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#39: James Buchanan

bigbuchCategory: Failed Ideologue

Term in Office: 15th president, 1857-1861

Party: Democratic

Home State: Pennsylvania

It was my first big research paper for graduate school, and I was terrified out of my mind.  We had to select a topic and address it from one of the plethora of historical theories and approaches we learned in twelve weeks from a brilliant, but ruthlessly exacting and humorless German taskmaster of a professor.  My line of thought was this: we spend so much time studying epochal figures that I wanted to look closely at how unsuccessful people take part in the historical process.  In short, I wanted to study failure, and like a moth to the flame, I was drawn to James Buchanan.  I ended up throwing a complete hail mary, mixing local history through Pennsylvania boosterism of James Buchanan, with counterfactuals- that is, approaching history not through the lens of inevitability, but asking yourself “what if this alternative outcome happened?”  I got a B+ on the paper, the only time in my life I was grateful for a grade that wasn’t an A.

Counterfactuals are a dangerous terrain for any historian, but in this instance, I think it is warranted.  The case for James Buchanan’s failure as president seems self-evident.  Buchanan, a cursory reading of history tells us, was the weak, vacillating figure who rung his hands as South Carolina seceded from the union, the Deep South seized federal property and Fort Sumter was besieged.  Like the 75 years of bad scholarship on Neville Chamberlain and the dangers of “appeasement,” whatever that’s supposed to mean, the laziness of this account makes me a tiny bit suspect.  Much of it holds up, but that doesn’t mean we can’t dissect it and pick it apart a bit.

Part of our national revulsion of Buchanan might be tied to the persistent issue of Old Buck’s sexuality.  Look at the traditional barbs thrown at Buchanan: weak, vacillating, cowardly, untrustworthy, fussy, dandified– it can’t be a coincidence that these criticisms of James Buchanan have also been coded as effeminate or homosexual for a couple centuries.   Think of how many of those negative and implicitly queer traits were also projected onto, say, Scar in The Lion King or King Candy from Wreck-It Ralph.   In the same way, rumors of homosexuality dog England’s least successful kings: William II, Edward II, James I.  If there was a radio drama of Buchanan’s administration, I guarantee his voice actor would give him a lisp.  And gee, isn’t Buchanan’s betrothal to a girl from a rich family, and her mysterious death- possibly a suicide- before their marriage, suspicious?  Bah.  Can’t we get over this sort of childish innuendo? In Buchanan’s own public life, whispers about his preferences were bandied about easily, carelessly.  Some have hypothesized he had a decades-long relationship with Alabama senator Rufus DeWane King (ironically elected vice-president under Franklin Pierce).  They boarded together in Washington and were so inseparable that wags called them Miss Nancy and Aunt Fancy.  Maybe James Buchanan preferred men.  Maybe not.  A  chaste bachelorhood wasn’t uncommon in the 1800s.  Neither was a bachelorhood that eschewed an inevitably unhappy marriage and pursued sexual fulfillment outside of matrimony- whether with men or with women- uncommon.  Instead, the entire situation says much more about Buchanan’s detractors.

James Buchanan’s sexuality has no bearing on my conclusion that he was a manifestly failed president.  Make no mistake about it.  But the reasons he failed aren’t so easily coded as sissified or effeminate.  Maybe the key to understanding James Buchanan is to see him not as a Pennsylvanian, but an Appalachian.  True, Buchanan, the uptight, legalistic bachelor could not be further from stereotypes of rough, brawny Appalachian masculinity.  But like a true Appalachian, his approach to politics was clannish and quasi-familial; party loyalty provided cover and protection, but also lent itself to petty, over-exaggerated feuds- think of the Hatfields and McCoys.  I just put James Monroe down as my fourth greatest president because of his understated ability to unify, his ability to make the United States less provincial and balkanized, to squint his eyes to see the Magic-Eye picture of a nation, not a collection of states.  Buchanan could not be a greater contrast.

On paper, at least, James Buchanan was one of our most qualified presidents.  His long career began as a Federalist (!) clock-puncher who eventually hitched his star to the Jacksonian branch of what became the Democratic Party.  He was a congressman, a senator, minister to Russia, minister to Britain, and Secretary of State.  Equally relevant, he was a genuine force in state politics, and was responsible for moving the state of Pennsylvania, originally dominated by conscientious Quakers and sly bankers working out of Philadelphia into a state dominated by Appalachian interests in the state’s “Pennsyltucky” middle section.  The denizens of this region were a rowdy, far more provincial bunch, and their rise to power turned a “doubtful state” into the northernmost Jacksonian stronghold.  As the ringleader of these strategically important Pennsylvania Democrats, Buchanan flitted from office to office, not so much on excellence or skill- he was never outstanding at any job he ever had- but because of the Jacksonian spoils system that rewarded loyalty and going along to get along, at the expense of vision, conscience, and especially merit.  It also made Buchanan hard-wired to see moral objections to slavery or its expansion as anything other than obstructionist, disruptive, and even disloyal, to the precarious and precise sectional balance that had been struck by decades of compromise.

He could not help but see other parties, other factions of his own party, and competing ideologies as domestic enemies.  His cabinet, for example, is especially terrible.  He didn’t consider, for a moment, throwing a bone at northern “conscience Democrats” who had moral qualms with slavery and left the party under Buchanan’s watch (such as Hannibal Hamlin, Lincoln’s first vice-president).  He also shut out more moderate Democrats willing to see where the philosophy of popular sovereignty- letting the states themselves choose whether or not to keep slavery- led.  In a cabinet littered with Southern sympathizers and tilted decidedly to Buchanan’s faction of the party, incompetence ran amuck.  Lewis Cass, who had recently lost his Senate seat from Michigan and was in the early stages of senility, was Secretary of State.  John Floyd is considered by some to be the worst cabinet official in U.S. history, and very probably funneled Union arms to seceding states, and later became a Confederate general.  His Secretary of the Treasury left the cabinet to openly advocate for secession, and later joined the Confederate army as well.

This sort of nonsense was emblematic of larger problems throughout his presidency.  Even before he took office, he collaborated with the Taney court as it prepared to issue its decision on Dred Scott.  In essence, the decision recognized slave ownership as an inviolable form of property rights- a slave did not cease to become property on entering free territory.  Technically, this meant that there were no ‘free states’ any longer; slaves could be held as property anywhere.  For a North that increasingly found slavery un-Christian, and the expansion of slavery as both immoral and contrary to their economic interests, this decision could not be countenanced.  Buchanan was friendly with most of the judges (who were, at this point, largely Jackson, Van Buren, and Pierce nominees), and learned of their decision in advance.  Before the decision was handed down, Buchanan pledged in his Inaugural Address to carry the decision out fully, no matter what it was.  As a result of this, Buchanan knowlingly blessed and committed himself to a Supreme Court decision that is widely considered the worst in U.S. history.  This behind-the-scenes maneuvering, an affront to separation of powers, was an act of pre-presidential treason on par with Nixon sabotaging the Paris talks, or Reagan’s reported (and in my opinion, quite likely) intrigue to stave off the release of the hostages in Iran until after Carter had left office.

Consider as well his actions in admitting Kansas to the Union.  Kansas, as we learned in our study of Pierce, was an unholy mess.  Border ruffians regularly rode into slave-friendly Missouri, voted often, and beat up any free-soilers they happened to find.  And violence was often reciprocated.  As a result of all this, you had a pro-slavery Kansas territorial government recognized by the Pierce administration, but by few Kansans; this was called the Lecompton government.  And you had a free-state government that the lion’s share of Kansans saw as legitimate, but Washington did not recognize.  Buchanan’s blatant sympathies with the Lecompton faction hoped to cut off Republican and abolitionist strength in Kansas.  Quite the opposite happened; Buchanan’s repeated decisions to undercut and undermine popular will in Kansas lead to the state becoming both a Republican stronghold and a symbol of resistance to the expansion of slavery.

Perhaps Buchanan might have kept this increasingly precarious balance intact, but that was no longer possible with the election of Abraham Lincoln, whose party intended to contain slavery to where it already existed.  This triggered the departure of South Carolina, whose leaders would rather leave the Union that remain in it under a Lincoln administration.  Buchanan dithered as secessionists seized federal property and arms.  It wasn’t completely his fault, to be fair; Andrew Jackson threatened force to prevent South Carolina from seceding nearly thirty years earlier, but Congress did not give Buchanan the authority they once had given Jackson.  Between Southerners who supported South Carolina and Northerners who wanted to wait out the clock for Lincoln, Buchanan’s base of support had eroded and no “force bill” was going to pass.  The best he could do within his understanding of constitutional propriety was to order Fort Sumter, the lone outstanding federal property in South Carolina’s reach, to hold the line.   As presidential blogger Big Mo put it, “by handing him Fort Sumter still intact, he left Lincoln with a huge ace to play- and play it, he did.”

