How Clinton’s and Trump’s running mates may predict the election

Based on past history, who Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton select as their running mate may help us predict who will win the presidential election in November. While, as I have noted in past posts, the sample size of presidential elections is small (making it difficult for the past to be predictive of the future) there are some interesting facts that may be more than coincidence. (To place this in context, the winning tickets are listed in parentheses)).

More often than not, for example, the more experienced vice presidential running mates are on the winning tickets. Those vice presidential nominees with less experience are on the losing side. That has seldom been more evident than in the disparity in 2008 between Joe Biden, who had served in the U.S. Senate for 36 years when Barack Obama tapped him as his running mate, and Sarah Palin who had been governor of Alaska less than two years.

One explanation is that losing campaigns often look like losing campaigns well before the election. This has two effects: it discourages some of the best possible vice presidential candidates from offering their names for consideration, believing a loss will tarnish their reputation, and it also often convinces the losing presidential nominee to go for a “hail Mary” to shake up the race. That was clearly why John McCain selected Palin. But this almost never works. In other landslide losses in presidential history, the vice presidential candidates were also obscure.

Walter Mondale swung for the fences in selecting Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate, but choosing the first woman for a major party ticket did not work out.

Walter Mondale swung for the fences in selecting Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate, but choosing the first woman for a major party ticket did not work out.

In 1984, Mondale carried just one state; his running mate, Geraldine Ferraro, had served just six years in the U.S. House (Reagan/Bush),  In 1972, after many credible candidates turned him down, George McGovern, who also carried only one state, chose Thomas Eagleton who had only been in the Senate four years.  When Eagleton was forced off the ticket when it was revealed he had undergone electro-shock therapy for depression, McGovern turned to Sargent Shriver, who had never held elective office but led the Peace Corps (Nixon/Agnew).

Barry Goldwater also lost in a landslide in 1964.  His running mate, New York Congressman Bill Miller had served 14 years in the House, but he was not well-known outside his district.  Goldwater later admitted he chose Miller primarily because he believed Miller “drove (Lyndon) Johnson nuts.” (Johnson/Humphrey)

It does seem an axiom that those vice presidential candidates whose tenure was exclusively or primarily in the U.S. House — such as Miller, but also including Ferraro, Paul Ryan, Jack Kemp, and John Sparkman — are usually on the losing side.  The last exception was John Nance Garner, who was FDR’s running mate in 1932 after serving 30 years in the House.

There are other examples.  In 1936, Alf Landon — who won two states — selected newspaper publisher Frank Knox as his running mate (Roosevelt/Garner); Knox had never held elected office.  In 1920, James Cox selected a man whose highest post had been assistant secretary of the Navy, but even his magic last name did not give Franklin Roosevelt the cache to help Cox avoid a catastrophic defeat (harding/Coolidge).  The same occurred in 1924 when Charles Bryan, brother of William Jennings Bryan, was added to the ticket despite having served only two years as governor of Nebraska and two years as mayor of Lincoln.  In a three-way race that year, Bryan and the Democratic presidential nominee John Davis failed to get even 30 percent of the popular vote (Coolidge/Dawes).

This suggests another truth, that those who do not currently hold elective office when nominated — Kemp, Shriver, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Knox, also tend to be on losing tickets.

Youth — separate from experience — seems to bother voters less than inexperience.  Paul Ryan was 41 and FDR was 38 on losing tickets; Richard Nixon was 39 and Dan Quayle was 41 on winning tickets.

Despite his youth, Nixon did not have appreciably less experience than his counterpart in 1952, Adlai Stevenson running mate Alabama Senator John Sparkman.  Nixon had only served four years in the Senate and two in the House, but Sparkman had been a senator only two years after ten in the House (Eisenhower/Nixon).

Baby-faced Quayle might certainly have seemed junior to Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen, who had 18 years experience in the Senate when tapped to be Michael Dukakis’s running mate, but Quayle had served eight years in the Senate and four in the House.

Of course, there are exceptions to the idea that a more experienced vice presidential running mate portends victory.  Ed Muskie, who had been a senator for ten years and was formerly governor of Maine, had more experience than Spiro Agnew in 1968 when Agnew had been governor of Maryland for just two years after being a county executive for four, but generally it can be said that when there is a clear advantage in electoral experience held by the vice presidential nominee, that nominee is likely to be on the winning ticket, while those races where there is relatively equal experience between the two vice presidential nominees there will be a relatively close race.

This general rule suggests three things.  First, perhaps voters pay more attention to vice presidential running mates than we think they do and they reward the selection of experience, knowing that fourteen vice presidents have become president — eight because  the president they served died in office.

Second, not only does who is nominated to be vice president say something about the presidential nominee’s judgment, it also says something about the state of their campaign.  High risk choices suggest a campaign at risk.

Third, high risks almost never pan out.

With history as a guide, I will predict that the winning ticket will have as its vice presidential nominee someone who currently holds elective office, who has at least a decade of experience in elected office, who has earned more of that experience as a senator or governor than as a congressman, cabinet secretary or some other post.  I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to sort out who that leaves as the best choice from both Clinton and Trump to make in the next few weeks.

