A Long History of Broken Campaign Promises Joseph Ellis, a history professor at Mount Holyoke College, explains his theory of why politicians don't fulfill the promises they make on the campaign trail. His op-ed, "A Promise of Unpredictability," appeared on Wednesday in the Los Angeles Times.
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A Long History of Broken Campaign Promises

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Mike Pesca in Washington.

And now it's time for the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. No one's better on the subject of politicians and the things they promise than the bard of Baltimore, H.L. Mencken. He said, quote, "If a politician found he had cannibals among his constituents, he would promise them missionaries for dinner." I guess the body politic never sounded so delicious.

Historian Joseph Ellis looked back on 200 years of political promises in an op-ed page for the Los Angeles Times last week and found just two presidents had really kept their campaign pledges. We'll talk to him in a moment.

But we'd like to hear from you. Has a broken political promise ever left you heartbroken? Which promises do you really wish they'd kept? Join the conversation. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. And you can also comment on our blog, that's npr.org/blogofthenation.

Joseph Ellis is a Pulitzer Prize-winning professor of history at Mount Holyoke. And he's joining us from member station WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts. Thank you for joining us, Professor Ellis.

Professor JOSEPH ELLIS (History, Mount Holyoke College; Author, "American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic"): My pleasure, Mark.

PESCA: It's Mike. But that's okay.

Prof. ELLIS: Mike, I'm sorry.

PESCA: If you promise to call me Mark, you've now broken that promise.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Well, let's go at the good news, the so-called promise keepers. I know you cited two in your article.

Prof. ELLIS: And there might be more.

PESCA: Okay.

Prof. ELLIS: I mean that's a matter of, you know. You can weigh these things in different ways. But the two that stand out are George Washington and President Polk.

PESCA: So two guys from different ends of the historical ratings of great presidents.

Prof. ELLIS: Yeah. Although Polk has his supporters among professional historians…

PESCA: Yeah.

Prof. ELLIS: …Washington's right up there at the top three. The top three are always Washington, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt.

PESCA: But Polk is like the trendy indie-band choice for historians who want to show that they know what's up.

Prof. ELLIS: That's right. He's the inside choice because he really did make three or four very specific promises about what he was going to do, one of which is to resolve the border with Oregon and Washington and Canada, and reduce the debt. And every instance he did exactly what he said he was going to go. He did no more than that. He left office after one term and then, I think, died three months later.

PESCA: Basically, my work is done here and then was kind enough to die. And yet…

Prof. ELLIS: Indeed.

PESCA: And yet, I don't hear politicians today going, I'm as honest as Polk. I'll be Polk-like in my consistency.

Prof. ELLIS: Well, maybe we can start a little trend here, Mike. But I do think - I'm a biographer of Washington, so he's going to be my guy and, in terms of the presidency and carrying forward what he said he was going to do, I think he's the gold standard.

PESCA: So were you between writing a biography of Washington and Polk and your literary agents said, I think the Washington one might sell better.

Prof. ELLIS: No, no, in fact, I got a new one out called "American Creation," which is also - got Washington as one of its characters. I usually follow the Casablanca principle, that is, I round up the usual suspects and so my publicist is pleased that I'm talking to you because she thinks somebody might buy this book.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Well, speaking of Casablanca, I think a lot of - or a lot of voters would be shocked to find that politicians don't keep their promises. How about this, why? Is there a real reason? Are they just liars? Or have you found a consistent reason why promises get broken?

Prof. ELLIS: There are two or three reasons. One is that the culture of a modern, that is a 20th to 21st century political campaign at the national level, is virtually incompatible with deliberation. It is a series of media events and sound bites. And the kind of psychological conditions that a candidate has to endure make any kind of thorough and, as I say, deliberative set of convictions really difficult. And none of the founders would ever have run for president in the current political climate.

They would have regarded it as prostitution. And sometimes when I think about it myself, I think in order to put yourself through this process, you have to be slightly crazy. So the process of campaigning itself makes - it has little to do with the qualities of mine necessary to actually govern.

The second thing is you can never know what's going to happen. George Bush could not predict that they were going to fly airplanes into the World Trade Center or the Pentagon, and Woodrow Wilson couldn't predict that the Germans would resume unrestricted submarine warfare.

And so those events forced presidents to make decisions which often contradict what they said they're going to do. So, those are the two big - and then the other thing is that over time, people change their minds. Ronald Reagan described the Soviet Union as the evil empire and said he never wanted to negotiate; he couldn't trust them, but he proceeded to negotiate with Gorbachev…

PESCA: As circumstances changed, as glasnost existed, as it did not in 1980.

Prof. ELLIS: Correct.

PESCA: So your three things are: the atmosphere changes, the future changes and the candidates themselves change.

Prof. ELLIS: Correct.

