January 27, 2012
A case in point is William Henry Harrison, the ninth president and the subject of a book by the same name — one of the Times Books series of short biographies of the presidents. The author is New York Times columnist Gail Collins.
Harrison was in office hardly a month, but he still made his marks. He was the first presidential candidate to personally campaign for the office. He was the last president born before the Declaration of Independence. He gave the longest inaugural address. He was the first president to be photographed while in office. He was the first president to die in office. He was the first president to die in office of natural causes. He served the shortest term — 31 days. He was part of one of two sets of three presidents who served in the same year — 1841 and 1881. He was the only president whose grandson was president.
As Gail Collins recounts with a lot of good humor, the campaign of 1840, in which the Whig Harrison defeated the incumbent Democrat Martin Van Buren, was a first of its kind, too, in the sense that it was the first really populist election in the United States, the first one that wasn’t dominated by a political and economic elite.
Harrison had unsuccessfully challenged Van Buren in 1836 when the fractious Whigs ran two candidates — basically a northern and a southern. But in 1840, the party got behind Harrison and he far out paced Van Buren in electoral votes, although the popular vote was much closer. More than 80 percent of the eligible voters participated — a statistic that must be filtered through the fact that women and a great many men did not have the franchise in those days.
As Collins describes it, the Whig campaign was like a three-ring circus, with literally thousands of stump speakers going from town to town, parades, rallies, and dinners with plenty of alcohol.
The campaign was further distinguished by the Whigs’ successful effort to sell the public a candidate whom they could appreciate — a kind of frontiersman, one of the common folks, whose idea of a good time was flopping down in his log cabin and swilling hard cider.
In actual fact, Harrison was born on a Virginia plantation, was well educated and very mannerly, drank only in moderation and disapproved of drunkenness, and lived in a 16-room farmhouse in Ohio.
The 21st century voter may not be surprised to hear that the facts didn’t matter. The public bought the lie, which was encouraged with all kinds of “log cabin” events, images, songs, and verses, and other Whig politicians were happy to let some of the backwoods shading rub off on them.
This was also the campaign of “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” — the “Tyler” being a reference to vice-presidential candidate John Tyler. Harrison had served in the army before retiring to his farm, and he was involved in several fights with the Indians and British in the struggle over the Northwest Territories. In one of those battles, near the juncture of the Tippecanoe and Wabash rivers in the Indiana Territory, Harrison, who was governor of the territory, routed a settlement being built by the brothers and Shawnee leaders Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa (“the Prophet). Harrison had far more men, and he took far more casualties, and the battle wasn’t really decisive in the long run. He had a couple of much greater successes under his military belt. But, hey, “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” rhymes, and the alliteration was irresistible.
It is well known that Harrison was inaugurated on a bitter winter day, and that he foolishly appeared at the outdoor event — including his two-hour speech — without a hat or coat. Gail Collins explains further that the amiable president-elect arrived in Washington already exhausted from both celebratory events and sieges by office-seekers, and that the pressure didn’t let up in the capital.
The author writes that Harrison was 67 years old when he campaigned for the office, and that the Democrats dismissed him as a feeble old man — not a far-fetched idea in 1840, when a man of that age frequently was in his dotage. Collins says Harrison’s recklessness might have been his attempt to refute the Democrats’ claims. In any case, shortly after the inauguration, he came down with what was probably pneumonia. He died on April 4, 1841.
August 17, 2011
I caught a few minutes of Ann Coulter’s appearance on one of the Sunday talk shows this week, and found that by not tuning in earlier I had missed hearing her reasons for promoting Chris Christie as a Republican presidential candidate.
Apparently, it wasn’t a half-hearted endorsement; I heard her refer to the governor as “my first love.”
Coulter is not the first person to make this case. Christie is a controversial figure in terms of his public policy and his style, but he seems to be developing a following around the country.
