Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Book Review: John Quincy Adams - Militant Spirit, By James Traub - Part II

Exactly how a man with as much disdain for politics, glad-handling, pandering, and seeking voter approval came to be elected President of the United States is a great anomaly - even for the early 19th-century. And as for Adams' disclaimers that he would not actively seek the office, author James Traub discounts much of Adams' protestations, "Adams was not less ambitious than other men, but he had learned from childhood to force his appetite through the narrow streets of principal. Republicanism, for Adams, meant self-abnegation."

How we elected presidents in 1824 would seem foreign [or, given the 2016 race, maybe not] today.  By 1824. of the 24 states in the Union, six - including New York - left the choice of president up to the state legislature. In other states, legislators set the terms of the state-wide or district-by-district balloting that determined the outcome. Regardless, it is worth noting that less than 350,000 Americans - out of a population of 11,000,000 - actually cast a vote in the 1824 election.

In the race, Andrew Jackson was the only candidate to have truly national support. In those states were citizens voted for president, Jackson had received 153,544 votes; Adams 108,740 votes; Clay 47,136 votes; and William Crawford 46,618 votes. But it was the Electoral votes that counted, and here the final tally read Jackson 99 votes; Adams 84; Crawford 41; and Clay 37. The top-three Electoral vote-getters [Jackson, Adams, and Crawford] would be on the ballot in the House of Representatives, with a vote scheduled for February 9, 1825.

For a man who had disclaimed to not want to seek the presidency, Adams' behavior between November 1824-February 1825 said otherwise.  As Traub notes, "Adams could have taken the position that the nation had spoken, the voters had chosen Jackson, that [Adams’] candidacy had remained alive only by virtue of a constitutional technicality. That is, he could have withdrawn. Jackson's friends put it out that this would be the correct thing for Adams to do. There is no sign that this idea crossed [Adams] mind. Adams would not have acknowledged that anything in the Constitution could be deemed a 'technicality'....Already he had allowed himself to offer the kind of veiled reassurances [to others] that once would have struck him as low political bargaining; now he would shred the fine tissue of his conscience."

This, of course, refers to the so-called "Corrupt Bargain" between Adams and Clay - the theory being that Clay promised to release Kentucky's vote [in the House] to Adams in return for Adams appointing Clay Secretary of State.  The famous meeting between the two men took place on January 9, 1825. Henry Clay was from Kentucky. Thus, Traub notes, "Adams had not received a single popular vote in Kentucky - not one. Jackson was immensely popular there, and the state plainly would have gone for [Jackson] had Clay not been a favorite son. Adams would never have to know how Clay would exert his influence [on the Kentucky House vote], but he would know that the consequence was that the will of the people [of Kentucky] would be overborne. That was a great violation of his own Republican principles. Adams would have said that no price was worth paying for the sacrifice of principal, but there is no sign that he believed at the time that he had done any such thing. He was thinking about the goal, not the means." By the end of January word of the "Corrupt Bargain" had leaked out. On February 9, 1825, Adams surprisingly won on the first ballot.

By any objective measure, Adams' presidency accomplished almost literally nothing. Much of that was preordained by the manner in which Adams secured the office in the first place. From the moment of the House vote, Jackson and his supporters launched the 1828 campaign against Adams. Add to that Adams' complete unwillingness to reward supporters and punish opponents with patronage sealed his fate and were a recipe for disaster.

In his first months in office, Adams was clearly a man that needed to shore up his political base. In addition, he should have been keen to avoid any topics that could possibly unite his varied opposition into a single cohort that could rally around Jackson.  Instead, now that he had secured the presidency - and perhaps because he knew he had only four years in the office - he planned on trying to implement what had been called the "American System" - initially put forth by Clay but to which Adams had quickly subscribed.  The American System included internal improvements and a much larger role for the federal government in the lives of all Americans. As beneficial to the nation as the American System would be, though, it was also guaranteed to give the opposition a cause to unite behind Jackson and against Adams.

Adams' own Vice President, John Calhoun, led the opposition from inside the administration. Traub notes, "It is striking - in fact, it's astonishing - that not only political schemers and proslavery advocates and reactionary ideologues but one of the nation's greatest political thinkers [Calhoun] had come to adopt a conspiracy theory [the "Corrupt Bargain"] about the president with no obvious foundation. Adams' adversaries could not accept him as president, and not only because he had failed to win a majority and then eked out a victory through a form of subterfuge. These men saw Adams as the representative of an archaic elite that had lost whatever right it had once had to govern the nation. And the president gave them all the help they needed by acting like just such a throwback. As a matter of character, he was, indeed, a remnant. His ideas were bold and forward-looking, but he formulated them at a moment when most Americans were seeking liberty rather than power. He was a man both behind his times and ahead of them." British historian George Dangerfield summed up Adams' presidency as, "a rather conspicuous example of a great man in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the right motives and a tragic inability to make himself understood."

On December 3, 1828, Adams learned that he had been defeated by Andrew Jackson. Jackson won 178 electoral votes to Adams' 83. Traub writes, "Adams’ support was confined to New England and the mid-Atlantic [not including New York]. The popular vote was twice the size of the 1824 figure, and Jackson received 56% of the total."

Amazingly, though, Adams was not done. He was elected to the House of Representatives on December 6, 1830. Because of the schedule at the time, though, he would not actually enter Congress for one year. It was there, in December 1831, Traub writes, that, "Adams' first act in Congress was the presentation of twelve petitions from citizens in Pennsylvania seeking the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, over which the Congress exercised jurisdiction.… Adams, however, accompanied the presentation with his maiden speech, which he used to make a very strange assertion that he did not believe the issue was suitable for congressional debate… Adams explained that he felt obliged to present petitions from his fellow citizens but saw no point in exacerbating 'ill will' and 'heart burnings' in the House, which would never vote to curb slavery.... For all his hatred of slavery, Adams was not about to waste the precious time of Congress on an ill it was not prepared to address."

In late-1831, these petitions did not generate much reaction from the South.  By late 1835, however, representatives of slave states in Congress no longer viewed the presentation of anti-slavery petitions as harmless. Rep. James Henry Hammond of South Carolina proposed that the House refuse to receive such petitions - Congress had never prohibited these petitions on any subject before. Traub writes, "Yet, while Southern planters rose one after another to defend [Hammond's] proposal, free-state representatives remained silent. The South could not dominate public opinion, but thanks to the three-fifths compromise [in the Constitution] it could, and did, dominate the House of Representatives."  Up until now, Adams had felt Congress could not outlaw slavery in D.C.; but he'd dutifully reported all petitions requesting such, knowing they'd go nowhere. Now, though, Adams warned that if the House did not allow them to even be considered, "it would force a discussion on slavery itself to the floor. In that case, he said, 'the speeches of my colleagues, probably of myself, will be incendiary because, if discussion is thrust upon us, I doubt not I might make a speech as incendiary as any pamphlet upon which such torrents of denunciation have been poured upon us.'"  Here, Traub notes ironically, "Adams appeared to be counseling the slave-state representatives on their self-interest. If he was defending anything, it was the 'sacred' right of petition rather than the human rights of slaves. But that wasn't quite so, for he was also plainly threatening a righteous assault on slavery from worthy, honest, and honorable men."

Adams personally abhorred slavery. But as late as 1835, Traub writes, "Adam saw no way out on slavery. He knew that his constituents [in Massachusetts] did not share his passionate convictions. He did not seek to meet with abolitionists, and he did not look for opportunities to reveal his views in Congress....The rise of anti-slavery petitions, on the other hand, presented Adams with an issue on which he had unambiguous feelings. A debate on the gag rule would forward him the high ground in a debate with the slaveocracy. If it allowed him at the same time to disclose the horrors of slavery, so much the better." With the approval of the so-called "Gag Rule" against anti-slavery petitions in 1836, Traub writes, "Adams was now prepared to use his own solitary resistance to the slaveocracy to illustrate and publicize the grave threats to cherished constitutional liberties that accompanied the defense of slavery. Adams was staging a theater of martyrdom - a species of drama to which, thanks to his rhetorical gifts, his fearlessness, his towering sense of moral purpose, he was supremely well-suited."

