Chad Comello

libraries, culture, typewriters

Category: Presidents (page 1 of 4)

Grant me a Roosevelt biopic

The Oscar winner has Teddy Roosevelt and Ulysses S. Grant biopics lined up, and scholars are using everything from 'Hamilton' to toxic masculinity to make their pitches to the actor.

Why didn’t anyone tell me there are Ulysses Grant and Theodore Roosevelt biopics in the works from Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese? And that Leonardo DiCaprio is attached to star in both of them?

The Hollywood Reporter asked a bunch of historians whether Leo should play Grant or Roosevelt. Looking at their pictures above I’d say he could pull off either. My preference is that he plays Roosevelt and Jared Harris plays Grant as he did in Spielberg’s Lincoln.

More important to me, though, is what kind of biopic they will be. Will they be like Lincoln, beautifully made, regal, and safe but not comprehensive, focused on a specific moment instead of the full life? Will they be like J. Edgar—or a Scorsese’s The Aviator for that matter—which tried to pack in decades of history and aging makeup, to the detriment of a cohesive and compelling portrait?

Or will they be something else entirely? I hope so. Love me some Lincoln, but Grant was no Lincoln. He deserves a director willing to go dark and gritty and avoid the hagiography that has recently started to envelope Grant.

Scorsese doing Roosevelt is growing on me though. Being a New Yorker himself will help him capture the fiery aspect of TR’s spirit, which has some modern resonance.

I’m gonna watch the hell out of these projects regardless.

And John Tyler too

When I realized I had yet to read a presidential biography this year, I decided to tackle one that was more obscure and therefore more likely to be shorter. For some reason, tenth president John Tyler came to mind.

I opted for John Tyler by Gary May, part of the American Presidents series of short books. I try to avoid that series because all the books are intentionally short—this one was 150 pages—and I want to feel like I’ve earned (i.e. suffered through enough pages of) every biography, you know? But I decided to cut myself some slack on this one, and I’m now 18 presidents down with 26 to go.

Tyler Who?

John Tyler proved more interesting than I expected. All I knew of him, besides “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too”, was that he was the first president to ascend to the office due to his predecessor’s death (pour one out for William Henry “31 Days in Office” Harrison) and that he was a slaveholder who eventually served in the Confederacy.

He was also the youngest president (at 51) to take the oath at the time, had 15 kids between two wives (and two of his grandsons are still alive), was the first president to get married while in office, and the first to decline to seek a second term.

He also facilitated the annexation of Texas, which helped cause the Civil War. So there’s that.

One of the more intriguing episodes was when he resigned from U.S. Senate in 1836. He did it in protest of a resolution to expunge the censure of Andrew Jackson, which he’d earned from his conduct related to the rechartering of the Bank of the United States. Though a longtime Democrat, Tyler was even more strongly for states rights and therefore against Jackson’s despotism and expansion of executive power. So much so that he preferred resignation over acquiescence to federal overreach.

This also meant he was often politically homeless. Take a look at his political party affiliation history:

  • Democratic-Republican (1811–1828)
  • Democratic (1828–1834)
  • Whig (1834–1841)
  • None (1841–1844)
  • Democratic-Republican (1844)
  • None (1844–1862)

Notice he wasn’t affiliated with any party during his 1841-1844 presidential term. That’s because after vetoing several Whig bills (his own party, mind you) for being unconstitutional, which triggered mass resignations from his own cabinet (orchestrated by ol’ Henry Clay), the Whigs expelled Tyler from the party. He spent the rest of his administration a free agent, exerting the little influence he had on his two primary presidential passions: annexing Texas and vetoing as many bills as possible.

Tyler’s story ended just as the country’s took a dark turn. In February 1861 he was sent as a private citizen to the Peace Conference of 1861, a last-ditch effort I’d never heard of to negotiate a compromise over slavery. It failed, obviously, but it wasn’t long before Tyler was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives. He died before the first session began, thus denying him the opportunity of living to be the only U.S. president to formally give the finger to his erstwhile nation.

(Is that my Yankee showing?)

As a committed one-termer with a handful of goals (Texas and vetoes), Tyler reminds me of his presidential successor, James Polk, who got to fight the war with Mexico that Tyler’s backroom deal-making instigated. And this book fills in yet another gap in this era of forgotten presidents between Jackson and Lincoln. “And Tyler too” is about right.

