I picked up a copy of this book and just wondered how much could be written about a presidential election that was won by a party that doesn’t exist anymore, the Whigs, and by a candidate that died just a little over a year into office. And while few people may know that Zachary Taylor won the election of 1848, even fewer know who he defeated.
For Sibley, a Cornell professor, what is most important about this election is not necessarily the winner, but rather that it began to mark the end of elections that were decided by party matters as sectional differences were soon to overwhelm American politics leading to the Civil War.
And perhaps the most important figure in this whole election was not the man who won or even the man who finished second. Instead, it was a third-party candidate, former President Martin Van Buren, who ran on the Free Soil Party ticket. Van Buren would not win any states, but he won over 10% of the popular vote, and won over 25% of the vote in New York, Massachusetts, and Vermont.
While 1848 was a year of revolution and social upheaval in Europe, over in the U.S., things were much quieter. The United States had triumphed over Mexico in a war that added a sizeable chunk of the Southwest, including a place called California. This had all been the doings of expansionist Democratic President James Polk. Polk had pledged to serve just one term, so the 1848 would be an open election. (Polk never got home after leaving Washington, dying of cholera on the way soon after leaving office.)
The Whig Party, which was a diverse group of political interests that coalesced along the idea of Federal government expansion for internal improvements and a national bank, saw the 1848 election as a chance to get back into the White House. The Whigs had won in 1840 with William Henry Harrison, but Harrison died soon after taking office and his successor turned out to be WINO (Whig in Name Only) John Tyler.
One thing the Whigs agreed on was that the war with Mexico was wrong. Whigs in Congress vehemently opposed the war, particularly one Illinois Representative named Abraham Lincoln, who kept pushing the “Spot Resolution” that would have made Polk provide a map showing the exact spot where the alleged Mexican incursion into American territory started.
The most prominent Whigs were getting very old. Henry Clay, who had already lost three presidential elections, was 71. Daniel Webster was 66 and was known to have a drinking problem. So, the Whigs decided that since they had success with a military man before in Harrison, they would try it again.
There were two heroes of the Mexican War: Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott. Scott was far more of a political animal than Taylor. Taylor had never voted in any election. Nobody knew what his policies. Scott, unfortunately for him, had made some political statements, some of them nativist. The Whigs decided that the decidedly rough around the edges Taylor would be their man. The Whig convention took just one day. Former New York representative Millard Fillmore was nominated for Vice President.
The Democrats were in a mess. A sharp division sprung up when a Pennsylvania representative named David Wilmot added an amendment to an appropriations bill that would prohibit slavery in any of the newly acquired territory from Mexico. (Wilmot was not an abolitionist. He just didn’t like whites and blacks mixing for the most part.) However, anti-slavery forces jumped on the Proviso and support for it became a source of discord.
The discord was sharpest in New York. The Democratic party there split into two groups: the Barnburners, who supported the Wilmot Proviso; and the Hunkers, who were more likely to try to find some common ground with the South over the expansion of slavery.
When it came time to name delegates for the Democratic Convention, New York sent two different delegations, both of which demanded to be seated as opposed to the other. At the Convention, organizers decided to allow both groups to be seated, but gave New York the same number of votes. Neither New York side agreed to this and one group left and the other refused to vote.
The Democrats trotted out three candidates: Lewis Cass of Michigan, who fought in the War of 1812 (although he was part of a unit that surrendered Detroit to the British without firing a shot); James Buchanan, the Secretary of State; and Levi Woodbury, a Supreme Court justice. Cass prevailed after four ballots because he was the least objectionable of the three. William Butler of Kentucky was nominated for Vice President.
The Barnburners from New York, along with other anti-slavery politicians (both Whigs and Democrats), and nominated Van Buren for President on the Free Soil Party ticket. Charles Francis Adams, son of the former President, was nominated for Vice President. Van Buren did not have much in the way of anti-slavery credentials, but he did have name recognition.
The campaign itself was not overly exciting. The candidates rarely ventured out to speak for themselves, using surrogates to speak for them. Not much was known about Taylor’s views on slavery expansion. And Taylor wasn’t going to tell people if he didn’t have to. The Whigs did not even have a platform. They just put out a short statement at the convention that everything was OK.
Lincoln turned out to be one of Taylor’s biggest supporters and people took notice of him. However, Lincoln had agreed to not run for reelection to the House, so he could not immediately capitalize on his good publicity.
Both parties did their best to turn out their voters, who would all vote on the same day (November 7, 1848) for the first time in American history.
With New York’s Democrats in disarray, Taylor and the Whigs were able to win that state and its 36 (out of a total of 290) electoral votes, which went a long way to winning the election. The Whigs won most of the Eastern Seaboard, while the Democrats prevailed in the West. Much of the South voted for Taylor because he lived in Louisiana and was a slave owner.
However, the Democrats took control of both houses of Congress. The Free Soilers had managed to win nine House seats. The Democrats didn’t easily take control in the House because they only had a plurality, not a majority, and it took 63 ballots before a Democratic Speaker was chosen.
Taylor would die in 1850. Cass would go on to be Secretary of State for Buchanan prior to the Civil War, where he was pretty much the only competent person in that administration.
American politics, which hadn’t exactly been a pleasant thing to watch previously, was going to get extremely nasty in the years to come.
There is no person whose has been President who led a life that seems like it came out of a work of fiction more than Theodore Roosevelt. It seemed apropos that a novelist, Louis Auchincloss (The Rector of Justinamong many other titles) wrote this biography of a larger than life figure.
Theodore Roosevelt was a President that America seemed to need. After Abraham Lincoln’s death in 1865, the Presidency had passed through the hands of men who ranged from highly capable to grossly incompetent. Even a Civil War hero like Ulysses Grant could not elevate the office to the same stature that it had in Lincoln’s time.
It took a man, born of privilege, but who still took nothing for granted in life, to bring the United States fully up to the level of a world power on par with the British and French. It took a man who could bring together upper crust New Yorkers and rough-edged Westerners into a cohesive fighting unit, for one day of military success. A triumph that would propel him to the White House.
Theodore Roosevelt was born on October 27, 1858 in New York City. His father, also named Theodore (as an adult, President Theodore Roosevelt did not use the “Junior” suffix), did not serve in the Union Army in the Civil War, instead buying a replacement. This was a source of great embarrassment to young Theodore, who felt his father, whom he idolized, displayed cowardice.
As a child, Roosevelt was plagued with debilitating asthma attacks. There was no effective treatment for that condition at that time, aside from just being propped up in a chair. The condition made it difficult for Roosevelt to attend school on a regular basis.
In an effort to improve his physical condition, young Theodore Roosevelt took up boxing. This led to a lifelong interest in physical fitness, as well as a love of the outdoors. Roosevelt called this “the vigorous life.”
Through home schooling, Roosevelt was able to develop a sufficient background to get himself admitted to Harvard in 1876. He proved to be an excellent student, devouring knowledge in seemingly every field. Roosevelt had an encyclopedic knowledge of literature, and was also well-versed in geography, the natural sciences, and history. After graduating from Harvard, Roosevelt would write a book, the Naval War of 1812.
In 1878, while at Harvard, Theodore Roosevelt’s father passed away at age 47 from a form of colon cancer. Young Theodore missed seeing his father before he passed away, and always regretted it. As it would turn out, tragedy would stalk him much of his life. It is amazing that he was able to overcome it.
Theodore Roosevelt married Alice Lee in 1880 and seemed to be a happy couple. Roosevelt had carefully picked out his wife, wanting only a woman of the finest breeding, as well as one who was a virgin. He was strongly opposed to sex outside of a marriage. However, he was a big supporter of sex in marriage and believed it was every person’s duty to have as many children as possible.
Alice became pregnant in 1883 and gave birth to a daughter, also named Alice, on February 12, 1884. Two days later, the new mother passed away from kidney failure. On the same day, Roosevelt’s mother passed away as well as from typhoid fever. Roosevelt never spoke about his first wife to anyone ever again, even to his daughter.
