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Presidents' Legacy: Insights, Current Race & Roosevelt Library Update

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President's Day - what is it's history and why is it celebrated? Which president's have been the most successful? The least successful? Our guest, Dr. Michael Patrick Cullinane, Professor of History/Lowman Walton Endowed Chair of Theodore Roosevelt Studies, discusses and also provides an update on the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library. Steve Peck, longtime publisher of The Ranger newspaper in Wyoming and current Sr. Public Affairs Producer at WyomingPBS also contributes.

Here are the top interview highlights from this President’s Day episode on Main Street:

  1. The History and Evolution of Presidents' Day: Dr. Michael Patrick Cullinane explains that Presidents' Day started as a holiday to celebrate George Washington's birthday and has evolved into a day recognizing all U.S. presidents. The day reflects the country's changing attitudes towards its leaders and the office of the presidency itself.
  2. Ranking Presidents - Successes and Failures: Both Dr. Cullinane and Steve Peck share their views on the most successful presidents, emphasizing Washington, Lincoln, and FDR for their leadership during critical times in American history. They also discuss presidents considered less successful or failures, highlighting the complexities of presidential legacies.
  3. Impact of Social Media on Presidential Legacies: Dr. Cullinane discusses how social media democratizes public opinion about presidents, contrasting with historical media influences. He notes the fragmentation of consensus on presidential qualities due to the widespread availability of diverse viewpoints.
  4. Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Update: Dr. Cullinane provides an update on the development of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library, detailing its progress and the anticipated cultural and economic impact on Western North Dakota.
  5. Contemporary Presidential Politics: The episode touches on the current presidential race, including Trump's influence within the Republican Party and the challenges faced by his opponents. Dr. Cullinane expresses surprise at the lack of significant opposition to Trump within the GOP.
  6. Presidential Health and Age Concerns: Steve Peck discusses the report on President Biden's health and memory lapses, contextualizing it within historical instances of presidents with health issues. He reflects on how modern media coverage and public awareness might influence perceptions of presidential fitness for office.

President’s Day – Transcript

Main Street

♪♪ Welcome to Main Street on Prairie Public. I'm Craig Blumenshine. On this Presidents' Day, if you're enjoying a day off, I hope it's a good one for you.

Perhaps you're driving home from a little bit of an extended holiday. But today is all things Presidents' Day and presidents. Pleased to be joined by our friend Dr. Michael Patrick Cullinane. He's a professor of history and Loman Walton Endowed Chair of the Theater Roosevelt Studies at Dickinson State University. And we're pleased to have him with us again. Thank you again for joining us, Dr. Cullinane.

Dr. Michael Patrick Cullinane, DSU

Craig, it's great to be back. Thanks for having me. This will be a four-segment Main Street.

Main Street

We've got a lot to cover about presidents. We're going to talk about Presidents' Day itself, the history of Presidents' Day. Is it relevant for anything more than mattress sales as we speak?

We're going to rank some presidents. I've asked you to define for us maybe the most successful presidents in your eyes and also maybe the biggest flops. We're going to talk about the current presidential race.

And then we're also going to get an update from the Theater Roosevelt Presidential Library. So Dr. Cullinane, let's start with presidents first.

What is the history of Presidents' Day? Why do we have it?

Dr. Michael Patrick Cullinane, DSU

Well, Presidents' Day was really a holiday to celebrate George Washington's birthday. So Washington was born on February 11th. And if my dates holds up, I think it was 1731.

So it was a date to celebrate the founder of the nation really. And it doesn't happen, it doesn't become a federally recognized holiday until 1879, which is 80 years after Washington died, which again is not unusual. I mean, the Washington Monument doesn't go up until 80 years after Washington has passed away either.

So this isn't unusual, but I suppose what is unusual is the celebration of a single person, which was fairly new for the young republic, even in 1879. And I think the evolution of the holiday, which is now Presidents' Day for the most part, not all states celebrate that, but it's a President's holiday. So is that individual presidents, the office of the presidency?

There's a lot of like, I suppose, vagueness about what actually we are celebrating on Presidents' Day. Lincoln was injected into the celebrations in around the 1950s. He's not officially associated with the federal holiday.

So there's a lot of nuance, a lot of difference, kind of in the federal system. You've got one federal policy for this holiday, and then you've got a number of state policies for it as well.

Main Street

I wonder how Americans think about presidents, and we're gonna talk about that a lot today. When you visit with students, do you talk at all about Presidents' Day and what it means?

Dr. Michael Patrick Cullinane, DSU

Sure, I mean, it's hard to avoid Presidents' Day. I think in part because recent protests, there was Not My President, that movement a few years back on Presidents' Day. And then there's also the day off, the Monday, the observed holiday.

And so it's a perfect opportunity for us to engage with what presidents have, what leadership attributes presidents have had that are positive and that have left a positive legacy on the United States today, and maybe what those leadership qualities that we don't want, or we think were those failures of presidents, how that changes over time. I mean, we didn't always think that some presidents were failures. And I think we're gonna see when we talk about the rankings that there's real disputes over which presidents were successful and which presidents were not.

Main Street

I asked you to contemplate how social media will, from now on, impact how we think about presidents. Obviously, many, many years ago, social media wasn't a thing. So we're limited into information we have about most presidents, really, until just kind of recently, certainly after the advent of the television age.