Let’s go back to the counterfactuals, then.  I wonder sometimes what would have happened if it had been Buchanan’s lot to face a foreign policy crisis, rather than a domestic crisis.  If Buchanan had to act in a situation where the constitutional boundaries were clear, his geopolitical knowledge and long working relationships with old Washington hands could have been invaluable assets.  He might have worked diligently, if uncreatively, in an emergency situation, in a manner more like George H. W. Bush than anyone.  I tend to think, though, we might have seen a much more James Polk-like presidency: unapologetic expansion, but with an eye toward the Caribbean and Latin America.  In fact, his cabinet bandied about the idea of making parts of Mexico into a protectorate during one especially unstable period, but domestic crises took their focus away from this intriguing (and probably wantonly illegal) possibility.  Unfortunately, Buchanan inherited a toxic state of affairs involving constitutionally inchoate questions: can a state secede, and can the federal government use force to stop it?  In the end, Buchanan was the luckless man in the hot seat as the entire unsustainable Jacksonian edifice of graft, compromise, and states’ rights came crashing down.  He served in terrible circumstances, but his partisanship and almost fanatical belief that compromise and concession could placate two sides who no longer viewed the country’s two competing economic systems as a political problem, but as a spiritual contest- for the sectional crisis was also fought on theological grounds- on which the soul of the nation was at stake.

It feels strange, given that James Buchanan is ranked #39 out of 41 presidents, that I have to justify ranking him so highly!  More often that not, Buchanan is placed as our very worst president.  As Christopher Buckley jokes, “perhaps historians, the next time they convene to decide who was the absolute worst president ever, will also factor in his good intentions and move him up two notches so that his ghost can experience the giddy feeling of looking down — if only temporarily — on Warren Harding and Franklin Pierce.”  I don’t think Buchanan’s intentions were particularly altruistic. His greatest debits are an inability or unwillingness to recognize the severity of Southern intransigence, and a lack of moral vision.  He could be very inconsistent about his use of power, bending constitutionality in his dealings with Kansas and the Supreme Court and a minor rebellion in what would become Utah, but was curiously scrupulous about not exceeding his boundaries during South Carolina’s departure from the Union, perhaps the biggest crisis in the nation’s history up to that point.  Incompetent and myopic, Old Buck still ranks third from the bottom.  Two presidents had such catastrophically bad human rights records that I had to place them behind Buchanan.

It was only at the very end of his administration that Buchanan realized the gravity of his errors.  In the final seconds of the fourth quarter, it dawned on him that he had been had, that the Southerners whose support he spent his career flattering and befriending cared more for extending slavery than for their country.  He left his office a broken, bitter man, and most histories since have cast Buchanan as the perfect foil for Lincoln’s vision, commitment to victory, and capacity to forgive.  Rutherford Hayes once declared, “he serves his party best, who serves his country best.”  Buchanan, in sharp contrast, devoted his presidency to keeping a fractious Democratic Party together in an age of rabid abolitionism and pro-slavery fetish.  In trying to keep his faction, and his party, in power, the nation itself was torn asunder.

I’m very pleased to revive this segment, revisiting the best songs of that most pivotal of decades, the 1960s. If you are a fan of this series, you have Scott to thank; he sent me a very nice message a few days ago expressing his interest in the series.  You should check out his own music site, over here.

240.  “With God On Our Side”- Bob Dylan (1964):  Dylan’s winning streak from 1963 to 1966, perhaps unparalleled in American songwriting, continues unsullied here.  “With God On Our Side” is pure Seeger-style folk, lamenting the tragedy of America fighting war after war, each time claiming divine support.  It is one of the smartest challenges to patrio-fascism, as some of my friends call it, ever written.  If God’s on our side, then he’ll stop the next war.

239.  “Lodi”- Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969): Creedence didn’t do poignant very well, but this song is perhaps the most affecting and moving in their brief turn-of-the-decade belle époque.  John Fogerty’s world-weary travelogue in an obscure drive-by town touches the deep places of the soul, no easy task for a band whose best songs were Vietnam critiques and odes to the bayou.

238.  “Needles and Pins”- The Searchers (1963): Like #224, this song figured out where popular music was headed and smartly capitalized on it.  For a group still working in the Neil Sedaka era, The Searchers anticipated what the British Invasion would sound like, with a strong rhythm section, jangly guitar, and two-part harmonies.

237.  “Baby I Need Your Lovin'”- The Four Tops (1964):  I probably made this point when talking about a different song of theirs, but it always amazes me how the Four Tops never get the credit that is their due.  Never Motown’s highest priorities, they excelled in vocal harmonies and creating atmosphere better than The Temptations or The Supremes.

236.  “She’s Not There”- The Zombies (1964):  The best 60s band not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, The Zombies were ahead of their time in manifold ways.  During a time when The Beatles weren’t doing anything deeper than “I’m A Loser”, this first-wave British Invasion band created this small minor-key masterpiece with a brooding electric piano part (seriously- listen to that solo), with a frantic existential angst that perfectly predicted where the decade was going.

235.  “Blue Moon”- The Marcels (1961):  There were a proliferation of doo-wop groups in the early 60s, and The Marcels never really stood out from the pack.  Even so, there was still something inventive about this #1 hit, taking a song that was traditionally a ballad (listen to the moody version on Elvis Presley’s debut album) and revolving it around the bass player’s nonsense syllables.  They started out as one of rock and roll’s first biracial groups, but the difficulties of traveling in the Jim Crow South in the early 60s put an end to that noble experiment.

234.  “Inna Gadda Da Vida”- Iron Butterfly (1968):  I had to put this song somewhere.  Iron Butterfly’s only real hit has since become a pop culture joke, stemming from its meandering, time-stretching performance and incoherent lyrics.  Still, as the sonic embodiment of 60s excess, this number forces its way into the musical pantheon, and it opened the door for The Dead and others to experiment with long jams in the rock medium.

233.  “Judy In Disguise (With Glasses)”- John Fred & His Playboy Band (1967):  This unlikely #1 hit was a pastiche of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” with a production that segued from punchy James Brown horns to psychedelia.  I love this song because the one-hit wonder Fred is the only artist from the Sixties to today to be ballsy enough to identify and lampoon John Lennon’s weaknesses as a songwriter.  Throughout his career, Lennon lazily wrote nonsense verse, expected to be lauded as a genius, and usually got the praise.  Fred’s non-sequitors like “lemonade pies” and “chimney sweep sparrows” satirize Lennon’s LSD-drizzled imagery perfectly.

232.  “Dedicated to the One I Love”- The Shirelles (1961):  The magic of rock and roll is to give an epic quality to ephemeral teenage romance, in the same way that Homer took what was probably a humdrum skirmish between Greeks and Trojans and turned it into one of the greatest pieces of literature ever written.  The Shirelles, probably my favorite girl-group of the 60s, take a song originally recorded by the 5 Royales, and give it drama, atmosphere, and urgency to this lyrically quiet and understated ode to romantic fidelity.

231.  “Wonderful World”- Sam Cooke (1960):  All singing is acting to some extent.  As such, the key to being a good singer is to convince the listener of the utter sincerity of one’s position in the song- whether a jilted lover, a psychotic killer, or a wise prophet.  For Cooke, an old gospel hand deep into his thirties, and a man with an allegedly insatiable sexual appetite, to play the naive innocent schoolboy, winning his paramour through academic excellence, is a great act of vocal theatre.  The song’s brilliance is in how easily Cooke conveys that puppy love when he was well past thirty.

230.  “For Your Love”- The Yardbirds (1965):  Like The Faces, The Yardbirds were a band that was more influential than listenable, better known for their famous alumni (Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, and Eric Clapton among others)  For all of their alleged influence in merging the blues and rock, this was their only major commercial hit.  Despite its moody atmosphere, which is actually really cool, it is lyrically awful.  Why is it that every major 60s artist, when running out of time to write lyrics, resorted to composing idiotic lines about buying diamond rings?  (The Beatles did this all the damn time.)  For that matter, why is the only top ten hit from a band with so many great axemen lacking a coherent guitar part?

229.  “The Shoop Shoop Song”- Betty Everett (1964):  Seriously- why did Betty Everett’s career never take off?  She should have been a poor man’s Darlene Love, and instead became a near-one-hit-wonder.  The production is comically inept, with needless horn breaks and a marimba solo, and yet it works, because the bad instrumentation makes Everett’s impressive set of pipes stand out all the more.  The song works only when a vocalist can assert dominance in the back-and-forth between the backing vocalists, which is why Everett succeeds in her version of the song, and a less talented singer, Cher, doesn’t.  It is quite probably one of the greatest girl-group songs, even though it is paradoxically performed by a solo artist.

228.  “Cinnamon Girl”- Neil Young (1969): The first great song written by one of the most important and influential rock and roll artists.  Young creates a great hazy, fuzzy sound on this track that remains illusory and vague- just who is this Cinnamon Girl?  What does this appellation mean?  Young’s career would go on to be famously uneven and mercurial, but when he was a journeyman, focused on earning a few hits before he could follow his muse with abandon, he was never better.

227.  “Paint It Black”- The Rolling Stones (1966):  Like Tito Jackson’s dancing compared to the rest of the Jackson Five, the Stones were always just a half-step behind The Beatles.  The Beatles did morose brooding first (“Baby’s In Black”) and used a sitar on a  rock and roll piece first (“Norwegian Wood”).  But the Stones show their own mettle by synthesizing the two, creating a song of Poe-like despair, its otherworldliness underscored by the strange instrumentation.  And unlike The Beatles, the Stones were bold enough to make a song this unconventional a single, and a #1 single at that.

