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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Presidents Tournament First Round Results! (Part One)

Welcome Presidents Fans!

Below are the results of the first day of Round One for the Tournament. Each matchup will feature a consideration of both presidents judged on four categories:

-Performance in Crisis… A consideration on the biggest challenges during each individual’s presidency and their efforts to alleviate it.

-Foreign Policy… A consideration on America’s role during the Presidency and whether this individual’s policies furthered America’s cause.

-Domestic Policy… A consideration on America in the President’s time, specifically the economy and prosperity and how the average American fared as a result.

-Legacy… A consideration on the lasting visions of each President.

EAST REGION

5/2/14:

8) Herbert Hoover vs. 9) Benjamin Harrison

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Motto: One guy did nothing… Guess which one!

Overview: The first matchup brings the Hoover Administration, a devastatingly rocky end to the roaring 20s, and the Harrison Administration that led America into the “Gay Nineties.”

The Matchup:

HH (1929-1933)- If you know about Herbert Hoover, it is not likely you will speak poetically of his humanitarian efforts in war-torn Belgium. When Hoover took office in 1929, America was having a roaring end to the 1920s. Then it crashed. Barely eight months into office, the Great Depression descended on America. For the rest of his single term as President this sole issue was one full crisis. Hoover’s response was lackluster at best. Taking his cue from previous recessions and panics, Hoover felt the federal government could do little to ease the crisis. His meek efforts were laughably inept compared to the global catastrophe that grew worse by the day. There is an argument for the unfortunate man who preceded FDR. Though there was no playbook for a crisis such as the Depression. Sadly, the efforts needed to alleviate were unprecedented, a performance Hoover could not muster.

BH (1889-1893)- Many presidents would be happy to have as an uneventful one as Benjamin Harrison. He is a man whose claim to fame is being the only President ever to beat an incumbent and then lose re-election to an ex-president. Say that ten times fast. He is the last president to have a beard too. Cool. As for crises, however, there is no comparison to the strife Hoover encountered in the Depression. In Harrison’s time, the President was happily cast off as aloof and as a distant national figure when business leaders dictated daily life for the average American. Harrison simply played the role. He let business thrive, kept the tariff high and was “right” on money issues. Was he transformative? No. But, America was thriving before he came and still hummed when he left.

Harrison wins by default. 

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

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 Motto: A pair of generals do battle (cliche?)

Overview: Rutherford B. Hayes was the only elected President to not win the popular vote until Dubya came along. Grant’s victory was never in doubt. Hayes was a saint, with his critics calling his wife Lemonade Lucy. Grant had a barrage of cronies, smoked like a chimney and oversaw one of the most corrupt presidencies of all time. By history they are sequential, by fate they are squaring off!

The Matchup:

UG (1869-1977)- Grant left Appomattox Court House in 1865 with the South surrendered. His face was the most recognizable beside Lincoln’s. After the lackluster Andrew Johnson held the chief magistrate title, Grant triumphantly swept into the White House in 1869. Though he was wildly popular in an America that held generals on the highest of pedestals, Grant had his critics. His cabinet choices were a disaster. Scandals and outright corruption often forced Grant to dejectedly sulk in hotel lobbies. (Many historians contend that savvy insiders would follow him there and corral favors after his many whiskeys coining the modern term “lobbyist.”) Despite his criticisms, he was able to win re-election. Times remained tough. America went through the Panic of 1873 and the power of Grant increasingly became non-existent. Historians for decades canned his Presidency as a failed capstone on an otherwise successful career. However, Grant’s stock is rising. He was way ahead of his time on Reconstruction. He fought the Ku Klux Klan into politically unattainable waters even when it risked his re-election. It is not a stretch to say that without his military career, his firebrand opposition to Southern Nationalism would have sank him at the polls as a one-term President. As tepid Presidents of the 19th century continue to seem all too willing to cater to prejudice, Grant’s stand with the Radical Republicans will continue to raise his stock.

RH (1877-1881) -By 1876, Grant’s efforts to radically alter America had a nasty backlash. Indian Wars were flaring daily, there was widespread unrest in the south and the corruption of Grant’s cabinet shook American sensibilities. In walks Rutherford B. Hayes, a vanilla general from Ohio. His wife was a huge supporter of temperance and her anti-alcohol stand was very attractive to a capital city fed up with Grant’s antics. Hayes was safe, controllable and a total non-threat to business. One problem. Hayes did not win the popular vote. In a move that gave credence to the “smoke filled room,” political power brokers simply handed Hayes the election. The deal was simple. Though Hayes lost the popular vote to Samuel Tilden, he would be awarded the requisite electoral votes. He did all of this while catering to the South. Grant’s racially progressive efforts were instantly reversed. Called “Rutherfraud” (lol) from day one, Hayes really did not have much hope for support. His removal of federal troops from the South created a living hell for recently freed Blacks throughout the South. This move would have reverberations through the 20th century. The Democratic Party may have lost the 1876 election but they became a bastion for Jim Crow legislation and a near one party domination for about 100 years. Seriously. Through he had marginal successes especially in Civil Service reform and currency legislation, the Hayes Administration never distinguished itself. Like his predecessor, he was unable to channel his military success into a solid presidency. His time in office limped to completion in 1880. The wars with Indians still burned, unrest was daily in the news and the nation turned elsewhere for a solution. Hayes was not even nominated by his own party for re-election in 1880.

