Bread and Circus

An online journal of culture

Month: June, 2007

Is All Organic Food “Good” Organic Food?

by Editors

EPA unrestricted photo solar green houseFOOD & CULTURE

Is All Organic Food “Good” Organic Food?

By Kathleen Ginder-Vogel, contributing writer

For consumers who care about organic and locally grown produce, there tend to be two sides to the debate over organic food. One is that all organic is good organic. The other is that fruits and vegetables should be grown organically and locally (the smaller the distance from the field to your plate, the better).

The latter opinion, espoused by the “Slow Food” movement, gains support from New Yorker writer Steven Shapin in a May 15, 2006 article, “Paradise Sold.” Shapin addresses some of the issues that come up when large companies get involved in selling organic products. Omnivore's Dilemma at Barnes & Noble.comCiting Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, Shapin points out that large organic food companies, like Earthbound Farms, may grow their products without chemical pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, but, they are huge companies, capable of producing a lot of waste as a byproduct of their produce’s transportation to markets across the country. Purchasers have to decide where they stand on the issue: though the market has demonstrated that a subset of the American population is willing to pay more for organic produce, are people willing to dedicate their time and energy, as well as their money, to buying locally-grown food, or is that just too much work? Perhaps shedding some light on the issues around organic produce itself can help consumers answer that difficult question.

Last year, Wal-Mart’s announcement that it would increase the number of organic products it sells and price them 10% above conventional grocery prices caught the ears of many people who care about organic food and its origins. In a May 12, 2006, interview with New York Times reporter Melanie Warner, Bruce Peterson, head of perishables food at Wal-Mart, said “Organic agriculture is just another method of agriculture — not better, not worse,” underscoring Wal-Mart’s position that all organic food is created equal.

Is it? Or would purchasers of organic produce disagree, particularly if they found out their produce was coming from another country, like China? A recent white paper from The Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group based in Cornucopia, Wisconsin, and dedicated to promoting economic justice for family-scale farmers and ranchers, posits that Wal-Mart’s actions will taint the value of the organic label by sourcing products from industrial-scale factory farms and Third World countries, such as China. “Big agriculture” has its own set of quality-control issues, about which consumers hoping to buy organic produce should be aware, and we’ve gotten a frightening look recently at the consequences of doing cheap trade with China, after the Menu Foods and toothpaste debacles.

It’s also important to consider how actions like those of Wal-Mart might impact organic farmers and American organic produce long-term. Mark Kastel, the report’s author, claims that Wal-Mart could drive down the price of organic food in the marketplace and pose a threat to organic family farmers in the U.S. by inventing “a ‘new’ organic—food from corporate agribusiness, factory-farms, and cheap imports of questionable quality.”

Kastel notes that part of Wal-Mart’s initiative includes private-label offerings, like the recent introduction of organic milk packaged by Aurora Organic Dairy, based in Boulder, Colorado. Kastel cites two current USDA investigations into Aurora’s organic management practices. Apparently, the dairy operated a number of industrial-scale dairies with thousands of cows, confined to feedlot-like conditions. Kastel adds that Wal-Mart’s decision to lower the per-unit cost basis on organic products by collaborating with China raises the issue of how food that travels around the world can really be considered “better,” whether it’s organic or not. He wisely raises additional concerns about the propriety and accuracy of the organic certification process in China.

Whether it’s Wal-Mart or another company, big companies’ entrance into the world of organic produce raises issues for consumers. If the quality of, and control over, organic products is diminished when big companies get involved, is all organic food really created equal? Is it fair for American farmers to meet USDA standards for organic produce, while Chinese farmers can sell their organic produce to American companies, even if the standards for their products are different? Would it be better for consumers who care about the process of farming and about sustainability to focus on local products, even if they’re not certified organic in the U.S.? What about the New Yorker who faces a shorter growing season than a Californian? Will consumers demonstrate their true feelings in their purchasing behaviors?

Just how far are we willing to go to support sustainable farming?

____________________
Kathleen Ginder-Vogel owns the freelance writing business Poppy Communications.

Image: (Upper) U.S. Government EPA photograph (1974) in the collection of the National Archives and Records Administration. Norton Boyd, photographer. (Lower) The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan (Penguin, 2006).