In response to these tragedies, Roosevelt decided not to run for reelection to the New York State Assembly (where he had begun to build his resume as a reformer) and moved out to his ranch, Elk Horn, in the Dakota Territory. He spent time living a life that would seem to be too fantastic for even a Hollywood Western. Roosevelt caught a group of thieves and marched them back through the wilderness for a week until he could turn them over to the nearest law enforcement authority.
Roosevelt returned to the political arena later in 1884, making an appearance at the Republican National Convention. He held his nose and endorsed James Blaine for the nomination, even though he could not stand Blaine’s policies. Roosevelt felt that politically, he could not go out on a limb just yet.
In 1886, Roosevelt had his ups and downs. He ran for mayor of New York, but lost. But, he also remarried. Edith Carow was a childhood acquaintance of Roosevelt. The two married in London. They would have five children together.
Roosevelt then served in a series of political jobs that burnished his image as a reformer. He also was a member of the Federal Civil Service Commission from 1888 through 1895. He then moved on to become the Police Commissioner of New York. Roosevelt would walk the beats of officers and often find them asleep. He completely revamped the police force. (It is not known if alarm clocks were part of the revamping.)
The election of William McKinley as President in 1896 would give Roosevelt his chance to shine. He was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy. The Secretary of the Navy, John T. Long, was getting on in years and not an active manager of the department. Roosevelt took this opportunity to push across a plan to improve the Navy. He knew that a war with Spain over Cuba was likely. Roosevelt, when Long was on vacation, ordered the Pacific fleet to Manila Bay in the Philippines in preparation for the war. When war was declared, the Navy, under Admiral George Dewey, immediately scored a major victory over the Spanish fleet and kept other European powers from joining the fray.
Roosevelt did not want to sit out of the fighting in the Spanish-American War. So, he managed to get the Army to let him create his regiment, which would be known as the Rough Riders. The unit was a mixture of Western cowboys and wealthy New York scions. Although they trained to fight on horseback, they could not bring the horses to Cuba.
In what turned out to be the single biggest ground action of the war, Roosevelt led his men in a charge up San Juan Hill on July 1, 1898. Going up against heavy Spanish fire, Roosevelt and his men captured the hill. And, in turn, captured the imagination of the American public.
Roosevelt knew that malaria was an even bigger enemy than the Spanish. He quickly got his men sent back to the United States. Roosevelt came back and was elected governor of New York later in the year. Two years later, Roosevelt was elected Vice-President alongside McKinley. And on September 13, 1901, McKinley died from his gunshot wound seven days earlier. At age 42, Roosevelt was now the youngest President in American history. In the words of Ohio Senator Mark Hanna, a conservative Republican, “that damned cowboy is in the White House.”
After five years of solid, although perhaps not awe-inspiring, leadership from McKinley, America now had a dynamic man in the White House who wanted to get things done. And, he would do so.
Roosevelt soon faced a major strike by coal miners. Labor relations at this time were summed up by one coal corporation executive, “The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for — not by labor agitators but by the Christian men to whom God in his infinite wisdom has given control of the property interests of the country.” Roosevelt ended up threatening to have the Army to operate the mines if a settlement could not be reached. The mine operators agreed to binding arbitration.
The hot button political issue of Roosevelt’s time was the influence of corporations. Antitrust laws were routinely skirted by railroads, oil companies, and financiers. Roosevelt decided to go after one trust, known as the Northern Securities Company. It was a holding company that controlled two railways (the Northern Pacific and the Union Pacific) along with J.P. Morgan’s investment house. The company had a value, in 1902 dollars of $400 million. That would be about $9.5 billion today.
Roosevelt had the Justice Department prosecute Northern Securities for violations of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Morgan was outraged. He felt that Roosevelt should have just negotiated with him personally. Roosevelt was having none of that.
Ultimately, the government prevailed in the Supreme Court, although Roosevelt did not get the broad interpretation of the Sherman Act that he wanted. Nevertheless, the days of corporate mergers on a grand scale were over. So says, the guy who has a checking account at a bank that is owned by the House of Morgan. Roosevelt would pick up the nickname “The Trust Buster.”
In 1903, Roosevelt sent Secretary of State John Hay to Colombia to negotiate a treaty that would allow the United States to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. The Colombian Senate would not ratify the deal, upsetting Roosevelt.
Around this same time, French engineer Philippe Bunau-Varilla was still trying to push the idea of a Panama Canal in the United States. But without Colombia’s cooperation, the United States and Bunau-Varilla had to take a different approach. So, an independence movement in Panama sprung up. The United States backed the Panamanians with a naval force. The Republic of Panama came into existence on November 3, 1903. Bunau-Varilla offered himself up to the Panamanians to serve as their minister to the United States. On November 6, 1903, the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty granted the United States the right to build a canal.
Construction on the canal would begin in 1907. Roosevelt would become the first sitting President to leave the United States when he made a visit to the site. In his usual style, he asked to operate a large steam shovel to help do some excavation. The Panama Canal would not open until 1914.
Roosevelt ran for election in his own right in 1904. Prior to that time, no Vice President who had assumed the Presidency because of a death had been elected. Usually, the former VPs were not even considered. Roosevelt was different. He had become the most popular man in the country.
The Democrats had little to offer in opposition to Roosevelt. New York Appellate Judge Alton Parker was given the unenviable task of taking on Roosevelt. It was no contest. Roosevelt won with 56% of the vote and 336 electoral votes. Upon his election, Roosevelt pledged to not run for another term in office. That statement would come back to haunt him.
In his one full term, Roosevelt was still a whirlwind of activity. In 1905, Roosevelt brokered a peace treaty that ended the Russo-Japanese War. For his efforts, Roosevelt won a Nobel Peace Prize.
In 1906, Roosevelt had the United States participate in a multinational conference in Algeciras, Spain to sort out how the European colonies in North Africa would be governed. The Kaiser of Germany, Wilhelm II, made a personal appeal to Roosevelt to help reduce tensions. The conference only ended up delaying the onset of World War I.
Some of the territories that the United States occupied after the war with Spain were granted independence or autonomy in Roosevelt’s time, in particular, Cuba. However, the Philippines remained a troublesome spot. A bloody insurgency, which the United States tried to stem with often brutal methods, persisted throughout Roosevelt’s Administration.
Roosevelt also oversaw a major buildup in American naval forces. To demonstrate this, Roosevelt dispatched a fleet of newly constructed battleships (“The Great White Fleet”) to take an around the world journey to show that America was now a world power on a par with Britain, France, Russia, and Japan.
On the domestic front, Roosevelt brought the issue of conservation to the forefront. Roosevelt established the United States Forest Service, created five National Parks, and 18 National Monuments. Roosevelt’s attitude toward forests was that they were a resource that could be managed and preserved.
In response to the publication of Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, which exposed unsanitary practices in the food industry (even if that was not Sinclair’s main point in writing the book), Roosevelt pushed for the Pure Food and Drug Act to regulate the industry.
Roosevelt had pushed the Republican Party farther to the left than many in the party felt comfortable with. However, Roosevelt’s enormous popularity made it hard to stop him.
When Roosevelt left office in 1908, he anointed William Howard Taft as his successor. Roosevelt and Taft were good friends and the former hoped the latter would further extend his policies. But, William Taft was not Theodore Roosevelt. He was far more conservative. Friction between the two men began almost as soon as the election of 1908 was over.
Roosevelt departed the political scene for a period. He went on safari in Africa. He toured Europe. He thought he would be happy being a respected world figure.
But, it was not enough. By 1912, Roosevelt had completely broken with Taft and decided to run against his successor for the Republican nomination. However, Roosevelt made his decision too late. Taft was able to secure enough delegates to win the nomination. Roosevelt would not quit. His supporters bolted the Republican Party and formed the Progressive Party.
