Friday, September 10, 2010

Sad For Norma

How could I not contribute to the sublime silliness of the meme

Friday, April 02, 2010

Richard Nixon: Bad President!

January 20, 1969 – August 9, 1974, almost two terms

In terms of the Worst U.S. Presidents in history, for a long time in my estimation, Nixon was the one. He was elected President when I was twelve years old. My parents were big Nixon fans, which at the time I just accepted without judgment or opinion, because Presidents were not the stuff of children. I became more and more aware of the outcry against Nixon, because I read the paper every day and watched All In The Family, but I had no reason or stimulus to have an opinion different than my parents yet. It wasn’t until I was a High School freshman, with Nixon still occupying the Oval Office, that I found myself in a U.S. History class with a young firebrand teacher who did have an opinion and wasn’t shy about sharing it. Every day Mr. Coleco would give a spirited lecture about some aspect of U.S. History, both from the distant dusty past and the confusing present. He made it clear to those of us listening exactly what was going on in Washington with the Watergate Scandal and the Hearings. I liked Mr. Coleco, because he talked to us as if we were adults, and he had a sense of humor, so suddenly I had an opinion about Nixon: he was a crook!

When Nixon resigned the White House in disgrace in August of ’74, my family was on an East Coast vacation. The day he made his farewell speech we were staying in a hotel in Erie, Pennsylvania. "Therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow...” Even through the crushing shame and disappointment that my parents were feeling, as well as what felt to me like the epic historical implications of the event, inwardly I was celebrating it as a victory for Democracy, or at least what I understood of it from listening to Mr. Coleco. For years afterward I thought of Nixon as a Bad President – certainly the worst I had experienced, an opinion I clung to even during the baffling years of Reagan, and was unshaken until W. subjected us to eight years of his scabrous, lawbreaking, condescending, intellectually challenged, train wreck of a presidency. I still get slightly queasy thinking about what he and his rat fink buddies did to this country.

Nowadays, with the softening of intervening years, it’s clear to me that one can, but shouldn’t judge Nixon’s presidency solely based on the power crazed behavior of his that led to Watergate. He actually achieved a great deal, for a crook – and a Republican crook at that! There are some historians who, whether they think Nixon was a “Good” President or a “Bad” President, believe he was one of the greatest Presidents of the 2oth Century, and you can’t dispute that, unlike many of the mooks on my list, he certainly did a lot, “good” and “bad”.

The stuff you could praise: Nixon opened the giant doors of diplomacy and trade with China – a stunning feat for the period, and he worked with the Soviets to craft the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and initiate d├ętente – even more amazing because Nixon had historically been so virulently anti-communist and all. (He once referred to Helen Gahagan Douglas, his opponent during the contentious 1950 Senate race as “Pink right down to her underwear”, apparently unaware of the inadvertent genital impression it evoked. Douglas retaliated by referring to Nixon as “Tricky Dick”, apparently intentionally utilizing the genital innuendo. Atta girl!) He eventually got us out of Vietnam and brought American troops home from Southeast Asia. He increased Social Security spending, advocated affirmative action programs for racial minorities, launched a broad environmental initiative, ended conscription (one year before I would have been eligible for the draft – Thank You Tricky Dick!), and was surprisingly progressive in his approach to handling inflation and unemployment.

Why else would Noam Chomsky himself remark that, in some respects, Nixon was "the last liberal president."? At his non-power drunk core, Nixon believed in using government wisely to benefit all and actually supported the idea of practical liberalism.

The stuff, aside from Watergate, that wasn’t so good: Nixon dealt too harshly with anti-war protesters while he approved and then expanded a covert bombing campaign in Cambodia, (some 20,000 American soldiers died while Nixon was in office, not to mention countless Southeast Asians) appointed several conservative Supreme Court judges, cut funds to NASA programs (we coulda had a base on the MOON!), and one has to say, on the uber-negative side, he could be considered one of the chief architects of the modern Republican party.

