Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Dez Prez Rankings: They Tried

We are now officially halfway through the Dez Prez Rankings. Thanks to those who are still reading and (occasionally) commenting. I love the comments, so keep them coming. One of the fun things about doing this is the discussion (I was hoping for more on Nixon below, and where was ANCIANT on Jackson!) Also, for my ego, it tells me that people are actually reading these things. So, here're two more...

#20 of 39:
Grover Cleveland (22nd and 24th president)
1885-89 and 1893-97

ABOVE: "Though the people should support the government, the government should not support the people." - Grover Cleveland, vetoing a bill that would have helped farmers in Texas suffering from a drought. You think a statement like this would get you elected nowadays?

Grover Cleveland was the man of "no." Much like #21 below on this list, he loved the veto. How much did he love it? Before Cleveland there was a total of 205 vetos; Cleveland vetoed 414 bills in his first term alone. The thing is, during a time when politicians said "yes" to almost anything, "no" wasn't such a bad word. In fact, it took a lot of courage in the late 1800's to say "no" to what now we would call pork barrel projects that were seen as business as usual during this time. He was an equal opportunity naysayer, too. His consistent political philosophy was that government needed to ensure a level playing field and stay out of the way. He refused to do favors for big business and the railroads or for farmers and war veterans. Government aid to those in need "weakens the sturdiness of our national character." In other words, this is a country of people making their own way without government handouts. Cleveland is notable for being the only president to serve non-consecutive terms.

* Cleveland restored a firm, powerful hand in the White House after a string of weak Chief Executives
* Cleveland was by most accounts an honest man who was not involved in the rampant corruption of the day, and he refused to favor any one sector of society, regardless of their power
* Cleveland was somewhat successful in slowing the rush to redeem devalued silver for gold in the U.S. Treasury (gold vs. silver was actually one of the most important issues of the day)
* In taking a lead role in negotiating the border dispute between Venezuela and British Guyana, Cleveland reasserted the president's lead role in foreign policy (Cleveland purposely tried to freeze Congress out of the process), a precedent that has been maintained ever since. Also, after this incident, the United States and Great Britain ceased to have issues with each other and formed a very close relationship that served both well in the next century

* Cleveland used federal troops to end the Pullman Strike of 1894. While I am no fan of unions, there were some serious grievances to be addressed at this time

#19 of 39:
Rutherford B. Hayes (19th president)

Hayes was a very good man who couldn't get much done. But he tried, and in many cases (such as in treatment of Indians and other minorities), he was way ahead of his time. He was remarkably candid when he stated that "our Indian wars have had their origin in broken promises and acts of injustice on our part," essentially apologizing for #21 below. He proposed increasing funding for Indian education, land grants for the tribes and citizenship. He fought racist legislation restricting Chinese immigration. He spoke passionately about increasing education opportunities for Black Americans and linked education reforms to voting rights. All of this was very noble, but Hayes's main problem is that he actually accomplished very little, unable to get Congress or much of the country behind his plans.

Most historians remember Hayes for being the man who ended Reconstruction through a rather dubious bargain. In the election of 1876, Democrat Samuel Tilden was leading in the popular and electoral votes. But there were 19 disputed electoral votes (Louisiana, South Carolina and (surprise!) Florida). A fifteen man commission comprised of congressmen and Supreme Court justices determined the outcome, and voting strictly down party lines, all 19 votes, and therefore the election, were given to Hayes. To quell Democrat cries of fraud, Hayes agreed to end Reconstruction.

* Hayes was a morally strong president who spoke out against discrimination against Indians, Blacks, and immigrants, and he proposed programs to help these groups
* Attempted civil service reform, prohibiting federal employees from being involved in political campaigns
* Hayes battled Democrat attempts in Congress to pass laws prohibiting the federal government from sending federal troops into the South to protect Black voting rights

* Hayes was able to actually accomplish very little for the minority rights that he championed
* Hayes was elected under dubious circumstances
* Specie Resumption Act of 1875

Monday, June 28, 2010

Dez Prez Rankings: King Andrew I

#21 of 39:
Andrew Jackson (7th president)

ABOVE: "He was a democratic autocrat, an urbane savage, an atrocious saint" - an early biographer on Andrew Jackson

There is probably no president with a more controversial legacy than Andrew Jackson. He was the champion of the poor white farmer, but the enemy of blacks and Indians. Depending on whom you ask, Jackson is one of the greatest champions of true democracy this country has ever known and someone who transformed the presidency into the most powerful branch of government (which is true) or a cruel genocidal dictator in democratic clothing (also true). I struggled on where to put him on this list, and this is much lower than where he ranks on many other rankings out there, but he was the best and worst of presidents, so I guess it is fitting that he lands right in the middle of my list. I just split the difference, and I am very curious on what some of my learned readers think of Jackson.

Andrew Jackson is one of those great frontier characters out of American myth. The fact that it is mostly true makes it all the better. Orphaned and dirt poor as a child, he is the definition of the self-made American man. As a teenager he fought in the American Revolutionary War, receiving the scar across his forehead from a British officer’s sword when Jackson refused to polish the officer’s boots. He worked as a lawyer in his younger days in Salisbury, North Carolina, but earned more of a reputation as “the most roaring, rollicking, game-cocking, horse-racing, card-playing mischievous fellow, that ever lived in Salisbury,” according to a contemporary. Jackson then moved to the Tennessee territory, ran off with a married woman and, believing that she had secured a divorce, he married her (actually, she was not divorced yet, a fact that Jackson’s political enemies never tired of revisiting). He served as Tennessee’s first Senator, and also took part in many duels, receiving several shots and killing several men. Jackson really made his name as a military man, such as when he slaughtered 1000 Creek Indians at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend (not a single Creek surrendered, and therefore Jackson did not let a single Creek survive the day). Jackson became a national hero when he led a ragtag force of American militia, free blacks, French pirates and anyone else around with a gun to defeat a crack British force at the Battle of New Orleans. Later, when president James Monroe ordered Jackson to Georgia to stop raids by Seminole Indians out of Spanish Florida and to recover runaway slaves (Jackson owned over 100 slaves personally), he boldly exceeded his orders and decided to invade Florida, execute some British prisoners along the way, and overthrow the Spanish governor. Spain quickly decided to “sell” Florida to the United States shortly thereafter. I know I haven’t even gotten to his presidency yet, but Jackson is one of the most interesting characters in our history.

