20061003


 The U.S. Presidents

Excerpted from the forthcoming book:
Copyright © 2006, 2010

"Damning...and damn witty too!" 
Howard Zinn - A People's History of the United States


State of the Union © Charles Bragg
Illustration provided courtesy of Charles Bragg
"America's foremost social satire artist"
www.charlesbragg.com

20061002

None are so hopelessly enslaved
as those who falsely believe they are free.
Goethe

20061001

THE PRESIDENT of the United States. The Chief Executive. The Commander in Chief. Whatever his job title, the leader of the predominant nation on the planet wields unprecedented political, economic, and - especially - military power. As aides to a recent president boasted: he is "all-powerful…the President of the United States can do anything he damn well pleases."
Of course, the domestic - that is, economic - policy of the world's richest country is dictated not by the president, but by its corporate owners and the Congress they pay good money to have elected. But in the arena of foreign policy the president is indeed paramount. And right from the start, engaging in war was the surest way for a president to mark his place in history. As John F. Kennedy mused: "Who would have ever heard of Lincoln, without the Civil War?"
So let's take a brief tour now of all 44 American presidents.
As we shall see, the opportunity to mount Teddy Roosevelt's famous "bully pulpit" at home - and to brandish his "big stick" abroad - has proven a temptation too seductive for even most timid of presidents to resist.
After all, to paraphrase Lord Acton:
If power corrupts, then absolute power corrupts absolutely.

20060930

King George IV
GEORGE WASHINGTON (1789-1797) began his legendary military career by accidentally starting a world war.
Leading a frontier spying mission for the British in 1754, young Washington was captured after ambushing a French scouting party. To secure his release, he signed a confession that he'd murdered the French commander. The resulting furor sparked the Seven Years War, history's first truly global conflict.

Two decades later, Washington's ragtag Revolutionary army was trounced in nearly every early battle. Ben Franklin's enlistment of French support proved far more decisive in defeating the British, yet it was Washington who was glorified as America's first and greatest war hero.
Washington was lured out of a cozy retirement to attend the Constitutional Convention, called to deal with rising protests against the crushing debt and taxation being imposed on farmers and workers. (The very thing the Revolution had supposedly been fought to bring an end to.) The Constitution created a powerful federal government, with Washington unanimously chosen as its first president.
Washington lost no time employing his formidable executive powers. To crush the Whiskey Rebellion, Treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton led a militia larger than Washington's entire Revolutionary army. (Hamilton championed a national bank, tariffs, standing army and similar indignities the colon-

ists had rebelled against under England's King George III.)
Facing mounting hostility to his own monarchical tendencies, Washington declined to run for a third term, returning to Mt. Vernon to tend to his 300 - much less troublesome - slaves.

20060929

His Rotundity
JOHN ADAMS (1797-1801) - Washington's vice president - was chosen to fill his size 13 shoes. It would be hard to imagine a tougher act to follow.
The 1796 election was one of the most contentious in history, and Adams' term was marked by continuous dissension and mudslinging. Adams' peers considered him vain and irritable. Franklin - frankly - thought him at times "absolutely mad", and his vice president, Thomas Jefferson, opposed most of his policies. The public simply called the portly Adams "His Rotundity".

Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, essentially nullifying the Bill of Rights and making it a crime to criticize Congress or the president. (The laws didn't protect Jefferson, who promptly repealed them on becoming president.)
Adams wrote that when the history of the Revolution was written it would be "one continued lie from one end to the other". He was right. Far from forging a free and egalitarian society, the crucible of the Revolution inflamed already well-entrenched class divisions. The "Founding Fathers" confiscated vast tracts of land from fleeing loyalists, enriching themselves and their friends and widening further the already yawning gap between rich and poor.
Adams distrusted common people, claiming "democracy soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself". He believed government was best left to the wealthy, and opposed removing the requirement of land ownership to vote or hold public office. The first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court summed up the attitude of the Founding Fathers when he said: "The people who own the country ought to govern it."

20060928

Jeffersonian Hypocrisy
THOMAS JEFFERSON (1801-1809) became president after an electoral tie sent the 1800 election to Congress, where Hamilton threw his support to Jefferson at the expense of Aaron Burr. (Burr more than got even, killing Hamilton in a duel three years later.)
The primary author of the
Declaration of Independence and the founder of the principles of "Jeffersonian Democracy", Jefferson was probably the most brilliant and idealistic man to ever become president. Both his political and personal life, however, were fraught with contradiction.
The Declaration proclaimed all men to be created equal, yet it excluded women, Native Americans, white servants and slaves, who together made up the majority of the population.
A lifelong opponent of slavery, Jefferson owned one of the largest slave plantations in America and never freed a single slave. He considered the mixing of whites and blacks to be a "degradation", despite being the father of as many as six children by his black servant Sally Hemings. An admirer of the "self-governing" societies of Native Americans, Jefferson committed the nation to their extermination, vowing "In war, they shall kill some of us; we shall destroy
all of them."
Jefferson championed the 1807 Embargo Act, an attempt to force Europe to end its interference with American trade. The Act nearly destroyed the economy, and is ranked among the ten worst presidential mistakes in U.S. history.
Jefferson regarded government borrowing as "swindling futurity on a large scale", yet he himself died deeply in debt. Fittingly, perhaps, he is pictured today on the two dollar bill, which many Americans mistakenly believe is counterfeit.

