Saturday, July 31, 2010

Dez Prez Rankings: Under or Overrated?

#6 of 39:
Harry S. Truman (33rd president)

When Harry S. Truman met with Winston Churchill in 1950, Churchill reminisced with Truman about their first meeting at the Potsdam Conference soon after Franklin Roosevelt died. Churchill candidly admitted: “I must confess, sir, I held you in very low regard then. I loathed your taking the place of Franklin Roosevelt…I misjudged you badly. Since then, you, more than any other man, have saved Western civilization.” Likewise, when Harry Truman left office in 1953, his poll numbers were in the gutter (mainly due to the Korean War.) But we have also come around. It may have taken us longer than it did Sir Winston, but starting in the 1970’s, a peculiar thing happened with Truman’s reputation. Upon historical reassessment, it started to skyrocket (some feel, like ANCIANT, that it has perhaps swung too far in the other direction). Also peculiar is who was singing his praises the loudest. In recent presidential polls where they are able to divide the results by conservative and liberal voters, Truman actually ranks higher with conservatives. Ronald Reagan was one of his biggest fans and often said that he modeled his leadership style after Truman’s. Odd, since Truman was a New Deal Democrat.

ABOVE: Truman plays piano with Lauren Bacall looking on

First of all, you’ve got to sympathize with poor Harry S. As with most vice presidents, Truman was generally ignored by his president and kept out of the loop. It wasn’t until after FDR died and Truman became president that he was even informed of the existence of the atomic bomb. (Imagine that meeting! “We have what?”) Truman had to follow one of the most beloved presidents in history, a president who had served for 14 years. The U.S. had been involved in World War II for about four years, and suddenly wrapping it up is thrown into Truman’s lap. Germany was pretty much done, and realistically so were the Japanese, but the Rising Sun was refusing to set quietly. It became clear that the only way to defeat Japan was to defeat them totally, and so preparations were made for a massive invasion of Japan. It was estimated that the Japanese would die in the millions, and the Allies (mostly Americans) might lose upwards of a million men. But wait. There’s this bomb. Maybe we ought to use it instead? Thus one of the most controversial decisions of the 20th Century was made by the new president. It was the right call. The Japanese were not giving up and more people would have died in a full out invasion vs. the bombs (also, we killed more civilians firebombing Tokyo than died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki).

So, that’s just for starters. For better and for worse, Truman set the stage (on the American side) for how the Cold War would unfold and be "fought." The Truman Doctrine committed the United States to protecting nations across the globe threatened by the Soviets and communism with military, economic and political aid. Whatever it takes. It was this Doctrine that was behind the monumental Marshall Plan which rebuilt Western Europe from the ashes of World War II. The U.S. performed a similar miracle for postwar Japan, where former conqueror Douglas MacArthur became beloved military governor. NATO was formed, and when Stalin tried to choke West Berlin by literally starving them to death with the Blockade, Truman ordered the daring Berlin Airlift, consisting of thousands of planes dropping supplies to the West Berliners. He resisted more hawkish elements in his administration who wanted to go to war with Stalin over the crisis. Truman also pushed for the National Security Act, unifying the armed forces into a single Department of Defense, and creating the CIA and NSC.

ABOVE: One of the most famous photos in political history. The Chicago paper jumped the gun in prematurely (and wrongly) calling the election of 1948, much to Truman's delight

Truman was also behind the G.I. Bill of Rights, providing affordable home loans and free college education for returning veterans. This incredibly generous Bill, more than anything else, contributed to the growth of suburban culture and an educated middle class in the 1950’s.

Harry Truman was a pioneer in Civil Rights, even if most of his proposals did not come to pass. He at least established an example of presidential leadership in Civil Rights. This was all the more remarkable considering his background, growing up in Missouri and in a deeply racist environment. One initiative that he was able to accomplish, through Executive Order, was the desegregation of the military. This was the first step in desegregation generally (the Supreme Court would order desegregation in schools in the 50’s, and LBJ would accomplish desegregation in public places in general in 1964…but it started with Truman and the military).

ABOVE: Truman and Gen. Douglas MacArthur all smiles for the camera (they really did not like eachother. At all.)

Truman’s popularity suffered, however, as the Korean War dragged on. The Korean War was the deadly result of his Containment Policy, which simply stated that we will fight to contain the spread of the virus of communism across the globe. Ostensibly a UN action, most of the fighting on our side was done by American soldiers. This is the same policy that would later get us embroiled in Vietnam. A fascinating battle of wills emerged during the Korean War between president Truman and his commander in Korea, the popular and egotistical Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Truman and MacArthur disagreed bitterly over strategy in the war, and MacArthur really left Truman with little choice but to relieve him of his command when Doug blatantly disobeyed orders. It is probably a good thing Truman prevailed, as MacArthur wanted to bring the fight into China and even suggested the use of atomic weapons on the Chinese. Public opinion at the time was in MacArthur's favor, but Truman, as with most decisions during his administration, did what he had to do.

• Firmly took command after FDR’s death in the midst of World War II
• Atomic bombs used on Japan
• Desegregate the military
• G.I. Bill
• National Security Act
• Marshall Plan and rebuilding Japan
• Berlin Airlift
• Relieved MacArthur of command
• Containment Policy and Truman Doctrine did help prevent the expansionist Soviets from dominating Europe and other parts of the world

* Korean War
• Containment committed us to involvement with many problem areas, including Korea and later Vietnam

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Dez Prez Rankings: Should Not Be Forgotten

#7 of 39:
James K. Polk (11th president)

This is a sexy pick amongst historians (as sexy as discussing presidential history can be), although the general public has mostly forgotten James K. Polk (unless they are They Might Be Giants fans.) Polk was handpicked by Andrew Jackson to run for president for the Democrats in 1844 on promises of securing Texas and taking Oregon all the way up to Alaska.

Polk entered office with four goals, and he accomplished them all within four years, choosing to serve only one term as president. Now that is efficiency. First, he wanted to lower tariffs. Check. Secondly, he wanted to reestablish the independent treasury that the Whigs had destroyed. Check. The other two were a little more complicated.

