John F. Kennedy: An Unfinished Life by Robert Dallek

So what can I do for you?

President #35, C-SPAN Historians ranking #6

kennedyFor a man who had a shorter term in office than all but six other presidents (Barack Obama not included), John Kennedy might be studied and written about more than any other 20th Century president. Robert Dallek, who also has written biographies of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, produced a scholarly biography of a man who was at times heroic, at times hesitant, often sick, and almost always on the prowl for another sexual conquest. It’s a unique combination of detailed policy analysis with generous helpings of tawdry (yet, true) details of Kennedy’s life.

Dallek was given unprecedented access to Kennedy’s medical history and what he uncovered there turned out to be what this book will be most remembered for. For all the romance of “Camelot” or “The New Frontier,” underneath it all was a man, who was elected at at the age of 43 (the youngest ever elected), who was beset by numerous serious health problems and was treated by physicians in such a way that most of us would rather just take our chances with the local HMO.

So alongside the Cuban Missile Crisis, there are descriptions of crippling back pain relieved mostly by a series of painkilling injections by doctors with questionable credentials. We find out that Kennedy took, at times, sleeping pills, antidepressants, amphetamines, testosterone, and probably a few other drugs that most of us would blanch at taking. Yet through it all, according to Dallek, Kennedy remained lucid and clear in his decision-making.
For someone who was President during the lifespan of a lot of people reading this (I missed by two years), it is surprising to me how much mythology has built up around Kennedy. Dallek tries to strip away the mythology and show how Kennedy was able to propel himself so quickly to the highest office in the U.S.

John Kennedy was born into a wealthy Irish Catholic family in Boston. His older brother, Joseph Jr., was expected to be the political star of the family, but he died in a plane crash during World War II and it was left for the second son, John (called Jack throughout the book, there’s a lot of first name reference in the book so you can keep people straight), to fulfill the wishes of his father, Joseph Sr., to become America’s first Catholic president.

Dallek details the medical problems that hit young Jack when he’s in prep school and set him on a course for lifelong illness. Kennedy was beset by intestinal problems early on and Dallek goes into quite a bit of detail on this.

The problem, as best as I could figure out, was that Kennedy’s intestinal problems were treated with a strong regimen of steroids. The problem was that doctors didn’t quite know how much to prescribe. Or when to take it. Or when to stop. And the longtime use of these steroids (not the anabolic kind, but Kennedy would take those later), led to osteoporosis (and chronic back pain that required surgery) and Addison’s disease (a deficiency in the adrenal glands that was potentially life-threatening). And then there were also chronic problems with the prostate, which probably wasn’t helped by Kennedy’s promiscuity.

John Kennedy became a war hero for his efforts to save his crew aboard PT-109, although he had to have several strings pulled for him to get into the military. Most people with Kennedy’s maladies would have spent World War II behind a desk, but Kennedy knew the importance of having a combat background if he wanted to go into politics.

Back from the war, Kennedy ran for the House in 1946 and then moved on the Senate in 1952. Despite numerous hospitalizations in 1954 and 1955 for spinal surgeries, Kennedy still had a high enough profile to get himself considered as possible running mate to Adlai Stevenson in 1956. Joseph Kennedy actually tried to get Lyndon Johnson to run for President and have his son be his running mate, but Johnson did not think that the Democrats had much chance to win in 1956.

Soon after Stevenson’s loss to Eisenhower, Kennedy started positioning himself to run for President in 1960. Few campaigns have received more attention as they were multiple story lines.

There was the young, rich, attractive Senator from Massachusetts trying to overcome religious prejudice. There were Cold War overtones throughout. The Kennedy-Nixon television debates changed the way presidential campaigns were conducted. In the end, Kennedy won by a narrow margin over Nixon, thanks in part to some “interesting” vote counting in Illinois and Texas. Dallek attributes the closeness of the election to the hesitancy of many Southern Protestant voters to elect a Catholic. The 1960 election was set up nicely for the Democrats as there was a recession and Kennedy was able to outspend Nixon. (In general, Kennedys outspend everyone in elections. It’s a family tradition.)

After Kennedy’s famous inaugural address, Dallek starts to dissect the Kennedy presidency. There were many doubts if someone so young could handle such a big job. And at the outset, Kennedy definitely looked not up to the task.

