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      •  Missed It By That Much
      •  Missed It By a Mile
      •  Saturday Q&A

Missed It By That Much

Donald Trump came within three weeks of becoming the first president in half a century to make it through his entire term without having a veto overridden. Unfortunately for him, it was close but no cigar, as the Senate voted 81-13 on Friday to override Trump's veto of the National Defense Authorization Act. Since the House already voted to override earlier this week, that means that the bill becomes law without the President's signature.

Earlier this week, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) threatened to filibuster the vote until the $2,000 stimulus checks were brought up for a vote. And Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is always a threat to filibuster any bill that involves spending anything more than $20 and two Snickers bars. Neither of them put up serious resistance, however, perhaps aware that their colleagues were prepared to vote overwhelmingly to end debate.

Meanwhile, one can't help but notice that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has poked Donald Trump in both eyes this week, first killing the $2,000 checks the President wanted, and then leading a no-doubt-about-it override of the President's veto. In less than three weeks, McConnell will still be in political office, the highest-ranking Republican in the land (even if he's demoted to minority leader). Trump will not. Perhaps there will be a new sheriff in town far more rapidly than anyone thought. Or, maybe more accurately, perhaps two sheriffs are going to be whittled down to one much more rapidly than expected. (Z)

Missed It By a Mile

Donald Trump came oh-so-close close to a presidency free of veto overrides. On the other hand, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) & Co. didn't come within a country mile of winning their silly lawsuit that would have made the VP into a near-dictator. Although Team Louie maneuvered to get their suit before a friendly, Trump-appointed judge, they barely made it through the doors of the courthouse before getting rejected by Jeremy Kernodle. He didn't even consider the main claims of the case, instead dismissing it based on the fact that it "alleges an injury that is not fairly traceable to the Defendant, the Vice President of the United States, and is unlikely to be redressed by the requested relief." (see below for more)

Gohmert and his co-plaintiffs have already said they will appeal. That said, the Congressman was also furious with the ruling, declaring that "Bottom line is, the court is saying, 'we're not going to touch this, you have no remedy. Basically, in effect, the ruling would be that you've got to go to the streets and be as violent as antifa and BLM." At this point, we will remind readers of the text of 18 U.S. Code 2383:

Whoever incites, sets on foot, assists, or engages in any rebellion or insurrection against the authority of the United States or the laws thereof, or gives aid or comfort thereto, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both; and shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States.

Gohmert is known, quite famously, for being something less than the sharpest knife in the drawer. So, perhaps he does not appreciate quite how fully he's pushing his luck here. He'll probably get away with this behavior, just because of the downsides of going after him. But if a U.S. Attorney did decide to pursue the matter, could the Congressman be certain he would not be convicted? We dunno. (Z)

Saturday Q&A

There may be one or two things happening this week that people have questions about.

Q: Could you give a step-by-step rundown of the process by which Congress will count the electoral votes, carried all the way to its end? Your opinion on how it will unfold will be nice to hear, too. R.J.C., Salem, OR

A: The first step in the process actually happens on January 3. On that day, Congress will receive the electoral counts from the Archivist of the United States, and will also adopt the rules that will govern the conduct of business on January 6. This portion of the proceedings isn't getting much attention, because it's normally pro forma—Congress just adopts the procedure laid out in the Electoral Count Act of 1887. Maybe that will happen again this year, but maybe it won't. Don't put it past Mitch McConnell to find a way to adjust things, so that challenges to electoral slates are strictly limited or are forbidden entirely.

Assuming that the normal procedures are followed, then Congress will commence a Joint Session at 1:00 p.m. on January 6. The presiding officer of the Senate (VP Mike Pence or, in his absence, President Pro Tempore Chuck Grassley) will open the envelopes in alphabetical order of the states' names, and then hand them off to the four members of Congress who have been appointed as "tellers." The tellers will read the results, state by state (plus D.C.), in alphabetical order. After each result is read (so, 51 times), the presiding officer of the Senate will ask if there are any objections. Once any and all objections are resolved, then the tellers add up the total EVs, and announce the winner of the election.

As we know, there is going to be at least one objection this year (unless McConnell pulls a parliamentary rabbit out of his hat), and possibly more. The objection has to be in written form, has to lay out the basis for the objection, and has to be signed by at least one senator and one representative. Once the objection is lodged, the two houses of Congress adjourn to their respective chambers to discuss the matter. Then, each chamber votes whether to sustain the objection or not. If either chamber rejects the objection, then it is dead.