Note: This publication is independent and not related to any grocery or food business. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

Turtles All the Way Down

by Editors

CULTURE & MYTH

Turtles All the Way Down

By Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard, contributing writer

“We called him Tortoise because he taught us,” said the Mock Turtle angrily, “Really you are very dull!”

—Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, (Chapter 9)

What can one learn from the tortoise and turtle? A lot it seems.

In the Western tradition, we all know of Aesop’s fable of the tortoise and the hare wherein “slow and steady wins the race”— a particularly relevant message in our harried, digital age. Of course, many of you will also remember that Dr. Seuss marshalled “Yertle-dogma” as a means to warn generations against the dangers of fascism and grasping dictatorship.

In Hindu belief, the tortoise is nothing less than the foundation of the universe. In one Vedic myth, a great flood regularly occurs every four billion years and completely dissolves the earth. The god Vishnu then returns as his second avatar (or, earthly incarnation), the tortoise Kurma. On his back rests Mandara Mountain (the eastern mountain of the four buttresses of the World Mountain/Mt. Meru); it serves as the gods’ churning rod to remake the earth from the sea of milk. In another Hindu story, the tortoise Chukwa serves as the underlying foundation for the “elephant-Atlas”, Maha-pudma.

Some Westerners have embraced this Eastern metaphor in their writings. To the catholic mind of the philosopher Wilfrid Sellars, such mythic turtles and elephants support what he called “the edifice of empirical knowledge.” (Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind, 1956) Three decades later, Joseph Campbell remarked that most of humanity remained confounded by the implicit profundity of our own experience. Using a Polynesian saying, Campbell stated that we paradoxically find ourselves “standing on a whale, fishing for minnows.” In other words, in our stubborn shortsightedness we still cannot see the cosmic turtle beneath our feet.

Contrary to what you might expect, even sober empiricists and scientists have co-opted the tortoise-tale. The story has been recounted by various notable public figures like Stephen Hawking, Bertrand Russell, H.D. Thoreau and even Justice Antonin Scalia of the U.S. Supreme Court. Instead of inspiring romantic wonder in them, however, the metaphysical story functions as a useful anecdote that pits naïve, subjective belief against rigorous, cerebral objectivity. From Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (1988):

A well-known scientist (some say it was the philosopher Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the Earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the centre of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy.

At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.”

The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?”

“You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”

Unfazed by the as yet unsolved mystery of the infinite regression of the universe, some literal-minded scientists like Stephen Hawking (and Richard Dawkins) dismiss their factual ignorance as just a temporary setback. For them, someday science will solve what we currently file under “mystery.” On that great day, the “patently ridiculous,” poetic turtle metaphor will fade away like the rest of humankind’s childish myths. It’s just a matter of time and the scientific method, and they never lose a night’s sleep over it.

These literal-minded scientists are close relatives to the “systems analysts” denounced by the Harvard theologian Harvey Cox in his book The Feast of Fools (1969). The two are philosophical bedfellows in the sense that they both rely overly on feasibility in their work. In Cox’s words, such figures limit themselves to “resources now in hand or foreseen” and, to the great detriment of society, “[this] discourages our hoping or aspiring toward something that flunks the feasibility test. This limits the sweep of human planning, political action, and cultural innovation.” (Feast of Fools, 85) I would add that they both work to extinguish our myths.

Paradoxically, on the other end of the philosophical spectrum from the literalists, unorthodox scientists, theologians and moralists creatively use the very same infinite-cosmos metaphor to bolster the opposite tack. For them, some cases the infinite regression story have become a means to legitimize “intelligent design” or creationism, thereby meta-scientifically solving (in an uncomfortable marriage of religion, philosophy and science) the question, “If God created the universe, what created God?”

