Our country is deeply divided. We’ll remain so for some time.
The Biden administration will move quickly to get things done. It only has a year to do so, before the mid-term elections move into high gear.
We’ll continue to reel from assaults on both truth and an array of institutions vital to the maintenance of a healthy democracy.
Those are not novel concepts. But they — and others, much more in depth and nuanced — have particular resonance, on this inauguration day.
They come from Marc Selverstone. The 1980 Staples High School graduate is an associate professor in presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s famed Miller Center of Public Affairs.
With a doctorate in American history, he also chairs the center’s Presidential Recordings Program; teaches courses on foreign relations, and consults with filmmakers, authors and educators.
Over the last 4 years, Selverstone says, it’s been a challenge to figure out how to avoid using the word “unprecedented.”
Beyond trying to understand policy choices, he’s tried to understand President Trump’s appeal to “a durable segment of the population, and an extraordinary percentage of the Republican Party.”
“His most dramatic departures had less to do with policy than with his approach to norms and conventions, to personnel and institutions and, most consequentially, to truth and fact-based reality,” the scholar says.
Selverstone calls the Biden transition “one of the most professional in memory. That augurs well for a country reeling from intersecting health and economic crises, and against the backdrop of really seismic and fundamental challenges in our politics, in social and race relations, and with respect to the environment.
“Whether or not the Capitol insurrection functions as a modern-day Beer Hall Putsch remains to be seen,” he adds. “1923 is a far cry from 1933, let alone what came after. But reporting seems to indicate that the assault has galvanized groups of well-armed violent extremists who are fanatically loyal to the outgoing president and all he represents.”
Selverstone’s looks ahead are informed by his study of the past. The Recordings Program transcribes and analyzes White House tapes that 6 consecutive presidents of both parties — from Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 to Richard Nixon in 1973 — made in secret.
Most of the work focuses on the period between 1962 and ’73. Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon were the most active in taping aides, journalists, cabinet officials, legislators, family members and private individuals.
In 2005, Selverstone was part of a Brown University-led oral history research project, exploring the Kennedy/Johnson transition and its impact on Vietnam policy.
Intrigued, Selverstone began exploring Kennedy’s thoughts on withdrawal planning (“real and extensive”), and his Vietnam policy overall — cut short, of course, by his assassination.
That led to a book, due to his publisher March 1: “The Kennedy Withdrawal: Camelot and the American Commitment to Vietnam.”
Selverstone has become impressed with how much the president was souring on the war. He had always been wary of deep involvement, the professor says, though he went to Dallas still committed to fighting it.
The question of withdrawal deadlines — at least, their public announcements – is relevant today. “Calendars factored into the Bush , Obama and Trump policies toward Iraq and Afghanistan,” Selverstone says.
Such deadlines “don’t have a very good track record,” he notes. “They rarely served the political or military objectives they were designed to achieve.”
Meanwhile, Selverstone, the Miller Center and the US prepare for a new administration.
He’ll continue to work on the presidential tapes, then undertake new projects beyond the election of 1964 and Vietnam.
“With the Kennedy book in the rear view mirror,” he says, “I’ll join my colleagues in thinking about what this turbulent era of American public life means for us, as well as what it means in the stream of time.”