History February 14, 2020: Sanders’s views on Judaism similar to the last Jew as close to presidency Judah Benjamin




Sanders’s views on Judaism similar to the last Jew as close to presidency Judah Benjamin

Bonnie K. Goodman

Bonnie K. Goodman Feb 14

Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

In an unfamiliar sight, Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders lights a Hanukkah menorah wearing a kippah at a Des Moines, Iowa event, December 29, 2019. Kelsey Kremer/The Register

With his victory in the New Hampshire primary, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders became the frontrunner for the Democratic Presidential nomination.[1] Sanders would become the first Jew to hold the distinction and become that close to capturing the presidency. Sanders is not a practicing Jew and withheld from discussing his Judaism during his 2016 run for the Democratic nomination and only recently he has made his religious identity a central focus in his campaign. In a January 2020 New York Times interview with Sanders, when asked about believing in God Sanders declared, “I am Jewish, I am proud to be Jewish. I was bar mitzvahed from the Kings Highway Jewish Center, a long time ago. I am not actively involved in organized religion. I believe in God. I believe in the universality of people. That what happens to you impacts me. And I certainly believe in the constitutional right of freedom of religion. And I will strongly defend that.”[2] In 2015, in an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Kimmel asked Sanders the same question, to which he replied, “I am what I am. And what I believe in, and what my spirituality is about, is that we’re all in this together.” [3] Sanders’s Jewish co-religionists are not enthusiastic about the prospect of him becoming the first Jewish Democratic nominee and he is their fourth choice among the Democratic presidential candidates.

In American history, only one other Jew has come so close to the presidency, Judah P. Benjamin. Benjamin served in three cabinet posts in the Confederate States of America government; the country formed with the Southern states seceded from the Union, a catalyst for the Civil War to preserve the union. The wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Varina Davis in her memoirs acknowledged Benjamin, “The President promoted him to the State Department with a personal and aggrieved sense of injustice done to the man who had now become his friend and right hand.” [4] Benjamin was indispensable to Davis, working ten to twelve hours a day by his side, serving as a speechwriter and trusted confident. Benjamin biographer Eli N. Evans author of Judah P. Benjamin, the Jewish Confederate went as far as to claim Benjamin sometimes served as a surrogate or acting president of the Confederacy.

Benjamin was the first Jewish Senator, the first Jew nominated and confirmed to the Supreme Court, and he was nominated to be the Ambassador to Spain an honor for a Jew, who came from a prominent Spanish Jewish family, and who traced their lineage to before the expulsion. The Confederacy had been welcoming to religious minorities, Benjamin, who was Jewish married into a successful Louisiana Creole and Catholic family excelled in an increasingly Protestant Christian evangelical majority. In the South and the Senate, Benjamin was a brilliant jurist, orator, a plantation owner, and a sugar cane cultivator. During the Civil War, Benjamin was “the brains of the Confederacy,” the Jew at “the very center of Southern history,” “in the eye of the storm that was the Civil War,” who remained in the “shadow” but took the fall as the Confederacy failed in the war. [5] Through it, all Benjamin refused to discuss his Jewish identity, anti-Semitism followed him throughout his political career and his actions in the Confederate cabinet caused an eruption of anti-Jewish prejudice in the North and mostly in the South, where the Jewish population had lived in harmony with their Christian neighbors.

Sanders also shares with Benjamin a reluctance to discuss his Jewish identity, which involved a religious childhood followed filled with Hebrew school and a Bar Mitzvah to marrying into a Catholic family and remaining Jewish in name only as a way to advance his political career in a Christian America. Sanders left out his Judaism, throughout the 2016 presidential campaign against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, only to be trounced by Jewish voters. Sanders addressed his Judaism on the 2020-campaign trail in November 2019 with an article in the leftist Jewish publication the Jewish Currants “How to Fight Antisemitism,” Sanders declared, “I am a proud Jewish American.”

The threat of antisemitism is not some abstract idea to me. It is very personal. It destroyed a large part of my family. I am not someone who spends a lot of time talking about my personal background because I believe political leaders should focus their attention on a vision and agenda for others, rather than themselves. But I also appreciate that it’s important to talk about how our backgrounds have informed our ideas, our principles, and our values.

I am a proud Jewish American. My father emigrated from Poland to the United States in 1921 at the age of 17 to escape the poverty and widespread antisemitism of his home country. Those in his family who remained in Poland after Hitler came to power were murdered by the Nazis. I know very well where white supremacist politics leads, and what can happen when people do not speak up against it. [6]

Sanders has increasingly discussed his Judaism in the weeks leading up to the all-important Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire primary turning his religion from a negative into a positive. Then Sanders debuted a new image at a Hanukkah celebration at the Brenton Skating Plaza in Des Moines, Iowa, the site of the first nominating contest, where Sanders would go to come-in a close second in a dead heat race against Pete Buttigieg, the Former Mayor of South Bend, Indiana. On December 29, 2019, at the event Sanders denounced the recent anti-Semitic attack at a New York rabbi’s home in Monsey, lite the giant Hanukkah menorah, sang Hanukkah songs, and most startling wore a kippah.[7] In his remarks, Sanders discussed anti-Semitism a new staple on the campaign trail:

“What we are seeing right now — we’re seeing it in America and we’re seeing it all over the world — is a rise in anti-Semitism. We’re seeing a rise in hate crimes in this country. We’re seeing somebody run into a kid here in Des Moines because that child was a Latino. We’re seeing people being stabbed yesterday in New York City because they were Jewish. We are seeing people being assaulted because they are Muslim. … If there was ever a time in American history where we say no to religious bigotry, now is the time. If there was ever a time where we say no to divisiveness, now is the moment.”[8]

On January 25, 2020, Sanders’s campaign released a four-minute video on his Twitter feed about his Jewish identity, it included excerpts from Sanders’s October 2019 speech to J Street, “the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group,” annual conference and his campaign’s Jewish outreach director Joel Rubin, a former Barack Obama official, commentating. The video complete with Yiddish slang, “kishkes,” begins with Sanders declaring; “I’m very proud to be Jewish and look forward to becoming the first Jewish president in the history of this country.” [9]

The video was meant to contrast Sanders with Republican President Donald Trump’s tolerance of white nationalism and anti-Semitism. Rubin narrates, “We live in a perilous time where not only are white nationalists attacking our synagogues and raising hate speech on the internet, we have a white nationalist right now sitting in the White House. We need to have someone in office who gets it, gets it in his kishkes, understands what it really means to ensure that we are healing our world.” [10] At the J-Street conference, Sanders also referenced anti-Semitism, saying, “If there is any people on Earth who understands the dangers of racism and white nationalism, it is certainly the Jewish people. And if there is any people on Earth who should do everything humanly possible to fight against Trump’s efforts to try to divide us up … and bring people together around a common and progressive agenda, it is the Jewish people.”[11]

On Thursday, February 6, 2020, speaking at a CNN town hall for Democratic presidential candidates in New Hampshire, Sanders answered an audience question about his Jewish identity being “a help or a hindrance” as he runs for the presidency. Sanders responded to his Judaism, “impacts me very profoundly. When I try to think about the views that I came to hold there are two factors. One I grew up in a family that didn’t have a lot of money … and the second one is being Jewish…. At a very early age, even before my political thoughts were developed, I was aware of the horrible things that human beings can do to other people in the name of racism or white nationalism, or in this case Nazism.”[12]

On the campaign trail, the most surprising Sanders’s allies and shave been touting his Judaism, among them Palestinian activist Linda Sarsour, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and Professor Cornel West. At a September 2019 campaign rally, Sarsour declared, “I would be so proud to win, but also to make history and elect the first Jewish American president this country has ever seen and for his name to be Bernard Sanders.” [13] At a pre-New Hampshire primary event on Monday, February 10, 2020, West, expressed, “We got a deep Jewish brother named Bernie Sanders who is bringing us together.” West supports the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement and questions the Jewish historical claim to Israel.[14]

Sanders’s position on Israel is also troubling and he is overtly critical especially of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. Sanders declares he is pro-Israel, writing, “I have a connection to Israel going back many years. In 1963, I lived on a kibbutz near Haifa. It was there that I saw and experienced for myself many of the progressive values upon which Israel was founded.” However, Sanders has sympathies with the Palestinians’ viewpoint, rights and “their displacement,” calling the Israeli settlements an occupation. Sanders’s plans threaten American military aid and funding to Israel making it contingent on their treatment of Palestinians, justifying it by saying, “$3.8 billion is a lot of money, and we cannot give it carte blanche to the Israeli government.” [15] Sanders claims that kind of criticism “does not “delegitimize” Israel any more than acknowledging the sober facts of America’s own founding delegitimizes the United States.” [16] At the J-Street conference, Sanders justified his criticism, claiming, “It’s going to be very hard for anybody to call me — whose father’s family was wiped out by Hitler — anti-Semitic.”[17]

American Jews have reluctant to support Sanders partially because of his campaign surrogates who have a history of making anti-Semitic and anti-Israel remarks and Sanders’s position on Israel. A January 2020, Pew Research Center poll finds that only 11 percent of Jewish members of the Democratic Party intends to vote for Sanders in the primaries. Sanders garners most of his support from “religiously unaffiliated Democrats, self-described atheists and agnostics,” and from Muslims than he does from Jewish Democrats. [18] Jewish Journal Political Editor Shmuel Rosner points out, “Still, it is clear that he is not the Jews’ preferred cup of tea. For many Israelis, a Sanders presidency seems like a nightmare. Sanders says he is “proud to be Jewish” but many Jews find it hard to feel the same pride as they look at him.” [19] The New York Times in their interview with Sanders noted his different views on his religion and his place in history. The Editorial Board indicated, “Senator Sanders is religiously an anomaly among the candidates, for several reasons — if elected, he would be the first Jewish president, and also one of few who have openly discussed a disconnect from organized religion. He attended Hebrew school as a boy and spent time in Israel on a kibbutz, but has said he does not have a regular religious practice.” [20]

In contrast, to Sanders’s recent declaration about his Jewish identity, Judah Benjamin supposedly only once declared his Jewishness in his political career on the Senate floor; however, historians dispute the occurrences since it was out of caricature for Benjamin. Benjamin chose not to discuss his Judaism but it followed him and he was the target of anti-Semitic attacks from colleagues and political enemies alike. Benjamin was the consummate insider and outsider as a Jew at both times. Sanders too shares the distinction of being an outsider in the American Jewish community and among Jewish voters.

Judah P. Benjamin

In March 1858, while Benjamin delivered a speech supporting Kansas being admitted to the Union as a slave state supposedly, Republican Senator Benjamin F. Wade of Ohio “denounced” Benjamin on the Senate floor calling him, “an Israelite with Egyptian principle.” Wade stated, “Why sir, when old Moses, under immediate inspiration of God Almighty, enticed a whole nation of slaves, and ran away, not to Canada to old Canaan, I suppose Pharaoh and all the chivalry of old Egypt denounced him as a most furious abolitionist… there were not those who loved Egypt better than they loved liberty… They were not exactly Northern men with Southern principles, but they were Israelites with Egyptian principles.”

To which Benjamin supposedly responded, “It is true that I am a Jew, and when my ancestors were receiving their Ten Commandments from the immediate Deity, amidst the thundering and lightning of Mt. Sinai, the ancestors of my opponent were herding swine in the forests of Great Britain.” [21] Although attributed to Benjamin, Benjamin never acknowledged his Jewishness in issues in the Senate that affected American Jews. Historian Bertram W. Korn does not believe that Benjamin delivered this remark. According to Korn, “The fact that Benjamin did not feel obliged, in either of these cases, to register himself as a Jew would appear to be much more significant than any of the questionable traditions and legends concerning allegedly defiant answers to which he is purported to have made to any anti-Jewish attacks upon himself.” [22] Evans also questions Benjamin’s declaration, since historians have told “ four different versions” of the anecdote and “the quote cannot be verified.” Still, Evans notes “the statement remains a part of the legend of Judah P. Benjamin, even though it indicates an uncharacteristic acknowledgment in public of his Jewishness.”[23]

The Benjamin family was not Orthodox and kept their store open on the Sabbath, and they did adhere to the daily religious rituals. Judah’s father Phillip Benjamin “was an intellectual” and “well versed in Jewish law.” Phillip was one of the founders of Charleston’s first Reform synagogue, the Reform Society of Israelites after he and 46 other members of Congregation Beth Elohim petitioned the synagogue to among other reforms modernize prayers using English, shorten the prayers, and include an English sermon in the service. The petitioners looked to anglicize Judaism in Protestant Charleston. Evans indicates, “As a son of one of the leaders of the society Judah understandably would have been deeply affected by the religious divisions. The reform movement was not just for adults, it sought to influence history through the children of its members and the generations to come.”[24] When Judah turned thirteen in 1824, he participated in a confirmation ceremony rather than a bar mitzvah. Phillip Benjamin served on the committee of correspondence of the new congregation. The family’s religious observance was lax, especially because of financial needs Phillip kept his store open on the Sabbath. In 1827, even under reform rules the new congregation “ousted” the Benjamins from the synagogue for not observing the Sabbath.[25]

Despite his non-observance, Benjamin remained a Jew his whole life although he was never attended or a member in a synagogue or involved in the Jewish community of any city he lived throughout his adult life in America or Britain. According to Korn in his article, “Judah P. Benjamin as a Jew,” “Altogether it would appear that Benjamin had no positive or active interest in Jews or Judaism. The only known facts are that he was born into a Jewish family… that he never denied being Jewish or sought to escape his background through conversion to the Catholic faith of his wife and daughter.” [26] “More recently Evans claims, “To presume Benjamin a nonbeliever by his public acts represents a fundamental error in Southern history.” Evans believes Benjamin could not cut ties completely with his Judaism after his religious upbringing, arguing, “No Jew can make the leap from a childhood with religious immigrant parents to an assimilated Southern leader in twenty years, without retaining psychological ties to his Jewish past.” [27]

The lack of personal sources about Benjamin makes it even more difficult to analyze his personal feelings about his Jewish identity as opposed to the public reticence available from the scarce sources. To Catharine MacMillan, in her article, “Judah Benjamin: marginalized outsider or admitted insider?,” “This failure is significant not only in the understanding of Benjamin’s life but also in a greater understanding of one of the most prominent Jewish figures in the nineteenth-century English speaking world. This prevents a greater understanding of the acceptance of Jewish people in America and the United Kingdom.” [28] Benjamin’s success was because of his passionate loyalty to Southern issues and his ability to downplay his religion. Despite Benjamin assimilating to Southern white Christian society, the anti-Semitic attacks towards Benjamin both before and especially during the Civil War gave rise to widespread anti-Jewish prejudice in the South. Historians will never know how he felt about the personal attacks or how he felt about his actions in the cabinet were affecting the wider Jewish community in the South.

The very little record does not indicate if he had any pride in being Jewish or involvement after his childhood. Whitaker in his Sketches of Life and Character in Louisiana, The Portraits Selected Principally from the Bench and Bar noted in 1847 that the public was aware that Benjamin was Jewish, writing, “Mr. Benjamin is by birth, and as his names imports, an Israelite. Yet how far he still adheres to the religion of his fathers, I cannot tell, though I should doubt whether the matter troubled him much.” [29] One incident indicates that Benjamin took an interest in the community; he purchased a subscription to the Philadelphia Rabbi Isaac Leeser’s newspaper The Occident and American Jewish Advocate. On March 20, 1848, Gershom Kursheedt, the leader of the New Orleans Jewish community notified Leeser in a letter that “Before I forget it let me state on Friday last Mr. J.P. Benjamin handed me $5.50 for you.” In 1843, Leeser sent free copies to influential Jews so they would purchase a subscription to his magazine. Benjamin was not as distanced to know the leader of the community and his connection to Leeser and to want to be current on Jewish issues.

Jewish leaders looked to claim Benjamin as a member of the Jewish community more than Benjamin wished to identify publicly with his religion. Two stories circulated that embellished his involvement. The first attributed to Isaac Mayer Wise, who claimed in the fall of 1850 to have had two discussions with Benjamin, Secretary of State Daniel Webster and Lieutenant Matthew F. Maury. In 1874, Wise recounts in his memoir, Reminisces he discussed religion and Judaism with Benjamin in the two meetings, the first in Webster’s office then later at dinner. Korn believes the discussions did not occur because Benjamin became a Senator in 1853, while Webster died in 1852, and Benjamin did not visit Washington in the fall of 1850 but July 1851. Wise contradicted his story in a response to a Boston Transcript editorial from January 5, 1861, which criticized Jews, Benjamin, Senator David (Levy) Yulee and Benjamin Mordecai of Charleston for contributing to the secession crisis, Benjamin and Yulee through their Senate actions and Mordecai with a monetary contribution. Wise responded Jews were divided politically and that he had only met Mordecai. Neither did Wise mention meeting Benjamin in his obituary for Benjamin in the Israelite.