At one time, the vast Oregon territory had been claimed by the British, the Russians, the Spanish and the United States. Eventually it came down to a showdown between the Americans and the British, and war was on the horizon. But Polk skillfully negotiated with the British, backing off the 54-40 demands, and offering the 49th parallel as the boundary between American and British territory. After first rejecting the offer, the British returned to the table and accepted it. The boundary remains today, and Polk avoided a war that we could ill afford to fight at the time.

ABOVE: Polk was responsible for adding about 1/3 of the continental United States to our territory. He secured Texas once and for all, won the Mexican Cession from Mexico and got the Oregon territory from Britain through treaty.

The Mexican War was brilliantly fought by Polk. Manifest destiny demanded that we occupy this land coast to coast, and we wanted California from Mexico. The Mexicans still did not acknowledge that Texas had won its independence, constantly threatening to take it back. After offering the Mexicans $25 million for California, which they quickly rejected, Polk sent troops down to the disputed border area in Texas. Mexican troops crossed the Rio Grande and attacked, giving Polk the excuse he needed to declare war (of course, from the Mexican point of view, much of Texas was still Mexican territory.) Polk was a very hands-on commander in chief, trusting nobody and devising military strategy on his own. We took California and New Mexico easily, and Gen. Winfield Scott marched all the way to Mexico City fighting superior numbers, disease, mountainous enemy terrain and mutinous troops in one of the most spectacular military campaigns in American history. The treaty signed with Mexico forced them to acknowledge U.S. title to Texas down to the Rio Grande and to cede the entire Southwest to the U.S. for $17.25 million.

The Mexican War had important consequences beyond adding lots of real estate to the United States. It was a training ground for Civil War leaders, it enhanced our military reputation worldwide, and brought the slavery issue front and center once again (would slavery be allowed in this vast new territory?), bringing the Civil War ever closer.

ABOVE: They Might Be Giants appreciates Polk’s accomplishments, as demonstrated by their song, “James K. Polk.” Here they are performing it at a Border’s Bookstore. If you listen to the lyrics, they actually summarize Polk’s accomplishments perfectly.

By all accounts, Polk was one of the hardest working presidents we’ve ever had. He was a man of detail, and did not delegate. He worked himself so hard that it brought him to an early grave. As a president, we've had few finer. Only six, in fact.

• Lowered tariffs
• Re-established the independent treasury
• Settled the Oregon dispute with Britain
• Successfully fought the Mexican War, securing Texas and gaining all of the Southwest United States, including California
• Set four distinct goals and accomplished them all within one term

• None

Monday, July 26, 2010

July Cuteness Update

ABOVE: Dez and Daughter of Dez

ABOVE: With new friend

ABOVE: Drying off after a bath

ABOVE: Working in her office

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Dez Prez Rankings: Laidback

#8 of 39:
Dwight Eisenhower (34th president)

For a long time, Dwight Eisenhower’s term had the reputation amongst historians as being as bland as the 1950’s supposedly were. No strikes, no fouls, no runs. But as historians have taken a closer look, his reputation has improved. I agree with them. It is easy to praise bold moves, but sometimes sitting back instead of bold actions is the best move. This is especially true in the Cold War years when the stakes were incredibly high, and such restraint was all the more surprising from one of our military heroes.

The fact that Ike was such a respected war hero and military insider allowed him to counter the machinations of a ravenous Pentagon war machine. He understood the tricks and inner workings of the Pentagon, and prevented the “military-industrial complex” from growing even more than it did (so much so that in 1960, John Kennedy incredibly accused the Republicans under Ike of allowing a “missile gap” with the Soviets and being “soft” on communism). And the Pentagon powers could not really push Ike around, either. He knew them, and he won freakin’ D-Day.

ABOVE: I like Ike

Far from being jingoistic, Eisenhower mostly worked to cool international tensions. He was instrumental in ending the Suez Crisis of 1956, he wrapped up the Korean War, and in 1953 Ike gave his Atoms For Peace Speech in which he proposed that all atomic materials be managed by an international organization. Historian Stephen Ambrose called Ike’s proposal “the most generous and the most serious offer on controlling the arms race ever made by an American president.” Eisenhower’s term featured what was actually an easing of the Cold War tensions when compared what came before and after his administration (other than the U2 spy plane incident). His one real foreign policy misstep was getting us involved in a very minor way in Vietnam. I don’t think that Eisenhower can be blamed for what JFK, LBJ and Nixon did with the war after him, but he did start the ball rolling.

ABOVE: The Soviets accused us of flying over their territory with spy planes. Ike denied that we were doing it. Then they shot one of our U2 spy planes down and captured the pilot. Ike then had to admit, "well, OK, maybe we were spying on you." (I'm paraphrasing). This incident is probably most significant to the modern world in that it provided U2 with their band name (BELOW).

Domestically speaking, Eisenhower was also successful. He did not interfere with the prosperity of the 1950’s, he signed three balanced budgets, and he started the Interstate Highway system. Although Ike did not want to rock the boat on Civil Rights, after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case desegregating schools, when Arkansas governor Faubus called out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent black students from attending Little Rock Central High School, Eisenhower called out federal troops to enforce the Court’s order.

ABOVE: Excerpts from Eisenhower’s famous Farewell Address where he warns Americans of the Military-Industrial Complex. A pretty farsighted speech, the dude knew what he was talking about. I couldn’t find a clip without the dramatic music.

• Peace in the Suez Crisis
• Controlled the Pentagon’s huge military build-up plans
• Little Rock
• Balanced budget
• Atoms for Peace attempt
• End Korean War
• 50’s prosperity (except for recession at the end of the decade)
• Overall easing of Cold War tensions

• Vietnam
• U2 spy plane incident

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Dez Prez Rankings: The Dangers of Moral Leadership

#9 of 39:
Woodrow Wilson (28th president)

Woodrow Wilson was a president riddled with contradictions and a most fascinating individual. Much ink has been spilled analyzing both the man and his impact. He was a complex man who did not fit easily into broad categories like “liberal” or “conservative.” A man who finally pushed for the 19th Amendment (giving women the right to vote), yet a racist who oversaw the segregation of the federal government. An anti-Imperialist who militarily intervened in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and basically invaded Mexico. A man who distrusted labor unions and big business equally. A pacifist who led us into World War I with the hope of preventing all future wars. A Progressive “liberal” who had communists and Radicals arrested in a series of spectacular raids and had socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs thrown in jail.

