Breen: “George Washington Would Hate Trump’s July 4 Parade”

Trump 4th

T.H. Breen brings the thunder:

President Trump has invited the American people to what he claims will be the biggest and best Fourth of July celebration in the nation’s history. Influenced by the huge nationalist displays he witnessed in Europe, Mr. Trump promises “a really great parade to show our military strength.” And he will treat the country to a “major fireworks display, entertainment and an address by your favorite President, me!”

All Americans should be appalled. Even during an era of extreme hyperbole, the unabashed narcissism driving the parade plans is astonishing. It runs counter to the explicit aims and faith of the ordinary Americans who founded the United States.

The focus on a single leader — on the construction of a cult of personality — would have incensed the men and women who sacrificed so much to create a new nation. As Capt. Joseph Bloomfield explained to a company of New Jersey troops preparing to fight in the Revolutionary War, the American states had “entered a new era of politics.” He warned the soldiers to be on guard against the rise of an “aspiring Demagogue, possessed of popular talents and shining qualities, a Julius Caesar, or an Oliver Cromwell” who “will lay violent hands on the government and sacrifice the liberties of his country.”

At a moment when exclusionary forms of national identity are on the rise, we should remember that the ordinary people who suffered so much during a long war believed that their sacrifice legitimated a system of government in which ordinary people like themselves had a meaningful voice. There would be no more doffing the cap to noblemen. No more claims to special privilege. In the independent republic all citizens would be equal under the law.

What Presidents Are Saying Today

Barack Obama:

Donald Trump:

 

Federalist #69 and the Mueller Report

FederalistDanielle Allen of Harvard University makes the connection in a piece at The Washington Post. Here is a taste:

The Mueller report has finally brought us face-to-face with the need to address the “delicate and important circumstance of personal responsibility” in the nation’s chief executive, as Alexander Hamilton put it in Federalist 69.

To quote the Mueller report: “The President has no more right than other citizens to impede official proceedings by corruptly influencing witness testimony.” In addition, the president bears a second burden of personal responsibility — not merely to execute the powers of his office (for instance, hiring and firing) but also to execute those powers “faithfully.”

That question of faithfulness is what Hamilton had in mind when he referred to the “delicate and important circumstance of personal responsibility.” The constitutional apparatus gave to Congress the power and responsibility of addressing that delicate matter. The most important question now before us is whether Congress will use its power — and indeed, rebuild it after a period of decline — to reinforce two core principles of the Constitution: that the president is not above the law and that he or she should be held to a standard of faithfulness.

Read the rest here.

Here is Hamilton in Federalist 69:

The President of the United States would be liable to be impeached, tried, and, upon conviction of treason, bribery, or other high crimes or misdemeanors, removed from office; and would afterwards be liable to prosecution and punishment in the ordinary course of law. The person of the king of Great Britain is sacred and inviolable; there is no constitutional tribunal to which he is amenable; no punishment to which he can be subjected without involving the crisis of a national revolution. In this delicate and important circumstance of personal responsibility, the President of Confederated America would stand upon no better ground than a governor of New York, and upon worse ground than the governors of Maryland and Delaware.

Joanne Freeman on Federalist No. 76 and the Whitaker Lawsuit

Trump and Whitaker

A group of Senate Democrats–Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), and Mazie K. Hirono (D-Hawaii)–has filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration.  The suit challenges the constitutionality of the appointment of Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general.

The suit invokes the Constitution’s Appointments Clause and references Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 76:

The Constitution’s Appointments Clause requires that the Senate confirm high-level federal government officials, including the Attorney General, before they exercise the duties of the office. The Framers included this requirement to ensure that senior administration officials receive scrutiny by the American people’s representatives in Congress. The Appointments Clause is also meant to prevent the President, in the words of Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 76, from appointing officers with “no other merit than that of…possessing the necessary insignificance and pliancy to render them the obsequious instruments of his pleasure.”