Years later, Herbert Ezekiel author of the book The History of the Jews of Richmond from 1769 to 1917 (1917) claimed in 1860 that while Benjamin was in San Francisco arguing the mining case United States V. Castillero, he delivered a sermon at a San Francisco synagogue for Yom Kippur, on September 26. The United States V. Castillero was one of Benjamin’s most important cases in front of the Supreme Court concerned with “the ownership of the New Almaden quicksilver mine in California.” [30] Ezekiel quoted Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise of Cincinnati. Wise had not been San Francisco that year and neither did the only Jewish paper The Weekly Gleaner claim Benjamin was anywhere near a synagogue let alone deliver a Yom Kippur sermon.

Two days earlier Rev, Julius Eckman of The Weekly Gleaner reported Benjamin delivered a lecture on politics and government at Tucker’s Academy for an Episcopal Church. The speech, however, did mention American Jewry, Eckman reported Benjamin made rare comments speaking out against political discrimination. Gleaner wrote, “He next referred in a very happy manner to the injustice in the distribution of offices and asked why the citizens of his religious tenets were not favored by those who have it in their power to bestow offices of emolument and trust. In a very pathetic manner, he asked ‘Would the great Washington have excluded a citizen from holding federal appointment because of his religion.’” [31]

Ezekiel believed Benjamin’s speech was delivered as a Yom Kippur sermon, Korn, however, indicates the speech must have been one Benjamin delivered to the Church of Advent. Korn claims the official printed version of the speech referred to “the spoils system and political prejudice, not religious prejudice.” Korn argues Eckman was either drowsy that evening and did not hear Benjamin right, or he was so eager to identify Benjamin as a positive Jew that he misinterpreted what the Louisiana Senator did say.” [32] Korn’s basis for his analysis was because Benjamin never spoke about himself in his address or anything related to Judaism in his addresses, quoting Jefferson Davis who claimed, “No more reticent man ever lived where it was possible to be silent.”

Without many records, it is difficult to say for certain. Despite Korn debunking the Benjamin quote, Eckman’s paraphrasing of Benjamin speaks volumes on why he, for the most part, stayed away from Judaism in his public life, his fear his religion would hold his ambition back from political advancement. Historian Diane Ashton explains the situation for Southern Jews during the Civil War in her article “Shifting Veils: Religion, Politics, and Womanhood Among Jewish Women During the Civil War.” Ashton writes, “When the determination of friend or foe was the degree to which an individual displayed shared values and commitments and when religion was made to serve political causes, Jewish identity could be a liability or an asset.” [33] With the array of anti-Semitic attacks on Benjamin from his political foes, he long learned that assimilation and keeping his religious difference private was best for his political advancement.

Two later incidents while Benjamin served in the Senate, however, demonstrated just how distanced publicly he was from his religion. In 1850, the “American Minster to Switzerland” A. Dudley Moore negotiated a commercial treaty with the Swiss Confederation. An article in the treaty allowed Swiss cantons the right to refuse Jews’ entry and not allow them to benefit from the treaty, only Christians, and included the ability to expel any Jew conducting business in their canton. Secretary of State Daniel Webster and Senator Henry Clay opposed the clause and President Millard Fillmore wanted the clause removed from the treaty.

The controversy became known as L’Affaire Swiss. Rabbinical leaders in both North and South opposed the anti-Semitic clause and lobbied the government to advocate religious tolerance abroad. Among those leading the movement were “Rabbis Isaac Leeser of Philadelphia, David Einhorn of Baltimore, J. M. Cardozo of Charleston, and Capt. Jonas Phillips Levy of New York.” Former Representative Phillip Phillips of Alabama and Jonas Levy advocated the government on behalf of American Jews. In the Senate, Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan led a movement opposed to ratifying the treaty. Cass would later become Secretary of State and notably delivered a speech on the Senate floor on April 19, 1854, placing his support in America’s Jewish population.

Benjamin, however, refused to be involved in the Senate floor debate; instead, he did not identify himself as a Jew that would have been subjected to the treaty’s exemption. Benjamin presented the petition on May 10, 1854, on the Senate floor, he advocated for equality in the treaty but Benjamin chose not to include that he too was a Jew, excluding himself from his coreligionists. According to the Congressional Globe from the day, “Mr. Benjamin resented… a petition of citizens of the United States, professing the Jewish religion, praying that measures be taken to secure to American citizens of every religious creed, residing or traveling abroad, their civil and religious rights; which was referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations.” [34] The clause was rewritten but it still allowed the Swiss to discriminate against Jews. What had been an objection became a protest movement by American Jews, the situation only grew when an American citizen and Jew, A. H. Gootman, who conducted commercial business for five years was forced to leave La Chaux-de-Fonds, in Neuchâtel in 1856.

Except for presenting the petition, Benjamin chose not to take on a leadership role; historians suggest he felt it better for non-Jewish Senate members to take on that position. However, it was often the practice of some Jews in the South to “veil” as historian Diane Ashton called it, their religion in front of their Christian neighbors. If he would have taken on a leadership role he would have been known as the “Jewish Senator,” and he worked his whole career not to be defined or hindered by his Judaism. [35] In 1860, Benjamin remained just as detached, when China and Japan put similar clauses in their treaties with America only allowing Christians to worship freely. Again, Jewish leaders objected to the included clauses and lobbied that any American of any faith should have their right. Rabbi Max Lilienthal wrote to Benjamin looking for him to advocate in the Senate on American Jewry’s behalf. Benjamin replied:

Washington, March 24, 1860

My dear Sir:

I have received your favor of the 21st inst., and shall be watchful of the China treaty, in order to take care that by no omission shall the Israelites of the United States be debarred the privilege secured by the treaty to their Christian fellow citizens.

Thank you for your complimentary expression toward myself, I remain,

Yours with great respect,

J.P. Benjamin.

Rev. Dr. Lilienthal.

Benjamin’s reply was detached from the situation, although he agreed to advocate, he did not include himself as one of the aggrieved Jews.

Benjamin would the ultimate political insider but he spent his life as a Jew on the outside from his religion and community. Benjamin remained an outsider as a Jew, who like the rest of the Southern Jewish population tried to be more devoted, loyal and fervent in all the South’s institutions and social constructs to avoid anti-Jewish prejudice. Legal scholar Catharine MacMillan even concurs, “Benjamin’s life, it is also argued, demonstrates how some individuals can ‘overcome’ the initial marginalization which attends the circumstances of their birth to move within the mainstream of society.”[36] Historians agree that Benjamin’s ability to turn his “weakness into strength” led to his success and his “perseverance in the face of adversity.” [37] Benjamin died on May 6, 1884, although he remained a non-observant Jew, his wife Natalie St-Martin Benjamin had a Catholic priest administer last rites on Benjamin before he died, had his funeral services in a church and buried him at the St Martin family crypt at Père Lachaise Cemetery.

The United States is probably the most polarized politically it has been since before the Civil War, the ideological war between the left and right has widened into a chasm. Sanders has found being a Democratic socialist his new religion, his adherence to the ideology has helped him propel to the top of the candidates and gained him popularity among the growing progressives within the party. Benjamin too molded to the Southern social and political norms to rise the political ladder, he supported and defended slavery, states’ rights, and then secession to reach the heights of power in the South. Evans describes, “Benjamin as a Jew would have to be more loyal to the Cause than anyone else — more outspoken in the Cabinet, more courageous, and willing to wage war with the energy that total war demanded. And if he understood Jefferson Davis, loyalty to the President as the symbol to the Cause was the measure of a man’s worth to the Confederacy.” [38] Loyalty and adherence to America’s new political norms and downplaying their Judaism are the reasons both Benjamin and Sanders were able to advance in their political career despite their religion, now Sanders has the chance to use Benjamin’s strategy to reach what has until now elusive for Jews, the pinnacle of power in the U.S, the presidency.


Downey, Arthur T. The Creole Affair: The Slave Rebellion That Led the U.S. and Great Britain to the Brink of War. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

Evans, Eli N. Judah P. Benjamin, the Jewish Confederate. New York: Free Press, 1989.

Korn, Bertram W. “JUDAH P. BENJAMIN AS A JEW.” Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, vol. 38, no. 3, 1949, pp. 153–171. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43059749.

MacMillan, Catharine. “Judah Benjamin: marginalized outsider or admitted insider?” Journal of Law and Society, 42 (1), 2015, pp. 150–172. doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.14676478.2015.00702.

Nadell, Pamela S. and Jonathan D. Sarna, eds. Women and American Judaism: Historical Perspectives. Hanover N.H.: University Press of New England, 2001.

Singer, Jane. The Confederate Dirty War: Arson, Bombings, Assassination, and Plots for Chemical and Germ Attacks on the Union. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland & Co, 2005.

Stone, Kurt F. The Jews of Capitol Hill: A Compendium of Jewish Congressional Members. Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press, Inc, 2011.

Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS is a journalist, librarian, and historian. She has a BA in History & Art History, and an MLIS, Masters in Library and Information Studies both from McGill University. She has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. She is currently expanding her article about Confederate cabinet secretary Judah Benjamin “The Mysterious Prince of the Confederacy: Judah P. Benjamin and the Jewish goal of whiteness in the South” into a full-length biography.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/11/opinion/bernie-sanders-election.html

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/01/13/opinion/bernie-sanders-nytimes-interview.html

[3] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/01/bloomberg-and-sanders-embrace-judaism-not-each-other/605503/

[4] Evans, Judah P. Benjamin, 149.

[5] Ibid., Evans, Judah P. Benjamin, xiii.

[6] https://jewishcurrents.org/how-to-fight-antisemitism/

[7] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/01/bloomberg-and-sanders-embrace-judaism-not-each-other/605503/

[8] https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/elections/presidential/caucus/2019/12/29/bernie-sanders-celebrates-hanukkah-des-moines-menorah-lighting/2772165001/

[9] https://www.jta.org/quick-reads/bernie-sanders-rolls-out-his-jewish-bernie-campaign-video

[10] https://www.jta.org/quick-reads/bernie-sanders-rolls-out-his-jewish-bernie-campaign-video

[11] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/01/bloomberg-and-sanders-embrace-judaism-not-each-other/605503/

[12] https://www.jta.org/quick-reads/bernie-sanders-being-jewish-is-one-of-two-factors-that-shaped-his-outlook

[13] https://twitter.com/berniesanders/status/1170120494017740801?lang=en

[14] https://www.jta.org/2020/02/13/politics/cornel-west-uses-hebrew-word-chesed-at-bernie-sanders-rally

[15] https://jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain/310299/bernie-sanders-and-the-jews/

[16] https://jewishcurrents.org/how-to-fight-antisemitism/

[17] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/01/bloomberg-and-sanders-embrace-judaism-not-each-other/605503/

[18] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/01/31/among-democrats-christians-lean-toward-biden-while-nones-prefer-sanders/

[19] https://jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain/310299/bernie-sanders-and-the-jews/

[20] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/01/13/opinion/bernie-sanders-nytimes-interview.html

[21] Arthur T. Downey, The Creole Affair: The Slave Rebellion That Led the U.S. and Great Britain to the Brink of War, (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), 160.

[22] Bertram W. Korn, “JUDAH P. BENJAMIN AS A JEW.” Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, vol. 38, no. 3, 1949, 168. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43059749.

[23] Eli N. Evans, Judah P. Benjamin: The Jewish Confederate, (New York: Free Press, 1988), 97.

[24] Evans, Judah P. Benjamin, 10.

[25] Evans, Judah P. Benjamin, 11.


[27] Evans, Judah P. Benjamin, xvii.

[28] Catharine MacMillan, “Judah Benjamin: marginalized outsider or admitted insider?” Journal of Law and Society, 42 (1), 2015, 2. doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.14676478.2015.00702

[29] Whitaker, Sketches of Life and Character in Louisiana, 28.

[30] MacMillan, “Judah Benjamin: marginalized outsider or admitted insider?,” 11.

[31] Korn, “JUDAH P. BENJAMIN AS A JEW.” 156.

[32] Ibid., Korn, “JUDAH P. BENJAMIN AS A JEW.” 157.

[33] Pamela S. Nadell and Jonathan D. Sarna, eds. Women and American Judaism: Historical Perspectives, (Hanover N.H.: University Press of New England, 2001), 84.

[34] Korn, “JUDAH P. BENJAMIN AS A JEW.” 167.

[35] Stone, The Jews of Capitol Hill, 41.

[36] MacMillan, “Judah Benjamin: marginalized outsider or admitted insider?,” 18–19.

[37] Ibid., MacMillan, “Judah Benjamin: marginalized outsider or admitted insider?,” 18–19.

[38] Evans, Judah P. Benjamin, 121.

Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS is a journalist, librarian, and historian. She has a BA in History & Art History, and an MLIS, Masters in Library and Information Studies both from McGill University. She has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. She is currently expanding her article about Confederate cabinet secretary Judah Benjamin “The Mysterious Prince of the Confederacy: Judah P. Benjamin and the Jewish Goal of Whiteness in the South” into a full-length biography.

Politics June 4, 2018: Out-of-touch with #MeToo, Bill Clinton faces backlash over defiance about not apologizing to Monica Lewinsky




Out-of-touch with #MeToo, Bill Clinton faces backlash over defiance about not apologizing to Monica Lewinsky

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

Source: The Today Show Screenshot

The #MeToo movement is making men everywhere reckon and confront their actions but not former President Bill Clinton. Clinton appeared in a joint interview on NBC’s Today Show on Monday morning with mystery author James Patterson for their new book “The President Is Missing” when Weekend co-host Craig Melvin confronted the former president about former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Melvin shocked a seemingly unprepared Clinton asking him if he ever personally apologized to Lewinsky. In the #MeToo public apologies on rote have become the norm, the let the aggressors, mostly men, find a way for the public to forgive them as a means to salvage their careers. Clinton is now facing a backlash for his defiant response from both liberal and conservatives, men and women, proving although Clinton is living in 1998; the rest of the world is not when it comes to the scandal that nearly brought down his presidency.

Melvin asked Clinton if he would have dealt with the scandal resulting from the fallout from his affair with Lewinsky differently in the time of the #MeToo and “Through the lens of #MeToo now, do you think differently or feel more responsibility?… Did you ever apologize to her [Lewinsky]?” Melvin also asked the former president whether he should have resigned amidst the scandal that led to him being on the second president ever impeached in American history. Clinton was impeached on charges of obstruction of justice and lying under oath about his relationship with Lewinsky. Clinton responded with the same arrogant defiance that he maintained as the scandal unfolded. Responding to whether he personally apologized to Lewinsky, and “Do you feel that you owe her an apology?” Clinton answered Melvin, “I do not. I have never talked to her. But I did say, publicly, on more than one occasion, that I was sorry. That’s very different. The apology was public. I felt terrible then, and I came to grips with it.”

Clinton became agitated and defensive saying he would not have done anything different in this #MeToo climate, arguing he too was a victim, punished enough for his actions. Clinton told Melvin, “No, yes. And nobody believes that I got out of that for free. I left the White House $16 million in debt. But you typically have ignored gaping facts in describing this. And I bet you don’t even know them. This was litigated 20 years ago. Two-thirds of the American people sided with me. They were not insensitive of that. I had a sexual harassment policy when I was governor in the ’80s. I had two women chiefs of staff when I was governor. Women were overrepresented in the attorney general’s office in the ’70s for their percentage of the bar. I’ve had nothing but women leaders in my office since I left. You are giving one side and omitting facts.”

When responding to whether he should have resigned, Clinton conveniently referred to the allegations President Donald Trump is facing. Attacking Melvin, Clinton accused, “A lot of the facts have been conveniently omitted to make the story work, I think partly because they’re frustrated that they got all these serious allegations against the current occupant of the Oval Office and his voters don’t seem to care. I think I did the right thing. I defended the Constitution.” Democratic New York Senator and former Clinton ally Kirsten Gillibrand caused shock waves when this past November when she told the New York Times she believed Clinton should have resigned during the scandal in 1998. It was the first time a high-ranking Democrat, indicated Clinton should have resigned.

Clinton has escaped the leper status that is so common against men accused in the #MeToo era, not only because of the power of being a former president but also because of his public apology to the nation on August 17, 1998, where he acknowledged his affair with Lewinsky. Clinton then admitted, “Indeed, I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong. It constituted a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on my part for which I am solely and completely responsible.” That speech, however, consisted of Clinton’s same defiance, never did he say he was sorry or apologized for his actions, he only admitted he misled and he regrets them. Kathleen Hayden in CNN wrote an article, “Analysis: More Apology, Mr. President, And Less Politics, Please,” where Hayden said, “The speech was laced with legal doublespeak and a sharp, defiant edge.” Time even called it a “stony-faced White House address.”