During the campaign, Roosevelt was shot in an assassination attempt in Milwaukee. The bullet was slowed down by the papers that Roosevelt had in his jacket to use for a speech. Despite his wound, Roosevelt insisted on delivering his speech. During the speech, Roosevelt said “it takes more than that [a bullet] to kill a bull moose.” And so, Roosevelt’s supporters became known as the Bull Moose Party. (The bullet was not removed from Roosevelt’s body, but he had to shut down his campaign for the final few weeks.)
The split in the Republican Party handed the 1912 election to the Democratic nominee, Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt’s 27.4% of the popular vote was the best showing by a third party candidate in the 20th Century. Wilson was everything Roosevelt was not. Wilson was not an advocate of the “vigorous life.” Wilson was dour. Wilson worked in academia. Roosevelt was a man of action. He fought in a war. He inspired men to do great things. Roosevelt never respected Wilson.
With politics closed off to him, Roosevelt went on another journey. He led an expedition to explore a Brazilian river called The River of Doubt (it’s now called Rio Roosevelt.) During the expedition, Roosevelt almost died from an infection in one of his legs. His health would never be good again after the trip.
When World War I began in 1914, Roosevelt cajoled Wilson into getting America involved on the side of the Allies. He could not tolerate Wilson’s cautious plan of neutrality. Once the United States finally did enter the war in 1917, Roosevelt asked Wilson if he could form his own unit like he did in the Spanish-American War. Wilson declined the offer. Wilson did not want to run the risk of having someone like Roosevelt criticizing him in the field. Also, Wilson could tell that Roosevelt was not in the best of health.
Some of Roosevelt’s sons fought in the war. His youngest son, Quentin, served as a pilot and died when he was shot down behind German lines. Roosevelt was crushed both emotionally and physically by this.
Roosevelt still hoped to run for the White House one more time in 1920. But, on January 6, 1919, Theodore Roosevelt died in his sleep of a heart attack. His health had been compromised by rheumatism, malaria, and the leg infection he picked up in Brazil. Theodore Roosevelt, the youngest man ever to be President, died at the age of 60.
It is hard not to find a good biography of Theodore Roosevelt. His life is so rich that historians constantly write about him. If Theodore Roosevelt lived today, there would probably be a “Facts of Theodore Roosevelt” website along the lines of “Chuck Norris Facts.”
Auchincloss starts off his biography of Roosevelt by trying to immediately present him as a flawed individual. This serves to make Roosevelt’s life seem even more remarkable because you realize that he was just a regular person like each one of us. Auchincloss has a portrait of Roosevelt that is respectful, not fantastic.
Theodore Roosevelt, more so than any other President, transformed the office of President. He transformed the nation. Was he a perfect man? No, but none of us are.
For nearly all of us, Theodore Roosevelt is almost a mythical figure. And he very well may have been the last President to achieve that status.
Since Roosevelt passed away in 1919, the only President to die of natural causes who was younger than Roosevelt (60 years and 71 days) was Warren Harding, who was 57 years and 273 days old, when he passed away in 1923.
I’m going to count to 10, if you don’t like this post, just stop reading before I get to 10
Richard Milhous Nixon was the first President I ever knew. He became President when I was three years old. He left office when I was all of eight. To me, he was the image of what the President of the United States is supposed to be. You can make of that what you will.
For a man who was not easy to like, he was elected President twice, once by a slim margin and the other time in a landslide. Nixon made himself into one of the towering figures in American foreign policy. But, his legacy is one of paranoia that fueled an unprecedented abuse of power by the Executive branch. In trying to be a statesman, Richard Nixon ended up a pathetic figure, even though history seems to be treating him better now.
One person not treating Richard Nixon better now is Elizabeth Drew, the longtime Washington correspondent for the New Yorker magazine. Nixon would likely be appalled that someone like Drew, an East Coast journalist and Wellesley alumna, is trying to write about his life. Drew paints a picture of Richard Nixon as a man who was deeply troubled. He was often depressed. He was often paranoid. He drank to excess. He could not form friendships or make small talk. And in Drew’s view, he was unfit to hold office and the nation was fortunate that Nixon did not steer the nation into a disaster.
Nixon’s childhood proved to be a key to understanding him as an adult. Even Henry Kissinger would say, “He would have been a great, great man if someone had loved him.”
Richard Nixon was born on January 9, 1913 in Yorba Linda, California. Today, Yorba Linda is a pleasant Orange County suburb that bills itself as “the Land of Gracious Living.” In 1913, Yorba Linda was a farming community. Nixon’s father tried to grow oranges, but was unsuccessful. The family moved to Whittier, which if you grew up in Southern California, you would know that it is the part of Los Angeles County that you just cannot seem to get to. Nixon’s parents were Quakers, although not the peace-loving, friendly types. Both Nixon’s father (Francis) and mother (Hannah) were rather demanding and often cruel to Richard. Two of Nixon’s brothers died of tuberculosis. (And there may have been an incident with a hobo. But you have to find this book. I’ve tried to read it. I have not succeeded in finishing it. Or making it through more than five or six pages.)
With good grades in high school, Harvard and Yale beckoned to Richard Nixon. But, financial concerns forced Nixon to attend nearby Whittier College. Nixon formed his own fraternity, called the Orhtogonian Society, to combat the influence of the fraternities on campus. (“Orthogonian” is not a real word.) Nixon played on the football team despite being small and unathletic. (During Nixon’s time in college, Whittier actually played USC twice, losing 51-0 in 1933 and 40-14 in 1934.)
Nixon hoped to attend an Ivy League law school after he graduated second in his class at Whittier. Finances again did not allow that. Nixon settled for going to Duke University Law School, which offered him a scholarship. After gaining his degree, Nixon returned home to Whittier to set up his own practice.
One of Nixon’s interests was community theater. He met a woman named Thelma Ryan, who went by Pat, after being cast in a play with her. Nixon pursued her, even to the point of driving her to dates with other men. Eventually, the two married in 1940. They had two daughters, Julie and Patricia.
When World War II started, Nixon served in the Navy. While not seeing any combat, Nixon did receive commendations for his work, which was almost all logistical. When Nixon returned home, he set out on a career in politics.
Step one for Nixon was the House of Representatives. He challenged Democrat Jerry Voorhis in a district that covered a large portion of the suburbs east of Los Angeles. Nixon painted Voorhis as a tool of labor, and, by extension, possibly involved with Communism. (Nixon and Voorhis held a debate at South Pasadena Junior High, now South Pasadena Middle School, which is about four blocks from where I am presently typing this.) Nixon won the election by 15,000 votes.
Nixon immediately made a splash in Washington. He got a seat on the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). He took on a State Department official named Alger Hiss, who was accused of being a Communist spy. Nixon eventually produced evidence (via Whittaker Chambers) that would lead to Hiss’ conviction for perjury charges for lying to the Committee. (While some at the time thought that Nixon and HUAC had railroaded Hiss, an examination of the archives of the KGB would later reveal that Hiss may have had some espionage activities. The matter is still hotly debated.)
In 1950, Nixon decided to run for the open California Senate seat. Nixon easily won the Republican primary. The Democratic candidate was Representative Helen Gahagan Douglas, who upset Los Angeles newspaper publisher Manchester Boddy.
The Senate campaign would be a nasty one. Nixon came after Douglas hard, describing her as “the Pink Lady” because of the similarities in her voting record with Socialist Representative Vito Marcantonio. Of course, if you look at the roll call votes on any two members of the House, there will be a lot of similarities since many issues voted are procedural or the result of a compromise. Nevertheless, Nixon would claim that Douglas was “pink right down to her underwear.” Nixon won with 59% of the vote. Drew claims that most of Nixon’s efforts (through his campaign manager Murray Chotiner) were overkill as Douglas had little chance of winning anyway as 1950 was a down year for Democrats throughout the country. Also, Douglas had lost a lot of support among California Democrats as she was viewed as being too liberal.
After just two years in the Senate, Nixon found himself on the national ticket as Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate. Eisenhower agreed to Nixon to satisfy the party’s conservative wing. Nixon’s anti-Communist credentials were strong; and, he was not considered as divisive of a figure as Joseph McCarthy.
