I’ve been reading about the presidents in order for the past two years. It started after watching the HBO miniseries John Adams, which prompted me to run out and get the book by David McCullough.
The early presidents, all Founding Fathers, were easy to read about. There’s little controversial about Washington, Adams, or Jefferson that sparks the sort of wrangling a sitting president today would has to endure. And yes, I’ve thrown my share of rocks at George W. Bush. Now that he’s gone, it gets damned annoying to hear the same leveled at Barack Obama, especially when the same amount of ignorance pervades today as it did during Bush’s term.
But I’m not up to the contemporary presidents yet. In fact, I just finished up with Millard Fillmore, which brings me to my point. After Jackson, and until you get to Lincoln, the talent pool from which we draw our top leadership starts to get diluted. For instance, George Washington was complicit in creating not just his own myth, but defining the yardstick by which all future presidents would be measured. The man had to balance his ego with the need to protect the fragile republic he’d just helped found and organize. Adams may not have been all that spectacular as president – He was obnoxious and disliked, you know – but then the presidency was merely the feather in the cap to a career any man of his day would die to have. Jefferson was our first ideological president, though thankfully he quickly learned how to balance ideology with the pragmatism reality demands of a leader. Madison and Monroe’s biggest accomplishments were actually behind them when they reached the White House, Madison the architect of the Constitution and Monroe the old Northwest’s biggest champion. As for John Quincy Adams, he may have been one of our greatest diplomats in his youth and most accomplished congressman in his old age, but his presidency was doomed by the force of nature that was Andrew Jackson. And love him or hate, if Andrew Jackson had never been born, America would have had to invent him.
So where’s that leave us as I look toward reading about Franklin Pierce, our first alcoholic president or James Buchanan, most likely the first gay president? Let’s have a look at the men and the books I read about them.
- Martin Van Buren: Maddy Van is often ignored by history. After all, the worst financial collapse prior to 1929 occured on his watch. But Van Buren, aka The Little Magician, was quite the skilled politician. That didn’t make him a great president, or even a good one, but like so many other presidents who inherited a bad economy from their predecessor – Think Hoover, Carter, and, to some extent, George HW Bush, Van Buren was doomed to be a one-termer no matter what. He is the earliest example of James Carville’s rule of electoral politics: It’s the economy, stupid.For Maddy Van, I read Robert V. Remini’s Time-Life bio. Serviceable and quite informative.
- William Henry Harrison: The Whigs, forefunners of the modern Republican Party, needed a hero to run against Van Buren in 1840. They found one in Jackson’s contemporary, Harrison. Tippecanoe, as he was nicknamed after an Indian battle shortly before the War of 1812, was an early governor of Indiana before its statehood, a diplomat, and a civic leader in the booming river town of Cincinnati. All this prompted the Whigs to nominate the elderly Harrison in both 1836 and 1840. Harrison’s first official act in office was to drop dead barely a month into his term, allowing the nation to test the Constitution in the matter of vice presidential succession.
For Harrison, I made the joke that a president with such a short term would probably warrant a pamphlet for a bio. Close. Local author Sue Ann Painter wrote a book less than 100 pages about the ninth president that pretty much summed up his life, mainly focusing on his time in Cincinnati, where he founded the nearby village of Cleves and even took a job in the county clerk’s office to shore up finances on North Bend, his estate on the Ohio River. (North Bend is now a village, one might even consider a suburb of Cleves.)
- John Tyler: Not the brightest man to ever occupy the White House, Tyler did, however, wisely make his way to Washington when someone whispered in his ear that Harrison might not survive his term in office. Tyler, however, did not expect to attain the presidency for some time, which would give Harrison time to establish his agenda and poke perrenial runner-up Henry Clay in the eye. (Harrison lived long enough to do the latter, and Tyler repeated the process less than a week in office.) However, “His Accidency” so alienated the Whig Party that Tyler became something the nation hadn’t had since Washington passed the baton to Adams in 1797: an independent president. Tyler was a schemer, an unrepentant slave holder, and had a tendency to hide things that probably could have been done in the open with fewer consequences. As such, the Democrats did not trust him, and Tyler soon found himself out of a job when his term expired.
For him, I downloaded the Kindle book His Accidency, which details Tyler’s belief that he was the heir to the Virginia Dynasty (Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe), as well as his unease upon learning Harrison was not in the best of health.
- James K. Polk: Polk is derided for being a slave holder and for being a political scion of Andrew Jackson. He is often praised, however, for voluntarily serving only one term and being a political scion of Andrew Jackson. The former governor of Tennessee completed (in the open, no less) the annexation of Texas, the war against Mexico, and the addition of California to the union as a free state. For his day, not a bad president for a slaveholder, but he was still a slaveholder.