“Installing Matthew Whitaker so flagrantly defies constitutional law that any viewer of School House Rock would recognize it. Americans prize a system of checks and balances, which President Trump’s dictatorial appointment betrays,” Blumenthal said. “President Trump is denying Senators our constitutional obligation and opportunity to do our job: scrutinizing the nomination of our nation’s top law enforcement official. The reason is simple: Whitaker would never pass the advice and consent test. In selecting a so-called “constitutional nobody” and thwarting every Senator’s constitutional duty, Trump leaves us no choice but to seek recourse through the courts.”

On Twitter, Yale historian Joanne Freeman provides some context:

Can a Presidential Administration Run on Loyalty Alone?

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Over at The Washington Post column “Made by History, Cumberland University history professor Mark Cheathem reflects historically on the idea of “loyalty” in presidential administrations.  Here is a taste of his piece on Andrew Jackson’s presidency:

Chaos seems to dominate President Trump’s White House. From Omarosa Manigault Newman’s secret audio recordings to the anonymous New York Times op-ed, reports from White House officials highlight the dysfunction that has plagued the Trump administration in its first 20 months.

Nearly 200 years ago, Democratic President Andrew Jackson’s White House witnessed a similar situation: a president consumed by conspiratorial thinking, a Cabinet feeling the brunt of the president’s paranoia and accusations of an ambitious vice president waiting to step in for a president who failed to deliver on his promise of democratic populism.

The thread that links the chaos in both administrations is the emphasis on loyalty. Throughout his life, Jackson held positions that demanded loyalty — from the soldiers he led, the enslaved people he owned and the relatives and friends he mentored. Disloyal actions led Jackson to cast aside members of his inner circle. And the political consequences of these falling-outs were significant, helping to shape the two-party system and contributing to the regional strife that eventually produced the Civil War. Similar situations in the Trump orbit also could have serious long-term ramifications.

Read the rest here.

Also check out our recent Author’s Corner interview with Cheathem on his book The Coming Democracy: Presidential Campaigning in the Age of Jackson.

The President Who Made it Illegal to Criticize the Presidency

Adams and Trump

Donald Trump?  Not yet.  I think he’d like to make it illegal to criticize him, but he hasn’t been able to pull it off yet.

We are talking about John Adams and the Alien and Sedition Acts.  Here is a taste of Ronald Shafer’s piece at The Washington Post:

The thin-skinned president of the United States was furious at his critics — like the congressman who wrote that the president was “swallowed up in a continual grasp for power, in an unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation and selfish avarice.”

The peeved president wasn’t Donald Trump. He was America’s second commander in chief, John Adams.

Though Adams was a Founding Father of the United States’ democracy, he couldn’t abide personal scorn. In July 1798, he signed the Alien and Sedition Acts that, among other things, made it illegal to “write, print, utter, or publish . . . any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings” against the president and other executive branch officials.

While the laws no longer exist today, modern presidents have also called for stricter laws to suppress criticism of their office, as President Trump did this week in the wake of journalist Bob Woodward’s new White House tell-all and an anonymous opinion piece by a senior administration official in the New York Times. Trump called for a change in libel laws and also demanded the Times turn over the anonymous author “for National Security purposes.”

Read the rest here.

The Faith of Donald Trump

HolmesYesterday I posted about David Brody’s forthcoming “spiritual biography” of Donald Trump.  The post led to some hilarious and contentious conversation on social media centered around the question of whether or not there is enough material to write such a book.

During one of those discussions, Jay Blossom called my attention to a January 2017 interview with David L. Holmes, retired religion professor at the College of William & Mary and author of The Faiths of the Founding Fathers.  Holmes reflects on the religious background of our current president.  This kind of scholarly and thoughtful analysis of Trump’s connection to Christianity is welcomed.  It is very different, I imagine, from the approach that David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network is going to take.
Here is a taste of Meghan Murphy-Gill’s interview with Holmes:

What do we know about Trump’s religious upbringing?

Like most of us, Trump was influenced by the faith of his parents. Three‑quarters of the presidents we’ve had since World War II ended up in the very same interpretation of Christianity in which they were raised. That seems to be a pretty good national statistic. Trump is no exception.