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Early praise for “Inga”

I am very gratified that several authors whom I respect a great deal have read an advance copy of Inga: Kennedy’s Great Love, Hitler’s Perfect Beauty, and J. Edgar Hoover’s Prime Suspect, and have offered the following generous thoughts:

“Scott Farris’s Inga is a jewel of a book—for Inga Arvad led a life that no novelist could have invented. Danish by birth, an immigrant American by choice, she bewitched men by her beauty, her journalistic flair, and that rarest of talents: to make others feel better about themselves than perhaps they had a right to. Inga’s extraordinary life story takes us across whole continents, featuring financiers, filmmakers, adventurers and politicians—including, most spectacularly, the young JFK. It is the stuff of legend—yet every word is true, told by a biographer of great sensitivity, narrative skill, and unremitting honesty.”

Nigel Hamilton, New York Times bestselling author of JFK: Reckless Youth and Commander in Chief: FDR’s Battle with Churchill, 1943

Inga Arvad became one of Hollywood's leading gossip columnists while John F. Kennedy still hoped to rekindle their romance. Here is Inga with W.C. Fields circa 1944.

Inga Arvad became one of Hollywood’s leading gossip columnists while John F. Kennedy still hoped to rekindle their romance. Here is Inga with W.C. Fields circa 1944.

“Scott Farris pulls back the curtain on a fascinating era in American history and an intriguing woman who lived through it. Inga Arvad’s complexity is what makes the book so compelling. It seems she lived multiple lives and was part of the brightest and darkest moments in twentieth-century American history.”

Kate Andersen Brower, New York Times bestselling author of First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies and The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House

“Scott Farris has written a meticulously researched, scrupulously sensitive account of Inga Arvad’s truly remarkable odyssey and her genuine romance with the young John F. Kennedy. A page-turner par excellence, Inga disentangles fact from fiction about the woman who enchanted everyone from Hitler to Hollywood stars.”

Andrew Nagorski, award-winning and critically-acclaimed author of The Nazi Hunters and Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power

Inga is scheduled to be published by Lyons Press in October. For more information on the book, see the post below from June 16.

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The third term myth

One of the most oft-repeated bits of conventional wisdom among political pundits this year, as they weigh Hillary Clinton’s chances in November, is that it is exceedingly difficult for any party to win the presidency three consecutive terms. This is completely wrong and represents some very lazy analysis.
First, whether arguing pro or con, we need to recognize that presidential elections provide a limited sample from which to make predictions, as there have been only 54 contested presidential elections in our history. Further, how we select our presidents has changed over the years.

Al Gore came as close as you can to giving the Democrats a third consecutive term occupying the White House.

Al Gore came as close as you can to giving the Democrats a third consecutive term occupying the White House.

As we study the question of how difficult it is (or isn’t) for a party to win three conservative presidential terms, let’s begin with 1896 which in many respects was the first modern campaign with mass media playing a key role and Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan abandoning the traditional “front porch” campaign to barnstorm across the nation.
Bryan lost that year to William McKinley, which ushered in sixteen straight years of Republican control of the White House. After eight years of Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, Republicans won the White House in three consecutive elections before Franklin Roosevelt’s victory in 1932, which then led to 20 consecutive years of Democratic control of the White House.
It was Dwight Eisenhower’s election in 1952 which supposedly began, so the conventional wisdom goes, the tradition of each party trading the White House every eight years.
But is there really a new-found voter resistance to one party holding the White House for more than eight years?
In 1960, Richard Nixon very nearly won a third “Eisenhower term,” falling just short against John Kennedy in one of the closest races in American history. Nixon’s margin of defeat — 112,000 votes — represented just one vote per precinct nationwide. Lingering accusations of voter fraud in Texas and Illinois have convinced many that Nixon did, in fact, win in 1960 and should have extended Republican rule four more years.
Eights year later, Nixon this time barely won over Hubert Humprey, who was seeking to extend eight consecutive years of Democratic control of the White. The popular vote margin was only 500,000 — and this with Democrats being held responsible for the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War, urban riots, and the fiasco of their convention in Chicago. George Wallace’s independent campaign skewed results, and whether Humphrey would have lost even without Wallace in the race is difficult to say, but it would have been a close election, which is remarkable given that 1968 has been called “the year when everything went wrong.”
Another remarkably close race occurred in 1976, when Gerald Ford enjoyed a late campaign surge that might have allowed Republicans to hold the White House for a third consecutive term — and this was after Watergate, Nixon’s resignation, and Ford’s subsequent pardon of Nixon! SOme historians believe if the election had gone one week more, Ford’s momentum would have led to victory.  As it was, Carter won just 50.08 percent of the popular vote.
In 1988, Vice President George Bush did win a third “Reagan term,” and in 2000 Vice President Al Gore seemed ready to give Democrats a third “Clinton term” by winning the popular vote by a 540,000-vote margin. Gore , however, lost the election in the Electoral College because he fell 537 votes short of winning Florida. Had Gore won Florida, he would have won the Electoral College 291-256.
The fact is most presidential elections, especially when there is no incumbent president on the ballot, are close. Over the past 120 years, the presidential nominee of the incumbent’s party has only lost decisively twice — in 1920 when Warren Harding annihilated James Cox, and 2008 when Barack Obama handily defeated John McCain.
As of late June 2016, Hillary Clinton’s chances of election look quite good, but if she loses in November, history suggests it will not be because of some phantom resistance by American voters to giving a party control of the white House for three consecutive terms — or more.