How will that impact? And are there designs out there that will continue to make sure we do not consider this president in this way forever?

Dr. Michael Patrick Cullinane, DSU

Yes, so I think this is a great question that you pose. It's really one for the ages, too. It's not exclusive to social media or the 21st century in our time.

I mean, the presidency has been affected by media since the very outset. I mean, Thomas Jefferson would have been one of the pioneers of using the newspaper in order to get his message across and to reach out to voters that were of like mind. Of course, you can think about the radio in the 1920s, the television in the 1950s, and today we've got social media.

So what social media has done that previous traditional medias, I guess, have not done is they've democratized the process of voicing an opinion. Everyone has an opinion now. And what that means, I think what you're getting at, is that because everyone has an opinion, there is not the same consensus.

And we're seeing this to a certain extent in the divisions in American politics now. There's less consensus around what a good president is. I mean, there's more consensus around what president you like and what president you absolutely despise, but there's less consensus about the qualities that we all share as a nation.

And that was something that the presidency was usually very good at bringing together, especially when you had presidential mandates, electorates that would vote 50, 55, 60% in favor of one person. That gave the president a huge mandate and brought a degree of unity together. We've not seen that really since Ronald Reagan, before the age of social media.

So I think there's a fracturing happening here with social media and how long that goes on for, how deep that sinks into our political psyche. I think it's just yet to be seen.

Main Street

I've asked you to consider who you believe are the most successful presidents. And I also asked a good friend of mine, Steve Peck, who is the current senior public affairs producer from Wyoming PBS, a longtime newspaper publisher in Wyoming, to also give us his most successful presidents. And I'm gonna start with Steve first.

Steve, welcome to Main Street. Craig, good morning. Thank you.

Glad to be with you. Steve, you are a presidential historian and I've asked you to also assemble a list of presidents you believe have been successful. And George Washington is at the top of your list.

Steve Peck, WyomingPBS

Well, it's a fairly obvious choice. I mean, successful. I congratulate you for using these terms, successful and unsuccessful, rather than best or worst, because it's just a more subtle term, a more shaded one.

And the term successful is open to some different interpretations and meanings. But I just think it's impossible not to include Washington, as obvious as that sounds, to any list of successful presidents because he shouldered this enormous job of doing the job of president for the first time. And he molded this, what I believe was considered then and still considered today, a truly unimpeachable example of what the presidency ought to be.

And then he duplicated another part of that example, extended it by leaving power lawfully and voluntarily eight years later. One of the great national worries at the time, when you read accounts of it, was whether Washington might not even agree to serve as president because it was just considered indispensable for the start of the union that he do that. He already was the most famous, revered man in America before even taking office.

And interestingly, another worry once he did take office was how he would choose to leave office because he might well have been expected to behave and govern almost as a monarch, because this is the model that the young nation, the people of the colonies in the new states were used to. The fact that he didn't do that, that he did step down voluntarily as planned, it affirmed the validity of the principles of independence. And of course, thousands of men under his military command in the years prior had fought and died for those principles.

And this is now more than 200 years ago. And revisionists tend to pick apart things and his intellect and his grasp of policy outside the military battlefield are discussed all the time, but I think his stature and vitality to the new country are still just unquestioned.

Main Street

Another president on your list, obvious to me, Abraham Lincoln. Sure.

Steve Peck, WyomingPBS

Again, the incredibly obvious, and I have a couple more that aren't going to be so obvious, but Lincoln is sort of the opposite of Washington in superficial ways, but he rivals them in this essential achievement, the backbreaking achievement that he shouldered in seeing the US through the Civil War. The country might well have come undone permanently without Lincoln. And what he did was he was able to mix these very, very clever contemporary political operative tactics at the time with this broad sense of history that many, many other presidents just didn't have and still don't or haven't recently.

But he endured this wrenching personal political hardships as well while he prosecuted the bloodiest war of our history. He ended slavery. He began to mend the nation.

Just a towering achievement. The fact that this largely unknown and previously failed, very little regarded, imperfect politician from the true American backwoods could climb to this titanic place in history. He is by any standard a success, and that's the word we're talking about.

And I note that it's one of America's great sorrowful mysteries, thinking about what he might have accomplished in his second term, which he didn't get a chance to do, of course. FDR on your list. FDR, well, if we're talking about success, we'll begin here.

He was elected to the presidency four times, four consecutive elections. He ran and won, and that's a success any way you look at it. And then you think about these two incredible challenges that he faced and tackled one after the other, first being the Great Depression, which was there when he took office, and then later World War II, and he devised this sort of what I would call a get-busy agenda to respond to both the crises.

And ultimately, I think it would have to be said he succeeded at both. No other president that I can think of, at least in the terms of the presidency as we understand it now, ever had two such heavy burdens to bear, and he did it. And let's remember that he did it while he was crippled by polio, which struck him as a younger man.

It's after effects. FDR worked from bed or a wheelchair a lot of the time. He couldn't stand, he couldn't walk without – he couldn't stand without assistance.

He couldn't walk really at all. Yet he ascended to this place of global statesmanship in spite of a lot of hardships that has rarely been equaled since then. Also, he was an oratorical giant, and I would say few presidents to this day have ever rivaled him in that way.

