Thursday, May 31, 2007

May 31, 1819:

Walt Whitman's Birthday

Americans don’t have much of a taste for poetry in our time, but they once did, and probably no poet has written a more popular poem about a US president than Walt Whitman, born this day in 1819. He wrote “O Captain! My Captain!” shortly after the murder of Abraham Lincoln, and it quickly became immensely popular, so much so that Whitman was reportedly exasperated by its fame eclipsing everything else of his.

Critics haven’t been particularly kind to “O Captain! My Captain!” down the years, perhaps because it’s too simple, too direct, and too damned popular. But poetry criticism isn’t the bailiwick of Dead Presidents Daily. Presidents are, and there’s no arguing that the poem is part of the lore of Lincoln. So here it is, in its entirety.

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring.
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red!
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up! For you the flag is flung, for you the bugle trills:
For you bouquets and ribboned wreaths, for you the shores a-crowding:
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning.
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head;
It is some dream that on the deck,
You've fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchor'd safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won!
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

Less famous, but a better poem according to some, is “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd.” It too is about the martyred 16th president, though not nearly as directly. It is too long to reproduce here, but this is one of the stanzas. (The whole text is here.)

Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,
Through day and night with the great cloud darkening the land,
With the pomp of the inloop’d flags with the cities draped in black,
With the show of the States themselves as of crape-veil’d women standing,
With processions long and winding and the flambeaus of the night,
With the countless torches lit, with the silent sea of faces and the unbared heads,
With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the sombre faces,
With dirges through the night, with the thousand voices rising strong and solemn,
With all the mournful voices of the dirges pour’d around the coffin,
The dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs—where amid these you journey,
With the tolling tolling bells’ perpetual clang,
Here, coffin that slowly passes,
I give you my sprig of lilac.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

May 30, 1922:

Dedication of the Lincoln Memorial

Construction of the Lincoln Memorial began in 1914, but its dedication had to wait until Memorial Day 1922. President Harding, who was not quite born on the day that Lincoln died, presided over the ceremony, with Chief Justice and former President Taft, and Robert Todd Lincoln, then 79, also as honored guests (the three are pictured, with Lincoln on the right). Former President Wilson was still alive at the time, but presumably too ill to attend.

About 50,000 people attended the dedication, including a handful of Union and Confederate veterans. The event also marked one of the first uses of new public address technology, with loudspeakers ringing the top of the monument. Other aspects of the event weren't as advanced. Robert Motem, president of the Tuskegee Institute and one of the main speakers, sat in a segregated seat away from the speakers platform.

Since then, the Lincoln Memorial has been the site of innumerable public events, taking an iconic place in the American imagination. In 1929, the building was added to the reverse of the $5 bill, and in 1959 -- the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's birth -- it was added to the reverse of the Lincoln cent. It was also, curiously, the only US government building in Washington hit by fire in World War II. Anti-aircraft guns had been placed atop nearby government buildings, and one went off accidentally. Its projectile hit the roof of the Memorial, but caused no permanent damage.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

May 29, 1917:

John Kennedy's Birthday

John F. Kennedy was the first president born in the 20th century, as all of his successors so far have been. But Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan were all born before Kennedy, who was young indeed when he took office -- famously the second-youngest president after Teddy Roosevelt.

Hazel Hanback (born 1918), a long-time employee of the federal government and member of the board of trustees of George Washington University, had this to say about young Mr. Kennedy in an oral history interview for the university in 1996. She met him in Boston shortly after World War II:

“But meeting Mary Rourke is very interesting, because on Saturdays we all stuck together… the guys… all men, and one lady and me... And sometime we’d buy apple pie and baked beans, take it somewhere to eat, and Mrs. Rourke invited us to her apartment which I think was 122 Booten Street. So, on Saturday nights we’d all get around and talk about everything, but mostly about the business and what was going on and everything. So one day she said there is somebody I want you all to meet. So I want you to come up to dinner. It’s the same address but it’s a different apartment. I want you to meet a young man whom I’m very fond of and I think he’ll go far in the world.

“So at the appointed time on a Saturday evening, like 6 o’clock, and we had gone down and bought an apple pie and whatever, so we truck up to this apartment. This young man opens the door, his shirttail was hanging out, kind of dirty, he had filthy tennis shoes on, his hair was hanging five thousand different ways and he had a big pitcher of Manhattans in his hand. 'Come in!' and we went in this tiny apartment which looked like it had never been cleaned and she said 'I want you to meet John F. Kennedy.' So we spent the evening with John F. Kennedy and his Manhattans. We made baked beans out of cans to go with the apple pie. You know, I didn’t know that I was meeting a future president of the United States, but one does have bonuses somewhere along the way. I never shall forget that. I was not impressed. You had to go through his bedroom to get to his bathroom. All the clothes were on the floor, his shoes, his clothes. I mean you just had to step over them. It was like a hazard trail. But it was interesting. He was very nice, very affable. We did a lot of laughing, over what I don’t know, but it was fun.”

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Memorial Day Break

DPD will be off until after Memorial Day, but there are plenty of presidential and quasi-presidential anniversaries over the next few days.

May 26, 1868, is the day that Andrew Johnson's impeachment trial came to a final, sputtering end. Pro-conviction Senators, hoping to change at least one Senator's mind, had not voted on all the charges 10 days earlier (see May 16). But they were unable to get a conviction on the remaining charges, and the impeachment effort was finally dead.

Helen Eugenie Anderson was born on May 26, 1909. She was the first woman ever to serve as an ambassador from the United States. Harry Truman sent her to Denmark in 1949; in 1962, John Kennedy sent her to Bulgaria.

May 27 is Hubert Humphrey's birthday, born 1911. Tom Lehrer wrote a song about the 38th Vice President of the United States: "Whatever Happened to Hubert?"

"Once a fiery liberal spirit,
Ah, but now when he speaks, he must clear it.
Second fiddle's a hard part, I know,
When they don't even give you a bow."

On May 28, 1798, Congress authorized John Adams to raise 10,000 men in case of a war with France. The army would have been led by former President Washington, but hostilities were averted. On May 28, 1830, Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, paving the way for the Trail of Tears removals of Indians from east of the Mississippi. On May 28, 1937, Franklin Roosevelt officially opened the Golden Gate Bridge by electronic signal from Washington, DC. This May 28 also happens to be Chris Ballew's 41st birthday -- he's with the band The Presidents of the United States of America.