ABOVE: Famous statue of Gen. Jackson in Jackson Square in the French Quarter, New Orleans

As president, Jackson wanted to eradicate all vestiges of elitism from our government, perhaps since he himself came from such humble beginnings and never forgot it. On his inauguration day, he flung open the doors of the White House, set up some kegs of beer, hired The Grateful Dead for the music and allowed the mob to come party with him upon his election. The mob quickly got out of hand and destroyed much of the White House’s china (Jackson himself slipped out a window and spent the rest of the evening in a nearby hotel while the mob ransacked the White House). More substantively, Jackson proposed direct election of all federal officials (including judges), but this was unsuccessful. He brought the spoils system to Washington, using political appointments as a powerful weapon. His idea was to get rid of career politicians and bring in new blood and fresh ideas, but the spoils system ended up being a system to repay political debts to people who were not necessarily qualified for the jobs they were given.

Jackson believed in following a Jeffersonian model (at least following Jeffersonian rhetoric, if not practice), and remains the only president after 1835 to ever completely retire the national debt.

Old Hickory boldly faced off with South Carolina in one of the earliest threats of secession. Southern states were burdened by the federal tariffs that benefited New England merchant interests, and South Carolina declared that a state had the right to “nullify” any law it felt was contrary to its interests and threatened to secede if Jackson attempted to enforce the tariff. Jackson, while sympathetic to Southern interests, would not tolerate insurrection. He called their bluff, declaring the Union “indissoluble” and declaring South Carolina guilty of “treason,” ominously asking them in an address “are you ready to incur its guilt?” Fortunately, a compromise was reached and the issue did not come to blows, but you have to assume that Jackson was ready to unleash the full fury of the Federal government on them if necessary.

Jackson’s financial policies directly affected the U.S. for the next century, and not in positive ways. Jackson was the sworn enemy of the mammoth Second Bank of the United States, feeling that it was the bastion of elite interests and involved itself in the politics of the nation. He withdrew all federal money from the Bank (which he did not have the authority to do, but he kept firing Secretaries of the Treasury until he found one who would do it) and deposited the money in favored state banks, the “pet banks.” The Senate censured Jackson, but he fired back that the president was the sole representative of “the people.” He vetoed the renewal of the Bank’s charter (in fact, Jackson vetoed more legislation than all of his predecessors combined) and effectively killed the beast. The problem was that he had no viable alternative to the Bank and the U.S. did not have a stable economy for a long time afterwards. Furthermore, he issued his Specie Circular, prohibiting the use of paper money to buy federal land. Only hard currency could be used. Jackson thought this would ease the mad speculation that ensued after Jackson killed the Bank and set the wildcat state banks loose. But all this did was cause the brutal financial panic of 1837.

ABOVE: The Trail of Tears

The blackest stain on Jackson’s legacy is his Indian Removal Act of 1830. Sympathetic to Southern farmers who wanted valuable Indian lands in the Southeast, Jackson ordered the forced removal of these Indian tribes to the new territories west of the Mississippi. The Cherokees sued and the Supreme Court actually ruled in their favor, to which Jackson famously retorted “(Chief Justice) John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.” Jackson comforted himself by stating that he was removing the Indians to protect them from annihilation. The Seminoles resisted for years, but were eventually subdued. The Indian tribes were eventually forcibly marched West, sometimes at a moments notice without the opportunity to gather their belongings or even all of their family members. The infamous Trail of Tears was the most cruel march of this period (which actually happened after Jackson’s term was completed, but he was still pulling the strings in retirement). The official government estimate for Cherokee deaths on the Trail of Tears was 400, but most experts believe the total is closer to 4000.

ABOVE: Upon leaving the White House to a reporter: "After eight years as president, I have but two regrets. That I have not shot Henry Clay or hanged John C. Calhoun."

• Jackson greatly expanded the power of the Executive Branch. He created a powerful presidency that did not exist before and shaped what the presidency was to become
• Jackson effectively ended government rule exclusively by the elites and brought politics to the common man. Ever since Jackson, it has been a political asset to be a “man of the people.” To me, this is a mixed blessing. I don’t necessarily trust the common man. Look at Sarah Palin’s popularity
• Jackson retired the entire federal debt
• Jackson asserted Federal supremacy in the face of South Carolina’s nullification and secession threats
* Founded the Democratic Party
* Ran the first "modern" political campaign

• Jackson brought the Spoils System to Washington
• Indian Removal Act (defiance of the Supreme Court), which was a form of ethnic cleansing
• Jackson destroyed the Bank of the U.S. with no real alternative to stabilize the economy
• Specie Circular
* Allowed the Peggy Eaton Scandal to destroy his first cabinet
* Supported the banning / burning of Abolitionist literature, violating Freedom of Speech and Petition

Friday, June 25, 2010

Dez Prez Rankings: #22

#22 of 39:
Richard Nixon (37th president)

I must disclose from the outset that I am a Richard Nixon fan. This is as far as I could justifiably push Tricky Dick up on this list. On a personal level, I was born during his presidency, so I am a child of Nixon. As an American, I can step back from the shadows of Watergate and appreciate his substantial accomplishments, and in some instances, his far reaching vision. As an academic, how can I not love Nixon as a fascinating figure to study? In the AP U.S. History course that I teach, I spend two full class periods on the Nixon presidency (if you know the breadth and scope of an AP course, two classes on any one subject is a substantial commitment). His presidency deserves a close look, and I always hated when I was a student how the teachers would always run out of time at the end of the year and we would have to sprint through the most recent 50 years or so. Not me. This stuff is important. With Nixon, it is very much a case of The Good, The Bad & the Ugly.

