Friday, November 25, 2005

RETARDO's Skeptic's Guide To American Presidents

Brad DeLong recently solicited comments on the subject of Worst President Ever. Many contributed to the thread, including yours truly.

Which gave me an idea:

George Washington: His success was a tribute not so much to charisma as to will. Not very literate. Conceited. A grossly overrated general who was quick to punish anyone who dared point out the fact, or who highlighted any instance of his incompetence; or, worse, he often did his best to punish those more talented than he. Vindictive. Childless, he was highly susceptible to fawning, conniving young men like, say, a Mr. A. Hamilton. Spent huge amounts of time doing things like picking out official silverware: an overriding concern with the pomp and circumstance of his office. Had a stupendous temper. A proto-propertarian. Still, without his strength of character (not at all the same as charm), the revolution wouldn't have held together.

John Adams: Crusty, curmudgeonly, utterly charmless except at a distance. Gifted in the art of invective (Hamilton, for instance, was "that Creole bastard"). Given to grudges, which is understandable, for he was betrayed by his own party and mercilessly pillioried by the other side. Married very well. Was that rarest of birds: a moralist who actually applied his moral condemnations equally to himself. Envious. Backed the Alien & Sedition Acts, a fascist bit of law the text of which is probably embroideried on John Ashcroft's pillows. Made up for it slightly by sabotaging the undeclared war with France via a peace pact, an accomplishment he was so proud of he desired it be put on his tombstone.

Thomas Jefferson: Our finest political philosopher and rhetorician was a terrible president, which figures, because the man was a walking contradiction his whole life. Polymath. Notorious abuser of animals. Foppish and given to expensive tastes, an irony for a man acknowledged as the Ur-democrat. Provided the ideological kernel that John C. Calhoun later developed with tragic consequences. Attacked the institutions and personages of the federal judiciary like no one else before or since. Perhaps the biggest patron of press hacks. Incredibly thin-skinned. Bought Louisiana unconstitutionally then commenced to rule it as a satrapy. If he'd had his way, "constructive treason" would be law instead of the thankfully much more difficult to prove concept of treason we now follow -- this, while knowingly employing as commanding General of the Army a man, James Wilkinson, who was known to be in the pay of Spain, and therefore a traitor no matter what the concept. Humorless. Given to advanced-at-the-time but ultimately super-crackpot ideas on race. And... it's not that he had an affair, but that he fucked a slave, someone structurally unable to resist his advances. More creepy is that Sally Hemmings was almost certainly Jefferson's late wife's half-sister. Vulnerable to the chickenhawk charge had he been much more of a war-monger.

James Madison: Tiny and balding, he was like Mickey Kaus without all that face pollution baggage. A stridently sober personality. Not at all the fan of democracy that Jefferson was. Still, it was widely known that he, and Monroe who followed him, were in Jefferson's bag. Presided over the first war that we lost. Shy, he married late but well, thanks to ladies' man Aaron Burr's fixing him up with sweet Dolley of pastries fame. Lost the White House to enemy torches.

James Monroe: Nothing happened! Soldier; along with Burr and Hamilton, actually served in the Revolution. Not very bright in comparison to the other Founders but then look who the others are. His First Lady actually wore a crown and sat on a dais, bought tons of expensive furniture for the refurbished White House. Almost duelled that hothead A. Hamilton, whom ignorant fools like, say, Josh "Tacitus" Trevino wrongly believe was a picked-on party in these matters just because he finally got the bullet he'd teased for so long.

John Quincy Adams: An Untimely Man, his high-mindedness was ill-suited for his age. Cold, severe personality. Indefatiguable, but it was futile. He never recovered from his "election", which stank of corrupt dealings since he was actually chosen not by the people but by the House of Representatives. Quid pro quo, rival Henry Clay dropped out of the running to give the Presidency to Adams. Adams promptly made him Secretary of State. But no one liked him. It's too bad. Enhanced the office of Ex-Presidency, which others were subsequently to soil (until Jimmy Carter). Joined the House and served until his death, where he did good work defeating pro-slavery procedures that had previously stopped debate on the issue. Specifically anti-jingo. See also here.

Andrew Jackson: Extended democracy, a wholly good thing. But aside that it's all crap. Was the worst sort of populist: jingoistic, racist, anti-intellectual. Which should sound familiar. Unlike his modern admirers, however, Jackson was personally courageous. Indeed, he was one tough son of a bitch; he lived with a bullet in his body for a long time, and fought several duels. An accidental adulterer, the political attacks over which were greatly distressing to his goose of a wife, Rachael, whose divorce from her first husband was never made legal. Jackson blamed his political enemies for Rachael's subsequent death. The most hotheaded of Presidents until our time. Declared war on the National Bank with disasterous consequences. Defied a Supreme Court decision in sending the Cherokees west, setting a precedent for "legal" and "democratic" ethnic cleansing, to the delight of our latter day Milosevices and Sharons. Jefferson said of Jackson, while the latter was in Florida personally slaying Indians and scheming against Spain, "Now he really is crazy." How true. Invented the spoils system. Thanks a lot for that one.

Martin Van Buren: Mr. Smooth. Our first modern President in the sense that he was a politician first and foremost. Not a philosopher, warrior, statesman. Inherited from Jackson the consequences of the National Bank fiasco; panic of 1837 ensued. A failure as President, but probably the best diplomat to hold the office excepting Jefferson, who cut a very fine cloth indeed. On the other hand, Van Buren was our finest presidential blogger.

William Henry Harrison: Didn't live long enough to fuck-up anything, but judging by his campaign -- which was the sleaziest, structurally, in history at the time -- he would have. Famed Indian killer. The bastard.

John Tyler: Much maligned. Inherited office at Harrison's death. To the horror of his party, he promptly decided to have principles -- never mind that they weren't all that great principles to have. Was a widower at taking office, later as President marrying a much much younger woman who might be the only First Lady a modern red-blodded American young man would consider a hottie. Seriously. At the new bride's prompting, however, "Hail To the Chief" was made the official song of White House pageantry -- a tune which might have been metal-up-your-ass at the time, but is, like, totally shit-sounding now.

James Knox Polk: Our first wingnut President. Yes, he was a Democrat, but it doesn't matter. Was a bloody imperialist, a conquistador; connived a war with Mexico to steal land that now Mexicans, sensibly, are filling back up. But yes he was a wingnut. A protege of Jackson. Attended famed Transylvania College in Kentucky, giving us a clue to where and when the Vlad of Wingnuts rampaged the Bluegrass meadows: the genesis of an ideological virus. Polk married, naturally, a religious nut who forbade alcohol in the White House. Counter-intuitively, for a wingnut he really was a hard worker: he didn't just talk about it then go on vacation. He died of exhaustion soon after leaving office.

Want more? Next eleven at request. And of course this is all off the top of my head, so if there are errors, well.. it's your fault somehow.