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.
March 30, 2012
There is a scene in a PBS documentary about Jack Paar that illustrates as well as anything why William Shakespeare would have loved Richard Nixon.
The scene comes from a 1963 episode of Paar’s groundbreaking talk show. Nixon, since leaving the vice presidency, had lost elections for president and for governor of California, but for a two-time loser, he was in a good mood — one might say light-hearted, a term not often associated with RMN.
Paar reminds the audience of something that was widely known at the time, namely that Nixon was a piano player. Paar also explained, to Nixon’s obvious amusement, that Nixon had also written some music for the piano and that his wife had made recordings of him playing his own tunes.
Paar said that bandleader Jose Meles had used one of those recordings to write an arrangement to back up one of Nixon’s compositions, and Paar asked Nixon to take to the keyboard.
Before complying, Nixon noted that Paar had asked earlier about Nixon’s political ambition. “If last November didn’t finish it, this will,” Nixon said, “because — believe me — the Republicans don’t want another piano player in the White House,” a reference to Harry S. Truman whose musical virtuosity was about on the same level as Nixon’s.
When I saw this incident on a PBS documentary about Paar, I thought about what a complex creature a human being is, and I thought about that again when I read Don Fulsom’s book, Nixon’s Darkest Secrets. Considering the depth and breadth of Nixon’s corruption and paranoia, I wouldn’t have thought it possible for a writer to do a hatchet job on the old trickster, but Don Fulsom has managed it.
On paper, at least, Fulsom has some credentials to be writing about this subject. He covered the White House and was Washington bureau chief for United Press International, which once upon a time was a viable news agency. Having been a journalist myself for more than 40 years, I would have expected a writer with Fulsom’s resumé, producing a book this long after Nixon’s death, to provide some insight into the whole man. As deeply immersed in muck as he was, after all, Nixon didn’t spend his whole time drinking himself blotto, assaulting people who annoyed him, beating his wife, raking in dough through his bag men, or plotting to have people like Jack Anderson killed.
And while his administration was forever besmirched by his prolongation of the Vietnam war and his order for the secret and murderous bombing of Cambodia, it was productive in many ways, including creation of the Occupational and Health Safety Administration , the National Endowment on the Arts, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Nixon approved the first significant step toward a federal affirmative action program. And Nixon — as probably only he could have — altered the course of modern history by changing the U.S. relationship with the Soviet Union and China.
Although Fulsom has riffled through some of the more recently released documents about Nixon, he hasn’t contributed anything to our understanding by recounting in nauseating detail the depravities of the man’s life. We get it. He was a sleaze. But he was also this other guy. This guy with a remarkable grasp of foreign affairs. This guy who supported a lot of moderate initiatives. And this guy who played the piano. And from this distance, that’s what’s so fascinating about him.
Look for Fulsom’s book with the scandal rags at the checkout counter. Shakespeare would have told the whole story.
You can see Nixon playing the piano on Jack Paar’s show by clicking HERE.
January 27, 2012
A case in point is William Henry Harrison, the ninth president and the subject of a book by the same name — one of the Times Books series of short biographies of the presidents. The author is New York Times columnist Gail Collins.
Harrison was in office hardly a month, but he still made his marks. He was the first presidential candidate to personally campaign for the office. He was the last president born before the Declaration of Independence. He gave the longest inaugural address. He was the first president to be photographed while in office. He was the first president to die in office. He was the first president to die in office of natural causes. He served the shortest term — 31 days. He was part of one of two sets of three presidents who served in the same year — 1841 and 1881. He was the only president whose grandson was president.
As Gail Collins recounts with a lot of good humor, the campaign of 1840, in which the Whig Harrison defeated the incumbent Democrat Martin Van Buren, was a first of its kind, too, in the sense that it was the first really populist election in the United States, the first one that wasn’t dominated by a political and economic elite.
Harrison had unsuccessfully challenged Van Buren in 1836 when the fractious Whigs ran two candidates — basically a northern and a southern. But in 1840, the party got behind Harrison and he far out paced Van Buren in electoral votes, although the popular vote was much closer. More than 80 percent of the eligible voters participated — a statistic that must be filtered through the fact that women and a great many men did not have the franchise in those days.
As Collins describes it, the Whig campaign was like a three-ring circus, with literally thousands of stump speakers going from town to town, parades, rallies, and dinners with plenty of alcohol.
The campaign was further distinguished by the Whigs’ successful effort to sell the public a candidate whom they could appreciate — a kind of frontiersman, one of the common folks, whose idea of a good time was flopping down in his log cabin and swilling hard cider.