Nixon’s political career almost came to a sudden halt during the campaign when it was revealed that
wealthy supporters had established a slush fund for Nixon and his family. (Nixon was far from the only person in Washington with one.) However, Eisenhower was thinking of dropping Nixon from the ticket because of the furor. Nixon gave a public speech to address the problem. It went down in history as “The Checkers Speech” as Nixon insisted that the only gift he received that he did not give back was a dog named Checkers. (You can view the speech in twoparts.) The speech was a big hit. Eisenhower publicly told Nixon that “You’re my boy!” And so, Richard Nixon was able to become Vice President.
Eisenhower did not have much use for Nixon, and did not particularly like him. There was little for Nixon to do, even with Eisenhower’s questionable health. Nixon would make headlines when survived a hostile reception on a visit to Venezuela. Nixon’s motorcade was pelted with rocks. However, Nixon remained cool under pressure. In 1959, Nixon held an impromptu debate with Nikita Khrushchev about capitalism and communism. This would be dubbed the “Kitchen Debate” as it took place in a sample kitchen at a trade show in the Soviet Union.
Nixon made his first run at the White House in 1960. Facing John F. Kennedy, Nixon narrowly lost. The 1960 campaign may be one of the most discussed in American history. And I already discussed it in the Kennedy review. So, go look over there.
Only 47 years old, Nixon did not want to leave politics. He went back to California, wrote a memoir called Six Crises, and took on incumbent governor Pat Brown. Nixon felt that these activities were needed the position to establish national credibility again. However, Brown clobbered Nixon by over 300,000 votes. After the election, Nixon gave a rambling speech to the press declaring “you won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”
The losses to Kennedy and Brown reinforced for Nixon that the main reason he could not advance in politics was that the “Establishment” was out to stop him. This group consisted of Ivy Leaguers (like Kennedy) or the media (all forms of them whom Nixon felt were out to keep him from office and distort his views.) Later on, Nixon would begin to include Jews among his enemies.
Nixon then started one of the country’s most remarkable political comebacks. First, Nixon moved to New York to increase his earning potential as a senior partner in a law firm. Nixon endorsed Republican congressional candidates. Nixon targeted 1968 as the year to start his comeback.
With the country deeply divided over the Vietnam War, civil rights, and other social upheavals, the Republican nominee was going to have a good shot at winning the White House. Nixon’s principal competitors for the nomination were Michigan governor George Romney, New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, and California governor Ronald Reagan. All the competitors had their shortcomings. Romney was too weak. Rockefeller had too much baggage. Reagan was too inexperienced. Nixon won the nomination fairly easily.
Much to the surprise of political pundits of the day, Nixon chose Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew as his running mate. Agnew had almost no national profile; but, Nixon liked some statements Agnew had made that made him appear to be tough on crime. Also, Nixon was trying for a “Southern Strategy” and hoped that Agnew would appeal to Southern conservatives.
The 1968 campaign saw Nixon not try to do too much since he had a substantial lead in the polls over Democratic challenger Hubert Humphrey. Nixon claimed he had a plan to end the war in Vietnam, but would not give its details. (It would be dubbed his “secret plan” even though it wasn’t secret or even a plan.) Nixon also stressed “law and order.” Nixon would “bring us together.”
Late in the campaign, Humphrey broke with President Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam War and publicly declared his intention to end U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Around this time, Nixon’s campaign, using Anna Chenault as a conduit, got word to the South Vietnamese negotiators in Paris that Johnson and Humphrey wanted to end the war. The South Vietnamese pulled out of the peace talks. The war in Vietnam would continue well past Election Day 1968.
Nixon won the election in 1968, but by a narrow margin, 43.4% to 42.7%. This worked out to a little over 500,000 votes nationwide. Nixon earned 301 electoral votes to 191 for Humphrey. George Wallace won the other 45.
Now that Nixon was in office, he had to face the task of running the country. The problem was that Nixon was more interested in the process of becoming President than actually being President. He appointed a Cabinet that was made up of lesser lights in the Republican Party. There were no Ivy Leaguers in the group with the exception of George Shultz, who was the Secretary of Labor. The Secretary of State, William Rogers, would be routinely ignored by Nixon. The Attorney General, John Mitchell, wanted to emphasize that the Justice Department was a law enforcement agency, even though he would turn out to be violating Federal laws in the process.
Early on, Nixon had the chance to appoint a new Chief Justice. He chose Warren Burger, a conservative from Minnesota, whom Nixon thought would start to reverse the more liberal decisions of his predecessor, Earl Warren. In 1970, Nixon tried to appoint two different Southerners to another vacant seat on the Supreme Court: Clement Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell, but both were rejected for a combination of reasons, but primarily both of the men were considered incompetent. Nixon would finally appoint Harry Blackmun to the seat. And Blackmun would go on to write the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade.
Drew examines Nixon’s attitude toward domestic policies and found them lacking. Nixon’s policies were actually quite liberal. The Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety and Health Administration were created under Nixon and consumer protection laws were greatly expanded. Under the direction of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, welfare and poverty programs were revamped.
The economy was in a strong inflationary period and unemployment was rising. Nixon tried to respond to this by imposing wage and price controls. He took the dollar off of the gold standard.
Drew does not believe that Nixon actually thought much about domestic policy, except he just wanted to adopt plans that were politically popular. There was no overarching idea for what Nixon was trying to accomplish. She insists that Nixon’s domestic policy was the result of cynicism and political calculation and little else.
What Nixon cared more about domestically were his political enemies. The White House became obsessed with monitoring the activities of Vietnam War protesters and other political opponents. Some of the ideas that Nixon and his aides developed for monitoring the opposition were considered too invasive even for FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s tastes.
The White House under Nixon was an odd place. The President would send formal memos to his wife about how to arrange the living quarters. The memos would be addressed to “Mrs. Nixon.” Drew relates that Nixon, through the assistance of some of his well-heeled supporters, used Dilantin, an anticonvulsant, as an anti-anxiety medication, washed down with helpings of Scotch. (Dilantin is not prescribed for anxiety and all anticonvulsants now come with warning labels telling you two or three times not to mix it with alcohol.) Nixon was showing signs of erratic behavior very quickly into his Administration.
Nixon always wanted to be viewed as a master of foreign policy. He relished the chance of negotiating with world leaders. And in this arena, Nixon tends to get the most praise from historians. Nixon also tended to give a lot of praise to himself in this field. Nearly all foreign policy initiatives from Nixon were orchestrated by National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, the only person Nixon trusted in this field.
The Vietnam War was far from over when Nixon was inaugurated. Nixon had promised to reduce troop levels in Vietnam in a process he described as “Vietnamization.” At the same time, Nixon ordered an expansion of the war into Cambodia. Protests over the expansion of the war into Cambodia turned into even more protests than during the Johnson Administration. A protest at Kent State University on May 4, 1970 resulted in the deaths of four people when Ohio National Guard troops fired on them. Ten days later, two student protesters were killed at Jackson State University in Mississippi.
Nixon would eventually end the military draft. Kissinger negotiated an end to American involvement in Vietnam that went into effect in early 1973. Kissinger and North Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. (Le Duc Tho declined the prize, the only person to ever do so with a Peace Prize.)
Other parts of the world were undergoing turmoil. Bangladesh was winning its independence from Pakistan in a bloody civil war that also involved India. Nixon, who did not like Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, sided with Pakistan. It turned out that America’s desire to help Pakistan stemmed from a desire to use that country as an entree to an even bigger goal: relations with China.
During a diplomatic trip to Pakistan, Kissinger disappeared from public view for a spell with what was called “stomach flu.” Actually, Kissinger was negotiating a trip by Nixon to China. Before Nixon visited, the Chinese invited an American table tennis team to come visit and participate in exhibitions. This would be dubbed “ping-pong diplomacy.” (Except by the International Table Tennis Federation perhaps.)
In February of 1972, Nixon traveled to China, where he conducted high level meetings almost entirely on his own. Nixon went as far to use the translators that the Chinese provided instead of State Department translators, whom he did not trust. The visit began the process of starting the normalization of relations between the U.S. and the world’s most populous country.
