Running Scared: Observations of a Former Republican
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"Losing my faith in humanity ... one neocon at a time."

Saturday, January 22, 2005

A blast from the past

posted by Jazz at 1/22/2005 10:25:00 AM

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This week I've been watching a series of specials on the History Channel called "The Presidents." (Incidentally, if you don't get THC or missed it, you can order them on DVD at that link.) This is one of the best series they've ever produced, and I highly recommend it. In one of the early ones, they cover the presidency of James K. Polk. While not one of the more famous presidents we've had, his time in office was still fascinating. I could not help noticing some very telling similarities and differences between Polk and the lemon we are stuck with today.

For similarities, Polk threatened to attack one country and did, in fact, attack another. The threat was against England who, by that time, were so incredibly tired of fighting wars with us that they just gave up the Oregon territory. The war was against Mexico and eventually resulted in completing the United States "manifest destiny" and claiming all of the Southwest and California. The tendency towards aggression, fortunately, is where the similarities to Dubya seem to end.

Polk's tenure in office was apparently regarded as being the most "open to the public" White House before or since. He is quoted as having said, "I am first, and foremost, a servant to the people of this country."

In those days, the army band used to play on the White House lawn every weekend, and the public was invited to attend and listen for free. Even more amazingly, when compared to today, Polk's office was open to the people of the country. Two days each week, he took visitors in his office. Anyone could request a meeting with the president by simply knocking on the front door of the White House, handing their card to the steward, and waiting in line. People traveled from all over the country for this opportunity, took cheap lodgings nearby or even camped out on the lawn, and waited for a chance to speak to the leader of the country.

I understand that practical logistics prevent our having such a policy today. But it is a startling contrast when we look at Polk in comparison to this least curious or engaged of all presidents who we are saddled with now. Bush is so painfully out of touch with the feelings and sensibilities of such a great portion of the population that it's hard to even conceive of a president who was so in touch in the people he worked to serve.

And work he did! Polk was the president who moved to first have gas lights installed in the White House. The reason? Because he worked late into the night six if not seven days every week. There is apparently little record of Polk leaving the capitol, except on matters of state, and while he was there he was in his office working. Contrast this with Bush, who has spent more time vacationing at his Texas ranch and any president before him. (And likely more than several of them combined.) Polk was characterized as a pure workaholic, while Bush is disinterested and lazy.

In any event, the series covers all of the presidents from Washington to the chimp, and it's really excellent. It also includes tons of really interesting presidential trivia. One example: little known quote from Abraham Lincoln - upon being accused by one of his critics of being two faced, Lincoln quipped, "If I were truly two faced, do you think I'd be wearing this one?" You have to love that guy.