“The High Road of Humility”: Modesty in American Presidents

By Kaleena Fraga

As the nation said goodbye to George H.W. Bush, America’s 41st president, his friend Senator Alan Simpson eulogized the former president by noting: 

“Those that travel the high road of humility in Washington are not bothered by heavy traffic.”

The line was met with laughter in the National Cathedral–packed with those who had spent their careers in Washington D.C.–and with a moment of reflection. Bush was famous for his aversion to the word I, an aversion with roots in the lessons of his mother to avoid self-aggrandizing. 

Bush led an exciting life. As a navy pilot, ambassador to the U.N., chairman of the RNC, envoy to China, vice president, and as president he certainly had plenty of stories to fill the pages. Family and friends urged him to sit down and pen his memoirs. “I was unpersuaded,” said Bush. A prolific letter writer and diary writer, Bush nevertheless saw no draw in writing a public memoir encapsulating his life. 

His reluctance to do so is reminiscent of another American president–Ulysses S. Grant. Grant himself wrote a remarkable account of his life and of the Civil War–but not because he wanted to write one. 

On the first page of his memoirs he insists: 

“Although frequently urged by friends to write my memoirs I had determined never to do so, nor to write anything for publication.”

Grant, at sixty-two, was suffering from lung cancer. He had been swindled by a former business partner and sought a way to support his family after he died. When approached to write articles about his life for Century Magazine, Grant agreed. Mark Twain later helped him market the complete memoirs. 

Grant, like Bush, internalized lessons he learned from his mother. In Ron Chernow’s biography of Grant, Chernow writes: “It seems crystal-clear that Ulysses S. Grant modeled himself after his mutely subdued mother, avoiding his father’s bombast and internalizing her humility and self-control.”

Grant’s memoirs are far from personal. He is not particularly introspective–for example, he never mentions issues with alcohol, despite rumors that dogged him during the Civil War and, later, his presidency. Rather, Grant describes battles and muses candidly about sentiments on both the Union and Confederate sides. Grant died five days after his memoirs were published. 

At this time, in 1885, it was highly unusual for a president to write a memoir. President Buchanan published the first ever in 1866, in an attempt to save his legacy. Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion didn’t work. Buchanan today is regarded as one of America’s worst presidents, for his inaction during the eve of the Civil War. 

But the 20th century saw a glut of presidential memoirs. Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover all wrote their autobiographies. Every president from Harry Truman to Donald Trump wrote some form of memoir–excluding John F. Kennedy, who died in office. 

It’s also becoming increasingly common for presidential candidates to release books–often before their candidacy is even declared. Barack Obama wrote two before he was nominated in 2008. Elizabeth Warren, a potential candidate for 2020, released a book in 2017. Bernie Sanders released a book in late 2018. John F. Kennedy, who did not have a chance to write a book reflecting on his presidency, released his book Profiles in Courage in 1955, which introduced him to a wider audience before his run in 1960. 

Today, there’s such an emphasis on personal brand that any politician going the route of Bush or Grant would risk being drowned out by others. Certainly Bush was criticized for failing to “sell” his accomplishments in the 1992 election, which he ultimately lost to Bill Clinton. Yet in our era of “Only I Can Fix it” perhaps some humility is just what the American political sphere needs. 

New Kids in Town: Kennedy, Nixon & the 116th Congress

By Kaleena Fraga

The 116th Congress, set to convene on January 3rd, 2019, is one of the most diverse in American history. One hundred and twenty-three members are women–the largest class of female legislators ever. Some are already social media darlings–Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has revolutionized communication strategies by using Instagram live to share her journey; Republican Dan Crenshaw became a household name after being mocked on SNL, then invited to the show to offer a rebuke. 

Certainly, as political tides shift and the gaze of the nation turns towards 2020 and beyond, there are names in the freshman class of the 116th Congress to keep an eye on. If the 116th Congress is anything like the 80th, freshmen members could one day  ascend to the highest echelons of American political power. 

Who were the notable freshmen of the 80th Congress? Among them were two future presidents–Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Up to their election, Nixon and Kennedy had led different but parallel lives. Both came to Congress as veterans of the Navy, as men who had lost older brothers, and who had grown up with domineering fathers. Nixon had grown up in a poor family; Kennedy in one of the nation’s wealthiest. Kennedy, at 29, was the same age as AOC. Nixon, at 33, was only a few years older. 

Nixon played an active and public role in the Alger Hiss trial, which would solidify his credentials as a staunch anti-communist. As a freshman, he also traveled to Europe with congressional colleagues to assess the damage in WWII, an assessment which eventually led to the Marshall Plan. Kennedy’s congressional career was much less publicized–he engaged in political battles of the time, but didn’t make a name for himself like Nixon did. 