One month later at the National Prayer Breakfast Clinton finally admitted, “I sinned.” Finally, Clinton publicly apologized. Clinton expressed in his speech, “I don’t think there’s a fancy way to say that I have sinned. It is important to me that everyone who has been hurt know that the sorrow I feel is genuine — first and most important, my family, my friends, my staff, my cabinet, Monica Lewinsky and her family, and the American people. I have asked all for their forgiveness.” That was the only time Clinton apologized to Lewinsky or anyone, for his actions that put in the country in a crisis for no reason, and the pain and suffering that those involved went through and continued to go in through in the aftermath especially Lewinsky. Right or wrong, his apology has given him a pass with a majority of the American public and most probably the main reason he was spared from being convicted by the Senate in their impeachment vote, and let him escape being forced to resign from the presidency in 1998.

The #MeToo has revisited not only the prevalent sexual abuse and harassment that was pushed under the rug but also the meaning of consent especially when there is a difference in power between the two parties. The lopsided power in employment, at universities, relationships between bosses and employees and professors and students particularly. In light of this, Lewinsky, who persistently claimed it, was consensual and she was not a victim, but she is currently reconsidering it in light of the #MeToo movement. Lewinsky is not the only one reconsidering the relationship and President Clinton’s actions, so is the media.

Recently, Lewinsky in a March 2018, Vanity Fair article entitled, “Emerging from the ‘House of Gaslight’ in the age of #metoo” re-examined her relationship with former President Bill Clinton. Lewinsky emphasized, “If I have learned anything since then, it is that you cannot run away from who you are or from how you’ve been shaped by your experiences. Instead, you must integrate your past and present. As Salman Rushdie observed after the fatwa was issued against him, ‘Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.’ I have been working toward this realization for years. I have been trying to find that power — a particularly Sisyphean task for a person who has been gaslighted.”

Unlike Clinton, Lewinsky realizes how the #MeToo movement era changes how one looks at the Clinton era scandal. Lewinsky acknowledged “Until recently (thank you, Harvey Weinstein), historians hadn’t really had the perspective to fully process and acknowledge that year of shame and spectacle. And as a culture, we still haven’t properly examined it. Re-framed it. Integrated it. And transformed it.” On the reconsideration of her relationship with Clinton, Lewinsky expressed, “I now see how problematic it was that the two of us even got to a place where there was a question of consent. Instead, the road that led there was littered with inappropriate abuse of authority, station, and privilege. (Full stop.)” It impossible to believe a recent university graduate and former White House intern had a choice in her relationship with the president of the country and most powerful man in the free world. The more powerful one, no matter what, always directed the direction of the relationship.

Lewinsky wrote the article in honor of the 20th anniversary since was thrust into the spotlight by Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr. Lewinsky recounted meeting Starr for the first time, and seeing him “as a human being.” She was “paving the way” for Starr to apologize, telling him, “Though I wish I had made different choices back then. I wish that you and your office had made different choices, too.” All Starr did was respond, “I know. It was unfortunate.” Lewinsky never described how she felt like that he did not apologize, as Clinton did not. After the Today Show interview aired, Lewinsky tweeted “grateful to the myriad people who have helped me evolve + gain perspective in the past 20 years.” She also reposted her February Vanity Fair article, saying, “worth reposting this today from @VanityFair.”

Since the #MeToo movement began in the fall of 2017, with the outing of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct, powerful men in all industries; entertainment, journalism, politics academia, and business have seen their stars fall as women came forward accusing them of sexual assault or harassment. Legal vindication came with actor Bill Cosby finally being convicted in April of his sexual assaults and Harvey Weinstein’s arrest indictment on felony rape charges at the end of May. The movement has given women once silenced and their credibility destroyed by these men, a voice, and power, now a simple accusation is enough to destroy and turn the tables on the men. Somehow, for all the accusations of misconduct, Clinton has escaped this fate and he has been continually favored despite his gross abuse of power.

The #MeToo movement has seen very little similar apologies whether sincere or not, there has been little “genuine repentance” as Clinton said was necessary. To apologize is to admit defeat and that one is wrong, an almost impossible task for powerful men, who always believe they are right and everyone else is wrong. Public apologies have become the norm, but very few have been genuine and concerned for the victim. Mostly, these men have been looking for a way to salvage their careers, public apologies can help, especially if they show enough remorse as Clinton did. Rarely, however, do they feel the need to apologize privately it serves no purpose on the global stage; the lack of true remorse renders it unnecessary for most aggressors.

Online publication the Perspective wrote an article “on the public apology” describing the different times and repercussions for victims. Author Malkie Khutoretsky writes, “On the heels of #MeToo movement, public apologies for sexual misconduct are being issued on a loop.” The publication listed the benefits and drawbacks of a public apology, and concluded, “A public apology for sexual misconduct is owed as an admission of guilt and a step to healing. But who does the public apology benefit more, the abuser or the victim of sexual abuse or harassment?” As much as the public wants to grade the apologies, what is worse is never receiving an apology that even remotely acknowledges any wrongdoing at all. It shows that the aggressor does not even believe he was wrong at all in his actions.

As someone who has had a #MeToo experience having gone through harassment and retaliation and the everlasting fall out in my life both personally and professionally, I believe any apology has a value and a power. I would have appreciated any recognition that what this man, who was in a position of power, did to me was wrong, and that his conduct was not only wrong towards me but morally wrong considering his position. Although he hypocritically supports the #MeToo movement and religiously believes in forgiveness, I know he would never apologize, because like other men in power and like Clinton, unless their careers are in peril they would never admit they were wrong, and this one always believes he is right. Unfortunately, the same arrogance to makes these men act in the first place makes them unable to feel the remorse necessary to make a private apology and admit any defeat.

An April 2018 article by the Associated Press asks just that, “Can there be forgiveness, second chances in the age of #MeToo?” According to experts, there can be forgiveness if the apologies are genuine and recount exactly what they did wrong to their victims. The article’s author Michelle R. Smith claims, “Forgiveness must be possible if society wants to reduce instances of sexual misconduct, but experts say, it will take work and willingness to change from both the perpetrators and society at large.” Jennifer A. Thompson, an assistant professor of applied Jewish ethics and civic engagement at California State University also believes it is possible. Thompson explains that in the Jewish tradition, “You have to go to the person you hurt and ask, ‘What can I do to make this right?’” Thompson believes that model of redemption could work in the age of #MeToo.

Lesley Wexler, a professor at the University of Illinois College of Law concurs, and believes in “restorative justice.” Wexler told the AP, “Part of what should be happening here is personal. Making amends to the victim, restoring the victim. And a separate part is acknowledging that the nature of this harm isn’t just the individual, you are a community. That suggests you also need to be public about what specifically was wrong and what you can do better.”

The interview comes barely a month after Town and Country rescinded their invite to Lewinsky for their philanthropy summit because Clinton would be giving an introduction. The outcry in the news and social media was almost as bad this time around with Clinton’s defiant remarks. Op-eds called Clinton out for not learning anything from the #MeToo movement and sticking to his politics as the usual mantra that was criticized when the scandal broke in 1998. The backlash to the former president’s remarks comes from both liberals and conservatives in the news and social media. Lewinsky was right in the social media age; she has been receiving all the support she needed and lacked while the scandal unfolded and the aftermath. As she wrote in Vanity Fair, “If the Internet was a bête noire to me in 1998, its stepchild — social media — has been a savior for millions of women today.”

Even before Clinton was asked about apologizing to Lewinsky, CNN anchor Jake Tapper and NBC’s Meet the Press host Chuck Todd criticized the former president on Todd’s “1947: The Meet the Press Podcast” on Thursday, May 24. Todd remarked, “It galls me that the former president hasn’t even simply apologized to her for ruining her life… Her life is never the same. He ruined it. He got to move on. I’ve never understood why he couldn’t simply apologize to her.” Tapper added, “It’s crazy, it’s crazy,” stating that Clinton “owes her the apology.”

On Twitter, commentators left and right attacked Clinton for his response. Conservative writer Amanda Carpenter tweeted, “Clinton says he apologized to “everyone in the world” and that he left the WH severely in debt because of the scandal. But that’s, in part, because they all lied about it for so long!” MSNBC NBC News Political Analyst Elise Jordan remarked, “Bill Clinton manages to make #MeToo about himself and evades @craigmelvin when asked if he ever apologized to Monica Lewinsky. Thanks @craigmelvin for asking an important and obvious question that WJC should be able to answer.” “Blue writer” Teri Carter concurred, “Bill Clinton STILL refuses to take responsibility for what he did to Monica Lewinsky. He has the “but what about me me me me me” complex.”

National Political Correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC Steve Kornacki, observed, “His tone here — combative, aggrieved — really hasn’t changed in 20 years. This is the same Clinton the nation saw in that 7/98 primetime address in which he admitted the affair but stressed that “presidents have private lives.” While New York Times opinion contributor Maggie Haberman mocked, “Bill Clinton gets asked if he ever apologized to Lewinsky. He responds by saying Starr investigation was unfair.”

In news media, the commentators were not any more forgiving. Red State’s Sarah Quinlan writing “Bill Clinton has not learned anything from the #MeToo movement” for USA Today, claimed, “In the midst of the #MeToo movement, it would have been impressive and powerful for Clinton to demonstrate he had learned from the movement.” Emily Jashinsky’s article “Bill Clinton confronts #MeToo with smirks, arrogance” In the Washington Examiner, claims, “(Bill) Clinton seems to have missed the mood of the public, and expects to laugh and deflect his way through tough questions like it’s nothing, because for two decades his party dismissed those questions too.”

CNN political commentator SE Cupp wrote an op-ed on CNN, aptly titled, “Yep. Bill Clinton is still a monster.” Cupp opened her article, saying, “Former President Bill Clinton has just revealed the ultimate lessons he’s learned in the 20 years since his sordid affair with then-White House intern Monica Lewinsky led to his impeachment: precisely, exactly none.” Cupp was immensely critical of Clinton’s response, “The president, grinning boyishly, insisting he did the right thing, boasting about having never delivered a personal apology to the young intern he once took advantage of in the Oval Office — is like watching a con artist brag about pulling one over on an unsuspecting family. The man is frighteningly, pathologically incapable of shame.”

CNN Editor-at-large Chris Cillizza believes Clinton should apologize personally to Lewinsky in his article, “Bill Clinton still gets it wrong on Monica Lewinsky and #MeToo.” Cillizza called Clinton’s response “a remarkable — and remarkably bad — quote.” Cillizza pointed out, “Apologizing in a public setting — with the obvious dual intent of clearing the decks politically — isn’t the same thing as reaching out to Lewinsky personally to say sorry.” He believes Clinton “seems much more interested in how he was, ultimately, validated by the public than in talking about whether or not he should have apologized to Lewinsky.”

Cupp was right, Clinton’s “demeanor on NBC would make anyone wonder about his sincerity, then or now.” In this changing world, Clinton needs to acknowledge that he should apologize, but without any political gains on the table, he chooses not to keep up his charade of regret. Then Americans were taken in by that same charm that seems grossly out of touch with the changing times. The “genuine repentance” the former president claimed to have in September 1998, was a farce just to garner sympathy from the American public, who were easy patsies, sucked into his continuing web of deceit. Clinton’s response proves he sounds like all the accused men of the #MeToo movement; he was just looking out for his own survival, always.

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University), is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor. She is a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She has a over dozen years experience in education & political journalism.

History November 27, 2017: British Historian Daniel Beer wins McGill University’s Cundill History Prize for book on Siberian exiles




British Historian Daniel Beer wins McGill University’s Cundill History Prize for book on Siberian exiles

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

British Historian Daniel Beer accepting the Cundill Prize in Historical Literature for his book The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Nov. 16, 2017 (PubPerspectives, Twitter)

British historian Daniel Beer is the winner of the richest history book prize in the world. Canada’s McGill University announced Beer and his book The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars (Allen Lane) the winner of the $75,000 USD annual international Cundill Prize in Historical Literature on Nov. 16, 2017, at the prize’s gala at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. The annual prize honors history non-fiction books published in the last year. Beer is a lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London, and his prize-winning book about Siberian prison exiles during the Russian tsarist regime has been lauded throughout the year before winning the ultimate history prize.

Chair of the prize jury Margaret MacMillan feted Beer’s book in announcing him the winner. MacMillan expressed at the gala, “Daniel Beer has done extraordinary research, using underappreciated and unexamined sources, to show what exile meant to generations of Russians and other nationalities within the Russian Empire. He gives a moving and heart-rending account of what happened to these people, most of whom never returned from Siberia. The House of the Dead is a haunting and important contribution to Russian history and hugely deserving winner of the 2017 Cundill History Prize.”

McGill Dean of Arts Antonia Maioni also spoke at the Cundill History Prize Gala before the announcement. The Dean of Arts expressed, “We are so very proud to celebrate this important prize at McGill University and in Canada.” Maioni also commented, “At McGill, we value research-intensive history and, at the same time, the ability to communicate to the rest of the world the importance of history writing and an understanding of Canada’s role in the global setting. The Cundill History Prize plays a hugely important role — championing the highest quality historical scholarship from around the world, and rewarding books that can reach out to appeal to a wide audience, ignite conversation, and evoke a better understanding of ourselves and others.”

The Cundill prize is open to any authored history book across the globe. For the tenth anniversary, the university “rebranded” the prize to “illuminate the truth at a time in world affairs when informed, factual debate is increasingly losing out to populism and retrenchment is on the rise.” This year’s long list was shortened from a record 330 submissions, double the amount McGill received for their 2016 prize.

jury of five historians determined who wins the book prize. Canadian historian and Oxford University professor Margaret MacMillan chaired this year’s jury. The jury was predominantly British, with Oxford University professors Roy Foster and Rana Mitter, but included one American British-American historian and columnist Amanda Foreman and one Canadian, journalist Jeffrey Simpson. The Cundill Prize also had a committee of McGill faculty members.

Beer beat out his two competitors, Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) professor, Christopher Goscha and “Austrian-born, US-based historian” Walter Scheidel. All three historians’ books were shortlisted for the prize down from the list of ten finalists announced on Sept. 26. On Oct. 26, jury chair MacMillan announced the shortlist finalists at a “press conference at Canada House in London.”

Despite Beer, claiming the grand prize both Goscha and Scheidel were both winners of the Recognition of Excellence Award and $10,000 USD. As the McGill Reporter notes, “Goscha was awarded for Vietnam: A New History(Basic Books),” and Scheidel was awarded “for his controversial economic thesis The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton University Press).”

When the finalists were announced MacMillan praised the three books equally. MacMillan said, “The three finalists for the 2017 Cundill History Prize are extraordinary works of history: beautifully crafted, well-researched, and ambitious. They tackle big issues and help us to know ourselves and our world better. We live in complicated times and the work of historians such as these provides us with the necessary background, understanding, and insights to enable us to formulate the sorts of questions we ought to be asking.”

The Cundill Prize in Historical Literature was “founded by McGill alumnus F. Peter Cundill,” with the first prize was announced in 2008. Qualifying and winning books have to include “historical scholarship, originality, literary quality and broad appeal.” Beer’s award-winning book “The House of the Dead has also been shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize, the Pushkin House Russian Book Prize and the Longman History Today Prize.” The House of the Dead was also “The Times, BBC History and TLS Books of the year for 2016.”

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University), is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor. She is a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.

History October 25, 2017: Kennedy assassination documents to be released in time for anniversary




Kennedy assassination documents to be released in time for anniversary

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

President Donald Trump has decided it is time for the public to see the long held remaining documents pertaining to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Wikpiedia Commons

Just in time for the 54th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, finally, historians are going to be able to see the last piece of the puzzle. President Donald Trump announced on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017, that he would allow the release of the remaining CIA and FBI documents on the 35th president’s assassination. Trump’s decision ends Congress’ 25-year hold on the documents. On Oct. 26, approximately 3,100 files are set for release, adding to the heavily redacted 30,000 that have already been released.

President Trump tweeted on Saturday morning, “Subject to the receipt of further information, I will be allowing, as President, the long-blocked and classified JFK FILES to be opened.” The White House released a longer statement to the press, saying, “The President believes that these documents should be made available in the interests of full transparency unless agencies provide a compelling and clear national security or law enforcement justification otherwise.”

Although the documents will enrich research and scholarship on Kennedy’s assassination, historians do not believe that it will change the narrative or conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Historians are concerned that they will give conspiracy theorists a field day. Originally, Congress passed the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act in 1992 to thwart the release of the documents.

The law was partially inspired by the rampant conspiracy theories set forth in Oliver Stone’s box office hit JFK, which claimed a vast government conspiracy, was behind Kennedy’s assassination with the CIA and FBI at the forefront. The Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB) claimed in their report that the film, a “popularized a version of President Kennedy’s assassination that featured U.S. government agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the military as conspirators.”