ABOVE: “He thinks he is another Jesus Christ come upon the earth to reform men.” – French president George Clemenceau on Woodrow Wilson

Where to start with Wilson? I struggled on where to rank Woody, in part because he does not fit into easy political ideologies and so much happened during his administration. To understand Wilson is to acknowledge that he governed with his own strict moral code that left no room for political compromise. Way before George W. Bush, Wilson had the attitude that you were either with him or against him, and there was no discussion about a middle ground. Since all decisions were filtered through his moral lens, if you disagreed with him you were morally corrupt. He did not govern based on ideology or from a political platform, but from his own moral compass on each issue, which is why he often pissed off his Democrat backers as much as the Republican opposition. His political fortunes swung wildly as well. At times he came close to being that Savior of the World that he so wanted to be, at other times he was ridiculed and counterproductive to his goals.

It is undeniable that he altered the domestic landscape of this country. Within his first two years in office, he lowered protectionist tariffs, pushed the creation of the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Reserve system, and pushed for the Clayton Anti-Trust Act, which strengthened the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. In doing these things, he stabilized the U.S. economy more than it had been since Andrew Jackson’s homicide of the Bank of the U.S. almost a century before. Wilson was the last president of the Progressive Era, and he pushed for the 17th Amendment (direct election of U.S. Senators, before this amendment Senators had been chosen directly by state legislatures) and the 19th amendment (women’s suffrage), and also unsuccessfully opposed the misguided 18th amendment (Prohibition).

On the downside of the domestic ledger, Wilson was an outspoken racist who refused to extend the Progressive agenda to Civil Rights and who enthusiastically oversaw the official segregation of the federal government. He wanted social order above all else, and so he encouraged the Palmer Raids (named after his attorney general Mitchell Palmer), arresting over 6000 suspected radicals. He topped it off by arresting one of his three former presidential rivals in the 1912 election, socialist leader Eugene Debs.

ABOVE: Wilson sent Gen. "Blackjack" Pershing and the U.S. Army into the mountains of Mexico to hunt down bandit/revolutionary Pancho Villa (pictured above) after Villa had crossed the border and killed American citizens. We never got Villa, but he was eventually killed by rivals in Mexico.

For a man who did not want to be involved in foreign affairs, Wilson certainly dove in. His military intervention / invasion of Mexico only makes sense through his moral lens. Wilson was an outspoken critic of Teddy Roosevelt-style Imperialism, yet he invaded the port of Vera Cruz in order to protect American assets and to force the Mexican government to become more democratic (it made sense to Wilson) and he sent the U.S. Army tear-assing across Mexico in pursuit of bandit/freedom fighter/former Wilson ally Pancho Villa. He was deep within the Mexican morass when bigger problems arose in the shape of World War I.

Wilson had won his second term in part due to his promise to keep the U.S. out of the cauldron of World War I, but due to stupid German moves like unrestricted submarine warfare and the Zimmermann Note (an intercepted German cable to Mexico basically saying “we’ve got your back” if they wanted to invade the U.S. and take back Texas!), the U.S. dove in and saved the Allies. But, of course, Wilson had to justify our involvement with his moral code. He rightly determined that once the War was over, the U.S. could be instrumental in molding the postwar world. That was his justification, so we entered the fray.

The battle over Wilson’s 14 Points and the Treaty of Versailles is one of the more interesting events in our history. I spend a full day in class on this issue alone. Wilson boldly presented his 14 Points vision for a postwar world to the victors and defeated nations after World War I. Even our Allies were dubious, but Wilson went to Europe personally to negotiate the Treaty and to push his moral vision for a world without war. Wilson’s principles were noble, the 14 Points set forth a system of open and transparent diplomacy, self-determination for nations and a League of Nations to peacefully mediate international disputes (the predecessor to the United Nations). Wilson compromised on many of his Points, believing that the League of Nations could fix everything in the end. The League of Nations had no enforcement mechanism, and Wilson was convinced that the moral weight of the League would be enough to preserve peace.

ABOVE: Senator Henry Cabot Lodge was Lex Luthor to Wilson's Superman. Or was it the other way around?

Wilson triumphantly returned to the U.S. to push for ratification of the Treaty of Versailles, which included his precious League of Nations, but he met with fierce resistance from majority Senate Republicans, led by Wilson’s arch-nemesis Henry Cabot Lodge. The Wilson-Lodge battle over ratification was indeed epic, with Lodge cheekily proposing his own “14 Reservations” to Wilson’s Treaty. Lodge’s questions were indeed quite reasonable, and had Wilson been willing to compromise and address the issues, the Treaty probably could have passed. Lodge asked, for instance, were member nations of the League forced to commit their militaries to uphold League decisions? Lodge proposed an amendment stating that the Senate would have to approve the use of American military force to protect other countries. In essence, he did not want a League of Nations determining U.S. foreign policy. But Wilson would not compromise. His League was morally perfect as constructed. It is fascinating to read the back and forth debate between Wilson and Lodge, which I make my students read in detail. When asked by the French ambassador whether he would submit to Lodge’s reservations, Wilson said “I will consent to nothing. The Senate must take its medicine.”

Wilson decided to travel the country to muster public support for the Treaty without any changes. He exhausted himself, and suffered a massive stroke. He was sequestered in the White House, not seeing a soul for six weeks. His doctor and wife Edith were the only people with access to Wilson. First Lady Edith Wilson was essentially the president at this point, controlling everyone’s access to Wilson and filtering their messages.

