Making of the President, 1964 by Theodore H. White

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter winning a Pulitzer Prize with his groundbreaking, dramatic, psychologically intense depiction of the 1960 presidential campaign, Theodore White tried it again in 1964. But, this election lacked the drama of 1960 (most elections have) and instead, White came up with a somewhat confused narrative that paints the winning candidate, Lyndon Johnson, as both a saint and sinner, and the loser, Barry Goldwater, as a man with crazed followers with only a passing grip on reality.

White’s book was published in 1965 and it came out before the United States started to come apart at the seams because of the Vietnam War and race relations, taking down Johnson’s presidency. Goldwater, who is presented as one of the least mainstream candidates ever, could have become the Conservative movement’s icon, if only the people of California hadn’t elected Ronald Reagan as governor in 1966, changing the course of American politics.

The book opens with the assassination of Kennedy and the reactions to it by Johnson, the Cabinet, and the leading Republican contenders of the era: Goldwater, Nelson Rockefeller, and Richard Nixon. White, who had authored a long, laudatory piece for Life Magazine on the request of Jacqueline Kennedy, almost wants you to get on a plane to ask the Pope to make Kennedy a saint.

Fortunately, the rhetoric dies down a bit. Most of the book is dedicated to the Republican campaign, which was the only contested one as Johnson opted to run in his own right.

There were just 16 state primaries in 1964 (along with one for the District of Columbia for the first time). Then, as now, New Hampshire started things off. Ambassador to Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge won that primary, mostly because of name recognition from his time as a Massachusetts senator. Goldwater and Rockefeller decided to duke it out in the last two major primaries: Oregon and California.

Rockefeller won in Oregon, but Goldwater won decisively in California. Goldwater was hurt by a recent divorce and, even worse, by fathering a child from his second wife during the campaign. (Two years later, the divorced and remarried Reagan would be elected governor of California.) Goldwater was then able to out organize Rockefeller in the state caucuses to sew up the nomination.

Before the convention, Pennsylvania governor William Scranton tried to enter the race, hoping for a draft from liberal Republican delegates. Scranton planned to make an appearance at a governors’ conference in Cleveland with Dwight Eisenhower, but the former President would not make a public appearance with Scranton, whose candidacy quickly died.

The Republican Convention in San Francisco turned out to be a contentious affair. Goldwater supporters openly heckled and booed Rockefeller when he addressed the delegates. The Republican Party, long controlled by Eastern financial interests, was now in the hands of a much different type of Republican. These Republicans wanted smaller government. They wanted a strong defense. They wanted law and order. The Republican power base had now shifted to the west and to the south. (Representative William Miller of New York was Goldwater’s running mate.)

Goldwater famously said during his acceptance speech,

 I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.

Johnson’s biggest problem during his campaign was finding a running mate. Some assumed that Robert Kennedy would be a logical and/or sentimental choice. But, the two men never got along (a bit of an understatement) and Johnson turned to two Minnesota Senators: Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy. Since Humphrey had helped passed the Civil Rights Bill earlier in 1964, Johnson owed him the favor. Ahh, but how would have things been different if McCarthy had won the job.

Goldwater had many obstacles to overcome in the election. In one early campaign speech, he spoke about giving NATO “commanders” the option to use nuclear weapons on their own accord. This was interpreted as meaning that Goldwater wanted to remove command and control of nuclear weapons from the White House and entrust them to potentially unknown generals. The term “commanders” actually referred to the head of NATO, but the damage was done. Goldwater was painted as a guy who wanted to nuke everything. (You can find many other ads here.)

Johnson and the Democrats also claimed that Goldwater wished to make Social Security a voluntary system, something which Goldwater hadn’t quite staked out. But, it was the start of a Democratic tradition of blaming Republican candidates for wanting to gut Social Security. (50 years later, it’s still around. And the accusations still get made.)

Goldwater also voted against the Civil Rights Bill, although he said he did so on Constitutional grounds. Goldwater refused to play his version of the race card against Johnson by playing to the fears of white Americans, but he had those voters sewn up already.

White pointed out that Johnson ran as an almost nonpartisan, apolitical candidate who would unite the country. This was in spite of the fact that Johnson was one of the most partisan politicians ever elected President.