Kennedy was faced with crises external, in Laos (where he chose not to intervene), and internally, with a civil rights issue with the Freedom Riders. And in April of 1961, Kennedy gave the go ahead to the CIA plan to remove Castro from power with a paramilitary force. That turned out to be what is known as The Bay of Pigs. And it was an utter failure.

Soon after, Kennedy ventured to Vienna for a summit meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev. Kennedy’s performance at this was widely criticized as the young president was not prepared for Khruschev’s belligerence regarding East Germany and Berlin.

On the domestic front, which Kennedy didn’t seem to care about as much as foreign policy, there were problems. The Kennedy administration was slow to take action on civil rights legislation because the Congress was still dominated by conservative Southerners in important positions, and Kennedy didn’t want to alienate an important part of his party that he needed if he wanted to be reelected in 1964.

Economically, the country was in a recession and Kennedy wanted to push through a large income tax cut, although opposition from conservatives (both Democratic and Republican) kept Kennedy from getting the complete package of reforms he wanted. Plans to increase Federal funding for education also went nowhere.

The biggest crisis of Kennedy’s administration was the Cuban Missile Crisis of October of 1962. It was perhaps the closest time ever that the US and Soviet Union ever came to a full-scale nuclear exchange. But, fortunately, Khruschev backed down from placing offensive weapons in Cuba and Kennedy opted not to follow the advice of his military advisers, who wanted an armed invasion of Cuba. This event, probably more than any other, secured Kennedy’s legacy, even though all he was doing was reacting to posturing by the Soviet Union. Of course, Kennedy and his advisers didn’t know if all Khruschev was doing was posturing or was really intent on war.

By 1963, Kennedy’s popularity was steadily increasing. He gave a speech at American University in June of 1963 where he made his case for nuclear disarmament to the Soviet Union. Soon after the speech, the first comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty was agreed to between the Americans and Soviets.

Later in 1963, Kennedy had a triumphant trip to Berlin, where he rallied the hopes of West  Berlin residents with his famous (although semantically incorrect) statement of “Ich bin ein Berliner!

The final months of the the Kennedy administration (not that he was expecting them to be the final months) brought up one of the most troubling parts of that era: Vietnam. On November 1, 1963 Kennedy authorized the CIA to start a coup to overthrow South Vietnamese leader Diem, who was killed during the the military takeover. Dallek portrays Kennedy as being deeply troubled by the violence of the coup and whether or not U.S. involvement in that region would ever work. But would Kennedy have increased the military buildup in Vietnam to the point where it became what we know as the Vietnam War?

Before that question could be answered, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963. And the answer to that question (along with many others) is still hotly debated.

So just what did John F. Kennedy do as President? What did he accomplish? In Dallek’s view, his primary accomplishments were: 1) standing up to Khruschev and the Soviets in the Cuban Missile Crisis and the negotiation of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, 2) the development of the space program, which Dallek felt greatly improved America’s international standing, and 3) the establishment of the Peace Corps. Despite Dallek’s admiration for Kennedy, I doubt he would have rated Kennedy as high as the panel of historians C-SPAN assembled.

Obviously, some people are going to disagree with this assessment. For some, Kennedy will be the man who was more show than substance. He was a man who, in many ways, bought his way to the top. Kennedy didn’t get any major civil rights legislation passed (that happened in the Johnson Administration). He was a man who presented an image of a loving family man who was physically fit, when in reality he was very ill and cheated on his wife with women who were connected to mobsters.

It’s almost like John F. Kennedy is whomever people want him to be. If you’ve got the time to plow through an 830 page biography (it’s only about 700 pages of text, the rest of it is notes and an index), then Robert Dallek’s book is for you. It is not hagiography. It is not a hatchet job either. But like Kennedy, the book will ultimately reflect what you want it to be.

Other stuff: As you would expect, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library is in Boston.

I attended John F. Kennedy High in Granada Hills, California. The 1994 Northridge Earthquake destroyed a couple buildings on campus and allowed ones that were slightly less ugly to be put in their place.

Kennedy is unique among Presidents in that he is the only one widely commemorated on the day he died, November 22, rather than on his birthday, May 29.