In spite of the self-rehabilitation efforts Nixon undertook in the years after his disgrace and resignation, the predominant historical image (and certainly my own) of Nixon was negative. He had made a lot of enemies during his political career, and politicians have long memories. Here are two quotes about Nixon from Democratic leaders from different generations:

"Richard Nixon is a no-good lying bastard. He can lie out of both sides of his mouth at the same time, and if he ever caught himself telling the truth, he'd lie just to keep his hand in." Harry S Truman

Ouch! (No disrespect intended, but when I read that quote, I try to hear it in Truman’s voice, which to me always sounded a lot like a cross between Pat Paulsen and Elmer Fudd)

"In 200 years of history, he's the most dishonest president we've ever had. I think he's disgraced the presidency." Jimmy Carter

(Now there are some who would argue that Carter was so ineffective as President that he would have no right to criticize. But Carter was above all, an honest man, a moral man – two traits he held as important attributes for a politician. While realizing that Carter was ultimately not a very good President, I like and respect him, and the added fact that he was also someone who knew history, and took it’s lessons seriously would cause me to believe his assessment of Nixon.)

So ultimately Nixon, like all “Bad” Presidents, is a bit of a mixed bag. This entire exercise has been a clear indication of the importance of embracing the Gray. Very little in the world, or indeed in history, is black or white. It’s the nuances in the vast middle Gray that make it so interesting.

Fun Facts: As a student, Nixon was known as Gloomy Gus. A great synonym for that is “Picklepuss”, which personally I think is more applicable here.

Nixon was the first president to visit all 50 states. Apropos of nothing, much like the Fun Fact that Nixon’s second Secretary of Agriculture was Earl Butz. Huh huh! “Butz”

Nixon was in Dallas on the day that John F Kennedy was shot. Conspiracy theorists: discuss.

And, most awesome of all: In 1970, Elvis Presley, more than likely fairly buzzed on painkillers, visited the White House to talk about drugs – and gave Nixon a gold revolver as a gift a gun which he somehow had managed to get past the Secret Service detail that guarded the President.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Ulysses S. Grant: Bad President!

March 4, 1869 – March 4, 1877, two terms!

Grant was actually not that horrible of a President, to his credit, he was an advocate of civil rights for African Americans and Native Americans, in a time when most people, and especially most politicians, weren’t. Grant actually worked to curb the power and violence of the Ku Klux Klan, and he pushed into law the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave freedmen the right to vote: "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged... on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude." Um, unless you’re a woman, of course, in which case you’ll have to wait another few decades for that right.

He was however, just a bit of an inept Hiring Manager. He routinely installed inept and/or corrupt cronies into cabinet positions, and then allowed them to run fairly rampant. His administration was widely thought to be one of the most corrupt in history, mostly because Grant wasn’t really paying attention to what his cabinet was up to. There were lots of financial scandals involving close associates of Grant, (the 1869 Gold Ring Scandal; the 1872 Credit Mobilier Scandal; the 1874 tax collection scandal; the 1875 Whiskey Ring) though he himself was widely considered honest, the overall aroma coming from the White House during his two terms was Eau de Corruption.

Oh yeah and also, Grant was probably a flaming anti-Semite, if his General Order Number 11 of 1862 is any indication. Although issued when he was a general in Lincoln’s army, the order expelled all Jews from the Department of the Treasury because, as it stated: “The Jews, as a class, [are] violating every regulation of trade” – in other words: “Aw come on! Everybody knows the Jews control all the money!” That’s a bit “Third Reich-y”, don’t you think? (Lincoln rescinded the order after protests from Jewish leaders) Granted, Grant (ha ha, I know, right?) tried to make up for it when he ran for President, making a point of wooing Jewish voters and even offering the post of Secretary of the Treasury to a Jewish friend of his, Joseph Seligman. But the taint of anti-Semitism remained, even though Grant liked to insist that “Some of my best friends are Jewish!”

By the time his second term was winding down, Grant and his administration just couldn’t shake the popular impression that he and his people were irredeemably corrupt, and that, combined with the deteriorating conditions for blacks in the South cemented Grant’s place in history as a Bad President.