The bill gave only the president the power to delay the documents release once the bill expired. The president would have been able to do so claiming national security interests. It is rumored that the CIA appealed to Trump to delay the release. Trump friend Roger Stone claimed, “specifically CIA director Mike Pompeo has been lobbying the president furiously not to release these documents.” The agency denied this and issued a statement saying the CIA “continues to engage in the process to determine the appropriate next steps with respect to any previously unreleased CIA information.”

Many were lobbying President Trump to release the documents, among them his friend Stone and Senate judiciary committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). Stone like Trump believes there is a conspiracy surrounding Kennedy’s assassination. Stone however, believes the documents “show that Oswald was trained, nurtured and put in place by the Central Intelligence Agency.” Strone says, “It sheds very bad light on the deep state.”

While Grassley recently tweeted his support for the release, writing, “No reason 2 keep hidden anymore. Time 2 let American ppl + historians draw own conclusions.” Earlier, Grassley also introduced a resolution on the Senate floor to release the documents. Grassley argued, “Americans deserve a full picture of what happened that fateful day in November 1963. The assassination of President Kennedy occurred at a pivotal time for our nation, and, nearly 54 years later, we are still learning the details of how our government responded and what it may have known beforehand.”

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics recently wrote an article in Politico with Philip Shenon entitled, “The JFK Document Dump Could Be a Fiasco.” The article’s subtitle argues, “Later this month, the National Archives is set to release thousands of documents about John F. Kennedy’s assassination. It’s likely to fuel conspiracy theorists for years.” Sabato and Shenon, however, claim that releasing the documents will congest NARA’s website but not doing so would fuel more speculation and theories then releasing them.

Both authors have written books about the assassination, Sabato wrote, “The Kennedy Half-Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy” and Shenon wrote, “A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination” both published in 2013, the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination. After President Trump announced his decision on Saturday, Sabato praised Trump on Twitter. Sabato wrote, “Thank you. This is the correct decision. Please do not allow exceptions for any agency of government. JFK files have been hidden too long.”

The documents supposedly cover Oswald’s trip to Mexico prior to the assassination. In September 1963, Oswald traveled to Mexico City where he met with officials at the Cuban and Soviet Union embassies about visiting those respective countries, although he also might have met with Cuban and Soviet spies. It was in Mexico City that Oswald came under CIA radar. It is widely speculated that Oswald discussed his plans to assassinate President Kennedy during the trip.

Investigative journalist Gerald Posner spoke to USA Today about the trip and the documents. Posner is the author of the 1993 authoritative book “Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK.” Posner concluded in his study that Oswald acted alone. Although the files will not alter long-held conclusions, they could cause embarrassment for the US and Mexico and hinder already strained relations. Posner commented on this factor, “There may not be deep, dark secrets in there, but the release could be embarrassing to people who were involved. You have to remember that Mexico City in the 1960s was a hodge-podge of intrigue where everyone was spying on everyone else. There may be people who were informing to the CIA at the time who have moved on to careers in politics and business, and the revelation that they were informing will be embarrassing to them.”

Among the documents are also historical gems that are unrelated with any theories about the assassination. Posner recounted, “All of those will cause a flash of excitement. For one thing, there’s supposedly a handwritten letter by Jackie Kennedy about the (JFK) funeral. There’s a letter from (former FBI Director J. Edgar) Hoover that’s been closed for all these years. There’s the testimony of (former CIA counterintelligence chief) James Jesus Angleton from the 1970s before the Church Committee.” The Church Committee was an investigation by Democratic Senator Frank Church of Idaho, about the FBI and CIA and their plans to assassinate Cuba’s, Fidel Castro.

This past July, NARA already began the process of releasing the documents. According to NARA, they released already, “3,810 documents, including 441 formerly withheld-in-full documents and 3,369 documents formerly released with portions redacted.” Researchers and the media clamored to the NARA site, but many of the documents were difficult to read, many illegible others in code or jargon not comprehensible to the public or even scholars. NARA was supposed to release slowly the documents, but instead opted to wait on Trump’s decision, and now release them all on Oct. 26 and cause a traffic backlog on their website yet again.

On November 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States (1961–63), was assassinated at 12:30 p.m. by Lee Harvey Oswald, while in a Presidential motorcade in Dealey Plaza, Dallas, Texas heading towards the Texas School Book Depository. Kennedy was in an open limousine waving at the cheering crowd with First Lady Jackie Kennedy, and Texas Governor John Connally and his wife Nelly when three shots in succession erupted, which hit the Governor, and then the President. The motorcade rushed to Parkland Hospital, where President Kennedy was pronounced dead at 46 years, 30 minutes after the shooting.

CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite first broke news of the assassination, tearing up with his announcement of the president’s death. Afterward there was an immediate outpouring of grief by the nation mourning the loss of an idealized young President. In a recent book “The Kennedy Detail” Secret Service agent Clint Hill has said; “It has taken me decades to learn to cope with the guilt and sense of responsibility for the president’s death, and I have made it a practice to keep my memories to myself. I don’t talk to anybody about that day.”

At 2:38 p.m., Vice-President Lyndon Baines Johnson was sworn in as the 36th US president, aboard Air Force One with Jackie Kennedy standing by his side, still wearing the clothes stained with the President’s blood. Police arrested Oswald two hours later. Oswald, a Soviet sympathizer with ties to the Fair Play for Cuba Committee had shot Kennedy from the Texas School Book Depository building. Two days later, Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner fatally shot Oswald, as he was being transferred from Dallas Police Headquarters to the Dallas County Jail; Ruby claimed he wanted to spare Jackie Kennedy any further grief.

After three days of national mourning, on November 25, 1963, a state funeral was held for the slain President. It was a preceded by a repose of Kennedy’s body in the East Room of the White House for 24 hours on the 23rd. On Sunday, the 24th, the President’s coffin was carried by the same horse-drawn carriage as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Unknown Soldier before him, to the Capitol building where his body laid in state for 18 hours, with 250,000 people visiting his casket.

On Monday, one million gathered on the route of the processional from the Capitol to St. Matthew’s Cathedral, where the funeral was held. Foreign dignitaries from 90 countries, including 19 heads of state came to pay their respects, and millions of Americans watched the funeral on TV, which was covered by the three big networks; ABC, CBS, and NBC. After the Requiem Mass, as the President’s body was carried from the cathedral, three-year-old John Jr. saluted his father’s casket giving the mourning nation an iconic image to remember. Kennedy was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia after the service Jackie Kennedy lit an eternal flame that remains burning over the President’s gravesite.

Kennedy’s assassination was not put to rest with the president on Nov. 25, 1963; conspiracy theories just began their long life. In honor of the 50th anniversary, Fred Kaplan examined the most popular ones in his article, “John F. Kennedy conspiracy theories debunked: Why the magic bullet and grassy knoll don’t make sense.” Even 50 years later, a 2014 poll indicated that 59 percent of Americans still believe there is a conspiracy theory surrounding the enigmatic president’s death. Soon after Kennedy’s successor President Lyndon Johnson commissioned Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren to chair an investigation, which resulted in the Warren Commission Report. The report concluded that Oswald alone fired all three shots that hit Kennedy. The public, however, was not satisfied and a flurry of books was published in the wake of the report’s finding. The books introduced and supported a host of conspiracy theories.

A home video fuelled the speculations Abraham Zapruder taped on his 8mm home-movie camera the shooting. The 26-second reel with 486 frames was the only direct recording of the assassination. The graphic shots were not released for the public to view until 1975, when President Gerald Ford decided to make it available. The film was both used as proof by the Warren Commission that Oswald acted alone and conspiracy theorists that he did not.

Among the many theories, the main point of contention was whether one or bullets shot Kennedy and Connally. Since the time between each frame based on the film made it impossible for Kennedy and Connally to have been shot by separate bullets coming from Oswald’s gun, the Warren Commission concluded with some dissension the “single-bullet theory,” claiming the same bullet hit the Texas Governor and then the president. Originally, the report claimed there was “compelling” evidence, but in the end decided on just saying there was persuasive evidence. Without the Warren Commission being definitive, conspiracy theorists clamored to claim there had to have been the second shooter.

The second most popular theory was that one of the shots came from the grassy knoll. Part of this theory rested in the way Kennedy moved when he was shot suggesting the first shot to the neck was from behind, but the second shot to the head was from in front. There was also an audio recording from a Dallas police officer’s microphone radio transmission. The recording seems to indicate four shots were fired not three and that considering the officer’s location one echoed from the grassy knoll. A 1976 House of Representatives Committee determined this from their report, but later the National Academy of Sciences debunked this when they analyzed the tape. The police officer motorcycle was not in the vicinity, and the supposed fourth shot came after the Kennedy had already been hit.

Although most of the conspiracy theories have remained theories, The CIA’s and FBI’s questionable behavior during the time including, coups and killings only add to the speculation as to what will be included in the previously unreleased documents. It might finally uncover Oswald’s motives, which have long been questioned, with many believing it was related to Cuba and Castro, and the Kennedy administration’s desire to overthrow the Cuban dictator in a planned Operation Mongoose. As well, they might reveal more on Oswald’s time in the Soviet Union. These files were so guarded by the CIA and FBI that they never even handed them over to the Warren Commission. Now the public and scholars will finally read this last puzzle, however, if they are anything like the documents released over the summer, they true meaning might still take a while to decode.

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University), is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor. She is a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.

History September 29, 2017: McGill University announces tenth annual Cundill History Book Prize finalists




McGill University announces tenth annual Cundill History Book Prize finalists

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS

McGill University is celebrating the 10th anniversary of world’s richest history book prize, the Cundill Prize in Historical Literature. The university announced the 2017 long list finalists on Sept. 26, will announce the top three on Oct. 26, and the winner on Nov. 16. McGill University 

The richest history book prize in the world just announced their long list finalists for the tenth annual award. Canada’s McGill University announced on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017, ten long list finalists for their $75,000 American annual international Cundill Prize in Historical Literature for history non-fiction books published in the last year. This year’s finalists include historians from five countries including one from Montreal on a variety of topics, areas and periods, although religious history is prominent among the finalists chosen.

The prize is open to any authored history book across the globe. For the tenth anniversary, the university “rebranded” the prize to “illuminate the truth at a time in world affairs when informed, factual debate is increasingly losing out to populism and retrenchment is on the rise.” A jury of five historiansdetermines who wins the book prize. Canadian historian and Oxford University professor Margaret MacMillan is chairing this year’s jury. The jury is predominantly British, with Oxford University professors Roy Foster and Rana Mitter, but includes one American British-American historian and columnist Amanda Foreman and one Canadian, journalist Jeffrey Simpson. The Cundill Prize also has a committee of McGill faculty members.

This year’s long list was shortened from a record 330 submissions, double the amount McGill received for their 2016 prize. Jury Chair MacMillan remarked about the quantity and quality of the books under consideration. MacMillan said, “Our long list reflects the exciting and varied state of history today. The books on it cover subjects from Vietnam to Native American history and range in time from prehistory to the present. Their outstanding men and women authors come from around the world. It certainly wasn’t easy for our jury to whittle down over 300 entries into 10 but I am happy that we have come up with such a strong and interesting selection.”

The long list heavily features religious history with three books included, Christopher de Ballaigue’s The Islamic Enlightenment: The Struggle Between Faith and Reason, 1798 to Modern Times (WW Norton), Lyndal Roper’s Martin Luther (Bodley Head), and Frances FitzGerald In The Evangelicals (S&S US). This year’s finalists include one book by an academic at neighboring Université du Québec à Montréal, Christopher Goscha’s Vietnam: A New History. American published books dominate the list with six, four published in Britain, and only one from Canada.

Jury member Mitter counters saying the list is varied and global. Mitter commented, “As a historian of China I’m particularly delighted at how wide the geographical range of these books are. All are outstanding in quality. I note in terms of range that we have a long study of Vietnam, a major country in Southeast Asia that is little understood in the west; an examination of Islam over several centuries; and an analysis of inequality that draws on material from China as well as the west. In addition, North America and Europe are richly represented. This is a very global list.”

The long list will be further narrowed down to three short finalists on October 26. MacMillan will announce the finalists at a “press conference at Canada House in London.” McGill will then announce the winner at a gala in Montreal on Nov. 16 after a lecture by the top three on Nov. 15. All three finalists will be winners as each runner-up receives a Recognition of Excellence Award and $10,000 American. Qualifying and winning books have to include “historical scholarship, originality, literary quality and broad appeal.” The prize was “founded by McGill alumnus F. Peter Cundill,” with the first prize was announced in 2008.

Cundill Prize Finalists

Black Elk by Joe Jackson, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux
Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy by Heather Thompson, Pantheon Books
Martin Luther by Lyndal Roper, Bodley Head
Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel, Allen Lane
The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America by Frances FitzGerald, Simon & Schuster US
The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsar by Daniel Beer, Allen Lane
The Islamic Enlightenment: The Struggle Between Faith and Reason, 1798 to Modern Times by Christopher de Bellaigue, W. W. Norton & Company
Vietnam: A New History by Christopher Goscha, Basic Books
Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis, 1890 to 1928 by Stephen Smith, Oxford University Press
The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century by Walter Schneidel, Princeton University Press

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University), is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor. She is a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.


History June 14, 2017: The moment civil rights history altered forever: Kennedy’s June 11 address to the nation




By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

John F. Kennedy delivering the Civil Rights Address (Wikimedia Commons)

On This Day in History June 11, 1963… President John F. Kennedy delivered a televised address on civil rights to the nation from the White House Oval Office paving the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Recently, two days in June 1963 have been highlighted as part the pantheon of major turning points in American history. The recently published “Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Changed History” by award-winning journalist and Canadian political author Andrew Cohen in 2014 highlighted the importance of those two days to both the Civil Rights movement, the Cold War and the Kennedy presidency.

Cohen emphasized the magnitude of the events and particularly two speeches Kennedy delivered one on foreign policy at the commencement at American University and the other televised to the nations advancing civil rights. Cohen explained, “To the calendar, June 10 and June 11, 1963, was late spring; to history, it was high summer. Great forces converged and smaller ones emerged over these forty-eight hours, bracketed by two imperishable speeches. One produced an arms treaty, the first of the Cold War. The other produced a civil rights law, the most important of its time” (p. 19)

Cohen indicated the importance of those dates in the Kennedy Presidency, but a recent op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal by author Joel Engel went further. Engel in his article entitled “Three Days That Changed the World, Not That the World Noticed” elevated the significance of three days in June 1963 as major turning points in history. Engel noted, “History is in part the observation of consequential days, tragic and joyous. Americans celebrate July 4 and commemorate Sept. 11. We remember Dec. 7 and honor June 6. In those four days, major events bore consequences that changed the world. But at no time in American history have there been three days like June 10–12, 1963, during which several unrelated events altered the nation’s course as surely as had the attack on Pearl Harbor.”

June 11 and 12, 1963 represented a tide that turned in the battle African-Americans had been waging to obtain civil and equal rights in the United States. All the more significant, 1963 was the bicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation were in the midst of the Civil War President Abraham Lincoln granted freedom to America’s slaves. Freedom did not mean equality, although initially through Reconstruction African-Americans saw gains with the addition of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution soon segregationist Jim Crow laws segregating African-American settled in throughout the South leaving a new form of bondage.

Throughout, African-Americans were slowly fighting back, primarily with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) founded in 1909; the best way to move forward was within the court system. Any gains were minimal until a major victory in the Supreme Court by the landmark ruling of the Brown v Board of Education. The decision declared separate segregated school, were not equal but also illegal.

A legal victory was not a practical one; the south remained unwilling to desegregate their schools, and only 10 percent of schools desegregated by the end of the decade. Desegregation took a turn when in 1957 President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent the National Guard to “enforce the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas.” Afterward, desegregation sped up in public schools, but in every other way of life, it remained at a standstill. In 1960 and 1961, sit-ins and freedom rides attempted to desegregate lunch counters and buses. The gains remained modest under Democrat John F. Kennedy’s presidency despite the sympathetic rhetoric, but only minor action.

The spring of 1963 was paving the way to those two fateful days that would lead to a turning point. The push for desegregation gained momentum with the rise of a charismatic and eloquent leader; Montgomery, Alabama, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King’s non-violent protests became a hallmark of the civil rights movement, and integral part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which King helped found in 1957, and also served as president. King gained prominence as the leader of the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott in the winter of 1955–56 at just 26.

In the interim, King’s movement would continue to make news, but King again made headlines in the spring of 1963 with a string of protests in Birmingham, Alabama, which King called “probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States.” Throughout the spring, from April 3 to May 10, King along with Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and James Bevel of the SCLC led activists in the Birmingham campaign, who protested with sit-ins, marches and a boycott, most leading to clashes with the local police.