Friday, May 25, 2007

May 25, 1961:

Kennedy Asks for the Moon

Before a joint session of Congress, May 25, 1961:

"First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish. We propose to accelerate the development of the appropriate lunar space craft. We propose to develop alternate liquid and solid fuel boosters, much larger than any now being developed, until certain which is superior. We propose additional funds for other engine development and for unmanned explorations--explorations which are particularly important for one purpose which this nation will never overlook: the survival of the man who first makes this daring flight. But in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the Moon--if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there."

The entire speech is here.

Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin landed on the Moon on July 20, 1969, and returned safely to the Earth on July 24.

May 24, 1844:

"What hath God wrought."

Samuel Morse (left) sent his famed telegraph message from Washington to Baltimore on May 24, 1844, and it's often mentioned as if it were the very first message ever relayed by telegraph, but it isn't so. It was a public demonstration of the revolutionary communications technology (the "Victorian Internet"), and so of course was widely publicized.

But Morse and his men had been testing the system that spring, including relaying the results of the presidential nominating conventions, which were both held in Baltimore that year. The Whig Party nominated Henry Clay on May 1, 1844, and the news traveled to Washington by wire faster than a train could take the message. Morse's famous message was still about three weeks in the future when that happened. (The Democrats met on May 27.)

According to Cornell University Library's exhibition, "Ezra Cornell, A Nineteenth-Century Life," the man who made his fortune in the telegraph business and founder of Cornell University (right) was involved in the technology early on. Getting the system fuctioning to transmit Biblical quotes or presidential news or anything else was no small task: "While traveling in Maine, Ezra Cornell met F.O.J. Smith, editor of the Maine Farmer. When Congress appropriated $30,000 for the laying of a test telegraph cable between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, Smith had taken a contract from the inventor, Samuel F.B. Morse, to lay the lead pipe which enclosed the telegraph wires.

"In the summer of 1843, on his second trip to Maine, Cornell visited Smith's office and found him struggling to design a machine to lay the cable underground. At Smith's request, Cornell created a plow that would both dig the trench and lay the cable. Morse came to Maine for a demonstration of the machine, approved it, and hired Cornell to lay the cable for the test line. In October 1843, Cornell went to Washington to begin work on laying the telegraph line. As the work proceeded, he became concerned that the insulation of the wires was defective. He notified Morse, who ordered the work stopped. Cornell then devised a machine for withdrawing the wires from the pipes and reinsulating them.

"Cornell spent that winter in Washington studying works on electricity and magnetism in the Patent Office library and the Library of Congress. His reading convinced him that underground wiring was impractical and that the wires should be strung on glass-insulated poles. He was retained as Morse's assistant at the pay of $1,000 per year. In the spring of 1844, Cornell built the overhead line from Washington to Baltimore, and on May 24, Morse tapped out the historic message: 'What hath God wrought.' Some of Cornell's earliest telegraph communications relayed the results of the 1844 Whig and Democratic Conventions, which nominated Henry Clay and James K. Polk, respectively."

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

May 23, 2006:

Lloyd Bentsen Dies

Sen. Lloyd Millard Bentsen Jr., Democrat from Texas, shared a name with a vice president and ran for vice president himself, but never held that office. Though a four-term senator and President Clinton's first Treasury Secretaty, Bentsen will probably be best remembered for belittling a future vice president, Dan Quayle, during a televised debate on October 5, 1988.

QUAYLE: ...And then, if that unfortunate situation happens - if that situation, which would be very tragic, happens, I will be prepared to carry out the responsibilities of the presidency of the United States of America. And I will be prepared to do that. I will be prepared not only because of my service in the Congress, but because of my ability to communicate and to lead. It is not just age; it's accomplishments, it's experience. I have far more experience than many others that sought the office of vice president of this country. I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency. I will be prepared to deal with the people in the Bush administration, if that unfortunate event would ever occur.

WOODRUFF: Senator Bentsen.

BENTSEN: Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy. (Prolonged shouts and applause) What has to be done in a situation like that is to call in the -

WOODRUFF: Please, please, once again you are only taking time away from your own candidate.

QUAYLE: That was really uncalled for, Senator. (Shouts and applause)

BENTSEN: You are the one that was making the comparison, Senator - and I'm one who knew him well. And frankly I think you are so far apart in the objectives you choose for your country that I did not think the comparison was well-taken.

This is Sen. Bentsen's New York Times obituary.

May 22, 1807:

Aaron Burr's Treason Trial Opens

Vice President Aaron Burr is best known -- it was even the subject of a "Got Milk?" commercial -- for his duel with Alexander Hamilton, yet that was but one incident in his checkered career. Two hundred years ago today, after he was vice president, his trial for treason began. Editorialists and cracker-barrel (and crackpot) pundits have sometimes accused presidents and vice presidents of treason, but Burr remains the only one ever in the dock for such a weighty charge.

The charges stemmed from Burr's murky involvement in a conspiracy to help himself to Spanish territory in North America at a time when that might have sparked a war between the United States and Spain. According to Doug Linder's account of the trial in the "Famous American Trials" series:

"Shortly after noon on May 22, 1807, the trial of Aaron Burr opened in Richmond.  On the bench sat Chief Justice Marshall and Virginia District Judge Cyrus Griffin.  Surrounding Burr was his team of defense lawyers including Edmund Randolph, John Wickham, Benjamin Botts, Charles Lee, and Luther Martin, a former Maryland delegate to the Constitutional Convention often called the "Thersites of the law."  (In addition, Burr himself would play a major role in the trial, cross-examining most of the prosecution's witnesses himself.) The cast for the prosecution included George Hay, Caesar Rodney, William Wirt, and Alexander McCrae.

"While a grand jury awaited the arrival of General Wilkinson from New Orleans, Chief Justice Marshall considered both prosecution and defense motions.

"The prosecution, noting that 'the evidence is different now,' again moved for commitment of Burr on the charge of treason.  The defense countered, arguing that to establish the crime of treason the prosecution must prove that an overt act of treason had been committed by the defendant in a war and that, under the Constitution, the overt act must be testified to by two witnesses and must have occurred in the district of the trial.  When Marshall sided with the defense's narrow interpretation of treason, the prosecution knew it had its back to the wall.

The government -- inspired by a vindictive Thomas Jefferson in this case, foiled by a counterattacking John Marshall, according to some historians -- couldn't make the case stick. Burr was acquitted. The story of the trial is here.

Monday, May 21, 2007

May 21, 1832:

The First Democratic Party Convention

It isn't a page-turner, but Summary of the Proceedings of a Convention of Republican Delegates from the Several States in the Union, for the Purpose of Nominating a Candidate for the Office of Vice-President of the United States; Held at Baltimore, in the State of Maryland, May 1832 With an Address, to the Republicans of the State of New-York, Prepared by Their Delegates, in Compliance With the Recommendations of Said Convention does shed some light on the beginnings of national Democratic Party conventions.

