We are not yet at the 2014 midterm elections, and already election fever is sweeping the country- for 2016, of course.  Among the Democrats, the question is simply: will Hillary run, or won’t she?  I would guess, for a multitude of reasons, that she will, but if I am mistaken, there isn’t a very exciting back bench of candidates: Andrew Cuomo? Kirsten Gillibrand?  Elizabeth Warren?  Martin O’Malley?  For Republicans, the situation is even more confusing: there are more than a half dozen people who could conceivably walk away with the nomination as it appears at this time: Chris Christie could recover from (or be exonerated from) the scandals surrounding his office, but don’t count out TEA Party favorites Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, Midwestern governors Scott Walker and John Kasich, or Floridians Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush.

The only prediction I am comfortable making is this: 2012 will be the last time in the lifetime of anybody reading this in 2014 that we will see any major party put forth a ticket of two white men.  Romney-Ryan will be the last.  And we are certainly never going to see a major party put forth a ticket of two white Protestant men (the Bush-Cheney ticket will be the end of that line.)

But suppose conventional wisdom holds, and Hillary Clinton does, in fact, become the Democrats’ 2016 presidential nominee, and consequently, the first woman to be nominated by a major party for the office of president?  Now, I love, love, love the “veepstakes” as they are sometimes called, so my natural follow-up question is: “who does she pick for a running mate?”  While the Democrats may not have many other obvious nominees for president, their bench is actually pretty good for running-mates.  Mindful of this, I am going to start by ruling out a number of demographics.

I.  No Women: I hate to say this.  I wish it were not so.  I just do not think that the United States will respond well to an all-female ticket.  That’s a shame, because there has never been a greater crop of potentially excellent female vice-presidents.  So, many apologies to Amy Klobuchar, Maria Cantwell, Tammy Baldwin, Christine Gregoire, Tammy Duckworth,  and Janet Napolitano.

II.  No African-Americans.  Again, I hate to say this.  I wish it were not so.  But after Barack Obama, the public is likely to regard this as “yesterday’s news”.  So, sorry Deval Patrick and Cory Booker.

III.  Be mindful of age.  Hillary will be 69 years old on election day, 2016.   With this in mind, it is unlikely that she will pick a senior citizen to run with her.  Over 65s will have some strikes against them, then.  We might eliminate two capable governors, John Kitzhaber of Oregon (suggested by my friend Sam) and John Hickenlooper of Colorado, former Governor and China ambassador Gary Locke, and some senators- most notably Bill Nelson from the crucial swing state of Florida.

IV.  Region.  Hillary may have been born in the midwest and been first lady of a Southern state, but she last held office in New York, and in the public eye, she is still associated with the northeast.  You can categorically rule out a New York running mate, and severely cast doubt upon other northeasterners.  This presents the biggest problem to Martin O’Malley, the liberal and generally successful governor of Maryland.  Maybe when Nixon picked Agnew in 1968, Maryland could be construed as a border-South state, but no longer.

and finally, V.  No “Hail Marys.”  Hillary will likely start out the prohibitive front-runner, and she will run a cautious campaign (though hopefully not as ruinously cautious as her 2008 bid.)  But this means that she will likely pick a “known quantity”, someone who has run for office at least once, so generals, businessmen, and OPFs (old public functionaries) are probably out.  You are going to want to run with someone who has withstood campaign scrutiny.

So, I am left to conclude that Hillary Clinton’s running mate will probably fit this profile: a male Democrat, in his 50s or early 60s on election day, from the Midwest, Southwest, or a relevant swing state, has no well-known vices or scandals, and has most likely served as a senator or governor in some capacity.  With this in mind,  I would construe Hillary’s running mates to be, in rough order of likelihood:

1.  Mark Warner:  (Profile: Governor of Virginia from 2002-06, Senator from Virginia, 2009-present)  At this early stage, Warner should be considered a solid front-runner.  He remains very popular in Virginia, a state that is a key part of any path to 270 electoral votes.  If you want to win over independent voters, Warner isn’t a bad choice.  He was CEO of a cellular company, and wins points for thriving on two Republican talking points: “creating jobs” and “balancing budgets.”  Warner has made astonishingly few enemies, shows restraint and poise at every turn, and is both the safest and most qualified choice on this list.

2.  Evan Bayh:  (Profile: Governor of Indiana, 1989-1997, Senator from Indiana, 1999-2011).  Bill Clinton once said, “I hope and expect that some day, I will be voting for Evan Bayh for president.”  That may not happen, but he could be voting for him as his wife’s running mate.  According to all sources, Bayh was the silver medalist in Obama’s vice-president search, ultimately losing to Joe Biden.  Under ordinary circumstances, Indiana is barely a swing state; Obama won by a tiny margin in 2008 but lost the Hoosier State by a country mile in 2012.  Evan Bayh, a popular moderate, could swing Indiana back into the blue column in a close election.  Bayh comes, though, with a few minuses that Warner avoids.  He is notoriously uncharismatic, retired from the Senate in disgust in 2010, worked as a FOX News contributor, his wife is a lobbyist, and comes from a political family in a race with one scion too many (although heaven knows I love his dad, ERA-author Birch Bayh.)  Still, it is hard to beat a governor-senator with no real ethical blots on his record.

3.  Julian Castro:  (Profile: Mayor of San Antonio, Texas, 2009-present.)  After a guy named Barack Hussein Obama II gets elected president, all concerns about a politicians’ name can be safely considered alarmist.  The riskiest pick of the top 10, but it is also a high-reward choice.  Castro, only 39, delivered a remarkable  keynote speech in 2012 about what it means to be American.  In contrast to the current modus operandi in much of Texas, Castro has emphasized investment in the future: he has encouraged a pre-K program in San Antonio, and is marketing it as a “brainpower city,” a place of ideas, not just low taxes and shabby working conditions.  The question, though, is one of suitability: we’ve never put a guy whose highest elected office was mayor on a major ticket.  (Although, in earlier times, McGovern considered Boston mayor Kevin White and Walter Mondale considered then-San Francisco mayor Dianne Feinstein.)   The correct retort, of course, is that as mayor of San Antonio, one of America’s ten biggest cities, Castro represents more people than Sarah Palin, Dick Cheney, Joe Biden, or Paul Ryan did in their offices.  Stick that in your Alamo and smoke it.  If he’s picked, look for Republicans to attack his mother for being a part of (gasp!) Latino activist group La Raza.  I don’t think Castro will turn Texas blue in 2016 unless Republicans pick an absolute train wreck, but if the party is interested in purpling the state, more national exposure for someone like Castro is the first step.

4.  Brian Schweitzer: (Profile: Governor of Montana, 2005-2013).  Schweitzer just finished a remarkable turn as governor of Montana for eight years, not only surviving, but thriving in territory unfriendly to Democrats.  His populist demeanor made him one of the best speakers at the last two Democratic conventions.  Few have successfully deflected Obamacare criticism into legitimate arguments about how expensive treatments are in a private health care market.  Seriously- go read this interview over at Slate.  Yet, unlike many governors, he has a healthy degree of experience abroad, having worked on multiple continents as an irrigation developer.  His pro-gun background and visceral dislike of Washington D.C. may attract a different and unexpected set of potential voters.  On the “con” side, many wonder why he didn’t run for the 2014 open U.S. Senate seat, which he could have easily won.  I suspect he will run in the 2016 presidential nomination against Hillary, get his name out there, challenge her from both a conservative and populist perspective, and use this exposure as leverage onto the ticket.

5.  Martin Heinrich:  (Profile: Congressman from New Mexico, 2009-2013, Senator from New Mexico, 2013-present.)  Heinrich is another relatively young guy, only 42 years old, and by 2016, he will have four years in the Senate and a few terms in the House under his belt.  Heinrich is a relative moderate, especially on gun issues, and while New Mexico can now be considered more of a blue state than a swing state, picking him serves as insurance in case the Republican nominee picks New Mexico governor Susanna Martinez.  If he gets passed over, he has nothing to worry about; it is entirely possible he will still be in the Senate 25 years from now.

