Friday, October 24, 2008

"Very well. If that is the way the winds are blowing, let no one say I don't also blow..."

Ranking the Presidents, Part Five: The Thoroughly Mediocre

See also:
part one, part two, part three, part four

So far:

42. James Buchanan
41. Warren Harding
40. William Henry Harrison
39. Franklin Pierce
38. George W. Bush
37. Andrew Johnson
36. Millard Fillmore

35. John Tyler
34. James A. Garfield
33. Zachary Taylor
32. Ulysses S. Grant
31. Richard Nixon
30. Herbert Hoover
29. Benjamin Harrison
28. Jimmy Carter
27. Chester A. Arthur


Next up...

26. Rutherford B. Hayes (1877 - 1881)

High Points/Accomplishments:
laid the groundwork for Arthur's Civil Service reforms. More on this in a second.

Low Points: ummm...he ended Reconstruction in exchange for becoming President! If he were a Greek mythology character, he would've immediately been struck by lightning or rendered blind or attacked by a pack of wolves or whatever happens in those stories. To recap, the Samuel Tilden-Rutherford Hayes election was so close that it went to a Congressional committee to decide the outcome. There, the 15 appointees voted 8-7 (strictly along partly lines) in favor of Hayes, a Republican. In exchange, Hayes mollified Southern Democrats by removing all remaining federal troops in the South, which effectively re-legalized white supremacy in the South for another 90 or so years, to which the defeated Tilden (a New Yorker who vigorously opposed slavery) said: "wait, you did what?"

You can read about the so-called Compromise of 1877 here (which is worth it for the creepy cartoon alone).

Fun Facts: (1) Apparently, he assisted in the founding of (the) Ohio State University. Had I known this, I would've dropped him five spots. What a total dic--meh, forget it. I can't muster the enthusiasm for that this year. God, Michigan's terrible.

(2) His name, if reversed, looks just as reasonable. Borrowing a page from Bill Simmons, I'll call this the Franklin Pierce All-Stars. Others that fall into this category include James Buchanan, Ulysses S. Grant (think about it), Zachary Taylor, James Garfield, Chester A. Arthur, Abraham Lincoln (maybe), John Tyler, Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson, and James Madison (if he were a girl born after 1987).

(3) His wife was a teetotaler, and banned all alcohol in the White House. Known as "Lucy Lemonade" to her face (and, I believe, "That Bitch Who Won't Let Us Drink at State Dinners" behind her back) she also began the Easter Egg roll on the White House lawn (also considerably less interesting when sober).

(4) His Wikipedia entry contains two footnotes. By comparison, FDR's has 99 (Ford? 116).

(5) This cartoon, which has Hayes leaving a baby marked "Civil Service Reform" (subtle!) on James A. Garfield's doorstep (Hayes himself was unable to push it through Congress). Hayes, for reasons beyond comprehension, is in drag. I was going to go on an extended rant about how terrible political cartoons were back then, but I gotta be honest, they aren't much better today. We're roughly 300 days into our New Yorker cartoon a day calendar and I'd say only five of them have been legitimately funny (and only two of those were fridge magnet worthy, including one--a male dove saying to a female dove: "Why do people think you're a symbol of peace, when you're actually a real bitch?" --that has nothing to do with politics whatsoever).

In Writing: No surprise, I haven't read anything about Hayes (good thing I bragged about reading so many presidential bios! Again in this post, I'm 0-for-4. Rats.)

In Popular Culture:
Inexplicably (though happily for me, since I have no other pop culture reference for him) Hayes is singled out for special thanks during the end credits of In The Line of Fire.

Test of Time:
OK, here's the thing, any good thing you can say about the Hayes admin can be immediately countered by "yes, but he ended Reconstruction." If anything, I see his reputation worsening (put it this way, lumping him in with other Presidents that lost the popular vote has done his legacy no favours.)

25. Gerald Ford (1974 - 1977)

High Points/Accomplishments:
(1) Famously uttered the following words after assuming the presidency: "My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over." Adding: "but, I'll be honest, I'm pretty fucking incompetent, so you won't exactly be sleeping comfortably for the next two years." Five seconds later, he pardoned Nixon.