And thinking back to his fireside chats and the way he used the mass media of the time, he could be called the first true mass media president. There's a lot of talk about, as well, about the age of presidential candidates and presidents these days. He was elected four times.

He died in office at just 63 years old when his fourth term was just beginning. So, again, tantalizing to think about what that fourth term might have led to as the war was still going when he died. I would just say nearly a century after his first election, many of the FDR philosophies and structures of government initiated by him still remain.

They've been well tested, and certainly it may be battered a little bit by time, but they're standing nonetheless, and he remains a giant figure. A president well known for ending World War II, follows FDR, Harry Truman. Yeah, I would just say this about in terms of success.

Some success can be defined, I think, by someone who exceeded expectations, and I believe that's absolutely what Truman did. He might call him the all-time overachiever compared to what was expected of him. Following FDR, we talked about earlier, it would have been difficult enough through just normal mechanisms of whoever came next, but when Truman, who was a very obscure vice president, he was in office for less than a month.

He'd never met Roosevelt, reportedly, except once before, and suddenly he's pushed into office with no warning upon FDR's death in 1945. He just wasn't given much of a chance to succeed. I think he established himself as his own man almost immediately, and he actually did have long experience in government at the Senate level, local government levels in Missouri where he was from.

He saw World War II to its end, and he made breakthroughs in civil rights, responsive government, a lot of meaningful legislation, and he had this sort of everyman characteristic to the presidency that has rarely been seen since, if ever, honestly. And then defying every probability and prognostication, he pulled off one of the great comeback election victories in history, winning his own full term in 1948, and of course illustrated by the famous news photo of the time holding up a headline showing that he'd been defeated when in fact he'd won. And it becomes so successful after the end of that term, by 1952 the opponents were so worried he might be elected again that the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, which limited presidential terms, was passed.

At the time it was called the Truman Amendment in common parlance, so I think you'd rate him a success for those reasons. Now he used the atomic bomb in warfare, and of course, my gosh, you talk about a controversial thing to do, that can be discussed in another program. In terms of whether his presidency was successful, I think these things answer that question in the affirmative.

Main Street

Steve, the last president on your list probably is a surprise to many, President Fillmore.

Steve Peck, WyomingPBS

I include Millard Fillmore, or maybe it's Millard Fillmore, I've seen both pronunciations talked about, as an unlikely, underrated president, and honestly he's probably all but unknown to the modern public. I could describe it this way, he was a blip, BLIP, a blip of high competence during a period of mediocrity between Polk, who was a one-term wonder who might have been included on this list as well, and Lincoln. And so there's a period of about 20 years in there where there's not a real distinguished group of presidents.

He was a vice president who assumed the presidency unexpectedly, following the death of President Zachary Taylor, that was in 1850, but he proved to be a very able and pragmatic executive. He steered the nation through this expansion of statehood under the controversy of slavery at the time, were the new states going to be slave or not, and likely staved off the Civil War for more than a decade because of careful management. Now, in retrospect, skilled maneuvering by a president that extended slavery for years into the future, I guess could be a debatable accomplishment.

But in his time, I think Fillmore's intelligence and his statesmanship, he eased a red-hot national crisis and performed well under the circumstances of his times and his office. He's worth remembering for that reason.

Main Street

Before we let you go on the successful side of this conversation, Steve, there were others who came to your mind.

Steve Peck, WyomingPBS

Well, there are lots of them, of course, and I've deliberately tried to stay out of the more recent presidencies where these red-hot political issues are still kind of current with a lot of listeners probably. But I think you'd have to include Eisenhower, of course, I think Polk, who I mentioned earlier, William McKinley, an extremely popular guy who sort of established the modern presidency in some ways. Surprisingly, if we were to get into talking about it, I would list Calvin Coolidge on that list, James Monroe, who was just the fifth president.

U.S. Grant is a controversial figure throughout history, but in reading about him was a very, very successful guy who almost got elected to a third term, and several others, of course, too.

Dr. Michael Patrick Cullinane, DSU

The one thing I will say about my votes and Steve's votes is that the same three are on top. My top three are still Lincoln, FDR, and Washington. These are the three presidents that face crises and come out of them better off, the whole nation better off for them being in charge.

Main Street

I'm Craig Blumenshine. You're listening to Main Street. My guest today is Dr. Michael Patrick Cullinane. He's a professor of history, a Loman Walton Endowed Chair of Theodore Roosevelt Studies at Dickinson State University. JFK is not on either Steve's list or your list. Perhaps could have been placed in that same, I guess, discussion as President Clinton, yet I'm guessing in many lists, he favors higher than President Clinton does.

Why is that?

Dr. Michael Patrick Cullinane, DSU

Well, I think Kennedy has a lot of crossover appeal. He cut taxes for Americans at a time when they were very high. He also took a very strong stance on national security, particularly in relation to the Cold War.

I mean, Kennedy was more of a Cold Warrior in many regards than Eisenhower was or even more than Johnson was. If we think about his early couple of years as president. So Kennedy has a lot of appeal for those areas.

He also has the same baggage that Clinton does, though. We know about the sex scandals. We also know in later years about his health issues and how he covered those up.