PESCA: That's pretty good. So, if we take that all into account, I think it might lead a concerned voter to say, let's not even look at what they're promising as a way to gauge how they'll govern. But what about if you look how they governed in the past or how they legislated in the past, is that a better gauge trying to get your finger on what a fellow or woman is going to be like as president?

Prof. ELLIS: I think it is. It's what they've done, not what their rhetoric says they're going to do. Though, even that can be certainly tricky. I mean, a candidate like Romney is obviously changing his positions in the campaign as opposed to what he did as governor of Massachusetts.

I think that Obama is the person that probably has the fullest record, interestingly, even though he has the briefest political career because he's written two full books about himself, his convictions and where he wants the country to go. He's actually written these things out himself, and they're not the work of some ghost writer.

In the case of Hillary Clinton, I think that she has, you know, her record as first lady was largely a failure in terms of the only substantive issue that she took up - that was health care - but she claims to have great experience serving in the White House.

I think that even past records will often confuse you, like Earl Warren was the governor of California that oversaw Japanese internment, but he's also the guy that did Brown versus Board of Education.

PESCA: And, you know, if you look at our current president, George W. Bush, would always campaign and say that while I was governor of Texas, we worked with the Democrats. He was the uniter, not a divider - just a very different set of circumstances. Democrats…

Prof. ELLIS: Compassionate conservative…

PESCA: Sure.

Prof. ELLIS: (unintelligible)

PESCA: The reformer with results, to name all the rhyming slogans of the Bush campaign. But yes, it's just that the set of circumstance - a Democrat in Texas is a different animal from a Democrat in Washington, we should take that into account, too.

Prof. ELLIS: Yes, I think that once in office, he, on the domestic policy, you know, saw his base as the conservative evangelical wing and foreign policy, 9/11 changed everything for him.

PESCA: Now, you mentioned Earl Warren. As I read your op-ed, I was thinking about certain exceptions, and correct me if I'm wrong but it does seem to me that in promising what kind of person a president would appoint to the Supreme Court, sometimes there have been surprises but I would think that they've surprised even the president themselves - are there examples of presidents sort of selling out their basis and not appointing the kind of person to the Supreme Court they said they would?

Prof. ELLIS: Hmm. Yes, there are over time, but I think the more dominant pattern is they appoint people that they think are going to represent the views of their constituents and their promises. And the people end up once on the Supreme Court behaving in ways that were totally unpredictable.

Jefferson was - and Madison and Monroe were three Virginia presidents on the Republican Party, the first Republican Party that appointed all kinds of people to the Supreme Court based on the presumption that they would be states' righters. States' rights was the sort of abortion issue of the early 19th century and the sort of litmus test. And they all came under the influence of John Marshall, who converted them to a more federalist point of view. So, you never know. I think that Hugo Black was a member of the Ku Klux Klan and ends up being one of the great liberals of the 20th century court.

PESCA: Chris(ph), from Newport News, Virginia, do you have an example of a political promise that broke your heart?

CHRIS (Caller): Yeah, I absolutely do. I remember back in the early '90s, I was in the Air Force and Clinton was running for president. And he promised me as a gay man that he was going to lift the ban on gays in the military. Of course, shortly thereafter, you know, as soon as he got into office, he found out that Congress and the Senate were not going to allow that to happen. And we got don't ask, don't tell. But I think, for me, it was like the first experience of really being burned by a politician and his promises.

PESCA: You count don't ask, don't tell as a broken promise?

CHRIS: Absolutely.

PESCA: All right. Well, thanks for the call, Chris.

Joseph Ellis, we all remember that. It was one of the first issues President Clinton had to deal with, don't ask, don't tell in gays in the military.

Prof. ELLIS: That's right. I had a similar experience. The first time I voted in a presidential election was 1964. I voted for Lyndon Johnson based on the premise that your boys would never go to Southeast Asia.


Prof. ELLIS: And of course, that was a broken promise too.

PESCA: Which category do you, of those that you laid out do you think that falls into - did circumstance change, did he change, should he not have said it because of the atmosphere of campaigning?

Prof. ELLIS: I think that's a complicated one. I think that he meant what he said at the time but that once he was in office and saw that removing the troops would lead to the fall of the South Vietnamese government, he basically concluded that he couldn't tolerate that.

PESCA: Hi, William, from Norfolk, Virginia. How are you?

WILLIAM (Caller): Fine, thank you.

PESCA: And what was your broken promise that broke your heart?

WILLIAM: Well, Johnson and Nixon promised to fight the war on poverty. My question is, is the war over and did we win?

PESCA: Thanks for the call.

Professor Ellis, take on the war on poverty.

Prof. ELLIS: Well, the war on poverty is a metaphor. It's an ongoing - it can never end, by definition. Though actually, Nixon did more than you can imagine. And a lot of people remember, you know, he left the domestic policy to the Congress, which was often a Democratic Congress. So, I think that if you really wanted to find somebody that violated your sense of a war on poverty, you would say that Clinton did away with the welfare program.