20060927

Father of the Con-stitution
JAMES MADISON (1809-1817) - whom Jefferson hailed as "the greatest man in the world" - followed him as president.
The principal author of the Constitution, Madison argued persuasively for a strong central government, which he believed would protect the rights of minorities better than states.
The real minority, however, was the less than 10% of the population that owned over half the nation's wealth.
Madison believed the role of government was "to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority", and the Constitution was designed not so much to protect people as to protect property. It did nothing to curb restrictions states put on the right to vote or hold public office - laws which excluded the landless majority. (In Virginia, in these early days of American "democracy", only 1% of the people could vote.)

Madison declared another war against England in 1812, expecting capture of its sprawling northern territories to be "a mere matter of marching". (The British were distracted by yet another war with France, and had the nascent U.S. Navy not failed to blockade the St. Lawrence River, Canada would indeed likely be part of the U.S. today.) But the British got the upper hand and in 1814 seized the nation's new capital, Washington. A humiliated Madison was forced to watch the looting and burning of the White House from a nearby hill.
The War of 1812 ended in a stalemate, at a cost of about 5,000 lives. Because it could have been easily avoided with diplomacy, what the people called "Mr. Madison’s War" is ranked by historians as another of the ten dumbest presidential mistakes in American history.

20060926

Era of Good Stealing
JAMES MONROE (1817-1825) served as both Secretary of State and of War under Madison. He ran for the presidency virtually unopposed in 1816, and was reelected in 1820 by the one of the largest landslides in U.S. history. With the pause in partisan feuding following the collapse of the Federalist Party, Madison's term was known as the "Era of Good Feelings".
The good feelings were dampened, however, by the Panic of 1819, the first full-scale collapse of the new market economy. Unemployment reached 75% in some cities, as speculation, currency inflation and corrupt banking combined to introduce the public to capitalism's now-familiar "boom and bust" business cycle. (Similar "panic attacks" would follow roughly every 20 years, culminating in the Great Depression.)
Jefferson had doubled the size of the nation with the Louisiana Purchase, despite widespread criticism that he had overstepped his authority. The U.S. further acquired Florida after Gen. Andrew Jackson seized Spanish outposts there, with Monroe's tacit support. But Monroe's famous doctrine - actually written by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams - asserted supremacy over the entire hemisphere, warning that any "foreign" intervention in Latin America would be considered to be an act of war against the United States.
The 1823
Monroe Doctrine remains a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy to the present day. Disguised as a noble procla
mation against European colonialism, presidents from Roosevelt to Reagan have invoked it to justify blatant colonialism by the U.S. itself. As Monroe had prophesized: "We must purchase our power with our blood."

20060925

Down the "Quincy"
JOHN QUINCY ADAMS (1825-1829) won fewer popular and electoral votes in 1824 than his bitter rival, Andrew Jackson. But with four major candidates running, Jackson lacked a majority, and the election was once again sent to Congress to decide.
Last-place finisher Henry Clay eventually threw his support to Adams, who as president then appointed Clay his Secretary of State. But Jackson's supporters were outraged at what appeared to be a blatant political deal, and proceeded to thoroughly sabotage Adams' presidency in Congress.

Clay championed a radical economic plan dubbed the "American System". Comprised of high protective tariffs, centralized banking and huge government subsidies to railroad and steamship companies, it was the forerunner of today's highly-centralized federal bureaucracy and massive corporate welfare program. Promoted by Adams with little success, the American System wasn't fully implemented until the late 1860s under Lincoln, a political disciple of Clay.
Adams was the first president to enjoy the convenience in the White House of a new novelty: the flush toilet. While Washington had been honored by having the nation's capital named after him, the public paid tribute to Adams by nicknaming the toilet - or "quincy" - after him.
That may be fitting, since that was more or less where his presidency ended up. Due to Jackson's formidable opposition, Adams was unable to enact any significant legislation during his term, considered by even a sympathetic biographer of the time as "a hapless failure, and best forgotten".

20060924

The Jackass
ANDREW JACKSON (1829-1837) avenged his 1824 loss to Adams by defeating him by a landslide four years later. During the vicious, mudslinging campaign, Adams branded Jackson a "jackass" and a "barbarian".
The latter insult was not without justification. Feared by Native Americans as "Sharp Knife", Jackson owed his popularity to his victories in the Seminole Wars. Not content with mere scalps, he was renown for skinning fallen warriors to make bridle reins and mutilating their corpses to obtain "souvenirs" for the ladies back home in Tennessee.
Jackson - who had never been elected to any public office - was not the first president to capitalize on his fame as an Indian-killer. Washington - known by the Seneca as "Town Destroyer" - had become America's richest man in large part by surveying (and stealing) native land. But Jackson is undoubtedly the most infamous: Some Native Americans still refuse to use the twenty dollar bill, which bears his portrait.

As president, Jackson authored the Indian Removal Act, which ordered the
relocation of 70,000 Native Americans to the frontier. He "negotiated" more treaties with native tribes than any other president, not hesitating to employ deception, bribery and threats whenever necessary.
Regarded as the father of the modern presidency, Jackson exercised executive authority to an unprecedented extent, openly bribing and rewarding supporters with jobs.
Never able to slake his thirst for combat, "Old Hickory" fought as many as a hundred duels during his lifetime. "No one need think that the world can be ruled without blood," he said.
"The civil sword shall and must be red and bloody."