One of the most notable occurred on Good Friday, April 12, 1963, where King was arrested for his 13th time. King would remain in jail for a week staying longer than necessary mostly to publicize the movement. There he wrote his famous treatise “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the letter was a response to a letter eight religious leaders wrote criticizing him in Birmingham’s newspaper. King defended the movement’s methods and criticizing the leaders saying, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” President Kennedy eventually intervened leading to King’s release on April 20.

The demonstrations continued and the violent tactics of Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety Eugene “Bull” Connor, continued. On May 2, what was later dubbed the “Children’s Crusade,” protest led to nearly 1000 arrests and Connor used “fire hoses and police dogs” on the young school age protesters. The televised images gripped the nation with the New York Times publishing a photo of dogs attacking a 17-year-old student on their front page. At the time Kennedy remarked, “The other problem is the problem of civil rights… What a disaster that picture is. That picture is not only in America but all around the world.”

There was a brief moment of peace, on May 11, civil rights leaders and city and business owners in Birmingham signed the “Birmingham Truce Agreement.” The deal allowed for a “partial desegregation (of fitting rooms, water fountains, and lunch counters in retail stores).” Additionally, those arrested during the campaign would be released, and there would be the creation of a Committee on Racial Problems and Employment.

On the evening of May 11, segregationists most probably members of the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama targeted civil rights leaders with bombs including the home of Rev. A. D. King, movement leader, King’s brother and the Gaston Motel, where King was staying and held a press conference the day before. The non-violence espoused by King turned to violent protests and riots later in the evening.

The violence forced President Kennedy to act; he sent “troops to an Alabama air base” and began the process of “drafting” a proposed civil rights bill to send to Congress. Addressing the nation, Kennedy balked at addressing the larger issue at hand, civil rights. Instead, while addressing the nation Kennedy said, “This Government will do whatever must be done to preserve order, to protect the lives of its citizens, and to uphold the law of the land.” (Brinkley, 106) The morality of civil rights would have to wait a month.

Still, according to historian Nicholas Andrew Bryant in his highly critical book, “The Bystander: John F. Kennedy and the Struggle for Black Equality,” (2006) Kennedy refused to bring about legislation throughout the Birmingham Campaign, and only considered action after the riots broke out. Bryant, who examined the Kennedy civil rights legacy throughout his entire political career, questioned why it took the president over two years to get to the issue and pursue legislation.

Sheldon M. Stern points out that according to Bryant Kennedy had “a willingness to make important symbolic gestures about race and civil rights, coupled with a reluctance to take political risks.” (Hoberek, 79) Bryant also concluded Kennedy’s civil rights record showed a “symbolic approach to the race problem meant that many of the changes he ushered in were largely cosmetic.” (Hoberek, 85) Historian Alan Brinkley writing his biography John F. Kennedy as part of the American Presidents Series concurs, writing that towards civil rights Kennedy had a “pattern of rhetorical activism followed by resistance and delay began on his very first day in office.”

The pivotal moment that changed Kennedy perception on civil rights was viewing African-Americans fighting back with the May 11 race riots. Kennedy could no longer sit idly by; civil rights had also become law and order issues that he could not let go unresolved. Bryant analyzes in his book, “It was the black-on-white violence of May 11 — not the publication of the startling photograph a week earlier — that represented the real watershed in Kennedy’s thinking, and the turning point in administration policy. Kennedy had grown used to segregationist attacks against civil rights protesters. But he — along with his brother and other administration officials — was far more troubled by black mobs running amok.” (Bryant, 393)

A taped conversation between the president and his brother and Attorney General Robert Kennedy from the Oval Office confirmed his motivation. Kennedy indicated on May 12, “First we have to have law and order, so the Negro’s not running all over the city… If the [local Birmingham desegregation] agreement blows up, the other remedy we have under that condition is to send legislation up to Congress this week as our response…As a means of providing relief, we have to have legislation.”

June 11, 1963, was a busy day for the civil rights movement. Earlier, Alabama Governor and strong segregationist George Wallace delivered his “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door Speech.” Alabama was the only state that still did not desegregate their schools, Democrat Wallace entered office earlier in the year promising “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” Wallace was unyielding refusing to negotiate and compromise with the Kennedy Administration, hoping instead for a confrontation that would elevate his status, while diminishing Kennedy in the Deep South.

On June 11, Wallace physically prevented two African American students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, from completing their registration at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Wallace literally stood in front of the school’s Foster Auditorium door blocking Malone and Hood from entering. Wallace attempted to prevent the university’s integration despite a court order the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama.

When Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach asked Wallace to move aside, he refused. Instead, Wallace delivered his infamous speech on states’ rights. Wallace called the desegregation an “unwelcomed, unwarranted and force-induced intrusion upon the campus” and “a frightful example of the expression of the rights, privileges, and sovereignty of this state.” (Brinkley, 109) Katzenbach then contacted President Kennedy.

President Kennedy again was forced to federalize the Alabama National Guard Executive Order 11111 to end the conflict. Kennedy issued Presidential Proclamation 3542 to force Wallace to comply and allow the students to enter the university building and complete their registration. Four hours later Wallace finally moved aside after being by Guard General Henry Graham, allowing for the integration of the University. Wallace made national headlines upping his profile, but also forcing Kennedy’s hand that he had no choice left but to announce his intentions to introduce a civil rights bill to Congress.

Kennedy’s address would have an adverse reaction on civil rights leaders. Just hours later in the early morning of June 12, Medgar Evers was assassinated in Jackson, Mississippi. Evers was African-American civil rights activist and the field secretary for the Mississippi state NAACP, who earlier in the day demanded desegregation from local leaders. Byron De La Beckwith, who belonged to the segregated group the White Citizens’ Council, shot Evers in the back as he entered his home after returning from a meeting with NAACP lawyers. Although De La Beckwith was first arrested on June 21, 1963, for Evers’ murder, it took until 1994 for him to be convicted of the crime.

It was against this turmoil in the nation over civil rights that President Kennedy called and booked time on all three major networks for him to speak to the nation at 8 PM EDT on civil rights and the situation in Alabama. Kennedy decided the time was ripe to announce his intention to introduce civil rights legislation. As Cohen recounted, “The pretext was Tuscaloosa (today’s confrontation), the context was Birmingham (the unrest there elsewhere that spring), and the subtext was Washington (to make the case for legislation.)” (321)

It was a hastily drafted speech by Ted Sorensen in a mere two hours and revised by Kennedy. Sorenson looked back at past speeches he created for Kennedy on the issue, his own experience, and softened the rhetoric of the past few days. The president’s brother Bobby Kennedy was not pleased with Sorenson’s quickly written speech and even requested civil rights advisor Lee White to assist. The short time to draft the speech made Kennedy nervous, even doubtful if should even deliver it according to White’s observations.

Kennedy’s other poet laureate historian Arthur Schlesinger was nowhere to be found despite attempts to reach him when they did finally reach him it was too late for him to help with the speech. In the end, White did not add to the speech, but aide Louis Martin did, however, Sorenson never gave him authorship credit. The speech was not completed in time, and President Kennedy was receiving pages just as he was about to start. Kennedy determined Sorenson’s speech was too short, and he needed to fill up time, added eight paragraphs “off-the-cuff” (Cohen, 338) to the address, which is considered the best lines. The “moral issue” would be the speech’s overriding theme.

The President told Americans that segregation is a “moral issue” that is wrong. Kennedy stated; “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.” President Kennedy accomplished two points in his speech, the introduction of civil rights legislation, and the beginning of significant comprehensive school desegregation.

Kennedy pleaded to the American people that civil rights are the responsibility of all citizens; “It is not enough to pin the blame on others, to say this is a problem of one section of the country or another, or deplore the fact that we face. A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all… Those who do nothing are inviting shame as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognizing right as well as reality.”

Kennedy specifically emphasized the lack of action since the Supreme Court’s decision in 1954. The landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education case ended the legality of the separate but equal system. Kennedy lamented; “Too many Negro children entering segregated grade schools at the time of the Supreme Court’s decision 9 years ago will enter segregated high schools this fall, having suffered a loss which can never be restored. The lack of an adequate education denies the Negro a chance to get a decent job. The orderly implementation of the Supreme Court decision, therefore, cannot be left solely to those who may not have the economic resources to carry the legal action or who may be subject to harassment.”

In his speech, President Kennedy began an active pursuit of Congressional legislation that would end segregation. Kennedy laid out his legislative plans, “Next week I shall ask the Congress of the United States to act, to make a commitment it has not fully made in this century to the proposition that race has no place in American life or law…. I am, therefore, asking the Congress to enact legislation giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public-hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and similar establishments.”

President Kennedy also introduced the pursuit of the vote for all African-Americans. The president stated, “Other features will be also requested, including greater protection for the right to vote. But the legislation, I repeat, cannot solve this problem alone. It must be solved in the homes of every American in every community across our country.” With his speech that night, Kennedy was pushing in motion not only the Civil Rights Act, but also the subsequent Voting Rights Act passed two years later in 1965 which guaranteed the vote to all Americans.

Kennedy concluded his 15-minute speech with a request for support from the American public for his sweeping and necessary proposals. The proposals were based on Constitutional rights for all Americans. Kennedy expressed to the nation, “Therefore, I am asking for your help in making it easier for us to move ahead and to provide the kind of equality of treatment which we would want ourselves; to give a chance for every child to be educated to the limit of his talents… This is what we are talking about and this is a matter which concerns this country and what it stands for, and in meeting it I ask the support of all our citizens.” Cohen described the speech as “a triumph. These were words written in haste for the ages. It was a knock-down, flat-out masterpiece.” (Cohen, 338) Meanwhile, historian Garth E. Pauley in “The Modern Presidency and Civil Rights” called the speech “the first sustained moral argument by an American President on civil rights.” (Hoberek, 77)

President Kennedy no longer wanted to be the bystander as Bryant called him, but he wanted to take his longtime rhetoric on civil rights and turn it into action. Kennedy told Arthur Schlesinger about his decision to move, then on the bill, he “thought more highly of American Presidents” who emphasized “concrete achievement rather than political education.” Kennedy’s civil rights speech as Cohen indicated, “was the moment a president pivoted. Kennedy was moving from detachment to engagement, from being a transactional president — as political scientists would classify leadership of a certain type a half century later — top a transformative one.” (Cohen, 338)

Kennedy submitted a civil rights bill to Congress the next week on June 19, which historian Robert Dallek in his biography of President Kennedy, an Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963 described as “the most far-reaching civil rights bill in the country’s history.” (Dallek) The law would guarantee the right to vote for all with the minimum of a sixth-grade education, and end discrimination in all public and commercial facilities establishments and accommodations.

Kennedy also requested that the attorney general is granted expanded powers to implement school desegregation, asked to end job discrimination and create job training opportunities and a “community relations service.” Kennedy used the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments of the Constitution to justify the contents of his proposed bill.

The leader of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. approved of President Kennedy’s speech and described it as ‘the most sweeping and forthright ever presented by an American president.’” Initially, King told Reverend Walter Fauntroy who he was watching the speech with, “can you believe that white man not only stepped up to the plate, he hit over the fence!” (Cohen, 339) Publicly King sent Kennedy a wire saying, “I have just listened to your speech to the nation. It was one of the most eloquent, profound and unequivocal pleas for justice and freedom of all men ever made by a president. You spoke passionately for the moral issues involved in the integration struggle.” (Cohen, 339) Kennedy, however, faced a tougher response from Congress.

Still, King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” delivered on August 28, 1963, over two months later during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom would eclipse Kennedy’s speech as the most relevant to advancing civil rights. Although a pivotal moment, the march attended by 200,000 to 300,000, concerned Kennedy who asked King to cancel it, fearing “a big show on the Capitol” would hinder the passage of the civil rights bill. Kennedy even refused to meet with the delegation of civil rights leaders at the White House before the march concerned it could cause demonstrations. Instead, Kennedy opted for meeting King and the other leaders of the major organizations after the march ended that day.

Kennedy was right, he would not see the civil rights bill his administration authored passed into law, or even debated and put to vote on the floor of Congress. President Kennedy continued pushing Congress to pass civil rights legislation with bipartisan support in the following months but to no avail. Civil rights were one of four bills, Kennedy wanted to be passed, but never did in his lifetime, the others were a “tax cut, federal aid to education, and Medicare.” (Cohen, 360) Kennedy’s agenda stalled mostly because of his civil rights bills that led to anger from Southern Democrats and in general from the south. Kennedy would be assassinated months later, on November 23, in Dallas, Texas leaving his Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson from Texas to take over the mantle.

Pursuing civil rights, however, would become central to Kennedy’s legacy. Nevertheless, as Brinkley noted, there was a “harsh and often violent opposition that made it unlikely that his civil rights legislation would succeed soon. His tragic death, and the political skills of Lyndon Johnson, made possible the passage of civil rights and voting rights legislation. But John Kennedy — and the great movement that he finally embraced — was essential to great achievements.” (Brinkley, 112)

President Kennedy’s address to the nation on June 11 altered forever the direction of civil rights in the country. Historian Penial E. Joseph says it “might have been the single most important day in civil rights history.” Joseph also noted, “without the moral forcefulness of the June 11th speech, the bill might never have gone anywhere.” (Hoborek, 78) Without President Kennedy haven taken initial action with this speech and laying out his bold vision and plan to make a civil rights a reality for all Americans, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would never have passed and signed into law on July 2, 1964.


Brinkley, Alan. John F. Kennedy. New York: Times Books, 2012.

Bryant, Nick. The Bystander: John F. Kennedy and the Struggle for Black Equality. New York: Basic Books, 2006.

Cohen, Andrew. Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History. [Toronto, Ontario]: Signal, McClelland & Stewart, 2016.

Dallek, Robert. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Co, 2003.

Dallek, Robert. John F. Kennedy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Hoberek, Andrew. The Cambridge Companion to John F. Kennedy. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Joseph, Peniel E. “Kennedy’s Finest Moment,” The New York Times, June 10, 2013 http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/11/opinion/kennedys-civil-rights-triumph.html. Accessed June 12, 2017.

Pauley, Garth E. The Modern Presidency & Civil Rights: Rhetoric on Race from Roosevelt to Nixon. College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 2001.

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University), is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor. She is a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.

Politics March 10, 2017: Historians predict impeachment Trump presidency will not survive Russia scandal




Historians predict impeachment Trump presidency will not survive Russia scandal

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

The way the Trump campaign transition Russia contact scandal is growing one historian believes Donald Trump will be forcibly removed from office in one of the shortest presidencies in American history. Ronald L. Feinman, a history professor at Florida Atlantic University, revealed his prediction for the longevity of a Trump presidency in a blog post on the History News Network, entitled “Donald Trump Is On His Way to Second or Third Shortest Presidency in American History,” published February 15, 2017. Historian Allan Lichtman, who successfully predicted Trump’s election, also predicts the new president might be impeached. Only the developing scandal with Russia gives these historians fantasy theories a little realism.

According to Feinman, Trump’s presidency would “likely between the 31 days of William Henry Harrison in 1841 (dying of pneumonia) and the 199 days of James A. Garfield in 1881 (dying of an assassin’s bullet after 79 days of terrible suffering and medical malpractice).” At the most, Feinman states Trump’s presidency “is unlikely to last the 16 months and five days of 12th President Zachary Taylor, who died of a digestive ailment while Head of State in 1850.”

Feinman is the author of the recently released book, “Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama” (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, August 2015). Unlike the presidents Feinman wrote about in his book; he believes Trump would be either be impeached or forced to resign, which is why he is accounting for a possible longer “dragged out,” term. One of the possible ways, Feinman sees Trump leaving the presidency besides impeachment or resignation is that “Pence could, even if Trump vehemently opposed it, invoke the 25th Amendment, Section 4 with the approval of a majority of the cabinet, which would make Pence “Acting President.” Some might call it a “palace coup, “ but Pence could make a convincing case that it is too risky to leave Trump in power.”

The Florida Atlantic University professor wrote his post just as Trump’s National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was forced to resign because he lied about his contact with Russian officials before Trump’s inauguration and misled Vice President Mike Pence about the contacts. The scandal has clearly grown. Now Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the former Senator from Alabama lied at his Senate confirmation hearing about being in contact with the Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak twice before the election.

Other members of Trump’s inner circle including Senior Adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner was present at a meeting with the Russian ambassador before the inauguration. At question is whether Trump and his campaign worked with Russia to get him elected. Russia did help Trump by hacking the Democratic National Committee and Democrat nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta’s email accounts and then transferring them to WikiLeaks, who posted them online.