Trump’s heritage is Protestant and European. His father came from Lutheran stock in Germany. We don’t know how religious his father’s family was, but the father attended church faithfully throughout his life. Trump’s mother came from a highly religious area of Scotland, where a branch of Presbyterianism, called the “Wee Frees” (the nickname for the small Free Church of Scotland), is still strong today.

Maryanne Macleod, Trump’s mother, immigrated to the United States as a strict Presbyterian. She seems to have become broader in religion in later years, but she ensured that all of her children were raised Presbyterian.

Brody File

CBN’s David Brody

Trump identifies himself as a mainline Protestant. But if we want to understand him, we would be better off to pay attention to his social, economic, and cultural upbringing, and not to his experience in church. Trump’s father, Fred, was a developer, a field which he quit school to enter. The Trumps lived in Jamaica, Queens, in an area where Fred built many of the houses, often in the Tudor revival style. The home he built for his family was huge: 23 rooms. They had live‑in help, a chauffeur and a maid. They had two Cadillac limousines.

Fred Trump was an interesting guy. I wish we had more history on him. He did things like wear a hat and a tie when the family went to the beach. He may have had a formal side. He was all business. Religiously, he was Lutheran in background, but the crossover to Presbyterianism is hardly a step. He also displayed some anti-Semitism.

Read the entire interview here.

Where are the Court Evangelicals Today?

Where are the Court Evangelicals today?

Paula White: Silent

James Dobson: Silent

Mark Burns: Silent

Franklin Graham: Silent (He’s actually tweeting about air-traffic control today)

Robert Jeffress:  Silent.  He’s hanging out with Pence today:

James K.A. Smith gets it right:

Slavery at James Madison’s House

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Alyssa Rosenberg reports on efforts to tell the story of slavery at James Madison’s Montpelier.  A permanent exhibit titled “The Mere Distinction of Colour” opened on June 5.

Here is a taste of Rosenberg’s piece at The Washington Post:

…The new galleries, which opened on June 5, do something radical: They treat the people who were enslaved at Montpelier as if their lives were as worthy of historical examination as that of the man who owned them.

These displays at Montpelier provide ample evidence for visitors to consider as they reckon with the fact that the same James Madison who drafted the Bill of Rights also spent considerable time trying to track down a runaway slave named Anthony. (Madison’s own enslaved valet, John, went to his grave without telling Madison anything about Anthony’s whereabouts.) But that sort of reconsideration, important as it is, still risks consigning the people who were enslaved by the Founding Fathers to a subordinate role. If museums limit themselves to those assessments, they send, intentionally or not, the message that enslaved people’s importance lies in the way they illustrate the moral frailties of great men, rather than in their own lives and accomplishments.

Montpelier does not stop there. The people who were enslaved by the Madisons emerge from the displays as lively individuals.

Read the rest here.

“Removing a President is an Ugly Process”

Johnson

Andrew Johnson

So writes Jon Grinspan, curator of political history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

In his Atlantic piece “The High Price of Presidential Impeachment,” Grinspan argues that the impeaching of a POTUS “can dangerously inflame tensions in an already divided nation.”

Here is a taste:

There were, in the late 1860s, real fears that impeachment could spark a second Civil War. That rebellion was barely over, and posed a number of unanswered questions. What did the nation owe to millions of freed slaves? How should the federal government treat Confederate leaders and seceded states? What should northerners do about the atrocious outbreaks of racist violence unfolding in cities like New Orleans and Memphis?

Things were little calmer in Washington. A victorious, sometimes-cocky, Republican Party controlled more than three-quarters of both houses of Congress. Yet in the White House sat Andrew Johnson, put into power not by a popular vote, but by Lincoln’s assassination. And Johnson, it was painfully clear, was hostile to blacks, lenient with rebels, and hell-bent on fighting Congress.