226.  “Come a Little Bit Closer”- Jay & the Americans (1964):  “Come a Little Bit Closer” cracks me up.  It is a funny, funny song with mariachi touches wherein the narrator is wooed by a señorita, only to be accosted by Jose, his paramour’s boyfriend.  Rather than risk bodily harm, Jay jumps through the window, only to see Jose and his lady together again.  Maybe it isn’t the best song in this bunch, but when it comes on the radio, I can’t wipe the smile off my face.

225.  “Please Mr. Postman”- The Marvelettes (1961):  When the Marvelettes received their second nomination to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year, I was shocked.  They are a historical group, the first act from Motown to hit #1 on the charts.  But the innate talent just isn’t there.  The lead singer doesn’t really take me on a journey, and Motown’s fabled production team doesn’t quite have its act together yet.  This is a clever enough song- I especially love the “deliver the letter, the sooner the better” break toward the end- but the seeds of greatness would lay elsewhere in Motown’s stable.

224.  “River Man”- Nick Drake (1969):  The darling of the Pitchfork crowd, Nick Drake is an artist you will not hear on Oldies radio, and is something of a trade secret for rock and roll afficianados.  That’s a shame, because in the late 60s and 70s, he recorded some amazing material and may rightly be regarded as one of the godfathers of the acoustic branches of indie music.  If you aren’t familiar with this track, do yourself a favor and listen to it.

223.  “The Star Spangled Banner”- Jimi Hendrix (1969):  Oh yes.  Woodstock is starting.  What better way to kick it off than this guitar virtuoso sending an antiwar message while playing the national anthem?  It’s a chaotic, violent, distortion filled take from a country engaging in a chaotic, violent war that distorted many of its historic values.  You can hear the bombs dropping on Vietnamese villages through Hendrix’s machinations.  It’s not the best song in Hendrix’s catalog, but it is probably the most brilliantly conceived song on this list.

222.  “I Get Around”- The Beach Boys (1964):  In just a couple of years, Brian Wilson would be in the sandbox, losing his mind while expanding the boundaries of popular music.  This is one of the last, great manifestations of what The Beach Boys used to be before all that.  They were, at first, just doing carefree songs about surfing, girls, and cars, and one of the finest specimens of their early catalog. The production by the Wrecking Crew is first-rate, and Mike Love’s weirdly reedy baritone voice anchors the song as his cousins sing beautiful falsetto around him.  It’s raw braggadoccio- the song’s message is basically “I’m awesome because I’ve got a sweet ride”- but Love’s “jock everybody hates” persona fits it perfectly.

221.  “Magic Carpet Ride”- Steppenwolf (1968):  It always strikes me as a bit odd that Jefferson Airplane got fame and an early Rock Hall induction as the premier psychedelic band when Steppenwolf was arguably better.  How is a magic carpet ride any less of a metaphor for a drug trip than following the white rabbit down the hole?  They both had two major hits, but Steppenwolf fit their zeitgeist less well, didn’t have a charismatic front-person like Gracie Slick, and thus were a band that was cool as hell at the time, but whose place in history is a little more shaky.  “Magic Carpet Ride” is a magnum opus, with a nice, long trippy middle section that was probably cut out of the 45 rpm version, and anchored by great performances on the guitar and electric organ.

Oh, 2016- we just can’t quit you.  At least now, we can refer to things like the 2016 Olympics and the 2016 presidential elections as occurrences taking place next year.  We are still a year away from the first primary elections, and as they currently stand, they are  likely to be more interesting on the Republican side of the equation.  While Hillary Clinton’s path to the nomination won’t be quite the coronation many expect, I believe her chances of being the Democrats’ choice are very, very good.  With the Republicans?  Things are a bit up in the air.  I think there are maybe a solid seven people who could conceivably be nominated as things stand now: Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Mitt Romney, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, John Kasich, and Marco Rubio.  Out of the seven, Bush seems like the front-runner.  Nearly every candidate has severe drawbacks, from low name recognition, to poisonous civil rights stances, to Bridgegate, to losing the election last time.  And despite public wariness with putting a third Bush in the White House within thirty years, he is best poised to collect money from the important donors, avoid saying stupid shit, and wear down primary opponents by attrition.  Bush is probably the most likely to survive the grueling modern Republican dilemma of needing to be conservative enough for the bloodthirsty primary voting crowd, while not scaring off the general voting public.

When I wrote up my top ten running mates for Hillary, there were some guidelines to which I adhered.  I thought her ticket would be poorly balanced by a woman, a Northeasterner, and another person north of 60.  For Jeb, there are a couple of disqualifiers as well.  First- no scions.  If your daddy was a well known political figure, you’re out.  Second- no other Floridians; it is bad balance and still a bit constitutionally dubious.  Sorry Marco.  And…that’s about it!  He may or may not pick a woman, and Florida is such a weird state that just about anywhere else in the country offers regional balance.  Even the South.  (Fun fact- if nominated, Jeb Bush would be the first person on a Republican ticket to be both born in the South and an officeholder from the South.)  As a consequence, all kinds of races, ages, philosophies, and geographic regions are present here.  Being from a swing state is definitely a bonus, but by no means required.  I also think it unlikely that he will pick an opponent from the Republican primaries, at least partly because all of the main candidates are poor temperamental fits for one another, with the exception of Kasich.

I included very few GOP hardliners, though, and for this reason.  I think part of the reason John McCain and Mitt Romney lost their elections came from picking a running mate that scared the electorate in some way, either Palin’s dopey and inartful revival of the Culture Wars, or Paul Ryan’s plan to privatize Medicare, which almost certainly cost the Romney campaign the state of Florida.  So, while many of these figures are conservative by any fair definition, many are not bitter-enders or hardliners.  No amount of Tea Party enthusiasm or base-rallying can make up for scaring independent voters who aren’t in the bag yet.

As a hardcore 31-year-old McGovernite, I will probably not vote for a ticket with any of these people on it.  Just the same, here are my best objective guesses for Jeb Bush’s most suitable running mates.

1.  Cathy McMorris Rodgers: Very few people are talking about the veepstakes yet, but when they do, it will be interesting to see if Rodgers’ name comes up as a possibility.  Rodgers is the congresswoman from the state of Washington’s Spokane-centered fifth district.  Presently, she is the chair of the Republican House Conference, the only woman in a Republican congressional leadership that is notoriously white and male.  She will not help Jeb win the Evergreen State, but her work on the presidential ticket could help considerably in other ways.  Rodgers has been reasonably successful at parrying the charges of a Republican war on women, both in the office she holds and in the language she uses.  Since Barack Obama won partly on a massive “gender gap”, that isn’t insignificant.  Rodgers also offers poise, reliability, and message discipline.  She’s a good solider willing to do what it takes for her party to prevail, and won’t go rogue to advance her own career.  That’s exactly what every nominee wants to see in a running mate.

2.  John Kasich: Because of its reputation as a swing state among swing states, being the governor of Ohio seems to automatically warrant some chatter about becoming vice-president.  Kasich narrowly beat the incumbent, Ted Strickland, in 2010.  In supposedly the closest swing state in the country, Kasich overcame some dreadful first-term poll-numbers, reinvented himself as a thoughtful, conscientious pragmatist, and was re-elected overwhelmingly, with over 60% of the vote.  And Kasich has some real accomplishments to run on: Ohio’s recovery has outpaced the rest of the country, an especially impressive feat in a state that is the buckle of the Rust Belt.  He can help reframe the Republicans’ rhetoric about poverty, a toxic leftover from the Reagan years.  “I’m concerned about the fact that there seems to be a war on the poor,” he once said.  “That if you’re poor, you are somehow shiftless and lazy.”  Quite a turnaround from Mitt Romney’s comments about the 47%, no?  So far, it’s just wind; few of Kasich’s policies have demonstrably helped the poor, but the rhetoric will raise eyebrows.  The Republicans’ path to 270 electoral votes will be extremely difficult without Ohio this year.  In fact, the Republican Party has never once won the presidency without carrying Ohio in its 160 years of existence.   A Bush-Kasich ticket might put the two most lucrative swing states off the table for Democrats.

3.  Kelly Ayotte: No doubt about it, New Hampshire is the friendliest territory for Republicans in New England, the bluest region of the country.  In this atmosphere, Ayotte has thrived, serving a strong tenure as the state’s attorney general and easily winning election to the Senate in 2010.  Since then, Ayotte has confidently staked out center-right territory.  She is not on the Cruz cruise, but one would be foolish to confuse her with New England moderates Susan Collins or Olympia Snowe.  Ayotte is a hawkish foreign policy and armed services specialist, and her work with McCain and Graham on immigration nicely complement Jeb’s own views.  While Congress at large has floundered these last four years, the women of the Senate have earned a reputation for listening to one another and moving ideas forward, and Ayotte could bring these accomplishments to the table.  And, of course, she comes from a legitimate swing state, one that Obama carried by only 5 points in 2012.  One hiccup: Ayotte is up for re-election to the Senate in 2016.  People have run for lesser offices while running for the vice-presidency before: Lieberman for his Senate seat in 2000, Biden for his Senate seat in 2008, Ryan for his congressional seat in 2012.  But it is an unfortunate complication.