Now it has been discovered that Trump met the Russian ambassador during the campaign at a receiving line before delivering foreign policy address at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel in April 2016. During the speech Trump, said, “I believe an easing of tensions and improved relations with Russia — from a position of strength — is possible.” The White House however, vehemently denied any negotiations between the two at the time in an official statement. Additionally, a senior White House official explained, “If they met, it was in passing at arrival reception hosted by National Interest which [Trump] was present at for all of 5 minutes. We arrived minutes before the speech began and departed immediately after.”

Trump has repeatedly denied any contacts or relationship with Russia, recently stating, “Look, how many times do I have to answer this question? Russia is a ruse. I have nothing to do with Russia. I told you, I have no deals there, I have no anything.” Still, Republicans and Democrats in Congress are calling for investigations, Republicans will have no choice to heed to the demands for the sake of the party, with Senate and House intelligence committees looking into investigations and questioning Flynn. Sessions has already recused himself from any potential investigation the Justice Department may conduct.

Besides the Russia investigation, which had not fully exploded when Feinman wrote his blog post, he listed other causes that could lead to a Trump impeachment. Feinman explained, “Many foreign policy professionals are shaking their head at Trump’s inappropriate behavior and language every time he speaks in public, or issues a Twitter comment, and his instability and recklessness.” The historian also mentioned Trump talking the North Korean missile test in the public dining room at his Mar-a-Lago resort, his fight on the phone with the Australian Prime Minister, his speaking with Taiwan upsetting China, his position on Israel, respect for Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and criticism of NATO.

Professor Feinman also believes “The Pence Presidency seems inevitable.” He pointed out that “Pence is already asserting himself with Trump, and it seems clear that Pence will not stand by and allow our foreign policy to be damaged, or our national security to be endangered.” Discussing Pence’s credentials Feinman calls the former one-term Indiana-Governor and former Congressman an “establishment Republican,” “a no-nonsense, hard-nosed Republican whose strong Christian convictions have shaped his politics.” Feinman notes that Pence’s “stands on issues” have “alienated moderate Republicans in his state.”

Feinman is not the first historian to predict that Trump could be impeached Allan Lichtman also predicted, shortly after Trump’s election that he would be impeached. Lichtman, however, successfully predicted that Trump would win the election, unlike Feinman, who thought Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton would win in an Electoral College landslide. Lichtman was predicting just a week after the election, that “There’s a very good chance that Donald Trump could face impeachment.”

Lichtman, a history professor at American University in Washington, has been successfully predicting presidential elections since 1984. Lichtman again this year laid out his case in the book, “Predicting the Next President: The Keys to the White House 2016.” Lichtman uses keys, “a set of 13 true/false statements. If six of them are false, the incumbent party loses the presidency.” The keys are rooted in a “historically based prediction system that were founded on the study of every presidential election from 1860 to 1980.”

Using this method, Lichtman has been right for every election since 1984, except 2000, where Democratic nominee Al Gore won the popular vote, and Republican George W. Bush won the Electoral College vote only after the Supreme Court awarded him Florida’s Electoral College votes. Lichtman might have used a semi-scientific method for predicting the election results, but his prediction on Trump’s impeachment is based on his “instinct.”

Lichtman had some reasons to back up his claims, arguing, “First of all, throughout his life, he has played fast and loose with the law. He has run an illegal charity in New York state. He has made an illegal campaign contribution to that charity. He has used the charity to settle personal business debts. He faces a RICO lawsuit.”

The probability that a Republican-controlled Congress would impeach Trump seems improbable, but Lichtman does not think so. According to the American University professor, “The Republicans are nervous about Donald Trump. He is a loose cannon. Nobody knows what he really believes or really where he stands. He can’t be controlled. The Republicans would vastly prefer to have Mike Pence, an absolutely predictable down-the-pipe conservative Republican.”

Both are known as liberals and Democrats, whose predictions may be tinged with bias. If it would not be for the growing scandal around Russian contacts within the Trump campaign before his inauguration and Democratic calls for an independent counsel to investigate, Feinman’s blog post might sound utterly sensational; a liberal fantasy baits click.

In fact, many of Feinman hypotheticals seem that way, the professor’s tone comes out fanatically liberal. Feinman sounds especially so with the line, “Pence faces now a situation that has some similarity to Gerald Ford under Richard Nixon during a time of trouble and controversy, and the possibility of future Congressional action against Donald Trump if his mental behavior continues to disturb the top leadership of the Republican Party and the foreign policy establishment.”

Trump’s temperament has become an issue because he maximizes the social media when everyone comes out looking like they have psychological problems with over-sharing. Trump is hardly the first president with a temper, hatred or suspicion of the press or even conspiracy theories, just the first to have a platform to disseminate his thoughts readily to the public.

The scandal with Russia, however, lends some credibility to Feinman’s claims. Even if Democrats and Hillary Clinton have their wish fulfillment and Trump is impeached, the chances of that happening under a Republican controlled Congress are not very high. If in the midterm- elections in 2018, Democrats win a majority Trump could be more at risk, since liberals are fantasying about his impeachment even before he was inaugurated and actually did anything impeachable.

Still, that would take much longer than Feinman’s assessment. Chances are Feinman and Lichtman will both be wrong, the more probable bet is that Trump will probably not have one of the shortest presidencies in history, resign or even be impeached, but could very much join the ranks of the many presidents who have only served one term in office. Then again, Trump could surprise everyone as he did with his first election, and become a two-term president, and then maybe Democrats possibly might realize their dreams of impeachment.

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University), is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor. She is a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.

History March 9, 2017: Lincoln may be on top but presidential rankings remain controversial




Lincoln may be on top but presidential rankings remain controversial

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

Lincoln remains nation’s best president according to new historians poll

Credit: Whitehouse.gov

The greatest American presidents in history cemented their positions in the latest ranking of presidents by historians. On Friday, February 17, 2017, C-SPAN released their third survey ranking of American presidents entitled “Historians Survey of Presidential Leadership,” where Civil War President Abraham Lincoln again tops the poll conducted by 91 historians. C-SPAN has done the ranking three times each time after the latest president left office in 2000, 2009 and now 2017. This time Barack Obama has his first ranking in the pantheon of presidential greats, and he comes in a respectably high 12th place. Presidential rankings are often controversial whether conducted by presidential scholars or public opinion polls, with both often-generating conflicting results and not indicative of presidential history or greatness.

According to C-SPAN’s survey, the top four presidents after Lincoln are George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, and Theodore Roosevelt. Lincoln (1861–1865), has topped the C-SPAN survey all three times. Lincoln served as president during the Civil War, was able to save the Union, put an end to slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation, but whose time was tragically cut short by an assassin’s bullet before he could implement his Reconstruction plan. Washington’s (1789–1797) high status is attributed to his being the nation’s first president and the model all presidents have strived to since.

Franklin Roosevelt (1933–45) had the longest time in office, he was the only president elected to four terms but died in months into his fourth term. Roosevelt created the modern welfare state and expanded presidential powers that no previous president had done, creating the first imperial presidency. Roosevelt’s New Deal program helped the nation recover from the great economic depression and later presided over the country and its involvement in World War II. Theodore Roosevelt (1901–1909), was the first president of the 20th century and the first modern president. Roosevelt instituted some progressive reforms while bringing the country as a major world power. Roosevelt was also the first president to win a Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for his foreign policy, brokering peace that ended the Russo-Japanese War.

The majority of the top ten presidents are from the 20th century, with only three from 18th and 19th century, with the addition of Thomas Jefferson, (1801–1809) the nation’s third president at number seven. Half of the top ten are presidents from the middle of the 20th century, serving between 1933 and 1969. Dwight Eisenhower (1953–1961) in fifth, Harry Truman (1945–1953) in sixth place, John F. Kennedy (1961–63) in eighth and Lyndon Johnson (1963–1969) in tenth. There was only one president ranked in the top ten from the later part of the century, Ronald Reagan (1981–1989). While three died in office, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Kennedy, with Lincoln and Kennedy being assassinated.

Historian Richard Norton Smith, an academic advisor for the survey, commented on this mid-twentieth century golden era in presidential history, “Five presidents from this era each rank in the top ten which tells you something about the criteria that historians tend to use. It reinforces Franklin Roosevelt’s claim to be not only the first modern president but the man who, in reinventing the office, also established the criteria by which we judge our leaders.”

On the other bottom of the ranking is the presidents usually considered the worst in history and the worst of the worst remains the same. James Buchanan (1857–1861) is again at the bottom of the list, as the president right before the Civil War, historians blame him the most for the dissolution of the Union as sectional divisions eroded and the fragile balance collapsed.

Buchanan was president while slaveholders and anti-slavery fought in bleeding Kansas over slavery in the state, where he supported the proslavery and rigged Lecompton Constitution in 1857 to resolve the issue and allow Kansas to enter as a slave state. During Buchanan’s tenure was the 1857 Supreme Court decision on Missouri slave Dred Scott that determined that slaveholders could maintain their ownership of slaves anywhere in the country invalidating Congress’ attempt since 1820 to contain the expansion of slavery. John Brown’s Harpers Ferry Raid in 1859 was the last straw; the anti-slavery Brown had previously killed “five pro-slavery Kansas settlers” now wanted to raid the “federal arsenal” at Harper’s Ferry and lead a “slave uprising.” After two days of fighting, he was captured, and later that year hung for treason.

In the second to last spot is Buchanan’s predecessor, Franklin Pierce, who signed the ill-fated Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 that led to the disintegration under Buchanan’s tenure. The act allowed for popular sovereignty, allowing the state decides whether they would have slavery or be free soil. Historian Steven E. Siry writing in John E. Findling and Frank W. Thackeray’s “Events That Changed America in the Nineteenth Century” indicated, “No other piece of legislation in American history has produced such immediate and far-reaching changes.” (p. 10)

Andrew Johnson is perpetually in the third to last spot. Johnson, a Southern Democrat from Tennessee, was Lincoln’s Vice President as part of their 1864 Union ticket; he oversaw Reconstruction after the war and subsequently was the first president ever impeached by the House of Representatives. Johnson hoped to continued Lincoln’s more lenient plan of Reconstruction, allowing the Southern rebels states back into the Union after taking a loyalty oath, a plan most Republicans in Congress opposed leading them implementing a more radical plan after the midterm election in 1866 filled with military occupations of the Southern states.

Johnson was not one to compromise and has been called “the living incarnation of stubbornness” by historians Findling and Thackeray. (p. 123) Johnson’s constant vetoes that the Republican Congress eventually overrode led them to impeach him. Congress used as grounds that Johnson violated the Tenure of Office Act for removing his Secretary of War, who supported the radical reconstruction plan. Johnson was acquitted by just one vote in the Senate, affirming the right of a president to disagree with Congress.

Despite the constants in the top and bottom of the list, the greatest interest seems to be the ranking of the latest presidents including the three that successively joined the ranking since CSPAN began their survey in 2000, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and now the most recent addition to the former presidents club Barack Obama. Clinton, who presided over the biggest economic boom of the post-war era, but he was also the second president to impeached is seeing his ranking improve since he joined the list in 2000. Clinton began in 2000 at 21st place, but has moved and remained at the 15th position in the last two editions.

Clinton’s good ranking mostly has to do with his economic record, the 1990s job boom, and balancing the budget ending his term with a surplus. Clinton failed primarily in foreign policy by not dealing with the growing terrorist threat that erupted early in his successor’s term and his personal scandals. It was Clinton’s lying to cover up his affair with a White House intern Monica Lewinsky, which started during the 1995 government shutdown that led to his impeachment mostly because of his perjury in a deposition in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case against him. Clinton, like Johnson, was able to avoid conviction by being acquitted in the Senate’s trial.

Bush also sees his historical reputation rise, but only slightly, moving up three from 36th place to the 33rd position. Bush united the country in the aftermath of the worst terror attack on American soil in history when on September 11, 2001, radical terrorist group Al-Qaida used planes that hit the Pentagon in Washington, and the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York, killing over 3,000 Americans.

Bush’s counter attack, initiating over decade-long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, however, divided the country and mostly resulted in Bush falling out of favor with voters. The unpopular foreign wars coupled with domestic policy mistakes, including the handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the worst economic and housing collapse since the Great Depression led to Bush’s low ranking despite being a two-term president with the highest record approval rating from 2001 on record. Douglas Brinkley, a Rice University professor and C-SPAN historical advisory board member, commented, “The survey is surprisingly good news for George W. Bush, who shot up a few notches.”

After the divisiveness of Bush, Barack Obama came onto the scene, and he was elected in 2008 on a campaign pledge of hope and change. Obama success was most in domestic policy as he remained mired up for years in Bush’s wars in the Middle East before withdrawing all troops later in his presidency. Obama was able to turn the economy around with the help of his stimulus plan passed by a Democratic Congress, but it took six years for any actual recovery. Obama was the first president to succeed and provide health insurance coverage for practically all Americans with his Affordable Care Act, the program known as Obamacare.

Obama however, failed in pursuit of his other goal immigration reform, creating a legal pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants most of whom came from Latin American countries. Legislation in Congress stalled in the Senate, and Obama’s attempts at going it alone in a limited form through executive actions were struck down by the Supreme Court. Obama will be most remembered for his soaring rhetoric, advancement rights for LGBT Americans and being the first African-American president elected in American history.

Still, partisan divisions grew in the country under Obama, who despite promises to unite divided more during his tenure, where he was according to polls the polarizing president in history. His constant wars with the Republican House voted in 2010 and Senate voted in 2014 did nothing to help the partisan divide. Obama was the first black president, however, race relations deteriorated during his tenure, as police violence against Africans Americans rose.

Despite his shortcomings, in his first foray in the presidential ranking, Obama was placed in the generous position of 12th. Obama earned the third spot in the category “equal justice for all” and seventh place “moral authority,” eighth for “economic management” and tenth place for “public persuasion.” Obama’s stature among historians counters his ranking in the public opinion polls where he only ranked ninth out of the twelve postwar presidents based on his term average.

Edna Greene Medford, a Howard University professor and a member of C-SPAN’s historical advisory board thought Obama’s ranking was low, “Although 12th is a respectable overall ranking, one would have thought that former President Obama’s favorable rating when he left office would have translated into a higher ranking in this presidential survey.” Meanwhile, fellow board member Brinkley believes, “That Obama came in at number 12 his first time out is quite impressive.”

As for the survey’s methodology, the historians rated each president with a grade of “one (“not effective”) to ten (“very effective”) scale” on ten attributes, and the average represented their total overall ranking. The attributes consisted of “ten qualities of presidential leadership” which include, “Public Persuasion,” “Crisis Leadership,” “Economic Management,” “Moral Authority,” “International Relations,” “Administrative Skills,” “Relations with Congress,” “Vision/Setting An Agenda,” “Pursued Equal Justice for All,” and “Performance Within the Context of His Times.”

The CSPAN “Historians Survey of Presidential Leadership,” was overseen by an academic advisory team which included, Douglas G. Brinkley Professor of History Rice University, Edna Greene Medford, Professor of History Howard University and Richard Norton Smith, Presidential Historian, and Author. The advisory board chose the historians to participate based on those from “a database of C-SPAN’s programming.” In the end, 91 scholars, journalists or authors decided to participate. A problem with the ranking might be the caliber of historians who participated, most are liberal leaning, although there are some that participated are well known and respected, others are barely known, with some notable scholars glaringly absent.

Presidential rankings history dates back nearly 70 years and is a product of the postwar period, but has expanded greatly at the turn of the millennium. The eminent historian and professor at Harvard University Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. conducted the first presidential ranking in 1948; Schlesinger conducted it again in 1962, with the help of 75 historians, while his son, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. did the third edition of their ranking years later in 1996. Along the way, both colleges and news media have tried their hand at conducting rankings of the presidents aided by presidential scholars.

Among them, include the Chicago Tribune in 1982, Siena College’s Research Institute made their ranking a tradition, publishing it each time after a president left office or ended a term starting in 1982, then 1990, 1994, 2002, and most recently 2010. Sienna College’s ranking often ranked the latest president although they were usually just starting or in their middle of their term, not giving a complete picture or fair ranking. The Wall Street Journal attempted for a fair and unbiased ranking in their two editions conducted in 2000 and 2005 by including an equal amount of liberal and conservative scholars.

Another attempt for balance was William J. Ridings, Jr., and Stuart B. McIver who conducted a poll with 719 scholars, politicians and celebrities between 1988 and 1996. They looked for representations from all states, female historians, and African American historians for their ranking that was published as “Rating the Presidents: A Ranking of U.S. leaders, from the Great and Honorable to the Dishonest and Incompetent.” Recent presidential rankings include, the Times of London conducted one in 2008, the United States Presidency Centre (USPC) at the University of London in 2011, while the American Political Science Association (APSA) produced one in 2015.

Most of the rankings agree that Lincoln, Washington, and Franklin Roosevelt rank in the top three while the bottom consistently includes Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and the scandal-filled Warren G. Harding (1921–23). There have been some differences when conservative scholars are included in the decision-making process.

