A President’s Day Guide through obscure presidents, and Lincoln


Most people know the major events conducted by the major presidents that shaped our nation. Most people memorized facts and tidbits of information for the American History tests and quizzes. There are lesser-known presidents that affected this nation in their own way, and had they been defeated in their election, this nation would be very different. There have been times, in our nation’s history when we needed a strong man with a bold hand, such as the one Abraham Lincoln displayed during the Civil War. There have been times when our nation laid in the balance, and we needed a Lincoln to come along and do what he could to preserve what George Washington, John Adams, and all the Founders envisioned. There have been other times, times far less documented in historical records, when our nation needed a humble leader that displayed restraint in times of national scandal and turmoil.

Were it not for the statesmanship restraint displayed by a Calvin Coolidge, for example, we would be a less free nation.Quiet, obscure presidents, like Coolidge, quietly vetoed legislation and exhibited restraint throughout his tenure. Restraint, vetoing legislation, and acting in a manner to preserve individual freedoms is less sexy than passing sweeping legislation and pressing the thumb of government on the throat of individuals and businesses for the purpose of helping people.

Our nation’s history is composed of the strong, Lincoln types and the quiet, Coolidge types that have shaped our country in unique ways, and on this President’s Day I thought we should all be reminded how we came to be the nation we are today, through the more obscure presidents (and Lincoln) that helped guide us to modernity.

Grover Cleveland

Grover Cleveland

1) Stephen Grover Cleveland (March 18, 1837 – June 24, 1908)

The 22nd and 24th President

Cleveland was a Democrat that served the people from 1885–1889 and 1893–1897 in non-consecutive terms.  Cleveland was the only president to do so.

Stephen Grover Cleveland won the popular vote for president on three different occasions, but he lost, in the second election, to Benjamin Harrison in the Electoral College tallies.  He was the only Democrat to defeat a Republican for office during the period of Republican domination that dated back to Abraham Lincoln’s first electoral victory. He was the second president to marry while in office, and the only president (as depicted above) to marry at the white house.  During his tenure, he and the Republican Congress, admitted North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, and later Utah to the union. His last words were “I have tried so hard to do right.”{1}

Ronald Reagan may have been the president that “tried to give the government back to the people” but Grover Cleveland was one of two presidents of the 19th and 20th centuries –Calvin Coolidge being the other– to accomplish the feat.  By the time their tenure ended, the size and scope of government was more limited than when they began their terms.

Others spoke of limiting the size of government, the others failed.  His first goal was to end the spoils of the political system. He did not fire any of the previous administration’s Republicans that were doing their job well. He cut down the number of federal employees, and he attempted to slow the growth of what he perceived to be a bloated government. He attempted to always place appointments in positions based on merit, as opposed to the usual spoils system that dictated position holders in previous administrations. He also used his veto power far more than any other president of his day.  Although Cleveland was a Democrat, he was one the few that sided with business. Cleveland opposed high tariffs, free silver, inflation, imperialism, and subsidies to business, farmers or veterans.  His battles for political reform and fiscal conservatism made him an icon for American conservatives of the era. Cleveland’s reform ideas and ideals were so strong and influential that a reform wing of the Republican Party, called the “Mugwumps”, bolted from the GOP ticket and swung to his support in 1884.

The great Abraham Lincoln

The great Abraham Lincoln

2) Abraham Lincoln

The 16th President.

Lincoln was a Republican that served the people from March 4, 1861 – April 15, 1865.

Abraham Lincoln, it could be said, is our most famous president. If one were to chart fame by the number of books written about an historical figure, Lincoln has had more books written about him than any other president. By some accounts, he has had more written about him than any historical figure alive or dead save for Jesus of Nazareth.

His fame is derived from serving as president during The Civil War, and the fight to abolish slavery. Lincoln’s fierce abolitionist views were so well known that some have suggested that the reason the South seceded was based on his election victory.  Others suggest that tensions were so fierce due to Lincoln’s presidential predecessor James Buchanan’s mismanagement, and in the Nebraska and Kansas territories, that the succession and the eventual war were inevitable. Lincoln was also made famous by his assassination at the hands of an actor named John Wilkes Booth.

