Flashback: My 2013 profile of Ted Cruz, when he was first being compared to Ronald Reagan and Joe McCarthyPosted: January 12, 2016
Thanks to the wonders of social media, Ted Cruz supporters and detractors are still circulating a profile I wrote of him that appeared on Texas on the Potomac on Feb. 21, 2013, six wild weeks into his Senate tenure. I’m glad to say it still holds up today. The most interesting quote in it may come from then-Attorney General Greg Abbott of Texas, when he discusses the futures of Cruz and freshman Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Here’s the story:
Ted Cruz’s blazing start in the U.S. Senate has proven to be the political equivalent of a Rorschach test.
Cruz is a political Rorschach Test. Everybody sees the same thing — and everybody sees something different.
Cruz’s fans, and there are many, compare him to Ronald Reagan, who happens to be the 42-year-old senator’s boyhood hero. Cruz’s detractors, and there are many, compare him to Joe McCarthy, the controversial Wisconsin senator known for smearing his foes by innuendo and questioning their patriotism. And there are not many in between.
“It’s going to be in the eye of the beholder,” said Timothy M. Hagle, a political scientist at the University of Iowa.
To Cruz, the first Latino senator in Texas history, the swirling controversies of the past two months stem from his credo to “speak the truth,” whatever the consequences.
The Houston Republican’s first legislative proposal, as promised during his campaign, was a complete repeal of the 2010 health-care law widely known as Obamacare. He was the only senator on the losing side of every key vote in his first month in office. He was one of only three senators to oppose the confirmation of Secretary of State John Kerry, and was one of just 22 to vote against the Violence Against Women Act.
But it’s Cruz’s hard-charging style — and not just his hard-line conservatism — that has attracted national attention.
Texas’ junior senator made a name for himself on Capitol Hill with his hostile grilling of Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Defense. Showing no deference to his elders, the newcomer also had a tense encounter with Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer on a usually sedate Sunday talk show.
Liberal New York Times columnist Frank Bruni dismissed him as “an ornery, swaggering piece of work” full of “too much quackery, belligerence and misplaced moralism.” NBC Latino commentator Raul Reyes declared that “Cruz knows no shame” and “it’s time the GOP presses the Cruz-control button.”
At the same time, Cruz has been welcomed as a conquering hero by the grassroots conservatives who fueled his upset victory over establishment Republican favorite David Dewhurst in the 2012 Republican runoff contest. The new senator was picked to deliver the closing address at next month’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, the nation’s largest annual gathering of right-thinking activists.
“Ted Cruz has not sacrificed his values and beliefs on the altar of political correctness or to become part of the Washington, D.C., circuit,” said Harris County Republican Party chair Jared Woodfill. “Like Ronald Reagan, he can take our conservative values and beliefs and articulate them for the world. He has made a huge mark at the national level in just a few months.”
Republican strategists are particularly pleased that Cruz brings a fresh face — as well as much-needed diversity — to the GOP message machine.
“He’s not a grumpy old white guy like so many of our spokesmen have been,” said Fergus Cullen, a communications consultant and former New Hampshire Republican Party chair. “He comes from the policy/ideas/intellectual wing of the conservative movement, like (2012 vice presidential nominee) Paul Ryan, and we need more of them.”
While assessments of Cruz’s job performance vary widely, there’s one thing everyone can agree on: The former Texas solicitor general is willfully ignoring the age-old adage that in the Senate, freshman are seen but not heard.
“Sen. Ted Cruz came to Washington to advance conservative policies, not play by the same old rules that have relegated conservatives — and their ideas — to the backbench,” said Michael A. Needham, CEO of Heritage Action, the political committee of the conservative Heritage Foundation. “It should come as absolutely no surprise the Washington establishment — be it the liberal media, entrenched special interests or even wayward Republicans — is now attacking him in the press for following through on his promises.”
Some Republicans say that Cruz — as well as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio — are being targeted for tough criticism from the left because of his Hispanic heritage.
“Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are an existential threat to the liberal status quo,” said Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, Cruz’s boss for more than five years. “For a long time, liberals assumed that if you were Hispanic and went to Harvard, you’d be a Democrat, not a conservative Republican. Not only that, he embodies the conservative principles that exist in a majority of the Hispanic community.”
Cruz, a champion debater in college and a former law clerk to Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, is undaunted by the criticism.
“Washington has a long tradition of trying to hurl insults to silence those who they don’t like what they’re saying,” Cruz said Tuesday as he toured the LaRue Tactical gun-manufacturing plant near Austin. “I have to admit I find it amusing that those in Washington are puzzled when someone actually does what they said they would do.”
Democrats, however, are decidedly not amused by his introduction to the national stage.
“He’s part of this right-wing, extreme group in the Republican Party,” said Gilbert Hinojosa, the Texas Democratic Party chairman. “He was elected to do the business of all the people of Texas, not just the business of a small group of Tea Party right-wingers. He makes (conservative former Sen.) Phil Gramm look like a progressive.”
Sen. Barbara Boxer, a liberal from California, went so far as to summon the ghost of Joe McCarthy during a discussion of Cruz on the Senate floor. MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews added former Louisiana Gov. Huey Long and Charles E. Coughlin, anti-Semitic radio broadcaster and fiery New Deal critic.
“He’s a potent combination of intellect and demagoguery that really has the potential to light a fire under the freshman Republicans to burn the place down,” said Jim Manley, a long-time Senate staffer who worked for Sen. Ted Kennedy and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “But if you go down that path, you end up as nothing but roadkill in the Senate. If he continues down this path, his base may feel good about it, but he may just become isolated and irrelevant.”
A few Republicans have privately counseled Cruz to tone down his approach. One GOP colleague, Sen. John McCain, went so far as to rebuke him publicly after the Texas senator asked Hagel whether the former Nebraska senator had received payments from Saudi Arabia or North Korea.
“Sen. Hagel is an honorable man who served his country and no one on this committee at any time should impugn his character of his integrity,” McCain said as Cruz sat quietly by.
The two men shared another uncomfortable moment at the State of the Union speech, when McCain responded to Obama’s praise for bipartisan immigration reform with a quick jig while Cruz, two seats away, sat frowning.
Conservative activists are thrilled that Cruz has roiled both Democrats and old-line Republicans.
“We are encouraged that he is standing up to the establishment as a U.S. senator,” said David N. Bossie, president of the conservative group Citizens United. “Fighting the tough fights for conservative principles is why Ted Cruz was elected to the U.S. Senate.”
L. Brent Bozell III, chairman of the conservative group ForAmerica, blamed fellow Republicans for undercutting Cruz.
“The GOP establishment is at it again,” he said. ‘After capitulating to President Obama in negotiations over the fiscal cliff and promising to kneecap conservatives in the 2014 primaries, these moderates are attacking Sen. Ted Cruz for sticking to his conservative principles.”
Cruz’s brand of uncompromising conservatism gives Texas two of the most conservative members of the Senate. New ratings released Wednesday by National Journal indicated that the Lone Star State’s senior senator, John Cornyn of San Antonio, was the Senate’s second most conservative member in 2012.
Cornyn says he looks forward to “working closely” with Cruz “as we fight for a conservative agenda.”
“Ted has quickly proven himself to be among the next generation of leaders of Texas and the Republican Party,” Cornyn said.
It may be a bit early to declare Cruz a leader, but there’s little doubt Cruz is having an impact disproportionate to his seven-week Senate tenure. An editor of the conservative website The Daily Caller recently likened Cruz’s ability to shape the debate over Hagel to the liberal grassroots group MoveOn.org’s impact at the height of the Iraq War.
He’s certainly the most visible freshman senator, appearing on more national TV programs than any of his first-year colleagues, including the much-hyped liberal Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and conservative Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina, the first African American senator from the Deep South since Reconstruction.
With the hype, of course, come the jibes.
