Friday, March 23, 2007

Spring Break

It's spring break here at DPD. Posting resumes around April 1. Until then, however, the week or so ahead is rich in presidential and quasi-presidential anniversaries. March 22, for instance, is the day that Thomas Jefferson, hardly president yet, first became Secretary of State for George Washington. The office was considered a stepping stone to the presidency in the 19th century. March 23 is Schuyler Colfax's birthday, and on March 24, 1950, James Rudolph Garfield -- son of the assassinated president and the last living member of TR's cabinet (Interior) -- passed away.

Henry Adams, grandson and great-grandson of presidents, died on March 27, Eisenhower died on March 28, Tyler was born on March 29, and Reagan nearly died on March 30. Finally, the US and Japan signed their first-ever treaty on March 31: an achievement of the Fillmore administration.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

March 21:

Signs of the Presidents

As the first day of the astrological year, it's only fitting to discuss the zodiac signs the various US president to see how the stars have affected the occupants of the highest office of the land. Upon close examination, patterns begin to emerge, which ought to give astrology skeptics considerable pause.

For example, John Tyler and Thomas Jefferson were both born under the first of the signs, Aries, the Ram. Both had a clear propensity to butt heads with their political opponents. No president born under the sign of Scorpio, the Scorpion -- TR, J. Adams, Polk, Harding and Garfield -- served two full terms. Scorpions are known for their two claws, so it should be clear that anyone born under the sign will not survive, physically or politically, to serve two terms. Sometimes the stars are very clear in their warnings.

By contrast, each and every Pieces who was ever president -- Washington, Jackson, Madison and Cleveland -- served two terms. They swam in the political current as easily as the fishes.

Aquarius, on the other hand, is an evil sign for chief executives. McKinley, FDR, Reagan, W.H. Harrison and Lincoln were all Aquarians, and all but Reagan died in office -- and he would have after his gunshot wound, but for late 20th-century medicine informed by the scientific method. Anyway, Aquarius is the water-carrier, which means that anyone under that sign will be drowned by the presidency.

Not many presidents were Virgos -- only LBJ and Taft. LBJ was from Texas, back when it was the biggest state, and Taft weighed over 300 lbs. Can this be a coincidence? The stars do not lie.

Finally, only one dead president, JFK, was a Gemini. Geminis are notorious for all sorts of double traits, and sure enough Kennedy had enough libido for two men.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

March 20, 1936:

Vaughn Meader's Birthday

If there ever were a good example of the dangers of typecasting, at least to an entertainer's career, Vaughn Meader is it. Born this day in 1936, Meader found unexpected success in his 20s by doing a comic impersonation of President John F. Kennedy. As long as Camelot lasted, so did his success. He did standup all over the country and recorded two bestselling comedy albums, The First Family and The First Family, Volume Two.

With the assassination of the president, Meader's career was over too. Years later, he told the New York Times Magazine about what happened to him on November 22, 1963: "I was in a cab in Milwaukee, and the cabdriver said, 'Hey, did you hear about Kennedy in Dallas?' And I said, 'No, how does it go?' because I thought it was another Kennedy joke. But it wasn't. So I went to my hotel, grabbed a bottle of booze, went back to New York and just kind of drowned myself.

"Everything got canceled, and everything stopped. I remember walking down Second Avenue, and this big huge construction worker in a hard hat stopped his riveting and ran over to me with tears in his eyes wringing my hands and saying, 'I'm sorry.' It was weird. Most of my show-business friends dropped me -- I was no longer a commodity to them. So I got barroom heavy. I got into cocaine, heroin. And I went down South and drifted from place to place to place."

Eventually he pursued a career as a local musician in Maine, his home state, but he died mostly forgotten in 2004. A radio obit is posted here.

Monday, March 19, 2007

March 19, 1860:

William Jennings Bryan’s Birthday

Yesterday’s birthday honoree Grover Cleveland managed to win the popular vote for the presidency three times, though he won the electoral college only twice. Today’s birthday boy, famed orator William Jennings Bryan, also a Democrat, couldn’t pick up where Cleveland left off. He lost three votes for president, both popular and electoral – in 1896 to William McKinley, 1900 to McKinley again, and 1908 to William Howard Taft.

In 1896 Bryan was only 36. “The Democratic nominee for President is a magnificent specimen of virile manhood, with the physique of an athlete,” wrote John Wesley Hanson in The Parties and the Men, or, Political Issues of 1896 (1896). “His complexion is swarthy, his eyes are dark, his hair is jet black and slightly worn away in front. His nose is aquiline and his mouth extraordinarily large, but handsome, strong and sensitive. His chin is broad, square and immense, while his head is poised like that of a Grecian statue… An indefatigable worker, his labor goes on twelve, fourteen, eighteen hours, if necessary, and he never tires. His stock of vitality is inexhaustible.

“He is the youngest candidate that was ever named for the Presidency by any party in all United States history, being little more than one year past the constitutional age.”

