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The Power Season

John Quincy Adams

Harlow Giles Unger
Da Capo Press, 2012

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

Jon Meacham
Random House, 2012

Citizen Soldier: A Life of Harry Truman

Aida D. Donald
Basic Books, 2012

William Howard Taft: The Travails of a Progressive Conservative

by Jonathan Lurie
Cambridge University Press, 2012

The Man Who Saved The Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace

H. W. Brands
Doubleday, 2012

 

There are five ways to reach the Presidency of the United States, all of them in some way unworthy: you can be the son of a president, you can get the job because you were good at some totally unconnected job, you can be the handpicked successor of a president, you can be the accidental successor of a president, or you can excel at the rat-like conniving of votes.

The first is, perhaps somewhat implausibly, the rarest – it’s only happened twice in America’s history that the presidency has been treated as an inheritance, although all the initially comforting elements of having a second Adams or a second Bush in the office give some hint as to the durability of a monarchy. There’s also a certain practicality involved: genetics don’t help with on-the-job surprises, but there’s greater chance for dinner-table inculcation – provided, that is, father and son like each other (which, despite official pieties, was clearly not the case with either John Adams and John Quincy Adams or George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush).

The second is the most flatly absurd, and yet it happens repeatedly in American history: a candidate will get nominated – and sometimes elected – not because he has a record of effective governmental leadership but because, excelling elsewhere, he has little or no such experience at all. This is patently ridiculous (would you want Maya Angelou scrubbing up and removing your gall bladder?) but it feeds directly from the American distrust of entrenched bureaucracy. Military figures get nominated and elected, often despite a manifest indifference toward the presidency (or, in the case of Washington, Jackson, and Eisenhower, civilian government in general), and some military background is touted as valuable experience – the 2012 U.S. Presidential election, featuring two candidates with absolutely no military experience, is an extreme rarity.

The third way – being the handpicked successor of a sitting president – in many ways makes the most sense: custom, precedent, and, after 1951, the Twenty-Second Amendment forbid a president from taking a third consecutive term in the White House (sometimes in itself an idiotic restriction), but the President and his closest aides are enmeshed; they know the players, they know the details of all pending business … it simply works best to keep that apparatus running at the highest executive levels, except that America’s rabid egalitarianism tends to fear ensconced momentum. Thus, even hand-picked successors must hit the hustings and fight for the job, often with enormous incumbent advantages, although not always – Vice President Al Gore wasn’t the first such candidate to find his predecessor more of a hindrance than a help (time alters the landscape too – had Gore run with the blessings of a President Clinton fresh from surgery instead of scandal, things might have been very different). Here, too, personality can often trump practicality: sometimes, presidents simply don’t like their obvious successors.

Which can lead to bitter ironies in the case of the fourth way, where somebody becomes president through accident – that is, usually (although not in Gerald Ford’s case) because the sitting president dies in office and the Vice President is called upon to step into the front job. In virtually all such cases, the dying president not only disliked his vice president but was personally appalled by him, and so we have the bitter, dangerous inferiority complexes of people like President Johnson (both of them) and the equally dangerous exhibitionism of President Truman. The comfort of uninterrupted executive function trumps immediate accountability to voters – these accidental presidents get to keep their jobs until the next election, even though voters only by proxy (if that) agreed they should have so much power in the interim.

In most of these cases, those voters end up being key – especially in the fifth way, where a candidate works the system openly and without any momentum, simply by going out and getting votes. Oddly enough in a country that sanctimoniously prides itself on its work ethic, this happens comparatively rarely in modern American politics – President Reagan being something of standout modern example, for good and ill. The infrequency of this method is perhaps not so difficult to understand, since it tends to depend on personal charisma, which is about as rare among aspiring political candidates as personal hygiene is among aspiring post-doctoral candidates.