6.  Tim Kaine:  (Profile: Governor of Virginia, 2006-2010, Senator from Virginia, 2013-present.) If Mark Warner gets hit by a truck or something, there’s always Tim Kaine.  Kaine is truly a poor man’s Warner- a former governor and senator of Virginia who lacks Warner’s crossover appeal to independents and business background.  He won his elections by a small margin, while Warner won his in landslides.  Still, there’s something there; if Bayh was Obama’s second choice for running-mate, Kaine is widely rumored to have been his third choice.

7.  Michael Bennet: (Profile: Senator from Colorado, 2009-present)  I thought about putting Ken Salazar in this spot, but ultimately, his record raises too many questions, and nobody wants to be the head of the Department of the Interior during the Deepwater Horizon mess.  Instead, why not the guy who replaced Salazar in the Senate?  Bennet, who will be only 52 in 2016, checks a lot of boxes.  He is from a swing state where Hillary is polling a little worse than expected, and he was one of the few vulnerable Democrats to survive in 2010.  His background is in education (he was once Superintendent of Denver-area schools), an area where Republicans are vulnerable, and can be helpful in wooing the vote of the demographic that Bill Clinton called “Soccer moms.”

8.  John Lynch:  (Profile: Governor of New Hampshire, 2005-2013).  Lynch breaks two rules I just set forth: he is from the northeast and he will be 65 on Election Day.  But hear me out: New Hampshire is, by its own admission, a little bit different from the rest of New England, a “Live Free or Die” state, which apparently means no helmet laws and welshing on bridge-building agreements with Vermont.  John Lynch was perennially one of the nation’s most popular governors, and has a reputation for republican (small “r”) simplicity and appeal.  His reputation for low taxes and transparency will appeal to many independent voters, and he also helps out in the only state in New England that cannot be guaranteed for Democrats in a close-ish election.  As a businessman, he succeeded not only financially, but on grounds of justice as well: he made sure his employees were well-payed and had retirement plans.  The only problem is his lack of a national reputation or profile: he has rarely done national talk shows or dealt with the national media, which might lead to Palinesque difficulties in acclimating to a presidential level of scrutiny.

9.  Sherrod Brown:  (Profile: Senator from Ohio, 2007-present.) No Republican presidential candidate in the history of the party has won without the state of Ohio in his column, and Brown, under the right conditions, could help take that state out of contention.  Brown, elected twice from the state of Ohio, the mother of all swing states, the state that could have made President Gore or President Kerry, would help Clinton with old-style Democratic voters.  By this, I mean that Brown is an economic populist, not a mountain state “green energy” guy or someone who can win over new demographics.  But, not unlike Joe Biden, he can slow the Democrats’ hemorrhaging of the working-class white vote.  Depending on how far to the center or left Clinton runs, Brown can be a reassuring sop to Democratic party advocates, and he will energize the base if “moderate Hillary” is what emerges in the campaign’s early stages.  Still, his reputation as one of the Senate’s most liberal members may not do much beyond preaching to the choir.

10. Tim Roemer: (Profile:  Congressman from Indiana, 1991-2003, Ambassador to India, 2009-2011).   As events of the last few days in Ukraine have demonstrated, you can’t have too much foreign policy and national security chops on the ticket.  Roemer was instrumental in the creation of the Homeland Security Department and co-chaired the 9/11 Commission.   Aside from that, he spearheaded the creation of Head Start and Americorps, and the hundreds of thousands of Americans who did tenures in these programs won’t forget it.  However, he was a staunch critic of NAFTA, a signature achievement of Bill Clinton’s presidency, which could cause problems with Hillary.  But perhaps the biggest liability with Roemer is his social conservatism, and opposition to abortion.  If the Democrats want to demonstrate they are a “large tent” party, though, a Roemer selection would telegraph that sentiment clearly.

So, what do you think, gentle readers?  Am I missing anyone?

the halfway point

I am delighted to say that we have stepped over the halfway mark on the presidency project with yesterday’s piece on Warren Harding.  21 presidents down with only 20 (the top ten and the bottom ten) to go.

To review, the ones we have covered, in chronological order, are: John Adams, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford Hayes, Chester A. Arthur, William McKinley, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Warren G. Harding, Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.

The eligible presidents still left on the shelf, therefore, are: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, James K. Polk, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush.  Can you guess who belongs where?

So far, I am pleased with how this project has gone along.  The only ranking I am unhappy with is John Tyler; while clearly underrated, #17 is way, way too high for a man who just couldn’t sustain any allies during his stormy 4 years-minus-one-month in office.

I may, though, take a short break from the presidency project to blog about a couple other subjects that I have been putting off.  But rest assured, I will return to it very soon.


bigwarrCategory: Well-Meaning Bumblers

Term in Office: 29th president, 1921-1923

Party: Republican

Home State: Ohio

Ever since the practice of ranking presidents began, we have been led to see the Harding administration as an essay in failure.  For most of the early rankings, he held the very bottom place, until supplanted by James Buchanan on a more or less permanent basis in the 1980s.  The case seems clear cut- he appointed the crooks responsible for Teapot Dome, one of the greatest scandals in the history of the presidency.  He was unable to grasp the particulars of his office, and lacked even a rudimentary  working knowledge of the economy and foreign affairs.  He did not understand his office and lacked the capability of being a strong, decisive president and was summarily unfit for office by both temperament and capability.

All of these conclusions are true, but they are not quite in the proper perspective.  Philip Payne explores our poor treatment of Harding in his book “Dead Last”.  He takes note of how Harding’s life has been surrounded by legend and myth in the ninety years since his death: the shrewish wife, his string of mistresses, his small-town naiveté.  If you are a cosmopolitan or bon vivant who can’t stand provincialism, Harding is a neat target.  If you are a purist who cannot stand corruption, Harding is there as a punching bag.  Even if you are a racist, there are those persistent rumors of “Negro blood” that dogged the Harding family for generations.

Because many of these criticisms do not hold up intact under scrutiny, and because many other presidents have done greater damage to our country’s reputation, I am, on principle, keeping Harding just outside of the bottom 10.  He may have been out of his depth in the presidency.   He may have made many foolish appointments.  But consider for  a moment that he did not initiate an unjust war, his human rights record is better than many presidents.  He did not hold any segment of the public in contempt, and while influenced unduly by corporatists, he was not their toady, which cannot be said of his successor, Coolidge.  You can look for a single instance of Harding behaving in a petty or vindictive manner, and you will come up short.  In other words, stubborn, ideologically committed presidents with a set agenda are high-risk/high-reward; there’s a limit to the amount of damage someone like Harding could do.  If Harding is “dead last,” and our Platonic image of presidential failure, we need to rethink our terms.

Few presidents were more closely linked to small-town America than Harding.  He worked as a journalist before becoming the publisher of the Marion Star.  He caught the attention of a political Svengali; his own Karl Rove, his own Mark Hanna.  This one was named Harry Daugherty, who promoted his political career relentlessly, which included uninspiring stints as state senator, lieutenant governor of Ohio, and finally U.S. Senator from Ohio.  Daugherty’s crafty maneuvering took Harding from an obscure congress-critter whose name even politics buffs would not recognize today into the U.S. presidency. With the public weary of Woodrow Wilson’s American messianism and adventurism abroad, the Republicans were almost assured of victory.  But they strongly disagreed over whom to nominate, and the sundry factions battled against one another so fiercely that all contenders were irreparably damaged.  Clearly, a compromise candidate would be necessary, and in the proverbial “smoke-filled room” in Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel, Daugherty submitted Harding’s name.  He had the fewest enemies and the fewest immediately obvious liabilities, “the best of the second-raters” as one delegate remembered, and he was nominated shortly thereafter.  While Harding’s handlers tried to shut him up and keep him off the record as much as possible, the Ohio senator pledged that he would pursue a course of “normalcy.”  In 1920, that was not a word; Harding flubbed when he meant to say “normality.”  But the public didn’t care; they knew what he meant, and were enamored of this unpretentious Rotarian and Shriner from the small-town midwest.  Daugherty’s man and strategy carried the day– Harding won 61% of the vote, at that time, a record since the two-party system began in its present form.  The Republicans swept the races down-ballot, including 303 seats in the House of Representatives, just about the highest number plausible in the days of the Dixiecrat South.