{President Andrew] Johnson was, possibly, the worst man to lead the country at such a tense moment. Racist, crude, and grumpy, Johnson nursed an incredible persecution complex. At best, he was a formerly illiterate tailor who had worked his way up from poverty to the most powerful position in the nation, like his fellow Tennessean and personal hero, Andrew Jackson. At worst, he was paranoid, resentful, narcissistic. Washington politicos described a man who “always hated somebody,” “always defeats himself,” and was “always worse than you expect.”

There were, still, millions who sided with Johnson. White Democrats, especially in the lower north and the south, felt overwhelmed by Republicans. To them, Republicans were social-justice warriors intent on revolutionizing race relations and centralizing Federal power; most Democrats just wanted to return to the old union and old Constitution. Such Democrats launched the most bitterly racist campaigns in American history, rallying behind Andrew Johnson as a symbol of their struggle against change.

Read the entire piece here.

W: “Bono is the real deal”

Bush and Bono

U2 singer Bono stopped by Crawford, Texas to see George W. Bush.

ABC News reports:

Lead U2 singer Bono made a pit stop Friday at former President George W. Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, a few hours before his band’s sold-out concert in nearby Richardson.

“Bono is the real deal,” Bush wrote on Instagram, along with a photo of himself with Bono at the Prairie Chapel Ranch. “He has a huge heart and a selfless soul, not to mention a decent voice. @laurawbush and I are grateful he came to the ranch to talk about the work of @thebushcenter, @onecampaign, @PEPFAR, and our shared commitment to saving lives in Africa.”

Both men have been active in efforts to end the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Bush created PEPFAR, the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, while Bono co-founded ONE, a global campaign and advocacy organization that rallies around AIDS awareness and anti-poverty initiatives.

“More than 11 million people are alive today thanks to this man’s creation of PEPFAR, the U.S. AIDS program that has been saving lives and preventing new HIV infections for over 10 years, with strong support from political leaders right, left, and center,” Bono wrote on ONE’s Instagram account, alongside the photo of the two men. “That progress is all at risk now with President Trump‘s budget cuts, which will mean needless infections and lives lost. – Bono.”

Bush wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post last month urging lawmakers to keep PEPFAR fully-funded because approximately “12 million lives have been saved … Nearly 15 years later, the program has achieved remarkable results in the fight against disease.”

The Intellectual Habits of Barack Obama

book-obamaMichiko Kaktutani of The New York Times has published an amazing article about Barack Obama’s habits of reading and writing during his days in the White House.  Obama is, at heart, a humanist–a man of ideas and a student of the human condition.  I am struck by Obama’s commitment to this kind of thinking, reading and writing amidst the daily rigors of running the United States.  He is a President who refused to be intellectual stagnant. He was constantly replenishing his mind with new ways of thinking about the world. He regularly used books to cultivate empathy in his life–to “get in somebody else’s shoes.”

I love what Obama says about history:

The writings of Lincoln, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, Mr. Obama found, were “particularly helpful” when “what you wanted was a sense of solidarity,” adding “during very difficult moments, this job can be very isolating.” “So sometimes you have to sort of hop across history to find folks who have been similarly feeling isolated, and that’s been useful.” There is a handwritten copy of the Gettysburg Address in the Lincoln Bedroom, and sometimes, in the evening, Mr. Obama says, he would wander over from his home office to read it.

Read the entire piece here.  It is worth your time.  If Obama could sustain this kind of intellectual life in the White House then we have no excuse when it comes to sustaining it in our own busy lives.

Why Walter Shaub Jr. Matters

Shaub

Who?

Walter Shaub Jr. is the Director of the United States Office of Government Ethics (OGE). He graduated from James Madison University with a History degree and has a J.D. from American University’s Washington College of Law. Barack Obama appointed Shaub to a five-year term as Director of the OGE.  His term ends in 2018.

Some of you may not be familiar with the OGE.  You can learn more about it here. In essence, the OGE is an independent and non-partisan agency that functions within the executive branch of the federal government.  Its mission is to “provide overall leadership and oversight of the executive branch ethics program designed to prevent and resolve conflicts of interest.”

