We go where the questions in the mailbag take us, and today that means another heavy dose of history.
Q: You mentioned that President Biden has a full plate both domestically and internationally in your item "Is There a Doctrine in the House." You specifically wrote of the Monroe Doctrine and other historical events related to American policy in Latin America. You added that there are, of course, many other continuing concerns related to the Middle East, China, Russia, and Europe. One may recall the Truman Doctrine too, which emphasized containment of Communist expansion. What do you think comes closest to a Biden Doctrine? In your view, is there a clear and obvious Biden Doctrine already in practice or is this something that could yet emerge as his presidency continues to unfold—and what do you think that could be? K.F., Framingham MA
A: The emerging Biden Doctrine certainly appears to be "Much of the world, including the U.S., has recently fallen under the sway of authoritarian leaders, and it is up to the democracies of the world to team up and resist authoritarianism any way they can." That makes the Biden Doctrine pretty similar to the Truman Doctrine, and perhaps even more similar to the Reagan Doctrine. This is not terribly surprising since Biden, as a man born in 1942, came of age during the Cold War.
Q: What have we gotten right in our dealings with Latin America? M.G., Boulder, CO
A: When the U.S. tries to impose its will on Latin American countries, or to engage in nation-building, it generally does not turn out well, especially when viewed through modern eyes. However, when the U.S. has helped the nations of Latin America to deal with European colonialist behavior, things have sometimes turned out OK. For example, although the Spanish-American War was prologue to the much nastier Philippine-American War, it did serve to free the Cuban people from Spanish rule. Similarly, U.S. intervention in the Venezuelan crisis of 1895, which pitted Venezuela against the U.K., kept that incident from possibly turning ugly.
There are also some Latin American countries that remain grateful for U.S. involvement in their disputes with other Latin American countries. Paraguay has a city, Villa Hayes, named for Rutherford B. Hayes in honor of his helping to resolve a territorial dispute with Argentina. Similarly, U.S. intervention in Colombia allowed Panama to achieve its independence and facilitated the construction of the Panama Canal. Needless to say, Argentina and Colombia do not have the same warm feelings about these incidents as Paraguay and Panama do.
Finally, there have been some examples of successful American-Latin American cooperation, with the most notable probably being the formation of the Organization of American States (OAS). These days, OAS focuses primarily on election integrity. It should be noted, however, that the U.S. has been (rightly) accused of sometimes using the OAS to bestow legitimacy on friendly governments and to withhold legitimacy from hostile governments.
Q: I was curious about your
of assassination, namely that "the
motivation be political, moral, or financial." How does financial fit? I can't think of a crime with a financial
motive that I'd call an assassination. My first thought was the Wall Street bombing in 1920, but that's really
political. Ditto for the Haymarket Riot. All the other killings I can think of where the motive was financial would
seem to be motivated by simple greed, and I wouldn't call that assassination.
Can you give an example or two of crimes that you would call assassinations with a financial motive? B.H., Greenbelt, MD
A: That is there specifically to account for mercenaries. The folks who hire and pay the mercenaries may have political or moral motivations, but the mercenaries who actually commit the crime are motivated by money. The assassination of Jovenel Moïse in Haiti is an example, as the folks who actually shot him appear to be mercenaries who once worked for the U.S. government. Another recent example is the Spear Operations Group, which was made up of former U.S. special forces and French Foreign Legion soldiers, and was paid by the United Arab Emirates to go around Yemen killing the enemies of the UAE government.
Q: Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has indicated that she plans to step aside as Speaker after the 2022 midterms.
Presuming the Democrats hold onto the House, who do you see as their choice for Speaker?
For me, I think it will be Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY). He's fairly young (50), Black, telegenic, and currently 4th on the leadership ladder. He was also a manager during the first Trump impeachment. He would become the first Black House Speaker, following the first female Speaker. R.H.D., Webster, NY
A: Jeffries would presumably be the favorite, for the reasons you list. Here are a few alternatives, however:
- Henry Cuellar (TX; age 65): He is centrist, Latino, and hails from a state that Democrats
would love to flip. He's also a member of the leadership team (assistant whip), and he served in numerous leadership
positions in the Texas state house.