One of my favorite political history books that I encountered in graduate school was Robert K. Murray’s The Politics of Normalcy.  In it, Murray argues that normalcy was not just a fractured and meaningless phrase; it was a coherent philosophy of government.  Harding deliberately moved to executive delegation after the imperious Wilson years, picking talented men to do most of the heavy lifting, with Harding serving as a congenial mediator and facilitator.  And to an extent, it worked.  Charles Evan Hughes was a slam dunk as Secretary of State, Henry C. Wallace was a very fine Secretary of Agriculture (as was his son), and Herbert Hoover was an inspired pick for Secretary of Commerce.  I have problems with Andrew Mellon, his plutocratic pick for Secretary of Treasury, but let’s wait until we get to Coolidge, where his worst offenses took place.  He generously granted William Howard Taft his lifelong dream of serving as Chief Justice, and though Taft’s jurisprudence is several notches more conservative than I would prefer, he was a wise, learned, and diligent head of the Supreme Court.

Harding, if you think about it, did a remarkable job uniting a Republican Party that was perilously in danger of permanent fracture eight years earlier, divided between regulars and progressive Bull Moosers.  (Arguably, however, Theodore Roosevelt helped the cause of unity even more by dying prior to the 1920 election.)  While Wilson viewed Congress as an ancillary limb of the presidency at best, or a craven group of obstructionists at worse, Harding tried to work more constructively with the body, although his tentative results on farm bills and foreign policy points to limited success.

While we underrate Harding’s ability to find good men to serve his administration, there is no denying that he made several very serious blunders.   Harding’s sloppy style had consequences, and too many scandals went undetected until it was too late.   Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall wrested control of oil reserves from the Navy Department, and sold drilling rights to his friends in exchange for kickbacks in six-digit figures.  Charles Forbes, a deserter from the army whom Harding puzzlingly put in charge of the Veterans’ Bureau, embezzled millions of dollars while denying legitimate claims from injured veterans who needed the money.  Over in the Justice Department, Harding’s old patron Harry Daugherty, now the Attorney General, took numerous payoffs to dismiss cases of fraud and war profiteering.  While there is no evidence that Harding ever personally stole from the public purse, his appointees clearly did.  Here, we see the downside of Harding’s lackadaisical hands-off management style– it promoted an atmosphere where such shameless graft could thrive and go unnoticed for months, even years.  As Nathan Miller puts it in Star-Spangled Men, “he drifted lazily over the bubbling morass of corruption like a hot-air balloon in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.”

Similarly, we have to take into account Harding’s failings as a husband.  As I stated in my write-ups on Kennedy and Clinton, this is not out of Victorian prudery, but rather, out of recognition that a president so compromised creates opportunities for blackmail and manipulation, and this is not in the national interest.  More than that, a president has an obligation that to serve as a role model, an while this is an extraconstitutional responsibility, this cannot be abrogated lightly.  So, Harding’s White House dalliances with Nan Britton and other mistresses can’t be dismissed, especially when you consider Harding’s history of paying them off to keep them quiet.

This is why my rehabilitation of the Harding presidency only goes so far.  And yet, there are a number of commendable tics in Harding’s administration that get lost in the historical shuffle and amidst the scandals that brought down the reputation of his presidency.  I love that he unpretentiously signed the treaty that formally ended our involvement in World War I in between holes while playing a round of golf.  He called for civil rights for black Americans on Southern soil, although he did little to back up his lofty words.  He scaled down American imperialism and Latin American bullying, withdrawing troops from Cuba and Santo Domingo, and even signed a treaty which gave Colombia some well-deserved reparations for our role in Panama’s revolution.  He freed Eugene Debs, who had been wrongfully imprisoned during the World War I-era crackdown on civil liberties.  His dealings with congress show a willingness to compromise and an instinct for knowing when he was pushing too hard for a futile cause.

Eventually, Harding became dimly aware of how badly he had been swindled by members of his “Ohio Gang,” the cronies and good-time Charlies he brought with him and appointed to high offices.  His already precarious health took a turn for the worse as he slowly realized the gravity and breadth of the scandals rocking his administration, and he died on a cross-country trip in 1923. While some have alleged that foul play was involved, including, most strikingly, the charge that his wife had poisoned him, all available eyewitness accounts and doctors’ reports suggest that Harding was a sick man with a severe cardiovascular problem.  At the very least, Harding had the posthumous mercy of of being mourned before the litany of graft that took place under his watch became public knowledge.

Warren Harding gave the nation what it wanted in 1920, and perhaps what it needed as well: a retreat from intervention, idealism, and mucking up affairs abroad, a period of simplicity and calm after an era of tumultuous, if gravely necessary, reform.  In a way, Harding’s campaign was a McGovernesque “Come Home, America” sort of moment, with small-town parochialism and mythology, of course, replacing McGovern’s emphasis on social justice.  Unfortunately, like many myths, it was built on a faulty foundation.  To quote Nathan Miller again, Harding “clung to a vision of a small-town America that had never existed, a utopia of the mid-Victorian dream.”  His election and his bad appointments gave a number of two-bit, small-market, corner-store crooks and swindlers the chance to pillage on a larger, national scale.  Harding was a careless president, and perhaps he should have been self-aware enough to decline a presidency that was beyond his meager talents.  But he was not an evil man, or a catastrophic failure as president.  With some costly, but in the grand scheme of things petty theft happening under his nose, I just can’t put him in a bottom 10 filled with imperialists, incurable racists, megalomaniacs, borderline-treason cases, and warmongers.  Warren Harding might have been a poor judge of character, but the company he kept in life wasn’t quite that bad.

~Incidentally, a number of letters between Harding and his mistresses are scheduled to be released to the public this year, so keep your eyes on the news pages.  They are bound to be interesting.

#11: Dwight Eisenhower

469px-Dwight_D._Eisenhower,_official_Presidential_portraitCategory: Flawed Giant

Term in Office: 34th president, 1953-1961

Political Party: Republican

Home State: Kansas

Dwight Eisenhower is proof that while there may not be second acts in American lives, you can, if you are lucky, enjoy a second act in American posterity.  When Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s presidential rankings were published in 1962, the 75 historians that he surveyed put Ike at a pitiful 22nd out of 31.  Some of this is surely contextual; in the mid-60s, the Eisenhower administration must have seemed very drab and very torpid in the youthful, exciting, and dynamic Camelot era.  However, the Harvard-grade historians that Schlesinger polled brought their own set of conclusions- I won’t say “biases” because they were largely learned and well-reasoned conclusions- to the table.  Most of the Schlesinger crew consisted of academics who publicly pulled for Adlai Stevenson, Eisenhower’s opponent in both the 1952 and 1956 presidential races.  Small wonder; Stevenson had, for a brief moment, made wit, eloquence, and intellectual savvy seem sexy and powerful.  These traits, combined with his progressivism, endeared him to the country’s brain trust.  But as a consequence, that means those historians would not be kindly disposed toward the man whose popularity and success twice denied their hero the presidency.  Since that era, Eisenhower’s reputation has strongly improved, thanks to some excellent work on his presidency, the opening of his records and archives, and input from younger historians less immediately invested in his time.  I am as glad as anyone to see Eisenhower rise out of the bottom ten, but I also worry that perhaps too sharp a reversal has taken place, that we’ve reappraised his presidency a little too highly.  We remember Ike’s moderation on domestic issues, and his skillful mastery over American foreign policy, but we forget some of the more sinister qualities he brought to the table, particularly in respecting democracy in other nations during the Cold War.

The public image of Dwight Eisenhower has not quite caught up.  We still see him as the old war hero, the genial dolt, the benign grandfather of the stable, square 1950s, an “empty carriage” with a vacuous grin.  8 years ago, The Onion had a funny piece that pokes fun at this view set in 1957, where Eisenhower addresses America’s biggest problem: overdue library books.  Truth be known, a clever, sharp, and even Machiavellian mind was behind that grin.