And we also, there's a number of other things that we could point to as well, like the election scandal. So he's not without scandal either.

Main Street

Before we talk about maybe the presidential failures, Dr. Cullinane, Steve had Millard Fillmore on his list of successful presidents. And I think you may want to debate that. What do you think about President Fillmore?

Dr. Michael Patrick Cullinane, DSU

Well, I love Steve's choice because it opens us up to debate about what makes a president great, good, or a failure, right? For me, Fillmore falls way down the list. And there's a couple of reasons, and I wish Steve was here so I could hear what he thought about this.

But for me, Fillmore was not the person who made the Compromise of 1850 happen. So for those listeners that want a quick refresher, the Compromise of 1850 effectively stays off a civil war for about a decade, but by creating a new demarcation line between the Northern states and the Southern states. And basically, Fillmore gets credit for this because he was president, but he wasn't the one who really did this.

The Compromise of 1850 is really down to Congress. And the big figures in Congress, like Henry Clay, are the ones that deserve the credit, not Millard Fillmore. And on top of that, I think we have to think about our perspective today.

Is stalling the curious, the peculiar institution of slavery for a decade a positive thing? I mean, I think this is why Lincoln gets a lot of credit is because he's known as the great emancipator. He emancipated the slaves in the famous proclamation, right?

Fillmore doesn't do that. Fillmore kicks the can down the road, which I think that's why he gets so much criticism. But also, I think we have to remember Congress in the 19th century was far more powerful than the president.

Those presidents from the 19th century get less credit. They had their hand on not quite the same levers of power that Congress did.

Main Street

We turn now to the not successful part of our presidential discussion today. Steve, who's on your list for those presidents in that?

Steve Peck, WyomingPBS

We could ask, is a failed president one who tried ambitiously, but fell short of a big agenda or one who never bothered trying much at all or simply wasn't qualified for the job? If you were shot to death during your presidencies, is that a successful presidency? So with all that in mind, with a debate that could fill another show, I'll start with John Adams.

Let me just first say, I recognize that this is a giant towering figure in American history and his accomplishments outside the presidency far outweigh his struggles within and I have great admiration for Adams. He's a brilliant man. He warrants this admiration, his role in constructing the American independence movement and accomplishment in the 20 years prior to his presidency ranks with anybody in history.

But once he was elected president, though, he didn't do very well. And I guess part of the problem was he faced this practically impossible task of following or trying to follow George Washington. Just talk about big shoes.

Almost anyone's feet would seem small in comparison. And when many powerful people were clamoring for it, one of the things he did do was avoid war with France and that's probably to his credit. The nation was so young and small at the time.

But he was always in another kind of war, this what we could call administrative war, constantly with other contemporary leaders. And he could not build good partnerships or coalitions. He was undermined from day one by both these political foes and people that he believed were his allies and came to realize that they really weren't.

He was notoriously grouchy and a thin-skinned guy. Eventually, as a newsman, I hate saying this about him, he signed laws which outlawed criticism of himself, Alien and Sedition Acts, and I just think it might have been a better move for him to have stayed out of elected politics at the national level at least, instead kept basking in the considerable warm glow of his stature as a founding father, which is really nearly matchless in history.

Main Street

Andrew Johnson is on your not quite as successful list, perhaps as many as hoped.

Steve Peck, WyomingPBS

Pretty obvious choice here, honestly. Here's the words, here's how I start out with some notes I made. Mean, bitter, alcoholic, vengeful, and corrupt.

Other than that, probably was all right. He, again, sort of in the model of Adams in this way, he was saddled with following the great martyred hero, Abraham Lincoln. He was the vice president who assumed the office when Lincoln was assassinated.

But Johnson not only wasn't up to the task, it seems like he was unable to even grasp what the task was. He was impeached justifiably compared, I think history would say that, certainly some political motivation to it, but he was impeached and he escaped conviction and removal of office by just one vote. And I think to the nation's both relief and benefit, he was succeeded in the next election by Ulysses S.

Grant, the great Civil War hero general. Interesting though, Johnson did return to elective office and served a term as a U.S. Senator in the years following his presidency where he apparently complained and groused and griped and scowled through his Senate term as well. Sorry for Mr. Johnson, but not remembered well.

Main Street

Also perhaps not remembered as well, Steve, would you say as William Howard Taft, he's on your less than successful list?

Steve Peck, WyomingPBS

I realized now I'm kind of following this same pattern of people except with exception of Johnson, but like Adams, Taft was a highly, highly accomplished man, brilliant attorney, a judge, a jurist, well-educated guy, extremely likable person apparently. He was handed this enormous goodwill and popularity of Theodore Roosevelt just on a silver platter. Roosevelt endorsed him as his successor, but four years later, Taft finished a very poor third, not just defeated reelection, but finished third in his own reelection bid four years later.

And that's not a sign of success. He was similar, I would say, to Herbert Hoover in that he did compile this impressive, highly laudable record of public service before the presidency, but more or less floundered once he was in the White House. And so again, it maybe was not such a great idea for him to run supposedly, had some reluctance about doing that.

After his presidency, he's distinguished in history in a singular way by being appointed Chief Justice of the United States after being defeated for the presidency. Just imagine that happening these days. Think of a recent president who might then be appointed Chief Justice, just almost unthinkable.

