Presidential Expert Richard Shenkman
Thursday, December 14, 2000; 11 a.m. EST
How did this presidential election reach the point where it is now and is it comparable to any races in the past? What kind of personality and leadership traits will the new president have to have to bring the country together?
Richard Shenkman, is the New York Times best-selling author of five history books, including his most recent book Presidential Ambition: How the Presidents Gained Power, Kept Power and Got Things
Done. Currently he is an adjunct lecturer in journalism at American University and was recently named the managing editor of TomPaine.com. Shenkman will join washingtonpost.com Thursday, Dec. 14.
The transcript follows.
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Good morning Mr. Shenkman and welcome. Please tell how you think historians will characterize the speeches by Vice President Gore and Gov. George W. Bush last night?
Richard Shenkman: I think they both struck the right tone. What Americans want is for their presidents to sound like George Washington -- particularly in times of crisis. And last night, both Bush and Gore struck that tone -- non-partisan, above the battle, statesman-like. They were practically speaking like they were statues come to life -- Mount Rushmore talking to us down through the ages.
Richard Shenkman: At the same time, I don't think they were great speeches. There weren't any memorable lines and a memorable line would have been nice. For instance, Rutherford B. Hayes, after the 1876 disputed election gave a wonderful inaugural address in which he made the statement, "The best way to serve your party is to serve your country." That was a message to all of the Republicans and Democrats who were gearing up for cut-throat partisan warfare, that they should really put country ahead of party. It was just the right thing to say.
At the same time, nobody paid any attention once Congress got into session, it was politics as usual. And I think we should expect the same to happen this time around -- after another disputed election. That's because this is a democracy. If you don't want politics, then go live where there is a monarchy. Democracy means that there will be politics and it will often get bitter.
Silver Spring, Md.:
Now that it's official that we will have, for the first time in over 100 years, a president who received fewer votes than his opponent, how would you compare the obstacles Bush faces, both to govern and to leave with a good legacy, to those before him in the same situation?
Richard Shenkman: Like all the presidents who have been in his situation, he has hardly any chance at all of accomplishing anything. The Congress is divided, there's a cloud over the presidency. That's going to make governing very, very hard. The only area that he is going to be able to demonstrate real leadership is in foreign affairs. And at the moment, there aren't any crises where he can do that. But, things might turn around for him. There might be a genuine international crisis where he can demonstate his leadership abilities. After World War I broke out, Teddy Roosevelt lamented that he wasn't lucky enough to have been president with such a grand opportunity for leadership. He envied Woodrow Wilson. I guess Wilson could now lead in a crisis.
I thought Gore did a great job last night. What do you think his chances are in 2004? I heard or read somewhere when the candidate has won the Electoral College and lost popular vote, the candidate historically speaking has one term?
Richard Shenkman: That's true. I think that Gore has a real shot at coming back and being the candidate in 2004. It all depends on how he handles himself over the next 3 years. I think he's got a wonderful opportunity here if he seizes it. And that wonderful opportunity is that if he can grab the mantle of reform and make it his own. It seems quite clear that Bush is not going to do that and so that is going to leave a vacuum in American politics. Gore can fill it. The agenda for a reformer is obvious: federal money to help local counties switch to a reliable ballot system, the abolition of the Electoral College. And then if he really wants to be daring, removing appellate power from the Supreme Court in contest involving the presidents. There 's a lot of anger out there about this election. Gore can tap it and win with it.
West Chester, Pa.:
How active and/or official a role do you believe Al Gore will play during the Bush administration? Obviously his expertise would be valuable to the new president on a wide range of issues; do you imagine president-elect Bush would make any overtures to him?
Richard Shenkman: I think now we're trying to carry bipartisanship a little too far. Ex-presidents can be used in that way, but not ex-vice presidents who are potential rivals in the next election. I hate to make predictions. Historians can barely agree on the past, let alone predict the future. But, I feel pretty confident making that prediction. That doesn't mean that Al Gore won't be called in for consultation now and then. But I can't imagine he will be used in any major way. Bush might ask, but I can't imagine that Gore would accept and Bush would probably know that before he asked, so it would all be part of a Washington charade.