Low Points:
(1) it begins and ends with pardoning Nixon (except for the part where it ends). Over the years, I've gone back and forth on whether or not this was a necessary move. Part of me wants to believe that, in pardoning Nixon (which happened, not five seconds after being sworn in, but rather about a month later) saved America a lot of grief, but no, it didn't. What it did was save Nixon the grief. Frankly, I don't think the American people would've been too bothered by a disgraced ex-President possibly going to prison. (And, if you have any doubts that this was a pre-arranged deal between Nixon and Ford, I urge you to check out any reputable biography (Woodward's Shadow will do) on Alexander Haig--Nixon's Chief of Staff--which will detail the terms of the "corrupt bargain" negotiated between the incoming and outgoing Presidents). Interestingly, one of Nixon's ideas while still President was to pardon himself and then step down...a concept I find fascinating.

(2) attempted to eliminate with his famed (and often mocked) Whip Inflation Now (WIN) campaign, and he probably would've succeeded...provided that inflation were curable by people wearing stupid buttons.

Fun Facts:
(1) renowned for his football skills, he actually didn't start until his senior year at Michigan (largely because he was behind All-American center Chuck Bernard). He was, however offered two pro contracts upon graduation (although one of them was from the Lions, so it's unclear if that counts).

(2) was one of the two House members to sit on the Warren Commission, so, along with LBJ, he's one of the two Presidents to know who is really responsible for JFK's death (Johnson).

In Writing: Douglas Brinkley's Gerald Ford (2007), which I'm looking to sink my teeth into sometime early next year.

In Popular Culture: (1) the first President parodied (by Chevy Chase, who, really, couldn't have looked less like him) on SNL to get real heat. True, Ackroyd did Nixon a few times, but (and Shuk, feel free to correct me here) I don't believe it created that big of a stir. Yesterday, I actually heard a "media" reporter/historian on CNN say that he thought that Chase's Ford impression--which, if memory serves, consisted entirely of Chase falling down/off of/or onto things--cost him the election...on which I'm gonna have to call bullshit. Remember, Ford trailed Carter by thirty points when he was nominated. He's lucky they didn't just call the election off.

(2) Ah, one last time to the "Two Bad Neighbors" episode (er...until George Bush pops up):

Gerry: Hi! Pleased to meet you, I just moved in. My name is Gerry Ford.
Homer: [gasps] Former President Gerald Ford? Put her there! I'm Homer Simpson!
Gerry: Say, Homer, do you like football?
Homer: Do I ever!
Gerry: Do you like nachos?
Homer: Yes, Mr. Ford.
Gerry: Well, why don't you come over and watch the game, and we'll have nachos? And then, some beer.
Homer: Ooh!

[they walk across the street]

Homer: Gerry, I think you and I are going to get along just --

[they both trip]

Both: D'oh!

(3) According to Mr. Burns, Ford is responsible for Project Bootstrap, which led to Homer's hiring at the Power Plant.

Test of Time: he feels more like a punchline at this stage. Many people seem to admire him greatly, but his presidency was, by almost any applied metric, unremarkable.

24. Martin Van Buren (1837 - 1841)

High Points/Accomplishments:
Just one thing actually, and it's something known as The Caroline Affair. In 1837, as you'll recall, Canadian insurgents were bloodlessly (read: poorly) revolting against the Brits. At one stage, they apparently tried to capture Toronto, but were headed off, and fell back to an island in the Niagara River. Sympathetic Americans sent a supply ship (the steamship Caroline) to aid the Canadian rebels. However, Canadian militia, upon receiving word of the ship's arrival courtesy of the Brits, were ordered to seize it, which they did in the most spectacular way imaginable: boarding it, burning it, and sending it over Niagara Falls. One American was killed and several were injured. (Let me just interject here: why oh why weren't we taught cool shit like this in Canadian history classes? Prior to this, I thought the most badass part of the the Rebellion of 1837 is when they threw Mackenzie's typewriter into the water). Anyway, the fact that MVB resisted the urge to retaliate is absolutely astounding. Kudos, good sir.