So I'd say maybe he was better suited for service outside the presidential election frying pan. In that way, I think he should be considered a failed president.

Main Street

Are there less than successful presidents that you thought about, Stephen?

Steve Peck, WyomingPBS

Sure, I mean, so many of them were dogged by crises and sort of corruption and incapability, but I think mentioning the presence between Polk and Lincoln, I've already mentioned Fillmore was a brighter example, but Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan were in that group, James Harding, poor guy who was just unsuited for the White House. Herbert Hoover kind of in the same way, beset by circumstances that sort of undermined his great achievements as a civilian. And I'm sure people have their personal opinions about others as well.

Dr. Michael Patrick Cullinane, DSU

Well, this is a hard one. So for me, there's two groups of failures. There's like the abject failures, and then there's the ones that are plagued by scandal.

So let me start off with the scandalous three, okay? And one of these is maybe not what you would expect as a scandalous president, but the first one is Warren G. Harding.

I mean, the most scandalous of all presidents, the Teapot Dome Affair is not just selling off Western lands that are rich in oil. It's so much more than that. It's about bribery and corruption at the very heart of an administration.

And so Harding gets very low marks because he was at the heart of the scandal, whether he knew or not. And some people say he did or he didn't, but regardless of that, Harding was president. He has to be at the bottom for scandal.

Richard Nixon, you know, another really successful president in many ways. If you're a conservationist, you actually love Nixon. He passed more conservation laws than any other president.

However, Watergate has got to torpedo his legacy, right? I mean, again, Watergate is like Teapot Dome. It's not just the breaking in of the Democratic campaign headquarters, but it's so much more than that.

It's a snooping. It's a story of snooping on domestic wiretapping. I mean, Watergate is as corrupt as it gets.

Watergate still looms large as the American scandal. I mean, it's why we put gate at the end of everything now, right? Whether it's Monica Gate or whatever gate, you know.

But Ford's decision to pardon Nixon at the time in 1974 was extremely controversial and it was very unpopular. And yet when Ford died, which was only in, oh, I forget what year, 2005-ish, somewhere around there. Correct me if I'm wrong, but the newspapers came out and they said, Ford healed the country by pardoning Nixon.

And there was a complete reconsideration of his role as president and his ranking went up as a result as well. But that's since dissipated and Watergate remains one of these turning points in American history. In fact, it's what brought President Joe Biden to power in 1974 as a Senator.

It was the class of 1974, a complete rejection of Nixon and Watergate that led to a Democratic blue wave, so to speak. Okay, next and last on the list of the Scandalous Three is one that most people don't think of as scandalous, but that's John Tyler. John Tyler is the first president to get to that office by being vice president and another president dying.

Tyler struggled with the tariff laws and eventually becomes so unpopular with both parties that he becomes unelectable. The scandal for me with Tyler is not a scandal like it is with Harding or Nixon, but it is a scandal that is of a 19th century variety, you know, scandal over budgets and tariffs and one that dooms his future prospects as president. There are three others that are not scandalous, but in my mind, abject failures.

That's James Buchanan, who basically idles away as the nation sinks into civil war. Andrew Johnson, who after the Civil War and after Lincoln's death is just a disaster of an administrator and he was drunk all the time. In fact, Andrew Johnson was drunk when he became president on Inauguration Day.

And finally, there's Hoover, who also tried, did very little to get the United States out of the Great Depression and is so unpopular by the time he leaves the White House that his reputation never really can be restored. So there's these three abject failures and then there's the three scandals. And I think for that reason, all six of those presidents fall into the bottom of the camp.

Main Street

We hope you're enjoying your President's Day along with us. I'm Craig Blumenshine from Prairie Public. You're listening to Main Street.

I'm with Dr. Michael Patrick Cullinane, a professor of history, a Loman Walton Endowed Chair of Theodore Roosevelt Studies at Dickinson State University. We've talked about President's Day and its history, what it means. We've also ranked presidents, the good and the bad, and now the current presidential race.

First of all, where we're at at this moment, are you at all surprised?

Dr. Michael Patrick Cullinane, DSU

A little bit. I'm a little surprised that there are so few opponents to Donald Trump within the Republican Party. Maybe I shouldn't be surprised.

There's been plenty of commentators who have said this is the party of Trump now. And I think that is it. I mean, Nikki Haley, I don't see a route for her to emerge as the nominee, unless, of course, something were to happen to Donald Trump.

Ill health. I mean, he's not a spring chicken, as we know. Neither is Joe Biden, for that matter.

But ultimately, it's his nomination to lose at this stage. And that does surprise me a little bit. People like Ron DeSantis came out of the gate so strong.

Nikki Haley and Chris Christie, they had real promise, but they've not been able to take on Trump, really, at all for the duration of this nomination contest. And that, to me, has been a big surprise.

Main Street

Has the way this campaign evolved surprised you at all? In other words, you talk about the relatively few who have challenged President Trump, the way that they went about it, almost afraid to take him on directly, and then this topic of retribution that Chris Christie has talked about recently, if he's elected, this will be a presidency of getting revenge, so to speak. And also, Governor Doug Burgum's endorsement of him, I feel, because of what he believes that can do for North Dakota and what it might mean if he doesn't endorse him for North Dakota.

