Presidential Historian Douglas Brinkley Tells Risk Executives That America Always Withstands Challenges, Divisions
Take a collective deep breath, Americans.
As a nation, we will survive these turbulent, highly charged political times, much as we have throughout the rocky course of our history, said Douglas Brinkley, the CNN presidential historian and a professor of history at Rice University.
Brinkley spoke at the 2017 Connecticut Risk Management Conference, sponsored by the Finance Department at the School of Business. Some 125 people attended the conference, which focused on various aspects of business risk, including a volatile political climate.
The conference drew risk management professionals and graduate students in UConn’s financial risk management master’s degree program. Chinmoy Ghosh, head of the Finance Department, said the risk management program, which began six years ago, is thriving. This fall, the school will expand its offerings by launching an online four-course graduate certificate in global risk management.
Should the President be Heralded Like a God?
As we clash over Pantsuit Nation or “Make America Great Again,” we shouldn’t forget that America’s founding fathers risked their lives to bring this nation into existence, Brinkley said.
Charles Thomson, the secretary of the Continental Congress, was an indisputable patriot and an indispensable assistance to President George Washington. He not only secured funding for the revolution, but also medicine, blankets, flour and more for the troops.
Thomson also kept the minutes of all the meetings that led to the creation of our nation. When the political parties were born, Thomson lamented that the country wouldn’t survive the hatred between the warring factions, Brinkley said. He ultimately took his diaries and minutes of all the independence hall meetings and burned them.
If the nation were to survive political conflict, then Thomson said, once someone becomes president he or she must be treated almost like a deity or as an enduring political hero.
Perhaps that defines a problem we have today in the most powerful and wealthy country in the world, Brinkley said. Although the election between Hillary Clinton and President Donald Trump is over, Brinkley said, “We’re still running the presidential election. Nothing has changed.”
Jefferson Knew How to ‘Pitch’ the Louisiana Purchase
President Thomas Jefferson took one of the biggest risks in political history by buying the Louisiana territory, Brinkley said. He sent a team to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans, a key passageway to the Mississippi River. For $60 million, they bought the entire Louisiana territory and doubled the size of the country.
Jefferson knew this wouldn’t be popular, particularly with Northerners, who would view it as a tricky attempt to expand slavery. In what amounted to the ultimate public relations campaign, he presented the purchase to the public saying it would reinforce America’s security and serve as a buffer zone against the Spanish, British and French. The American people feared attacks, and, therefore, embraced the purchase.
“He played to people’s fears and overnight American flags went up,” Brinkley said. “He had one insight—the Mississippi river was the spine of America!”
Lincoln Seemed Doomed to be a Failure
Brinkley said his favorite president, and perhaps the most popular of all time, is Abraham Lincoln.
“No matter how bad Donald Trump thinks he has it or Barack Obama thought he had it, Lincoln had it worse,” Brinkley said. “He’s constant inspiration for perseverance and an example of gumption.”
At a time when the executive mansion had cows grazing on the lawn, Confederates were only a horse ride away from the White House, Maryland was a hot-bed of secession and Virginia had left the union, Lincoln “looked destined and doomed to be one of our country’s biggest failures,” Brinkley said. “But he hung in there.”
“We, as scholars, think of the Gettysburg Address, The Emancipation Proclamation and his inaugural address as among the founding documents of our country,” Brinkley said, adding that President Richard Nixon reportedly used to get drunk on gin and talk to the portrait of Lincoln in the White House.
Another president who left an interesting legacy is Teddy Roosevelt, Brinkley said. He was a man unafraid to do what needed to be done. For instance, he recognized the Grand Canyon as a national treasure, describing its wonderful grandeur. “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it and man can only mar it,” Roosevelt said.
Roosevelt was also a genius at co-opting the press. “He would compliment writers to win them over,” Brinkley said. “He would let cartoonists sit at the best table and convince them to make fun of his opponents.”
FDR’s Legacy Still Endures Today
Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s legacy, which spanned from 1933 until 1980, was that he convinced Americans that government was their friend, Brinkley said. He is credited with creating big government with social programs for all. That all changed with President Ronald Reagan‘s 1980 election – when government became viewed with suspicion. It is still the same today, as we live in the shadow of Reagan, he said. Obama, he said, wanted to be the great firewall, protecting the heirloom of FDR.
“Today we have two different visions of the role of government that smash against each other like two rams,” Brinkley said.
Trump: Celebrity Hero Media Boss
Brinkley described the election of President Trump as the most risky in American history because of his lack of government or military experience.
“He is a celebrity media hero boss and our country decided to take a gamble on him,” he said. “On one hand, our economy is humming! On the other, there’s a sickness that things may fall apart in a moment…a kind of nervousness, a decade of anxiety.”
“Donald Trump has had the worst 100 days in presidential history, but is showing resilience in fatiguing everybody,” he said. “Now we’re not in an age of FDR or Reagan, we’re in an age of Trump. The political alignment is strange.”
Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have emerged as key players in the American agenda and there is a growing movement to reclaim the mid-West cities by entrepreneurs.
Both the presidency and the nation have changed. “We are a celebrity culture now. You’ve got to be a brand and have a billion to run for president today,” Brinkley said.
He said political campaigns in the U.S. are non-stop now. “We don’t have time to govern any more. We run. We’re in a horse race all the time,” Brinkley said.
The United States needs someone who can find a way to unify the country. In the past, it was the great wars that pulled people together. No one wants that to happen, but there needs to be a strong cause that all people, regardless of political party, can stand behind, he said.
“In 2017, we’re living in a troubled time but I’m upbeat about our resilience, based on our history,” said Brinkley, the author of many books, whose subjects included both American presidents and other American heroes. CNN has described him as “a man who knows more about the presidency than any human being alive.”
It is too soon to tell if the Trump presidency signals a paradigm shift in American politics or if it is a fluke, he said. “He’s pushing and goading the system a lot and creating a culture of enemies around him,” Brinkley said. “Whether he’s a good president or not, we will survive.”
For International Students, U.S. Still the Place to Be
Ghosh noted that international students are now somewhat reluctant to pursue higher education in the United States and asked Brinkley what advice he would offer them.
Brinkley said the combination of a free press, a slow-but-reliable judicial system, and an impatient society that gets it right more often than gets it wrong, will keep America strong.
“We’re not in a moment of great American love around the world, like when JFK was president,” he said. “Trump may turn some students off, but smart young people will recognize the opportunity that we have here, unlike any other. We are the financial capital of the world.”