Calvin Coolidge

Imagine living in an era in which there is rampant speculation in the stock market, which keeps going up and up. There is almost no government regulation, which allows “stockjobbers” to concoct various get-rich-quick schemes, while investors are allowed to place large trades on margin. The economy seems to be doing well, yet interest rates are being lowered and tariffs are being increased, causing an imbalance in global trade. In just four years, there have been three rounds of massive tax cuts. The rich keep getting richer, and everyone else — well, they get to reap the benefits of trickle-down economics. Among the most vulnerable are the nation’s farmers, who are saddled with debt while crop prices fluctuate wildly. But hey, look at that stock market! It keeps going up and up and up! What could possibly go wrong?

Calvin Coolidge, a Republican, was the 30th President of the United States, serving through much of what is now known as the Roaring Twenties. One of his nicknames was “Silent Cal,” because he was sort of a do-nothing president who didn’t seem to care for much more than keeping up appearances. He was not an activist leader who roused people to action. He is what would be called today a small-government conservative. When the Mississippi River flooded in 1927, causing widespread devastation and suffering, the Coolidge administration did almost nothing to help. Coolidge occasionally spoke out in favor of civil rights, but he did not do anything heroic. To his credit, he is not known to have appointed any overt racists to positions of power.

In 1928 Coolidge attended a Pan-American conference in Cuba, where he encountered much resentment toward the United States over intervention in Nicaragua, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He attempted to normalize relations with Mexico, which was undergoing revolution and much political upheaval. Coolidge approved the Dawes Plan, which was designed to defuse the German debt crisis that had lingered after World War I. In coming years Germany would fall into an economic tailspin of its own, with devastating consequences for the entire world.

Coolidge, a lawyer, got his start in local politics in Massachusetts in 1909, when he was elected mayor of Northampton. He then became lieutenant Governor and then Governor of Massachusetts. Shortly after he became governor, the police officers in Boston went on strike and Coolidge fired them all. This action brought Coolidge to national prominence as an enforcer of law and order and as one who would stand up against communism. The Bolshevik revolution had just taken place in Russia, and there was already a “red scare” in the United States!

Coolidge’s newly minted national reputation landed him on the Republican ticket in the election of 1920, as Warren G. Harding’s running mate, and he became president in 1923 when Harding died in office. Coolidge was elected to a full term in his own right in 1924, with 54 percent of the popular vote. He declared that he did not think anyone should serve more than two terms as president and declined to seek re-election in 1928. Just six months after he left office in 1929, with Republican successor Herbert Hoover in the White House, the economy began to unravel, ushering in the worst economic crisis our nation had ever experienced. Coolidge died in 1933 at age 60.

Here are some additional facts about Calvin Coolidge:

  • He was born in Vermont.
  • He was religious.
  • He married Grace Goodhue and they had two sons, John and Calvin Jr., the younger of whom died while Coolidge was in office, after getting a blister while playing tennis on White House grounds. The blister became infected, and antibiotics had not yet been developed for treatment of infections.
  • Coolidge mastered the art of the photo opp, appearing frequently in newspapers, magazines and newsreels. Edward Bernays, who would become known as the “father of public relations,” was an advisor, as was Bruce Fairchild Barton, an advertising executive.
  • Coolidge was the first president to appear talking on film.
  • During the Coolidge presidency Charles Lindbergh made his historic solo flight across the Atlantic, returning home and hailed as a hero.
  • With radio broadcasting an emerging technology, Coolidge signed legislation regulating the nation’s airwaves.
  • As president, Coolidge also signed anti-immigration legislation into law.
  • In the aftermath of the Great Depression, Coolidge’s economic philosophy (if you could even call it that) would be discredited for many decades, only to be resurrected by Ronald Reagan, who admired Coolidge and hung up his portrait in the White House.

Today’s book report is on “Calvin Coolidge” by David Greenberg, another in the American Presidents series. This was a quick, concise read. I would have preferred a longer book, but I was not able to find a better one. After reading the introduction to the best-selling biography by Amity Shlaes, I had to put it down because it was so over-the-top laudatory (in my view) that I wanted to barf.

Despite the short length of the Greenberg biography, I did find that it covered the bases quite well. I was particularly impressed with Greenberg’s thoughtful analysis at the end, in which he points out the various economic warning signs that existed during Coolidge’s administration. But he also concedes, quite fairly, that nobody back then, not even the president, could have predicted the future.