In other words, would we be on the other side of the street and not ones who would be in his favor? If you don't endorse me, I'm going to remember that.

Dr. Michael Patrick Cullinane, DSU

I mean, Craig, I think that's a great question. It's three questions, but it's a great question. Retribution is something that Donald Trump has talked about as well.

For me, this is the scariest thing about the election because any president that goes, any candidate who talks about retribution is not campaigning in the spirit of democracy, to my mind. Right? Usually, presidents come up to the inauguration podium and they say, even if you didn't vote for me, I'm the president of all the people.

We're not seeing that now from Donald Trump. He has explicitly used that word, retribution, and candidates like Chris Christie have come back and said that that's what it's going to look like. There's also been lots of questions about a dictatorship, what democracy will look like under Trump 2.0. And he said, that's the candidate Trump, he said that it'll be a dictatorship on day one and then after that, it won't be. And I'm not sure what that means. I'm not sure Donald Trump knows exactly what that means. But what I can say is, is that from his own campaign speeches and proclamations, he has said that he is out for revenge.

He hasn't pointed the finger at exactly who that might be, whether it's just policies or whether that's people, but it's clear that if he does get elected, there's going to be some sort of retribution. And maybe that is why Governor Burgum is not really interested in getting on the wrong side of Donald Trump. What's clear, and this is very strategic on his part, I think, what's clear is that Trump is going to be the nominee.

If Trump loses the general election, Burgum has lost nothing, right? Because, you know, a Democratic presidency of Biden, the second Biden administration isn't going to appoint Burgum to the Cabinet Office, right? But if Trump wins, maybe Burgum's in a position to take a Cabinet post and do right by North Dakota.

Still, for me, I worry about doing a deal with the devil, not saying that Trump is the devil, but if this isn't exactly what Governor Burgum wants and it's just strategic, it's all very political, but it doesn't do well for the sort of the moral authority of a candidate.

Main Street

Do you have any takeaways from the, I guess it was really a scathing appeals court ruling as I read it, denying immunity of President Trump? Any takeaways that are remarkable for you?

Dr. Michael Patrick Cullinane, DSU

Yeah, well, I think my big takeaway is, is that Donald Trump's crusade for retribution is not going to go unchecked by the other branches of government.

Main Street

I have a question about that. If things are delayed such that a trial wouldn't happen before his election, I don't know that I can agree with you because then, of course, the presidential pardon comes into play and perhaps it would be unchecked.

Dr. Michael Patrick Cullinane, DSU

Yes. So let's take it step by step. So let's talk about the dates of the trials.

So if this goes to the Supreme Court or if it comes back to the circuit appeals court, then we still might not see a trial until May, June or July of 2024. If that was to happen, chances are things would probably get delayed through the system, which Donald Trump has admitted that him and his lawyers are trying to do to slow this down before. And so it doesn't get to the election.

Now, let's just say for argument's sake that President Donald Trump gets reelected for a second term and these things are not adjudicated on yet, that the courts haven't said yea or nay to whether he is immune from prosecution. Yes, he could pardon anyone that he wants. Sure.

However, the courts could rule that a president can't pardon someone in a case that's directly related to him, which that would be an interesting constitutional reading of the powers in Article 2, the presidential powers. I'm not saying that's likely to happen or necessarily going to happen, but I think the courts at some stage will need to push back and say what they have said in this appeals court, what they've said is, is that the president is not exempt from the law. In other words, this 3-0 anonymous ruling has said that Donald Trump can be tried for things that are illegal.

And I think that does mean that when he's not president, and a time will come when Donald Trump is not president, that he can be prosecuted for crimes.

Main Street

I was sad to learn that President Biden will not sit for an interview prior to the Super Bowl. It's not a longstanding tradition, but I would say it is somewhat of a tradition, at least in modern culture. I was sad when President Trump would not debate either Chris Christie or Nikki Haley or others who were in the Republican mix prior.

What does that say about where we're at? Things are different, so different today that a candidate for the office of president can say, I'm not going to debate until I think I can just smoke someone and I want to debate Joe Biden today. Can we have it both ways?

And is it meaningful anymore other than the sound bites of perhaps a debate failure from an opponent?

Dr. Michael Patrick Cullinane, DSU

So if you had asked me this question in 2020, I would have said exactly what you said, that I find it worrying that presidential candidates are not out there debating and seeking our votes and really trying to impress us with not only their wit and their charm, but also with their policies. And today, I don't feel that way, actually. I feel like the debates have turned into who can yell the loudest and who can have the sort of the wittier punchline, but not really say much about policies or things that are really going to matter to me in my day to day life.

And then in terms of Biden not deciding to be interviewed, he's done lots of interviews. So I think in a way that that's more of the same that I'm saying with these debates here is that it's just for Donald Trump not debating, all of his policies and his stances are pretty well known. Either you love Donald Trump or you don't.

Right. And I think that's where we're at with the election of Donald Trump. Where we are with Biden, I think, you know, he's got a lot to do.

He's also president of the United States. If he's not out there campaigning, I think what he said in his response to Donald Trump was, of course, Donald Trump wants to debate me. He's got nothing else to do.