Yet it is important to reinforce that as of 1836, Adams still refused to allow himself to be identified with abolitionism. For one thing, Adams at the time did not share, "their views on ending slavery in Washington or on the imperative of immediate abolition, which he feared would lead to insurrection and race war." While petitions were one thing he was willing to stubbornly protect, "he understood that if he called for an immediate end to slavery, even [just] in Washington, as the abolitionists implored him to do, he would marginalize himself in Congress and in national public opinion. Adams continued to maintain a wary distance from the abolitionists."

Yet by the fall of 1837 abolitionism had spread across the country with astonishing speed. Over the course of the 1837-38 congressional session, legislators would receive 412,000 slave-related petitions. In return, there was violent opposition. The geographic location of that violence, however was surprising.  Traub writes that ironically, by 1838, "abolitionists needed protection not in the South, where few ventured, but in the cities of the North and the West, where most people viewed them as radicals seeking to tear the country in half. For every abolitionist newspaper there were two or three [papers] inciting readers to fury against the anti-slavery activists. No place was safe from the lynch mob - not even Philadelphia, the home of the abolitionist movement."

The threat of violence went directly to John Quincy Adams.  Traub writes that by the late 1830s, Adams' daily mail, "began to include… an astounding number of death threats.... All the letters came from the South. Slaveholders seem to have persuaded themselves, and one another, that by killing Adams they could scotch the snake of abolitionism. This was a delusion, of course, but also a remarkable tribute to Adams' reputation as the scourge of the slaveholders. The fact that Adams was not even an abolitionist seemed not to matter, for few men had launched so frontal an attack on slaveowners as Adams had."

Then came the Amistad.

In late summer-1839, an American naval vessel had encountered a slave-trading ship, the Amistad, off the tip of Long Island. After finding that the captives, whom the American naval officer took to be slaves, had mutinied and killed the ship's captain and cook, and were now seeking to return to Africa, the naval officer seized the ship with its human cargo and brought it into port in New London, Connecticut. The tribulations of the captives on the ship were abhorrent. They had been free people living in Africa until being captured and enslaved before being put on the Amistad. Even upon being held in the United States, they would undergo another two years of captivity before receiving their freedom. Which would come, in part, thanks to John Quincy Adams.

Why would Adams become involved in such a case. Traub writes, "Adams had just finished excoriating the [abolition] movement for imagining that slavery could be ended by righteous rhetoric. He considered [abolitionist leader William Lloyd] Garrison a wild-eyed radical. The captives on the Amistad had apparently killed a white man in cold blood. Why, then, had Adams so quickly leapt to their defense? Certainly Adams felt very differently about enforcing the laws and treaties that prohibited the slave trade then he did about the quixotic effort to overturn settled law in the face of overwhelming resistance. But Adams' quick reaction also showed that he hated slavery as viscerally as [the abolitionists] did, and that he instinctively saw slaves as fully human beings. And for Adams, a republican in his very soul, mankind's great distinguishing feature was the inextinguishable wish for liberty."

The case went to the Supreme Court. Adams was not needed as an attorney - the captives had a brilliant one in Roger Sherman Baldwin - but Traub writes they needed Adams as, "a man of national stature who could present to the Justices a vision of American national interest more compelling than the one the government [in the form of the outgoing Van Buren Administration] would deploy in arguing to honor the terms of the treaty with Spain [which would have sent the Amistad captives back into slavery]. They needed an attorney who could speak to the Justices as an equal. And of course they needed someone prepared to risk his reputation for a noble cause." The court upheld the captives and freed the slaves on board the ship. 

As with most accomplishments, we often wonder exactly how much influence the protagonist had in the outcome. Traub notes that, as far as how much credit for the Court's decision belongs to Adams, "We cannot know, of course, how the Court would have voted in his absence, but the truth is that, once the [lower] Circuit Court had accepted that the captives were neither pirates nor slaves, the Appellant - the federal government - was left to advance Spain's dubious interpretation of the Treaty of 1795. It was a weak case. And [the slaves' attorney,] Baldwin made a fairly convincing argument before the Circuit Court and the Supreme Court. Adams may have won some extra votes. Beyond that, though, he had brought to the case both his priceless reputation for integrity and the sheer fact of his fame, elevating it in the public mind into the great cause of the day. The Amistad case set no lasting legal precedent; it was, however, a ringing triumph for abolitionism."

By 1842, Adams was an abolitionist. On January 21,1842, Adams introduced two petitions in the House that set it ablaze. Traub writes that, "he presented a petition from citizens of Massachusetts complaining that the slave states, by their 'absolutely despotic, onerous and oppressive' behavior, had denied the free states their constitutionally guaranteed right to republican government." The second petition was, "a warning from the citizens of Pennsylvania that the nation was prepared to go to war with Great Britain to protect the slave interest, a reference to the mounting tensions over England's insistence on boarding American vessels in order to search for slaves." After these two petitions were read, the House was in turmoil. Many of the slave representatives called for a vote to censure Adams. Then one of these opponents overreached and called for him to be expelled from the House. When that effort was defeated handily, "Adams had shattered the overweening confidence of the South.... The South had fought a pitched battle over petitions and lost. Two more years would have to pass before the House defeated the Gag Rule, but as of that moment southern resistance was spent. The mistake of the abolitionists, however, was to believe that slavery could not survive a crushing defeat in the court of public opinion."

At the age of 75, "Adams no longer saw his beloved country as the world's shining beacon of liberty.… He had begun to identify with the global champion of abolitionism.... Adams believed that the influence of the slave power was leading the United States to surrender the principles it had cherished since the time of George Washington."

By now, opinions of John Quincy Adams were changing. Unlike any of his predecessors, Adams lived to see his reputation restored in his lifetime - largely because of his own post-presidential efforts.  As Traub writes, "As the first president to have gone back to work after his tenure, Adams had given himself the opportunity, as none of his predecessors had, to benefit from a 'sober second thought'. He had changed the meanings Americans attached to him. No longer the dynastic New Englander who represented an archaic federalist America, Adams had become the dauntless standard-bearer of the very modern cause of abolitionism. At the same time, his rootedness in the republican principles of the founders also placed him on a pedestal in the national pantheon. Indeed, the very fact that he had not changed, that he had stood for principles when they were despised and lived to see them vindicated, offered the most powerful evidence of his greatness of character."

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Book Review: John Quincy Adams - Militant Spirit, By James Traub - Part I

James Traub's John Quincy Adams - Militant Spirit is a strong contribution to the historiography of one of the most remarkable figures of America's first century.  Son of a president, president himself, congressman, diplomat, lover of science and books and the arts, Adams was a remarkable figure, the like of which there is no comparable force in American history.

For Traub, Adams' greatest contributions were diplomatic and rooted in a deeply held belief that the United States was destined for greatness. As Traub writes, "Adams' persistent argument for husbanding U.S. diplomatic and military power is his single most lasting contribution to the corpus of the nation's governing principles. At the same time, Adams believed, as the founders had, that the United States was destined, by God as well as by its favorable geographic position, to spread across the continent to become the most powerful nation in the world. It is to Adams, more than anyone, including President [James] Monroe himself, that we owe the Monroe Doctrine, which simultaneously asserted a doctrine of non-interference in European conflicts and a self-confident demand that the European powers cease their meddling in both North and South America."

One of the reasons historians have been able to bring such color and detail to Adams' life is the diary he kept off-and-on [more ‘on’ than ‘off’] for nearly 70 years.  The diary is about 15,000 pages long and dates from the age of twelve [1779] until his death [1848]. Amazingly, though, Traub reports that only about 40% of the diary has been published to-date. Traub writes, "No other president, and perhaps no other public figure in American history, kept a diary so vigilantly."