Kinderhook, N.Y.: Home of Martin Van Buren

On a week’s vacation from work, I decided to rent a car and go upstate. First stop Kinderhook — home to Martin Van Buren, our nation’s eighth president.

Lindenwald, Van Buren’s home and farm, is a national historic site and is open to the public. I stopped by the visitors center and watched a short film, and then I took a ranger-guided tour of the house itself. The interior is very well preserved, with many original furnishings and wall coverings. No photographs were allowed inside. The ranger was knowledgeable and personable. He spoke a great deal about Van Buren’s life and times, pointing out that he was in large part responsible for creating the Democratic Party.

Before he became president, Van Buren was very briefly governor of New York state, then he was called to Washington to serve as secretary of state under President Andrew Jackson. In Jackson’s second term, Van Buren was vice president. In 1836 Van Buren was elected president, but the economy crashed and he failed to be elected to a second term. He would run for president twice more, unsuccessfully, in 1844 and 1848. Van Buren had large sideburns, and he is credited with having come up with the word “OK”!

After the historical site visit, I also visited Van Buren’s grave, which is a short drive away at the Kinderhook Reformed Church Cemetery.

Click any of the pictures below to see them bigger:

Martin Van Buren Kinderhook pictures

Bill German at the New York Public Library

Longtime Rolling Stones insider Bill German presented a talk today at the New York Public Library on West 53rd Street. As many Stones fans know, Mr. German wrote and edited a newsletter about the band for many years. He went on tour with them, he hung out backstage and was welcomed into their homes and hotel rooms. He subsequently wrote about his adventures in a page-turner of a book that he cleverly titled “Under Their Thumb: How a Nice Boy From Brooklyn Got Mixed Up With the Rolling Stones (and Lived to Tell About It).” Bill also collaborated on a book with Ron Wood about Mr. Wood’s paintings and drawings.

Bill German Under Their ThumbIn my opinion, “Under Their Thumb” is the best book about the Stones — and trust me, I have read many books about the Stones. And in addition to being a gifted writer, Bill is also a terrific public speaker. This was my second time hearing him tell his story. Bill does impersonations of Mick, Ron and Keith, and the way Bill does this you really feel like you are there. During his presentation today, Bill shared pictures and fun anecdotes, including what it was like to hang out in Ron Wood’s basement when people like Stevie Ray Vaughn would pop by at 3 a.m., Keith’s hosting a “lunch” at 8 p.m. — and what happened when he spilled orange juice on Mick Jagger’s rug!

The room was filled with dozens of serious fans who, like me, were hanging on to Bill’s every word. Before and after the presentation, Bill spoke with his fellow Stones fans and signed copies of his books. I picked up extra copies of both the books that he had available, which I will be sending along to out-of-town friends and fellow Stones devotees Gary and Steve. Bill was gracious enough to sign these. He also answered all questions from those in attendance. I had a question of my own I wanted to ask, but I will ask that of Bill another day.

Bill German Ron Wood bookBill German Rolling Stones

On Tyranny

Could the unthinkable ever happen here in the United States? Could we all end up living in a dictatorship? If we are not careful, we just might. And it might happen sooner than anyone might expect. Sure, we live in a democracy today, with rule of law, freedom of the press and a constitution complete with checks and balances. But what if these safeguards fall away one by one? What then?

book review “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century,” Yale University history professor Timothy SnyderIn his very brief yet very important book “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century,” Yale University history professor Timothy Snyder points out our nation’s Founding Fathers created a system with three separate branches of government specifically to prevent tyranny. The framers of our constitution studied the rise and fall of the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome and took lessons from philosophers such as Aristotle, who warned of inequality, and Plato, who warned of demagoguery. The author also reminds us that many functioning democracies in 20th Century Europe devolved into dictatorships, after periods of political stability.

If you ask me, our own country today is headed down the wrong path, a dangerous path. I see many ominous warning signs. Consider that our president and officials in his administration openly lie about even the most easily disprovable of matters. He calls those working in media (which includes me) “enemies of the people.” There are no more White House press briefings. Not that it matters anymore, since the most recent press secretary — the daughter of a preacher, no less — was forced to admit under oath that she slandered a government official, one who was fired in an attempt by the president to obstruct justice as he openly admitted on national TV.

