Martin Van Buren and the Myth of OK

By Molly Bloom

Martin Van Buren is generally regarded as a below-average, simply “okay” president and is often overlooked for the two presidents who served contiguous to his term. Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison typically garner more attention; the former for his controversial presidency and the infamous Indian Removal Act, and the latter for the shortest presidential term in US history.

whh
The inauguration of William Henry Harrison, 1840

Van Buren was the heir apparent to the presidency after a political career culminating with his service as Andrew Jackson’s vice president. Jackson’s support aided Van Buren’s campaign as a member of the relatively new Democratic Party in 1836, leading to his election. However, after a poorly rated presidency that included the “Panic of 1837” economic depression, his 1840 presidential campaign faced considerable opposition. Harrison defeated Van Buren’s run for a second term in 1840 to become the oldest man elected president, and age was a point of contention during his campaign. (Since then, both Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump have been elected in their 70s). Harrison famously delivered a superfluous inaugural address on a frigid day, refusing to wear a coat to demonstrate that despite being 68 years old, he was still robust and fit to serve. He contracted pneumonia during his excessive speech and died a month later.

 Van Buren’s 1840 campaign is often credited with the origin of the term “OK,” widely popular both then and now; however, the derivation of “OK” is convoluted. Proposed origins of OK range from the Choctaw okeh which holds the same meaning as the modern okay, to the Greek olla kalla, “all good,” to stories of a baker with the initials OK stamping the letters on army biscuits. Allan Metcalf explains in his book OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word that OK grew out of a joke written in March of 1839 by editor Charles Gordon Greene in the Boston Morning Post. The joke was that even if a person couldn’t spell “all correct,” they could “o.k.” something to say it was “oll korrect.” OK came out of a time when intellectuals were using wordplay to publish punchy jabs, and abbreviations were becoming popular- precursors to the modern LOL, JK, and even POTUS.

 Born in Kinderhook, New York, Van Buren earned the nickname of “Old Kinderhook,” further popularizing the abbreviation “OK.” His Whig opponent, William Henry Harrison, was famous as “Old Tippecanoe” or the “Hero of Tippecanoe” due to his military victory at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. With running-mate John Tyler, Harrison’s campaign song of Tippecanoe and Tyler Too included lyrics criticizing Van Buren, calling him “little.” (Sound familiar?) The song stated, “For Tippecanoe and Tyler too/ And with them we’ll beat little Van, Van, Van/ Van is a used up man.”

 OK remained a running theme during the campaign.  OK Clubs of Van Buren’s supporters rose up around the country, using the meaning of OK, all correct, to say that voting for Van Buren was giving a stamp of approval. His opponents used the term OK to attack Van Buren, stating that his political ally Andrew Jackson was so unintelligent that he “OK’d” bills during his presidency since he could not properly spell “all correct.” Regardless of the debated origin of OK, Van Buren’s 1840 run certainly helped disseminate the word. OK is used today as nearly any part of speech; as a noun, verb, adjective, interjection, et cetera, and in almost infinite scenarios so that the meaning has a certain amount of ambiguity. Van Buren’s presidency was just OK, or it could have even been considered oll korrect or all correct depending on your point of view, which is ultimately the legacy of Old Kinderhook’s story.

Inauguration 1961: Truman, Kennedy & a Return to the White House

By Kaleena Fraga

(To check out this piece in podcast form, click here)

January 20th is full of stories of the passage of power from one administration to the next. Since 1936 presidents have been inaugurated on this day, so so there is plenty to remember–FDR marking the beginning of his unprecedented 3rd and 4th terms; Eisenhower playfully lassoed by a cowboy; Jimmy Carter & Rosalynn Carter walking the inauguration route in spite of the protests of the Secret Service–the list goes on and on.