At the 1896 Democratic Convention in Chicago, free silverite Rep. Richard Parks Bland of Missouri was initially the frontrunner, winning 235 votes for the nomination to 137 for Bryan on the first ballot, but Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech, one of the most famous in US political history, turned things in favor of the Great Commoner, who won the nomination on the fifth ballot.

“Bryan’s Cross of Gold speech touched off a demonstration lasting close to an hour, during which delegates shouted, cheered, and wept, carried Bryan around on their shoulders in triumph, and waved banners on which were scribbled the words NO CROWN OF THORNS! NO CROSS OF GOLD!,” wrote Paul F. Boller Jr. in Presidential Campaigns (1984). It’s a little hard for us to grasp how the issue of the gold standard vs. the free coinage of silver could resonate so strongly during an election, but it clearly did for Americans of the Gilded Age. Bryan’s speech, a long one indeed, is transcribed here, along with a recording of it he made as a much older man, though it’s clearly without the vim that the original must have had.

On the stump in ’96, Bryan was indefatigable indeed, traveling some 18,000 miles by train and making about 600 speeches, setting the tone for modern always-in-motion presidential campaigns. In the end, however, it wasn’t enough to undo the harm done by the Panic of 1893 and the hard times it caused while a Democrat, Grover Cleveland, was in office. Bryan lost to McKinley by 600,000 popular votes and 95 electoral votes.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

March 18, 1837:

Grover Cleveland’s Birthday

“Glover Cleveland/Really fat/Elected twice as a Democrat…”
-- “The Presidents,” sung by the Animaniacs

By most estimates, Grover Cleveland, uniquely the 22nd and 24th president of the United States, was the second-heaviest president thus far, bested in that distinction only by William Howard Taft, who was elected in the decade after Cleveland left office. When Cleveland was first elected, he probably weighed about 280 lbs.

As a child Cleveland was "chubby and large for his age. For most of his life ... he had a tendency to be obese," noted John R. Bumgarner in The Health of the Presidents: The 41 United States Presidents Through 1993 from a Physician's Point of View (1994). Large enough, in fact that young Cleveland was “Uncle Jumbo” to nephews and nieces.

No doubt it was a genetic propensity, plus diet, plus the 19th-century thinking that successful people ought to be rotund, both as a sign of success and as insurance against “wasting” diseases. Those things, and the fact that he really liked beer. Paul F. Boller Jr., in Presidential Anecdotes (1981), relays the following story about Cleveland’s campaign for district attorney of Erie County, NY in 1870:

“[Cleveland] and his friendly opponent, Lyman K. Bass, agreed to drink only four glasses of beer daily. But after they had met a few times on warm summer evenings to talk things over, they decided that their ration was too skimpy and so began to ‘anticipate’ their future supply. A few evenings later, Bass suddenly exclaimed: ‘Grover, do you know we have anticipated the whole campaign?’ Cleveland nodded sorrowfully. The next night, however, both of them brought huge tankards to the saloon, christened them ‘glasses,’ and had no problem with the ration after that.”

All in all, his size didn’t inhibit Cleveland’s success or popularity as a politician. After all, he was president twice and actually won the popular vote for that office three times in a row, in 1884, 1888 and 1892 – no other president ever did that except for four-timer FDR.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

March 17, 1905:

Teddy Roosevelt Gives Away the Bride

Less than two weeks after his inauguration for a full term in his own right, President Theodore Roosevelt was in New York City on March 17, 1905, to attend a wedding. In fact, standing in for the bride’s deceased father, he did the honor of giving the bride away.

The bride was his niece, the 20-year-old Eleanor Roosevelt, daughter of his brother, Elliot. The groom was a distant cousin of his and hers, 23-year-old Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

“Before the wedding the engaged couple took time off to attend Uncle Theodore’s inauguration…” wrote Joseph P. Lash in Eleanor and Franklin (1971). “During the ceremonies on March 4 they sat on the Capitol steps just behind the president and his family and heard his ringing appeal: ‘All I ask is a square deal for every man.’ They went to the White House to lunch with the president and again joined him and his immediate family on the reviewing stand for the parade and at the inaugural ball that evening. Then they hurried back to New York, Eleanor, at least, thinking that was the last inauguration of a family member that she would attend.”

Maybe Franklin had other ideas. In any case, when their wedding day came -- March 17, which also happened to be Eleanor’s mother’s birthday -- President Roosevelt arrived “top-hatted and buoyant, a shamrock in his buttonhole,” noted Lash. Like most society weddings, a lot of detail was recorded: “The bridesmaids, in taffeta, with demidevils and three silver-tipped feathers in their hair, moved with measured step down the circular stairway and up the aisle formed by satin ribbons held by the ushers. Behind them came the gravely beautiful bride on the arm of her uncle… Her satin wedding gown was covered with Grandmother Hall’s rose-point Brussels lace, which Eleanor’s mother had also worn at her marriage. The veil that covered her hair and flowed over her long court train was secured with a diamond crescent that had belonged to her mother.

