May 31, 2015
Justin S. Vaughn, a political science professor at Boise State University, writing recently in The Times, raised the question of which of Barack Obama’s predecessors have been the best and the worst former presidents. It’s an uncommon way to look at the presidency, and it adds a useful context. Those of us who are only casual observers of history tend to think of the presidents strictly in terms of their time in office and evaluate them accordingly. But, as Vaughn points out, “Our greatest ex-presidents have engaged in important work, sometimes at a level that rivaled their accomplishments in the White House. Our worst ex-presidents, on the other hand, have been noteworthy for taking strong positions against the national interest and consistently undermining their successors for personal and political reasons.”
Vaughn’s choices as the best former presidents included John Quincy Adams, Jimmy Carter, William Howard Taft, and Herbert Hoover. When the Washington Post, in 2014, asked 162 members of the American Political Science Association’s Presidents & Executive Politics section to rank the presidents, Taft was 20th and Quincy Adams 22nd. Carter and Hoover did not place in the top 24. That implies, if one were to take these things literally, that the four best former presidents by Vaughn’s estimation were only middling or worse as presidents.
But Adams, one of only two presidents to be elected to public office after leaving the White House, was a leading member of the House of Representatives for almost 20 years; Carter has devoted himself to promoting human and political rights all over the world. Hoover headed the program to stave off starvation in Germany after World War II and he was appointed by Presidents Truman and Eisenhower to lead commissions that successfully recommended reforms in the operations of the federal government.
Vaughn’s nominees for the worst former presidents include John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and Theodore Roosevelt. The first three did not distinguish themselves as president, but Roosevelt is regularly ranked among the best. He finished fourth in the 2014 survey, following Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Franklin Roosevelt.
I recently got a belated education regarding Taft and Theodore Roosevelt by reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book The Bully Pulpit, which is sort of a double biography. The careers of these two men — their whole careers, not only their presidencies — occurred during a critical era in American history in which the nation grappled with the tension between free enterprise and the government’s attempts to prevent large business interests from unfairly controlling whole sectors of the economy. Goodwin paints impressive portraits that convey the personal and political integrity and the spirit of public service that characterized both Taft and Roosevelt. Both men were highly distinguished before they were elected to the presidency. Taft, as Goodwin relates, was mostly interested in the law and hoped to some day serve on the United States Supreme Court. He did not aspire to be president, but accepted the role under the heavy influence of his wife and of Roosevelt, who had promised after he was elected to his second term that he would not seek a third — a promise he lived to regret.
One of the reasons Roosevelt lands in Vaughn’s list of worst former presidents is that he disapproved of Taft’s administration and, forsaking his “two and through” pledge, challenged him for the 1912 Republican nomination and, failing at that, ran for president on a third-party ticket, guaranteeing the election of the Democrat, Woodrow Wilson. Taft, on the other hand, realized his ambition when President Warren Harding appointed him chief justice of the United States, a position in which he served with distinction for a decade.
Although Roosevelt was an egocentric and therefore sometimes childish character, his life and that of Taft, on the whole, were among the most exemplary among American public figures. Goodwin’s account of their careers, by bringing them to life, also brings to life an often neglected epoch in American history.
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.
August 3, 2012
A man of about my grandfather’s vintage was telling me that he once owned a house in Brooklyn and the candy store on the first floor. When I asked what had become of the property, he brought his hands together in a loud clap and said, “Mr. Hoover.” The implication was that he had lost the house and store as a result of the Great Depression and that the Great Depression was Mr. Hoover’s fault.
The history of the economic calamity of the 1930s is complex, and while Herbert Hoover’s approach to it is open to criticism, it is simplistic to argue that he was responsible for the losses suffered by millions of people. Unfortunately for Hoover, most Americans who can identify him at all are likely to describe him as the president who failed to solve the Depression. And that means that most Americans have forgotten — or more likely have never known — that Hoover was a great public servant and, in several instances, an American hero. As Casey Stengel said, you could look it up: Hoover organized the evacuation of Americans from Europe at the outbreak of World War I; he organized the delivery of millions of tons of food to Belgium after it had been invaded by Germany; he ran the commission that made sure American food supplies were conserved so that there would be enough to supply U.S troops in Europe during the war; he ran the administration that fed millions of people in Central Europe after the war; he oversaw the government response to the Great Mississippi Flood in six states in 1927; he organized a program that fed school children in impoverished occupied Germany after World War II; and under presidents Truman and Eisenhower he headed two commissions that successfully recommended reorganization and efficiencies in the federal government.