These days, we're used to the quadrennial light-and-smoke show that nominates major party candidates for the presidency, but in the Age of Jackson it was a novelty. Previous candidates had been nominated by state caucuses, but the flaw in this approach was all too obvious in 1824, when the Democratic-Republican splintered into factions, with four candidates running against each other (there was no Federalist opposition by this time).

The Anti-Masonic Party held a national convention in 1831, and the next year the Democratic-Republicans did too, convening on May 21, 1832. Its purpose wasn't to select a presidential candidate, since the party already had one: President Jackson. Instead, the vice presidential nomination was up for grabs, and it went to the man who had done the most to organize the party nationally, Martin Van Buren.

As a curious aside, the Summary of the Proceedings notes that a delegation was sent to ask Charles Carroll of Carrollton to attend. At that moment in time, he was the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence. Carroll declined, citing ill health. (He died later that year.)

Sunday, May 20, 2007

May 20, 1768:

Dolley Madison's Birthday

It's difficult to imagine now, but a yellow fever epidemic swept through Philadelphia in 1793, virtually shutting down the new federal government. Two of the victims of the disease was a young attorney named John Todd Jr. and his son William. Todd's wife (and other son) survived, however. Her name was Dorothea Dandridge Payne Todd, but she is better known to history as Dolley Madison.

She married the future Fourth President of the United States, James Madison, about a year after being widowed. Madison didn't become president until 1809, but Dolley was a presence in the White House long before that, serving as hostess on many occasions during the administration of the Madisons' close friend, Thomas Jefferson. has this to say about her: "With more conscious effort than either of her two predecessors, and with an enthusiasm for public life that neither of them had, Dolley Madison forged the highly public role as a President's wife, believing that the citizenry was her constituency as well as that of her husband's. This would establish her as the standard against which all her successors would be held, well into the mid-20th century... She fortified her role of hostess by the visual effect of both the executive mansion and her own person, redecorating the public rooms in a style grand enough to impress foreign diplomats and dressing in a regal, yet simple manner. Her ebullient personality, although often masking deep-seated worry, had the effect of relaxing her guests, regardless of their political views. Dolley Madison also exercised political influence by utilizing all the acceptable forms of behavior for women at the time, through correspondence, entertaining and cultivating personal alliances with the spouses of important political figures. On numerous occasions, she sought to place supporters, friends and family members into official government positions.

"Her legend was made lasting, however, by her conscious act of symbolic patriotism in the hours preceding the burning of Washington by British troops during the War of 1812. She famously refused to leave the White House before being assured that the large portrait of George Washington was removed from the walls and taken safely away from potential destruction or defacing by the encroaching enemy."

And what of the snack cakes? (Spelled "Dolly" in the case.) The web site of Interstate Bakeries Corp. puts it this way: “ 'Cakes and pastries fine enough to serve at the White House.' That is how Roy Nafziger, IBC’s founder, described his Dolly Madison snack cakes at their introduction in 1937. Roy’s fascination with the First Lady Dolley Madison lent him the name and inspiration to create a high-quality snack fit for a socialite like Madison yet affordable for everyone."

Saturday, May 19, 2007

May 19, 1994:

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Dies

In the December 1983 issue of Esquire magazine, Norman Mailer penned an essay about former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis called "The Prisoner of Celebrity." The essay includes much of the same blarney one gets when reading about her: "For she is not merely a celebrity, but a legend; not a legend, but a myth -- no more than a myth: she is now a historic archetype, virtually a demiurge."

While that may be just a famed writer exercising his talent for corroborative detail, Mailer also offered a more telling bit of first-hand experience in the piece: "The last time I saw Jackie Kennedy Onassis was at a benefit and the cameras were going wild. At one point it was my turn to stand next to the lady, and while I have seen a few such lights, I can testify that my eyes never knew the kind of bombardment before. There is celebrity, and then there is the white heat of celebrity when the paparazzi are out, but for shear impact, for the literal blast of the media at its highest voltage, get your picture taken next to Jackie..."

In some sense, however, the glare of media attention that never ceased in the 30 or so years remaining to Mrs. Kennedy after the death of President Kennedy was a Frankenstein monster that had gotten out of control. As notes in its sketch of her life:

"Often sketching designs for her clothing as First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy fashion immediately drew international attention; more than any other First Ladies her style was copied by commercial manufacturers and a large segment of young women. While she appeared largely in the media in unauthorized wire service photographs and 'paparazzi' snapshots, White House photographs were more frequently issued to the press than ever before and the role of the official in-house photographer was instigated as a result of Jacqueline Kennedy's own interest and instruction.

"She also made several television appearances, the most prominent being A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy, aired on CBS on February 14, 1962. It was the first glimpse into her restoration project and the most sustained exposure the nation had to this youthful and unique First Lady. The television special only further fueled media attention on her and she soon became the first First Lady to find herself on the cover of thousands of popular magazines. The first First Lady to also have her own press secretary, her visibility would permanently forge the media interest in the activities of the presidential spouses."

May 18, 1980:

Harry Truman Dies

Not that Harry Truman. By a curious coincidence, the best-known victim of the massive eruption of Mt. St. Helens on May 18, 1980, was named Harry Truman. He was born a little later than the 33rd president, 1896 vs. 1884. While the future president was in the US Army in France during the First World War, the future volcano victim was in the US Navy, even surviving the sinking of his ship by a U-boat near Ireland.

He did not, however, survive the onslaught of the blast many years later. Truman had lived near the mountain since the 1920s, and owned a prosperous lodge on a lake. The authorities asked him to leave, but he refused, and even gave TV interviews in the weeks up to the eruption stating his opinion that the whole thing was (so to speak) blown out of proportion. Even if he did think the volcano was going to erupt, he probably had decided to go down with his ship this time.

"[Shirley] Rosen says Truman's unwillingness to leave the mountain had more to do with protecting his property than making a statement," wrote Mike Barber in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer 20 years after Truman's death. "Others say the headlines contributed to his refusal to come off the mountain -- he felt obliged to live up to his press." (Area resident Rosen wrote a book about Truman.)

" 'He felt, like everyone else, that he would be able to see lava start to ooze down and a news helicopter would come in and scoop him up at the last minute.'

Nature had other ideas. The searing blast came at 300 mph.

" 'One scientist told us Truman probably had time to maybe turn his head,' " Rosen said. Moments later, Spirit Lake was buried by landslides and mudflows.

" 'We figure he's 150 feet under the (present) lake,' Rosen said. 'His pink Cadillac, 16 cats, everything is buried with him -- along with probably a lot of loot' from the lodge safe.