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New book in October 2016!

I have not posted for a while as I have been busy completing my third book, Inga: Kennedy’s Great Love, Hitler’s Perfect Beauty, and J. Edgar Hoover’s Prime Suspect, which I am pleased to announce will be published by Lyons Press on October 6, 2016.

The dustcover for my new book, on the remarkable Inga Arvad.

The dustcover for my new book, on the remarkable Inga Arvad.

Inga is the story of the life of Inga Arvad, Miss Denmark of 1931, who, according to those who claim to know such things, was the great love of President John F. Kennedy’s life while Kennedy was an ensign in the Office of Naval Intelligence at the onset of World War II.

Sadly for their romance, Inga was not only already divorced from a dashing Egyptian diplomat, she was still married to the brilliant Hungarian filmmaker-turned anthropologist Paul Fejos.  This alone made marriage into the most prominent Roman Catholic family in America unlikely.

Worse, Inga had been a foreign correspondent in Nazi Germany in 1935-36, where her charm, beauty, and intelligence made her a favorite of leading Nazis, including Adolf Hitler, who granted Inga several exclusive interviews and made her his personal guest at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.  Those ties led to suspicions that Inga, who became a columnist for the Washington Times-Herald newspaper (then run by the notorious isolationist Cissy Patterson), was a Nazi spy.

Her case attracted the personal attention of not only FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, but also President Franklin Roosevelt, who was fascinated by Inga’s interactions with so many prominent Americans, such as Wall Street tycoon Bernard Baruch, who, like many men, was mad about Inga.  The FBI kept Inga under constant surveillance, tapping her phone and bugging her apartment, so that they recorded her time spent with young JFK, including a great deal of time spent in bed.  Her FBI file would eventually cover 1,200 pages.

When gossip columnist Walter Winchell exposed their romance, Kennedy was nearly cashiered out of the Navy, but was instead eventually transferred to sea duty to command the PT-109.  The sinking of the 109, which Inga helped to publicize, made Kennedy a war hero.  Despite all these difficulties, Kennedy was reluctant to break with Inga and he wrote her some of his most revealing and heartfelt letters.  New York Times columnist Arthur Krock, who was a mentor to Inga, claimed Kennedy would ask about Inga up until his assassination.

There is so much to this story it defies belief that one person could have lived it all in one life, but Inga also lived with a tribe of headhunters in the East Indies,became one of Hollywood’s most powerful gossip columnists, was engaged to a man once in line to be Prime Minister of Great Britain, and married famous movie and real-life cowboy Tim McCoy.

It’s a fascinating story of how gossip and history not only intersect, but are often the same thing.  It also speaks to how difficult it was for a woman of genuine talent to find their place in the world of that time, and to the truth that Inga herself stated: “We pay for everything in life.”  I think it will appeal to many types of readers and, as with my previous two books, will be available at your favorite local bookstore, through the major online retailers, and in a variety of formats, including hardcover, e-book, and audiobook.

I’ll post more later and let you know as I schedule readings around the country.


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Scott featured on LAaRT

Maria Hall-Brown, host and producer of the program LAaRT on KOCE-TV, PBS SoCal, did a particularly fine piece on Kennedy and Reagan: Why Their Legacies Endure, that is running the week of May 23-29, 2015. Here is a link to the segment:



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Reagan’s speech 50 years ago real birth of conservative movement

Fifty years ago, on October 27, 1964, Ronald Reagan became a national political figure and birthed the modern conservative movement by giving a nationally televised speech on behalf of the floundering presidential campaign of his friend, Barry Goldwater.

“The Speech,” as it subsequently became known, was one of the few bright spots for conservatives and Republicans in an election that saw President Lyndon Johnson win a record 61 percent of the popular vote to Goldwater’s 39 percent—a defeat so epic that most commentators agreed it represented the death of conservatism as a viable political philosophy.

But in the thirty minutes allotted to his address, Reagan captured the attention of millions already distressed by the ambitions of Johnson’s Great Society, and the perception that a morally weakened America was at the mercy of God-less Soviet totalitarianism.

Reagan said almost nothing new or different from what Goldwater had been advocating in terms of policy.  Goldwater had said war with the Soviets was virtually inevitable; so did Reagan.  Goldwater had advocated making Social Security voluntary; so did Reagan.

But where Goldwater frightened people, Reagan comforted them.

Liberals had taken the Goldwater slogan, “In your heart, you know he’s right,” and cruelly twisted it into the rejoinder, “In your guts, you know he’s nuts.”

When Goldwater spoke, it made it seem as if it was the dawn of the apocalypse; when Reagan spoke, it seemed the dawn of a new day.  Reagan, said one impressed conservative, “was Goldwater mutton dressed up as lamb.”