20060923

Martin Van Ruin
MARTIN VAN BUREN (1837-1841) - Jackson’s vice-president and closest adviser - was handpicked to succeed him.
Nicknamed the "Little Magician" for his skill in exploiting the spoils system pioneered by Jackson, Van Buren was instrumental in the creation of the Democratic Party that, ironically, the "jackass" (Jackson) - or donkey - in time came to symbolize.
Like the Founding Fathers, Van Buren preferred certainty and stability over the unpredictability of real democracy. He did much to ensure that in the future both major political parties would tend to favor the interests of the rich, regardless of any lesser disagreements.
Van Buren continued Jackson’s "enlightened" policy of removal in dealing with the "Indian problem". During the harsh winter of 1838, the scattered remnants of the once-proud Cherokee Nation were marched at gunpoint 1,200 miles west across the Mississippi River. About a quarter of the 16,000 marchers died miserably along the route, mourned by Native Americans to this day as the "Trail of Tears".
Van Buren presided over the Panic of 1837, the second worst financial crisis in U.S. history, during which nearly half the banks in the country failed. Largely caused by Jackson's inept economic policies, the crisis was deepened by Van Buren's attitude of government non-interference. Resented for his lavish lifestyle, he was derided as "Martin Van Ruin", and his term was marked by violent protests.
Summarizing his presidency in retirement, Van Buren remarked "The two happiest days of my life were those of my entrance upon the office and my surrender of it."

20060922

Imbecile Chief
WILLIAM HENRY HARRISON (1841) was, like Jackson, another popular Indian-killer undeservedly elevated to the presidency. (Never mind that Jackson referred to Harrison as the "imbecile chief".)
Harrison is chiefly remembered for having the longest inaugural speech - followed by the shortest presidency - in American history.

Harrison was the first presidential candidate to run a modern political campaign, complete with national party platform, raucous bands, brash banners and even a catchy campaign slogan: "Tippecanoe and Tyler, too." The phrase referred to Harrison's running mate, John Tyler, and his 1811 battle with the Indian leader Tecumseh near the Tippecanoe River. Although the battle actually ended in a draw, Harrison gained national fame by portraying himself as a war hero.
Foreshadowing modern media-driven campaigns, the wealthy Harrison was promoted on a blatantly false image, as the candidate of the common people, while his opponent, Van Buren, was portrayed as a rich snob living in luxury at the public's expense. (A characterization that could have applied to nearly every presidential candidate in history.) Studiously avoiding discussion of any real issues, Harrison ran solely on his war record and a promise not to seek a second term.

It was a promise Harrison kept, although probably not quite in the way he intended. Delivering his long-winded inaugural speech on a freezing March day without bothering to don an overcoat or hat, he caught a chill and succumbed a month later to pneumonia, the first president to die in office.
...Maybe Jackson was right.

20060921

His Accidency
JOHN TYLER (1841-1845) became acting president when Harrison died. He was widely denounced for not immediately calling for a new election, but the Constitution was unclear what was actually required under the circumstances. Although he essentially usurped power, Tyler's action set the precedent for presidential succession until the 25th Amendment finally formalized it in 1967. Because of the way he assumed office, however, Tyler's presidency was never taken seriously by the public, who referred to him as "His Accidency".
Tyler broke ranks with his party by repudiating virtually all of the the Whig platform. Practically his entire cabinet resigned in protest, and his administration was sabotaged by both parties in Congress. Throughout the remainder of his term, Tyler endured numerous death threats.

Tyler's heavy-handed efforts to reform the Democratic Party ended up merely polarizing the North and the South, leading the way to the sectional politics of the following two decades, and ultimately to the Civil War. Tyler also championed the annexation of Texas, despite Mexico's warning that annexation of its territory by the U.S. would be equivalent to a declaration of war.
In 1843, Tyler became the first president to face impeach-
ment proceedings. (Although judged guilty of misusing his veto power, he ultimately escaped impeachment.)

Tyler understandably regarded the presidency as a "bed of thorns". After retiring from the office - without ever having actually been elected to it - he served in the Confederate Congress, and was reviled in the North as a traitor.

20060920

Mr. Polk's War
JAMES POLK (1845-1849) was elected for his ardent support for the annexation of the Oregon Territory and Texas, which became a state the following year despite vehement objections from its rightful owner, Mexico. Assuring the world in his inaugural address that it had "nothing to fear from military ambition in our government", Polk confided privately that very evening his determination to acquire not only Texas but also California, despite repeated refusals by Mexico to sell.
Polk's saber-rattling convinced Britain to peaceably part with the Northwest. Envisioning a nation that spanned the continent, Polk then turned his attention south. After threatening and bribing Mexico to no avail, he dispatched General Zachary Taylor into disputed territory, provoking an attack in which a handful of American soldiers were killed. An indignant U.S. promptly declared war on Mexico.
The ensuing two-year conflict cost 40,000 lives. With a casualty rate estimated as high as 40 percent, the war was in relative terms the bloodiest in U.S. military history.
When it was over, Polk demanded all of Mexico. He settled for half, including most of California and the Southwest. In order to claim the land had been "purchased" rather than obtained through blatant aggression, a token payment was made to Mexico.
Shortly after the Mexican-American War ended, Polk declared "Our beloved country presents a sublime moral spectacle to the world."
One reluctant participant of "Mr. Polk's War" was none other than General Ulysses S. Grant, who called it "one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation."

20060919

Rough and Unready
ZACHARY TAYLOR (1849-1850) - nicknamed "Old Rough and Ready" for his military exploits in the Indian and Mexican-
American Wars - had never held elected office and wasn't even interested in politics.
Recruited by the Whigs to head their ticket in 1848, he was spectacularly unprepared to be president.

With settlers swarming west in search of gold, California was soon clamoring for admission to the nation as a slave-free state, widening already deep divisions between North and South. A middle ground was forged with the Compromise of 1850 - which allowed the admission of California while limiting restrictions on slavery in the remaining western territories - but Taylor stalled its passage.