Eisenhower’s narrative importance, though, is really the first place to begin.    Remember, he was the first Republican elected president since 1928; the Democrats had won five consecutive elections going back to 1932 before Eisenhower took office.  It was only a matter of time until the GOP won again.  Having a relative moderate be the victor was nearly an act of providence.  It meant that the banking reforms of the New Deal, social security, the G.I. Bill, the Marshall Plan, and the Containment Policy were all here to stay.  They would not become “Democratic policies”, but part of the accepted American political consensus, one that validated the mandate voters made, that the government had a role in making sure that no one got left behind.  Even the 91% percent top tax rate on America’s wealthiest earners was left intact– it was Kennedy, not Eisenhower, who lowered it.  I cannot understate the value of all this.  This is all the more remarkable because, privately, Eisenhower was far more conservative in his preferences than his actual record suggests- but he was the consummate student of political realism.

In earlier essays, I used the “Value Over Replacement Player” idea to show how good a president was with respect to the other political talent that existed at that time.  Well, Eisenhower’s VORP is through the roof.  Ironically, the general who had never held elected office knew the political game better than almost anybody in Congress, than any governor, at that time.  Consider what would have happened if we elected a dinosaur like Robert A. Taft in 1952, a man who wished to roll back the New Deal, kneecap organized labor, and possibly reverse our commitments to NATO.  Indeed, it was the prospect of Taft becoming president that finally convinced a reluctant Eisenhower to run for office.  At the 1952 GOP convention, when neither candidate was a clear first-ballot winner, Eisenhower’s popularity among delegates and some tactical “dirty pool” in challenging Taft’s Southern delegates both gave him the nomination and presaged how his administration would run: an apolitical and aloof veneer masking a sharp chessmaster.

When looking back on his successes in his retirement, Eisenhower reflected: “The United States never lost a soldier or a foot of ground in my administration.  We kept the peace.  People asked how it happened- by God, it didn’t just happen.  I’ll tell you that.”  Eisenhower’s penchant for organization often made the difference between success and failure, and one could argue it was the single greatest trait he brought to the presidency.  When you look at other former generals who were president, like Zachary Taylor or Ulysses Grant, they were fundamentally battlefield guys.  They gave orders from the field, and they were carried out.  Eisenhower was, in a very sharp contrast, an “office general.”  He wasn’t physically present for a single major WWII battle, but he understood bureaucracies and power, how giving an order does not automatically mean it will be carried out, even in the military.  So, he developed a keen mind for making sure those orders were carried out, choosing good subordinates, and gathering as much information as he could.  He learned to coordinate agencies, and not foster rivalries between them.  Eisenhower brought this sensibility to the Oval Office.  He formalized the offices of Chief of Staff, indispensable to the complex federal bureaucracy the modern presidency must manage, and National Security Advisor.   Looking back at his presidency, which began by skillfully ending the era of open warfare in Korea, and there is an astonishing absence of rookie mistakes, or novices’ flubs.  Eisenhower knew, through his experiences, how to act and maneuver as president, an extremely rare gift.

Beyond his organizational prowess, Eisenhower, was also a cunning political actor, as Fred Greenstein’s book, The Hidden-Hand Presidency aptly demonstrated back in 1982.  He let his chief of staff, Sherman Adams, be seen as the partisan hatchet man, leaving Ike room to maneuver as the “good cop”, the leader who was above all this partisan nonsense, someone every American, Republican or Democrat, could trust.   This is a very sharp contrast indeed from Harry Truman’s scrappy, and often deeply partisan and confrontational style.  Greenstein believes that Eisenhower intentionally played the doofus on the public stage, uttering banalities in speeches and vague generalities at press conferences, giving himself a veneer of dull neutrality.

This strategy was crucial to Eisenhower’s sense of crisis management.  Eisenhower’s public silence but private maneuvering gave him leverage against someone like Joseph McCarthy.  In public, Ike avoided any personal reference to McCarthy whatsoever, and never once publicly railed against him.  Instead, he worked exhaustively behind the scenes to discredit him, and even line up conservative Republican votes for his eventual censure.  This tactic took time, and McCarthy and others like him ruined plenty of lives and tarnished hundreds of innocent reputations in the interim.  Whether he could have been brought down in a hastier, and more forthright way, remains to be seen.

Eisenhower was able to pull off this act in large part because of his overwhelmingly strong and reassuring reputation.  Remember, the Gallup Poll average approval rating for Eisenhower throughout his administration was a staggering 62%.  Again, that is not the high point, it is the average.  Eisenhower’s status as a war hero was part of this, as was his Obamaesque “no drama” approach to the presidency.  But the ace in Ike’s sleeve was, in some ways, his use of religion.  Eisenhower himself was on the fuzzy side of theology (he once said, “our form of government has no sense unless it is founded on some deeply-felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”)  In a manner of speaking though, the United States of America was Eisenhower’s religion, and he was instrumental in making the presidency more priestlike in its role in American life.  He was the first president to routinize the words that conclude nearly every speech every president makes: “God Bless America.”  He instituted the banal “putting on the pious” that is the Presidential Prayer Breakfast.  He was the first of many presidents to cultivate a symbiotic relationship with Billy Graham, America’s most trusted man.  Through all this, he made America’s common religiosity, no matter how vague it was, a rampart against communism.*

Eisenhower largely succeeded in his goal of keeping the United States committed to NATO and limiting communist expansion in Europe, with the important exception of Hungary.  In this sense, Eisenhower’s approach was a continuation of Truman’s Containment Doctrine and his general approach to the Cold War.  There was, however, one crucial difference, and that difference is what persuaded me to kick Eisenhower out of the top ten.  The difference is subtle.  Consider that when Greece and Turkey were both trying to put down internal communist threats, Truman supported these administrations with money and arms to defend themselves, a policy that became known as “The Truman Doctrine.”  Eisenhower’s policy shared the larger goal of checking the spread of communism, but it crossed a red line.  Namely, he used the CIA for an array of covert activity across the world, and often this amounted to deposing democratically elected rulers in favor of someone more suitable to U.S. interests.  This included aiding a coup against Mohammed Mossadeq in Iran after he nationalized the oil wells, training insurgents in Guatemala who overthrew Jacobo Arbenz after his land reform measures confiscated land from the United Fruit Company, and leading a revolt in the Republic of Congo that ended in the assassination of its premier, Patrice Lumumba.  Under Eisenhower, the CIA became a kind of shadow government unto itself with limited accountability before the public. In his zeal to win the Cold War, Eisenhower also compromised civil liberties at home, broadening the FBI’s ability to spy on potentially subversive groups unconnected to communism, supported removing citizenship of those convicted of conspiring against the government, and removed J. Robert Oppenheimer’s security clearance, although he privately thought there was scarcely any real evidence against him.

There was also the enduring question of who had access to power.  Eisenhower is famous for declaring, “what is good for General Motors is good for the United States of America.”  Eisenhower’s modus operandi was a government run by business leaders and friendly to business leaders.   Charles Faber writes in his book, The American Presidents Ranked by Performance, that Eisenhower’s vision, such as it was, posited “the United States as a self-disciplined, cooperative society marked by enlightened corporate leadership.”  Eisenhower’s pro-business governance included National Steel Corporation chair George Humphrey as Secretary of Treasury, and General Motors CEO Charles Wilson as Secretary of Defense.  In fact, out of his entire cabinet, only one person was not a millionaire.  This is problematic, and highlights my belief that the government should not be run as a business.  The purpose of a business is to make a profit.  The purpose of a government is to secure justice, and the two are often at cross-ends.  Small wonder, then, that this was the era of military buildup and brinksmanship.  Plenty of people, many of them tied to the industries represented among Eisenhower’s advisors, made a great deal of money off of the Cold War.  While ordinary Americans may have loved Ike, they did not always have a voice at his table.

