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Mark Shields: Taking the Disraeli test

Mark Shields

Benjamin Disraeli, a 19th-century British prime minister and writer, shrewdly advised that to be a successful political leader, a man (even though it was the Victorian era, it was still a man’s game) must first know himself and then know and understand the times in which he lives.

Whether would-be national leaders can pass the Disraeli test is often first seen in the campaigns for public office they run. Remember Abraham Lincoln, an all-American leader who was running for re-election in 1864, while the bloodiest war this nation has ever endured raged between North and South, and made his own case to the voters: “It is not best to swap horses while crossing the river.” He won.

Eight decades later, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was seeking an unprecedented fourth White House term and World War II was taking more than 50 million lives, FDR successfully recycled Lincoln’s winning campaign slogan this way: “Don’t swap horses in midstream.” He won.

Who can forget the year when a Republican dark horse confounded the wise men, vanquished the favored Democrat and captured the presidency with his optimistic summons to his fellow Americans, “Let’s make America great again”? No, that was not 2016, when, you recall, Donald Trump chose to drop the “let’s.” It was instead 1980, and the winner was Ronald Reagan, the two-term governor of California who, with no rumors of support from any unfriendly foreign despot, won 489 of the 538 electoral votes and carried 44 states. Reagan, the challenger seeking to deny a second term to his opponent, distilled his case by asking the voters, who were reeling under a home mortgage rate and an inflation rate that were both above 14 percent, to answer one question: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

President William McKinley won re-election in 1900 with two straightforward, if uninspiring, campaign messages: “Four more years of the full dinner pail” and “Let well enough alone.”

A year before the Great Depression would cripple America for the next decade, Herbert Hoover won the 1928 election with an explicit, if sadly empty, promise: “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.”

A memorable slogan does not guarantee victory. After the forced resignations for corruption of both President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew, the country was well-served by the leadership of our only president who had never been elected to national office, the modest Gerald (“I’m a Ford, Not a Lincoln”) Ford, whose 1976 campaign slogan, after the painful national nightmare of Watergate, clearly met the Disraeli challenge: “He’s making us proud again.” But he lost. In 1968 — a terrible year of war, assassinations, protests and riots in the United States — voters were clearly ready for change, and Hubert Humphrey, a distinguished public leader who was unlucky enough to be the nominee of the party in power, made an almost-persuasive argument for his own candidacy: “Some talk change. Others cause it.” In 1996, the country was preparing and satisfied to re-elect Democrat Bill Clinton, who vanquished an outgunned World War II hero and senator, Bob Dole. The Dole case was not unfair: “The better man for a better America.”

Here we are in 2018, and Democrats, while praying (if it’s not against their party platform) for a blue wave in November, have sent hearts beating and spines tingling — not — failing to evoke Barack Obama’s “Yes, we can” or Bill Clinton’s “Putting people first” or John F. Kennedy’s “We can do better” or Jesse Jackson’s “Keep hope alive” and instead giving us, hold on to your hats, “a better deal for our democracy.” Guaranteed to keep the blood pressure of the body politic way down.

It’s a fact that Fred Roti never met Benjamin Disraeli. But Roti — a Chicago alderman, Illinois state senator and drain inspector (honest) who reportedly placed 17 blood relatives on the city payroll — was, as his hometown papers delicately put it, friendly with a number of figures associated with organized crime. The story that was always too good to check out was that when Roti was first informed that he would be running for alderman, he was agreeable but wanted to know what his campaign slogan would be. His political sponsor, a man of considerable influence in certain quarters, answered simply, with an obvious understanding of the candidate, the electorate and the times: “Vote for Roti and nobody gets hurt.” It’s not poetry, but it’s better, sadly, than “a better deal for our democracy.”

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