The Grant Stock Continue to Rise. 

Stay tuned for the rest of Round One!

Martin Van Buren (1837-1841)

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Book: Martin Van Buren

Author: Edward Morse Shepard

1. Date- Few casual fans of the project will be salivating at this rare relic from 1894. The writing style is firmly in yesteryear with a heavy emphasis on public works. This was high time for presidential biography that barely even mentions a private life while exploring the minute details of a public one. Put simply, it is a perfect illustration of how far the presidential biography has evolved. For better or worse there is no insinuation of impropriety, no emphasis on shady dealings and no real insight on his family life. Throwaway sentences accompany his early childhood life. This “Jesus-style” narrative leads a modern reader to believe he was born. He may have even lived a full life. However, it was on to the good stuff. Though scope is further explored in the next section, it is important to understand that most if not all works from the 1890s were expected to be depicted in this manner and a deep probing into Martin Van Buren “the man” would have swept this work to the dustbin or given it the brand of personal quackery. A far more interesting aspect of the date for this entry is the emphasis on moral implications. While this era is reflected upon through the slavery debate, the lasting wounds of patronage and the “spoils system” were still fresh. Almost in tandem in the frank discussion of slavery and its lasting legacy, the spoils system arrives in tow. This is not surprising given the author but the pervasive nature of the practice along with the subsequent damage it did to the American physique is heavily the reader’s thrust for objective discussion. While a Jefferson biography or even a tour of Monticello features the obligatory talk about slaves, Shepard seems to feel more than obligated to mention the spoils system. This is perhaps the most glaring example that this book is written in 1894 and not 1994. This fear stemming from slavery shows the inevitable downfall of being too close to your subject.

Grade: C+

2. Scope- As briefly discussed above, this is clearly and distinctly a work on Van Buren the public official and not the man. Though there is some discussion about his hometown of Kinderhook, this work almost always uses it to describe the Albany Registry or other directly public acts. It is not meant to explore what made the man tick. There is barely any mention of the fact that he was the son of a slaveowner, the first president born post-revolution and still the only president to hold English as a second language, speaking Dutch throughout his formative years. Barely 25 pages into his work, Shepard puts Van Buren as a state senator of New York, nearly halfway through his 12 year marriage to Hannah Hoes. For a discussion of his public views and career, Shepard’s narrative is solid. Despite no mention of his private life, his public is covered in full blister following Van Buren’s steady and sure accumulation of power. In this sense his scope is total, giving due coverage to his presidency and ex-presidency. Unlike most of his predecessors, Van Buren was more than a contender and at times assumed candidate to go back to the first place in the nation. The tales of his ultimate shortcoming in this regard bring this presidential biography to its strength. In fact, ironically, Shepard’s work on President Martin Van Buren really peaks in his discussion of the ex-president. The pace is perfect, the extenuating and contextual information is placed soundly, and the work that dulls along in an average way suddenly gets excellent. However, there are more misses in this work to overcome the lackadaisical yet complete scope.

Grade: B

3. Author- Perhaps no finer man at the turn of the 20th century could have written about the Empire State’s ultimate executive. When Shepard penned this work in 1894, 30+ years after Van Buren’s death, New York had thrived in post-war America. Despite the fact that skyscrapers and modern New York were still years away, Shepard had the unique perspective to see Van Buren as the political mastermind from Kinderhook. His critique of Van Buren’s dealings in the spoils system are hardly shocking as Shepard’s resume includes Chairman of the Brooklyn Civil Service Board and years of support to reform-minded Democrats. This bias does become apparent and makes some of the objectivity choppy as Shepard struggles to make excuses for Van Buren’s supposed impropriety. After his work on Van Buren, Shepard, this relic of Tammany Hall, became the consummate peacemaker, often being tapped to heal party divisions and antagonism, tasks that all too regularly fell to Mr. Van Buren himself. In a curious yet interesting insight on Shepard’s touch of brush with presidential life, the elder politician ran into a deadlock for his US Senate nomination in 1911. The leader of the “insurgent” Democrats? Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The man who was elected president in 1933, almost 100 years to the day that Vice President Van Buren was sworn into office. In 1894, the first authoritative biography on Martin Van Buren had the right man for the mission.

Grade: A-

4. Length- Though clocking in nearly at 400 pages, Shepard’s work would easily fall quite short of that number had a modern publisher done the work. Reprints often have the work at 200-225 pages which firmly places this work in the short biography category. That is not to say there is anything lacking in the story. In true short biography form, this work goes from issue to issue quite rapidly but often giving enough information to progress the narrative. For a short work there are also many times that issues are explored specifically and then lightly revisited later. In this sense Shepard’s writing style shines as the purposely crafted brevity removes all dangers of a lagging work. This speed read would be perfect for a modern reader with the extreme caution that this work is indeed from 1894. There is much political reality that is assumed to the reader and there is no time to fill in modern eyes. Shepard expects you to be caught up to 1894 because he does not have the space to bring you up to speed. As long as you know that going in, you’ll be fine. If not, this short work may be done quickly with an awful lot of head scratching as the result.