For Polk, I read the excellent biography Polk, which shows America in the post-Mexican War, pre-sectionalist phase of its history. Polk illustrates what a man can do as president when he doesn’t have to worry about reelection. It also gives a foreshadowing of how James Buchanan let the country fall completely apart by showing him in Polk’s cabinet as an indecisive worrier more concerned with his own presidential ambitions than Polk’s agenda or the business of the nation.
- Zachary Taylor: This guy was a slob, borderline illiterate, and politically unmoored until someone whispered in his ear that he might make a good president. He might have, in spite of his shortcomings, had he lived. Taylor won the presidency based on his reputation made during the Seminole War in the 1830’s and as a general in the Mexican War. However, Taylor, like Eisenhower a century later, wasn’t even sure which party he would go with until the election season began in earnest. Perhaps, had he lived, that might have been his greatest strength. For Taylor, though a Kentucky slaveholder, did not cotton to some of the South’s more hostile attitudes toward the expansion of slavery or the radical ideas of nullification and secession. It’s quite likely that, had Taylor survived past 1851, the Civil War would have occured ten years earlier and been much shorter. Taylor made no bones about it. He would have readily marched on South Carolina if they seceded or pressed the nullification (a dubious political concept where a state can override federal law).
For Taylor’s bio, I started out with a contemporary biography clearly written by a partisan. 150 pages into, after the author once again praised a long, poorly-worded report by Taylor to the War Department as being a paragon of crisp, clean writing and spartan prose, I switched to a children’s book and blew through it while making dinner one night. The children’s book covered the same information, but without the fanboy hyperbole or the nauseating passages of Taylor’s dull prose.
- Millard Fillmore: The president famous for being obscure. (Actually, Chester Arthur is more obscure. Maybe Rutherford Hayes.) Fillmore was Taylor’s running mate in 1848. The men did not actually meet until 1849, after Taylor was inaugurated. Before then, Fillmore was a typical career party hack whose main accomplishment was the abolition of debtors prisons in New York. Like Tyler, Fillmore took over for a deceased predecessor and proceeded to offend the Whig Party. Whereas Taylor was a slave-holder who nonetheless put the Union above all, Fillmore, like his two successors, was a northern appeaser, doing whatever he could to make everyone happy only to offend everyone.
Like the original Taylor bio, I read a partisan screed by Ivory Chamberlain commissioned by the American (or Know-Nothing) Party. The Know-Nothings bear a lot of resemblance to today’s Tea Party in that they were outraged by what they saw as the end of America being brought about by two (or rather three) complicit major parties. However, the Tea Party’s axe to grind is the maxing out of the national credit card, which has even their detractors nervous. The Known-Nothings, on the other hand, were proud, card-carrying bigots. Chamberlain’s aggrandizing tome excuses Fillmore’s shortcomings – he was a dull public speaker and writer – as virtues. In reality, Fillmore was a capable bureaucrat, but no one you’d want guiding the nation through its darkest hours. Looking at the last twenty years, the man lacked the intellect and exuberance of a Clinton, the brash decisiveness of a George W. Bush, or the cool intelligence of an Obama. The man was just smart enough to get himself a job, and too much of an appeaser to do much else.
Which brings us to Pierce and Buchanan, the next two presidents I’ll read about. Both men inspire apathy and yawns. Then comes Lincoln, a man who can prove difficult when searching for an objective biography of him. I did find one.
The real challenge will come when I get past Eisenhower. JFK, LBJ, and Nixon all inspire controversy and conspiracy theories. Sorting out the speculation (and let’s be honest, outright fiction) from that mess will be difficult. On the other hand, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush, Sr. all published diaries and letters. Clinton?
Really, mention Bill Clinton in any room and try and find a neutral opinion about the man. Go on. I”ll wait. And maybe after we’re well into Obama’s successor’s term, you might find one. George Bush? Hey, like I said, I was throwing some of the rocks. And my opinion of him since he left has changed. Now it’s Obama’s turn to endure the public opinion whiplash. (If his approval rating ever tops 50% again, it’ll be the economy, stupid.) Maybe I’ll find an objective book about Bill Clinton, but Bush and Obama? If Bush ever publishes his own letters. Quite likely, he would be the guy to write a book about Obama. The man studiously tries to stay out of his successor’s way, which means George Bush understands a lot more about what a president needs to do his job than 90% of the people trying to become president.
After all, there are only five men in the world who know what the job is really like.