Friday, May 18, 2007

May 17, 1875:

John C. Breckinridge Dies

For more on the life of the 14th Vice President of the United States, see January 21. Today's entry notes his death in 1875 at only 54 years of age, making his lifespan the second shortest among vice presidents. Daniel D. Thompkins, the sixth vice president, died at 50.

Breckinridge served the Confederacy in various capacities, and was briefly thought to have been killed in action in late 1863. "Speak no ill of the dead" was not, in this case, the policy of the New York Times:

"If it be true, as is now positively declared, that a loyal bullet has sent this traitor to eternity, every loyal heart will feel satisfaction and will not scruple to express it. Ordinarily, enmity is disarmed before death; reproach is silenced, and even the sternest justice makes way for pity. The form that is shrouded is a sacred thing, and the grave itself is an altar on which every bitter feeling should be sacrificed forever. Human censorship does not presume to follow the spirit that has gone to its Eternal Judge; and even the most rigid feels constrained to remember his own frailties, and forgive. But where Death strikes such a public enemy as this, it exacts no silent obeisance. Personal feeling has no part in the matter. It is to be regarded purely as a public event; and if it really has the shape of a public deliverance, it is just as right to welcome it as any other public blessing. It is just as proper, too, to speak the truth of such a criminal when dead as when living. Humanity has a just reckoning with guilt of this particular dye that can never be satisfied without posthumous infamy."

After the fall of the CSA, the former vice president spent a few years in exile but returned to Kentucky after President Johnson's Christmas Day amnesty in 1868. He practiced law and was a railroad executive in the years remaining to him.

Oddly, if the scant information available on line is to be believed, one of the vice president's grandsons and his namesake was John Cabell "Bunny" Breckinridge -- who is best remembered for his part in Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

May 16, 1868:

President Johnson Acquitted

It seemed to come down to Sen. Edmund Ross of Kansas (pictured, left). The New York Times described the scene in the US Senate on May 16, 1868, when that chamber came within a vote of convicting President Andrew Johnson and removing him from office:

"Then a thousand pair of eyes shot into the very heart of the modest, quiet little man who rises, at the call of the name of Ross. Nervously and quickly he responds, "not guilty." A suppressed condemnation is heard on all hands, and the fate of impeachment is sealed. The remaining votes cannot save it...

"The indignation centres terribly and almost wholly upon poor Ross, and he has a hard position to occupy. Five times, once in writing, as his colleague Pomeroy says, he can swear he has promised to vote for conviction. So late as last night at dinner at the latters house he promised. Until within two or three days he has never been doubted. He was not outspoken except to his friends, to whom he frankly stated ten days ago that his opinion was that the President was guilty. So much evidence of this kind is in existence that his friends are overwhelmed with shame and grief at his alleged duplicity."

In 20th century, Ross' vote was portrayed in Profiles in Courage as, well, a profile in courage. It certainly helped maintain the office of the presidency. But not everyone thinks Ross acted from unselfish motives. There's a school of thought that holds that Ross mainly didn't want to see President Pro Tem of the Senate Benjamin Wade as acting president, for fear of his losing control of patronage.

David Greenberg wrote in Slate on January 21, 1999: "Since the other six pro-Johnson Republicans had declared their intentions before voting, the ensuing attention focused on the apostasy of Ross, whose vote came as the biggest surprise. But Ross' vote wasn't the lone act of bravery it was later made out to be. At least four other senators were prepared to oppose conviction had their votes been needed--a fact that has been forgotten, maybe, because it doesn't square with the High Noon portrait of Ross as the man of principle facing down the mob.

"Ross wasted no time exploiting Johnson's debt to him. On June 6, he wrote to Johnson to have him install one of his cronies as Southern superintendent of Indian affairs, and Johnson agreed to oust his own friend in order to comply. Sensing opportunity, Ross kept upping the ante, like a Mafia henchman running a protection racket. ("Nice little presidency ya got here--hate to see anything happen to it.") On June 23, he wrote to Johnson to secure a position for Perry Fuller, his 1867 election sponsor. On July 1, he asked Johnson to make his brother a federal mail agent. On July 10, he pressed the president for jobs for three more friends, invoking his impeachment vote, just in case Johnson had forgotten." The entire article is here.

May 16 is also the birthday of Levi Parsons Morton (pictured, right), born in Vermont in 1824. He grew up to become a Congressman from New York, 22nd Vice President of the United States (under Benjamin Harrison, 1889 to 1893) and governor of New York after that. He died on May 16, 1920, the longest surviving vice president until John Nance Garner lived longer in the 1960s. Morton remains the only vice president (or president) to die on his birthday.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

May 15, 1972:

George Wallace Shot

Alabama Gov. George Wallace did remarkably well for a third-party presidential candidate in 1968, capturing 9.4 million votes and even more remarkably, 46 electoral votes. It was a time when an unrepentant segregationist still resonated with a lot of the electorate.

In 1972, Wallace decided to run again, this time for the Democratic nomination. He made a strong running, winning a number of states, but a would-be assassin had other plans for him. On May 15, 1972, Wallace was working a crowd in Laurel, Md.

"Wallace was not at his best that day," Time magazine reported on May 29, 1972. "When he took out in his standard speech after those 'pointy-headed intellectuals who can't park their bicycles straight,' his voice cracked. Time and again he referred to 'Princess George County'; Laurel is in Prince Georges County. From the rear, collegians laughed and shouted: 'Go back to Alabama. You don't even know where you are.'

"Wallace plunged on -- against 'social schemers' and 'ultra-false liberals.' After 50 minutes, he advised the folks to vote in the primary 'to shake the eyeteeth of the Democratic Party. Let's give 'em the St. Vitus dance. And tell 'em a vote for George Wallace is a vote for the average citizen.'

"The applause was thunderous... Wallace walked down the steps from the stage and decided to shake a few hands, as he often does after speeches. An aging woman nearby, in Wallace blouse and Wallace hat, shouted groupie-fashion: 'Over here, George, over here!' He took off his jacket and handed it to an aide, then moved to his left to work down a line of supporters behind a cordon. 'Nice to see ya,' he said. 'Nice to see ya.'

"Among the crowd, in opaque sunglasses and short, pale blond hair, was a 21-year-old from Milwaukee named Arthur Bremer. Almost a parody of the failed young loners from renter rooms who seem to end up assassinating American politicians, Bremer had apparently been stalking Wallace for weeks. Now, as Wallace moved easily through the crowd, Bremer suddenly thrust his arm through a ring of onlookers. In rapid fire, about 18 inches from his target, he blasted five shots from his snub-nosed revolver. Even as he was shooting, security men jammed his arm downward and fell on him.