If we look at what Biden is dealing with, whether it's Iran or whether it's the border issue or whether it's Ukraine aid, I mean, he's grappling with Congress on a near daily basis at the moment. He came out to say that the Republicans aren't dealing fairly with some of these issues. Biden has stuff to do that is policy related before he can get into the campaign.

So I think putting the line and saying, you know, we'll start dealing with the press more actively in March. It's not really the end of the world for me. Neither is Donald Trump not debating.

I don't think that's really important anymore either.

Main Street

Do you anticipate that President Biden and President Trump will debate one another at least once prior to a general election?

Dr. Michael Patrick Cullinane, DSU

Yeah, I expect they will. I mean, it's really been a tradition for so long now. I mean, we're going back 60 years now since presidents really have been actively debating on TV.

I can't imagine there wouldn't be at least one. But look, stranger things have happened. Donald Trump has gone so far without one single debate and his popularity is seemed to only grow during that time.

So he may decide that although he thinks he can beat Joe Biden, what if there's three debates scheduled and he doesn't do a great first debate? Will he show up for the other two? I mean, there's a lot of scenarios we could play out here.

But the bottom line is I'm not sure it matters. I don't think you're going to vote for Trump or not vote for Trump based on whatever he says in a debate.

Main Street

I just don't think it's going to happen. What do you make of recent polling that suggests I'm thinking of a recent poll from NBC News that President Trump's lead over President Biden is expanding as we speak?

Dr. Michael Patrick Cullinane, DSU

So the polls, I don't think should ever be ignored. But I also think we're what are we, 11 months away or 10 months away from an election. A lot can happen.

I mean, we talk about October surprises four weeks before Election Day. You know, last the last two elections, we've had lots of surprises. I'm sure we're going to have more still.

One of the things that the polls don't show, even in swing states, is what independent voters and uncertain voters are going to do. And like all other campaigns and elections, those are the voters that swing behind the eventual winner. So when we start to see undecided voters saying that they are strongly coming out in favor of Trump or Biden, that's when I think we can start to have a little bit more confidence in these polls.

Main Street

Do you perceive that policy concerns will elevate themselves in a general election? Or will this general election be all about immigration and literally nothing else?

Dr. Michael Patrick Cullinane, DSU

I think immigration is going to be huge. I think there's going to be things like the culture wars, which are a basket of social issues that come up that they're going to be important. I think, unfortunately, some of the issues that I think are important or maybe you think are important won't be.

Social security is a major issue in the United States. The last time we had a major debate about Social Security was Bill Clinton's presidency. And we, you know, the nation basically saved Social Security for a generation.

We need to have that debate again. We also need to have a serious debate about taxes as Donald Trump's tax cuts are going to be phased out. Does the nation want to continue with the same low tax for high earners?

Or do we want to revisit that? Do we want to have a more progressive tax? And I think there's other issues around foreign policy that really need to be debated because these are going to be really the bedrock of the next American century, if there is one.

What do we do in the Middle East? What do we do with Russia's growing power? You know, Tucker Carlson has just interviewed Vladimir Putin.

We are right in the midst of a moment when the global power shift could be moving towards Russia and China. Do we want that to happen? I don't want that to happen.

But I mean, voters need to take that seriously. The two parties, the Democrats and Republicans, have very different views on the preponderance of American power in the world. But I try and stay as central as I can here, you know.

Main Street

Let me ask you this question. Before we move on to the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library, Dr. Cullinane, why hasn't or why didn't a Democrat challenger to President Biden rise to the top? Literally nobody has, in my in my opinion.

Why is that?

Dr. Michael Patrick Cullinane, DSU

I think the best explanation for that is unseating a sitting president is darn near impossible. But in addition to that, I think Joe Biden has managed to stay in the middle of his party. I think he is a LBJ progressive, LBJ FDR progressive, but he's not what we would see today is like a Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez progressive.

You know, he's a fairly centrist figure even within his own party. And I think he's trying to bring both of those sides together as much as he could. We saw him recently in Michigan talking to Arab-American, an Arab-American conference in Michigan, trying to say, you know, we're we're working to make sure Israel gets out of Gaza.

And in the same breath, he's trying to support his pro-Israeli friends in the party. So it's a very fine line that he's treading. And I think that is keeping him in the mainstream for the moment.

But again, anything can happen. And I think that's worth saying with two candidates that are as elderly as both of they are. It means that, you know, whether it's ill health or whether it's a change to the political winds, which can happen, as you know, very quickly, either Trump or Joe Biden could be replaced by another candidate.

Main Street

Quick question about what would happen between a general election and inauguration. What would happen if either President Trump or President Biden were the presumptive nominee and then they passed away? It's a good question.

Dr. Michael Patrick Cullinane, DSU

Technically, it depends on when people are sworn in. But if the president-elect dies, then the president would presumably remain until that's all hammered out. But because it would be the first time that ever happened, there would be a real constitutional crisis because the vice president would presumably, the vice president-elect would presumably be sworn into office and then assume the office of the presidency.

But because that's never happened, we don't have the roadmap that's quite so clear. And what we saw last year, even with the disputes over the electors in the Electoral College, is that if something is not tested, it means that it's fair game for dispute. And we saw that in the last election in 2020.

And if something as dramatic as that were to happen, I think we would see many challenges to who is viably the next president.