Needless to say, the House will reject any and all objections, so there is zero chance of Donald Trump overtaking Joe Biden. But even if an objection is sustained, then all that happens is that the slate of electors is returned to the governor of the state in question for them to re-submit. And undoubtedly all of them would re-submit the same slate of electors as they've already submitted. That particularly holds for Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, all of them currently being led by Democratic governors.

As to your final question, keep reading.

Q: Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) says he will not join any objections to the electoral vote certification, as he is "one of four congressmen" with a special role in the joint session. What is that special role? Is he one of the "tellers"? Two members from each party, from each chamber? Who are all four tellers? J.H., Boston, MA

A: He is indeed a teller. Or, at least, he is presuming (perhaps with the benefit of inside information) that he will be one of the tellers; they won't officially be named until tomorrow.

Customarily, the tellers are the most recent chairs and ranking members of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration and the House Committee on Rules. Assuming that the current Congress abides by that custom, then it will be Blunt, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (DFL-MN), Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), and Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK).

Q: I have read that during the vote certification procedure, each representative's objection, if paired with a senator's, may be debated for a maximum of two hours. Can Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO)—or Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL), if he throws his football in the ring—pair with more than one representative? Can this once largely ceremonial occasion drag on for days? M.S., Brooklyn, NY

Q: When Senator Hawley and his House counterparts raise objections during the electoral vote count, it will trigger a two-hour mandatory deliberation. You've noted that multiple objections would drag out the process even more. What's to stop them from objecting to every single state, with the aim of gumming up the Congressional works with 102 hours of forced pointless deliberation? That might be too much to complete by January 20th. J.S., Naperville, IL

A: There have only been two cases where a challenge was lodged (in 1969, over a single faithless elector, and in 2005, over voter suppression in Ohio). Neither of those was intended to overturn the election result, so we're in a brave new world in 2020, and any answer to these questions is necessarily a guess (though an educated one).

As a legal matter, objecting to all 51 slates of electors is more plausible than raising multiple objections to a single slate (say, a Hawley/Rep. Mo. Brooks, R-AL, objection, then a Hawley/Louie Gohmert objection, then a Tuberville/Brooks, objection, and so forth). The statute would seem to suggest that all objections have to be raised at once, and that they can all be considered at once. In other words, if Hawley, et al., objected to Pennsylvania's electors in 50 different ways, they would still use up only two hours of Congress' time. On the other hand, Hawley/Brooks probably can object to all 51 slates, though the 102 hours of Congress' time they would use up would not be enough to stretch things beyond Jan. 20.

As a practical matter, it is likely that Hawley and his GOP colleagues in the House will only lodge one objection, with Pennsylvania the probable target. That is enough to make whatever point it is they want to make. Any additional objections achieve very little, and would serve to rile up Mitch McConnell/Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who have a fair bit of power to punish naughty members. If Hawley and his allies absolutely insist on raising five or ten or fifteen objections, there will almost certainly be some sort of parliamentary maneuver invoked to stop them.

Q: I just want to make sure I understand this. There are 140 Republican house members (out of about 200) willing to support the blocking of electoral votes, but currently only one Republican senator (out of about 50)? I am assuming that this is because House members exist in an R+ world where they are immune from challenges from the left, whereas senators have to be a little more cautious. Is it more than that? Is there actually a difference in perspective on governance and the rule of law? And because I'm a skeptic on the virtues of politicians in general, are the Democrats equally focused on their political needs rather than acting honorably? D.H., Boulder, CO

A: You are, we would say, slightly misunderstanding the dynamics of the situation. The primary reason that representatives from deep red districts engage in these sorts of stunts is not because they have nothing to fear from Democratic challengers, but because they have everything to fear from Republican primary challengers who are even more right-wing. There are relatively few states where a far-right Senate candidate can hope to claim the Republican nomination, much less win the election, and so GOP Senators are largely immune to this concern. Josh Hawley, who comes from a purplish-red state, is something of an exception because his focus is not on the next U.S. Senate primary, but on his future presidential aspirations. He doesn't want to be out-Trumped by anyone not named Trump in the 2024 (or maybe 2028) GOP primaries, and this is his way of laying claim to the Trump lane.

As to the Democrats, there is currently no tension between their political needs and their honor, since Democratic voters want their elected representatives to do the honorable thing and uphold the Constitution and the election result. To the extent that we can answer your question, we would say this: The Democrats had a (slightly) stronger case for challenging Donald Trump in 2016 than the Republicans have for challenging Joe Biden in 2020, and yet engaged in none of the shenanigans we're seeing right now. So, there's every reason to think that if the shoe was on the other foot, the Democrats would not be behaving so badly.

