Monday, November 24, 2008

Alexander Hamilton

Ah, the ‘Golden Age’ of American politics. Newspapers defined the issues in measured, non-partisan tones while statesmen debated the issues, transcending personal attacks and invective as they traveled the land.

Having just finished Ken Chernow’s fantastic bio of Alexander Hamilton, one thing is clear –

It never happened.

Our gauzy impression of the Founder’s era is wishful thinking. Newspapers back then were vicious, partisan purveyors of every conceivable rumor, easily the equal of today’s Internet, only slower. Meanwhile, the Founders made insider deals in backrooms while engaging in all manner of political skullduggery. Some, including Hamilton and Jefferson, even did “have sex with that woman.”

Make no mistake, though – they were giants. Moreover, it’s hard to escape the feeling that it was an unusual bit of extra ordinary luck for the Founders to exist together in their singular place and time. Charles de Gaulle noted that “The graveyard is full of indispensible men,” but Chernow’s book makes it hard to imagine any of it coming together without George Washington.

Hamilton’s story is a fascinating, distinctly American one. Born to a single mother, he endured an impoverished, tumultuous childhood in the West Indies on St. Croix. But he showed great promise at an early age, and a group of wealthy local merchants pooled their resources to send him to New York to attend what became Columbia University. Hamilton called New York City home for the rest of his life. Today, his life size portrait looms in the background at City Hall whenever the Mayor of New York holds a press conference.

Hamilton had talent and drive in great abundance. He left college when the Revolution began, earning a reputation for bravery in battle, and quickly rose to become Washington’s right hand man at the age of 21. Back in combat, he personally led one of the final charges of the war on British positions at Yorktown.

In Washington’s first term, it was Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury, more than any other American before or since, who laid the foundation for our modern American economic system. (Two years ago, when Atlantic Monthly listed the 100 Most Influential Americans in history, Hamilton was ranked 5th, and was the first non-president to be listed.) The clash between Hamilton’s vision of a manufacturing base with a strong federal government and Jefferson’s state-oriented, agrarian outlook defined the politics of the age. Jefferson got more and better ink - both then and now - but today’s U.S. is much more Hamilton’s country than it is Jefferson’s.

Now about that “Golden Age”…

The Founders cut back room deals. In fact, in a small New York room while the city served as the new nation’s temporary capital, Secretary of State Jefferson and Hamilton cut the Granddaddy of all American political back room deals. To bind the states more closely to the central government, Hamilton proposed that the federal government assume and pay the Revolutionary War debt of the states. This was obviously tempting to the states, but Jefferson saw what his colleague was up to. So he agreed to what was called “assumption” – as long as Hamilton agreed to place the new permanent capital in the south, on the Potomac River to be precise. The deal was done.

There was all kinds of maneuvering. Hamilton, with the approval of Washington, worked hard to repair relations with England, seeing trade with the Mother Country as a key way to build a strong economy. Amazingly, at the same time, Secretary of State Jefferson was conspiring with France (where he served as ambassador for many years) to undermine the English, passing along privileged information from cabinet meetings and generally working to thwart Hamilton’s efforts to cultivate them.

They fooled around. Before there was Monica, the widower Jefferson carried on at Monticello with his slave Sally Hemmings, while Hamilton got around as well, despite a loving relationship with his wife that produced several children. One particular dalliance of Hamilton’s with a woman named Martha Reynolds, exploded in public view in 1796 in…

…The vicious, partisan newspapers. Newspapers in those days were political vehicles more than news sources. The Jeffersonian papers reveled in the delicious details of Hamilton’s affair with Mrs. Reynolds. They also “exposed” John Adams’ plan to re-establish the British crown in North America by marrying his son to the daughter of George III. (Don't feel bad for Adams - after a falling out between the two, he rarely missed a chance to point out that Hamilton was, well, a "bastard".) Incredibly, even Washington was the subject of partisan abuse, like any other common pol, during his second term. Meanwhile, the Federalist newspapers denounced Jefferson for the “rape” of his slave.

Tough stuff – never mind Hamilton's deadly duel with Aaron Burr, who at the time was sitting Vice President of the United States!

I highly recommend the Chernow book. It will reinforce how fortunate we have been as a nation, and it will cure you of that longing you’ve had for a Golden Age of American Politics – something that never happened.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Notes on Last Tuesday…

It says something good about America that my kids (ages 9 and 11) don’t even give it a second thought that an African-American has been elected President of the United States.
A sad end for John McCain, a genuine American hero who I voted for twice over the years. It’s troubling that what McCain endured for his country in Vietnam, and how he understands patriotism, are viewed by too many as out-dated relics of an ancient era.

McCain’s defeat recalls this nugget - almost always true - from an old-timer late one night many years ago in a smoke-filled Providence campaign headquarters: “Who wins campaigns? The guy who runs the best campaign!”

George Bush dealt McCain a tough hand. But in both tone and execution, McCain’s effort was unworthy of him. In contrast, Obama’s campaign was the best presidential effort I’ve seen in my lifetime. (How do you quantify that? Obama is the first Democrat to break 51% since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and only the second since Harry Truman in 1948.)

The GOP base McCain inherited from Bush and Karl Rove was a stone around his neck. That base is careening perilously away from the new mainstream in American politics and heading over the cliff into “Fringe Valley”. To placate that base, McCain had to say things he knew better of, and pick the unsettling Sarah Palin. Twenty years ago, when Jesse Jackson was winning Democratic presidential primaries, I used to wonder if a Democrat could say what had to be said to win the nomination and still win in November. Walter Mondale and Mike Dukakis confirmed that the answer was "No.” Now, McCain’s campaign makes me wonder if the GOP hasn’t created a similar, self-defeating dynamic.
In my little town of East Greenwich (pop. about 13,000) I had the chance to work with some neighbors on a school bond referendum for a new middle school that proved, again, that a good campaign almost always wins. The amount in question, $52 million, was a daunting amount for a town our size, made even more so by the current economic climate. Further, voters had already rejected a similar plan two elections ago. But starting in the summer, a small, focused group of volunteers began to identify supporters over the phone. This is a grueling process, but one that makes the difference between victory and defeat. In fact, in local races, there is no substitute for phone banking and door-to-door campaigning. It doesn’t matter what else you do: a candidate that doesn’t do those two things might as well just roll the dice. And challengers who aren’t prepared to invest the time and effort in these two things should seriously reconsider running at all.
It was heartening to win with 65% of the vote, particularly with a tiny budget of only a couple thousand dollars raised on the Internet. My old rule of thumb for local races was that the campaign should expect to spend $2 to $4 per voter, with most of that money going to direct mail. But just as the Internet is making mainstream news outlets struggle for relevance, the ‘net is also helping save local campaigns thousands of dollars by allowing them to bypass the Post Office and communicate directly with voters. Direct mail is still an important tool, but in a local race it becomes a lot lower priority – our campaign didn’t do any, and didn’t suffer for it. (We didn’t do any newspaper advertising, either.)
The Rhode Island GOP continues its march to extinction, winning only 10 of 113 legislative seats. Sure, I know New England is rough terrain for Republicans, and I know that the larger turnout in Presidential election years is tough to overcome. Still, I wonder how many of them relied on mail, earned media and other indirect communications to make the kind of personal contact that only doorbells and volunteers on telephones can create.

If you’re not directly touching voters – like Barack Obama or the Taxpayers for EG Schools – you’re probably not running the best campaign. And if you're not running the best campaign, you're probably not winning.