The visit to China also made the Soviet Union more eager to negotiate with the U.S. on nuclear arms control. In May of 1972, Nixon went to Moscow. The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) would be the results of these trips.
Despite Nixon’s good standings in the polls, he was worried about domestic enemies. The leaking of the Pentagon Papers, an in depth examination of the Vietnam War during the Johnson Administration, seemed to set off Nixon. Nixon wanted to tighten up internal security procedures and identify people who leaked information to the press. To stop these leaks, a group was formed in the White House that would become known as “The Plumbers.”
The Plumbers talked a much bigger game than they actually performed. The group, led by men like E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, (to join the group you had to not like your original first name it seemed), fancied themselves to be world-class spies. However, their incompetence would be Nixon’s undoing.
One plan the Plumbers came up with was to firebomb the Brookings Institution, a liberal think tank in Washington. The plan was to steal safes that were supposed to contain leaked information about the Vietnam War that scholars at the facility. However, the scholars neither had safes nor did they have any leaked confidential information.
Another plan involved breaking into the office of the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, the former Pentagon employee responsible for leaking the Pentagon Papers. That proved to be a fruitless endeavor.
On June 17, 1972, five men, including a White House official named Robert McCord were arrested at the Watergate Hotel trying to bug the office of Democratic National Party chairman Lawrence O’Brien. Six days after the break in, Nixon and aide H.R. Haldeman held the discussion linked here.
The Watergate Scandal is far too complicated for me to describe here (not that I don’t like to talk about.) It turned out to be more than just the break in at the hotel. It turned in to a major Constitutional crisis. Nixon, despite being reelected in a landslide in 1972 against George McGovern, would soon lose the confidence of the nation. A pattern of criminal behavior in the Executive Branch was revealed. (It probably wasn’t as cinematic as this though.)
A Senate Committee was set up to investigate the scandal and it seemed that new revelations turned up every week. Some geeky kids, like this seven-year old, enjoyed sitting in front of the TV set with his mother and grandmother listening to the testimony of John Dean and others. Ahh, good times. (At the same time as this was going on, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned after pleading no contest to income tax evasion charges on kickbacks he received while governor of Maryland. Gerald Ford replaced Agnew.)
In the summer of 1974, the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon. After Nixon lost a Supreme Court battle to keep the tapes from being subpoenaed, a group of prominent Republicans in Congress visited Nixon and told him that he had to resign for the sake of the country. Hesitant at first to quit, Nixon relented. He announced his resignation on August 8, 1974, effective the next day.
Nixon’s final days in the White House were not pleasant. His drinking became more severe. Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger told the Chiefs of Staff to run any orders from Nixon past him before enacting them. Schlesinger feared that an increasingly unstable Nixon could potentially involve the United States in a catastrophic war.
After leaving office, new President Gerald Ford would issue Nixon a pardon for any crimes he may have committed while in office. Nixon retreated for a time to his home in San Clemente, California.
Nixon had one more comeback of sorts left in him. After making a considerable sum of money for a series of interviews with David Frost, Nixon left California to move back to New York. Back in New York, Nixon would hold court and take on the role of the senior statesman. He wrote his memoirs and several other books on foreign policy.
In 1981, Nixon, along with former Presidents Ford and Carter, flew to Egypt for the funeral of the assassinated Anwar Sadat. Nixon would offer advice to Presidents Reagan and Bush.
Even when a Democrat, Bill Clinton, moved into the White House in 1993, Nixon was still trying to influence foreign policy. On April 18, 1994, Nixon suffered a severe stroke. Four days later, he passed away. He was buried on the grounds of his museum in Yorba Linda. President Clinton delivered a eulogy. Nixon could no longer see people kick him around.
Drew concludes her book with the examination of Nixon’s Presidency. She calls it the “Yes, but” question. Would Nixon have been a great President, if not for Watergate. According to Drew, the answer is no. Nixon’s mental instability and extreme paranoia almost destroyed the country. Nixon wanted his legacy to be his foreign policy success in China and Russia. But, Nixon’s legacy is mainly just an almost complete distrust in our leaders by the American public.
Nevertheless, Nixon’s historical profile is improving. The Ivy Leaguers that Nixon envied (or just hated) seem to be showing him more respect. Why this is so remains a puzzle to me.
Other stuff: Because of a dispute between Nixon and the National Archives, the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum was originally run by a private foundation. The National Archives took over the facility in 2007. Many parts of the museum are being renovated, including the section on Watergate. The facility is in Yorba Linda.
Richard Nixon was considered to be a California resident when he was chosen Vice President; but, he was considered a New Yorker when he ran for President. In his three runs for the Presidency, Nixon received over 113 million popular votes, about 1 million more than George W. Bush had in his two successful runs for the White House.
Chester Alan Arthur, perhaps more than any other person to hold the job, never wanted to be President. He seemed stunned that he was put in that position. Then again, he accepted the job as Vice President, which does make you likely to become President. Ultimately, Arthur did about as well as you could expect for someone who had no previous experience in elected office and was suffering from a terminal disease.
Zachary Karabell, who has written about the 1948 Truman campaign, along with many other essays, drew the task of trying to make one of the lesser-known Presidents in one of the lesser-known periods of American history (the Gilded Age), and tries to show how Arthur was able to stumble his way to the Presidency, and, fortunately, stumble his way out without causing too much trouble, and even doing some good.
The backstory for Chester Arthur is one that is far from exciting. He was born on October 5, 1829 in North Fairfield, Vermont. At some point in his life, he started telling people he was born in 1830 (perhaps he was bad at math) and that was the year that the New York Times reported in his obituary and what was put on his gravestone.
Arthur’s father was a minister, and he eventually moved the family to New York. Chester Arthur ended up attending Union College in Schenectady. Like many educated men of his time, he gravitated toward a law practice. He learned the law through an apprenticeship with a law firm headed by abolitionists. Arthur became a strident opponent of slavery and gravitated to the newly formed Republican Party in 1856.
In 1859, Arthur married his wife Nell and started a lucrative law practice in New York City. When the Civil War started, Arthur stayed out of the military in defence to Nell, who had family in Virginia. However, Arthur did get a job as a quartermaster, where he brough his considerable organizational skills to bear. Arthur became friends with the elite Republicans of New York.
After the Civil War, the American political system was not a pretty sight. Political machines dominated the landscape. The principal method of control was patronage. One group would get in a position to dole out jobs to friends, those friends would appoint more friends, and all of the people who got these jobs were expected to kick back a contribution (called “assessment”) to the party boss.
Very little in the way of issues was ever discussed in any election at this time. All that mattered were personalities and the sheer raw number of voters needed to get someone elected. Chester Arthur found himself to be an important of one machine, the Roscoe Conkling machine of New York.
Conkling was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1868. He quickly established himself as formidable party boss for New York. Federal jobs throughout the state were given to Conkling’s friends. Nominally, the President (in this case Ulysses Grant) would nominate the person, but it was almost always Conkling pulling the strings.
Arthur had been a loyal fundraiser for Conkling and the Republicans. In 1871, Arthur was appointed to one of the most lucrative Federal jobs at the time: Customs Collector of the Port of New York.
While this may have seemed like a dreary job, it was actually quite powerful. New York had, by far, the busiest port in the nation. Arthur was in a position to hand out hundreds of jobs (there were over 1300 people at the facility.) Also, under Federal moiety laws, if a Collector discovered that someone had failed to pay a sufficient duty on goods that were being brought into the Port of New York, the Collector was entitled to a portion of the discrepancy. Through the moiety law, Arthur’s annual income went up from its stated $12,000 a year to close to $50,000 per year. (Adjusted for inflation, Arthur was pulling in a little under $900,000 in today’s dollars.)
The extraordinarily contentious election of Rutherford Hayes in 1876 (the election wasn’t decided until shortly before the inauguration) brought the idea of political reform to the forefront. Although as Karabell points out, the concept of reform wasn’t much at the time. Only the worst excesses were talked about. But one of those places talked about was the Port of New York.
