Monday, February 18, 2013

4 Feats of Awesomeness by Obscure U.S. Presidents

President’s Day is a holiday that many Americans associate with used car dealers offering “CRAAAAAAZY DEALS!”  It was originally meant to honor the birthday of the founder of our nation, George Washington, and later it expanded to more generally honoring some of our most recognized presidents, such as Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, or James K. Polk.  What?  Not familiar with the populist presidential portents of Polk?  Sounds about right, so let’s turn our attention to some feats of awesomeness performed by some of America’s lesser known commanders in chief.

4)  William Henry Harrison (1841)
Terms:  1/45th
Win/Loss Record:  1-1
Party Affiliation:  Whig
Feat of Awesomeness:   Established Rules for Presidential Succession
 Despite a decorated military and political career, William Henry Harrison is best known for kicking the bucket only 30 days into his first term as president.  He contracted pneumonia after a battle with the common cold, which, when combined with his age and lack of medical treatment options at the time, was a death sentence. 

Although popular legend attributed his illness to delivering his record-breaking two hour long inauguration speech in horridly wet and cold conditions, we now know that colds aren’t actually caused by the cold.  Nevertheless, we are willing to bet that it was a very awkward funeral for that speechwriter.

While dying in office is not much of a feat, the political firestorm his death sent Congress into was the most lasting legacy of his presidency.  Although he was elected as our ninth president, Congress never got around to actually figuring out how the whole ‘presidential succession’ thing was going to work, and the U.S. Constitution was frustratingly vague on the matter.  Thus, a huge deficiency in our electoral process was revealed, as disputes erupted over whether the Vice President of the US was supposed to serve the remainder of the President’s term, or only until a new general election was held to replace the deceased President.  Ultimately, it was decided that the Vice President would take the Presidential Oath of Office and swear in to the Presidency, but it took until 1967 for Congress to actually amend the Constitution to reflect this—a lag of over 125 years!

3)  James K. Polk (1845-1849)
Terms:  1
Win/Loss Record:  1-0
Party Affiliation:  Democratic
Feat of Awesomeness:  Walking Away from Power
James K. Polk, one of America’s forgotten presidents, lands on this list because of his decision to perform a truly noble act—walking away from power as promised. 

Prior to some of the reforms that began in the 1880s, political parties selected their candidates for president on their own at yearly conventions.  While this would later be replaced with our presidential primary system where billions of dollars are invested in touring the country for years to convince registered voters of a political party that one should be president, the old-fashioned way to do it was lock everybody in a room and make them vote.  You decide which is more efficient. 

After six rounds of voting, it was clear to the delegates that Martin Van Buren, a former U.S. president and odds-on favorite, was not going to win a supermajority of the votes (more than 2/3).  Scrambling for a replacement, Polk was nominated as a compromise between warring factions within the Democratic Party and voila—a presidential candidate was born.  This was an act so rare, it’s like the jocks and nerds coming together at a high school class president election.

Jocks:  High School Harry….meat….weight lifting….president.

Nerds:  According to our calculations, the robot we programmed to run for president is failing horrendously in several key demographics.  Whatever shall we do?

Polk:  Hey guys, sorry I’m late for the election.  I went straight from football practice to computer club and….

Jocks and Nerds in Unison:  Exxxxcellent.

In order to appease the delegation, Polk promised to only serve a single term as President.  He went on to win a close election, achieve an ambitious domestic agenda, and made good on his promise to only serve one term by declining to run again.  The precedent of walking away from power for the good of the nation may have been started by George Washington, but Polk’s willingness to keep his word and cede power was equally impressive.

2)  Warren G. Harding (1921-1923)
Terms:  1
Win/Loss Record:  1-0
Party Affiliation:  Republican
Feat of Awesomeness:  Fiscal Conservative, Social Liberal
 Historically, Warren G. Harding’s two years as President have been regarded as a failure, or at least irreparably marred by scandal.  As an example, his Secretary of Interior leased Navy petroleum reserves to private companies without any competitive bidding, and accepted bribes for the access.  In the modern era, this type of bribery is referred to as “pay to play.” 