I always thought it was extremely impressive that at the end of his life, Grant, who was penniless and dying of throat cancer, threw himself into completing his autobiography, which he finished literally days before his death. The book was a massive bestseller and earned enough money for his family to live comfortably after his death. That certainly earns Grant a large measure of respect, inept Presidency or not.

Fun Facts: Apparently Grant was tone deaf (certainly when it came to the Jewish thing) and hated music. When you consider that popular songs of the period had titles like “The Dying Californian” (“now climbing the charts with a bullet – lodged in his spine!”) “The Oxen Song” (awesome video) and “The Jam on Gerry’s Rocks” (which sounds like a 19th century euphemism for something dirty) that doesn’t seem all that strange.

As a child, Grant was nicknamed "Useless" by his father, apparently because of his ineptitude at everyday tasks. Thank Dad, for the gift that keeps on giving: Low Self Esteem!

Grant smoked 20 cigars a day, for which his throat thanked him by killing him with throat cancer.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Andrew Johnson: Bad President!

April 15, 1865 – March 4, 1869, one term

National Unionist, kind of a Democrat, (Vice President under Lincoln, who was a Republican) April 15, 1865 – March 4, 1869, one term

Quote: "This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men." This stuff pretty much writes itself.

The good: As a Senator from Tennessee, Johnson was the only southern senator not to quit his post upon secession, and he supported Lincoln’s military policies during the Civil War. He presided over the Reconstruction, in which he reversed his hard-line rhetoric against Southern sympathizers and put into place some of the more lenient policies Lincoln had advocated.

Not so good: His leniency towards the postwar South. He supported allowing prominent former Confederate leaders to be elected to Congress, which pissed off Congress and began a power struggle with the Radical branch of the Republican Party that undercut his power, reversed most of the legislation he supported, and largely defined his Presidency. He allowed the Southern states to replace slavery with “Black Codes”, which furthered the discrimination against the former slaves by reaffirming the notion that they were inferior and had essentially no civil rights.

Johnson was the first President to be impeached, though he was acquitted. The impeachment was essentially a pissing match between Congress and the President, each believing they were on the right side of the Constitution, each . . . oh wait, that pretty much describes everything of note that goes on in Washington, doesn’t it? At any rate, this time, Congress said Johnson had violated the Tenure of Office Act, which Johnson claimed was unconstitutional, and they were all, “Fraid not” and he was like “Yah Hanh” and they went, “No way” and he went “Fraid so”.

Even though after his presidency was over, Johnson was elected to the Senate for the state of Tennessee, so apparently there were a sizable number of good simple folks in Tennessee who thought he was aces!

Fun Facts: Johnson was one of the targets of the Lincoln Assassination Conspiracy. Lucky for him the guy who had the assignment to kill him, George Atzerodt, decided to get wasted on whiskey that night instead.

Johnson's inaugural address as Vice-President was rambling and incoherent. He had been drinking whiskey to dull the pain of typhoid fever.

When Johnson married his wife Elizabeth McArdle, he was 18. She was 16, the first child bride to become First Lady!

John Tyler: Bad President!

April 4, 1841 – March 4, 1845, one term

Can you name a U.S. President who was not given a national day of mourning when he died? I couldn’t, but it turns out there was one: “His Accidency” John Tyler of the proud state of Virginia, home of the capitol of the Confederate States of America! Tyler was so loyal to the state (where he had been Governor) that when he died in Virginia in 1862, right in the middle of the Civil War, (it was considered “foreign soil” btw) and he was honored not one little bit in Washington.

Tyler was the Tyler in the oft-quoted campaign slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler too”. “Tippecanoe” was William Henry Harrison, who dropped Tyler into the presidency when he died after only a month in office. Tyler hadn’t been elected President, but there he was, surprise surprise, moving on up to the White House. Now, because the Constitution was a bit fuzzy here, he caught a lot of flack from skeptics who believed he had legally assumed the duties of the Presidency, but not the office.

Tyler however, had no doubts about his hold on the Presidency, and he instantly broke from the Whigs in Congress, (who had propelled Harrison into the White House) which of course irked them no end, so the rest of his term in office was spent in pitched battle with them. They expelled him from the party, and most of his cabinet resigned. They tried to pass a resolution to impeach him, but that failed. He was just not a popular guy.

