The Mountaintop: An Alternate '88 TLIAW

JOHN LEWIS (1989-1997)


    To say that no one expected John Lewis to be President would be an overstatement. Any Vice Presidential candidate is a potential President, and anyone who actually becomes Vice President is even more of one. But no one expected Lewis to become President quite so soon, and for many Americans, the prospect of a sharecropper’s son born in the shadow of Jim Crow, an activist who preached nonviolence but also militant confrontation with the forces of racial apartheid, rising to lead the country was unfathomable. Along with the end of the Cold War, this reaction would define Lewis’ presidency, even as he sought to rise above it and lead the country forward.

    On the evening of February 3, 1989, Lewis was chairing a meeting of the new President's economic-policy task force. He and Biden had grown close on the campaign trail, and in the then-emerging tradition, the Vice President was generally tasked with substantive responsibilities beyond being a backstop to the Presidency. After being told that the President had fallen ill, the Vice President was rushed to a secure location, and at 9:07 PM, John Lewis was sworn in as the 42nd President of the United States.

    Lewis’ first priority was to restore calm to a shocked nation and ensure the continuity of government. The Biden administration had already vetted Ohio Senator John Glenn to serve as Secretary of Defense in the new administration, and Lewis tapped the aging war hero, former astronaut, and long-time Senator as his Vice President. Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher returned to lead the Pentagon, while Lewis kept most of Biden’s remaining cabinet selections, seeking to not rock the boat too much in the early days of his unexpected presidency. Rhode Island Senator Claiborne Pell became Secretary of State and New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan became Secretary of the Treasury, while Biden’s friend and Delaware Governor (and Republican) Mike Castle rounded out the “Big Four” as Attorney General.

    From there, though, Lewis’ vision of the Presidency began to diverge from his ill-fated running mate’s. While Biden had run to the center—and perhaps more importantly, away from an aggressive policy agenda in favor of promises of generational change—Lewis had a grander vision of progress, and Democrats’ overwhelming Congressional majorities gave him room to maneuver. Attuned to his history as a civil rights leader, and with bipartisan support for the measures, Congress passed three major pieces of civil rights legislation in 1989: the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and the Civil Rights Act of 1989, which amended the CRA to make it easier for victims of discrimination to seek redress through the courts. A bipartisan working group led by EPA Administrator Thomas Jorling drafted a successful set of amendments to the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, adding provisions to address acid rain, nonpoint-source water pollution, ozone depletion, greenhouse gas emissions, and the worsening “old plant problem” through new regulatory powers, research funding, and refurbishment assistance.

    Lewis’ first signature piece of legislation was the Strengthening American Families Act (SAFA). With the party struggling to unify around a single health reform plan, Lewis forged forward with a package combining a variety of liberal social policies unified by their status as family benefits. SAFA substantially expanded the child and earned-income tax credits, appropriated billions for state and local governments to experiment with new child care programs and expand existing ones, and mandated a minimum of ten days’ of annual paid leave for full-time employees, plus an additional twenty-six weeks of unpaid leave for individuals suffering from an illness, caring for a sick family member, or welcoming a new child. A coalition of business interests and religious conservatives sought to derail the bill, with Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr. declaring that it was an “all-out assault on the American family,” but despite this pressure, the bill passed with comfortable majorities on November 9, 1989. Other legislation previously held up by a Republican president was also passed, such as the Brady Gun Violence Prevention Act.

    The second session of the 101st Congress began on January 23, 1990, and was initially dominated by a mad dash towards a health-care reform bill. The Lewis administration had been divided on the issue all through 1989, with administration moderates like Moynihan and Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis Wade Sullivan advocating for incremental steps, while others called for a more aggressive approach. Lewis tapped former Surgeon General Julius B. Richmond to chair a working group to draw up a plan, but disputes over which Congressional committees would have ownership of any resulting bill, proximity to the midterms, a worsening economy and a looming Supreme Court fight in the Senate saw Speaker Tom Foley table the legislation in mid-June. Instead, Congress negotiated and passed a stimulus bill to address the looming recession, with billions of dollars in federal infrastructure spending as well as aid to state and local governments bringing the country out of recession by December.