Q: I accept that Texas lacks standing to challenge how other states run their elections, and I understand and accept the rationale. However, the counting of electoral votes results in the election of a President of the entire United States, and Texas certainly stands to gain or lose based on the election of a particular candidate. In that context, can you help me understand the rationale for how Texas is not harmed by another state fraudulently throwing an election to one candidate or the other? P.F., Fairbanks, AK

A: While we can handle basic legal questions, this one is above our pay grade. And so, we brought in a lawyer (A.R. in Los Angeles) to answer:

As an initial matter, it's important to establish who the players are here. Texas is not a party to this suit. Gohmert is a plaintiff in his individual capacity; the other plaintiffs are from Arizona and refer to themselves as the "Arizona electors."

Now, the ground rules. In order to have standing, a plaintiff must allege: (1) an injury that is concrete and particularized, and imminent, as opposed to hypothetical; (2) a causal connection between the injury and the defendant's actions; and (3) an injury that is redressable by a favorable decision.

Having read the complaint, there are several problems that will likely prevent the plaintiffs from getting in the courthouse door. First, they sued Mike Pence but haven't alleged any wrongdoing by him. Instead, they are asking the Court to preemptively tell Pence that he can ignore the Electoral Count Act even though there's no allegation that Pence has declared a position on this issue one way or another. The complaint is full of such hypotheticals. This isn't law review, and courts get really annoyed when they are asked to essentially write a law review article instead of deciding a real case or controversy.

Second, the Arizona electors arguably have alleged an injury—against Gov. Doug Ducey (R-AZ), not Pence. They claim they were injured because the governor certified the Biden electors instead of them. But they didn't sue Ducey. So, they're missing the second prong of the injury requirement, that the defendant actually caused the alleged injury.

Third, what is the dispute here? Pence hasn't taken any position that is actually adverse to the plaintiffs. In fact, one of the plaintiffs, Kelli Ward, characterized the lawsuit as an effort to "assist" Pence in his duties. Courts just love when they're asked to simply give legal advice, in the form of nullifying a law from 1887. That's the redressability part.

I could go on but you get the picture. And frankly, they should hope they get knocked out on standing grounds because the rest of this thing is even more embarrassing.

Thanks, A.R.! And your assessment was on target, as noted in the second news item above.

Q: What would be the procedure if Donald Trump should drop in, unexpected and uninvited, to the joint session of Congress while they are finalizing the electoral vote? Would he be allowed to speak? Allowed to observe? Allowed to take over the proceedings as president? What could be done if he would, say, speak out of turn or try to disrupt the proceedings? D.M.R., Omaha, NE

A: The President of the United States (accompanied by his/her private secretary, if desired) is among the folks given "the privilege of the floor" in both the House and Senate. So, Trump would be free to sit and observe, if he desired. Ex-presidents are even allowed to speak, if they make a request in writing in advance of their appearance. But Trump is not an ex-president (yet), so this doesn't apply to him. That means he would be required to remain silent.

Trump has no right to assume control of the proceedings; the Constitution makes very clear who gets to run the show in the legislature, and it isn't the Chief Executive. And if he became truly disruptive, then he would leave the presiding officer (presumably Mike Pence) with no option but to order that he be removed from the floor by the Sergeant-at-Arms of the Senate. Wouldn't that be quite the sight?

Q: In the response to the first question last week, you wrote that Congress passed the relief bill with less than 10 days left in the current Congress. But the bill passed on Monday, Dec. 21, so excluding only Sundays, the 10th day is January 1. The current Congress doesn't expire until January 3. Wouldn't the bill become law, then, in January 1, assuming Congress met at least once during that period? A.R., Los Angeles, CA

A: Thanks again for your help above! As to your question, "Sunday" is generally regarded as a synonym for "holiday." And so, Christmas and New Year's Day count as "Sundays," and push the calendar just enough to have allowed Trump to pull off a pocket veto (though he backed down, of course). Note that the "holiday = Sunday" convention is informal, and has been tested very little in court.

Q: What would happen if, before January 20th, Russia declared war on the U.S. and Donald Trump immediately surrendered and then Vladimir Putin put Trump in charge of the American territory? Would this be a way for Trump to maintain his power (though as a puppet)? G.D., Boca Raton, FL

A: It's creative, we'll give it that, but it would not work. A surrender occurs when the losing side sues for peace, and the terms of their defeat are formalized in a legal document. That document is, of course, a treaty. And the U.S. Senate has the sole power to approve treaties. Trump could submit a proposed treaty Putin gave him to the Senate, but as we noted above, Mitch McConnell is already feeling his oats. All that would happen is that McConnell would hand it to his secretary with a request to put it in the paper shredder.

