The Contenders Part I: The Generals

*Every first Tuesday every other month, the President’s Project will preview a different Presidential background in anticipation of the 2016 Presidential Election. Backgrounds do not overlap though surely these distinguished men’s did. It is with great care that a determination is made on what exactly the President was known for at the time of his election.*

Generals in the White House:

Overview: From the beginning Americans have sung the twin praises of democracy and civilian rule. They beat the drum for the common man and looked stateside for their heroes. Well, that did not stop the voting public from looking to military brass for their chief magistrate.

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1. George Washington (1789-1797): Elected twice unanimously by the American electorate, the first direction the nation looked for leadership was General George Washington. Fresh off of the thrilling victories of the Revolutionary War, Washington swept his incredible popularity into the President’s chair. His role as a general was present from the start. He had a small circle of advisers, but also showed incredible independence and leadership as the first President. His sense of clarity and purpose closely paralleled his military career of old. In fact, his electoral triumph was even unprecedented. It was his only national election. Though many of Washington’s presidential actions were considered sacred precedents, it would take another great war with Great Britain for a general to again lead the nation.

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7. Andrew Jackson (1829-1837):  If Andrew Jackson were submitting resumes to the Oval Office today, “General” would not be most recent experience. This of course is does not tell how Jackson became an endearing ideal. The Junior Senator of Tennessee from 1823-1825 would never be mistaken for General Andrew Jackson. From his advisor-heavy “Kitchen Cabinet” in the White House, to his ruthless fights to oblivion with enemies, Jackson never show presidential power as anything other than war. He believed in his cause with soldierly determination and imposed his will onto an entire era. This was true whether his foe was real in the case of Great Britain or imagined, (he once said of the US Bank, “The Bank is trying to kill me, but I will kill It!)” It is clear that no early President was more instrumental in establishing a vision of a strong executive. For him, politicians were yet another army to impose his will and his vision.

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9. William Henry Harrison (1841): Though a full generation passed between Washington and Jackson, America waited only four years before turning again to military greatness. From the economic malaise of the “Martin Van Ruin” administration, William Henry Harrison’s mostly light 1840 campaign was a boon. Most famous pre-presidency for being “Mr. Jefferson’s Hammer” on the western frontier, General Harrison was second only to Jackson in the early 19th century glamorization of American military. Like Jackson, Harrison used military retirement to at least nominally engage in politics, serving barely a year as the Minister to Columbia for John Quincy Adams from 1828 to 1829. History never saw if Harrison would continue his two General predecessor’s as strong leaders. The ninth president died April 4th, 1841, barely a month after taking office.

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12. Zachary Taylor (1849-1850): The death of one general set into motion a chain of events that led to another just eight years later. Following a disastrous John Tyler presidency and President Polk’s bloody Mexican-American war, the nation looked ironically to a General to return peace to the nation. It was in that bloody Mexican-American war, that General Zachary Taylor rose to palpable popularity. With sweeping triumph America was again victorious with new heroic generals splashed across the nation’s headlines. Unlike Jackson and Harrison, General Taylor cashed in immediately, running just months after the war concluded. His victory was a decisive one, becoming the first Whig to win a national election since Harrison. “Old Rough and Ready” Taylor proved to not be as forcible as expected. Following the creed of his legislature-as-the-power Whig party, Taylor relished in a diminutive chief executive following the whims of Congress. In true Whig fashion, few of the nation’s memories of the Taylor adminstration are of his executive prowess. What remained was far from the image of heroic generals of yesteryear. He holds the dubious honor of being the last slave-holding President and he would die July 9th 1850 just 16 months after taking office. He never got around to flexing Presidential muscle.

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18. Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877): Joining the army at age 21, Sam Grant was a military man until his election to the White House in 1868. Like his predecessors, it took a dynamic war to bring him to political stardom. Elected after his sensational triumph as the head of the Union Army in the failed Southern Independence Movement of 1861-1865, General Grant essentially could have picked his profession due to his overwhelming popularity. Settling on being the Republican Party’s nominee for president in 1868, President Grant joined the long line of American battlefield victory capped by civilian rule. History has not been kind to Grant who was an aging General by the time he left office. Far from projecting a willful and ethical Cabinet to the masses , Grant’s eight years in office were littered with corruption and scandal. Though Grant has largely remained outside of suspicion in these scandal-ridden times, his Presidency is known more for his failure than its accomplishments. Though his stock is rising due mostly to a  progressive and forward thinking view on Civil Rights and Indian Peace, Grant’s troops were indicative of widespread chaos during his time in office. The same man who marshaled forces during the nation’s most perilous time could not translate it into a presidency.