Book Notes & Quotes: John Tyler by Gary May

  • At 51 he was the youngest president to take the oath at the time
  • Tyler’s father was Virginia governor and friend of Jefferson during Revolution
  • Attended College of William & Mary, then law school by 19 and Virginia House of Delegates in 1811
  • In spring 1813 his father died, he married Letitia, and joined militia but didn’t see action
  • Elected to Congress in 1816 at 26
  • Clay’s “American System” inspired by dismal performance in War of 1812, but states rights advocate Tyler voted against
  • Appointed to committee investigating Second Bank of the United States role in 1818’s “bank mania” of speculation and corruption; report was critical but bank survived
  • Voted against Missouri Compromise of 1820, which pushed him to not seek re-election
  • Law and farming bored him, so he won spot in Virginia legislature at 33, then became Virginia governor at 35
  • Virginia senator John Randolph lost favor, so Tyler selected for Senate in 1827
  • Hated John Quincy Adams and feared Andrew Jackson; in 1824 went Adams and 1828 Jackson
  • Went against Jackson’s despotism in nullification crisis and Bank controversy, despite supporting states rights
  • Resigned from Senate in 1836 in protest of resolution to expunge censure of Jackson’s behavior in Bank controversy
  • Despised the word “national” and what it represented
  • Whigs in 1840 had no official platform so as not to tear apart fragile coalition
  • Clay clashed with Harrison assuming he’d be subservient to Congress
  • Tyler brought 8 kids to White House, had son as secretary
  • Wife Letitia had stroke in 1839 and was invalid; daughter in law and actress Priscilla Cooper acted as First Lady
  • Clay, angling for 1844, put Third Bank of United States up for vote but Tyler vetoed
  • Whig activist Philip Hone called Tyler’s message “the quintessence of twaddle”
  • Second veto of bank triggered Cabinet resignations (orchestrated by Clay) save Daniel Webster; Clay assumed Tyler would resign but instead he found independent Whigs to serve
  • Whigs expelled Tyler from party after 1841 special session
  • Letitia died in 1842
  • Skirmish with Britain in 1830s at Maine/New Brunswick border dispute led to Webster-Ashburton treaty, border resolutions, and slave trade compromises
  • Sent first envoy to China to open for U.S. trade
  • Ardent expansionist who wanted to annex Texas, but slavery held it up
  • In February 1844 was cruising Potomac on new steam-powered USS Princeton when “Peacemaker” cannon exploded; Tyler and fiancée Julia below but casualties and carnage above, including Julia’s father
  • Calhoun “never happier than when he was philosophizing on behalf of slavery”
  • Antislavery Democratic senator leaked Texas annexation treaty; solely hinges on slavery in election year
  • Created his own Democratic-Republican party to act as spoiler; promised to bow out if assured by Polk that Texas would be annexed
  • Married Julia in June 1844 in secret; first presidential wedding in office; 30 years older than her
  • Funds to improve White House denied by Congress, so Julia’s mother contributed
  • First president to decline to seek second term
  • Signed Texas annexation resolution on March 1
  • Had 15 kids between two wives
  • 1848 election split by Free Soil Party nominee Van Buren, and combined with Mexican war spoils states led to Compromise of 1850, which Tyler supported with Clay
  • Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry and attempt at arming slaves tilted Tyler toward secession
  • Even in early 1861 was looking for ways to prevent disunion: participated in “peace convention” in DC but turned when proposed amendment would limit slavery and when Lincoln signaled war
  • Oversaw transfer of Confederate capital from Montgomery to Richmond, and served in Confederate House of Representatives briefly before death in January 1861
  • Asserted presidential power in era when Congress tried to weaken it; used veto vigorously, showed power even without congressional support or personal charisma
  • Improved Britain/American relations through Webster-Ashburton treaty, opened relations with China through Treaty of Wanghia, annexed Texas
  • Helped create “imperial presidency” through secret service contingency funds, guarding certain records, dispatching forces
  • Belief he was heir to Virginian presidents dynasty led to reckless pursuit of Texas, which led to Civil War

The broken presidency

I love John Dickerson for the Slate Political Gabfest and his presidential history podcast, and now I love him for his recent cover story in The Atlantic about how the office of the presidency is broken and was so way before Trump:

His central thesis is something I’ve thought about for a while: that the job of being president has become too big and darn near impossible. Long gone are the days when the president could go hiking with John Muir for long stretches without an entourage (Theodore Roosevelt) or go on a golfing vacation during a natural catastrophe without getting excoriated for callousness (Eisenhower).