4.  Brian Sandoval:  Sandoval is the governor of Nevada, recently re-elected in a clean landslide.  In many ways, Sandoval is the perfect candidate.  He is Hispanic, he is just the right age at 51, and he can bring Nevada’s 6 electoral votes back into play for the GOP.  More impressive than these factors is his solid record of accomplishment; he is widely considered one of the best governors in the United States.  Under his governorship, the unemployment rate has gone from a worst-in-the-nation 14% to a much better 8% and falling.  He has also mindfully avoided staking out ideological points: he has accepted the Medicare expansion, and his record on abortion- not so much pro-choice as a more libertarian pro-autonomy stance- can help win over independents.  He has instituted an intriguing education reform, all with a Democratic state legislature, that now includes merit pay.  However, one significant drawback is that a Bush-Sandoval team has no meaningful foreign policy experience.  That will matter if it comes to governing, but with such a toxicly anti-Washington electorate, will this even matter?  Also- I wonder whether Sandoval even wants it.  I think it is an even-money bet that Mark Warner would have been Barack Obama’s running mate in 2008 if he didn’t commit to running for the Senate.  Sandoval has the same choice- run for Harry Reid’s extremely vulnerable Senate seat in 2016, or hold off for the vice-presidency?

5.  Susanna Martinez:  Martinez, the governor of New Mexico, is often mentioned as the kind of person who might be the Republican vice presidential choice in 2016.  Her biography seems like a panacea for the demographic sinkhole the Republican party is wandering into: a relatively young Hispanic woman governing an important state.  She and the state legislature have turned the state’s deficit into a surplus, all without raising taxes.  New Mexico is just barely winnable for Republicans in the general election in the best of circumstances.  George W. Bush won it in 2004, and lost it by a whisker in 2000.  Obama carried New Mexico by more than ten points in both elections, and it seems to have gone from a genuine swing state to a fairly deep shade of blue.  If Republicans want New Mexico’s five electoral votes, Martinez is probably their only realistic chance of getting them.  For all of this, I still wonder whether Martinez is a better candidate on paper than she would be in real life.  She is alleged to be sharp-tongued and acerbic, qualities that, unfairly, will not redound to the benefit of a female candidate.  In a way, she is similar to Chris Christie:  mouthy former prosecutors who govern a blue state, alternately working well with opposition leaders and butting heads with them over principle.  One further consideration: Sandoval or Martinez would mean a Republican ticket with two Catholics, a gobsmacking development for a party with historic ties to country-club Protestantism.

6.  Mike Pence:  Here’s the dilemma each presidential nominee faces when choosing a running mate: a governor will give you executive leadership and usually bipartisan credentials.  But being in Congress, while less popular, provides crucial experience in foreign policy and how Washington works.  Mike Pence, an influential Indiana congressman and presently the Hoosiers’ governor, could give you both.  He hasn’t racked up an especially right-leaning record in Indiana, partly because his predecessor, Mitch Daniels, already slashed the budget and enacted right-to-work legislation, the first state in the Rust Belt to do so.  Where do you go from there?  He has strong support in institutional conservatism, both Koch Brothers fiscal conservatism and “values voters.”  In terms of communication, his talk radio pedigree will help galvanize the ditto-heads (he has been called “Rush Limbaugh on decaf.”) Pence’s team has called him a “process of elimination candidate” for the presidency, but Pence’s faithful partisanship could make him a strong contender for the second spot on the ticket as well.  This is especially so if circumstances force Jeb to move right, rather than left, such as a contentious primary battle with a more conservative challenger.

7.  John Hoeven:  The Great Recession hit many of us hard.  For all of its severity, North Dakota weathered the recession better than any other state, a situation that makes for some fine talking points.  While the nation as a whole nearly had double-digit unemployment during the depth of the recession, North Dakota’s never approached 5%.  Nowadays, it hovers between 2-3%.   This could spell good news for John Hoeven, two-and-a-half term governor and first-term senator from the Peace Garden State.  If the Keystone pipeline becomes a major issue during the 2016 election, Hoeven could give a great deal of credence to the “drill, baby, drill” crowd, citing North Dakota’s economic miracle.  Indeed, the lucrative Bakken oil fields have created a multitude of high-paying jobs, which in turn have bolstered the state’s service sector as well.  This is, of course, a bubble, and like all bubbles it will burst.  For now, though, the numbers are looking fine.  A conservative who won’t scare independents off, Hoeven’s ten years of executive experience, six years in the Senate, and impressive Ron Swanson mustache will brush aside any questions that he isn’t ready.  Besides, he continues the weird trend of running mates who have represented only a small area- either one solitary congressional district or a three-electoral-vote state: Palin (Alaska), Biden (Delaware), Cheney (Wyoming), Paul Ryan (Wisconsin’s fightin’ first), Jack Kemp (New York’s fightin’ 38th), and Geraldine Ferraro (New York’s fightin’ 9th) and even George H. W. Bush (Texas’s fightin’ 7th). Seriously- isn’t that strange?  Since 1984, only four running mates (Al Gore, Joe Lieberman, Dan Quayle, and John Edwards) directly represented more than perhaps a million people.

8.  Tom Cotton:  In 2014, the race between Congressman Tom Cotton and incumbent Mark Pryor Cotton for the Senate seat from Arkansas was expected to be a dramatic nail-biter.  Instead, Cotton bulldozed over Pryor, scion of that ~other~ Arkansas political dynasty, by seventeen points- a margin similar to Democrat Blanche Lambert Lincoln’s defeat in 2010 for Arkansas’s other Senate seat.  Cotton, a 6’5″ Iraq war veteran with two Ivy League degrees also presents a compelling personal narrative, and would protect Jeb Bush from discontent from the Republican Party’s increasingly conservative base.  The man oozes the conservative definition of patriotism, even campaigning for his Senate seat in a camouflage-colored bus.    In a way, he hearkens to an earlier time when an Ivy League education and military service often went hand in hand (a worldview that John Kerry, a man Cotton might view as an enemy, encapsulated.)   Called a “conservative superstar” by The Atlantic, Astonishingly, you’d have a GOP ticket susceptible to charges of being “too cerebral” (a criticism that was never an issue with George W. or Sarah Palin on the ballot.)  This doesn’t work in it’s favor- Cotton is also a hard-edged ideological conservative- more than anyone else on this list actually- and his devotion to Heritage Foundation dogma has lead him to take academic, but still troubling, stances.  As the Atlantic article notes, “Cotton also was the only Arkansan to vote for a budget drafted by the Republican Study Committee that would slash spending, voucherize Medicare, and raise the eligibility age for Social Security to 70.” Elsewhere, his on record saying that the Founders were wise to limit democracy.  Including in Senate races like the one Cotton prevailed in just a few months ago.

9.  Todd Platts: Chances are, you probably have never heard of Congressman Platts.  He is now a judge on the York County Court of Common Pleas.  That may seem like a resume that’s not exactly vice-presidential, but for twelve years, he represented a congressional district in south-central Pennsylvania.  He left in 2013, wanting to spend more time with his family (and this appears to be genuine; I know everybody else says it for other reasons, but with Platts, this is probably true) and because he supports term limits.  Platts stands out for his everyman appeal.  He commuted three and a half hours most days Congress was in session to help give his family a steadier life in PA.  Consistently, Platts has stood for good governance over ideological conservatism, a stance which is typified by his love of films like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”  Like many Republicans, he voted for war in Iraq and in favor of offshore drilling, but also took less popular stands within his own party, favoring McCain-Feingold campaign reform and voting to end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.  When he left Congress, a Democrat colleague told him “I just want to thank you for your friendship and your leadership. You have approached issues with judicious analysis. You have avoided strident headlines. You’ve avoided bitter partisanship, and I think you are a model that many could learn from.”  In all, he is a Main Street Republican (that is, a relative moderate), which may or may not be what Jeb needs.  That means forfeiting tea party zeal in an attempt to win over middle American voters in a tough election against a formidable opponent.  Now, I don’t actually think Todd Russell Platts is the ninth most likely Republican running mate.  But someone like him might be just the shot in the arm Jeb needs.  The buzz from picking this relatively humble and unassuming man currently serving as judge on a low-level court and tapping him for the vice presidency has a kind of Cincinnatus feel, and could be an unexpected game-changer.

10.  Rob Portman:  I originally had Condi Rice listed as #10 before crossing her off.  Too tied to the George W. Bush administration, and despite her calm, her intelligence, and her foreign policy credentials, it is just too big a risk to run with someone who has never once run for political office before.    Instead, what about Ohio senator Rob Portman?  Here’s why.  You get economic heft; Portman was the head of the Office of Management and Budget during the Bush 43 administration, and was part of the ill-fated supercommittee that attempted, without success, to resolve a budget impasse a few years ago.  You also have debating chops; Portman is routinely chosen to play the Democrat when Republican candidates prepare for debate.  He is credited with being able to anticipate and articulate Democratic talking points well, while eerily channeling Obama, Edwards and other figures.   But Rob Portman offers two other strong advantages.  Firstly, he is, like Kasich, a popular figure in all-important Ohio.  Secondly, he became one of the first GOP senators to endorse same-sex marriage, on account of his son, who identifies as gay.  Same sex marriage is a losing battle for the GOP, and the possibility of a Supreme Court decision making it legal across the country makes hardline opposition even more untenable, especially as it continues to poll ever more favorably.  Portman offers you a way out- and it is virtually the only issue where he departs from conservative orthodoxy.  Even better, you get to frame his departure as one of family values- what is more honorable than sticking up for your son at the expense of the party line?   On the other hand, you get some baggage as well- being George W. Bush’s OMB guy may not communicate economic prowess, given that this team was dumb enough to cut taxes during a protracted and expensive war.  Portman is also a poor choice if populism becomes an issue, and if Hillary picks a barnburner like fellow Ohio senator Sherrod Brown, he could be in real trouble.  Like #3 and #7 on my list, Portman will be placed in the awkward position of running for a Senate re-election and the vice-presidency at the same time.