Wilson forced votes on the Treaty, and it twice failed in the Senate. The United States never ratified the Treaty of Versailles and never joined the doomed League of Nations. The Allies were thus able to harshly punish Germany for World War I without an effective League of Nations in place (Wilson had unsuccessfully argued for more lenient treatment of Germany). The consequences were monumental. Had Wilson and Lodge come to an agreement and the U.S. ratified the Treaty of Versailles, the U.S. would have been much more involved in Europe in the ensuing decades, playing a moderating role. World War II can be seen as a continuation of World War I. Germany was punished harshly, humiliated and embittered, creating fertile soil for an angry young German WWI vet named Adolf Hitler to take power. Had the U.S. ratified the Treaty and been involved in European affairs instead of becoming isolationist as we did after the rejection of the Treaty, perhaps WWII could have been avoided. Wilson was responsible for proposing an alternate path from the devastation of the late 1930’s and 1940’s, yet his own stubbornness prevented his vision from becoming reality. That is the tragedy of Woodrow Wilson.

ABOVE: Could this have been avoided had Wilson and Lodge come to terms on the Treaty of Versailles?

* 17th amendment
* 19th amendment
* lowered tariffs
* Federal Trade Commission
* Federal Reserve
* Clayton Anti-Trust Act
* World War I leadership
* Principles behind the 14 Points

* Racism and segregation of Federal government
* Palmer Raids and jailing Eugene Debs
* Mexico misadventures
* Stubbornness sunk his own postwar vision
* Refusing to relinquish the office while he was incapacitated by stroke

Monday, July 19, 2010

Dez Prez Rankings: #10

#10 of 39:
James Monroe (5th president)

James Monroe’s presidency, although affectionately tagged the Era of Good Feelings due to the temporary cessation of partisan fighting, was really a transitional presidency. James Monroe was the last American president from the Revolutionary generation, so his was the presidency that bridged the era of Washington, Adams, Madison, Jefferson and Hamilton to the next generation of leadership like Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun.

ABOVE: Although a revered Founding Father, James Monroe had actually been opposed to the adoption of the Constitution. Before his presidency, his greatest accomplishment was negotiating the Louisiana Purchase with France (which doubled the size of our country) for Jefferson

Although transitional, Monroe’s presidency was substantial. First of all, he was actively involved with the Missouri Compromise of 1820. This Compromise probably kicked the Civil War down the road at least by several decades. The issue of slavery was rearing its ugly head in the form of admission of new states to the Union. The South were already a minority in the House of Representatives (based on population), but since each state has two Senators regardless of population, The beleaguered Southern region fiercely protected the equal representation that had been maintained in the Senate between free and slave states. Now comes Missouri requesting admission to the Union, and a debate erupts in Congress over whether Congress could declare it a free or slave state. Monroe personally did not believe that Congress had the power to determine a state’s status, only a state could do that, but he also saw the storm gathering on the horizon. So he actively worked with congressional leaders on the Missouri Compromise, which admitted Missouri as a slave state, Maine as a free state (thereby keeping the Senate balance), and drawing a line along the southern border of Missouri to the Pacific, declaring that new states formed north of the line would be free, and states south of the line could have slavery. The slavery debate was temporarily cooled.

To Monroe’s credit, when General Andrew Jackson conducted his illegal raid and takeover of Florida from the impotent Spanish, instead of punishing Jackson for insubordination as most of his cabinet demanded, he instead authorized Secretary of State John Quincy Adams to negotiate a treaty to buy Florida outright.

Then there is the ballsy Monroe Doctrine, which we still adhere to in some forms. European monarchs were becoming fed up with this annoying wave of Democracy sweeping the civilized world, and rumors got back to D.C. that the European powers were planning on reinvading Latin American countries to reestablish lost empires. Monroe and Sec. of State J.Q. Adams came up with the Monroe Doctrine, which Monroe delivered in a speech to Congress. Monroe declared that the age of colonization was over, and that the U.S. would not allow any future colonial designs on the Americas (but the colonies that already existed could be retained). I say this is ballsy because we did not really have the military might to enforce this Doctrine if the European powers actually wanted to test it. But they didn’t. And never really did thereafter. This Doctrine was basically declaring to the world that the U.S. had arrived as a world power (a bit premature) and that the Western Hemisphere was our neighborhood. Bold for the time, and it is a Doctrine that had immense consequences in later times under future presidents. Teddy Roosevelt, for instance, was a particular fan of the Monroe Doctrine and the power that it implied. But we’ll talk about Teddy later.

ABOVE: The Monroe Doctrine

• Missouri Compromise
• Annexation of Florida
• Monroe Doctrine

• Monroe had serious reservations about exercising Federal power, so he resisted some needed infrastructure improvements like roads, canals, etc.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Two Things: Prez Recap and Scholarly Baby

Don't worry, dear readers, the Dez Prez Rankings will wrap up shortly. As we are on the verge of the Top 10 (1st Quartile), I thought you might appreciate a recap. Would I change anything? I don't know. I can say that your comments and thoughtful discussion made me think about my rankings. I might push Andrew Jackson (grudgingly) a bit higher, and I think in retrospect I put Hayes and McKinley too high. Other than that, I'm happy so far. Here you go...

Not Ranked: William Henry Harrison, James Garfield, George W. Bush, Barack Obama

39. Buchanan
38. Pierce
37. A. Johnson
36. Grant
35. Harding
34. B. Harrison
33. Taylor
32. Hoover
31. Van Buren
30. Ford
29. Coolidge
28. Carter
27. Taft
26. Tyler
25. J.Q. Adams
24. Arthur
23. Fillmore
22. Nixon
21. Jackson
20. Cleveland
19. Hayes
18. L.B. Johnson
17. Clinton
16. G.H.W. Bush
15. Kennedy
14. Reagan
13. Madison
12. McKinley
11. J. Adams

Stay tuned for the Top 10!

Also, my daughter is already a scholar...

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Dez Prez Rankings: #'s13-11, Rounding Out the Near Great Second Quartile

#13 of 39:
James Madison (4th president)

If we were looking at great Americans and what they contributed to this country in total, then the Father of the Constitution would be in the high end of the Top 10. But as we are just looking at presidencies, James Madison's term was not his finest hour. But #13 ain't bad. The key to Madison as president is that unlike his predecessor and mentor Thomas Jefferson, he actually practiced what he preached. Jefferson and Madison were one of the great intellectual teams in world history, together developing a vision of an agrarian republic with a small federal government that did not exercise too much power (in opposition to the grandiose visions of Alexander Hamilton; the Jefferson/Madison vs. Hamilton battle is what has shaped our country more than anything else. We would not be who we are without these three men). But Jefferson ended up being a vigorous president who exercised extraordinary power and simply shrugged off his inconsistencies. Madison couldn't do that.