John Kennedy’s seat in the House was filled by future Speaker Tip O’Neill. His Senate seat was filled by Benjamin Smith, who held it for two years before John Kennedy’s youngest brother,  Edward, was elected in 1962.

Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia is the only current member of the Senate to have served alongside John Kennedy in that body. Representative John Dingell of Michigan served alongside Kennedy in the House.

There are now two Senators who were born after John Kennedy’s death: Michael Bennett of Colorado and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.

The New York Times review of this book was written by Ted Widmer, who wrote the Martin Van Buren bio that I had reviewed earlier. Van Buren and Kennedy remain the only two Presidents who were not partially English.

Although Kennedy was the first Catholic president, there was not a Catholic Vice President until Joe Biden. The first Catholic Chief Justice was Roger Taney, way back  in 1836.

The next bio I will review will be shorter. So there may not be as long of a gap before the next review.

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Martin Van Buren by Ted Widmer

Don’t Panic!

President #8, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #31

martinvanburenMartin Van Buren is not a president who inspires people in this day and age. He exists mainly as a name to remember when you’re trying to remember the names of all the presidents. Fortunately, Ted Widmer, a former speechwriter for Bill Clinton, penned a biography of the first president born after the Declaration of Independence, the first president who wasn’t at least part English (there have been only two and Barack Obama isn’t the other one), and the first president who grew up speaking a language other than English.

Born into a lower middle class Dutch family in the upstate New York city of Kinderhook, Martin Van Buren was the first president to get elected primarily because he had the political smarts to pull it off. Van Buren was neither a military hero nor was he a Founding Father (or son of one). He was a man who became quite taken with the beliefs of Thomas Jefferson as a young man and then was able to work his way up to the highest office in the land.

And almost as soon as he took office, the United States economy plunged into a financial panic that had not been seen since the Constitution had been adopted. And master politician Martin Van Buren was not a master economist and after four years, Van Buren was bounced out of office in the 1840 “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” campaign of the Whig Party that got the American people used to buying into catchy slogans in an effort to make them feel better about themselves.

Widmer has a sense of humor that appealed to me. Here is a passage from a chapter where the author discusses Van Buren’s attempts to organize opposition to then incumbent president John Quincy Adams.

None of this activity was lost on President Adams, who could not have looked upon Van Buren’s activity with more disfavor if he was an emissary from the Vatican seeking to convert Yankee maids to Papism and then sell them into white slavery.

Van Buren’s accomplishments are usually presented in terms that a reader could compare to the political realities of today. The problems may have been different (well, except for the major financial disaster, that seems to be something we can relate to now), but there are parallels to today. When Van Buren’s opponents couldn’t find an actual solution to a problem that Van Buren couldn’t solve either, the alternative became to attack the person. Van Buren had done the same thing when he was attacking Adams as president and Van Buren ended up with a taste of his own medicine.

But just what did Van Buren do as president? If you’re looking for a major accomplishment that Van Buren had while he was president, you aren’t going to find one. But before Van Buren moved into the White House, he had begun the development of the Democratic Party as the first truly organized political party in the United States. But Van Buren did little to end or even ameliorate the financial panic.

Much of what we think of when we think of a political party were started by Van Buren. He established state party committees and tried to keep all parts of the country informed as to what the Democratic “message” was.  This was all at a time when communications in the United States were revolutionized by the development of the telegraph and railroads. Politics was no longer local, it was national. (Well, until the 1980s, when Tip O’Neill told us that all politics was local.)

Van Buren’s became a confidante of Andrew Jackson after the election of 1824. Although Van Buren had backed William Crawford in 1824, he saw that Jackson was the man who was going to go places. Van Buren advised Jackson to stay out of the political arena and, in the words of Widmer, “to look presidential.” Van Buren’s strategy paid off and in 1828, Jackson won the presidency over Adams, who had to ruin his image by actually trying to govern (which he did poorly.)

At the same time, Van Buren was elected governor of New York. However, he held that office for only a few months as Jackson appointed Van Buren Secretary of State. Later, Jackson appointed Van Buren to serve as U.S. minister to Britain (this was not considered a demotion at the time), but the Senate rejected Van Buren’s nomination with Vice President John Calhoun casting the tiebreaking vote against Van Buren. Calhoun would later resign the Vice Presidency before Jackson could not invite him back and Van Buren took over the #2 job in 1833. Calhoun had also been John Quincy Adams’ Vice President and was getting tired of the job. And Calhoun was just an all around miserable person.

