Historians Put Obama's First Year In Context

During the 2008 campaign and after President Obama's inauguration, historians weighed in on the significance of his candidacy and election. Pulitzer Prize-winners Annette Gordon-Reed and Taylor Branch return to compare Obama's first year in office to his predecessors'.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

During the 2008, campaign and after the inauguration of Barack Obama, we checked him with a handful of historians, including Taylor Branch and Annette Gordon-Reed. We asked them to give us a sense of the significance of the 2008 election in American history. Today, on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the Obama presidency, we've invited them back to have a conversation about the first year in this administration, and the administrations of other American presidents. And we want to hear from other history buffs in our audience today. In your opinion, which president had the most effective first year in office and why? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our Email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site, go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us now from our bureau in New York City is Annette Gordon-Reed whose book �The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family,� won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. She teaches at NYU Law School. It's good to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. ANNETTE GORDON-REED (Author, �The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family�): It's good to be here.

ROBERTS: And with us from WYPR, our member station in Baltimore, Maryland, is Taylor Branch, also a Pulitzer Prize winner and the author most recently of �The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President.� It's great to have you here.

Mr. TAYLOR BRANCH (Author, �The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President.�): Thank you.

ROBERTS: Annette Gordon-Reed, I want to start with you. What would you say is significant about a president's first year?

Ms. GORDON-REED: Well, it's a time when people get a chance to get their first look at what he is going to do - and so far they've always been hes. And it's significant because it's the first - it's the first chance, it's a first raft of the administration and people are going to be happy or disappointed by what they see. And there are very, very high expectations any time a new president takes office, even people on both sides of the party sometimes can come together and sort of have hope for the future.

So, it's really a moment of a honeymoon, so to speak, for the nation.

ROBERTS: And Taylor, let me put the same question to you. What do you think is important about the first year of a presidency?

Mr. BRANCH: Well, it's how the president hits the ground. But significantly, it's how the president meets the conditions of his time. And so you're always assessing the balance between his policies, his personality and how he goes over. And what the problems are and the nature of the problems are that confront him. And it's always a difficult matter to know where the fault lies and where the balance lies.

ROBERTS: So, within those definitions you've each given me, how would you assess President Obama's first year? Taylor Branch?

Mr. BRANCH: Well I think - I think that he began with an enormous expectations and a lot of euphoria. And I think that he has collided with a deep recession and two wars. And the secret - the unspoken reality beneath that is that there's a much greater subterranean fear throughout American about economics and unemployment and the economic future then is acknowledged in our public discourse. And therefore, I think - I think that it has been a hard first year.

ROBERTS: Annette Gordon-Reed?

Ms. GORDON-REED: I would agree with that. There was such a euphoria at his inauguration and his election inauguration. And even as it was going on I was wondering, you know, when all of this was going to fade, because it was clear -even before he took office. He took office with an enormous amount of problems - deep, deep problems that he had to deal with. And we sort of pushed those aside for a moment in the euphoria of his election. But it was always clear to me that this was going to be - it could prove out to be a rocky road from, you know, pretty early on.

ROBERTS: Well, let's put this in the context of other presidents that you all either know personally or have studied thoroughly. Taylor Branch, I want to start to start with you because you spend a lot of time with President Clinton starting in his first year in 1993. What was his vision of his first year and what is your analysis of that?

Mr. BRANCH: Well, his vision at that time was that he was going through a train wreck and that he was colliding with soap opera, not economic disaster, like Obama. I mean, his first term started with the social security problems - he couldn't get on attorney general because of the nanny taxes, and then there was huge controversy over a haircut he got on the runway in Los Angeles, and then a whole series of gates begin.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRANCH: Whitewater, Travelgate, Filegate - a whole bunch of those, so that until he passed his Budget Reconciliation Act in August and began to kind of get his bearings, his administration was a soap opera and I think he would subscribe to that evaluation himself.

ROBERTS: I notice you left health care reform off that list.