The conservative wing of the Republican Party had been pushed aside for decades.  Before Goldwater, the last truly conservative GOP candidate for president was probably Calvin Coolidge in 1924.  Liberal and moderate Republicans disparaged their conservative brethren for wishing to take the party “back to Methuselah,” as Thomas Dewey phrased it.

But Reagan made conservatism seem like the future.

Was the difference only the messenger?  Perhaps.

One of the remarkable things about The Speech was that Reagan had been working on it for more than a decade—and for most of that decade he remained a loyal Democrat.

Reagan had been so liberal during the dark days of the Great Depression that friends insist he once flirted with joining the Communist Party.

But after World War II, disillusioned first by a series of strikes in Hollywood that he believed were Communist-inspired, Reagan became steadily more conservative, though he still campaigned for Harry Truman in 1948 and against Richard Nixon in 1950 during the latter’s U.S. Senate race.

With his once-promising movie career fading, Reagan found a new career in 1954 as a corporate spokesperson for General Electric.  It was a role that required him to host “GE Theater” every Sunday night on television, and to give speeches around the country to GE employees and civic groups touting the virtues of free enterprise and electric appliances.

Except for once telling him to quit attacking the Tennessee Valley Authority (a GE customer), GE never told Reagan what to say.  He was free to develop his own ideas and remarks, and so he continued to refine his talk over the years.

By Reagan’s own estimation, he had given a version of The Speech more than eight thousand times before he did so on behalf of Goldwater.  Little wonder that it seemed such a polished effort compared to the stilted appearances of most politicians during the early days of television.

Remarkably, Goldwater and his aides initially did not want Reagan’s help. Reading Reagan’s proposed remarks on paper, Goldwater, who had known Reagan for a dozen years, thought they were no more than a pastiche of antigovernment clichés, and worried it would reinforce Goldwater’s image as an extremist.

But reading Reagan on paper was a very different experience from hearing him speak.  Instead of a radical call for rebellion against the liberal order, one keen observer within GE said The Speech came across more as an affirmation of “old American values,” and no more controversial than “the Boy Scout code.”

Reagan was as effective in his use of humor as John Kennedy or Franklin Roosevelt had been.  His salvos against big government sounded more bemused than angry, such as his quip, “A government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on earth,” or, “Today there is a growing number who can’t see a fat man standing beside a thin man without automatically coming to the conclusion the fat man got that way by taking advantage of the thin one.”

Reagan even claimed to eschew ideology, saying there was now “no such thing as left or right, only up or down.”

What Reagan had done, as much with his demeanor as his message, was redefine populism, so that the term no longer meant wariness of the power of big business, but of the power and unfairness of big government.  In that regard, he seemed like a Jacksonian Democrat.

When Reagan said government had “taken from the needy and given to the greedy” with urban renewal programs that dislocated average homeowners for the primary benefit—so he said—of developers, he echoed these words from Jackson’s veto of the renewed charter of the Second Bank of the United States: “It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes.”

By tapping into such long-held American beliefs, Reagan was more restoration than revolution—the opposite of the perception of Goldwater.

Reagan’s concluding paragraphs were a mish-mash of quotes from Lincoln, Churchill and his one-time idol, FDR.

“You and I have a rendezvous with destiny,” Reagan said. “We’ll preserve for our children this last best hope of man on earth or we’ll sentence them to the last step into a thousand years of darkness.”

It might seem, as it did to Goldwater, a string of clichés, but there is always appeal in the tried and true.

The Speech generated nearly $1 million in contributions, most of them small, into the Goldwater campaign.  Yet, Goldwater never thanked Reagan for his effort.              Still only fifty-five years old, Goldwater no doubt resented how quickly conservatives pushed him aside to anoint Reagan as their new leader.  Later in life, Goldwater even dismissed Reagan as “just an actor.”

But it was Reagan’s theatrical and oratorical skills, often compared to Kennedy’s at the time, that gave conservatism new life even in the midst of a deadly defeat.

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Being Irish is being American

On St. Patrick’s Day, everyone is a little Irish, but with a fifth of all Americans claiming an Irish heritage year-round, it should not be surprising that our two most popular presidents, John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, have each also been called “our most Irish of presidents.”

What is surprising is that neither Kennedy nor Reagan cared much about their Irish heritage until they entered politics. In Reagan’s case, he did not much embrace his Irish roots until he became president, though that is largely because he knew very little about them.

Twenty-two American presidents from Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama have claimed at least some Irish descent, but only Kennedy and Reagan are the sons of Irish Catholic fathers, though Reagan adopted the religious faith of his Protestant, non-Irish mother.

While Americans of all stripes are no doubt proud of their various ethnic heritages, as historian Jay Dolan has noted, it is considered “chic to be Irish,” and when Americans with multiple ethnic backgrounds have the opportunity to choose with which heritage they most identify, they most often choose their Irish heritage.

While Irish immigrants were once feared and despised during the 1800s, particularly because of their Catholicism in a Protestant-dominated nation, Irish-Americans are now the quintessential immigrant success story. As others have noted, the Irish heritage in America is so widespread that to declare one’s Irish heritage is akin to declaring one’s American identity.