In actual fact, Harrison was born on a Virginia plantation, was well educated and very mannerly, drank only in moderation and disapproved of drunkenness, and lived in a 16-room farmhouse in Ohio.
The 21st century voter may not be surprised to hear that the facts didn’t matter. The public bought the lie, which was encouraged with all kinds of “log cabin” events, images, songs, and verses, and other Whig politicians were happy to let some of the backwoods shading rub off on them.
This was also the campaign of “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” — the “Tyler” being a reference to vice-presidential candidate John Tyler. Harrison had served in the army before retiring to his farm, and he was involved in several fights with the Indians and British in the struggle over the Northwest Territories. In one of those battles, near the juncture of the Tippecanoe and Wabash rivers in the Indiana Territory, Harrison, who was governor of the territory, routed a settlement being built by the brothers and Shawnee leaders Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa (“the Prophet). Harrison had far more men, and he took far more casualties, and the battle wasn’t really decisive in the long run. He had a couple of much greater successes under his military belt. But, hey, “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” rhymes, and the alliteration was irresistible.
It is well known that Harrison was inaugurated on a bitter winter day, and that he foolishly appeared at the outdoor event — including his two-hour speech — without a hat or coat. Gail Collins explains further that the amiable president-elect arrived in Washington already exhausted from both celebratory events and sieges by office-seekers, and that the pressure didn’t let up in the capital.
The author writes that Harrison was 67 years old when he campaigned for the office, and that the Democrats dismissed him as a feeble old man — not a far-fetched idea in 1840, when a man of that age frequently was in his dotage. Collins says Harrison’s recklessness might have been his attempt to refute the Democrats’ claims. In any case, shortly after the inauguration, he came down with what was probably pneumonia. He died on April 4, 1841.
August 27, 2010
For my own amusement, I keep a file of presidential trivia, but there is one fragment of information about the 36th president that I have chosen to omit: Lyndon Johnson was the only president who conducted staff meetings in his bathroom while he was moving his bowels. The fact that he bullied his staff into participating in this bizarre behavior speaks to one of the worst characteristics of the president. And, I suppose — to the extent that they didn’t have enough personal pride to tell him to go take a whaddyacallit — it speaks to the self image of Johnson’s toadies. He was a coarse, loud-mouthed bully, and that went along nicely with his appetites for alcohol and women.
Johnson, in a few words, was no damned good. That is, he would have been if he hadn’t conducted the most successful domestic policy of any president except Franklin Roosevelt; if he hadn’t used his political brawn and skill to enact such measures as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Voting Rights Act, and if he hadn’t sponsored such programs as Medicare. These contrasting realities about LBJ are described in “Lyndon B. Johnson” by Charles Peters, one of a series of short presidential biographies by Times Books.
Maybe it has been true of every president including George Washington and Abraham Lincoln that the nation has had to accept the bad with the good sides of a man, but that lesson has hardly been more boldly drawn than it was in the case of Lyndon Johnson.
Peters, who was a member of the administrations of John F. Kennedy and Johnson, gives plenty of examples of Johnson’s petulance, pettiness, and cruelty, including his weakness for publicly humiliating the people around him. Peters reports instances in which Johnson obfuscated or simply lied, including to the American public, in order to get his way — although LBJ hardly originated that tactic. In fact, Peters describes the scenario in which LBJ, then vice president, was left out of the loop when Robert Kennedy secretly agreed to the withdrawal of American missiles from Turkey as a quid pro quo for the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba. LBJ succeeded to the presidency and pursued what turned out to be a very aggressive policy against North Vietnam and the Viet Cong without knowing how the missile crisis had been resolved.
Johnson was an extraordinarily ambitious man, and he never made decisions without weighing the political consequences for himself. For instance, he abhorred the idea that he would be cast as a weakling if he publicly vacillated from a determination to prevent the fall of South Vietnam — even while he seriously doubted that the war could be won and made several efforts to achieve a negotiated peace.
The war — or, at least, the way the war was perceived by much of the American public by 1968 — was Johnson’s undoing. People may forget about Johnson showing off his surgical scar, using an aide’s lap as a footrest, lifting his hound by its ears, or even pursuing one sexual affair after another. However, as Peters notes, the bloodshed and the divisiveness and LBJ’s unprecedented decision to decline to run for reelection will always be associated with his memory.
Still, this unlikeable man took a courageous stand during a time of great uncertainty in the country and doggedly promoted his programs to help the poor, to assure medical care for the elderly, to assist students, and to finally bring true political equality to black Americans. Historians can spend eternity speculating whether all of that could have been achieved in the America of the 1960s without an SOB of Shakespearean proportions in the White House.
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.