THE QUESTION OF CHARACTER: CHARACTER AND THE ELECTION OF 1980

The election of the president of The United States of America is one of the most important ceremonies for the United States, as a country. In this act, Americans choose who they wish to be their leader—and the leader of the free world—for the next four years. As such, one would think that a voter would take into account every aspect of the candidates into consideration when making their choices. This, however, is not the case. For many, the platforms of the candidates are not as important to their choice as much as how the candidates make them feel. It was this very notion that gave Ronald Reagan his stunning victory over incumbent candidate Jimmy Carter. While the election itself focused on many issues, such as US-Soviet relations, America’s economic decline, and civil rights issues, many Americans cast their vote based on their perception of Ronald Reagan as the better leader. The main issue that cost Carter the election was ‘the meanness issue,’ an issue brought up as a counter to his accusations against Reagan as being a warmonger and thus unfit to have control over the United States’ nuclear arsenal. This attitude was spun by the Reagan campaign to seem like Carter was unfairly attacking Reagan, which painted Carter as an unfair judge of character, which thus called into question Carter’s own character. This led to the root of ‘the meanness issue’, that people perceived that Carter’s actions as president and his attitude toward others made him unfit to hold office. The main cause of Carter’s downfall was lack of confidence in his character.

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In contemporary accounts, many saw that the public perceptions of Carter ultimately cost him the election. In their book, Blue Smoke and Mirrors, Jack Germond and Jules Witcover reference this issue heavily. During his presidency, many Americans views Carter in a positive light. “They thought he was a very religious man of goodwill; that he was an honest, sincere, and fair man. If he had faults, they lay elsewhere.”[1] Over the course of the election cycle, the Reagan campaign worked to erode this idea. Their main instrument in causing the electorate to doubt Carter was Carter himself. Carter frequently attacked Reagan the issue of war and the Reagan campaign reacted strongly against this, calling Reagan’s want to bolster the military, not an act of war, but rather a call to ensure the safety of the United States. The campaign fervently insisted that Carter was working to attack Reagan’s character. This is despite evidence to the contrary. On several occasions Reagan called for aggressive action against foreign powers, but this did not matter to the voters.[2] Reagan’s war-like tendencies were not in the spotlight at the time, and the whole nation was focused on Carter’s attacks on Reagan’s ‘character.’

In an interview with the New York Times after Reagan’s win against Carter, then Vice President, Walter Mondale reflected on the troubles of Carters campaign. “I think circumstances were very heavily against us. Economics, inflation, prime rates, unemployment, the hostage issue, the frustrations of U.S.-Soviet relations—none of these made people feel good about what was going on. We happened to be in office and we took the blame.”[3] Not only did Carter have to contend with reputation during the election cycle, he also had to contend with his reputation as president for the past four years. Every failure of his presidency came to light during the election cycle and he found himself at fault even for things that were out of his control. A main point of this being that the economy was beginning to stagnate. While Carter’s strategies were not explicitly damaging the economy, neither were they working to bolster economic growth. The electorate could determine for themselves what a Carter presidency would hold, and at this point, many were tired of the way things were going. The people were ready for something new.[4]

Another major issue for the Carter campaign was Carter’s lack of vision. In his post-mortem analysis of the election for the New York Times, Terence Smith criticizes Carter for his inability to describe his future for American. Rather than describing to the electorate why his future would be a positive change for the American people, Carter would describe how life would be worse under a Reagan presidency. Even when Carter does speak of a positive change, he doesn’t manage to get very much coverage from the media, and Smith identifies the reason behind this a failure “in conceding that his first term had been less than successful.” [5] In addition to this, Carter didn’t have a catchy slogan. More than anything, the easiest way to catch the attention of voters is a simple slogan. This is succinct way to express your vision, and conjures the idea that a candidate knows how he foresees the future. Carter did not have this. Because of this, he found himself having difficult relating to the electorate, and thus dug his heels in with the strategy of attacking Reagan, ultimately attacking Reagan on issues that the Republican Candidate had long ago put to rest.[6]

The issue of these character attacks became the primary focus of the Reagan campaign, as they ate away at the public perception of Carter’s capacity for leadership. Richard Wirthlin, an advisor for the Reagan campaign, used the question of Carter’s leadership ability as central to his strategy for defeating Carter. His strategy began with ensuring that people were confident in Ronald Reagan’s ability to lead, and that began with singing praise of Reagan’s period as governor of California. This was followed by remaining on the defensive while Carter attacked Reagan. They wouldn’t go on the attack until the October 28 debate. This was done to give Reagan the impression of being competent and levelheaded. This strategy worked well.