Still, there’s one event worth reflecting on which happened the next day, on January 21st, 1961, and this is President Truman’s invitation to the White House. It was his first time returning to the White House since he’d left eight years earlier.

ike campaign

Truman had left in 1953 after a hard defeat for his party. Eisenhower had won a decisive victory over the Democratic candidate, Adlai Stevenson, whom Truman encouraged to run, becoming the first Republican victor in 20 years. Still, Truman was gracious in defeat. He invited Ike to the White House in November 1952 to talk about the job, but later wrote that all he had said to Ike “went into one ear and out the other.” He later postulated that Ike, a war hero, would be unsuited to the task of president. “He’ll sit right here and he’ll say do this, do that! And nothing will happen. Poor Ike–it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.”

eisenhower-truman1

Inauguration itself had been an awkward affair. Eisenhower, determined to not step foot in the White House that day until he could do so as president, disregarded the tradition of calling on the current president & first lady. The Eisenhowers declined the Trumans’ invitation to lunch, or even a cup of coffee, and did not come out of their car until Truman appeared outside of the White House. As they drove off, an aid to President Truman remarked that he was glad to not be in the car. 

Despite all this, Truman had invited Eisenhower’s son, John, currently serving in Korea, back to the States to watch his father’s inauguration. Neither son nor father knew it had been the president’s orders until Eisenhower asked Truman in the car. According to Eisenhower, Truman simply replied: “I did.”

But any thaw that took place during the car ride had little effect on the Truman/Eisenhower relationship. Shortly after the ceremony ended, Truman returned to Missouri, where he’d largely remain for Ike’s next two terms. It seems the two presidents had little contact during that time. When Ike was in Missouri Truman tried to set up a meeting, but was told that the president’s schedule was much too full. Later in life, according to Truman biographer David McCullough, he could hardly refer to Eisenhower without using profanity.

Truman didn’t exactly start off much better with the man destined to replace Eisenhower. During the Democratic convention in 1961, Truman spoke out against Kennedy, saying:

“I am deeply concerned and troubled about the situation we are up against in the world now…That is why I hope someone with the greatest possible maturity and experience would be available at this time. May I urge you to be patient?”

Kennedy shrugged off the criticism. He had fourteen years in major political office–that was enough.

When Kennedy did become the nominee, Truman offered up his services. But he had his doubts. Writing to his former Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, he declared that “[we] are stuck with the necessity of taking the worst of two evils or none at all. So–I’m taking the immature Democrat as the best of the two. Nixon is impossible. So, there we are.”

Despite his lackluster support, Truman, then seventy-six, went in all for Kennedy. He traveled to nine states and delivered thirteen speeches in support of the Democratic candidate.

Kennedy was grateful. As a gesture of thanks, he made Truman his first official guest to the White House, the day after his inauguration in 1961.

Truman, a talented piano player, was even invited to take up the keys after a formal dinner.

truman piano wh

Truman later wrote of his disappointment that Kennedy did not call on him for advice during his presidency. Later in Kennedy’s term, Truman wrote Acheson to say, “You must remember that our head of State is young, inexperienced and hopeful. Lets hope the hopeful works.”

In any case, Kennedy’s overture to Truman is a reminder that inaugurations don’t have to be chilly affairs–rather, they can be an occasion for mending bridges. Truman would certainly note–especially after the Bay of Pigs–that current presidents have much to learn from the men who occupied the office before them. A lesson that could be applied to 1961 as any political era.

Special thanks to David McCullough’s fantastic tome “Truman”

Warren the Worst

By Kaleena Fraga

Any list of the nation’s worst presidents is sure to include Warren G. Harding. He is known today for this notoriety, for appointing friends to positions of power and their subsequent corruption, and, of course, those eyebrows.