Shaub and his team usually work behind the scenes to help a new president avoid conflicts of interest and conform to ethical standards, but Donald Trump’s recent press conference has prompted him to go public.  Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker has done some excellent reporting and writing on this.  Here is a taste of his recent piece:

The day after the election, Shaub e-mailed several Trump officials based in Washington. “Congratulations on the campaign’s victory,” he wrote, according to e-mails released by the O.G.E. “We’re really looking forward to getting down to work on this Presidential transition—which we’re going to make the best one in history!” He reminded Trump officials that they could call him or other members of his office at any hour—“around the clock”—even on Christmas.

The good cheer didn’t last. A couple of weeks later, during a time of turmoil in the Trump transition, when people associated with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie were purged from the Washington team, Shaub wrote a despondent e-mail to one transition official. “I’m just dropping another quick note to remind you that OGE is here to help,” he said on November 19th. “We seem to have lost contact with the Trump-Pence transition since the election….”

…When Trump and his tax lawyer—not an ethics lawyer—finally announced his plan, at a press conference in Trump Tower on Wednesday, Shaub was appalled. As many, including my colleague Sheelah Kolhatkar, have carefully documented, the Trump plan is a sham. Trump did not divest his assets the way his nominees have; he did not give up ownership of his companies, or appoint anyone with independence to oversee ethical questions. He has not taken serious steps to address concerns about violating the Emoluments Clause, and he and his team offered no details about public reporting of the minimal effort he has promised to make to address conflicts.

At the Brookings Institution that afternoon, Shaub pleaded with Trump to change his mind. “It’s important to understand that the President is now entering the world of public service,” he said. “He’s going to be asking his own appointees to make sacrifices. He’s going to be asking our men and women in uniform to risk their lives in conflicts around the world. So, no, I don’t think divestiture is too high a price to pay to be the President of the United States of America.”

Trump’s impulse is to cavalierly disregard ethical and democratic norms that he views as inconvenient. Going forward, government officials like Shaub, who risked a great deal by standing up to his incoming boss, will be more necessary than ever.

And now Jason Chaffetz, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has accused Shaub of mixing ethics and politics.

According to Lizza’s piece, Shaub has worked out ethics agreements with Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson, Secretary, Treasury nominee Steven Mnuchin, Transportation Secretary nominee Elaine Chao, Secretary of Defense nominee James Mattis, and HUD Secretary nominee Ben Carson.  Why not Trump?

As Donald Trump said over and over again in his Wednesday press conference, he is not legally bound to divest his assets.  In fact, he even claimed that he could run the government and his business “and do a very good job.”  He bragged about turning down a 2 billion deal from a real estate developer in Dubai because he thought service to his country as POTUS was more important.  (I wonder if his sons will now pursue that deal in Dubai?).

But Trump’s false sense of public duty is not fooling anyone.  I find it hard to believe that Trump will not, in one or another, play some role in his business during his term as POTUS.  It is inevitable that at some point in the next four years Trump will be forced to choose between the good of his sons and the good of the country.  Divestiture seems to be the only option.  Anything else reeks of pure self-interest, the kind of self-interest that should disqualify any leader of a republic.

The good news is that Trump will appoint the right Supreme Court justices. 😉

The Founders Are No Longer Alone

pez-1Some of you know that one of the fixtures of our “Virtual Office Hours” is our collection of Founding Fathers Pez dispensers.  I am happy to report that Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe will no longer be alone in my office.

Christmas has been good to us this year. We landed three new “volumes” in the Pez Presidential Series. Volume II (1825-1845) includes John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Marin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, and John Tyler.  Volume III includes James K. Polk, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan.  Volume IX includes George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. (No Trump).

Stay tuned.  Our Spring 2017 Virtual Office Hours are coming soon!

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How Presidents Control the Past to Interpret the Future

historians-control

This looks like a great one-day conference.  I wish I could attend.  Great topic. Great lineup of speakers.