Mr. BRANCH: Well, that was the next year. He didn't start health care reform until he passed the Budget Act in August of 1993. But - and later on, he said he actually want the health care too quickly because the budget proposals, which were designed to rebuild the economy and fight the deficit at the same time were disparaged as a huge tax increase. And when he proposed the health reform right afterward, they kind of fused together and were very vulnerable to attack by the same interest groups that are attacking health care now.

ROBERTS: Well, you talked about that first year as the way the president hits the ground and his introduction to the legislative process. Do you think there are things from that first year - that soap opera first year - that affected the health care legislation or other legislation in the second year?

Mr. BRANCH: In the Clinton terms or Obama?

ROBERTS: Clinton. All though, I would like to ask you about the comparison too.

Mr. BRANCH: Well, he felt, in retrospect, that he should have postponed health care until the true empirical affects of the budget reform became evident and that he could defend them to the American people. He was being attacked saying that they're going ruin in the economic cause inflation and actually increased the deficit. And, of course, they didn't. He moved toward a balanced budget and toward a recovered economy. And if he had waited longer he said he would have tried to health care on healthier footing.

In retrospect, of course, he didn't do that and he had pledged to introduce health care, like other Democratic presidents. And he spent so much of the first year, trying to get the budget act through that he - that he felt - that he was playing catch up to get health care in quickly and he paid for it. So, the first year - year-and-a-half - up through health care was very difficult for Clinton on every matter except, ironically, the economy which was getting steadily, steadily better on both jobs and inflation was going down - jobs were going up.

The deficit was going down. And it had been so long since that happened that most people didn't believe real and to some degree its still hasn't registered.

ROBERTS: Well, you know, the economic forecast certainly doesn't beg comparison to the current situation, but the health care reform fight does, as you watch President Obama go through his first year, do you see similarities?

Mr. BRANCH: Well, he took many - he took the opposite approach. He went to school on President Clinton in some respect. He tried to do it when his standing was high. He introduced it first before a big fight over the budget. And rather than retreating behind the wall and coming out with the 1200-page comprehensive reform bill he left the Congress shape the bill himself and didn't introduce his own plan, which was the Clinton approach that was widely criticize as being too dictatorial and arbitrary. What he lost in that trade off was a lot of time, because inevitably, it took Congress forever to formulate the bill that is still wending its way through the two houses. So, he made different strategic choices. He is closed to passing a bill now, and I think the hard thing for us to realize is that if he passes something, it will be more of a boost than is evident or than it looks like now.

For one thing, we will be able to move on to other issues, which will be a tremendous relief in the political process. And for another, he will get credit for passing something, since no president who's tried it for the last 60 years has been able to do anything.

ROBERTS: Annette Gordon-Reed, would you agree with that?

Ms. GORDON-REED: Oh, absolutely. It's enormously important. It would be a boost to his administration to have a success on this front. I know that there are a number of people who are very disgruntled with the actual substance of the proposals and the plans, but it's crucial. It's very, very important to have a success on this front because, as Mr. Branch said, it's easy from then on to move on to other topics.

I think people are definitely in this, but as he said before, the sort of low-level concern about the economy and jobs and so forth in the future is really, really creating a lot of dissatisfaction among the populace. And so it would be good for him to move on to other issues.

ROBERTS: We are talking about President Obama's first year, trying to put it in some historical context, with Annette Gordon-Reed and Taylor Branch. And we'll turn this out to the audience. What president do you think had the most effective first year, and what comparisons do you see with the current administration? 800-989-8255, or talk@npr.org.

Let's hear from Ryan in Boston. Ryan, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

RYAN (Caller): Hi, there. I'd just like to say that I think FDR is probably the most effective president in his first - especially in his first 100 days, with - starting from the bank holiday and on to his relief and recovery reforms that he put in place.

I think we have to look at this in perspective as to which challenges a president had to face. I mean, the larger the challenges, I think it gives them a chance, I think, to make great changes and make great strides for change.