Wall Street Journal’s polls saw successive Democratic presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson ranked lower in 18th and 17th in 2000 and 15th and 18th in 2005, with both receiving their lowest ranking of all surveys, Kennedy in 2000 and Johnson in 2005. Meanwhile, Republican President Ronald Regan saw his status improve with Conservative historians involved; Reagan had his highest showing at eighth in 2000 and sixth in 2005.

The largest partisan divide is with the ranking of George W. Bush; most rankings have near the bottom of the list like C-SPAN despite his two-terms and high poll numbers dealing with the aftermath of 9/1. Liberal scholars view him negatively as WSJ’s 2005 survey indicated ranking him 37th out of 43, while Republicans considered him in the top 10 in sixth place, both suggest that Bush’s usual low ranking may show partisan bias a major flaw in the rankings. Meanwhile, Obama might be ranking higher than he should in his first outing, because liberals consider him a hero not based on his approval ratings, or any historical perspective because he just left office.

In addition to surveys compiled from expert opinions, there have been numerous polls asking the public their view of who was the greatest president, with even more conducting partial polls looking at the recent postwar presidents. CSPAN conducted a full survey in 2000, as did ABC News, Washington College conducted one in 2005, Rasmussen in 2007 and Gallup in 2011. The results differed greatly from those of scholars, usually more recent presidents fared better either entering the top ten or higher up making the top five. John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan consistently did better, as did Bill Clinton, even the public had a more favorable regard for George W. Bush than academics.

Quinnipiac University released a partial survey of “the best and worst presidents since World War II” in January. In the top five best presidents were Reagan, Obama, Kennedy, Clinton, Eisenhower, and George W. Bush in sixth out of the twelve presidents. Of the worst, the top five were Nixon, Obama, George W. Bush, Carter and Reagan with Clinton in sixth place.

Presidential rankings have long been controversial even when they are conducted and are the opinions professional scholars, historians and political scientists. One of the largest problems is rankings in the humanities is not a science, the bias of the historians is always problematic, whether it be political as much academics are liberals or even personal based on their area of research.

Presidents and historians alike find the rankings controversial. Lincoln biographer, Harvard professor, and doyen David Herbert Donald recalled Kennedy’s negative opinion of presidential rankings when they met in 1961. Donald recounted, “No one has a right to grade a President-even poor James Buchanan-who has not sat in his chair, examined the mail and information that came across his desk, and learned why he made his decisions.”

Historian James MacGregor Burns noted the problems with ranking some presidents with major successes and failures. An example is Richard Nixon, (1969–1974) the only president ever to resign because of the Watergate scandal cover up but made significant inroads in Cold War foreign policy with a détente with the Soviet Union, and opened the door to relations with China. Lyndon Johnson is another, his record with civil and voting rights legislation, his war on poverty with his Great Society program represented highs in his presidency marred by the deepening conflict the Vietnam War, which led him not to run for a second full term. As well as Clinton, who had a scandal-filled presidency, complete with impeachment, but had tremendous approval ratings and success with the economy.

Princeton professor and presidential scholar Julian E. Zelizer, considering his influence in the profession was not one of the participants of C-SPAN’s survey, because of his disapproval of the rankings. Zelizer commented in his 2011 op-ed for CNN “What’s wrong with presidential rankings” lamenting that “rankings don’t tell us much about presidential history. The rankings are weak mechanisms for evaluating what has taken place in the White House.” Zelizer claimed presidential reputations change over time with perspective and context. While there are also problems with the criteria evaluating the presidents, assessing presidents with conflicting records as MacGregor Burns noted, and political bias.

Professor Zelizer is right, presidential; rankings are superficial and do not truly indicate historical greatness, and the complicated decisions each president was faced with at the time, as Kennedy argued to Donald. Academics would do better to recommend thorough biographies of each president for students of history and the public for them to have a more nuanced comprehension of presidential history than participating and promote rankings that are almost always rifled with bias and as Zelizer indicated just make great headlines.

Full overall rankings from CSPAN’s 2017 survey:

1. Abraham Lincoln
2. George Washington
3. Franklin Delano Roosevelt
4. Teddy Roosevelt
5. Dwight Eisenhower
6. Harry Truman
7. Thomas Jefferson
8. John F. Kennedy
9. Ronald Reagan
10. Lyndon Johnson
11. Woodrow Wilson
12. Barack Obama
13. James Monroe
14. James Polk
15. Bill Clinton
16. William McKinley
17. James Madison
18. Andrew Jackson
19. John Adams
20. George H.W. Bush
21. John Q. Adams
22. Ulysses Grant
23. Grover Cleveland
24. William Taft
25. Gerald Ford
26. Jimmy Carter
27. Calvin Coolidge
28. Richard Nixon
29. James Garfield
30. Benjamin Harrison
31. Zachary Taylor
32. Rutherford Hayes
33. George W. Bush
34. Martin Van Buren
35. Chester Arthur
36. Herbert Hoover
37. Millard Fillmore
38. William Harrison
39. John Tyler
40. Warren Harding
41. Franklin Pierce
42. Andrew Johnson
43. James Buchanan

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University), is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor. She is a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.

Politics January 29, 2017: Obama polarizing historical legacy as the nation’s divider-in-chief




Obama polarizing historical legacy as the nation’s divider-in-chief

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Obama era was the most partisan; Barack Obama reigned over the country as the polarizing president history according to a new Gallup poll released on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2017 that looked at the partisan support of Obama during his eight-year presidency. The survey proved what already seemed obvious from the news media and recent events that Americans are more partisan than ever in American history. It is leading the country down the wrong path and divides not seen since the Civil War, ironically by a president who was elected on a pledge to unite rather than divide.

According to Gallup, Obama had the largest “party gap in presidential job approval ratings” in support of all presidents in the post-World War II era, with 70 percent, up nine points from the presidency of Republican George W. Bush. A trend started in Republican Ronald Reagan’s era, but steadily grew during George W. Bush’s presidency, and became a fact during Obama’s time in office. According to the Gallup, the partisanship has to do with the times even more than his policies, explaining, “The extreme polarization in Obama’s ratings could reflect his policies and approach to governing, it also reflects the era in which he governed.”

Gallup has been crowning the last six years of Obama’s presidency as polarized with an increasingly larger partisan divide. According to Gallup, Presidents Reagan, Bill Clinton, Bush and now Obama a party gap of over 50 percent, with 52, 55, 61 and 70 respectively. Nixon was the only president to a gap in the 40s range with 41 percent. Three presidents had gaps in the 30s, Dwight D. Eisenhower, with 39 percent, George H. W. Bush with 38, and John F. Kennedy with 35 percent. The least divisive presidents partisan wise were Jimmy Carter and Lyndon B. Johnson with a 27 percent gap, and Gerald Ford with a 29 percent.

Party support divide among recent presidents:

Average approval, Republicans Average approval, Democrats Average party gap
% % pct. pts.
Obama 13 83 70
G.W. Bush 84 23 61
Clinton 27 82 55
Reagan 83 31 52
Nixon 75 34 41
Eisenhower 88 49 39
G.H.W. Bush 82 44 38
Kennedy 49 84 35
Ford 68 37 29
Johnson 44 71 27
Carter 30 57 27

George H. W. Bush presidency might not seem divisive because it was not during its first three years with a party gap of only 32 to 24 percent, but his last year in office when the economy was in trouble became far more polarized with a gap of 54 percent, which continued through the Clinton era. Gallup indicated that the average party support gap from 1953 to 1981 was only 34 percent, from 1981 to 2017 it grew to a 54 percent average.

Pew Research Center conducted a similar survey, which they released earlier this month, just before the inauguration. Pew published their review on Oct. 28, 2016, just days before the 2016 election. Obama had a 54 percent approval rating and 42 percent disapproval, but the margin of approval differed greatly between the parties. Pew claims Obama’s poll ratings were “more politically polarized than any president’s dating back to Dwight Eisenhower.”

According to Pew “An average of just 14% of Republicans have approved of Obama over the course of his presidency, compared with an average of 81% of Democrats.” Pew explains, “The gap in partisan presidential ratings has widened in recent decades as Americans have grown more divided in their basic values and beliefs along partisan lines and as partisan animosity has increased.” Pew indicates, that “Partisan divisions in assessments of presidential performance, for example, are wider now than at any point going back more than six decades.”

Gallup, however, tracks that this polarization has increasingly become a problem in the last 15 years, under Bush and Obama, where the party gap averaged 60 percent. Pew Research Center determined recently in a survey entitled “Political Polarization in the American Public” found one of the reasons for the rise in partisanship is attributed to the disappearing middle, centrist American, the so-called mushy middle. Instead, “92 percent of Republicans are now to the right of the median Democrat, and 94 percent of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican.” While the “partisan animosity” is so that each side believes the other “are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.”

It is ironic that Obama was at the center of the growing partisan divide since he burst onto the national scene at the 2004 Democratic National Conventionwith a keynote address calling for an end to red and blue states division, which at that point he called a figment of the media. Obama with soaring rhetoric said, “Yet even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America — there’s the United States of America… The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into the Red States and the Blue States; the Red States for Republicans, the Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too… We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”

Obama echoed that call throughout his 2008 campaign of change and hope, speaking at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Iowa back in November 2007, he firmly stated, “I don’t want to spend the next year or the next four years refighting the same fights that we had in the 1990s. I don’t want to pit red America against blue America. I want to be the President of the United States of America.” In his March 2008 speech on race calling for a “more perfect union,” Obama made clear he was the choice candidate for unity and end of divisive politics, saying, “For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism…. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, “Not this time.”

Obama’s failures as president had more to do with intense partisanship than any other determining factor; it was his inability to compromise with Republicans and they with him that led to a legislative gridlock that was the hallmark of Obama’s presidency since the Republican took control of Congress in the 2010-midterm elections. When the GOP won the House of Representatives in 2010, Obama divisively declared, “The American people may have voted for divided government, but they didn’t vote for a dysfunctional government.”

Republicans could not forgive Obama for passing with the Democratic-controlled Congress the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and most importantly the Affordable Care Act, healthcare law, which passed into law without a single Republican vote, that the GOP spent the remainder of his presidency trying to repeal it. Obama’s inability to compromise led to the sequestration, across the board spending cuts to reduce the deficit in March 2013, and later that year one of the longest government shutdowns in October that last over two weeks over failing to agree on a federal budget. Obama had little legislative success for his last six years in office, because of his confrontational and cold war attitude to the Republican Congress.

President Obama’s go it alone rhetoric on executive actions while chastising Republicans in Congress for not passing legislation he desired including immigration reform also added to the partisan “rancor.” His threats of “governing” by “pen and phone” to create a “year of action” in 2014 just before his State of the Union address only caused more of a partisan divide, without attempts to negotiate really with Republicans he just angered them. Speaking at his first cabinet meeting that year, Obama made clear, “I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got a phone. One of the things that I will be emphasizing in this meeting is the fact that we are not just going to be waiting for legislation in order to make sure that we are providing Americans the kind of help that they need.”

Jeffery Rosen, Professor of Law at The George Washington University Law School, commented to NY Magazine on Obama’s legacy in the January 2015 article, “53 Historians on Obama’s Legacy.” Rosen analyzes, “Nevertheless, Obama’s rhetoric on executive orders has been so polarizing — “Where I can act without Congress, I’m going to do so.” — that he has inflamed his opponents and strengthened their resolve to reverse his achievements.”

Obama, however, inflamed more with his talk than actions, he only issued 277 executive orders only a 35 per year average, less than his immediate predecessors did and less than any president in 120 years based on a yearly average. Just as he used his rhetoric to unite Americans in his 2008 campaign, he used it to divide them in during his presidency.

Instead of negotiating with the opposing party in Congress, as most presidents did in an attempt to pass legislation, Obama thought ridicule was the way to go. It had the opposite effect; it made the Republican Party stronger, their supporters more resolute resulting in the 2016 election where the GOP swept the elections at almost every level. The Boston Globe put it best, “Like all presidents, Obama has been frustrated by partisan opponents. But no chief executive in modern times has been so quick to impugn his critics’ motives, or to resort to mockery and demonization when amicable persuasion would serve so much better.” They concluded how much Obama contributed to the partisan divide, stating, “When presidential rhetoric is mean and contemptuous, the whole public square is befouled.”

Rosen indicated that Obama’s blazon executive actions had not fared well especially with the courts, where the Supreme Court struck down his recess appointments and then did the same in 2016 with his orders on immigration. Rosen contextualized, “Throughout history, unilateral presidential actions designed to circumvent Congress have led to pushback in the Courts and Congress that have ultimately undermined, rather than strengthened, the president’s legitimacy.”

Obama realized how much he contributed to the partisan divide in the nation by his last year in office. The former president called it his greatest regret since he campaigned in 2008 as a uniter but became a divider. First Obama lamented his failures as he was running reelection in September 2012 during an interview, saying, “I’m the first one to confess that the spirit that I brought to Washington, that I wanted to see instituted, where we weren’t constantly in a political slugfest . . . I haven’t fully accomplished that. My biggest disappointment is that we haven’t changed the tone in Washington as much as I would have liked.” Still, Obama turned his positive hopeful campaign from 2008 into a more insulting model in 2012.

Again, in his last State of the Union Address in January 2016, Obama admitted his presidency’s failure to close the partisan gap, expressing, “It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.”

In the same State of the Union, Obama made a final “plea” to end the partisanship, saying, “A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. This is a big country, with different regions, different attitudes, different interests. It doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice. It doesn’t work if we think our political opponents are unpatriotic or trying to weaken America. Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise; or when even basic facts are contested, and we listen only to those who agree with us.” The president, however, never seem to take his advice or practice what he preached.

Obama failed to do anything to soothe the partisan divide in his last year in office and possibly inflamed according to Gallup with his intensely partisan rhetoric as he campaigned for Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. The campaign between Clinton and Republican, now President Donald Trump was one of the nastiest in American history with a deep partisan divide between two vastly different candidates and the demographics of their supporters.

During his campaign speech for Clinton, Obama made the differences between the parties stark, with rhetoric as divisive as the GOP who was accusing the same of, saying the day before the election, “So we got one more day. And we can choose a politics of blame and divisiveness and resentment. Or you can choose a politics that says; we’re stronger together. Tomorrow you can choose whether we continue the journey of progress or whether it all goes out the window.” Obama’s stump speech was full of insults he opposed during his first campaign not just for the Republican nominee but the party, “If you think ‘Voting for Endless Gridlock’ is a good slogan, you should vote for the Republicans.”

Obama’s failure to bridge the partisan divide only led to a more divisive presidency, and it is only getting worse. According to the first numbers Gallup collected from Trump’s fledgling presidency show the nation is even more divisive and partisan under Trump. According to Gallup, Trump is seeing a 76 percent gap between party approval ratings with 90 percent of Republicans approving of him while only a meager 14 percent of Democrats. Trump’s first week in office included a flurry of executive actions, adding a wall to the Mexican border, approving oil pipelines, and barring refugees and immigrants from some Muslim countries resulting in reactionary protests across the country and around the world, ensuring a new age of even more polarizing politics.

Obama’s polarizing numbers show a greater failure, while Trump had always campaigned as a divisive, controversial, revolutionary and populist choice, Obama overriding theme throughout his career in national politics was the aim to unite the partisan divide. Instead, his period in the spotlight created the most intense divisions within the country not seen since the Civil War when the North and South waged war over their brothers over states rights and slavery.

Now the country seems on the verge of a new ideological civil war between the Red and Blue States, Republicans and Democrats, Conservatives and Liberals. While not yet violent, this new war uses the weapons of words and protests against those they ideologically oppose, with Obama’s Democrats being the most vocal and extreme. Obama always wanted to emulate Abraham Lincoln, but now his only semblance to the great president who presided and ended the Civil War was the Lincoln, the divider which when elected in 1860 saw half the states of the union secede. Unlike Lincoln, Obama further tore the country apart and never tried to put it back together.

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University), is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor. She is a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.


History December 30, 2016: Universities continue dropping American history requirement as enrollment problems plague departments




Universities continue dropping American history requirement as enrollment problems plague departments

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

Another university in the United States is joining the ranks of those dropping the requirement that their history majors complete a course in American history to graduate. George Washington University has become the latest university to drop the American history requirement. Less than a third of any of the universities and colleges listed in US News’ Best Colleges top 25 universities and colleges even require an American history course of their majors, with private colleges and universities leading the way, while more public schools maintain the requirement.

The issue, which is creating a new generation illiterate about the history of the very country they live in, was the topic of a recent report by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni entitled “No U.S. History? How College History Departments Leave the United States out of the Major.” In universities’ attempt to give students more freedom in their education they are creating a new generation ill informed of the history of their nation and lacking the tools necessary for an enlightened electorate, citizens and future leaders. The greater problem, however, is the “dramatic” declining graduation rates in history degrees and enrollment in history courses according to the American Historical Association.