Still this kind of talk has an unfamiliar ring to us in New Jersey because, except for Bill Bradley’s failed attempt to win the Democratic nomination in 2000, making presidents has not been our thing in recent decades.
Even the two we contributed in the distant past had imperfect credentials. Woodrow Wilson wasn’t born in New Jersey, and Grover Cleveland – who was born here and is buried here – spent most of his life someplace else.
Christie hasn’t lent much credibility to the idea that he would be a willing candidate, but if he should run, one thing that has come up already and surely would get a lot of attention in the news coverage – and late-night commentaries – would be his girth.
Christie himself has often acknowledged that his weight is a result of his eating habits and that it is unhealthy.
In the world we live in, it is also a potential liability from the aesthetic point of view.
There already have been stories speculating as to whether a man of Christie’s size can be elected president – kind of a diss on the intelligence of the body politic.
In fact, that question has already been answered twice by the elections of William Howard Taft and Grover Cleveland.
Taft, the largest president so far, was six feet tall and weighed more than 330 pounds when he was elected president in 1908. After Taft had left the presidency, he lost about 80 pounds, which lowered his blood pressure and improved his ability to sleep.
Cleveland – whose weight isn’t mentioned as frequently as Taft’s – was five-feet-eleven and weighed between 235 and 280 pounds. His weight is noticeable in photographs from his presidential years, but it apparently didn’t trouble the citizens who gave him the majority of the popular vote three times in a row – the only president besides Franklin Roosevelt to achieve that. (In 1888, Benjamin Harrison won the majority of the electoral votes.)
The criticism directed at political candidates in the 19th and early 20th centuries could be as cruel, in its own way, as the attacks that are leveled today. Cartoonists gleefully exploited the proportions of both Cleveland and Taft, and no one’s physical appearance attracted more public ridicule than that of Abraham Lincoln.
But the pervasive and relentless nature of media in our age add a lot of destructive power to negative messages.
Some voters might be legitimately concerned about the life-threatening nature of Christie’s weight, but the web of electronic communications has given people the idea that they can – and should – say virtually anything that comes into their heads. The comments posted on web sites suggest that many writers think it’s a virtue to be as coarse and demeaning as they can.
I noticed, for instance, that folks who frequent a Facebook page for graduates of my high school alma mater, say some pretty awful things about former teachers and classmates – undaunted by the fact that most of their targets are still living and could easily read these messages.
For his own well-being – particularly if he takes on the rigors of a presidential campaign and a term or two in the White House – Christie ought to do something about his weight.
Besides prolonging his life, it would spare him and his family the meanness that has become the lingua franca of smart alecs in the digital age.
February 8, 2011
There’s a hilarious string of comments on the MSNBC web site stemming from a story about Lou Gehrig’s medical records. It’s entertaining to read these strings, because the readers who engage in them get upset and abusive – in this case, two of them sunk to assailing each other’s grammar – and then they get off on tangents and eventually go spinning off into space.
In this case, the brief story that started the row was about Phyllis Kahn, a member of the Minnesota State Legislature, who has introduced a bill that would open medical records after a person has been dead for 50 years, unless a will or a legal action by a descendant precludes it.
Kahn was inspired by a story that broke several months ago about a scientific study that speculated that the root cause of Gehrig’s death was concussions he suffered while playing baseball. Gehrig’s ailment, of course, was diagnosed as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, which affects the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.
A study published last summer in the Journal of Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology made a connection between brain trauma and a form of ALS. Gehrig played first base, a position not usually associated with concussions, but he was hit in the head by pitches during his career, and he might have suffered head traumas in when he was the runner in a close play. He famously played for 14 years without missing a game, which means he played hurt many many times. In fact, although he is lionized for setting a record for consecutive games that stood until Cal Ripken Jr. surpassed it, Gehrig was criticized in some quarters in his own time by folks who regarded his streak as a foolish stunt and worried that he would damage his health.
