There is perhaps not a more incongruous scene in the history of American politics than the one that took place on August 9, 1974. Overlooking a crowd of somber-looking White House staffers, the outgoing president, Richard Milhous Nixon, waved goodbye. Amid distant applause, Nixon gave a booming smile and thrust both hands upward, raising his index and middle fingers and parting them — the “V” sign, meaning victory. To watch Nixon without any context is to see what seems to be a triumphant leader. The pained and melancholic looks of everyone else say something else entirely.
Another day, another outrageous thing done by Donald Trump come to light. Off the top of my head: He said Mexican immigrants are criminals, drug dealers, and rapists; he tried to delegitimize the first black president of the United States by questioning where he was born (even after Barack Obama produced his birth certificate); he wanted to use eminent domain to bulldoze a woman’s house so that he could build a parking lot; he is a serial adulterer who has boasted about his adultery; he pressured his second wife to pose nude for Playboy; he makes sex jokes about his daughter; he is a “billionaire” who donates almost no money to charity; he started a fake university that left students with worthless degrees and Trump with their money; when the Florida attorney general started sniffing out this controversy, Trump paid her $25,000 from his charitable foundation to get her to back off (sadly, it worked); he lies like other people breathe oxygen; he lost nearly $1 billion in 1995 and his hotels and casinos way underperformed the rest of the stock market throughout the 1990s (spare me the “at least he is a good businessman” nonsense); he was sued by the government for refusing to rent his houses to black people; there are many, many other scandals and I just cannot list all of them.
Make America great again? America has never been great, from its infancy wallowing in sin and injustice. America has always been great, a land whose creeds and ideals inspire even beyond our borders.
While these two views appear to clash, any accurate and patriotic rendering of America must include each side of this historical coin.
In May, President Barack Obama became the first sitting United States president to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. He addressed an audience of people that included survivors of the atomic bombing in 1945, saying, “We must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without [nuclear weapons].”
The few times I’ve taught Calvinism to students, usually under the guise of the acronym T.U.L.I.P., most have been repelled. They understand some vague kind of spiritualism or mysticism. Some even get the appeal of the feel-good megachurch. But the orthodox Christianity that has so affected the history of the world is foreign to them, much less the seeming hardcore variants like Calvinism. (Erin Bartram made this point well in a post here.) While students balk at the doctrine of “Limited Atonement,” the doctrine that many find simply unbelievable is the doctrine of “Total Depravity.”
Were this a ranking of presidents who most successfully accomplished their agenda, James K. Polk would likely be first on the list. Polk, a Democrat who so followed in the footsteps of Andrew Jackson that his contemporaries called him “Young Hickory,” ran on a platform of three basic ideas: 1) lower tariffs; 2) resolve a territorial dispute between the United States and Great Britain over Oregon (in America’s favor); 3) annex Texas. All of this, Polk promised, was to be accomplished in one term, after which he would retire.
In 1846, he signed the Walker Tariff lowering the tariff rates, accomplishing his first goal. He threatened war with Great Britain before forcing them to sell their portion of the Oregon Territory, completing the second item on his list. President John Tyler, after Polk was elected, urged Congress to annex Texas, which it did — Polk’s third goal was accomplished before he even stepped foot in the White House.
No other president was so singularly focused and so adept at making his agenda a reality. Alas, it was his war with Mexico that, more than anything else, exacerbated the sectional tensions that would eventually lead to Civil War.
I suppose it is not correct to blame the onset of the Civil War on the presidents directly preceding it. A more convincing case can be made that the Civil War was made inevitable by the Dred Scott decision, John Brown’s unsuccessful raid on Harper’s Ferry, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the expansion of the United States into the West, the war with Mexico, or even the founding of the country itself. (In reality, the Civil War was likely the result of a combination of many of these factors.) The president is actually not as powerful as we make him seem in the narratives we push in presidential biographies and media coverage. This is the case today — though presidents receive praise or blame depending on whether the economy is booming or contracting, they have a very minimal effect on such a large and unwieldy thing as the American economy — and it was even more so the case in the 19th century, before anything like the modern presidency existed.
Still: It could not have helped to have had three of the worst presidents in our history run the country in the decade before the Civil War.