James Madison's term was dominated by the War of 1812 against Great Britain. As Jefferson's Secretary of State, he was key in formulating the disasterous Embargo against the world, and continued down this course as president with the Non-Intercourse Act of 1809 and Macon's Bill No 2. Madison wanted to stay out of the constant wars erupting in Europe at the time, and the U.S. was being harassed and threatened by both Britain and France. Completely overestimating how important our trade was to the rest of the world at that point, Jefferson and Madison incredibly declared a trade embargo against everyone, thinking that they would mend their ways. They didn't (and a black market thrived anyway...we are a capitalist nation afterall), and our economy went down the tubes. The policy was tweaked to then restrict the embargo just to Britain and France, and then to open trade to all but if one agreed to stop harassing our shipping, then we would reimpose the embargo on the other...anyway, it was a disaster.

ABOVE: The limeys torch Washington D.C. during the War of 1812

Long story short, the U.S. goes to war woefully unprepared against Great Britain. After a spectacularly inept attempt to invade and take Canada, the U.S. is then humiliated as the British march into Washington D.C. and burn down the Capitol building and the White House, and Madison and his entourage take to the woods in the surrounding area. Lucky for Madison, things turned around as Britain ran out of gas, figuratively speaking, after years of war in Europe. Two weeks after the treaty was signed, we capped it off with the brilliant victory at the Battle of New Orleans, which catapulted one Gen. Andrew Jackson to national fame.

ABOVE: First Lady Dolly Madison was hot for her day. She also loved to party, and was a wonderful political asset to her husband. Speaking of assets, Madison used to say that he enjoyed dancing with his wife. He was a bit shorter than Dolly, and therefore his head could nestle in her generous ta-tas.

As inglorious as much of the War was, Madison did lead us to victory while remaining true to his beliefs that a too powerful Chief Executive, even in times of war, is dangerous to liberty and our republican experiment. And that early on, it was still very much an experiment. There lies Madison's greatness as president. He gambled and risked ruin by maintaining a less powerful Executive Branch, thereby ensuring that the Republic would endure as constitutionally intended. A time of war early in a Republic is the perfect time for despots to take power and then never let go. Just look at history. Madison did not do that. Also, the consequences of our "victory" were huge. The War of 1812 united this country early on and created a national identity at a time when people still felt more loyalty to their state or region.

* Madison was philosophically consistent in his actions
* He preserved the republican (not the party, but the political philosophy) ideals of our founding when he could have become a despot

* the Embargos were a disaster
* The War of 1812, on the whole, was poorly fought and planned (invasion of Canada, sacking of D.C.)

#12 of 39:
William McKinley (25th president)

ABOVE: William McKinley looks like a hard ass here, but by all accounts he was a friendly guy

McKinley was a president during a crucial transitional period in our history, from the Gilded Age to the Progressive and Imperialist Age, from isolationism to internationalism. Some of this stuff happened to McKinley vs. him actually directing events, but remember that timing is important in these rankings.

First, McKinley won the crucial election of 1896, stemming the dangerous tide of populism, bi-metalism and William Jennings Bryan (our greatest loser). The 1896 election was an economic election over metals. Would our money be based on only gold (McKinley) or both gold and silver (Bryan)? Doesn't sound that exciting, but if Bryan had won the day our economy would have been a disaster. McKinley wasn't all economic genius, though, he was a staunch supporter of high protectionist tariffs.

ABOVE: McKinley's term embarked the U.S. on its imperialst future...Manifest Destiny writ large

McKinley is most notable for fighting the Spanish-American War in 1898 in Cuba against the senile and decayed Spanish Empire. McKinley himself was reluctant to go to war, but the circumstance of the day forced his hand. The consequences of this war were seismic. The U.S. became a world power and entered the imperialist game. The U.S. ceased to be isolationist and became involved in everyone's business, for better and for worse (although at times later we would retreat back into isolationism). We started to build an empire, taking Puerto Rico, Guam and The Philippines from Spain and kicking the Spanish out of Cuba. Of course, our brief rule of the Philippines was a disaster and resulted in the brutal Philippine war for independence. McKinley also sent troops for the international force to fight in the Boxer Rebellion in China, keeping trade open to Westerners. His Open Door policy also boldly announced to the European powers that Chinese trade would remain open to everyone.

Finally, McKinley's last great act was getting assasinated, paving the way for Theodore Roosevelt to take over.

* Gold was the basis for our currency and we resisted the bi-metal movement
* We became a modern nation with empire
* Successfully fought the Spanish-American War and gained new territory
* Open Door in China and Boxer Rebellion

* Philippine insurrection
* tariffs

#11 of 39:
John Adams (2nd president)

Poor John Adams. Unappreciated in his time, few Founding Fathers did more for this country, but as the egotistical John Adams was acutely aware, he would never be held in the same esteem as Washington, Franklin or Jefferson. And to have to follow the American Zeus, George Washington? Impossible to live up to that standard. Adams was surrounded by enemies. His own party was split into bitter factions led by Adams and arch-enemy Alexander Hamilton. Due to the way the Constitution was written, his opponent in the election, the leader of the opposition party Thomas Jefferson, was now his vice-president (imagine if John McCain were Barack Obama's VP). His Cabinet was a holdover from Washington's administration and all took their orders from Hamilton, not Adams. So Adams was embattled from all sides.

ABOVE: Adams was a brilliant political thinker and fiercely loyal American, but he was also "insecure, volatile, impulsive, irritable, suspicious, self-pitying, self-righteous, and filled with often combustible rage" -historian James Banner. Adams said of himself, "[I am considered to be] the most vain, conceited, impudent, arrogant Creature in the World." Now there is some self-awareness. But of all of the Founders, he was also considered to be the most passionate, wittiest and had a legendary sense of humor. Complicated man, to say the least.