Nixon and Kennedy, who would famously debate each other in first televised presidential debate during the election of 1960, would first debate each other in 1947, over the Taft-Hartley Act. The debate took place in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. The two freshman shared a meal after the debate, and rode the train together back to Washington D.C.–oblivious of their looming, shared future. 

Both men aimed for higher office. In 1950, Nixon went to the Senate. In 1952, Kennedy followed him there. From there, they followed divergent and yet corresponding paths. Nixon would be picked as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice presidential candidate in the election of 1952; Kennedy, struggling with health issues, had one of the worst attendance records in Congress, and lost his own bid to become Adlai Stevenson’s running mate. 

The rest, as they say, is history. Kennedy would best Nixon in 1960, in one of the closest presidential elections in American history. Kennedy won 49.7% of the popular vote to Nixon’s 49.5%. Only 100,000 votes out of 68 million cast separated the two men. Nixon heard allegations of fraud, but declined to challenge the results of the election–although he nursed a grudge against the Kennedy machine for the rest of his political career. 

Kennedy and Nixon sought the highest office in the land only 13 years after their first national election. In a few weeks, the 116th Congress will convene. For all we know, the next Kennedy, the next Nixon, could be in their midst. 

Waiting In the Wings: LBJ, the Vice Presidency, and Odds

By Kaleena Fraga

Quotes abound on the uselessness of the vice presidency. John Adams once called it “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” Hubert Humphrey once said, “There is an old story about the mother who had two sons. One went to sea, and the other became vice president, and neither was heard of again.” 

When Lyndon Johnson became Jack Kennedy’s vice president, after a long campaign in which he believed he would eventually pull ahead, Johnson looked to his odds. He had his staff look up how many presidents had died in office in the last one hundred years–five out of eighteen–and later told a journalist: 

“I looked it up: one out of every four Presidents has died in office. I’m a gamblin’ man, darlin’, and this is the only chance I got.”

(This was not entirely accurate. Five out of eighteen presidents had died in the last one hundred years, but since 1789 seven presidents had died in office).

Johnson had heavily hinted about Kennedy’s various health issues during the campaign (Kennedy suffered from back problems and Addison’s disease, and in the waning days of the campaign Johnson described his future running mate as “little scrawny fellow with rickets.”) As such, although Kennedy was only 43 when he became president, Johnson may have felt his odds of succeeding JFK were greater given the new president’s many health struggles. 

When Johnson became vice president, only three vice presidents in American history had gone on to be president without the death of the incumbent. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Martin Van Buren became president in their own right after serving under George Washington, John Adams, and Andrew Jackson, respectively. A former vice president would not become president again until Richard Nixon did so in 1968; a former vice president would not immediately succeed the president he served again until George H.W. Bush became president following Ronald Reagan’s two terms in 1988. 

Otherwise put, without the death of the incumbent, the odds of the vice president becoming president are not good.

Even with the death of the incumbent, the odds are not good. In all of American history only eight have died in office, half from assassination, half from natural causes. 

That is, unless you’re Daniel Webster. Webster turned down the offer to become vice president from two presidents–William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor. When Harrison offered Webster the V.P. slot, he is reported to have replied, “I do not propose to be buried until I am dead.”

Both Harrison and Taylor died in office–the first two presidents to do so. What are the odds on that? 

“Seeking Monsters to Destroy”: Isolationism in America after WWI

By Kaleena Fraga

On November 11, 2018, world leaders gathered in Paris to recognize the 100 year anniversary of the end of WWI–on the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month. In his speech, French president Emmanuel Macron pointedly remarked that:

“Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism. By putting our own interests first, with no regard for others, we erase the very thing that a nation holds dearest, and the thing that keeps it alive: its moral values.”

The remark was pointed because Donald Trump had recently declared himself a “nationalist” at one of his rallies. Macron went on to say:

“Old demons are rising again. New ideologies are manipulating religions, and history is threatening to repeat its tragedies. Let us vow once more as nations to ensure peace is the utmost priority, above all else, because we know what it cost.”

Since WWI and certainly since WWII there has been a strong push to erase nationalism, and to instead create a global world order that can prevent mass warfare. Yet this world order was not an inevitable result of world war, and certainly in the months after the armistice in 1918, President Woodrow Wilson faced fierce critics of his plan to create a “League of Nations.”

