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Saturday, August 13, 2016

August 13-14, 2016: Jonathan Silverman’s Guest Post on How to Be the American President

[I’ve highlighted UMass Lowell Professor Jonathan Silverman’s excellent AmericanStudies work a couple prior times in this space. Now I’m very excited to have the chance to present his analyses of American presidential campaigns, narratives, and images, past and present, as my latest Guest Post. Jonathan’s hard at work on his latest book, on the year in Norway about which he writes in this post, and is also the newly elected New England ASA Vice President.]

One day early in my time in Norway, I went to Oslo Katedralskole, a school over 850 years old in my role as Fulbright Roving Scholar in American Studies. Over the year, I went to 60 schools, often speaking to four classes in a day, some as small as three students and to crowds larger than 300.

Part of my job, I was told, was to talk about the presidential election, which I did, delivering versions of the same lecture more than 50 times. More specifically, my job was to intervene and to explain American politics to an interested audience. Norwegians at the time were tested on the American presidential election, but I think they were interested anyway; the national news often led with mundane details of the campaign (as far I could tell, anyway—I have only a train station (togstasjon) knowledge of Norwegian).

The trick was going to be finding a way to use my expertise as cultural historian, journalist—and performer. There was no way I was going to be able to give a straightforward lecture about American politics; it would bore both me and my Norwegian audience.

So I came up with a lecture, “How to be the American President,” an illustrated PowerPoint slide show, featuring 20 steps. It began with “Be white” and ended with “Win the swing states.” In-between was a mix of demographic analysis, history, civic engagement, discussion of social media, and discussion of the quirks of the American electoral system, seasoned with a sense of the absurd and a dose of sarcasm expressed as irony.

The year began with a discussion of ten candidates, and by the time I gave my last lecture in June, it was down to three: Obama, Clinton, and McCain.

But my presentation, which I will annotate here, also gave both me and my students a real sense of the quirks of the election, which has also been on full display in 2016. I wanted to write something that acknowledged that our elections had a definitive, repeated structure that was formed ad-hoc and barely resembled any other election.

1. Be white.
This I used to get students talking about the possibility of Barack Obama becoming president, a softball. I always acted a little surprised when they knew the specifics of the American election, even though after the first presentation I was not surprised. Norwegians followed the election very closely; it was often the first item on the national news, and each bit of new information was processed carefully.

For example, I was asked what I thought the impact of Edward Kennedy endorsing Obama the day after it happened. So I had to be able to deliver election analysis that addressed both historical and current trends.

2. Be male.
I used this to talk about Hillary Clinton, another softball point. From pretty early on, I predicted that a Democrat would be president, and in mid-February I said, based on work that Nate Silver and others were doing, that Obama would win the nomination. And then the presidency. The Norwegians were skeptical: “Is America ready for a black man?” Turns out, maybe. 

3. Be Christian.
Actually this wasn’t in the presentation at the beginning; a teacher in the small town of Fræna suggested it, but of course it fit, and if Hilary is elected, it will be one of the last demographic taboos to be challenged—all of our presidents have been straight (cisgender) Christians.

4. Go to a university with an elite reputation.
I used this to explain the class orientation of American elections, and pointed out that not all presidents qualified under this, but most did, even ones we might not think of as elite. Obama had Columbia and Harvard; Hillary had Wellesley and Yale; McCain went to the Naval Academy, as Jimmy Carter had, and Romney went to Brigham Young and Harvard. Mike Huckabee did not have the pedigree, attending Ouachita Baptist University—but I don’t think that was the reason he lost.

Talking about education was also a window into talking about class and economic ambition, and who could participate in public life in the United States. The Norwegians were a society where equality was not just a watchword; it was enacted in many different ways, right down to the same audiovisual equipment being in every school, big and small (with universal nervousness by my hosts when I used my Mac laptop instead of the PC console to deliver my lecture).

5. Get an advanced degree.
Almost every president has one, especially since the 1970s; many of them have law degrees, including both Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama; George W. Bush had an MBA. This point I merely amplified the previous one; that education led to privilege for these Americans running for president.

6. Choose a party.
In Norway, there are a number of parties, and often the government is formed through party alliances. It’s actually not so different from the United States, which forms its parties through related constituencies and not party alliances. I took a Facebook quiz and found out I would have been part of the Norwegian Labor Party (it remains my party affiliation there), somewhere in the middle of the road for Norwegian politics. In general, not surprising for a socialist monarchy, Norwegians are on average more liberal than Americans.

7. Get married.

It’s been a while since the White House has been occupied by a single person—Grover Cleveland in 1884, though he married while he was president; James Buchanan was the last bachelor. I showed classes a photo of Obama’s family [art to provided] taken from his website when I talked about this, and how it made voting for a candidate seem less risky if he or she were married.

8. Get elected either governor, senator, or vice president.
It’s been a while since we had one who was not, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who served as a prominent army general and then president of Columbia University. This too showed the way the populace diminished risk in choosing candidates for president. Clinton, Obama, and McCain were all senators at the time of 2008 election.