Traub makes a remarkable observation about Adams' youth: although he spent his childhood and youth with either his mother or father, he was almost never with both at the same time.  Abigail Adams had sole charge of him from ages 7-11. John Adams had him from ages 11-16. Yet, despite always being separated from one parent, Traub writes, "The two [Abigail and John] so completely reinforced each other that it would not be easy to trace [John Quincy's] character as an adult to one as opposed to the other. What is clear, in any case, is that both poured themselves into the raising of their eldest son and that he dutifully, indeed reverently, absorbed their lessons and their example. He became what they wished him to be."

Yet it was not an easy upbringing. Indeed, the correspondence between each parent to Adams when they were away from him can seem chilling to the 21st-century eye. Through all of the correspondence, Traub notes that, "a moderator, scrutinizing these letters to a teenage boy living far from home, searches in vain for expressions of love or words of gentle support - from one of them, at least. And it would not be correct to say that parents of that time were unable or unwilling to open themselves emotionally to their children in that way… John Quincy Adams might have had a much happier life, and perhaps even been a better husband and father, had one of his parents offered him unconditional love and approval. But that wasn't their way: both John and Abigail felt they could do their son no greater favor than holding him to the highest possible standards. John Quincy Adams, for better or worse, would have been the first to agree."

Adams' early life is remarkable. He traveled and lived around the world - starting before he was a teenager - unlike virtually any American - of any age - of his era. He lived in Russia, Sweden, The Netherlands, France, and England all before he turned twenty years old. As a result, Traub writes, "John Quincy Adams knew Europe and Europeans as few other Americans did, and perhaps none of his generation. He knew art, literature, theater, politics. He could comfortably converse with the most learned of men. He had sampled the pleasures - most of them - of European life. But he had also been trained from earliest childhood to believe that life was not about pleasure but about service and that it was the special destiny of an Adams to serve not just God, and not just the family, but the republic his father had helped usher into being."

While Adams' travels had been in the service of his father, on May 29, 1794, President George Washington nominated him to become Minister to The Hague in his own right. He was not yet twenty-seven years old. During this time, Adams corresponded often with his father, now Vice President.  Often these letters to his father ran 3,000 words or more. In them, John Quincy, "began to articulate a coherent world view. He had always braced himself for the worst; he was, if anything, inclined too much toward pessimism. This habit of mind made Adams an astringently realistic figure. He had the quality, very rare in a man as young as he was, of never confusing what he wished to be true with what he believed to be true. And as he was disinclined to believe that the world would be governed by his own wishes, so he was unimpressed with the fine ideals professed by statesmen. States, he believed, acted out of hardheaded calculation of interest."

At this time, neutrality was the foreign policy of presidents Washington and John Adams for the first decade of the United States' existence as a nation. And John Quincy Adams had been one of the most forthright promoters of neutrality. Traub notes, "Young though he was, [John Quincy] Adams played a crucial role in the forging of the first generation of American foreign policy." He would promote this from The Hague and other positions those first two presidents sent him, to Portugal and Prussia.

Adams would later serve in ministerial positions for James Madison. Indeed, one of the more humorous examples of Abigail Adams' intrusion into his life - what I like to call the Everybody Loves Quincy story, for its parallel to the television character Marie Barone - came after Madison appointed Adams minister to Russia. Shortly after his posting to St. Petersburg, Adams' wife, Louisa, had written to Abigail in 1810, about how little the post paid and how precarious were their finances. Furious that her son and his family were living in "squalor", Abigail Adams wrote President Madison directly, demanding that he recall her son home.  As Traub recounts, Abigail wrote Madison that she was writing to inform him that, "'the outfit and sallery [sic] allowed by Congress' to a minister was so grossly inadequate to her son's expenses in Russia that, 'inevitable ruin must be the consequences to himself and his family.' She asked the president to bring Adams home." Amazingly, Madison agreed.  We don't know whether or not Madison thought John Quincy had put his mother up to writing the letter; or if Madison realized that Abigail had acted on her own. We do know, though, that Madison wrote directly to John Quincy describing the exchange. One can only imagine the latter's embarrassment. He was now 42 years old. Adams respectfully declined Madison's offer to return home.

More seriously than his mother's intrusions, Adams' personal life was not free from tragedy. He had married Louisa Johnson in 1797.  She would have four miscarriages before giving birth to their first child, George, in 1801. A son, John, would follow in 1803. She gave birth to a stillborn baby in 1806. Charles Francis Adams was born in 1807. Louisa suffered another miscarriage in early 1811, before giving birth to a daughter, Louisa, in 1811.  While John Quincy Adams was stationed as Minister to Russia, the baby Louisa died at one-year old in 1812. Louisa would suffer another miscarriage in 1813, marking her last pregnancy. Of the surviving children, only Charles Francis would live to middle age.

Perhaps Adams' greatest diplomatic service [prior to becoming Secretary of State in 1817, anyway] was his work on the Treaty of Ghent to end the War of 1812. Madison appointed Adams as well as Henry Clay and James Bayard [and later Albert Gallatin and Jonathan Russell] to the American team deputized to negotiate an end to the war. As Traub notes, "Rarely, if ever, has the United States been represented at negotiations by so distinguished a group of men."  And while the Treaty of Ghent left things seemingly status quo ante bellum, Traub argues that it was a tremendous victory for America.  Despite what Britain retained with the treaty, Traub writes, "the British had hoped for, and expected, so much more. And they could have gotten it had the American team not waited until the military campaign [in America] swung in their favor, or had Gallatin prevailed on his colleagues to take a softer line - which he did not seek to do - or had either Adams or Clay walked out of the talks. The United States that would have emerged from Ghent, in that case, would have been a weaker, more vulnerable, and more divided country." Traub considers the Treaty of Ghent also noteworthy as marking, "the end of the first, and very fragile, stage of American political history. Both England and France spent those years seemingly poised to crush the infant nation; American politics - because of it - had become a contest between partisans of foreign powers. Yet, now it was over and the nationalists had won....The Treaty was universally embraced by a nation sick of war and happy to escape without humiliating concessions."

President Monroe appointed Adams his new Secretary of State shortly after his inauguration in March 1817. Traub notes, "The questions that faced President Monroe and his secretary of state had less to do with protecting the country than with increasing American influence and expanding American territory....The world Adams confronted was ripe with opportunity for a confident and expansionist United States, though also beset with dangers for a nation inclined to overestimate its powers. He would spend the next seven years enhancing American territory and prestige while warning against what he considered to be reckless adventures."

Considering the rancor that would mark the relationship between Adams and Andrew Jackson starting with the election of 1824, it was Adams who perhaps saved Jackson's career in 1818 and made it possible for Jackson to attain all that he did thereafter [much of it at Adams' expense]. It started when Jackson overstepped his orders and expelled Spain from Florida territory, placing West Florida under American jurisdiction,  In doing so, he had managed - in about 90 days - to accomplish through battle what the Monroe Administration had been seeking to achieve through diplomacy. Monroe and most of his cabinet were furious at Jackson. As Traub notes, "Jackson had fought a personal, unprovoked war against a European power on America's border. He had violated express instructions from both the president and the secretary of war [John Calhoun] in order to bring about an outcome that the president almost surely welcomed by means that he could not be seen to except." Adams, alone among the cabinet, supported Jackson's actions and defended him against punishment. Monroe felt strongly, though, that Jackson needed to be punished - Calhoun wanted him court-martialed. Through cajoling and debate, Adams got Monroe to agree to only a mild rebuke of Jackson.  Traub writes, "It is striking that so self-consciously moral and Christian a figure as Adams was prepared to excuse bellicose behavior [by Jackson] in the name of national self-aggrandizement. For Adams, [though,] American destiny had a moral force of its own."