This effective and efficient, but morally agnostic, worldview also spilled over into one of the biggest “values” questions of Eisenhower’s day: the civil rights movement.  Throughout his career, Ike viewed civil rights activists as a “special interest,” the same way he viewed labor, women’s issues, and frankly, nearly everything besides business.  Eisenhower inadvertently moved the country closer to a just resolution on the color line through his Supreme Court appointments, several of which turned out to be far more liberal than he could have ever imagined, most notably his choice for Chief Justice, Earl Warren.  A year and a half into Eisenhower’s presidency, the court unanimously (!!) passed the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which ruled that racially separate schools were inherently unequal, and declared that such schools should integrate with “all deliberate speed.”  Eisenhower was, to say the least, annoyed at the court for forcing his hand on such a delicate issue.    The decision invariably led to entrenched opposition in Dixie (and beyond Dixie, but don’t worry, we aren’t at Nixon yet.)  When Arkansas’s governor, Orval Faubus, defied the ruling, Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne (or rather, the white guys in the 101st Airborne) to enforce it.  This made Eisenhower the first president since Ulysses Grant to use federal troops to enforce civil rights for black Americans in Dixie– an important laurel, but one Eisenhower carried out not out of any passion of equal opportunity, or any anger at justice denied, but simply because Faubus defied the courts.

In the end, sorry Ike.  I just can’t put you in the Top Ten.  It is a shame, though.  I look at someone like Jimmy Carter, who did not know how to use power well or instill public confidence.  Yet, his decisions- whether pivoting to a human rights foreign policy, appointing Volcker to the Fed, or even installing solar panels on the White House, created short-term pain and frustration and sacrifice for long-term gain.  A lot of the problems that Ike addressed were quite the opposite: short-term, but popular, solutions that would bear bad fruit in the decades to come.  His use of the CIA has ramifications we are still dealing with in the Obama years with respect to domestic and foreign surveillance.  His attempts to depose unfriendly regimes may have given a temporary leg up to the U.S. side of the Cold War, but created a reservoir of ill will against the United States.  Come to think of it, this included the pent up rage against the Shah that triggered the Iranian Revolution in ’79 and torpedoed Carter’s presidency.  Even the interstate highway system, his most trumpeted domestic accomplishment, contributed to suburban sprawl, the pitifully low use of public transportation, and our lamentably high carbon footprint.  Good for General Motors, indeed.

My review is full of criticisms, but their purpose is to show that Eisenhower’s presidency was able and effective, but cannot be called “great” without some heavy qualifiers along the way.  John McCain used the phrase “a steady hand at the tiller” during the 2008 presidential debates to describe himself, and there is no question that Eisenhower had a steady, calming hand in tumultuous times.  He may have prioritized internal order over justice, and he may have been slow and obfuscating on urgent matters where others might have been more forthright.  In the end, it amounts to a masterful handling of the presidency, and the very important retention and continuity of the New Deal, commingled with a reluctance to side with the less fortunate.  Eisenhower’s farewell address is the only one we remember aside from Washington’s, and in it, he warns his countrymen of “the military-industrial complex.”  After eight years of doing everything in his power to embolden and enrich said complex, his warning may be seen as facetious, but I see it as tragic, as if, at the very end, Eisenhower had realized that the U.S. was winning the Cold War at the loss of its soul.

*To be sure, though, Eisenhower’s vagueness on “religious faith” helped to make room for Catholic and Jewish voices in public discourse.  In a way, he helped pave the way for Bishop Sheen, John Kennedy, Rabbi Heschel, Michael Novak, and plenty of others.

#30: Chester A. Arthur

bigchestCategory: Empty Carriage

Term in Office: 21st president, 1881-1885

Political Party: Republican

Home State: New York

“Chet Arthur?  President of the United States?  Good God!” This was the reaction, even among his fellow Republicans, when Chester Alan Arthur became president after James Garfield succumbed, after weeks of agony, to a gunshot wound compounded by multiple infections from his doctors’ unsterile fingers.  Their incredulity over President Arthur is quite understandable.

Early in his career, Chester Arthur attached himself to one of the greatest practitioners of machine politics in the Gilded Age, becoming a disciple of the powerful Roscoe Conkling, leader of the faction of Republicans called the Stalwarts.  As Conkling’s fortunes rose, so did Arthur’s, and by the 1870s, he was the Collector of the Port of New York, the most lucrative job on the federal payroll, earning more money than even the president.  But the collection of duties and the dispensing of jobs lent themselves to wholesale corruption, and the Port of New York was virtually synonymous with all manners of sordid and unsavory practices.   Machine politics and graft were the lifeblood of politics at this time– you got ahead by aligning yourself to a machine, serving loyally, getting perhaps a good job at the post office or something, and you were expected to give some money back to the people who put you there, as an act of good faith, and as a way of funding future elections.  There is no smoking gun establishing that Arthur himself took part in bribery or kickbacks, but it is a near-certainty that he tolerated or winked at or facilitated these practices in some other way.  The Port of New York became such a public embarrassment that honest old Rutherford Hayes fired Arthur, a bold move that nonetheless made a dangerous enemy of Conkling.

When the Republicans met to nominate a president in 1880, Hayes was not a serious contender even if he had wanted to be.  The various factions between Conkling, Blaine, and even Ulysses Grant, cancelled each other out before the convention settled on dark-horse candidate James Garfield, a Ohio congressman offensive to no one.  To thumb their nose at the departing President Hayes, and to appease Roscoe Conkling, his lieutenant, Arthur, was chosen to balance the ticket.  Conkling begged Arthur to refuse the honor, but the sidewhiskered politician rebuffed his benefactor and accepted the nomination.  Garfield and Arthur won, but tragedy soon struck.  Garfield was shot by a deluded office-seeker and unsuccessful theologian named Charles Guiteau who thought he would be rewarded with a plumb diplomatic posting if a Stalwart like Arthur was president.  When Garfield died, Arthur became president.

To put this state of affairs in perspective, consider that Arthur had no meaningful executive experience (he was never a governor or a cabinet member), nor had he ever served in Congress.  You can make a case that Chester Arthur was the least qualified president in American history.  Add to this, Arthur’s close links with graft, sleaze, and machine politics.  If you knew nothing about any of the presidents, looked over each one of their resumés before assuming office, and were asked: “pick out which guy you think would be the worst one,” chances are, you would say Arthur.  Chester Arthur exceeded the public’s very low expectations, but that is like being slightly more sober than Charlie Sheen.

Nevertheless, the manner in which James Garfield died made one matter especially pressing: civil service reform, clamping down on the spoils system, and making at least some attempt to make sure qualified people were given federal jobs.  Arthur surprised the country by slowly coming around to civil service reform despite graft and bossism placing him in his present position.  No major scandal touched his administration, and while he may have given a larger-than-average share of Cabinet positions to Stalwarts, they were all qualified individuals who served ably.  Congress, too, got on the civil service reform bandwagon after Garfield’s demise.  The result was the Pendleton Act, which Arthur signed into law.  It allowed for competitive exams to determine the truly qualified for all jobs in federal departments, as well as larger customs houses and post offices which employed more than fifty people.  It was a modest half-measure, but nonetheless a step forward in supplying the machinery of government with competent workers.

But good heavens– the spoils system?  If we step back for a moment and consider the larger picture, this is silly, even if we take Garfield’s death into account.  That was the major issue of the day that roused the national dander?  That was what caught the attention of prominent men and moral reformers?  Men, women and children were working twelve hours a day in fetid conditions, monopolies were beginning to coalesce, farmers were being robbed blind by collusion among the railroads, the South was by now a cruel mockery of an egalitarian society, and the spoils system was what made people angry?  This is decadent bourgeois morality.  I say this not to put down Arthur– Arthur’s priorities are but a symptom of a lopsided worldview that was upset by small, petty, and in some ways ultimately harmless one-hand-washes-the-other politics, but ignored more pressing problems that did not affect the well-to-do class of federal officeholders.  How sad that the Republican Party, a genuinely radical force in American politics during its first decade, calcified into a morally disingenuous racket within twenty years.