Treasury Secretary John Sherman appointed John Jay (grandson of the first Chief Justice) to investigate possible wrongdoing in the New York Customhouse. Jay’s report gave evidence of people having no-show jobs, or ones involving little or no work for rather high pay. The hiring process was pretty much just “So who do you know?” Arthur was singled out for rarely showing up for work before noon. This was because Arthur rarely showed up before noon.
Hayes decided that he should remove Arthur from office. This wasn’t easy. Conkling, who wanted to keep the reliable Arthur in a position of power, fought the dismissal at every turn.
The first nominee to replace Arthur was a man named Theodore Roosevelt. (You might know his son of the same name.) His nomination was rejected by the Senate in 1877. In 1878, Hayes suspended Arthur from his job during a Congressional recess and put in a replacement.
Arthur’s suspension (which turned into a dismissal) made him one of the most talked about men in America for period. Conkling’s supporters (known as the Stalwarts for their strong belief that Ulysses Grant should be elected a third time no matter what the cost) portrayed Arthur as a martyr. Conkling wanted to show how misguided reformers were for wanting to remove from office a dedicated public servant like Chester Arthur.
During this time, Arthur was raising money for Conkling. Arthur also became an important society figure, hosting numerous lavish dinners at New York’s famous Delmonico’s restaurant.
Early in 1880, Arthur’s wife Nell passed away at the age of 42 from pneumonia. Arthur was depressed for months over the loss of his beloved wife. But, he seemed to rebound in time to help out at the 1880 Republican Convention in Chicago.
The convention was deadlocked between Grant and James Blaine of Maine. Blaine’s supporters were called “Half-Breeds.” Originally this was supposed to be derisive because Blaine’s supporters were considered Half-Republican and Half-Democrat, but the term became a badge of honor.
On the 36th ballot, the Convention decided on a compromise choice, Ohio Representative James Garfield. Garfield was not identified with either the Stalwarts of the Half-Breeds. Garfield would be in favor of reform, but wouldn’t do anything too rash.
Garfield needed to choose a running mate. He felt he needed a Stalwart and a New Yorker. It was nearly impossible to win the election in 1880 without carrying New York. So, Garfield asked Arthur, who met the minimum qualifications.
History does not know for sure if Garfield actually thought that Arthur, who had never run for any office in his life, would take the job. Perhaps Garfield was just asking Arthur to be polite and to placate Conkling. However, Arthur accepted the offer.
Conkling was livid that his friend would betray him. But, Arthur pointed out that for someone like him, being Vice President was about the best he could hope for in life. It wasn’t like Arthur ever thought he would become President.
Garfield squeaked out a win over Winfield Scott Hancock in 1880 in an election decided on a variety of issues, none of them important then or even now. Arthur was sworn in to office on March 4, 1881, and became President of a Senate that was divided equally between Republicans and Democrats.
Early on in Garfield’s administration, there was high drama. Garfield, upon the advice of Secretary of State James Blaine, decided to not appoint any of Conkling’s suggested candidates for office in New York. Garfield appointed people who were opposed to Conkling. Conkling resigned his office to show his displeasure. New York’s other senator, Thomas Platt, resigned as well. Arthur, who was never close to Garfield, became even more isolated as his political patron was now out of power. (Conkling and Platt hoped to be reelected to their seats by the New York state legislature, but they weren’t.)
Arthur’s world changed on July 2, 1881. A crazed man named Charles Guiteau fired a shot into Garfield’s back at a train station in Washington. Garfield lingered near death for the entire summer and passed away (almost entirely the result of horrendous medical care discussed here) on September 19, 1881. Chester Arthur, the amiable party loyalist, was now President.
The country didn’t know what to make of the new President. Most thought he was just a party hack. Arthur likely didn’t think that he was the sort of man who would become President. But, we don’t know. Arthur had most of his papers destroyed shortly before his death. Even if he hadn’t, he wasn’t the type to keep a detailed diary of his thoughts or works.
Arthur didn’t move in to the White House for three months. He allowed Garfield’s widow time to move out. He also had the White House redecorated, hiring a young designer named Louis Tiffany. Arthur may not have known exactly what he was going to do as President, but he knew that he was going to make his home look stylish. In doing so, Arthur tossed out over 80 years worth of furnishings dating back to John Adams’ time.
Garfield’s Cabinet appointees resigned to allow Arthur could choose his own. Only the Secretary of War, Robert Lincoln, stayed on. Blaine was replaced by Frederick Frelinghuysen, much to the dismay of copy editors throughout the United States.
Arthur did not enjoy having his home and office being in the same place. He realized that his job was not one he could ever take time off from. He was now no longer everybody’s friend. He was everybody’s boss.
Complicating matters was Arthur developing Bright’s Disease. For many years, a variety of kidney ailments were grouped under this name. Arthur had what would be called today glomerulonephritis. Today, Arthur would have received blood pressure medication, kidney dialysis, or even a transplant. But, in the 1880s, all Arthur could do was watch his diet and hope for the best. However, he was living on borrowed time. He was often sluggish and lost his appetite. For Arthur, one of America’s most notable gourmands, not being able to eat was a crushing blow.
Despite Arthur’s illness (which he did not reveal until he left office) and his lack of experience, the new President did a respectable job in office. Arthur does not have a lot of accomplishments attached to his name because Congress was too closely divided, with even both parties being split over a variety of issues.
One of the first major pieces of legislation that Arthur had to deal with was the Chinese Exclusion Act. California politicians decided that the growing Chinese population in the state was a dangerous thing and something had to be done about it. The danger was that the Chinese were arriving in large numbers. And they were becoming economically successful.
If there’s one thing Americans don’t like, it’s immigrants arriving and doing well. It’s been an undercurrent in American politics from the establishment of the Jamestown colony to today. In 1882, the Chinese became the immigrant group that Americans chose to distrust.
The Chinese Exclusion Act, in its first form, prohibited the entry of any more Chinese into the United States, unless they could prove special circumstances. (These circumstances usually involved not wanting to get a job in California.) This prohibition was supposed to last 20 years.
Arthur, much to the surprise of everyone, vetoed the bill. Arthur felt that: 1) the law was fundamentally unjust because it singled out a group of people to prevent them from entering the United States. Arthur found this to be contrary to the spirit of what the Civil War was fought for. 2) Arthur believed that the law would violate a commercial treaty that the U.S. had with China. Arthur knew it was in the U.S. interest to maintain good relations with the lucrative Chinese market.
Stalwart Republicans couldn’t believe that Arthur didn’t rubber stamp their bill. The bill was reworked to lower the exclusion period to just ten years. Arthur, realizing that he had to approve some bill of this type or else completely lose any Republican support, signed the Chinese Exclusion Act into law. Restrictions on Chinese immigration would not be lifted until 1943.
In 1883, Arthur was handed a setback from the Supreme Court. Five civil rights cases were decided at the same time by the Court and were called The Civil Rights Cases. The net effect of them was to invalidate the Civil Rights Act of 1875. The Court ruled that Congress did not have the right to legislate private acts, even if those acts were in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.
..it would be running the slavery argument into the ground to make it apply to every act of discrimination which a person may see fit to make as to guests he will entertain, or as to the people he will take into his coach or cab or car; or admit to his concert or theatre, or deal with in other matters of intercourse or business….
Arthur spoke out against the Court, but he was powerless to change the decision. Nor did he ask for Congress to pass a different law.
In the mid-term elections in 1882, the Republicans suffered severe losses at the polls, losing control of the House. The biggest issue of the campaign was government reform. This happened, in part, because Garfield’s assassin, Guiteau, was described as a disgruntled job seeker. Guiteau became an emblem for excesses in the patronage system. (The fact that Guiteau was never seriously considered for a job by anyone was unimportant.)