Wonderful Warren Facts:

  1. As a child, he was called “Winnie.”
  2. He played the cornet (joining presidents like Truman and Nixon who were also musically gifted).
  3.  The 1920 campaign was the first in which women could vote. Harding handily beat his opponent, Democrat James Cox, whose running mate would later make waves of his own–a certain Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
  4. Harding did not finish his term in office–he died in 1923, which propelled his vice president, Calvin Coolidge, to power. He served the shortest term in the 20th century.

coolidge and harding
Harding & Coolidge, in what looks like a presidential selfie

5. Harding once described himself as “a man of limited talents.” He also once said “I am not fit for this office and should never have been here.” He was indeed quite a contrast to his predecessor, Woodrow Wilson, the first president to have a PhD. Harding & Coolidge ran under the slogan “Back to Normalcy” and the Republican party bosses who handpicked Harding chose him because he was undramatic and bland.
6. The Library of Congress recently released a collection of love letters Harding wrote to his mistress between 1910 and 1920. In 1964 after a historian uncovered the letters, Harding’s family made a pact with the Library of Congress that they could release them–but not for 50 years. They’re quite explicit, and make several references to “Jerry”–not a person, but Harding’s name for a part of his body.
7. He was born in Blooming Grove, Ohio in 1865, the year that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.
BOYHOOD HOME OF HARDING

8. With the increased usage of news reels, Harding was able to do much of his campaigning from home, thus creating the concept of a “front porch campaign.”

OHPREZ HARDING JH 1
9. During his campaign, rumors circulated that Harding was part black. This may have been in part because his parents were abolitionists. This has since been disproven. However, Harding did support civil rights. He called for an anti-lynching law in his first address to Congress and once stated that, “unless our democracy is a lie, you must stand for…equality.” Given his short term in office and general ineffectiveness, he was not able to get much done in this area.
10. The “G” in Warren G. Harding stands for “Gameliel.”

The Great Emancipator: Lincoln’s Backwards Backwoods Beginning

PART I

By Duane Soubirous

Heroes of American history are posthumously revered as gods by the Americans who follow them. Look at the ceiling of the U.S. Capitol’s rotunda and see Constantino Brumidi’s “Apotheosis of Washington,” depicting slaveowner George Washington’s ascent into heaven accompanied by the goddess of liberty. Walk into the Parthenon-inspired Lincoln Memorial and read Royal Cortissoz’s epitaph,

IN THIS TEMPLE

AS IN THE HEARTS OF THE PEOPLE

FOR WHOM HE SAVED THE UNION

THE MEMORY OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN

IS ENSHRINED FOREVER

Etched in the walls of the Lincoln Memorial are the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address, both written within the last 18 months of Lincoln’s life. His earlier speeches go unmemorialized, like this passage from 1858 endorsing white supremacy:

“I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races – that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people.”

W.E.B. DuBois quoted this passage in an editorial written in September 1922, four months after the Lincoln Memorial’s dedication. He believed that Lincoln should be honored as the imperfect human being he was, instead of a legend sculpted in marble:

“No sooner does a great man die than we begin to whitewash him. We seek to forget all that was small and mean and unpleasant and remember the fine and brave and good … and at last there begins to appear, not the real man, but the tradition of the man—remote, immense, perfect, cold and dead!”

 

Recognizing Abraham Lincoln’s flaws and contradictions doesn’t diminish his legacy, DuBois wrote, but rather enhances the worth and meaning of his upward struggle. “The world is full of people born hating and despising their fellows. To these I love to say: See this man. He was one of you and yet he became Abraham Lincoln.”

This three-part series will chronicle Lincoln’s upward struggle, from denouncing black suffrage to Illinois voters in 1858 to supporting black suffrage in his final speech in 1865, from unsuccessfully opposing the expansion of slavery as a one-term congressman to becoming the president who eradicated it.

Abraham Lincoln grew up on the frontier surrounded by what Frederick Douglass called “negrophobia.” It was common for frontiersmen living in free states to abhor slavery and emancipation alike: both were perceived as threats to the unalienable rights of white men. Lincoln didn’t address slavery in his campaigns for the Illinois State Assembly and U.S. Congress in the 1830s and 1840s, but Congressman Lincoln did support two proposals restricting slavery, neither of which succeeded.