Low Points:
(1) was at the helm when the Panic of 1837, which lasted for an agonizing six years. In fairness, a lot of this can be attributable to the failed monetary policies of his predecessor, Andrew Jackson, but it's way too complicated/boring to get into it (hint: something called the Specie Circular plays a prominent role). Still...

(Fun) Facts:
(1) MVB's wife died some twenty years before he became President. Van Buren never re-married. Consequently (and creepily) Van Buren's daughter served as his de facto First Lady (squirm!).

(2) Known as "The Little Magician" (or, less charitably: "President Crazy Hair" or "The Old Dude That is Just a Little Too Affectionate with his Daughter").

(3) During an economic downturn, Whig party members were quick to dub him "Martin Van Ruin" which...doesn't even rhyme with "Buren." Good one! No wonder you guys went extinct 150 years ago...

(4) Ever heard of the Gold Spoon Oration (aka "The Regal Splendor of the President’s Palace")? Of course not--neither had I until two days ago. Basically, it was a three-day long speech about how Van Buren was a bit of a dandy and lived lavishly. A brief excerpt:


"The survey of smooth lawns and gently sloping meads, covered with rich coats of white and red clover and luxuriant orchard grass, made no delightful impression on their eyes. No, sir; mere meadows are too common to gratify the refined taste of an exquisite with sweet sandy whiskers. He must have undulations, beautiful mounds, and other contrivances, to ravish his exalted and ethereal soul. Hence, the reformers have constructed a number of clever sized hills, every pair of which, it is said, was designed to resemble and assume the form of an Amazon's bosom, with a miniature knoll or hillock on its apex, to denote the nipple."
(Nods uncomfortably while slowly backing out of the room.) I remain flabbergasted that, amongst all this petty filibustering going on (like, really, wasn't this smack in the middle of America's first big economic collapse?) that Congress in the 19th century accomplished anything. Amusingly, the speechmaker (Charles Ogle, a Whig Congressman from Pennsylvania) was shilling for soon-to-be President William Henry Harrison (the historical record is silent on whether or not Ogle died of shame roughly a year later.)

In Writing: seriously slim pickings here. Look for some up and coming historian to tackle MVB in the next few years, if only to fill the void. In the meantime, how about: John Niven's Martin Van Buren: The Romantic Age of American Politics (2000)?

In Popular Culture: (1) in possibly the randomest Seinfeld reference of them all, both Kramer and George are terrorize by the "Van Buren Boys," a gang of street toughs modelled after their presidential hero (according to Kramer
the gang is apparently "every bit as mean as he was").

(2) He also (or rather, his likeness) makes an appearance in an episode of The Monkees.

(3) In Gore Vidal's fictional universe, he's Aaron Burr's illegitimate son...which would certainly explain the crazy hair.

(4) According to bathroom graffiti found on Capitol Hill during Krusty's term as Senator, MVB "is a weiner."

Test of Time:
Seems to be falling in recent polls (from slightly below average to mediocre). No reason to think this won't continue. It's not as if his supporters (assuming they actually exist) can point to any one thing and say "see? He was a visionary!"

23. Calvin Coolidge (1923 - 1929)

High Points/Accomplishments:
(1) Got out when the getting was good, leaving office a cool seven months before the market crashed. (2) Was wildly popular. (3) Reduced income tax across the board (although disproportionately in favour of the wealthy), if that's your sort of thing. Unfortunately, this did encourage widespread speculation...

Low Points:
(1) Participant in the Kellogg-Briand Conference of 1928, which led to the Kellogg-Briand Pact (aka the Pact of Paris), arguably the most trivial agreement in the history of the world. In case you're not familiar with it, the treaty--which, I hasten to point out, contained no provisions for those that didn't abide by it (yes, one of those treaties) --banned war (officially, it "renounced" it "as an instrument of national policy"). Amazingly, it didn't quite pan out. I'm willing to give Coolidge the benefit of the doubt and assume that he just wanted a comped trip to Paris. If not, this is just incredibly embarrassing.

(2) vetoed (though he was later overridden by Congress) the Bonus Bill in 1924, which was to provide veterans of World War I a bonus that vested in 1944. When asked, he said the bill smacked of "sharing the wealth," and wouldn't stand for it, adding "they'd just waste it on morphine anyway."