During Congress’s lame duck session at the end of 1882, the Republicans decided that they had to push through a civil service bill of some kind, so they could recover in time for 1884. And so, the Pendleton Act (proposed by a Democrat) was rushed through Congress. It established the first set of Federal jobs that would be decided through competitive examinations instead of “just knowing the right guy.” Also, once people moved into these positions, they were much harder to remove. It was the first baby step to creating a Federal civil service. Whether that is good or bad depends upon where you get your paycheck I suppose.
In his final two years in the White House, Arthur spent most of his time on foreign affairs. A Pan American Congress tried to foster cooperation among Western Hemisphere nations. Also, the United States established diplomatic relations with Korea. Arthur got to see the dedication of the Brooklyn Bridge, considered the greatest engineering feat of its time.
However, Arthur was a man almost without a party. The man who had spent his time helping out his friends, found out he didn’t have as many once he was in charge. His wife was dead. He was dying of kidney disease. Chester Arthur might have been the most powerful man in America, and perhaps the least happy. (Karabell suggests that Arthur would have been considered to have been clinically depressed.)
Arthur, even though he knew he wouldn’t live long, let his name be put into nomination for President by the Republicans in 1884. Arthur, mostly as a courtesy to an incumbent President, but also a way to make Blaine suffer, got enough votes to force the nomination to a fourth ballot. Blaine won the nomination, but would lose the election to Democrat Grover Cleveland.
After leaving the White House, Arthur moved back to New York and tried to resume his law practice. But, his health went downhill quickly. On November 16, 1886, Arthur passed away from a massive cerebral hemorrhage. He was just 57 (although news reports of the time said he was 56 using the erroneous birthday.)
It’s not an easy job to make Chester Arthur interesting. Karabell gives it a good shot, but he even recognizes that he has an uphill battle. As Henry Wiggen says about Bruce Pearson at the end of Bang the Drum Slowly, “He wasn’t a bad fellow. No worse than most and better than some.”
Chester Arthur didn’t want to be President. But, he had to do it. Under the circumstances, with almost no preparation, he did a far better job than anyone could have hoped for.
Other stuff: During the election of 1880, opponents of Garfield and Arthur claimed that Arthur was born in either Ireland or Canada and was ineligible for office. The charges were proven to be unfounded. However, the cottage where Arthur’s Irish ancestors lived in Cullybackey in County Antrim is an historic site run by the British Government.
When I was a kid in the 1970s, the 1950s were considered a cool time. “Happy Days” and “Laverne & Shirley” dominated television. Coming out of the turbulent 1960s (a decade glamorized in much different way from the 1950s), the 1950s were a time when America was strong, although tensions with the Soviet Union were high. People were happy. Girls dressed in poodle skirts. All guys were pretty much like Fonzie. Annoying baseball historians (and I’m looking at you Ken Burns) sometimes refer to the 1950s as the best time of the sport because New York teams faced off in the World Series in five of the ten years.
The President for a good chunk of this period (1953-1961) was Dwight D. Eisenhower, the last President to make his way to the White House, almost exclusively on the basis of what he achieved on the battlefield. He was a solid, dependable leader. He was able to bring people together. He seemed like everybody’s grandfather.
However, the reality of the 1950s was that it was an incredibly divisive time. The Supreme Court case of Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas transformed the civil rights issue in such a way that it could no longer be ignored.
Additionally, the country became paranoid about a Communist takeover from within. This led to the rise of men like Senators Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon. Their career paths would take extraordinarily different paths.
The United States increasingly turned to covert activities to achieve foreign policy goals. Some would succeed in the short term, but others, such as the intervention in Iran, would affect the United States for decades to follow. There would be international crises in places like Vietnam, Hungary, and Egypt. They seemed to pop up all the time.
And, although the United States had the largest nuclear arsenal on the planet, the public grew increasingly fearful of tensions with the Soviet Union. Topping it off would be the USSR’s foray into space with Sputnik before the United States could even launch a small object into orbit.
The Dwight Eisenhower who had to deal with all of the above crises is the one that Tom Wicker, a longtime political columnist for the New York Times, writes about in his biography of the 34th President. Wicker presents a portrait of a man who wanted to lead, but didn’t want to get his hands dirty. Wicker’s Eisenhower is a much shrewder politician than people realize. But, in the end, you still aren’t sure just what Dwight Eisenhower was all about. What did he want to accomplish? What were his motivations? Why did he want to become President?
Dwight Eisenhower was born in Denison, Texas on October 14, 1890 (and if you’re reading this on Wednesday wish Ike a happy 119th birthday!) His family moved to Abilene, Kansas when he was one. Eventually, Eisenhower made his way to the United States Military Academy in 1911, graduating in 1915.
This timing proved to be fortuitous for Eisenhower. The class of 1915 at West Point would eventually include 64 graduates who became generals, including Eisenhower and Omar Bradley. In 1912, Eisenhower, while playing on the Army football team, played against Jim Thorpe and his Carlisle Indian School team. (Carlisle won the game 27-6.)
Although Eisenhower was in the Army during World War I, he didn’t serve in any combat action during the brief American involvement in that bloody conflict. Eisenhower worked his way up the ranks as a career military man. He had married his wife, Mamie Doud, in 1916. They had two sons, one of whom died at age three of scarlet fever.
In 1926, Eisenhower found himself installed as the aide to the Army’s new Chief of Staff, Douglas MacArthur. Eisenhower learned the ways of Washington working under MacArthur. He also managed to endear himself to another Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall.
When the United States entered World War II, Eisenhower quickly shot up the ranks to become chief of the War Plan Division. Then, he commanded Operation Torch in North Africa. His success there put Eisenhower in position to assume command of the Allied Forces in the D-Day Invasion of 1944. The success of that operation made Eisenhower made him the envy of politicians from both parties, who saw Eisenhower as the Presidential material. MacArthur may have garnered more headlines, but it was Eisenhower who seemed to be held in the highest esteem by politicians. (Wicker whizzes through the pre-Presidential part of Eisenhower’s life figuring that most people already know it.)
There was talk of the Democrats trying to draft Eisenhower to run for President in 1948 in place of the unpopular Harry Truman. Obviously, he didn’t take that job. Instead, he took a position as president of Columbia University in 1948. He left that job in 1950 to assume the lofty title of Supreme Allied Commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
In 1952, Eisenhower realized that it was his time to become President (Wicker claims that Eisenhower first realized that he had a shot at becoming President as early as 1943). Eisenhower announced that he was a Republican, although he had worked behind the scenes to start lining up support for the nomination. Eisenhower wanted to avoid being labeled, although he would declare himself to be a “liberal Republican.”
The Republican Party nomination battle in 1952 pitted Eisenhower against Ohio Senator Robert Taft, who was called “Mr. Republican.” The Republican nomination battle would between its “old guard” which was more isolationist against Eisenhower’s more internationalist wing. In a tight battle on the convention floor, Eisenhower prevailed on the first ballot. As a political compromise, Eisenhower allowed Taft’s faction to pick his running mate. This turned out to be California Senator Richard Nixon.
Eisenhower would face Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, who had won the Democratic nomination. Although Stevenson appealed to intellectuals and even cultivated an image as “an egghead,” he had little chance against Eisenhower. The Democrats had controlled the White House since 1933. Americans wanted a change. Eisenhower trounced Stevenson, winning nearly 55% of the popular vote, along with 442 electoral votes. The Republicans also took control of both houses of Congress.
Wicker doesn’t spend a lot of time on Eisenhower’s domestic accomplishments (such as the establishment of the Interstate Highway System and the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway) with one exception: civil rights. Eisenhower, however, didn’t accomplish much in this area except to react to events.
In 1953, Eisenhower unexpectedly got a chance to appoint a justice to the Supreme Court. And it was the Chief Justice position to boot. Eisenhower decided to appoint California Governor Earl Warren to the post. Warren had been Thomas Dewey’s running mate in 1948, and Eisenhower wanted to reward Warren for his support during the nomination battle.
