October 3, 2012

‘Pivotal Tuesdays’: Historian Margaret O’Mara examines key presidential elections

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Margaret O’Mara

How big should government be and what is its true role? How much should corporations be regulated? What can government do about income inequality?

These are key questions in the presidential election of 2012, to be sure,  just as they were a century back in the wild contest of 1912. But as University of Washington historian Margaret O’Mara knows, studying the past helps us understand the present.

O’Mara, associate professor of history, will explore crucial 20th century American presidential races in a series of four public lectures through October called “Pivotal Tuesdays: Four Presidential Elections That Made History.”

It’s the latest installment in the long-running UW History Lecture Series, given each years by history faculty on topics of popular interest. The lectures will be at 7 p.m. in 130 Kane Hall. Tickets are $10, $5 for students.

She will discuss the elections of 1912, 1932, 1968 and 1992.

Choosing wasn’t easy, O’Mara said. “I chose ones that not only had a lot of stories about campaigning and elections, but were also these wonderful windows into a particular moment in American history. One of the things I find most valuable about learning presidential and political history is that you get a healthy perspective about how the past shapes the present.”

O’Mara said people often complain in cocktail party-style conversation that politics is more brutal than ever — but it’s not so.

“When people get upset about mudslinging I give them some good anecdotes from the election of 1800, when Jefferson’s people are slandering John Adams and calling him a hermaphrodite — in print.”

O’Mara talked briefly about each of the four “pivotal Tuesdays” of her lecture series.

Oct. 9: “1912, Bull Moosers, Socialists and the Election that Changed America.” A four-way contest with Republican incumbent William Howard Taft facing Democratic challenger Woodrow Wilson and socialist Eugene V. Debs as well as former President Theodore Roosevelt. O’Mara called it a major turning point “because the issues they’re debating are really, ‘What should government be doing? How big should it be and how much should it interfere in corporate capital or regulate the corporations?’”

Oct. 16: “1932, Hoover, FDR and the New Deal Campaign.” The first election of the Great Depression saw Republican incumbent Herbert Hoover challenged by Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt. “Roosevelt, for all of his big-government action, actually didn’t run on very many specifics,” O’Mara said. “He was selling the same hope that Barack Obama was selling in 2008. And Hoover was a very interesting character who has been unfairly maligned by people who don’t know a lot about his career before he lost to FDR. He was a sort of model administrator — an uber-bureaucrat.”

pivotal tuesdays presidential election lectures Margaret O'Mara

The 2012 History Lecture series, by Margaret O’Mara, will be about key presidential elections of the 20th century.

Oct. 23: “1968, The Fracturing of America.” The Vietnam War raged as President Lyndon Johnson chose not to run, leaving Democrats to battle over the nomination. O’Mara called it “a powerful election to discuss, for so many reasons. It’s the moment when red- and blue-state America starts coming to light. Now in 2012 we are very much about this.” It’s also the first presidential election following both the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Even as students protested the war that year, O’Mara noted, “it’s also the rise of the right. The modern conservative movement was really consolidating at that moment and gaining strength.” Richard Nixon’s law-and-order platform played counterpoint to nightly television coverage of riots and anti-war protests.

O’Mara’s lectures will be broadcast on UWTV. The Oct. 9 lecture will air on Oct. 11; the Oct. 16 lecture will air on Oct. 18; the Oct. 23 lecture will air on Oct. 25 and the Oct. 30 lecture will air on Nov. 1, all at 7 p.m.

Oct. 30: “1992, New Economy, New Media and the New World Order.” Incumbent George H.W. Bush faced Democratic Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, with Texas businessman H. Ross Perot as an on-again, off-again third-party contender. O’Mara said she wanted a fairly recent election to end with, “but something that’s far enough away that we have a little distance.”

This election was the first of the post-Cold War era. “The world has changed. And not everyone has really understood the degree to which it has changed. It was also the first information-age election, but didn’t quite know it. You had Al Gore talking about the Information Superhighway, which was still kind of a niche thing.

“But really, most importantly, it’s the post-Reagan election,” O’Mara said. “The Democratic party is realigning itself as a new Democratic party, with a moderate southern governor.”

O’Mara said, “The other thing to remember is that if Ross Perot hadn’t been in the face, Bush probably would have won.” The presence of a powerful third-party candidate complicated three of the four elections covered by the lecture series.

O’Mara also had a special reason for choosing that election: She worked on it as a Clinton staff member, and later served in the Clinton White House.

O’Mara said she hopes those watching her lectures come away with a better understanding of the “extraordinarily flexible” nature of the two major parties and how they have changed throughout the 20th century.

She also wants them to understand the power of their vote.

“It matters tremendously who (your elected officials) are,” she said. “Your vote really does matter, even if you’re voting for dog catcher or county commissioner or state senator.”