The Presidential Knife Fight Hypothetical

It’s the end of 2017, folks.  Time to stop worrying about the minor stuff, and to start thinking about big-picture issues — like whether Donald Trump or, say, Chester A. Arthur is more likely to prevail in a knife-fight to the death among American Presidents.

james_buchananBelieve it or not, people have given serious thought to this concept — so serious that they’ve even figured out what kind of motorized wheelcraft FDR would use in such a fight, and what kind of knives the Presidents would employ.  This is important stuff, far beyond the Hall of Presidents at Disney World and much more important than developing phony resolutions that you’ll forget within moments after the new year arrives.  Which Presidents are likely to survive until the bitter, bloody end — and, equally important, which Presidents are likely to be the first to give up the ghost?

The prevailing view seems to be that Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt are likely to be the last Presidents standing.  Jackson, because he was a bloodthirsty killer, Lincoln, because his height, rail-splitting strength, wrestling skills, and saintly notoriety make him somebody who would survive the initial killing frenzy, and Roosevelt, because his Bull Moose fitness and hunting prowess would give him a leg up over perceived presidential wimps like, say, Woodrow Wilson.  I’m not sure that the analysis gives sufficient credit to the more recent Presidents — like Harry Truman, who would be happy to stay in the kitchen heat, slashing away at his predecessors, or President Obama, who probably would enter the fray wearing a bicycle helmet and would use his basketball moves to avoid that fatal thrust.

chester_arthurThat’s all well and good, but to me the more crucial question is which President would be the first to meet his maker.  I’d bet on James Buchanan, pictured above with his really horrible case of bed head.  Seriously, who cut this guy’s hair.  Putting aside the fact that he was a horrible President, who did nothing to prevent the Civil War — just look at the guy’s face.! Who wouldn’t want to stab this loser and probably punch him square in the mug, besides?  Add in the fact that he was the only bachelor President, who couldn’t even deal with having a spouse, and you can’t help but see Buchanan cowering in a corner once the bloodsport begins, ready to be stabbed repeatedly by other Chief Executives.  I’m convinced Buchanan would the first to go, before even out of shape guys like Tubby Taft or wheelchair-bound Presidents like Roosevelt.

As for Trump?  I think he’d cut a deal with somebody like Matthew Van Buren and make it past the first wave, then get cut down mid-tweet.  I’m convinced Trump would outlive the sideburned Chester A. Arthur, somehow.

On The Cusp Of A Second Term

Today, as America celebrates Martin Luther King’s birthday, President Barack Obama will be publicly sworn in for his second term.  The President officially took the oath of office yesterday, in a small ceremony in the White House Blue Room presided over by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.

Historically, second terms have not been kind to American presidents.  President George W. Bush limped home, dogged by poor poll numbers, Hurricane Katrina, the ongoing effect of two wars, and an economy that was plunging into recession.  His experience was an extreme example of the problems that typically beset Presidents during their second term — falling popularity, scandals, recessions and other economic problems, and an almost immediate lame duck status.  The lame duck problem has become even worse recently, with the focus on the next presidential election beginning earlier and earlier each cycle and the haggard President who seems to have been in office forever being compared, unfavorably, to the fresh new faces vying to replace him.  By the end of their second terms, most Presidents seem almost irrelevant.

It’s not difficult to see storm clouds on the horizon for President Obama, either.  The American economy continues to struggle and unemployment remains high.  If America slips back into an official recession, the President will take the blame.  There is no consensus on how to deal with the nation’s unsustainable budget deficits, and a tough fight looms with budget hawks on increasing the debt ceiling.  In Europe, many countries are teetering on the fiscal edge.  The world is still a dangerous place, with potential flashpoints to be found across Africa, the middle East, and Asia.  And those are just the readily apparent problems.  Recent history also teaches us that Presidents must also expect the unexpected, and frequently it is the unpredicted crisis that is the most wounding.