"Wallace flipped back onto the asphalt and lay there, conscious but stunned. Blood streamed from his right arm, and oozed through his shirt at the lower right ribs. Alabama State Trooper Captain E.C. Dothard, wounded in the stomach, fell in front of Time correspondent Joseph Kane. Nearby, Secret Service Agent Nicholas Zarvos clutched a wound in his throat. Dora Thompson, a local Wallace worker slumped to the ground with a bullet in her right leg... As a blanket of police smothered Bremer, there were shrieks and isolated cries of 'Kill him! Kill him!'

Wallace was crippled by the attempt on his life, and lost the nomination to George McGovern. His assailant still resides in prison. Wallace, who died in 1998, changed his mind during the late 1970s about his earlier segregationist views, and publicly apologized for them.

Monday, May 14, 2007

May 14, 1942:

Premiere of "Lincoln Portrait"

Presidents have inspired all kinds of artistic creations, but few as popular as Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait," which was first performed by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra on May 14, 1942. It is an unusual combination of spoken word and orchestra, and since then has been has been recorded with such diverse voices as Henry Ford and Gregory Peck (who both played Lincoln), Walter Cronkite, Margaret Thatcher and two vice presidents, Al Gore and Walter Mondale, plus non-veep presidential aspirants, Adlai Stevenson and Barack Obama.

The piece can be heard here. This is the text:

"Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history."

That is what he said. That is what Abraham Lincoln said.

"Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this congress and this administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation. We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility." [Annual Message to Congress, December 1, 1862]

He was born in Kentucky, raised in Indiana, and lived in Illinois. And this is what he said. This is what Abe Lincoln said.

"The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we will save our country." [Annual Message to Congress, December 1, 1862]

When standing erect he was six feet four inches tall, and this is what he said.

He said: "It is the eternal struggle between two principles, right and wrong, throughout the world. It is the same spirit that says 'you toil and work and earn bread, and I'll eat it.' No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation, and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle." [Lincoln-Douglas debates, 15 October 1858]

Lincoln was a quiet man. Abe Lincoln was a quiet and a melancholy man. But when he spoke of democracy, this is what he said.

He said: "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy."

Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth president of these United States, is everlasting in the memory of his countrymen. For on the battleground at Gettysburg, this is what he said:

He said: "That from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion. That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. That this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth."

May 13, 1920:

Debs Nominated for President

Eugene V. Debs ran for president as a socialist every election from 1900 to 1920, except for 1916, polling remarkably good numbers, especially in 1912 and 1920, when he won 900,672 and 919,799 votes in those respective elections (third-place William Howard Taft got about 3.4 million votes in 1912). It was the high-water mark of organized socialism in this country.

On May 13, 1920, even more remarkably, Debs was nominated for the presidency at the Finnish Socialist Hall in New York City while he was in Georgia, unable to attend. He was, in fact, in federal prison, convicted under the draconian Espionage Act of 1917 for an anti-war speech he made in Canton, Ohio, on June 16, 1918, It's clear from the text of the speech he knew what was coming:

"I have just returned from a visit over yonder, where three of our most loyal comrades are paying the penalty for their devotion to the cause of the working class. They have come to realize, as many of us have, that it is extremely dangerous to exercise the constitutional right of free speech in a country fighting to make democracy safe in the world.

"I realize that, in speaking to you this afternoon, there are certain limitations placed upon the right of free speech. I must be exceedingly careful, prudent, as to what I say, and even more careful and prudent as to how I say it. I may not be able to say all I think; but I am not going to say anything that I do not think. I would rather a thousand times be a free soul in jail than to be a sycophant and coward in the streets. They may put those boys in jail—and some of the rest of us in jail—but they can not put the Socialist movement in jail. Those prison bars separate their bodies from ours, but their souls are here this afternoon. They are simply paying the penalty that all men have paid in all the ages of history for standing erect, and for seeking to pave the way to better conditions for mankind."

A critical factor in the Democratic loss of the White House in 1920 was Woodrow Wilson's overreaction in suppressing dissent during the war and during the Red Scare afterwards, which featured many of the same applications of coercive federal power. Wilson's successor, Warren Harding, commuted Debs' sentence on Christmas Day 1921. In ill health by that time, however, he never ran for office again and died in 1926.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

May 12, 1850:

Henry Cabot Lodge’s Birthday

Today’s entry isn’t about a president, but a president’s nemesis. Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, a denizen of that chamber from 1893 to his death in 1924, is best remembered for his efforts to torpedo US membership in the League of Nations, which President Wilson ardently wanted. Wilson’s incapacity due to a stroke in the latter part of 1919 may have been a more important factor in the League’s defeat in the Senate, but Lodge, as chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, certainly played his part.

“I have never had but one allegiance--I cannot divide it now,” he said in a famed speech about the League on August 12, 1919. “I have loved but one flag and I cannot share that devotion and give affection to the mongrel banner invented for a league. Internationalism, illustrated by the Bolshevik and by the men to whom all countries are alike provided they can make money out of them, is to me repulsive. National I must remain, and in that way I like all other Americans can render the amplest service to the world.”

Lodge’s grandson, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., didn’t share his famed ancestor’s distaste for international organizations, serving as US ambassador to the United Nations under President Eisenhower. The younger Lodge also ran for vice president on the Republic ticket in 1960 with Richard Nixon, narrowly losing to John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

May 11, 1852:

Charles Fairbanks' Birthday

The 26th Vice President of the United States, Charles Warren Fairbanks, has a distinction he shares with only one other vice president (Adlai Stevenson), namely that, after serving one term, he was later renominated for the post -- but lost. Fairbanks was Theodore Roosevelt's vice president, in office from 1905 to 1909, and in 1916 was on the Republican ticket with Charles Evans Hughes.

That election was exceptionally close, but Hughes-Fairbanks lost, thus depriving the nation of a president and vice president with the same first name (that has happened only once, when John C. Calhoun was John Quincy Adam's vice president). Had Fairbanks won, he would presumably have died in office, since he did in fact die in 1918.

Around the turn of the 20th century, Senator Fairbanks of Indiana had his eye on the presidency, and had a powerful patron in his friend William McKinley, but the president's untimely death and the rise of Theodore Roosevelt detoured Fairbanks into the vice presidency: "In the summer of 1904 Senator Charles Warren Fairbanks wanted to be president of the United States," wrote Mark O. Hatfield, with the Senate Historical Office, in Vice Presidents of the United States, 1789-1993 (1997). "Many in 1900 had seen him as the natural successor to his good friend President William McKinley. Now, however, it was not the fallen McKinley who occupied the White House, but Theodore Roosevelt, and the president appeared on his way to easy renomination at the 1904 Republican convention. When members of the Republican Old Guard suggested Fairbanks for vice president, the senator saw an opportunity for advancement... The vice-presidency might prove a good place from which to maneuver for the 1908 convention, and anything could happen with the impetuous Roosevelt in the White House. As... Mr. Dooley speculated, 'Th' way they got Sinitor Fairbanks to accipt was by showin' him a pitcher iv our gr-reat an' noble prisidint thryin to jump a horse over a six-foot fence.'