These intrepid scholars and theologians might find the romantic “Turtles All the Way Down” myth as a useful metaphor to give perspective to history and to elucidate why demythologization is itself a myth—Positivism’s “myth of a mythless humanity.” As Belden C. Lane wrote, “[Demythologization’s] very insistence and repetitiveness in our cultural history, from Xenophanes to Voltaire, shows us to be incurable storytellers, molded by the power of myth.” (“The Power of Myth: Lessons from Joseph Campbell,” The Christian Century, July 5-12, 1989)

As the recent heated debate about atheism and “the death of God” in both mainstream media and on the Web has illustrated, perhaps humankind is already busy defining its next great pluralistic mythology. This is an idea that Cox has been suggesting since the mid-Sixties. In his books The Secular City (1965) and the aforementioned Feast of Fools (1969), Cox hints that that a new spiritual mode might result from the synthesis of the salvageable parts of traditional religion and a new infusion of festivity and fantasy. In his vision, the uniquely human endeavors of festivity and fantasy could eradicate “crippling literalism,” the incapacitating fault he sees as the central attribute of both fanatical Atheism and Fundamentalism.

As Cox has postulated in various arenas, any novel ecumenical mythology will likely embrace a new language about divinity. I would argue that it might be similar to a new mythic language which Campbell prophesied will “identify the individual not with his local group but with the planet.” Cox further suggests that the universal, humanistic call to fight against poverty and social and environmental injustice might supply the substrate for the Post-Modern common cause.

Though it has been decades since Cox’s first recognition of the rising of the tide, this overdue development remains embryonic and amorphous. It does exist, however. With the recent trifecta of Al Gore’s worldwide environmentalist caché, John Edwards’ recalcitrant anti-poverty election platform, and the Republicans’ hesitant turn towards the political center, we may be getting a taste of the savory dialogue to come. We will just have to wait; only time will tell.

The turtle would be a great symbol for such a mythology. In Chinese tradition (as in Hinduism) the turtle bridges the divide between heaven and earth; its rounded upper shell represents the heavens, and its square lower shell represents the earth, both spheres inseparably tied together by its middle being. Indeed, whether we hail from the Western or Eastern tradition, just as the turtle cannot shed its shell, neither can we humans dislocate ourselves either from the infinite universe or from the earth. This is an important lesson, for although we can travel great distances in the mind (via science and philosophy), in the end we must always recognize a return to our nurturing, starting place in the world. (As one Baroque Dutch emblem of the turtle proclaims, “East, west, home is best.”)

With luck, the cosmic renewal is already underway, the butter churning begun.

 

Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.
For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of the singing of birds is come,
and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.

The Holy Bible, Isaiah 2:10-12 (Song of Solomon)

________________
Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard, Ph. D., is an Independent Scholar of Art History, Specializing in Northern Renaissance and Baroque. Click here to send her email.

 

 

If you enjoyed “Turtles All the Way Down,” you may also be interested in these previous articles from Bread and Circus on-line magazine–

Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, and Number 756

by Editors

SPORTS EXTRA

Forgive Me Father, for I have sinned:

Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, and Number 756

By Frank J. Colagiovanni

I’d say a prayer. Then I’d throw two pitches.

The first, a message pitch, high and tight—chin music—brushing him off the plate. The second, to put him on base, I’d plunk him right where he carries his wallet—possibly where he sticks his needles. That’s how I’d keep Barry bonds from hitting home runs.

But I’m not a Major League pitcher.

Now as a matter of full disclosure, I don’t like Barry Bonds, never really have. But, until his head began to grow three sizes, and he started dumping dingers into McCovey Cove, I never needed to pay him much attention. He’s in a different league, in a different city, on a different coast. And as a practicing member of the First Congregation of the Church of Fenway Park, I’ve regarded what goes on in the National League as a Catholic might view an Episcopalian: similar, but not the same. Their church might resemble my church, but their service involves a lot of bunting, that and weak bats in the seven, eight and nine holes.

But Barry Bonds become the elephant on the altar, too hard to ignore, storming heaven by assaulting the most hallowed record in the Game. When this baseball blasphemy is completed, he will have passed Hank Aaron as baseball’s all-time home run leader. 755 will no longer be the number. And Aaron, who took the crown, earned the crown, from Ruth, will no longer be on top of the list—sitting at the head of all baseball tables.