- Adam Schiff (CA; age 61): A white guy from California might seem a longshot, but recall
that the winner of this particular sweepstakes is the one who is most skilled at backroom political dealing. And he is
very good at that. If he became speaker, he would be the highest ranking Jew in American history.
- Jim Clyburn (SC; age 80): Yes, he's up there in years. However, that could be a feature
and not a bug for colleagues who might prefer to see someone who can only plausibly serve a term or two. And if so, he's
a senior member of the leadership team, he's Black, and he's a Southerner.
- Debbie Wasserman Schultz (FL; age 54): She's not beloved by the rank-and-file Democrats,
and the progressive wing really dislikes her because they feel she undermined Bernie Sanders' 2016 campaign as chair of
the DNC. However, she is close with Pelosi, and is most certainly a very well connected Democratic Party insider. She
also comes from a giant swing state. Like Schiff, she is Jewish.
- Barack Obama (IL; age 59): We'll end on a wildcard. Keeping in mind that the Speaker need not be a member of the House, it's not impossible (even if it's unlikely) that the Democrats temporarily turn to him to take the reins, and that he takes the offer in order to work with Joe Biden again. This would have the benefit of being a limited commitment, as opposed to the near-lifetime commitment that being a Supreme Court justice would represent (and that he's already declared to be off the table).
Let us know if we missed any compelling options.
Q: I have heard of omens that predict winners of Presidential elections, such as: (1) If the World
Series is won by a National League team, it forecasts a Democratic win; (2) if the Washington Football Team wins
the week before the election, Democrats win; (3) if women's hemlines are above the knee, Democrats win.
Do you know of any Presidential election omens that could be considered statistically valid? J.C., Alexandria, VA
A: Consider the following questions that have exactly two answers:
- Did this year's incoming class at Harvard have an even or an odd number of students?
- Was this year's Best Actor Oscar won by someone whose last name is 7 letters or longer, or 6 letters or shorter?
- Was the 13th bill passed by Congress this year supported by 10 or more Republicans, or 9 or fewer Republicans?
- Did the team that won the Super Bowl this year punt the ball at least once in the first quarter of the game or not?
- Did the Dow Jones go up on the Wednesday before the election or down?
There are millions and millions and millions of possibilities, and if you look long enough, you're going to find some that consistently match the presidential election results. It gets even easier if a few "misses" are allowed (as in, "This predicted the presidential winner in 14 out of the last 16 elections!").
None of these "omens" have any validity in the absence of some evidence that they have some meaningful connection to people's voting patterns.
Q: With most peoples' attention spans (particularly the two constituencies referred to in this
question) limited to a few sentences at best, what would your "a few sentences maximum" responses be to the following
two constituencies if your life depended on getting them to see the fallacies of their stances?
1. To get through to people who believe in the election conspiracy (e.g. "Trump actually won"); and,
2. To get through to anti-vaxxers. G.D. in Louisville, KY
A: 1. "If Donald Trump has compelling evidence of his claims, why did he allow his lawyers to lose more than 60 cases, and then allow Joe Biden to be inaugurated, without ever sharing it?"
2. "It is true that COVID itself, and the COVID vaccine, both carry risks. Getting vaccinated is about as risky as driving 100 miles on the freeway in daylight. Walking around unvaccinated is about as risky as driving 100 miles on the freeway at night, while drunk. Which risk would you rather assume?"
Q: Any idea why 'vaxx' has two X's and not either one X or two C's? S.S-L., Norman, OK
A: Sometimes, the evolutionary pressures that cause language to develop in a particular direction cannot be "proven," and can only be guessed at. The substitution of "vax"/"vaxx" for vaccine began in the 1990s; that much we know. The choice of "x" over "c" also lends itself to a pretty plausible explanation, namely that there are numerous possible pronunciations for "vaccs" (vocks, vacks, vaches), but only one for "vax" or "vaxx." As to the double consonant over the single, that one's the real head scratcher. The "x" is not often doubled in English; it's a "boxer" and not a "boxxer," a "fax machine" and not a "faxx machine," a "sax player" and not a "saxx player," a "bobby soxer" and not a "bobby soxxer." The likeliest possibility is that the "x" is doubled in the shortened slang term "vaxx" because the "c" is doubled in the base term (i.e., vaccine, vaccination, vaccinated).