Also consider that half the cabinet secretaries now are “acting” secretaries, thereby circumventing the Senate’s constitutionally mandated confirmation process. This is not normal, nor it is acceptable. Yet it happens. Members of the administration flout the law with a smirk on their faces. They say down is up and right is left, that our allies are our enemies and our enemies are our friends. They call those seeking legal asylum in this country “animals” and treat them worse than animals. They ignore congressional subpoenas and defy court orders. All the while, they are cheered on by crowds of angry people worked into a hate-filled frenzy at political rallies. Yes, the gathering last night in North Carolina was a hate rally.

If you are as troubled by these things as much as I am, you might want to get a copy of this pocket-sized book. It’s brief, yet in my view very important. You could read it on the subway to work or even on your lunch break. It’s essentially just a collection of short proverbs. Among the lessons are things such as “Defend institutions,” “Beware the one-party state” and “Investigate.” These are words to live by, if you ask me.

Still Life: American Concert 1981

In 1981, the Rolling Stones were at the top of their game. They had a No. 1 album, “Tattoo You,” from which the first single, Start Me Up, was a smash hit on the radio. They also had videos running constantly on a brand new cable station called MTV. The band’s tour that year was arguably the biggest any rock band ever done to date, filling large outdoor stadiums and sports arenas, including the Pontiac Silverdome. (I happened to be just starting high school at the time, and was therefore too young to go to the show.) Opening acts for the Stones that tour included Journey and George Thorogood. With the exception of bass player Bill Wyman, the lads were all still in their 30s. Mick Jagger, trim and fit and with long hair, wore football pants and performed shirtless through much of the show. Then for the encore (usually the song Satisfaction, some nights Street Fighting Man), he would come out on stage wearing a colorful cape made of the British and American flags sewn together. He sang into a cordless microphone, which he stuffed into his crotch while running about the stage during the instrumental bits.

Documenting this tour was a live album, released the following year, called “Still Life: American Concert 1981.” This is not considered one of the best Rolling Stones albums, but it was the first one that I ever bought. I got it at Meijer Thrifty Acres. I remember the DJ Allison Harte talking about the album on WLAV when it came out and playing songs from it. I also remember that at first I was not hugely impressed. My biggest complaint was the album’s length. It was just 10 songs! For some reason I thought this was a recording of a complete concert. I wondered what kind of band would only play for 45 minutes? It was not until years later that I learned that the Stones played 25 or more songs on that tour, for close to three hours each night.

At some point I was in my room playing the record with all the lights off (as I did back then) and it was one specific moment in the song Twenty Flight Rock, where the other members of the band give a brief pause while Mick sings a line, that got me. I can’t explain it. It was something about the band’s ability to do that, to be so precise, so tight, that got me hooked. I learned later that Twenty Flight Rock was an Eddie Cochran song that the Stones were doing a cover version of. They also did a cover of the Smokey Robinson and the Miracles song Going to a Go-Go, which got airplay on the radio and on MTV. But it was the song Twenty Flight Rock, all one minute and 45 seconds of it, that initiated my love for the Rolling Stones.

Here are a few additional notes about the 1981 Stones tour and the “Still Life” album:

  • The album contains an “intro” of Duke Ellington’s Take the A Train and an “outro” of Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of the Star Spangled Banner from Woodstock. Both the intro and outro were played at the concerts, the latter as fireworks exploded over the crowd.
  • The album artwork is by the Japanese artist Kazuhide Yamazaki, based on his colorful stage backdrops used on the tour.
  • In addition to the album, there was also a concert movie, directed by Hal Ashby, called “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” which was filmed at the 1981 Stones shows at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz., and at the Brendan Byrne Arena in East Rutherford, N.J. The movie came out in 1983 and was shown in movie theaters.
  • There was also a televised pay-per-view special with radio simulcast for the final show of the tour, at Hampton Coliseum in Hampton, Virginia. In 2014, this concert was released as a CD/DVD set, titled “From the Vault: Hampton Coliseum (Live in 1981).”
  • Following the 1981 tour of the USA, the Stones went on a big tour of Europe in 1982. They did not tour again until 1989.

If you get the “Still Life” album, listen to the song Twenty Flight Rock and let me know what you think. Also listen to the song Let Me Go (from their 1980 album Emotional Rescue, which opens Side 2) and tell me if you can count the number of different ways Mick sings the word “hey” and how he turns that one word into a whole sentence just about every time he sings it. You might also get hooked on the opening song, Under My Thumb, or by Shattered, or by Let’s Spend the Night Together, which is played with guitars rather than on piano.