“At the altar she was met by Franklin. Alice took her bouquet of lilies of the valley and the rector began the Episcopal wedding service… The vows were exchanged. Hand touched hand. It was done. ‘Well, Franklin,’ the president’s high-pitched voice could be heard saying, ‘there’s nothing like keeping the name in the family.’ ”

Friday, March 16, 2007

March 16, 1912:

Pat Nixon's Birthday

Despite what her husband did, Thelma Catherine Ryan Nixon, known by the nickname "Pat" since she was born so close to St. Patrick's Day, remains a sympathetic figure among First Ladies. Apparently, she also was reasonably consistent in giving good advice to her husband, though of course he didn't always take it.

"Pat Nixon first learned about the criminal actions that came to be cumulatively known as the Watergate scandal and soon come to engulf the Administration only from the media," according to "She and her daughter had been specifically left uniformed by the President and his advisors of the details of their actions and decisions as they were in the midst of it all. When the First Lady first comprehended the potential damage that the secret tape recordings made by the President could create, she offered the unsolicited advice that he destroy them while they were still legally considered private property - advice he did not follow..." The entire bio is here.

Even in satire, her portrayal tended to be sympathetic, as in the case of a May 8, 1976, Saturday Night Live skit based on The Final Days, the Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein book about the goings-on at the White House before Richard Nixon resigned. Madeline Kahn portrayed Pat Nixon the put-upon spouse, driven to drink, with Dan Ackroyd as a demented Richard Nixon.

[ open on Pat Nixon at her desk at San Clemente - half-empty bottle of gin on the desk ]

Voice: Mrs. Nixon, maybe you should go upstairs to bed now.

Pat Nixon: [ drunk, maintaining control ] No thank you, Ron, I'll be alright.

Voice: Alright. Good night, Mrs. Nixon.

Pat Nixon: Good night... [ starts writing in her diary ] Dear Diary... it's twelve o'clock, and once again I find myself alone. Dick's leg swelled up today, and he was in intense pain. Good! The ocean is calm here at San Clemente... quite a contrast to the stormy final days in the White House. I'll never forget the night of August 7th... I had just gone down to the pantry to get some refreshments, when I heard Dick's voice. As usual, he wasn't speaking to me, he was talking to Abe Lincoln...


Richard Nixon: [ walks over to portrait of JFK ] You! Kennedy. You looked so good all the time. They're gonna find out about you, too. The president! Having sex with women within these very walls. That never happened when Dick Nixon was in the White House! Never! Never! Never!..

[ flashback to Pat writing in her diary ]

Pat Nixon: Never, never, never, never, never, never. [ sips drink, gains control of herself ] I think Henry Kissinger was the first one to suggest that resignation was inevitable. He told Dick not to think of it as a resignation, but as 'humiliation with honor.' I think the last time they spoke to each other was on that same night...

[ flashback to White House hallway ]

Richard Nixon: Never! Never! Never!


[ Nixon turns to portrait of Lincoln ] What is happening to me, Abe? Everything's falling apart. Why me, Abe? Why me?!

[ the lips on Lincoln's portrait move ]

Voice of Lincoln: Because you're such a dip!

[ flashback to Pat at her diary ]

Pat Nixon: [ slurring ] ..because.. you're.. such.. a dip!

Voice of Richard Nixon: Pat! Pat! Where are you? I'm cold.

Pat Nixon: Well, dear Diary, I must close now.

Voice of Richard Nixon: Pat, it's chilly in here.

Pat Nixon: Throw another tape on the fire!

[ fade to black ]

Transcript and photos are here.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

March 15, 1767:

Andrew Jackson's Birthday

Jackson slaying the Second Bank of the United States, in a Democratic cartoon.

"But this August dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes, but that abounding dignity which has no robed investiture. Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God; Himself! The great God absolute! The centre and circumference of all democracy! His omnipresence, our divine equality!

"If, then, to meanest mariners, and renegades, and castaways, I shall hereafter ascribe high qualities, though dark...then against all mortal critics bear me out in it, thou just Spirit of Equality, which hast spread one royal mantle of humanity over all my kind! Bear me out in it, thou great democratic God!...Thou who didst pick up Andrew Jackson from the pebbles; who didst hurl him upon a war-horse; who didst thunder him higher than a throne! Thou who, in all Thy mighty, earthly marchings, ever cullest Thy selectest champions from the kingly commons; bear me out in it, O God!"

-- Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

March 14, 1964:

Jack Ruby Sentenced to Death

Much has been written about Jack Ruby, the man that stepped out of obscurity on November 24, 1963, and shot Lee Harvey Oswald to death on national TV. But in a case like the Kennedy assassination, which groans under the weight of myth and speculation, perhaps it's best to cite the barest of factual information for this shadowy figure who, at the very least, prevented Oswald's trial.

