March 16, 2010

Popping the Question

When we started reading John Quincy Adams, Janet said something like, "Folks, we are no longer on money." The Revolutionary Era was over. But our drop-off was not very severe--we took a step down but did not fall off a cliff. This is because Presidents Quincy Adams and Jackson, like their predecessors, possessed the heretofore ineffable qualities of Great Presidents. They governed boldly, they are remembered, and Jackson, yes, is on money.

Martin Van Buren is the first of our forgotten Presidents. Something of a Presidential history buff, all I knew of MVB before reading this book I had learned from a legendary book report by my friend Lisa's sister, whose overreliance on her electric dictionary and thesaurus led to exposition on Martian Van Buren's Trial of Lacerations. So our first order of business is to figure out the difference. Why are some borderline-evil Presidents like Jackson remembered, while others are forgotten? I think the answer has something to do with The Question.

As dramatized by the West Wing episode, "The Question," a threshold statement every presidential wannabe has to make is a cogent and persuasive answer to this question: "Why do you want to be President?" Ted Kennedy, for one, struggled to answer this in his nascent 1980 campaign, and never recovered. The Question separates those who seek the presidency as a means toward improving their country from those who seek it as an end in itself.

Say what you will (and we have) about the flaws of the first seven great man Presidents, but all of them could have answered that question. Washington hated the idea of occupying the office, but knew he was indispensable as a man who could govern above the partisan bickering. Jefferson was more ambitious, essentially seeking a real-world laboratory for his philosophical musings on democracy. Even poor old impotent JQA was a servant, his self always sublimated to his countrymen. Why did he want to be President? To lend America his talents.

My guess is that MVB could not have answered this question, and that this is what separates him from the earlier Presidents. From the time he was elected Governor of New York, Van Buren's every move seemed calculated only in terms of the next election, or the next step of his career. As Jackson's Secretary of State, MVB was known internally and internationally as a yes-man whose biggest diplomatic coup was befriending the ill-reputed wife of a cabinet member. As Jackson's veep, his biggest successes are unknown, at least from a reading of this book. The guy's biggest talent seemed to be not pissing anybody off.

When MVB ran for and won the Presidency, he was carried to the starting line and over the finish line by Jackson. Voters were voting for an extension of the Jackson presidency, with MVB acting as a seat-filler. Why did the voters want MVB to be president? Because they wanted more Jackson. Why did MVB want it? Because it was there.

I am not so far into his Presidency yet, and am interested to see how his political philosophy plays out now that he has attained the ultimate. I suspect that he will be kind of dull and uninspiring now that he has nothing left to run for.

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