Channelling George Washington: Presidents Criticizing Presidents

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Mr. Fleming is a former president of the Society of American Historians. This is the sixth in a series of articles, "Channelling George Washington."

"To see this country happy is so much the wish of my soul, nothing on this side of Elysium can be placed in competition with it."

"What's on your mind tonight, Mr. President?"

"If there's one thing I can't stand, it's presidents who endlessly carp about their predecessors.  You might suspect who I have in mind.  But I'm not mentioning any names.  Let's accentuate the positive and talk about some of the good things presidents have done for those who preceded them."

"Who – or what – would you rate at the historical top in that department, General?"

"That's easy.  No one comes close to Harry Truman.  He invited Herbie Hoover back from the political graveyard, where Harry's fellow Democrats had tried to bury him permanently.  It was a very daring thing for a Democratic president to do."

"How did the Democrats bury Hoover?  By trouncing him in 1932?"

"It started long before that.  Herb was barely in office in 1928 when the Democrats unleashed a genius at negative publicity on him.  His name was Charlie Michelson.  It was his job to cut Herb down to size.  When he was elected in 1928, Hebert Hoover was considered the greatest living American."

"Because of what he did in World War I?"

"He'd saved the lives of a hundred million starving Europeans.  He browbeat the Brits into letting food through their atrocious blockade.  When it comes to making war on hapless civilians, you can't beat those guys in Whitehall.  Belgium would have become a charnel house if it hadn't been for Herb.  No one had any use for the Belgies because of the way they folded up when the Germans invaded them in 1914.  The French used to say Belgium's motto was, ‘Fight on as long as there's a French soldier on Belgian soil.'"

"Hoover even fed starving German civilians after the war."

"None of this cut any ice with Charlie Michelson.  He published atrocious assaults on President Hoover, portraying him as a vicious egotist who had self- promoted his greatest living American title out of raw ambition for power."

"Sounds like that presidential reputation killer from your day, General—James Thomson Callender."

"An apt comparison.  Which prompts me to note that a certain gentleman who inhabited a mountaintop mansion in Virginia slipped that paranoid liar regular installments of cash to shred my reputation."

"Let's stick to Mr. Hoover, Mr. President."

"Charlie Michelson was not only a vicious liar, he was a lucky one.  The Great Depression exploded in President Hoover's f ace and soon the nation's streets swarmed with jobless men and hungry women and children.  Michelson blamed it all on the uncaring egomaniac in the White House.  Charlie had something else going for him.  As a devout Quaker, the president tried to forgive his enemies – even Michelson.  He never tried to answer the rascal's slurs and smears."

"That's carrying Christian charity much too far."

"I totally agree.  When Frank Roosevelt got to the White House, he gleefully egged on Michelson, who by this time had a cadre of assistants wreaking havoc on poor Hoover.  Harold Ickes, Frank's Secretary of the Interior, took his name off the Hoover Dam in Colorado!  Herb had conceived and built the thing!  They didn't even invite him to the dedication ceremony in 1933!"

"Did all the Democrats follow this line?"

"Not all. When World War II began, Bernard Baruch suggested to Frank that he give Hoover a job in the administration.  They were trying to figure out how to ration food for Americans and keep our allies in Europe from starving.  Frank declined to change course on Mr. Hoover.  'Let somebody else bring Herbie back from the dead,' he snarled. 'I'm not going to do it.'"

"Maybe FDR thought Michelson was telling the truth."

"That's what happens with ordinary people if you repeat lies often enough.  But not with presidents.  I think Frank was singed by the blunder he made in 1920.  He offered to run for vice president on a ticket with Hoover.  Not much later, Herb announced he was a Republican, leaving Frank with egg all over his Harvard profile.  He was also less than thrilled with the way Herb knocked the New Deal throughout the 1930s."

"I can see what you mean when you say it took daring for President Truman to contact Hoover."

"In the spring of  1945, when Harry floated the idea to his White House staff,  they became almost hysterical.  Most of them were Roosevelt holdovers.  They regarded the idea as a sin against the New Deal.  Steve Early, Roosevelt's press secretary, ranted about how Hoover never came to the White House to pay his respects to FDR.  Harry saw there was no point in arguing with these fanatics.  He wrote a note to Hoover in longhand and slipped out of the White House to mail it personally."

"I never realized it got that bad!"