I would give President Obama maybe a close second to FDR. And I'm still trying to figure out what George W. Bush did his first year, what they did down in Crawford all that time.

ROBERTS: Ryan, thanks for your call. Annette Gordon-Reed, FDR?

Ms. GORDON-REED: Well, FDR is certainly the most famous case, because he had an enormous problem to deal with when he came into office, and that's what popped into my head when you think of a point of comparison, of a president who's busy trying to do things to make an immediate impact upon the country.

But one thing that I wanted to say that is different for Obama is the sort of very lightning-quick news cycle that we have that very heightens - I think very much heightens people's expectations about success and what he should be doing and how quickly all of these things should take place.

So FDR had a lot to contend with, and he certainly had a press to contend with, but it's nothing like what Obama has to deal with today, with sort of minute-by-minute updates and checks on his behavior.

ROBERTS: That's Annette Gordon-Reed, one of two Pulitzer Prize-winning historians we have with us today. She's a visiting professor of law at New York University Law School.

We also had with us Taylor Branch, and he is author most recently of "The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President."

It's the one-year anniversary of President Obama's presidency tomorrow. So we are trying, this hour, to put his first year into the context of his predecessors. So in your opinion, which president has had the most effective first year in office? We're taking your calls at 800-989-8255. You can send us email. The address is talk@npr.org. Or join the conversation at the Web site, npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERTS: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts, in Washington. Tomorrow marks the first full year of the Obama presidency, and we're taking the long view with historians Annette Gordon-Reed and Taylor Branch. We're comparing his first year to the first year of previous presidents.

In your opinion, which president had the most effective first year in office and why? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Let's hear from Teddy in Kansas City, Missouri. Teddy, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

TEDDY (Caller): Hi, thank you very much.

ROBERTS: Sure.

TEDDY: Thank you. I think if you have to - I'm from Kansas City, Missouri, and, of course, I'd have to say Harry Truman, because he did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Is that, like, a law in Missouri?

(Soundbite of laughter)

TEDDY: Well, no, it's not, but, you know, the longer you look at the presidents, the longer you look at the long scheme of history and you find out that Mr. Truman, President Truman, comes in for a lot better scrutiny than he had when he was actually president during his last few years, because he came in behind FDR.

He came in at a time when we were almost at the end of the war in Europe, almost in the ending of the war in Japan, and then starting by helping get Marshall in, starting the Marshall Plan to help rebuilding Europe at a very, very, early phase.

And so you have to look at the things that he did there, and plus holding us together after FDR. I think that was - that first year had to be quite a year for him.

ROBERTS: Teddy, thanks for your call. Taylor Branch, Harry Truman?

Mr. BRANCH: Well, I think that's a very good point, but I think we have to also give his successor some credit. Dwight Eisenhower ran in 1952 on a pledge to end the war in Korea, and he did it. He came in, actually, somewhat like Obama, but actually ended the war in Korea more precipitously than the war in Iraq is winding down now.

Gerald Ford came in after the Watergate scandal and pardoned Richard Nixon the first year and ended - and that was controversial, but it did end many years of political strife.

And let's not forget Lyndon Johnson, who came in after the Kennedy assassination in a traumatized country split wide apart over civil rights in 1963, and within the next year passed the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 and introduced what became Medicaid and Medicare and a whole host of other legislations - a very, very strong beginning.

ROBERTS: Well, we actually have a second to your Johnson nomination here from Jessica in Minnesota, who writes: My vote goes to Johnson. He accomplished more in his first elected year than any other president because he was master of the Senate. He knew who and what it took and how to pass legislation, and he was the first president who looked back and understood that the first year was crucial. He also had a huge mandate in his win over Goldwater - despite, ma'am, I love him.

Let's take a call from Mark in Pullman, Washington. Mark, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

MARK (Caller): Yeah, I would like to suggest George Washington as a good example of somebody who did a lot in their first year.