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34. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961): The Civil War gave Americans many civilian elected representatives. This followed a long line of generals from the Revolution to the War of 1812 to the Mexican American War. However, once General Grant exited the stage, Americans declined the Spanish-American War and WWI generals for the highest office in the land. It wouldn’t be until World War II before finally looked again to a general to lead the nation. By the time of General Eisenhower’s election in 1952 ,it had been 80 years since a general was elected president. To put that in perspective, we are still 20+ years from equaling that drought. It was quite the drought buster. Ike the General led America to worldwide triumph as Supreme Allied Commander during the war and as a force of will after it. By his inauguration in 1953, the America Eisenhower inherited was much different than his military predecessors that rose to his level. As a battle tested world power, the winner of mid-20th Century peace now guided 1950s America through the end of the Korean War and the ever-terrifying Cold War. He created a forceful foreign policy and oversaw an arms race. His military mind even went to work stateside. Anyone driving on one of the 20 interstate highways may have noticed. The Eisenhower Highway System was a direct result of his military career. While driving the Autobahn after the war, Eisenhower brought the idea home. Finally, it was the Russian launch of Sputnik that immediately was seen by Ike as a military aim and not just one of science. America has not looked to a general since.

Could it happen in 2016?: However, when Eisenhower left office, his popularity and strength ended up being the end and not the beginning of an era. Barring an unforseen challenger from either party, 2016 will mark 60 years since America has looked to military brass as President. In fact, George H. W. Bush is the last military veteran to be elected, a drought that will reach 28 years by 2016. So what man or woman is showing signs of breaking the drought? Well, none. So far, no military General has thrown his or her hat in the ring which makes it highly unlikely that ’16 will see a return of military might in the White House.

Recent polls have shown that military is not exactly a bulletproof background in ’16. There are 18 candidates in the latest Iowa straw poll. Only Democrat Jim Webb (2.5% of latest polls) and Republican Rick Perry (4.8% of latest polls) have seen any military action and nowhere near the rank of general. Both left the military as Captains with Webb discharged by the Marines in 1972 and Perry discharged by the Air Force in 1977.

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Four Number Sevens

When President Barack Obama takes the stage for State of the Union Address Number Seven, he will be only the 16th president to reach the milestone. Despite cultivating an administration many associate with displeasure or unease, Obama is entering and increasingly elite group in American Presidential history. Though the power of Number Seven as an address or written message has ebbed and flowed, it has always remained a central statement of the Presidents’ views. Number Seven does not include some titanic names. Lincoln only made four SOTUs; the same as John Adams. President Kennedy only made three. What remains is a mixed bag of long tenured administrations; each with significant challenges still flaring in the twilight of their reign. When Obama begins Number Seven, he will join some interesting company. Let’s hop in the time machine for four examples of Number Seven in four different American centuries:

21st Century

George W. Bush (2001-2009) 7th SOTU January 23rd 2007

What was important to George?:

Though seemingly recent, Bush delivered the first Number Seven in the 21st Century eight years ago. It had been over a half decade since the traumatic events of 9/11 and the repercussions were clear in this address. First, he stayed stateside, preaching many conservative ideals such as balancing the budget, cutting spending, and and vetting out of the box thoughts on Social Security. However, since most of Bush’s presidency regaled in foreign policy, his Number Seven was mostly centralized around matters abroad ; creating a sort of haunting microcosm. The President again used Number Seven to cement his legacy and justify the actions taken seven years into his administration. He touched on many issues facing the Middle East, from sanctions on Iran to constitutional reforms in Arabic nations. He reaffirmed his commitment to the military and the power of American might overseas. Number Seven was a time to be unabashedly proud and the first 21st Century Seven was no exception.

Quotables:

We’re not the first to come here with a government divided and uncertainty in the air. Like many before us, we can work through our differences, and we can achieve big things for the American people. Our citizens don’t much care which side of the aisle we sit on, as long as we’re willing to cross that aisle when there is work to be done.”

We need to uphold the great tradition of the melting pot that welcomes and assimilates new arrivals. We need to resolve the status of the illegal immigrants who are already in our country without animosity and without amnesty.

American foreign policy is more than a matter of war and diplomacy. Our work in the world is also based on a timeless truth: To whom much is given, much is required. We hear the call to take on the challenges of hunger and poverty and disease, and that is precisely what America is doing.

20th Century

Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) 7th SOTU January 27th 1987

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May Madness is COMING!

You heard correctly. May Madness is coming.