Every president (at least in my memory) has said upon taking office something to the effect of, "I will be president of all the people, regardless of partisanship." Gov. George W. Bush has been the first to actually make it the centerpiece of his campaign.
What presidents are considered to have been the most bi-partisan, and were they successful at it in terms of both getting results and being re-elected?
Richard Shenkman: Few presidents have been able to succeed by being bipartisan for the simple reason that we have a partisan system. Presidents aren't just chief of state, they are chief of their parties. They risk party unity if they come to be regarded as too bipartisan. Now, the most recent president to rule in a bipartisan fashion was Dwight Eisenhower and he was able to do it for only one reason -- because he was a war hero and war heros have much greater freedom to lead than mere mortals. So both Republicans and Democrats are going to give him the benefit of the doubt repeatedly because they knew he was so popular with the public that to risk his wrath could mean political suicide.
The $1 trillion dollar question is going to be Bush's relationship with an evenly divided Congress. In good times like these, have bi-partisan Congresses traditionally been cooperative with each other and the president, or have the parties acted like putting up the best fight is more politically effective than getting results is?
There's a school of thought that voters hold state governments accountable for getting results, but that at the federal level politicians can keep giving the same ideological speeches for decades without being held accountable for ineffectiveness. Is Bush likely to get a rude awakening that Washington isn't Austin, and that there are people who want him to fail solely for the sake of it?
Richard Shenkman: I'll answer the question this way: whatever everybody needs to remember is that we have more bickering and partisanship when we have divided government. And the best intentions in the world of both Democrats and Republicans cannot eliminate the natural inclination of politicians at a moment like this to bicker endlessly for partisan advantage. If you want to end the bickering, end divided government -- send real big majorities to the House and Senate and name a president who is of the same party. Until that happens partisanship will continue as ferociously as ever. That's the American way.
Based on the precedent set by the full engagement of the Supreme Court twice in addressing the disputed elections, what will become the judicial response to disputed elections in the future on a state and federal level?
Richard Shenkman: This is the great danger of this Supreme Court decision. Even though the justices state plainly that this decision invoking the 14th Amendment should only apply to this election, once they have made this decision others will feel free to invoke the 14th Amendment in other contests -- meaning we could face endless litigation every time we have a close election.
Mr. Shenkman, partisan politics aside, has there ever been a resident of the White House who to your knowledge has been saddled with such a huge degree of public perception that he was unintelligent?
Richard Shenkman: Yes. In the 20th century, Warren Harding. He was universally regarded, even by Republicans, as being insufficiently intelligent for the office to which he had been elected. Harding himself confessed that he had doubts about his own intellectual abilities and doubted he was up to the job -- which may be a sign that he was actually more intelligent than anyone was willing to give him credit for.
Many folks will probably make the inevitable comparisons between George W. Bush and John Quincy Adams, but I think a better comparison would be George W. Bush and Benjamin Harrison -- who won in 1888 in spite of losing the popular vote. Like Bush, he was related to a previous president (grandson to William Henry Harrison), but he had little national political experience prior to taking office. What kind of president was he? Was he able to build a bipartisan consensus with the Democratic leadership in Congress?
Richard Shenkman: Benjamin Harrison was one of the most inconsequential presidents we have ever had. He accomplished nothing. He is remembered by almost nobody, except in connection with the dubious way in which he gained power -- which was by a dirty trick played by Republicans on Democrat Grover Cleveland just weeks before the election. Harrison is famous for remarking once to Teddy Roosevelt that he was shocked to discover that when he became president, he couldn't name a single member of his own cabinet. The bosses had already given away every single position.
Listening to the speeches last night, with their references to great historical figures, made me realize that this really has been a time that will go down in the history books, not some kind of junior-high embarrassment we should all be ashamed of, as the media coverage and daily partisan shots made me feel at the time. Suddenly I feel like taking a step back and feeling good about America because of this episode, not in spite of it. Do you agree?
Richard Shenkman: There are no tanks in the streets. Nobody got killed. To that extent this was a great moment in our history. But, and this is a big but, it is a shocking corruption of the democratic system for the Supreme Court to decide the next president. That's shameful.
That was our last question for presidential historian Richard Shenkman. Thank you to Mr. Shenkman and to all who participated.
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