Researchers want to look at Gehrig’s medical records, which are housed at the Mayo Clinic, and Kahn thinks they should be allowed to do so – and that, in the absence of instructions to the contrary, the records of any person dead for 50 years should be accessible. Gehrig has no descendants
As a Lou Gehrig fan, my emotions are screaming, “Leave the big guy alone!” As a former journalist, my interest in free flow of information is muttering that such records should become available at some point — though I don’t know what that point should be. Considering the level of concern about concussion injuries in football, research in this area could be valuable, and Gehrig might have provided an almost unparalleled opportunity to examine the impact of repeated injuries. His doctors might even have considered a link between his grueling career and the illness that killed him. The Mayo Clinic and a bioethics professor at the University of Minnesota are opposing this bill, probably concerned more about the opening of a flood gate than about Gehrig’s privacy in particular.
Incidentally, Phyllis Kahn, a Democrat-Farm-Labor legislator, once pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for stealing campaign brochures distributed on behalf of a Republican candidate and replacing them with material for one of Kahn’s DFL compatriots. But that’s a story for another post.
September 3, 2010
I just read the Vanity Fair stories about Sarah Palin. I didn’t read them for the content, because that has been pretty much laid out in media reports; I was interested as a journalist in the issue of unnamed sources.
Some of what Michael Gross reports in those stories is based on documentation, most notably the accounts of the large amounts of money spent on clothing for Gov. Palin and her family during the 2008 election campaign. Much of this has been reported before — even during the campaign — and Gross reinforces the idea that the spending was excessive. Some might argue that political candidates should present themselves as they normally appear, but that’s not the kind of culture we live in. I imagine the campaigns also spent money on clothing for the McCains and the Obamas and the Bidens, but Gross doesn’t present that kind of information or any other point of comparison.
What troubles me, however, is that Gross’s story makes the case that Gov. Palin has become a ruthless, nasty, self-absorbed person; that she has a violent temper which she has directed at, among other people, her husband, Todd; and that the images of her as a hunter and as a pious person have been fabricated. In order to support his portrait of Palin as a kind of angel of darkness, Gross explains that he could not name most of the primary sources for his stories because they were afraid of reprisals. The reader, of course, has no idea what might motivate the unnamed staff member or bartender to pillory Gov. Palin.
And, in fact, in Gross’s long article there is only one named source to support the image of Gov. Palin the writer creates. That source is Colleen Cottle, who was a member of the City Council when Sarah Palin was mayor of Wasilla, Alaska. Cottle, who told Gross she and her husband “will pay a price” for speaking openly about Gov. Palin, said it was difficult to work with a mayor who had a short attention span, didn’t understand mathematics or accounting well enough to discuss city budgets, and spent only four hours a day at the job — mild comments compared to some of the other characterizations in Gross’s article.
I am not an apologist for Sarah Palin, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the stories Gross reports are true. In any case, Gov. Palin has made herself a public figure, and she has to take her lumps. What concerns me is that the use of unnamed sources — and only one named source — to paint a very ugly picture of this woman is out of whack, if we are supposed to accept Gross’s story as journalism. When I worked for the Gannett Co., the policy was that unnamed sources could be used only when necessary, and the necessity had to do with the importance of the information. Naturally, the policy also required that the source have first-hand knowledge of the subject matter, and that the top editor of the publication knew the identity of the source. The policy also required that the source be identified in the story as fully as possible and that the reason for withholding the name of the source was explained to readers. We might have applied that policy, for example, to report the kind of weapon used in a homicide when the source of the information was a police chief who did not want to run afoul of an overbearing county prosecutor.
Gross points out, of course, that neither Gov. Palin nor anyone on her behalf would agree to be interviewed for his story, and Gov. Palin has since clubbed the article as “yellow journalism,” using the bat that Gross put in her hands — unattributed claims. There is a great deal written about this subject, including the fact that the unnamed source has become the sine qua non of reporting in Washington. “Nobody has a name in Washington,” leading journalist Joann Byrd told the American Journalism Review in 1994.