Q: My understanding from various sites is that in the November election, Georgia pre-processed a lot of mail-in ballots but couldn't actually start counting them until 7 a.m. on Election Day. As a result, they had the red mirage of a Trump victory on November 3 and the blue rising tide that slowly revealed the Biden victory 10 days later. Are the rules and procedures the same for the January 5 runoff, and can we therefore expect Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler (both R-GA) to declare victory the night of the election and insist that the counting stop and that any changes after that are fraudulent? And then how long should we expect to wait for the final results? M.B., Cleveland, OH

A: The rules and procedures are indeed the same, and so a similar phenomenon (an early Republican lead that shrinks over time) is probable. Kerwin Swint, a political scientist who teaches in Georgia (at Kennesaw State University) and who undoubtedly has his finger more on the pulse of the state than we do, said: "Almost no chance it's called on election night."

The good news is that there are only three races on the ballot (the two Senate runoffs, and one spot on Georgia's Public Service Commission), and so they will be easier to count (and re-count). The bad news is that lawyers on both sides are laser-focused on the election, and have their lawsuits all ready to go. So, it will not only take 2-10 days to know who "won," it will probably take additional weeks for the result to become legal, once all the lawsuits have been dealt with.

And as long as we're addressing these various nuances, we will also add that Loeffler will continue to serve until such point as Raphael Warnock is certified the winner (if he ever is). By contrast, Perdue's term expires tomorrow night, and his seat will remain vacant until that runoff is resolved.

Q: Is Joe Biden the youngest person ever to have been sworn in as a U.S. Senator, since he was barely over 30 (the Constitutional requirement) in Jan. 1973? R.H.D. in Webster, NY

A: He's not even in the top 10, actually. As far as we know (exact ages are sometimes hard to come by for eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century senators), he's only the 15th youngest senator.

The youngest senator in U.S. history was Armistead Thomson Mason, who was 28 when he took office in 1816. Henry Clay (29) and John Henry Eaton (29) were also younger than 30 when they took office, in 1806 and 1818 respectively. How is that possible? Well, the rules were somewhat loosely enforced back then, in large part because the lack of birth certificates (which were not commonplace until the early 20th century) made it hard to prove definitively that someone was ineligible. Back then, a person's age was largely what they said it was.

Q: With the passing of the Representative-elect from Louisiana, how many Representatives-elect or Senators-elect have passed before they were sworn in? J.W.C., Honolulu, HI

A: As you can imagine, since there are considerably more Representatives-elect than Senators-elect, it's more common for them to shuffle off this mortal coil before taking their seats. In fact, there have been 21 Representatives-elect who died before they could assume their office. Most of them died long ago, and are basically unknown. However, the list does include Jack Swigert; the former astronaut was elected to represent CO-06 on Nov. 2, 1982, but died of cancer on Dec. 27, 1982.

As to senators-elect, we can find only one example of one who died before assuming office. The good people of Wyoming chose then-Rep. Edwin Keith Thomson (R) to be their senator on Nov. 8, 1960, but then he suffered a fatal heart attack on Dec. 9, 1960.

Q: If Donald Trump stays in Florida to avoid the inauguration, what happens to the nuclear football that has to remain with the president at all times? It would be in Florida with Trump, but then how would it get to President-elect Biden at noon on January 20th? Don't both men have to be in the same place for that transfer to take place? K.T., Fairborn, OH

A: The nuclear football is basically a codebook that allows the president to identify himself, so that an impostor cannot launch an attack on his behalf. This being the case, the codebook has to be changed every time a new president takes office. So, on Jan. 20, there will be a "Trump" football and a "Biden" football, whether they are in the same city or in different cities. And at noon, the Trump codes will expire and the Biden codes will take effect, and everyone will breathe easier.

Incidentally, there are multiple football "carriers" (the folks who have the briefcase handcuffed to their wrists). So, one will follow Trump around with the Trump football, and another will do the same with Biden. Again, it does not matter if the two men are in the same city or different ones.

Q: Where would you put Joe Biden in terms of the difficulty of the job he faces as President? I put his job in repairing the United States after the Trump presidency as one of the most difficult facing a President in recent memory. J.B., Pinckney, MI

A: It certainly could be tough going. The country is divided, different Americans believe in different "facts," global warming is getting worse, Mitch McConnell is where bills go to die, and the Supreme Court is stacked with conservatives.

On the other hand, the Trump administration has botched the pandemic so badly (including vaccine distribution, which should have been a lay-up) that Biden is situated to ride to the rescue as a white knight. The economy is likely to prosper, regardless of what Biden does. Many Americans (including many on the right) are desperate for calm, steady leadership, and Biden can do that in his sleep (and maybe he will). And he'll probably get a Nobel Peace Prize just for not being Donald Trump, particularly as he patches up America's relationship with half the nations of the world.