While Jackson won Florida through force, though, it was Adams and his diplomacy that netted an even larger tract. The Adams-Onis Treaty with Spain [the Spanish minister was named Don Luis de Onis] in 1819, Traub writes, was truly revolutionary.  In these negotiations, "Adams was the first American diplomat to propose extending American sovereignty from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean." With the signing of the treaty on February 22, 1819, Traub notes, "Adams had yielded Texas, which he had never expected to gain, and in exchange won Florida - the great prize - and gained unimpeded title to all the land ceded by the French in 1803. The line to the Pacific was a coup none of Adams' predecessors had had the boldness to seek, much less win. The Louisiana Purchase had been a windfall; the [Adams-Onis] treaty, by contrast, was a diplomatic coup Adams had won by a combination of patience, guile, mastery of detail, and an unyielding commitment to American national interest."

Adams was now at the peak of his diplomatic influence on American foreign policy. As Traub writes, "No other public figure of his generation had offered so cogent and deeply considered an answer to the question of America's role in the world. In the ensuing years, Adams would continue to argue inside the Monroe Administration for his brand of assertive realism. And he would succeed: the supreme formulation of early-nineteenth-century foreign policy known as the Monroe Doctrine would overwhelmingly bear Adams' stamp."

Indeed it did, although it is important to remember that the details of the talks in November 1823 in Monroe's cabinet that led to the Monroe Doctrine come down to us from only one primary source: Adams himself. No on else left a contemporary record.  In Adams' account, Monroe acceded to all of his suggestions [it was read as part of Monroe's Annual Address to Congress]. Even though the account comes to us from Adams, Traub believes that, "In his Address to Congress, Monroe adopted Adams' positions on all the questions on which the two had differed or where Adams held more decisive views."

Traub looks at one of the most famous lines in the doctrine, which reads, "'We owe it therefore to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those powers to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.' Monroe was not simply asserting the United States' special protective relationship with other nations in the hemisphere; he was stating that in the clash of world systems, the New World was inviolably committed to republicanism, and the United States would not permit that commitment to be jeopardized....It was an extraordinarily brash declaration for a young nation with little navy, no army, a modest population, and a still infant economy."

Despite Adams' account in his diary, there remains some question as to how credit should be  assigned for the Monroe Doctrine. Adams' biographers tend to give the credit to Adams; Monroe's chroniclers give it to the president.  Interestingly, Traub notes, Dexter Perkins, a leading historian of the period, has argued that it was Monroe who decided to include the South American question in his Annual Address and wrote the actual work, while Adams played the lesser role of the president's effective counselor and coworker." Traub concludes, "What Adams may have contributed most of all to the Monroe Doctrine was its astringency....Left to his own devices, Monroe would have offered a more idealistic vision of the American role as a force for the global advancement of republicanism. Adams blunted that with his dogged insistence that American policy serve American interests. Monroe's view, or Calhoun's - or, for that matter, Clay's - would have been more thoroughly in the American grain, more gratifying to the American self-image. Adams stirred his brand of vinegar into the mix."

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Book Review: Let the People Rule - Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary By Geoffrey Cowan

Author Geoffrey Cowan was one of the men responsible for increasing the number of political
primaries in 1968. In his new book, Let The People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of
the Presidential Primary, he writes about....well, the first nationwide primaries in 1912.....except
for the 50% of book dedicated to the aftermath of those primaries. It's a strange experience, this
book. On the one hand we have a reasoned study of the primaries in 1912 and Theodore
Roosevelt's role - albeit late-to-the-party [pardon the pun] - in popularizing the early votes to
select the Republican nominee for president - with a slogan of "Let the people rule". But, on the
other hand, we have the sordid and racist approach TR took after walking out of the Republican
convention to form his own party and convention. His slogan for this would have been "Let the
[white] people rule."

Most troubling are the details surrounding Roosevelt's decision to exclude black southern
delegates from the Progressive Party/Bull Moose convention [after he'd bolted the Republicans]. 
Of this central theme of the book, Cowan writes, "I wanted to try to understand how TR could
reconcile his professed belief in the right of the people to rule with his decision to exclude blacks
from Mississippi and other states of the deep South from his party. Was it purely a cynical
tactical decision?… Or did he have other more noble motives; could his actions, for example, be
compared to those of Lyndon Johnson, who did everything in his power to ensure the seating of
the all-white delegation from Mississippi in 1964 [at the Democratic National Convention], but
then used the power of his office to press for the Voting Right Act of 1965?"

The story begins with TR's foolish decision - made on the evening he won his first full term in
November 1904 - to announce that he would not be a candidate in 1908.  TR almost
immediately regretted the decision. Not willing to go back on his word, however, he chose his
friend William Howard Taft as his successor and - shortly after Taft was inaugurated - TR set sail
for a year-long absence that included an African safari and a tour of Europe.

During his absence from America, TR received numerous correspondence from friends alerting
him to things Taft was doing that - in their opinions - were counter to Roosevelt's policies. 
These complaints to TR only got louder once Roosevelt returned to the United States. Yet, despite the pressure to challenge Taft, Roosevelt resisted until late-1911.  Why? Cowan postulates, "It seems...likely that [TR] had been hoping to avoid a direct conflict with Taft and to run [instead] in 1916." Then, however, on January 21, 1911, men he considered too radical on the progressive scale created the National Progressive Republican League with Sen. Robert M. La Follette as its leader. Among the items on their agenda was an effort to create as many presidential primaries in 1912 as possible.  La Follette announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination on June 17, 1911. Cowan writes, "By early October 1911, the progressive leaders thought that there would be enough primaries to offset the advantages of incumbency, quite possibly enough [for La Follette] to beat Taft." Thus, Cowan says, the main reason TR finally decided to challenge Taft was to stop the more radical La Follette.

Then there was the personal element and final straw [for TR] in his disappointment in Taft. Taft's
government filed an antitrust case against United States Steel on October 26, 1911. Among
the bombshells in the documents released were accusations that - as president in 1907 - Roosevelt had naïvely capitulated to the steel barons when he agreed to allow them to form the International
Harvester trust.  Cowan writes that the case provided TR. "with the perfect opening to expand
on the argument against Taft...and a reason for a form of righteous indignation that would
appeal to the business community."

Roosevelt officially announced his entrance into the Republican race for president on February
25, 1912. His candidacy was based on the idea of reaching directly to the people through
presidential primaries.  Cowan points out, though, that, "until a month earlier, when he
concluded they had the potential to revolutionize the political process and offered the best and
perhaps only way to wrest the nomination from a sitting president, he and his supporters had
been privately and publicly skeptical about the virtues of such primaries." Indeed Roosevelt had
never been a supporter of direct democracy [as opposed to representative democracy].  In his
mind, not everyone was worthy of the vote. For TR, only certain people - namely, white people -
were fit for democracy.  Cowan writes, "Roosevelt had been president of the United States
during the years when hundreds of thousands of blacks were removed from the voting rolls in
the South. TR had found ways to extend the reach and power of government in other important
areas, yet he did nothing to preserve popular suffrage in the region."

Yet it was while Roosevelt was holed up in his offices at The Outlook magazine to draft his
announcement that the pushing of the primary idea came to him.  According to Cowan,
"Roosevelt suddenly had an inspiration - an idea to be included in a statement. He would
propose presidential primaries in order to be sure of popular demand. To those in the room [with
TR at the time] it was a masterstroke. The demand for primaries would immediately put TR at
the forefront of the progressive movement [ahead of La Follette] and put Taft on the defensive.
Equally important, in the eyes of some of his most progressive aides, it would give legitimacy to
a third-party run if TR failed to win the Republican nomination."

The South was a problem. Almost every Republican delegate owed their job to Taft. It would
take 540 votes at the convention to secure the nomination. The eleven southern states
controlled 246 of those votes. Yet the irony of this was lost on no one: none those states had cast
an electoral vote for a Republican presidential candidate since 1876 - yet they controlled the
convention almost entirely.

