BU panel to preview Bush-Kerry showdown
By Danielle Masterson
The year was 1968: the Vietnam War was raging, with no end in sight, racial tensions were boiling over at home, and anti-war and civil rights protesters clashed violently with police and U.S. troops at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Richard Nixon, meanwhile, was courting the so-called “silent majority” by promising to restore law and order domestically.
Not since that tumultuous political season has the United States seen such a dramatic presidential election, says Bruce Schulman, a CAS history professor and a presidential historian. “The remarkable thing about the 2004 election from a historical standpoint is the way that you have two parties with contrasting positions on issues, contrasting cultural and political philosophies, and that view the other as a real menace to the world and the United States,” he says.
Schulman and a panel of other BU experts will discuss that issue and others at the forum 2004 Election in Historical Context on Wednesday, September 29. The forum, held the night before the first presidential candidates debate, will feature presentations from Schulman, Andrew Bacevich, a CAS international relations professor, director of the Center for International Relations, and a retired U.S. Army colonel, John Gerring, a CAS political science professor, and Linda Killian (COM’80, CAS’80), director of BU’s Washington Journalism Center. The event will be moderated by CAS History Professor Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian.
Panelists will discuss the strategies of the Bush and Kerry campaigns and offer historical context by looking at how previous debates have affected election outcomes.
“In the past, debates have not had a very big impact on the election unless there is a dramatic gaffe,” says Schulman, author most recently of The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Politics, and Society. “Debates can harm a candidate,” he says, but rarely do they turn the tide of a campaign. He notes that there have been exceptions, such as Ronald Reagan’s drubbing of Jimmy Carter in October 1980, when the former California governor put the question to Americans: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” Carter retorted with his unsuccessful “Amy Speech,” in which he tried to humanize the issue of the nuclear arms race by relaying his daughter’s sentiments.
Schulman says candidates will most likely focus on broad issues in the upcoming debates. “The big issue that we’ll hear them talk about is the international situation, the war in Iraq and the broader war on terrorism,” he says. “They will also focus on the economy.”
Zelizer says that he and Schulman organized the forum so that faculty, students, and Boston residents could talk about the election in a nonpolarized environment. “In today’s media age, most discussions about the election turn into heated arguments rather than informed debates,” he says. “We hope to offer the latter. If people come out with a better sense of what is at stake, we will have accomplished a key goal.”
Forum organizers will also offer voter registration materials to students, no matter what state they are from.
While some of the panelists may downplay the impact of presidential debates, all agree on the importance of November’s election. “From a foreign policy perspective, this is probably more important than most have been in recent years,” says Bacevich, author of the 2002 book American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy, and an outspoken critic of Bush’s foreign policy. “We’re three years into the global war on terror and I think it’s incumbent upon Americans to take stock of this war, whether it makes any sense, and the occasion of a presidential election really provides the opportunity for those assessments.”
The 2004 Election in Historical Context forum will be held Wednesday, September 29, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the School of Management’s first floor auditorium, 595 Commonwealth Ave. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, call 617-353-2240.