Quick Quip: Democrat rival in the 1960 election for the President Stephen A. Douglas once called Abraham Lincoln two-faced. “If I had two faces,” Lincoln replied, “do you honestly think I would wear this one?”{2}

William Henry Harrison

William Henry Harrison

3) William Henry Harrison

9th President

Harrison was a member of the short lived Whig party, and he served the people as president from March 4, 1841 to April 4, 1841

William Henry Harrison is most famous for dying after serving one month in office as president.  He took the oath on a cold and rainy day, and he refused to wear a coat or a hat.  He also rode into the inaugural on horseback rather than in the closed carriage that had been offered to him. He then proceeded, after the oath, to deliver the longest inaugural in American history. It took him almost two hours to complete it. He then rode away from the inaugural on horseback. Some believe that this reckless regard for his health brought on the illness that his sixty-eight year old body could not recover from, but historians make note that the illness did not set in until three weeks after the inaugural.  Regardless how he contracted the cold, it progressed into pneumonia and pleurisy.  His last words presumed to be to his successor John Tyler were: “Sir, I wish you to understand the true principles of the government.  I wish them carried out.  I ask nothing more.” {3}

Quick Quip: There was some debate over whether W.H. Harrison’s 8,460 word inaugural address (the longest in history) led to his demise.  Harrison refused to dress appropriate for the forecast cold rain, or follow any of advice of those concerned with his well-being. As a result of his demise, Harrison’s grandson Benjamin Harrison, made sure his own inaugural was a little over half what his grandfather’s was.

Martin Van Buren

Martin Van Buren

4) Martin Van Buren

8th President

Van Buren was a Democrat that served the people from March 4, 1837 to March 4, 1841.

Van Buren is regarded, in some quarters, as the father of the Democrat Party, even though Andrew Jackson was the first Democrat to be elected president. He was the first individual born as a U.S. citizen to be elected president. He was the first non-British, non-Irish man to serve as president. He was Dutch. He was also the first self-made man to become President: all earlier Presidents had acquired wealth through inheritance or marriage, while van Buren was born into poverty and became wealthy through his law practice. Van Buren’s presidency was marked by a depression, named the panic of 1837, that lasted throughout his presidency.  As a result of this, Van Buren issued a statement that is also famous regarding his tenure as president: “As to the presidency, the two happiest days of my life were those of my entrance upon the office and my surrender of it.”{4}

James A. Garfield

James A. Garfield

5) James A. Garfield

20th President

Garfield was a Republican that served the people from March 4, 1881 to September 19, 1881.

Garfield was another president known, in history, more for his death, than his life, or tenure as president. Garfield was taken down by an communist assassin by the name of Charles J. Guiteau. Though Garfield only had four months of health while serving the people as president, he did manage to give resurgence to the president’s authority over Senatorial courtesy in making executive appointments. He also energized naval power, he purged the corruption in the Post Office, and he appointed several African-Americans to prominent positions. During the eighty days in which Garfield suffered through the cruelty of the assassin’s bullet, he signed one, single extradition paper. Some historians have suggested that Garfield may have been one of our most talented and eloquent presidents had he lived long enough to expose this to the nation, but he was able to serve the nation in Congress having served nine consecutive terms, and he was able to do what he could in the short time that he served as president.  Candice Millard’s brilliant book Destiny of The Republic captures the essence of Garfield with the quote: “Born into abject poverty, he rose to become a wunderkind scholar, a Civil War hero, a renowned congressman, and a reluctant presidential candidate who took on the nation’s corrupt political establishment.”

Knowing his death was imminent, James A. Garfield’s final words were: “My work is done.” {5}

Benjamin Harrison

Benjamin Harrison

6) Benjamin Harrison

23rd President

Harrison was a Republican that served the people from March 4, 1889 to March 4, 1893.