Five honorable mentions: former Secretary of State Condi Rice, South Dakota senator Jon Thune, former Puerto Rican governor Luis Fortuno, San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer, and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty.

What do you think?  Did I miss anyone?

One of my first major posts on this blog was “My Annual Complaint“, back in September, 2013.  I was still hella pissed off at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for refusing to induct some no-brianer acts, so I listed 100 artists who should be enshrined in Cleveland.

Since that post, we’ve had the classes of 2014 and 2015 nominated, and their inductees announced.  Eight of my one hundred have either been inducted already or are scheduled for induction later in 2015: Peter Gabriel, Nirvana, Linda Ronstadt, Hall and Oates, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, Bill Withers, Cat Stevens, and Stevie Ray Vaughan.  (And I would have included Green Day as well if they had been eligible when I first made that list.)  Others received nominations for the first time, even if they ultimately did not get in.  The Zombies, Sting, The Smiths, and Yes fall into that category.

So, I am happy to give credit where credit is due.  The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is slowly improving and including some more popular artists and longtime snubs.  Granted, it was not as quickly as I’d like- and it was frustrating to see artists on Rolling Stone magazine’s buddy list- Jett, Reed, Green Day- get in before artists who deserve it more.  But Stevie Ray, Hall and Oates, Cat, and others are the kind of acts that should have been in years ago.  And since then, my knowledge and appreciation of music history has been helped wonderfully by participating in the Future Rock Legends site.  Entire new genres have opened up for me, and Rock Hall choices that seemed sketchy to me once now make a certain amount of sense.  Not all (I still think Laura Nyro, Del Shannon, Percy Sledge, and Paul Butterfield Blues Band are bad choices.)  But the important thing is that I don’t hate the Hall now, although I study it partly because it is so fascinatingly flawed and at odds with rock and roll’s populist mentality.  As I tried to show with my ‘Pick your own Rock Hall’ project, it is very tough to narrow down the list to what is now 198 artists inducted, even though it might not seem that way.

So here, I present my renewed list of 100 artists who I think should be the next ones in.  They cover a wide range of genres that I consider to be descendants of 1950s rock and roll (so this includes rap, electronic, disco, R&B, some metal and punk, folk, and of course, British Invasion and Classic Rock).  Artists who veered too far (Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson, Johnny Coltrane) were left off.  I’ve tried to balance my preferences with an objective view, but wasn’t always successful.  As much as I can understand a historical case for Joy Divison or Roxy Music, they both sound terrible to me.  And thus, I left both off.  So, here is my new list of the next 100 eligible artists I think should be in the hall, in rough order of worthiness.  Again- giving credit where credit is due- artists who have been nominated before, but remain uninducted, are noted with an asterisk.

  1. Chicago
  2.  Kraftwerk (*)
  3.  Janet Jackson
  4.  Carole King (*)
  5.  Moody Blues
  6.  NWA (*)
  7.  Chic (*)
  8.  Deep Purple (*)
  9.  Weird Al Yankovic
  10.  Steve Miller Band
  11.  The Spinners (*)
  12.  Dire Straits
  13.  Iron Maiden
  14.  The Cure (*)
  15.  Indigo Girls
  16.  Doobie Brothers
  17.  Jimmy Buffett
  18.  Peter, Paul and Mary
  19.  Whitney Houston
  20.  War (*)
  21. Jethro Tull
  22. Nine Inch Nails (*)
  23.  Pat Benatar
  24.  Joan Baez
  25.  The Monkees
  26. Dionne Warwick
  27.  The B-52s
  28.  Rufus and Chaka Khan (*)
  29.  Duran Duran
  30.  Carly Simon
  31.  Lenny Kravitz
  32.  L.L. Cool J (*)
  33.  Joe Cocker
  34. Supertramp
  35. Kate Bush
  36. The Zombies (*)
  37. Sting (solo artist) (*)
  38. Journey
  39.  Lionel Richie
  40.  The Chi-Lites
  41.  Dead Kennedys
  42.  Electric Light Orchestra
  43.  The Smiths (*)
  44.  De La Soul
  45.  Emerson, Lake and Palmer
  46.  Brian Eno
  47.  Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine
  48.  Bon Jovi (*)
  49.  The Stylistics
  50.  Judas Priest
  51.  The Guess Who
  52.  The Eurythmics
  53.  Sonic Youth
  54.  The Pixies
  55.  King Crimson
  56. Cheap Trick
  57. Todd Rundgren
  58.  Gin Blossoms
  59.  Bachman-Turner Overdrive
  60.  Three Dog Night
  61.  Melissa Ethridge
  62.  Cyndi Lauper
  63.  Larry Williams
  64.  Depeche Mode
  65.  Phil Collins (as a solo artist)
  66.  Paul Revere and the Raiders
  67.  Devo
  68.  Dan Fogelberg
  69.  Tina Turner
  70.  Bjork
  71.  T. Rex
  72.  Brian Eno
  73.  Yes (*)
  74.  Phish
  75.  Edgar Winter Group
  76.  Barry White
  77.  Gerry & the Pacemakers
  78.  Boston
  79.  Steve Winwood/Spencer Davis Group (*)
  80.  Jim Croce
  81.  Black Flag
  82.  Salt N Pepa
  83.  Fugazi
  84.  Fairport Convention
  85.  Soundgarden
  86.  Connie Francis
  87.  Jan and Dean
  88.  America
  89.  Mary Wells (*)
  90.  Meat Loaf
  91.  Afrika Bambaataa (*)
  92.  Gram Parsons/Flying Burrito Brothers (*)
  93.  Dick Dale
  94.  Big Star
  95.  Johnny Winter
  96.  Peter Tosh
  97.  Johnny Burnette & the Rock and Roll Trio
  98.  DC Talk
  99. Suzanne Vega
  100.  Plastic People of the Universe

#4: James Monroe

bigmonroCategory: Super-Competent Administrators

Term in Office: 5th president, 1817-1825

Political Party: Democratic-Republican

Home State: Virginia

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, meet James Monroe.  Perhaps Hegel’s most famous idea was that of a thesis and an antithesis merging together to form a new paradigm, a synthesis.  This dialectic nicely describes the significance of James Monroe’s presidency.  He was able to temper the pragmatism and majesty of the Federalists with the simplicity and republican flavor of the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans.  The synthesis that emerged gave us, I am prepared to argue, the beginnings of an American national character.

This lofty placement- for Monroe usually hovers around #15 in most rankings- may be startling.  Designating James Monroe as our fourth greatest president probably raises eyebrows to the same levels as George H. W. Bush (#9 in my system), Grover Cleveland (#10), and John Tyler (#17).  Yet in my judgment, Monroe’s steady leadership, forward thinking, and ability to unify make him one of our ablest presidents, and certainly our ablest president to have not faced a major, Category-5 crisis in office.

James Monroe came from much the same cloth as Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, the privileged world of Tidewater planters profiting from- with widely varying degrees of regret and reluctance- the institution of chattel slavery.  Originally, Monroe was a critic of the Constitution, believing it should allow for the direct election of U.S. senators and include a hefty bill of rights.  He mellowed over time, and became instead a committed Jefferson lieutenant, earning berths as a senator, and a Minister to France and to Great Britain.  To this day, he is the only president to have served in two separate cabinet offices, as Secretary of State for James Madison’s entire presidency, and briefly double-dipping as Secretary of War in a pinch.

Monroe benefitted from excellent timing.  When inaugurated as president in 1817, the fledging nation was engulfed in a spirit national pride after the successful conclusion of the War of 1812 (if your definition of successful is broad enough to mean ‘not disastrous’).  There was peace, a certain amount of prosperity (which would be compromised by the Panic of 1819), and only one functioning party left in the U.S.  The Federalists’ opposition to the war, their badly planned threat of secession at the Hartford Convention, and their perceived aristocratic pretensions made them dead men walking.  In 1816, Monroe faced only token opposition from an also-ran named Rufus King.  In 1820, in the midst of a financial panic mind you, he faced no opposition at all.  He would have been elected unanimously by the electoral college, except for one recalcitrant elector from New Hampshire who cast his vote for John Quincy Adams.

Speaking of the man, this would be a good time to discuss Monroe’s cabinet, which I believe to be the very best in United States history.  Monroe was confident enough in his own abilities, and cognizant enough of what he did not know, to incorporate men of the highest ability to run the nation’s sundry departments.  John Quincy Adams is often considered our most accomplished Secretary of State.  He appointed the talented but ambitious William Crawford to Treasury, where he could keep an eye on him. John Calhoun, counterintuitively a strong nationalist at this early stage of his carer, took the War Department, while lawyer extraordinaire and future Anti-Mason William Wirt took Attorney General duties.  Maybe you care less about the Early Republic than I do, but let me tell you, this is a sterling cabinet with top notch men in each group, expertly balanced by region, in an age where cabinet secretaries sometimes had more unwieldy portfolios than the president himself.  Although rarely seeking their advice outright, Monroe respected the authority he delegated to them, and sought public and private unanimity- a microcosm of his larger approach to governing the unwieldy nation in his charge.