The Good:
RN’s triumphs were in foreign policy. His first great move was striking up a close relationship with the brilliant Henry Kissinger, his National Security Advisor and later Secretary of State. The Nixon-Kissinger team was insulated and secretive (a hallmark of most Nixon relationships), but this one worked. Nixon opened relations with communist China. Before this point, previous American presidents had refused to even acknowledge the Chinese government as legitimate (instead recognizing the government-in-exile on Taiwan as the “true” Chinese leadership). But Nixon, the former rabid Red-hunter, now was the peace seeking diplomat. This move was brilliant. Not only did it open relations with China, it also lit a fire under the jealous and suspicious Soviets. Now afraid that the U.S. and China were suddenly cozy, the Soviets wanted to talk too. Between Nixon’s triumphant visits to Beijing and Moscow, he masterfully played China and the USSR against each other, taking advantage of the natural competitiveness that existed between the world’s two most dominant communist powers. Nixon was able to reopen the door to China and at the same time usher in D├ętente, the thawing of the Cold War. He also signed the SALT I treaty, the first arms reduction deal with the Soviets.

ABOVE: Nixon and Kissinger made an outstanding foreign policy team

Nixon’s conduct of the Vietnam War which he inherited was mixed. It was Nixon who decided to (slowly) end our involvement. “Vietnamization” was the precursor to our current Iraq strategy of pulling our military out and handing the fight over to our local allies. The eventual result of Vietnamization was the fall of Saigon and the defeat of the South Vietnamese. Let’s hope Iraq has a more favorable outcome. More on Vietnam (and Cambodia) below.

Nixon was less successful domestically, but he did do some good things. I find it notable that he proposed a universal health care plan decades before Obama. He increased social security, Medicare and Medicaid. He also became an early advocate for the environment, creating the EPA.

The Bad:
Nixon’s illegal and secret (for awhile) bombing of Cambodia was, uh, questionable. Estimates vary wildly (between hundreds and tens of thousands) of innocent Cambodian civilians who were killed in the carpet bombing. But at the same time, it is helpful to understand his reasons. The Viet Cong were able to move at will throughout Vietnam due to their ability to jump the Cambodian border on to the Ho Chi Minh Trail. We knew the Viet Cong had substantial supply depots and bases on the Cambodian side of the border, even though Cambodia was ostensibly neutral. If your enemy is hiding somewhere, it makes sense to bomb them there. But “there” happened to be another country with whom we were not officially at war. One can argue that Nixon’s actions strengthened the position of Pol Pot, inadvertantly helping his genocidal Khmer Rouge government to gain power.

ABOVE: Nixon enjoyed bowling

Nixon proposed one of the first affirmative action programs with his Philadelphia Plan. I happen to feel affirmative action is a negative and just discrimination under a different name, so I put that in the negative column. He did not handle the economic problems of the 70’s very well. Contrary to what my friend Pockyjack states, I don’t think anyone had the answers to the 70’s economic woes. But Nixon sure didn’t help things with his price and wage freeze.

The Ugly:
As much as I try to focus on the complexities of the Nixon administration, it always does end up coming down to Watergate. What makes Nixon such an interesting historical figure is that most of his problems he brought upon himself. Nixon was a brilliant, hard-working leader, but he was also paranoid, vindictive and distrustful. His desire to punish his enemies and to ensure his own power led him to violate the law. His team of Plumbers led by G. Gordon Liddy did everything from break into Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office to steal medical files and get some blackmail-worthy dirt on the Pentagon Papers whistleblower to planning kidnappings of war protestors and setting up filmed prostitute entrapment scenarios for his political rivals.

ABOVE: The famous photo of Nixon's secretary Rosemary Woods. When Congress and investigators demanded to know why there were substantial gaps on some of the White House tapes, especially one in which Nixon and H.R. Haldemann were about to discuss Watergate, Nixon blamed his secretary. Here she is seen demonstrating how she could have activated the tape machine with her hand and at the same time "accidentally" pushed the erase button with her foot. Needless to say, this gymnastic pose didn't help Nixon's credibility. Especially when it was later discovered after analysis that the tapes had been erased 4 to 6 times to make sure there was no trace of what was on them.

I don’t believe that Nixon ordered the Watergate break-in, but he definitely tried to cover it up. And more importantly, the atmosphere that he created led his underlings to believe that the Watergate caper was acceptable practice. It was so unnecessary. He had the ’72 election won against the whimpy George McGovern anyway. But he wanted to do more than win, he wanted the biggest landslide in history. The irony is that the taping system that Nixon used in the Oval Office that he thought he would use to preserve his meetings and later use to help him write his own glowing memoirs was finally what sealed his doom. Once the Supreme Court in The United States v. Nixon ruled that he had to hand over the tapes to Congress, he became the first (and only) president in U.S. history to resign from office, as he was facing certain impeachment and removal.

* Open the door to China relations
* Detente with the Soviets (SALT I)
* Eventually got us out of Vietnam
* Expanded some important programs

* Bombing and invasion of Cambodia
* Affirmative Action
* Price and wage freezes
* Dirty tricks and Watergate

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Monday, June 21, 2010

Dez Prez Rankings: #'s 25-23, The Forgettable Men

#25 of 39:
John Quincy Adams (6th president)
Term: 1825-29
Party: Democratic-Republican

ABOVE: John Quincy Adams: "F*ck Andrew Jackson." (I'm paraphrasing)

The first son to follow a father in the presidency, John Quincy Adams (we’ll call him “Q”) had grand plans for the country, but unfortunately was unable to accomplish any of them. He had a great mind (like his father), but lacked political skill (also like his father) and came into office under dubious circumstances. The “Corrupt Bargain,” where Q won the election over Andrew Jackson with Jackson’s supporters crying fraud, haunted Q throughout his presidency. The campaign for 1928 (the next election) started the day after Q took office. Q had ambitious ideas for the country, but was met with an indifferent Congress and had little political capital.