At any rate, one decent law does not a good presidency make.  Arthur’s problem isn’t corruption; he was far cleaner than the public would have ever predicted.  The presidency can, at times, make the man in office better, and the weight of the office turned Arthur from a crook into something much closer to the honest end of the spectrum.  However, the majesty of the presidency was not enough to turn a sluggard into a worker.  See, the biggest drawback with Arthur is the paucity of any kind of work ethic, and his reluctance to do any more than the bare minimum to execute the law of the land.  It is hard to think of a president who put in fewer hours-per-day on the job than Chester A. Arthur.  He often retired early in the afternoon, and lazed about.  There are a few reasons for his lack of energy, one of which is quite justified: unbeknownst to the public, Arthur was battling Bright’s Disease, a fatal kidney ailment that took his life a mere 18 months into his retirement.

But even taking the disease into account, Arthur had a history as a serial delegator who gave most of the spadework to his subordinates and cabinet and kept precious little in his own portfolio.   If you go back and read the Federalist Papers, you’ll see an expectation by Hamilton and Madison that the presidency would be held by ambitious and energetic men.  Arthur is, in his way, an antithesis of that vision.   He was placed in his office by accident, showed little gumption, and was only on a presidential ticket in the first place because he was tickled pink at being so honored.  Even in an age where the president was not expected to do very much and the momentum was with Congress (or rather, the industrialist stooges who really controlled Congress), you just hate to see a president who wasn’t interested in carrying out the job to the fullest.

Instead, Arthur dedicated what energy he had to his wardrobe and a life of luxury.  Called “Elegant Arthur” he combed his side whiskers carefully, and wore the finest of tailored clothes.  His alma mater, Union College of Schenectady, New York, has on exhibition some of the eighty pairs of trousers Arthur owned.  To compound this, Arthur was a middle-class man with aristocratic diffidence.  He did not enjoy meeting ordinary Americans, and he rarely met with the press.  Unlike the best presidents– for that matter, unlike several average ones– Chester Arthur did not care to spend time with the public, or take the slightest effort to communicate with them beyond a few routine audiences every now and then.

Back when we discussed Herbert Hoover, I listed my Mount Rushmore of Hard Workers.  Arthur earns a place on the Mount Rushmore of Slothful, Nap-Taking, Stop-Working-at-Five-to-Play-Canasta Presidents, alongside William Howard Taft, Calvin Coolidge, and Ronald Reagan.  (Speaking of Sloth, maybe I should come up with a Mount Rushmore for each of the Seven Deadly Sins….).

The only other major bill from this era does not reflect well on Arthur: it became known to history as the Chinese Exclusion Act.  The original version of the bill, put forth by nativist West-coast legislators fearful of “oriental hordes” undercutting white free labor, banned all immigration from China for 20 years.  Arthur rightly vetoed the bill, and Congress huddled, putting forward a bill that banned all immigration from China for only 10 years.  Somehow, this change was enough to meet Arthur’s standards; he signed it, the only bill in American history that specifically targeted a nation and prevented its people from immigrating.  This travesty was expanded for another ten years in 1892 and made permanent in 1902 before being repealed in the 1940s, but Arthur can scarcely be held accountable for that.

Arthur was not renominated for the presidency, the most recent sitting president to be denied this honor.  His erstwhile opponent, James G. Blaine, was chosen by the Republicans instead, and the Maine politician lost to Grover Cleveland, ending the Republicans’ string of presidential election victories (some more decisive than others) that stretched all the way back to 1860 and Lincoln’s first election.

To conclude, I need to address Arthur’s rather lower than average ranking, and in particular, why I put him below Millard Fillmore.  Both were lackluster upstate New Yorkers who were suddenly catapulted to the presidency by the death of their respective predecessors, but traditionally, Arthur ranks several spots ahead of Fillmore.  In my judgment, this is faulty; you have to rank the president, and not the times in which they served.  Fillmore, through no fault of his own, had to make a possibly no-win decision on the Compromise of 1850.  Arthur, in contrast, presided over relatively prosperous times and lived through a tranquil Pax Britannica with no major foreign policy crises.  If the two men switched terms, I have difficulty seeing Arthur being anything more than an unmotivated, even less effectual, version of Millard Fillmore.  Imagining President Arthur is difficult.  Imagining President Arthur during a crisis situation, though, is horrifying.  There was not any real conviction driving him, there was not any real devotion to public service.  He exceeded the country’s very low expectations of his presidency, and he did sign some important civil service reform into law, but, ever the procrastinator, he left a bevy of problems for future administrations to resolve.  A shame.  Arthur is a sartorial success, and his side-whiskers are a wonder to behold, but looking past these superficials, he is little more than empty carriage in refined decoration.

*Incidentally, Fillmore and Arthur share something else in common: we do not have access to many of their records; both men had their correspondence destroyed shortly after their deaths.  Perhaps as a consequence of this, they are probably our two most obscure presidents.  Zachary Taylor, too, suffers from this paucity of archival material, but this was not his fault: his Louisiana manse was sacked during the Civil War, and most of his written records met a fiery end.

#12: John Adams

imagesCategory: Brave but Impolitic

Term in Office: 2nd president, 1797-1801

Political Party: Federalist

Home State: Massachusetts

For a short, balding, toothless, pudgy, disagreeable Yankee, John Adams has become remarkably sexy during the last decade.  A bestselling book by David McCollough and an award-winning HBO miniseries starring Paul Giamatti have helped to put John Adams squarely in the limelight after having taken a cultural backseat to Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin since the 18th century.

And a good thing, too.  Adams brought a healthy dose of pessimism, realism, and even a dash of misanthropy and curmudgeonliness to American polity, which many of his revolutionary colleagues lacked.  Every time Jefferson tried to expound on ethereal notions of liberty and ascendant golden ages of mankind, Adams was there to burst his bubble and remind his erstwhile colleague about our capacity for evil, greed, and cruelty.  Perhaps that is why Adams was a B-list Founding Father for so long– he spent so little time and had so little interest flattering his contemporaries and posing for posterity.  Brilliant but sensitive to his reputation, accomplished but in perpetual self-doubt, easily hurt but never failing to eventually forgive, Adams is perhaps the most human and the most accessible of United States’ first generation of leaders.  He seems made not of marble, but of flesh.

On the balance, I am inclined to put Adams down as one of our most successful one-term presidents.  He served early enough to codify and legitimate good, healthy, small-r republican practices, and set plenty of useful precedents of his own.  Like my #13 choice, his presidency’s accomplishments fly under the radar because he spent his time in office averting crises and disasters, rather than ratcheting up legislative achievements.    Adams made a few key decisions, particularly in avoiding an all-out war with France, that allowed his infant country to survive its tumultuous early years.

Few presidents walked into the job with a more useful array of experience than Adams.  He played a pivotal role at multiple times during the American Revolution: as a key voice clamoring for independence.  He brought forth George Washington’s name as a potential leader of the Continental Army, he served on the committee that wrote the Declaration of Independence, he secured timely military aid from France and timely financial loans from the Netherlands, and served as an early ambassador to Court of St. James.  Adams could have retired at 45 and still merited a place in the American pantheon, but his ambition drove him on, becoming a favorite of the New England delegation.  He twice placed second in the electoral college, thus earning the right to become vice-president under George Washington.  But as vice-president, Adams was discouraged by the lack of influence the position held.   “My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived,” he once groused.  When Washington made it clear he would not serve a third term, Adams was his logical successor, and he won a narrow, three-vote electoral college victory over his friend and rival, Thomas Jefferson.

Although reliant on Federalist support, Adams was loathe, throughout his career, to view himself as a party man.  “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, concerting measures in opposition to each other.  This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constition.”  Adams said this in 1789, just as Washington was taking office, and his fears transpired during his own presidency.  A nascent two party system had formed by then (when earlier, statesmen had been characterized very loosely and very inchoately as pro- or anti-administration.)  By the time Adams took office, there was a coherent party called the Democrat-Republicans, headed by Jefferson, and the Federalists, headed not by Adams, but Alexander Hamilton.  Although Manning Dauer’s book The Adams Federalists demonstrates that Adams had a surprising number of loyal supporters in Congress, Adams insisted on an apolitical approach to public affairs.  He boasted late in life that he had never sought an office himself, but had always been put forward for the job by his fellow citizens.