Taylor died with the Compromise bill still in debate, after little over a year in office. The official cause was acute indigestion, but suspicion remains that he was deliberately poisoned.
There was certainly ample motive for his assassination:
The country was already close to civil war in 1850. Taylor had created bitter political enemies by repudiating his party's pro-Compromise position, even offering to lead troops against secession efforts and personally hang its proponents. Shortly before his death, he received a letter from a credible govern-
ment official warning him of an impending threat on his life.

Whatever the actual cause of his demise, with Taylor out of the way, the Compromise bill passed and the secessionist cause was set back, if only for another decade.
Taylor, who protested that the idea of becoming president had "never entered [his] head", hadn't even bothered to vote for himself. Unfortunately for him - and probably for the country as well - a lot of other people did.

20060918

His Accidency II
MILLARD FILLMORE (1850-1853) disagreed with Taylor on the Compromise issue. Taylor had wanted the new western territories taken from Mexico to be "free" states, while Fillmore supported the Compromise, which permitted slavery in the West as a means of appeasing the South.
Fillmore claimed that although he personally detested slavery, it was "an existing evil [which] we must endure" for the sake of national unity. (Curiously, he made no mention of the en-
durance of the four million slaves in the nation at that time.)

The Fugitive Slave Act pledged government assistance in capturing and returning escaped slaves to their owners, even those who had fled to the North and been granted their freedom. Fillmore's support for the highly-controversial law probably cost him his party's nomination in 1852. (Regardless, the Whig party was trounced and collapsed four years later, unable to agree on the slavery issue.)

Fillmore was the last president who was neither a Democrat nor a Republican. For the last century and a half, the two major parties have monopolized political power, conspiring to prevent any independent or third party candidate from gaining sufficient media exposure, financial support or voting access to mount a viable campaign.

Many campaign laws are probably unconstitutional, but it is unlikely they will be repealed by Congress, since Congressmen themselves are the primary beneficiaries.
Fillmore once said, "May God save the country, for it is evident that the people will not." By now it should be evident that the politicians cannot be counted on to save it, either.

20060917

Doughface
FRANKLIN PIERCE (1853-1857) was a Northern Democrat with Southern sympathies - a "doughface" - and was nominated to appease slavery states facing a rising tide of abolitionist sentiment. His party's brash campaign slogan was, "We Polked you in 1844; we shall Pierce you in 1852!"
Ironically, doughface Pierce was strikingly handsome as well as virtually unknown, ideal qualities for getting elected. But he was too indecisive to cope with the unprecedented crisis now facing the country. Pierce supported the Kansas-
Nebraska Act, which allowed new states to vote on slavery within their borders, provoking the "Bloody Kansas" insurrection. The clash between slaveholders and abolitionists spurred the formation of the Republican Party, whose rise to power under Lincoln would finally spark the Civil War.

Pierce's foreign ministers forged the secret Ostend Manifesto, which claimed that the U.S. would be justified in seizing Cuba by force if Spain continued refusing to sell. News of the document leaked out, causing a cry of public indignation.
(Not against the threat of blatant aggression, however, but because Cuba would likely have become a slave state.)

Abandoned by his party, after losing the nomination for reelection, Pierce joked, "There's nothing left to do but to get drunk." In retirement, he destroyed what remained of his reputation by supporting the Confederacy, and what remained of his health by drinking himself to death.
Ranked among the worst presidents, Pierce was the great, great grand-uncle of former president George W. Bush, who appears destined to a similar historical rating.

20060916

Ten Cent Jimmy
JAMES BUCHANAN (1857-1861) was nominated by default in 1856, the only Democrat who remained unscarred by the slavery debate.
Thwarted in his attempts to seize the rest of Mexico (along with much of Central America), he did nearly succeed in purchasing Cuba from Spain, but Congress refused him the necessary funds due to his administration's rampant corruption.
Buchanan took no action to aid victims of the Panic of 1857. His remark that ten cents a day was adequate pay for a working man earned him the epithet "Ten Cent Jimmy".

As the South slid inexorably toward secessi
on, Buchanan dithered, convinced that the government had no authority to intervene. After a ship bearing reinforcements was fired upon by separatists off Fort Sumter, he was effectively paralyzed. Making no effort to prepare for war, Buchanan lamented despairingly, "I am the last president of the United States."
The South had threatened to secede if Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860. With the Democrats fatally split over slavery, he was, and they did, forming the Confederacy shortly before Buchanan's term expired.
Historians rank Buchanan's failure to avert secession and the ensuing Civil War as the single greatest presidential mistake in U.S. history. Leaving office in disgrace, Buchanan remarked that if Lincoln was as happy entering the White House as he was leaving it, he was "a happy man indeed". On his deathbed, Buchanan insisted that history would vindicate him. Considered by most historians to be the worst American president in history, he is presumably still waiting.