But TR survived his term and, unfortunately for Fairbanks, didn't want him to occupy the White House. "Roosevelt could hardly conceal his scorn for Fairbanks," Hatfield continued. "The president liked to tell amusing stories about his uninspiring vice president and would often discuss his preferred successors in Fairbanks' presence without mentioning the gentleman from Indiana. When Fairbanks and New York Gov. Charles Evans Hughes both showed some strength as possible nominees in the summer of 1908, Roosevelt seemed stunned. As he exclaimed to a Hughes supporter before the convention, 'Do you know whom we have most trouble in beating? Not Hughes—but Fairbanks! Think of it—Charley Fairbanks! I was never more surprised in my life. I never dreamt of such a thing. He's got a hold in Kentucky, Indiana, and some other states that is hard to break. How and why is beyond me.' This strength, though, was illusory compared to the influence wielded by Roosevelt on behalf of Taft. After gaining the nomination, Taft went on to win an easy victory over William Jennings Bryan in November."

Friday, May 11, 2007

May 10, 1872:

Woodhull for President

In 1872, President Grant was re-nominated (no surprise there) by the Republican Party , which dominated national affairs, and the Democrats nominated Horace Greeley, who had no realistic chance of election, and who died a few weeks after the popular vote in any case.

But as with every presidential election, there was a raft of smaller-party candidates in the running, such as the Liberal Republican Party (a Republican splinter), the Independent Liberal Republican Party (a splinter of that splinter), the Straight-Out Democratic Party (yet another splinter), the Prohibition Party (its first foray nationally), the Labor Reform Party and the People's Party, also known as the Equal Rights Party, which, on May 10, 1872, nominated Victoria Woodhull for president.

Who? A largely forgotten woman clearly ahead of her time (the link also includes her '72 campaign song). She was first woman ever nominated for president, but not the last.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

May 9, 1961:

Newton Minow's "Vast Wasteland" Speech

Presidential appointees occasionally say or do something as memorable as any president, and a case in point is Newton N. Minow, 15th chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, to which he was appointed by President Kennedy on March 2, 1961, aged only 35, probably on the strength of his acquaintance with Bobby Kennedy.

About two months later, he made a splash at the National Association of Broadcasters convention. His speech at that event, known as the "Vast Wasteland"speech, took the broadcasters to task for the state of broadcast television. More than 45 years later, "vast wasteland" is still a term associated with the broadcast medium. But it was a nuanced characterization:

"Like everybody, I wear more than one hat," Minow said. "I am the chairman of the FCC. I am also a television viewer and the husband and father of other television viewers. I have seen a great many television programs that seemed to me eminently worthwhile and I am not talking about the much bemoaned good old days of Playhouse 90 and Studio One.

"I am talking about this past season. Some were wonderfully entertaining, such as The Fabulous Fifties, The Fred Astaire Show, and The Bing Crosby Special; some were dramatic and moving, such as Conrad's Victory and Twilight Zone; some were marvelously informative, such as The Nation's Future, CBS Reports, and The Valiant Years. I could list many more -- programs that I am sure everyone here felt enriched his own life and that of his family. When television is good, nothing -- not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers -- nothing is better.

"But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit and loss sheet or rating book to distract you -- and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland.

"You will see a procession of game shows, violence, audience participation shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And, endlessly, commercials -- many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you will see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, try it."

He is still alive now at 81, a partner in one of the most powerful communications law firms in the United States, Sidley and Austin. Interestingly, in his later years, Minow played a role in shaping the televised presidential debates, which he co-chaired in 1976 and 1980. He currently a director of the Commission on Presidential Debates, the entity that succeeded the League of Women Voters in sponsoring the presidential debates.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

May 8, 1884:

Harry Truman's Birthday

Harry Truman is an example of how astonishingly unpredictable a rise to the presidency can be. In 1933, he was an experienced, but minor and little-known, Missouri politician. Twelve years later: 33rd President of the United States and commander-in-chief of the mightiest armed force yet assembled by mankind, and known the world over. Each step of the way was marked by contingency.

In 1934, Boss Tom Pendergast of Kansas City needed a compromise candidate for the Democratic nomination for the US Senate, and Truman was probably chosen, as an honest politician, to put a good face on the machine. With his patron Pendergast in prison by 1940, Truman's prospects for re-election weren't good, but he managed to squeak to victory because he had two opponents in the primary who split the vote. In 1944, under circumstances that still aren't quite clear, he become the vice presidential nominee with FDR for his fourth term -- tantamount to nomination for president, though an unspoken one.

Though the people of the United States thought enough of President Truman to re-elect him in 1948 despite polls and educated opinion that said it wouldn't happen, his presidential reputation wasn't as high in office as it would be later. These days he tends to be accorded above-average or near-great status as a capable successor of FDR, who had very big shoes, during a triumphant but difficult time.

May 7, 1960:

Khrushchev Embarrasses Eisenhower

Part of the job description of President of the United States includes lying; only the naive think otherwise. But how, when and why is generally up to the current occupant, and sometimes it blows up in his face. Even Eisenhower took his share of embarrassment over official dissimulation.

On May 1, 1960, the Soviet Union shot down an American U-2 spy plane over its territory. The pilot, Francis Gary Powers, parachuted to the ground, but not precisely to safety -- he was captured by the Soviets. President Eisenhower and the US government didn't know that for a while, however, just that the plane was missing. On the 3rd, NASA issued a statement that the airplane was on a joint NASA-US Air Force "air weather service mission" in Turkey and had apparently gone down in or near Lake Van, Turkey.

Khrushchev then proceeded to use the incident to embarrass Eisenhower's administration, which stuck to the "air weather service mission" story a little too long. The plot, as related by Mount Holyoke College's International Relations Program's web site, got thicker:

"In another long speech to the Supreme Soviet on the next day, May 7, Khrushchev said, among other things, that the pilot was alive and that Soviet authorities had recovered parts of the airplane. He also displayed samples of the developed film allegedly taken by camera equipment installed on the plane and charged that Powers had flown out of Peshawar airfield in Pakistan, which was correct, and not out of Turkey, and his landing destination was Bodo airfield in Norway.