"No man who ever held the office of president would congratulate a friend on obtaining it." - Words of encouragement from father John Adams (our 2nd president) to son John Quincy Adams upon Q's election

• He was able to get some of his internal improvement plans going, including the Erie Canal

• J.Q. Adams was unable to get much of anything done due to strong political opposition and his own lack of political skill

#24 of 39:
Chester Arthur (21st president)
Term: 1881-85
Party: Republican

ABOVE: Another impressive set of whiskers

Chester Arthur wasn’t a bad president, he just didn’t do all that much. Taking office after the assassination of James Garfield, he signed the crucial Pendleton Civil Service Act, which dramatically reduced patronage and cleaned up corruption in Federal government jobs (Garfield had been shot by a disgruntled gentlemen who felt he was owed a government job). This was somewhat surprising since Arthur came out of the New York City political machine, but public demand was so strong he had to act.

• Signs Pendleton Civil Service Act and does not run a corrupt administration, defying expectations of a New York machine politician
• Moderate modernization of the navy
• Moderate reforms of the tariffs
• Vetoed Chinese Exclusion Act (it later passed with less harsh terms)

• None

#23 of 39:
Millard Fillmore (13th president)
Term: 1850-53
Party: Whig

ABOVE: If you are interested in joining the Millard Fillmore Society, go here. They have sponsored annual pilgrimages to his grave and the essay contest: "What would America be today if there had been no Millard Fillmore?" Evidently, upon receiving some soup from his doctor right before his death, his celebrated (at least by the MFS) last words were: "The nourishment is palatable."

Millard Fillmore’s term was so nondescript that there is a Millard Fillmore Society that celebrates his mediocrity. Compared to the string of terrible pre- and immediate post-Civil War presidents, though, Fillmore was actually a cut above. He took over after the death of Zachary Taylor, and was by most accounts an amiable fellow. The Compromise of 1850 passed under his watch, but that was the work of legislative giants Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, Jefferson Davis, John C. Calhoun and Daniel Webster. Fillmore had little to do with it. Fillmore did act decisively when needed, and probably prevented the Civil War from breaking out ten years earlier than it did. Texas was threatening to invade New Mexico and take some disputed land, but Fillmore sent federal troops to the area and Texas backed down. Also, upon learning that South Carolina was gearing up to seize federal forts in Charleston as a precursor to secession, Fillmore sent troops there as well, forcing South Carolina to back off (for the time being). This is at least more than successors Franklin Pierce or James Buchanan were willing to do when confronted with similar sectional crises.

• Fillmore sends Commodore Matthew Perry to Japan to force them to open their ports to trade
• Fillmore stands firm and defuses several brewing sectional crises, such as Texas’s threat to invade New Mexico and South Carolina’s threat to seize federal forts

• Other than the above, he did not exercise strong leadership

Friday, June 18, 2010

Dez Prez Rankings: #'s 27 and 26, Men Who Would Not Do As They Were Told

William Howard Taft (27th president)
Term: 1909-13
Party: Republican

ABOVE: Taft doing what he did best as president, enjoying himself on the gold course

Poor Taft. Remembered mostly as the answer to the trivia question: Who was our fattest president?, Taft was not a successful president. He didn’t even want the job and was miserable for most of his term, retreating to the golf course whenever he could. Taft was the hand-picked successor of Teddy Roosevelt, chosen mainly for what Roosevelt mistakenly believed was Taft’s unquestioning loyalty to TR’s program. Taft coveted a justice position on the Supreme Court, and he finally served on the court after his term as president. He was much more successful on the Supreme Court than he was in the Oval Office.

ABOVE: After getting stuck in the White House bathtub, Taft had a special tub installed

Taft’s term in office is most notable for Teddy Roosevelt’s reaction to it. TR essentially installed Taft in the White House and then took off on safari in Africa, secure in the belief that Taft would be a good boy and do as TR had told him. Unfortunately for TR (and Taft, it turns out), Taft started to do his own thing. Taft supported a bad tariff that TR had fought against, and most importantly Taft fired TR buddy Gifford Pinchot for insubordination (Pinchot had accused Interior Secretary Ballinger of improperly selling off Alaskan coal fields). Roosevelt returned from slaying lions and tigers in Africa furious with Taft and ready for a fight. Taft then had his justice department file an anti-trust suit against behemoth U.S. Steel, a trust TR had signed off on in 1907. This made Roosevelt look like he had been in the pocket of big business, which clashed with Roosevelt’s public image as a Progressive crusader against the trusts.

All of this set up one of the most contested and fascinating elections in our history, the election of 1912. Taft managed to win the Republican nomination, while a still fuming Roosevelt bolted the GOP and formed his own Progressive Party (or the Bull Moose Party). Socialist Eugene V. Debs also made a strong run, while Democrat Woodrow Wilson rounded out the four man race. Had Roosevelt been chosen as the Republican candidate, he would have certainly won a third term, but the Taft/Roosevelt rift ensured Wilson’s victory in 1912 (Wilson later had Debs jailed).

ABOVE: Who looks happier on Wilson's inauguration day? Incoming president Woodrow Wilson or outgoing president William Taft?

• As much as Teddy Roosevelt thought of himself as a crusader against the power of the monopolies and trusts, Taft actually filed more suits against the trusts in his one term than TR did in two terms

• Taft had little interest in being president, and did not have a strong idea of what he wanted to do when in the office
• Taft signs off on a bad protective tariff being pushed by Republicans in Congress
• Taft’s “Dollar Diplomacy” is only a marginally successful foreign policy

John Tyler (10th president)
Term: 1841-45
Party: Whig

ABOVE: John Tyler (left) and Grand Moff Tarkin from Star Wars (right). Hmm

John Tyler is not usually ranked very high in these polls (and he is not ranked too high here either), but I think he deserves credit for something that is often overlooked. Tyler is the first president to come into office because of the death of another president. William Henry Harrison died after a mere month in office, and his vice-president John Tyler quickly took over. The wording in the Constitution is surprisingly vague on the issue as to whether the VP simply becomes president or whether he remains VP but takes over some of the duties of the presidency for a short while. Tyler fought both congressional leaders and Harrison’s own cabinet to establish the fact that he was now president, not merely “Vice-President, Acting as President,” as many tried to call him. We would have had an interesting history had Tyler not been as stubborn and a different precedent were set for how a VP takes over.