Following after one of America’s most popular presidents in Jackson, Van Buren had little trouble defeating a combination of Whig Party candidates in 1836 (William Henry Harrison finished second). However, Van Buren’s Vice President, Richard Johnson of Kentucky, had to be elected by the Senate as he failed to get a majority of the electoral votes as many Southerners objected to the fact that Johnson had been married to one of his former slaves.

But the economic hard times defined Van Buren’s four years in office. He was not equipped for the job and likely wasn’t helped that Jackson had shut down the Bank of the United States, the national bank that had provided some sense of semblance of rationality while speculators were driving up land prices and then going broke. Interestingly at this time, one of the economy’s problems was that the Federal Government was running a SURPLUS and was returning money to the states. It would be even more interesting if I knew why running a surplus was bad. But I’m not an economist, just a guy with a blog. Economists today still don’t agree on why there was a panic in 1837, but banks refusing to lend people money was a start.

Widmer includes this description of the Panic of 1837 (as its familiarly called) that was penned by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Cold April; hard times; men breaking who ought not to break; banks bulled into the bolstering of desperate speculators; all the newspapers a chorus of owls.

While in office, Van Buren had to face the issue of slavery head on and most of the time he tried his best to not make eye contact. Van Buren did refuse to annex the new nation of Texas to the United States because he feared what a large slave-owning state would do to the balance of power in the U.S. And Van Buren has been portrayed as the villain in the Amistad affair, but Widmer attributes this more to Steven Spielberg’s direction of the 1997 film. Nigel Hawthorne portrayed Van Buren in the film. (For more on the Amistad case, read the John Quincy Adams review.)

However, after leaving office, Van Buren had a change of heart about slavery. Widmer can’t point out exactly why except that perhaps Van Buren realized that some things were more important that than trying to keep the South placated as part of a nationa coalition. Van Buren tried for office again in 1844, but lost the nomination to James Polk, who ended up snubbing Van Buren or any of his associates for his administration. In 1848, Van Buren ran again, but the Democrats wouldn’t have him and he ran on a third party ticket called the Free Soil Party, but failed to win any electoral votes, but was enough of a pest to throw the election to Whig candidate Zachary Taylor. Van Buren got to be the Ross Perot of 1848.

Widmer managed to pull off the not so easy task of making the life of a career politician, not known for his soaring oratory or military bravery (Van Buren didn’t go to college or serve in the military), into a living, breathing, relevant figure for our times. Martin Van Buren definitely was not a great president. And he may be forgotten, but he is a part of our nation’s history and he is worth looking into.

Other stuff: Van Buren’s wife, Hannah, died in 1819 and he never remarried, although he supposedly was quite popular with the ladies. Widmer believes though that he never had a sexual relationship with anyone after his wife passed away.

Van Buren’s home, Lindenwald, is now part of the Martin Van Buren National Historic Site in Kinderhook, New York.

At 5’6″, Van Buren is believed to be the second shortest U.S. president. Only James Madison (5’4″ to 5’5″) was shorter. However, there aren’t any accurate measurements as few presidents have submitted to getting measured as if they were attending the NFL Draft Combine.

After Van Buren was elected President while serving as Vice President, no other sitting Vice President pulled off that feat until George H.W. Bush did in 1988.

Martin Van Buren was also reference in an episode of “Seinfeld.”

The next president up in my list doesn’t yet have a biography published in the American Presidents Series. So I’m going to read a biography from a different publisher. And it will be about 5 times longer (800 or so pages) than the books in this series. So it may take a while to get the next review published. But stay tuned.

James Garfield by Ira Rutkow

You should put some Bactine on that

President #20, C-SPAN Historians ranking #28

jamesgarfieldJames Garfield served as President from March 4 through September 19, 1881, the second shortest tenure of any person to hold the office. Garfield’s assassination was  tragic, although the most tragic part was not the violence perpetrated by Charles Guiteau, but rather by the the incompetent medical care that Garfield received from a group of doctors who refused to adopt some of the most basic medical principles that we take for granted today.