In 1849, Lincoln proposed a gradual emancipation of slaves in the District of Columbia, but his plan wasn’t even brought to a vote. In 1862, after Lincoln signed into law the immediate emancipation of slaves in the capital, Lincoln said, “Little did I dream in 1849, when I proposed to abolish slavery at this capital, and could scarcely get a hearing for the proposition, that it would be so soon accomplished.”

Congressman Lincoln also supported the Wilmot Proviso, named for Pennsylvania Congressman David Wilmot. Wilmot wanted to keep slavery out of all territories gained from the Mexican-American War, giving white men to carte blanche to build a better life out West. The Wilmot Proviso passed in the House but failed in the Senate. Leading the opposition in the Senate was Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, whom Lincoln challenged in 1858.

“If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do, and how to do it,” begins Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech, delivered upon securing the Illinois Republican Party’s nomination for Senate. Standing on the sidelines of the political arena in the 1850s, Lincoln observed each branch of government working conjunctively to expand slavery, and worried the United States was tending toward nationalizing slavery.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, shepherded through Congress by Senator Douglas, repealed a 34-year-old ban on slavery in the Kansas and Nebraska territories. Douglas insisted he didn’t care whether slavery be voted down or up, “but to leave the people thereof perfectly free to form and regulate their domestic institutions in their own way.” Lincoln attacked this principle of popular sovereignty, defining it this way: “That if any one man, choose to enslave another, no third man shall be allowed to object.”

In President James Buchanan’s inaugural address of 1856, he called on Americans to abide by an upcoming Supreme Court decision, “whatever this may be.” Two days later the Supreme Court issued its Dred Scott decision, ruling that Congress cannot ban slavery in the territories and the Constitution affirms the right to own slaves. This decision alarmed Lincoln. If the Constitution forbids states from denying rights affirmed in the Constitution, and the Supreme Court says the right to own slaves is affirmed in the Constitution, Lincoln reasoned that the Supreme Court would soon rule that states’ bans on slavery were unconstitutional. “We shall lie down pleasantly dreaming that the people of Missouri are on the verge of making their State free; and we shall awake to the reality instead, that the Supreme Court has made Illinois a slave state.”

Lincoln and Douglas debated seven times throughout the state. While Lincoln largely appealed to the audiences’ morals in denouncing slavery, Douglas resorted to race baiting. Responding to Lincoln’s assertion that the Declaration of Independence applied to both whites and blacks, Douglas asked how could Jefferson mean to include black people in the words “all men are created equal” when he himself held slaves? Furthermore, if slavery is wrong because the Founding Fathers meant for whites and blacks to be equal, what’s to stop freed slaves from voting, serving on juries, and marrying whites?

Lincoln spent the first three debates trying to dodge Douglas’ assertions that Lincoln believed in full equality for black people. At the fourth debate in Charleston, an especially racist part of the state, Lincoln definitively refuted Douglas: “There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.”

In 1858, Illinois’ senators were chosen by the state legislature: the people would vote for state representatives, and whichever party won a majority picked their nominee for Senate. Republicans won the popular vote, but Democrats won a majority of the seats, and Stephen Douglas was reelected as senator. However, Lincoln’s performance in the debates rose him to prominence throughout the North, and when the two ran for president in 1860, Lincoln would emerge the winner.

The President’s Mind: Trump, Reagan, and Mental Health in the Oval Office

By Kaleena Fraga

On Twitter last week, President Trump accused his critics of “taking out the old Ronald Regan playbook and screaming mental instability and intelligence…” Trump later added “Ronald Reagan had the same problem and handled it well. So will I!”

These tweets were in response to reports in the new Michael Wolff book Fire and Fury, which suggest that the president is mentally unfit for his role. Trump’s response attempts to equivocate these suggestions with similar accusations levied against Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Reagan was later diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but there is no definitive proof that he suffered from it while in office, or that it inhibited him from performing his duties.

Reagan and Walter Mondale Shaking HandsStill, he did face speculation of diminishing mental capacity during his presidency. In the aftermath of a poor performance in Reagan’s first debate with Democratic challenger Walter Mondale, a New York Times op-ed wrote that there were “legitimate questions that arise when the oldest President in the history of the Republic is seeking re-election to a term that would last from the end of his 73rd year to the end of his 77th…the issue of aging and its effects cannot be avoided.”