It’s the curious alchemy of the U.S. Presidency that greatness is not the fixed perquisite of any of these five methods of gaining the Oval Office It’s true that most of the presidents typically ranked in the top ten got the job the fifth way, the old-fashioned way, the door-to-door precinct-by-precinct way, but it isn’t necessarily so, even when the rankings are sentimental (that is, wrong). The means of ascent can have a deep shaping impression on the men who use them as five recent presidential biographies only serve to underscore.

Hardest of all to gauge are the presidents – Washington, Adams, and Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe – who held the job while the country was still cooling and taking shape after the molten eruption of its birth. Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power concerns the most enigmatic of this group, and it’s a masterful performance – the best single-volume biography of Jefferson yet written, superior in every way to Meacham’s best-selling biography of Andrew Jackson. Even the boilerplate to which Meacham occasionally yields (there’s far less of it in this book than in the previous) has a pithy passion to it:

Jefferson is the founding president who charms us the most. George Washington inspires awe; John Adams respect. With his grace and hospitality, his sense of taste and love of beautiful things – of silver and art and architecture and gardening and food and wine – Jefferson is more alive, more convivial. We sense his greatness because we know that perfection in politics is not possible but that Jefferson passed the fundamental test of leadership: Despite all his shortcomings and all the inevitable disappointments and mistakes and dreams deferred, he left America, and the world, in a better place than it had been when he first entered the arena of public life.

The point is debatable, but it at least serves to emphasize what an easy figure Jefferson has always been to eulogize. His biographers never resist the temptation (with the recent notable exception of Henry Wiencek’s Master of the Mountain, in which Jefferson’s long and energetic career as a slave owner is given prolonged, merciless explication); as Meacham points out, Jefferson liked to think of himself as a philosopher concerned with higher matters – an image President Kennedy exploited during an address he gave to a 1962 dinner honoring all the living Nobel Prize winners, at which he famously commented, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

All of which makes the central thesis of Meacham’s book all the more refreshing. As his subtitle indicates, he wants to give his readers the real-world Jefferson, the man who was fond of control, fought hard in the election of 1800, and grabbed at victory by any means he could (he had been Vice President under John Adams, but the office was then awarded as a sop to disappointed also-rans – he was nobody’s designated successor). We find Jefferson exercising ‘the art of power’ all through this biography, perhaps reaching a dark pinnacle in his notorious Embargo Act of 1807, designed as a vigorous enforcement of Washington’s warning against ‘entangling alliances’ by keeping the fledgling United States carefully neutral in the Napoleonic wars then engulfing Europe. Jefferson, the man who had always argued against a strong central government, in this single Act gave that government more power than it had ever had before. “It was a breathtaking bill,” Meacham writes,

a projection of governmental power that surpassed even the hated Alien and Sedition Acts … Trade with foreign nations was forbidden. Nothing could come into the country; nothing could go out. A subsequent enforcement gave Jefferson himself extraordinary power over shipping.

The country’s third president is routinely ranked as one of its greatest, but Meacham follows in the footsteps of previous great Jefferson biographers by giving us plenty of glimpses of the flesh-and-blood man beneath the legend – usually (as was also the case in the his Jackson biography) accompanied by a dollop of social observation:

Jefferson knew who he was, and he knew his place in the world, so he had nothing to prove by constantly appearing perfectly turned out. Quite the opposite: Often only the well born or socially serene can forgo badges of status – the neglect or absence of which is in itself an unmistakable badge of status. Jefferson wore different combinations of old frock coats, velveteen breeches, yarn stockings, and ancient slippers.

While Jefferson was staying in Paris in 1784 as a Minister to France, he was often entertained at dinner by John Adams (busily negotiating loans to the newborn American republic) and his family – including Adams’ teenage son and official ‘secretary,’ the subject of a new book by indefatigable biographer Harlow Giles Unger, a fast-paced if slightly pedestrian new study, John Quincy Adams. John Quincy had become something of a celebrity in the City of Light, and Jefferson took great pleasure in showing him the museums, architecture, and most fashionable salons – to the point where John Adams sardonically quipped that John Quincy “appeared to me to be almost as much your boy as mine.”