Research has repeatedly shown, however, that consumers of news are skeptical of unnamed sources and are likely to assume that an unnamed source does not exist. Allen Neuharth, founder of USA Today and former chairman of the Freedom Forum free-press foundation had this to say on the topic in the same article in the American Journalism Review:
“There’s not a place for anonymous sources. I think there are a few major historical developments that happened in journalism – the Pentagon Papers, maybe Watergate – where anonymous sources had a more positive influence than a negative impact. But on balance, the negative impact is so great that we can’t overcome the lack of trust until or unless we ban them.”
President Barack Obama’s foray into New Jersey and New York yesterday certainly was inspired at least in part by the Congressional elections coming up in November. The president obviously was trying to bolster his own party — which clearly is in political trouble along with Obama himself — and he was trying to undermine the Republican Party by accusing it of obstructionism with respect to such things as unemployment benefits. This kind of politicking is routine for modern presidents, although one has to wonder what effect it has in the 21st century, when the public is supersaturated with political messages.
Obama probably wasn’t conscious of it, but when he set off from Washington yesterday, he was emulating what, for him, was an unlikely model — namely, Andrew Johnson, the 17th president of these United States.
Johnson, who was Obama’s philosophical opposite in many ways, was the first president to conduct a campaign trip of that kind, but he did it to a fare-thee-well and with disastrous results that affected governance in the United States for decades. The short version of the story is that Johnson — a Democrat who had been elected vice president on a fusion ticket with the Republican Abraham Lincoln — abruptly succeeded to the presidency just as the Civil War was ending. He and the Republican majority in Congress were at odds over management of the defeated Confederate states and the former slaves and their disagreements degraded into an ugly struggle. There is no telling how Lincoln, with all of his political acumen, would have fared if he had survived to work things out with Congress on his own, but his death elevated the blunt and stubborn Johnson to the presidency under circumstances that he did not have the temperament to handle.
In an effort to uphold Democratic candidates for Congress and attract support from moderate Republicans, Johnson embarked in the summer of 1866 on an unprecedented 18-day grand tour — a “swing around the circle,” as he called it — that took him to 22 cities in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, and Kentucky, with brief stops in other spots. He traveled with a large and glittering entourage that included such Cabinet members as Secretary of State William Seward, and military officers including Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Gen. George Armstrong Custer, and Admiral David Farragut.
The trip went well as long as Johnson was in the friendly East, but things deteriorated when he reached Cleveland and started to encounter hostile audiences and exchanged insults with them as though he were still stumping for a legislative seat back in Tennessee. He opened himself to criticism and ridicule and did more damage than good for his objectives. The Republicans swept the Congressional elections, gaining a majority large enough to take control of the process of Reconstruction with no fear of presidential interference. In addition, as relations between Johnson and Congress became even worse, the House of Representatives impeached the president and included in the charges against him the intemperate speeches he made during the campaign tour. The legislative momentum was so great that the presidency was reduced in power and importance until the end of the 19th century.
Johnson was an admirable American in many respects, but at the end of the Civil War he was the Wrong Man at the Wrong Time, if ever there was one. He was acquitted of the impeachment charges, which were absurd on the face of it, and he eventually was reelected to the Senate — the same one that had tried him — where he was greeted with flowers and applause. We Americans are nothing if not forgiving. And although his campaign trip was a failure, it is a testament to his grit and self-confidence that he attempted it at all.
January 22, 2010
John Edwards’ melodrama is interesting because, among other things, of how it both resembles and departs from the experience of Grover Cleveland. Edwards was a viable candidate in last year’s presidential primary campaign, and he knew at the time that he had had an affair and fathered a child. Something similar happened to Cleveland during his presidential campaign against James G. Blaine in 1884. Blaine (“the continental liar from the State of Maine”) was beset with a corruption accusation, but the Republicans planned to counter by reporting that Cleveland had sired a child while he was an unmarried attorney in Buffalo. When this scandal started to emerge, Cleveland told his campaign staff — and here’s where the stories diverge — to “tell the truth.”