Q: With all the speculation regarding a Trump deposition in his lawsuit against the social media companies, could you explain just what is and is not allowed with that? Could they actually post a video of the deposition, in parts or in full, as well as related documents online? I would guess there must be some limits on what can be shared publicly, but not being a lawyer (sorry, mom and dad) I have no idea. S.S., West Hollywood, CA
A: The rules are generally specified in state law (here, for example, is California's code), and so vary from place to place. But, in general, a deposition is not automatically private, and may be publicly released by anyone who has access to it.
There are, of course, exceptions. The parties to the deposition might agree to keep it confidential. Alternatively, any of the parties involved can unilaterally ask a judge for a protective order to keep the testimony private. This is presumably what Donald Trump would do. And finally, if something in the deposition is privileged, confidential, or classified information, that cannot be released.
Q: Why are things like affiliation, nominations, and primaries/caucuses, which seem to be internal party business in Europe and the Commonwealth, run by the states in the United States? V.M. Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, QC, Canada
A: This is primarily because when parties first emerged in the early-to-mid 19th century, it was somewhat impractical to organize on a national level, as the distances involved were so great. At the same time, Americans of that era tended to see themselves as citizens of their states first, and of the nation second. There is a fair bit of truth to the observation that "before the Civil War, it was 'the United States are,' and after the Civil War, it was 'the United States is.'"
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the parties did try to centralize things as much as they could. However, that led to a backlash against the perceived corruption this facilitated (think: "smoke-filled room."). And so, turning to the well-established historical precedent, voters demanded that party organization resume being primarily state-based.
Q: Having seen how receptive and well thought out the questions and answers have been to the "What Ifs?" that have been asked, I was wondering what your higher level thoughts were on alternate history as a whole. With a range of works out there, from Alien Space Bats to offerings from the likes of Winston Churchill and Newt Gingrich, I remember debating fellow social studies education majors in school about whether it was a good practical tool to teach what actually happened, or was simply a way to cash in on daydreaming history lovers. Your thoughts? S.S., Camp Hill, PA
A: There are two very distinct types of alternate history. The first is counterfactuals, in which the writer introduces an impossibility (or multiple impossibilities) into the past, and then writes about the result. Harry Turtledove, for example, has written many such books, perhaps most famously The Guns of the South: A Novel. In that one, white supremacist South Africans, desperate to save apartheid, invent time travel and go back to the Civil War so that they can equip the Confederate Army with AK-47s. This type of alternate history, which is really a branch of sci-fi/fantasy, serves only as a form of entertainment. There is nothing meaningful to be learned from thinking "what if Lee's troops had high-capacity automatic weapons 150 years more technologically advanced than those of the opposition?"
The other sort of alternate history considers things that were real possibilities (and, quite often, that almost did happen). For example, what if Adolf Hitler had died in World War I? What if Germany had not declared war on the U.S. in 1941? What if the U.S. never began development of the atomic bomb? Considering these questions can certainly sharpen our understanding of what did happen, by compelling us to think about exactly what the range of possibilities really was. On the question of Hitler's not being present for World War II, (Z) actually wrote a brief essay for his students to read that argues that because of the circumstances of Germany in the 1930s, the rise of a demagogue was probable. And because of European history and the general dynamics of scapegoating, Jewish people were likely to be the primary targets of that demagogue. Ergo, Hitler was more someone who took advantage of his circumstances, and not someone who created his circumstances.
Anyhow, this way of thinking is actually baked into certain types of historical study. Most obviously, military historians must always consider alternates that did not happen, so as to understand the choices that were made, and to assess if those choices were likely the right ones. Economic historians also rely frequently on considering alternatives that did not actually happen.
Q: P.D. in La Mesa
"As for George Washington at number 2, that has always struck me as presidential hagiography. His refusal to serve more
than two terms is hailed as an act of modesty and restraint. I'm not so sure. Washington was in poor health, died a few
years later, and didn't enjoy the presidency (or politics) all that much. And what, actually, were his accomplishments
besides being the nation's first?"