All of this is to say that any outcome for the Biden presidency: "disaster," "mediocre," "good," or "great" would appear to be on the table, and none of these possibilities would surprise us if they come to pass in the next four (or eight) years.

Q: Given that his "reign" should (hopefully) soon be over, and putting on your objective historian and technical caps, is there anything positive to be said about Donald Trump's term in office? L.K., Los Angeles, CA

A: To some extent, this feels like a "but except for that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?" kind of question. Trump has performed so poorly as president that, like a James Buchanan or an Andrew Johnson, it would seem to render the positives irrelevant. That is especially true if you don't give him credit for "accomplishments" that really had nothing to do with him. That is to say, any Republican would have signed the tax cut, and any Republican would have nominated the three Supreme Court justices the Federalist Society told him to nominate. All Trump did was open the gift-wrapped presents that landed squarely in his lap.

Similarly, one cannot give him credit for positive developments that result from his negative impact. For example, if his presidency causes an overhaul of DoJ policies related to criminal prosecution of the president, or if it leads to Congress passing new rules for government spending, those things might be responses to Trump, but they are not accomplishments for him.

Anyhow, if there is anything that he did that will have a long-term positive impact, we're going to have to wait for some time to pass in order to know. For example, it's plausible that the Abraham Accords prove to be a turning point in Middle Eastern diplomacy. Or, his "America First" policies could rebalance things like the U.N. and NATO, and cause other nations to shoulder a larger (and fairer) portion of the burden. Or, Operation Warp Speed could prove to be a model for future medical innovation.

In short, the current answer to your question is "no." But we're open to checking back in 10 years to see if that assessment is off the mark.

Q: Which of these options do you think best describes Donald Trump's likelihood of being in prison within, say, 4 years (assuming he is still alive then, and has not fled the country):

  1. Almost certain
  2. Very likely
  3. Likely
  4. Coin flip
  5. Unlikely
  6. Very unlikely
  7. Almost certainly not

M.S., Pittsburgh, PA

A: We're going to have to go with "coin flip." A lot of the things he's accused of in terms of federal crimes (like, say, obstruction of justice) would come with prison sentences, but are hard to prove. Further, Trump could pardon himself (which may or may not pass legal muster), and/or the Biden administration could decide that going after a former president just isn't worth it.

By contrast, the state-level crimes Trump appears to have committed are pretty provable (financial crimes tend to leave documentary trails), are unpardonable (unless Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D-NY, loses his mind), and there is considerably less political risk in pursuing them for elected officials in a deep blue state, like New York AG Letitia James or Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance Jr. However, these state-level crimes are either civil in nature, or are generally punished with very light criminal sentences (house arrest, probation, community service, fines, etc.).

And then there is the dynamic, applicable to both state and federal crimes, that Trump's lawyers are very good at exploiting loopholes in the process and dragging things out.

Trump is definitely in danger of paying some price for his past misdeeds. But whether that price is prison time, served sometime in the next four years? Like we said, coin flip.

Q: You referred to the 2016 election as showing the role of sexism in American politics. Certainly there were people who voted against Hillary Clinton because she was a woman, but weren't there also those who voted for her for that reason? Clinton made breaking the "highest, hardest glass ceiling" part of her campaign. She reacted with delight when Madeleine Albright said there was "a special place in hell for women who don't help each other." (Albright partially walked it back, but still said that women "have an obligation to help one another.")

Both effects are hard to gauge, because most of the misogynists would also have voted Republican if the Democratic nominee had been Bernie Sanders, and most of the supporters of equality would have voted for him. Are there any good data about the net effect of gender?
J.L., Paterson, NJ

A: First, if anyone voted against Clinton based partly or wholly on her gender, then sexism played a role in the campaign. Full stop. If other folks voted for her because of her gender, it does not change that.

Second, the term used to describe the votes lost by candidates on the basis of gender is known as the "gender penalty," while those gained are known as "gender affinity." Quite a few scholars have looked at this question, and the general consensus is that the "gender penalty" and "gender affinity" cancel each other out for most women political candidates. The reason there are fewer female officeholders than male officeholders is not that it's harder for women to win elections, but that it's harder for them to get involved in politics in the first place. (Note also that there is a supposition, which seems justified on its face, that trans candidates do suffer a "gender penalty," but there has yet to be a systematic study of this).