That boy had been schooled at his father’s elbow in the workings of the U.S. Government – and in the allure of the presidency, even through his father’s griping about it. When John Quincy was years older, a husband and a family man, John Adams tried to dissuade him from attempting the presidency, but the allure had got there first, and in 1825 this second Adams became the country’s sixth President. Like his father, he served only one term (and true to his father’s warnings, he came almost instantly to dislike the wheeling-and-dealing of the office), full of good, necessary, and far-sighted work. Unger is brisk and scrupulous about those busy four years, but his narrative really comes alive only in their remarkable aftermath, when John Quincy lost the presidency to Andrew Jackson – and promptly entered Congress as a Massachusetts Representative. It was in his 16-year second career that John Quincy – eventually dubbed “Old Man Eloquent” – rose to iconic status as, among other things, an increasingly outspoken opponent of slavery.

“John Quincy,” Unger puts it, “went beyond the walls of Congress to the American people and became a national presence, a force for justice and progress that he had never been before – even as President of the United States.” It was in doggedly fighting such measures as the 1836 “Gag Rule” (so dubbed by himself) – which forbade even the mention of slavery on the House floor – that his high-pitched, nasal New England twang sounded, often alone:

“I hold the resolution –” John Quincy shouted over the roar, “I hold the resolution to be in direct violation of the Constitution of the United States, of the rules of this House, and of the rights of my Constituents”

It was this defiance that prompted a tribute from, again, John F. Kennedy: in this case inclusion in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Profiles in Courage. It was in these debates – vividly dramatized by Unger – that John Quincy, the most unlikely of heroes, found the spiky grandeur that had always eluded his father. Despite employing none of the rhetorical flourishes that so enliven Meacham’s book, Unger manages, by the end of his tale (which comes at John Quincy’s death on 23 Februrary 1848, two days after having collapsed in the House with fellow members shouting “Mr. Adams is dying! Mr. Adams is dying!”) to convey all the fascination of this pivotal figure who “served under Washington and with Lincoln … lived with Ben Franklin, lunched with Lafayette, Jefferson, and Wellington … walked with Russia’s czar and talked with Britain’s king … dined with Dickens, taught at Harvard, and was American minister to six European countries.”

John Quincy Adams looked with hard frankness on the possibility that the country would have to fight a civil war in order to settle the question of slavery once and for all, and who knows but that he might have talked over such matters during his last year in Congress with a tall, lanky clean-shaven Representative elected in 1847 named Abraham Lincoln. Twenty years later, when Lincoln himself was President, he would fight and win that Civil War largely through the bloody efficiency of one of his generals, Ulysses S. Grant – who later went on to become President entirely on the basis of that military efficiency. This season Grant is the subject of a big, contentious, entirely winning biography by H. W. Brands (whose Theodore Roosevelt biography, T.R., was equally enjoyable) called The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace. Brands’ book possesses none of the literary polish and sharp insight of Jean Edward Smith’s landmark 2001 biography of Grant, but it compensates with a jogging amiability, and it hammers on one of the same points as Smith’s book did: that President Millard Fillmore’s estimate of Grant as “a greater general than statesman” was malignly inaccurate – that the evil repute of Grant’s two terms in office is largely the handiwork of disgruntled Southern factions bent on a wholesale revision of history:

In the years since [Grant] had left office, influential groups on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line had consciously sought reconciliation, which had been Grant’s goal too. But where Grant’s approach to reconciliation was premised on the egalitarian ideals of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, these new reconciliations – white Southern Democrats and Northern capitalist-minded Republicans – preferred the path of amnesia. The Souther Democrats forgot that secession was about slavery, they recast the Civil War as a difference over states’ rights, and they recalled Reconstruction as a carnival of corruption from which they had at length redeemed the South.