He first introduced the idea in January of 1918, eleven months before the war ended. Wilson called for a “general association of nations” which would work together to protect a global peace. This eventually became the League of Nations, which Wilson insisted the victors of WWI tie to the Treaty of Versailles.

As the war ended and Wilson’s idea seemed to be solidifying across the Atlantic, the strong strain of isolationism that had existed in American politics since John Quincy Adams warned of “seeking monsters to destroy” began to rise.

Whether this was out of real angst over the idea, or because the president had made a fatal political error, Henry Cabot Lodge sought to defy this shaky new world order.

Wilson to ParisLodge, the Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations committee, watched Wilson go to Paris to sign the Treaty of Versailles without consulting the Senate. Then, although Wilson asked Lodge to not speak publicly about the League of Nations until they could meet at the White House, the president spoke to a crowd in Boston to try to garner support. Lodge saw this as a betrayal.

Two days after the White House meeting in February 1919, Lodge gave a speech in the Senate casting doubt on the League of Nations. Lodge warned against “casting aside these policies which we have adhered to for a century and more and under which we have greatly served the cause of peace both at home and abroad.” He worried that such an agreement would necessitate an enormous American military force “capable of enforcing” the League at “a moment’s notice.”

Lodge asked, using rhetoric that many would recognize today, whether Americans were l of n cartoonready “to give to other nations the power to say who shall come into the United States and become citizens of the Republic?”

Wilson desperately tried to corral support for the League of Nations, but the damage at home had been done. In October of 1919, following an 8,000 mile 22-day tour attempting to muster support at home, Wilson suffered a terrible stroke. The Senate voted against the Treaty a month later. The end of the war was finally declared in a joint resolution in 1921, but the damage to both Wilson, his presidency, and any pretense of an American endorsement of the League of Nations had been done.

In the following two decades the League proved largely ineffective without American support. As Depression haunted people around the world, Americans at home increasingly leaned toward isolationist policies–and many saw WWI as a lesson that American casualties were not worth involvement in conflicts abroad. By the time FDR came to office, he had to combat not only growing fascism abroad, but the bitter memory of Wilson’s failures.

Since the end of WWII, and the creation of international bodies like the United Nations, the new global world order has felt permanent–the result of two world wars. Yet there remains a strong strain of isolationist feeling in the United States and abroad. Whether or not the world continues on a global path, or tips back into nationalism, has yet to be seen.

Shifting Tides: The Midterms of 1966

By Kaleena Fraga

In terms of crazy presidential campaigns, 2016 has nothing on 1968. The election of 1968 saw horrifying violence, the shattering of the Democratic party along lines of civil rights and Vietnam, and the end of liberalism in the Republican party. The election of 1968 brought an incumbent president to his knees, and Richard Nixon to the White House. It changed everything, including how we think about presidential campaigns and state primaries.

Today, many Americans will cast a ballot. Midterm elections usually aren’t as attention-grabbing as presidential ones, yet this year Americans have been told that this is the most important election of their life. Certainly, given recent violence, the stakes feel high.

No, 2016 has nothing on 1968. But 2020 could be another wild-ride. As the country turns out to the polls, we look back at the midterm election of 1966, and the seeds planted that year that burst through the soil in 1968.

Two years earlier, Lyndon Johnson had won a landslide victory, winning the election in his own right after serving the rest of John F. Kennedy’s term. Meanwhile, the Republicans had suffered a terrible defeat under the banner of Barry Goldwater, who infamously declared at the Republican convention that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Johnson won a stunning 486 electoral votes to Goldwater’s 52. He took every state except for Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.

The Republican party, pundits declared, was done.

Controlling both houses of Congress and the White House, Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats seemed unstoppable. They passed Johnson’s Great Society programs, including Medicare, and legislation that strengthened civil rights and voting rights. But as Johnson’s Great Society expanded, so did the conflict in Vietnam.

In 1966, tides had shifted. The public paid more attention to Vietnam, where they could see scant evidence of American victories. The economy began to slow. Race riots erupted across the nation. Johnson saw his popularity drop to below 45%. Republicans saw their opportunity. And they fought. Hard.

Determined to help restore the party to power (and to set himself up as a presidential candidate in 1968) Richard Nixon leapt into the fray. Nixon had not won an election since 1956, as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president. After his failed bid for governor of California, he had bitterly told the press that they “would not have Nixon to kick around anymore.” And yet the former vice president had quietly been making moves behind the scenes. In the final months before the 1966 election, Nixon campaigned for 86 Republican candidates down the ballot. In the end, 59 of them won their elections.

“Tricky Dick”, thought to be politically dead, gained a lot of friends in 1966. Friends who would answer the phone when he called about running for president in 1968.