This apolitical approach was both a blessing and a curse to the Adams administration.  In some ways, being the second president is a much harder task than being the first president, especially when you have to follow a man with a truly continental reputation such as George Washington.  Adams had no such reservoir of national goodwill to fall back on.  One early area of contention was the cabinet– it was loaded with party-line Federalists more loyal to Hamilton than Adams.  Adams gets a certain degree of flack for keeping this mediocre and disloyal lot in office, but in his defense, consider that no presidential succession had yet taken place.  It was not yet the custom for the incoming president to put his own men in, even if he was in broad agreement with the previous president.  Eventually, fed up with having his own subordinates thwarting him, he fired his Secretary of State and Secretary of War, allowing himself a greater measure of control over his administration.  This, too, set an important precedent of allowing the president near-absolute control over his cabinet once they were in office, allowing him to fire or request resignations as he chose.  The cabinet served at the president’s pleasure.

In terms of his comportment, Adams followed many elements from George Washington’s playbook, visiting nearly every state, delivering his State of the Union addresses in person to Congress (Jefferson would later reverse this practice, and it would not be revived until Woodrow Wilson’s term over a century later.)  In life, Adams was often wrongly accused of being a monarchist.  The fact of the matter is that he was more concerned about demagoguery and anarchy more than many of the other founders, and thought a strong executive branch and checks on absolute democracy the best way to avoid these unsavory outcomes of “mob rule.”  At times this made Adams appear petty and vain and aristocratic, but in hindsight, his views are, as always, a useful check on Jeffersonian optimism.

But, as I said earlier, the wisest thing Adams did as president was avoid a war with France.  After the Jay Treaty had been signed during the Washington administration, its favorable provisions toward the British angered France, who began seizing American ships.   He worked on solutions immediately; one very farsighted move Adams can claim credit for is the establishment of a Navy Department, and improving the Navy from “virtually non-existent” to “well below average” (actually a considerable improvement.)  The new frigates helped bolstered his hand in negotiations and let him argue from a position of strength.  Adams sent a team of diplomats to France to smooth things over, but when Talleyrand’s guys demanded bribes before the negotiations even started, war fever broke out, especially among the Federalists.   Adams allowed a large standing army to be mustered in preparation of a war, but made it clear that his first priority was peace, sending William Vans Murray of Maryland to France to secure a resolution to the conflict.

Any attempt to cover the Adams presidency, though, would be remiss without addressing the most conspicuous stain on his term in office, the set of laws that has gone down in history as the Alien and Sedition Acts.  Let’s talk about the section which has the most toxic reputation in the history books, the Sedition Act.  I am going to go against conventional wisdom, and I am going to make my libertarian friends irate for saying this, but I think the act was both constitutional and justifiable.  First of all, barely a dozen people were convicted under the act; this wasn’t some Stalinesque act of political oppression, so some sense of proportion is needed.  And most of the prosecuted were, in fact, legitimately guilty of defaming the Adams administration during a national crisis and spread provably wrong slanders against him.  Finally, in the court of law, the truth of the matter could be used as a defense; if you said something against the Adams administration that turned out to be true, you could not be found guilty.

This is a rather important distinction.  When I hear some jackass on the radio calling the president a “Muslim” who “wants to bring America down”, I don’t think “my goodness, isn’t it a wonderful thing that we have a First Amendment that protects that kind of talk, even if I disagree with it.”  No.  No no no.  Criticizing an administration is fine; libeling an administration is not.  On the contrary, I want to throw the bugger in jail- when one knowingly spreads information that is not true about the president, or any public official, one poisons the well of public discourse, and needs to be held accountable.   Although its sister, the Alien Act, which expanded the number of years someone had to wait before earning U.S. citizenship from 5 to 14 was, in its way, troublingly xenophobic, I see nothing unethical about the Sedition Act.  It sounds far worse on paper than in practice.  If you want to go after presidents with bad records on civil liberties, start with Woodrow Wilson, not Adams.

In his quest to avoid war with France, Adams was a success, and Napoleon, now in power in the metropole, was eager to strike a deal and end a distracting skirmish with the United States.  Unfortunately, Adams secured a tentative deal with France only after the election of 1800, where he was voted out of office.  The Federalists lost control of Congress as well, leading to a Democratic-Republican sweep, and the first change of party rule under the Constitution.

Like Fillmore, Adams contributed to the death of his political party.  But while Fillmore rent his Whig Party apart by being thickheaded and clueless, Adams self-destructed the Federalist Party out of principle and farsightedness.  (This is why Adams is #12 and Madison is at #25 and McKinley is at #28– one guy avoided an unnecessary war and two guys initiated an unnecessary war)  After Thomas Jefferson won in 1800, the Federalists never came within sniffing distance of the presidency, or control of Congress, again.  Adams’ is, perhaps, the most admirable of administrations: the “throw yourself at the grenade” presidency.  He could have revived Federalist fortunes and perhaps won re-election by saber-rattling and satisfying American honor by taking on France, but a large-scale war against a continental power would have been most unwise.  They don’t make medals big enough for guys like John Adams.  His ability to eschew what was popular and expedient for what was right secures his place among our top dozen presidents.

Here is what does not get said all that often: Adams gave up power he still wanted to have.  When Washington left office, he was ready to retire from public life; he was weary of the barbs thrown at him in derision, especially over the unpopular Jay Treaty.  Adams left office involuntarily; he was put on the ballot for a second term, he wanted to stay president, and the electorate chose Jefferson in his stead.  It is so very easy to forget that when this took place, Adams remained commander-in-chief.  He was head of the military, and he held a very proactive view of a president’s power.  If he wished, Adams could have challenged Jefferson’s claim to the presidency by force of bayonet. And yet, he stepped down.  He was not especially gracious about it– he skipped town in the middle of the night on the red-eye hackney coach back to Quincy, Massachusetts, and never saw Jefferson in person again in this life.  Nevertheless, the fact remains that he stepped down, establishing a virtuous precedent every bit as deep as Washington’s.  You step down not just when you are ready to retire, but when you are voted out of office.

Addendum: One of the interesting things about writing Adams’ piece immediately after Fillmore’s is that I have now covered two Unitarians in a row.  In fact, it is helpful to point out that three out of our fifteen antebellum presidents were Unitarians (John Quincy was the other), meaning that 20% of our presidents before the Civil War were doctrinally opposed to the idea of the Trinity and would have thought Christ a good man, but surely not God.  (Come to think of it, Jefferson and Lincoln also believed something along those lines as well, although neither was a Unitarian.)  Keep this in mind next time you end up in an argument with someone who perceives America as “a Christian nation.”

#29: Millard Fillmore

170px-MfillmoreCategory: Empty Carriage

Term in Office: 13th president, 1850-1853

Political Party: Whig

Home State: New York


Millard Fillmore seems to be obscurity personified.  So little does the public know about him, so inadequate the state of the scholarship on his life, that he becomes the empty man of the presidential pantheon, the sort of guy you put in the back corner of the Hall of Presidents.  Millard Fillmore seems to be such a cypher, such a bland placeholder president, that he has become a small national joke.  One recent book The Remarkable Life of Millard Fillmore, is an uproariously false take on his life, a comedic attempt to make Millard Fillmore’s life interesting.  Plot points include challenging Andrew Jackson to a duel, escaping the Alamo in women’s clothing, and living a double life as Zorro. And, of course, there is the not funny, not droll, strawman-ridden Mallard Fillmore comic strip by some guy named Bruce Tinsley. Nowadays, Fillmore’s name lights up the internet via the excellent news-and-history-and-science blog, Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub.  (The blog’s name comes from an amusing falsehood H.L. Mencken put forth, suggesting that the only accomplishment of Fillmore’s presidency was to put a bath tub in the presidential mansion.  Mencken made the whole thing up to make fun of Fillmore’s vacuousness, and later admitted as such. But that didn’t stop this factoid from being re-published in presidential trivia books and even some grade-school textbooks.  So, “Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub” becomes a shorthand for its author Ed Darrell’s laudable commitment to distinguish historical truth from historical myth.)

