee Newitz.

6. Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism (Simon & Schuster) by Elizabeth Becker.

7. Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws Who Hacked Ma Bell (Grove Press) by Phil Lapsley and Steve Wozniak.

8. Between Man and Beast: An Unlikely Explorer, the Evolution Debates, and the African Adventure that Took the Victorian World by Storm (Doubleday) by Monte Reel.

9. Ship It Holla Ballas!: How a Bunch of 19-Year-Old College Dropouts Used the Internet to Become Poker’s Loudest, Craziest, Richest Crew (St. Martin’s Press) by Jonathan Grotenstein and Storms Reback.

10. Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America (Oxford University Press) by Peter Andreas.

Amazon’s lists of Best Books of the Year So Far in Fiction, Humor, and other categories are available here.