Which brings me to my question: What were Washington's accomplishments besides being the nation's first, and do you feel he is worthy of his lofty ranking? And, what books on Washington would you recommend so we can learn more? OK, that was three questions. H.M., San Dimas, CA
A: The fellows who wrote the Constitution had very clear ideas about the legislative branch, and many clear historical analogues they wished to emulate in various ways. So, they hammered out 2,271 words on that subject. They were considerably less clear about the executive and judicial branches. Plus, the more specifics they included in the document, the more chance there was of states choosing to reject it. And finally, it's hot and stuffy in Philadelphia in the summer, and hard to concentrate. So, they knocked out 1,025 words on the executive branch and 377 on the judicial branch and, knowing full well that Washington would be the first president, told themselves that he would fill in the gaps.
And what do you know? He did it. He essentially created the executive branch, including the cabinet, singlehandedly, and he managed and implemented the process of creating the judicial branch (and his nephew Bushrod was among the first Supreme Court justices). Further, his presence persuaded people, both domestic and foreign, that the new government was a serious venture, and worthy of their respect. He also managed foreign relations effectively, avoiding any devastating entanglements with hostile foreign powers at a time when the federal government, and its army and navy, were not ready for such things. We'll never know for sure how another leader would have fared under similar circumstances, since only Washington was dealt this particular hand, but it's hard to imagine there are very many Americans who would have performed as well. So, we think his high ranking is indeed justified.
As to books, the preeminent biography of Washington is Ron Chernow's Washington: A Life, which won a Pulitzer. If you'd like something that's a little lighter, with more than a touch of humor, but also more than a touch of criticism, then take a look at You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington by Alexis Coe. If you want to understand what made Washington tick, then the book for you is Washington's Revolution: The Making of America's First Leader, by Robert Middlekauff. If you would like to know about Washington's presidency, and some of the stuff we raised in our answer to your first two questions, then get The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution by Lindsay M. Chervinsky. If you want to learn about the less pleasant aspects of Washington's career, then The Indian World of George Washington: The First President, the First Americans, and the Birth of the Nation, by Colin G. Calloway covers his dealings with the Native Americans, while Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, by Ona Judge, talks about Washington and slavery. If you'd like a (literal) cloak-and-dagger page-turner, then pick up a copy of Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring, by Alexander Rose. And finally, it's not entirely about Washington, but Ray Raphael's Founding Myths: Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past is very interesting, and obviously devotes a lot of space to the first president.
Q: I was hoping you could recommend a good biography of Aaron Burr for my summer reading? Like many, I became fascinated with him after watching "Hamilton" during the pandemic. I'd like a balanced perspective that covers his whole life. I was thinking of getting Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, by Nancy Isenberg but since I will only read one book about him I want to make sure it's a good choice, so I'd love your opinion. A.P., Kitchener, ON, Canada
A: Isenberg's book is good, but it's pretty hefty (560 pages). If you were a student, (Z) would recommend The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr, by H.W. Brands, which is also sympathetic to its subject, but asks much less of an investment of time (192 pages). If you prefer that the focus be particularly on political intrigue and gamesmanship (which you might, given the site you're reading right now), then you should also consider American Emperor: Aaron Burr's Challenge to Jefferson's America, by David O. Stewart.
Q: You have written that President Ulysses S. Grant's reputation was systematically degraded by
historians influenced (or directed) by The Lost Cause propagandists. Recent social media posts about Presidents John
Adams and John Quincy Adams (example attached) have noted that opposition to slavery was central to their lives. Were
their reputations similarly damaged?
I'm very concerned about the distortions I was taught in history and civics classes. The Adamses public positions put the lie to every claim our schools taught us that slavers who helped design our government and fought for slavery were mere "products of their time." I've recently learned that the historian James W. Loewen writes extensively about distorted history. Do you agree with him?
Most importantly, what specifically can be done about systematically correcting our distorted history, and central to that, I'd like to know what can be done about textbook companies that sell distorted history and the agenda-driven school systems that buy them? D.C., Rabun County, GA
A: Let's start with the easiest part of that question. The reason that Ulysses S. Grant was degraded was not his position on slavery, per se, it was that he defeated the South in general, and Robert E. Lee in particular. Tearing Grant down, and arguing that he was just lucky, or was just extra willing to waste soldiers' lives, or was handed an unbeatable hand to play, was a strategy for coping with defeat. The Adamses were not subject to similar defamation because they did not defeat the South.
