A Brief History of Newspaper Endorsements

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As the presidential election inches closer, both candidates are looking for any little edge they might be able to find. To some undecided voters, a ringing endorsement might be just the thing they need to jump firmly into one candidate's camp. Although personal endorsements like the resounding one Colin Powell gave Barack Obama on Meet the Press last weekend are commonplace, what about newspaper endorsements? A thumbs-up from the editorial board of a major newspaper was once a serious boon to a campaign.

Do people actually vote according to their newspaper's endorsement? Hard to say. In most elections since 1940, the candidate with the strongest newspaper support has won, but there are notable exceptions. FDR won over less than a quarter of papers in his last two bids for reelection, while Harry Truman only mustered support from 15% of papers in 1948. In 2004, John Kerry held a slight edge over George W. Bush in endorsements, but it didn't help him win the White House. (According to Editor & Publisher, Obama's received 127 endorsements to 49 for John McCain.)

While such plugs were once ubiquitous, they've faded in recent decades; a survey by Editor & Publisher showed that by 1996, almost 70% of newspapers weren't endorsing presidential candidates as opposed to just 13.4% during the 1940 election cycle. Part of this is probably a reluctance to engage in partisan politics, but it also probably speaks to the decline of the newspaper as a central aspect of Americans' lives. With so many avenues available for voters to get to know the candidates, it seems rather quaint to think of anyone voting how an editor tells them to. Nevertheless, endorsement of candidates persists, so here's what you might want to know about the practice:

The biggest dogs don't take sides.

The two most-circulated papers in the country, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal, don't endorse candidates. The last time the WSJ endorsed a candidate was 1928, and perhaps the ensuing embarrassment was enough to scare the paper away from endorsements permanently. When handicapping the race between Herbert Hoover and Al Smith, the Journal's editors wrote, "That a financial newspaper should be independent goes without saying"¦Nevertheless it advises its readers to vote for Hoover, as the soundest proposition for those with a financial stake in the country." You may remember hearing about an epic financial crash less than a year later.

Over time, the Journal's no-endorsements policy became so strict that it necessitated an explanation every election cycle. In 1972, the editors clarified the issue: "Indeed, the short reason is simplicity itself: We don't think our business is telling people how to vote"¦We do not see any meaningful way in which that would either add to the reader's understanding of his times or raise the level of the public debate."

And sometimes other papers follow suit.

The Washington Post is the country's 7th-biggest paper in terms of circulation and obviously a key publication for those in and around the D.C. area. It generally endorses the Democratic candidate "“ the paper's already thrown its hat in with Obama this year "“ but some years, it just can't pick a candidate it likes. The paper notably declined to endorse anyone in the 1988 race between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis. That didn't keep the editors from weighing in on the election, though; instead, they took the opportunity to excoriate both candidates and their campaigns. "This year's campaign is not just a domestic disappointment, it is an international embarrassment"¦" That zinger must have hurt almost as much as a certain ride in a tank.

Tempers can flare.

Of course, when a paper endorses a candidate, it can't possibly speak for everyone on its staff, and a few members are bound to voice their dissent. The Miami Herald found this out the hard way in successive elections. During the 1980 race, editorial page editor Jim Hampton loathed Reagan, but his executive editor, John McMullan, was no warmer on Jimmy Carter. As a sort of truce that would please no one, they endorsed a candidate neither of them liked, Independent John B. Anderson.

When Reagan came up for reelection in 1984, Hampton found himself in another tight spot. The editorial board wanted to endorse Democratic challenger Walter Mondale, but Richard Capen, the paper's publisher, mandated a Reagan endorsement. At this point, Hampton was understandably a bit fed up with the process and decided to resign from the paper. Capen, however, refused to accept the resignation and had Hampton instead pen an editorial of his own explaining why he disagreed with the endorsement of Reagan.

The New York Times has had its adventures.

Although The New York Times has yet to endorse a candidate this year, the smart money is betting that it eventually endorses Obama. After all, the paper has endorsed the Democrat in the last 12 elections, and throughout its history has largely supported the party's candidates. However, there have been a few notable exceptions, like when the paper threw its vote behind Republican challenger Wendell Wilkie during his 1940 run against Franklin Roosevelt. (The paper did come back around on FDR and endorsed him in 1944.) The Times has also declined to endorse on certain occasions, most notably in 1928, when it said that given the choice between Al Smith and Herbert Hoover it was "happy with either."

The L.A. Times took a nice long break.

Until 1972 the Los Angeles Times had only given out endorsements to Republican candidates, and that year was no exception when the paper weighed in in favor of reelecting Richard Nixon. After that election, though, the paper stopped giving endorsements. Why?

As with many political problems of that era, you can blame Nixon. The LA Times admittedly played a large role in Nixon's rise to national prominence as he worked his way through Congress and into the Vice Presidency. Throughout his early career, Nixon enjoyed a particularly cozy relationship with the Chandler family who owned and ran the paper, so they'd help give him little positive bumps, both on the editorial and news pages. By the 1960s, the paper's staff was starting to grow tired of the cronyism between the Chandlers and Nixon, and although he continued getting the paper's endorsements, it also started being openly critical of him and doing investigative work into his apparent shenanigans. By 1972, the paper's writers were so fed up with the connection between Tricky Dick and their publication that they countered with their own endorsement of George McGovern, which ran as letter to the editor. Months later, the Watergate scandal broke, and the dissenting reporters looked wise for withholding their support. In September of 1973, the Times officially quit making endorsements.

The paper got back into the endorsement business with the primaries earlier this year, though, and has now given its support to Obama, its first-ever Democratic endorsement.

Why Do Supreme Court Justices Serve for Life?