The unwritten job description has bloated so much that our collective expectations for the position have become absurdly high. Dickerson interviews lots of former White House staffers from recent administrations and captures a visceral sense of the ever-increasing workload and expectations they and their presidents had to deal with.

Though this problem has been growing since the latter 20th century, I noticed it acutely during Obama’s terms, which coincided with the emergence of social media as a new means of instant mass communication and the exacerbation of an already vacuous news cycle.

Here’s Dickinson on what Obama had to deal with immediately before and after the secret meetings about the operation to kill Osama bin Laden in the spring of 2011:

an education-policy speech; meetings with leaders from Denmark, Brazil, and Panama; meetings to avoid a government shutdown; a fund-raising dinner; a budget speech; a prayer breakfast; immigration-reform meetings; the announcement of a new national-security team; planning for his reelection campaign; and a military intervention in Libya.

Obama is a smart guy who is capable of compartmentalizing, but this is an insane workload. And that was just one week. Missing are all the speeches after mass shootings, campaigning, and other attendant trappings of the modern office.

And then came Trump:

The intensity of public feelings about President Trump makes it hard to measure him against the presidency. His breaks with tradition are so jarring, and the murmuration of tweets so thick, that debate about his behavior tends to be conducted on the plane of propriety and the president’s seeming disregard for it.

If Trump were a less divisive figure, we might view these lapses differently. We might consider that what looks like incompetence or impertinence on the part of the officeholder could also be evidence that the office itself is broken.

So far Trump has upended a lot of the assumptions we’ve laid on the office of the president. In some ways this has been bad and downright nefarious (*insert about 724 scandals here*), but in another way I think it could be a blessing in disguise.

The presidency needed to change. That would have been true even if Clinton had won. Now that we’re stuck with this new reality, I think it should compel us to rethink a lot of what we’ve come to expect from the presidency.

Maybe we shouldn’t expect the occupant of the presidency to help with hurricane relief if he’s just going to swoop in for a photo-op.

Maybe we shouldn’t expect the occupant of the presidency to have a fully formed position on every domestic and foreign issue.

Maybe we shouldn’t treat the occupant of the presidency like the country’s surrogate daddy or CEO who’s untouchable by the rule of law.

This does not excuse Trump’s inexcusable behavior, which is well documented on this blog. Instead, we can view it as the straw that finally broke the presidency’s back. We ought to take this opportunity to reset our expectations about the office.

Dickerson has some ideas on how to do that: among them a non-pliant Congress, a strong Cabinet, empowered White House staff, a patient news media, an understanding public, and a self-possessed president.

If that lists strikes you as unrealistic or even absurd, you’re half right. Things change whether we expect them to or not. Here’s hoping changes to the presidency come to good.

Lincoln’s letter to Grant: ‘You were right, and I was wrong’

This letter from President Lincoln to Major General Ulysses Grant in July 1863 might be the last documented instance of a president apologizing for anything:

My dear General

I do not remember that you and I ever met personally. I write this now as a grateful acknowledgment for the almost inestimable service you have done the country. I wish to say a word further. When you first reached the vicinity of Vicksburg, I thought you should do, what you finally did — march the troops across the neck, run the batteries with the transports, and thus go below; and I never had any faith, except a general hope that you knew better than I, that the Yazoo Pass expedition, and the like, could succeed. When you got below, and took Port-Gibson, Grand Gulf, and vicinity, I thought you should go down the river and join Gen. Banks; and when you turned Northward East of the Big Black, I feared it was a mistake. I now wish to make the personal acknowledgment that you were right, and I was wrong.

Yours very truly

A. Lincoln

After reading Edmund Morris’s trilogy on the life of Theodore Roosevelt I made TR my new favorite president, but I think I have to revert back to Lincoln.

h/t Michael Wade

Trump’s Razor

Trump is either hiding something so threatening to himself, or he’s criminally incompetent to be commander in chief. It is impossible yet to say which explanation for his behavior is true, but it seems highly likely that one of these scenarios explains Trump’s refusal to respond to Russia’s direct attack on our system — a quiescence that is simply unprecedented for any U.S. president in history. Russia is not our friend. It has acted in a hostile manner. And Trump keeps ignoring it all.