At the time of this writing Bonds has 747, eight away from the record, seven away from breaking it. In a recent interview at the site of his record-setting home run, Hank Aaron, one of the true Olympians of the sport, told the press that he wouldn’t be there when Bonds broke his record.

Records were made to be broken, especially in baseball where everything is measure by numbers. But numbers are stubborn things, like facts, and they mean something. 755 has represented the fact that Aaron was the best, consistently. 756 will represent the fact that that Barry Bonds cheated. He allegedly admitted it to a Grand Jury, his numbers are tainted. There have been others who have cheated, compromised the integrity of the Game, and we know them by name. And we know the facts of their fall from grace. How is Bonds worthy of inclusion in the Pantheon of baseball if Jackson and Rose are not?

And frankly, bagging Bonds might just serve the greater good. Banning Pete Rose from baseball has likely dissuaded others from betting on the game, just as the Chicago Black Sox Scandal and the fact that Joe Jackson left baseball in disgrace has done the same. Both Rose and Jackson had Hall of Fame careers, but neither were called to the Hall because they broke the rules—cheated the game.

What makes it even more maddening is that Bonds was bound for the Hall without going on the Juice. The rare 5-tool player he could hit for average, hit for power, run the bases, throw accurately and field the ball better than almost any player of his time.

But Rose and Jackson had Hall worthy careers before their transgressions; Rose wasn’t even playing when he was banned. He was a manager. But Pete Rose was banned from baseball for life and “Shoeless” Joe Jackson was tossed out of the Game in 1920, never to return. Both remain on baseball’s Ineligible List to this day. Bonds should be out as well.

The perfect should not be the enemy of the good.

The fact that men will always cheat, that there will always be those who choose to break the rules should not mitigate the fact that when you catch one, you should punish him.

Because we can’t catch all bank robbers doesn’t mean bank robbery should be legal. Because we can’t catch all steroids users doesn’t mean we should turn a blind eye.

On June 15th, 16th and 17th Bonds and the Giants come to Fenway, and while I have tickets I won’t be there. Other than to boo him or turn my back when he comes to the plate, I don’t want any part of Barry Bonds. It’s sometimes said that you are to hate the sin but love the sinner, but I feel contrition needs to be in there somewhere. With Bonds I don’t see any. And I don’t want to see that kind of blasphemy in my church.

Aaron won’t be there, and neither will I.

_____________________________
Frank J. Colagiovanni (www.colagiovanni.com) is an award-winning freelance copywriter and special contributing writer for Bread and Circus.

 

The Simplicity of Ferris Bueller

by Editors

It’s been 25 years since the release of the iconic movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Here, from our archives, is writer Erin Dionne’s take on that 80s classic.
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POP CULTURE

The Simplicity of Ferris Bueller

By Erin Dionne

Lately, it seems that I can’t escape Ferris Bueller. The movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which first opened on June 11th, 1986, has been in regular cable network rotation, and it recently reappeared on the big screen at a local cinema as part of a John Hughes film festival. Before the movie started, a gaggle of writers spoke about the impact Hughes movies had had on their lives. They were contributors to the anthology Don’t You Forget About Me: Contemporary Writers on the Films of John Hughes, edited by Jaime Clarke (Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2007).

While waiting for the movie to start, I was struck by some of the panelists’ interpretations of the film. Steve Almond, prolific author and creator of the essay “The Unexpected Heaviosity of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” for the anthology, had a great deal to say about Ferris (which he admittedly never saw as a teen). One of his points revolved around the observation that Ferris marked the onset of slacker culture in America—the whole, “taking the day off and not doing anything” life model.

I wondered if he’d seen the film at all.

Ferris Bueller is probably the antithesis of slacker culture. Ferris, instead, is the epitome of the 1980s suburban lifestyle and capitalism. He’s a high school mover and shaker. He works the system to get exactly what he wants, when he wants it. Just because he takes the day off from school doesn’t mean Ferris is a slacker; he’s using the day to its best advantage. Instead of sitting in the stultifying classroom listening to Ben Stein’s explanation of voo-doo economics, Ferris hits the town to enjoy the benefits of his free time. I had to check out Almond’s essay to see what else he thought of the film.