    A clearer success of Lewis’ first term was his appointment of two Supreme Court judges. Judge Abner Mikva of the D.C. Circuit was appointed to fill William Brennan’s seat, with the aged justice retiring after the end of the Supreme Court’s 1989 summer term. The more controversial appointment came the next year. Justice Thurgood Marshall was in failing health, and opted to retire in March 1990. Lewis nominated Judge Constance Baker Motley of the Southern District of New York as his replacement. Baker Motley had served as counsel to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and then had a career in New York politics before being appointed to the prestigious Southern District, where she developed a reputation as a staunch progressive. Attacking her credentials and sometimes-controversial rulings, an alliance of conservative Democrats and Republicans sought to sink her nomination, and while novice Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy shepherded her through the process as smoothly as he could, only the personal lobbying from President Lewis and a strong hand from Majority Leader George Mitchell saw Baker Motley confirmed.

    The Supreme Court fight was just more evidence of a rising reaction from an emboldened right. The first warning signs came in Rhode Island, where a low-turnout special election saw former Providence Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci narrowly elected to the Senate to fill Pell’s seat. Later that year, Rep. Stanford Parris won an upset in the Virginia Republican gubernatorial primary with a sharp tack to the right, and subsequently beat Lieutenant Governor L. Douglas Wilder by nearly five points in a campaign characterized by ugly race-baiting by Parris. Protests mobilized by the Moral Majority and new groups like the American Patriots Council greeted members of Congress returning home to spend time in their districts, protesting tax increases and the Lewis administration. The earliest signs of a more extreme reaction were also visible to those paying attention to the fever swamps of the far right.


    The 1990 midterms saw significant Republican gains, with Democrats only narrowly hanging onto their majority in the House. Democrats did better in the Senate, losing a net of only three seats since the 1988 elections, although several other incumbents had tighter-that-expected races. Losses in Louisiana, Ohio, and New Jersey, and Cianci’s election to a full term in Rhode Island, were counterbalanced by a surprise victory in North Carolina. There, Sen. Jesse Helms was caught on a “hot mic” after a TV interview using a racial slur to describe his opponent, former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt. This, combined with his increasingly unbalanced demeanor, saw Helms lose by only 761 votes. Democrats also did poorly in gubernatorial races, with Republicans flipping or hanging onto competitive races across the country. More ominously, in a low-turnout runoff election, Republican gubernatorial nominee David Duke narrowly outpaced former Governor Edwin Edwards to win the Louisiana governor’s mansion the next year.

    With a narrow Democratic House majority reliant on a swath of Southern conservatives, comprehensive health care reform was off the table during the 102nd Congress, but some incremental reforms were passed, including increased funding for community health centers and a universal mandate (and money to match) to cover all children through Medicaid. The bipartisan Religious Freedom Restoration Act sailed through Congress as well. There was movement on a bill to address rising crime, but pressure from the White House—opposed to some of the bill’s more punitive provisions and its lack of funds to address root causes of crime—kept the bill from leaving House committees.

    The remainder of Lewis’ first term was focused on the range of foreign policy crises that had dominated the administration’s attention since its beginning. While Biden was a longtime denizen of Washington foreign policy circles, Lewis was a relative newcomer, albeit one with strong moral convictions concerning democracy and human rights. The first two years of Lewis’ presidency saw a wave of revolutions across the Soviet bloc, with Communists governments in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania collapsing or reforming in the face of mass protest. Lewis was seen among dissidents in the East as both an ally and a potential future for their movements, and while he strongly condemned Communist repression (famously comparing it to the tear gas and batons he had faced as a SNCC leader), he also entered into sensitive negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev to ensure that the uprisings didn’t lead to a larger conflict. With former U.N. Ambassador and Lewis ally Andrew Young serving as an informal back-channel along with more formal contacts, Soviet forces withdrew, and the so-called “Two-Plus-Four Treaty” saw the peaceful reunification of Germany