— Thomas Friedman

Trump’s Razor: when presented with competing hypothetical answers to the question of Trump’s behavior, one should select the one that makes the fewest assumptions.

Which means: Once you realize the possibility that Trump is deeply compromised, his behavior makes so much more sense.

And this, for me, is the root of our present crisis. Beneath the “America First” president totally uninterested in defending America’s democratic integrity, the businessman running a chaotic and vapid administration, the “deal maker” with no poker face whatsoever, the demagogue with no ideology but himself—beneath all that is a man in a (presently) invisible prison of his own making. Who also happens to be president of the United States.

Happy Presidents Day, everyone!

A Hopey Changey Library

Somehow I missed this story on how the forthcoming Obama Center (above) will be challenging the “scam” of presidential libraries. The author, who wrote a book on the topic, lays out how:

The National Archives and Records Administration—which operates presidential library-museums for every president from Herbert Hoover through George W. Bush—won’t be operating either for Obama. His private Obama Foundation, not the government, will own and operate the museum. And there really won’t be a presidential library. The Obama Foundation will pay for NARA to digitize unclassified records and release them to the public as they become available, but the center’s “Library,” which may or may not house a local branch of the Chicago Public Library, will not contain or control presidential papers and artifacts, digital or otherwise. Instead, according to a NARA press release that called the museum “a new model for the preservation and accessibility of presidential records,” those records will be stored in “existing NARA facilities”—meaning one or more of the agency’s research or records centers across the country.

Is this good or bad?

The notion that a federal presidential library would contain no papers, and not actually be federally operated, is astonishing. But to those like myself who have advocated for years—without much success—that it’s time to reform the broken presidential library system, it’s also an important positive development, and one that could be revolutionary.

Oh.

Though I’ve been to several presidential museums, I don’t think I’ve ever been in the library portions of them. I wonder how this will play among scholars who actually need access to the records. Will it be more convenient or less convenient for them to be separated from the “flashy, partisan temples touting huckster history” (LOL)? We’ll see, I guess.

I do like the idea of including a branch of the Chicago Public Library. That won’t assuage all the other local concerns about the Obama Library, but it would go a long way to keep what can easily become an isolated, self-contained operation connected with the community that feeds it. All the better it will be for the former Reader in Chief.

Not sure if any of the other modern presidential libraries incorporate public libraries, but that would be a mutually beneficial new trend.

Fakelin Newsevelt

Learned a lot from Susan Douglas’s Listening In: Radio And The American Imagination about the development of radio technology and culture, and their impact on 20th century America. Also learned, in a tidbit about Franklin Roosevelt’s crusade against newspapers, that he sounded a lot like another ostensibly anti-media president:

Privately, the president in 1940 ask the new FCC Chairman, Lawrence Fly, “Will you let me know when you propose to have a hearing on newspaper ownership of radio stations?” Publicly, through his press secretary, Steve Early, Roosevelt told broadcasters that “the government is watching” to see if they air any “false news.” Radio, Early warned, “might have to be taught manners if it were a bad child.” Network executives understood “false news” to be news critical of the administrations policies.

The past isn’t dead, etc.

What I Think Right Now

  1. Trump was allowed to fire Comey.
  2. Comey deserved to be fired.
  3. Trump has clearly obstructed justice, which are grounds for impeachment.
  4. But good luck getting Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan to care.
  5. If President Hillary Clinton had done this Congress would have impeached her quicker than Trump can tweet something asinine, and deservedly so.

This all continues to be insane. It’s like being in a car with a drunk driver. I don’t care whose idea it was to let him drive; I don’t care about his protests that Relax I’m fine and You’ll thank me later for driving—I just want to get home safely, whatever it takes.

The Bullies Pulpit

From Politico:

More than 100 years ago a Republican president worried that America wasn’t doing enough to protect its most treasured wild and sacred places from over-development, mining and drilling. So Congress passed and President Teddy Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act of 1906, giving presidents the authority to preserve imperiled mountains, forests, cultural treasures and other public lands. Roosevelt condemned the “land grabbers” and “great special interests” who threatened the national lands he protected. “The rights of the public to the [nation’s] natural resources outweigh private rights and must be given its first consideration,” Roosevelt proclaimed. “Our people should see to it that they are preserved for their children and their children’s children forever.”