And then there’s their live rendition of Time Is On My Side, which is played and sung with such emotion. By this time the Stones had been performing so long together that his song had real meaning for them and their fans, yet I was just starting to get to know them.

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Warren G. Harding

Our nation’s 29th President was Warren G. Harding, a Republican. He was the immediate successor to Woodrow Wilson. Harding died in office, and Vice President Calvin Coolidge succeeded him. A number of scandals engulfed Harding’s presidency, most of which did not come to light until after his death. One of the scandals involved the Veterans Bureau, but the most notorious came to be known as the Teapot Dome affair.

John Dean biogaphy of Warren G. HardingTeapot Dome was an oil well in Wyoming. Harding’s Interior Secretary, Albert B. Fall, was convicted of accepting bribes and ultimately served a year behind bars. Fall became the first cabinet secretary to do time after being convicted of wrongdoing. As a result of the Teapot Dome scandal, a number of Congressional oversight norms were established, including the ability of House and Senate committees to issue subpoenas compelling members of an administration to testify, and the ability of Congress to have access to any person’s tax returns. It should be noted that these oversight functions remained in place for the better part of a century — until the current administration began to openly defy them. It remains to be seen whether the courts will ultimately uphold these oversight functions of Congress or defer to the executive branch.

Anyway, let’s go back to the 1920s for a moment, and to the Harding presidency. Warren G. Harding was among a long line of presidents to come from Ohio. Before Harding got started in politics, he was a successful editor and publisher who owned his own newspaper, The Marion Star. He served as a state Senator in Ohio and later as lieutenant governor. In 1910 he ran for Governor of Ohio but lost. In 1914 he was elected to the United States Senate, where he served throughout World War I while Wilson was president. In 1920 he was elected President, defeating the Democratic candidate James M. Cox, also of Ohio. Franklin D. Roosevelt was Cox’s running mate!

Warren G. Harding teapot dome
Warren G. Harding portrait by Harris & Ewing (public domain)

 

As president, Harding kept the United States out of the League of Nations and negotiated separate postwar peace treaties with Germany, Austria and Hungary. He presided over a global disarmament conference in Washington, which at the time meant building fewer warships. On the domestic front, Harding sought lower taxes, higher tariffs, and budget cuts. He vetoed a cash bonus to World War I veterans because he felt it would balloon the federal budget deficit. There was also widespread labor unrest during this era. Harding largely sided with management over labor, although the eight-hour workday became standard under his watch.

On civil rights, Harding was less than heroic. He had been elected with the support of many blacks in the South and as president he spoke out against lynchings, but beyond that he did not do much. He signed legislation that imposed quota restrictions on immigration. Harding pardoned about two dozen political prisoners, including Eugene V. Debs, a former Socialist candidate for President whom Wilson had thrown in jail for speaking out against the war.

Harding was on a trip to the West Coast in 1923 when he died of a heart attack in a hotel room in San Francisco. At the time of his death, Harding was popular. His body was returned to Washington, where he received a large funeral. He was buried in an elaborate tomb in Ohio.

Here are some additional details about Harding:

  • He was the sixth president to die in office and the third to die of natural causes. Three others had previously been assassinated.
  • The G is for Gamaliel.
  • Some of Harding’s political opponents spread rumors that he was black.
  • He had at least one extramarital affair, and after his death a woman wrote a book in which she claimed to be Harding’s illegitimate daughter.
  • Harding is the first president elected in an election in which women were allowed to vote.
  • Harding appointed former President William Howard Taft as Chief Justice of the United States.
  • At the 1912 Republican national convention, Harding delivered the nominating speech for Taft.
  • Harding was the first sitting U.S. Senator to be elected President. Kennedy and Obama were the only others to be elected to the presidency while serving as Senators.
  • Future president Herbert Hoover was Harding’s Commerce Secretary.
  • Harding gave long-winded speeches with complex language that was heavy on alliteration. He self-deprecatingly referred to this speaking style as “bloviating.”
  • Harding was president when the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated on May 30, 1922.

According to John W. Dean, author of the biography “Warren G. Harding,” part of the American Presidents series, Harding was unfairly tarnished after his death for scandals that he was not responsible for. Yes, this is the same John W. Dean who was Richard Nixon’s White House counsel, the guy who famously told the Watergate committee that he had told his former boss that there was “a cancer growing on the presidency.” I am open to Dean’s interpretation, but I feel he did not make a very strong case.