    While historians’ attention has often focused on the dramatic events in Europe, with praise for Lewis’ steady and conscientious leadership, there were significant events elsewhere too. After Panama’s de-facto dictator Manuel Noriega annulled the country’s May 1989 elections, an October military coup toppled him and handed power to the duly-elected opposition leader Guillermo Endara. After the violent suppression of protests in Beijing, Lewis broke off military ties with the People’s Republic of China, imposed sanctions on senior officials, and paused efforts at full normalization and incorporation of the Chinese Communist regime into the international order. In the Middle East, war was narrowly avoided in the face of Iraqi sabre-rattling, with the Saudi and Kuwaiti governments agreeing to refinance large amounts of Iraq’s debt in exchange for new U.S. weapons sales and Iraqi recognition of Saudi and Kuwaiti border claims. The 1991 Madrid Conference provided more symbolic than substantive progress in advancing a resolution to the long-running Arab-Israeli conflict, but would bear real fruit in subsequent years.

    The 1992 presidential election was hotly contested by more than the Republican and Democratic parties. Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, the 1998 runner-up to George Bush, initially looked poised to sew up the primary early, but soon faced challenges from both his left and right. Indiana Senator and vice presidential nominee Dan Quayle emerged briefly as Dole’s main challenger, but concerns about his viability sank him after a series of gaffes, including memorably calling Russia’s new president “Boris Feltstein” at an Iowa candidate forum. Senator Phil Gramm of Texas and former Nevada Senator Paul Laxalt ran as doctrinaire Reagan Republicans. Representative Jack Kemp, who had returned to the House in the 1990 wave, ran on anti-tax sentiment combined with a bipartisan voting record on civil rights. Former White House communications director Pat Buchanan ran as a far-right hardliner, focusing on “culture war” issues that animated the Republican base but embracing economic protectionism as well. The primary dragged on through April, with early victories by Pat Buchanan eventually outweighed by Dole’s overwhelming financial advantage and consolidation around his candidacy by the party’s power brokers. Dole arrived at the Republican National Convention as the presumptive with an outright majority of delegates, but a party deeply fractured by policy differences and a sharply negative primary campaign. Dole attempted to unify the party by selecting arch-conservative former Alabama Senator Jeremiah Denton as his running mate, but Buchanan refused to support Dole. Instead, he endorsed billionaire Ross Perot’s independent candidacy along with California Representative Bob Dornan, who had dropped out of the presidential race and endorsed Buchanam after Iowa, and who now became Perot’s running mate.

    The general election was fiercely fought. Both Dole and Perot attacked Lewis as a tax-and-spend liberal who was undermining the American economy, bungling the country’s foreign affairs, and letting crime run rampant. Perot in particular depicted the United States as under siege by dark forces within and without, while Dole ran a more staid campaign that echoed Reagan. While their attacks resonated with large swathes of the electorate, with Perot and Dole both running to the right, Lewis could win voters who might not have been happy with the country’s direction, but weren’t prepared to take a chance on a neophyte businessman or settle for an austere charisma vacuum. On Election Night, Lewis won the electoral college by a sweeping margin with only a plurality of the popular vote: conversely, Perot, coming in strong third place, won only three states. Downballot, Democrats grew their margin slightly in the House and netted three seats in the Senate, losing Terry Sanford in North Carolina but gaining seats in California, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and New York.

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    Lewis’ second term was defined by the beginning of the United States’ modern struggle with domestic terrorism. The first few years of Lewis’ presidency had led to rapid growth among existing white supremacist groups and the emergence of new ones, with a range of strategic approaches. Groups like the Council of Conservative Citizens, for instance, officially disclaimed ties to violent groups and entered the electoral arena, mobilizing members to campaign for like-minded candidates (such as Louisiana Governor David Duke) and lobbying in state capitals. Conversely, groups like the various Ku Klux Klan revival chapters, Christian Identity sects, and neo-Nazi groups like the Aryan Nations and the Order engaged in paramilitary mobilization. Federal law enforcement as a whole did not adequately address the growing threat, with many officers hostile to the priorities of the Lewis administration and internecine fighting between agencies over jurisdiction and resources.