The Handbook of Texas Online has this to say about Rudy: "Jack Ruby, killer of Lee Harvey Oswald, was born Jacob Rubenstein on March 25, 1911, in Chicago, Illinois, to Polish immigrants Joseph and Fannie (Rutkowski or Rokowsky) Rubenstein... At age sixteen he dropped out of school and became part of the street life on Chicago's West Side. There he worked at various odd jobs, which at one time included delivering sealed envelopes for Al Capone at a dollar an errand, and engaged in years of street-fighting, often in response to anti-Semitic taunts. He moved to California in 1933 and for a while sold subscriptions to the Examiner in San Francisco. After returning to Chicago in 1937, he was hired by Leon Cooke to assist in organizing a union of junkyard workers... During World War II he was drafted into the United States Army Air Corps (1943) and spent the war at southern bases working as an aircraft mechanic. He received a good-conduct medal and was discharged in 1946 as a private first class. He then joined his brothers in the Earl Products Company, which manufactured and distributing punchboard gambling devices, miniature cedar chests, key chains, and small kitchen items. In 1947 the men changed their name to Ruby, and the brothers bought Jack out. He moved to Dallas and went into the nightclub business with his sister.

"Over the next sixteen years he ran a series of mostly unsuccessful nightclubs, sold items ranging from liquid vitamin formulas to log cabins, and was arrested nine times, although no serious charges were filed. On November 24, 1963, Ruby, then proprietor of the Carousel Club, shot and killed Lee Harvey Oswald, the accused assassin of President John F. Kennedy, in the basement of the Dallas City Jail, during Oswald's transfer to the county jail. Millions of witnesses watched on national television. Although he was defended by Melvin Belli on the grounds that 'psychomotor epilepsy' caused him to black out consciously while functioning physically, Ruby was convicted of murder with malice on March 14, 1964, and sentenced to death. In October 1966, however, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the conviction on the grounds of improper admission of testimony and the necessity of a change of venue... He died at Parkland on January 3, 1967, of a blood clot in his lungs and was buried in Chicago. He never married. He espoused no political affiliation or party preference, denied any involvement in a conspiracy, and maintained to the end that he shot Oswald on impulse from grief and outrage."

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

March 13, 1901:

Benjamin Harrison Dies

Benjamin Harrison, in as much as he’s remembered at all, is known as the only president who had a grandfather for a president – namely that extreme short-timer William Henry Harrison back in 1841. Benjamin was just a lad of 7 when his presidential grandfather died, and not only did the lad grow up to be president from 1889 to 1893, surviving his entire term, but he also became the first president to die in the 20th century, checking out about 10 weeks into the new century at his home in Indianapolis.

Among the men who were president, one died in the 18th century – Washington – 20 died in the 19th century, 15 in the 20th century, and two so far have died in the 21st, namely Reagan and Ford. Benjamin Harrison’s early passing in the century turned out to be only a few months ahead of William McKinley, assassinated in September.

Harrison didn’t get quite the official send-off that presidents who preceded him in death did. According to the New York Times upon word of Harrison’s death: “Deep interest was exhibited in all of the executive departments throughout the day in the reports that came as to the condition of ex-President Harrison. As office hours had closed for the day before the end came[,] the first official action regarding the death will be deferred until to-morrow, when, following precedents, President McKinley will issue his proclamation to the people, notifying them of Gen. Harrison's death, and setting out in becoming terms his virtues and characteristics. He also will order salutes to be fired at the various army posts the day of the funeral and on shipboard when the news is received.

“The Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Navy will send out special notices to soldiers and sailors conveying the President's directions in this matter. Little more can be done officially, as the act of March 3, 1893, specifically forbids the draping of public buildings in mourning or the closing of the executive departments on the occasion of the death of an ex-official.

“It is a curious fact that two orders issued by President Harrison himself probably brought about the enactment of this law. Jan. 18, 1893, the President was obliged to issue an order announcing the death of ex-President Hayes, closing the departments on the day of the funeral and ordering all public buildings to be draped in mourning. Almost before this period of mourning had expired ex-Secretary of State Blaine died, and another funeral proclamation issued from the White House. The long continuation of the exhibition of mourning was too much for Congress, which promptly passed the act above referred to, prohibiting mourning display and the closing of the departments on the occasion of the death of an ex-official.”

Monday, March 12, 2007

March 12, 1947:

The Truman Doctrine is Born

Not many presidents before World War II had "doctrines" named after them. You could argue that George Washington's admonition to his countrymen to avoid foreign entanglements was the Washington Doctrine, but no one calls it that, and most of his successors have ignored the advice anyway.

There is, of course, the Monroe Doctrine, which everyone learns about in school, plus Teddy Roosevelt's Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine (take the big stick with you to Latin America, that is). After World War II, however, most of the presidents have proclaimed some sort of foreign policy doctrine that becomes attached to their names. But even most of those -- who among us recalls the details of the Eisenhower or the Carter Doctrine, to name two -- probably won't be remembered as anything but footnotes.

