October 13, 2012
Some colleagues and I were traveling to Caldwell College recently, and just before we turned off Bloomfield Avenue onto the campus, I pointed out a cottage across the street. “That’s the birthplace of Grover Cleveland,” I said. Someone in the car might have grunted — I’m not sure — but otherwise there was no reaction.
How could this be? Cleveland was the only president born in New Jersey and one of only two who died here. But we get to count him twice, because he was both the 22nd and 24th presidents. And nobody cares?
OK, he wasn’t Mr. Glamor — no Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, or either of the Roosevelts. In fact, he was part of that lineup of boring personalities from Rutherford B. Hayes to William McKinley. Even his non-consecutive terms aren’t enough to make his name a household word, or even vaguely familiar.
Well, my colleagues might disregard Cleveland, but he gets a lot of attention in Kenneth C. Davis’s new book, Don’t Know Much about the American Presidents. Davis reports that Cleveland was only four years old when his family moved to New York and that he didn’t return to New Jersey until after he had retired from the presidency.
Cleveland, a former mayor of Buffalo and governor of New York, was president during a period of violent labor strife in both of his terms and near economic calamity in his second. It the era of robber barons, rampant corruption in business and politics. The United States was still on the gold standard at that time and nearly ran out of reserves before Cleveland struck a deal in which J.P. Morgan, the Rothschilds and other financial interests bought American bonds, in several sales, to replenish the gold and stabilize what was then largely a free-market economy.
Davis gives final grades to most of the presidents he writes about, sparing those who died too soon after taking office and Barack Obama, who hasn’t yet served a whole term. Cleveland gets a B, not because he was a visionary or an inspiring leader, but because he was scrupulously honest and because he was the first president since the ill-starred Andrew Johnson to stand up to Congress and restore at least some of the prestige and power the presidency had lost after the murder of Abraham Lincoln.
Davis provides some context for his discussions of the 44 presidential administrations with an opening section on how the presidency, more or less as we know it, was created. He points out that the title “president of the United States in Congress assembled” was conferred on 14 men — including John Hancock, who held the title twice — before the election of George Washington as the more succinctly named “president of the United States.” The first of these was Peyton Randolph of Virginia, who presided over the Continental Congress in 1774. Davis explains that the failures of the Articles of Confederation made it clear to many American leaders that the government needed a strong executive presence, but determining what that executive should consist of was problematic. There was no model to base it on, and many Americans were wary of a strong executive because they feared abuse of power and the possibility of the kind of hereditary succession they had left behind in Great Britain. Indeed, he writes, one of the reasons Washington was a favorite to take on the newly fashioned presidency was that he had no heirs. Davis follows his presidential profiles with a section in which he discusses what the office has become and what should be done with it.
With its compact chapters and its career highlights and timelines, this book provides a means of scanning the whole sweep of American history from the adoption of the Constitution of 1787 to the present. The book also reminds us of the wide range of personalities who have occupied the presidency during that period, from the brooding and self-sacrificing Lincoln, whose murder plunged even some of his bitterest enemies into despair, to the handsome but hapless Franklin Pierce, whose spineless failure to deal with the crisis that led to the Civil War left him in such disrepute that he was the only former president whose death was not officially mourned.
President Barack Obama’s foray into New Jersey and New York yesterday certainly was inspired at least in part by the Congressional elections coming up in November. The president obviously was trying to bolster his own party — which clearly is in political trouble along with Obama himself — and he was trying to undermine the Republican Party by accusing it of obstructionism with respect to such things as unemployment benefits. This kind of politicking is routine for modern presidents, although one has to wonder what effect it has in the 21st century, when the public is supersaturated with political messages.
Obama probably wasn’t conscious of it, but when he set off from Washington yesterday, he was emulating what, for him, was an unlikely model — namely, Andrew Johnson, the 17th president of these United States.
Johnson, who was Obama’s philosophical opposite in many ways, was the first president to conduct a campaign trip of that kind, but he did it to a fare-thee-well and with disastrous results that affected governance in the United States for decades. The short version of the story is that Johnson — a Democrat who had been elected vice president on a fusion ticket with the Republican Abraham Lincoln — abruptly succeeded to the presidency just as the Civil War was ending. He and the Republican majority in Congress were at odds over management of the defeated Confederate states and the former slaves and their disagreements degraded into an ugly struggle. There is no telling how Lincoln, with all of his political acumen, would have fared if he had survived to work things out with Congress on his own, but his death elevated the blunt and stubborn Johnson to the presidency under circumstances that he did not have the temperament to handle.
