THEODORE ROOSEVELT

THEODORE ROOSEVELT

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.

HERBERT HOOVER

HERBERT HOOVER

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.

WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT

WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT

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.

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NOAH WEBSTER

NOAH WEBSTER

When we were watching episodes of Downton Abbey on a DVD, we turned on the English subtitles, because we had trouble understanding a couple of the actors — particularly Rob James-Collier as Thomas Barrow and Sophie McShera as Daisy Mason.
It turned out that while some of our difficulty with the dialogue had to do with the one actor’s mumbling and the other one’s accent, some of it also had to do with the vocabulary itself — British terms that we did not know.

  Most of us are familiar with terms like “lorry,” “loo,” and “lift,” but we saw others in the captions that we had never heard before.
It was to be expected that the English used in Britain and the English used in the United States would evolve differently, but I learned recently that that didn’t happen only over time but was done deliberately, on our side of the ocean, soon after the American Revolution.
That’s what Paul Dickson reports in his book Words from the White House, which is a compilation of words and phrases that either were either coined or made popular by presidents and other prominent Americans.

  According to Dickson, an 18th century sentiment shared by Thomas Jefferson and Noah Webster, was that Americans had to craft for themselves a language that was distinct from the “king’s English.”
Webster was so confident that this goal could be achieved that he wrote in 1806 that “In fifty years from this time, the American-English will be spoken by more people than all the other dialects of the language.”

THOMAS JEFFERSON

THOMAS JEFFERSON

Part of the process by which language evolves is “neologizing” — that is, inventing words or phrases from whole cloth.
Dickson writes that the word “neologize” was itself neologized by Jefferson in 1813 in a letter to John Adams.
So Theodore Roosevelt, who — for my money — is disproportionately represented in this book, was neologizing when he invented the term “pussyfooter,” and his distant cousin FDR was doing the same when he created the useful word “iffy.”
Some presidents have been accused of using non-standard terms, not because they were being inventive but because they didn’t know any better.
In this regard, for instance, Dickson mentions Warren G. Harding and George W. Bush.
Harding has often been ridiculed for his 1920 campaign promise of a “return to normalcy,” but Dickson points out that the word “normalcy” had been already in use in several fields, including mathematics.
Harding’s innovation was to give the term a political meaning — and, the author reminds us, it worked.

WARREN G. HARDING

WARREN G. HARDING

The second Bush — who could be hard on English — was kidded mercilessly for his used of the term “decider” which he applied to himself when the press asked him about calls for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (“I’m the decider, and I decide what’s best.”) Dickson gives Bush credit for coining this word, but apparently the author didn’t check a dictionary: that word was around before George Bush was president, meaning exactly what he used it to mean.

coffeeI see by the papers that Starbucks is going to raise the prices on some of its drinks and lower prices on others — and see what happens. The short version is that sales have been declining. So frappucchinos and caramel macchiatos are going up — maybe 30 cents a pop — and lattes, cappuccinos and brewed coffees are going down.

I won’t be a part of this study. I’m atypical where coffee is concerned. I drink it every morning, and I order it after most dinners out, but I wouldn’t care I never had it again. And when I do drink it, it can be Chock Full o’ Nuts or Folgers, with no additives. And I don’t want to pay for coffee as if it were gasoline. I have been in a Starbucks three times, and one of those occasions was to avoid freezing to death on a Manhattan street. On the other two visits, I had hot chocolate, which was also overpriced — but it was chocolate.

SHELLEY BATTS

SHELLEY BATTS

I had a supervisor on one of my first jobs who instructed everyone in our section not to talk to her in the morning until she had had two cups of coffee. She was serious. I’m sure she believed it herself, but I couldn’t understand it because the caffeine in coffee doesn’t affect me. It doesn’t make me jumpy, it doesn’t calm my nerves, it doesn’t jolt me out of a stupor, it doesn’t give me indigestion, and it doesn’t keep me awake. Whether two cups a day does anything else to me, I don’t know. Coffee’s reputation as a deadly poison or a life-giving nectar seems to ebb and flow. Shelley Batts, a candidate for a doctorate in neuroscience, looked back a couple of years ago in her fascinating blog “Retrospectacle” at a recurring theory that coffee was a treatment for plague. You can read about that at the following link:  http://scienceblogs.com/retrospectacle/2007/08/science_vault_coffee_as_a_cure.php

THEODORE ROOSEVELT

THEODORE ROOSEVELT

I just read a book — “Rebirth of a Nation” by Jackson Lears — that paints an uncomplimentary picture of Theodore Roosevelt, to the extent that Roosevelt was one of the principal proponents, during the so-called “gilded age” — of American empire-building. Considering his appetite for action at any price, maybe Roosevelt was hopped up on coffee. He was, after all, the source of the Maxwell House coffee slogan: “Good to the last drop.” The first time I heard that, I dismissed it as a fable, but apparently there is some authority for it. You can read about that at this link: http://www.theodoreroosevelt.org/life/Maxwell.htm

A news story about the Starbucks pricing strategy — which I guess was broken by Bloomberg — can be found here: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/money_co/2009/08/investors-know-that-businesses-cant-cost-cut-their-way-back-to-prosperity-and-rising-earnings-so-what-wall-street-most.html

Shelley Batts is co-authoring a new blog — “Of Two Minds” — which can be found at this link: http://scienceblogs.com/twominds/