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.
January 8, 2010
The relationship between baseball and presidents of the United States has been well documented; in fact, there is a room devoted to the subject at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. The earliest association seems to be with Abraham Lincoln and it is most graphically represented by this Currier & Ives political cartoon, published in 1860, after Lincoln had outlasted three opponents to win the presidency. Lincoln is saying, “Gentleman, if ever you should take a hand in another match at this game, remember that you must have a good bat to strike a fair ball and make a clean score and a home run.”
How close Lincoln was to the game seems to be a matter of debate, but it is documented that his successor, Andrew Johnson, was the first president to witness an intra-city game and the first president to invite a baseball team into the White House. Among his papers are several honorary membership cards in baseball organizations.
Another president who had a particular connection to baseball was Dwight Eisenhower, who loved the game and said more than once that he would have liked to have played professionally. There is a lingering discussion about whether he did, in fact, once play semi-pro ball under an assumed name — something that would have fouled the amateur status under which he played football at West Point. A number of prominent witnesses said that Eisenhower had admitted to this in later life, but Eisenhower never publicly owned up to it.
Meanwhile, the Christian Science Monitor has looked into the subject of presidents and football — specifically, which president was the best player. The candidates are Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan.
Even after one gets over the image of Nixon playing football, the answer isn’t as obvious as it may seem.
If you can’t guess, you can read about it at THIS LINK.
May 2, 2009
I just finished reading “Ike: An American Hero,” the 2007 biography of Dwight Eisenhower by Michael Korda, a former RAF pilot whose books include a biography of Ulysses S. Grant. This book seemed almost as long as the Second World War, but it provides a lot of insight into the military realities of the allied campaign for control of North Africa, Sicily, and ultimately the European mainland via the beaches of France.
Korda, who is British, tries to sort out the conflicting judgments about Eisenhower’s military leadership, which varies in direct relationship to which side of the Atlantic it comes from. That’s an interesting point in itself, because what Korda finds to be the key to Eisenhower’s genius is that he was able to manage and manipulate the constant head-banging among allied leaders – Winston Churchill, Charles DeGaulle, Joseph Stalin, and Franklin Roosevelt – who seemed to have few common interests beyond defeating Nazi Germany, and – on the other hand – who had many interests that were in conflict.
Scholarly rankings of the presidents – a pointless exercise in many respects – usually place Eisenhower among the top 10. Korda – while acknowledging several embarrasments and failures in the administration – gives Eisenhower a balanced report card for his eight years in office, but devotes most of the book to Eisenhower’s military career and particularly to the war. He emphasizes a point that may be lost on later generations, namely that as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, Eisenhower exercised – and successfully – what was arguably the greatest measure of military and political power ever placed in the hands of a single person, before or since. He acted in some cases – for instance, in dealings with Stalin – as though he himself were a head of state.
Korda discusses Eisenhower’s analysis of the Korean War – namely that it couldn’t be won without an American military commitment that probably would have sparked another world conflict; his refusal to send American combat troops into what he considered the French colonial war in Vietnam, and his caution against American military involvement in the Middle East – a bitter lesson for Eisenhower himself in Lebanon.
I got to see Eisenhower in person in 1964 or 1965, when I was a graduate student at Penn State. I was working in the public information office and heard there that Eisenhower, who lived in Gettysburg at that time, was going to visit State College to address a group of high school students. Eisenhower was the first person to be protected under the Former Presidents Act, but you couldn’t tell it from his appearance at Waring Hall. I had no business there, but no one stopped me from going in and sitting in a balcony looking down on Eisenhower as he stood alone on the stage talking to those teenagers.
He spoke to the students about civic responsibility, about not exercising their democratic rights by standing on the sidelines of political life. He was in his late 70s then and had suffered some serious health problems, but he stood ramrod straight with the military bearing that had been drilled into his DNA. He also had that good-natured ease of manner that Korda repeatedly argues contributed as much as anything else to Eisenhower’s success in the Army and in civilian life.