The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Well-Groomed Presidential Failures

Speaking at East Carolina University yesterday in Greenville North Carolina, Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate Joe Biden attempted to make a historical case against what he feels are unfair characterizations of Barack Obama by Republicans by comparing them to similar slurs against distinguished Presidents of the past.

Biden recalled that opponents of Thomas Jefferson claimed he “wasn’t a real Christian,” FDR’s critics warned he “would destroy the American system of life,” and detractors feared John F. Kennedy would be a “dangerous choice in difficult times.”

“Sound familiar?” Biden asked the crowd.

As if on cue, the McCain campaign issued a statement deriding Biden’s analysis, arguing Democrats are “now attacking any[one] who challenges Barack Obama’s economic plan to raise taxes.”

Biden is correct in the sense that while Republicans have every right to make hay out of the general unpopularity of any type tax increase among voters, they overreach in portraying the concept of progressive taxation (i.e. the rich pay a higher tax rate than the poor) as some sort of socialist epiphany on Obama’s part.

Yet Biden misses the point if he thinks history has gone on to favor the past Presidents he mentions in a favorable light because they were actually safe, solid bets in times of crisis.

Jefferson was no enemy of Christianity but, like many of the Founding Fathers, he was more a Deist than a descendant of the Puritan forefathers of nearly two centuries earlier. Although he saw religion in public life as perfectly acceptable, Jefferson coined the phrase “separation of Church and State.” He helped establish the United States as an official secular democracy and eased acceptance for the diverse groups who immigrated to our shores during a period of rapid expansion.

FDR did not destroy the American system of life but he did usher in a more progressive role for government. He fought against an isolationist Congress and applied basic American values to justify battling the rise of authoritarian powers in Europe and Asia, cementing the role of the U.S. as a world superpower. He redefined American liberalism in ways that helped lead to Civil Rights for African Americans and increased civil liberties for all Americans.

JFK was not dangerous but he was a risky choice, given his relative youth, Catholic background, and rumors of manipulative aiding of his career by his powerful father. He certainly faced difficult times, such as the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the building of the Berlin Wall, the Space Race, the Civil Rights Movement, and the preliminary stages of the Vietnam War. He met each of these aggressively, if not always wisely, ushering in a period of great hope and prosperity.

The idea that demanding times call for an experienced leader is a theme repeatedly used against Obama by John McCain, just as it had by Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primaries. Yet a review of our nation during some of its stormier moments demonstrates that safe, experienced candidates seldom fared as well in the Presidency as their riskier, more novice counterparts.

In the mid-1800s, as the question of slavery continued to tear the nation apart and Civil War loomed on the horizon, the power brokers cast about looking for Presidential candidates who might hold the nation together. Two such likely candidates were Democrats – Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan.

Pierce was a military hero, serving as a Brigadier General in the Mexican-American War. Before this, he was a member of both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. After the war, he built a private law practice so successful and celebrated that earned him many opportunities and offers, including the 1852 Democratic nomination. He was celebrated for his relative youth, good looks, and pleasing personality.

Buchanan was less charismatic but more experienced. He served for a decade in the U.S. House of Representatives, rising to chair its Judiciary Committee. Buchanan next served as U.S. Ambassador to Russia for two years. Elected to the U.S. Senate, Buchanan served there for nine years, chairing its Foreign Relations Committee. President Polk nominated him as a Justice to the Supreme Court but Buchanan declined, choosing instead to be Secretary of State. Finally, he served as U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain for three years before accepting the Democratic nomination for President in 1856.

Many hoped that Pierce and Buchanan might avoid war because they were both “doughfaces,” meaning they were Northerners with Southern sympathies. Unfortunately, both were incredibly weak once in office. Pierce proved too ready an appeaser, supporting the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri compromise and opening the expansion of slavery in the West. Even worse, Buchanan adopted a policy of complete passivity, arguing that Southern succession and Northern force to prevent it were both illegal.

Their successor, Abraham Lincoln, had little going for him. The first elected Republican, the Party of abolition, many judged him less on his intended policies and more on their prejudices of what he represented.

Lincoln was a child of poverty, whose formal education consisted of about eighteen months of schooling. He had served as an erstwhile captain in the Illinois militia during the Black Hawk War. He had served four terms in the Illinois legislature and only one term in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was a somewhat prosperous self-taught prairie lawyer but his caseload was the drab stuff of representing railroads and other transportation interests. He unsuccessfully ran for the Senate in 1858.