The one thing that most people remember about Monroe’s presidency is his eponymous doctrine.    As a number of South American countries achieved independence, the question of just ~how~ independent they would be remained on the mind of every head of state.  An alliance of Russia, France, Prussia, and Austria devised a plan that would have put Bourbon princelings in charge of these newly independent states.  Great Britain objected, and the Monroe administration did as well.  The genius of the doctrine lay in avoiding a united front with Britain.  Instead, Monroe and Adams maintained that the era of European colonization in the western hemisphere had ended, and further attempts to colonize the Americas would be viewed as a hostile act.  It was bluster- directed as much to Britain as to the Bourbons- but it worked.  In the long run, the Monroe Doctrine allowed the United States to act more freely from European control, and it could even be viewed as a decision with salutary national security consequences.  Eventually, of course, the doctrine would be used to justify a number of imperialist policies, but those were decades away, and Monroe couldn’t have known it.

Monroe had plenty of other accomplishments, though.  In attempting to quell an insurrection, General Andrew Jackson exceeded his authority (nobody did this better than Jackson), and went on an incursion into Florida itself, even excuting a couple British subjects along the way.  Although mortified and angered by Jackson’s insubordination, Monroe turned lemons into lemonade at the advice of Calhoun.  The incident showed, the South Carolinian argued, that Spain was unable to protect Florida even from Jackson’s small band of frontier freebooters, and Spain sold East Florida to the U.S. for a song. In domestic affairs, Monroe’s even-handedness shined through.

Although much of the credit belongs to Clay, Monroe supported the Missouri Compromise which threatened to upset the delicate sectional balance.  As a result, as every schoolchild knows, slavery was banned north of the 33’30 line (and blessed south of it) within territories seeking to become states.  Unlike the more disastrous 1850 Compromise, this was a difficult agreement but ultimately achieved a certain measure of goodwill.  It didn’t expand slavery as such, but it did provide a workable arrangement by which slave states and free states could be kept in relative balance as the frontier moved westwards and states like Wisconsin or Alabama applied for statehood.

This is sometimes called the Era of Good Feelings, which is something of an exaggeration but isn’t untrue.  Monroe borrowed from the Federalists a desire to spur the United States’ economic development, and thus rejected more extreme Jeffersonian opposition to banks, internal improvements, and the like.  Yet he kept much of the Jeffersonian simplicity and economy of government as well.  Monroe brought back some Federalist institutions, such as the national tours that Washington and Adams embarked upon to allow Americans to see the president who might not otherwise.  But like Jefferson and Madison, he avoided some of the quasi-monarchial institutions of the 1790s like aristocratic levees and delivering State of the Union addresses to Congress personally.  (Every president from Jefferson on sent a clerk to read it until Woodrow Wilson.)   As a result of this middle way, Monroe had strikingly few enemies in an age of petty rivalries and code duello, allowing him to frame not a Federalist or Jeffersonian policy, and betray not a north or south, or coastal vs. frontier rivalry, but a common American identity at a time when it was most needed.  To be sure, this plan had its drawbacks as well.  While he didn’t have many opponents, neither did he have many ardent loyalists in Congress, and without party solidarity, internal divisions would soon rent the Democratic-Republicans.  In the 1824 election, four different Democratic-Republicans ran against one another- including two of Monroe’s own cabinet- and while John Quincy emerged bruised but victorious from the scuffle, the Era of Good Feelings didn’t outlast Monroe’s own presidency.

From all of this, we can take these individual policies and accomplishments and construct a larger picture.  Through the careful use of internal improvements, a foreign policy that allowed for greater American, and indeed, West-hemisphere independence, and by avoiding taking sides unnecessary, Monroe helped to foster a stronger national character.  We may take American nationhood for granted today, but keep in mind that in those days, few Americans traveled far beyond their homes, and provincialism reigned.  Many privileged their state identity over their national identity.  Monroe’s conspicuous public tours, his refusal to be a flunky for the South or any other region, and his aversion of partisan rancor all contributed to a stronger and more cohesive American self-understanding in the early stages of the age of nationalism, as the young nation was also developing its own literary, musical, and cultural milieus.  When we look at why the concept of union was so important fifty years after he took office, Monroe helped to foster that very sense of union- the idea of the United States as a cogent nation, and not the loose, scattershot confederation of states it had often been in the early republic.

Such a world could not last for long, however, and in more than one ways, Monroe was the end of a dying breed, or “The Last of the Cocked Hats” as one early biography put it.  He was the last true Founding Father to serve as president, as well as the last real veteran of the Revolutionary War.  (Yes, I know Jackson was involved too, but he was a mere stripling at the time, and did little more than sass British officers and get himself captured.)  He was the last plantation owner to be elected president without at least some pretense toward populism or Log Cabin-and-Hard-Cider imagery.  (John Tyler fit that genteel mold as well, but he was, if you will remember from my piece on him, both an accidental president and a walking anachronism even in the 1840s.)  And he was the last president who could credibly maintain the visage of non-partisanship.

Although James Monroe was probably the dimmest bulb of our first six presidents, perhaps he demonstrates that while genius is nice, it isn’t always a prerequisite for presidential greatness.  You may have figured out by now that Washington, Lincoln, and FDR are my top three presidents (although I won’t tell you what order yet.)  As much as I value intellect, it is worth noting that of my top five presidents, three never attended university for a single day, and the other two- FDR and Monroe- were cases of ‘second class intellect, first class temperament.’  In a way, his studied, unrelenting blandness and the lack of any good anecdotes about him ended up as crucial integrants to his success.  As a more or less unhate-able figure, he ushered many Americans out of regionalism and into a greater national consciousness.  So many of our greatest presidents are considered great by how they handled crises- sometimes avoidable crises that were partly of their own making.  Monroe looked ahead, and especially through the Doctrine that bears his name and the Compromise of 1820, tried to prevent potential disasters before they happened.  That is pretty rare- both then and now.  While many great presidents had great crisis management skills, perhaps we should elevate Monroe to the higher echelons for singular crisis aversion.

It’s in!  The days when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announce their slate of nominees, and then their list of inductees from that list are two highlights of the year, like holy days of obligation in my own personal liturgical calendar.  Some of the criticism thrown the Rock Hall’s way is at least partially valid (although a disturbing amount of it frames rock and roll in ways that suggest an exclusively white and male province).  I still think that, in its own corporate, closed-door kind of way, it is a worthy institution trying its best to appraise a very populist and highly subjective form of music that defies- and indeed, urinates on- critical appraisal.

Today, we know who will be entering its 2015 class, now that the votes have been tabulated from the hundreds of eligible voters- a group that includes many critics, record company folk, and all previous inductees.  Inducted as performers are: Green Day, Lou Reed, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and Bill Withers.  In the Musical Excellence category is Ringo Starr, and as a rare Early Influence inductee, The 5 Royales.

My thoughts?  Not bad!  I like this class a lot out of the 15 nominees we had to work with.  Even though two out of the three acts that I didn’t think deserved induction got in (PBBB and Lou Reed), I still don’t feel ripped off.  Even if I don’t listen to them often, Reed and PBBB were consummate musicians who pushed boundaries and honed their craft. I’d much rather see them get in over, say, Def Leppard.  I was worried about an all-male class.  It didn’t happen, thanks to Joan Jett. I was worried about an all-white class.  It didn’t happen, thanks to Withers and the multi-racial PBBB.  My favorite artist in the bunch, Bill Withers got in.  The 2014 class was a favorite of mine, with three artists I really like (Cat Stevens, Linda Ronstadt, Peter Gabriel), and two I respect (Hall and Oates and Nirvana).  I’m not quite as enamored with this group on a personal or autobiographical level, but it is still much better than the awful classes we had in 2009 and 2012.  I would have liked to see Kraftwerk and the Spinners in lieu of Lou Reed and Paul Butterfield, but that’s life.

Green Day and Stevie Ray were givens; almost everybody who bothered to make predictions slated those two in.  Lou Reed’s recent death gave him, perhaps, a sympathy vote that got him over the hump after his unsuccessful nominations in 2000 and 2001, as many expected.  Joan Jett was helped not only by her strong credentials, and her workmanship, but also by a ballot lacking in guitar heroes and women.  Once again, the trend for singer-songwriters to get in every year continues; this time it was Withers (and arguably Lou Reed, although Reed defies easy categorization.)  The biggest surprise for me was the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.  In fact, the astute reader will remember I had them pegged as dead last, in both worthiness and in likelihood of induction.  Shows you what I know.  I am thoroughly puzzled as to how they managed to place in the top 6 in official voting- especially with a better, cooler blues act on the ballot in the form of Vaughan and Double Trouble.  But then, they polled in the top 5 on the non-binding fan poll, and clearly, they have their advocates.  I like them well enough, but they just don’t have enough fame to be in a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I’d suspect that voting was rigged, except that if it was, NWA and Chic- two other perennial candidates- would have gotten in a long time ago.  Ah well- at least they won’t clog up valuable space on the ballot next year.