“Washington is a rough-and-tumble place, and I certainly don’t mind if some will take shots at me,” Cruz said. “What I do think is unfortunate is if the coverage of the political game overshadows the substance.”
“Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are an existential threat to the liberal status quo.”
— Greg Abbott
The pundits were soooooo wrong in 2015 that it seems silly for anyone to pull out the crystal ball again. Especially in the midst of the most unpredictable Republican presidential nominating process in … what, four years? (President Gingrich, President Santorum, President Perry, we hardly knew ye.)
But since so many pundits make good salaries predicting things that don’t come true, I’m going to let you in on some things that are as solid as Sears. (OK, if you’re under 50 years old, you probably don’t understand that line.)
Here are my 16 bold predictions for 2016:
- The New York Daily News headline on Feb. 2, 2016 (the day after the Iowa caucuses): CRUZ SCHLONGS TRUMP
- Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the winner of the 2008 Iowa Republican caucuses, drops out of the 2016 race on Feb. 3 after finishing eighth in the previous evening’s Iowa caucuses. Nobody outside of the Huckabee family notices.
- Donald Trump continues his slide from frontrunner status on Feb. 23 with a stinging defeat in the Nevada caucuses when fellow gambling mogul Sheldon Adelson pulls out all the stops in support of [Editor’s note: He hasn’t yet decided which non-Trump candidate he will support]. Front page editorials in the Adelson family’s Las Vegas Review-Journal strongly support [candidate to be decided upon later]. Adelson tells close friends that Trump eliminated himself from contention when he didn’t know he was supposed to say that Jerusalem is and always will be the indivisible capital of Israel — and then canceled his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu in a fit of pique after Adelson buddy Bibi bashed Trump for saying he’d bar all non-citizen Muslims from the U.S. — and then used “schlong” as a verb.
- Bernie Sanders will be the Mo Udall of 2016. Without the wicked sense of humor. Favorite of the liberal liberals. String of second-place finishes. His last stand will be in the Vermont primary on March 1. But while Bernie battles for his home state’s 15 delegates chosen in the primary, Hillary Clinton will take something like 207 of the 208 Texas delegates up for grabs that day.
- The Republican Party in the United States will remain the only conservative party in the entire world to dispute the fact that humans contribute to climate change. Not a good strategy to win the support of young Americans, who wonder why so many old fogies can’t accept global scientific consensus.
- The Democratic Party in the United States will continue to argue for protectionism and managed trade. The Tea Party will continue to argue for protectionism and managed trade. The rest of the world will wonder why America continues to have such a robust, resilient economy when its politicians seem to be trying so hard to destroy its competitiveness.
- America will make history again — by electing the first female president ever, the first candidate with a Spanish surname and/or the first U.S. president ever born in Canada.
- The next vice president’s last name will end in an “o.” Leading possibilities are Castro, Rubio or uh-oh.
- Ratings on MSNBC will continue to slip-slide toward oblivion. Morning Joe’s audience will be limited to the DC Beltway, Manhattan and Joe Scarborough’s family’s homes. More than 95 percent of Chris Matthews’ audience will be aged 65 and above.
- The Washington Post website, having passed the New York Times in online audience in 2015, will rocket ahead of CNN through a combination of good, solid, old-fashioned reporting and analysis and an understanding of viral-news marketing.
- The Huffington Post, having reached the limits of page views through click-bait, rewrites and journalistic trolling, reassesses its business strategy amid general stagnation.
12. American newspapers continue to reassess the ill-fated paywall fad amid mounting evidence that they are destroying any potential for long-term community-building in a misguided attempt to increase short-term revenues.
13. No pro team from Philadelphia or Austin will make the playoffs in any sport.
14. Dan Snyder will continue to top the lists of “worst sports team owner,” despite his mediocre team’s miraculous 2015 run in the NFC Least division.
15. The Pyongyang Marathon will continue to be the least popular marathon in any nation’s capital. It’s on April 10, if you’re interested in signing up.