But in the South almost every delegate owed their job to Taft, making it almost impossible for TR
to win there. Cowan writes, "With Taft's tight control of the party...there was almost no realistic chance of creating any southern primaries." To counter this bloc, TR would challenge the credentials of dozens of theses delegates. Doing so kept them out of the great "tally" of delegates that would
be published daily by newspapers all spring [since their status wouldn't be resolved until the June convention, they were counted as unaffiliated].  Doing this made Taft's votes always appear lower than they really were [since there was almost no chance that TR's challenge against them would be upheld]. But it would give the appearance, throughout the spring, that Taft was trailing badly. In the meantime, TR's operatives began a secret campaign to try to bribe black delegates committed to Taft to switch their vote at the convention in favor of Roosevelt.

First, though, the primaries were key [to even get to the point where TR would have to worry
about the South].  Roosevelt created a phenomenal publicity bureau to promote the
creation of primaries in states throughout the country.  According to Cowan, "The publicity
bureau translated the demand for direct presidential primaries into a powerful political and public
relations issue. They released statement after statement demanding that primaries be instituted
everywhere, keeping their candidate [TR] on the front pages of every paper in the country - and
putting Taft on the defensive."

The states came through: North Dakota [March 19], Indiana and New York [March 26],
Wisconsin [April 2], Illinois [April 9], Michigan [convention for April 11], Nebraska, Oregon and
Pennsylvania [April 13],  Massachusetts [April 30], Maryland [May 6], California [May 14], Ohio
[May 21], New Jersey [May 28], and South Dakota [June 4].

The early weeks were slow. La Follette won in North Dakota [the first statewide primary in U.S.
history]. But then Taft surprised all by winning both New York and Indiana. La Follette won the
Wisconsin primary next. Suddenly, having not won a single early primary, TR's strategy was in
doubt.  As Cowan writes, though, "then a miracle happened. Roosevelt swept Illinois. The
results were so striking - and such a departure - that it became the dividing line for Roosevelt
supporters. Those who were with him before April 9th called themselves the 'Before April 9th
Men'. The campaign welcomed those who joined later. But they knew who had really been with
TR from the start. Roosevelt didn't just win. It was overwhelming....He won every county and
earned all of the states 68 delegates."

Cowan argues that, in retrospect, "the Illinois election represented the first decisive presidential
primary victory in history. Taft went on to win in New York and La Follette won in North Dakota
and Wisconsin. But none of those races had turned the tide of the campaign. The Illinois vote
showed, for the first time, how a primary victory can change a campaign's momentum."

With wins in Pennsylvania, Oregon and Nebraska, Roosevelt's momentum was growing. Cowan
writes that - after these victories - "In ways that the original crusaders for reform might not have
anticipated, Roosevelt's primary winning streak was also having a dramatic impact on delegates
selected by the old rules. In some states, especially in the south, delegates in Taft's corner were
starting to consider defecting."

Next came Massachusetts on April 30th. Because of TR's previous victories, it was widely believed that - if Taft lost Massachusetts - he would have to stand aside for TR. But one group in
Massachusetts that held the key was often overlooked - the African-American vote. And the
African-American community had never forgiven Roosevelt for his handling of the Brownsville,
Texas, incident in 1906 in which TR allowed black soldiers to be dishonorably discharged based
on flimsy evidence. Taft, while Secretary of War during the incident, had been absent from
Washington at the time that Roosevelt made his decision and had largely escaped the
vengeance against the Roosevelt Administration by the black community. Although it was
largely unknown in 1912, ironically Taft had been opposed to Roosevelt's decision to discharge
the black soldiers. As Cowan writes, "Even though only the intimates of Taft knew about his
reservations [in dishonorably discharging the men], African-American still favored him over Roosevelt who they blamed most for the decision. As a result of black voters, Taft won the Massachusetts primary."

Roosevelt next won California. The effect on the country was palpable.  Cowan notes,
"Overnight, the advent of primaries had changed politics - seemingly forever. In that first year of
political primaries, in the intoxicating aftermath of California, it seemed for a moment that the
popular will would be forceful enough to overcome the power of convention leaders, of the
officeholders and party bosses. That theory was soon put to the test."

After Roosevelt victories in Ohio, New Jersey, and Ohio, most TR supporters were convinced
that he had locked up the nomination. Roosevelt wasn't so sure. "Although Roosevelt had won
more delegates in the primaries [than Taft or La Follette] there were still plenty of uncommitted
delegates that presumably could go for Taft [at the convention]." This was where TR's earlier decision to file bogus mass challenges against southern delegates [to keep them out of the Taft column as long as possible] came back to haunt him. Now, there were legitimate challenges to delegates that TR could make - but, like the 'Boy Who Cried Wolf' - any TR challenge, even legitimate ones, were unlikely to be upheld.  Indeed, as Cowan writes, "After several days looking into all of the cases, the Taft-controlled national committee ultimately and unsurprisingly voted to seat virtually all of the delegates pledged to the president."

By the time the Republican Party National Convention convened on June 18, 1912, thirteen
states had chosen delegates via the presidential primary - including some, Cowan writes,
"created during the past few months as the result of legislation promoted by Roosevelt
operatives and supporters. His moral claim to the Republican Party nomination rested largely on
the fact that he had won nine of those primary contests and that in those thirteen states he had
won two-thirds of the delegates and more than half of the popular vote."

Also by the time the convention opened, word of the Roosevelt camp's efforts to bribe black voters to abandon Taft had been exposed by the national press.  One long-asked question about this unsavory
incident was whether Roosevelt knew about it.  Cowan writes, "It is unclear how much
Roosevelt knew about any efforts to bribe the black delegates. In view of his strong aversion to
graft and his repeated attacks on the claim of bribery by Taft forces, it is certainly possible that
his managers shielded [TR] from knowledge of their tactics, or that any such efforts were being
made by supporters who were engaging in a bit of freelance work. There is no doubt, however,
that such efforts were being made in [Roosevelt's] name."

By the beginning of the convention, Cowan writes that the Roosevelt people, "knew that they
were now fighting for public opinion. One way or another, it seemed preordained that they would
create a new party, or walk out of the convention and claim to be the true representatives of the
Republican Party. Thanks to the primaries, they had a strong case to make. After all, TR had
won the popular vote against Taft overwhelmingly. It seemed clear that he would have won
hundreds of additional delegates if the public had been allowed to participate in the selection
process elsewhere [where there were no primaries]. What's more, he had a clear majority of the
delegates from states outside of what were often derided as the rotten boroughs of the old
Confederacy, delegates chosen from areas were no Republican candidate could ever win an
election. Outside of the delegates from those eleven southern states, Taft had just about 300
delegates in his corner, whereas TR had at least 450."

But Taft prevailed, and was nominated on June 22, 1912.  Roosevelt bolted and the
Progressive/Bull Moose Party called for their convention six weeks later. Almost immediately,
TR signed off on a strategy to deny seats at the convention to black delegates from the South in an effort to rally as many southern whites to the party as possible.  Cowan writes, "Black leaders were stunned. Having burned their bridges with the leaders of the Republican Party in their states and with President Taft and his political team [by supporting TR at the Republican convention], their options were limited. They were determined to become a part of the party that quickly became known as the
Bull Moose party...They were convinced, or claimed to be convinced, that there must be some
mistake; that this decision could not have come from TR; that Roosevelt could not have
intended that they be excluded from the party." But that was exactly what he intended in the
South.  Blacks in the North were welcome; those in the old confederacy were not.