In an effort to uphold Democratic candidates for Congress and attract support from moderate Republicans, Johnson embarked in the summer of 1866 on an unprecedented 18-day grand tour — a “swing around the circle,” as he called it — that took him to 22 cities in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, and Kentucky, with brief stops in other spots. He traveled with a large and glittering entourage that included such Cabinet members as Secretary of State William Seward, and military officers including Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Gen. George Armstrong Custer, and Admiral David Farragut.
The trip went well as long as Johnson was in the friendly East, but things deteriorated when he reached Cleveland and started to encounter hostile audiences and exchanged insults with them as though he were still stumping for a legislative seat back in Tennessee. He opened himself to criticism and ridicule and did more damage than good for his objectives. The Republicans swept the Congressional elections, gaining a majority large enough to take control of the process of Reconstruction with no fear of presidential interference. In addition, as relations between Johnson and Congress became even worse, the House of Representatives impeached the president and included in the charges against him the intemperate speeches he made during the campaign tour. The legislative momentum was so great that the presidency was reduced in power and importance until the end of the 19th century.
Johnson was an admirable American in many respects, but at the end of the Civil War he was the Wrong Man at the Wrong Time, if ever there was one. He was acquitted of the impeachment charges, which were absurd on the face of it, and he eventually was reelected to the Senate — the same one that had tried him — where he was greeted with flowers and applause. We Americans are nothing if not forgiving. And although his campaign trip was a failure, it is a testament to his grit and self-confidence that he attempted it at all.
June 27, 2010
The recent decision by President Obama to remove Gen. Stanley McChrystal from his command in Afghanistan in favor of Gen. David Petraeus prompted a lot of people to reflect on the analogous event involving President Truman and Gen. Douglas McArthur. My mind reached back further, however, because I happened to be reading Lincoln and McClellan, a recent book by John C. Waugh about another president and general whose relationship came to grief.
Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan is remembered today mostly for his reticence on the battlefield and for the effect that had on Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln finally removed the general from command of the Army of the Potomac after the carnage at Antietam. It’s hard to say that there was a winner or loser in that awful battle, but Lincoln’s frustration was that McClellan let Robert E. Lee and his army slip away without pursuit — this after McClellan had repeatedly resisted Lincoln’s urgings to attack or pursue the enemy.
In a way, McClellan, like so many of his contemporaries, was one more victim of the Civil War. He was a charismatic and erudite man who was well trained at West Point — but not as a fighter. McClellan had served in the Mexican War and had left the army for a lucrative executive position with a railroad, but he returned to arms when secession made war inevitable.
Lincoln called on McClellan after the disaster of First Bull Run, and McClellan used his considerable skill to, in effect, create the Army of the Potomac and mold it into a formidable fighting force. His personal qualities endeared him to the troops, and that sentiment spilled over to the Northern public. McClellan was lionized as a new Napoleon. He believed his own publicity, but he fell short of its promise. Among his errors were that he was never quite satisfied with the readiness of his army and that he wildly overestimated the size of his enemy with the result that he ended up being embarrassed by much smaller forces than his own.
Although McClellan ran for president in 1864 and in later life served as governor of New Jersey and campaigned for Democratic presidential candidates Winfield Scott and Grover Cleveland, he hated politics and despised politicians.
He resented any interference in military affairs by civilian authorities, and that put him on a collision course with Lincoln who, for better or for worse, had his own ideas about strategy and let the general know about them. There were bitter exchanges between McClellan and both Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who was something of a troublemaker in his own right.
This condition was complicated by the fact that McClellan came from an elite Philadelphia family and regarded people with humbler pedigrees as his social and intellectual inferiors — and that included, one might say especially, Abraham Lincoln. In letters to his wife, Ellen Marcy McClellan, the general dismissed Lincoln as “an idiot” and “a gorilla.” This was consistent with a pattern in McClellan’s life in which he usually regarded his superiors as incompetent.
