Why Hillary Clinton Lost, and What to Do About It Now

hc-copy

Hillary Clinton during her concession speech. Photo: Courtesy Reuters

As a boy growing up in Wisconsin, I was blessed with a wonderful grandfather, who, after my parents divorced, was more like a father to me. Grandpa had risen through the ranks to become a labor union president, and was eventually tapped by the Department of State to help resolve conflicts around the world before they became entry points to communism. Needless to say, Grandpa was a very effective negotiator, but more than that, he was a keen observer, and a listener. He taught me that to close a deal it was hugely important to understand and empathize with your opposition, and that the way to get what you wanted was to acknowledge what the other side needed, and to find the middle ground to make that happen. He taught me another hugely valuable lesson, too: When a deal goes south, the very first thing you do is ask: what did I do wrong? No blaming the other side. What did you do to make this fail?

Since the election, I have heard from many of my friends and colleagues, and being a rather Democratic group (with a big D) they are upset, to say the least, with Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency. And there is much to be upset about, if the hatred and bigotry and misogyny demonstrated during the campaign indeed transfer into the White House. But putting aside all that for a moment, I think we should follow my grandfather’s advice and ask “what did I (we) do wrong?” What did those who supported Hillary Clinton do wrong?

First off, there was an element of hubris on the Democratic side that was visible from the beginning if you looked for it. The fact is that Hillary Clinton — initially presented by the Party leadership as something akin to an uncrowned anointed —was in reality a badly damaged candidate who in a normal election against a normal Republican probably would have lost. But given the eventual 2016 Republican nominee, we simply presumed that no one in their right mind would vote for Donald Trump, and the very real problems of a Clinton candidacy could be smoothed over just like wrinkle lines with the right face cream.

Well guess what: this kind of wishful makeup make-believe was perfectly obvious to anyone who wasn’t wearing rose-colored Party-supplied glasses, and those who saw through the ruse resented this top-down condescending subterfuge, and they voted for Trump. The people who thought Hillary was inherently dishonest (which we chose to overlook) voted for Trump. The people who saw the Clintons as seeing themselves above the law (which we tried to explain away) voted for Trump.  And the millennials, who felt that Hillary’s message was 20 years out-of-date and didn’t address issues that they cared about, like poverty (barely mentioned) climate (never mentioned) and a stratified wealth system stacked against them (which Wall-Street Clinton was part of) didn’t vote for Trump, but didn’t vote for Hillary either.

I think it’s telling that Clinton never once came to my home state of Wisconsin. It’s something of an oddball place, with a conservative (and poor) northern portion and a more affluent southern section, dominated by Madison (a university town) and Milwaukee, a former industrial center that has recently seen considerable unemployment and racial unrest. What unites Wisconsinites is that they are some of the friendliest, most welcoming people in America. They are good people, honest people, who work hard for their families, care about their kids, do the best they can to get by. Yes, politically they are diverse, with widely ranging views on everything from gun control to women’s reproductive rights, but by and large, they are the kind of people you wouldn’t mind as your neighbors. In the primaries, Madison was, as you might expect, a Bernie Sanders town. Milwaukee, with its large minority populations, was a Clinton kind of place. But the rest of the state was more or less up for grabs, with people still uneasy from the Great Recession and worried what their financial futures would hold.

So given this unease, what was Hillary’s message for Wisconsin? (From afar, that is.) Distilled through the speeches, the debates, and the slogan-filled sound bytes, it was pretty much: “Any fool can see you’ll be better off with me than with him.” Trump however, came to Wisconsin, spoke directly to the crowds there, told them he felt their pain, and would help them “Make American Great Again.” As one small town mayor reported from a similar rally in a depressed area of Pennsylvania: “I don’t know if he can do what he says, but at least he knows we’re here.” Hillary, in contrast, spent much of the month of August in wealthy summer enclaves of the East Coast where a single picture of you with the candidate set you back 10K. (Cher however, was a bargain at 5.)

If there is one thing I learned from my grandfather all those years ago, it was this: if you want people to do something for you, say, elect you to office, don’t talk down to them, and don’t ignore what they have to say because you think you know better. The Clinton campaign obviously didn’t get that memo, and the “basket of deplorables” rose up and struck back. And it wasn’t just the Republicans, either. While registered Republicans largely held their nose and stayed with the Donald, in several of the swing states 40 percent of registered Democrats voted Trump for president.

So I have a recommendation (also via my grandfather) for all the people who feel hurt and demoralized today: get off your buns and start working right now for 2020. Find (or become) a candidate that listens to the “flyover zone” and is not merely bi-coastal. We need a presidential candidate who is HONEST with the American people and doesn’t spiel platitudes to get their votes. It’s clear from this past election that many Americans feel threatened, that their way of life is slipping away, and frankly, IT IS. Both Clinton and Trump promised to bring back jobs to the US, and even as they mouthed these words, they knew they were lies. These jobs didn’t go to people in Mexico or China: they went to Mexican and Chinese robotized factories, and the continuing trend towards automation of even white collar jobs over the next decade is going to cause massive social upheaval throughout America and the world. We need a candidate who knows and admits this, and has a plan better than “Trust me, it’s going to be sooooo wonderful.”  (Supply your own thumb-pinching hand gesture.) We need a candidate who will work to prepare our communities and our citizens for the very real dangers of climate change. We need a candidate who admits that globalization will happen with or without us, and shows us how we can adapt to this new reality, rather than bashing 20-year old trade deals or blaming foreign governments. We need a candidate who celebrates our multi-racial, multi-gendered heritage and realizes that “From Many One” is more than a motto stamped on a coin. And most of all we need a candidate who agrees that concentrating 40% of the nation’s wealth in the hands of 1% of the population is not only immoral but an existential threat to our democracy.

THAT person should be our next president.

So come on people, this election is over. You’ve now got a four-year head start to make a difference. Time to stop worrying about yesterday, and instead start creating your own tomorrow.

 

There and Back Again: How FDR Shaped Thanksgiving

Moving turkeyI’ve always been particularly fond of the film “Holiday Inn” with Bing Crosby. You know the one, I’m sure: it introduced Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” to the world. The gist of the movie is that Bing gives up New York showbiz (and partner Fred Astaire) to retire quietly to Connecticut where he can lie around “doing time, being laaaaazy.” He converts a massive old house he bought into an inn, which will only open on holidays. That’s where the fun starts. Needless to say things don’t go as planned, and by Thanksgiving der Bingle is sitting alone, crooning the ironic “I’ve Got Plenty to be Thankful For,” with his girl in the arms of his old partner and the concept for the inn sold to a  movie production company. This being 1941, each holiday is introduced by a little animation: the one for Thanksgiving pictures a turkey, obviously confused, running back and forth on a calendar from the last Thursday of the month to the second to last and back again. What’s going on here? It’s an inside joke, surely, but of what?

Well, the answer lies in what some took to derisively calling “Franksgiving.” In 1939 the general manager of the Retail Dry Goods Association wrote to Secretary of Commerce Harry Hopkins warning that the late calendar date of Thanksgiving that year (November 30) would adversely effect  retail sales.

Remember this was still the day when it was considered bad form for retailers to display Christmas decorations or have “Christmas” sales before Thanksgiving. With the economy still in a slump, FDR issued a proclamation moving Thanksgiving up a week, to the 23rd.

The plan encountered immediate opposition, especially from Republicans, which was surprising given their pro-business stance. Alf Landon, Roosevelt’s challenger in the 1936 election, called this “another illustration of the confusion which [Roosevelt’s] impulsiveness has caused so frequently during his administration. If the change has any merit at all, more time should have been taken working it out… instead of springing it upon an unprepared country with the omnipotence of a Hitler.” Athletic associations weren’t pleased either: it wreaked havoc with their football lineups. Cities, towns, schools and universities had to alter schedules as well. Overall 62% of Americans opposed the change with 79% of Republicans in the no column. Some began to call it “Franksgiving.”

As FDR’s declaration was based on the “moral authority” of the president, it was up to the states to decide whether or not to implement it. Twenty-three states’ governments and the District of Columbia recognized the non-traditional date, twenty-two states preserved the traditional date on November 30, and the remaining three – Colorado, Mississippi, and Texas – celebrated both dates.

The proposal fared a little better in 1940 & 41, but Congress soon had enough of the confusion. By joint resolution, Congress fixed the date on the fourth Thursday, where it remains.

This little tale has  been in preparation for a slight Thanksgiving shift of our own. Last year, as I sat beside my table groaning with goodies, it occurred to me that this would be a good time for the Foundation give back something to our students. About a tenth of the College doesn’t leave campus for Thanksgiving: most of our international students, for example; and those on the West Coast, as well as some who just can’t afford the travel. Suddenly, the College is a rather lonely place for those without somewhere to go. So this year, I decided that we (the Foundation via the new FDR Global Fellowship) were going to spread the Harvard hand of cheer and give an All American Thanksgiving Eve Supper in the Suite. We’ll be moving out the Morris chairs and day bed in a few hours, and 35 students from five continents, five Houses and the Yard, will be joining us for a state-themed menu served buffet style:

• Maryland Jumbo Lump Crabcakes with Chipotle Aioli
• Louisiana Style Mini Pulled Pork Sandwiches
• Hawaiian Coconut Crusted Shrimp with Sweet Chili Sauce
• Missouri Fried Cheese Ravioli with Marinara Sauce
California Big Sur Avocado Salad
• Maine Clam Chowder with Oyster Crackers
•Mini Alabama Pecan Pie
• Mini Florida Key Lime Pie
• New York State Apple Cider & Assorted Beverages

(Those wondering about the logistics of serving so much to so many in such a small space, fear not: we’ve actually expanded down the wide and capacious hallway outside the Suite, the site of our new FDR timeline. With luck this will all be wrapped up tonight around nine, with just enough time for me to run home and get my own preparations underway.) The moral here is simple: while we take the historic preservation aspect of our role very seriously, we’re not slaves to a particular partisan view of the past, and happy, as FDR was, to laugh at past mistakes. Franksgiving was a failure, but the spirit that informed and motivated it was not. “The only way to have a friend is to be one,” FDR once famously said, and hopefully we’ll have 35 new friends tomorrow.

