Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Great and The Bad Presidents

Business Week


Henry Ford once said history was bunk. Some say, if we don't learn from history, we repeat our mistakes. Joseph Ellis is a presidential historian with sharp insights into our current situation, as compared to the earlier defining moments during America's brief history, and three great presidents who steer the republic to safety. His candid interview is refreshing.


For the occasion of Barack Obama’s 100th day in office, I interviewed one of my favorite presidential historians. In 2000, Joseph Ellis won the Pulitzer Prize for his slender Founding Brothers, a masterful collection of portraits of seven of America’s revolutionary leaders. We visited in his office at Mt. Holyoke College.

Ellis proved to be a lot of fun. Among the takeaways: He much likes Obama, thinks that George Washington’s treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, would do well in Tim Geithner’s seat today – though given the menacing description, that might not be such a good thing. And he thinks that the nation’s prior tests – the Civil War, the Revolution and the Great Depression – all tower above our current travails in terms of a threat to the country. The edited interview:

O&G – The press has been filled with stories comparing Obama with Franklin Roosevelt mostly, but also with Kennedy, with Johnson, with Lincoln …

Ellis – Lincoln is Obama’s favorite

Q – Is it legitimate to compare? People just don’t know how to take him on his own merits?

A – We’re experiencing something akin to the Great Depression. Therefore to what extent is FDR or references to the greatest challenges that presidents faced coming into office? Lincoln had the greatest, and Roosevelt right after him. This doesn’t rate in quite that category. Those were nuclear explosions. This is still only a conventional explosion.

Q – Are his fans trying to put him up on a pedestal?

A - I think there are more people who are pro-Obama engaged in that enterprise. But once it starts, Fox News will do it too as a way of developing a critical perspective on Obama.

Q – In His Excellency, you write that only Roosevelt and Lincoln faced a comparable challenge to Washington’s. How do you rank the presidents?

A – I would put [Washington] at No.1 and Lincoln second. But I’m a late-18th century historian. I’ve got my own biases. I just think that coming at the beginning has enormous advantages and has enormous risks. He made all the big decisions right. That’s one of the things I see in Obama. I don’t agree with some of his decisions. I don’t agree with the Afghanistan decision. I don’t agree with the failure to nationalize. I think he’s still under the influence of [economic adviser Larry] Summers and [Treasury Secretary Tim] Geithner. Eventually they are going to have to [nationalize]. But we’ve had him under the microscope of national media for over two and a half years now, and I’ve never seen a guy perform so well. And even though the European trip – we didn’t get the NATO support for Afghanistan, but that was never going to happen; and even though we didn’t get Germany to stimulate their economy, that also was never going to happen. It’s clear it’s a breath of fresh air. Finally there’s an adult in charge.

Q – You think the economic situation is not a nuclear explosion.

A – I don’t think the survival of the republic is at risk. I think it was at risk in 1861 and 1933. Not just the Depression, but it was beginning to appear that a totalitarian form of government was the wave of the future – fascism, Nazism or the [Hedeki] Tojo Japanese version. And capitalism itself was at question. And by the way I think the terrorist threat has been hyped out of the ballpark. The greatest threat to national security is global warming. It’s not terrorists. They can’t do much to us – blow up a city maybe, but that’s the worst. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen. But this was constructed by the Bush administration with the support of the media.

Q – I’m intrigued by your description of Alexander Hamilton, the first treasury secretary. You write that Washington handed over to him the books – ‘please fix this,’ he said. Of course you can’t compare him directly with Tim Geithner because he was with Washington, as you described, during the war …

A – He was. He was his aide de camp.

Q – And he was a huge personality. Geithner doesn’t have a personality.

A – And Hamilton creates an American fiscal policy. There is nothing. Geithner’s got to fix it. But it’s already there. Hamilton would have gotten the highest grade on the SATs of all of the founders back then. He’s the smartest. He’s brilliant. He’s fast, too – he’s not deliberative; he’s on a dime. You know the Federalist Papers were written overnight. Like, bing bing bing. And he’s also the most dangerous. And as long as he operates within Washington’s aegis, both during the war and during Washington’s presidency, his creative abilities are channeled into unbelievably productive things. Once Washington leaves, Hamilton goes nuts and he becomes a very dangerous man during the Adams presidency. When you see what Hamilton is doing in 1797, ’98, ’99, he’s attempting to raise an Army of 50,000 troops responsible to him on the basis of a pumped-up threat of a French invasion. That’s the reason I’m so sensitive about the terrorists being pumped up. That’s where you get the Alien and Sedition Acts, he’s behind that. He’s got the cabinet of Adams in his hands. They report to him, not to Adams. And he envisions declaring war against France, taking his Army south and imprisoning all the Jeffersonians who have opposed him, continuing to Florida and the Gulf coast, which is Spanish-owned and therefore we’ll claim it because Spain is an ally of France, then going all the way to New Orleans and claiming the Louisiana territory, and if possible heading south and taking Mexico. I’m not kidding. That’s what he said he was going to do. That would have ended the whole American republic.

Q – What are the lessons from Hamilton on fiscal matters?

A – Hamilton would have been happy with the New Deal. Jefferson would have been devastated. Hamilton foresees the creation of a powerful American nation state with a powerful federal government and a global power.

Q – And what would he think about the bailouts, the stimulus?

A – If you could somehow bring him back alive and make him aware of all the stuff that’s happened since, he’d be brilliant. But it’s another world. I do think there are parts of his fiscal policy that clearly suggest that he thinks that free markets are not always the best thing.

Q – Such as what?

A – I mean you’ve got to regulate industry. And he wants subsidies for American manufacturers. He wants protective tariffs. And his stuff on manufacturing, which is the most imaginative part of his fiscal policy, nobody reads it but he really is a New Dealer. But he’s coming at the beginning. He’s trying to start the engine. He knows the incredible resources we have. The North American continent is unbelievable. He’s trying to create an engine that’s going to take make use of the extraordinary wealth that’s inherent in our location, our geology and our geography. I think that at some point since 1980, a much greater part of the economy became dependent on finance. We don’t make anything. We gotta make stuff again. I think he’d say that. Even though he helps the bankers, he wouldn’t be a guy to run a hedge fund. He has too much of a public commitment. He thinks it’s wrong if some guy is making $15 million a year.

Q – A final question: Bush and Condoleeza Rice have said repeatedly – ‘They are still figuring out about George Washington today. No one knows how we will be seen.’ Comment?

A – The bottom is still [Warren G.] Harding and the guy who precedes Lincoln (James Buchanan). So you ask, are there cases where presidents have been low, and then they went up? Yea! Truman is the classic example. Truman left with horrible poll numbers. And so theoretically it’s possible for that to happen to Bush, too. However, the following things have to happen: A) It has to be seen that global warming is a myth. B) Iraq has to produce this flowering democracy in the Middle East that wins hearts and minds. In other words, things of that magnitude have to happen that are very unlikely. In fact, it’s going to get worse. And in fact, the eight-year delay on global warming may be his most serious blunder. Bush and his people are theologians. They have committed themselves to a cause that is religious. And they believe that God will save them. Ain’t gonna happen. This is going to go down as one of the worst presidencies in American history.

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