I disagree with President Obama on many things, but I wish him well as he begins his second term.  He is our President, and America needs successful leadership.  I pray that he finds it within himself to work with his political opponents and actually tackle our problems rather than letting them slide.  I hope that he discovers that lame duck status can be liberating, and that being freed from having to stand for reelection allows you to make the difficult, often unpopular decisions that will be necessary to resolve our budget and spending woes.

It’s Time To Get Rid Of “Presidents’ Day”

Today — February 22 — is the birthday of George Washington.  Abraham Lincoln’s birthday is February 12.  Do we have a federal holiday on the actual birth date of either of those two colossal historical figures, who generally rank as the two greatest Presidents in American history?  No, we don’t.

James Buchanan doesn't deserve a holiday!

Instead, we have a holiday called “Presidents’ Day” that is easily the lamest holiday of the year.  There apparently were two steps in its creation.  First, Congress — no doubt after heavy lobbying by the travel industry — decided to give people as many three-day weekends as possible.  So, in the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1971, Congress dictated that Washington’s Birthday would be celebrated on the third Monday in February, and not on Washington’s actual birthday.  Then, the holiday somehow got broadened to include not just Washington, or even just Washington and Lincoln, but all Presidents through “Presidents’ Day.”  It is such a phony, meaningless holiday that it isn’t even recognized by most businesses.  What does it say about a holiday if most people don’t even get the day off?

George Washington deserves a holiday, and so does Lincoln.  In reality, however, most Presidents don’t.  There have been far more crappy Presidents than good Presidents.  James Buchanan and Millard Fillmore were disastrous Presidents.  They don’t deserve a holiday, they deserve to be forgotten.  The same goes for Andrew Johnson, Herbert Hoover, and Richard Nixon, among many others.

“Presidents’ Day” is like the modern practice of giving a trophy to every kid on a sports team, no matter whether his team wins or loses or whether the kid is talented or the most uncoordinated soccer player ever to stumble onto a field.  (My God, James Buchanan even looks like the kind of hapless kid whose domineering mother insists that he get some kind of recognition regardless of his complete ineptitude.)  It’s like we are trying to not hurt the self-esteem of the crummy Presidents, so we give them an embarrassing holiday that most of the country ignores.  It’s time to get rid of Presidents’ Day.  Let’s go back to recognizing a President who did make a difference, and actually celebrate his birthday on his real birth date.

Reassessing Silent Cal

One of my favorite classes at Ohio State was an American history class that examined the first half of the 20th century.  The teacher was excellent and enjoyed using anecdotes to illustrate the characters of historical figures.  For President Calvin Coolidge — nicknamed “Silent Cal” — he related a story about a talkative woman who bet her friends that she could get Coolidge to say more than three words to her during a dinner party.  At the party, she went up to Coolidge and told him about the bet.  Silent Cal looked at her and said:  “You lose.”

Now some historians are reconsidering Coolidge, who served as President from the death of Warren Harding in 1923 until 1928, and arguing that he should be ranked as one of America’s greater Presidents.  A recent article in Forbes makes the case.  It notes that Coolidge presided over a time of peace and prosperity, cut government spending and tax rates, and achieved an enviable record of economic growth.  And — almost unimaginable today — Coolidge voluntarily decided not to run for re-election in 1928.  (His timing was impeccable, of course, because the stock market crash happened only a few months after Herbert Hoover succeeded Coolidge, and the Great Depression began.  If Coolidge had decided differently, his historical pedigree might be significantly different.)

It is hard for me to rank Coolidge as one of the greatest Presidents, and surveys of historians suggest there is general agreement on that point.  Wikipedia has a handy chart of the various rankings over the years, and Coolidge, in recent times, has consistently ranked in the third quartile — i.e., the bottom half — of Presidents.  I think the truly great Presidents are those which had to overcome some great test or challenge, and Coolidge never had that opportunity.  Still, in an era when government has grown to an enormous size and government spending is at unimaginable levels, Coolidge’s focus on very limited government, and his view that “I want taxes to be less, that the people may have more,” is very attractive, indeed.