Reagan seemed to shake off such doubts in the second debate, when he responded to a probing question about his age by saying:

“I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

In 2011, Ronald Reagan’s son contested his father’s doctors who, at the time of his presidency, had denied seeing any signs of Alzheimer’s. In his book My Father at 100, Reagan suggests that his father did suffer from Alzheimer’s while in office and that, if properly diagnosed, he would have stepped down.

The 25th amendment is supposed to protect the country in the event that the executive is unable to react to the demands of the office. Although it’s been invoked a handful of times since its ratification in 1967 for events like surgery, it’s never been used to permanently remove a president from power.

Trump too faces accusations of a declining mental state. He, like Reagan, is a president in his 70s.  For now, at least, questions of the president’s health are all conjecture. Trump will undergo a physical on January 12th and, although there will be no psychiatric exam, the results will be released to the public.

Then again, according to a recent study, as many as half of all U.S. presidents have suffered from some mental illness. Most for depression–including John Quincy Adams, James Madison, and Abraham Lincoln–and others with probable bipolar disorders, anxiety disorders, and alcohol dependence.

A Busy Day for JFK (& RMN)

By Kaleena Fraga

January 3rd is a day that holds special significance for John F. Kennedy. In 1947, it was the day that he was sworn into Congress for the first time as a member of the House of Representatives. On January 3rd in 1960, 13 years later, it was reported that JFK had thrown his hat in the ring to be the next president.

JFK wasn’t the only young Congressman to be sworn in that day in 1947. He was joined by his future political rival Richard Nixon.

jfkrmn
Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, circa 1947

Although they would face each other in the bitterly contested election of 1960, Kennedy and Nixon were friendly in the House. According to the 2017 Nixon biography Richard Nixon: The Life by John A. Farrell, the two young congressmen once shared a train car back to D.C. after a cordial debate in West Virginia. They bonded over their passion for international affairs. “Neither one of us was a backslapper,” Nixon wrote later. “He was shy…but it was a shyness born of an instinct that guarded privacy and concealed emotion. I understood these qualities because I shared them.” The Nixons were later invited to attend Jack Kennedy’s wedding.

When Nixon ran for Senate he had the support of the Kennedy clan. According to Farrell’s biography, John Kennedy stopped by Nixon’s office with a check from his father for one thousand dollars. The message? Joseph Kennedy wanted Nixon to win.

By 1960, the two would be rivals. Although Kennedy had followed Nixon to the Senate, Nixon had become Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice president. While Kennedy finished his Senate term, Nixon spent eight years traveling the world on Ike’s behalf. In 1960 Nixon would argue experience; Kennedy would insist that after eight years of Ike, the country was ready for something new. Kennedy officially announced his candidacy on January 2nd–on January 3rd the announcement made front page news as Kennedy added his name to a growing list of White House-hungry Democrats. A week later, on January 9th, Richard Nixon likewise declared his candidacy.

jfkdeclares

On another January day in 1961, Nixon (the outgoing vice president) would stand behind Kennedy to watch his rival take the oath of office.

inagjfk
January 1961. Nixon is standing behind Kennedy, to the right of the frame

Although the Nixon/Kennedy relationship soured, Nixon later penned a thoughtful note to Jackie Kennedy following her husband’s assassination in Dallas in 1963.

“Dear Jackie

In this tragic hour Pat and I want you to know that our thoughts and prayers are with you. While the hand of fate made Jack and me political opponents I always cherished the fact that we were personal friends from the time we came to the Congress together in 1947…If in the days ahead we could be helpful in any way we shall be honored to be at your command.