ROBERTS: Well, he certainly had the first first year. Why do you nominate George Washington?

MARK: Well, because he basically had to start from scratch. He also set the tone for what the president was by refusing to be a king. And not only did he help win independence for this country, but he had a - felt he had a moral obligation to do the best that he could for this country and basically started everything.

So I think looking at people who give people things and looking at the, you know, current presidents doesn't give a very good picture, that history actually needs to be taken into perspective.

ROBERTS: Yeah, Mark, thanks for your call. Annette Gordon-Reed, it's sort of hard to argue with nominating the man who invented the presidency.

Ms. GORDON-REED: I know, exactly. The very, very first one. I would actually put in a plug for Jefferson, in a sense, because his election in 1800 is called the Revolution of 1800, or he called it that. But it was a change, the first time you had a peaceful transfer of power from one party to another.

And so he spent his first year in office trying to reassure people that there would not, in fact, be strife in the streets and riots and all kinds of things that people predicted.

Presidents, I think, always, in times of turmoil in particular, have - or at the beginning, as with Washington - have a lot to do with that first - those first years because, as Taylor Branch said, it sets the tone for what happens later on.

ROBERTS: Let's take a call from Chris in Austin, Texas. Chris, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

CHRIS (Caller): I thank you for taking my call.

ROBERTS: Sure.

CHRIS: A little bit different perspective. I think the Harding administration really had a great first year because they didn't have any grand schemes for the American people. In fact, it ran on a platform of returning to normalcy after the turmoil and distress of World War I in that era.

ROBERTS: So this is the set-expectations-low-and-know-you'll-meet-them model?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHRIS: Well, why do we have to have such grand expectations in the first place? The U.S. Constitution has a very limited role for the U.S. president, and I think he faithfully executed that position while in office.

ROBERTS: Chris, thanks for your call. Well, I would not have expected to hear Warren Harding on this list.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: I think maybe by the end of the hour, we might get everyone but Millard Fillmore.

Ms. GORDON-REED: Or Andrew Johnson I could throw in as well, too, for Reconstruction - another sort of sad example of a first year, but sort of spurred Congress and other people to different things.

But any time there's a crisis, I do think that presidents try to do things because there are always things to be done in the country. It's a limited role for the presidency, more-limited role for the presidency, but the president is the sort of energy of the country, and there are expectations about movement from the person who occupies that office.

And Chris, in Austin, the caller, had a good point that it's not just what you accomplish in a vacuum. It's what you were expected to accomplish, as well.

Ms. GORDON-REED: Exactly.

ROBERTS: And certainly, that's relevant in the context of the current president. Let's take a call from Sid(ph) in Sonoma. Sid, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

SID (Caller): Good morning. Thanks for taking the call.

ROBERTS: Sure.

SID: I think we can't forget Teddy Roosevelt, who, coming in on the heels of a series of presidents that some would say were bought and paid for, came in wanting to reform everything, from reforms in food safety and mining safety and railroad safety where there was a huge rate of operator injuries and expanding the office of the president into something - the first person to expand it to something resembling an imperial presidency, and liked to be made aware of problems and call on his Cabinet and say can I simply write a presidential order and fix this?

ROBERTS: Sid, thanks for your call. You know, Teddy Roosevelt, he's one of those presidents who, it seems like in popular culture, has become more of a caricature than an actual historical figure. And so we - maybe he sort of popularized this kind of Rough Rider, a bunch of rowdy children character rather than someone who actually was an effective legislator. And - yeah, Taylor Branch, go ahead.

Mr. BRANCH: Well, I think that's fair, but I think he's also an apt comparison for Obama, or at least with the challenge of Obama because Roosevelt really believed that there were a lot of constrictions in the American system of huge, dominant trusts and large corporations that really challenged the government to establish, to act as a countervailing power to create a fair playing ground so that the progressive era could take hold.