On the other hand, the Truman Doctrine, mostly written by Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson and elucidated 60 years ago today by Harry Truman in a speech to the nation, seems to have more staying power, probably since the containment of the Soviet Union was the cornerstone of US foreign policy for decades. Here is how the New York Times began its report on the speech:

"President Truman outlined a new foreign policy for the United States today. In a historic message to Congress, he proposed that this country intervene wherever necessary throughout the world to prevent the subjection of free peoples to Communist-inspired totalitarian regimes at the expense of their national integrity and importance.

"In a request for $400,000,000 to bolster the hard-pressed Greek and Turkish governments against Communist pressure, the President said the constant coercion and intimidation of free peoples by political infiltration amid poverty and strife undermined the foundations of world peace and threatened the security of the United States.

"Although the President refrained from mentioning the Soviet Union by name, there could be no mistaking his identification of the Communist state as the source of much of the unrest throughout the world. He said that, in violation of the Yalta Agreement, the people of Poland, Rumania and Bulgaria had been subjected to totalitarian regimes against their will and that there had been similar developments in other countries."

March 11, 1861:

The Confederate Constitution Specifies a Six-Year Presidency

The Constitution of the Confederate States of America, which was adopted by the CSA constitutional convention and sent to the several (seceded) states on March 11, 1861, for ratification, is on the whole similar to the United States Constitution, though with some significant differences.

One of the best-known differences involves the presidency. A term limit is built in for the Confederate president: one term of six years. It's a suggestion that's been kicking around as the basis for an amendment to the US Constitution for years, but nothing has every come of it. The vice presidency under the CSA Constitution is also a six-year term but, curiously, there's no limit to the number of times an individual could hold that office. Perhaps the drafters thought that no one would ever want to be vice president more than once, and if they did, so what?

Had the CSA survived longer than it did, Jefferson Davis' term would presumably have lasted until March 4, 1868. March 4 is mentioned in the CSA Constitution as the day the vice president-elect will start acting as president if no president has qualified by then, just as it is in the 12th amendment to the US Constitution. Davis had been elected in November 1861 with his inauguration on February 22, 1862.

Otherwise the presidency of the CSA, in constitutional terms anyway, is virtually the same as in the USA, down to the specification that a president must be at least 35. Even the Electoral College is replicated as method of selecting a president, with the House of Representatives as the plan B in case no one gets a majority.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

March 10, 1804:

The Stars and Stripes Fly Over St. Louis

How many opportunities does a president get to nearly double the size of his country without bloodshed? The Louisiana Purchase is one of the great real estate deals in history and, as with many such deals, it was a matter of lucking into a willing seller: Napoleon.

In 1803, President Jefferson and a future president, Secretary of State James Madison, sent another future president, James Monroe, to join the US Minister to France, Robert Livingston, to facilitate real estate negotiations with France, but not quite the deal that ultimately happened. "Monroe's charge was to obtain land east of the Mississippi," wrote Gaye Wilson in "Jefferson's Big Deal: the Louisiana Purchase" in the Spring 2003 issue of the Monticello Newsletter. "Monroe's instructions, drawn up by Madison and approved by Jefferson, allocated up to $10 million for the purchase of New Orleans and all or part of the Floridas. If this bid failed, Monroe was instructed to try to purchase just New Orleans, or, at the very least, secure U.S. access to the Mississippi and the port.

"France's minister of finance, Francois de Barbé-Marbois, who had always doubted Louisiana's worth, counseled Napoleon that Louisiana would be less valuable without Saint Domingue [Haiti] and, in the event of war, the territory would likely be taken by the British from Canada. France could not afford to send forces to occupy the entire Mississippi Valley, so why not abandon the idea of empire in America and sell the territory to the United States?

"Napoleon agreed. On April 11, Foreign Minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand told Livingston that France was willing to sell all of Louisiana. Livingston informed Monroe upon his arrival the next day."

It wasn't until the spring of 1804 that a ceremony (pictured above) marking the changes of sovereignty occurred upriver from New Orleans, where such ceremonies had been held in late 1803. Spain had agreed to turn Louisiana over to France in 1800, but it wasn't generally known, so the Spanish flag still flew over St. Louis until 1804. In a ceremony on March 9, that flag was lowered and the French flag was raised and allowed to fly until the morning of the 10th, when the US flag was raised. The Three Flags ceremony has been re-created in St. Louis a number of times since then, most recently for the bicentennial of the event in 2004.

Friday, March 09, 2007

March 9, 1847:

Winfield Scott Besieges Veracruz

The war with Mexico made two generals into heroes in the United States who soon ran for president: Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott. Taylor was destined to be elected president in 1848, though he served for only for a year and a half. The Whigs, bypassing their incumbent Milliard Fillmore in 1852, nominated Winfield Scott as the party's standard-bearer, with William Alexander Graham, Fillmore's secretary of the Navy, in the number two slot.