Sincerely,
Dick Nixon”

Jackie later replied, thanking Nixon for his note, and writing:

“Dear Mr. Vice President –

I do thank you for your most thoughtful letter –

You two young men – colleagues in Congress – adversaries in 1960 – and now look what has happened – Whoever thought such a hideous thing could happen in this country –…please be consoled by what you already have – your life and your family…

Sincerely

Jacqueline Kennedy”

See full letters here and here

 

Millions of Cracks in the Glass Ceiling: Women, the White House, and the Path Ahead

By Molly Bloom

The American political system has changed significantly in the nearly one hundred years since the passing of the 19th amendment in 1920 that granted women the right to vote. Not only were women provided a new right to contribute to the government, but slowly, women began to occupy federal positions as well.

jr for congressFour years before the 19th amendment was ratified, Jeanette Rankin became the first woman elected to the House of Representatives. Six years later, Rebecca Felton filled an interim seat for only one day as a United States Senator (an activist and suffragette, Felton’s seat was largely symbolic). It was not until ten years later in 1932 that a woman was truly elected to serve in the Senate when Hattie Caraway secured a seat from Arkansas.

Simply having women in Congress is not necessarily a symbol of progress in the women’s rights movement. Just under 1/5 of the seats in the House of Representatives are currently occupied by women. This is the highest percentage in the history of the House. Only since 1978 has a woman consistently filled a seat in the Senate, and it wasn’t until 1992, over seventy years after the passage of the 19th amendment, that three out of one hundred Senate seats were held by women at one time. With the appointment of Tina Smith to fill Al Franken’s Senate seat, there will be more women in the Senate than ever–twenty-two.

Sandra Day O’Connor famously became the first female Supreme Court Justice when she was appointed by Ronald Reagan in 1981. O’Connor’s appointment was viewed as a major victory for the women’s rights movement, demonstrating that a woman could serve on the highest court in the country. With women employed in Congress, as governors, and at the local level, the Supreme Court was the latest governmental barrier to break. Today, three of the nine justices are women. 

With the legislative and judicial branches populated with women, only the metaphorical glass ceiling of the executive branch has yet to be shattered. Hillary Clinton was the first woman to make a run for the presidency as a candidate from a major political party; however, women have been denied even lateral access to the White House prior to 2016.

In the presidential election of 1984, Geraldine Ferraro joined the ticket of Walter ferraroMondale, who won the Democratic nomination. Formerly a member of the House of Representatives, Ferraro was the first female vice presidential candidate for a major party. Not surprisingly, the media focused on the novelty of a female on a major ticket and critiqued her on inexperience. Reporters called into question her marriage, family finances, and even tried to invent a connection to the Italian mob based on her family’s heritage. The campaign never recovered, and Reagan/Bush went on to win decisively in November.

Sarah Palin received scrutiny as well when she became John McCain’s running mate in the 2008 presidential election.  Beyond inexperience, the media had a seemingly endless supply of drama-filled topics and attacks; her intelligence, her teenage daughter’s pregnancy, and her history in beauty pageants. Likely voters had divided opinions about her, especially after a story that the Republican National Committee had financed her wardrobe. Although she later became an icon of the conservative movement, McCain/Palin lost to Obama/Biden 52.9% to 45.7%

Transcending party lines and spanning decades, attempts to elect a woman into the White House, either as the president or vice president of the United States, have fallen short. The closest we have come is seeing intelligent, accomplished first ladies take on projects during their husbands’ time in office, at least gaining some platform to enact change. This tradition started largely with Lady Bird Johnson’s national beautification initiative and has continued ever since. Before Lady Bird made the tradition official, Eleanor Roosevelt was an outlier in her determination to use her platform to make a difference. When she spearheaded an anti-lynching campaign during her husband’s presidency, a New Jersey woman wrote FDR’s assistant, asking if the president couldn’t “muzzle [his wife]…she talks too damn much.” 

Political scientists and sociologists can speculate about whether voters are threatened by powerful women, more comfortable with “traditional” gender roles, or perceive women as having weaknesses ill-suited for executive power. Yet given Clinton’s near miss in 2016, it seems likely that there will be another great shift in American political culture, as in the 1920s, which will finally see a woman win the White House.