The experienced, successful, and popular Pierce and Buchanan are consistently ranked as Presidential failures by scholars and Buchanan’s powerlessness to take any action to prevent Civil War was rated as the single worse failure by a President in a 2006 survey of U.S. historians. The inexperienced, unknown, and unpopular Lincoln consistently rates as one of our three greatest Presidents.

Any one instance can be regarded as a possible fluke and nobody compares well to Lincoln. Consider, then, the case of William Howard Taft. Few entered the Presidency with a more impressive lifetime of service to the law and government. None received more careful grooming to follow a beloved President during a time of national prosperity.

Taft attended Yale, graduating second in his class. Early in his career, Taft served as the first Dean and Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Cincinnati. Later, he would be Chancellor Kent Professor of Law and Legal History at Yale Law School.

Taft received appointment to the post of Assistant Prosecutor of Hamilton County Ohio. He subsequently received appointment as local Collector of Internal Revenue. Several years later, he became a judge of the Ohio Superior Court. In 1890, President Benjamin Harrison appointed him Solicitor General of the United States. In 1892, Harrison appointed him to the newly created U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, where Taft eventually became Chief Judge.

Taft served for two years as the first civilian Governor-General of the Philippines, at the request of President McKinley. In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him Secretary of War. Roosevelt gradually expanded Taft’s duties, placing him in charge at the beginning of construction on the Panama Canal. He sometimes used Taft as an acting Secretary of State and even as “acting President” when TR was not in Washington. Roosevelt named Taft his handpicked successor upon leaving office.

Taft had national recognition and won election easily against a populist Democratic opponent, who ran a vigorous campaign against the nation’s business elite. Taft was vigorous enough in his policies, in both anti-trust prosecutions and pushing for the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which instituted a federal income tax. However, Taft never secured a broad base of popular support. Although less privileged in his upbringing than Roosevelt, Taft lacked Teddy’s common touch and struck many as elitist.

About a decade after leaving the Presidency, Taft received appointment as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by President Harding and served in that capacity for nine years. He remains the only American to hold both positions. Compare his long record to the two men who served as bookends to his Administration.

Theodore Roosevelt began life as a competent but unspectacular academic and historian. A series of personal blows caused him to “kick about” for a number of years. He finally found success when President McKinley appointed him Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1897. Roosevelt resigned his post and joined the Spanish-American War as Lieutenant Colonel of a cavalry unit, known as “The Rough Riders.” His exploits in this role, and his subsequent self-promotion of them, made him into a national figure overnight.

After leaving the army, Roosevelt became Governor of New York. His work as an ardent reformer caused that state’s Republican boss to foist him off on President McKinley as a running mate for his second term, on the assumption Teddy could do no harm as Vice-President. McKinley’s assassination a few months later changed history.

Woodrow Wilson had a highly accomplished career – he is the only President to have earned a PhD – but primarily as an academic and political theorist. He rose through the ranks in several colleges and universities, eventually serving as the president of Princeton University. Elected Governor of New Jersey, he served only two years in that position before accepting the Democratic nomination for President in 1912.

The energetic but sometimes-unstable Roosevelt and the prim, stiff, and scholarly Wilson – both relative political neophytes upon taking office – are usually both ranked as near-greats by scholars. The well-prepared and thoroughly vetted Taft consistently ranks no higher than average. (And without the impressive achievements of his pre- and post-Presidential careers, I believe he would rank below average.) Taft’s own memoirs make it clear he considered the Supreme Court his first love and crowning achievement. “I don't remember that I ever was President,” he supposedly once said.

Without going into the details, similar comparisons exist for other Presidential combos. Perhaps the most striking is Herbert Hoover and FDR. Hoover was a brilliant mind and a successful project manager of many large-scale construction and recovery efforts in both his professional and public careers. In spite of this, scholars usually rank him a failure because of his inability to respond to the stock market crash and Great Depression.

FDR campaigned on a platform of change, for which the coined the term “The New Deal.” Yet he never offered voters, or even thought out in his own mind, one specific policy or plan to back it up during his 1932 campaign. He went on to consistent ranking as a Presidential great.

That unconventional and unlikely people gained the Presidency at times of crisis reflects upon voters’ desire for change over the status quo as opposed to their regard for experience and gravitas. That seems much the case this year, if the polls are accurate.

There is no guarantee that an inexperienced and untested new President will grow in the job to the extent that people like Lincoln and Harry Truman achieved. Even then, both of these Presidents were often highly unpopular during their Administrations. However, there are precious few examples from the past, beyond that of George Washington, to suggest that electing the person who seems best trained to do the job will likely to result in a triumphant and celebrated Presidency. In fact, quite the reverse appears true.

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