Adams should be appreciated, though. Against the pressure from war hawks in his own party, he kept us out of a war with either Britain or France, a war that would have been catastrophic and possibly lethal to our still infant nation. As much as he personally hated the French and even suffered the indignity of the XYZ Affair, he still resisted the strong public support for war. His controversial "Midnight Judges" (the Judicuary Act of 1801, where an outgoing Adams apointed lots of Federalist judges) resulted in the appointment of John Marshall, our most influential jurist and a needed conservative bastion against the mass democratic wave to come.

The one dark stain on Adams's term is probably one of the most despotic acts ever passed, the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Sedition Act made it a crime to interfere with the government's ability to do its job, including punishing criticism. The Alien Act gave sweeping power to deport "undesireables," as well as made the naturalization process much more difficult (because most immigrants would join Jefferson's Democratic-Republican Party). You have to put these undemocratic acts in the perspective of the times, however, when partisan strife was at its most intense in our history and all sides were seeking ways to create unity.

Adams's greatest act, though, was leaving office. Although he did it in a rather undignified way, bitterly leaving town in the dead of night and not attending the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson, he left peacefully. We take it for granted that we should have a peaceful transition of power, even when one party loses and the other wins election. But this was not the norm of the time. Jefferson's defeat of Adams in the election of 1800 was the first time an opposition party took power. In Europe at the time, more often than not, the entrenched power would have brought out the military to keep power. Adams, believing in this new government that he had such a hand in creating, willingly left office and handed over power to his political rival. Truly revolutionary.

* Broke with own party and avoided wars with Britain and France
* Appointed John Marshall Chief Justice
* Created the U.S. Navy
* Peacefully handed over the reigns of power to his rival after the election of 1800

* Alien and Sedition Acts
* Undignified leave of Washington D.C. after the election

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Dez Prez Rankings: (Slightly) Overrated Icons, Pt. 2

#14 of 39:
Ronald Reagan (40th president)

Much like the previous entry, Ronald Reagan's myth overshadows much of the reality. I grew up in the 80's, and Reagan was a huge part of that decade's cultural fabric. His optimism, self-confidence and honest belief that the U.S. was indeed John Winthrop's "City Upon a Hill" reignited American Exceptionalism after the gloomy 1970's and malaise days of Jimmy Carter. That is important and significant.

Reagan was also a walking contradiction. Historian James T. Patterson says he was "famously charming and gregarious, [but] also extraordinarily passive and remote, even with his children...Reagan stood for fiscal restraint, tax reduction, and small government, yet as president he ran up record budget deficits. He was ideological in his rhetoric yet often chose to act the pragmatist...He denounced the Soviet Union as an 'evil empire'...then did more to moderate the Cold War than any other president."

ABOVE: Reagan's tough guy image was crucial to his policymaking and foreign dealings. As he was being rolled into the emergency room moments after the assasination attempt in 1981, he quipped to the doctors "I hope you're all Republicans."

Reagan's domestic legacy is markedly mixed. Supply Side / Trickle Down Economics, or Reaganomics (or "Voodoo Economics" according to George H.W. Bush when he was competing against Reagan for the 1980 Republican nomination) sounds good on paper, but much like Socialism, it has never actually been practiced according to orthodoxy. Especially by Reagan. He got the cutting taxes part right, but not the requisite government spending part. I believe in his free enterprise ideology, but I think that recent events have shown us that some regulation is necessary. How much or how little, of course, is a discussion for a different time. I also appreciate his anti-labor stance, such as when he fired striking air traffic controllers en masse. No president since would have had the stones to do that.

ABOVE: Most experts did not believe that the Strategic Defense Initiative (or "Star Wars") was possible. But that may not have been the point.

Reagan was simply brilliant as a Cold Warrior/Peacemaker. I credit him for our ultimate victory in that near 50 year struggle. It is often overlooked that Reagan was actually quite pragmatic and was willing to shift and adjust course when needed (I believe "flip-flopping" is the term nowadays). Early in his administration he was the American Bad-Ass, calling the Soviets the "evil empire" and pushing his crazy like a fox SDI ("Star Wars") scheme. Star Wars wasn't as wacky as it sounds. Yes, it was impossible to actually do. But that wasn't really the point. The threat of such a crazy scheme forced the Soviets to give up the arms race and come to the table. Reagan saw that we could outspend the Soviets on arms, and this race eventually bankrupted them and forced them to shift course ideologically. (True, this unprecedented spending spree also put us into record deficits. "I am not worried about the deficit. It is big enough to take care of itself." - Ronald Reagan)

ABOVE: In Mikhail Gorbachev, Reagan found a Russkie with whom he could do business

The greatness of Reagan is that once Gorbachev came to power, Reagan realized that this man was different. Here was a man who he could deal with. So the former hawk became the peace-seeking diplomat. He met with Gorbachev in a series of historic summits, signed the INF Treaty, and basically ended the Cold War as we had known it. Gorby, of course, deserves as much credit as Reagan. But it would not have happened without these two extraordinary men.

Reagan definitely had some low points. Aside from his questionable economic policies, he had an absolutely dismal environmental record ("trees cause more pollution than automobiles"), retreated from Beruit after the marine barracks were bombed, and of course there was the Iran-Contra Affair. Reagan probably should have been impeached, and if it had been someone in office other than the Teflon President, he probably would have been. Either way, he didn't look good. If he knew about it, he defied Congress and broke both the law (The Bolan Amendment) and his promise never to negotiate with terrorists. If he didn't know what was going on under his nose (which is what he claimed), then he had shockingly little control over what people in his administration were doing.

Although Reagan's substantive legacy is a mixed bag, his true greatness was in his ability to inspire confidence and optimism when this country sorely needed it. He was such a giant figure. I am old enough to remember life under Reagan, and no president since has come close to having that much personal magnetism, even The Chosen One (Barack Obama). I remember writing a letter to Reagan when I was little, and being thrilled beyond belief when I got a nice book about the White House mailed back to me in return. Reagan is as much the 80's as Pac-Man and parachute pants.