The book hints at future problems. There is a chapter on “the Negro Revolution” as well as some discussion about the foreign policy problems facing the country, namely in Southeast Asia. And those situations ended up playing out even worse than White feared. (White briefly discusses one of the first big protests of the time, the 1964 Free Speech movement at UC Berkeley. But, he misses the point and claims that Berkeley students were hypocritical because they didn’t pass a free housing measure. White was likely not aware that the vast majority of students were registered to vote outside of the Berkeley city limits. Or they couldn’t vote because they weren’t 21. The permanent residents of Berkeley in 1964 were still fairly conservative.)

The election was not close. Johnson took home 61.1% of the popular vote, a record at the time. He won 446 electoral votes to 52 for Goldwater, who won five states in the Deep South as well as Arizona.

Johnson came back to the White House figuring that he would be the most popular President since Franklin Roosevelt in 1936. He could only dream of that.

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Theodore Roosevelt by Louis Auchincloss

President #26, C-SPAN historians’ ranking #4

Bullfeathers!!!!

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 Justin among 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.

Theodore Roosevelt Island National Memorial in Washington, DC

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.

Other stuff: There is a Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota in the area where he had his ranch. There is a Theodore Roosevelt Island National Memorial in Washington, DC. Theodore Roosevelt’s home, Sagamore Hill, is a National Historic Site. Roosevelt is buried at Youngs Memorial Cemetery in Oyster Bay, New York. Roosevelt’s birth place is a National Historic Site.

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.

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George H.W. Bush by Timothy Naftali

President #41, C-SPAN Historians Ranking #18

In the name of the father …

George Herbert Walker Bush (not that anybody called him that when he was President except when he was sworn in) did not have an easy act to follow, succeeding one of America’s most popular Chief Executives in Ronald Reagan. He came into office in a time when the entire post World War II world was changing in incredible ways. There were economic problems. And there was a war to be fought (but was it to be won?)

At one point during his Presidency, George Bush had an approval rating of 88 percent according to a Gallup Poll. And when he ran for reelection, few people were surprised that Bill Clinton soundly defeated him.

Timothy Naftali, who was written about U.S.-Soviet relations, and now serves as the director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, has the unenviable job of trying to figure out just where George Bush fit into the grand scheme of the rapidly changing world from 1989 through 1993. It is a difficult job to put a living figure just 16 years out of office with a far more famous son; but, I enjoyed Naftali’s presentation. He managed to distill the life of a man with a long resume and a Presidency filled with events of great import into an interesting narrative. You can see how George H. W. Bush (he dropped the initials before going into politics and then added them back to his name after George W. Bush became President in 2001) fits into the post Cold War world.

I did notice though it is impossible to write about George H.W. Bush without writing about Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush.  Much of George H.W. Bush’s life is circumscribed by his predecessor and his son. Naftali runs into this problem too. The last chapter of the book is more about Bush 43 than Bush 41 it seems.

George Bush was born in Milton, Massachusetts on June 12, 1924, the son of Prescott and Dorothy Bush. The Bush family moved to Connecticut when George was quite young. Prescott Bush was a successful businessman and would also go on to serve 11 years in the U.S. Senate.

Like his father, George Bush enrolled at Yale. However, World War II got in the way. Bush postponed his entrance into Yale to become a naval aviator, a feat he achieved just before turning 19. In 1944, Bush’s plane was shot down by Japanese anti-aircraft guns. All of the crew except for Bush perished. Bush was able to parachute to safety.

With the war nearing its end, Bush returned to Yale. He married Barbara Pierce in January of 1945. Bush captained a Yale baseball team that made it to College World Series. He and Barbara produced six children, some of whom went on to some renown (but that’s for a later post.)

It was a tradition in the Bush family for the men to go out on their own and not to rely on their father’s wealth. So, after graduating from Yale, the Bush family headed for Texas. George Bush started an oil drilling business, along with some friends from Yale. It proved to be quite successful and Bush became a millionaire in his own right.

Like his father, George Bush began to show an interest in politics. He decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and run for a seat in the Senate against Democrat Ralph Yarborough in 1964. Bush decided to ally himself with Republican Presidential nominee Barry Goldwater. This strategy raised Bush’s profile nationally, but did not help him in the election. Yarborough won with 56% of the vote.

