July 27th, 2008 10:20 EST
History Cafe - Episode 2: It's Not Easy to Be President!
*Audio by Kristin Marzec
Presidents are humans and prone to make mistakes. Yet, we all prefer to remember only those commanders-in-chief whose extraordinary skills, talents, and - in many instances - pure luck guided and inspired the nation through perilous times. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Ronald Reagan - to name a few - are rightly immortalized in countless monuments and biographies that remind us of why we put so much trust in the highest office in the land. But of the total number of forty-three presidents only a small fraction of them lived up to the title of greatness. At the other end of the pole are those whose names now symbolize either political stupidity or personal weaknesses that drove the country into otherwise avoidable crises. In the opinion of many historians James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, and Warren G. Harding lead the notorious all-worst list.
Looking at the resume of James Buchanan, he appeared to be the perfect candidate for the president. The son of Scottish immigrants who claimed their ancestry to the royal family, he quickly became one of the most respectable attorneys in Pennsylvania. With the doors to important figures of the early 19th century wide open, Buchanan embarked on a political career, serving the United States Congress for ten years until being appointed the American ambassador to Russia in 1832. He returned to Washington two years later, this time to represent, as a Democrat, his home state in the Senate. In 1845, President James K. Polk made Buchanan his secretary of state - a position that earned him high praise, especially after negotiating the Oregon Treaty, which settled the long-time dispute with Great Britain over the American-Canadian border.
When, in 1856, Buchanan won the presidential election, it seemed that the right person would finally move into the White House. As a congressman and senator representing a northern state, Buchanan had remained aloof of partisanship, always striving for compromise between the North and South. But once in office, he caught his political friends by surprise - first by actively campaigning for the pro-slavery Dred Scott Decision, and then by pushing Kansas to adopt a controversial constitution written by slave owners. Historians point at Buchanan`s political blindness as one of the direct causes of the Civil War and the subsequent disintegration of his cabinet. Witnessing his country falling apart, Buchanan still believed he had done everything to avoid the war. "Whatever the result may be, I shall carry to my grave the consciousness that I at least meant well for my country," he once remarked.
Picking Andrew Johnson as his running mate is said to be President Lincoln`s most grievous mistake. The only Southern senator who had not joined the Confederacy, conservative Johnson of Tennessee perfectly matched Lincoln, at that time considered a radical. Had the president known of the upcoming events, he might have chosen more wisely. On April 14, 1865, one month after the swearing-in ceremony, Lincoln, who had successfully led his torn nation through a civil war, was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, a fervent Confederacy supporter. The next day, Andrew Johnson became the new commander-in-chief, telling his countrymen that "Honest conviction is my courage; the Constitution is my guide." For many these words sounded like the Honest Abe resurrected, yet the new president was everything but his predecessor.
The opinion of President Johnson has changed throughout the decades. At first, his tenure was unequivocally criticized for turning the policies of Lincoln upside-down, namely by halting Reconstruction. Johnson, who as vice president urged Union troops to hang the rebels, became one of the staunchest opponents of the new laws, perceiving them as dangerous to the fragile unity rather than pushing the country forward. But some modern historians insist that whatever his faults, the president only tried to maintain a sense of justice in the South where many law-abiding citizens fell prey to the radicals from the North. This open war with Congress led to the first effort in American history to impeach the president. One vote saved Johnson in the Senate yet the remaining years of his tenure observed the weakening power of the presidential office. If there is one thing that Johnson is praised for it is the purchase of Alaska that, although ridiculed at that time, proved a great asset in the ensuing years.
The last of the three, Warren G. Harding, entered the office in 1921, as the twenty-ninth president of the United States. Scarcely known within his Republican Party, Harding was awarded the nomination by the party`s powerful bosses who found in him the candidate capable of uniting isolationists and supporters of the League of Nations. Personal scandals notwithstanding, Harding won the presidential election by a landslide, with his Democratic opponents, James M. Cox and Franklin D. Roosevelt, trailing by almost thirty percent. Contrary to Buchanan and Johnson, this president remained immensely popular throughout his term, abruptly ended by his death in August of 1923. After the straining years of the First World War, people respected Harding for his promised return to normalcy. "America`s present need is not heroics, but healing," he said. "Not nostrums but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration."
So what makes Harding so repugnant to the majority of historians? It seems that the president stuck too closely to his campaign slogan of "less government in business and more business in government." One corruption scandal followed another, forcing the administration`s top people to step down. Albert B. Fall, the then secretary of the interior, became the first ever cabinet member to be sent to prison when a jury found him guilt of taking bribes for oil fields leases. "I have no trouble with my enemies," Harding told one journalist. "But my damn friends, they`re the ones that keep me walking the floor nights!" Being aware of his light-fingered secretaries, the president chose to keep his eyes closed in order not to infuriate the party`s bosses. He died of a heart attack in the third year of his tenure, leaving one of the most corrupt administrations in history.
Far from absolving the three presidents, it is wise to understand that they cared about their country no less than did their more respectable predecessors and successors. Perhaps the words of another great president - Theodore Roosevelt - will offer some consolation to Buchanan, Johnson, and Harding: "The only man who makes no mistake is the man who does nothing."
That`s all for this week`s episode of History Cafe. We hope you enjoyed it, but if you have any comments or suggestions, please feel free to drop us a line. Next week: On August 1, 1944, occupied Warsaw stood against the Nazi forces when the Allied powers did nothing to help the insurgents.
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