As President, Tyler did get some things done – for example, he helped solidify the agreement with the Brits firmly establishing the boundary between Canada and Maine. He also began the process of annexing Texas, which wasn’t completed during his term because his enemies in Congress blocked forward progress until after he left office.

After his Presidency he moved back to his 1200 acre estate in Virginia, unsuccessfully attempted to broker a peaceful settlement between the North and the South, and ended up serving as a member of the Provisional Congress of the Confederacy. Hoo Dawgies! That didn’t sit well with the Yankees, as you might imagine!

Fun Facts: Tyler may have been a “shy, dignified” man, but apparently his sperm were more like drunken rugby players. Tyler was bold enough that he was able to marry twice and father a total of fifteen children during his life. Come to think of it, that’s more than enough for a rugby team right there.

The first White House security force was created for Tyler – four plainclothes officers - essentially because he was so stunningly unpopular.

Tyler was almost blown to bits by a huge gun the Navy was demonstrating aboard the U.S.S. Princeton – he escaped unscathed, six others on the ship weren’t so lucky, including two of his cabinet members (who had been appointed to replace the cabinet members who had resigned – did Tyler have bad luck with cabinets or what?) the father of Tyler’s wife-to-be Julia.

Franklin Pierce: Bad President!

March 4, 1853 – March 4, 1857, one term

Almost always landing in the top five of the lists of worst US presidents, Franklin Pierce is conversationally characterized as being “timid and unable to cope with a changing America.”

To be fair it probably didn’t help that he and his wife were witnesses to their son being crushed to death in a train accident that they both survived. Mrs. Pierce apparently spent the four years as First Lady communicating via mail with their dead son, while Franklin, who had always been a bit of a drinker, increasingly sought advice and comfort from his old pal Jack Daniels.

But Pierce was a big advocate of state’s rights, and when he sponsored and signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, he basically opened up the possibility of slavery expanding into the west. The legislation overturned the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and gave slave owners the right to take their slaves wherever they wanted (This was mostly because the boys in Washington were pushing for an east-to-west railroad through Nebraska) The Kansas Territory exploded into a violent mess (“Bleeding Kansas”) as southerners and northerners duked it out for control of the place, having essentially been given permission to figure it out for themselves.

Also it didn’t help that Pierce was anti-abolitionist, or in other words he kinda believed that there wasn’t anything really all that wrong with slavery. In letters that became public in 1863 - while the Civil War raged on - he characterized the conflict as “aimless” and “unnecessary” and that it’s true purpose “was to wipe out the states and destroy property.” Oops.

To his credit, Pierce was an advocate for strong civil liberties, chastising Abe Lincoln for suspending Habeas Corpus during the Civil War. Pierce firmly believe we should not abandon our protection of civil liberties, even in a time of war – imagine that, Bush! But this was after his presidency and few were listening any more.

Fun Facts: Pierce had no Vice President for almost his entire term, his running mate William R. King having died a month after the inauguration. Astonishingly, King was actually inaugurated in Cuba, where he had traveled for health reasons (he had been diagnosed with terminal Tuberculosis) He was the shortest serving Veep in American History.

King, btw, was rumored to be the “special companion” if-you-know-what-I-mean-and-I-think-that-you-do of the soon to be President James Buchanan, who has long been considered to be America’s first gay President.

Millard Fillmore: Bad President!

July 9, 1850 – March 4, 1853, one term

Millard Fillmore, (not to be confused with the execrable right wing comic strip duck) was the last of the Whigs to become president. Just to give you an indication of why the Whigs went the whay of the dinosaur, they nominated Fillmore as Vice President because they saw him as the least controversial, or safest choice, right when the most controversial issue in U.S. history – slavery – was becoming, you should pardon the expression, white hot. Right when you’d want someone in power making a stand for morality and justice, for anything really, here’s what you got with Fillmore:

"God knows that I detest slavery, but it is an existing evil ... and we must endure it and give it such protection as is guaranteed by the Constitution."