Main Street

Let's hope that does not happen. Fingers crossed. I agree.

Give us an update in our waning moments here of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library from your perspective, Dr. Michael Patrick Cullinane, professor of history at Dickinson State University. What's new? And again, remind us of your role in in planning and thought relative to the library.

Dr. Michael Patrick Cullinane, DSU

So I have an infinitesimally small role within the I help the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library work on design and development and curation of the interior of the museum. So I work with their staff on consulting about objects, documents, the the layout and look of the space. But they have an amazing staff that do all this already.

So I'm only adding what little weight I can and whatever expertise I can to that. I mean, what they have going on at the moment is really remarkable. So obviously they broke ground in the summer of 2023.

We're now at the stage where cement is starting to firm up. You know, the the landscape is starting to look more like a foundation. And, you know, the things that they promised around, say, what grasses and native species are going to be reintroduced or saved in the area.

That's all coming into fruition at the moment. So, I mean, they've got this wonderful plan of action and it's it's it's being worked through methodically. And we're at the stage now where the building itself is taking shape.

The design and development of the interior is still conceptually coming together. And ultimately, you know, this is the most exciting project that I think Western North Dakota has seen, definitely in terms of history and presidential history ever.

Main Street

Give us a sense of the community impact. Governor Burgum talked about it in his State of the State address for sure. Do we all realize really what this will mean to Western North Dakota yet?

Dr. Michael Patrick Cullinane, DSU

I don't think so. No, it's hard to understand what it's going to be for tourism, for culture, for for bringing people to North Dakota, you know, to give talks or whatever it might be until it's there. And I say that because as someone who studied the the erection of Mount Rushmore, the carving of Mount Rushmore, it was people like Dwayne Johnson and Gooson Borglum, the sculptor and the sort of the booster of of Mount Rushmore, who said this is going to bring millions of people to the state of South Dakota.

And it did. But if you were to tell South Dakotans that back in the 1920s and 30s, they would have said, you're crazy. No one's going to come to see a rock with somebody's faces on it.

Right. So I think that the TR Presidential Library is going to have as much appeal to Americans. I mean, obviously, the National Park is already there and that brings people in.

But this is only going to, I think, further invigorate Western North Dakota in the minds of the rest of America. And for me, you know, South Dakota for a long time was an undervisited state. North Dakota, I think, is undervisited now, too.

I think the library helps bring millions of people to the state.

Main Street

I think it'll be exciting. Dr. Michael Patrick Cullinane, on this President's Day holiday, we sure appreciate you're joining us. He's a professor of history, Loman Walton Endowed Chair of Theodore Roosevelt Studies at Dickinson State University.

It's always a pleasure. In this election year, I'm sure we'll get a chance to visit again. Thank you for joining us.

Thanks, Greg. See you soon. Back with us is Steve Peck.

Steve, after we had visited with Dr. Cullinane, the nation learned then of a report, a special counsel report that has come out, now has been absorbed by the country, all of us for a week, that suggested President Joe Biden is suffering from memory lapses and just painted a very stark picture of a frail old man. In historical terms, Stephen, what have you thought about relative to this moment in history?

Steve Peck, WyomingPBS

Well, I first say, of course, that the subject of that report was whether the president should be cited criminally for having some confidential classified documents in his possession afterwards. And that was found to be, charges were found to be unwarranted in that way. That the prosecutor then elaborated in his expressing these opinions about other things, I think is a controversial aspect of it.

I'm not here to defend Biden or not. The fact is, he is his age. That can't be walked back.

That's been known for a long time. His likely opponent in the fall is older than Biden was when he was running for president four years ago. Hillary Clinton was in her 70s.

John McCain was in his 70s. That's become a fact of life in a lot of elections now. I do think that the modern way of covering and following presidential elections means that this particular thing, this report likely will be forgotten in the coming six months.

Now, Biden will be six months older by then. And so that fact will remain. There's so many things that can happen between now and then that I think will have larger implications on this particular election.

Thinking back in history, we talked about FDR earlier. I wonder now, simply speaking, just objectively, how fairly he'd be treated in terms of his own disability. The man could not walk.

He was in a wheelchair and he was very carefully photographed. Apparently, there were many people at the time who didn't fully understand that. Eisenhower had a heart attack while in office twice and was greatly diminished, supposedly physically, by the end of his term.

Ronald Reagan, I think anyone would agree, who acknowledged some years later, was suffering from dementia. Some would say he was showing signs of that already. He'd already been elected.

So this is just a part of the game. I think certainly President Biden understood that this could happen if he were running for a second term. And how exactly that situation could be changed at this point, considering the dynamics of the race and where we are, is very unclear, I think, certainly to me and probably to everyone else as well.

So the specifics of this report, I think, will fade in memory. But the issues of both likely nominees this year connected to the certainty, the fact of their status in life, their stages of life, will continue.

Main Street

On this President's Day, Steve Peck, my friend, former colleague and the current senior public affairs producer at Wyoming PBS. Steve, thanks for joining us.

Steve Peck, WyomingPBS

Well, Craig, this is, as you've probably remembered and listeners can hear, one of my favorite things to talk about. So I sure appreciate the opportunity. Thank you.

NOTE: AI tools were used to generate this transcript. The official record of the show is the audio broadcast.