They lost to Democrats Franklin Pierce and William R. King, however, and it would be the last time the Whigs participated as a stand-alone party in a presidential election. Whigs supported the nominees of the American Party in 1856 -- with Fillmore the nominee for president -- and the Constitutional Union Party in 1860, with the top of the ticket going to John Bell. After that the Whigs were history, literally and figuratively, unless you count this group.

Back in 1847, that was all still in the future the day Winfield Scott, Old Fuss & Feathers, oversaw a successful amphibious landing of 12,000 US troops near Veracruz, Mexico (pictured). The city fell to Scott's forces in less than three weeks, and the operation opened Mexico up to further penetration, including the capture of Mexico City in September.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

March 8, 1874:

Millard Fillmore Dies

On the anniversary of the death of the 13th president, it's time to consider the recorded last words of some of the presidents (from the handy compendium of such items in the Presidential Factbook by Joseph Nathan Kane). President Fillmore's was the immortal line, "The nourishment is palatable." He seems to have said that to his doctor after taking a bite of food that late winter day in Buffalo over 130 years ago.

Other presidents spoke to their doctors as well. Tyler: "Doctor, I am going. Perhaps it is best." B. Harrison: "Are the doctors here? Doctor, my lungs." Some said fairly ordinary things. Madison: "I always talk better lying down." Harding (to his wife): "That's good. Go on, read some more." FDR: "I have a terrific headache."

Polk said, "I love you, Sarah, for all eternity, I love you." (His wife.) Hayes said, "I know I am going where Lucy is." (His wife.) Eisenhower spoke a little more broadly: "I've always loved my wife. I've always loved my children. I've always loved my grandchildren. And I've always loved my country."

Some spoke of contentment. Washington: "It is well." JQ Adams: "This is the last of earth. I am content." Buchanan: "O Lord, God Almighty, as Thou wilt." McKinley: "It is God's way. His will be done, not ours. We are all going, we are all going, we are all going. Oh, dear."

A couple were a little enigmatic. WH Harrison: "Sir, I wish you to understand the true principles of government. I wish the, carried out. I wish nothing more." Van Buren: "There is but one reliance." TR: "Please put out the light."

While presumably all of them were suffering on their deathbeds, there's considerable pain in the lines of some. Wilson: "I'm a broken machine, but I'm ready" Grant (who was dying of throat cancer): "Water."

March 7, 1850:

Daniel Webster Gives His March 7 Speech

Star politician, successful diplomat, famed orator -- none of these achievements could get Daniel Webster of Massachusetts the presidency. In 1836, he was one of the new Whig Party three candidates (the party couldn't agree on one), along with William Henry Harrison and Hugh Lawson White. The strategy, such as it was, was to deny the Democrat Martin Van Buren a majority in the electoral college. Webster got Massachusetts' 14 electoral votes. fewer than the other two Whigs, but Van Buren won anyway with 170.

In 1840, Webster unwittingly missed a chance to be president. He declined an offer to be the Whig vice president under William Henry Harrison, a post that went to John Tyler. He served President Tyler with distinction as Secretary of State, however, and was the architect of the treaty that established the eastern border of the United States and Canada and signaled a lasting peace between the two great English-speaking nations of the world.

In 1848, he made another bid for the top job. No dice. Zachary Taylor was the Whig candidate, and again Webster was offered the second spot. "I do not propose to be buried until I am dead," he said of the offer. Taylor was dead and buried in 1850 and Millard Fillmore became president.

On March 7, 1850, Webster spoke on the Senate floor at length in support of the various pieces of legislation later called the Compromise of 1850, which is known as his March 7 Speech. He spoke, famously, "not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man but as an American..." His efforts helped win passage of the bills, including the notorious Fugitive Slave Law, but turned New England abolitionists bitterly against him and doomed Webster's last attempt at the Whig presidential nomination in 1852. In any case, he died toward the end of that year after a fall from a horse.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

March 6, 1926:

Alan Greenspan's Birthday

There have been 14 chairmen of the Federal Reserve since its creation in 1914, a period in which there have been 16 presidents. Fifteen if you count William McAdoo, who got the organization up and running at President Wilson's direction. Before the Banking Act of 1935, the formal title was actually Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Federal Reserve System; since then it's been Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. The chairman gets a four-year term, appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, though some chairmen have quit early while others have been reappointed successively, even by presidents of different parties.

Wilson appointed two chairmen; Harding one; Coolidge one; Hoover one; FDR two; Truman two; Nixon one; Carter two; Reagan one; and George W. Bush one. Other presidents, however, have reappointed sitting chairmen, such as Eisenhower and William McChesney Martin Jr. and Clinton and Alan Greenspan. The Fed chairman and the president have been at odds over monetary policy from time to time, and the chairman's power is thought to rival that of a president. In economic terms, a good case can be made for that; but no chairman of the Federal Reserve has ever ordered air strikes or cruise missile attacks.