Tyler was a fascinating guy in an interesting time. The Whigs had finally won the White House with the election of Harrison and were eager to undo the (Andrew) Jacksonian legacy. Harrison was their man for the job, but once Tyler took over he went his own way. Tyler vetoed legislation that would have resurrected the slain dragon of the Bank of the United States and would have stabilized the shaky economy that had existed ever since Jackson had vetoed the renewal of the Bank. Whigs were so furious that they kicked Tyler out of the party, and so the president of the United States was a true Independent through to the end of his term. Of course, the result of this fight was that Jackson’s wobbly banking system that leaned on unstable wildcat state banks remained in place and continued to wreck havoc on our economy.

• Tyler set the precedent, against opposition, that a Vice-President who succeeds a deceased president midterm becomes the new president in every sense, thereby clarifying the crucial issue of presidential succession
• Tyler oversaw the completion of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty establishing the U.S.-Canadian border
• Tyler supports the Texas application to join the U.S., paving the way for their entry under Polk

• Tyler fights the Whigs (his own party) in their attempt to replace the unstable banking system established by Andrew Jackson. He defeats their attempts, fails to get his own plan passed, and therefore leaves Jackson’s dangerous system in place
• Tyler became a man without a party once the Whigs disowned him, making him a president without a power base to get anything done

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Game 7

I know that I posted about the NBA Playoffs at the beginning and I haven't really mentioned them sense. They've been somewhat underwhelming this season, although Boston's tear through No. 1 Cleveland, No. 3 Orlando and reaching Game 7 in the Finals tonight against No. 2 Lakers has been interesting and historic.

I think the Lakers win tonight in L.A. Boston's real chance to take the title was Game 6 (also in L.A.) The Lakers just have too much momentum going into Game 7, at home after a crushing victory in Game 6 (where Boston Center Kendrick Perkins went down and cannot play tonight).

I've kind of come around on Kobe. I used to hate him due to his youthful arrogance. But he ain't so youthful anymore, and I have been impressed over recent years with his singular focus and (finally) discovered effective leadership skills. I think my admiration for Kobe has risen as my disgust with Lebron James has increased. The two most dominant players currently playing, they make a striking contrast. So far Lebron has won nothing yet surrounds himself with his posse, holds the city of Cleveland hostage with his "will I stay or won't I stay?" antics, acts like an entitled jackass, refuses to even speak with (ex-)potential Cleveland coach Izzo...Lebron has proven to be King Douche. Kobe, on the other hand, doesn't talk as much as he used to and continues to accumulate titles. He gets No. 5 tonight.

ABOVE: Kobe just wants it more than anybody else.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Dez's Prez Rankings: #'s 29 and 28, The One You Have Been Waiting For

#29 of 39:
Calvin Coolidge (30th president)
Term: 1923-29
Party: Republican

“Nobody has ever worked harder at inactivity, with such force of character, with such unremitting attention to details, with such conscientious devotion to the task.” – Walter Lippmann on Calvin Coolidge

Calvin Coolidge was nothing if not lucky. Lucky because he left office months before the Great Depression hit, thereby forever hanging the honor of presiding over the beginning of the worst economic crisis in our history on Herbert Hoover. That is somewhat typical of Coolidge, as he simply skated by unnoticed through much of his term as president. Interestingly, he has emerged in recent decades as a conservative hero of sorts, in that his view that government involvement in the economy or almost anything else is a bad thing fits in with conservative ideology (if not conservative practice). Reagan admired Coolidge a great deal, although despite Reagan's talk, Reagan acted much more like an FDR than a Calvin Coolidge as far as being an activist president.

At any rate, that admiration for Coolidge's doing-nothing-is-best philosophy is misplaced. Coolidge’s sleepwalk of a term allowed for the rampant speculation on Wall Street that in large part led to the Stock Market Crash of 1929, which was the beginning of the Great Depression. Coolidge was famous for saying “the chief business of the American people is business,” and he often vetoed legislation that he felt would involve the government too much in their affairs. He vetoed bonuses for World War I vets and a bill that would have greatly relieved the farm price crisis, which became another primary cause of the Great Depression.

ABOVE: As dull as he was, Coolidge had a strange habit of being photographed in funny hats. Here is Coolidge meeting with some Sioux tribal leaders. (That's Coolidge on the left)

• Coolidge did return a bit of honesty and integrity to the office after the corruption and scandal plagued administration of his predecessor, Warren G. Harding
• Coolidge backs the Dawes Plan of 1924, which temporarily eases Germany’s economic problems regarding WWI reparations

• Coolidge does nothing to try and stem or regulate the wild speculation on Wall Street that eventually leads to the Stock Crash of 1929
• Coolidge vetoes some efforts that try to address issues that eventually lead to the Great Depression, including farm prices

#28 of 39:
Jimmy Carter (39th president)
Term: 1977-81
Party: Democrat

For some reason many of you have been eagerly awaiting the appearance of one James Earl Carter on this list. Well, here he is. Pocky was shocked (shocked!) that Jerry Ford came in lower than Jimmy, but what is really the difference between #30 and #28 here? Splitting hairs, as JMW said. So, here goes...

Jimmy Carter is a self-righteous tool. Now, in his defense, nobody could have successfully dealt with the economic mess of the late 70’s. With inflation, unemployment and an energy crisis all piling on, who would even want to be president? Because Gerald Ford was so uninspiring and still smarting from the Nixon pardon, Jimmy strolled into the White House with his aw-shucks Georgia Everyman "I will never lie to you" schtick. Underneath the pose was an extremely intelligent, policy wonk with a rigid moral code. Maybe those are some admirable qualities, but not necessarily ones that make a successful president. Carter’s biggest flaw was his inability to work with people outside of his inner circle. He refused to play the political games necessary to get things done in Washington, and more specifically, he didn’t kiss Speaker Tip O’Neil’s ass. I guess for that we can admire Carter, but it did prevent him from getting much of his agenda through. Forget the opposition, his own party's insiders didn't like the guy.