16. American newspapers and news networks will feature stories about the poisonous air in Beijing with frightening regularity, causing the Chinese government to (a) condemn the negative news coverage and (b) develop a new and improved strategy for dealing with a problem that’s not going away, despite the occasional blasts of fresh air from Siberia.
Happy New Year to all!
From pornographic emails to pervasive plagiarism, this has been a good year for bad candidates. We’ve seen hubris, laziness and monumental incompetence.
That’s not really something new in American politics.
What may be new is that some of the campaigns are so bad that even partisan news outlets like Mother Jones and Fox News have called out the perpetrators.
So who has run the worst campaign of 2014? There are lots of candidates in contention for runner-up status but we already have a clear winner of that dubious achievement:
1. Former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor
A Hall of Shame horrible campaign. Overconfident. Out of touch. The future House Speaker became a former House member with the help of an obscure but spirited Tea Party activist. Cantor is crying all the way to the bank as he cashed in on the capital’s revolving door culture by getting a nice Wall Street-ish job.
2. Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts
Win or lose, the veteran Kansas senator, who lives in Washington, was caught napping. He survived a primary scare that he didn’t see coming and then trailed badly against an independent in early general election polls. With the GOP establishment circling the wagons — and hardline conservatives like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz seizing the moment — Roberts has finally gained some momentum, at least for the time being. But win or lose, he’s evidence of what happens when you catch Potomac Fever and don’t keep up with the folks back home.
3. Montana Sen. John Walsh
Democrats were on the defensive from the moment longtime Montana Sen. Max Baucus resigned his seat to become envoy to Beijing. But Dems had high hopes for John Walsh, an Iraq veteran, former adjutant general of the Montana National Guard and former lieutenant governor. Those hopes evaporated when the New York Times reported that Walsh had “plagiarized large sections of the final paper he completed to earn his master’s degree at the prestigious Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.”
Walsh quickly made a bad situation a lot worse. According to the Times, Walsh initially “expressed no contrition for the plagiarism.” Even when withdrawing from the race two weeks later, he remained in denial, saying that the paper “has become a distraction from the debate you expect and deserve.” The Army War College thought it was much more serious, revoking his master’s degree. But he’s still a senator, however lame a duck he may be.
4. Texas gubernatorial nominee Wendy Davis
National Democrats thought they had found an instant superstar when the telegenic Fort Worth state senator staged a filibuster against a draconian Republican anti-abortion law in 2013. The party raised tons of money from her pro-choice passion and pink sneakers and shipped almost all of it out of state. It then somehow convinced the celebrity senator that she could be elected governor in one of the most reliably Republican states in the Union. All you had to do was read my 2012 statistical analysis of Texas demographic and electoral trends to know that true partisan competitiveness was from eight to 12 years away.
To make a difficult situation worse, Davis’ campaign has been inexplicably tone-deaf. They seem to be running the kind of a campaign a Democrat would run in Massachusetts or Illinois, not Texas. (In contrast, the last Texas Democrat to be elected governor, Ann Richards, knew how to appeal to the good-ole-boy and good-ole-girl vote without sacrificing her basic principles.)
Final exclamation point, a new television ad that tried to paint Republican Greg Abbott as a hypocrite but ended up making him a victim. Even liberal standard-bearer Mother Jones called it, “to be blunt, bullshit.”
“If Wendy Davis Thinks She Can Win an Election by Pointing Out Her Opponent’s Disability, She’s Wrong,” declared the MoJo headline.
“It’s offensive and nasty and it shouldn’t exist,” wrote Ben Dreyfuss. “She’s basically calling Abbott a cripple.”
That’s what her friends are saying. Texas Democrats should be saying, “Wait ’til next year.” Or is it “next decade”?
5. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett
This is not the kind of headline you want on Fox News’ web site if you are a Republican incumbent:
Porn scandal involving former staff puts Pa. governor on defense in already-tough race
It’s not a question of whether Tom Corbett will lose, it’s by how much he will lose. In a very good year for Republican candidates, the GOP incumbent is a very bad candidate. Whether it’s his ties to the Penn State football program’s child sexual abuse cover-up or the scandal involving pornographic emails sent by staffers, the news is relentlessly negative for the embattled incumbent. Democratic nominee Tom Wolf is breezing to victory. The only question is whether Corbett’s margin of defeat is larger than the 20 percentage point repudiation of then-Senator Rick Santorum in 2006.
It’s a hard time to be a GOP spinner in the Keystone State. “This is not an Anthony Weiner situation,” one Republican consultant said on Fox News, trying to put the best face on a very bad situation.
6. Ohio gubernatorial nominee Ed FitzGerald
It’s never good when a headline in the Washington Post declares:
The remarkable implosion of Ed FitzGerald
Especially not if you are an Ohio Democrat and Ed FitzGerald is your nominee for governor. Democrats had high hopes for unseating Ohio Gov. John Kasich, whose edgy personality and hard-driving policy agenda had alienated a fair number of voters. But their candidate, a local elected official with precious little big league experience, proved truly minor league. A typical lowlight was the revelation of a 2012 incident when he was approached by a police officer while in a parked car with a woman who was not his wife.
How bad have things gotten? With the campaign winding down, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reports that “the beleaguered Democrat is altering his strategy in an attempt to ensure his troubles don’t doom his party’s entire statewide ticket.” At least he’s not playing stupid “spin” games and trying to convince us that he still is in contention.
7. South Dakota Senate nominee Mike Rounds
Republicans thought this was a sure thing when Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson announced his retirement. Red state. Popular ex-governor. Anti-Obama electorate. Good Republican year. Can’t lose.
Well, yes you can.
Rounds has exhibited a severe case of overconfidence and has run a lackluster campaign (to be generous). Toss in a wild card — the independent candidacy of former Republican Sen. Larry Pressler, the only politician to say no to the “American Hustle” hustlers — and you have the South Dakota road show version of the venerable musical “Anything Goes.”
I’ll still be shocked if Rounds loses. But he’s trying his best.
8. Michigan Senate nominee Terri Lynn Land
Like Texas Democrats, Michigan Republicans thought they had a chance to pull an upset on hostile partisan turf by nominating Terri Lynn Land for the Senate seat long held by retiring Democrat Carl Levin. Now, national Republicans will tell you it is one of their biggest disappointments of the year. Land’s campaign has been mediocre, at best, lacking imagination, energy and an overarching strategy. She’s been on the defensive, like her attempts to counter perceptions that her policy positions were “anti-women.” She aired an ad that was described by Republican political consultant Frank Luntz as the worst of the election season (which is saying a lot). In the ad, she drank coffee and looked at her watch and said that, as a woman, she knows more about women than her male opponent. No discussion of any issues.
The “Really?” ad, aired in May, sought to reject claims that Land is anti-woman because of her opposition to abortion and federal legislation known as the Paycheck Fairness Act.
Luntz criticized the commercial on “Fox & Friends” for failing to “give any message” or “communicate any sense of substance.”
No wonder Democrat Gary Peters — once considered a “tough sell” — has been consistently leading in the polls for months.
9. California congressional candidate Carl DeMaio
In the category of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, we take you to San Diego, where Republicans have been talking all year about their strong candidate against endangered Democratic incumbent Scott Peters.
Let’s just say the talk has shifted all of a sudden. After all, how many candidates for the House of Representatives find themselves in the bizarre position of denying that they masturbated in front of a staff member? Or groped his genitals?
That’s the plight of Carl DeMaio, a highly touted Republican candidate who had been leading in many polls in California’s 52nd Congressional District. Let’s just cut to the Oct. 10 CNN interview with his former aide, Todd Bosnich.
Bosnich: “I saw his hand —— his penis in his hand. He had a smile on his face. And as soon as I came over, he was looking at me.”
CNN reporter Chris Frates: “So there was no mistaking what was happening?”
Bosnich: “There was no mistaking whatsoever.”
According to TalkingPointsMemo, Bosnich has accused his ex-boss of “making inappropriate advances, massaging and kissing his neck, and groping.”