"In response to this speech, the Department of State issued a statement on May 7 admitting that while the inquiry ordered by the President established that 'insofar as the authorities in Washington are concerned there was no authorization for any such flight as described by Mr. Khrushchev,' such a flight over the Soviet Union to gather information was probably undertaken, and it justified such activities as necessary 'given the state of the world today' and the Soviet Government's rejection of the President's 'open skies' proposal in 1955.

"In a statement released to the press on the afternoon of May 9, Secretary [of State Christian] Herter conceded that the President had issued directives authorizing the gathering of intelligence information, although specific missions of unarmed civilian aircraft had not been subject to authorization."

The president was embarrassed, an international conference wrecked, and Powers spent 21 months in the jug. Years after his death in a helicopter crash in 1977, he was his posthumously awarded Prisoner of War Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross and National Defense Service Medal.

Monday, May 07, 2007

May 6, 1935:

FDR Creates the WPA

One of the most enduring legacies of the New Deal was provided by the Works Progress Administration, which came into being by executive order 7034 on this day in 1935. Careful examination of many still-existing buildings and other public structures will reveal a plaque noting that it was a WPA project. It also left behind a large body of poster art, one of which is reproduced here, a public health example. (See this Library of Congress site for more.)

According to the Lilly Library at the University of Indiana: "...Headed by Harry L. Hopkins and supplied with an initial congressional appropriation of $4.880 billion, [the WPA] offered work to the unemployed on an unprecedented scale by spending money on a wide variety of programs, including highways and building construction, slum clearance, reforestation, and rural rehabilitation. So gigantic an undertaking was inevitably attended by confusion, waste, and political favoritism, yet the 'pump-priming' effect stimulated private business during the Depression years and inaugurated reforms that states had been unable to subsidize.

"Particularly novel were the special programs. The Federal Writers' Project prepared state and regional guide books, organized archives, indexed newspapers, and conducted useful sociological and historical investigations. The Federal Arts Project gave unemployed artists the opportunity to decorate hundreds of post offices, schools, and other public buildings with murals, canvases, and sculptures; musicians organized symphony orchestras and community singing. The Federal Theatre Project experimented with untried modes, and scores of stock companies toured the country with repertories of old and new plays, thus bringing drama to communities where it had been known only through the radio.

"By March, 1936, the WPA rolls had reached a total of more than 3,400,000 persons; after initial cuts in June 1939, it averaged 2,300,000 monthly; and by June 30, 1943, when it was officially terminated, the WPA had employed more than 8,500,000 different persons on 1,410,000 individual projects, and had spent about $11 billion. During its 8-year history, the WPA built 651,087 miles of highways, roads, and streets; and constructed, repaired, or improved 124,031 bridges, 125,110 public buildings, 8,192 parks, and 853 airport landing fields."

An initial appropriation of $4.88 billion sounds like ordinary federal spending, but translated into 2007 dollars it would be $73.2 billion -- it was a massive program indeed. There had been predecessor relief programs both under Hoover and then FDR, but nothing on this scale.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

May 5, 1985:

Reagan at Bitburg

Even the most astutely image-conscious presidents miscalculate sometimes, and Ronald Reagan's ceremonial visit to a German military cemetery in the spring of 1985 counts as one of those occasions, though it seems to have caused more consternation at the time than any lasting damage to his presidency. The visit to Kolmeshohe Cemetery near Bitburg, West Germany, might have seemed like at good idea at first -- a demonstration that 40 years after VE Day Germany, at least the western part, was now fully aligned with the United States and its western allies -- but the thing quickly took a life of its own when it was discovered that members of the SS were interred at the cemetery too.

Apparently Reagan's chief of staff, Michael Deaver, planned the visit but didn't notice any SS men in the cemetery, perhaps because the headstones were covered with snow during his February visit. And because the Germans didn't mention it. Oops.

"It wasn't clear if any of the SS troops buried at Kolmeshohe had participated in any atrocity and, as Bitburg Mayor Theo Hallet pointed out, all German military cemeteries were likely to contain at least a few SS graves," notes Jason Manning in The Eighties Club No. 56. "Such distinctions failed to placate those who were opposed to Reagan's visit on moral grounds.

"One of the most eloquent of these opponents was Elie Wiesel, an author and concentration camp survivor to whom Reagan presented the Congressional Medal of Achievement during a White House ceremony just weeks prior to the president's European trip. 'Mr. President,' said Wiesel, in his remarks, 'I am convinced . . . that you were not aware of the presence of SS graves in the Bitburg cemetery. Of course you didn't know. But now we are all aware. May I . . . implore you to do something else, to find another way, another site. That place, Mr. President, is not your place.' Wiesel's protest was just one of many. The chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, Menachem Rosensaft, called the proposed visit 'so macabre and so awful that one can only wonder what possessed Reagan.'

"Clarence M. Brown, national commander of the American Legion, warned that it would 'not sit well' with veterans if Reagan were to 'lay a wreath at the graves of Nazi soldiers.' Former Army S/Sgt. Jim Hively mailed his World War II decorations, including a silver star and a bronze star, to Reagan in protest. In the Congress, 53 senators, 11 of them Republicans, signed a letter urging the president to cancel the visit, while 257 representatives, including 84 Republicans, signed a letter asking [West German] Chancellor Kohl to withdraw the invitation.

"But Reagan would not budge, and neither would Kohl... Reagan spent only eight minutes at the Kolmeshohe Cemetery. Along with Kohl, 90-year-old General Matthew Ridgway, who had commanded the 82nd Airborne in World War II, and Luftwaffe ace General Johannes Steinhoff, Reagan placed a wreath at a wall of remembrance. Security was heavy; the three-mile route from the NATO airbase to Kolmeshohe was lined with 2,000 policemen -- one posted every twelve feet. As it turned out, relatively few protesters showed up."

Friday, May 04, 2007

May 4, 1820:

Julia Tyler's Birthday

At 24, Julia Gardiner of the prominent Long Island Gardiner family became the second wife of President John Tyler, who had been widowed in office. He thus became the first sitting president to marry, though not, as Grover Cleveland later did, with the ceremonies in the White House. Rather, the Tylers married at the Church of the Ascension in New York City in a ceremony presided over by the Right Reverend Benjamin Treadwell Onderdonk, fourth Episcopal Bishop of New York.

John Tyler was also the most fecund of presidents. By his first wife, Letitia, he had had eight children; by Julia, seven, the last of whom -- Pearl Tyler -- was born in 1860 just before her father died, and who lived until 1947. A few of John and Julia's grandchildren seem to have survived into the 1980s. has this to say about Julia Tyler, who made a surprisingly durable contribution to the ceremonies surrounding the presidency in the form of advocating the use of "Hail to the Chief."