Almond, from the beginning, explains that “it was…the most sophisticated teen film I had ever seen. I wasn’t entirely sure if qualified as a teen film at all” (p.5). From there, he delves in to Ferris Bueller’s plot elements and chronicles Cameron’s breakdown, analyzing his “experience of pleasure [as] an ongoing battle against anxiety” (p. 11). With the weight of the film placed squarely on Cameron’s shoulders, Almond minimizes the importance of Ferris’s character, citing him at times as “nebbishy” and a “fabulous cartoon.” He also makes the film more complicated than it needs to be.

True, Ferris’s larger-than-life persona more than pushes the edges of believability, but his outlandishness illustrates the very real flaws of those around him—his parents, so work-obsessed that they don’t recognize their son’s lies or daughter’s needs; Principal Rooney, focused with laser-like precision on taking Ferris down; Cameron, mired in anguish over his relationship with his parents; and Jeanie, stewing in jealousy at her brother’s antics and peer acceptance. Ferris shows the audience an alternate, and, some could argue, better extreme–the devil-may-care attitude that allows him to embrace what his life currently is before making the transition to college. He’s milking those last perfect days of high school before the world as he knows it ends. Today, we’d label Ferris’s actions with the buzzwords “living in the moment” or “being present.”

The character of Ferris also serves as the conduit for the film’s story. Much like Nick in The Great Gatsby, Ferris is the vehicle through which the audience witnesses Cameron and Jeannie’s changes. Almond is correct in one regard—Cameron, more than Ferris, is the focus of the movie. Ferris, unlike Nick, also serves as the catalyst of the piece. It is he who puts the plot in motion and causes Cameron and Jeanie’s breakdown and realizations, respectively. And Ferris did it on purpose. At one point, Sloane remarks, “You knew what you were doing when you woke up this morning.” It’s Hughes’ big wink to the audience. Of course Ferris knew what he was doing—he planned the day so he can leave high school secure, knowing Cameron and Jeanie will be okay once he moves on.

Although Steve Almond had the best of intentions in elevating Hughes’ teen drama to the sophisticated level of a psychoanalytic teen angst therapy session, I still believe he missed the mark. The beauty of the film is in its simplicity, which is what Ferris extols all along: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.” And if you look too deep or too long, you might miss something, too.

___________________

Erin Dionne is a writer and Bread and Circus editor

Campaign 2008

by Editors

Campaign 2008 — Are We Reliving 1968?

By Sarah Katherine Mergel, Bread and Circus contributing writer

NARA Nixon image 1968 campaign

The upcoming presidential election, perhaps more to the point the pervasiveness of the 2008 contest, started me thinking about past presidential elections. Everywhere I go, it seems someone is talking about the candidates and their chances for nomination. Maybe I’m overly sensitive because I live in the Washington, DC area, but I suspect not. As much as I agree with E.J. Dionne, who argued in Why Americans Hate Politics (1991) that Americans have tired of the false choices present by left and right, I cannot help but marvel at how much an election still over a year away has permeated our collective consciousness.[i] Dionne might be correct that we do not like politics, but can we escape it? Probably not, but we can take some time to put the election in historical perspective.

The 2008 and 1968 presidential elections seem remarkably similar for two reasons. First, an incumbent did not run in 1968 and cannot run in 2008. When Lyndon Johnson pulled out of the presidential race, it was unclear who would succeed him for the Democratic nomination. In the upcoming election, both parties must find an effective party leader. Second, foreign policy played a major role in 1968 and stands to play an equally important role in 2008. American involvement in Vietnam, as part of the larger Cold War struggle against communism, affected the outcome of the 1968 election. In fact, Melvin Small, a presidential historian, noted that the 1968 election was “was the foreign policy election of the twentieth century.”[ii] The present conflict in Iraq fits into the nation’s broader fight against terrorism and thus shares similar characteristics with Vietnam. The 2008 contest may not be the foreign policy election of the twenty-first century, but like 1968, international affairs will affect both parties as they move toward selecting a candidate.