ABOVE: One of his great speeches, the Berlin Address. Not only does it feature one of his great quotes ("tear down this Wall"), it also is a good summation of his Cold War strategy

* Reagan injected a sense of optimism and pride when it was needed
* Cut taxes
* Defeated Soviets to end the Cold War (flexible strategies)
* Bombed Libya

* Deficits
* Went too far with deregulation (S&L Bailout required during Bush's administration)
* Environmental record
* Beirut
* Iran-Contra

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Dez Prez Rankings: (Slightly) Overrated Icons, pt. 1

#15 of 39:
John F. Kennedy (35th president)

ABOVE: JFK and wife Jacqueline Kennedy ushered in an era of unprecedented style and glamour to the White House.

Early in his administration, JFK seemed to confirm his critics' complaints that he was a young, brash lightweight in over his head. Right off the bat he OK'd the disasterous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and then chickened out mid-operation and refused to provide the necessary air support to the hapless Cuban exile invaders. He also got his ass handed to him by the wily Nikita Khrushchev at their Geneva Summit. JFK was ill-prepared for the meeting, and it was here where Khrushchev probably determined that he could get away with placing nukes in Cuba. JFK also escalated the Vietnam conflict, and despite what Oliver Stone says, was probably not on the verge of withdrawal.

Although Kennedy talked a big Civil Rights game, he really didn't want to touch the issue. Other than forcing integration at the University of Mississippi, JFK did not act on his Civil Rights promises. It was Lyndon Johnson who moved on it and deserves most of the credit.

So, why ranked so high? First, Kennedy's way with words and his mystique were part of a genuine greatness. His inspiring challenge to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade helped to spur our most productive and daring decade in space. Words have power. He inspired an optimistic start to the 60's that died with him. That decade could have unfolded differently had he lived and perhaps won a second term.

ABOVE: Whether you are a Republican or Democrat, you've got to admire this speech, one of the all time great inaugural addresses

After his unsure start, JFK accomplished some great things before November 1963. He created the Peace Corps, signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the Soviets, and altered the dangerous Massive Retaliation policy of his predecessors.

His two greatest successes had to do with knowing when to stand down and knowing when to boldly act. First, standing down. When the Soviets put up the Berlin Wall in Germany, many hawks demanded immediate action. Kennedy had the wisdom to know that there was not much we could really do short of starting a nuclear war over the issue, so instead he quietly secured guarantees from the Soviets of continued access to West Berlin, and simply let it go. This was the wise move.

ABOVE: CIA satellite photos of missile sites in Cuba

His time of action, of course, was the Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest the world has ever come to nuclear war. Obviously we could not allow nuclear weapons 90 miles from our shores (which would not give us time to retaliate if they were launched), so he ordered the blockade and demanded that the Soviets pull the weapons out. Kennedy had learned a great deal about his adversary since their meeting in Vienna. He calculated that Khrushchev wanted to neutralize the nuclear weapons that we had in Turkey pointing at the Soviet Union, and even privately admitted that if he were Khrushchev, he might have tried the same thing. After secretly agreeing to remove many of our nukes in Turkey, Kennedy didn't flinch from his demand that the Soviets remove all of their nukes from Cuba. Kennedy didn't flinch, and Khrushchev finally had to.

ABOVE: JFK moved from amateur to great leader in three short years. I believe that had he lived, he just would have gotten better.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Dez Prez Rankings #'s 17 and 16: Saturday Night Bill and Daddy Bush

These two presidents would have made a great team. Let Bill handle domestic issues and Bush could tackle foreign policy. That would have made a great president, verses merely two good ones.

#17 of 39:
Bill Clinton (42nd president)

ABOVE: Slick Willy, Saturday Night Bill. "The first baby boomer to occupy the Oval Office, he seemed to embody the openness and ease of manner - but also the excesses and self-indulgence - of his generation." - historian Evan Thomas

Clinton was obviously a potent political force. A master of policy who also had the common touch. His character flaws, however, prevented true greatness. Clinton did have fortunate timing. The 90's were a decade of economic good times and smooth sailing. He didn't create the good times, but he also didn't do anything to screw them up.

Clinton accomplished some things that even traditional conservatives can get behind. He pushed for free trade with his enthusiastic endorsement of NAFTA, he (at first grudgingly, later enthusiastically) pushed for welfare reform that reduced entitlements and created stricter standards and he successfully attacked the federal deficit. He initially veered too far Left and got slapped down for it in the '94 midterm elections, but he then deftly tacked back to the center and eventually outflanked Newt and his Contract With America.

Clinton had a less sure hand in foreign policy. After the Somalia disaster, he was a bit gunshy when he should have been stronger (such as during the Rwandan genocide). He did have some modest peacemaking success with helping in Haiti, Bosnia and Ireland.

His real failures include a distasteful habit of decisionmaking-by-poll, the Hillary-led health care debacle, and his failure to meet the rising Islamic Terror threat. Of course, his questionable moral character and self-inflicted wounds will forever taint his reputation. Which is funny, because he was so concerned with how he would be viewed in the history books that he consulted with presidential historians regarding how to be highly ranked in polls such as this one. But the clouds of Whitewater, his impeachment (one of only two American presidents to be impeached, the other was Andrew Johnson), and his pardons showed that he had character flaws that rivaled Nixon's. It is true that the impeachment was mostly political (like Johnson's impeachment), but Clinton did commit perjury and he did recklessly put himself in the situation that allowed for the impeachment in the first place.

* Policy master
* Common touch
* Didn't screw up 90's prosperity
* NAFTA, welfare reform, deficit
* Peacemaking in Bosnia and Ireland

* Rwanda inaction
* Health Care
* Depended on polls to make decisions
* Impeachment
* Pardons of political friends

#16 of 39:
George H. W. Bush (41st president)

ABOVE: Bush was a better president than Shrub. Evidently there was much tension between father and son, and many of son's decisions were made in an effort to one-up his Dad.

First of all, George Bush is a good man. And at heart, he was a moderate and pragmatist, once saying "I'm a conservative, but I'm not a nut about it." I think he is actually quite underrated, and in the long run history will look more kindly on his transitional term.