Further, while our history with some nations that provided large numbers of immigrants to America, such as Great Britain or Germany, is complicated, the United States has never been in conflict with Ireland, nor is Ireland identified with colonialism, imperialism, or some of the other collective baggage born by other ethnicities.

Despite that seeming political advantage, Kennedy’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., actively discouraged his family from celebrating their Irish roots beyond faithfully attending Mass. The elder Kennedy chafed at slights, real and perceived, that he believed he suffered in Boston, where the Congregationalist Brahmins still ruled.

The Kennedy clan hailed from County Wexford, on the east coast of Ireland, but it was not until he was a congressman, in 1947, that John Kennedy decided to visit his ancestral home even though he had spent a great deal of time in Great Britain when his father was the American ambassador there from 1938-1941.

Kennedy and his father admired all things English and they resented being referred to as an “Irishman.” When a fellow naval officer first heard Joe Kennedy over the radio and expressed surprise that he spoke with an upper-class accent befitting a man who had attended both Boston Latin School and Harvard, Kennedy became furious that anyone would expect his father to “talk mick.”

Once he ran for Congress in Massachusetts’ Eleventh District, however, Kennedy, who had deep family roots in Boston but little personal familiarity beyond his own time at Harvard, realized he would need to identify more closely with his Irish-American constituents.

More importantly, following Al Smith’s sobering defeat in the 1928 presidential contest, Irish-American Catholics had made substantial inroads, especially in films and other popular culture, in assuring Americans that neither the Irish nor Catholics were the foreign menace Protestant Americans had once feared.

By 1960, Catholicism had become mainstream and Catholic pride was likely a greater help to Kennedy’s election than lingering Protestant prejudice was a burden, and Kennedy’s triumphant 1963 visit to Ireland and his address to the Irish Parliament was one of the high points of his presidency.

Reagan, whose family (then the O’Regans) came from County Tipperary, also made a sentimental visit home to the little village of Ballyporeen, which named a pub in his honor.

For Reagan, it was a true trip of discovery, for he knew very little about his Irish heritage. Reagan’s father was orphaned at age six, and Jack Reagan was able to pass little history on to his second son beyond a faded photograph of his grandparents.

Jack did not even pass on his religion. While Reagan’s older brother had been baptized Catholic, Reagan’s mother had had a religious conversion and raised Ronald in the Church of Christ.

Once elected president, Burke’s Peerage presented Reagan with a genealogy that showed he was distantly related to Kennedy, but the more important relationship he forged was with another Irish-American politician; Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill.

O’Neill fiercely opposed many Reagan policies, but they used their shared Irish heritage, old to O’Neill and new to Reagan, to forge a civil relationship where they agreed to disagree and set aside their differences after 6 p.m. so that they could sit down “to swap Irish stories.”

This shared heritage convinced many Americans that bipartisan goodwill ruled Washington. True or (likely) not, the tone of the Reagan-O’Neill relationship, based on being Irish, provided a good deal of luster to Reagan’s image, and helps explain why, along with Kennedy, he is routinely named in Gallup and other surveys as one of our greatest presidents.

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Kennedy, Reagan deserve Oscar for melding Hollywood and Washington

As the motion picture industry gathers tonight (March 2) to honor its greatest achievements of the past year, it is fitting that we recall the two great leading men of American politics: John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.

Actors and politicians share so many of the same vanities and insecurities, noted Jack Valenti, the late head of the Motion Picture Association of America and former aide to Lyndon Johnson, that it is difficult to tell whether Hollywood or Washington, D.C., most deserves the title “entertainment capital of the world.”

But it is not an either/or choice; Kennedy and Reagan, more than any other individuals, forged a bond between the two cities that can almost make them seem one and the same.
Kennedy was long ago labeled our first “movie star president,” and Reagan, of course, was the first movie star to become president, but their affiliation with Hollywood went far beyond simply being photogenic.

They each took Hollywood seriously—a favor that insecure Hollywood repaid ten-fold. They carefully studied how to use Hollywood’s glamour, its talents, and its uncanny ability to tap into the American subconscious to further their own political careers.

“There have been many times in this office,” Reagan quipped while president, “when I’ve wondered how you could do the job if you hadn’t been an actor.”

Reagan did not mean simply being able to learn your lines, take direction, and know from which angle you should be photographed; he also meant developing a character, understanding the motivations and feelings of others, and then gauging the audience reaction to a performance.

It is common to dismiss Reagan as a second-rate “B-movie” actor, but in truth Reagan was exceptionally successful at his profession and admired by his peers.

His acting range was limited (he had trouble projecting menace or sensuality), but in January 1942, the Los Angeles Times opined that Reagan was developing into a “first-rate actor.” He was a top box-office draw and was paid like one by Warner Brothers, earning a salary of $170,000 per year in 1946, comparable to what Errol Flynn made. But Reagan was as interested in what went on behind the camera as in front of it. He immersed himself in the screen business, serving, for example, as president of the Screen Actors Guild. Director Fred de Cordova said he imagined Reagan becoming a studio executive one day, not a politician.

Kennedy, too, was more than a passing fan of films and the beautiful women who starred in them.