Third, Clinton is not just any woman candidate, she was a much loathed candidate for the highest office in the land (and possibly in the world), facing off against an opponent who had zero boundaries. It's entirely possible that sexism hurt her more than the average woman politician, and so was a net negative for her. As you point out, it would be difficult to prove (or disprove) this empirically. On the other hand, if vice president-elect Kamala Harris should be elected president in Nov. 2024, that might suggest that the animosity toward Clinton was really aimed at her personally, not at women in general. However, if Harris is the Democratic nominee in 2024 and loses, then possibly no woman could have won in 2016.

Q: I have recently read (or listened to) several books on race, class, and caste in the United States (e.g., Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram Kendi, The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die by Keith Payne, and Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson). Some of these mention a period in the 17th century when the places of enslaved Africans, indentured servants, prisoners taken in battle, etc. had not yet jelled into the system of slavery we know from the 18th and 19th centuries. Yet nothing I have read goes very deep into what seems like a fascinating juncture to me. Do you have thoughts on this jelling period of the slave system or recommended reading about it? J.L., Mountain View, CA

A: It is absolutely true that various labor systems, covering a spectrum from "slave" to "free," coexisted in the early-to-mid-seventeenth century colonial South. And although it was written nearly 50 years ago (which is many eternities in the world of historical scholarship), the definitive work on this subject remains Edmund Morgan's American Slavery, American Freedom (1975). Morgan argues (and documents) that race-based slavery won out for two major reasons: (1) as survival rates improved, slaves became a better investment than indentured servants, and (2) several high-profile uprisings where poor white and poor black folks were allied, most obviously Bacon's Rebellion of 1676, scared the rich white folks to death and caused them to take aggressive steps to make sure their society was organized based on race rather than class, which meant eliminating any slave-like status for white folks (like indentured servitude).

Some elements of Morgan's book (like his assessment of the role Native Americans played in the events he describes) have been challenged, but it's still assigned in graduate courses (including the 17th/18th century historiography course that Z took in the first year of grad school) because it's very well written, its central argument remain compelling, and it is a model of how to build a historical argument with evidence.

Q: Following up on your item about Andrew Jackson, can you recommend the best one or two Jackson biographies and explain why you rank them as the best? J.H, Bloomfield Hills, MI

A: Many readers will be familiar with Robert Caro's and Robert Dallek's dueling biographies of Lyndon B. Johnson, both of them multiple volumes and multiple thousands of pages. The word often used to describe such works is "magisterial." Well, if you want the equivalent for Andrew Jackson, then it's Robert Remini's three-volume set (1977, 1981, 1984). This remains the foundational work for those who study Jackson. That said, Remini was a little too sympathetic to Jackson by the standards of modern readers, and you really have to want to know a lot about "Old Hickory" to plow through that many pages.

Anyhow, we mention Remini not because we recommend him (unless the above description sounds good to you), but because he basically put an end to Jackson biographies for a generation. There was not a major new work on the 7th president until the early 2000s, when H. W. Brands' Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times (2006) and Jon Meacham's AMERICAN LION: Andrew Jackson in the White House (2009) were released. Those are the ones we'd recommend. Both books are written by skilled, experienced scholars who have multiple successful biographies to their credit. Both manage to keep one foot on the "academically rigorous" side of the line and the other on the "accessible to a wide audience" side. And both are much more objective than Remini. If you are going to pick one, you should probably pick based on whether you want a whole-life view (Brands) or one that emphasizes the presidential years (Meacham).

And if you're someone who can only handle a very short work, then we would direct your attention to Sean Wilentz' Andrew Jackson: The American Presidents Series: The 7th President, 1829-1837 (2007), which clocks in at just 195 pages. Wilentz is one of the leading historians working in the 19th century today, and is also a heck of a writer. The entire American Presidents series, edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. (himself a distinguished historian before he passed away), is really very good.

Q: In the item on Andrew Jackson, you wrote, "Jackson bore up so well while living life in the saddle that his men began to refer to him as 'Hickory,' a nickname that stuck for the rest of his life." Maybe I'm just being dense, but why was Jackson given the nickname "Hickory?" What does it mean in relationship to riding in a saddle? D.E., Lancaster, PA

A: We were blending together two nineteenth-century metaphors there. Since officers pretty much always rode horses back then, "life in the saddle" was often used to mean "military career as an officer." And hickory was regarded back then (quite rightly) as an unusually firm and tough species of wood. So, what we were saying was that Jackson impressed his underlings with his toughness while serving as an officer.