As to your broader questions, we've recommended Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong multiple times, and it still has our endorsement. It's very engaging, it's eye-opening, and because it's set up as a series of essays on various subjects ("John Brown and Abraham Lincoln: The Invisibility of Antiracism in American History Textbooks," "The Land of Opportunity: The Absence of Social Class in American History Textbooks," "See No Evil: Choosing Not to Look at the War in Vietnam," etc.) you can pick and choose which chapters are of interest.
Fixing things is much harder. There are a bunch of very serious problems baked into the manner in which the subject is handled at the pre-college levels (and sometimes at the college level). Among them:
- History is often treated as an exercise in memorization and repetition. It should not be.
- Textbooks are built to facilitate and encourage the "memorization" approach. This is one reason they should be
gotten rid of entirely, and replaced with primary documents.
- History is often treated as an exercise in boosterism and American exceptionalism. It should not be.
- Textbooks are often written to promote a boosterism and exceptionalism approach. This is another reason they should be
gotten rid of entirely, and replaced with primary documents.
- History teachers quite often do not know the discipline. In fact, well over half of them did not major in history in college. It is one of those subjects where they stick the football coaches, so that they have a "teaching" assignment that justifies their employment.
So, the textbooks need to go, the approach needs to change, and the people doing the teaching need to know what they are talking about. There may be some school boards, in some states, open to some of these things. But getting most districts to reimagine their approach? Implausible. For those who go to college, then, hopefully they take history courses with good professors. And for those who don't go, they just have to teach themselves, unfortunately.
Q: On July 15, in an article about North Carolina politics, you made a side reference to the fact
that Fort Bragg will soon no longer be named Fort Bragg. I would be curious as to your opinion on the following
question. When we get around to changing the names of the military bases named after Confederate figures, what should
their new names be?
I'd like to put one particular recommendation out there. Fort Hood in Texas should be renamed Fort Thomas, in honor of the great Civil War hero General George Thomas (1816-1870). He was as important to the ultimate Union victory in the Civil War as any other general officer excepting Ulysses Grant himself. He was a brilliant commander and the only significant Civil War general on either side who never lost a battle. His professionalism and military innovations had a crucial impact on the later American military. His contributions to the Union triumph have long been overshadowed and ignored, largely because of the jealousy of other officers who smeared his record after his death. He was a Southerner who remained loyal to the Union and I think having his name enshrine such a critical military base will draw attention to the fact that a great many white Southerners opposed the Confederacy. Finally, it was Thomas who defeated John Bell Hood at the Battle of Nashville at the end of 1864 in the last major battle in the Western Theater of the war, so having his name replace Hood's has certain poetic justice. J.B., Hutto, TX
A: The Confederate Naming Commission will issue an update in October of this year, and then a final report in October of next year, so we will learn what they are thinking pretty soon. That said, we suspect that they will largely avoid replacing Confederate figures with Union figures, since that could be perceived as a double poke-in-the-eye for Southerners. Also, forts are generally named after "local" heroes (i.e., people from the state in which the fort is located). So, we're going to grant you George Thomas but, as he was a native Virginian, we're going to use him to rename Fort A.P. Hill instead. Thomas and Hill did not face off as commanding officers, the way that Thomas and John Bell Hood did, but you can't have everything.
For all the others, we are going to avoid Civil War figures. We've actually discussed this a bit before but, at the moment, these would be our picks:
- Camp (P.G.T.) Beauregard (Louisiana): Jacques Villeré, who served with distinction in the War of
1812, and who also served as the second governor of Louisiana
- Fort (Henry L.) Benning (Georgia): Jimmy Carter, who was navy and not army, but who was also commander-in-chief, so he qualifies
- Fort (Braxton) Bragg (North Carolina): Lawrence Joel, who was the first medic and first Black man to be awarded the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War
- Fort (John Brown) Gordon (Georgia): Raymond G. Davis, who earned the Navy Cross in World War II and the Medal of Honor in the Korean War;
the fort would have to be named Fort R.G. Davis, as there is already a Fort Davis
- Fort Hood (Texas): Audie Murphy, the most decorated U.S. soldier of World War II
- Fort (Robert E.) Lee (Virginia): Winfield Scott, the greatest American general of the first half of the 19th century
- Fort (George) Pickett (Virginia): Ann E. Dunwoody, America's first female four-star general
- Fort (Leonidas) Polk (Louisiana): Co-Rux-Te-Chod-Ish, who was not born in Louisiana proper, but was born in the
Lousiana Territory, and who became the first Native American to receive the Medal of Honor
- Fort (Edmund) Rucker (Alabama): Charles Thomas, who lost his life shortly after the D-Day invasion, and was one of a handful of Black men awarded the Medal of Honor for service in World War II
Note that we limited ourselves to army bases named for Confederate officers. There are also some naval bases, some ships, and a few other things that will be getting new names.