If I were to give Dean’s book a letter grade, I would give it a C-minus. In my view, if Dean wants to rehabilitate Harding’s image, he needs to make a stronger argument. A skimming of the bibliography lists mostly previously published biographies and very few references to original source material. Dean also uses imprecise language. For example, Dean writes that in 1919 President Wilson “lay in a coma, partially paralyzed.” While Wilson had indeed been incapacitated while still in office, there is no evidence that he was ever in a coma, and if he had been in a coma he would have been completely paralyzed, not partially.

Further, Dean speculates that Harding was largely blameless not only for the Teapot Dome but also for a Veterans Bureau scandal, but he overlooks the fact that Harding allowed the perpetrator of that outrage, Charles R. Forbes, to flee to Europe before he could be held accountable. Forbes later returned to the United States, where he was convicted of conspiracy and sent to prison! Toward the end of the book, Dean also speculates that Harding probably did not father the illegitimate child, but according to the Wikipedia page for Harding, DNA testing later confirmed that he had. Or as Maury would have said to the president: “You ARE the father!”

Taft Harding and Lincoln
Chief Justice William Howard Taft, President Warren G. Harding and Robert Todd Lincoln, at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial on May 30, 1922. (National Photo Company, public domain)

Declaration of Independence in Jefferson’s own hand

Today after work I visited the New York Public Library, where an original manuscript of the Declaration of Independence was on display. This is a rare, handwritten copy in Thomas Jefferson’s own hand, one of only four in existence. Congress had removed passages from the original proposed text condemning the slave trade, and Jefferson wanted to preserve his original version. So, after the Declaration was adopted on July 4, 1776, Jefferson hand wrote several copies to send to some of his friends. These documents, part of the library’s permanent collection, are so priceless that they are only on display two days each year. I waited in line for two hours to just view and to take these pictures — which I color-corrected in Photoshop, as the lighting inside was dimmed.

Click the pictures to see them bigger:

copy of Declaration of Independence in Jefferson’s own hand

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson was our nation’s 28th president. He was in office through all of World War I. He devoted the final years of his presidency — and his life, essentially — to fight for ratification of the Treaty of Versailles, which included the establishment of his League of Nations, a global body that Wilson hoped would prevent future war. Wilson’s fight for the treaty and U.S. entry into the League would ultimately prove to be unsuccessful.

Woodrow Wilson book review
The photo on the book cover is of Wilson returning from the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919. (Photo: Associated Press, public domain)

His life story is told in “Wilson,” a biography by A. Scott Berg. (Thanks to cousin Traveler Blue for the gift!) At nearly 750 pages of text it’s quite a lot to get through. But it was an easy read. Photographs from the era enhanced the narrative. I enjoyed Berg’s writing style, and I appreciated that he expounded not only upon the subject’s many successes but also his many contradictions as a person and shortcomings as a politician. If there is one gripe I have about Berg’s “Wilson,” it’s that the author spent little time explaining how this wartime president interacted with the military during the war itself.

As the author explains, Wilson was a Southerner by birth and by disposition. He was born in Virginia, the son of a Presbyterian minister who moved the family frequently from congregation to congregation. Wilson grew up in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. He worked as a college professor and later became president of Princeton University. In 1910 New Jersey’s Democratic Party bosses got Wilson to run for governor, thinking he would be their puppet. After winning the governors race, Wilson defied the party bosses by passing a number of reforms aimed at rooting out government corruption. Against long odds he also pushed through a bold progressive agenda for the state that included labor protections and educational reform. But this would all prove to be just a brief springboard to the Democratic presidential nomination in 1912.

This was the election in which Theodore Roosevelt challenged his Republican successor, William Howard Taft, for the GOP nomination and when he failed ran as a third party “Bull Moose” candidate. TR turned out to be a spoiler for the Republicans. Despite receiving less than 42 percent of the popular vote, Wilson won the election in an electoral-college landslide. He became the first southerner elected president since before the Civil War.