And similarly, I think we're stuck now, and President Obama is stuck, because people are adjusting. A lot of people think, well, what we need to do with the economy is just let it recover, and it'll go back to the way it was. And other people are saying the way it was - going back to the way it was is not good enough because our productive capacity is hollowed out. And that's what people are fearful of, and they need - they're hoping that government can establish and catalyze a more-constructive economy and an economy of change and new things.

And we haven't seen that very much so far, and I think that's why we're still bouncing back and forth between people who are cheerleading for the economy to right itself and others who say it's not going to happen automatically. It's going to take a lot of hard work an innovation.

ROBERTS: That's historian Taylor Branch. He is joining us from the studios of WYPR, our member station in Baltimore, Maryland. We're also joined by historian Annette Gordon-Reed from our New York bureau. And we are discussing, on this eve of President Obama's first-year anniversary, the first year of other presidents and how President Obama's year fits into that context.

Give us a call and tell us your nominee for the most-effective first year of a presidency: 800-989-8255. Or send us email: talk@npr.org. Let's hear from Rick in Sarasota, Florida. Rick, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

RICK (Caller): Thank you for taking my call.

ROBERTS: Sure.

RICK: Even though he was not my favorite, I think George W. Bush's first year made him effective. Had we not had 9/11, I think he probably would have had the most ineffective presidency in American history. But based on 9/11, he got the entire country behind him. We got the Patriot Act, and we set up a lot of platforms for the rest of his eight-year presidency with the war on terror, which allowed us to basically pass a lot of legislation, which never would have been passed otherwise.

ROBERTS: Rick...

RICK: So I think the first year made him.

ROBERTS: Yeah. Rick, thanks for your call.

So this is a question of being effective in your agenda no matter what it is and also facing up to an unexpected crisis. Annette Gordon-Reed?

Prof. GORDON-REED: Oh, absolutely. I mean, it's however people feel about all of that activity, you can make the comparison, it's - a caller said earlier, to Truman who stepped into a situation not really of his own making and had to deal with it. And Bush had this unexpected thing happen on his watch fairly early on and had to respond in some capacity, in ways that no other president had had to deal with, to have the country attacked on American soil. I guess (unintelligible) the Mexican war. So, yes, I suppose at that level, you can say that he did have an unprecedented and a sort of intense first year.

ROBERTS: Let's take a call from Charlie(ph) in Wichita, Kansas. Charlie, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

CHARLIE (Caller): Hi. Thank very much. I wanted to suggest John Tyler because here's a poor guy who woke up 30 days into his, you know, nondescript job as vice president and he's president. And the speaker of the House expected him to be a lapdog who would sign all the bills sent to him, keep his mouth shut, stay out of the way and not create any trouble, but instead he made certain that the people understood that his elevation from vice president to president meant that he was in full charge and full control of that office. And I don't know if your historians can add anything to the vigor of his first year than that. Thank you.

ROBERTS: Well, Charlie, it's an interesting point. Thanks for your call. You know, we've talked about the problem of living up to high expectations. Tyler, of course, came to office with absolutely no expectations.

Prof. GORDON-REED: No expectations.

ROBERTS: I'm surprised that we have not heard a nominee speaking of high expectations for John Kennedy, the president who is most often evoked as part of Obama's past and the parallels between those two. Is that maybe because we're confining it to the first year? What do you think, Taylor Branch?

Mr. BRANCH: Well, maybe it's because Kennedy collided with his first year. I mean, he hadn't been - you're absolutely right about all the stirring rhetoric and charm and Camelot and everything like that. But he had the Bay of Pigs in April of his very first year, which was not only considered a moral failure, but it was a sheer military failure, and the United States was kind of caught lying in the street. So it was - that was pretty difficult. And then he had the conflict with President Khrushchev and he's in the middle of the freedom rides and had promised he was going to end housing segregation with a stroke of a pen and was paralyzed by those issues. So I think Kennedy had a very, very rough baptism and he had to recover from that. And in that sense, it is a little more like Clinton who didn't come in with all of the high expectations but also had a first - rough first year.

ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And we have an email from Jim(ph) in Australia, actually, who nominates Abraham Lincoln. I was waiting for a Lincoln nominee. He says he was the most effective president in his first year. He didn't prevent the Southern states from seceding. But by the end of - he says 1961, I think he means 1861 - he had stabilized the situation with a functioning government and recruitment of an army. Annette Gordon-Reed?

Prof. GORDON-REED: Oh, absolutely. I mean, he - there's no president who's had greater challenges, I mean, certainly, than Lincoln. And he did move effectively. I mean, obviously, things fell apart. I mean, the nation split apart but that was not his doing specifically. And a lot of these things, I mean, I was thinking when we were talking about Kennedy, so much of our understanding of the presidency sort of goes through the prism of what happened near the end.

And so it's - for Kennedy, it was - it's very difficult, I think, when you said that no one had nominated him to think about him without thinking of what happens in the end. And Lincoln, it's all of a piece. It all runs together. But, certainly, he had a lot to contend with in the very beginning, the dissolution of a nation.

ROBERTS: And took office likely knowing the nation was going to go to war.

Prof. GORDON-REED: Absolutely. Yeah. Absolutely. He understood what - I think it was pretty clear what was going to happen and he would be responsible for this in a heavy moral - with a heavy moral responsibility on his shoulders and having to execute things: I mean, to be a president, to attend to military matters and to sort of shepherd you through all the difficult political issues. It was an amazing time.

ROBERTS: Well, in the time we have left, let's bring this back to the current administration. This is a president who was elected knowing he'd inherit an economic crisis, but has the majority of both houses of Congress, which many presidents have not enjoyed, but also, as we've said, enormous expectations and a sort of built-in historic aspect that he's the first African-American president. So with all of that and whatever else you all want to add, where do you think President Obama fits in? Let's start with you, Taylor Branch.

Mr. BRANCH: Well, you know, I think that the jury is out. Quite frankly, I think he's had a pretty good first year given the enormity of the problems he's faced because I don't think that enormity is really acknowledged quite yet. We're still half thinking and wishing that this will all go away and that everything will recover normally and it's clearly not going to happen that way. It's going to be a long haul. He knows that. I think he's battered to some degree.

I actually saw him yesterday on Martin Luther King Day and talked to him about it a little bit, and hoping that he's touched bottom and if he gets health care through now that he can move on to a more productive second year. But even so, facing the reality that it is going to be a hard slog because we have to rebuild a lot of our economy, and in order to do that to some degree we have to rebuild our political confidence in an atmosphere when a lot of people unaccountably make sneering at civil government a patriotic act which, of course, is absurd. So we have a pretty dysfunctional political system. And so, he's having to deal with a lot of problems at once.

ROBERTS: Annette, you get the last word here.

Prof. GORDON-REED: Yes, there are a lot of problems as you've been saying, not really of his own making that kind of got obscured in the euphoria about his election. I think he has had an effective first term, and as I alluded to before, very, very difficult in having to do all of this in the glare of publicity, in the glare of, as I said, lightning-fast, you know, scrutiny on the part of every different type of media: online, everywhere. So it's a minute by minute, second by second judgment that's going on here. I think he's done pretty well.

ROBERTS: Annette Gordon-Reed teaches at NYU Law School. Her book, "The Hemingses of Monticello," won a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. She joined us from our bureau in New York. And Pulitzer-winning historian Taylor Branch joined us today from the studios of WYPR in Baltimore. His most recent book is called "The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President." Thank you both so much.

Prof. GORDON-REED: Thank you for inviting me.

Mr. BRANCH: Thank you.

ROBERTS: Coming up, on the heels of the powerful earthquake in Haiti, we will size up all the seismic activity.

I'm Rebecca Roberts. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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