Two years later, Bush opted to run for a House seat and won. He became the first Republican to represent a Houston district, serving two terms. In 1968, Bush took aim at Yarborough’s Senate seat. However, Lloyd Bentsen defeated Yarborough in the Democratic primary. Bush would lose to Bentsen.

Bush was not through with politics. Richard Nixon rewarded Bush for his efforts in Texas by naming him Ambassador to the United Nations in 1971. Two years later, Bush had an even more difficult job. He was named Chairman of the Republican National Committee as the Watergate crisis was coming to a boil. Bush, as was his nature, stayed loyal to Nixon as long as he could, but even he realized that the longer Nixon stayed in office, the worse off the Republican Party would be.

New President Gerald Ford decided to give Bush a less depressing assignment. In 1974, Ford appointed Bush as the United States Representative to China. (The two nations had not established formal diplomatic relations.) Bush had hoped to be named Ford’s Vice President (and he also had hoped that Nixon would have added him to the ticket in 1972), but that was not to be. Nelson Rockefeller was appointed to the position.

Bush worked in China for a little over a year, but was brought back to the United States to head up the Central Intelligence Agency, which was then under heavy fire after a series of Senate hearings revealed a pattern of illegal or unwarranted activities done by the agency. Bush thought this job would finish him off politically as there was too much baggage attached to it. But, Bush did not want to appear to be disloyal to the President, fearing that it would hurt his chances to run with Ford in 1976.

As it turned out, Ford chose Senator Bob Dole as his running mate in 1976, but lost anyway to Jimmy Carter. Bush offered to remain on as CIA director under Carter, but the new President chose Admiral Stansfield Turner for the job. George Bush was seemingly gone from public view.

Or was he? Bush decided to make a run at the White House in 1980. He adopted Carter’s model and announced early, in 1978. He started organizing in Iowa before the presumptive nominee, Reagan, had made much headway there.  The move paid off and Bush surprised many pundits by winning in Iowa. As Bush proclaimed, he had “the Big Mo!”

However, it all fell apart quickly in the rest of the 1980 campaign. In New Hampshire, Bush got into a situation where he refused to debate all of the Republican contenders, except for Reagan. So, at a debate when the other candidates showed up (Howard Baker, John Anderson, John Connolly, Phil Crane, and Bob Dole),  Bush wouldn’t speak. And when Reagan began to speak, the moderator ordered the microphones cut. Reagan then famously declared, “Mr. Green [the moderator] I paid for this microphone!”

Actually, Reagan hadn’t paid for the microphone. But, it certainly looked like he did. Bush looked meek compared to the forceful Reagan. Reagan won in New Hampshire and cruised to the nomination.

When it came time to pick a nominee for Vice President, Reagan’s first choice was going to be former President Gerald Ford. But, Ford wanted to have unprecedented latitude for someone in the job. Ultimately, both Reagan and Ford realized the idea was unworkable. So, Reagan went for the safe choice, George Bush.

However, there were a few problems. For starters, the two men weren’t close. And during the campaign, Bush had referred to Reagan’s supply side economic plan for the United State as “voodoo economics.” However, Bush showed himself quite adaptable to what the top of the ticket wanted. The 1980 election would be described as “not close.”

As Vice President, Bush quickly had a chance to show that he was up to the job. On March 30, 1981, Ronald Reagan was shot and wounded in an assassination attempt by John Hinckley. In the confusion that ensued, Secretary of State Alexander Haig declared that he was in charge. Except Haig wasn’t. Legally, Reagan was still in charge. But, it was Bush who appeared on TV screens reassuring the public. Bush also declined to use the same privileges (such as special entrances to the White House) that the President was entitled to.

As Reagan recuperated, he began to include Bush in more policy-making decisions. Reagan and Bush won reelection in 1984 in a landslide.

Toward the end of Reagan’s second term, a scandal began to brew. The complex Iran-Contra Scandal would be one of the major blemishes on Reagan’s record. The convoluted plan involved the U.S. government attempting to gain leverage with Hezbollah groups holding American hostages in Lebanon. To accomplish this, the U.S. sold missiles to Iran, through an Israeli intermediary. Then, the plan was changed to sell the arms directly to Iran, but siphon off some of the money to help fund the Contra rebels in Nicaragua.