He was the first president to base our foreign policy on human rights. Admirable in the abstract, but in this realpolitik world in which we live in, he made some questionable decisions for American interests. Carter boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics and withdrew from the SALT II nuclear talks in protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He also gave away our Panama Canal, the one that we built for millions of our dollars and which gave us a strong hand in trade and politics in Latin America. Some argue that this was a good move because by relinquishing a symbol of our Imperialist past it improved our standing south of the border. But I think we gave up more than we gained (Carter made the deal, but the Canal wasn't handed over to the Panamanians officially until 2000).

ABOVE: Jimmy Carter vs. The Killer Rabbit: Carter went fishing in Georgia and was attacked by a large swimming rabbit. This photo was snapped by the Secret Service, you can see the president splashing his paddle and the would-be Bunny Assasin swimming away to the right

Carter also appeared weak in the face of the hostage crisis in Iran, with the bungled rescue mission symbolic of his handling of the entire situation. He waffled when he should have been firm. He should have taken a firm position either way, but by being indecisive from all angles he gained absolutely no advantage during the crisis. By tepidly standing by the admittedly brutal Shah, he sent the message to other allied heads of state that we aren't the strong powerful ally we used to be. But then by letting the Shah into the U.S. on humanitarian grounds due to the Shah's cancer (after Carter had previously refused him admission)and refusing to hand him over to Iranian authorities, he set us on our belligerent course with Iran that we still find ourselves on. He and his administration grossly underestimated the popularity and power of the Ayatollah Khomeini and his band of merry clerics, and simply backed the wrong horse. There were dissident voices within the Carter administration who tried to tell the president that the Shah's situation in Iran was much more tenuous than Carter believed, and a golden opportunity was missed. Carter was advised to meet with some of the more moderate factions within Iran's revolutionary movement and he could have been instrumental in brokering a more moderate revolution than occurred. But these voices were not members of his Georgia mafia inner circle, so they were either fired, forced to resign or ignored. By granting the Shah sanctuary in the U.S., Carter gave up that opportunity to help steer Iran on an alternate path.

So why do I not rank Carter lower than I do? Afterall, he bungled the economy, the energy crisis, Iran and gave away our Canal. I do give him credit for two things, though. First, the Camp David Accords where he forced Israel and Egypt to forge a lasting peace was a real accomplishment. That was all Carter’s doing. Secondly, I kind of like the honesty of his infamous “malaise” speech (although he never actually used that word). He intended it to be an honest pep talk for the country, but it came across differently to many people, as if he were scolding a child. But what he said was probably true (that we were losing faith in our institutions and in ourselves, and that we were too materialistic for our own good), but it wasn’t the best political move. Also, as stated above, I do give him a break on the 70's economy and energy crisis. Even many of Carter's enemies acknowledge that probably nobody could have fixed those problems.

ABOVE: This is one of the most controversial speeches a modern president has ever given. I find it remarkable in its honesty and passion. It does come across as a scolding, but perhaps a needed one.

Many critics praise Carter’s post-presidency as a model for all ex-Chief Executives to follow. I find it a mixed bag. His charity work has been exemplary, of course, but when he tries to be a diplomat and get involved in foreign affairs without the current administration’s (whoever that may be) backing or approval, that can be dangerous. At times, his efforts have worked counter to the Clinton and W. administrations.

• Carter was a breath of fresh air for his honesty and personal integrity, even when it did not benefit him politically (the “malaise” speech)
• The Camp David Accords bringing a lasting peace between Israel and Egypt would not have happened without Carter. The greatest achievement of his administration
• Carter adds Departments of Energy and Education
• Carter continues Nixon’s work of improving our relations with China

• Carter did not play the political games required to get things done in Washington. Therefore, he was not able to be an effective leader, because he upset leaders of his own party. Instead of working with them, he relied on his “Georgia mafia” of close confidantes
• Carter did not have an answer to the economic crisis of the time, although it can be argued that nobody did
• Carter signs away our Panama Canal to Panama
• Carter boycotts the 1980 Olympics and pulls out of the SALT II talks with the Soviets due to his protest against their invasion of Afghanistan
• Carter appears weak in his dealing with the Iranian hostage crisis. To add insult to injury, the Ayatollah waits to release the hostages on Reagan’s inauguration day

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Geography Quiz

Here is a little geography quiz for you:

What is the difference between England, The British Isles, The United Kingdom, Great Britain, the British Commonwealth and the Commonwealth of Nations? Answer to come soon.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Dez Prez Rankings: #30

#30 of 39:
Gerald Ford (38th president)
Term: 1974-77
Party: Republican

Gerald Ford is unique for being the only president that we’ve ever had who was not elected either president or vice-president. Recall that Ford was Speaker of the House of Representatives in the early 70’s while Nixon and Agnew were in the White House. Agnew was forced to resign due to bribery charges, and Nixon, of course, resigned due to Watergate. When Agnew resigned, Ford had been appointed VP, and that was the office he occupied when Nixon skipped town.

ABOVE: Ford survived two assassination attempts. One was by Squeaky Fromme, one of Charles Manson’s followers

People really wanted to like Ford, especially after the Watergate nightmare. But he sealed his fate early when he gave Nixon a full pardon. Although there is no evidence that one was made, Ford was never able to escape the accusations that a deal had been brokered between a beleagered Nixon and an opportunistic Ford. Personally, I take Ford at his word, that he just wanted to spare the country a long and contentious trial of an ex-president and instead move forward.

ABOVE: Ford's famous tumble down the stairs of Air Force One was representative of his leadership skills in the Oval Office (sorry for the cheesy audio).

The 70’s were a tough time economically and otherwise. I’m not sure what could have been done to ease the energy and economic crises, but Ford definitely was not effective. He flipped back and forth on how he wanted to attack “stagflation" (high inflation coupled with high unemployment), and then blamed Congress for any failures in policy. He was equally unsure in foreign affairs. He waited too long to pull Americans out of Saigon, the Mayaguez rescue was a disaster (41 troops killed, 50 wounded to rescue 40 hostages aboard a U.S. merchant ship taken prisoner by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia), and while the Helsinki Accords with the Soviets looked good on paper there was no way to enforce empty Soviet promises to respect human rights.

“There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.”-Ford to Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential debates.