Just compare how he handled his war with Iraq vs. how his son handled his. Daddy Bush used considerable diplomatic skill in breaking up the solidarity of the Arab League and secured key Arab support for his fight with Saddam. His coalition was a true coalition that included key Middle Eastern allies. He handled the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union perfectly. Many people do not realize that we could have really screwed that up. Many on his side of the political aisle expected him to gloat at the defeat of communism, but instead Bush had a calm and measured reaction, not wanting to "pour gasoline on the embers," as he put it. He deftly handled the fall of the USSR, not taking overt sides with any of the factions and thereby allowing the USSR to have its death throes naturally, and was able to start off relatively cleanly with Yeltsin. He was also instrumental in helping with a smooth German reunification. Even on the domestic front, he accomplished some noteworthy things like the Clean Air Act and Americans With Disabilties Act.

Of course, he got nailed on his broken promise not to raise taxes. In his pragmatic way, he saw that he would have to compromise with gleeful tax-happy Democrats in Congress and raise taxes in order to deal with the budget. His own party turned against him. Also, the Savings and Loan Bailout was an embarassment, but that was really cleaning up a mess that was made under Reagan's deregulation. (Granted, Bush was a big part of Reagan's administration too). Also, many criticize him for not "finishing the job in Iraq" and failing to dethrone Saddam, but again, Bush was handling some delicate matters with the Russians, and a full on invasion/occupation of Iraq would have upset that relationship.

* Pragmatist and not an idealogue
* Built strong coalition to fight Saddam
* Handled the end of the Cold War well, especially the fall of the USSR
* Helped with German reunification
* Clean Air Act
* Americans With Disabilities Act

* Got nailed on taxes
* Savings and Loan Bailout
* Lacked the "vision thing"

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Dez Prez Rankings: Guns 'n Butter

#18 of 39:
Lyndon B. Johnson (36th president)

Like Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson was both an outstanding and horrible president. He was a political giant of the last century, running the Senate when he was majority leader with spectacular skill and influence. LBJ’s narcissism and desire to be the loudest kid in the room were legendary. He was a psychiatrist’s dream patient. (Once when someone marveled at JFK’s skills with the ladies, Johnson exclaimed “I had more women by accident than he ever had on purpose!” Evidently LBJ's extracurricular activities did indeed rival Kennedy's.)

ABOVE: The Johnson Treatment (I recommend clicking on the image above for an enlargement of this series of photos, where Johnson works over Sen. Theodore Green). LBJ was infamous for turning the screws on legislators to get what he wanted. He cajoled, threatened, complimented, reasoned, raged, and otherwise convinced lawmakers to go his way

John Kennedy had talked a big civil rights game, but had actually accomplished very little in that area. Surprisingly, it was LBJ, the old-school Texas politician who had grown up in the Jim Crow South, who did more for civil rights than any other president other than perhaps Lincoln. Taking advantage of the nation’s grief and unity in the immediate aftermath of JFK’s assassination, LBJ pushed through the monumental Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended racial discrimination and segregation in public places (restaurants, movie theaters, businesses) and employment. Soon after that, he forced through the Voting Rights Act of 1965, ending Southern tactics such as literacy tests to prevent Blacks from voting. He capped it off with the Housing Act of 1968, outlawing racial discrimination in housing.

ABOVE: LBJ was the closest ally of the Civil Rights movement in the 60's

Race wasn’t the only social issue that he tackled. His Great Society program marked the most significant domestic program since Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Johnson created Medicare and Medicaid, gave substantial federal aid to schools, created Head Start, started food stamps, created significant environmental and consumer protection laws, and created public radio and television. Most of this is good, but I have concerns regarding the long term sustainability of these government programs. Once a government program is created, it is only expanded. It can hardly ever be scaled back, becoming an entitlement. In fact, LBJ’s Great Society is what really rejuvenated the conservative movement in reaction to it, starting with Nixon, and going strong through Reagan, Bush Sr. and even Clinton. Without LBJ, there may have been no need for a Reagan Revolution.

So far this record should catapult LBJ into the Top 10 of presidents, but then there was Vietnam. Eisenhower first committed us, JFK expanded that commitment, but it was LBJ who expanded it into a full scale war. LBJ and his administration believed in the Domino Theory, which stated that if we lost one Southeast Asian country to communism, then the entire region would go Red. He used the bogus Tonkin Gulf incident to get his sweeping Gulf of Tonkin Resolutions passed in Congress, giving the president broad war-making powers. It is unclear whether LBJ personally knew that the Tonkin Gulf incident was actually a misunderstanding, but at the very least he knew that it was not the full scale attack that he made it out to be. Fearing that he would be the first president to ever lose a war, he stubbornly escalated the war and troop levels, often concealing from the American people the actual number of troops he was sending. Johnson lost credibility with the American people and the country fell into a violent division at home (both over the war and racial riots). During the bloody election year of 1968, LBJ announced that he would not run for another term.

ABOVE: These are from the LBJ White House Tapes. LBJ spends 5 minutes ordering new pants. I love from about 1:55-2:40. I was going to post his announcement that he would not run again, but this one is better.

LBJ left the White House a broken man. While proud of his domestic and civil rights accomplishments, Vietnam claimed another casualty in addition to the almost 50,000 young servicemen who were killed. LBJ spent the remaining few years of his life drinking, smoking and falling into a deep depression.

* Civil Rights Acts ('64, '65, '68)
* Skilled politician who was able to get his agenda passed
* Great Society (Medicare, Medicaid, federal aid to schools, Head Start, food stamps, environmental and consumer protection laws, public radio and television)

* Great Society also created entitlement state that has needed to be reformed
* Vietnam

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Free Agency 2010: Much Ado About Nothing

Here are my predictions about the biggest NBA free agency class in history:

Lebron James: stays in Cleveland
Dwayne Wade: stays in Miami
Joe Johnson: stays in Atlanta
Dirk Nowitski: stays in Dallas
Amare Stoudamire: goes to Miami to join Wade
Carlos Boozer: goes to Chicago
Chris Bosh: goes to Houston