OUR GREATEST PRESIDENT

As the election season enters its twentieth or thirtieth month, it seems there is no end in sight.  Doubtless, on the day after the November election this year, those of us who are not moving to Canada or Costa Rica will be subjected to media speculation about who will run in 2020.  A selection of narcissists, egotists and attention-seekers (redundancy used for emphasis) will try to gain consideration as candidates.

Common in their rhetoric will be claims to the legacies of prior presidents.  Republicans link themselves to Lincoln and Reagan.  Democrats hearken back to Franklin Roosevelt.  Both sides will want to sound “Jeffersonian.”  Few recognize our truly greatest president.  This oversight is about to end.

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In eleventh grade I took a course on “American Heroes.”    Heroism, to me, consisted of a mixture of acknowledged accomplishments, fame and admiration on the part of the public. When the time came for a final paper about heroism, the teacher offered topics from a list of standard categories.   I could examine explorers, politicians, sports figures or scientists.

Though tempted by “sports figures,” of course, I rejected the topic as too obvious; it was something I would have chosen in third or fourth grade.  Instead, I surveyed how Presidents were or were not considered heroes, and why.  To do this, I summarized a number of encyclopedic entries and skimmed several biographies.

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Some presidents, like Kennedy, seemed heroic even though they hadn’t actually accomplished much.  Others like Franklin Roosevelt seemed heroic and deserved to be.  Franklin Pierce and Millard Fillmore were not considered heroic even by the few people who had heard of them.  On closer examination, it appeared their obscurity was deserved.  My forgettable paper received a forgettable grade, and I moved on with its contents largely forgotten.  But this year’s clown car of candidates provoked me to recall my only “discovery,” a man I believe should be a hero, who is not.

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James K. Polk had a terrible publicist.   His profile doesn’t appear on Mt. Rushmore.

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In fact, other than his gravesite and a small museum in Nashville, Tennessee, there is no trace of him on the contemporary scene – no college, no institute and no national park.  It surely didn’t help that he died only three months after leaving office.  He didn’t get to buff a ”legacy,” as they call it nowadays, the way Ford, Clinton, and the first president Bush have.  He didn’t have a library or a speaking tour or the chance to make millions speaking to Goldman Sachs.   Whatever the cause of Polk’s obscurity, his accomplishments stand in stark contrast to those of every president in my lifetime and make a laughing stock of the present candidates.

Polk declared upon election that he would only serve one term from 1845-1849 and then go home.  He meant it!  Can you imagine?  When he took office, Polk declared four major goals of his administration and proceeded to accomplish ALL of them, including:  vast extension of American territory via the Mexican-American war; overhaul of our tariff structure that produced a manufacturing boom; establishment of an independent Treasury that streamlined American commerce; and, the addition of Oregon and Washington to the United States by way of threatening Great Britain with war if they did not abandon their claims to the same land.

 

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Detractors and political rivals claimed that Polk was TOO effective.  Ulysses Grant, for one, thought Polk unmanly for picking on weak opponents such as Mexico.  Others argued that “Manifest Destiny,” the philosophy that guided Polk’s insistence that America deserved the West indicated excessive pride.

Abolitionists argued that Tennessean Polk took too strong a stand in favor of slavery.  Indeed, like a typical southern landowner, Polk owned slaves.  Unlike Jefferson, however, he is not known to have impregnated any.  He took a pragmatic approach to politics, a quality sorely lacking at present.  He suggested the new northwestern states would be free of slavery if Texas would enter the union as a slave state.  The compromise earned the backing of Congress for both acquisitions.

We have no recordings of Polk’s speeches, of course, but he was said to have been spellbinding and clear, his logic unassailable.  Due to short stature, he stood atop tree stumps to speak and became known as “Napoleon of the Stump.”  The term “stump speech” thus entered the lexicon.

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I am not the only person to have noted Polk’s qualities.  On several lists of “greatest presidents” prepared in the mid-twentieth century he appears in 10th or 11th place.  Some refer to him as “Best of the Unknowns,” or the like.  But recent history should propel him to the top of the list since his qualities are now so rare.  Since Truman, perhaps, our nation hasn’t enjoyed a president who spoke the plain truth.  And we’ve certainly not known one to stick to one term.

As a result, when I hear candidates worship at the altar of Saint Reagan or Saint Kennedy I can’t reach the mute button quickly enough.  But if I ever hear one promise to govern like James K. Polk, after I pick myself up off the floor, he’ll have my vote.

 

 

 

 

 

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