However, it was against the law to give money to the Contras. Nevertheless, the plan was approved. Hezbollah released some hostages, but took more to replace them. It was a bit of a mess. Only two people, National Security Adviser John Poindexter and his aide, Oliver North, were tried in court in connection with this affair. Although both men were initially convicted, their verdicts were overturned for differing reasons.

Although Bush served on the National Security Council, he somehow managed to avoid any involvement (at least that has been shown to date) in the matter. Whether or not Bush agreed with the aims of the plan is still debated.

1988 would be George Bush’s year. He was the leading candidate for the nomination to replace Reagan. However, no sitting Vice President had been elected President since Martin Van Buren in 1836. Bush’s major opponent would be Robert Dole.  However, television evangelist Pat Robertson also entered the race, changing the dynamic, making the evangelical vote more important.

Dole prevailed in the Iowa caucuses, but Bush came back to win in New Hampshire. After that, it was mostly smooth sailing. On May 12, 1988, Reagan endorsed Bush for the Presidency.

Bush went to the Republican Convention needing to pick a running mate. He settled on Indiana Senator Dan Quayle.  The announcement was far from smooth. Quayle was at the back of a large crowd when the announcement was made and came charging up on to the stage with a great deal of exuberance. However, Bush’s team hadn’t completely vetted Quayle. Questions about Quayle’s avoidance of military service in Vietnam and seeming lack of experience would dog the campaign until Election Day.

During his acceptance speech, Bush decided to appeal to the conservative base of the party when describing how he would handle the rapidly increasing budget deficit. He said, “Read my lips, no more taxes.” It would be a catch phrase that would haunt Bush for his whole administration.

The general election campaign against Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts was decidedly unpleasant. Dukakis, who had started with a huge lead in the polls, quickly frittered it away, mostly by being himself. That is, he was an incredibly dull candidate who managed to make Bush look charismatic.

Bush’s campaign also continued to hit at Dukakis on issues such as prisoner furloughs (the linked ad was not directly paid for by Bush’s campaign), and whether or not Massachusetts school children should be required to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The televised debates involved enlightened questions such as this one.

Dukakis seemed fortunate to win 45.6% of the vote and 111 electoral votes (10 states and the District of Columbia.) Bush was finally able to put the job he always wanted on his resume.

Upon taking office, Bush inherited a major financial crisis. The savings and loan industry, which had been deregulated to some extent in the early 1980s, was facing massive amounts of failures. The S&L’s were allowed to invest in even riskier real estate dealings (they previously had been limited to financing residential property almost exclusively) and other questionable financial practices. The whole industry was on the brink of collapse, as they had to offer higher and higher interest rates to investors, while being unable to raise interest rates to lenders. It would require $161 billion from the Federal Government to clean up the situation.

The S&L bailout only made the budget deficit problem worse. Democrats and moderate Republicans hoped to put into place a package of limited tax increases along with budget cuts.  But, Bush refused to go along with any new taxes because of his campaign pledge. As has been the norm in the American history, the problem was deferred to a later date.

Some issues could not be put off. Bush’s National Security Team, with Secretary of State James Baker and National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, in charge wanted to thoroughly study the changes going on in the Soviet Union before making a commitment to a new policy. But, there was no time for a study. The Iron Curtain fell apart in a matter of months.

Poland’s Communist leaders legalized the Solidarity movement of Lech Walesa in February of 1989. After a brief power sharing agreement, the Communists faded away. Yugoslavia began to split apart along on ethnic lines, although this would prove to be far from a peaceful process. The Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia pulled away from the Soviet Union.

The biggest change was in Germany. East Germany, which suffered under one of the most oppressive Communist governments, collapsed in October of 1989. The Berlin Wall, the most visible symbol of Communism, came down. As the rest of the Soviet satellite states sloughed off Communism, so too did the Soviet Union. It broke apart (although some hard-liners tried one last coup for old time’s sake) into independent republics.