Woodrow Wilson Fred MIchmershuizen
Wilson giving his first State of the Union address, the first such address since 1801. (Photo: Library of Congress, public domain)

 

As president, Wilson’s domestic agenda was sweeping and progressive. It included a reduction of high tariffs, a personal income tax on the rich, an estate tax, antitrust legislation, labor protections, and farm subsidies. Wilson also signed into law legislation establishing the Federal Reserve. But Wilson’s record on civil rights for blacks was poor. He packed his Cabinet with southerners who sympathized with the Confederacy of old, and when these department heads decided to segregate the federal work force, Wilson went along with it. Wilson also allowed a screening of D.W. Griffith’s racist film “The Birth of a Nation,” which glorified the Ku Klux Klan, to take place in the White House.

During Wilson’s first term, World War I broke out in Europe. Wilson managed to keep the United States neutral for several years, despite Germany’s sinking of a number of ships carrying American passengers, including most famously the Lusitania.

In the election of 1916, Wilson faced off against Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes, narrowly defeating him by a handful of electoral-college votes. The popular vote was 49 percent for Wilson and 46 percent for his republican opponent. The outcome was in dispute for about a week after election day.

Wilson won re-election in 1916 under the slogan “He kept us out of war,” but by early the next year the Germans had escalated their attacks on transatlantic shipping. In April 1917 Wilson went to Congress and asked for a war declaration, stating famously, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” It would take the United States many months to mobilize for war, but when the Americans did finally enter the war it was in a big way. A draft was established, bringing close to 3 million men into the military! Black soldiers were drafted as well as whites, but they were segregated into different units for training and combat. Under the command of General Pershing, the United States turned the tide of the war in Europe, and by the end of 1918 an armistice was declared. But not before untold millions of soldiers had died, including more than 100,000 Americans. Countless millions more died in a deadly global influenza epidemic.

Woodrow Wilson book review
Official presidential portrait of Woodrow Wilson, 1913. (Photo: Frank Graham Cootes, public domain)

 

After the war Wilson traveled overseas to negotiate the peace treaty. Before talks started, he was welcomed by masses of people lining the streets to catch a glimpse of him. In Paris, he negotiated personally with French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and others, for what would become the Treaty of Versailles. Wilson had brought with him as the basis for negotiations his “Fourteen Points,” which was his vision of how the world should be organized. The final and most important of these points was Wilson’s desire to form a League of Nations, which he got the others to agree to, a bit reluctantly. The French and British were more interested in punishing and humiliating the Germans for the war and wanted harsh remedies, including making the Germans pay reparations. Wilson wanted a more balanced approach, but having expended so much of his own political capital on getting them to agree to the League, he ultimately went with the plan. They also re-drew the map of the world, changing boundaries of many countries and creating new nations, mostly out of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.

When Wilson returned to the United States with the Treaty of Versailles — which included the League of Nations — the Republicans in the Senate, led by Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, refused to ratify it. They might have approved a modified version had Wilson agreed to let them make changes, but instead Wilson went on a tour of the country, in which he intended to take his case directly to the American people. This would prove to be futile. He barnstormed via train, in which he gave dozens of speeches, mainly in the Western states. But on this trip his health deteriorated, and after a speech in Pueblo, Colorado, in September 1919, he suffered a complete physical breakdown. He was brought back to the White House, where several days later he had a debilitating stroke that left half his body paralyzed. He remained incapacitated for the rest of his presidency. Congress and the general public were not informed about the true extent of his condition.

Here are some additional facts about Wilson and his presidency:

  • Wilson was the first two-term Democrat since Andrew Jackson.
  • He went by Tommy Wilson until adulthood, when he decided Woodrow sounded more academic.
  • He had three daughters, one of whom was married in the White House. Another daughter married his Treasury Secretary!
  • Wilson is the first president to hold White House press conferences, in which assembled reporters could ask questions on any topic, on the record.
  • He was also the first president since John Adams to present his State of the Union address in person, to a joint session of Congress. In addition to his annual message, Wilson also addressed Congress in person dozens of other times, on a wide range of topics.
  • Wilson’s first wife, Ellen, died during his first term. He remarried shortly thereafter, to Edith Bolling Galt, a widow whose first husband had died and left her a jewelry store.
  • After Wilson’s debilitating stroke, Edith ran interference for her husband and liaised on his behalf with members of his Cabinet. Some have even gone so far as to call Edith our nation’s first woman president!
  • His first wide, Ellen, was a talented impressionist painter.
  • Wilson also had an “other woman” in his life — Mrs. Peck — with whom Wilson had some sort of illicit relationship earlier in his life. This never turned into a full-fledged scandal, in part because Teddy Roosevelt thought exposing it might actually help Wilson in the election of 1912.
  • Wilson is the only president with a PhD.
  • He authored a number of books on government and political science.
  • He was an excellent orator. According to the author, he wrote all of his own speeches, often using shorthand for early drafts.
  • Physically, he was tall and slender.
  • He played golf almost every day, on the advice of his physician, Dr. Grayson.
  • He also went on lots of automobile rides.
  • He was stubborn, and he tended to carry grudges. If someone crossed him, he would often eliminate that person from his life forever.
  • Wilson received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919, in recognition for his peace-making efforts after the war.