I should note that DeMaio categorically denies his ex-aide’s account and held a press conference to condemn it as “an outrageous lie” that has been dismissed by law enforcement authorities.
“This is an individual that was let go by our campaign manager for plagiarism, a well-documented plagiarism incident of taking a report from the National Journal and passing it off as his own work,” the candidate told CNN. “He was terminated. He admitted that he plagiarized.”
At his press conference, DeMaio went further: “It’s absolutely untrue and it’s unfortunate that an individual who is the prime suspect in the break-in at our campaign office would manufacture such an outrageous lie.”
Someone is lying. But no candidate wants to be denying this kind of thing in the final weeks of a campaign. Or ever.
10. Texas Agriculture Commission loser Kinky Friedman
Once considered a serious (or at least semi-serious) candidate for governor of Texas, this singer/songwriter/author has been failing downward. This year, he ran an erratic campaign for Texas Agriculture Commissioner and was defeated in the Democratic runoff by “not Kinky Friedman,” a.k.a., an unknown guy who was the other name on the ballot. Kinky’s top campaign issue this year was legalization of marijuana.
“I want to make this election into a referendum on lifting the prohibition on pot and hemp,” Friedman told KHOU 11 News during a campaign event in Houston. “This is about the future of Texas.”
It certainly wasn’t about Kinky’s political future.
The New York Times calls House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s lopsided primary loss to an underfunded Tea Party challenger “one of the most stunning primary election upsets in congressional history.”
It sounded like hyperbole to me, so I started to think. And think. And think. And I couldn’t think of a comparable repudiation of a House powerhouse by his own party’s voters.
Then I called out the search engines — even the ones blocked here in China — and I soon concluded that Cantor, the first House Majority Leader to be ousted by his own party since the post was created 115 years ago, topped the list.
It’s a short list, because so few primary defeats come out of nowhere. There was a bit of a buzz a couple of weeks ago when Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas, a former committee chairman and the oldest man ever to serve in the House, was ousted by a Tea Party insurgent. But few among the Pundit Elite were shocked.
This one was different. I was thinking back and I thought all the way back to the dark days of the Vietnam War, when anti-war insurgent Elizabeth Holtzman stunned longtime House Judiciary Committee Chairman Emanuel Celler in the 1972 New York Democratic primary. Celler was the longest-serving member of the House, a 50-year veteran, and his defeat rocked the House leadership almost as much as George McGovern’s landslide presidential loss did two months later.
General election shockers are nothing new in wave election years or special circumstances. House Speaker Tom Foley was toppled in the 1994 Republican Revolution that ended four decades of Democratic dominance. People were shocked when Dan Rostenkowski, the Ways and Means Committee chairman, lost after getting in trouble with the law over postage stamps and a few other low crimes and misdemeanors. After all, it was Chicago, and what Daley Machine pol loses … to a Republican?
Chicago’s Michael Patrick Flanagan (the Rosty Slayer) isn’t the only challenger to see lightning strike. New York sent Republican Fiorello LaGuardia to Congress in a shocker over Tammany Hall’s own incumbent Democrat, Michael F. Farley, in 1916. LaGuardia went on to become a legendary New York mayor and the subject of a Pulitzer Prize winning musical, “Fiorello!” Farley died in 1921 of exposure to anthrax from his shaving brush.
Rostenkowski’s general election defeat was a final ripple from the the biggest anti-incumbent primary wave in modern history, when 19 lawmakers were purged by constituents angered by the House bank scandal and the lingering aftereffects of recession. The biggest name to fall in a primary that year was Michigan Rep. Guy Vander Jagt, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Commitee, who was beaten by conservative insurgent Peter Hoekstra.
The next biggest wave of incumbent House member defeats in primaries came in 1946, when 18 sitting House members were ousted so that a group of World War Two vets could come to power. None rivaled Cantor in star power.