Bush was restrained in his initial public statements about the events in Europe. “I’m not an emotional kind of guy,” Bush would say. It seemed odd when the primary foreign policy goal of the United States, particularly Bush’s predecessor, had been met.

However, not all went smoothly in the world of foreign affairs. While Communism in Europe passed away, Communism in China persisted. Demonstrations in the streets of Beijing in May of 1989 were suppressed by the military. The death toll was in the thousands, the exact total never known. Bush sent Scowcroft to Beijing for secret talks to ask for leniency for the protesters. The United States had no leverage though and could do little but complain.

Bush ordered U.S. troops into Panama to arrest Manuel Noriega, the leader of the nation, so he could be tried in the United States for drug trafficking. Operation Just Cause ultimately restored some semblance of order in a country that was once of the strongest allies of the United States.

On August 1, 1990, the Bush Presidency faced its biggest crisis. Iraqi forces invaded and occupied the nation of Kuwait. Saddam Hussein declared that he had annexed Kuwait as part of Iraq. Suddenly, the entire Persian Gulf region was in danger from Saddam’s forces.

At first, the United States sent in forces to Saudi Arabia to help protect the oil-rich nation. This was Operation Desert Shield. Delicate diplomacy in the UN was able to expand the forces in the Gulf Region and give it a UN blessing. Congress approved a joint resolution authorizing the use of force.

On January 17, 1991, Desert Shield became Desert Storm. The Iraqi forces were quickly driven from Kuwait, and they retreated back into Iraq. Bush and his generals faced the decision on whether to continue the battle into Iraq. The decision was to stop. The belief was that a prolonged war in the Persian Gulf was something that the country was not prepared for. (Similarly, I’m not prepared to write about this at length either. Because it would take several thousand more words. And I would get depressed.)

After the success of Desert Storm, Bush soared in his approval ratings. A calamitous drop would soon follow. As Naftali puts it, Bush’s support was wide, but it was not deep. By the time of the election, Bush’s unfavorable ratings were higher than his favorable ones.

Bush’s downfall would be the economy. Despite his pledge of no new taxes, Bush was forced to approve an increase in the income tax and the capital gains tax.  Unemployment went up to 7.8%. Conservative Republicans felt betrayed. They did not believe that Bush was another Reagan. Bush’s approval ratings went on a sharp decline.

During the 1992 campaign, Bush faced a primary challenge in New Hampshire from conservative political pundit Pat Buchanan. Bush won in New Hampshire; but, Buchanan picked up a surprisingly high 37% of the vote. This forced Bush to move farther to the right, a place he was not comfortable.

Further complicating matters was the addition of Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot. Perot mounted a campaign based on a balanced Federal budget and an opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Perot said he would run for President if volunteers could get his name on the ballot in all 50 states.

The Democrats were going to nominate Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton. Despite admitted extramarital affairs and his avoidance of military service in Vietnam, Clinton pushed on ahead to seize the nomination easily.

The three-horse race for a while turned into a two-horse race when Perot dropped out, citing interference from the Bush campaign, even accusing Bush’s people of trying to disrupt his daughter’s wedding. Perot would rejoin the race a week later, but now was more or less branded as a flake.

The campaign between Bush and Clinton was quite a contrast. Clinton was the first Baby Boom generation candidate. He had far more charisma than the dour Dukakis of 1988. Also, Clinton was not nearly as liberal as Dukakis, making him a much more palatable choice to a good swath of the country. Bush seemed to be older and out of touch. Clinton won the election by a wide margin in the Electoral College (370-168), although Perot’s participation kept Clinton at just 43% of the popular vote.

Soon after his electoral defeat, Bush’s mother, Dorothy, died at the age of ninety-one. As Bush left office, he gave pardons to many of the principals in the Iran-Contra scandal, including Poindexter, North, and former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. George and Barbara Bush retired to Houston, where the home they hoped to have built for them after he left office in 1993 was not yet finished.

Bush went on speaking tours. One such tour in 1993 took him to Kuwait, where it turned out that the local authorities had foiled a plot by Iraqi operatives to assassinate the former president. This event would be remembered by Bush’s son, George W. Bush.

The Bush family would be heard from again. It would take just eight years.

(Insert dramatic music and pause to create “To be continued…” effect like they do on TV.)