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“Bring it on, Garfield”- 43rd President and South Region 9 Seed George W. Bush

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Upcoming schedule:

EAST REGION

5/2/14:

8) Herbert Hoover vs. 9) Benjamin Harrison

7) Rutherford B. Hayes vs. 10) Ulysses S. Grant

Byes: 1) Abraham Lincoln, 2) Theodore Roosevelt, 3) Dwight D. Eisenhower, 4) James Madison, 5) Ronald Reagan, 6) Bill Clinton

SOUTH REGION

5/2/14:

8) James Garfield vs. 9) George W. Bush

6) George H. W. Bush vs. 11) Warren G. Harding

7) Gerald Ford vs. 10) William Henry Harrison

Byes: 1) Franklin D. Roosevelt, 2) Woodrow Wilson, 3) James K. Polk, 4) James Monroe, 5) John Quincy Adams

MIDWEST REGION

5/5/14:

8) Calvin Coolidge vs. 9) Zachary Taylor

6) William H. Taft vs. 11) James Buchanan

7) Jimmy Carter vs. 10) Millard Fillmore

Byes: 1) George Washington, 2) Harry S. Truman, 3) John F. Kennedy, 4) Lyndon B. Johnson, 5) Grover Cleveland

WEST REGION

5/5/14:

8) Richard Nixon vs. 9) John Tyler

6) Martin Van Buren vs. 11) Andrew Johnson

7) Chester A. Arthur vs. 10) Franklin Pierce

Byes: 1) Thomas Jefferson, 2) Andrew Jackson, 3) John Adams, 4) Barack Obama, 5) William McKinley

 

George Washington Crib Sheet

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Vitals!

Name: George Washington AKA Father of His Country

Lifespain: February 22nd 1732 (?) or February 11, 1731(?) – December 14, 1799. (Julian Calendar people complicate everything. Leave it to the British to sort this out… http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/palaeography/quick_reference.htm)

Home State: Virginia

Served as President: 1789-1797

Vice President: John Adams

Spouse: Martha Dandridge Custis Washington

Historian Rank: 3

Why you may LOVE him….

You do not get a nickname like “Father of His Country” for birthing heirs (George was impotent). Washington could have died in 1783 and would still hold legendary status in many circles. He married one of the wealthiest widows in Virginia and he owned upwards of 20,000 acres. By all accounts he was top dog in an era of gallant horsemen. Washington received rave reviews on the dance floor and attended the theater well above the rate of his contemporaries. He may have fired the first shot of the French and Indian War (AKA the first truly world war) and he led a cobbled group of militia (plus the French let’s be real) to defeat the greatest army in the world. However, Washington did indeed live beyond 1783, played an instrumental role in decrying the ineffective Articles of Confederation, helped build a new government and then was unanimously elected its first President. He would go on to establish a new political power out of thin air. He led nation from the cradle on a track toward becoming the greatest and most powerful nation in the world. He could have been King, but instead he carefully and knowingly set truly American precedents and forever cemented his nation on a republican path. His greatness was the only thing Jefferson and Hamiltion could agree on. Yet, despite a certain third term at hand he walked away. He retired on top, battled and bruised but never beaten. What’s not to love?

Why you may HATE him…

Washington claimed to be constantly and steadfastly cognizant of the precedents he set as the first hero in an infant nation. And no, I am not going to bury this slaveholding and Indian scalping warrior. Certainly in light of the 21st Century these are undesirable but surely risk-free when it came to precedent. No one saw equality like we do today. Heck, women haven’t even been voting for 100 years. The reason you may hate Washington is he was more British than American at almost every turn. In fact, his support of the American cause may have just been an outlet of petty grievances with British creditors. He hosted exclusive levees, decked out his slaves in pretentious regalia, drove around in a horse drawn carriage, was president of the Primogeniture Cincinnatus Society, and openly expressed his love for all things British. History is never as clean as our high school courses would lead us to believe, but taking off your rose colored glasses would reveal a very vain and thin skinned man. Washington is someone who many historians believe passed over a third term because the press finally insulted him. He never thought of himself or America in general in the exceptional ways that Jefferson or Franklin did. He saw the young nation as Britain’s kid brother and in many ways set precedents toward that aim. Why else did he insist on being called His Excellency?

Final Verdict in Five Words: The right man to start.

George Washington 1789-1797

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Book: George Washington: A Life

Author: Ron Chernow

1. Date- Originally published in 2010, this is the most up to date book for anyone looking for a comprehensive biography. For a cradle to grave narrative there is no more contemporary volume available. One must take this into account because changing views on race and slavery are large characteristics in any person and are certainly a modern indictment on Washington. As time changes views of what is classified as humane this era gains in importance. Chernow keeps this in perspective however, too many modern blinders creates a harsh judgement in hindsight.