"Take my word for it.  I watched the whole thing, step by step.  It was an important moment in the history of the presidency.  I can remember every word of Harry's note.  'My dear Mr. President:  -- If you should be in Washington, I would be most happy to talk over the European food situation with you.  Also it would be a pleasure to me to become acquainted with you.'"

"What did Mr. Truman mean by the European food situation?"

"The war in Europe had just ended.  France, Germany, Italy -- the whole continent was facing imminent starvation.  We had to feed them, fast.  No one knew how to do this better than Herbert Hoover."

"Did Hoover respond to Mr. Truman's note?"

"Almost immediately – with a handwritten note of his own, saying he was ready to come to Washington at any time.  On May 28, 1945, they spent 55 minutes together in Mr. Truman's office.  Harry got an astute analysis of where the food situation was at a crisis point and how to deal with it.  It was marvelous to see the way both presidents assumed there was mutual respect between them."

"This is history with a capital H!"

"That meeting was the end of Herbert Hoover's exile from government service.  During the next year, he worked closely with Mr. Truman and members of his administration to avoid a catastrophic global famine.  In 1946, he traveled to no less than 57 countries, discussed their problems with local experts, and held press conferences to alert the world to the crisis.  Herb loved every minute of it.  This is what he was born to do – help people on a gigantic scale.  It was a unique talent.  At the end of the year, President Truman thanked him for doing ‘a magnificent job for the welfare of the world.'"

"Are there any other examples of presidents being nice to each other?"

"At the risk of bragging a little, I took the trouble when I was leaving office to tell Johnny Adams he shouldn't have the least hesitation to appoint his son John Quincy to a top diplomatic post.  I had found him to be one of the most reliable men we had in the state department."

"Did that have anything to do with the fact that he'd named his first son after you?"

"Not in the least. I only found out about that years later.  But it didn't hurt that John Q. had written some superb essays belaboring Thomas Jefferson and his scribbling friends for attacking my administration."

"I seem to recall ex-President Madison gave Andrew Jackson some badly needed advice."

"Did he ever.  In 1833, some hotheads in South Carolina were talking about seceding from the Union because the tariff was too high.  They pointed to a set of resolutions Tom Jefferson had written, saying any state could nullify any act of Congress it didn't like.  Andy was at sixes and sevens until he heard from Jemmy, the guy who wrote the Constitution.  He told him the hotheads were wrong and his pal Tom was only guilty of momentary exaggeration.  That gave Andy the OK to tell the South Carolinians if they tried secession, he'd pay them a visit at the head of ninety thousand men and change their minds.  That was the end of secession for a while."

"Are you saying presidents shouldn't have negative opinions about their predecessors?"

"That's too much to ask of human nature.  I know a lot of presidents have strong opinions about each other.  Harry Truman's told me what he thinks about Lyndon Johnson and – after he's had an ambrosia or two – about Frank Roosevelt.  But it's better to keep such things in the private realm.  Going negative on a fellow president in public diminishes the dignity of the greatest office in the history of the world.  That's the central idea no president should ever forget."

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More Comments:

Kira Gale - 3/1/2010

I am a great admirer of Thomas Fleming's Duel:Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and the Future of America. I wish he would turn his considerable talents to an account of the New England Confederation conspiracy. It is an unwritten chapter in American history. He could channel George Washington for a start.

den j mecurio - 3/1/2010

I enjoyed reading your article Mr. Fleming.
During the Clinton Administration whenever the President had one of his personal failings brought to light, His spokesperson always compared them to unflattering traits of other Presidents. I always found this amusing as they never compared Him to qualities of former Presidents.
As to President George W. Bush, he made mistakes as all do. He will be treated better by history in the future.

Michael Green - 3/1/2010

Mr. Fleming appears to believe that criticism from a Democrat of a Republican is unreasonable. Since I don't recall those parties existing in their present form when Washington was around, I suspect the first president would be distressed at this abuse of his attempts at non-partisanship.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/28/2010

Given the deceit, abuse of power, war crimes, treaty violations, illegal activity, cronyism and ideologically-driven damage done to this country by the last administration, I think President Obama is a model of gentlemanly restraint.

What does Mr. Fleming -- let's not pretend there's anything of George Washington here, because that would be too disappointing to bear -- think of Mr. Cheney's unprecedented attacks on his successor? What? Nothing?