Kennedy’s father had made a large part of his fortune investing in movie studios and even producing films for his actress lover, Gloria Swanson. He not only taught his children about the movie business and what made a successful news reel, he also bought his children 8 mm movie cameras to use and learn about film making.

Kennedy inherited his father’s “consuming interest in the movies,” historian Garry Wills has noted, and that interest peaked as Kennedy prepared to enter politics.

Just after World War II and before he returned to Massachusetts to run for Congress, Kennedy traveled to Hollywood and stayed for two months, rooming with a young Robert Stack, closely observing the great stars, trying to fathom the secret of their allure.

While dining together, Kennedy found Gary Cooper “yawn-inducingly boring,” yet upon leaving the restaurant Cooper was mobbed by adoring fans.

“How does he do it?” Kennedy asked a friend, following up with the more important question, “Do you think I could learn how to do it?”

It was not a crash course that Kennedy took, but a life-long tutorial. Previous presidents and politicians might have posed with a star as a publicity stunt (see Lauren Bacall lounging on Harry Truman’s piano), but Kennedy actively cultivated stars as friends, lovers, advisers, and helpers.

Kennedy learned the business so well that while president he took control and personally approved the cast and script of a movie about his wartime exploits in the South Pacific, though PT-109 did not star Kennedy’s first choice to play himself, Warren Beatty.

Before that, the star-studded gala organized by pal Frank Sinatra for Kennedy’s inaugural was such a break with the past and heralded such an obviously new alliance between entertainment and politics that actress Better Davis giddily proclaimed that “show-biz … has become the Sixth Estate.”

Twenty years later, having been dumped by President Kennedy because of alleged ties to the mob, Sinatra organized a similar gala for Reagan’s inaugural, crooning “Nancy (With the Laughing Face)” to the new First Lady who blew kisses back.

Reagan would also follow Kennedy’s lead in turning the White House into a major venue for cultural events, though none glittered as much as the Pablo Casals concert organized for Kennedy in 1961.

Now, such cross-pollination between politics and show business is routine. Actors adopt political causes, politicians seek celebrity endorsements, Hollywood funds the left and right in Washington, and presidents set a cultural tone in ways unimagined a half-century ago.

When Clark Gable stood bare-chested in 1934’s It Happened One Night, it allegedly ruined the nation’s undershirt industry. When it was learned that Kennedy did not like hats, the hat business faced a huge downturn. The president as a “leading man” to borrow historian Burton Peretti’s theme, never seemed more obvious.

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50th anniversary of influential Kennedy tax cuts

Fifty years ago Wednesday (Feb. 26), perhaps the most progressive president in history, Lyndon Johnson, signed into law sweeping cuts in income tax rates that had first been proposed by President John F. Kennedy, and which arguably began a process that has led to the growing issue of income inequality in America.

The Kennedy tax cuts began a dramatic change in how Americans think about the income tax, its relationship to economic growth, the obligations of the wealthiest in our society, and how serious a problem we consider the national debt.

Important not only because of its effect at the time, seventeen years later, Kennedy’s tax program was used by President Ronald Reagan to justify his own additional substantial cuts in income tax rates, which further accelerated the gap between rich and poor.

While the results of their tax programs were similar in many ways, Kennedy and Reagan had different reasons for proposing tax rate reductions—and none were necessarily about relieving the wealthy of a large share of their tax burden, though that was a significant practical effect.

When Kennedy took office in January 1961, the highest marginal federal income tax rate was an astonishing 91 percent, a holdover from the high rates first imposed under Herbert Hoover to counter the Great Depression, and even higher rates later, peaking at 94 percent for the highest income earners, to fund World War II.

Despite the high tax rates sustained during the Eisenhower administration, the U.S. economy had grown at a solid average rate of 2 to 3 percent per year and there were few serious discussions about reducing the federal tax burden.

But there was considerable concern that the American economy was underperforming, particularly vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, whose economy was (erroneously) believed to be growing at an astronomical rate of 6 to 10 percent per year.

Viewing almost every issue as he did through the prism of the Cold War, Kennedy asked his economic advisers how the United States could achieve at least an annual 5 percent growth rate to keep pace with the Soviets. The answer from his chief economic adviser, the liberal University of Minnesota economist Walter Heller, was tax cuts—for at that time liberals were arguing for tax cuts while conservatives were opposed, worrying that a tax cut would lead to deficit spending that would trigger inflation.

Kennedy initially sided with the conservatives, for he, too, feared inflation more than unemployment, part of an overall world view that led historian Allen J. Matusow to label Kennedy the “quintessential corporate liberal.”

But Kennedy was eventually persuaded by Heller and others that tax cuts would spur economic growth. Retrospectively, Heller insisted that Kennedy hoped that the ensuing prosperity would free Congress to spend more on social programs aimed at reducing poverty.

Heller acknowledged that Kennedy’s proposal was based, at least partly, on the theory of “supply-side economics,” which argues that in the right circumstances the loss of revenue from tax cuts can be fully or at least partially offset by higher tax revenues from increased economic activity spurred by the tax cut.