Center for Presidential History and the George W. Bush Library and Museum

Thursday, October 20, 2016 from 8:45 AM to 3:30 PM (CDT)

Presidents make history but they also write it. From the Oval Office, they shape not only public policy but collective memory.  Presidents, in short, are our historians-in-chief. The possibilities and limits on a president’s ability to articulate and reconfigure the nation’s historical memory will be the focus of this symposium hosted by Southern Methodist University’s Center for Presidential History. Co-organizers Seth Cotlar and Richard Ellis have assembled a group of ten historians and political scientists to explore the concept of the president as historian-in-chief. Each presenter has been asked to characterize the historical imagination of a particular president and probe the broader significance of their work as the nation’s “historian in chief.”


AGENDA

8:30AM:      Guest Registration

8:45AM:      Welcome and Introduction:  Thomas J. Knock, Interim Director of the CPH, SMU

9:00AM:      Panel 1:    David Waldstreicher: John Quincy Adams, Elvin Lim: Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, Jonathan Earle: Abraham Lincoln

                             Moderator: Seth Cotlar

10:45AM:    Panel 2:    Kathleen Dalton: Theodore Roosevelt, John Milton Cooper: Woodrow Wilson, David Sehat: Franklin Delano Roosevelt

                             Moderator: Brian Franklin

12:30PM:    Luncheon Speaker: Edward Countryman: George Washington

                               Lunch provided for all registered guests.

2:00PM:      Panel 3:    Jeffrey Pasley: John F. Kennedy, Rick Perlstein: Ronald Reagan, James Kloppenberg: Barack Obama

                               Moderator: Richard J. Ellis

3:30PM:      Program Concludes


Registered educators can receive CPE credit for attending, but must sign in before each session to receive credit for that session.

Parking will be available on the SMU campus. FREE passes will be emailed to registered guests before the event.

 

 

The Worst President Ever

Nixon

Was Nixon the Worst?

Michael David Cohen is the editor of the Correspondence of James K. Polk and Research Associate Professor of History at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.  He is also writing for us this weekend from the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Providence, Rhode Island.  Michael is also the author if Reconstructing the Campus: Higher Education and the American Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2012).  Here is first post:

Greetings from OAH 2016!

Providence welcomed us historians today with a gentle spring rain. At least, by Noah’s standards. Surely I was not the only one who arrived at the Rhode Island Convention Center soaked to the bone. My umbrella fared rather worse, blown inside out by the day’s refreshing breeze. Nonetheless, after changing into dry clothes, I made it to the Exhibit Hall in time for the conference’s first plenary session.

As one who spends his days studying a U.S. presidency, I was looking forward to the presentation titled “Worst. President. Ever.” It did not disappoint. Guided by chair Claire Potter, panelists David Greenberg, Annette Gordon-Reed, and Jacob Weisberg (who assures us that, despite the original program, he is not Sean Wilentz) offered their insights both on who was the worst president and, perhaps more important, on how we should judge presidents as best or worst.

Dr. Greenberg argued that, although only a few things make a president great, our chief executives can be bad in a variety of ways. He grouped the failures into four categories: “completely insignificant and forgettable presidents” (such as Millard Fillmore, for whom, he noted, even the White House’s website offers faint praise); those who responded terribly to a crisis (think Herbert Hoover); those who accomplished much that we don’t like (some may say Indian remover Andrew Jackson); and those guilty of corruption or abuse of power, crimes “that transcend party and politics.”

Mr. Weisberg suggested similar criteria for badness. A bad president may have accomplished something harmful, through either action (entered a war or dropped atomic bombs, for example) or inaction; may not have left a significant lasting impact (cough, William Henry Harrison); or may have displayed bad character. The first two being opposites—bad impact and no impact—no president could have achieved all three types of bad.

Though they hesitated to settle on a single “Worst. President. Ever.,” their typologies led both these speakers to select the same candidate for the dubious honor. Richard Nixon, as Weisberg put it, was the only president to have attained true “Shakespearean villainy.” Despite his oft-cited accomplishments, especially in foreign policy, Nixon’s abuse of power—Greenberg’s transcendent evil and Weisberg’s character flaw—damaged the presidency and the American people’s faith in government. It propelled him to the top (or bottom) of the list.