When the Bull Moose Convention opened on August 3, 1912, TR at first refused to meet with
angry black southern delegates.  His aides finally persuaded Roosevelt to meet with the black
delegates just before the opening of the convention. Cowan writes, "The details of that meeting
remain unknown. Simply by having the meeting, [southern Republican African American
leaders] Perry Howard and Sidney Redmond had achieved one of their major goals. It gave
them a degree of legitimacy [with their black southern constituents who felt betrayed by them for
following them away from Taft and into the Roosevelt camp during the primaries] they were
seeking. If Roosevelt made any specific promises [at that meeting], they have never come to
light." But these men had nowhere else to go - they couldn't go back to the Republicans so they
had swallow TR's decision on no black delegates from the South and stay with him for the
November election.  As Cowan sums up the episode, "For Theodore Roosevelt, practical politics
had trumped the right of the people to rule." [As it turned out, TR carried not one southern state]

So what was the end result of Roosevelt's actions in 1912?  Cowan writes, "In some important
respects, Theodore Roosevelt's third-party had a lasting effect on American politics and policy.
The Bull Moose campaign gave greater credibility to innovative ideas such as an eight-hour
workday, a form of Social Security, the federal income tax, and a federal inheritance tax. Some
of his ideas found their way into the New Deal legislation championed by his cousin, President
Franklin Roosevelt, who was elected as a Democrat in 1932. The most direct impact of
Roosevelt's campaign [in 1912], however, was his role as a midwife in the birth of presidential
primaries. Even though he didn't win the Republican party nomination, his campaign
transformed the presidential nominating process....Roosevelt…more than any other force,
popularized presidential primaries and increased the number of states that embraced them. His
rhetoric helped to enshrine the cause of popular democracy in the nation's vocabulary."

Monday, April 11, 2016

Book Review: The American President - Part XIII Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton nearly destroyed his ability to govern before the end of his first week in office.  Then came even closer to destroying his presidency in his last years in office. Historian William Leuchtenburg claims that he most certainly did destroy his legacy with his antics in those last years, writing that - regardless of anything else, Clinton will always be remembered as the only elected president to be impeached by the House of Representatives.

His non-sexual destruction began during that first week of his term when - inexplicably, according to Leuchtenburg - he made 'gays in the military' the first focus of his administration. Worse, Leuchtenburg claims, after having raised the issue, he caved to the Joint Chiefs of Staff by settling for 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'.  Leuchtenberg writes, "the episode brought into question Clinton's capacity as chief executive. Quite possibly because of uneasiness about his evasion of service in Vietnam, he failed to establish his authority over the Joint Chiefs, who were hovering toward insubordination. No less disconcerting was his lack of political acumen in allowing the question to take such prominence at the very outset of his administration."

The deficit was really the first issue that should have been addressed [Clinton's campaign mantra, after all, had been "It's the economy, stupid"]. Clinton relied heavily on Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan, who advised focusing on the deficit more so than any other economic issue.  As Leuchtenberg writes, "Clinton's acceptance of Greenspan's advice to focus on the deficit had significant implications for the institution of the presidency. It marked a transition from Keynesian fiscal policy engineered from the White House to monetary policy directed not by the president but by the Fed."

The Whitewater 'scandal' occupied most of Clinton's two terms.  By late-1993, Republicans were in a fiery uproar, demanding an investigation, particularly after the suicide of Clinton aide and boyhood friend Vince Foster.  As Leuchtenburg recalls, "The mainline press, not beset by paranoia, made no attempt to link Foster's death to possible misbehavior by the Clintons until December 1993, when it headlined a shocking revelation: 'Foster's office was secretly searched. Hours after his body was found,' and files labeled 'Whitewater' were removed by the White House counselor and turned over to the Clintons on the grounds that, since Foster had been their attorney, these were private documents protected by lawyer-client privilege. It developed that in, lifting the papers, [Foster] was carrying out Hillary Clinton's orders....The press, without ever uncovering anything felonious about the Clintons' involvement in Whitewater, ran scare stories day after day implying there was, or might be, something."

Indeed, as despicable as Leuchtenberg found elements of the Clinton presidency to be, he agrees that there was a visceral hatred of the Clintons that targeted both Bill and Hillary for unprecedented harassment by some in the media..  As Leuchtenburg writes, "Newspapermen sneered at Hillary Clinton when she said that her husband was the target of a 'vast right-wing conspiracy', but she was correct, although 'vast' overstates the numbers involved. An unsavory ring of enemies of the Clintons in Arkansas connived in a ruthless campaign against him financed by the Pittsburgh billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, who spent millions of the huge fortune he had inherited. No accusation was too ludicrous for Scaife and his associates, who depicted Clinton as a drug kingpin and murderer who 'did away with' scores of victims [and this was 20 years before Frank Underwood]. Paula Jones was able to carry her case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court because she was bankrolled by far-right outfits."

Then came the fateful decision Clinton came to regret for the rest of his presidency and - no doubt - the remainder of his days.  White House advisor David Gergen - and other top Clinton aides, advocated naming a special prosecutor for Whitewater. Only the White House counsel objected, saying presciently, "They will broaden the investigation to areas we haven't even contemplated. They will chase you, your family and friends through the presidency and beyond."  Thinking it could quell the Republican firestorm, however, on January 12, 1994, Clinton asked Attorney General Janet Reno to name a special prosecutor, what Clinton called the "worst decision" of his presidency.

This visceral hatred of the Clintons is examined by Leuchtenburg and others.  Why did so many people hate them, and why?  In the historiography of the Clintons, Leuchtenburg writes, "That puzzlement and the quest for an explanation infuse all of the literature of the Clinton presidency." Journalist Richard Reeves has written, "The 60s! It's the 1960s they [Clinton's opponents] hate. The passion of the people who hated what was happening then [in the 1960s] does not seem to have diminished [in the 1990s]. The hatred is not because of the great events of [Clinton's] presidency, such as they are, but because of the great events of the recent past, particularly the 1960s - the anti-authoritarianism, the undigested revolutions, the attacks on great institutions from government to education to religion, the overthrow of patriotism and traditional American history. Bill and Hillary Clinton…symbolize the 1960s to many Americans; they symbolize civil rights and feminism, sexual tolerance and abortion. For a lot of people, that's when America went wrong."

Leuchtenburg, however, disagrees with Reeves. Leuchtenburg countered, "Never a disenchanted radical, Bill Clinton sought from his teenage debut in student politics to work within the system. Far from being a child of the counter-culture, he had all along been an ambitious careerist, a striver in the mode of a Horatio Alger protagonist. He made himself at home not in Haight-Ashbury but in Georgetown classrooms, where he was a grind who worked hard for high grades. His hero was neither Che Guevara nor Timothy Leary but President Kennedy."

President Kennedy. Ironic. When one considers Monica Lewinsky. The day President Kennedy died, his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, was working from home on documents confirming that his brother had engaged in an extramarital affair with an East German spy. Before receiving the phone call telling him the horrific news from Dallas, Bobby Kennedy was seriously worried about his brother being able to get out of this most recent scrape - especially after the British Profumo scandal. While John Kennedy didn't live to see what would have happened in his most recent sexual scandal, Bill Clinton would live through it all - and somehow survive.

After the first stories broke of Clinton's affair with Lewinsky, he made disavowals. After giving grand jury testimony in the Paula Jones case [all stemming from that special prosecutor - now Kenneth Starr - that was appointed to investigate Whitewater], evidence [in the form of that dress] forced Clinton to acknowledge the affair in a nationally televised addressed.  Here, Leuchtenburg said, Clinton botched what might have been his only opportunity to avoid impeachment - and it would have still only been a small chance.  According to Leuchtenburg, instead of taking the opportunity to heal the wounds of his lies, "Clinton came across not contrite or remorseful but furious and resentful. It did not take long for Clinton to be made aware of how grossly he botched his opportunity."

Incensed by his response, Republicans moved forward with what became known as the Starr Report. They fully expected him to resign after it's release, especially after they released a video from his Paula Jones testimony. Yet, the consequences of the Republicans' actions with the public took them completely by surprise. Even Democrats were shocked by the reaction.  As then-Congressman Barney Frank recalled, "people said, 'Oh, is this what this is about? The stupid bastard went and had oral sex with a kid? Shame on him. Now what's for dinner'."  And Leuchtenburg writes, "Asked to choose between Bill Clinton and Ken Starr most of the many millions who watched the videotape on television knew instinctively which man they preferred....Yet if Clinton imagined that the popular response meant he was going to come away unscathed, he greatly underestimated the fierce determination of the Republican Congress to get him out of the White House."