Heller argued that the key difference between the Kennedy tax cuts and the Reagan tax cuts was intent; Kennedy, at least according to Heller, wanted to cut taxes to stimulate the economy so he could increase federal spending, while Reagan would have been sorely disappointed had his tax cuts actually generated more federal tax revenue.

Despite Reagan’s apparent embrace of supply-side economics, as Reagan aide Bruce Bartlett has noted, neither Reagan nor any of his close advisers argued that his tax cut would “pay for itself.” Nor did any of them view the promotion of economic growth as the prime consideration behind a tax cut.

Rather, Reagan was candid in hoping a tax cut would lead to a reduction in the size of the federal government. Author Jeff Madrick said Reagan subscribed to conservative economist Milton Friedman’s belief that the only way to reduce federal spending was “to starve the beast.”

Appeals to fiscal discipline had failed to convince the nation to reduce or at least stall the growth in federal spending. Reagan said it was time for a new approach. In a nationally televised speech, Reagan explained, “Well, you know, we can lecture our children about extravagance until we run out of voice and breath. Or we can cure their extravagance by simply reducing the allowance.”

Where Kennedy’s legislation lowered the top marginal rate from 91 to 70 percent and the lowest marginal rate from 20 to 14 percent, Reagan in 1981 proposed reducing the top marginal rate from 70 to 50 percent and the lowest rate from 14 to 12 percent.

Both tax cuts were followed by periods of substantial economic growth. In the two years after Kennedy’s tax cuts took effect, the U.S. economy grew by 17 percent, which prompted federal spending to increase by 13.5 percent. U.S. News & World Report gushed that the tax cuts had “achieved something like magic,” and LBJ was led to believe he could do both “guns and butter,” funding the Vietnam War and the Great Society.

In the first year after Reagan’s tax cuts took effect, economic growth actually declined by nearly two percent, but in each year of Reagan’s second term the economy grew by an average of roughly four percent per year. Reagan and his fellow conservatives credited this growth to the tax rate reductions—just as had those who supported the Kennedy tax cuts.

The degree to which the ensuing economic growth could be credited to either of the tax cuts is still hotly debated among economists. The 1960s and 1980s were also periods of technological advances and increased government spending, especially on defense. Reagan also benefited from monetary policies, which he supported, that greatly reduced the inflation that had burdened the economy in the late 1970s and early 1980s. These were all critical factors, too, but the perception that tax reductions almost automatically trigger economic growth became embedded in the public consciousness.

If Heller accurately portrayed Kennedy’s rationale for the tax cuts, then it did indeed lead to increase domestic spending. But if Reagan’s goal in cutting taxes was reduced federal spending, he failed. Not a single major federal agency or program was eliminated during his administration.

Because domestic spending was not abated, because defense spending increased, and because the tax cuts did not pay for themselves, deficit spending worsened, as Kennedy, conservatives, and others had worried they would. Reagan had said a balanced budget was his goal, but he was unwilling to sacrifice spending on defense to achieve it.

In 1961, Kennedy’s first year in office, the federal deficit was just more than $3 billion; by 1968, LBJ’s last year and three years after Kennedy’s tax cuts took full effect, the federal deficit was $25 billion. Of course, these numbers were dwarfed during the Reagan era. In 1981, Reagan’s first year in office, the government ran a $78 billion deficit but by 1983 the annual deficit topped $200 billion and stayed near or above that amount throughout Reagan’s presidency.

Yet, because public opinion credited the tax cuts with economic growth (and because everybody personally enjoys paying fewer taxes), the public outcry was muted.

Increased American comfort with deficit spending led former Vice President Dick Cheney to proclaim that Reagan had proved, with Kennedy and LBJ’s prior example, that “deficits don’t matter,” at least politically. Heller had bragged that the great achievement of Kennedy’s tax cuts was that he had “banished’ the idea that public debt was “burden on our grandchildren.”

Worry over debt, of course, has not been banished in many quarters, but it does appear that the Kennedy and Reagan tax cuts combined have had the very significant result of creating a new sense of what is an appropriate or fair tax rate, especially for the wealthy.

This was highlighted during the bitter debate two years ago when, at President Barack Obama’s behest, the top marginal rate for those individuals earning more than $400,000 per year was raised from 35 to 39.6 percent. This rather small 4.6 percent gap was conflated by antagonists on both sides as the difference between creeping socialism and unfettered capitalist greed.

Forgotten was that Republican President Herbert Hoover approved a top income tax rate of 63 percent on those making more than $1 million per year to help the government deal with the Great Depression, and that the Republican President Dwight Eisenhower made no serious effort to lower that top 91 percent marginal tax rate that had existed throughout the 1950s.

Such rates today would be automatically dismissed as confiscatory, while conservatives, now lacking the caution of their forbearers, appear to argue that tax cuts are always good for the economy.

They always seem to be good for the wealthy. By the end of Reagan’s two terms, taxes on the middle fifth of income earners had been cut by 0.7 percent and many low wage earners had actually seen their taxes increase because of a Reagan-sponsored increase in the payroll tax to fund Social Security. The top 10 percent of income earners, meanwhile, had had their taxes cut 3.3 percent, while taxes fell 8.1 percent for the notorious top one percent.

