Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Defining Unfit

For the eight regular readers of this blog, you might recall my alter ego is working as a reporter for the biggest newspaper in Metropolis librarian for a decent and well-loved city library in the heart of Florida.

I also work an online shift with Ask-A-Librarian, a chat service for people that well have to ask a librarian some serious questions. Some of them are reasonably easy but sometimes I get a deep-level research question that engages the mind.

Well, today I got a research question.

Someone wanted to know if - historically - the United States ever had a sitting President call a candidate for the office "unfit."

I had a pretty good idea who the question was in reference to - hi, Trump! - but was curious about what prompted the research request.

I had been busy all morning, so I missed the morning presser where Obama went off on Trump (this via NBCNews.com):

The president's remarks come amid Trump's ongoing feud with Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the parents of a slain U.S. soldier who criticized Trump at the Democratic National Convention...
"The notion that he would attack a Gold Star family that had made such extraordinary sacrifices on behalf of our country, the fact that he doesn't appear to have basic knowledge around critical issues in Europe, the Middle East, Asia means that he is woefully unprepared to do this job," Obama said.

I read about this as I began my research, trying to dig up previous election cycles where sitting Presidents spoke out against an opposing party candidate. I didn't have time to bring up a point to the library patron (this is how I was trained to call a library client/user) I was helping that we're actually in an unusual circumstance already: That rarely have we had a sitting President prevented from another re-election bid (due to the 22nd Amendment), and that it's been rare for that retiring President to actively campaign for his successor. This is true: Dubya was too unpopular to try it, Clinton was available but Gore was convinced to run on his own terms, Reagan did some work for Bush the Elder in 1988 but mostly stayed on the sidelines...

Can't count Carter or Ford. Nixon didn't survive a second term, neither did LBJ. Kennedy... well...

We get to Eisenhower, he was in a position to campaign for Nixon in 1960, but he infamously was quoted as saying "Give me a week, I might think of one (idea or discussion he and Nixon shared)." It didn't end well.

One thing I've been digging up has been an unwritten rule/tradition that a term-limited President (self-imposed before FDR and imposed after by the 22nd) just didn't campaign on behalf of one candidate or opposed to another. What Obama did today, what he's been doing from the DNC convention onward, is unheard of. If there's any excuse for this, it's that Obama is facing a situation no retiring President ever had before: an obstructionist opposition party willing to burn down every last shred of his administration's achievements.

As for calling an opposing candidate "unfit", specifically that term, the best I could find for my library patron was the 1964 campaign against Barry Goldwater, where LBJ was running for his own electoral win and Goldwater had won a divisive Republican nomination on an extreme Far Right platform. While Johnson himself never came out accusing Goldwater as "unfit" - in personal interviews he did question Goldwater's sanity - he used attack ads and third-party advocates to make the accusations for him. Including an underhanded attack that relied on polling psychiatrists for their professional opinions on Goldwater's behaviors and statements where enough of them declared him unfit. It was so unethical a mudslinging tactic that the American Psychiatric Association created a Goldwater Rule preventing their members from such armchair analyses.

It wasn't exactly what the patron wanted, and I really wasn't finding much research that could go back further into history covering any other kind of mudslinging attacks on character that were out there. Which is kind of odd because there's entire history books on Presidential campaigns that cover all kinds of mudslinging insults and slights since Gods help 1800. I did find one, a good book titled appropriately enough Presidential Campaigns by Paul Boller (see if your library owns a copy) and informed the patron of the book for future reference.

I finally had to tell the patron that what we're seeing is an oddity, a historical anomaly. That one big reason why Obama is able to call Trump unfit for the office of the Presidency is because we've never really had a candidate as inexperienced as Trump before.

Trump honestly has no history of public service: no elected office, no nominated office, never served as judge or administrator, no military service, nothing. We've had relatively inexperienced candidates before: We've had several generals - Harrison, Taylor, Winfield Scott, Grant, Eisenhower - but they had an understanding of organization and executive responsibilities. We've had men who served only as Cabinet officials (Hoover) or high-ranking bureaucrats (Arthur). And then again, they still had some experience. I didn't realize until today there was a Judge who ran once - Alton B. Parker - back during Teddy Roosevelt's era. Parker had a legal understanding of the Constitution, making him experienced.

There was - famously - Wendell Willkie, a businessman/lawyer with no elective or administrative experience who ended up the nominee in 1940 as a compromise candidate between Robert Taft and Thomas Dewey. In Willkie's defense, he was prominently active in politics with a strong understanding of public service (and as a lawyer had honest respect for the Constitution and the federal system). But even then, there's no evidence FDR went after Willkie for his inexperience, and Willkie ran a conventional campaign that did not point out clear character flaws that required Roosevelt to make that charge.

Obama attacking Trump as "unfit" is unique in our long proud history of negative political campaigning. We've had candidates accused of adultery and bigamy and sexual misdeeds. We've had candidates accused of graft and corruption. We've had candidates accused of warmongering, candidates accused of cowardice, candidates accused of failure. But we've never really had a candidate accused of being unfit to serve the office.

Because Trump really is that unfit to serve. Not only because he lacks the experience and because he clearly lacks the temperament: it's also because he lacks the purpose and honest intent to serve.

Well, that part I didn't tell the patron. I shouldn't politicize a research request: My job is to be as impartial as possible and focus on the information I could find. I merely pointed out Trump's lack of civil service and left it at that.

But even that alone disqualifies Trump to run for President. And Gods help us, this is why we ALL need to NOT vote for Trump.

1 comment:

dinthebeast said...

LBJ did have some, uh, colorful election strategies...

-Doug in Oakland