But Republicans were overconfident about impeachment. Leuchtenburg notes, "Every survey of opinion found that two-thirds of the country opposed impeachment...The ballot count [at the 1998 mid-term elections] jolted Republicans without enlightening them. Instead of picking up more than [40] seats in the House [as they had predicted], they lost five. Still more significant was the outcome in the Senate, which would decide the president's fate in an impeachment trial. Anticipating big gains in the Senate, Republicans failed to win even one addition. Not for close to two centuries had there been such a result in an election in the sixth year of a presidency. As a consequence, Republicans could not remove Clinton from office, even if every member of their party in the Senate voted to do so, unless twelve Democratic senators joined them - a highly unlikely eventuality. Simple arithmetic alerted Republicans that the time had come to settle for a resolution censuring the president, which would have attracted a host of Democratic votes, but they refused to heed."

The House voted to impeach Clinton for committing perjury in his Paula Jones testimony and for obstructing justice by tampering with witnesses and withholding evidence.  The Senate trial, beginning January 7, 1999, lasted 37 days, before Clinton was acquitted on February 12, 1999.

So, what of Clinton's legacy? Leuchtenburg writes, "As it is turned out, historians have had a hard time assigning a grade on Clinton's presidency because Clinton seems so elusive....When historians set out to write about Clinton, they absorb these impressions and share the puzzlement....Scholars who examined dispassionately not Clinton's ethics but his legislative accomplishments found little of historical significance.... All of these many, often well reasoned, accounts of Clinton's shortcomings ran up against one countervailing consideration: his extraordinary popularity. Despite the impeachment, Clinton ended his tenure with the highest approval rating of any president in the post-1945 era, better than that of Eisenhower or Reagan....A number of scholars underscored the most conspicuous reason for his high standards: piping prosperity. Clinton presided over the greatest boom in American history, with gross domestic product growing by one-third in just eight years. From 1994 to 2000, every quarter recorded growth - a performance never before achieved. Joblessness fell from 7.5% to 4%, and inflation dropped to an almost infinitesimal 1.6%. Economic gains benefitted the working class as they had not under Reagan, and a higher percentage of American families owned their homes than ever before. When Clinton took office federal deficits totaling a staggering $290 billion in 1992 appeared to be out of control, with each year worse than the one before, but Clinton's second term brought exhilarating tidings, with an economy fueled by the revolution yielding rising revenues at a dizzying pace."

Still, Leuchtenburg concludes, "In the last analysis, none of these considerations loom nearly so large as the Lewinsky episode in determining Bill Clinton's place in history.... Clinton's position in the country's annals is secure not because of all he sought to do, and did, but because he is the first elected president in the more than 200 years of the American Republic to have been impeached."

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Book Review: The American President - Part XII George H.W. Bush

George H.W. Bush entered the White House as only the third president in two centuries to be inaugurated for the first time with both houses of Congress controlled by the opposing party. This would be a challenging factor for the best communicator of thoughts and ideas - Historian William Leuchtenburg says Bush had an inability to communicate either.  Leuchtenburg writes that this was demonstrated at the start with Bush's Inaugural Address which, "exposed how much difficulty Bush had in marshaling his thoughts… With no strong sense of mission or coherent conception of public policy, which was played throughout his tenure by his inability to communicate cogently what he called the 'mission thing'."

One area where he did demonstrate executive leadership was in the lead up to and prosecution of the Gulf War.  According to Leuchtenburg, Bush, "believed that he had constitutional authority as commander-in-chief to order troops into Kuwait without congressional approval, but as Congress, fortified by strong antiwar sentiment in the country, readied itself for a showdown with the president over the War Powers Act, he sidestepped by asking for its consent. His advisers thought he was taking a very great risk because Congress might not go along, but Bush wanted to show Saddam [Hussein] that his decision to intervene represented the national will.... Sometime after the roll call, he said if Congress had turned him down, he would have gone ahead anyway."

Of course allied troops quickly pushed Iraq out of Kuwait and immediately and ever after [and least until 2003] it was debated whether Bush should have pursued Hussein into Iraq.  Leuchtenberg - with the hindsight granted by the second Gulf War and the invasion of Iraq by Bush's son - writes, "Bush, though, had sound reasons for not continuing the war. The reputation of the United States in the Muslim world would have been damaged by newsreels of U.S. troops killing fleeing Iraqi soldiers no longer offering resistance on the 'Highway of Death'.… Furthermore, he recognized that his allies had not committed themselves to regime change, only to clearing the Iraqi invaders out of Kuwait."

Bush's success in the Gulf War - and in foreign policy in general - was not matched at home.  Leuchtenburg points out, though, that much of Bush's domestic troubles stemmed from the enormous debt left behind by his predecessor.  Still, his decision to go back on "No new taxes!" - however valid it was economically - destroyed his ability to lead his own party.  Leuchtenburg writes, "Bush's decision to renege on his pledge never to raise taxes greatly impaired his relations with his party. So discountenanced were right wingers that the co-chair of the Republican National  Committee, Ed Rollins, who had been [Ronald] Reagan's political director, urged GOP congressional candidates to run for office on their own.... A more serious consequence of the budget melodrama was its impact on the president's public standing. Bush's behavior reinforced the impression that the president was a man with no firm convictions or, worse still, that, with his eyes on the 1988 election, he had willfully made a promise that he knew he could not keep."

Even his triumph in the Gulf, Leuchtenburg says, had what turned out to be a negative effect on his 1992 campaign.  The irony of that victory in 1991 negatively impacting the '92 campaign stemmed from Bush's immense popularity after the war.  Because of it, Leuchtenburg writes, "many of the top Democratic frontrunners - Governor Mario Cuomo, Senator Bill Bradley, and Congressman Dick Gephardt -  dropped out of the race early...that development also created an opportunity for the ambitious governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, who proved to be a formidable rival. The series of breakthroughs abroad on Bush's watch - the capture of [Manuel] Noriega, the demolition of the Berlin Wall, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the liberation of Kuwait - had burnished his reputation. But the president's very successes lessened concern over foreign policy, which was his greatest strength, and enabled Clinton to exploit Bush's main source of vulnerability: discontent with the recession."

In November 1992, with only 37% of the popular vote, Bush - Leuchtenburg writes - "gained a smaller proportion of the popular vote than the discredited Herbert Hoover in 1932 or the overwhelmed Barry Goldwater in 1964. He even lost 27% of registered Republicans, as well as 68% of independents."

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Book Review: The American President - Part XI Ronald Reagan

One of the first things Ronald Reagan did was restore glamor to the presidency after four years of Jimmy Carter's austerity. Historian William Leuchtenburg recounts,"With Reagan determined to restore the magisterial aura of the presidency, trumpeters once again sounded Hail to the Chief, and employees turned up for work at the White House not in sport shirts and blue jeans, but in jacket and tie."

That was symbolic of the style-over-substance theme that Leuchtenburg cites as Reagan's legacy. Not only a lack of substance, Leuchtenburg claims, but outright fantasy was a constant theme of the Reagan narrative.  As Leuchtenburg writes, "Over the course of the next four years, Reagan spun one narrative after another that was palpably untrue.... Witnesses to his whoppers realized that Reagan was not lying but had persuaded himself of the validity of his tales."

Reagan convinced most Americans, too.  As Leuchtenburg notes, "[Reagan's] fictions mattered little, though, for after a generation of assassination and scoundrelry the media decided - consciously or unconsciously - to feature his presidency as a success story and to brush aside inconvenient particulars. As a consequence, few Americans comprehended that the new president was not what he seemed to be. A man who identified himself with the nuclear family, he was America's first divorced president and was estranged from his children. An advocate of Christian values, he rarely could be found in a church pew on Sunday morning. He presented himself as someone who readily empathized with the working class, yet he hung out with super rich West Coast buddies and despised the less fortunate...With his ready grin and easy-going manner, Reagan gave the impression that he was a big hearted guy who loved nothing better than to mingle with the folks when, in fact, he was chillingly insular."