Among the newcomers: Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, neither of whom ousted incumbents in primaries. Nixon shocked five-term California Democrat Jerry Voorhis in the general election, while Kennedy earned his way to DC by dispatching nine Democrats (including two named Joseph Russo — one of them recruited by his dad to split the opposition vote).
Many of the biggest primary surprises have come after reapportionment and redistricting, when party leaders try to eliminate upstarts by “pairing” them against powerful veterans. Sometimes, it backfires, like when anti-machine Philadelphia Democrat Bill Green buried ten-term incumbent (and former funeral director) James A. Byrne in 1972.
Party-switchers also have been prime targets for primary defeats, even with the support of their new party. Such was the fate of Texas Rep. Greg Laughlin, who was toppled in a 1996 GOP primary by a supposedly washed-up former congressman (and Libertarian Party presidential candidate) named Ron Paul, a man who lives to bedevil the Pundit Elite.
Occasionally — very, very occasionally — a grassroots insurgent takes out the Establishment favorite. How many of you remember when a young upstart from Weatherford, Texas, named James Claude Wright Jr. unseated four-term incumbent Wingate Lucas, the favorite of Fort Worth publisher and power broker Amon Carter, in the 1954 Democratic primary? (Former Star-Telegram political reporter and DC veteran Larry Neal does.) Wright went on to become one of the most powerful House members of the second half of the 20th century, serving as House Majority Leader and House Speaker.
Does anybody have any other nominees for biggest primary election surprises? As Ross Perot said famously, “I’m all ears.”
Tippecanoe … and Taylor, too?
As a history major, I’ve always struggled for an explanation for the surprisingly bad string of American presidents who served between 1840 and 1860.
This motley crew was politically inept. Think Millard Fillmore. James Buchanan. Franklin Pierce. Zachary Taylor.
The group also had a very high mortality rate. William Henry Harrison died one month after assuming office in March 1841. James Polk (he of Texas annexation and “Manifest Destiny”) died shortly after leaving office. And Zachary Taylor, the old (and I emphasize old) Mexican War hero died less than a year into his term, leaving Americans saddled with Fillmore, who later unsuccessfully sought to return to the presidency as the nominee of the aptly named Know Nothing Party.
I will claim some academic expertise in this period of history. My master’s thesis at the University of Pennsylvania was on the 1844 Philadelphia economic elite, which included Polk’s vice president, George Mifflin Dallas. The city of Dallas, Texas, is named after this Philadelphian who might — just might — have become the nation’s 12th president if Polk had died a few months earlier, while still in office.
With apologies to Alexis de Tocqueville, the stretch of dysfunctional democracy in America had many causes, including the implacable division between North and South over fundamental social issues, the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment and the triumph of extremism (and mediocrity) on Capitol Hill.
Sound familiar to your 2014 ears?
Historians have written lots about the political debacle in ante-bellum America. But they haven’t written as much about the health debacle in the White House. That’s why the story that appeared in the April 1 edition of the New York Times (it’s no April Fool’s joke) is so important.
The piece outlined speculation about the cause of William Henry Harrison’s death. Conventional wisdom has held (for 173 years) that old Tippecanoe, the oldest man to be sworn in as president until Ronald Reagan, died of pneumonia after catching cold while delivering the longest inaugural address in American history. (I think it may have equalled all four of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speeches combined. He had nothing to fear but pneumonia itself.)
But it turns out that pneumonia may not have caused Harrison’s death. The Times article casts a credible finger of blame at the potentially toxic supply of drinking water consumed by American presidents during the time before indoor plumbing:
In those days the nation’s capital had no sewer system. Until 1850, some sewage simply flowed onto public grounds a short distance from the White House, where it stagnated and formed a marsh; the White House water supply was just seven blocks downstream of a depository for “night soil,” hauled there each day at government expense.
That field of human excrement would have been a breeding ground for two deadly bacteria, Salmonella typhi and S. paratyphi, the causes of typhoid and paratyphoid fever — also known as enteric fever, for their devastating effect on the gastrointestinal system.
