Thursday, July 25, 2019

ecce homines, pars VIII

Continuing my three-volumes-at-a-time survey of the American Presidents series, edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. This installment covers the presidencies of 1885-1901.

Here we have the last gasps of the Gilded Age, and the beginnings of the transformation of the Presidency into its familiar 20th century form. (Not so sure what a 21st century presidency is typically like yet.)

Henry F. Graff on Grover Cleveland is another dull book on a dull president. Cleveland evidently believed the role of the president was to do as little as possible. When destitute Civil War veterans begged for pensions, he didn't do anything. When the American planters in Hawaii overthrew the monarchy and petitioned for annexation by the US, he didn't do anything. When the economy crashed at the start of his second term, he didn't do anything. (And why, having not enjoyed being president and being defeated for re-election, did he run to regain the office at all? Graff doesn't say.) Graff is an academic historian who rather weirdly focuses on details of the nominating convention and inauguration, while skimming over the presidency. Nor does he more than blandly describe the odd points of Cleveland's career, like his affair with (and possible rape of) a woman whose child might have been his, or his marriage to his own ward, 27 years his junior and 21 at the time, or his cancer operation in office which was kept a complete secret for decades. Graff also skips over entirely such critical points as the Presidential Succession Act of 1886, generated by a crisis when the entire line of succession was vacant, only to mention it irrelevantly later in connection with the next administration (p. 106), or say what happened in the 1896 election to the splinter conservative-faction candidate whom Cleveland and most of his cabinet supported (he got shellacked, as described in Kevin Phillips' McKinley book but not this one).

Charles W. Calhoun on Benjamin Harrison is a more invigorating academic historian's study, but then Harrison was a more invigorating president, despite apparently not enjoying the job any more than Cleveland did. An experienced legislator, he actively drove bills through Congress despite what Calhoun says was (but doesn't much describe as) a rebarbative personality. He got those veterans their pensions, for instance. After the Republicans lost control of Congress at the midterms (which Calhoun sort of claims was due to voters deciding they didn't want such an active president), Harrison was forced to expend most of his energy on foreign affairs, largely by signing treaties to establish US-controlled coaling stations to refuel the Navy wherever in the world it might go. Calhoun calls this proto-imperialist, though post-presidentially Harrison was appalled by the annexations following the Spanish-American War. The strangest thing in this book is the continuing thread of Harrison's intense and soul-healing friendship with his wife's niece, Mame Dimmick. It'd be an even more effective tale if I hadn't recognized her name and already known what Calhoun keeps under his hat until it happens: that, after Harrison's wife died, he promptly married her, though his children (who were her cousins, after all) despised her.

Kevin Phillips on William McKinley is a very different book from any of its predecessors. Phillips is the famous Republican political strategist, and he's written less a biography of McKinley (his assassination, for instance, though mentioned is never described or recounted) than a study of Republican political strategy in the McKinley era, both in electoral and policy terms, and he does go on, though he's both lucid and factually accurate. His thesis is that McKinley was not the dull-minded and reactive man of legend but a keen-witted, intelligent, and crafty political strategist. McKinley, Phillips says, was pro-labor at a time when the party was anti-, which won him support among workers, but how he let the workers know that he supported them and would do things for them in office while hiding this from his own party lest they think him a radical, is not clear. Phillips repeatedly states that all McKinley's (very competent, with long careers ahead of them) subordinates, including TR, always praised his strength and leadership, but he also - while lining up the stereotypes to debunk them - quotes TR saying McKinley had "the backbone of a chocolate eclair" (p. 4). So what the hey? Phillips' defense of imperialism is as clearly-written and factual as ever, but is truly embarrassing to read, including such feckless arguments as 1) all the other Western countries were doing it too, and 2) many who opposed imperialism did so because they were racists. These are true, but they're no excuse.

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