20060915

Dishonest Abe
ABRAHAM LINCOLN (1861-1865) was elected by the northern states. He wasn't even on the ballot in the South, and was so reviled there that he arrived in Washington in disguise, already fearing assassination.
But it wasn't because of his attitude about slavery. Like most whites of his time, Lincoln viewed blacks as inferior, repeatedly stating that he opposed granting them equality. Although he personally disliked slavery, he firmly believed the government had no right to outlaw it. His solution to the racial problem was a fanciful plan to "return" all four million slaves to Africa or the Caribbean.
Like all wars, the Civil War was really about money, power and privilege. To pay off rich industrialists who had funded Lincoln's campaign, Congress passed the highest tariffs in history, crippling the South's agrarian economy and leaving secession its only hope for release from economic bondage to the North. During the war, Lincoln set himself up as a virtual dictator, transforming the limited government of the Founding Fathers into the massively centralized bureaucracy of today.
Lincoln assumed the South would be swiftly defeated, and only reluctantly freed the slaves when facing "the alternative of...surrendering the Union." His Emancipation Proclamation both crippled the South's ability to supply its war effort and swelled the ranks of the Union army with freed slaves.
Even so, the Civil War dragged on four long, bloody years - the worst conflict in American history, with over 600,000 deaths, nearly as many as every other U.S. war combined.
As Lincoln poetically wrote: "Military glory: the attractive rainbow that rises in showers of blood."

20060914

King Andy
ANDREW JOHNSON (1865-1869) escaped being shot along with Lincoln only because his own would-be assassin backed out and got drunk at the last minute. Johnson appeared to be roaring drunk himself at his vice presidential inauguration in 1861, but managed to appear sober when sworn in as president four years later.
Johnson had been a staunch defender of the Union. Denounced as "King Andy" in his native South, on one ill-advised trip home before the war to campaign against secession, he was dragged from a train by a rebel mob, and barely escaped being lynched as a traitor.

As president, however, Johnson sought to impose a weak program of Reconstruction, instructing that only white voters be allowed to take part in drafting new state constitutions. "This is a country for white men," he declared, "and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men." Predictably, the white supremacist elite promptly returned to power in the South, passing laws designed to create a permanent black underclass. Radical Republicans attempting to retain power through black votes derailed Johnson's program, passing the Civil Rights Act and other liberal measures over numerous Johnson vetoes. But the laws were unenforceable and were essentially ignored in the South.
Opponents of Johnson had him impeached on a technicality, but fell one vote short of removing him from office.

Johnson's attempts to restrict social progress for blacks to simply ending slavery is ranked by historians as the second worst presidential mistake in American history.

20060913

Useless Grant
ULYSSES GRANT (1869-1877) was undoubtedly a great military leader. However, everything he had ever been involved in outside of war had ended in total failure. (Nicknamed "Useless" as a boy, Grant once brought ice from Alaska to sell in San Francisco. The shipload of ice melted in the warm weather.)
But with freed slaves voting in the South and huge popularity in the North as the "man who won the [Civil] War", Grant won a landslide victory in 1868.
Grant had no political experience whatsoever, and by his own admission was woefully unprepared to be president.
As one (admiring) biographer wrote, Grant possessed a "natural inability to distinguish cheats, sharpers, thieves and con artists from honest men."
His administration was beset by an unprecedented level of criminality, with his vice president and virtually his entire Cabinet under investigation by the end of his term. The expression "Grantism" became a common term of the time to express unbridled greed and corruption.

Although Grant himself was probably not directly involved in the numerous scandals, he was responsible for appointing crooked friends to high government posts, tolerating their activities and - worst of all - failing to take decisive action when their guilt was exposed.

As a result of his scandal-ridden administration, Grant is ranked by historians as yet another of the worst presidents in U.S. history. He may well have agreed, confiding after leaving office: "I never wanted to get out of a place as much as I did to get out of the presidency."

20060912

His Fraudulency
RUTHERFORD HAYES (1877-1881) was nominated in the wake of the corrupt Grant administration for his honesty and apparent inability to offend anyone. He proceeded to win what was probably the most fraudulent presidential election in U.S. history.
The 1876 election was one of the dirtiest on record. When the dust settled, Democrat Samuel Tilden led. But he fell short of election by a single electoral vote, with four states submitting conflicting sets of returns. A commission resolved the dispute by declaring Hayes the winner after a secret backroom deal to end Reconstruction, and Hayes was plagued throughout his term by references to "Rutherfraud" and "His Fraudulency".
But Hayes dutifully withdrew troops from the South, solidify-
ing the restoration of white supremacy. Many were reassigned to break an upsurge of strikes in the North, where one newspaper declared the "Southern question" dead, replaced by "the question of labor and capital, work and wages".
Ironically, Hayes would never have become president had a plan succeeded to nominate instead yet another famous Indian-killer, George Armstrong Custer. The self-aggrandizing Custer had gained national notoriety by spreading stories about his fearless engagement with a pack of fierce warriors, in what was in reality a predawn massacre of mostly old men, women and children. 1876 was the centennial year, and the plan was for Custer to kill yet more sleeping Indians that summer and be swept into the White House in the resulting patriotic fervor. Instead, Custer led a charge of 200 men into a camp of over a thousand armed warriors...
at a place called Little Big Horn.

20060911

Preacher President
JAMES GARFIELD (1881) was a former Union Army general and the only ordained minister ever to become president.
A member of the electoral commission that rigged the 1876 election, Garfield was also involved in the infamous Credit Mobilier scandal during the Grant administration - perhaps the most blatant episode of corruption in the nation's history.
But neither indiscretion prevented Garfield from securing the Republican nomination in 1880 and going on to narrowly defeat another former Union Army general, Winfield Hancock. (Garfield had only 2,000 more popular votes than Hancock, out of over nine million cast.)

Although Grant himself described Garfield as "lacking the backbone of a worm", the fact remains that we'll never know what kind of president he actually would have been. Barely three months into his term - and shortly after lamenting in his diary, "My God! What is there in this place that a man should ever want to get into it?" - Garfield was shot. He died three months later, the victim of an assassin who publicly proclaimed his preference for vice-president Chester Arthur. (Not surprisingly, Arthur was widely suspected of being involved in the plot, but was eventually exonerated.)
During the media-circus trial which followed, Garfield's assassin, Charles Guiteau, argued that Garfield's wounds were not fatal and he would have survived were it not for grossly inept medical care. Guiteau was probably right, but was convicted and hung anyway. The government had his corpse stripped to the bone, but mercifully dropped a plan to put his skeleton on public display.

20060910

Gentleman Boss
CHESTER ARTHUR (1881-1885) became president after Garfield's death. Suspicion persisted throughout his term that not only had he been involved in the assassination, but that he had been born across the national boundary in Canada, which would have barred him from becoming president. Arthur never publicly addressed the latter allegation, but prudently arranged for all of his personal papers to be burned after his death. (As it turns out, Arthur was indeed born in the U.S., but was a British national at birth, which had it been known, would have disqualified him for the presidency anyway.)
Popularly known as the "Gentleman Boss", Arthur was the quintessential machine politician, having perfected the (mostly-illegal) fund-raising methods of the time.
A firm believer in the spoils system, he ironically became a champion of civil service reform. Garfield's killer was a disgruntled civil service applicant, and the assassination spurred a public outcry for reform as a way of helping prevent such incidents in the future. (As one biographer dryly remarked, "for reformers, it turned out, a dead Garfield proved much more valuable than a living one.")
Arthur became preoccupied with boozing and womanizing after the death of his wife and the discovery - kept secret from the public - that he had a terminal disease.
Known as an inveterate procrastinator in matters of state, it wasn’t discovered until years after he left office that Arthur’s malady caused severe lethargy. Considering the ruinous record of more active presidents before him, some might consider that a blessing.

20060909

Uncle Jumbo
GROVER CLEVELAND (1885-1889, 1893-1897) was elected after yet another of the dirtiest presidential races on record.
By this time, of course, the two major political parties were not much different from each other, and campaign strategy focused primarily on gossip and trivialities.

During the campaign, the obese Cleveland - known publicly as "Uncle Jumbo" - was revealed to have had an illegitimate child from an affair ten years earlier. He achieved political immortality for his unorthodox instructions to aides drafting a response to the charges: "Tell them the truth."

During the Panic of 1893, Cleveland insisted the government was helpless to assist people who had lost their jobs, farms and homes, and ordered troops to break up the army of unemployed men who marched on Washington in protest. Meanwhile, Cleveland enriched robber barons like J.P. Morgan - selling him government bonds at a steep discount, and Andrew Carnegie - buying his steel for the navy at grossly inflated prices. Cleveland vetoed a bill to spend $100,000 to aid farmers suffering a severe drought, but that same year rewarded wealthy bondholders with a $45 million bonus.
The chief reform of Cleveland's administration - the Interstate Commerce Act - was welcomed by the railroads it was supposed to protect the public from. Railroad lawyer Richard Olney secretly praised it for satisfying "the popular clamor for government supervision...at the same time that that supervision is almost entirely nominal."
Cleveland made Olney his attorney general - and later his secretary of state.

20060908

The Human Iceberg
BENJAMIN HARRISON (1889-1893) was president sandwiched between Cleveland's two non-consecutive terms. Known as the "Human Iceberg" for his formality, Harrison oversaw the first installation of electricity in the White House. (He refused to touch the switches, however, for fear of being electrocuted.)
By this time, the railroads were the most powerful corporations in America. Harrison had defended railroad owners against strikers as both a lawyer and a soldier, and in return they furnished him with the largest presidential campaign fund in history up to that time.
A landmark 1886 Supreme Court ruling established a legal precedent for using the Fourteenth Amendment - intended to provide protection for blacks - to grant protection to corporations as legal "persons". Between 1890 and 1910, of 307 Fourteenth Amendment cases brought before the Court, 288 dealt with corporations and only 19 with blacks.
Ironically, this fateful precedent was founded on a court reporter's misinterpretation of the judge's decision in his summary of the case. (The court reporter just happened to be the former president of a small railroad company.)

The massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890 brought the Indian Wars to an end, and the Bureau of the Census announced the official closing of the American frontier. The death toll from 400 years of genocide against Native Americans will never be definitively known: a conservative estimate is 20 million.
Of the more than 370 treaties signed during the previous century - in which Indians lost nearly half a billion acres - not one was honored by the U.S. government.

20060907

A Splendid Little President
WILLIAM McKINLEY (1897-1901) raised a campaign fund of over $3.5 million in 1896, an unprecedented amount for the time. His finance manager, Mark "Dollar" Hanna, is famous for his tip to aspiring candidates: "There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money and I can’t remember the second."
With the closing of the frontier, big business began looking overseas for new markets. The sinking of the Battleship Maine in Havana harbor was falsely blamed on a Spanish mine, and - with William Randolph Hearst's tabloid press sounding the battle cry "Remember the Maine!" - the U.S. declared war.
It took only three months to capture Cuba and Puerto Rico in what the secretary of state gleefully called "a splendid little war." The U.S. annexed the Philippines, planning to make it a colony, but rebels fighting
for independence drew the impetuous McKinley into a bloody 14-year conflict.
The Spanish & Philippine-American Wars ultimately cost 7,000 American and about a million Filipino lives.
Even Andrew Carnegie was compelled to denounce the war and its wide-
spread atrocities, and Mark Twain suggested the stars and stripes of the flag be replaced with a skull and crossbones.

McKinley was assassinated in 1901 by a self-avowed anarchist, forever tarnishing the legitimate anarchist movement in America.
Curiously, McKinley's election was the inspiration for The Wizard of Oz
, first published in 1900. Political figures of the time provided the model for many of the characters of the story, which provides a fitting epitaph for the wizard, McKinley: "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain."

20060906

Big Stick
THEODORE ROOSEVELT (1901-1909) had been acting secretary of the Navy before becoming vice-president. Proclaiming no accomplishment of peacetime "quite so great as the supreme triumph of war", he ordered the U.S. fleet to the Philippines while Congress was on recess. By the time it reconvened, the Spanish fleet had been sunk and the Philippines seized, all without authorization from President McKinley, who Roosevelt scorned as having "the backbone of a chocolate eclair".
As president, however, Roosevelt was frustrated in his attempts to find a war to call his own. Declaring that henceforth the U.S. would "speak softly, and carry a big stick", he devoted himself to securing a long-coveted canal route through Central America. When Colombia refused to sell the necessary land in its province of Panama, Roosevelt engineered a phony revolution, declared Panama a republic, and dictated a treaty granting the U.S. permanent control of an artificial Canal Zone. Roosevelt's own secretary of war called his illegal Panama theft a "rape".
Roosevelt regarded the presidency as a "bully pulpit", from which to persuade business to accept limited regulation in the face of the much harsher alternative: what the press called a "rising tide of socialism". But even Roosevelt's watered-down reforms enraged industrialists like Henry Frick, who complained: "We bought the son of a bitch [but] he didn’t stay bought!"
Roosevelt's greatest thrill, however, wasn't politics but killing large animals. Honoring his promise not to seek a third term in 1908, he went off on safari in Africa.

20060905

President Puzzlewit
WILLIAM TAFT (1909-1913) had been charged with wielding Roosevelt's "big stick" as his secretary of war. Roosevelt hand-picked him as his successor, declaring there could not "be found in the whole country a man so well fitted to be president". It wasn't long, however, before Roosevelt was calling the rotund Taft a "second-rate flubdub...a fathead and a puzzlewit". (For his part, Taft justifiably regarded Roosevelt as a "megalomaniac".)
Taft promoted "dollar diplomacy" as an extension of the Monroe Doctrine: Henceforth, financial power would be employed along with military might to promote American interests abroad. When the president of Nicaragua began negotiating with Germany and Japan to build an alternate canal route through his country, the U.S. sent warships to persuade him to resign. American money flooded the country acquiring railroads and banks, and U.S. Marines occupied Nicaragua for over a decade, leaving only after paving the way for the brutal Somoza dictatorship.
Alarmed by Roosevelt's attempts to undermine the independence of the Supreme Court, Taft forced him out of the Republican party in one of the century's most dramatic political feuds. Roosevelt, alarmed at Taft's "reactionary" trust-busting, returned to run on the Bull Moose ticket in 1912, splitting the Republican vote and handing Taft the worst reelection defeat of any president in U.S. history.
The only president to head the Supreme Court after leaving office, a contented Chief Justice Taft reflected, "I don’t remember that I ever was president."

20060904

Gangster for Capitalism
WOODROW WILSON (1913-1921) invaded Mexico and Haiti to protect U.S. business, prompting Gen. Smedley Butler to confess to being a "gangster for capitalism", operating on three continents while "the best Al Capone had was three city districts".
Wilson campaigned for reelection in 1916 on the slogan "He kept us out of war", despite having already made a secret pact with the Allies to bring the U.S. into Europe's "Great War". American bankers and industry had made huge profits funding and supplying the Allied war effort, and demanded Wilson guarantee repayment by ensuring that they won.
When the ocean liner Lusitania was sunk after the British left it defenseless in hostile waters - secretly bearing six million rounds of ammunition - Wilson asked Congress to declare war.
By that time, the war was a virtual stalemate and the exhausted belligerents were close to negotiating peace. But Wilson applied enormous pressure on the Allies to persuade them to continue fighting.
His role in forging the German surrender is regarded as one of the great presidential blunders of all time. America's entry into the war allowed the victorious Allies to demand much more vengeful terms, including massive war reparations that prevented any postwar recovery of the devastated German economy. Hitler was swept into power by a resentful nation under the pretext of restoring dignity to Germany and punishing the "traitors of 1918" who signed the humiliating surrender terms at Versailles.
In the process of "making the world safe for democracy" - or, more accurately, for American business - World War I cost the country 116,000 lives.

20060903

President Hardly
WARREN HARDING (1921-1923) was handsome and popular with women, and easily won the 1920 election, the first in which they were permitted to vote. Ironically, his term was marked by unprecedented sexual - as well as political - scandal. Harding's campaign manager, Harry Daugherty, bribed Harding's longtime mistress to disappear during the campaign, while Harding admonished the American people for having "gotten too far away from the Almighty God".
Once in office, Harding was content to allow his Cabinet cronies to govern the country while he played poker, frequented burlesque houses and- according to another mistress - had sex in a White House closet.
Although Prohibition was in force, liquor flowed freely at private parties at Daugherty's mansion, attended by Harding and select friends. The public took to calling the derelict Harding "President Hardly".

For his efforts, Harding appointed Daugherty attorney general. Andrew Mellon - one of the richest men in America - was named treasury secretary. (During his tenure, Mellon engineered huge tax cuts for the rich, saving himself and friends a fortune in the process.)
In the infamous Teapot Dome affair, Interior Secretary Albert Fall took a fall for bribery, becoming the first Cabinet member in American history to actually serve jail time.

Harding admitted he was not fit for the presidency, "and never should have been here". After his sudden death in 1923, rumors circulated that his wife had poisoned him to spare him from impeachment and public disgrace.

20060902

Solemn Ass
CALVIN COOLIDGE (1923-1929) finished out Harding's term. After his reelection in 1924, the somber Coolidge - known as "Silent Cal" - remarked that he thought the public wanted "a solemn ass as a president, and I think I'll go along with them".
When he wasn't dozing in his White House rocking chair, Coolidge's main pastime as president was vetoing bills, especially those intended to relieve the increasing hardship of the poor and working class.
Coolidge disdained government intervention in the economy. Proclaiming "the business of America is business", he oversaw passage of some of the most dramatic tax cuts in U.S. history. Favoring business owners, they were promoted as incentives to spur reinvestment and create new jobs. "Large profits mean large payrolls", Coolidge had assured the public.

But rather than increasing wages, funds saved by the tax cuts mainly went into the pockets of the wealthy, fueling the speculation that led to the 1929 stock market crash.
During the so-called "Coolidge Prosperity" years, the richest 0.1% of the American population received as much income as the lowest 42%, and controlled 34% of all savings, while 80% of Americans had no savings at all. Not until the early 21st century would income inequality again approach the levels of the Roaring 20s.
Fifty years later, Ronald Reagan would praise Coolidge's "supply-side" economic policies, conveniently failing to mention the Great Depression which followed.
Coolidge revealed the depth of his own economic wisdom during the Depression when he observed: "When more and more people are thrown out of work, unemployment results."

20060901

The Great Humanitarian
HERBERT HOOVER (1929-1933) was appointed commerce secretary under Harding, but his last elected office prior to the presidency was class treasurer at Stanford University.
Hoover campaigned on a promise to bring Americans "a chicken in every pot". After the election he assured the nation it was near to the "final triumph over poverty". Seven months later the stock market crashed, followed by the worst depression in U.S. history.
Caused by a "perfect storm" of conditions - including huge income disparity and extensive stock market speculation - the Depression was deepened and prolonged by Hoover’s inadequate and inept response.
While his wife mobilized a quarter million Girl Scouts to aid relief efforts, Hoover directed economic assistance primarily to large corporations.
While much of the nation went hungry in hastily-built shantytowns the public dubbed "Hoovervilles", Hoover’s White House kept up a pretense of normality, serving seven course feasts at every meal. During the infamous Bonus March, veterans squatting in peaceful protest outside were forcibly removed by armed troops. Hoover’s nickname "The Great Humanitarian" - earned for organizing relief efforts during World War I - soon became a sarcastic epithet.
In 1930, with the Depression’s end still a decade away, Hoover announced that prosperity was "just around the corner". After his landslide reelection defeat in 1932, he remarked that the real loser was Roosevelt, and said he had "almost a feeling of elation" upon leaving office.
No doubt the country did too.

20060831

The Juggler
FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT (1933-1945) launched a huge federal relief effort, but most of his policies only prolonged the Depression. It wasn't the New Deal which rescued the economy, but FDR's crash program to rearm the nation.
Despite being reelected for an unprecedented third term in 1940 by pledging to keep the U.S. out of the war, FDR - like Wilson - had already secretly agreed to join the European Allies. But he still had to persuade the roughly 90% of the public in opposition. Germany declined to retaliate even after FDR ordered its U-boats depth-charged. So FDR imposed a total embargo on Germany's ally, Japan, cutting off 95% of its oil supply. Assuring the Allies "everything is being done to force an incident to justify hostilities", he secretly ordered the Red Cross to prepare for massive casualties at Pearl Harbor.

All of Japan's main communication codes had been broken in 1940. On Dec. 2, 1941 the Navy intercepted orders revealing exactly where and when Japan would attack. All its aircraft carriers and newer ships were ordered out to sea, stripping the harbor of half its defenses. On the evening of Dec. 6, FDR confidently told dinner guests: "The war starts tomorrow."
The following morning, the Japanese struck, killing over 2,400 Americans. Although his press secretary later confessed "the blow was heavier than he had hoped it would necessarily be", FDR had his war, having committed perhaps the worst case of treason in American history.
But FDR had given fair warning, saying: "You know I am a juggler and I never let my right hand know what my left hand does. I’m perfectly willing to...tell untruths."

20060830

To Err is Truman
HARRY TRUMAN (1945-1953) took over when FDR died. Truman’s 1948 reelection slogan was "Give 'em hell, Harry". But Harry already had, dropping two atomic bombs on Japan, despite some scientists' concern that they might incinerate the entire planet.
The rationale for using the bomb rests on a colossal postwar fabrication: that it was necessary to save the lives of thousands of Americans in an invasion of Japan. This myth was created not only because of the horrifying result of dropping the bombs, which killed over 200,000 civilians, but because virtually every top military and civilian adviser to Truman was opposed to using them.
By mid-1945, Truman knew Japan was prepared to surrender, on the sole condition that its emperor be spared. Yet he continued to insist on unconditional surrender... Why?
Because Stalin had agreed to enter the war on August 8, and Truman knew that would end it. Fearing Japan would surrender to the Russians - allowing them to occupy postwar Japan - Truman persuaded Stalin to delay. After the bombs were dropped on August 6 and 9, Japan was offered the same surrender terms the U.S. had refused to offer 7 months - and 65,000 American casualties! - earlier. As Truman wrote, his goal was "to get Russia in as quickly as we could and then keep [it] out of Japan". The bombs were in essence the first shots fired in the monumentally-misnamed "Cold War".
Polls show that an overwhelming majority of Americans still believe the propaganda lie that justified using the bombs.
As Truman himself later confided: "There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know."