The 21st Century University is completing the process that philosopher Harold Bloom lamented in his 1987 book “The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students.” In his book, which amounted to a manifesto, Bloom charged universities of a politically liberal agenda that deprived students of learning the humanities and the great books of Western thought and civilization referred to as a liberal education in exchange for self-interest at the same time failing its students. Bloom’s book and article that preceded it were inspired by the culture wars of the 1980s where universities were dropping other traditional requirements for their students and altering their curriculum that has continued evolved into the one common on university campuses today. Bloom was fighting a war on the elite universities particularly the Ivy League that he believed assaulted traditional education creating a conflict between “culture and civilization.”

Now universities are completing their war on Western civilization by dropping American history requirements from their history majors. University history education has been practically taken over by obscure areas and sub-topics focusing on social history versus political history, now global history is taking preeminence over studying American history or even European history. Long gone are the days when history departments required a foreign language component of their majors while theses are also mostly going to the wayside, now most universities just loosely require time-periods and general geographic areas.

Some universities still require their students to take a survey course in either American, European, World or another geographic location; others allow micro-histories to substitute or even allow high grades in high school Advanced Placement (AP) credits in US History to suffice. Some university history departments have geographic requirements, but they do not include the United States, some even require that students take specific areas from “African, Asian, and Middle Eastern history or in Latin American history.” In total 34 colleges have “general geographical-distribution requirements “that explicitly exclude the US.

When there is an American history requirement history departments are too “lax” allowing micro-histories, mostly social history which ACTA calls “trendy, highly specialized courses” to substitute. These courses do not as “KC Johnson, senior professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center” notes cover essentials for a proper historical perspective on the US leading Johnson to question, “What happened to fields such as military, constitutional, and diplomatic history?” In total, 11 history departments at the top schools allow students to fulfill American history requirements with micro-history courses that barely touch on the most important events and issues in American history.

Bloom was concerned even in 1987 about the lack of American history being taught, writing, “The upshot of all of this for the education of young Americans is that they know much less about American history and those who were held to be its heroes. This was one of the few things that they used to come to college with that had something to do with their lives. Nothing has taken its place except a smattering of facts learned about other nations or cultures and a few social science formulas.” (Bloom, p. 34)

Nearly thirty years later, Michael Poliakoff, ACTA’s president-elect commented with the same lament Bloom had, “Historical illiteracy is the inevitable consequence of lax college requirements, and that ignorance leads to civic disempowerment. A democratic republic cannot thrive without well-informed citizens and leaders. Elite colleges and universities, in particular, let the nation down when the examples they set devalue the study of United States history.” While Eric Bledsoe, ACTA’s director of curricular improvementand academic outreach noted: “It is the obligation of higher education to ensure that all students, especially history majors, understand their own history.”

ACTA’s report “No U.S. History? How College History Departments Leave the United States out of the Major” examined how or if universities and colleges require an American history course of their history majors. The report determined that only 23 universities or colleges in the top 25 of US News Best Colleges “out of 76 require a course on our nation’s history.” ACTA indicated of “Top 25 Liberal Arts Colleges: 7 require U.S. history, of the Top 25 National Universities: 4 require U.S. History, and of the Top 25 Public Institutions: 14 require U.S. history.” Private universities especially the Ivy League are the worst offenders with only Princeton and Columbia University requiring an American history course but Princeton allows courses that are “narrow in scope” and not comprehensive surveys that give the greatest exposure even if it is at an introductory level.

Without requiring American history in US history departments, students are left with nothing more than basic high school courses in American and European history that do not have the analytical depth of a college course taught by a professional academic. ACTA argues that without knowledge of American history, students lack the background they need to study other geographic areas. The greater problem is that graduates are ignorant in one of the most important roles they will play after their academic careers that of citizens and possibly leaders. ACTA pointed out that educating future “citizens,” “leaders” is an important part of many colleges’ mission statements including Harvard, and without an American history requirement the colleges are not fulfilling their obligations.

History departments are arguing that students are going to take American history whether they are required or not. The real problem is dwindling enrollment numbers of history majors, an issue the discipline has been dealing with for the past couple of years. Declining enrollment was the reason George Washington University got rid of their American history requirement.
Katrin Schultheiss, the chair of the GWU history department told the student newspaper the Hatchet, “I think the main gain for students is that they have a great deal more flexibility than they had before, and they can adapt it to whatever their plans are for the future. Whatever they want to do, there’s a way to make the history department work for them.”

For many history departments like those at GWU, funding is tied to enrollment, gaining more students is key. After the great economic recession in 2008 history departments began to see a decline in enrollment for history majors as did other humanities disciplines, students chose instead majors with a distinct career path particularly STEM, science, technology, engineering and math instead to ensure more stable employment after graduation. History departments looked to appeal to students and entice them to take a major in the discipline to keep up with the declining enrollment numbers.

The American Historical Association conducted surveys earlier this year that showed a continued drop in students graduating with a degree in history and that in general there was a decline in college students taking history courses. Julia Brookins, the special projects coordinator at the AHA, authored the results and suggestions to help curb the declines. Brookins writing “New Data Show Large Drop in History Bachelor’s Degrees” published in March 2016 in the AHA’s “Perspectives on History” looked at data from the National Center for Education Statistics and determined that there was “dramatic decline in the number of bachelor’s degrees in history awarded in 2014.”

History departments saw an unprecedented 9.1 percent decrease in history degree granted in 2014 from 34,360 to 31,233, whereas in 2013 the decline from the previous year was only 2.8 percent. The decline was disproportionate at “very high research” universities with 13.3 percent, whereas at liberal arts colleges the decline was only 2.6 percent. Although bachelor degrees granted increased by 1.6 percent, history degrees only compromise 1.7 percent of all bachelor degrees granted.

In general, there is a decline in the number of students enrolling in undergraduate history courses. Brookins writing in “Survey Finds Fewer Students Enrolling in College History Courses” published in September 2016 described the results of a survey AHA conducted of 123 history departments in the US and Canada looking at undergraduate enrollment during the 2014–15 academic year. The results determined that there have enrollment declines at 96 departments with only 27 seeing increases, 55 departments had declines of 10 percent and over. The decline was greatest at public universities and colleges with a median drop of 9.2 percent versus private schools, which only saw a drop of 7.6 percent. History departments seem only to be able to attract students to introductory survey courses with them only seeing 4.8 percent of an enrollment decrease in comparison to the more specified upper-level courses that have seen a 7.6 percent decline.

The AHA gave history departments some suggestions to increase enrollment with Brookins’ article “The Decline in History Majors: What Is to Be Done?” published in May 2016. The AHA looked to determine whether departments’ moving away from the traditional focus on the United States and Europe hindered enrollment; their conclusion proved the “contrary.” According to the AHA, “departments with diverse specializations ‘were more likely to have increased their share of bachelor’s degrees’ than those without them. Also, the analysis ‘found that . . . a wide majority of departments continue to list themselves as having a specialization in the US and Europe.’”

Part of the AHA’s recommendations for history departments looking to recruit students was to move away from relying on introductory surveys, and instead, add more diverse course offerings. The AHA believes that getting rid of “designated distribution requirements” actually helps attract students to the department. Prospective employment also has been an issue with history graduates, with teaching or going on to law school the primary professional goals for history majors not looking to continue graduate study in the discipline.

Departments also need to appeal to more female students as history majors tend to be still more male than female by a 3:2 ratio, Focusing on social history helps, but departments still have problems recruiting minorities, with 74.4 percent of history graduates being white. Departments veering away from American history and European history and towards Africa/Asia/ Middle East and Global areas is an attempt to appeal to minority students whose numbers are also declining among history graduates except black men where there was an increase of history graduates in 2014 up 4.9 percent.

To balance out the changes in requirements history departments are looking to instill core competencies of historical analysis, writing, and research, skills students can use for future employment in a variety of fields. GWU’s Thomas Long, “an assistant history professor and the coordinator for undergraduate advising,” says that is the philosophy behind the departments to revise their requirements. Long explained, “You should graduate with a history major able to do three things: You should know how we got where we are, you should be able to write, and you should be able to think critically. If you graduate with those skills, you can really do anything.”

Most departments see giving their students access to a different way to specialize as keys to maintaining and even possibly increasing enrollment numbers and student success after graduation. Unfortunately, as Bloom worried about nearly 30 years ago, it is coming at the expense of a traditional education in Western civilization, with American history the latest victim to the changing trends in higher education.


American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), “No U.S. History? How College History Departments Leave the United States out of the Major,” July 2016

Allan Bloom. “The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students.” New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.

Julia Brookins, “New Data Show Large Drop in History Bachelor’s Degrees,” Perspectives on History, American Historical Association, March 2016, https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/march-2016/new-data-show-large-drop-in-history-bachelors-degrees

Julia Brookins, “The Decline in History Majors: What Is to Be Done?,” Perspectives on History,
American Historical Association, May 2016 https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/may-2016/the-decline-in-history-majors

Julia Brookins, “Survey Finds Fewer Students Enrolling in College History Courses,” Perspectives on History, American Historical Association, September 2016 https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/september-2016/survey-finds-fewer-students-enrolling-in-college-history-courses

Kate Hardiman, “U.S. history no longer a requirement for history majors at George Washington University,” The College Fix, December 22, 2016, http://www.thecollegefix.com/post/30469/

Scott Jaschik, “History Enrollments Drop,” Inside Higher Ed, September 6, 2016 https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/09/06/survey-finds-decline-history-enrollments

Lily Werlinich, “History department changes major requirements to draw in students,” “The George Washington Hatchet,” November 13, 2016 http://www.gwhatchet.com/2016/11/13/history-department-changes-major-requirements-to-draw-in-students/

Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS, is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor with a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.

Politics June 19, 2016: Trump blames Jeb Bush for Never Trump delegate movement vows to go it alone




Trump blames Jeb Bush for Never Trump delegate movement vows to go it alone

By Bonnie K. Goodman

June 19, 2016 1:02 PM MST

Presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump believes Jeb Bush is behind the delegates who want to block his nomination at the Republican National Convention in July, June 18, 2016
Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images

Politics March 6, 2016: Political leaders react to former First Lady Nancy Reagan’s death (1921-2016)




Political leaders react to former First Lady Nancy Reagan’s death (1921-2016)

By Bonnie K. Goodman

March 6, 2016 2:14 PM MST

 The nation is mourning former First Lady Nancy Reagan's death. Reagan was married to Ronald Reagan the 40th president serving from 1981-1989. She died at 94 years-old of congestive heart failure, March 6, 2016
The nation is mourning former First Lady Nancy Reagan’s death. Reagan was married to Ronald Reagan the 40th president serving from 1981-1989. She died at 94 years-old of congestive heart failure, March 6, 2016
The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum

Judaism December 27, 2015: Sotheby’s auctions 9 items from Valmadonna Trust Library for nearly 15 million




Sotheby’s auctions nine items from Valmadonna Trust Library for nearly 15 million

By Bonnie K. Goodman

Examiner.com, December 27, 2015, 6:14 PM MST

Sotheby's auctioned off the Valmadonna Trust Library's most prized item the complete Bomberg Talmud for over $9 million, Dec. 22, 2015

Sotheby’s auctioned off the Valmadonna Trust Library’s most prized item the complete Bomberg Talmud for over $9 million, Dec. 22, 2015
Sothebys.com / Morton Landowne YouTube

Politics December 7, 2015: Voter confronts Hillary Clinton about hypocrisy, husband Bill’s rape victims




Voter confronts Hillary Clinton about hypocrisy, husband Bill’s rape victims 

By Bonnie K. Goodman

Examiner.com, December 7, 2015, 2:30 PM MST

Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton was confronted by a voter about her husband former President Bill Clinton's rape, sexual assault and harassment victims; Clinton has been making combating sexual assault a key campaign issue, Dec. 3, 2015
Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton was confronted by a voter about her husband former President Bill Clinton’s rape, sexual assault, and harassment victims; Clinton has been making combating sexual assault a key campaign issue, Dec. 3, 2015
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Politics November 7, 2015: Hillary reveals Bill Clinton would run for president again, but would lose




Hillary reveals Bill Clinton would run for president again but would lose

By Bonnie K. Goodman

Examiner.com, November 7, 2015, 7:14 PM MST

Hillary Clinton told Jimmy Kimmel that she win the election in a potential matchup against her husband former President Bill Clinton, Nov. 5, 2015

Hillary Clinton told Jimmy Kimmel that she win the election in a potential matchup against her husband former President Bill Clinton, Nov. 5, 2015
Glamour / Jimmy Kimmel Live YouTube

Politics September 30, 2015: Second Clinton co-presidency? Hillary Clinton might give Bill a West Wing office




Second Clinton co-presidency? Hillary Clinton might give Bill a West Wing office

By Bonnie K. Goodman

Examiner.com, September 30, 2015, 12:40 PM MST

Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton has again raised the toxic specter of a co-presidency with her husband former President Bill Clinton; the American public opposed the concept during the nineties and again during Clinton's failed bid for the presiden
Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton has again raised the toxic specter of a co-presidency with her husband former President Bill Clinton; the American public opposed the concept during the nineties and again during Clinton’s failed bid for the presiden
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

News April 6, 2015: Library of Congress purchases 500 Civil War photos from grandmother collector

Library of Congress purchases 500 Civil War photos from grandmother collector

April 6, 2015

The Library of Congress has just added a treasure trove of historical photographs to their collection, 500 photographs of Civil War era, the pre to post war era from slavery, the actual war and President Abraham Lincoln’s funeral…

Politics March 31, 2015: On this day in history March 30 1981 Reagan shot survives assassination attempt

On this day in history March 30 1981 Reagan shot survives assassination attempt

March 31, 2015

Journalists are remembering the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan’s life 34 years ago on Monday, March 30, 1981. On that day, as Reagan was exiting the Washington Hilton hotel he was bombarded by six bullets from…

Politics March 30, 2015: Obama nearly falls stumbles out of Air Force One experiences Gerald Ford moment

Obama nearly falls stumbles out of Air Force One experiences Gerald Ford moment

March 30, 2015

President Barack Obama now has something in common with a Republican president, like Gerald Ford before Obama has now been caught stumbling out of Air Force One. On Sunday evening, March 29, 2015, President Obama slipped and nearly fell as…

News March 22, 2015: Ceremonies begin honoring News March 22, 2015: King Richard III reburial at Leicester Cathedral

Ceremonies begin honoring King Richard III reburial at Leicester Cathedral

March 22, 2015
King Richard III is finally getting the royal burial he deserves, 530 years after his death in the Battle of Bosworth where he laid in a shallow unmarked grave. On Sunday, March 22, 2015 the procession to bring the…

Politics March 8, 2015: Obama “march is not yet finished” at Selma 50th as race relations deteriorate

Obama “march is not yet finished” at Selma 50th as race relations deteriorate

March 8, 2015

Experts agree when President Barack Obama delivered his speech on Saturday, March 7, 2015 in honor of the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” and the Selma to Montgomery Civil Rights Marches he gave one of the best speeches…

Politics March 2, 2015: Monica Lewinsky’s secret appearance in Bill Clinton’s official portrait revealed

Monica Lewinsky’s secret appearance in Bill Clinton’s official portrait revealed

March 2, 2015

Former President Bill Clinton’s official portrait has an additional presence portrayed in it, which until now has not been publicly known. Pennsylvanian and “renowned celebrity” artist Nelson Shanks, 77 revealed in an interview with the Philadelphia…

Politics February 7, 2015: Obama historically right about Christianity ISIS comparison at Prayer Breakfast

Obama historically right about Christianity ISIS comparison at Prayer Breakfast February 7, 2015

President Barack Obama caused quite the controversy at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, Feb. 5, 2015 when he discussed extremism in religion and then proceeded to make comparisons between the Christian Crusades, Inquisition and ISIS, the Islamic State of…

Headlines News January 25, 2015: Abraham Lincoln memorabilia brings in nearly a million at Texas auction

Abraham Lincoln memorabilia brings in nearly a million at Texas auction January 25, 2015

A Dallas, Texas auction of President Abraham Lincoln memorabilia held on Saturday, Jan. 24, 2015 at Heritage Auction House in Dallas has brought in over $803,000 including $25,000 just for a lock of the assassinated president’s…

Headlines News January 25, 2015: Le Griffon 1679 shipwreck found, Confederate gold remains lost in Lake Michigan

Le Griffon 1679 shipwreck found, Confederate gold remains lost in Lake Michigan January 25, 2015

By accident, two treasure hunters have found the holy grail of all shipwrecks Le Griffon that vanished on its maiden voyage in 1679, and its location not discovered until now. In 2011, Kevin Dykstra and Frederick Monroe looking for…