Like many or maybe most northerners, McClellan was not concerned about the institution of slavery or about the slaves themselves, and he insisted that they were not a factor in the war. He maintained that the war should be conducted with the least possible impact of southern institutions and property – and he pointedly included slavery and slaves in that philosophy. As as result, he was scandalized when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and the fact that Lincoln insisted that the proclamation was a war measure didn’t mitigate McClellan’s disgust.
McClellan has often been brushed off as an almost comical figure who dithered while Lincoln fumed, but passing easy judgment on the men and women who lived through and participated in the war and the events surrounding it is a disservice to them. That’s why I appreciate books like this one, in which John Waugh presents a balanced view of the life and career of a complicated man caught up in a complicated epoch.
November 25, 2009
And so, Dan Neil, writing in the Los Angeles Times, laces into National Geographic, of all things, for a faux pas of its own. Obama has taken lumps for imprecise use of the first-person singular personal pronoun — though heaven knows he gets enough practice — but with National Geographic the issue is adverbial.
To be specific, Neil points out that the National Geographic Channel has been running a spot announcement designed to reinforce “the brand” with largely vacant language. One gets the impression that Neil could live with the vacuous message if only it didn’t lead up to this tag line: “Live curious!”
In other words, friends, enrich your existence by being curious — but you got that the first time. How much of a tempest this is depends on the size of your teapot, but it does call to mind the campaign that those of a certain age will remember: “Winston Tastes Good Like a Cigarette Should.” This slogan was used by Winston from 1954 until 1972, and its longevity had everything in the world to do with its effectiveness. English teachers and grammarians bristled and fumed, perhaps enlightening some who would have been unaware that a phrase in such a comparative construction must be introduced by “as,” not “like.” At the same time, the sticklers succeeded in calling even more attention to the rapidly growing cigarette brand.
At a certain point, Winston responded to the criticism with a new slogan: “What do you want, good grammar or good taste?” Presumably, “none of the above” was not an option.
For Dan Neil’s column, click HERE.
October 9, 2009
Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and author, made some of the more salient points I’ve heard today about the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Peace to President Barack Obama. Wiesel was interviewed by Steve Inskeep on National Public Radio. The core of the interview, from the NPR web page, was as follows:
Mr. WIESEL: I’ll tell you. First of all, it’s strange for me to think of him now as my fellow Nobel laureate. … After all, he’s the president of the United States. But at the same time, seriously, he made history by allowing the American people to correct its own old racial injustices. After all, he’s the first black person to have been elected to that high office, and in doing so he did bring hope and dignity to the fact, to the very position. And therefore I think he gave something to the Nobel Prize.
INSKEEP: He added to the Nobel Prize rather than the other way around.
Mr. WIESEL: It goes both ways. But in this case, really, for the president of the United States, a sitting president, who is nine months in office, it’s true that he tries and tries – I’m sure he tries in many areas to do the right thing, and he will succeed, but in this case the prize will add or increase his moral authority.
INSKEEP: Moral authority. Well, let’s talk about that. Because this is a president who has begun many efforts around the world and the Nobel committee cited them, from reducing the threat of nuclear weapons to reducing nuclear arms stockpiles, efforts to bring peace in different parts of the world. But it’s been widely noted this morning that although many efforts have begun, none have really been concluded. Do you think it will make a big difference in those efforts that the peace prize goes to the president?
Mr. WIESEL: First of all, I think he is being recognized for his efforts and his beginnings, as you say. But I am a person who loves beginnings, I love beginnings. The mystery of beginnings is part of Jewish mysticism. And in this case, in politics, of course, because it’s also – it’s also politics – it is a good thing, it’s a promise. The Nobel committee says that he represents a promise and I’m sure that he will try to fulfill it.
INSKEEP: And they do say that they want to encourage him on his way. Is that normal for the Nobel Prize to be used to encourage rather than just reward people?
Mr. WIESEL: Not really. But the Nobel Prize committee has its own rules, and they may decide anything they want. They may decide that encouragement is part of the experiment.