(Oh, and by the way: this supper is financed entirely by the Foundation, meaning by folks like you. If any of you would like to extend the generosity of your table to ours, just click the button below.)

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!

 




FDR’s Harvard Through The Brush of Edward Penfield

forsan

A line from Vergil: "One day this too may be happy to recall" graces the entrance to the Coolidge Room in Adams House. Note the pipes and beer steins, an integral part of 19th century Harvard.

Many of you may not be aware (as I was not, despite 3 years residence) that Adams House possesses a tremendous artistic treasure built into its walls, one that gives us a fascinating glimpse of what FDR’s Harvard must have looked like. I’m referring to the incredible series of murals in the Coolidge Room, the former breakfast room of Randolph Hall. This building, another one of Harvard’s fabled Gold Coast dormitories, has a fascinating history of its own. Built in 1897 by Archibald Cary Coolidge (later Harvard Professor and Head of the University Library System) this luxurious Flemish Revival edifice was state of the art when constructed: electric and gas lighting, private bathrooms, swimming pool, concierge entrance – all the trappings of a 5th Avenue Mansion. FDR himself originally thought to live there alone in a single, until Groton chum Lathrop Brown agreed to room with him;  the pair eventually spurned Randolph for digs in Westmorly Hall, 2 years newer and even more palatial.

Somewhere during the construction process, Coolidge must have convinced penfieldEdward Penfield to paint a series of murals for the breakfast room of his new building. How this occurred, and what precisely their connection was, is entirely unclear. Penfield at the time was a nationally known artist, made famous by his covers for Harpers magazine. 1897, the year he painted the murals in Randolph, was also – perhaps not coincidentally – the year Penfield wed. It’s possible that the newly married artist, never rich, decided to moonlight for additional funds. Or perhaps there was some personal connection to Coolidge, or to Coolidge’s brother who was the architect of the building. Whatever the case, Penfield surely warmed to his task, perfectly capturing the aristocratic, upper-class image that Harvard very much wished to portray (and did portray) during that era. Interestingly, these scenes of College life, though lovingly conserved at Adams for over one hundred years, have languished in scholarly obscurity: they don’t appear in many published canons of Penfield’s work, and are rarely mentioned even in Harvard art circles. That’s a real shame, because as you’ll see, they are spectacular. While FDR never mentions the murals in his College correspondence, undoubtedly he knew of them: Coolidge, who himself lived in Randolph, was FDR’s tutor, and it’s highly likely that Roosevelt had many acquaintances among the smart set living just next door. In any event, these pictures, painted just three years before FDR arrived in Cambridge, constitute a remarkably preserved window into the Harvard our 32nd president knew intimately.

The following pictures, by the way, are just a selection of the several dozen panels that circle the room at head-height. Unfortunately, my amateur photography doesn’t do them full justice. With any luck we’ll get the complete cycle professionally photographed next year.

The ball. This image is not distorted; the panel actually curves to meet the fireplace.

The ball: FDR was invited to attend the exclusive Saturday Evening Dance Classes (really soirees) at the Somerset Hotel, where the scene must have looked much like this. The image, by the way, is not distorted; the panel actually curves to meet the baronial fireplace just out of sight to the right.

running

The track race: our Harvard boy seems momentarily behind, though soon to break out, no doubt! Other panels show scenes from football, hockey, and baseball.

polo

Tally-ho and all that! Watching polo at the Myopia Club on the North Shore was a common pastime for undergraduates.

ontheway

On the Way to the Big Game

joe

This is John the Orangeman, a cherished College character for decades. (You may be wondering how we know who this is, considering none of the panels bear labels. The fact is, the old boy had been totally forgotten until this past year, when I, by pure chance, discovered pictures of John and his donkey in several of the student scrapbooks now in the Harvard University Archives.) Once identified, the image becomes clear – according to Lucius Beebe in his 1935 work, Boston and the Boston Legend, recalling his own Harvard days not long after FDR's : "The Yard swarmed with personalities... Most beloved was John the Orangeman, who greeted all Freshmen cheerily with the same exclamation: 'I knew y'r father, fri'nd!" Welcome back, John!

boating

This is the old Harvard boat house, which FDR would have rowed from, located where the Weld boathouse now stands. Notice the rather run down buildings to either side – the University wharves – as well as the still tidal nature of the Charles. The riverfront would not look like today's for many more decades. Note, too, Penfield's amazing treatment of the water, with an almost deco feel to the waves.

wheels

A soothing country ride on one's "Wheel." FDR kept a Columbia Chainless while at College.