This turned out to be a fateful appointment. A collection of school desegregation cases were before the Supreme Court and Warren served as a recess appointee and heard the cases being reargued. (The first set of arguments were deemed insufficient for the Court to make a decision.) After the arguments, Warren was confirmed by the Senate. On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in the desegregation cases. Warren, writing for a unanimous court, declared:
“We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
Eisenhower was not expecting the decision to be so sweeping and he was slow to embrace it. He expressed only begrudging support for it. Eisenhower wouldn’t take any action in school desegregation until 1957 when Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus refused to follow a Federal court order desegregating Little Rock’s Central High. Faubus mobilized the Arkansas National Guard to keep the African-American students out. This proved to be provocative enough to get Eisenhower to act. He sent in the 101st Airborne to work on crowd control and Federalized the Arkansas National Guard. However, aside from these actions, Eisenhower’s actions in civil rights were few and far between. (A very weak civil rights bill was passed in 1957, in part to Democratic Senate Leader Lyndon Johnson, who worked very closely with Eisenhower.)
One of Eisenhower’s biggest domestic problem was Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy, who was determined to unearth the great Communist spy network that was going to ruin America. While many of McCarthy’s targets were Communists at some point in their lives, few were spies or disloyal to the United States. (The actual spies were too clever to get caught and most weren’t revealed until after the breakup of the Soviet Union.)
Eisenhower had to pay some lip service to McCarthy and his smear tactics during the 1952 campaign, but he quickly tired of the Senator. McCarthy finally overreached when he decided to take on the Army, an institution that Eisenhower was understandably quite proud of. McCarthy blamed George Marshall for harboring Communists in the military, an accusation that rankled Eisenhower. McCarthy even suggested in a speech that Eisenhower failed to occupy Berlin before the Soviet Army did in 1945, further endangering the country.
McCarthy was given televised hearings to investigate the Army. But, Eisenhower and his aides had developed a strategy to thwart McCarthy. If McCarthy asked for any White House documents involving the Army, Eisenhower would cite “executive privilege” and claim that he could not disclose certain activities to Congress. McCarthy began to become increasingly frustrated.
The hearings went poorly for McCarthy. He began to look more like a bully picking on defenseless people than a man thwarting the Red Menace. Eventually, McCarthy was dressed down on national TV by Army lawyer Joseph Welch. McCarthy would soon be condemned in the Senate for his behavior soon after. He would pass away in 1957 from the effects of alcoholism, which was one weakness Eisenhower and his staff tried to exploit.
Eisenhower had early successes in foreign policy. He was able to negotiate an armistice in Korea in July of 1953. That armistice lasts until this day. A covert revolution sponsored by the CIA overthrew Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh and consolidated power in the Shah. This seemed like a good idea at the time as the U.S. gained a steady ally in the Middle East. But, eventually, there would be … complications.
In 1954, the French suffered a major defeat in Vietnam at the hands of Communist revolutionaries at a fortress called Dienbienphu. After the French withdrew, Vietnam was partitioned into a Communist north a non-Communist south. Elections to unify the country were scheduled for 1956. But, the elections never came to pass. Eisenhower spoke of how the U.S. had to support Vietnam because if it fell into Communist hands other parts of Asia would do so as well. This gave birth to the “Domino Theory,” which became a centerpiece of American policy in Southeast Asia until the 1970s.
The nation was shaken up in September of 1955, when news that the President had suffered a heart attack while traveling in Colorado. Vice President Nixon never formally took over the Presidency while Eisenhower recovered. Fortunately, Eisenhower made a fairly rapid recovery. However, Eisenhower’s mortality would now be a campaign issue in 1956 if he chose to run for a second term. (Eisenhower would also suffer a small stroke in November of 1957, but recovered quickly with no noticeable side effects.)
As it turned out, most Americans weren’t too worried about Eisenhower’s heart. They wanted him around to look after the troubled world situation. 1956 brought about two crises, both of which the U.S. could only act as a spectator. In Egypt, President Gamel Adbul Nassar, blocked in an attempt to get financing to build the Aswan Dam, moved to nationalize the Suez Canal. This brought about the ire of Britain and France, who didn’t trust Nasser and Egypt to operate the vital waterway.
The British and French, along with Israel, mobilized forces in Egypt. Israel attacked the Sinai Peninsula. The British and French moved forces in toward the Canal. This all happened very close to Election Day on November 5, 1956. U.N. peacekeepers would be called in to settle down the situation.
Meanwhile, in Hungary, dissatisfaction with the Soviet-backed leadership exploded in wide scale protests. Former Prime Minister Imre Nagy returned to power, and it appeared that Hungary would throw off Communism and return to some form of a multiparty democracy. Nagy said that Hungary would withdraw from the Warsaw Pact.
But, the Soviet Union would not accept this. On November 3, 1956, the Soviet Union, which now had Nikita Khrushchev in charge, sent troops into Hungary. Nagy and many members of his government were arrested and later executed. By November 10, a new regime, one sympathetic to the Soviet Union, was in place.
Eisenhower was caught unaware by the Suez Crisis and could only react to it and try to contain it the best he could. The Eisenhower Doctrine was developed which stated that any country could request economic or militar aid from the U.S. if it felt threatened. (This policy would be invoked in 1958 when American forces intervened in Lebanon.) As for Hungary, it was impossible for Eisenhower to take any action to support the Nagy regime in Hungary without triggering World War III.
Under the terms of the 22nd Amendment, Eisenhower couldn’t run for reelection. He was the first President to face this dilemma. Some thought he would be hamstrung in his ability to accomplish anything. As it turned out, Eisenhower’s problems in his second term would mostly come from events not in this world.
On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union announced the successful launch of Sputnik. It was the first successful launching of an earth-orbiting satellite. It would make one orbit of the earth every 96 minutes, beeping along happily.
Eisenhower, to his credit, realized that the problem with Sputnik was a political one, not a military one. Eisenhower appointed a science advisor and established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Presidents Kennedy and Johnson would get the fame for the space program, but it was under Eisenhower that it began.
Wicker spends a fair amount of time in the book on one of the last big crises of Eisenhower’s administration. One of Eisenhower’s goals was to negotiate a nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union. Before Eisenhower would go to meet with Khrushchev in Paris of May of 1960, the President possibly overreached in his attempt to gather intelligence on Soviet nuclear capabilities.
The main instrument of intelligence gathering in the era before satellites was the U-2 aircraft. Eisenhower continued to order flights over Soviet airspace in the days preceding the summit. One plane, that took flight on May 1, 1960, was shot down and the pilot, Francis Gary Powers, was captured in the Soviet Union. On May 5, Khrushchev announced to the world that an American pilot had been captured and that Soviet airspace had been violated. Eventually, Eisenhower had to admit that he had ordered the spy flights. The summit meeting that would start on May 14, accomplished nothing.
Wicker holds Eisenhower’s feet to the fire for this, feeling that Eisenhower wasted the best chance to negotiate a test ban treaty and greatly reduce the threat of nuclear war. Wicker believes that many of the U-2 flights that Eisenhower had ordered were needless. They were inviting disaster. And a disaster occurred.
In 1960, Eisenhower stayed on the sidelines for most of the campaign between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy. Nixon did not seek out Eisenhower’s help during the campaign. Eisenhower, when asked by a reporter for a major decision that Nixon took part in, replied “If you give me a week, I might think of one.”
Eisenhower’s most famous speech as President was his Farewell Address. In it, Eisenhower warned against the creation of a permanent armaments industry as part of the American economy. He most notably came up with the phrase “the military-industrial complex” to describe the situation.
After leaving the White House, Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower retired to his home in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Aside from a speech at the 1964 Republican Convention, Eisenhower spent much of his retirement out of the public eye. On March 28, 1969, Dwight Eisenhower died in Washington, D.C. His Vice President, Richard Nixon, was now in the White House.
Wicker’s book is not one of the better efforts. The book needed some editing and several events are listed as taking place in the wrong year. You don’t get a feel of just what Dwight Eisenhower was about. What made him tick? What was his political philosophy? Why did people like him so much? There aren’t enough answers here. Just a lot of questions.