Surprised that NWA and Nine Inch Nails didn’t get in.  NIN finished second in the Rock Hall’s fan poll.  They have wider respectability and critical acclaim than Green Day and if the voting totals were made public, it wouldn’t have surprised me if they had gotten more votes than Green Day, although that evidently didn’t happen.  And of course, great TV would have been made from Ohioan Trent Reznor getting inducted on home turf.  NWA had the table set for them- with no other rap acts, a Straight Outta Compton film on the way, and a set of domestic crises that pumped new blood in the manifesto “F— the Police”.  And they still didn’t get in.  Worse, the clock is ticking for them, because a veritable deluge of rap inductees is just a few years away, courtesy of Tupac, Biggie, Sean/Puffy Combs, and eventually Eminem.  Poor Chic- they were rejected by voters for the NINTH time.  War, The Spinners, and the Marvelettes join the ranks of twice-nominated, twice-declined nominees.  And The Smiths continue the bizarre trend of alt-rock or ur-alternative or post-punk bands not getting in, keeping company with The Cure and The Replacements.

One final thought about the six performers.  This class, while relatively strong, failed the “Mom Test”.  I’m at home on break from teaching in Singapore, so when I told my mother who got in, she didn’t recognize a single.artist.inducted.  Every other year, at least ~someone~ would have rung a bell.  Not this time.  She recognized some songs Bill Withers did, but never knew Withers by name.  So it goes.  This class has two artists who peaked in the 80s (Jett and Vaughan), one who peaked from the 90s to the early Naughts (Green Day), a semi-obscure 60s band (PBBB), a guy who wrote household songs without ever becoming a household name (Withers), and a guy whose music was often a little too weird for prime time (Reed.)  A far cry from last year, a deeply 70s-centric class, where every performer inducted passed the Mom Test.

And then we have our other two inductees in the auxiliary categories.  Ringo Starr for Musical Excellence, eh?  I love Ringo.  The day I shook hands with him at a 1995 All-Starr concert and the day I got his autograph in the mail after writing a fan letter remain two of the best days of my entire life.  It just seems a bit like a gimmick for higher ratings- and to make The Beatles the second band (after CSN) where every member is a double inductee.  You can make a case for Ringo’s career as a sideman for people like Harry Nilsson, Peter Frampton, and various solo Beatles- or for him fundamentally challenging the role that a drummer played in a rock ensemble, or for inspiring lots of great drummers to begin playing.  It might not be the strongest case, but it can be made.  Still, I’m surprised that whoever decides these things didn’t just throw in the towel, and give this to Nile Rodgers.

The Early Influence category got dusted off this year for the “5” Royales.  Now, in some corners of the web, pundits are irritated, because the 5 Royales were nominated as a performer before, and some of their best work came out in the mid-50s as contemporaries to actual inductees like The Flamingos or Ray Charles.  So, calling them an ‘Early Influence’ seems like a confusing anachronism.  It reminds people of similar ‘back-door’ Early Influence inductions for rock-contemporaries like Freddie King and Wanda Jackson a few years ago.  Whatever.  There aren’t very many 50s artists left who could succeed on a modern-day ballot which by necessity would include strong candidates like from the 70s, 80s, and now the 90s.  Too many voters were born long after their star had come and gone.  So, the Early Influence nod doesn’t bother me, and as a collaborator in what rock and roll became, the 5 Royales certainly deserve it.

Now, the only real drama left involves the ceremony in (I think) April.  A few thoughts on that:

  • As fellow Rock Hall guy Donnie noted, there’s lots of posthumous absences from the ceremony, especially for a class weighted so heavily on the 80s and 90s.  Stevie Ray is gone, Lou Reed died last year, and Mike Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield are gone, as are all of the original 5 Royales.
  • Will Bill Withers show up?  He damn well better.  He’s 76 and hasn’t performed in decades; in a recent Rolling Stone interview conducted in the last couple days, he couldn’t even remember ~which~ decade he last performed in.  He’s probably concerned about his singing voice, atrophied from disuse and age, and as Questlove has noted, he’s also concerned about having been forgotten, remembering a late 70s gig in a Chicago blizzard where only a handful of fans showed up.  Hopefully, the 2015 ceremony will be an almost cinematic experience that shows Bill that he still most definitely has an audience.  I’m hoping for a duet with John Legend on “Just the Two of Us.”
  • Lots of other great moments could happen.  Look for high-caliber names to sub for Lou Reed and Stevie Ray at the ceremony.  Clapton and Buddy Guy have been floated as possibilities for Vaughan; I’d love to see SRV’s one-time collaborator Dick Dale deputize for him, which could lead to Dale’s own fully-deserved nomination next year.
  • Will Ringo perform?  I’m not sure if Musical Excellence nominees do.

Last year, the interminable, almost half-hour long acceptance speech by the various members of the E-Street Band meant that we didn’t get to see the traditional jam session at the end of the ceremony.  If they bring it back, it would be great to see them end with either Jett’s “I Love Rock and Roll” or Starr’s calling-card with The Beatles, “With a Little Help From My Friends.”

A couple other considerations– who benefits from this group of inductees?  Unbelievably, two blues-rock outfits got in this year, so that’s probably good news for the presumptive next guy in line, Johnny Winter.  Imagine a Winter induction in 2016 with his brother Edgar paying tribute.  Won’t be a dry eye in the house.  Jett was the woman the Nom Com wanted inducted most, so who is next in that queue?  Janet Jackson and Kate Bush are the first two names that come to mind, with maybe Pat Benatar further down the line.  I also think Carole King deserves it, but her induction as a non-performer (ostensibly for her early 60s songwriting) probably means she isn’t a priority, since she’s already been honored in some form.  Bill Withers and Lou Reed’s inductions further winnows the field of 70s singer-songwriters, leaving us maybe…Warren Zevon?  Todd Rundgren?  The aforementioned Harry Nilsson?  Or is that category effectively dried out?

#38: Richard M. Nixon

bignixon Category: It’s Really Complicated

Term in Office: 37th president, 1969-1974

Political Party: Republican

Home State: California

“As long as Nixon was politically alive- and he was, all the way to the end- we could always be certain of finding the enemy on the low road.  There was no need to look anywhere else for the evil bastard.  He had the fighting instincts of a badger trapped by hounds.  The badger will roll over and emit the smell of death, which confuses the dogs and lures them in for the traditional ripping and tearing action.  But it is usually the badger who does the ripping and the tearing.  It is a beast that fights best on its back: rolling under the throat of the enemy and seizing it by the head with all four claws.”

I do not often find myself reading Hunter S. Thompson, let alone agreeing with him, but the Gonzo journalist’s 1994 obituary of Nixon written in The Atlantic is spot on.  What makes Richard Nixon so starkly contemptible, such a terrible, bottom-of-the-barrel president, is his determination to set Americans against one another and create an atmosphere of mutual suspicion and rancor that continues to poison the well of American civil discourse to this day.

Now, Nixon didn’t create the tensions in America on the eve of his election to be sure.  Identity politics people vs. cultural traditionalists, war protestors vs. old fashioned patriots who didn’t quite grasp the problem of Vietnam, poor minorities in cities vs. affluent whites in the suburbs who couldn’t understand one another; each of these contests had far deeper roots.   But he sure did his best to exacerbate these internal conflicts for his own political advancement.  We needed a healer after ’68, and we got an instigator instead.

Maybe the best example of this took place in 1970, when he smilingly accepted a hard hat from a group of violent NYC construction workers who spent their lunchtime one May afternoon beating up war protestors and threatening City Hall to raise the flag they had lowered in commemoration of the four young people whom the National Guard killed at Kent State.  It was a masterstroke.  He then used this leverage to make unprecedented Republican inroads into working-class white Americans in 1972, blowing up the New Deal Coalition in the process.  But Nixon’s Machiavellian instincts didn’t apply just to the big picture, because it was also so very, very personal.  Nixon, biographer Rick Perlstein writes, was “a serial collector of resentments”, accumulating and listing and ranking everyone who crossed him, plotting revenge in isolation in the Oval Office on his yellow legal pads.  (Indeed, one of the best profiles on the Nixon presidency is tellingly titled “Alone in the White House.”).  The targets ranged from opposition senators to critical journalists to activist celebrities like Robert Redford and John Lennon, and to this day, many old Hollywood folk consider their place on Nixon’s vaunted Enemies List a mark of honor.

Nixon’s presidency persistently attempted to conflate opponents as enemies, dissent as subversion, and social movements as social corrosion.  In it, he won over a lethargic Hee Haw-ingesting Middle America more concerned with “law and order” than, say, racism or endless war, flattering his supporters as a ‘Silent Majority’.  When Nixon talked about disruptive influences in American society, everyone with two brain cells to rub together knew he meant antiwar protestors marching on campus, feminists picketing Miss America, and Black Panthers resorting to vigilantism after years of abuse from police.  And he won over much of the burgeoning conservative movement, its true believers knowing in their hearts that Nixon wasn’t really one of them- but he made liberals so upset; how could they not love him?