“We saw the opportunity for a role reversal—that is, by the end of the campaign, I think we came very close to having people look upon Ronald Reagan as more Presidential than Jimmy Carter.” – Richard Wirthlin[7]

The key focus is, once again, not on any one platform issue, but rather on the character of the two men running. Thanks to the brilliant strategy the Reagan campaign, many lost faith in Jimmy Carter’s ability to lead.

“His victory was surely not so much an endorsement of his philosophy as an overwhelming rejection of Jimmy Carter, a President who could not convince the nation that he mastered his job.”[8] This is what George Church, a journalist for Time Magazine, had to say about Reagan’s election to president, and for the most part, this held true. People didn’t want more of the same. Many people, especially the working class, believed that Carter had ignored them during his term as president, and they felt that anyone who wasn’t Carter was worthy of their vote.[9] The numbers reflect this as well, with exit polls showing that Reagan had a slight lead with blue collar workers (+1%) and a much more substantial lead among those who worked in agriculture (+37%). In addition to this, those that thought their financial status had degraded since Carter had come to office showed strong support for Reagan (+39%).[10] Carter’s negative image was his ultimate downfall in this election. Many did not trust him to make their lives better so, despite his flaws, the people chose to elect Ronald Reagan as the President of the United States.

Historical accounts agree with the contemporary that character played a crucial role for the presidential election of 1980. Robert Banker, who wrote his dissertation on the various political blunders of the election of 1980, describes Carter’s descriptions of Reagan as politically damaging. This was not a gaffe—a term which describe a spontaneous action which causes damage to someone or something’s character and which the dissertation focuses heavily on—but rather, this was a calculated action which backfired dramatically. In his accusation of Reagan being a warmonger, Carter damaged his own campaign, but Banker believes that the damage done to Reagan’s image was more severe.[11] The true problem with what Carter had said was in a remark he had made while speaking to Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. He “implied that Reagan welcomed the support of the Ku Klux Klan” but this was simply not the case. While the Klan had endorsed him, Reagan did not accept their support. This is where the doubt regarding Carter’s character began to fester.[12] From then on, Carter’s words were examined with sever scrutiny. The damage to his trustworthiness cost him dearly. Now, any accusations against Reagan by the Carter campaign could be called into question, and it was child’s play for the Reagan campaign to brush away criticism as being unfair. The ultimate result was a degradation of the already weakening trust of Carter.

Instead of placing the blame on Carter, Gil Troy turns the issue around and instead credits Reagan for inspiring those that voted for him, it being an invitation to join Reagan, rather than an escape from Carter’s failure. While describing the election of 1980 in his book Morning in America, Troy describes Reagan as a populist, drawing in those who felt forgotten by the system. He changed the face of the Republican party, making it appeal to both the white-collar worker and the blue-collar worker. By appealing to the “forgotten men,” Reagan managed to turn many of those disillusioned people into his own supporters.[13] Unlike his predecessors, Reagan was an ardent optimist. Despite the myriad of problems that America faced following the upcoming election, Reagan was steadfast in his bright demeanor, confident that American could tackle any problem that came its way.[14] It was this confidence that lured outsiders into the Republican party and led the electorate to vote Reagan into office. The American people fed off the optimism that Reagan exuded and began to feel hope for a bright future. Their confidence in his character was the ultimate cause of his victory.

“Presidential campaigns are driven in a large part by personality, not party.”[15] While examining both contemporary and historical account, it’s easy to see that the public perception of a candidate plays a large part in election process. This is arguably more important than anything else when a voter goes to choose a candidate. This is especially so in the election of 1980.  While Mondale placed the blame of Carter’s loss on unfortunate circumstances surrounding Carter’s presidency, others, such as Smith, Germond, and Clymer placed the blame on Carter himself, both for his poor performance as president and for his attacks on Reagan’s demeanor, causing the electorate to question his judgement. Banker goes even further by suggesting that Carter’s attacking of Reagan wasn’t to blame, but rather his gaffe in implying that Reagan was in league with the Ku Klux Klan was the real culprit of Carter’s loss. Still others, Troy and Church, gave the recognition to Reagan for being a refreshing change compared to Carter. The question of Carter’s judgement, trustworthiness, and leadership ability, in addition to Reagan’s image as a confident optimist, shaped the outcome of the 1980 election, more so than the platforms of either candidate.