PESCA: Is there - I was thinking - again about your op-ed, and there's another aspect to this where the candidates often introduce - almost all of them introduce fairly detailed plans about such recondite areas as what to do with Social Security or health care - and sometimes the debate really focuses on nitty-gritty details of their plans…

Prof. ELLIS: Right.

PESCA: …and I was thinking about it. How often do those really detailed candidates' plans - once the candidates become president - become the country's plans? It seems that most of them, you know, crash upon the rocky shoals of reality or the Congress or circumstance…

Prof. ELLIS: The Congress, that's the thing they crash upon because, for example, any intricate health care plan that's being proposed - and all three Democratic candidates have such things - that's going to change, by definition, once you get into the congressional debates.

So making - and I think one of the Clinton administration's mistakes, and it was Hillary's mistake, was trying to impose a highly intricate plan on a Congress rather than just a broad outline, which then would be worked out in various committees, with a lot of give and take.

PESCA: And, can you think of an example where a candidate's detailed plan pretty much intact became law?

Prof. ELLIS: Hmm.

PESCA: This is called put-the-Pulitzer-Prize-winner-on-the-spot minute.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. ELLIS: Well, Roosevelt's promise to develop some sort of retirement plan that became Social Security did take on the shape that he said it would, but he didn't really specify in great detail beforehand what it was going to be, but he delivered the goods on that particular thing.

There must be some other examples where things actually, at that level of specificity, were legislated but they're very, very few.

PESCA: You are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's take a call. I think it's Peggy(ph) from Illinois. Hi, Peggy.

PEGGY (Caller): Hello.

PESCA: How are you?

PEGGY: I'm good. Thank you.

PESCA: Go right ahead with your comment.

PEGGY: I was very, very much annoyed by George Bush, the present president who promised in his campaign, the first campaign, that he would be a friend of the environment and has totally gone in the opposite direction, I mean, in every aspect, every way that we could consider, you know, putting more mercury into the atmosphere and, you know, allowing the loggers to cut down national forest and even wilderness areas and, you know, just one aspect after another is totally opposite what he said as a candidate.

Now, I didn't vote for him because George - Al Gore, at the time, was so much stronger an environmental candidate and I think that may be why Bush felt he had to say something about it. But, I mean, it was such a blatant lie to be - that it was just like either he doesn't even understand what the environment is or he purposely said that knowing that he was going to go in the opposite direction.

PESCA: Joseph Ellis, what's your analysis of that? Was Bush trying to portray himself as a green Republican or was - because it's my recollection that he would occasionally, said, well, the evidence isn't in, let's keep studying it, which isn't really an answer?

Prof. ELLIS: You mean on global warming?

PESCA: That was one example.

Prof. ELLIS: Yeah.

PEGGY: No, not on global warming, it was all the issues about whether we should be, you know, the first day in office, he reversed some of Clinton's national wilderness area acts and, you know, just right from the very beginning.

Prof. ELLIS: Well, I wasn't listening perhaps as carefully as the caller, but I always presumed that President Bush was going to be opposed to most environmental reform and was going to staff the Environmental Protection Agency with people who actually were opposed to environmental reform, which is pretty much what he did.

So, I've not been terribly surprised about what he did. I think that whatever promises the caller heard he make, escaped me.

PESCA: Well, thank you for the call, Peggy.

PEGGY: Okay.

PESCA: And then there's the old issue of the Simon and Garfunkel song about the man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest. You know, when George Bush, as many politicians do, comes up with a slogan like compassionate conservative, you could say he betrayed that or you could point to things like his AIDS initiatives, for instance, and say that he fulfilled that promise. This is, I guess, part of the reason why politicians tend to be somewhat vague in their promises.

Prof. ELLIS: Indeed, and I think that all the candidates on both parties now are all campaigning on the rhetoric of change. And boy, if there's not a vaguer concept out there, if there is, somebody show it to me.

And Clinton, the bridge to the 21st century, I think that the reason that they levitated that rhetorical altitude is because they don't want to alienate anybody but it gives them a great deal of latitude once they get into office.

PESCA: I also wonder if, can a future Joseph Ellis look back and say, oh, you didn't change, I mean, just by nature, how could someone not change? It seems one of the easier things to promise.

Prof. ELLIS: Well, I think, that - and then the greatest presidents grew in the office too, I mean, I think Roosevelt did, I think Lincoln did. Even Washington became more politically astute, so that it is perhaps one of the greatest educational experiences on the planet to become president of the United States. And let's hope whoever we elect is educable.

PESCA: All right, Joseph Ellis, thank you for doing your part and help educate the public with your books and for being on the show today. History professor at Mount Holyoke, Joseph Ellis, Pulitzer Prize winner, thank you very much.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News in Washington. I am Mike Pesca, in for Neal Conan, will be back soon.

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