Although it was not enough to wrest control of the government from Johnson and the Democrats, Republicans won 47 seats in the House, 3 in the Senate, and 8 governorships. His majorities reduced, Newsweek wrote, “in the space of a single autumn day… the 1,000 day reign of Lyndon I came to an end: The Emperor of American politics became just a President again.”

In 1966, Ronald Reagan became governor of California. George H.W. Bush won a House seat in Texas. Gerald Ford won his reelection campaign and became House Minority Leader, increasing his prominence on the national stage. Republicans, wounded after 1964, suddenly believed they could win again. And they did–seven out of the next ten presidential elections were won by the GOP.

From 1966, Johnson became increasingly unpopular and unable to push legislation like he had in the first two years of his term. In 1968, he stunned the nation by announcing he would not “seek, nor accept” the nomination of the presidency.

The election of 1968 was the most dramatic of the 20th century, but it all started in 1966. Today, Americans vote. Who knows what seeds the nation will plant today, that may bloom in 2020 or beyond?

 

Ghosts of the White House

By Kaleena Fraga

Happy Halloween from History First!

Since John and Abigail Adams moved into the White House in 1800, the executive mansion has had its fair share of inhabitants–from this world and the next. Jared Broach, who offers tours of haunted places in America, calls paranormal sightings in the White House “verified.” To say otherwise, he noted, would be “calling eight different presidents liars.”

One of the first people to live in the White House–Abigail Adams–is reported to continue to roam the halls. Witnesses have claimed to see her en route to the East Room–where she once would hang laundry–and some White House staff have smelled wet laundry and the scent of lavender. Why Abigail Adams would prefer to spend her time in the afterlife doing laundry at the White House, instead of relaxing at home in Massachusetts, is beyond the comprehension of History First.

Harry Truman wrote a letter to his wife in 1945 expressing the haunted feeling of his new home–he was only two months into his term at the time.

“I sit here in this old house and work on foreign affairs, read reports, and work on speeches–all the while listening to the ghosts walk up and down the hallway and even right in here in the study. The floors pop and the drapes move back and forth–I can just imagine old Andy [Jackson] and Teddy [Roosevelt] having an argument over Franklin [Roosevelt].”

Truman wasn’t the only one to imagine Jackson’s lingering presence in the White House. Mary Lincoln, who wanted desperately to believe in the afterlife after the death of her sons, and then her husband, also felt Jackson. She told friends that she had heard Jackson “stomping and swearing.” Jackson has also been spotted lying in his bed in today’s Rose Room, and others have heard his “guttural laugh” in the White House since the 1860s. In addition to Jackson, Mary Lincoln also once reported seeing the ghost of her dead son, Willie, at the foot of her bed, and even thought she heard Thomas Jefferson playing the violin.

In 1946, Truman wrote another letter to his wife detailing a more concrete supernatural experience. He writes that he went to bed, and six hours later heard a strong knock on his bedroom door.

“I jumped up and put on my bathrobe, opened the door, and no one there. Went out and looked up and down the hall, looked in your room and Margie’s [the president’s daughter]. Still no one. Went back to bed after locking the doors and there were footsteps in your room whose door I’d left open. Jumped and looked and no one there! The damned place is haunted sure as shootin’. Secret Service said not even a watchman was up here at that hour.”

“You and Margie had better come back and protect me before some of these ghosts carry me off.”

Perhaps the White House’s most famous ghost is Abraham Lincoln–killed only a month and a half into his second term in office. Grace Coolidge first reported seeing Lincoln’s ghost in the 1920s, staring across the Potomac at old Civil War battlefields. Other first ladies also sensed Lincoln’s presence. Eleanor Roosevelt, who worked out of a room near the Lincoln Bedroom, said she strongly felt Lincoln’s presence one night. Two European visitors, staying down the hall, said that they had felt the same thing. Lady Bird Johnson, after watching a documentary about Lincoln, admitted to similar feelings in the private residence, where Lincoln had once worked out of his office.

Other visitors to the White House have had more tangible crossings with the assassinated president. Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands visited the White House in 1942, and slept in the Lincoln Bedroom. She claimed to have heard a knock on the bedroom door, and to have discovered Abe Lincoln on the other side–an experience so frightening that she fainted outright.

Winston Churchill liked to tell a story about his own ghostly Lincoln encounter during a visit to the White House in 1940. As Churchill tells it, he had just stepped out of the bath and picked up a cigar. Walking into the next room wearing nothing and still dripping wet, he found Lincoln by the fireplace.