ABOVE: Unfortunately for Ford, ‘Saturday Night Live’ debuted during his administration, and Chevy Chase made his career by imitating the allegedly bumbling Ford

• Ford brings some stability and normalcy after the Constitutional crisis of Watergate
• Ford pardons Nixon, putting Watergate behind us

• Ford pardons Nixon, in some ways increasing the deep cynicism the American people feel about politics in Washington and the American government in general after Vietnam and Watergate
• Ford has no clue on how to deal with the stagflation (high inflation, high unemployment) crisis, first asking for a tax hike, then advocating a tax cut, all the while blaming Congress.
• Ford waits too long to order the evacuation of Saigon causing the desperate scramble out of the city when the South Vietnamese capital was sure to fall to the commies
• Ford orders the embarrassing Mayaguez “rescue” and then declares it a success
• While admirable in principle, the Helsinki Accords negotiated with the Soviets has no teeth or enforcement mechanism, making it meaningless

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Dez Prez Rankings: Rounding Out the Depressing Bottom Quartile, #'s 32-31

#32 of 39:
Martin Van Buren (8th president)
Term: 1837-41
Party: Democrat

ABOVE: Martin Van Buren is probably most notable for his impressive sideburns.

After a series of mostly extraordinary men at the helm of our young nation, we finally hit some mediocrity with our 8th president. Martin Van Buren took a pro-southern position on slavery in order to placate an increasingly belligerent South. The country was hit with a fairly severe depression for which Van Buren had no effective ideas to combat. He felt constrained by his view of the Constitution, which he believed did not give him the authority to authorize internal improvements, which would have stimulated the economy, improved the young nation’s infrastructure, and given a boost for employment. He continued Andrew Jackson’s cruel and illegal wars against and relocation of the Indian tribes in the Eastern United States. He refused to allow Texas admission into the Union, fearing that it would stir up the slavery debate once again.

• Van Buren orders a ten hour work day for Federal employees. One of the earliest moves towards more humane work conditions in this country
• Settles the Maine/Canada border dispute relatively peacefully

* Pro-slavery
* Has no response to the depression that occurred during his administration
* Does not adequately respond to a growing nation's needs
* Continues Jackson's heinous treatment of Indians
* Won't let Texas in!

#31 of 39:
Herbert Hoover (31st president)
Term: 1929-33
Party: Republican

Poor Herbert Hoover. He takes office and about six months later the Great Depression hits. That is really unfortunate, because Hoover had a brilliant pre-presidential career and might have had a successful administration in different times. But so much of this is timing. Hoover will forever be judged based on how he reacted to the Depression once it hit. He continually downplayed the Depression in the early months, saying that the economy was “sound and prosperous” even as one million Americans were out of work by that point (before the end of Hoover’s term, the unemployment rate in this country would reach close to 25%). I guess optimism is good, but so is realism. He steadfastly stood against “government handouts,” which he thought would undermine American individualism and the capitalist, entrepreneurial spirit. "Handouts" meaning almost any government aid at all. He continued to insist that recovery was “just around the corner” even as shantytowns sprouted up across the country (derisively called "Hoovervilles" by their residents). When a large group of World War I veterans marched on Washington D.C. to demand early payment of their promised war bonuses, Hoover called out Douglas MacArthur and the U.S. Army to kick them out of town. Images of MacArthur’s tanks rolling down the streets of D.C. and WWI vets being gassed sealed Hoover’s fate in the ’32 election.

ABOVE: Hoover was honored throughout his term by having many new shantytowns, such as the one above outside of Seattle, named after him (Hoovervilles). There were also the popular Hoover Blanket (a newspaper) and the Hoover Flag (empty, inside out pockets).

It is not quite fair to say that Hoover did nothing to try and fix the Depression. This is why he is not ranked lower, because he actually did more than most of his immediate predecessors probably would have. He tried to increase loans through federal reserve banks and to stimulate the economy and increase employment through government spending on improvement projects like highways and, most notably, the Boulder (later Hoover) Dam (you know, the one you can see when you fly into Vegas). He also pushed the Reconstruction Finance Corp. through Congress. Although these were impressive when compared to what the government had done in years past, it wasn’t near enough and he left office very unpopular.

• Contrary to popular belief, Hoover did try some limited government stimulus to battle the Great Depression

• Hoover signs the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, the highest tariff in our history. This causes reciprocal tariffs worldwide and global trade grinds to a halt, contributing to the Great Depression
• Hoover does not do enough to battle the Depression or its effects
• Hoover orders Gen. MacArthur to attack and remove the World War I vets from Washington D.C. in the infamous Bonus March
• Hoover does not have a response to early Japanese aggression in Manchuria, sending them the message that they will have a free hand in Asia (until Pearl Harbor)

Friday, June 4, 2010

'Friday Night Lights' Is Still Outstanding

I have sung the praises of NBC's 'Friday Night Lights' since its first season, and I will continue to do so. For the neophytes, the show centers around a small West Texas town where high school football is king, although the show actually has very little to do with football at all. Now in its 4th season, the show gets richer and richer. What has impressed me the most is something that few shows can accomplish. With a turnover of about half of the cast, FNL has maintained its high quality. The old characters that are still there continue to evolve, and a group of new characters are proving to be just as intriguing. The older chatacters and new ones interact seamlessly. I have always said that FNL feels more like real life than almost any show I've ever seen, and the way characters have come and gone and new people come aboard and the show goes on is case in point. FNL is about high school, afterall, and people graduate and move on. I appreciate that the show respects the high school time table and moves characters along and introduces new ones. Kyle Chandler's Coach Eric Taylor continues to be the soul of the show, but he is surrounded by an incredible cast of ever evolving characters. Anyway, we are about five episodes into Season 4, and it is as strong as ever. You should be watching.

ABOVE: Zach Gilford's Matt Saracen has moved from star quarterback in previous seasons to delivering pizzas in his post-high school life this season. Sounds depressing, but the Saracen character has never been so interesting and well crafted than in Season 4 so far. Gilford was simply stunning in tonight's episode, "The Son," an episode that asks the difficult question of how do you grieve for someone that you hate? TV is rarely this great.