Alan Greenspan, celebrating his 81st birthday today, was not the longest serving chairman, but he was close. William McChesney Martin Jr. was in office from April 1951 to February 1970, nearly 19 years, while Greenspan was chairman for a few months less, retiring last year. The chairman in office the shortest time was Eugene R. Black, serving about 15 months in the 1933-34 trough of the Great Depression; William Miller was Fed chairman only a little longer than that in the late '70s, the era of stagflation.

Monday, March 05, 2007

March 5, 1849:

President Zachary Taylor Takes the Oath of Office

March 4 was inauguration day from 1797 to 1933, but as that day happened to fall on a Sunday in 1821, 1849, 1877 and 1917, so in those years, the public inaugurations (and in 1821 and '49 the only inaugurations) were held on March 5. This circumstance gave life to one of the most persistent myths of presidential history, namely that Sen. David Rice Atchison of Missouri (pictured) was somehow president on March 4, 1849.

Atchison was indeed president pro tem of the Senate -- third in line to the presidency in those days -- in the outgoing 30th Congress, which came to an end on March 3, and then selected for the same position in the 31st Congress, which also was sworn in March 5, but that timing is irrelevant to the presidency. Zachary Taylor had been elected to a term that began at midnight March 4, 1849, and so he was president that day. He didn't want to take the oath of office on the Lord's Day, however, and thus did so the next day.

The issue had come up before 1849, at the end of James Monroe's first term in 1821. March 4, 1821, was a Sunday, and it was wondered whether that meant a presidential interregnum of one day if Monroe also honored the Sabbath by not taking the oath that day. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams asked the Supreme Court for a dictum on the matter, and Chief Justice Marshall wrote to Adams: "As the Constitution only provides that the President shall take the oath it prescribes 'before he enters on the execution of his office,' and as the law is silent on the subject, the time seems to be in some measure at the discretion of that high officer. There is an obvious propriety in taking the oath as soon as it can conveniently be taken, and thereby shortening the interval in which the executive power is suspended. But some interval is inevitable. The time of the actual President will expire, and that of the President-elect commence at 12 in the night of the 3rd of March. It has been usual to take the oath at midday on the 4th. Thus, there has been uniformly and voluntarily and interval of twelve hours during which executive power could not be exercised... Undoubtedly on any pressing emergency the President might take the oath in the first hour of the 4th of March... If any circumstance should render it unfit to take the oath on the 4th of March, and the public business would sustain no injury by its being deferred till the 5th, no impropriety is perceived in deferring it till the 5th. Whether the fact that the 4th of March comes this year on Sunday be such a circumstance may, perhaps, depend very much on public opinion and feeling..."

Note that Marshall said that executive power is suspended, not that the presidency is vacant just because the oath of office is delayed. The president is the president, even if he can't exercise his powers until that simple ceremony is over. If Chief Justice Marshall said it, that ought to settle it. One of the remarkable things about the presidency is that it has never been vacant in more than two centuries.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

March 4:

Inauguration Day, Original Version

No president has been inaugurated on March 4 since 1933, but for most of the life of the United States, that was the day presidents took their oaths. A presidential term of four years was fixed in the Constitution, but the beginning date wasn't specified -- as a practical matter, it couldn't have been, since no one knew how long ratification would take.

When the ninth state, New Hampshire, ratified the Constitution in the summer of 1788, the tenth Confederation Congress set the dates for the new government to start: On January 7, 1789, states would choose electors; on February 4, the electors would cast their ballots for president; and on March 4, the new legislature would meet to begin business, the first order of which would be to count the votes and arrange to have the president -- Washington, everyone knew that -- sworn in.

Things didn't quite work out according to that timetable, however. Bad weather delayed many members of the First Congress in their journeys to New York City, the temporary capital, and it wasn't until April 6 that a quorum could count the votes and transmit a message to Washington that he'd been elected. He acknowledged it and came as soon as he could -- toward the end of April. All the arrangements were made, and the first inauguration was April 30, 1789.

But it was to be March 4 after that, the Second Congress decided, and apparently Washington had no objections, so his second term began on March 4, 1793 after his unanimous re-election. All together there were 32 inaugurations on March 4 in U.S. history. (The picture is from one such day, March 4, 1913, as Taft left office and Wilson became president.)

March 3, 1845:

First Override of a Presidential Veto

Article I, Section 7 of the US Constitution specifies that a president may veto a bill he dislikes and that a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress can override his veto (though the term "veto" isn't in the document). The first veto was under Washington, but it was to be over 50 years, and ten presidents before the first override happened. The early presidents -- except for Andrew Jackson, with five regular and seven pocket -- used the veto sparingly. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison did not use it at all.

John Tyler's veto, early in his presidency, of a bill to establish a third bank of the United States, effectively alienated him from the Whig Party (he had been elected on the Whig ticket, mostly to offer geographic balance). But Congress wasn't able to override that or four other of his vetoes. On the last day of his term, March 3, 1845, Congress finally overrode Tyler's veto of a relatively minor naval appropriations bill. To use a more modern phrasing, it was Congress' way of giving the finger to a president they disliked, a small jab at the moment when Tyler was celebrating the passage, and his signing on March 1, of the joint resolution annexing Texas.