Worse, Leuchtenburg claims, "No one had ever entered the White House so grossly ill-informed....To be sure his detractors sometimes exaggerated is ignorance." Still, "in all fields of public affairs - from diplomacy to the economy - the president stunned Washington policymakers by how little basic information he commanded."

Reagan sent to Congress a budget plan with seemingly conflicting aims early in 1981.  As Leuchtenburg writes, "Reagan was asking Congress for an awful lot - a budget with controversial slashes in social spending, a far-reaching tax measure, and the greatest military authorization in the country's history - and it was not clear, more than eight weeks into his term as the month of March [1981] drew toward a close, that he was going to get it. He had no experience in Washington, and his detached style of governing was not geared to the winning over skeptical legislators. Though the 1980 election had given the Republicans a majority in the Senate for the first time in more than a quarter of a century, Democrats still held most of the seats in the House, where Speaker [Tip] O'Neil and a sizable band of liberals were determined to kill the president's program."

And then came the assassination attempt.

But one of the myths is that it was sympathy toward Reagan after his survival of the assassination attempt that led Congress to pass his budget.  Leuchtenburg says that does a disservice to Reagan.  Much to everyone's surprise, Reagan proved incredibly adept at working Congress to get the votes needed.  According to Leuchtenburg, "During his first hundred days, [Reagan] conferred 69 times with 467 congressman. In that short stretch, legislators said, they had been paid more attention than Carter had given them in all of his four years. On a single day in June, Reagan met with 239 [members], including 30 Democrats, at a White House breakfast."

When it was done, Leuchtenburg writes, "Reagan had rolled up an impressive record as a chief legislator - far better than that of Ford or Carter - and had won widespread popular approval for the way that he had performed.... Reagan never again achieved as much success in putting through his domestic program as he had in his first year."

That is about one of the only positive takes Leuchtenburg has on Reagan.  For one thing, Leuchtenburg believes that the policies that emanated from Reagan's budget created misery. Leuchtenburg writes, "The country could not escape the presence of the homeless: 2.5 million Americans spending their days and nights on city sidewalks, under bridge girders, on subway grates, wherever they could find escape from rain, sleet, and snow." For another, he calls Reagan, "the very worst president on the environment that the country had ever known".  Of the 378,000 toxic waste sites in the country that required cleaning, for example, Reagan's EPA got to only six - "and botched the operations on them."

Reagan's reconfiguring of the federal judiciary also draws Leuchtenubrg's attention, but, perhaps surprisingly, not his criticism.  During his eight years, Leuchtenburg writes, "Reagan markedly altered the complexion of the federal judiciary by making the most appointments of any president in history: 78 to US circuit courts, 290 to US District Court." And despite liberal complaints, "he named a higher proportion of judges rated by the American Bar Association as 'well-qualified' or 'exceptionally-well-qualified' than had his predecessors from LBJ to Carter."

Reagan's second term - despite his overwhelming reelection - did not work out at all as he had hoped.  And nothing, Leuchtenburg says, caused more damage than Iran-Contra. As for blame, Leuchtenberg makes a distinction between the two components: Of the arms sales to Iran he writes, "Inquiries by the Tower Commission and and a congressional committee exposed vividly Reagan's complicity in dispatching arms to Iran in order to ransom hostages." On the diversion of those funds to the Contras, however, Leuchtenburg says the evidence is murkier.  As Leuchtenburg writes, "Evidence of Reagan's guilt in the diversion to the Contras of millions of dollars from the Iranian arms deal profits is less overwhelming. [Reagan's] operatives, though, had every reason to suppose they were carrying out his orders especially after he instructed [Oliver] North that he wanted him to do whatever it took to maintain the Contras 'body and soul'."

One of the great conundrums of Iran-Contra and the fallout on Reagan was how he survived.  Leuchtenburg writes, "Though many analysts thought it [Iran-Contra] a worse transgression than Watergate, Reagan escaped Nixon's fate. The revelation of siphoning funds to the Contras had an odd affect. On top of news of the shipments to Iran, it should have worsened Reagan's [political] situation. Instead, when the inquiry focused on how much he knew about the diversion, it took attention away from his much more heinous offense: sending arms to an enemy. In addition, centrist Democrats had muddied the waters by approving funding for the Contras in order to show their conservative constituents in the 1986 campaign that they were not soft on communism. The Democratic leadership feared, too, that, if they succeeded in an impeachment effort [on Reagan], they would invite the accusation of losing two elections by large margins in 1972 and 1984 and regaining power not from the expression of popular will at polling booths but by summarily ousting both Republican presidents before they could complete their tenure."

Leuchtenburg cites timing, as well, as helping Reagan avoid Nixon's fate. Leuchtenburg writes, "Unlike Watergate [the break-in itself], which had taken place in Nixon's first term and peaked with most of his second term still left, the Iran-Contra investigation climaxed in the closing frame of Reagan's presidency. Democrats reasoned that Reagan could do little harm in the months left to him and that it was unwise to give their likely opponent in 1988, Vice President George Bush, the advantage of campaigning from the White House [now, as an incumbent president]. Important though these circumstances were, Reagan survived primarily because of the idiosyncratic attitude of the nation to his misdeeds. Pollsters found that though two-thirds of the American people thought Reagan was lying about his involvement in Iran-Contra, more than half gave him high marks for his performance as president. Even more curiously, he weathered the storm in good part because less than one-quarter of the American people believed he was in charge of the government he headed; hence, he could not be blamed."

Amazingly, Reagan left office with the highest public approval rating of any president since FDR.  Historians, however, have had a different view.  Leuchtenburg among them.  He writes, "Historians, however, sharply disputed these highly favorable evaluations...Analysts scoffed at the notion that Reagan had created an economic miracle....Contrary to his pledges, Reagan did not lessen the tax burden, which was as great when he left office as when he began, but he did redistribute income - upward, with an eightfold increase in millionaires."

In foreign affairs, likewise, historians dispute much of the positive reviews Reagan has received in conservative circles.  Leuchtenburg writes, "Historians...[have] punched holes in Reagan's record on foreign affairs. In particular, they skewered the concept that Reagan had brought about the disintegration of the Soviet Union by drawing it into an arms race it could not afford. In fact, they demonstrated, Russia had never tried to match the United States on Star Wars; it was spending no more for arms in 1986 than it had in 1980....Nor, they found, did evidence sustain the claim that Reagan had caused a turnaround in Soviet foreign policy, for the change of mind that led to the end of the Cold War had arisen largely from forces within the U.S.S.R.....In fact, Reagan's blustering, his military buildup, his obsession with Star Wars made it more difficult for [Mikhail] Gorbachev to overcome hard-liners in the Kremlin."

Perhaps most scathingly, Leuchtenburg criticized the entire executive structure Reagan imposed - one that he blames for Iran-Contra being allowed to happen in the first place. He writes, "...Reagan, knowing full well what he was doing, had fostered a rogue regime within the White House. Over many months of duplicity, he and they violated so many laws, showed such brazen contempt for Congress, and carried out such unconscionable obstruction of justice that the House and Senate would have been fully justified in impeaching the president and removing him from office, as well as jailing his confederates."

In one final area, however, Reagan gets good marks from Leuchtenburg - the presidency itself. As Leuchtenburg writes, "Above all, journalists and scholars agreed, the country, thanks to Reagan, no longer thought the office of the presidency imperiled.....One might object that the presidency had never been as endangered as the doomsayers alleged, but there was no denying that the mood of the 1980s was decidedly more buoyant than it had been....Americans' response to his eight years in the White House suggests that there is a lot more to being president than policy making and enforcement of statutes. He contributed nothing at all to the literature of statecraft, offered false reassurance of the sort peddled by patent medicine salesmen....Yet he also knew how to inspirit the nation."