"No more pencils, no more books..."

I think I posted this song last year, but it is time once again.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Dez Prez Rankings: #'s 34-33, The Art of Doing Nothing

#34 out of 39:
Benjamin Harrison (23rd president)
Term: 1889-93
Party: Republican

ABOVE: He's as dull as he looks, earning the nickname "The Human Iceberg." Ben Harrison would typically call it a day around noon and spend the rest of his substantial free time relaxing and hanging out with his family. Who knew being the leader of the free world took about as much effort as delivering pizzas?

Benjamin Harrison didn’t really do anything. At all. He accomplished about as much as his grandfather did when he was in office. But William Henry Harrison only served for one month. Ben was a weak man who didn’t want to make any waves, so he went along with his party leadership’s wishes. Unfortunately, this was a time where Executive leadership might have been nice, as it was a period of much graft and corruption. He signed a terrible protectionist tariff, as well as the stupid Sherman Silver Purchase Act. He did sign the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, but did not direct his justice department to do anything to actually enforce it. According to Teddy Roosevelt, Ben Harrison was “a cold-blooded, narrow-minded, prejudiced, obstinate, timid, old psalm-singing Indianapolis politician.” Ouch. “Indianapolis politician.” That’s harsh.

• Signed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act
• He did absolutely nothing and followed his party leaders
• Signed stupid legislation unquestioningly, like the McKinley Tariff of 1890 and the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890

#33 of 39:
Zachary Taylor (12th president)
Term: 1849-50
Party: Whig

ABOVE: Nothing much distinguishes Zach Taylor. Perhaps he can lay claim to the title "Most Disheveled President"

Perhaps it is not fair to judge Old Rough and Ready too harshly, since he died two years into his term. Taylor had no discernable credentials to be president or political skills. He was elected because he was a famous Mexican War hero and he completely avoided taking a stand on the slavery issue, thereby making enemies of nobody. He pledged to veto any legislation dealing with slavery in the territories, whether pro or anti. True to his word, he tried to block the Compromise of 1850. But fortunately for Henry Clay and the proponents of the crucial and complicated Compromise, Taylor became ill after drinking some bad milk at the 1850 Fourth of July celebration and soon died from cholera. The Civil War was postponed for another ten years or so due to the Compromise.

• He died conveniently so the Compromise of 1850 could occur
• Tried to block the Compromise of 1850
• Inaction related to the growing sectional crisis

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Dez Prez Rankings: Corruption Abounds

#36 of 39:
Ulysses S. Grant (18th president)
Term: 1869-77
Party: Republican

ABOVE: Depending on the version of the story you believe, Grant was pulled over while driving his carriage around Washington D.C. and ticketed for speeding or drunk driving (or both) by a cop who did not realize it was the president. (ANCIANT, here is another 19th Century president who enjoyed his booze.)

U.S. Grant was a decent general (using the tried and true Russian war strategy of “I have more bodies to throw on the battlefield than you do” during the Civil War), but he was a crappy president. Grant himself was not really that corrupt (neither was our next selection), but he allowed corruption to flood his administration and did nothing about it. You could lay some of the blame on the times, the 1860-70’s were one of the most corrupt times in American history, the era of graft, patronage and Boss Tweed’s political machine. Still, the example is set at the top. Grant’s Treasury Secretary William Richardson was forced to resign due to a corrupt bargain with a tax collector. Grant’s personal secretary Orville Babcock was implicated in the Whiskey Ring case, and Grant personally interceded to get Babcock off the hook. Fisk and Gould practically cornered the U.S. gold market based on their reliance on Grant’s brother-in-law being able to keep Grant from selling government gold. The U.S. economy almost collapsed until Grant finally put some government gold back on the market. Grant also vacillated between being tough in enforcing Reconstruction and being lenient, making Reconstruction inconsistent.

• Grant had a solid economic policy. He resisted the temptation to increase the money supply even in the face of a depression. He helped to prevent the economy from getting worse with an easy, popular fix

• Grant refused to offer any leadership to his party or country. He believed that Congress set the agenda and the president simply executed that agenda. Congress was not setting any coherent agenda, and Grant’s party and country needed direction. He provided none
• Corruption abounds in and around his administration: Fisk and Gould, Richardson, Babcock, the Credit Mobilier scandal
• Grant was inconsistent dealing with Reconstruction. At times he enthusiastically supported the Republican Reconstruction governments against the rising Ku Klux Klan and Democrat opposition. At other times he had a hands off, free for all approach

#35 of 39:
Warren G. Harding (29th president)
Term: 1921-23
Party: Republican

ABOVE: Warren Harding liked to join lots of groups and organizations. Here he is wearing a mason hat.

Harding at least understood his own limitations, God bless him. Before the election, he wrote to a friend “The only thing I really worry about is that I might be nominated and elected. That’s an awful thing to contemplate.” He later said to another friend “I am not fit for this office and should never have been here.” No argument here. A journalist from the time period wrote that Harding “was nominated because there was nothing against him, and the delegates wanted to go home.” So with these ringing endorsements Harding was elected at the beginning of the Roaring 20’s. His short administration (he died in office from a heart attack, and was followed by the comotose Calvin Coolidge) was marked by corruption and little else. Harding himself was never implicated (other than fathering an illicit love child while he was president), but he presided over an administration that included a rampantly corrupt Justice Department under Harry Daugherty, as well as graft throughout the Veteran’s Bureau. The real doozy was in the Interior Department, where Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall was caught taking bribes in exchange for selling off government land to oil speculators in the Teapot Dome Scandal. Fall remains the only cabinet member to be imprisoned.

• Harding at least had a pulse, which could be argued that Woodrow Wilson lacked during the last year of Wilson’s administration when he was debilitated by a stroke and his wife was essentially running the White House

• Harding was not smart or strong, and knew it
• Harding allowed corruption to run rampant throughout his administration
• He favored racist and unfair immigration restrictions
• He was a supporter of the failed Prohibition experiment
• His (and Coolidge’s) rudderless leadership in the 20’s contributed to the unregulated, Wild West atmosphere of Wall Street and the banking industry that in part resulted in the Great Depression