Sitting squarely in the path of such ‘reconciliation,’ Brands convincingly argues, was Grant’s surprisingly enlightened, energetic administration, with its outreach both to backstabbed American Indians and to the entire new generation of Black freedmen throughout the South and West. These ‘white Southern Democrats’ and ‘Northern capitalist-minded Republicans’ (Brands refers to almost nobody as simply ‘racist’) responded with a systematic vilification that our author maintains still holds sway today:

They emphasized the scandals [of Grant's administration], neglecting Grant’s role in defeating the Black Friday gold corner and in bringing the whiskey culprits to justice, and conflating the transgressions that occurred under his authority with such extraneous bilkings as Credit Mobilier and the Tweed Ring. They reiterated the tales of Grant’s drinking without demonstrating a single instance where alcohol impaired his performance of duty. They threw his efforts to enforce the Constitution, especially as it pertained to civil rights in the South, back in his face as evidence of a militaristic mindset.

Although Brands rehearses much the same old estimation of Grant’s military abilities (as usual, they are ranked somewhere just above those of the Archangel Michael) it’s his ongoing estimation of Grant the man that makes his book memorable. In the end, he shares the opinion of the tough-to-impress visitor to one of Grant’s camps during the war:

“Not a great man, except morally; not an original or a brilliant man, but sincere, thoughtful, deep, and gifted with courage that never faltered; when the time came to risk all, he went in like a simple-hearted, unaffected, unpretending hero, whom no ill omens could deject and no triumph unduly exalt.”

If Brands’ (and Smith’s) theory is correct about the historical slander done to the memory of Grant’s time in office, the General at least had the comparative relief of having his reputation blackened by his enemies. In the sad story related in Jonathan Lurie’s William Howard Taft: The Travails of a Progressive Conservative, the reputation-slurring begins almost before Taft took office in 1909 – and was instigated by his best friend, former president Theodore Roosevelt.

Roosevelt had offhandedly – almost accidentally – promised years earlier that he would not seek another term once his time in the White House was up. He’d succeeded to the office upon the death of President McKinley, but he at first persisted in viewing the balance of McKinley’s term as his own first term, and he balked at breaking George Washington’s precedent by taking a third term himself. It was casuistry, although fairly self-denying casuistry, and in 1908 it left Roosevelt with precious few alternatives other than the one he chose: to hand-pick his successor. That honor fell to his friend and Secretary of War Taft. “Taft will carry on the work,” he claimed. “His policies, principles, purposes and ideals are the same as mine … I have the profound satisfaction of knowing that he will do all in his power to further every one of the great causes for which I have fought, and that he will persevere in every one of the great governmental policies in which I most firmly believe.”

Such confidence, as Lurie dryly remarks in this fiercely intelligent and formidably researched book, could scarcely help but be misplaced: “TR’s rhetoric concerning the identical symmetry of Taft’s views with his own was not as accurate as he hoped and predicted.”

Almost inevitably, the two men fell out – that Taft took a more methodical, less media-friendly approach to the ‘progressive conservatism’ he and TR at heart shared was only a small part of the problem. The far larger factor was that Roosevelt still very much wanted to be President. In the run-up to the 1912 election season, this craving for power overcame him, and he split with the Republican Party in a doomed attempt to wrest the nomination from his old friend, with whom he now spatted daily in the nation’s newspapers. The division certainly facilitated the victory of Woodrow Wilson, and some of those national newspapers weren’t quick to forgive Roosevelt, as Lurie writes:

Shortly after the election, The New York Sun noted that “the name of President Taft will stand in the list of those Presidents … who served this country far better and more wisely than the people could see …” As for Roosevelt, “the cruel and utterly undeserved punishment of a friend – the brutal wrecking of the party to which he owed all his honors in the past – do these really seem small and negligible besides the passing gratification of ruthless and selfish ambition?”