September 21, 2009
The Obama administration’s meddling in New York state politics is another example of tinkering with the system for expediency’s sake. Michael Bloomberg ignored the preference twice expressed by city voters and managed to get the term limit set aside and Democrats — with some pushing from the White House — are trying to change the law in Massachusetts to allow the governor to appoint a place-keeper for Ted Kennedy’s vacant chair. Now, according to the New York Times, the president’s people are urging the unpopular David Paterson not to run for reelection as governor of New York, apparently on the theory that his presence in the race would be bad for Democratic congressional candidates. How it would be worse than Jon Corzine’s presence on the New Jersey ticket, I am not aware.
There is a process for choosing candidates for governor, and the process belongs to the state parties and the voters, not to the White House. This kind of hubris doesn’t help gain support for national policy initiatives,
September 16, 2009
Well, the least that can be said of Joe Wilson is that he didn’t know what he would be unleashing when he pulled the cork out of that bottle — the bottle being his indiscreet mouth.
Not only has he been accused of racism for his heckling of President Obama from the floor of the House of Representatives, but he has been branded as a symbol of a latent racism far bigger than he. As though Congress weren’t already in a state of self-paralyzing partisanship, it was divided even more deeply by the vote to reprimand Wilson. Meanwhile the latter-day No-Nothings have adopted him as their hero. Can a Wilson-Palen ticket be far behind?
The mind races back to the first quarter of the 19th century — well, mine does, at least.
William H. Crawford of Georgia, the secretary of the treasury, is at the White House demanding to know what President James Monroe intends to do about a list of political appointments Crawford has recommended.
“That,” Monroe — perhaps injudiciously — tells Crawford, “is none of your damned business.” To which provocation Crawford responds by lunging at Monroe with a cane, calling him “you infernal scoundrel.” Monroe goes to the fireplace and grabs a poker to defend himself, and the secretary of the treasury is forcibly removed from the executive mansion, apologizing on the way out.
“You lie!” “You infernal scoundrel.”
At least Crawford had some style.
July 31, 2009
Back in the days when I was somebody, I had lunch a couple of times at the White House. Well, in the interest of full disclosure I should admit that I had lunch at the White House precisely because I was nobody. I don’t know if this is still true, but for a couple of administrations anyway the White House would invite “out-of-town” editors to stop in for a day — “out of town” editors meaning those whose publications were not significant enough to have regular representation in the capital.
One of my visits occurred during the Reagan administration. It consisted of a series of individual briefings by the top cabinet members and by George H. W. Bush, who was then vice president. I took some great pictures of Jeane Kirkpatrick, giving no thought to what I would do with them.
At lunch time, we out-of-towners were ushered into the East Room, which had been done up for a banquet. A Marine chamber group played and we lunchers were served by the liveried staff as though we … well, as though we were somebody. There were other guests there — no doubt a little more influential than any of us — and Ronald Reagan gave a talk. That was our contact with the president.
My first visit was during the Carter administration. There were morning briefings similar to those in the Reagan era and a discussion in the Cabinet Room in which we and Jimmy Carter were the only participants. Between the briefings and the meeting with the president, we were ushered into a large mundane business office whose occupants apparently had been shooed away. On one of the desks were trays of sandwiches and canned soda. This, we were told, was “a Carter lunch.” Presumably there were messages in all this about access to the president and about care for the public’s money.
I see by the papers that the Obama administration has taken the second part of that message a little further and is requiring some visitors, and even some staff members, to pay for what they eat when they are chatting with his excellency. Calvin Coolidge would have liked that.
The story, from the Christian Science Monitor, is at this link:
By turning a dispute that began and belonged in Cambridge into the latest wave of media excess, how has President Obama helped matters? Instead of a serious discussion about the status and condition of black men in the United States, the media have spent the past day falling over themselves in their attempts to find the most clever angle to the White House beer party. Is the president concerned about what has been done to black men in this country since they were sold out in the Compromise of 1877, or is he concerned about restoring the image he dented by butting into the Cambridge issue in the first place? Just as the president’s response to a reporter’s question should have been, “I do not wish to interfere in a local matter — particularly because it involves a personal friend,” the White House answer to questions about what brand of beer would be consumed should have been, “That is not important.” But, of course, the president himself had set the stage for Bud Light to temporarily steal the spotlight from the Michael Jackson case by making a transparent attempt to convert the Cambridge matter into a cracker-barrel jaw session that might make everybody feel better.
Here’s an interesting op-ed, from the New York Times, on the subject of black men in America: