Remembering George H.W. Bush

It’s easy to sit in judgment of a man like George H.W. Bush in the days after his death. Spend a few minutes on Twitter and you’ll see critiques of his involvement in the War on Drugs. Of his failure to do anything meaningful about the AIDS crisis. Of his 1988 campaign’s vicious attacks on Michael Dukakis, particularly the racist Willie Horton ad. 

George H.W Bush (1924-2018)

George H.W Bush (1924-2018)

These critiques are all worth stating and we would be wrong to sing his praises without holding him accountable for his lesser moments. And yet, to launch these critiques on their own is a mistake reflective of the hyper-partisan nature of political conversation. If you post something about Bush being an honorable man, your mentions fill up with people saying “what about x.” These people are not asking for a full accounting of Bush’s record. Instead, they want the negative aspects of his life to be the full focus, to the point of making it impossible to recognize the good also found there. 

 What’s troubling about this is the implied demand for purity found in these attacks. Unless your life was purely good, you cannot be honored publicly without attacks on those remembering your life in its totality. We need to remember that the rejection of complexity in politics is how we ended up with political parties where anyone who steps outside the party line is expelled for their heresy. It’s how we lost the ability to compromise and move forward as a country, however imperfect or agonizingly slow that progress might be. For all his flaws, Bush understood that sacrifice was at the heart of compromise. He knew that success and progress were not the same thing as personal achievement. 

 When he reached the White House, Bush recognized the perilous financial situation his predecessor dropped in his lap and understood that the only solution would be a compromise with Democrats. And this meant breaking a core component of his 1988 campaign pledge. When he stood before the convention attendees and the nation watching from home and told them to read his lips, he was connecting an anti-tax policy position to his deeply felt sense of honor. He was giving his followers his word. It would have been easy to point to that pledge and refuse to make any deal that resulted in higher taxes. But Bush put the good of the country over the easy option and accepted tax increases that were essential to aiding our economic recovery. He understood that this choice was likely to ruin him with his conservative base and the rage that ensued made it unlikely that he would be re-elected in 1992. But this is what we mean by duty and honor. He took a risk that ended his political career because he knew it was the right thing to do. This is an exceedingly rare thing to see in the 2018 political world. 

 Perhaps his greatest achievement came in the chaotic final months of the Cold War. As the tide was turning in our favor and Eastern Europe and the USSR were shaken by endless instability, Bush handled things with tremendous care, making sure to work closely with his ideological opponent, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. He recognized that an overeager American response could easily result in a violent reaction from the Soviets. When the Berlin Wall suddenly crumbled, Bush remained stoic, despite criticism from the news media and members of his own party to celebrate a win for our side. When pressed by reporters about his resistance to spike the football, Bush replied, “I’m just not an emotional guy.” Considering his own son jumped at the chance to theatrically and triumphantly hail the end to a war that was far from over, this restraint is both astonishing and admirable. 

 We mocked Bush often for his reserved, patrician manner. But we overlooked how this character made him the right man for a difficult moment. Like Teddy Roosevelt, he felt a sense of duty, a responsibility to give back to a country that gave him so much. His mother instilled in him a sense of humility, where personal achievement was not something to celebrate. When he told her about scoring multiple goals in a soccer game, she replied, “That’s nice, but how did the team do?” In so many ways, this question is at the heart of Bush’s life. He could have scored personal victories in these moments, but he cared more about a win for the team. And that meant taking a backseat and risking his own political future in the process. 

There are many moments in Bush’s life where he came up short and embraced the worst aspects of politics. But perhaps we should remember that we can say the same about virtually every man and woman who has ever served on the national level. Rather than single out the failures, we would be better off seeing the qualities worth emulating; the qualities that are painfully absent from a political world where all we’re left with are flawed people failing to rise to the challenges all political leaders must face. I disagree with Bush on almost every aspect of his policy positions, but I see great value in the better angels of his nature. I only hope that we take this moment to see how we can bring those values back at a time of moral and ethical darkness. 

Review: Bob Woodward's "Fear: Trump in the White House"

In a much-discussed early moment of Bob Woodward’s Fear: Trump in the White House, he reveals how two members of the administration, Rob Porter and Gary Cohn, would remove documents from the President’s desk that they did not want him to sign. While this has been celebrated, Woodward points out, “It was no less than an administrative coup d’etat, an undermining of the will of the president of the United States and his constitutional authority” (xix). We spend so much time either relieved that someone stopped him from doing things we deem dangerous or refuting these claims in order to protect a president we like that we miss a key point. A point I wish Woodward returned to more often - that these people are engaging in some deeply problematic, unconstitutional behavior and casting themselves as heroes in the process. Cohn says “Got to protect the country,” but it seems the more honorable thing would be to let the people know what is happening and then allow the constitutional process to take its course. 

Woodward does a convincing job of showing what he describes as “a nervous breakdown of the executive power,” but I worry that we are all too close to the moment to see this problem for what it is. We are either outraged at the President or outraged at his detractors. What we should be outraged by is something that is objectively true: we have crossed a line in the way the executive functions and we must figure out if there is a way back. 

Trump and former Chief of Staff, Reince Priebus, in happier times.

Trump and former Chief of Staff, Reince Priebus, in happier times.

Much of the book will be familiar to anyone who pays attention to the news, which I imagine is anyone willing to read it. We get the Trump we’ve heard so much about: the casual lies, the shocking disinterest, the unsettling rage. What is different is the depth that Woodward provides, in the form of his traditional deep-background sources. While it wasn’t always difficult to guess who his sources were in his previous book on the Obama or Bush administrations, it is abundantly clear that this is a story told almost entirely through the eyes of Reince Priebus, Gary Cohn, and Rob Porter. And through their perspective, they come across as men pushing back against the chaos and trying to keep the administration (and the world, it seems) from collapsing into chaos. I found this deeply unconvincing, however. These are men who willingly signed up for the job and knew precisely who they were working with from the start. There was never a moment when anyone could say that they didn’t know who Trump was or what he was going to be like once in office. So I did not feel a great deal of sympathy for the people who helped him make it into an office they knew he shouldn’t occupy and then lied and covered for him until they were eventually pushed out. 

Gary Cohn and Rob Porter walking behind Chief of Staff, John Kelly.

Gary Cohn and Rob Porter walking behind Chief of Staff, John Kelly.

This is not to say I feel any sympathy for Trump, either. I tend to keep my politics out of these posts (as much as I can), but I think it’s safe to say that I’m not a fan. What I struggle with when reading these books, however, is the difficulty of removing myself from the emotions of the moment. As someone with a deep respect for history, I feel it necessary to be aware of my personal feelings about the people I study. But when you’re living amidst the noise and tumult of the moment under analysis, it becomes hard to make the distinction between myself as would-be historian and as a political person with ideals about which I care quite deeply. And if I’m having that hard a time, I can only wonder how difficult it can be for the people we’re relying on as sources for this book. Like any source, they have a vested interest in spinning the story in their favor, but I can’t help feeling torn between my understanding of that on a basic level and my resentment to these people on a personal/political level. Rob Porter is a known abuser of women and was happy to work in close proximity to Donald Trump for almost two years. So to see him cast as a man trying valiantly to save us from Trump’s madness is hard to take. 

That said, I found Woodward’s book compelling and worth my time. He did as effective a job as possible under the conditions and I greatly admire his long legacy of work on the presidency. It’s certainly not his fault that his subject comes with such significant and unavoidable baggage. 


Getting Back to Basics

As you might have noticed from the inconsistent posts, I’ve been a bit distracted lately. We welcomed a new baby and I started a new job and life has just done what life does from time to time. 

 That said, I’ve been thinking about how to get back on track. A big obstacle for me has been the paralysis that comes from too many options. I have accumulated a large presidential library and it can be overwhelming to make a decision with so many fascinating avenues open to me. 

 Thankfully, I was inspired by a recent article about creating a reading plan. It reminded me that the most productive experience I’ve had on this journey was my first trip through the presidents from start to finish.

 With that in mind, I decided to go back to the chronological plan, but with a little twist this time. I’m going to read the presidents, but I’m going to go backwards this time. I’m going to read two books on each president and see what emerges as I go back through our history. 

 I’ve included the plan as I have it so far. In a few cases, I have to find a suitable option or two, but this gives me a path forward, which, I hope, will bring me back to regular posting. 

 So here we are: 

Donald Trump

Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward

Trump’s First Year by Michael Nelson

Barack Obama

Obama: An Oral History by Brian Abrams

The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment - Ed. By Julian Zelizer

George W. Bush

George W. Bush by James Mann

The Bush Tragedy by Jacob Weisberg

Bill Clinton

The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s by Gil Troy

First in his Class by David Maraniss

George H.W. Bush

The Last Republicans by Mark Updegrove

George HW Bush by Timothy Naftali

Ronald Reagan

Reagan: The Life by HW Brands

The Brink: President Reagan and the Nuclear War Scare of 1983 by Mark Ambinder

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire’s Favorite Son by Peter Wallner

Franklin Pierce: Martyr for the Union by Peter Wallner

Millard Fillmore

Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President by Robert Rayback

Need a second. Help!

Zachary Taylor

The Presidencies of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore by Elbert Smith

Zachary Taylor: Soldier in the White House by Holman Hamilton

Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson and the Rights of Man by Dumas Malone

Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy by Annette Gordon-Reed

John Adams

John Adams Volume Two by Page Smith

Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson by Gordon Wood

George Washington

The Presidency of George Washington by Forest McDonald

Blood of Tyrants: George Washington and the Forging of the Presidency by Logan Beirne

It’s a lot, but I’m excited to see where this takes me and how the backwards perspective shapes my findings. 

Let me know what you think! And if you can offer any suggestions to fill the few gaps I have, I’d appreciate the help. 




Review: "William Howard Taft" by Jeffrey Rosen

The American Presidents series of short biographies can be a helpful option when trying to read through the lives of each of our presidents. In some cases, they represent the best take you’ll find currently in print and the series features some of our finest historians, like Annette Gordon-Reed on Andrew Johnson. At the same time, this series is painfully uneven and Jeffrey Rosen’s latest addition, Willian Howard Taft, should be considered among the lesser entries in the series. 


My main issue is Rosen’s willingness to brush aside Taft’s poor performance as president in favor of a larger argument about his love for the Constitution and his time as a judge, both before and after his time in the White House. While Rosen certainly makes a strong case for Taft’s strengths as a jurist, he brushes aside Taft’s shortcomings as president while also overlooking some questionable constitutional decisions. As most biographies of Taft will show, and Rosen is no different, Taft was ill-suited for the office and politics in general. He thrived in positions of near total authority, either as governor-general in the Philippines or as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. This stark divide seems crucial in evaluating Taft, but Rosen does not seem overly concerned with its importance. 


From the start, Rosen holds Taft to a different standard, albeit one to which Taft held himself. He writes, “This short book offers an interpretation of William Howard Taft’s presidency as he himself understood it: in constitutional rather than political terms” (4). This may have been how Taft viewed the presidency, but it seems important that he disregarded the political aspect of the highest political office in the country. To avoid critiquing him for that feels like a cop out, even if you do see merits in his view of the office. After all, Rosen quotes Taft as saying, “I will not play a part for popularity…If the people do not approve of me…after they have had time to know me, then I shall not let it worry me, and I most certainly shall not change my methods” (5). I can’t help but wonder what the presidency is if it is not a political position based, on some level, of winning public approval. 


In fairness, Rosen acknowledges Taft’s odd take on the office when evaluating his presidency. “For all of Taft’s judicial virtues…he cannot be considered an entirely successful president because successful presidents need to exercise the popular leadership Taft disdained” (6). And yet Rosen believes that this is ultimately something we should view in Taft’s favor. “Taft saw the president’s role as that of a kind of chief magistrate who would promote thoughtful deliberation among the people’s representatives without directly representing the people’s momentary passions. Seen in this light, Taft’s political vice was a constitutional virtue…based on principle and not personality” (7). It seems that both Taft and his biographer miss the main point of their jobs. Taft wanted the presidency to be something it wasn’t, and Rosen wants to write an admiring biography of a weak president without accounting for that weakness. 


Rather than simply highlighting Taft’s failures as president, he reframes them as moments worthy of celebration for their principled stands. For example, Taft called a special session of Congress in 1909 to encourage passage of the Payne-Aldrich Act, which would raise tariffs on certain goods. It was a controversial move that angered many of Taft’s fellow Republicans and set the stage for the rift that would push the Progressives out of the party. Much of the displeasure arose from Taft’s refusal to do more than send a vague message to the special session he called for. After all, if it was important enough to call a special session, it would make sense that the president would play an active role. But as Rosen sees it, Taft’s restrained behavior is a positive thing. “They had anticipated a state paper of historic importance and presidential leadership, but Taft sent them a 340-word message that he composed in fifteen minutes that morning” (56). This was a disaster for Taft politically and his cavalier approach to the message seems like an understandable point of contention. Yet Rosen prefers to see it as “a masterpiece of concision” (57). But doesn’t the tossed off nature of Taft’s composition make it seem less like a masterpiece and more like an act of political disregard? It’s in these moments where Rosen steers clear of justified criticism that I find his work the most problematic. 


The preference for the Supreme Court comes across as a purely positive part of Taft’s career. But Rosen passes over a deeply troubling component of the president’s approach to the Court. While president, Taft has the chance to appoint a Chief Justice and has a perfect candidate in the respected Charles Evans Hughes. But Taft wanted the position for himself. As Rosen puts it, “Taft instead elevated…Justice Edward Douglas White, a Catholic Southern Democrat who, at the reassuringly advanced age of sixty-five, was the oldest chief justice ever nominated. The only explanation for the unusual appointment was the president’s hope that White would expire in time for Taft to take his place” (111). What’s particularly maddening about this moment is Rosen’s decision to present this without any judgment. How is the exclusion of a worthy candidate in favor of someone who is only useful because he may die not a significant issue? It seems particularly important when the entire premise of the book is Taft’s deep respect for the judicial branch. If Taft respected the Court as deeply as Rosen would have us believe surely he would rather make the right choice for the good of the Court than for his own selfish interests. Yet Rosen does not even defend Taft on this point. 


Ultimately, Rosen would have been better served writing a short book on Taft the jurist rather than adding his take on the presidency. That’s where Rosen’s interests are and I don’t fault him for seeing praiseworthy aspects of Taft’s character in that role. But I found myself repeatedly frustrated by his continued reluctance to call the president to account for behavior that is an undeniable failure of presidential leadership. Therefore, I would not recommend this short volume to a reader hoping to find a better understanding of Taft’s time in the White House. 

Two stars out of a possible four

Review: Erica Armstrong Dunbar's "Never Caught: The Washington's Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge"

Considering the volume of books about George Washington and his storied life, it must be a daunting task for a historian to try to find something new and interesting to say. By now it seems as if everything that can be said about our first president has already been said--several times over. In the face of this challenge, it is quite impressive that someone can discover a way into his life that reveals something about the man and his world. Erica Armstrong Dunbar has accomplished this quite well in her recent book, Never Caught: The Washington's Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge

Never Caught.jpg

Using Judge's story as her framework, Armstrong Dunbar provides an intriguing narrative about George and Martha Washington's treatment of their sizable population of slaves. Contrary to the view of Washington as the exceptional man, she shows that the first president was very much in line with the rest of white America's view of slavery and the people they owned. This demystification of Washington allows Armstrong Dunbar to align the Washingtons with the tragically common slave experience. In describing George and Martha's pending wedding, she emphasizes how seemingly joyful changes created immense anxiety for enslaved people. Armstrong Dunbar writes, "[Judge] was unfamiliar with her new master's preferences; or more importantly, if he would choose to exercise his complete control over her body" (7). It felt jarring at first to think of Washington as a potential rapist, but she allows us to see inside the slave's mind, which would not have the benefit of hindsight. Washington may have been a great man in many ways, but for his slaves, especially the women, he was a white man and, as such, a dire threat and source of concern. 

A more benevolent image of Washington the slave owner.

A more benevolent image of Washington the slave owner.

We see a similar moment when learning about Washington's dealings with his slaves while serving as president. Along with establishing what the presidency would be, Washington was also occupied with his other role as slave master. While living in Philadelphia, he had to remain aware of the state's policy towards slavery. By law, any slave spending more than thirty days within the state's borders could become free. Therefore, Washington had to remain vigilant about finding ways to work around this. Armstrong Dunbar explains, "So the Washingtons devised a plan: the couple would shuffle their slaves to and from Mount Vernon every six months, avoiding the stopwatch of Pennsylvania black freedom" (66). What I find powerful about this passage is Armstrong Dunbar's ability to highlight Washington's moral failing while also making clear that he was far from a passive slave owner. 

Ona Judge's story offers a promising way for the author to ground this narrative in a concrete personal experience. At the same time, she poses a challenge to any historian due to the relatively light amount of primary sources available for examination. As a result, I found it hard to feel connected to Judge on a personal level. Too much has to rest on speculation, which is understandable, but it ultimately weakened the book's power. For example, Armstrong Dunbar tries to show us how Judge would make the most of the little downtime available to her in the presidential mansion. "In a home that was filled to the rafters,...Judge would have relished the time [alone]. In her stolen moments of leisure, it is very likely that she spent time talking to Austin, her brother, or the other slaves about current events...Perhaps, in these moments, Judge talked with some of the hired servants about New York and its environs. These fleeting respites...allowed for moments of autonomy that helped the young bondwoman come to know her new city and refine her understanding of freedom and slavery in New York" (42). I've emphasized specific aspects of this quote to show how much of this reading rests on things that the author, or anyone for that matter, could not possibly know. And to ground Judge's burgeoning desire for freedom in such shaky speculation causes the larger argument to come up short. Surely it is enough that a woman held in slavery would want to take any opportunity to obtain her freedom. I'm not sure if we need to make these speculative leaps about how she got to that mindset.

I appreciate Armstrong Dunbar's desire to fill in these gaps in the historical record in order to arrive at a narrative behind her escape from slavery. Judge's story is undeniably worth telling and the author has no alternative other than piecing things together. At the same time, the book is weakest when Armstrong Dunbar attempts to connect Judge's story to larger historical events. In describing the negative response to black efforts to help during a yellow fever outbreak, she argues "Judge would have noticed more than just grief in the air; the city was rife with racial tension of a sharper kind. Blacks had just buried their own family members only to suffer accusations of hideous behavior. Judge most certainly heard the stories of black anger and resentment from those who had lost loved ones in a grand attempt to prove themselves worthy of freedom and equality" (85). In the aftermath of tremendous death and suffering, whites accused the blacks who helped them of robbing the dead and other nefarious behavior. While this is disturbing and helps show the immense challenges free blacks were up against, it is hard to see a direct connection to Judge and her eventual quest for freedom.  She very well may have heard these stories, but we can't know if she did. More importantly, we can't understand how she would have responded and if this response had anything to do with her decision to run away from enslavement. Suppose she did not hear about these rumors. Would her drive for freedom be any less understandable? 

I give Armstrong Dunbar a tremendous amount of credit for taking on such a difficult but necessary project. The issues I had with her work are issues that any historian would have to struggle with. At the same time, she made the right decision to overcome these challenges and, in the process, provide us with a remarkable story of one slave's journey to freedom that also deepens our understanding of George Washington as a flawed, complicated man. I would much rather have a story like Judge's out there than to have a historian shy away from a complicated project. 

Three stars out of a possible four. 

Review: Jeffrey A. Engel's "When the World Seemed New: George H.W. Bush and the End of the Cold War"

The end of the Cold War is, without question, one of the most important series of events of the 20th century. Despite its importance, it feels surprisingly underappreciated thirty years later. As someone who lived through this period, I can recall it only in broad strokes. I remember watching the Berlin Wall being breached by jubilant East and West Germans. I remember seeing the drama building in the Tiananmen Square protests. But witnessing is not the same thing as understanding. I was too young at the moment to grasp the significance of what was playing out on my television. With the passage of time and the relative calm that accompanied it, it feels as if these events have faded unfairly into the background. 

Thankfully, Jeffrey A. Engel's new book is a much needed reminder of the era's importance. In When the World Seemed New: George H.W. Bush and the End of the Cold War, Engel takes the reader through the momentous events of the late 1980s/early 1990s with a focus on the George H.W. Bush presidency. In doing so, Engel makes a rather bold claim about Bush's importance: "Bush's presidency [was] the most internationally complex since that of Franklin D. Roosevelt...By the time he left office, Bush was even more powerful, in a global sense, than FDR. The United States he left to his successors appeared hegemonic as never before in the Cold War's wake" (4). I have always thought of the Bush presidency as a failure, so it surprised me to consider this underwhelming, one-term president in such a favorable light. Despite my initial skepticism, I left this book largely convinced by Engel's reading. 

An essential part of the success of Engel's work is his ability to capture the deep uncertainty and anxiety that accompanied this period. He writes, "No one was predicting these events in 1987, and it was unthinkable that they might be accomplished without bloodshed" (3). To shift from an assumption of an ongoing Cold War with the Soviet Union to an acceptance of a post-Soviet era less than three years later is astonishing, and it's easy to see these events as inevitable from the present perspective. But Engel brings the shock and surprise experienced by a range of leaders and their teams into light in an effective way. 


While this story involves a range of world leaders, Engel makes the case that Bush was the man who held it all together. Without Bush in the White House, it seems likely that the Cold War's swift end would have been much rockier and, perhaps, bloodier than it played out. This would seem to fly in the face of a common view of Bush as a fairly ineffective leader. In Engel's reading, however, it was what Bush didn't do that made him the right man for this perilous moment. "Bush was no Reagan, and he was fine with that...He knew the price of indiscreet words" (248). Along with the painful recognition of how far we've strayed from such self-awareness, this moment makes clear that Bush's restrained, rational approach to the events in China, Russia, and Europe helped bring things to a largely positive conclusion (for the United States, that is.) This is particularly clear when talking about Bush's ability to repair the United States's frayed relationship with China. After a series of publicly embarrassing clashes between the U.S. and China, Bush decided to send his close friend and adviser, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft to meet with the Chinese. As Engel notes, "An angrier president, one less convinced history flowed in his direction, or more easily swayed by public opinion, would never have sent so personal an envoy" (248). Bush emerges as a confident man who understands that diplomacy requires compromise and, as a result, he avoids making a bad situation worse. 

This confident reserve is never clearer than in Bush's refusal to celebrate the collapse of the Berlin Wall and other clear indicators that the Cold War was ending in his favor. Engel turns to the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, to show why this restraint was so crucial. "The Cold War was indeed ending, Gorbachev told an audience...but 'not because there are victors and vanquished, but precisely because there are none of either'" (292). Bush was well aware the he was winning and that his side was "right," but he wouldn't dance on the Soviet Union's grave. Asked repeatedly by members of the media and Congress to take a victory lap, Bush simply declined the opportunity and let events play out. It's easy to imagine a less restrained president gloating at this moment and causing the Soviets to push back in the face of public humiliation. Bush's calm demeanor, which would in many ways doom his presidency to a single term, likely made their defeat easier to handle. 

While I expected to see a close examination of Berlin, Russia, and China in this book, I was surprised by Engel's inclusion of the first Gulf War as a crucial moment in the Cold War's conclusion. This war marked the high point of Bush's time in office, but Engel believes it also marked "the Cold War's final act" (233). For decades, the Middle East was a zone of intense competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. On a number of occasions, the two nations nearly came to blows over events in Egypt, Iran, and Israel. But it was the way in which the Soviet leader stood aside in Bush's crusade against Iraq's Saddam Hussein that made clear how much things had changed. "That era climaxed not with a tectonic struggle for Europe, but with Soviet capitulation to the hard realities of American power...It was Gorbachev--weakened, embarrassed, and increasingly alone--who became the Gulf War's final casualty" (395). 

Ultimately, Engel makes a compelling case for a renewed respect for the Bush presidency. While I remain skeptical about much of his domestic agenda, I walked away from this book convinced of his superb handling of an almost impossibly complex foreign situation.  As Engel writes, "the world, fortuitously, had a prudent practitioner of Hippocratic diplomacy...He was neither creative nor innovative, neither a radical nor a revolutionary, but was instead content to follow 'what worked.' This is what made him a success" (484). It feels off in some way to rest so much of Bush's success on what he wasn't. As our current moment makes clear, however, restraint is far more important than we realize until we are led by impetuous and inexperienced people. 

Three and a half stars out of a possible four 

Trump, Clinton, Carter - Outsider Presidents

I have an essay/editorial in today's Washington Post on Trump's connections to two other outsider presidents: Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. I'd love it if you could take a few minutes to read and let me know your thoughts. 

And if you happen to have found my site through that piece: Welcome! Please take a look around and come back often! I'd love to hear from all of you about the site and your thoughts on presidents/topics you'd like to see me cover in the future. 

Principled Resignations

Last Friday, Donald Trump's press secretary, Sean Spicer, resigned after six months on the job. By all accounts, his decision rested on Trump's hiring of a new communication's director, Anthony Scaramucci. Reports indicate that Spicer felt his new boss was fundamentally unfit for the job and he could not serve under him. While there are other, less generous explanations out there, it appears that Spicer's resignation comes down to principles. Even people who seem willing to put up with great public embarrassment have lines they refuse to cross. 

Which brings me to one of the more remarkable principled resignations in presidential history. Back in 1974, newly inaugurated President Gerald Ford faced an agonizing decision regarding his predecessor, the disgraced Richard Nixon. He could allow Nixon to go through a painful, public trial or he could pardon him and, he hoped, put the whole affair to rest. This was a no-win situation. If he allowed Nixon to be prosecuted, it would be a drawn-out process that would dominate every news cycle for months, if not years. But if he pardoned his former boss, he faced the perception that there had been some kind of deal to give Ford the presidency, a quid pro quo that would undermine the new President's ability to move his agenda forward. Faced with this impossible decision, Ford decided that the only option was a pardon that would allow the nation to begin the healing process. 

Ford announcing the Nixon pardon. 

Ford announcing the Nixon pardon. 

The reaction to the pardon was swift and harshly critical. Of all the critiques, however, none was as devastating as the resignation letter of his press secretary, Jerald terHorst. An old friend of the President's, he served a single month and had spent that time denying that Ford was going to pardon the former president. When he learned of Ford's decision, he felt that the had no choice and handed in a resignation letter that serves as a remarkable statement of principle running up against decades of friendship. 

Jerald terHorst

Jerald terHorst

In order to capture the letter's power, I will quote it in its entirety: 

September 8, 1974

Dear Mr. President:

Without a doubt this is the most difficult decision I ever have had to make. I cannot find words to adequately express my respect and admiration for you over the many years of our friendship and my belief that you could heal the wounds and serve our country in this most critical time in our nation’s history. Words also cannot convey my appreciation for the opportunity to serve on your staff during the transitional days of your presidency and for the confidence and faith you placed in me in that regard. The Press Office has been restructured along professional lines. Its staff, from Deputy Press Secretary John W. Hushen down the line, is competent and dedicated and comprises loyal employees who have given unstintingly of their time and talents.

So it is with great regret, after long soul-searching, that I must inform you that I cannot in good conscience support your decision to pardon former President Nixon even before he has been charged with the commission of any crime. As your spokesman, I do not know how I could credibly defend that action in the absence of a like decision to grant absolute pardon to the young men who evaded Vietnam military service as a matter of conscience and the absence of pardons for former aides and associates of Mr. Nixon who have been charged with crimes - and imprisoned - stemming from the same Watergate situation. These are also men whose reputations and families have been grievously injured. Try as I can, it is impossible to conclude that the former President is more deserving of mercy than persons of lesser station in life whose offenses have had far less effect on our national wellbeing.

Thus it is with a heavy heart that I hereby tender my resignation as Press Secretary to the President, effective today. My prayers nonetheless remain with you, sir.


Jerald F. terHorst

It's not often that we see such clear and undeniable statements of principle in Washington politics, and I'm glad that Sean Spicer's resgination gives us the opportunity to revisit this moment. 

History Intrudes Upon History

Discussing John Adams and the Revolution, Page Smith writes in 1962: 
"Under the stress of what was, at least in their view, a struggle for survival, the patriots were frequently harsh and cruel to the Tories, men and women who held fast to their own convictions under the most trying circumstances and often at great personal cost; yet the patriots had great provocation and, if they were overly severe, it is an easy enough judgment for historians to make writing generations after the events and weighing out praise and blame with meticulous scholarly care. These historians, sometimes inclined to rebuke or patronize the patriots for their treatment of the Tories, live in an age when a wretched remnant of domestic Communists, during peacetime, have kept a great nation in a fever of anxiety and apprehension ostensibly for its own safety."

Page Smith

Page Smith

I find it fascinating when the history of the author's moment spills into the text. There's so much in this one moment that tells us both about Smith and his era. You can sense his discomfort with new trends in history that look critically at the revolutionaries. You can also sense his anxiety about living under some of the darkest times of the Cold War. It's as if he couldn't resist a moment to excoriate both historians and Communists while writing about events taking place generations ago. At the same time, it seems as if he is drawing a parallel between the Tories living within a nation in revolt and the American Communists (real and imagined) during his own time, which says quite a bit about his opinion of both groups. These are deeply interesting moments and I love taking the time to try and unpack them. 


Adams and the Lack of Faith in Man

While reading Smith, I came across the following from Adams: 
"I fear that, in every assembly, members will obtain an influence , by noise not sense, by meanness not greatness, by ignorance not learning, by contracted hearts not large souls." 

To put it mildly, Adams had a lack of faith in mankind that bordered on fear. He clearly believed in a distinction between educated, polished elites and the average man and woman, with the former being superior to the latter. 

John Adams portrait by John Trumbull

John Adams portrait by John Trumbull

As Smith suggests, the rising belief in the leveling of society proposed a danger that backed up Adams's concern: 
"The revolutionary crisis drew forth the devoted and the able and with them the emotionally unstable, the meanly ambitious, the zealots and the simple cranks. Most of the new men had no special loyalty to any older order of things; they had been shaped by no discipline of thought or action and therefore lived off the ephemera of the moment, sucking the nourishment out of the latest intellectual fads that were abroad, sharp and devious, elbowing their betters aside. The complex and intricate issues of power, of government, of theology, of the nature of man and the cosmos, they reduced to simple-minded formulas that rolled off their tongues without effort and without thought." 

This is a remarkable display of elitism and a darkly negative view of the rest of society. It's particularly jarring coming amidst a discussion of the best government for America as they debate independence from Great Britain. 

And yet....I can't help looking at the state of affairs today and wondering if, at least, Adams didn't have a point about the fear of poorly suited individuals rising to political influence "by contracted hearts not large souls." 

Perhaps there was never a time when Adams's fears did not apply, and surely he was no saint devoid of any of these negative human drives. But I'm still drawn to his line: "But if I can contribute ever so little towards preserving the principles of virtue and freedom in the world my time and life will not be ill spent." Elitism aside, these are admirable words to live by. 

John Adams - Off By Two Days

One of my favorite things about the Fourth of July celebrations is remembering how poor John Adams totally called how we'd be celebrating....only he was off by two days. 

"The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more."

So close, John Adams. So close. 

The Inspiration of Theodore Roosevelt

Like all presidents, Theodore Roosevelt is not without his problematic features. While I believe we need to hold these men accountable, I also believe that we can admire aspects of their lives without letting them off the proverbial hook. 

For Roosevelt, I greatly admire his ability to remake himself physically and emotionally after the illness and tragedy he experienced as a child and a young man. He transformed himself from an asthmatic who was advised to avoid a life of activity into the symbol of the "strenuous life." He overcame the light going out of his life when his mother and wife died on the same day, events that would have destroyed most people. This was a man who refused to let adversity hold him back from achieving great things. 

Of all his many quotes, the one I hold most dear, and keep on my desk at work, is as follows:

"Get action. Do things; be sane; don't fritter away your time; create, act, take a place wherever you are and be somebody; get action."

I try to remember these words and apply them to my life on a daily basis. Some days I fail; other days I succeed. But I always find them encouraging and inspiring, and I'm grateful to have discovered them from a man I admire. 

Fall Releases I'm Excited to Read

The fall is always my favorite time of year. Leaves turning. Sweater weather coming back. And, most importantly, a slew of great presidential history books coming out just in time for Christmas shopping. 

I wanted to share the handful of books about which I am particularly excited this year. And if you're reading this blog, I assume you'll be excited as well. 

9/12 Scott Greenberger - The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur
        One of the titles I'm most excited about, as I feel like I don't know nearly enough about Arthur and his presidency. The little I've read, though, has been fascinating, so I have high hopes for this one

10/10 Ron Chernow - Grant
          If this were anyone else, I'd probably take a pass for now as I just read a new Grant bio.   But Chernow is in another league and his books have become events not to be missed. 

10/31 Noah Feldman - The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President
         Madison has always been something of an enigma to me, so I'm looking forward to Feldman's approach. I'm hoping that he can do for Madison what John Boles did in some ways for Jefferson earlier this year.

11/7 Robert Merry - President McKinley: Architect of the American Century
       I've yet to read a book on McKinley that I really enjoyed, so I'm hoping that Merry can bring him to life in a way that others seem unable to accomplish. 

11/7 Robert Dallek - Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life
       One of my favorite biographers writing on one of my favorite presidents. This is a no-brainer for me. 

11/7 - Jeffrey Engel - When the World Seemed New: George H.W. Bush and the End of the Cold          War
         Along with the Arthur book, this is probably the title about which I'm most excited. I         loved Meacham's book on HW and am eager to read more about the man who was one of the last truly decent men to serve in the White House. 

Why I'm Drawn Back to John Adams

Given my study of the presidents, I'm often asked who the best president is. I find this question impossible to answer. There are presidents I find endlessly fascinating (LBJ and Nixon) or particularly effective (Lincoln.) But that doesn't mean they are my personal favorite. 

Oddly enough, the president I come back to, again and again, is John Adams, who was far from a great president. 

What I love about Adams is his open and endless self-doubt. This makes him deeply familiar as I, too, experience these feelings more often than I care to admit. 

But when I read selections from Adams's diary, I find it staggering that a man who was so brilliant and accomplished and capable, was also so often questioning his own abilities, his own self-worth. 

These two selections from Page Smith's wonderful biography are perfect examples of this quality: 

"'To what object are my views directed?' he asked himself. 'What is the end and purpose of my studies, journeys, labors of all kinds of body and mind, of tongue and pen?'"

"The day-to-day demands of life were so insistent that, as he wrote, 'I have not leisure and tranquility enough to consider distinctly my own views, objects, and feelings.'"

Who among us hasn't felt as Adams does in these moments?

Page Smith, John Adams, and the Power of Beautiful Prose

I wish it were still acceptable to write about history with the power and passion with which Page Smith wrote about John Adams in 1962. Writing about Adams in his later years, his Adams is "Tenacious of life, like a blasted oak on his beloved hill, life burned in him, distant, remote, hardly discernible."

Adams posing for Gilbert Stuart in 1823 when he was 89. 

Adams posing for Gilbert Stuart in 1823 when he was 89. 

Continuing the arboreal imagery, Smith depicts a lively man despite the ravages of life on his physical body. "In the blasted tree, the sap still ran strong as a tide and the mind, still mercifully keen, turned over and over with always fresh wonder the riddle of life, of what God had revealed and what God had veiled." 

It's difficult to express how much I love this writing. It makes me Adams come to life, even as that very life is slowly draining from him as he sits in his home in Braintree. 

Are there any biographers still writing in the Smith style? Maybe Caro, although he certainly brings a more modern tone. Either way, it's a beautiful style and I'm genuinely excited to see where Smith takes me. 

Review: Henry Olsen's "The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism"

When I sit down to review a book, I think it's essential to recognize if and when the author is writing for a limited audience. It's not fair for me, as a reviewer, to judge a book for something it's not trying to do, which is clearly the case with Henry Olsen's new book, The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism

Olsen is writing for people who are already well-versed in Reagan's story and he is not trying to give us a cradle-to-grave assessment of the man. He's certainly not writing to win over left-of-center readers, either. This is a book of ideas, rather than of specific details and these ideas are aimed squarely at today's conservatives. 

Olsen wants to show the Reagan faithful that they're missing a key element to the man they admire so deeply. As he sees it, Reagan is in the inheritor, not the repudiator of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. This may come as a surprise, considering Reagan's statement that "government IS the problem," but Olsen makes a commendable argument that Reagan believed that government could do great things in our lives. 

Citing Reagan's advocacy of Barry Goldwater in 1964, Olsen talks of Reagan's "Creative Society" speech, which backs up this FDR connection quite well. Olsen writes: "If it is legitimate for popular government to decree that 'the problems of human misery can be solved,' then it follows that 'the big question is not whether--but how and at what price.'" This is a Reagan who sees government as a solution that only becomes a problem when it is not allocated correctly.  

Ultimately, Olsen is writing this book for conservatives who deeply admire Reagan. As he sees it, however, by ignoring his admiration of FDR, they are overlooking an essential part of the former President's outlook on government. He writes: "They left the most crucial element of his appeal behind: the love of average Americans and the willingness to always use government to express their values. Republicans and conservatives spoke his words, but they did not carry his tune."  

In his final chapter, Olsen offers a passionate call to arms based on this notion and offers his interpretation of what Reagan really wanted as a way forward for today's conservative movement. He writes:

"Ronald Reagan...envisioned a new majority party, one that embraced every broad strain of conservative thought. It was a party that expressed and acted upon the majority sentiments in the country, a majority that did not fall neatly on the left or the right. It was a party that embraced freedom without forgetting human dignity. It was a party that praised initiative without denigrating the average. It was a party that called all to its banner regardless of creed, gender, or race, but did not treat everyone as an individual without a family, a community, or a nation to call home."

While I found this book to be an interesting read and a compelling clarion call to the right, whether or not it is persuasive will be left to a more conservative audience to decide.

 Grade: 3 out of 4 stars. 

Age and the Presidency

Is there such a thing as being too old to be President? Without coming out and saying so directly, Ronald Feinman says an argument can be made that the answer must be 'yes.' 

In his article, "Is Trump Too Old to be President," he points to a history of older presidents like Reagan, who allegedly left office showing signs of dementia, to argue that Trump is too old for the office. In fact, he suggests that some of Trump's more bizarre behavior, like his counterproductive tweets, could be signs of the same kind of mental decline Reagan may have experienced. 

Feinman writes, "But for the security and stability of Presidential leadership it would be wise if we had such an age limit – or at least established a norm that would discourage politicians outside the age parameters from running. It is simply common sense, based on history and the reality of the pressures of the job of being President of the United States." 

But doesn't this argument make assumptions about age that are difficult to prove? He cites William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor, both of whom died in office, as evidence of the problems of older president, but they served well over a hundred years ago and died of illnesses that are curable today--not as a result of their age. What can they tell us about the modern presidency?

I find Feinman's argument to be ageist and unconvincing. To use Mitt Romney as an example, had he won in 2012 and been re-elected in 2016, he would be 70 years old today. That makes him one year younger than our current President. I can't think of any reason that Romney would be physically or mentally unfit to serve his country. In fact, I imagine many of us would gladly see him sitting in the Oval Office these days.

Joking aside, I agree completely that an individual's health, in all respects, should be a factor in his or her serving as our president. But I disagree that we should institute a maximum age for service. In the event that a hypothetical president ever showed signs of dementia or an inability to perform the duties of the office, we have the 25th amendment to resolve the matter. If anything, we should insist on full disclosure of candidates' health records, rather than simply ruling them out because of their age. 

Podcasts and Other Ways In

As an advocate of presidential history, I'm often pushing the latest work by Ron Chernow or David McCullough into the hands of family and friends. While these are great books from great authors, I'm well aware that it's asking a lot to get someone to read 1,000 pages on Harry Truman. I also know that it's daunting to find THE book to read with so many choices.

So with that in mind, I wanted to offer a few different ways in to presidential history.  

Your first stop should be the fantastic Washington Post podcast, Presidential. Over the course of 44 episodes, Lilian Cunningham guides you through each president by focusing on specific aspects of their presidencies. You're not getting strict cradle-to-grave bios here. Instead, you get a look into each presidency, backed by special guests like David McCullough and Bob Woodward. I absolutely loved each episode, and I strongly recommend this regardless of your level of interest in/familiarity with the presidency.

Another option is blogs like Steve Floyd's deeply impressive, My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies. While I've read a bio on each president, Steve is taking a far more intense approach and reading multiple bios. As of today, he's read 183 bios and about 90,000 pages, which I think we can all agree is quite a feat! I found his reviews incredibly useful for picking the right bio for me. When you go to the library or Amazon, you're faced with dozens of options for some of these men, so it helps to have someone do the heavy lifting for you.

If you've found alternative ways in, please do let me know. I'm always interested in knowing how other people found their way to their presidential obsession.  

Father and Son: The Roosevelts, Part Three

I've been spending a lot of time with the Roosevelts lately. In particular, brothers Theodore and Elliott. I'm fascinated how Theodore overcame a difficult childhood of asthma and other ailments to become the robust president, while Elliott ends up essentially drinking himself to death at the age of 34.

Theodore and his brother, Elliott. 

Theodore and his brother, Elliott. 

On one level, I think this image from their sister, Corrine, tells us a lot about their respecitve characters. "Elliott was the sailor...while 'Theodore craved the actual effort of the arms and back.' He 'loved to row in the hottest sun, over the roughest water, in the smallest boat'..." One brother is carried along by the wind, while the other insists on conquering the water with his brute strength. 

But obviously this is a far more complicated story and, I believe, has a great deal to do with their relationship with their father, Theodore, Sr. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Theodore, Sr. took the time to implore TR to make himself into a man, to overcome the physical ailments that were holding him back. But we know that Elliott also suffered from health issues, most prominently seizures that may have been a sign of epilepsy. Yet, in my research so far, there is no similar letter from father to son encouraging Elliott to make himself into a man. 

Instead, we have letters from son to father. Heartbreaking letters where Elliott expresses his devotion to his father and a need for guidance. In 1873, he writes "What will I become when I am a man?...I will try my best and try to be as good as you it is in me, but it is hard." These are the words of a thirteen year old reaching out, and yet there is no encouraging reply. 

Two years later, in 1875, he writes a similarly pained letter: "Oh, Father will you ever think me a 'noble boy'? You are right about Teedie [TR], he is one and no mistake, a boy I would a good deal to be like in many me to be a good boy and worthy of you..." Elliott is only fifteen, but he is racked by feelings of inferiority and feels that his father favors Theodore. 

Surely, there is a great deal more thaT went in to Elliott's self-destructive downfall, but I can't help seeing the seeds of his alcohol-fueled death in these forlorn letters to a father he loves, but cannot seem to reach. 

Forrest McDonald and the Mystical Nature of the Presdency

In the preface to his book, The Presidency of George Washington, the late Forrest McDonald offers a moving and thought-provoking assessment of the presidency that I keep turning over in my mind. He writes, "there is more to the institution of the presidency than what any particular president does: there is a symbolic, ritualistic, almost mystical quality that inheres in the office as well..."

I can't help wondering if this is still the case. McDonald was writing in the early 1970s--the era of Vietnam, LBJ, riots, Nixon. So it was not exactly the days of the Kennedy's and Camelot. And it feels, in a sense, that we are in a similar low point; where presidential norms are being discarded on a daily basis. 

So is McDonald's quote still applicable? Will it survive the Trump era? And, perhaps more importantly, do we want it to survive? Is it in our interest for the presidency to have this mystical quality?