Because Garfield’s presidency was so short and he spent much of it (80 days) dying from his bullet wound, this biography of Garfield was given to Ira Rutkow, a surgeon who has written numerous books on medical history. Garfield’s biography is intriguing, although if reading about gruesome medical conditions is not your thing, you may wish to pass this book by.

Rutkow does discuss Garfield’s rise from his humble beginnings in Ohio (he was the last president to be born in a log cabin) to the White House. And Garfield was undoubtedly a brilliant man, although politically, his greatest gift was giving good speeches.  He was not an especially inspiring leader, but he was respected.

Garfield rose to fame during the Civil War serving as the chief of staff to Union General William Rosecrans, although Garfield left the Army in 1863 to take over a House seat for Ohio. Rosecrans was relieved of his command of the Army of the Cumberland after a terrible defeat at the Battle of Chickamauga. Garfield and Rosecrans are linked in the city of Paramount, California where streets named after them intersect. (Although some sources say Garfield Avenue is actually named for Garfield’s widow, Lucretia.)

While serving in the House, Garfield aligned himself with the Radical Republicans and he even came out against the reelection of Abraham Lincoln. But he built a reputation as a thoughtful and well-read Representative and someone to watch out for in the future.

And like so many politicians of the era, Garfield was touched by scandals, including the Credit Mobilier scandal (it’s another one of those events you hoped your teacher didn’t put on the midterm) and also for receiving excessive fees for serving as a lobbyist for a company. But compared to what was going in the Grant Administration, Garfield looked pretty clean.

In 1880, the Republican Party, which barely held on to the White House in 1876 thanks to some last-minute Electoral College chicanery (the Democrats were equally guilty of chicanery. It was a very chicanerous time.), was divided into two factions: the Stalwarts who wanted to bring back Ulysses Grant for a third term. This faction was led by New York Senator Roscoe Conkling. The Stalwarts liked the spoils system and political appointments for cronies all around.

The other faction was called the Half-Breeds and they were led by James Blaine, who had been Speaker of the House. This group tended to be a bit more conciliatory toward the South and wanted some civil service reform. The Half-Breeds had two candidates: Blaine and Ohio Senator John “my older brother burned down Georgia” Sherman.

Three strong candidates at a political convention lends itself well to a deadlock and one quickly developed. Garfield, who was hoping for such a deadlock, ended up being the compromise choice and he prevailed in the general election over Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock (another Union General) by margin of about 7,000 votes (Rutkow uses a figure of 2,000). The Electoral Vote wasn’t as close with Garfield winning 214-155.

Upon election, nothing went well for Garfield. Conkling demanded that his faction of the party be represented in Garfield’s Cabinet, even though the Vice-President, Chester Arthur, was a Conkling crony. Garfield ended up piecing together a Cabinet that no one liked.

After his inauguration, Garfield soon discovered that his campaign manager was involved in a scandal where he took exorbitant fees to deliver mail to rural areas through companies he controlled. But the mail never got delivered in those areas.

The biggest headache for Garfield came when he tried to appoint someone to the lucrative position of Customs Collector for the Port of New York who was not acceptable to Conkling, who tried to block the move with some parliamentary tricks. Conkling’s effort failed and, out of spite or pique, Conkling resigned his Senate seat (as did New York’s other Senator, Thomas “Me Too” Platt) hoping to be reelected to the Senate by the New York legislature. The New York legislature chose two other people.

So Conkling was out of the picture and life seemed better for James Garfield as he was heading to catch a train to  his alma mater of Williams College and a vacation with his wife in New Englad.

Enter Charles Guiteau. Guiteau was a man with many psychiatric problems (this amateur psychiatrist thinks he was schizophrenic) and he was disappointed that Garfield and his new Secretary of State, Blaine, had not appointed him to be a U.S. consul in either Vienna or Paris. People in Washington knew Guiteau as “that crazy guy who keeps asking for a job.” But they didn’t know that he wasn’t harmless. He had a gun and he fired twice into Garfield’s back.

The first medical officer to examine Garfield stuck his unsterilized finger into the wound to look for the bullet, but couldn’t find it. (Rutkow speculates that the first person examining Garfield may have had manure on his hands.) Then another doctor came in and he tried to find the bullet with his finger. Then he took a metal probe and stuck it inside Garfield’s bullet wound and poked around, but didn’t find the bullet. However, it was assumed that the bullet hit Garfield’s liver. It hadn’t.