Other stuff: The George Bush Presidential Library and Museum is on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station. Note that they don’t use any initials in the name.

George H.W. Bush is the only father of a President who saw his son be inaugurated. John Adams was not able to see John Quincy Adams take the oath of office in 1825 because of his advanced age (89).

The Navy’s most recently commissioned aircraft carrier is called the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush. The principal airport in Houston is called George Bush Intercontinental Airport.

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Chester Alan Arthur by Zachary Karabell

President #21, C-SPAN Historians ranking #32

Muttonchops to the Rescue!

chesterarthurChester 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.

DSCF0857
Arthur being sworn in

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.

Arthur’s birthplace in Vermont is a state historic site. He is buried alongside his wife in the Albany Rural Cemetery in Menands, New York.

Milllard Fillmore by Robert J. Scarry

President #13, C-SPAN historians ranking #37

Yes, I Was President

fillmoreFor a job that has only had 43 different men in it, it seems to hard to believe that some people to hold the office could be as obscure as Millard Fillmore. America’s 13th President, an amiable politician from Buffalo, somehow managed to work his way up to the highest office in the land. Yet, he failed to make much an impression. For some people, he’s just a joke. He’s the namesake of a conservative cartoon duck.

However, Robert J. Scarry, a retired high school history teacher from Moravia, New York, dedicated much of his life to the rehabilitation of Fillmore’s image. He tried to chronicle all aspects of Fillmore’s life. His 2001 book, published near the time of his death, can be quite a chore to read. The book goes on and on and on about just about everything in Fillmore’s life, but doesn’t really explain much. Scarry wants us to come to respect what Fillmore accomplished. But, in the end, you don’t really learn much of anything about Fillmore.

Millard Fillmore was born on January 7, 1800 in a log cabin in Moravia, New York. He had little formal education growing up. When the War of 1812 started, young Millard wanted to serve in the Navy, but his father prevented him from signing up. Instead, Millard Fillmore was hired out as an apprentice and eventually learned the trade of wool carding.

In addition to earning some money, Fillmore received an education. It wasn’t much of one, but he managed to get a job when he was 18 as a school teacher. Such was the state of American education at the time, that a young man with little education and who could barely read or write better than the students was the teacher. Nevertheless, Fillmore worked hard at the job and also learned how to read and write better on his own.

At age 19, Fillmore met his future wife, Abigail, who was also a school teacher. Abigail was far more learned than Millard and she would help round out his education. Around the same time, Fillmore met a local judge, Walter Wood, and learned the law from him. Eventually, Fillmore moved to East Aurora where he set up a practice.

In 1826, Millard and Abigail finally married. They had two children, a son Millard Powers, and a daughter, Mary Abigail. Fillmore also began to develop political connections in the area. He moved to the biggest city in the area, Buffalo, in 1830.

In 1828, Fillmore ran for the New York State Legislature as a member of the Anti-Masonic Party. As you might guess from the name, this party was opposed to the practice of Freemasonry. This was actually a potent political force at the time. The Anti-Masonic Party is credited with being the first party to nominate a Presidential candidate by convention.

Fillmore worked his way up in notoriety in the New York legislature, becoming an expert on bankruptcy law. In 1833, Fillmore was elected to a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. He eventually aligned himself with Henry Clay’s supporters, who would become the Whig Party in 1836.

When William Henry Harrison was elected President in 1840, the Whigs took control of the House. Fillmore was a candidate for Speaker, but lost the race. As a consolation prize, he was made Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Outside of one tariff bill, Fillmore did not seem to accomplish much during his time in the House. But, people seemed to like him. In 1844, he was considered for the Vice Presidential slot alongside Clay, but lost out to Theodore Frelinghuysen of New Jersey. Frelinghuysen was serving as chancellor of NYU at the time. Frelinghuysen’s father was a Senator, his nephew and adopted son became a Senator and Secretary of State, his great-great nephew served in the House, and his great-great-great nephew currently serves in the House. Another Frelinghuysen was also a Senator from New Jersey.

Fillmore decided to run for governor of New York. However, 1844 was not a good year for the Whigs. Democrat James Polk won the Presidency and Silas Wright was elected Governor of New York. It seemed that Fillmore’s political career was over.