And our author isn’t above a certain gentle rabble-rousing himself, at one point getting in a jab at contemporary politics that’s so subtly and circuitously worded that Taft himself would have approved:

A final reason for the lack of interest in Taft’s progressive conservatism should be noted. The conservatives of today have co-opted progressive forms such as the initiative and referendum, but for their own purposes. Indeed, they have turned progressivism upon itself. Thus, contemporary conservative activists have gone far beyond Taft in their activism against what has become known as the progressive state.

Lurie’s fine book is a welcome addition to the scandalously skimpy shelf of serious work on President (and then Supreme Court Justice) Taft, whose story stands as the ultimate cautionary tale of hand-picked successors. Likewise – although perhaps to a lesser degree – Aida Donald’s new biography of Harry Truman, Citizen Soldier, serves as a brief trot on the dangers of accidental successors. Even when seriously ailing, President Franklin Roosevelt had kept his WWI-vet Missouri-born dimwitted Vice President out of his deepest confidences, with the result that Truman learned some of the most important parts of his job only on the fly, after Roosevelt’s death in April, 1945. He oversaw the chaotic conclusion to the Second World War and the massive job of restructuring that followed in its wake. After dutifully if a bit lifelessly taking her readers through the basic facts of Truman’s life, Donald gives the standard summary of his achievements as President:

He put Europe together and protected it, fed the hungry, and encouraged industry and agriculture. Europe was remade. In Asia he was less successful, as he too hastily went to war over Korea and could not end it before leaving office. It was the great tragedy of his presidency.

Citizen Soldier is one-tenth the size of David McCullough’s great work Truman, obviously intended for readers with one-tenth the reading time (or reading ability? It’s possible), but at least it shares with that longer work its final, appalling assertion about Korea being the ‘great tragedy’ of Truman’s presidency. Of course the ‘great tragedy’ of Truman’s presidency wasn’t his miscalculation in Korea but rather his decision to sentence hundreds of thousands of old people, women, and children to death and disfigurement by the atomic bombing of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That Donald could segue so bloodlessly from such an atrocity to mere politics is a sign of how far Harry Truman’s historical rehabilitation has progressed (thanks in no small part to McCullough’s magnum opus), and there she is, at the close of her book, blandly granting a second-tier ranking on Olympus to the man:

That at the end, he did not understand the changing nature of the Democratic Party, now driven by an educated middle class that would not tolerate old, fraudulent, ways of winning elections, was disappointing. When all these elements in Truman’s career are weighed, he comes out not as a Mount Rushmore great president but rather a triumphant near-great president. And in the pantheon of presidents since Washington, this is a tribute few others have achieved.

It could be argued that all five of the presidents examined in these recent biographies – each one of whom came to the office by one of those archetypal five ways – qualify as ‘triumphant near-great.’ Jefferson fought for his votes (and got on Mount Rushmore) but fought also for the ruthless maintenance of his hundreds of slaves; John Quincy Adams fought the good fight, but he fought it with the sharp tongue and brilliant intellect that made him as unlovable as his presidential father; Ulysses S. Grant could win victories through remorseless determination on the battlefield, but he was easily out-maneuvered on the smaller battlefields of politics; William Howard Taft brought a crusader’s worth of anti-trust lawsuits against the rapacious Wall Street of his day – more of them than had been brought by the man who hand-picked him for the presidency – but he had no crusader’s heart and longed for a different job; and Harry Truman would have managed to look diminutive even if he hadn’t accidentally succeeded one of the towering presidents of the 20th Century.

In November Americans go to the polls to select a President, and they confront an incumbent who got the job by getting the votes – and a challenger who offers himself on the strength of his non-political achievements. As always, old patterns will jostle with new possibilities at the polls, and the sixth way to the White House – outright theft by fraud – can never be entirely ruled out. It, too, has recent precedent in the power season.

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Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.