"After the sadness of Letitia Tyler’s long illness and death, and the political turmoil of the Tyler administration, Julia Gardiner’s bursting on the Washington scene was both dramatic and colorful. She had youth, beauty, wit, charm and an obvious enjoyment of that she did, which disarmed the would-be critics. Unlike the hapless Mary Lincoln, Julia Tyler’s sometimes bumbling attempts at treading the political waters caused little comment. Her nepotism, however, was another matter. Her 'royalty touches' were ill-advised, but not motivated by malice or a real sense of snobbery... [and] her attempts to add to the dignity of the office were more lasting. Especially notable was her introduction of use of 'Hail to the Chief' to signal the entrance of the President. Her later years were filled with ups and downs, but her loyalty to John Tyler and all he stood for, never faltered or wavered."

Thursday, May 03, 2007

May 3, 1988:

Nancy Reagan and the Stars

Nineteen years ago today, in the waning months of the Reagan administration, the White House acknowledged that First Lady Nancy Reagan used astrology to help schedule some of her husband's activities. Don Regan, who had been shown the door as the president's chief of staff the year before, had claimed in his book -- For the Record: From Wall Street to Washington -- that the first lady took the advice of her personal astrologer, Joan Quigley, especially in matters related to her husband's speaking engagements, and the Reagans were admitting that it was true. (Quigley herself later wrote a book about her service to the first family, What Does Joan Say? My Seven Years as White House Astrologer to Nancy and Ronald Reagan.)

The revelation has been called a "scandal," but it hardly rises to that level. Consulting an astrologer might indicate a certain gullibility one doesn't want in high public officials, but it isn't illegal. It was more like a national joke, just the kind of thing Regan was probably trying to inspire by spilling the beans.

Other presidents and first ladies have been said to have consulted the stars, most famously Warren Harding and Mary Tood Lincoln (and a lot of good it did them, too), but the Reagans' admission was the first time the practice was confirmed. It got a lot of attention at the time, and still clings to the former first lady as one of those things people remember about her.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

May 2, 1740:

Elias Boudinot's Birthday

Elias Boudinot of New Jersey -- one of the richest men in the colony and then the state -- is another of the quasi-presidents under the Articles of Confederation, the Fourth President of the United States in Congress Assembled. An important man in his time, almost completely forgotten today. Sic transit gloria mundi.

During his tenure as presiding officer of the Confederation Congress, which was from November 4, 1782, to November 3, 1783, the United States achieved its formal independence. In negotiations, Great Britain had acknowledged as such. On March 12, 1783, Boudinot received word of the Preliminary Treaty of Peace, agreed to on November 30, 1782. He wrote to George Washington at once:

"The arrival of Captain Barney this morning creates so great a field for the circulation of reports agreeably to the complexion of the Reporter, that I have thought it not amiss to inform your Excellency of the substance of his dispatches, tho' you may perhaps receive it from other hands. He left L'Orient the 17th of January last. His latest dispatches are dated the 25th December. The Preliminaries between America and Great Britain were signed the 30th of November and contain nine articles, in substance as follows.

  "1st. The acknowledgment of our Independence and the relinquishment of all rights, Claims & etc. over us.

"2dly. The Boundaries of the United States very Consonant to our Claim.

"3rd. A full and free right to the fisheries, with liberty to take fish on the several shores &c..."

Later, Boudinot served in the First, Second and Third Congresses under the Constitution, and in 1795 President Washington appointed him director of the US Mint, a position he held for 10 years, overseeing the first coinages of the United States.

But that's not all. Clearly vexed by some of the more unorthodox religious attitudes of the Enlightenment, Boudinot wrote "Age of Revelation" in 1790 as a reply to Thomas Paine's "Age of Reason." Later, he helped found the American Bible Society, and was its first president. He also thought that American Indians just might be the descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel, and wrote a book about that as well.

Boudinot lent his name to a young Cherokee (pictured below). This curious story is related at (a site about North Georgia):

"Although he lived less than 40 years, few people had a more profound effect on the Cherokee Nation than Elias Boudinot. His legacy includes:

• Editor, Cherokee Phoenix
• Leader of the Treaty Party
• Signed Treaty of New Echota

"Born in 1800 (shortly after the arrival of his lifelong friend and cousin John Ridge) Gallegina, or Buck, Watie would be educated by the Moravians at Spring Place, not far from his parent's home in the Oothcaloga Valley.

"In 1818 he journeyed north to the American Board School in Cornwall, Connecticut. During this journey he visited two former American presidents, Thomas Jefferson at Monticello and James Madison at Montpelier. Both were pleased to see young Buck and the other Cherokee and Choctaw youths who accompanied him.

"Moving north from Virginia the young men stopped in Washington, D. C. and Burlington, New Jersey, where Buck met with Dr. Elias Boudinot, a writer, poet and statesman who is probably best-known for his election to a one-year term as President of the United States under the Articles of Confederation, his role as director of the U. S. Mint for many years, and his fight for Negro rights in New Jersey. The doctor took a strong liking to Gallegina and offered to support the Cherokee financially. Buck agreed to use his name from that day forward."

His son, Elias C. Boudinot, was a Confederate general and Congressman from Arkansas.

May 1, 1898:

The Battle of Manila Bay

The astonishingly swift victory of the fleet commanded by Commodore George Dewey over the Spanish on May 1, 1898, at Manila Bay made Dewey an admiral and a household name. It also made people talk of him as a presidential candidate in 1900 as a Democrat. But it was not to be.

"Millions were on hand in New York harbor to greet Dewey upon his triumphant return to the States," noted the PBS series America 1900. "Congress bestowed upon him the special rank of admiral of the navy. Other honors followed, including the naming of a chewing gum, Dewey's Chewies, after him. He also enjoyed the dubious distinction of providing the inspiration for a laxative: The Salt of Salts.

"Such adulation prompted Dewey to consider politics. Though he lacked any party affiliation and had never himself voted, in March 1900 Dewey let it be known that he was making himself available to the American people as a presidential candidate. 'If the American people want me for this high office, I shall be only too willing to serve them,' he declared. He went on to point out that 'since studying this subject I am convinced that the office of the President is not such a very difficult one to fill...' The Admiral's lack of command of the issues of the day caused few to take him seriously... Failing to secure any serious backing for his presidential bid, Dewey served out his days as the head of the General Board of the Navy Department."

Quite a few generals have risen to the presidency -- Washington, Jackson, Polk, Grant and Eisenhower, among others -- but no admirals. Lower-ranking Navy men have been well represented in the Oval Office, however, including every president from Kennedy to Carter and the elder George Bush as well.