Fillmore was the very definition of a Dark Horse: “a little-known person or thing that emerges to prominence” - don’t let the name fool you though, he was a person, not a thing. And as it turns out, he was a person who didn’t want to alienate the Southern states.

His most significant act as President was to sign into law the Compromise Bill of 1850, which made these things law:

- Admitted California as a free state (obviously none of them ever lived here – “free” my a$$!)

- Abolished the slave trade in the District of Columbia (but not slavery – psych!) - - Fixed the boundary of Texas and gave it money for making nice with

- New territory New Mexico

- And inexplicably, the bill also placed federal officers at the disposal of slaveholders seeking escapees. Ooops!

Compromise has a new name: “Fillmore!”

Fun Facts: Fillmore never actually met his Presidential running mate Zachary Taylor until after Taylor’s inauguration. Imagine that!

He was the first President to open up trade with Japan, sending a fleet there to open diplomatic and trade negotiations with the Japanese. The fleet was commanded by Commodore Matthew Perry, who as we all know went on to even greater fame as Chandler on the hit TV show “Friends”

Fillmore was not a highly educated man, so he prized books and reading as a way of making more of oneself – he started the White House library, where today you can still find brand new books left uncolored by Dan Quayle and Bush, Jr.

Monday, March 22, 2010

James Buchanan: Bad President!

Democrat, March 4, 1857 – March 4, 1861, one term

Buchanan regularly makes the top five of Worst Presidents, but it has nothing to do with the rumors that he was gay. Widely considered to have been in waaay over his head, he was elected basically because he was considered untainted by the disastrous Kansas-Nebraska Bill of his predecessor Franklin Pierce. He had been abroad (not a gay innuendo) as the US ambassador to the UK for four years and was considered an ideal compromise candidate. Sorry Stephen A. Douglas!

Buchanan was the only US President to remain a bachelor. (not a gay innuendo)

A Northerner with Southern sympathies, (they called them “doughfaces”, which originally referred to “an actual mask (neither a gay, nor an S&M innuendo) made of dough, but came to be used in a disparaging context for someone, especially a politician, who is perceived to be pliable and moldable”! Isn’t history wonderful?) Buchanan mistakenly made the assumption that the slavery issue was all settled after the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott ruling. (The Court ruled that Congress had no constitutional power to exclude slavery in the territories. Yeah, that’s a great idea – “Let’s just leave it to all those law-abiding, rights-of-man-respecting crackers in the territories to do the right thing - let’s let Industry self-regulate!”)

Slavery slavery slavery!

Buchanan was a big supporter of admitting Kansas into the Union as a slave state, which pissed off almost everybody but slave owners eager to spread their scabrous custom into the west. He enthusiastically got behind (not a gay innuendo) a draft of the Kansas constitution that allowed slavery, which Congress thankfully rejected. He was so sympathetic to the slaveholders that he actually made the claim, during his 3rd State of the Union Address that the slaves were "treated with kindness and humanity.... Both the philanthropy and the self-interest of the master have combined to produce this humane result" Ooops!

He did nothing to respond to a big financial crisis in 1857; his administration was permeated with corruption; he was the architect of “Buchanan’s Blunder” , the wacky misadventures of the U.S. troops sent to Utah to put down a nonexistent Mormon uprising; he didn’t act when South Carolina and six other states pulled out of the Union in 1860 . . . waaay over his head.

So relieved when Abe Lincoln finally replaced him in the White House, Buchanan was reported to have told Lincoln, "If you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to Wheatland you are a happy man."

Fun Facts: Buchanan and William Rufus King's close relationship prompted Andrew Jackson to refer to Buchanan and King as "Miss Nancy" and "Aunt Fancy" (most definitely a gay innuendo)

In photos and paintings of Buchanan, his head was almost invariably cocked to the left. He was not pretending to be a dog. This was the result of an unusual sight disorder, in which one eye was short-sighted and the other long-sighted.

His nickname, almost inexplicably, was “Old Buck”. Maybe he was pretending to be a dog.

Because he never married, Harriet Lane, his niece, acted as his First Lady. Gosh, I hope she called him “Uncle Buck”.