Harrison is most notable for being the grandson of William Henry Harrison, and the man that defeated the mighty Grover Cleveland in the Electoral College vote in 1888.  Harrison’s tenure was also famous for passing the McKinley Tariff and the Sherman Antitrust Act. He was also famous for allowing federal spending to reach one billion dollars. Harrison also advocated for federal funding for education, he was unsuccessful in that regard. He also pushed for legislation that would protect the voting rights of African Americans.  The latter would be the last attempts made at civil rights in the country until the 1930’s. Learning from the after effects of a long inaugural, courtesy of his Grandfather’s record long speech that some believe led to his death, Benjamin Harrison kept his inaugural address brief. Though historians tend to disregard Harrison as a prominent president, they regard his foreign policies as laying the groundwork for much that would be accomplished in the 20th century. {6}

Calvin Coolidge

Calvin Coolidge

7) Calvin Coolidge

30th President

Calvin Coolidge was a Republican that served the people from August 2, 1923 to March 4, 1929.

Coolidge would not stand a chance in today’s 24-7 news network, internet definition of politics. In the current climate of celebrity presidential candidates climbing all over one another for more air time, a better sound bite, and a better image, “Silent Cal” Calvin Coolidge would have been run over.  In this age of bigger and better governments, where politicians on both sides of the aisle try to flex their legislative muscle in bill signings that are celebrated media events, Calvin Coolidge signed legislation into law in the privacy of the office.  In a quote that could be attributed to the current, progression of big government, Calvin Coolidge said: “The requirements of existence have passed beyond the standard of necessity into the region of luxury.” Calvin Coolidge would be a laughing stock in our day and age, a man on the outside looking in, a statesman that would’ve faded into the woodwork of our society.

Social critic and satirist Dorothy Parker once said: “Mr. Coolidge, I’ve made a bet against a fellow who said it was impossible to get more than two words out of you.”

Coolidge’s famous reply: “You lose.”

After hearing that Coolidge passed away, four years after leaving office, Parker remarked: “How can they tell?”

Although Coolidge was known to be a skilled and effective public speaker, in private he was a man of few words and was referred to as “Silent Cal” in most quarters. On this reputation, Coolidge said:

“The words of a President have an enormous weight, and ought not to be used indiscriminately.” 

Although known as a quiet man, Coolidge participated in over five hundred press conferences during his 2000 days as president, that is an average of one press conference every four days. Coolidge took over the office of president after his predecessor’s death, amid his predecessor’s controversy, that was called the Teapot Dome Scandal. The Teapot Dome Scandal was regarded as the “greatest and most sensational scandal in the history of American politics” until the media discovered the Watergate scandal. In the wake of this scandal, Coolidge told a reporter:

“I think the American people want a solemn ass as a President, and I think I will go along with them.”

Coolidge may have been the last statesman the American people had to serve as president. He was against the Klu Klux Klan, for instance, but he didn’t make grandstanding statements against the Klan, he just didn’t appoint Klan members to positions in his administration. This may seem to be such an obvious move that it’s not worth discussion, but the KKK had a lot of influence at this time in America, and Coolidge’s move caused them to lose much of it. Coolidge tried to take this one step further, calling for anti-lynching laws, but the attempts to pass this legislation were stopped by Democrat filibusters. He attempted to make war illegal in the Kellogg-Briand act, but that law proved ineffective. Coolidge was a laissez-faire president that didn’t believe that the federal government should have a role in farm subsidies or flood relief. As much as he wanted to help these people, he wanted to avoid setting the precedent of the federal government resolving problems that he believed could better be solved, on a case-by-case basis, locally. By the end of his administration, he achieved a tax bill that had all but the top 2% paying no federal income taxes. Coolidge disdained federal regulation and appointed commissioners that followed his philosophy that believed in state’s rights, and this caused a divide in historical opinion of his administration.

Some believe that this laissez-faire approach led to “The Roaring Twenties”, others argue that it led to “The Great Depression.” As with all matters such as these, the opinions are based on where the historian lies on the ideological divide. Some historians say that “The Roaring Twenties” was built on a bubble similar to the 1990’s tech bubble in that it wasn’t built on hard assets, and when that bubble did burst, as it did in the 90’s, a recession occurred as a result. That recession, say other historians, was prolonged into a depression that lasted to the forties by the recovery measures put in place by future administrations. The latter argument has it that the economy may have experienced a dip as a result of the bubble bursting, but the extended duration of this natural, down cycle was caused by the measures put in place by future administrations to recover from what may have otherwise been a temporary dip. Arguments such as these are impossible to resolve, however, because one cannot remove some facts to prove others.