[1] Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover, Blue Smoke and Mirrors: How Reagan Won and Why Carter Lost the Election (New York: Viking Press, 1981), 245.

[2] Germond and Witcover, Blue Smoke, 247.

[3] Walter Mondale, “Mondale’s Views on Election Loss and the Future,” New Yorker, December 21, 1980, 38.

[4] Mondale, “Mondale’s Views,” 38.

[5] Terence Smith, “Carter Post-Mortem: Debate Hurt But Wasn’t Only Cause for Defeat,” New Yorker, December 9, 1980, 1.

[6] Smith, “Carter Post-Mortem,” 1.

[7] Special to The New York Times, “Reagan Pollster Says Carter’s Leadership Was Key Issue,” New York Times, November 6, 1980, A26.

[8] George J. Chruch, “Reagan Coast-to-Coast,” Time, November 17, 1980, 5.

[9] Chruch, “Reagan,” 5.

[10] Adam Clymer “Displeasure With Carter Turned Many to Reagan,” New York Times, November 9, 1980, 28.

[11] Stephen Robert Banker, “He Who Gaffes Last: A Rhetorical Analysis of the Gaffes of Reagan and Carter in the 1980 General Election Campaign (Presidential)” (PhD diss., Indiana University, 1984), 83.

[12] Banker, “He Who Gaffes,” 79-18.

[13] Gil Troy, Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s (Politics and Society in Modern America) (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 42-43.

[14] Troy, Morning, 35-36.

[15] Anderson, David. Twitter Post. November 11, 2016, 8:55 PM. https://twitter.com/AndersonDavidM/status/797301716475641856.

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Post-Mortem Election Analysis

Well, it’s happened. Donald J. Trump has won the election. All hail the God Emperor!

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But in all seriousness, it was a hard-fought race, and Donald Trump came out on top. I can’t help but be disappointed. I have been following the electing projection at FiveThirtyEight.com, and I thought that Hillary Clinton a clear lead in the election. Even at places such as ElectionProjection.com and 270toWin.com, the poll projections showed the election leaning heavily in Clinton’s favor. Perhaps this is the media bias the entire Trump campaign was talking about.  This was an upset, and it happened for a reason. Well, actually, there are two. First off, Trump was not taken seriously, and secondly, this is a backlash against the extremely politically correct progressive culture.

Trump has been the underdog since the beginning. Nobody thought he would win the Republican nomination, and certainly nobody believed that he would become president. This let Trump fly under the radar. His message about aiming to help the poor working class won him the popular vote in states that mattered, such as Florida, Michigan, and, most shockingly, Pennsylvania, while also allowing him to be underestimated by nearly every form of mainstream media.

In addition, his brashness was his strength. Despite the media backlash against much of Trump’s misconduct, this has actually become one of his defining features. Trump’s disregard for political correctness resonates with many Americans, but none more so than the white working class. These people are tired of being told that they’re privileged, while at the same time they’re more downtrodden than they’ve ever been. For the most part, it a rural resentment against what they perceive to be the “big city elite.” They resent people who work at a desk all day while they break their backs in manual labor jobs, while at the same time, insults such as racist and bigot are thrown at them simply for expressing their opinions. For these people, Donald Trump is a breath of fresh air.

A Conspiracy About Conspiracy: The Sixth-Floor Museum Encouraging Conspiracy

The purpose of a museum is to tell a story. Whether it be a story from eons ago or one from just a few years ago, a museum is meant to encapsulate audiences with their best renditions of the past. Unlike museums of natural science, which are backed up by hard numbers and data derived from the scientific method, historical museums have a bit more creative freedom. These museums attempt to recreate a historical moment by drawing conclusions based on the evidence that they managed to gather but these things are not objective. How historical museums arrange their exhibits, adding or omitting supporting data as they see fit, makes the experience subjective to their own interpretation.

At the Sixth-Floor Museum in Dallas, which depicts the story of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the exhibits are arranged to tell the story of Kennedy’s presidency leading up to the assassination by the lone gunman Lee Harvey Oswald. The museums message seems clear, that Oswald acted alone without any outside influence, and that the assassination seemed to be out of nowhere. I believe that the Sixth-Floor Museum is purposely arranged to encourage conspiracy theory. By encouraging conspiracy, which is already very popular among the event surrounding the Kennedy assassination, the museum can continue to draw in patrons. I come to this conclusion for several reasons, the main ones being the large number of enemies that Kennedy makes during his presidency, Oswald’s connections to Russia, and Jack Ruby’s connection to The Mafia.