This obscurity has often seeped into the rankings.  In Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s 1962 survey, he is 26th out of 31.  In a 1996 update, he is at 31 out of 39.  And in 2009, C-SPAN’s survey put him at 37 out of 42.  I would venture to guess that Fillmore places so very, very low largely because so little is remembered and because he is smack in the middle of the litany of dull, ineffectual pre-Lincoln presidents.

Throughout all this, I feel the need to give Millard Fillmore a fair hearing.  I earned my Ph.D. from the University at Buffalo, where Fillmore once served as chancellor.  I attended a college in New York’s Southern Tier where the closest sit-down restaurant and grocery store were seven miles down the road in a town called Fillmore, named after the president.   I’ve seen his grave, and I’ve visited his home in East Aurora, New York.  Me and Millard go way back, and my argument for today is this: Fillmore was an uninspiring and unoriginal, but basically decent president, who nonetheless made some decisions that proved disastrous down the road and inflamed bloody sectional hatred.  In particular, he bares a measure of responsibility for the Compromise of 1850, which technically delayed a civil war for almost ten years, but actually made such an outcome far more likely.

To get to the bottom of this, we need to delve a bit into the background. Fillmore, an unsuccessful candidate for New York governor, and a four-term congressman from western New York, supplemented the Whig’s presidential ticket with Zachary Taylor in hopes of winning New York’s all-important electoral votes and securing the favor of Thurlow Weed, the state’s political raja with whom Fillmore worked closely.  Fillmore was a hack, and he probably knew it, a vestige of an age where vice-presidents were recklessly chosen to balance a presidential ticket, or provide a sop to one faction or other, rather than their capacity to administer and lead.  (This was also compounded by the Whigs’ belief in a president ought to be subordinate to the wishes of Congress, one reason why they tended to nominate uninspiring figures without clear opinions or agendas.)  Millard spent a year and a half as vice-president, ignored by Taylor (who deferred all questions involving New York appointments to William Seward, leader of a rival faction.)

Instead, Fillmore did the only thing he was allowed, as vice-president, to do– he presided over the Senate, his tenure coinciding with the contentious debates surrounding the 1850 Compromise.  In the end, the compromise passed, a series of measures which admitted California as a free state, ceded parts of Texas to New Mexico Territory, gave New Mexico Territory the option of adopting slavery (although its climate made it unsuitable for the plantation-style agriculture in which slavery thrived in the Americas), and most problematically of all, instituted a harsh Fugitive Slave Act.

Taylor had grave reservations about the compromise, especially the provisions expanding slavery to the southwest, at least in theory.  We’ll never know just what he would have done had he lived, but it is likely he would have vetoed at least part of the compromise.  Fillmore, a stalwart unionist who wanted to keep the country together, was more amenable to compromise.  Far from being passive, he leaned on “Cotton Whigs”, those willing to work with the South to vote for the bill, and encouraged anti-slavery “Conscience Whigs” to abstain.  The compromise measures passed, but they were a pyrrhic victory, a major legislative accomplishment that nonetheless doomed Fillmore’s presidency and sundered his own political party.

See, Fillmore’s problem was that he was using an antiquated playbook.  There is certainly an understandable logic behind signing a major compromise.  Compromises had been part of America’s political fabric from the very beginning.  They allowed small states and large states to agree to a Constitution.  Jefferson and Hamilton later compromised, agreeing to Hamilton’s ambition financial plan in exchange for putting the capital on the Potomac, away from the fiscal centers of New York and Philadelphia. Compromise allowed the question of Missouri’s entrance to the union to be resolved equitably, creating the state of Maine to counterbalance the new slave state.  You have to use history as a guide, and Fillmore likely assumed a hard-won, large-scale compromise would work just as it always had.

Unfortunately, Fillmore was dead wrong, and the compromise only exacerbated the feelings of distrust between slavery’s defenders in the South and its critics in New England.  The Fugitive Slave Law was the killing arrow.  It ordered federal marshals to seek out escaped slaves anywhere in the nation, and imposed a harsh $1,000 penalty on anyone who abetted or aided a slave in flight.  To New Englanders, this seemed like a law that demanded one violate one’s own conscience, and the North could no longer be considered a safe haven for refugee slaves.   Even more to the point, many in New England had seen very few slaves, or very few blacks for that matter; slavery was an abstraction, and unpleasant abstractions are easily forgotten or avoided.  The Fugitive Slave Act, though rarely enforced to the letter of law, made the “peculiar institution” much, much less of an abstraction, and much more of a reality.  It reminded the Yankee conscience that it was complicit in the “peculiar institution.”  The North would not forget this law, nor the party that pushed for its passage.  Indeed, Vermont and Wisconsin, ironically borrowing tactics first used in the South, attempted to nullify the law, and declare it unconstitutional.  In Syracuse and Pittsburgh apprehended slaves attracted mobs who beset the hapless federal marshals, and set the former slaves at liberty.

Fillmore’s problem was a failure to understand the consequences of his laws, and a lack of imagination to pursue, and work for, alternatives.  His want of vision, his inability to realize that his was truly a crisis presidency, was so profound that it may have dealt the killing blow to his own political party.  In 1852, the Whigs barely considered nominating Fillmore for a full term in his own right, although the president telegraphed signals that he was willing to accept if chosen.  Instead, the Whigs once again nominated a military hero, Winfield Scott.  Scott was vain and pompous, but he was also the keenest and most brilliant military mind the country had yet produced.  The general was a great candidate, but his bid was futile.  The Whigs, distrusted by the South and reviled in the North for a compromise that only increased distrust and suspicion, won only four states in the election, losing to an unknown alcoholic, Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire.  Within two years of Fillmore leaving office, the Whig Party would no longer exist.

There were a few other loose ends to the Fillmore administration that I need to address here.  One of the only accomplishments that presidential trivia buffs remember about the man is that he commissioned Admiral Perry’s “Great White Fleet” to Japan.  Perry, in a maritime display that was one part shock-and-awe and one part tacit threat, opened reluctant Japan to American trade, continuing the forays into the Pacific begun by John Tyler.  Other presidents from his era spent their energies angering and invading Meso-America and the Caribbean; Fillmore took the time to cross an entire ocean to needle Japan.  And while seen as a doughface, do-nothing president, Fillmore twice took decisive military action to check Southern intransigence, once to keep Texas from illegally invading and annexing New Mexico, and once again to reinforce South Carolina forts during rumblings of secession.  We credit Andrew Jackson for putting down a secessionist threat, and we disavow James Buchanan for his squeamishness in doing the same.  But we forget Fillmore’s strength and decisiveness in emergency situations.

This is a presidential ranking that punishes malice and evil.  Fillmore demonstrated neither, and given some of the other presidents we have yet to exhume in this series, I cannot justify putting him in the bottom 10.  There are worse things in politics than to be a dull, doughy, dutiful time-server.  He wanted laudable ends– a country whose separate parts could work together in amity– but was unable to figure out a way to do it beyond the antiquated and flawed system of compromises that merely kicked the interconnected problems of slavery and expansion down the road, a road that led with mounting likelihood toward civil war.  Ultimately, Millard Fillmore saw the question of slavery as a political matter, and not a moral matter, and as long as slavery remained constitutional, he would continue to enforce unpopular measures such as the Fugitive Slave Act.  Fillmore’s political solution, in the form of the 1850 compromise, left the moral questions slavery raised unanswered, as Northern abolitionists and Southern firebrands addressed it with increasingly biblical intensity.

As for Fillmore’s post-presidential career, which included a run for president on the repugnant white Protestant nationalist American Party, or Know-Nothing Party, the less that is said, the better.  It doesn’t reflect his ranking, since I am only looking at his presidency.  But let’s just say it shows how Fillmore wasn’t very adept at perceiving his country beyond the immediate future, and his association with those nativist jackasses, those antebellum Sheriff Arpaios, does not help his historical reputation.

Incidentally, I had a very difficult time choosing who was #29 and who was #30 on this list.  Both contenders were vice-presidents elevated to the presidency by the death of their predecessor.  Both had funny names.  Both lived in upstate New York.  Both made a feeble attempt to be re-nominated and were rebuffed by their parties.  Maybe you’ve figured out who is immediately below Millard in the ranking, but if you haven’t yet, stay tuned…



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