Q: I'm reading Eric Foner's Reconstruction (on Z's recommendation; Thank you!) and I was stammgasted by this sentence at the beginning of chapter 6: "It was a peculiarity of nineteenth-century politics that more than a year elapsed between the election of a Congress and its initial meeting." How on earth did that come about? For how much of that century did it remain the case? I understand that it wasn't a week's road trip from the West Coast to Washington in those days, but it didn't take a year! D.F., Portland, OR
A: (Z) does not remember exactly when he recommended the Foner book, but he really hopes he directed you toward the abridged version of the book (352 pages), known to grad students as "Baby Reconstruction," as opposed to the full-length version (752 pages). He thinks that 352 pages is enough unless you are really, really, into Reconstruction.
Anyhow, there were a number of considerations that shaped the congressional calendar in the 19th century:
- Members' terms came to their legal end on March 3 of odd-numbered years.
- Late spring weather in Washington is rough, and summer weather is absolutely brutal.
- Fall is harvest season, which used to create at-home responsibilities for many members.
- Travel was often time-consuming, expensive, and dangerous.
In view of these things, congressional sessions almost always commenced in early December. In odd-numbered years, they concluded on March 3, since the retiring/defeated members' terms were up, and in even-numbered years they concluded around the time that the weather turned really hot (usually June or early July). They might plausibly have squeezed in an extra session from March through June of odd-numbered years, but the travel difficulties made that not so worthwhile.
The schedule sometimes changed during times of crisis, like the Civil War or World War I. However, it did not permanently change until the Franklin Roosevelt years, when the end date of congressional terms was moved to early January.
Q: When did the Republican Party get the moniker "Grand Old Party"?
After all, it's not nearly as old as the Democratic Party (and of course there's precious little that's "grand" about it, these days). R.H., Santa Ana, CA
A: Both parties have tried to claim the name, and the Democrats actually got there first, adopting it before the Republican Party even existed. However, after the Civil War, Republicans tried very hard to own it, since it implicitly reminded people which party supported the Union, and which one supported the Confederacy. Further, in that era (post-Civil War), the most important political cartoonists (especially Thomas Nast) were Republicans, and they often used GOP in their cartoons, because that was more attractive artistically than writing "Republican Party" on a banner, or the side of an elephant, or a sign.
Q: I would think that union/labor matters would play a significant role in American History but I suspect that these events might not be taught in the average curriculum. As an example, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire illustrated unsafe working conditions endured by garment workers, and led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards. Without discussion of this event, the average high school student might not understand that "job killing" regulations might also be lifesaving. To your knowledge, is the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire even mentioned in most high school American History courses? B.B., St. Louis, MO
A: Well, (Z) hasn't taken high school history in multiple decades, and has never taught it, so he can't speak with authority as to how things are done today. However, it is generally both wise and necessary to pick one or two exemplars of a particular subject, and to use those as case studies. So, when it comes to labor history/unrest, it is likely that one or two of the following gets mentioned: the Lowell Mills, the Homestead Strike, the Haymarket Affair, the Pullman Strike, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Which one or two likely varies by class (and textbook).
The only thing (Z) can speak about for certain is his own (college) class. In U.S. History, 1877-present, Triangle Shirtwaist is covered on the first day of lecture (second day overall; since the first day overall is for the syllabus).
Q: I'd always heard that a large part of why Warren Harding won the 1920 election was because he was "presidential-looking" and was considered quite handsome. But now I'm thinking that this might be an urban legend created to "blame" women for voting for an empty suit with corrupt cronies. Could that be right? In any event, I'm surprised he didn't make your top 10 hunk list. J.F., Fort Worth, TX
A: Harding's attractiveness was in the eye of the beholder; some found him dashing, others not so much. That's why he didn't make the list.
