How the Republicans and Democrats Used History at Their Conventions

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Ms. Laney is an HNN intern.

In this election season, it seems that the point cannot be made forcefully enough by pundits, delegates, supporters, candidates and other members of the political swirl that we are at a historical turning point: breaking with tradition with the first black Presidential nominee and only the second female Vice Presidential nominee of a major party. With all this talk of history being made, the way candidates and their supporters seek to use history to their benefit is often overlooked. A review of the transcripts of this summer's conventions reveals that one of the most common practices has been to borrow the heroes of the opposing party to discredit it.

The Democrats, at their Denver convention, frequently referred to heroes from the Republican Party's past in an attempt to discredit the current party. Retired Rear Admiral John Hutson, in his speech supporting Barack Obama, indicated that he barely recognized his old party: "The Republican Party I once knew has become something different, something I no longer recognize.” By paying tribute to the most admired accomplishments of the G.O.P., the speakers sought to expose what they believed to be a failure of modern Republicans to uphold their legacy.

Congressman Rahm Emanuel (D-IL), speaking of what he believed to be the failures of President George W. Bush, quoted Ronald Reagan in defense of his argument, using one of The Gipper's most famous lines against his putative heir: “In the 2006 election, Democrats, Independents, and even some Republicans scored a victory that President Bush himself called ‘a thumpin'.’ Well, Mr. President, as Ronald Reagan used to say, ‘you ain't seen nothing yet’.” 

Former Congressman Jim Leach (R-IA) spoke of the progressive efforts of Republicans Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, in a further attempt to suggest that the current Republican Party had grown distant from its roots:

[The Republican Party] includes Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt, who built up the National Parks system and broke down corporate monopolies, and Dwight David Eisenhower,  who ran on a pledge to end a war in Korea, brought a stop to European colonial intervention in the Middle East, quietly integrated the Washington, D.C. school system and not so quietly sent the 101st Airborne to Little Rock to squash segregation in public schools throughout the country.

By exalting grand successes of historic Republicans, Leach attempted to highlight alleged failures of Republicans today.

Susan Eisenhower, the granddaughter of Dwight Eisenhower, spoke of the divide between yesterday and today, in regards to Republican policy and action.  In her words,

Once during the Eisenhower administration, Ike was under fire from his critics for moving too slowly in responding to political pressure. After a visit to the Oval Office by Robert Frost, the famous American poet sent the president a note: “the strong,” he wrote, “are saying nothing until they see.”

By highlighting the prudence of that characterized Eisenhower as President, she attempted to convey the message that the modern Republican Party behaved with a lack of prudence. She continued, “Let us restore the hope and bring the change that our nation so desperately needs.”  While the themes of “hope” and “change” were certainly emphasized in almost every speech at the Democratic convention, the Democrats hoped they would ring truer coming from the progeny of one of America’s most well known Republicans. 

Citizens involved in the American Voices Program also spoke of the difference between historic and contemporary Republicans.  One speaker, Pamela Cash-Roper, elaborated, saying, “I’m a lifelong Republican who voted for Nixon, Reagan, Bush and Bush.  But I can’t afford four more years like this.”

Not to be outdone, Republicans also used the opposing party’s historical figures to score points. But in their case, history was used to reassure Americans that Sarah Palin was up to the tasks of the high office to which she had been nominated. Most frequently they invoked Harry Truman's name in defense of Palin.

Palin herself cited Truman in an attempt to reassure Americans that someone with her background in rural America could perform admirably: “Long ago, a young haberdasher from Missouri, he followed an unlikely path to the vice presidency." She then attempted to compare her life to that of Truman, saying, “A writer observed: ‘We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty, sincerity, and dignity.’ I know just the kind of people that writer had in mind when he praised Harry Truman. I grew up with those people.”  By positioning herself as a kind of “everywoman” she hoped to borrow some of his luster as America's "everyman." In what has become one of her most famous lines from the convention, she remarked: “I was just your average hockey mom, and signed up for the PTA because I wanted to make my kids' public education better.”

It was a neat historical swap. In 1948 the Republican "elitist" Thomas Dewey had been defeated by Truman, the everyman. Now Republicans were using their own "everywoman" to discredit a candidate they decried as an elitist. A neat trick--if people buy it.

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