Historians from both sides of the aisle have also defined his last words in varying ways. Those that oppose Coolidge’s actions, state that his last words were a lamentable admission that his limited government policies didn’t work. Those that favor his policies state that he was lamenting the course America was on, into a country of big government policies. They state that Coolidge’s administration was, itself, a temporary blip in a progression that Theodore Roosevelt started, and they suggest that based on everything Coolidge saw during his tenure, he foresaw this.

His last words were: “I feel I no longer fit in with these times.”{7}

{1}http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grover_Cleveland

{2}http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham_Lincoln

{3}http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Henry_Harrison

{4}http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Van_Buren

{5}http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_A._Garfield

{6}http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benjamin_Harrison

{7}http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calvin_Coolidge#cite_note-128

Advertisements

The Production of the Making of a Movie called Lincoln


The latest big budget movie involves big-name actors and directors.  For those that care about those people, there is a list below. {1} Some of you may care that the movie Lincoln is loosely based on Doris Kerns Goodwin’s book A Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Lincoln, but most of you probably don’t.  Most of you probably also don’t care that this story concerns the final four months of our sixteenth president’s life either, unless the telling of those months is directed by that guy, written by this guy, and acted out by another guy.

As if to prove the irrelevance of story in movies today, the LA Times spends the first two paragraphs of their review telling us that the production involved a “successful” director, a “celebrated” playwright, and a “brilliant” actor.  They also tell us that it is a “Towering Achievement,” {2} but that is required of any reviewer reviewing a Spielberg film.

The Times review then goes into the story a little, but they comingle that description with continued homages to the players involved, and how artfully they carry this production off.  They offer compliments to the cinematographer, the setting, the score, the production design, the costume designer, and everything they can think of but the story.  They marvel at the care taken to provide you, the viewer, with a “completely accurate portrayal of Lincoln’s office.”  They then conclude their review with a brief commentary by the writer regarding why he wrote the script for this piece, and how the writer believes his script should be applied in today’s Washington.

We all understand that movies are an expensive undertaking.  We understand that movie studios incur an enormous risk with every production they purchase, but we’ve all become so inundated with the ancillary information regarding movies that we’ve forgotten the elemental aspects of the story involved in these productions.  How many of us find it impossible to concentrate on animated productions, until we figure out exactly who is doing the voice-overs for the characters involved?  How many of us focus on the acting abilities of the actors involved in historical pieces to a point where we are no longer paying attention to the actual tale being told?  When the actor displays emotion, we marvel over his actor’s abilities to portray emotion when we probably should be considering the ramifications of the emotional display by Lincoln in that historical moment.

To those that don’t understand all the risks that were taken on the “tall order” before the director, the movie studio, and the members of the cast, there are Entertainment Tonight interviews, synopses in news and entertainment magazines, late-night talk show interviews, news features in prominent newspapers, blogs, expanded DVD commentaries, and entire DVDs devoted to the “making of” the movie…devoted to everything but the seemingly unnecessary portion of the story being told.

On the IMBD website, you can learn that the director only addressed the actors by their character names. {3} That’s a little quaint, and it’s done all the time now, but it also shows the dedication all of the players had to the production.   You can learn who was originally slated to play Lincoln (Liam Neeson), the box office receipts, and you can learn anything and everything to do with the production that is Lincoln…except the story.

“How was the movie?”

“Oh, Spielberg captured it in true Spielberg fashion, and that Daniel Day-Lewis is quite simply one of the best actors alive, and no one can capture the essence of a scene like the incomparable John Williams.”

“How was the movie, I said.  Do you feel like you learned a little more about Lincoln than you knew before you entered the theater?”

“Huh?  Oh, yeah.”