As to the women's vote, the following things are true: (1) the Republican ticket picked up about 8 million votes in 1920 relative to 1916 while the Democrats picked up only about 1 million; (2) about 8 million women voted for the first time in 1920; (3) many people in the media assumed that the new Republican votes were mostly from the new women voters; and (4) some people in the media further assumed that those women-Harding voters made their choice because he was better looking than his opponent, James M. Cox.
We have limited evidence that speaks to how different demographics voted, or why they did so. However, it is probable that women voters did break strongly Republican. On the other hand, the sexist "sucker for a handsome face" explanation is not a great one. A better explanation is that there were still some pretty significant barriers to voting in 1920 (literacy, fluency in English, long enough residency in one's home state, sometimes poll taxes), and the women who were able to clear the bar were disproportionately native born and economically stable, and so likely to be Republican. The women who were not able to clear the bar were disproportionately immigrants and poor, and so likely to be Democrats.
Q: In your list of the most impactful non-presidential assassinations, you surmise that Robert Kennedy would have been re-elected in 1980, preventing Ronald Reagan from being president. What is it about Kennedy that you feel would have made him a more successful president than Carter? P.F., Stevens Point, WI
A: In 1980, Reagan ran the same playbook that he had run in 1966 against Pat Brown, essentially making the case that Brown/Carter were ok people, but were just not up to the task of governing. That gave voters who liked Brown and Carter personally permission to vote against them. And until late in 1966 and in 1980, Reagan was actually behind in the polls. So, the strategy was not a guaranteed winner.
In the case of RFK, our best guess is that the "not up to the task of governing" would have been ineffective, since he was very suave, and since he had real, big-time experience that Carter, in particular, did not have.
Q: You wrote: "For example, Roman Polanski is clearly a horrible person, and buying tickets to any
new movies he directs, or hosting a Roman Polanski film festival, tacitly supports his behavior. On the other hand,
buying the DVD of 'Chinatown' seems OK to us, since he does not directly profit from that."
Because I do not fully understand "Hollywood accounting," and do not live (or teach) near Hollywood, I have to ask: How does the studio legally stop him from getting money from DVD sales of his movie "Chinatown"? C.T.P., Lancaster, PA
A: Sometimes directors are able to negotiate, as part of their salary, some portion of the money that a film brings in. For example, Steven Spielberg often takes 20% of the gross in exchange for his services as director of a film. Similarly, if the director also owns the studio, he can lay claim to some portion of the profits. This is (part of) the secret of Tyler Perry's success (and was also the case with Spielberg for a while, when he co-owned SKG Dreamworks).
Roman Polanski most certainly did not own the studio that produced "Chinatown," nor was profit participation common for directors of his era. So, he was likely paid a flat salary for his work, and that was that. Even if he did have profit participation of some sort (we obviously don't have access to his contract), it wouldn't have included DVDs, since those didn't exist in 1974.
In the world of television, actors, directors, and other creative contributors are sometimes paid residuals when their work is aired multiple times (for example, it is residuals that made Jerry Seinfeld filthy rich). In some cases, the people who make films are paid TV residuals when their work is shown on TV. However, the showing of R-Rated films on TV in the early 1970s was very uncommon, and the paying of TV residuals to directors was unheard of. So, that is surely not a part of Polanski's "Chinatown" contract, either. And even if it somehow is, our answer specifically spoke to DVD purchasing and not TV watching.
Q: You wrote: "What we are trying to say is that the basics of civil procedure are, we think,
pretty accessible. It's when things get tricky that you need an actual lawyer. Or someone who stayed at a Holiday Inn
Express last night."
What's the joke here? I don't get it. Travelling businessmen who stay in hotels think they know about the law? J.H. in Boston, MA
A: Holiday Inn Express has a long-running ad campaign (at least 15 years) in which people perform difficult tasks that generally require a lot of experience or education, and who reveal—as the punchline of the commercial—that they don't actually have the requisite experience or education, but they did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night. Here is one that features a hotel guest performing surgery, here is one where the guest prevents a nuclear meltdown, and here the guest solves a mathematical problem that has apparently eluded a math professor for years (clearly a play on the movie "Good Will Hunting").
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