The presidency of John F. Kennedy was not as smooth as his campaign for president said that it would be. In their exhibit, “A Time for Greatness: Kennedy for President,” the curators for the Sixth-Floor Museum depicted Kennedy’s campaign as one of positivity, and while that was a nice message, the reality of his presidency was one of difficulty. As depicted in the main exhibit below, Kennedy managed to make a lot of enemies. Domestically, in the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Kennedy made an enemy of segregations and by being tougher on crime he made an enemy of organized crime, most notably the Mafia. Abroad, he managed to upset the Cuba with the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and later he got on the bad side of Russia with the Cuban Missile Crisis. The museum makes mention of these threats but did nothing to put to rest the suspected involvement of these groups besides a small mention that they denied doing it. They make no mention as to why it would more trouble that it would be worth for these groups to attack such an important figure. They just mention the threat and move on, which leaves doubt in the viewer’s mind.

Another loose end that I think the museum purposefully leaves is Lee Harvey Oswald’s connection to Russia. While the museum explicitly states that Oswald was a lone gunman, there is still the question of whether he had outside influence or not. It described Oswald’s time in Russia, including him meeting and marrying his widow, Marina Oswald, but they make no mention of is ambition, or why he left Russia. The Russians thought him incompetent and only allowed him to stay in their country because he attempted to kill himself when they initially tried to reject him. Without this information, Oswald makes an appealing potential agent for the Russians should they bear any ill will toward President Kennedy. There is simply no room for error when choosing a political assassin, especially for such a high-profile target.

Finally, there’s Jack Ruby’s connection to the Mafia. Being the man who killed Oswald, Ruby is a pretty important character in this story. Ruby was known for being mixed up with the Mafia, including owing them money, and it would have been easy for them to put pressure on him to kill Oswald. Again, the museum simply makes mention of this connection and does nothing to reasonably dismiss the possibility. If the Mafia had put the hit out on Kennedy, a popular theory, killing the lone gunman Oswald would have kept any connection to the Mafia from surfacing. If the museum truly wanted to keep the narrative that Oswald had no outside influence, they would have made sure to either not mention Ruby’s connection to the mob, or give a reason as to why they would not pressure him.

Museums exist to inform the public, but like it or not, they are still businesses. If they can’t make any money, they would have to shut their doors. By subtly encouraging the conspiracy surrounding the Kennedy assassination, the Sixth-Floor Museum would continue to generate interest in the story of the assassination. They still manage to stick to the widely accepted view of how the event of the assassination occurred but they leave doubt in the observer’s mind. This is a great way to continue to generate a curiosity for John F. Kennedy’s without losing the integrity of being a museum.

Ronald Regan’s Conservatism-with-a-Smile

America’s 1970’s was a dark time for the country. Between our defeat in Vietnam, the rising unemployment rate, and the rise of divorce breaking American families, life for the average American looked bleak. Even their president, Jimmy Carter, was pessimistic about their situation, “deeming America’s problems complex, and it’s resources limited.” This pessimistic attitude was sharply contrasted by his rival in the Election of 1980, Ronald Reagan. Reagan offered up a different perspective on America’s problems. These were not trials to be endured, but rather, they were challenges to be face, and America would face them as they faced every trial, with courage and willingness. He wasn’t willing to accept that the answers were too difficult to be made simple, and he said as much in his Inaugural Address as Governor of California in 1967 “…the truth is, there are simple answers – there just are not easy ones.”

Ronald Reagan’s brand of conservatism was like that of his predecessor, Barry Goldwater, whom Reagan supported in his campaign for president in 1964. Unlike his more hotheaded counterpart, Reagan branded the reigning in of government as a good thing. He didn’t berate those who called him unrealistic, but rather, he laughed at their unwillingness. He gave Americans hope. He gave the people his brand of conservatism with a smile.

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This idealism struck a chord with Americans. This was a candidate that they felt they could trust. Regan’s victory against Carter was a landslide, ushering in a new era of hope for the American, but also a realignment in American’s political values, which would cause the majority of American to lean toward conservatism.