I understand that we appreciate the talents of various directors, stars, and cinematographers, and there are some that do their job better than others, and we’re attracted (monetarily) to those that have the ability to capture a mood, a story, and a period better than others.  I also appreciate the fact that movie studios invest such capital in these productions that it necessitates the fact that they have to recruit big names to attract viewers that might not otherwise attend yet another feature about the most talked about president in our history.  The idea that an excellent actor is a vehicle for bringing written material to life is not beyond me either, but we all focus so much on the ancillary details of movie making that the actual story has become a secondary and even a tertiary thought.

Why do major movie studios even involve story in their productions these days?  Isn’t the very idea of story a little antiquated?  Isn’t it a little risky for them to involve stories in big budget productions, because not everyone is going to be entertained by every story, and some may even be offended by some of them.  Stories, after all, were all that cavemen had, and it’s pretty much all Abraham Lincoln had, but we have big, huge production studios now.  We have computer generated graphics now, we can blow things up now, and we have special effects departments devoted almost exclusively to the short-attention span audiences that have trouble concentrating long enough to follow a story.  We should, of course, spend a lot of money on these productions, because people are enticed to view a movie when they know how much money was spent on it.  We would have to nab a top-tier director, because some people will see anything if it was directed by some guy.  We would also have to get all of today’s most beautiful actors, because people will pay a lot of money to watch them walking and talking on celluloid screens.  We would have to focus on providing viewers an excellent setting, compelling cinematography, and an incomparable soundtrack, but do we really have to tell stories anymore?  Why don’t we just start making all movies about making movies, and Hollywood, and celebrities, and the art of cinematography, and the tall order of making movies that are somehow controversial in some manner that offends all the right, uptight people.  It’s just too taxing to try and come up with original stories nowadays, and most people have moved beyond all that, and there are really only seven stories anyway, so if these major movie studios were really paying attention to us they would know that they could go ahead and slash their “original story” searching budgets and just tell us all the particulars about making movies.  That appears to be all we really want anyway.

{1} http://thelincolnmovie.com/

{2}http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/moviesnow/la-et-mn-lincoln-review-20121109,0,7581480.story

{3}http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0443272/

Simple Quotes from the famous


These are a few of my favorite quotes, and when I repeat them I don’t feel…so sad.

“I feel sorry for people who do not drink,” Frank Sinatra once said. “When they wake up in the morning it is as good as they are going to feel all day.” It’s a great quote, because I did feel great drinking to excess, and I’ve felt bad, and I’ve felt nothing. It feels great feeling nothing for a while, until you realize life is passing you by.

“You can only pour so much milk into a glass before some of it starts to leak out over the top,” was a line of dialogue written for the character Bud Bundy for the show Married with Children. This quote was dropped in reference to the idea that the Kelly Bundy character was learning new things. She was trying to impress her dad, and her brother, with her new found intellectual abilities, until she heard a doorbell, and she couldn’t figure out what it was. The quote from Bud Bundy was his explanation for what he thought was happening to Kelly’s brain.

There are times when I think aging has affected my memory. It very well could be that age has lessened my intellectual capacity, but I’m more inclined to think it has more to do with this bit of dialogue written for the Bud Bundy character. We’re so inundated with information in this information age, that we forget certain, core fundamentals. A friend of mine informed me that we only have room for three million memories in our brain, and when we start to attain more of them in the natural course of our lives, others start to fall out.

Winston Churchill: “Youth is wasted on the young.” I can’t tell you how much of my youth I wasted. I was naturally athletic, and I had an inquisitive mind. I don’t think I adequately pursued either. I thought I’d live forever, so I didn’t want to do anything today. I thought I would eventually figure something out when I became an adult. I preferred to play Nintendo and Sega. I don’t regret much of what I did, but I now wish I had that youthful enthusiasm and youthful energy back, so I could combine it with my current mind.

Marcel Proust: “We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.” I think this follows the Churchill quote well, for it is only through the path we have taken in life that we can become wise, but we also lose our youth on these paths. That youthful enthusiasm and idealistic, fantastical mind is lost as we become wiser.