The truth was that Maria Crofts Halpin, the woman who had named Cleveland as the father of her child, had had relationships with other men. Cleveland didn’t know with certainty that he was the father of her child, but he accepted the responsibility and made support payments to the woman — apparently because he was the only one of her lovers who was unmarried. People had different values then.
There was no happy ending to that story. Mrs. Halpin had a troubled life, complicated by alcohol. Cleveland did what he could to help her and her son, but eventually the boy was adopted into a stable home and Cleveland’s connection ended.
The lesson, Sen. Edwards, is that Cleveland didn’t try to hide his mistake and he won the popular vote for president in 1884, 1888, and 1892. He came short on electoral votes in ’88, and took four years off. I don’t think the public has changed so much in all the intervening years that it doesn’t still suffer a bungler before a liar.
January 17, 2010
In their learned discussion this week, political philosopher Glenn Beck and stateswoman Sarah Palin evoked the spirits of the “founding fathers” — a term, by the way, that was coined by an earlier genius, Warren G. Harding. After his own apotheosis of George Washington, Beck inquired of Gov. Palin, “Who is your favorite founder?” Apparently not wanting to offend the disciples of any one of our forbears, Gov. Palin demurred: “Ummm … you know … well, all of them.” Beck, clearly trying to uphold his reputation as a hard-hitting and objective interviewer, expressed his reservation by dismissing the governor’s attempt at delicacy as “bull crap” and demanded to know who was her favorite. The two great minds, as it turned out, were superimposed much like a prophetic convergence of heavenly bodies. Gov. Palin’s choice was George Washington. She made her reason clear: She empathized with Washington’s indifference to public office, except as a temporary duty, and his disdain for notoriety in general. So it was a natural choice for the former city council member, mayor, and governor, and unsuccessful candidate for lieutenant governor and vice-president — and recently engaged Fox News commentator. Neither Beck nor Palin brought up slave-holding or land speculation, but it was only a one-hour program.
Given the spiritual underpinnings of the two thinkers, their discourse naturally turned to religion. They agreed that religious faith was an important motivation for the “founding fathers,” although Glenn Beck darkly noted, “except Thomas Paine — we think he might have been an athiest.” As far as the others were concerned, Gov. Palin twice tried to assure Beck — who didn’t seem to be listening — that “we have the documents.”
Paine might have run afoul of Glenn Beck and Gov. Palin anyway inasmuch as he eventually described Washington with words like “hypocrite,” “apostate,” and “imposter.” However, unless the “we” who share Glenn Beck’s suspicions know something that historians do not know, Paine was not an athiest but a deist — deism being all the rage at the time, including among many of the “founders.”
As for the “documents” the governor referred as evidence that the republic somehow was founded on religious principles, perhaps she will be specific when she settles into her role as a commentator or when she publishes her next book. Presumably she is not referring to the Declaration of Independence, which is not part of the organic law of the land, nor such things as Thanksgiving proclamations. Nor can she mean the treaty with Tripoli, ratified by the Senate and signed by the deist founding father and president, John Adams — a treaty that explicitly rejects the idea that the government of the United States was founded on Christian principles. If Gov. Palin can find religion — except a prohibition against establishing it — in the federal Constitution, which is the law of the land, she has an obligation to expose it for the rest of us.
It’s hard to imagine in our time any amount of hype being dismissed as “too much,” but that’s how former President Bill Clinton’s handlers have described the marketing of a planned joint appearance by Clinton and former President George W. Bush. The event, which was to have taken place at Radio City Music Hall on February 25, has been cancelled on the grounds that it was oversold as the toughest face-off since Leo the Great and Attila the Hun.
Ticket prices for this event, in which the two former chief executives were to have discussed various issues of domestic and foreign policy, were to range from $60 to $160.