(3) Was very much behind the curve on welfare state reforms, twice vetoing Farm Relief that would've established government cooperatives to buy up surpluses to sell overseas, something that was very much de rigeur under FDR. (4) Supported an Immigration Bill in 1924 that lowered the immigrant rate from 3% to 2%, capped total annual immigration at 150,000, and banned Japanese immigrants altogether. It's important to note that makes him like...every other President between 1850 and 1950, so it's kind of unfair for me to single old Silent Cal out, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the strong anti-nativist tendencies in the U.S. in at least one of these ten votes.

Fun Facts:
(1) leads all Presidents in naps taken (suck it, Bush!)

(2) From America: The Book (p. 54):
"Coolidge still ranks as the quietest president of all time. Famously, a woman once approached him, saying, "I bet my friend I could get you to say more than two words," to which Coolidge wittily replied, "Fuck you.""
(3) Coolidge was summering in Massachusetts when Harding died and their place didn't have a phone, so White House officials had to be dispatched to notify him in the middle of the night that he was now President. Coolidge, totally shocked (he didn't even know Harding was ill), took the oath of office...and then went back to bed.

In Writing:
No. Robert Sobel's Coolidge: An American Enigma (released in 1998 and cited approximately 300 times in Coolidge's Wikipedia entry) is probably your best option.

In "Popular" Culture:
(1) "The Coolidge Effect." According to its Wikipedia entry, this is
"a phenomenon – seen in nearly every species in which it has been tested – whereby males show continuously high sexual performance given the introduction of new receptive females."
The article goes on to state:
The term comes from an old joke, according to which President Calvin Coolidge and his wife allegedly visited a poultry farm. During the tour, Mrs. Coolidge inquired of the farmer how his farm managed to produce so many fertile eggs with such a small number of roosters. The farmer proudly explained that his roosters performed their duty dozens of times each day.
"Perhaps you could point that out to Mr. Coolidge," pointedly replied the First Lady.
The President, overhearing the remark, asked the farmer, "Does each rooster service the same hen each time?"
"No," replied the farmer, "there are many hens for each rooster."
"Perhaps you could point that out to Mrs. Coolidge," replied the President.
Sadly, upon hearing this, Mrs. Coolidge immediately suffered a stroke and died the next day. (No, I just made that up.)

(2) The main character in the Japanese RPG Tales of Legendia (PS2, 2005) is Senel Coolidge. And before you say--as you are wont to do--that it's improbable that a game made by Japanese designers for Japanese gamers would include an homage to a largely forgotten American president, might I remind you that the running joke throughout the game is that Senel is a heavy sleeper? Aha! And President Coolidge loved to nap. Not only that, the real Coolidge slept every single night occasionally heavily, presumably)! Game, set, match.

Test of Time:
fittingly enough for a President that, at no point, gave any indication he had any enthusiasm for the presidency, there has been no real historical heat for Coolidge of late. In an 1994 Siena University poll, he was ranked among the very worst (36th of 41). Recently, he's moved up to the mid-twenties range, which is about where he deserved to be. Americans during his reign simply wanted to get drunk, play ping-pong, and spend money well beyond their means, and Coolidge, for his part, was totally cool with that.


An interesting "what if?" is: what if Coolidge decided to run in 1928? Chances are, he probably would've won. To my mind, this would've been catastrophic for the American people, because, if you thought Hoover was inactive during the Depression, how do you think a guy whose most famous quote is "four-fifths of all our troubles in this life would disappear if we would only sit down and keep still" would've handled things?

Halfway home...and we're now only four presidents away from those 18 that can legitimately be considered competent.

Next: #22 - #19

1 comment:

Fernando said...

Another random pop culture reference. If you remember the Nickolodeon show "Pete and Pete", there is an episode where the young Pete gets a presidential marshmellow from a serial stuck up his nose. I thought that president was Martin Van Buren but its not; a friend who gives Pete the method of dislogging the 'mellow from his is the one that had MVB stuck up his nose. The president Pete had in his nose...will be revealed when you get to him (or if u just google it lol).