Dr. Gordon-Reed, though she shared her co-panelists’ condemnation of Nixon, gave a different answer to the plenary’s question. Her two approaches to presidential failure were to find a leader who responded poorly to an intractable crisis and to find one who chose not to follow the best available path. The former approach yielded James Buchanan, who has so often been lambasted for his weak response to secession. But what, Gordon-Reed asked, could Buchanan have done? No promising solution presented itself.

The latter approach yielded Andrew Johnson. Republicans in Congress and elsewhere

Johnson

Or was it Andrew Johnson?

proposed alternatives to his Reconstruction policies that held the hope of unifying the nation across both regional and racial lines, expanding true citizenship and independence to recently emancipated African Americans. But, owing to his “stubbornness” and to the fact that “he hated black people,” Johnson forswore that path. The president who put his “petty prejudices” ahead of the good of the nation earned the title of Worst. Buchanan can rest easy for once: not a single panelist named him President Number 44.

The speakers’ initial presentations and the questions from audience members brought much more nuance to the conversation than this summary indicates. They also brought more names. Franklin Pierce, Ronald Reagan, Herbert Hoover, Ulysses S. Grant, Warren G. Harding, and Thomas Jefferson all received consideration for Worst, though Gordon-Reed quickly responded, “Jefferson is no part of this conversation, okay?” I was pleased to hear at least a brief reference by Weisberg to James K. Polk, whom I study and who so rarely gets any attention, good or bad. George W. Bush came up several times, though the panelists hesitated to evaluate very recent presidents. (Weisberg did admit to having once debated, against Karl Rove and Bill Krystol, whether Bush was the worst president of the past hundred years. Weisberg lost.) Even Abraham Lincoln, the racist emancipator who angered half the nation by reunifying it, was raised by several audience members in this conversation on America’s worst president.

One question that noticeably did not come up in the plenary was whether determining overall greatness or badness is of historical value. Certainly historians and other Americans love to rank. I was excited when once surveyed for a presidential ranking. As Dickens wrote, many people prefer “being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” Yet, if Nixon went to China and his people bugged the Watergate, does it help for us to name him overall as 44, 36, or 12? Does it help to compare his record with James Buchanan’s? Can a presidency be graded as a whole or compared with one in another historical context? It’s a sign of a great panel that I’m left with questions as well as answers.

This was just my first session of the conference. I’m looking forward to plenty more sessions, questions, conversations with old colleagues, and meetings with new ones. Perhaps I should go easy on the discounted books, though. I’ve already bought two more than I have room for in my suitcase.

Ted Cruz’s Commitment to Original Intent Will Be Tested Tonight

The death of Justice Antonin Scalia will shape tonight’s GOP debate and will, of course, shape the rest of this presidential campaign. That almost goes without saying.  I fully expect that tonight in Greenville, South Carolina the debaters will use Scalia’s death to stress the importance of this election.  Yes–all three branches of government are now “up for grabs” in November.

Ted Cruz has already weighed in on Twitter:

Here is what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had to say: “The American people‎ should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new President.”

I am trying to be objective as possible here.  I have my views about what I would like to see in the next Supreme Court justice, but I am not going to go there in this post.  I am curious, however, about the proper procedure for nominating Supreme Court justices.

According to Article 2 of the Constitution, the President of the United States is responsible for the appointment of Supreme Court justices.  If I understand the original intent of the Constitution, this is to be done by a sitting president, not a future president.  Unless I am missing something, Barack Obama is the sitting president of the United States.  He still has about 25% of his term left.

So I guess I don’t understand the argument that Cruz and McConnell are making.  The framers of the Constitution did not say that the people have a direct role in choosing Supreme Court justices.  They have an indirect role.  In other words, the people elect the POTUS (well, technically the Electoral College does, but we won’t go down that road right now) and the POTUS picks the justices.  In 2012, the American people chose Barack Obama as POTUS.

I don’t see how someone like Cruz–a defender of “original intent”–can see this any other way.  Unless, of course, Cruz and McConnell think it is OK for politics to trump original intent.

What am I missing?

Antonin Scalia R.I.P.