Alex Wong, Getty Images
Alex Wong, Getty Images

There are few political appointments quite as important as a nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. Unlike a cabinet secretary or an ambassador, justices serve for life. In the modern era, that often means more than three decades on the court—thanks to increased lifespans, justices appointed in the next century are expected to sit on the Supreme Court for an average of 35 years, compared to the average of around 16 years that judges served in the past. Because of this shift, some scholars have begun to question whether lifetime appointments are still appropriate, as the definition of “for life” has changed so much since the constitution was written. But why do justices serve for life, anyway?

Well, for one thing, the U.S. Constitution doesn’t exactly specify that justices and the court are in a “’til death do us part” relationship. Article III says that judges (of both the Supreme Court and lower federal courts) “shall hold their offices during good behavior.” So technically, a judge could be removed if they no longer meet the “good behavior” part of the clause, but there are otherwise no limits on their term. In practice, this means they have their seat for life, unless they are impeached and removed by Congress. Only 15 federal judges in U.S. history have ever been impeached by Congress—all lower court judges—and only eight have been removed from office, though some have resigned before their inevitable removal.

The only Supreme Court justice Congress has tried to impeach was Samuel Chase, who was appointed by George Washington in 1796. Chase was an openly partisan Federalist vehemently opposed to Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican policies, and he wasn’t afraid to say so, either in his role as a lower court judge or once he was appointed to the Supreme Court. In 1804, the House of Representatives, at then-president Jefferson’s urging, voted to impeach Chase, accusing him, among other things, of promoting his political views from the bench instead of ruling as a non-partisan judge. However, he was acquitted of all counts in the Senate, and went on to serve as a Supreme Court justice until his death in 1811.

The point of giving justices a seat on the bench for the rest of their lives (or, more commonly nowadays, until they decide to retire) is to shield the nation’s highest court from the kind of partisan fighting the Chase impeachment exemplified. The Supreme Court acts as a check against the power of Congress and the president. The lifetime appointment is designed to ensure that the justices are insulated from political pressure and that the court can serve as a truly independent branch of government.

Justices can’t be fired if they make unpopular decisions, in theory allowing them to focus on the law rather than politics. Justices might be nominated because a president sees them as a political or ideological ally, but once they’re on the bench, they can’t be recalled, even if their ideology shifts. Some data, for instance, suggests that many justices actually drift leftward as they age, no doubt infuriating the conservative presidents that appointed them.

The lack of term limits “is the best expedient which can be devised in any government, to secure a steady, upright and impartial administration of the laws,” Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist No. 78. The judiciary, he believed, “is in continual jeopardy of being overpowered, awed, or influenced by its coordinate branches,” and “nothing can contribute so much to its firmness and independence, as permanency in office.” Without lifetime job security, he argued, judges might feel obligated to bow to the wishes of the president, Congress, or the public, rather than confining their work strictly to questions of the Constitution.

While lifetime appointments may be a longstanding tradition in the U.S., this approach isn’t the norm in other countries. Most other democracies in the world have mandatory retirement ages if not hard-and-fast term limits for high court judges. UK Supreme Court justices face mandatory retirement at age 70 (or 75 if they were appointed before 1995), as do judges on Australia’s High Court. Canadian Supreme Court justices have a mandatory retirement age of 75, while the 31 justices of India’s Supreme Court must retire by the age of 65. Meanwhile, the oldest justice now on the U.S. Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is currently 85 and kicking. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the oldest justice in U.S. history, retired in 1932 at age 90.

Though the U.S. Supreme Court has never had term limits before, there have recently been serious proposals to implement them. Term limits, advocates argue, could combat partisan imbalances on the court. Presidents wouldn’t get to appoint justices purely based on whether someone died while they were in office, and the stakes for political parties nominating a justice would be slightly lower, possibly leading presidents and Congress to compromise more on appointments. One popular suggestion among political analysts and scholars is to impose an 18-year term limit, though critics note that that particular plan does bring up the potential that at some point, a single president could end up appointing the majority of the justices on the court.

In any case, considering such a change would likely require a constitutional amendment, which means it’s probably not going to happen anytime soon. For the foreseeable future, being on the Supreme Court will continue to be a lifetime commitment.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Dolly Parton, They Might Be Giants, and More Featured on New Album Inspired By the 27 Amendments

Valerie Macon, Getty Images
Valerie Macon, Getty Images

Since 2016, Radiolab's More Perfect podcast has taken what is typically viewed as a dry subject, the Supreme Court, and turned it into an engrossing podcast. Now, fans of the show have a whole new way to learn about the parts of U.S. history which textbooks tend to gloss over. 27, The Most Perfect Album, a new music compilation from Radiolab, features more than two dozen songs inspired by each of the 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, from freedom of religion to rules regulating changes to Congressional salaries.

More Perfect assembled an impressive roster of musical talents to compose and perform the tracklist. They Might Be Giants wrote the song for the Third Amendment, which prohibited the forced quartering of soldiers in people's homes. It goes, "But the presence of so many friendly strangers makes me nervous, and it does not mean that I'm not truly thankful for your service."

For the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, Dolly Parton sings, "We carried signs, we cursed the times, marched up and down the street. We had to fight for women's rights with blisters on our feet." Less sexy amendments, like the 12th Amendment, which revised presidential election procedures, and the 20th Amendment, which set commencement terms for congress and the president, are also featured. Torres, Caroline Shaw, Kash Doll, and Cherry Glazerr are just a handful of the other artists who contributed to the album.

The release of the compilation coincides with the premiere of More Perfect's third season, which will focus on the 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. You can check out the first episode of the new season today and download the companion album for free through WNYC.

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