Previously in Politics & Prose:

The Bumbling Communicator (September 6, 2001)
Television has finally found a President who speaks its language. By Jack Beatty.

The Man Behind the Movement (August 8, 2001)
Lyndon Johnson won the 1964 election, but Barry Goldwater won the war. By Jack Beatty.

Truth and Consequences (July 5, 2001)
The Boston Globe's exposé of the historian Joseph Ellis was a "front-page mugging." By Jack Beatty

Cannibalistic Capitalism (June 7, 2001)
White-Collar Sweatshop details the indignities of working in corporate America, where workers are paying the price for increased competition. By Jack Beatty

Plunder on the Right (May 2, 2001)
Arsenic, global warming, and George W. Bush's re-election strategy. By Jack Beatty

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Atlantic Unbound | October 3, 2001
Politics & Prose | by Jack Beatty
Politics as Usual

In America, history shows, war does not override the calculus of politics


istory, as we learned last month, has a habit of being historic, of doing everything except repeat itself, of upsetting continuities and, with one epochal event, introducing a new order of things. Like September 11, 2001, December 7, 1941, was such an event. Everything changed, except, as it turned out, American politics. The British suspended politics for the duration of World War II, David Kennedy points out in Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945, but the American congressional elections of 1942 went ahead under the cloud of war-caused disruptions at home not yet compensated for by a land victory abroad. "Please make it before the election," FDR pleaded with General Marshall, speaking of the invasion of North Africa. But Operation Torch came just days after the voters had jolted FDR and his party, which lost 47 House and 7 Senate seats. And Americans did not remember Pearl Harbor at the polls: of 115 isolationists whose fantasy of American autarky was repudiated by the attack on Pearl Harbor, 110 were reelected.

The political aftermath of the terrorist attack on the United States is the least of our concerns now, and properly. But beneath the calls for bipartisan unity in the coming months, the congressional politics of 2002 and the presidential politics of 2004 will take shape, for war does not adjourn democracy in America. The historical precedents of war's effect on politics cannot be encouraging for President George W. Bush.

In the wake of what was the worst one-day carnage on American soil until the World Trade Center bombings—the nearly 5,000 men killed on September 17, 1862, at Antietam—President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, ending slavery. If the President hoped the dearly-purchased Northern victory at Antietam and the pending emancipation would favor his party in the fall elections, he miscalculated the temper of the war-weary voters. Running against emancipation and wartime violations of civil liberties, Democrats won thirty-four congressional seats and several key governorships. Facing reelection himself two years later, Lincoln was so certain of defeat that he submitted a "blind memorandum" to his cabinet that began, "This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be reelected." "I am going to be beaten, " he told an officer, "and unless some great change takes place badly beaten." Lincoln made these statements in late August, 1864. Like President Roosevelt, he must have prayed for his generals to deliver him a victory before Election Day. On September 3, when news arrived of General Sherman's capture of Atlanta, his prayers were answered.

President Wilson was just a week away from the surrender of Germany in November, 1918, when Americans repudiated him and his party, electing Republican majorities in both Houses and installing, as Senate majority leader, Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, who defeated Wilson's plan for the United States's entry into a League of Nations—and all hope for a stable post-war world order. President Truman, facing approval ratings as low as 23 percent for his conduct of the Korean War among other missteps, did not run for reelection in 1952. The successful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962, barely helped JFK and the Democrats emerge from the November elections in a draw with the Republicans, though the latter would have done better, one observer wrote, "if the world hadn't nearly ended." Lyndon Johnson, embroiled in Vietnam, saw his party lose 47 House seats in 1966; two years later, Johnson, like Truman, decided not to face the electorate, the war having divided his party and the country.

But the portent with the most meaning for George W. Bush is his father's defeat by Bill Clinton in 1992—this after Bush senior racked up approval ratings of 90 percent the year before for his handling of the Gulf War. The build-up to the Gulf War in the fall of 1990 coincided with the onset of an economic recession, whose ill effects outweighed any benefits Bush could derive as the liberator of Kuwait. His son is in precisely those circumstances today—on the edge of war and recession—and his father's war is responsible for this war. Bush senior's deployment of troops to protect Saudi Arabian oil from Saddam Hussein touched off the terrorist campaign against the United States that has now come back to haunt the younger Bush and afflict his country. Repetition is not the pattern of history; tragic irony is.

The record shows that civil war, imminent victory in war, war against evil, a spectacular act of statecraft to prevent nuclear war, and even near-unanimous public approval for the successful prosecution of a war have not much helped and may have harmed Presidents or their parties in elections. American politics is resistant to nationalizing issues. As the former House Speaker Thomas P. ("Tip") O'Neill Jr. famously said, All politics is local. In 1942, in the midst of the greatest war in history against the evilest force in history, James Michael Curley, tribune of Irish-Catholic Boston, defeated a sitting congressman not by campaigning with reference to the major events then taking place on the world stage, but in part by accusing him of being a Unitarian.

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Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the editor of Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America (2001). His previous books are The World According to Peter Drucker (1997) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992).

Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.