Grade: C+

5. Mission- Without a clear introduction or specific statement of purpose, Shepard allows his work to speak for itself. It is clear that he hopes to inform as well as extol in this volume as slavery and spoils system clearly weigh on the moral fiber of late-19th century readers. Both topics receive extensive attention all within the chronological evolution of Van Buren the political with almost a total lack of Van Buren the man. From start to finish, the work moves at a brisk pace as the events seem to affect the man and then suddenly the reverse. Shepard does an excellent job of showing how the progressive and ahead of the curve nature of Van Buren slowly but surely fell behind. Shepard creates a story about a man struggling to keep his political fortitude while the nation slowly unraveled to Civil War. Perhaps fittingly, the story ends in the heat of the Civil War, just as Van Buren does. There is nothing left to tell. Shepard assumes the audience already knows that story. Assumption can be dangerous. As for assumption in this mission, it hurts the overall effort as determined as it seems.

Grade: B-

James Monroe (1817-1825)

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Book: The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness

Author: Harlow Giles Unger

1. Date published- Nearly 40 years after Henry Ammon’s classic Monroe biography, Unger’s 2009 work is a much needed work for the 21st century. Those attempting to trade a bit of the scholarly depth for a contemporary lens will find this work to be a much appreciated addition to Monroe literature. The recent nature of the work allows Unger to explore Monroe in a fresh perspective such as where the Monroe Doctrine fits in the 21st Century world. The most tangible aspect is evident from Unger’s reference to Monroe as a founding father. With the rise of groups such as the Tea Party and the continued prominence of WWTFD searching for the supposed soul of the founding fathers collectively, Unger’s work seems especially relevant and essential for the context in which Monroe lived.

Grade: B

2. Scope- As with all works of the revolutionary era, the life of the founders has much to do with the formation of the nation as the nation they would lead. For someone such as Washington or Adams, the early life is essential to the biography even though it does not necessarily contain a narrative of the presidency. Unger attempts to put this treatment with Monroe, giving up nearly two thirds of the work to Monroe’s young life, his diplomacy, and his cabinet position with James Madison. This places far too much emphasis on a young career for this consensus top 15 president. That is not to say the scope is completely off. Few would deny that moments such as the Louisiana Purchase and the burning of Washington are unworthy of the many pages of reference in the work. However, Monroe has a doctrine named after him. To give the Monroe Doctrine and its immense importance such little attention holds back this work from being all encompassing in scope. With the spread of mass communication reaching unprecedented levels, the Monroe Doctrine deserves a better treatment in its most up to date work on the man who penned it.

Grade: B-

3. Author- Harlow Unger has been dubbed “Americas Most Readable Historian.” The reason for this moniker is quite evident from the writing style. He has written over 20 books, mostly about the Revolutionary era and almost always biographies. Writing about Patrick Henry, Lafayette, and George Washington to name a few, Unger has been a consistent force in the short biography version of this project. For someone attempting to not get bogged down in weighty works, Unger gets to the point in a concise fashion and doesn’t make you feel like you are missing something. His background besides history is in broadcasting and journalism, but evident bias or blatant revisionism is not suggested in the work. Unger benefits by simply updating a 40 year old work and does not feel the need to embellish or outsize the man in Monroe. The Yale graduate remains on an even keel and leaves many opinions to the reader, as he should.

Grade: A

4. Length- At the risk of comparing Unger’s work again to Ammon’s, this work is the condensed and concise story of James Monroe. Clocking in around 350 pages, the assessable work can be completed briskly with relative ease. However, one should not be fooled by the slightly short work. It avoids pitfalls of short biography by delving into Monroe’s early struggles, family confrontations, and the importance of his development. It has many features of long biographies such as extended passages, letters, and other primary source materials. For a man who burned all of his correspondence with his wife, Unger is able to recreate his marriage, his family life, and he more than a few times reveals an emotional and human side of the fifth president. Readers will be shocked by how quick the work is, but they will be equally shocked by how much they enjoyed it.

Grade: B+

5. Mission- Rarely is the mission evident before even looking at the prologue or introduction of a historical biography. Whether at Unger’s urging or just a happy editorial addition, “the last founding father” at once conveys the mission and context that Unger creates. He not only wanted to tell the story of Monroe, but what Monroe meant to the nation as it said goodbye to knee breeches and powdered wigs on its way out into nation adolescence. The mission is to show how a man who was president in 1825 was still of incredible importance to 1776. What the end of the Monroe presidency represented was a new age for the young nation where others were suddenly asked to carry the torch and steer the ship. In that sense, Unger accomplished his goal, showing how Monroe embodied the graying revolutionary generation and put a capstone on the era that today is seen as immaculate.

Grade: B+