Grade: B+

2. Scope- This is a true cradle to grave book with due attention to pre and post presidency of George Washington. For those seeking to learn about the presidency itself, the book does a great job covering it, but as 8 years in a very full and complete life. This is not a presidential story or a book about the Revolutionary Era. It is about George Washington and his role in that time. The presidency is well documented and given center stage, no small task for such an accomplished individual. However. the post-presidency is lacking especially since an aged Washington was again named head of the military and spent much more time in retirement than the docile ending Chernow conveys.

Grade: A-

3. Author- Ron Chernow has written about the Revolutionary Period for decades. This book was written after the critically acclaimed biography of Alexander Hamilton. In Hamilton, Chernow received overwhelming praise for bringing stale characters to life. What is lacking is works from Chernow on the period and not the subjects themselves. For those looking for that type of approach to Washington will be disappointed. An interesting note about Chernow is the fact that he is currently working on a comprehensive biography on Ulysses S. Grant, one that promises to be a solid choice further down the line. His credibility on the era is solid, on biography it is of superior thread.

Grade: A

4. Length- Those attempting to complete the project at a rapid pace should steer clear of this book. It is dense, complete and thorough. At over 900 pages, this large volume takes time and commitment to give the book its proper due. For Washington, we are blessed with dozens and dozens of good choices that come in at a shorter length. This is a choice for those looking for a long and complete book that seemingly covers everything. The effort to turn this into a multi volume biography wouldn’t appear to be tough as each part within the book functions on its own. The book is way too dense, some may find the 900 pages are way too much of a good thing while oddly speeding from presidency to death.

Grade: B

5. Misson- Chernow’s mission was to break open the recently made available tomes of information and cast the figure in a new light. The immediate goal is to make Washington human, tear away the stoic and lifeless figure from history class into a living, breathing and yes, flawed hero who became the first President. He celebrates in his successes and buries him for his shortcomings. It is all done with care and fairness which makes the mission even more accomplished. Gigantic figures like Washington need this type of book every few years, because their relevance remains crucial to modern America. Chernow hits it out of the park.

Grade: A

George Washington 1789-1797

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Book: His Excellency: George Washington

Author: Joseph John Ellis

1. Date- Originally published in 2004, this book has the benefit of hindsight and allows the reader to look at it from a modern perspective. The recent publication puts Washington’s views on Native Americans, slavery and the economy in contemporary times without being unduly harsh. The distance from his death in 1799 removes any hint of partisan or biased slant. Ellis uses the date to his advantage to debunk any error a contemporary may hurl but also attempting to show how much has changed since the times of Washington.

Grade: A

2. Scope- Though a short biography, the book gives extensive coverage of the presidency. This is significant to this project because of the overwhelming military life that proceeded it. The military life of Washington is crucial if not essential to the story but for purposes of this project the book selection must heed caution about that becoming the narrative. For a short biography about not only the president but the force that made him president this scope checks out. The coverage of the post-presidency is given slightly more than a token glance, but the short retirement (1797-1799) doesn’t allow for much else. Impressive scope for such a quick read.

Grade: A

3. Author- Mr. Ellis is a professor of history and has widespread credibility to a reader looking for a rock solid source. The significant feature of the author is his many books on the founding generation and key figures like Washington and Jefferson. By doing grand scopes of both the times and the individuals, Ellis does not fall in love with his subject and brings many perspectives from the table. This is the book’s strongest quality. The credibility of the writer is enough to make this a worthy recommendation.

Grade: A

4. Length- This is an ideal book for something attempting the project with shorter biographies. Though short in length this book hits all the key notes and manages to mix good with bad in seamless transition. The book is a quick read. It is almost as if Washington leaps off the battlefield into office. However, upon further examination Ellis meets his goal in the fewest pages possible. As short biographies go, this one is void of pitfalls in this project that will be seen later. There is cradle to grave narration and the presidency is in context of a life.

Grade: A

5. Mission- The mission of this book is to be a short yet effective introduction to Washington. It is hard to find fault with a book that hardly deviates from its mission to show Washington through every stage from his beginnings to his death. Ellis sought to make Washington seem more real perhaps a TV personality 21st Americans would better recognize. The truth is Washington rarely divulged emotion, rarely wrote without posturing for his legacy and constantly revised his childish quips. Some may be bored with frequent talks about his slavery views but in the context of the mission, Ellis is dead on. Washington is a complicated man and a book that presents more questions than answers accomplishes that mission.

Grade: A-