Kennedy had also been warned that his tax cuts would benefit the rich at the expense of the poor and middle class. Liberal economist Leon Keyserling complained at the time that 45 percent of the Kennedy/LBJ tax cuts went to the wealthiest 12 percent of Americans. Keyserling warned that income inequality would result in a sluggish economy because too many consumers would have too little purchasing power.

In 1983, during the worst of the Reagan recession and before the economy rebounded, a 1983 Gallup survey found that 70 percent of Americans agreed with the statement, “Reagan represents the rich rather than the average Americans.”

Yet, while middle class Americans seem to understand that their economic interests have been harmed over the past several decades, there is no sense that they believe that income tax rates have played a role in their worsening condition.

Perhaps this is because both parties—first Democrats under Kennedy and Johnson and then Republicans under Reagan—embraced dramatic reductions in income tax rates, especially for the wealthy, and then credited those tax cuts for subsequent economic growth. This change in how Americans now view the income tax, their faith that tax cuts spur the economy, and the growing disparity in income was a bipartisan effort.

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Are Kennedy and Reagan really our greatest presidents?

Forget Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt. If Americans today could choose which presidents’ faces should be chiseled on Mount Rushmore it would be John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.

For the past fifteen years, when Gallup and others have asked Americans whom they consider our greatest president, the response has consistently been either Kennedy or Reagan. Only Lincoln has occasionally edged them out of the top spot.

Late last year, in a survey taken in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, 90 percent of respondents said they believed Kennedy had been a good president, while 78 percent gave a positive retrospective job approval rating to Reagan.

These numbers are an astonishing political consensus in a nation that is supposed to be deeply polarized. To get those highly positive numbers, it is clear that many conservative Republicans now have fond memories of Kennedy, the icon of liberals, and more than a few Democrats feel an affection for Reagan, the icon of conservatives, that did not exist during his presidency in the 1980s.

What makes Kennedy and Reagan’s enduring appeal more striking is that historians do not generally share the public’s high opinion of either man.

While surveys vary a bit depending upon who is participating, the consensus among historians is that Kennedy and Reagan were only slightly above average presidents.

A cumulative average of some fifteen surveys taken by historians over the past twenty years rank Kennedy as the eleventh-best president in history (out of forty-four), while Reagan ranks six spots lower at seventeenth.

Critics suggest the discrepancy between the judgment of historians and public opinion is attributable to the publics’ fancy for Kennedy and Reagan’s more superficial qualities, such as their good looks, glamorous wives, and, most particularly, their mastery of communications, especially how they presented themselves on television.

But a close examination of their presidencies reveal similarities in temperament and policies that suggest they represent a political ideal for how Americans hope their presidents act.

At first glance, Kennedy and Reagan might seem to have little in common. Kennedy, the youngest man ever elected president, is an icon of liberals. Reagan, the oldest man elected president, is the icon of conservatives. Yet, for all his high-minded rhetoric, each man governed as a pragmatic centrist.

It is not that their words did not matter. As Richard Reeves, a biographer of both men, has noted, in politics words can be more important than deeds.

While the term is more associated with Reagan than Kennedy, in truth both men believed in the idea of American exceptionalism, which is the idea that the United States has, in the words of historian Russel B Nye, “a particular mission in the world, and a unique contribution to make to it.”

It is hard to think of two American programs more attuned to the idea of exceptionalism than Kennedy’s belief that the United States should be the first nation to put a man on the moon, or his idea of a Peace Corps in which bright young Americans could bring peace and prosperity to underprivileged villagers around the world.

Reagan aimed equally high, for he believed God had placed him in the presidency for the specific reason of bringing down communism and reducing the threat of nuclear war.

While Reagan’s rhetoric actually increased East-West tensions during his first term in office, by the time he left office, with the remarkable personal relationship he forged with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, he had largely achieved both goals.

It is instructive, however, that Reagan hastened the dissolution of the Soviet Union with quiet diplomacy rather than armed confrontation.

Both Kennedy and Reagan dramatically increased defense spending, including on nuclear weaponry, during their presidencies, and both engaged in rhetoric that can only be described as bellicose.

Yet, when each man was faced with the real prospect of nuclear war, Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis and Reagan after the USSR shot down Korean Air Lines flight 007, they ignored advice form their hard line advisors and stepped back from the brink. Ultimately, they proved to be men of peace.

It was a sense of caution that each man also exhibited in domestic affairs.
While his inaugural address, with its call to “pay any price” for liberty, inspired the Freedom Riders and others to act, for most of his presidency Kennedy fretted that civil rights activists were pushing too hard and too fast.

Reagan had promised a “revolution,” but ultimately did not eliminate a single major federal program or agency; in fact, he ensured the cornerstone of the New Deal, Social Security, remained solvent for decades.

Like FDR and Lincoln before them, Kennedy and Reagan’s enduring popularity is a sign that Americans expect both inspiration and pragmatism from their presidents. It is a remarkably delicate balance that only the most adroit politicians can manage, but then that is why Americans would place Kennedy and Reagan on Mount Rushmore.

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