However, a closer look at Harding reveals a president who accomplished a shocking amount of his agenda with the two years that he lived in office, and an interesting mix of fiscal conservatism with social liberalism.

Harding won his campaign for president in a landslide, and used a new technique of training speakers to go door to door and discuss his agenda with American voters.  His campaign trained over 5,000 speakers to hit the trail, and very notably, over 2,000 of these speakers were women, an unheard of feat for the time.  He was also a strong supporter of women’s right to vote from his days in the US Senate.  Additionally, he spoke out against the effects of segregation in the South while on the campaign trail, and supported an anti-lynching bill in Congress as president—the first time any civil rights legislation had been considered in Congress since the 1880s.

As President, he pushed hard to reduce taxes and federal spending, and presided over a 10% reduction in the unemployment rate.  He sought and gained peace with Japan, Germany, and in Central America.  He also formally created the Bureau of Veterans Affairs—the most formally organized federal response to the needs of America’s veterans up to that point.  All told, the Harding presidency successfully combined two political approaches—increasing civil liberties and the social welfare system, while still cutting spending and taxes, that in the current American political climate seem unwilling to agree on anything.  Quite a feat.

1) Grover Cleveland (1885-1889, 1893-1897)
Terms:  2
Win/Loss Record:  2-1
Party Affiliation:  Democratic
Feat of Awesomeness:  3 Time Popular Vote Winner, 2 Non-Consecutive Terms
Grover Cleveland possesses the unique distinction of being the only US president to serve non-consecutive terms.  He took part in one of the greatest political grudge matches in US presidential history, duking it out with Benjamin Harrison in a back and forth battle.  Additionally, he shares with only two other presidential candidates the dubious distinction winning the popular vote in a US election, but losing the Electoral College, which happened after his first term. 

Cleveland’s first term was spent as a reformer.  He began by appointing people to prominent positions in his administration, including Republicans, based on merit rather than by rewarding loyalty or favors.  He also rooted out corruption in railroad companies who were bilking the government out of land but not developing it, and managed to reduce tariffs for the first time in decades. 

In what would become a political grudge match on the order of Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier, Cleveland won the popular vote but lost the electoral college to his challenger, Benjamin Harrison, in the 1888 election—the boxing equivalent of having the judges decide the match after the final round in a title fight.  Harrison ran on a protectionist platform, stoking nativist fears of American jobs and industries being shipped overseas, that was just convincing enough to squeak through in the election.

Four years later, in the election of 1892, Cleveland made a comeback, this time beating President Harrison handily in both the popular vote and the Electoral College.  This makes him the only presidential candidate in history to win the popular vote three times, and he is only the third candidate (along with Samuel J. Tilden and Al Gore) to win the popular vote but lose the Electoral College.

0) Participation Award:  William Jennings Bryan
Terms:  0
Win/Loss Record:  0-3
Party Affiliation:  Democratic
Feat of Awesomeness:  Negative Three Presidencies
Although never technically president, William Jennings Bryan deserves an honorable mention for his inability to comprehend his lack of popularity.  He ran three separate times for president, each time getting beat worse than the last.   In modern American politics, the act of running once and losing ends the aspirations of essentially all candidates.  One can only assume that he had the type of parents who displayed a room full of participant ribbons with unabashed pride.

He served as Secretary of State for 2 yrs before quitting over feeling the US was too demanding of Germany during World War I.    He is also famous for attempting to stop the teaching of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution in science class in what became known as the Scopes Monkey Trial.  In other words, in addition to losing the presidency three times, he also managed to be on the wrong side of history in World War I AND famously attempted to ban the teaching of science in science class. 

Perhaps, in the modern era, texting will bring back this paragon of fail as ‘WJB.’  Don’t be surprised if the kids start texting “OMG…just WJBd that algebra test.”

While Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln are rightly remembered as iconic figures in the ranks of the American presidency, we hope you’ve considered that some of our lesser-known presidents also contributed to the success of the American political system.  From the ability to walk away from power to finding ways to combine the best of different political philosophies, each of these presidents contributed something very special to our legacy of democracy.  Except William Jennings Bryan.  But he still gets a participation ribbon, just to make his parents proud.

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