Garfield was taken back to the White House where the doctor who took over the case, a man who was literally a doctor in name only. The man’s name was Doctor William Bliss. Was he Dr. Doctor William Bliss? Who knows for sure? It didn’t take much in 1881 to call yourself “Doctor” as licensing of physicians hadn’t started, but Doctor was the man’s given name. Bliss wasn’t even the Garfield family physician. They frequented a homeopathic doctor in Washington.

Bliss never could figure out that Garfield kept suffering from high fevers, extreme nausea, and a rapid heart rate because he had developed massive infections from his wound being continually poked and prodded at with unsterilized instruments. Garfield spent the last 80 days of his life in misery and agony that would have been easily preventable today and could have been prevented back in 1881 if Bliss hadn’t held on to his belief that antiseptic practices were just a fad. Alexander Graham Bell was even brought in to help out and that was pretty much a disaster.

Rutkow’s description of Garfield’s care can be quite harrowing to read. It’s also remarkable to find out how much medical science has changed in the past 128 years. Rutkow compares the treatment that Ronald Reagan received in 1981 to the treatment that Garfield received 100 years later earlier. Garfield’s wound would have been treated fairly simply in 1981 and he likely would have been out of the hospital in a day or two. Reagan’s injuries in 1881 likely would have killed him within a day if Bliss had taken over the case (mostly because Bliss wouldn’t have bothered to check on Reagan’s respiration or blood pressure.) Guiteau’s bullet did not hit any of Garfield’s vital organs nor did it cause any spinal cord damage.

Bliss would later publish articles on his treatment of Garfield in an attempt to rehabilitate his reputation. Here is an example of one such document, but I don’t suggest clicking that link until you’re sure you aren’t going to eat for a while.

James Garfield didn’t want to leave a legacy of dying at a young age (49) from medical malpractice, but that’s what history remembers him for. But at least he helped get doctors to wash their hands and sterilize their instruments.

Notes: James Garfield’s home, dubbed Lawnfield by reporters during the 1880 campaign, is run by the National Park Service as the James A. Garfield National Historic Site. It is located in Mentor, Ohio.

Garfield was the first president whose mother watched his inauguration. Garfield’s widow, Lucretia, moved to Pasadena, California for the winters after her husband’s death and passed away in 1918, although she is buried alongside her husband in a cemetery in Cleveland.

John Quincy Adams by Robert V. Remini

All Three Names Please!

President #6, C-SPAN historians ranking #19

jqadamsJohn Quincy Adams had one of the most distinguished careers in service to the United States that any person may have had. However, the four years he was president, from 1825 through 1829, were a series of political missteps compounded by the fact that he was the only president ever to be elected despite not getting the most ELECTORAL votes.

JQA, as he styled himself in correspondence, was the son of the second president, John Adams. He accompanied his father to Europe during the Revolution and learned French and German along the way. At the age of 14, he accompanied the American minister to St. Petersburg, Richard Dana, because French was spoken among diplomats at the time.

When Adams returned home to the U.S., he attended Harvard (however his admission was delayed because it was felt he didn’t speak Greek or Latin well enough) and graduated with honors and set up a law practice.

Adams fell in love with a Massachusetts woman, but neither her family nor Adams’ parents could ever agree on when or if the marriage should take place, and Adams never married the only woman he apparently ever truly loved. Adams eventually married a British woman and started a family, but he never seemed to truly love his wife.

Eventually, Adams was given a diplomatic post in Europe, first in the Netherlands and then later in Russia, and moved up to the post of Secretary of State under President James Monroe in 1817. And according to author Robert V. Remini, one of the foremost authorities on Adams’ era and a biographer of Andrew Jackson, Adams may have been the greatest Secretary of State ever.

Adams acquired Florida from Spain and in the same negotiation managed to get Spain to acknowledge that the Louisiana Territory extended all the way to the Pacific Ocean. There was also a successful treaty signed with the British in 1818 that settled part of what is now the U.S.-Canada border and also helped U.S. commercial interests greatly. And Adams was the man who wrote what would become known as “The Monroe Doctrine,” a cornerstone of American foreign policy that stated that any further attempts by European powers to colonize any country in the Western Hemisphere would be opposed by the United States.

