December 6, 2023

The ghosts of presidents past

IMMEDIATE RELEASE 8 Feb. 2016                                                             10


Today’s Events in Historical Perspective

America’s Longest-Running Column, Founded 1932

The ghosts of presidents past

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON –The current crop of presidential candidates may appear to be unique, particularly in their shortcomings, but we have seen iterations of them before – semblances, if not precise analogies. Like their predecessors, they are flawed and unprepared because the only school for presidents is the presidency.

Donald Trump, R-N.Y. –

President Andrew Jackson embodied almost everything opponents of democracy had feared. Unlike his distinguished predecessors, Jackson was a rough-hewn, bad-tempered, brutal authoritarian – the scourge of Native Americans. The new president asked Congress to authorize the removal of Indians from their ancestral lands (the Trail of Tears), regardless of their state of civilization or peaceful existence. It was an inauspicious start, and he seemed to care less. However, history has been kind to him because his egalitarianism changed the nature of the American body politic. He was hailed as a man of the people – adult white male people.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex. –

President John Adams could become overbearing, stubborn, argumentative and surly, but he was also canny, clever, perceptive, and knowledgeable. Thin-skinned, he signed the short-lived Sedition Act, instantly wronging a right when it became a federal crime to “write, print, utter or publish . . . any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States . . . the Congress . . . or the president . . . with intent to defame.” People were jailed for calling him “a repulsive pedant, a gross hypocrite and unprincipled oppressor,” and “a continual tempest of malignant passions.” Sensitive and prickly, he became isolated, facing hostility from every direction. Even his own Federalists were led by a disdainful Alexander Hamilton, not him.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. –

Franklin Pierce was among the youngest men to become president, the only person to run against his old commanding officer (think Jeb Bush), and the only president to recite a more than 3,000-word inaugural address from memory, including an unequivocal advocacy of states’ rights: “If the Federal Government will confine itself to the exercise of powers clearly granted by the Constitution, it can hardly happen that its action upon any question should endanger the institutions of the States or interfere with their right to manage matters strictly domestic according to the will of their own people. . . .”

Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J. –

Hefty, outspoken President William Howard Taft displayed one example of his tenuous convictions when the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) invited him to speak at their April 14, 1910 convention: “If I could be sure that women as a class, including all the intelligent women . . . would exercise the franchise, I should be in favor of it. At present there is considerable doubt. . . . The theory that Hottentots or any other uneducated, altogether unintelligent class is fitted for self-government at once or to take part in government is a theory that I wholly dissent from.”

Gov. John Kasich, R-Ohio and Dr. Benjamin Carson, R- Md. –

President Calvin Coolidge, a former governor, not fully comprehending the gulf of differences between state and federal finances or even personal finances, admitted, “I believe in budgets. . . . I have had a small one to run my own home; and besides that, I am the head of the organization that makes the greatest of all budgets, that of the United States government.” He did not distinguish between short-term debt to fund operations and long-term debt to fund infrastructure or military needs. Indeed, a balanced budget was his holy grail, even at the expense of national defense or humanitarian endeavors. He had voted for women’s suffrage, a state income tax, and other progressive programs, though none of that ideology seemed to carry over to his presidency. Instead of looking at what the Constitution prevented him from doing, he refused to act unless the Constitution specifically authorized him to do it.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush, R-Fla. –

President Benjamin Harrison, the grandson of President William Henry Harrison, paved the way from the machine politics of his predecessors to the reform agenda of Theodore Roosevelt, pressing for pre-Progressive legislation such as the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, though he was less vigorous in its enforcement. Instead, he continued to adhere to the dominant underpinning of the Republican Party: the protective tariff, never understanding how it was harming farmers of the South, Midwest, and West. He simultaneously advocated policies intended to aid those sections such as a bimetallist monetary policy with the 1890 Sherman Silver Purchase Act, making both silver and gold legal tender. Harrison’s private and political beliefs were in constant conflict.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y. –

President Bill Clinton never said, “The chief business of the American people is business,” but he did seek to move Democrats to the center, which after he and his wife (he claimed the country was getting a “twofer”) failed to have universal healthcare enacted, often meant right of center, prompting Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution to compare him to the president who did say those words: “I’m not sure how different this presidency is going to look than Calvin Coolidge’s.” Clinton often found himself in opposition to his own party. He joined Republicans on the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) which limited welfare benefits. He supported the Leach-Bliley Act that revoked portions of the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act which had prevented banks from engaging in brokerage activities. The enigma that is Clinton runs the gamut from the Rhodes Scholar studiousness reminiscent of Madison to the accommodative and disingenuous façade of Van Buren. He was a president for all reasons.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt. and former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, I-N.Y. (should he choose to run) –

President Theodore Roosevelt epitomized the Progressive movement, opposing the Robber Barons, whose monopolies he attacked with a zeal not seen before, giving conditional support for a constitutional amendment authorizing a federal income tax. He sympathized with labor and refused to use troops to break strikes, endorsed women’s suffrage, and obtained passage of The Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act. It was all too much for mainstream Republicans, and he would eventually break with them to form a new Progressive Party and run for president under its banner in 1912. His progressive initiatives changed the face of America and paved the way for his cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to create the regulations and safety nets of the 1930s.

The current candidates may not be clones of their predecessors, but they do seem to channel them, these ghosts of presidents past.

Excerpts and paraphrase are from the author’s new book, “The President’s First Year”.

          Douglas Cohn’s new book, “The President’s First Year: None Were Prepared, Some Never Learned – Why the Only School for Presidents Is the Presidency,” is available in book stores.

          Twitter @WMerryGoRound

© 2016 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.




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