The all-time veto champ among the presidents, not surprisingly, is Franklin Roosevelt, who in over 12 years used the veto 635 times, 372 regular and 263 pocket. Only nine were overridden. Among two-term presidents, Grover Cleveland had the highest number of vetoes, proportionally more than FDR: 584 of both kinds, with seven overridden. Andrew Johnson, whom Congress hated and who hated Congress, had the most overrides: 15 out of 29 vetoes.

Friday, March 02, 2007

March 2, 1877:

Hayes Prevails

Today is the anniversary of the anticlimactic conclusion of the disputed election of 1876 – in March of 1877, just two days before a new president was due to take Grant’s place. An Electoral Commission had been set up by Congress to decide the dispute, but its party-line decisions in favor of Hayes (soon to acquire a new nickname, “Old 8-to-7”) had inspired much agitation in Congress, especially in the Democratic-controlled House, and the threat of filibusters up to the March 4 deadline – when the Congressional terms expired as well -- was a real possibility. But in the end, it didn’t happen. It was the closest the United States has ever come to missing its absolutely regular timetable for starting presidential terms, an unheralded but likely important factor in the nation’s political stability.

“Friday, March 2 had arrived,” wrote Lloyd Robinson in The Stolen Election (1968). “The Congressional session had lasted more than 14 hours, and the end had not yet come… Rep. Joseph C. Blackburn of Kentucky, a Tilden man, rose to address the members:

“ ‘Mr. Speaker, today is Friday. Upon that day the Savior of the world suffered crucifixion between two thieves. On this Friday constitutional government, justice, honesty, fair dealing, manhood and decency suffer crucifixion amid a number of thieves.’

“Blackburn was shouted down. But there came a challenge to one Wisconsin elector on the grounds that he was a government pension officer. The Senate and the House separated again to consider the matter. Quickly the Senate voted to ignore the objection. In the House, another Tilden diehard, Rep. Roger Q. Mills of Texas, offered a resolution calling upon the House of Representatives to proceed to elect a President of the United States, as was its constitutional privilege when no candidate had received a majority of the electoral vote. Speaker Randall ruled the proposal out of order.

“Then Randall produced a telegram he had just received from Tilden. The Democratic candidate said that he was willing to let the count be completed. The statement amounted to a concession of defeat…

“At four in the morning on March 2, the Senate filled back into the hall of the House to bring the ritual of the count to a close. Since there were no objections now in either branch of Congress to the Wisconsin vote, it was counted for Hayes… Hayes had received all the disputed votes, for a total of 185 and a majority of one…”

“The agony was over… The most spectacular political crime in American history had been accomplished. The exhausted Congressmen utters sighs of relief, but there was no applause.”

March 2 is also the birthday of Sam Houston and, by a remarkable coincidence, the day that Texas declared its independence from Mexico in 1836, a decision that was ratified under Houston’s leadership at the Battle of San Jacinto about six weeks later. As an accomplished politician, governor of Tennessee and ally of Andrew Jackson, he certainly was US presidential material, but his destiny took him to Texas, where he was president of the republic – twice.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

March 1, 1781:

Samuel Huntington Becomes President...

... of the United States in Congress Assembled. On this day in 1781, the Articles of Confederation were formally adopted, and the Congress of the Confederation came into existence, replacing the Second Continental Congress. At the moment it happened, however, the shift was a matter of nomenclature, because the members of the new Congress of the Confederation were the same as the old Second Continental Congress.

The president of the Second Continental Congress, Samuel Huntington of Connecticut, thus acquired a new formal title, President of the United States in Congress Assembled, though ill health forced him to retire that summer. He was the first of ten men to hold this post, and while it's sometimes said that they were the first real presidents of the United States, it isn't so. They were the presidents of the Congress, which was the only game in town under the Articles, since an independent executive wasn't established until the Constitution was ratified.

Still, that's no reason to ignore Huntington and the others. They did their part, presumably, in the establishment of an independent United States, and for a time were the closest thing the young country had to a chief executive. According to Rev. Charles A. Goodrich in Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence (1856), Huntington's "talents and patriotism recommended him to public favor, and in October, 1775, he was appointed by the general assembly of Connecticut to represent that colony in the Continental Congress... In the subsequent July he voted in favor of the Declaration of Independence.

"Of the Continental Congress, Mr. Huntington continued a member until the year 1781, when the ill state of his health required the relinquishment of the arduous services in which he had been engaged for several years. These services had been rendered still more onerous by an appointment, in 1779, to the presidency of the congress, in which station he succeeded Mr. [John] Jay, on the appointment of the latter as minister plenipotentiary to the court of Madrid. The honorable station of president, Mr. Huntington filled with great dignity and distinguished ability. 'In testimony of their approbation of his conduct in the chair, and in the execution of public business,' congress, soon after his retirement, accorded to him the expression of their public thanks."