I’m all about teaching my nephews.  I sit and daydream about scenarios that I can lay out for them.  I tell them the things I did. My lessons are funny and sad depending on the situation. At the end of the day, I’m quite sure that all of my lessons will go in one ear and out the other in the manner all the lessons I was taught did. We cannot, as Proust says, prepare those setting out on their journey any more than those that preceded us could. We can try, and most of us will, if we don’t want our experiences to wither within, but they have to take this journey themselves if they are ever going to learn anything. Once that valuable lesson is learned independent of advice, they can combine it with the advice we’ve passed on, and actually learn something in life.

Norman Mailer: “Experience, when it cannot be communicated to another, must wither within and be worse than lost.”  I have used this quote a lot. I have often replaced the word “experience” with stories. We all have stories to tell. If we allow these stories to die off they are worse than lost. My uncles proudly proclaimed that my grandpa wasn’t much of a talker. “He was a humble man who didn’t talk about himself much,” they would say with a wistful smile. This was seen as a valiant attribute of the WWII generation. There is an element of narcissism to talking about oneself of course, and we can all take a nugget about overdoing it, but there are also lessons a young person can learn from our stories. There is a level of familiarity a young one can attain from an elder who talks about their life. There is also that cliche about passing on a legacy that can be totally lost when we “don’t talk about ourselves much”.

I appreciated the idea that my grandpa wanted to allow me to carve my own path in life, and I don’t know if he actually said these words, or if I imagined it, but I seem to remember a “You don’t want to hear advice from an old man do you?” I probably didn’t, but the point is that you’re supposed to force me to listen to you. You’re supposed say, “You’re my grandson, and you’ll listen to this whether you like it or not. It’s for your own good.” In the aftermath of that, I will feel an unusual warmth that allows me to feel like your grandson and your legacy. So, go ahead and be the strong, silent type with your women and your friends, but when you’re standing beneath a basket sending balls back to a shooter that happens to be your kid, or your grand kid, open and tell them a few tales from your life. Even if they pretend they’re not listening, or they cut you off to talk about their kid stories, it might provide long-term benefits for the both of you. The alternative is a strong, silent, and relatively distant family thinking all the entertaining vignettes and life lessons you could’ve taught us while they lower you into the ground.

When John Madden decided that he would retire (the first time) he told a story about his boy asking if John would buy him a car. “That’s ridiculous,” Madden said to his wife. “Shouldn’t we at least wait until he’s sixteen before we even start in on this conversation?” His wife informed him that his son turned sixteen two years ago. John Madden subsequently retired from his duties as a football analyst.

That retirement lasted for about one year. A reporter asked Madden about ending his one-year retirement to ‘Spend time with the family’. “Anyone that tells you that they’re retiring to spend more time with the family is lying. No one wants to spend more time with their family, and your family doesn’t want to spend more time with you,” he said.

Friedrich Nietzsche: “It is not enough to prove something. One also has to seduce or elevate people to it. That is why a man of knowledge should learn how to speak his wisdoms and often in such a way that sounds like folly.” Does this not describe politics and the entire entertainment industry in a nutshell? Most civilized societies have deemed murder in the first degree the most awful crime a person can commit, and they impose penalties that attempt to define the crime and hopefully prevent people from being seduced by its power. It is tantalizing and tempting to violate taboos. With that in mind, how does a politician convince their voter base that they’re not responsible for a high murder rate in their locale. How does a movie producer convince a movie going public that their movie about murder is enjoyable? They develop a narrative, and a plot line that involve seemingly harmless actions, say a cartoon, and they drop in little lines here and there, over and over, until it becomes an accepted norm.

Bertrand Russell: “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.” Every person believes they are a member of “the wiser” faction, and that the other people are all fools and fanatics.

Abraham Lincoln: “Most of us are just about as happy as we make up our minds to be.” Some of us are absolutely miserable in the present, and we can’t wait for something to happen, so that we can finally be happy. Some of us will kind of sort of somewhat admit that we are happy, but we know that the other shoe is sure to drop on our happiness and expose it as the myth it was. We know too much to be happy, we’ve lived too long to know that happiness just doesn’t happen to us, until that certain something happens somewhere and we wish we could go back to the time and place when we were happy.

Ernest Hemingway: “I like to sleep. My life has a tendency to fall apart when I’m awake.” This might help explain all the alcohol, and the suicide.