How did we get here?  To figure this out, let’s trace out Nixon’s career in four stages:

Richard the First:  As a young congressman, Nixon quickly carved out a niche as a tough anti-communist crusader, avoiding McCarthyite excess, but playing a sly game of innuendo.  He prosecuted Alger Hiss, served as poster boy on the reckless and unaccountable HUAC, and pioneered a comprehensive playbook of dirty tricks to dispatch liberal opponents like Jerry Voorhis and Helen Gahagan Douglas.  Although harangued by cartoonists like Herblock for his gutter tactics, his youth, tenacity, and his popularity with the anti-communist crowd caught the eye of nominee-presumptive Dwight Eisenhower who offered Nixon- still in his thirties- the chance to be his running mate.  Accused by his opponents of harboring an illegal slush fund, and with Eisenhower ready to kick him off the ticket, Nixon pulled off the famous Checkers Speech on national television.  He craftily turned the tables, transforming the issue from a question of his integrity into elitist accusations against him, including an attempt to confiscate his children’s dog, a gift from a donor.  It was pure bathos (and other words beginning with the letter ‘B’), but it worked.  The corn pone, the ingenious but manipulative framing of the scandal as elitists vs. ordinary people like Nixon, set the table for his career to come.  Thousands wrote in, demanding Eisenhower keep this beleaguered man on the ticket.

Richard the Second: Once installed as vice-president, Nixon began a somewhat salutary metamorphosis.  He and Walter Mondale deserve credit as the two men who transformed the vice-presidency from a cipher, the constitutional equivalent of an appendix or a wisdom tooth, into a useful office, defined and empowered by its very lack of definition and portfolio.  Nixon thrived as a utility man and shameless lickspittle for Dwight Eisenhower.  He behaved with dignity, even when harangued and pelted with eggs by anti-American protesters on a state visit to Venezuela.  He impressively outdueled Nikita Khrushchev in an impromptu debate over consumer goods, defending the market economy.  And he did as he was told, patiently waiting his turn.  As a presidential candidate in 1960, he ran almost nobly, dutifully visiting all fifty states and refusing to use John Kennedy’s Roman Catholicism against him, even turning down Billy Graham’s offer of a public endorsement.  And after turning a new leaf- he still lost, under somewhat suspicious circumstances in a close race.  Nixon didn’t forget that he might have been robbed, nor did he forget the journalists who seemed to give the charming Kennedy, with his undistinguished record, a free pass at every turn.  Two years later, after another hard contest, he lost again in the California governor’s race. In both cases, he tried to play fair, he tried to be the better man, and it didn’t work.  In a hissy fit at a post-election press conference, a surly and irate Nixon reamed into newspapermen he felt had not been fair to him, and rancorously announced his retirement, telling the press that they ‘won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.’

Richard the Third: Enter Nixon’s next regeneration as a loyal party man.  Knowing full well that Barry Goldwater would lose in 1964, Nixon played the role of the good soldier, campaigning on his behalf and making appearances for Republican candidates across the country, doing the same during the 1966 midterms, a sunnier time for Republicans.  By doing this, nearly every Republican in office owed Nixon a favor or two, creating an invaluable reservoir of goodwill in order to secure the nomination from a too-liberal Nelson Rockefeller and a too-conservative-for-that-era, not-ready-for-prime-time Ronald Reagan in 1968.  During these years, Nixon found the Secret Sauce for that elusive Republican victory- tear into the Democratic coalition, taking aim directly at Southerners, ready to abandon the Democrats for the first time in living memory after the Civil Rights Act, and working-class voters, who may have been economic populists, but whose cultural conservatism made their traditional Democratic loyalties shaky.  The Democrats, he found, could be framed not as the party of the ‘little guy’, but the party of the effete academic, the overprivileged bra burner, the unshaven picketer who needed a bath- and maybe a conscription notice.

Which brings us to Richard the Fourth, or President Nixon.  Where do we begin?  He attempted to put Harrold Carswell and Clement Haynesworth, two judges with segregationist records and unspectacular intellect, to the Supreme Court for no other apparent reason than to piss off liberals.  Similarly, he picked his first vice-president, Spiro Agnew, to bait his enemies as well, putting an ethically-challenged half-term governor who loved bashing leftists under the guise of patriotism (sounding like a certain Alaskan?) the proverbial one heartbeat away.  Indeed, many in Washington considered Agnew’s presence ‘impeachment insurance’- nobody would dare topple Nixon knowing Agnew was the alternative.

Besides that, Nixon’s outright crimes in office are prolific.  Here’s just a small sample.  Nixon may have sabotaged the Paris Peace Talks as a candidate.  He illegally expanded the Vietnam War into Cambodia.  He ordered a break-in into the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, hoping to find a way to damage the credibility of the journalist who made the damning Pentagon Papers public.  He used the CIA to topple the democratically elected Socialist, Salvador Allende, in Chile, paving the way for the brutal but ITT-friendly Augusto Pinochet.  When George Wallace was shot in 1972, his first instinct was not to visit or comfort the stricken governor, but to send operatives to plant McGovern literature in his assailant’s apartment.

And, of course, there was Watergate- both the break-in, and the subsequent cover-up, the Saturday Night Massacre, the weaponization of the Justice Department (which continues to this day), the damning tapes (and the equally damning absences therein), and a fishy pardon from his successor, which meant Nixon never answered for his crimes to any authority greater than David Frost.  It was the IMAX, high-resolution, surround-sound collapse of American trust in their government.

Now, some of you might think I’m being too hard on Nixon.  There’s a case to be made that Nixon was an effective pragmatist with some very real accomplishments, a point Joan Hoff makes in 1994’s Nixon Reconsidered.  Surely, this argument goes, the man who signed the Clean Air Act, validated the EPA, presided over record school desegregation, ended the draft could have been all bad.

Others may point to his successes in the field of foreign relations, presiding over a period of detente with the Soviet Union, and achieving a signal accomplishment in opening relations with China.  Again, I call this into question.  Consider this- suppose a President Humphrey decided to visit China in 1972.  Wouldn’t every major conservative Republican- perhaps egged on by private citizen Nixon- have decried Humphrey as a sell-out to international communism and a traitor to a loyal ally like Taiwan?  Nixon should not, in my opinion, get credit when he created a scenario in global relations where only someone like Nixon- whose anti-communist credentials were unquestioned- could have succeeded.

Consider for a moment that almost any of Nixon’s domestic triumphs would have happened under any Democrat and any Republican opponent sans Reagan.  Nixon didn’t come up with any innovative new bills; at best he dutifully signed what a relatively liberal Congress gave him.  It also pisses me off that he denied us two potentially extraordinary presidents.  Hubert Humphrey had a passion for justice and equality that could have done great things on a presidential level where he was no longer obligated to carry water for an LBJ bent on humiliating him.  And he had executive chops from his time as mayor of Minneapolis and four years in the White House as veep to understand its innermost workings.  George McGovern, if given the bully pulpit, might have forged an America that led by the power of its example, rather than the example of its power.  Confucians believe that a leader’s virtue emanates  throughout the rest of society.  If that is true, it would have been a welcome change for McGovern’s concern for the marginalized and his hatred of all things mean-spirited to inspire Baby Boomers to commit to eliminating poverty and checking the military-industrial complex. (Although, given McGovern’s distaste for, and borderline-incompetence in, executive power, he would have needed some help, perhaps by making someone like Ramsay Clark his chief of staff).  But even if you are skeptical about Humphrey or McGovern, it’s not difficult to see lots of potentially strong Republican presidencies that could have taken his place: George Romney, Nelson Rockefeller, Mark Hatfield, or Charles Percy.  Nixon does very badly indeed if we evaluate him on my Value-Over-Replacement-Player theory.

Ultimately, the Confucian concept of leadership permeating throughout society wins out.  It’s not just that Nixon was an evil, conniving, scheming crook- he made Americans as a whole less generous and tolerant, more intent on viewing the government as a corrupt ‘them’ rather than a collaborative ‘us’.  Anyone can be a bad president, but it takes an exceptionally sinister president to dial the entire country’s character down several notches.  I have spent countless hours talking about the 1970s with those who were there, and when almost every single one of them still speaks of Watergate, 40 years later, as a deeply traumatic experience, the beginning of their disillusionment with Washington in particular and America in general, we have a problem.  Such widespread cynicism and disillusionment should not result in a merely ‘below average’ presidency, where Nixon is usually placed.

Whenever somebody successfully uses racialized code words and gets away with it, the spirit of Nixon is alive.  Whenever someone unfriends somebody of a different political affiliation on Facebook, the spirit of Nixon is alive.  Whenever we decide its easier to undermine an opponent rather than dialogue with them, the spirit of Nixon is alive.  Whether under the guise of Lee Atwater and his turgid revolving door ad, Karl Rove’s villainy, the majority of whites who aren’t troubled by Ferguson, or the Fox viewers who thought Trayvon had it coming, Nixon’s shadow, as David Greenberg calls it, is projected once more upon the American backdrop.  Small wonder that Rick Perlstein ends his 700-page tome on Tricky with the depressing conclusion that we are still living in a dystopic and distrustful Nixonland.

And its a shame, because out of all the people he cheated and slandered and lied to, he perhaps cheated no one more than himself.  A man of his keen intelligence and memory, his rugged determination to overcome his humble origins and be someone special, his legendary embrace of hard work, and his strong pragmatic streak that belied any steel-cut ideology are all traits that could have lent themselves to considerable success.  Nixon, with a functional moral compass and a more noble spirit, might have been a very good president.  And that’s that.  With #38 out of the way, I regret to say that I don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.

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