For the Republicans, the 1968 presidential campaign started almost immediately after Barry Goldwater’s massive defeat in 1964 if not before. Lyndon Johnson trounced Goldwater, leaving Republicans at a loss because they had no apparent leader. Conservatives and liberals within the party fought to control the selection of a candidate in 1968. Richard Nixon considered returning to politics to seek the nomination in 1968. Nixon campaign of 1968After his loss to John F. Kennedy in 1960, and an even less graceful loss in California’s gubernatorial election in 1962, Nixon needed to combat his image as a loser. Nixon worked hard to sell himself as the ideal candidate for 1968 during the Goldwater campaign and after. He faced challenges for the nomination from Charles Percy, George Romney, and Nelson Rockefeller on his left and Ronald Reagan on his right. Nixon, who after 1966 based his campaign almost exclusively on the Vietnam War and domestic disorder, edged out the other potential nominees. His carefully-crafted image as a centrist made him the only candidate able to speak to a majority of Republicans and even some Democrats. Vietnam became such an important issue for the GOP that George Romney’s comment about being brainwashed by American personnel while visiting Vietnam ended his chances to receive the nomination.

Vietnam also played a major role for the Democrats in 1968. As opposition to American involvement in the war increased after 1966, liberals and leftists called into question Lyndon Johnson’s ability to lead, but they had little hope of unseating the president. The popularity of Johnson’s Great Society programs made it unlikely that most Democrats would abandon him come election time, even if they did not like his foreign policy.Vietnam photo Johnson had very little room to maneuver between the doves and the hawks on the war issue, making it difficult to find a solution that would help his reelection effort. If he failed to seek peace antiwar activists attacked, but if peace brought a communist takeover he would loose the support of most anticommunists. Eventually, after the Tet Offensive and a narrow victory in the New Hampshire primary (as the incumbent he should have done better), Johnson withdrew from the race to concentrate on the Vietnam situation.

Still, those opposed to the war remained unsatisfied for they did not want Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey, to take the nomination. Liberal Democrats favored Eugene McCarthy and while student activists tended to push for Robert Kennedy. McCarthy and Kennedy battled one another in the primaries but the results were anything but conclusive. Splitting the primaries, neither could go to the convention as the prevailing choice of the voters. Ultimately, the delegates nominated Humphrey and adopted a platform catering to President Johnson’s wishes.LBY and HHH 1968 The vice president had the support of party regulars who made up the bulk of the convention’s delegates. Foreign policy, mostly Humphrey’s initial adherence to Johnson’s Vietnam policy, still rankled many liberals and leftists. The contentious Chicago convention—with its clashes between antiwar activists and the police, not to mention the dissension within the convention hall—made it difficult for the Democrats to mount a successful challenge to the Republicans.[iii]

Until the election, Vietnam continued to play a role in the campaign. Both parties promised peace, but for many voters Nixon’s proposals to end the war and win the peace seemed more appropriate, even though Nixon never specified how he planned to bring American troops home without abandoning South Vietnam. Johnson’s announcement of a bombing halt in October concerned Republican strategists who feared that peace in Vietnam would give Humphrey the boost he needed to win. However, the non-communist South balked at any settlement with the communist North. Richard Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey and third party candidate George Wallace in November. Nixon likely would have won by a larger margin if Wallace had not provided southern segregationists with an alternative to Democratic and Republican candidates. In the end, Nixon benefited from the voter’s dissatisfaction with Johnson’s handling of the war and the resulting antiwar activism, as well as a fear Humphrey would be no different.