But, you can’t keep a good man down. Or, in this case, you can’t keep a guy who doesn’t seem to get anybody angry down. In 1847, the state of New York made the office of comptroller elected. Fillmore won that race. The job served to keep Fillmore in the public eye.

DSCF0887In 1848, on the heels of the Mexican War, the Whigs nominated war hero Zachary Taylor for President. Taylor was an unknown politically, but the Whigs figured that a popular candidate was better than having a three-time loser in Clay running again. Fillmore was tabbed as the running mate to bring sectional balance to the ticket. (Taylor was born in Virginia, but lived in Louisiana.)

Taylor and Fillmore beat the Democratic ticket of Lewis Cass and William Butler by a margin of 5%. Former President Martin Van Buren ran as a third party candidate for the Free Soil Party and won 10% of the vote, but no states.

Fillmore and Taylor didn’t meet each other until shortly before the Inauguration. Fillmore’s political enemies in New York, Whig party bosses Thurlow Weed and William Seward, had managed to isolate Fillmore from Taylor, and controlled the patronage for the state. Fillmore had little to do but sit around in the Senate and listen to debates.

This wasn’t a bad thing. Fillmore got the best seat in the Senate chamber for some of the greatest orations in the nation’s history. The biggest political issue of the day was an Omnibus Compromise Bill proposed by Clay to solve the problem of how to incorporate the new territories won from Mexico into the United States as either free or slave states.

The proposed compromise would:

  • admit California as a free state
  • create the territories of Utah and New Mexico with no prohibitions against slavery
  • force Texas to accept the border that exists today between it and New Mexico
  • abolish the slave trade in the District of Columbia
  • strenghten the laws regarding the return of fugitive slaves

Antislavery Senators like Seward denounced the Compromise as being against a “higher law.” On March 7, 1850, Daniel Webster gave a speech in favor of the Compromise. That speech became known as the “Seventh of March Speech.”

However, some of the debate was quite heated. Fillmore wanted to be able to rule Senators out of order for using impolite speech, but the Vice President had lost this power back in 1828. Fillmore tried to get the Senate to amend its rules to restore this power to him.

On April 3, 1850, Fillmore tried to rule that Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton was out of order. Clay was furious. Words were spoken. Eventually, Mississippi Senator Henry Foote pulled a gun on Benton. Fortunately, Foote didn’t fire.

The Omnibus Bill was too big for Congress to act on before it adjourned for the summer. While Congress was away, President Taylor stayed in Washington in the summer of 1850. President Taylor contracted cholera and died on July 10, 1850. Millard Fillmore became the 13th President of the United States.

Taylor had indicated that he would veto the Compromise bill, but Fillmore was inclined to support it. However, it was still having trouble getting through Congress. Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas hit upon the idea of separating the bill into several parts and having them passed separately. This allowed different coalitions to support each bill. The plan worked. Fillmore signed into law all the parts of the Compromise of 1850.

The most controversial part of the Compromise of 1850 turned out to be the Fugitive Slave Act. The return of runaway slaves had now become a Federal matter. Slaves could be hunted down by special marshals and returned to their owners without any court hearing. The measure was bitterly opposed in some parts of the North. Fillmore believed that the Act was necessary to keep the Union intact.

For the rest of his term in office, Fillmore did not accomplish much of note. He did threaten South Carolina with force to keep that state’s governor from calling for a secession vote. (And the governor did not go to Argentina either.) Fillmore also had to send in troops to keep Texas redrawing the New Mexico border line.

There wasn’t much for Fillmore to do legislatively. Congress was too deeply divided to accomplish much of anything.

Fillmore did try his hand in foreign affairs. He sent a fleet of ships under the command of Commodore Matthew Perry to Japan in an attempt to open trade with that mysterious nation. However, the ships didn’t arrive until Fillmore’s term in office ended. Also, Fillmore managed to avoid going to war with Peru over some uninhabited islands in the Pacific that were rich in guano deposits.

In 1852, Fillmore hoped that the Whigs would renominate him. But, he couldn’t run away from the Compromise of 1850. Even though it managed to keep the Civil War at bay for 10 years, it managed to anger enough people on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line to make Fillmore’s name mud.