Hoover had his failings and even his dark side, but the country’s ignorance of his accomplishments — to say nothing of his long career as an engineer and businessman — is out of whack.
Hoover is not alone in this. John Quincy Adams’ legacy has suffered a similar fate, as Harlow Giles Unger explains in a biography of the sixth president that will be published in September. Adams’ presidency was a dud, but he otherwise led one of the most outstanding public lives in the history of the country. He was the son of brilliant parents — Abigail and John Adams — and they expected big things of him. Unger reports, in fact, that John Adams, the second president, expected his son to eventually follow him into that office, after getting a classical education and learning and practicing law. John Q. grew up in the midst of the American Revolution; in fact, he and his mother were eye witnesses to the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Defining events in his life, though, were successive trips to Europe with his father, who was engaged in diplomacy. Those trips led to a career in diplomacy for the younger Adams who was not excelled by anyone serving in that capacity before or since. He later served as secretary of state in the administration of James Monroe and again did outstanding work, including his authorship of what became known as the Monroe Doctrine. He was, Unger argues, one of the most important experts on foreign affairs in American history.
John Quincy Adams was elected to the presidency without campaigning for the office, and in a certain sense he wasn’t elected at all. The wildly popular war hero Andrew Jackson won more popular votes in the election of 1824 but not enough electoral votes to carry the day. Henry Clay threw the election into Adams’ lap by instructing the Kentucky delegation to vote for Adams, who had not won an electoral vote in that state. When John Q took office, he named Clay secretary of state, which was a much more powerful office then than it is now. Although it would have been out of character for Adams to have conspired with Clay in order to gain the presidency, that’s how many Americans read it, Unger writes, and it got Adams’ administration off to a poor start.
Adams had an ideal that would sound odd to Americans today: he believed that principle was more important than party. Tell that to John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi. Adams carried this idea to extremes, going to the mat first with his own Federalist party and then with the opposition Republicans on one issue or another. As a result, he really had no party, while Andrew Jackson was building the new Democratic party into a meaningful force. He also gave no thought to even conventional patronage when he appointed his cabinet, and so he was, as Jimmy Durante used to say, “surrounded by assassins.”
The short version is that Adams’ presidency didn’t amount to much, and he left office in a significant funk after losing the election to Jackson. But he was invited to run for Congress from a district in his native Massachusetts, and so he became one of three presidents to hold public office after leaving the White House. (The others were Andrew Johnson, who was elected to the U.S. Senate and William Howard Taft, who was appointed chief justice of the United States.)
Adams spent 17 years in the House of Representatives and it was, as Unger recounts in dramatic fashion, a wild scene. Adams hated slavery, which he had first seen up close when he traveled to Poland as a teenager. The House leadership didn’t want the subject broached in the chamber and passed rules to prevent the word “slavery” from being uttered or petitions against slavery from being presented. Adams fought furiously against this procedure, violating the rules repeatedly, and demanding over and over to know, “Am I gagged? Am I gagged?” He eventually became a highly respected figure in the House, even by those who disagreed with him, and reputedly was one of a handful of the best who ever served there.
During this period, Adams also got involved in the legal case of a group of more than fifty African men and women who were being transported as slaves from one port in Cuba to another when they seized control of the ship, the Amistad. The ship was taken into custody in American waters, and the Africans on board sued to keep from being returned to bondage.
Adams gave a seven-hour argument before the U.S. Supreme Court which, although most of the justices were hard-nosed southern slave holders, ruled unanimously that the Africans should be set free.
In recounting Adams’ career, Unger provides a close look into the life of the distinguished and patriotic Massachusetts family: the relationship between John Q. Adams and his redoubtable parents, and between John Q. and his wife, Louisa, who at times lost patience with the demands her husband’s public service made on family life.
Unger’s book brings this good and great man back to life at least on the printed page. It was a life that deserves much more attention than it gets.
March 25, 2012
When I was a grad student at Penn State, former President Dwight Eisenhower visited the campus. It wasn’t a public event; he was speaking to a group of students from State College High School. But I was working in the public information office and found out about it and simply walked into Waring Hall at the appointed time. It was 1964 — a different era. Nobody asked who I was.