According to the Times piece, Harrison’s eventual case of pneumonia is consistent with enteric fever and may just have been one of the manifestations of acute poisoning.
“As he lay dying, Harrison had a sinking pulse and cold, blue extremities, two classic manifestations of septic shock,” Jane McHugh and Philip A. Mackowiak wrote in the Times. “Given the character and course of his fatal illness, his untimely death is best explained by enteric fever.”
Harrison was the first of three U.S. presidents to die in office (or shortly after leaving office) within a span of only nine years. I’d say that’s reason for some serious “cold case” sleuthing.
Mackowiak, a scholar-in-residence at the University of Maryland and author of “Diagnosing Giants: Solving the Medical Mysteries of Thirteen Patients Who Changed the World,” took up the challenge, joined by San Antonio writer McHugh.
They made a strong case for tainted water as being the cause of Harrison’s death, and suggested that Polk and Taylor may have been its victims, too. They noted that the 11th and 12th presidents “developed severe gastroenteritis while living in the White House. Taylor died, while Polk recovered, only to be killed by what is thought to have been cholera a mere three months after leaving office.”
There’s further evidence to suspect that Mackowiak and McHugh are onto something. The president’s quarters on the second floor of the White House did not get running water until 1853 — Fillmore is given credit by some history books for this major technological advance. After Millard’s move, no president contracted gastroenteritis or died of natural causes. (We’ll leave the mysterious 1923 death of Warren Harding to another blog post.)
So we can’t blame the failure of Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan on tainted water. Just tainted politics.
For at least a decade, I was a 24/7 news addict.
Then I went to China and went cold turkey. Surprisingly, there were no withdrawal pains. Indeed, I actually enjoyed life more and had a lot more time for useful pursuits without the pain of my addiction to CNN, MSNBC, Fox and Twitter.
So what happens when I return from Tsinghua University for winter break?
A short relapse.
One day of CNN was enough to cure me permanently. Here are a few thoughts on the disastrous state of U.S. cable news and the rays of hope for the rest of the U.S. media:
Back to vacation. With the TV turned off.
Just a few things have changed in my life this year.
New job. New city. New country. New life.
Teaching journalism in China. It’s almost as much of a challenge as practicing journalism in America.
Here are some of the things that are “in” in my new life at Tsinghua University — and some of the old, familiar things I’ve left behind.
OUT: Texas on the Potomac
IN: Yankee on Tiananmen Square
OUT: Hikes on the National Mall
IN: Hikes on the Great Wall
OUT: Bike helmets
IN: Anti-pollution masks
OUT: Turn signals
IN: Chaos on the road
OUT: The second most congested commute in America
IN: The second most congested commute in the world
OUT: Considering something three days old as new
IN: Considering something three centuries old as new
OUT: Finnish saunas
IN: Chinese massages
OUT: American Chinese food
IN: Real Chinese food
OUT: DC Metro
IN: A subway system with trains every two minutes, polite employees and escalators that actually work
OUT: Dysfunctional democracy
OUT: Taking your shoes off at airports
IN: VPNs to access Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and WordPress
OUT: Rush Limbaugh’s rants against Barack Obama
IN: Chinese media rants against Japanese Prime Minister Abe
OUT: The New York Times
IN: People’s Daily
OUT: The Abraham Lincoln statue at the Lincoln Memorial
IN: The terracotta warriors of Xi’an
OUT: Delicious Chesapeake crab cakes
IN: Delicious Chinese dumplings
OUT: Lobster rolls from food trucks
IN: Stinky tofu from street vendors
IN: Chicken feet, fish lips and duck brains
OUT: The Washington Redskins
IN: Mao’s little red book
OUT: Obscenely expensive Internet service
IN: Unreliable Internet, spotty WiFi and the Great Firewall of China
IN: Truly socialized medicine
OUT: Soccer moms
IN: Ping pong dads
OUT: 24/7 deadlines
IN: Monthlong breaks between semesters (We call them “district work periods”)
OUT: Suits and ties
IN: Casual Friday every day