Fillmore hoped that his Secretary of State, Webster, would get the nomination. But, the Whigs nominated another Mexican War hero, Winfield Scott. This might have been a good thing as Webster died before the election was held anyway. Also, Webster was likely an alcoholic. But aside from being a dying alcoholic, Webster was Presidential material! Democrat Franklin Pierce won the election.

Abigail Fillmore died soon after Pierce’s inauguration. In 1854, Fillmore’s daughter Mary Abigail died at age 22 of cholera.

To get over the grief of losing his wife and daughter so soon, Fillmore went on the grand tour of Europe. While he may have appeared to have been out of politics, Fillmore was still in the game.

There was a new political movement in the country called the Know Nothings. This political party, which swore its members to secrecy about its platform (hence the name), was the Lou Dobbs Party of its time. The party opposed increased immigration into the United States for fear of losing jobs to lower paid immigrants. (And you thought this was a new issue.) The Know Nothings were also anti-Catholic, primarily because many Catholics were Irish immigrants.

The Know Nothings (officially called the American Party) nominated Fillmore for President while he was in Europe. Fillmore didn’t get back to the U.S. until June 22, 1856.

Why did Fillmore decide to join the Know Nothings. Scarry thinks that Fillmore didn’t identify closely with the Know Nothings nativist platform, but felt that they were better equipped to run the country than either the deeply divided Democratic party, or the new antislavery party, the Republicans. There was also the matter that Fillmore might have wanted to become President again because he needed the money. Ex-Presidents received no pension at this time.

One of the paradoxes of Fillmore running as a Know Nothing was that he started out as an Anti-Mason. So his political career began with him being opposed to secret societies. And being opposed to anti-Catholic groups. And as a Know Nothing, Fillmore had to join a secret organization and become anti-Catholic.

Fillmore finished third in the 1856 election with 21.7% of the vote and eight electoral votes from Maryland. Fillmore realized that he was through as a politician.

He remarried in 1858 and spent the rest of his retirement acting like a former President with very little to do. Fillmore gave speeches. He took vacations. Sometimes people would ask him his opinion on important matters.

Right before Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration, the United States was going to have its greatest glut of former Presidents living. Van Buren, John Tyler, Fillmore, Pierce, and James Buchanan were all still alive when Lincoln was inaugurated. There was talk of asking the five former Presidents to come up with some plan to save the union, but Lincoln wasn’t interested. Also, it’s doubtful that those five men could have agreed on anything. It probably didn’t help that Tyler had been elected to the Confederate Congress either.

Millard Fillmore passed away at his home in Buffalo on March 8, 1874. It was a big event in Buffalo, but not much of a news event in the rest of the country.

In Scarry’s book, many, many, many words are written to try to convince you that Millard Fillmore is worthy of greater respect. But I don’t buy it. Fillmore’s greatest trait was his honesty. However, he didn’t seem to have enough backbone to go with his honesty. Millard Fillmore was a guy who seemed to get ahead in life by keeping his nose clean and not causing trouble. But, like a President who would be in office over 130 years later, Fillmore didn’t have “the vision thing.”

After about 350 pages (I skipped some parts where the author just reprinted the full text of some rather uninteresting letters) about Millard Fillmore, I can only think that Millard Fillmore’s principal accomplishment as President was just showing up for work.

Other stuff: The Millard and Abigail Fillmore House and Museum is in East Aurora, New York. A replica of the log cabin where Fillmore was born is part of Fillmore Glen State ParkForest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo. The University of Buffalo’s school for distance learning and adult education is named for Millard Fillmore, one of the school’s founders.

H.L. Mencken, as a gag, wrote that Millard Fillmore installed the first bath tub in the White House. This was not the case, although the story has been perpetuated until this day. Scarry spends a couple pages on the story and determines that it was likely James Madison who installed the first bath tub. Hot and cold running water took longer to install. I am trying to contemplate Thomas Jefferson spending eight years in Washington without a bath. Good thing he was single at the time.

Millard Fillmore’s father, Nathaniel, lived to be 91, which was the oldest age of any Presidential father to date. John Adams had held the record by living to be 90. George H.W. Bush is the only person alive now with a chance to break the record.