    All of this changed on February 1, 1993. That morning, simultaneously detonated car bombs tore their way through the Federal Reserve Bank buildings in St. Louis and Dallas, killing more than 300 people. In the subsequent days, attempted bombings were stopped outside the Atlanta Fed and the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Anonymous communiques issued by the group responsible, calling themselves the “White Freedom Front,” proclaimed that the so-called “Day of the Noose” had come and that white Americans should revolt. Although the white nationalists’ desired mass uprising didn’t occur, a wave of domestic terrorism resulted nonetheless. While the perpetrators of the February 1 bombings would eventually be caught, the movement’s disparate cell structure made completely suppressing their activities nearly impossible. Federal and state law enforcement responded with investigations and arrests, but many confrontations with white nationalist groups turned violent. With both rising crime in American cities and the surge in domestic terrorism, 1993 was the most violent year in modern American history.

    In response to both problems, Congress and the White House pursued a combined strategy. 1993’s Violent Crime Control and Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act—also known as the “crime bill”—was an omnibus law with numerous provisions. The core of the bill provided substantial new sums to state and local police departments to hire new officers, purchase equipment, and train in modern policing techniques, while conditioning the grants on police departments implementing policies to counter extremist infiltration of local law enforcement. On the federal level, the creation of the Domestic Intelligence and Security Administration placed all federal law enforcement agencies other than the FBI under a single Cabinet-level organizational roof, and gave them expansive new powers to engage in domestic surveillance of extremist groups and organized-crime networks. Bill Weld, Governor of Massachusetts and former head of DOJ’s Criminal Division, became DISA's first Administrator. The law also banned the sale of most assault weapons and added new classes of individuals banned from possessing firearms at all, added new federal hate, sex, and gang-related crimes, authorized an expansion of the death penalty, and required states to establish registries for sex offenders by October 1996. The crime bill would not appreciably reduce levels of violence, which were already declining by 1995, but its reforms would have long-term effects on American policing and the structure of the federal government.

    Democrats continued to pursue their other policy priorities during the third quarter of Lewis’ term, although the 1994 elections finally broke Democrats’ hold on the House, making further substantive legislation possible and leading to a nearly month-long government shutdown in the autumn of 1995. A second bite at the healthcare apple produced bipartisan legislation, the Jeffords-Mikulski Act, which enhanced subsidies for employers who provided health insurance and introduced universal catastrophic health insurance coverage under the Emergency Health Insurance Program. Lewis also appointed Judges Ruth Bader Ginsberg and William Albert Norris to replace Justices Byron White and Harry Blackmun, respectively.

    Internationally, the Lewis administration's efforts were vital in advancing the negotiated end of South Africa's apartheid regime in 1993, something which Lewis frequently referred to as one of the brightest moments of his presidency. Similarly, in the Middle East, Israel and the PLO signed the second Oslo Accord. While the attempted assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and other actions by both the Israeli right and rejectionist Palestinian groups threatened to derail the process, Rabin’s survival and crushing victory in the 1996 parliamentary elections kept the peace process on track. However, Lewis also entered the U.S. military into new conflicts. American troops were deployed to Rwanda in June 1994 in response to a wave of ethnic violence: 23 service members were killed and dozens more wounded as the 82nd and 101st Airborne stormed Kigali to depose the junta which had formed in the wake of President Juvénal Habyarimana’s assassination, but a transitional government under Rwandan Chief Justice Joseph Kavaruganda was established and American troops had mostly returned home by Christmas 1994. NATO intervention in Yugoslavia proved to be a longer deployment, with American troops responding to genocidal actions by Bosnian Serb and Croat paramilitaries in the region’s running series of civil conflicts. While the Shreveport Accords formally ended the Bosnian War in January 1996, American engagement in the Balkans would, disastrously, be left for the next president to resolve.

    Today, while some on the left have criticized Lewis’ moderation while in office and the country’s first Black president remains a bête noire for the further reaches of the right, Lewis is broadly considered to be one of the country’s best presidents. While his administration had its share of scandals, none ever touched the President himself. Some prominent scholars have compared him to Harry Truman, who was unpopular at his departure but has gained in esteem since, although this significantly underplays Lewis’ historicity and legislative accomplishments. Lewis’ death from cancer in July 2020 led to a public outpouring of grief, as Americans remembered their former president, and perhaps wished that America could have been better than it was while he was president.