“Good evening, Mr. President,” Churchill reportedly said. “You seem to have me at a disadvantage.”

Even Ronald Reagan’s dog, Rex, seemed to sense something unsettling about the Lincoln Bedroom. It was the only room in the White House that the dog refused to enter. Reagan himself said that Rex had twice barked “frantically” in the Lincoln Bedroom, then backed out and refused to come back in. The president went on to say that one night while the Reagans were watching TV in the room below the Lincoln Bedroom, Rex began to bark at the ceiling. The president thought the dog might be detecting some sort of spy equipment, perhaps an electrical signal too high pitched for Reagan to hear himself.

And yet Rex the dog wasn’t the only one to feel uneasy about the Lincoln Bedroom during the Reagan administration. The president related a story in which his daughter Maureen and her husband both saw a ghosty figure in the bedroom, looking out the window.

It seems that the ghosts of the White House have been fairly quiet in recent years–or perhaps the current and recent inhabitants are hesitant to tell their stories.

Impeachment from the Bench: Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Chase, and Brett Kavanaugh

By Kaleena Fraga

Even before the newest Supreme Court justice, Brett Kavanaugh, placed his hand on the Bible and swore to uphold the Constitution, Democrats in Congress faced pressure to remove him from the bench. A petition to impeach the judge quickly hit over 150,000 signatures and think pieces arguing for and against impeachment began to pop up across the Internet.

Faced with this, Democrats in Congress hesitated. “I have enough people on my back to impeach the president!” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi exclaimed, when asked if she would impeach Kavanaugh.

Hesitancy on their part is understandable: attempts to impeach justices from the Supreme Court have been few and far between, and have never resulted in an actual impeachment.

The first example of this came early in American history. Thomas Jefferson had swept to power in the “revolution of 1800”, a repudiation of the last twelve years of Federalist rule. Still, despite the ascension of Jefferson’s party to both houses of Congress, most of the Supreme Court remained staunchly Federalist.

One of Jefferson’s first moves as president was to repeal the Judiciary Act of 1801–an act with a dry title and a dramatic history. Jefferson’s predecessor, his frenemy John Adams, had passed the Act in the waning weeks of his one-term in office. It reduced the size of the Supreme Court, and, more importantly, created a lower level of courts which Adams briskly filled with like-minded Federalists with life-terms. Jefferson and his allies accused Adams of packing the court with so-called “Midnight Judges“, giving birth to the lore that the ink on Adams’ appointments had not dried by the time Adams left Washington, skipping out on Jefferson’s inauguration.

When the Judiciary Act of 1801 was repealed (and replaced with the Judiciary Act of 1802, eliminating the circuit judgeships that Adams had created), Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase–a Federalist with a “volcanic” personality–declared in front of a Baltimore jury that “Our republican Constitution will sink into a mobocracy–the worst of all possible governments.”

Jefferson already disliked the justices of the Supreme Court (his biographer Jon Meacham writes that Jefferson’s “hatred of his cousin John Marshall [the Chief Justice] was cordial, but it was hatred nonetheless”) and found that this outburst from Chase could not stand. He wrote to Congressman Joseph H. Nicholson asking: “Ought this seditious and official attack on the principles of our Constitution and on the proceedings of a State go unpunished; and to whom so pointedly as yourself will the public look for the necessary measures?”

Ever the behind-the-scenes man, Jefferson professed that it would be better “that I should not interfere.”

Jefferson’s cousin and friend, Congressman John Randolph, launched impeachment proceedings against Justice Chase. Chase argued he was being persecuted for his political convictions rather than any actual crimes. (Indeed, one of the articles of impeachment pointed to Chase’s political speech from the bench).

Chase escaped with an acquittal. His impeachment trial set two norms: that judges should not be removed based on their political beliefs, and that judges should remain non-partisan while speaking from the bench.

One hundred and sixty-five years later, a second Supreme Court justice, Abe Fortas, faced impeachment proceedings. Rather than face a trial, he resigned.

Between the dawn of the Republic and 2010, fourteen other federal judges (serving on lower courts) have faced charges of impeachment–eight were removed from office, three were acquitted, and three resigned. It’s no wonder that Democrats today hesitate to engage in impeachment rhetoric when it comes to Kavanaugh; given the history, it would be an extreme move on their part.

Still, for those who shudder at the partisanship plaguing the nation and the Supreme Court today, recall that amidst Jefferson’s time as president, he infuriated the Federalists by such actions as repealing the Judiciary Act of 1801 and attempting to impeach Samuel Chase. One frustrated American wrote to the president he hoped “that your Excellency might be beheaded within one year.”