Similar to 1968, neither party has the ability to rely on an incumbent, nor do they have an heir apparent to rely on to head their ticket in 2008.[iv] Dick Cheney is not running, nor was it ever likely he would. The leading Republican candidates including John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and Mitt Romney have to fight for support from an assorted body of conservatives and some moderates. Recent GOP debates show that the leaders have a long way to go before they convince conservatives of their right-wing credentials. The Democrats currently have a more diverse field of candidates (in part a legacy of the 1968 election) but, like the Republicans, they must fight for influence within their party. Hillary Clinton (always more liberal than her husband who pioneered the Third Way), Barack Obama, John Edwards, and the other contenders need to find a way to speak effectively for all Democrats.[v]

Moreover, foreign policy, namely the War in Iraq and the fight against terrorism, has already had an effect on the 2008 presidential election and will continue to do so for some time. Much of the first Democratic presidential debate was spent discussing the candidates’ position on Iraq, namely George W. Bush’s policy. The present administration seems unlikely to abandon its commitment to the Iraqi government, even in the face of threats to cut funding for the war. As long as Iraq stays in play, candidates—no matter their political persuasion—will be forced to deal with the war at some point in their campaigns. Socio-economic issues will likely stay in the background as they did in 1968.

As we look forward to 2008, perhaps one lesson we can take away from the 1968 election is that no matter how pressing one issue seems, we would be wise to take all issues into consideration. Nixon eventually did bring American involvement in Vietnam to an end (it only took four years). However, his domestic and economic policies surprised Americans more than anything else. Of course, it would have been hard to tell from his campaign statements that he would support wage and price controls, affirmative action, or a guaranteed family income. Another lesson we can learn from 1968 seems to be that the best politician does not always make the best president. Richard Nixon was a great politician, but his obsession with his political fortunes ultimately led to Watergate and his downfall. We need to be more cognizant of the substance of the message, not its delivery.

With the 2008 election still over a year away, much can happen for the candidates. Although I suspect that foreign policy, not economic or social conditions, will continue to dominate as they did in 1968. Front runners at this stage may find themselves spent by the time primary season heats up in early 2008, only time will tell. One thing seems certain, as with the 1968 election, the 2008 election will likely shape up to be a very interesting with a few twists and turns along the way.

_________________
Sarah Katherine Mergel, Ph.D., specializes in American political and intellectual history since the Civil War. Her primary area of research is the rise of modern conservatism and its effects on political developments, cultural trends, social issues, and international relations.

Images: (top) Richard M. Nixon campaign 1968. White House Photo Office, Oliver Atkins, photographer. Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration. (middle) Richard M. Nixon in motorcade during the 1968 Presidential campaign. White House Photo Office, Oliver Atkins, photographer. Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration. (lower middle) Medical evacuation during Vietnam War. Marines of Company E, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, while under heavy firefight with NVAs within the DMZ on Operation Hickory III, are carrying one of their fellow Marines. July 29, 1967. Department of Defense photo, courtesy National Archives and Records Administration. (bottom) Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, President Lyndon B. Johnson, and Gen. Creighton Abrams in a Cabinet Room meeting, March 27, 1968. Photo courtesy Lyndon Baines Johnson Library (Austin, TX).

 

Notes


[i] E.J. Dionne, Jr., Why Americans Hate Politics (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991.

[ii] Melvin Small, “The Election of 1968,” Diplomatic History 28 (September 2004), 513-528. The 1968 election was not the only time that foreign policy played a role in a presidential election in the twentieth century, the 1916 election hinged in part on Woodrow Wilson’s claim that he kept the country out of the growing World War.

[iii] Robert Kennedy, of course, was assassinated after his victory in California. Had he lived, he would have been the stronger antiwar candidate at the convention but still would have come up short in needed delegates. Johnson’s control over the Democratic Party, coupled with his animosity toward Kennedy, meant that Kennedy was unlikely to receive the nomination. However, he might have been able to prevent the Democratic platform from being so heavily influenced by Johnson.

[iv] In 1988 and 2000, the incumbent did not run, but his heir apparent did. Both George H.W. Bush, in 1988, and Al Gore, in 2000, had the support of most of their party going into the convention. Humphrey, who was also a sitting vice president, received far more resistance from members of his own party, making him less of an heir apparent. Many supporters of McCarthy and Kennedy chose not to vote, rather than cast their vote for Humphrey.

[v] Joe Klein, The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton (New York: Broadway Books, 2002). Bill Clinton, as a founding member of the Democratic Leadership Council, positioned himself as a centrist. His “third way” was an effort to find middle ground between the conservatism and left-liberalism.