The Trump Tape and the Second Presidential Debate

The Second Presidential Debate has come and gone and, surprisingly, that’s not what everyone is talking about. The biggest thing about this week is The Trump Tape. The tape, which was first reported on by David Farenthold of the Washington Post, depicts Republican Candidate Donald Trump talking about women in a lewd manor, and let me tell you, it’s an understatement to say that people are upset. The full tape is below, but be warned, it’s pretty graphic.

Pretty bad, right? The real question is, however, does it matter? It certainly seemed so in the second debate. At the very beginning of the debate, both Democratic Nominee Hillary Clinton and moderator Anderson Cooper attacked Trump over his comments on the tape, calling them sexual assault, and plenty of other outlets agree. I’m going to lay it out plain and simple. It’s not sexual assault. Everybody is blowing this way out of proportion. Sexual assault is the act of sexually engaging with someone that does not consent with the act. That not what the tape said. If you listen closely, Trump clearly says, “…when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” At the very least, that consent is perceived. Trump himself downplayed the audio as ‘locker room talk,’ though many would disagree. While it may not have been what you would talk about in a locker room, hyperbolic conversations like this do happen. It was a measure of manhood. He was bragging that he was so popular that women just threw themselves at him and would allow him to do anything. “Look at me, I’m so manly that women can keep themselves off of me.” The simple truth is that people want to demonize Trump and they will twist any story they can to fit their narrative that Trump is the devil. There are plenty of bad this to say about Trump, but this story just isn’t one of them.

The Election of 1968

The 1968 election is election that lead to the rise of Richard Nixon. While he had run before in 1960, Nixon didn’t manage to gain control of the United States until this election. In his book, 1968: The Election That Changed America, Lewis Gould describe the race of Republican nominee Richard M. Nixon, along with running mate Spiro Agnew, against Hubert Humphrey and his running mate Edmund Muskie. Gould point out many things that led to the Republican victory but some of the major problems of this campaign are the disorganization of the Democrats and race relations.

The democrats were extremely disorganized. There were several people vying for the Democratic Nomination, including Robert Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, and Vice President Hubert Humphrey. While many believed that Lyndon Johnson would attempt for reelection, he announced his would not seek the nomination, mainly due to his health and the toll that the Vietnam War had taken on him. The biggest sign of their disorganization was the fact that they held their Democratic National Convention in Chicago, a city that was embroiled in anti-war protests, which cumulated in the Chicago Riots.

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In addition to the anti-war protest were the racial tensions that had been on the rise in the 60’s. These were, as Gould argued, the more pressing concerns of this election. Despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964, many African Americans believed that they had not gone far enough in their push for equality, and many believed that the Johnson Administration was too slow at delivering it to them. In addition, many anti-segregationists thought that the act had pushed too far, leading to the rise of George Wallace as a third party candidate, who appealed to American voters due to his anti-segregation sentiment.

Ultimately the election was a landslide in favor in Nixon, who ended up with more than one hundred more electoral votes more that Humphrey and the divided Democratic Party.

The Vice Presidential Debate

The Vice Presidential Debate has come and gone and everybody has been talking about it. Running mate to Donald Trump, Mike Pence, and Tim Kaine, running mate to Hillary Clinton, hashed it out before the nation, and it was, better? Watch for yourself and be the judge.

I, for one, thought it was a much needed improvement from what we saw with the First Presidential Debate for 2016. While the interruption count for this debate was just as high, if not higher, the interruptions were less over bickering and more for attempting to correct the other candidate, or keep them from spreading a false narrative. Many say that, due to his calm demeanor and Kaine’s erratic behavior, Mike Pence won the debate. I would disagree. While this may be the result of the fact that I didn’t watch the debate and instead listened to it, I thought that Kaine’s interruptions were more as a result of eagerness to address the issues instead of just interrupting Pence for the sake of interrupting.

I would also give the debate to Kaine, because Pence seemed extremely eager to not answer questions, especially regarding his running mate, Donald Trump. Sure, Pence had the appearance of the stoic leader, but the questions leveled at Kaine gave him the appearance of a knowledgeable leader, rather than someone who just said what you wanted to hear.

Finally, can we stop talking about the economy? I’m tired of hearing that the economy is in the toilet, or that we’re worse off than we’ve ever been. That’s a lie. Quit spreading fear, Mike Pence. We’re better off than we have been in the past ten years, arguably better than we’ve ever been. If you don’t believe me, you can talk to the fact-checkers.