Eisenhower had been out of office for about four years. He was 74 and had suffered heart attacks and a stroke. Still, he stood at the edge of the stage with his head high and his shoulders back — in short, with the military bearing long associated with him. He encouraged those kids to take an interest in civic affairs and not to expect other folks to do all the work either inside or outside of government.
Eisenhower had been an iconic figure in our house, both because of his role in World War II and because he had kept the presidency out of Democratic hands for eight years.
Some of the family’s faith in Ike was well placed, even given the straight party-line mentality, but of course he was more complicated than he was portrayed around our place.
And, in fact, the Dwight Eisenhower that Jim Newton describes in Eisenhower: The White House Years is a complicated guy. While he was still in office, especially during his second term, he was often lampooned as an absentee president who golfed while the Soviets and Chinese plotted to conquer the world.
While it’s true that Eisenhower tried to fit golf and bridge into his routine, that characterization seemed ludicrous at the time, and Newton demonstrates well that it was fantasy. He shows that, on balance, Eisenhower’s administration, which kept the United States out of a shooting war for eight years, launched the interstate highway system and the St. Lawrence Seaway, and left the country with its last budget surplus until 1999, was an overall success.
Newton doesn’t discuss this in detail in this book, but Eisenhower’s achievements as supreme allied commander in Europe during World War II were in a significant way due to his firm but understated command as well as his personal diplomacy as he coordinated military officers and heads of state who had little or nothing in common except an enemy.
Similar qualities came into play when Eisenhower took on the presidency. He wasn’t inclined to the grand gesture, and his credo was what he called “the middle way,” meaning that on any issue he looked for the ground that was equidistant from extremes on either right or left.
Meanwhile, while Ike might have seemed like a man obsessed with cutting down on his slice, he was engaging in intense discussions concerning the rising belligerence of the Soviets and Chinese, more than once talking his military brass out of resorting to nuclear weapons. He was also overseeing covert activities undertaken by the CIA to overthrow foreign governments whose behavior was perceived as inimical to American interests — Iran and Guatemala among them. Eisenhower also made flight-by-flight decisions about high altitude surveillance of the USSR, and his administration was embarrassed when one of the planes was shot down and the pilot captured.
From our perspective, two of the most disappointing things about Eisenhower were his unwillingness to take the lead on civil rights for black citizens and his public silence about the demagoguery of Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
Eisenhower was content with the concept of “separate but equal,” and he was unhappy with the Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs the Board of Education. When the Board of Education in Little Rock, Arkansas, decided to obey the spirit of that ruling by admitting nine black teenagers to Central High School, there was immediately a crisis of authority as Gov. Orval Faubus, the Arkansas National Guard, and a howling white mob prevented the kids from entering. Eisenhower tried to finesse the problem by summoning Faubus to Washington and bargaining with him, but Faubus double-crossed Ike by withdrawing both the National Guard and himself from the scene. So Eisenhower was forced to do something distasteful to him, sending members of the 101st Airborne Division, with bayonets fixed, to escort the students into the school.
Eisenhower didn’t say or do anything publicly about McCarthy’s paranoid campaign of terror against real and imagined communists until the senator overreached and directed his venom at the U.S. Army. Then the president issued an order forbidding employees of the executive department from providing evidence to McCarthy’s committee.
Eisenhower’s reticence concerning McCarthy extended to the point that Ike let McCarthy pillory Gen. George Marshall, Ike’s mentor and possibly the man he most admired. Eisenhower ostensibly regretted that for the rest of his life, but the damage had been done.
Newton probably is a little easy on Eisenhower, but if he is, he’s easy on a man who led one of the most unselfish and productive lives of public service in American history, a life untouched by the personal and professional corruption and the blind partisanship that has affected major figures in American history before and after him.
The motto of Eisenhower’s election campaign — “I like Ike” — was particularly apt. He had his flaws as we all do, but the quality of his public service flowed to a large extent from his character: He was a nice man.
June 13, 2010
When I was a kid, a bubble gum company came out with a line of president cards which I guess were intended as the nerd’s alternative to baseball cards. I was into baseball – including the cards – but I was also into history. Also, my Dad owned a grocery store, so I had easy access to whatever the gum companies were peddling.
I recall sitting across from my father at the kitchen table. He held the president cards, arranged in chronological order, and I would try to list them from memory. I can still hear him saying one night when I got stuck somewhere in the latter 19th century: “C’mon! What street does your Aunt Ida live on?” The answer was Garfield Place, as in James A.