Q: You mentioned that Andrew Jackson fought duels. I've seen allegations that he killed 10 men in duels and that at least once he goaded a man into a duel with repeated insults beyond whatever was then considered commonplace. What was Jackson's actual dueling history? Did other presidents participate in duels? Was any other president, to put it crudely, a murderer under today's laws? S.A.J, Elberon, NJ

A: This is one of several "coffin handbills" that were used against Jackson in the three presidential elections where he was on the ballot:

A poster-sized piece of paper that has about 2,000 words
on it summarizing all the people Jackson supposedly killed, each of them represented by a black coffin.

As you can see, Jackson's enemies attempted to make hay out of the many people he killed, or caused to be killed, since they argued that this was proof that Jackson was a barbarian unfit for the White House. Meanwhile, Jackson's supporters also attempted to make hay out of the many people he killed, or caused to be killed, since they argued this was proof that Jackson was a man whose toughness and courage were without parallel.

Point is, there was much exaggeration of Jackson's record, by both friend and foe, and Jackson himself did little to set the record straight. He certainly fought at least 10 duels, and perhaps as many as a hundred. He killed one opponent (Charles Dickinson), and may have killed as many as a dozen others (in addition to ordering executions in his capacity as a general). The precise truth is forever lost to the mists of time, though what we can say is that: (1) most of the duels were caused by nasty remarks at the expense of Jackson's wife/marriage, since he and Rachel unknowingly committed bigamy when they first married; and (2) while Jackson did not shy away from duels, he was not known for going out of his way to cause them.

Since dueling was illegal in most places by the time the Constitution was adopted, most future presidents would likely have kept such activities on the down-low, if they did indeed partake. Consequently, the only president known to have even come close to fighting a duel is...Abraham Lincoln. A series of anonymous newspaper letters that Lincoln wrote about Illinois state auditor James Shields infuriated Shields and caused him to challenge Lincoln to a duel in 1842. Lincoln did not particularly wish to fight, but Shields was insistent. Being a clever fellow, and a lawyer, the future president took note of the fact that the choice of weapons and setting for a duel was the privilege of the person being challenged. So, the 6'4" and quite strong Lincoln decided that his duel with the 5'6" and much punier Shields would be conducted with broadswords in six feet of water. The humor of that finally caused Shields to back down.

The only president, besides Jackson, who is known to have taken a life (outside of a military context) is Grover Cleveland. In his official capacity as the sheriff of Buffalo, he sprung the trap at a handful of hangings. This, of course, did not make him a murderer then, nor does it today.

Q: I am intrigued that only Andrew Jackson managed a historical era eponym. Do you think our outgoing toddler-in-chief will manage a similar era eponym in our history books? (Bonus points to any readers who come up with cheeky replies!) S.B., New Castle, DE

A: It's certainly possible. On the first day of his U.S. history courses, (Z) does an exercise where he takes students through the various eras of U.S. history, and he points out that the years from roughly 1991 to the present currently have no name (beyond "the modern era"). That is because we are still living through this era and—absent a major war—the key theme of an era is not usually clear until we have the benefit of hindsight. And so, the conclusion is that, 40 years from now, it may turn out that our current era is known as "The Internet Age" or "The Age of Terror" or "Cold War II" or "The Age of Trump." Note that this would not be honoring Trump, it would merely be a decision that he, and what he represents, best capture the zeitgeist of the times.

Q: Democrats dumped Franklin Pierce in 1856 and instead nominated James Buchanan. But both were Northerners with sympathies for the South. So why did they nominate Buchanan instead of Pierce? F.S., Cologne, Germany

A: This is because Pierce was seen as too pro-Southern by 1856, and so was unacceptable to Northern Democrats. Buchanan, by virtue of serving as ambassador to the U.K., was able to avoid taking sides on (and being affected by) the controversies of the early 1850s.

We point this out because it's possible that in the upcoming GOP civil war between Trump and non-Trump Republicans, the victor could end up being someone who managed to remain above the fray for the past four years and to avoid taking sides. Hard to know who that might be, but maybe someone like Bill Frist?

Q: Regarding the recent brouhaha over Dr. Jill Biden's title, have we ever had a President (or Vice President) with a valid academic or medical doctorate degree? J.C., Swampscott, MA

A: Only one: Woodrow Wilson had a Ph.D. in political science. We are, of course, excluding J.D.s here.

Q: I was intrigued by the mention of Hedy Lamarr's invention in the question by F.L. in Denton, TX.

It got me thinking randomly about stars from that era of Hollywood. I have noticed that many of the biggest stars of that era had somewhat abrupt ends to their careers at a relatively young age, and many of them spent the last several decades of their lives leading low-key lives. Lamarr is an example of this.