9. Decide to run for president.
There are a lot of people who Americans would value as president who ultimately decline, former governor Mario Cuomo being one (and perhaps his son being another). I did talk about the human costs of the election, and this was before the Internet really got rolling in terms of its destructiveness. My friend Dean and I made this website talking about the cultural impact of Obama, but abandoned it once the vitriol began.

I used this section to talk about unconventional candidates in other elections, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger becoming governor of California, doing a very bad imitation of him. I explained that Arnold would not eligible because he was not born here. What would Norwegians say about the most unconventional candidate for president? More on that later. 

10. Raise money.
This was an unfamiliar concept to Norwegians, who limit their campaigns and the ways candidates can spend money. When I spoke of the sums of money necessary to run for president, a lot of them were incredulous, and some of the more attuned ones questioned on whether that affected the relationship between the candidates and what they believed, which I tactfully answered: “Well, they say it doesn’t.”

11. Write a book.
Every candidate in 2008 had at least one book, and many of them had two, including Mike Huckabee. I made the students giggle when I showed them his book, Quit Digging Your Grave with a Knife and Fork, a self-help book based on his experiences losing weight. Books allow campaigning without campaigning.

12. Spend lots of time in Iowa and New Hampshire.
I got the biggest laughs when I showed this slide, because students simply could not believe that two states so small and seeming inconsequential in American life, as opposed to California, New York, and Texas, could be so important to electing a president. Savvier students knew about the primaries, especially as we inched closer to the election. The Katedralskole student was an extreme example of a general tendency to know about the campaign and the United States; another high school student in Bodø knew all 50 state capitals.

13. Find ways to advertise and market yourself. 
I spent a lot of time on this one, talking about the incongruity of social media and electoral politics. There is the weird feature of Hillary Clinton’s age and hometown being listed on Facebook, and Obama’s crazy link heavy pages on the site. We talked about the inherent conservativeness of Obama’s popular music and movie choices, and the weird MySpace page of Mike Gravel (remember him?), who had only two friends, the founder of MySpace (Tom Anderson) and his son. 

We looked at John Edwards’ Twitter page; Twitter was definitely not a thing in 2008, but all the campaigns had twitter pages I believe. 
Social media at that moment seemed outsized in importance, and I suppose it was, though it was only one way the Internet contributed to Obama’s win. 

14. Win enough delegates to gain the nomination.
This was relatively easy to explain, especially after explaining caucuses and primaries.

15. Deliver a good speech at the convention.
Convention speeches are highly visible parts of the electoral process, and so I talked about them. We were now talking about phenomenon that they would experience without me, and so I was trying to project experiences that I was not sure would happen; everything after this was a prediction.

16. Choose a strong running mate.
I explained what a vice-president did, and the different philosophies that went into choosing them. Norwegians would not have been surprised by Obama picking Joe Biden after this lecture.

17. Raise more money.
Another laugh; another sober explanation of money in politics.

18. Beat the other candidate in a debate.
I explained the high stakes nature of debating in the United States, which they had seen in the primaries.

19. Handle surprises.
I talked about the unpredictability of the campaign, and this was before Obama’s Jeremiah Wright moment. I talked about the revelation of GWB’s drunken driving conviction right before the 2000 election.

20. Win the swing states.
This is where I got into the nitty gritty of electoral votes and purple America. I showed them the map by Princeton professor Robert J. Vanderbei that shaded locales red if they were Republican and blue if they were Democratic. The map shows the east and west coasts largely blue, and a huge portion of the United States red. “But don’t worry,” I assured students, “nobody lives there,” which got a laugh.

I told them about when I moved to Texas for graduate school my friends were concerned. But they needn’t have been, I said, because I was living here, pointing the bright blue spot of Austin in Texas.  I pointed to the purple hues of the rust and farm belts and the variegated states of Florida and Virginia and Colorado. Even a few shade changes would change the national election.

Often the more interesting part for me was the second part of the presentation, where I answered questions the students posed about American culture and politics. They were tough questions about American foreign policy, health care, and race, and I tried to answer them as honestly as I could.

I don’t remember this session specifically, but it would probably begin with a question like this:

“Why did you vote for George W. Bush twice?”

The question is a subtle question, indicating a depth of knowledge about American politics; knowing that there is a difference between the reasons one elects and re-elects show a subtlety of thought.

My answer: “The United States was at war with Iraq, and some Americans feel uncomfortable changing presidents at that time. I also think people were still in shock over 9/11, and that also made people reluctant to change.” I never defended Bush, and oddly, no one ever asked me about Kerry.

These sessions were interesting because I was trying to explain things that were somewhat unexplainable, give nuance to situations that many people do not think are particularly nuanced. You can see that I was somewhat protective and empathetic with those who may not deserve it. I’m not sure why in retrospect why I was relatively gentle with Bush and Republicans who wanted to deny poor people health care. I think part of it might just have been paranoia.

But there was also a sense that whatever I was, I was still part of the country that enacted these policies, and even though I voted against them, I couldn’t shirk some responsibility for them. And so then, the explanation is less charitable—I was protecting myself.

I also said that most of the questions that they ask are indeed asked by Americans; I told them it might seem that Americans are a certain way, but it's important to remember that American politics is marked by a diversity of views. And that was and is true, when I said that, I did feel a little better about the current state of the United States.
[Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think?]

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