Today another Republican president is indicating he is ready to give in to the pressures of corporations and complicit state officials urging the administration to open these protected public lands to mining, drilling and other commercial exploitation. That would deprive future generations of Americans of irreplaceable treasures, both in the beauty of the landscapes that would be scarred and the birds and other wildlife that depend on those protected places for survival.

Whether it’s a good idea for Trump to revoke the protected status of lands designated as national moments is up for debate. (I’m against it.) But what interested me about this op-ed was its comparison of Trump to Theodore Roosevelt. It was negative in this case, but in Robert Merry’s forthcoming biography of William McKinley, Roosevelt comes across as much more Trump-like than TR fans like me would care to acknowledge.

TR is one of my certified History Crushes™. Anyone who reads Edmund Morris’ trilogy on the man’s brief but crowded life can’t help but admire him in some way. But there’s no getting around the fact that Roosevelt was an attention whore. Many others have noted the similarities between the two New Yorkers, but here’s Merry:

The biggest contributor to McKinley’s standing in history was Theodore Roosevelt, whose leadership style could not have been further removed from that of McKinley. Impetuous, voluble, amusing, grandiose, prone to marking his territory with political defiance, Roosevelt stirred the imagination of the American people as McKinley never had. To [McKinley]’s solidity, safety, and caution, the Rough Rider offered a mind that moved “by flashes or whims or sudden impulses,” as William Allen White described it. He took the American people on a political roller-coaster ride, and to many it was thrilling.

But the New Yorker was never one to share the credit with others. His theatrical self-importance led even his children to acknowledge that he wanted to be “the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.” It wasn’t surprising that soon he was denigrating the man whose presidency he had extolled through thousands of miles of political campaigning on his way to national power.

“A mind that moved by flashes or whims or sudden impulses,” “theatrical self-importance,” “prone to marking his territory with political defiance”—a little eerie, right? And the public denigration of his predecessor (and successor—poor Taft) certainly aligns with Trump’s modus operandi.

The bull moose-sized caveat here is that Roosevelt was far more qualified for the job and did soooo much more—and so much more good—in his 60 years of life than Trump has (including actually wanting to be president). Ditto that other Trumpish president, Andrew Jackson. To put Trump in their league simply because they were all blustery fellows would be an insult to the presidency and even to other blustery fellows who are otherwise good dudes.

Nevertheless, it’s good to remember that historical analogies are rarely clean, that we can’t disregard unpleasant characteristics of beloved historical figures out of convenience, and that Roosevelt single-handedly chased down and captured three outlaws in Dakota who stole his riverboat and escorted them back overland in a forty-hour marathon with no sleep while finishing a Tolstoy novel.

If the President Tweets It

When the National Review is calling Trump out, it’s worth reading:

[Trump’s] tweets, however, are exposing something else in many of Trump’s friends and supporters — an extremely high tolerance for dishonesty and an oft-enthusiastic willingness to defend sheer nonsense. Yes, I know full well that many of his supporters take him “seriously, not literally,” but that’s a grave mistake. My words are of far lesser consequence than the president’s, yet I live my life knowing that willful, reckless, or even negligent falsehood can end my career overnight. It can end friendships instantaneously. Why is the truth somehow less important when the falsehoods come from the most powerful and arguably most famous man in the world?

I guess it’s the “if the president tweets it, it’s not a lie” doctrine. That’s worked out well before.

I’ve watched Christian friends laugh hysterically at Trump’s tweets, positively delighted that they cause fits of rage on the other side. I’ve watched them excuse falsehoods from reflexively-defensive White House aides, claiming “it’s just their job” to defend the president. Since when is it any person’s job to help their boss spew falsehoods into the public domain? And if that does somehow come to be your job, aren’t you bound by honor to resign? It is not difficult, in a free society, to tell a man (no matter how powerful they are or how much you love access to that power), “Sir, I will not lie for you.”

GOP gratitude for beating Hillary Clinton cannot and must not extend into acceptance (or even endorsement) of presidential dishonesty and impulsiveness. Trump isn’t just doing damage to himself. As he lures a movement into excusing his falsehoods, he does damage to the very culture and morality of his base. The truth still matters, even when fighting Democrats you despise.

Older posts

© 2018 Chad Comello

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