I feel like it would be extremely peculiar today for stars like George Clooney or Leonardo DiCaprio to stop acting in middle age and live out their remaining years in quiet. Am I wrong? If not, what is the reason for this?
K.P., Brooklyn, NY

A: We will start by saying that it is not easy to remain at the top of the Hollywood heap for so much as a decade, much less multiple decades, even today. Take a look at this list of the biggest box office stars of the 1990s. Some of them (Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford) are still A-listers. But when was the last time Michelle Pfeiffer, Chevy Chase, Bette Midler, Steven Seagal, Meg Ryan, or Richard Gere headlined a hit movie? Are any of those folks A-listers anymore?

That said, it could be the case that longevity was even harder during the "golden age." Here are some reasons that might be the case, along with a prominent example of each:

  • Many female stars quit the business when they got married (Grace Kelly)
  • Many female stars were cast aside when their sex appeal faded (Clara Bow)
  • Many performers were hard drinkers/heavy smokers who died young (Tyrone Power)
  • There were a surprisingly large number of stars who died in accidents (Carole Lombard)
  • Many careers were derailed by World War II (Ronald Reagan)
  • Many stars regarded theater as their first love, and only did movies when they needed money (Ralph Richardson)
  • Many contract performers were pushed aside for "fresh" faces that, conveniently, required smaller salaries (Laurel & Hardy)

Again, longevity has been tough in Hollywood in any era (especially for women), but it's certainly possible that it was extra tough in the middle decades of the 20th century.

Q: Okay. I'll bite. Who is Grumpy? M.A., Park Ridge, IL

A: That is someone who wrote the code that produces some of the graphs on the site and who often provides assistance on Web page design and many technical issues involved in running the site and who would prefer to remain anonymous.

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Jan01 Over 100 Republicans Are Planning on Challenging Biden's Victory
Jan01 Vaccinations Remain Way Behind Schedule
Jan01 The Stock Market Did Great in 2020
Jan01 Could Georgia Be a Split Decision?
Jan01 Democrats Are Targeting Midsize Cities in Georgia
Jan01 Trump's Legacy: A Divide on Trusting the Media
Jan01 Miller-Meeks Will Be Seated Provisionally
Jan01 Goodbye 2020
Dec31 Happy New Year
Dec30 Let the Chess Game Begin...
Dec30 Pelosi Walks a Fine Line
Dec30 Congressman-elect Dies of COVID-19
Dec30 U.S. Way Behind Schedule on Vaccination
Dec30 Pence Distances Himself from Gohmert Lawsuit
Dec30 Vance Brings in the Big Guns
Dec30 Trump Is Finally America's Most Admired Man
Dec30 Newsom Recall Effort Gets $500K from...Someone
Dec30 Today's Senate Polls
Dec29 It Just Keeps Getting Dumber
Dec29 House Passes Bill to Increase Payments to $2,000...
Dec29 ...And Also Overrides Trump's Veto of the Defense Bill
Dec29 Biden: Department of Defense Is Dragging Its Feet
Dec29 What the President-elect Can Do To Improve Elections
Dec29 Sanders Is Unhappy About Biden's Cabinet
Dec29 They Were Trump Before Trump, Part II: Andrew Jackson
Dec28 Trump Signs on the Dotted Line
Dec28 House Will Vote on Upping the Checks to $2,000 Today
Dec28 Putin Is Setting Biden's Foreign Policy
Dec28 Biden Will Focus on Regulations
Dec28 Why Fox Loyalists Are Changing the Channel
Dec28 Five Myths about Voting Machines
Dec28 Voting Machines Weren't Hacked, But There Are Still Security Lessons to Be Learned
Dec28 Vaccine Hesitancy Is Fading Away, Just Like Donald Trump
Dec27 Sunday Mailbag
Dec26 Saturday Q&A
Dec25 Trump Creating Chaos in Washington...
Dec25 ...But He's Having Zero Luck with Overturning the Election Results
Dec25 Georgia Senate Candidates Are Awash in Cash
Dec25 "Trickle Down" Tax Cuts...Don't
Dec25 U.K., E.U. Have a Brexit Deal
Dec25 Holiday Quiz: The Sequel
Dec25 Fox News Is Now in the Christmas Movie Business
Dec25 Today's Senate Polls
Dec24 Trump Vetoes the Defense Bill
Dec24 Trump Unveils More Pardons
Dec24 Trump Repeats Demand for $2,000 Checks instead of $600 Checks
Dec24 Ted Cruz and AOC Agree on the Corona Relief Bill
Dec24 Meanwhile, Republicans Are Already at War--with Other Republicans
Dec24 White House Staff Told to Prepare to Leave and Then Told Not to Prepare to Leave
Dec24 E. Jean Carroll Wants to Personally Depose Trump in 2021