It occurred to me at that young age – it was during Dwight Eisenhower’s first administration – that Franklin Pierce had the best-looking face on those cards.
Pierce is the subject of a new little biography – part of a Time Books series on the presidents. This one is written by Michael F. Holt, a history professor at the University of Virginia and an expert on the political life of the country in the years leading up to the Civil War. Sure enough, Holt points out that Pierce was not only handsome, but charming and warm hearted as well. Unfortunately, those qualities carried a lot more weight in the internal politics of Democratic New Hampshire than they did when spread out over a nation that was on the verge of committing suicide over the issue of expanding slavery into the western territories.
In fact, Pierce was nominated for the presidency in 1852 not so much because his party thought he was the Man of the Hour but because the party couldn’t muster a winning vote for any of the three leading candidates – one of whom was not Pierce. He was the original Dark Horse, as far as the presidency of the United States was concerned.
Pierce actually showed some skill in managing the foreign affairs of the country, and he directed the Gadsden Purchase, which was the last major territorial acquisition in what is now the contiguous 48 states. But the crisis of the moment had to do with whether the institution of slavery was going to migrate west along with settlers – an argument that many thought had been closed with the Compromise of 1820. Pierce’s attitude on this issue was complex. First of all, he was a strict constructionist, meaning that he didn’t believe the federal government had any right to interfere in the internal affairs of states, including slavery. Pierce was not pro-slavery per se, but he believed that as long as slavery was protected by the Constitution, the federal government had no right to intrude.
Pierce was also fiercely determined to hold the Union together, and that inspired his loathing of the abolition movement. He considered abolitionists fanatics whose shenanigans were threatening the solidarity of the nation. And so, Pierce was a New Englander who consistently supported the Southern slave-holding oligarchy.
Another error in Pierce’s thinking, Holt explains, was an attempt to unify the Democratic party – which was suffering regional and philosophical tensions – by doling out federal patronage jobs to men who represented the whole spectrum of opinion. Among other things, he appointed his friend Jefferson Davis – soon to be president of the Confederacy – as Secretary of War, a move that did not endear Pierce to northern interests that despised and feared the southern plantation establishment. Rather than unifying the party, this policy succeeded in irritating just about everybody but those who got lucrative or influential positions.
Pierce made enough mistakes that he was denied re-nomination by his own party. He was gracious in defeat, Holt reports, but he had to have been sorely disappointed. Among those who probably was not disappointed at all was the president’s wife, Jane Appleton Pierce, who had no patience with politics or life in the capital. In fact, when a rider caught up with the Pierces’ carriage to report that Pierce had been nominated for president, Jane fainted dead away. The poor woman was shy and fragile, and she and her husband endured a series of tragedies that unfortunately were not uncommon in the mid 19th century. They had three sons. Two died at very young ages and the third was killed when a railroad car in which the parents and child were riding left the track and overturned. Holt mentions that although Pierce did not approve of Abraham Lincoln’s policies, he wrote Lincoln a heartfelt note of sympathy when one of Lincoln’s sons died in the White House.
Pierce was a heavy drinker – a problem drinker, actually – during much of his life, including the years after Jane died in 1863.
An interesting aspect of Pierce’s life was his compassion for other people – the most prominent of whom may have been Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom Pierce met while a student at Bowdoin College. The men were so close that when Hawthorne sensed that he was dying he asked to spend some of his last days with Pierce. Although Hawthorne could travel only with difficulty, Pierce accommodated him and set off with him on a trip that was to be Hawthorne’s last. Pierce found the writer dead in a room at a hotel where the two men had stopped on their journey. Pierce, who was well off, included Hawthorne’s children in his own will.
Pierce is consistently ranked as one of the least effective, or “worst,” of American presidents. But life isn’t lived on historians’ templates; it is lived between the ground and the sky in specific times and places and under specific and complex conditions. Calling a man one of the “worst” in any realm might have as much to do with what we expect of him at a comfortable distance than it has to do with the choices and challenges that confronted that man in his own circumstances. When Abraham Lincoln had been murdered, an angry crowd approached Pierce’s home demanding to know why he wasn’t displaying a flag. Pierce pointed out that his father, Benjamin, had fought in the Revolution, his brothers in the War of 1812, and he himself in the Mexican War: “If the period during which I have served our state and country in various situations, commencing more than thirty-five years ago, have left the question of my devotion to the flag, the Constitution, and the Union in doubt, it is too late now to remove it.”