This would not have been the first time the two men have shared the same platform; they did it in Toronto in May. Although there were some reports that each was paid $150,000 for that gig, that has not been confirmed, nor has any information been forthcoming about what they might have been paid if the Radio City event had gone on as planned.
News reports of the Toronto appearance indicated that Clinton and Bush did not sharply disagree on many issues, so the language used to promote the New York appearance struck me as odd from the outset. The context is that Clinton and the first President Bush have formed a good post-White House relationship, and the younger Bush hasn’t been at all politically combative since he left office. If Harry Truman could make peace with Herbert Hoover, why not Clinton and the Bushes. This was looking like a love fest despite the marketing lingo.
I was especially amused by the description of the encounter that has now been cancelled as “the hottest ticket in political history.” I wonder what Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Douglas — wherever they now repose — think of that.
October 17, 2009
The AARP recently pointed out in its monthly bulletin that President Richard Nixon in 1972 proposed a health-care reform program that was shot out of the sky, with U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy wielding one of the guns.
“Nixon’s plan,” editor Jim Toedtman wrote, “required employers to provide health care insurance for their employees. It provided federal subsidies for the poor and created rural health clinics and a network of state committees to set industry standards, guarantee basic coverage and coordinate insurance for the self-employed. In the process, it would have extended health care coverage to almost all Americans.”
According to Toedtman’s commentary, Kennedy told the Boston Globe earlier this year that Nixon’s initiative was a “missed opportunity” and that, “We should have jumped on it.”
Should have. What were the chances that a Democrat, and a Kennedy at that, would support a sweeping program like that coming from Nixon? Ted Kennedy had his own ideas about health-care reform, and the twain never met. As a result, 37 years later, the problems perceived with health care then — cost and accessibility — are exponentially worse, partisanship still trumps the general welfare, and fundamental reform is no more likely, no matter what bill Congress may pass.
Nixon, meanwhile — if he can hear the debate from where he reposes — is probably as surprised as anyone to learn from his own party that he was a socialist.
October 9, 2009
Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and author, made some of the more salient points I’ve heard today about the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Peace to President Barack Obama. Wiesel was interviewed by Steve Inskeep on National Public Radio. The core of the interview, from the NPR web page, was as follows:
Mr. WIESEL: I’ll tell you. First of all, it’s strange for me to think of him now as my fellow Nobel laureate. … After all, he’s the president of the United States. But at the same time, seriously, he made history by allowing the American people to correct its own old racial injustices. After all, he’s the first black person to have been elected to that high office, and in doing so he did bring hope and dignity to the fact, to the very position. And therefore I think he gave something to the Nobel Prize.
INSKEEP: He added to the Nobel Prize rather than the other way around.
Mr. WIESEL: It goes both ways. But in this case, really, for the president of the United States, a sitting president, who is nine months in office, it’s true that he tries and tries – I’m sure he tries in many areas to do the right thing, and he will succeed, but in this case the prize will add or increase his moral authority.
INSKEEP: Moral authority. Well, let’s talk about that. Because this is a president who has begun many efforts around the world and the Nobel committee cited them, from reducing the threat of nuclear weapons to reducing nuclear arms stockpiles, efforts to bring peace in different parts of the world. But it’s been widely noted this morning that although many efforts have begun, none have really been concluded. Do you think it will make a big difference in those efforts that the peace prize goes to the president?
Mr. WIESEL: First of all, I think he is being recognized for his efforts and his beginnings, as you say. But I am a person who loves beginnings, I love beginnings. The mystery of beginnings is part of Jewish mysticism. And in this case, in politics, of course, because it’s also – it’s also politics – it is a good thing, it’s a promise. The Nobel committee says that he represents a promise and I’m sure that he will try to fulfill it.
INSKEEP: And they do say that they want to encourage him on his way. Is that normal for the Nobel Prize to be used to encourage rather than just reward people?
Mr. WIESEL: Not really. But the Nobel Prize committee has its own rules, and they may decide anything they want. They may decide that encouragement is part of the experiment.