With a pedigree and a list of accomplishments like Adams, it would seem that his elevation to the White House would have been a cinch. But it most certainly wasn’t.

In 1824, American politics was nominally a one-party system as the Federalists had gone the way of the tricorn hat. But this “one party” had numerous factions and little or no formal structure. Four people were nominated for president: Adams, Andrew Jackson (the extremely popular military hero of the War of 1812), William Crawford (the Secretary of the Treasury and the favored candidates of what would be considered the party regulars in Congress), and Henry Clay (who thought he was the best equipped man for the job because he had an ego the size of his home state of Kentucky.)

1824 was the first year that popular vote totals were recorded in a Presidential election. Jackson came out on top with about 152,000 votes and Adams had about 113,000. Jackson won 99 electoral votes, Adams won 84, Crawford won 41, and Clay finished in 37. Under the terms of the Twelfth Amendment, the top three in the Electoral College vote would be eligible for selection by the House.

This put Clay in the position of kingmaker as he could instruct the states that voted for him to vote a particular way. According to Remini, Clay didn’t hesitate to make his choice. Clay didn’t want Crawford to become President because that man had recently had a stroke and was nearly blind and couldn’t talk.  And Clay despised Jackson and didn’t want to see a military man as President. So that left Adams.

But what would Adams do to make it worth while for Clay to support him? It was pretty clear. Adams had to make Clay his Secretary of State. And in doing so, Adams prevailed in the House, winning 13 of the 23 state delegations. And as an added “prize,” Adams pretty much destroyed any chance of accomplishing anything as President because now Jackson and his supporters were, to put it mildly, pissed off.

To make matters worse, in Adams’ first message to Congress (presidents did not directly address Congress at the time, but rather sent over messages to be read), he laid out an ambitious legislative agenda. Adams wanted numerous internal improvements with roads and canals built all over the country. Adams wanted a national university and a national observatory. He wanted to go on the metric system. He wanted to send representatives to a Pan American Congress that was convening in Panama.

Adams ended up getting none of these and was widely ridiculed in the press. It didn’t help that Adams felt it was unseemly for a President to answer any criticism publicly. It also didn’t help that his Secretary of State, Clay, was even more disliked. And the Vice President, John Calhoun, didn’t like Adams.

And to be fair, Adams was hard to love. He didn’t exude a lot of warmth. He was the product of an unhappy childhood. Despite the way HBO had Laura Linney portray Abigail Adams, JQA’s mother, on TV, she was never going to win Mother of the Year. She was a parent, according to Remini’s description of her, who withheld affection and gave out a lot of criticism. JQA didn’t attend his own mother’s funeral and didn’t seem too broken up about it.  And Adams in turn was a bad father and had one son kill himself and another drink himself to death.

The John Quincy Adams Presidency was a four-year long trainwreck and in 1828, Jackson won the rematch easily despite a bitter campaign where Jackson’s people accused Adams of pimping out his own son to the Prussian court and Adams’ people accusing Jackson’s wife of bigamy.

After leaving the White House (Adams, like his father, didn’t stick around for the inauguration of his successor), JQA wanted to retire to Massachusetts, but eventually he was asked to run for a House seat and took his seat in 1831. Adams found his true calling in the House of Representatives.

While serving in Congress, Adams argued against the “gag rule” which prevented any discussion of the abolition of slavery. Adams also would represent the Africans on the Amistad, who had taken over the ship that was taking them to America and slavery and tried to return home. Adams won that case and the Africans were free men. It was a sign of the times though that it took a Supreme Court ruling for human beings to actually be given human rights.

Remini’s book on JQA’s presidency tried to highlight four years of John Quincy Adams’ distinguished career. But Adams’ life was much more than four bad years in the 1820s. And Remini reminds us of that. Some great men aren’t necessarily great presidents. And even Adams knew this about himself.

Other stuff: If you want to visit parts of John Quincy Adams’ history, you should visit the Adams National Historical Park in Quincy, Massachusetts. Adams had a granchild born in the White House, the first child ever to be born there. He passed away in the U.S. Capitol.