Also during Wilson’s presidency, FOUR amendments to the U.S. Constitution were ratified:

  • The 16th Amendment allowed Congress to impose income taxes.
  • The 17th Amendment established direct election of U.S. Senators by popular vote. Before this time, legislatures of each state selected their Senators.
  • The 18th Amendment was the Prohibition amendment. Congress passed the Volstead Act to enforce Prohibition, but Wilson vetoed it and Congress overrode the veto. The federal ban on alcohol thus began in January 1920.
  • The 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote. At first Wilson was opposed to the amendment, but during his presidency he “evolved” on the issue. The 1920 presidential election thus became the first in which women could vote in every state.

Wilson left office in 1921, but he and his wife remained in the nation’s capital. He opened a law office with a partner but never had any paying clients. One of his last public appearances was to attend the funeral of his successor, Warren G. Harding. Wilson died in 1924 and was entombed in Washington National Cathedral.

Taft: President and Chief Justice

William Howard Taft, our country’s 27th President and its 10th Chief Justice, believed in the Constitution and its system of checks and balances. He is most often remembered for being fat, which is a shame because his advocacy for the judicial branch of government was his real legacy. Taft is also responsible for a number of long-lasting physical changes to our nation’s capital, including the construction of the Supreme Court Building (more on that in a moment).

William Howard Taft book reviewBefore he became President, Taft served as a state judge in his home state of Ohio, as Solicitor General of the United States, and as a federal judge. In 1900 President William McKinley persuaded Taft to step down from the bench to oversee the United States occupation of the Philippines, where he became civil governor a year later. After McKinley was assassinated, Taft continued to serve in the Philippines under President Theodore Roosevelt. In 1904 Roosevelt named Taft Secretary of War. Taft visited Panama during the construction of the canal and later served as temporary provisional governor of Cuba.

In 1908, when Theodore Roosevelt declined to seek another term, Taft received the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, and — with TR’s full blessing and support — he went on to defeat the Democratic nominee, William Jennings Bryan, by a wide margin. As President, Taft focused on revising the nation’s complicated system of tariffs and breaking up large trusts. He also dealt with foreign policy crises with Mexico, Cuba, Santo Domingo and Nicaragua.

But Taft’s conduct in office was not to the liking of Theodore Roosevelt, whose criticism of his successor became more and more vituperative. In an unprecedented move, Roosevelt challenged Taft for the Republican nomination in 1912. When TR lost the nomination, he claimed that the system was rigged and formed a third political party, which became known as the Bull Moose Party. Roosevelt ran against both Taft and the Democratic nominee, Woodrow Wilson, who would go on to win the presidency in an electoral college landslide despite capturing only 41.8 percent of the popular vote. Roosevelt got 27.4 percent and Taft 23.2 percent. After leaving the Presidency, Taft taught law at Yale and authored several books. During World War I he served as co-chairman of the National War Labor Board.

In 1921, President Warren G. Harding appointed Taft Chief Justice of the United States, where he would serve for nine years. As Chief Justice Taft sought consensus, and he wrote and participated in many important decisions. Taft stepped down from the Supreme Court in February 1930 for health reasons, and he died a month later.

While serving as Chief Justice Taft also successfully persuaded Congress to allocate funds for the Supreme Court to have its own building, as up until this time the justices had been meeting in the basement of the Capitol. Taft selected Cass Gilbert as architect for the building. It was completed in 1935, five years after Taft’s death.

U.S. Supreme Court Building William Howard Taft
The Supreme Court Building of the United States. Photo by Joe Ravi, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16959908

 

Taft’s career and his many significant contributions to our nation are summarized in the short and concise “William Howard Taft” by Jeffrey Rosen, part of the American Presidents Series. According to the author, President Taft protected more land and was more successful in breaking up trusts and monopolies than his predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt. And as Chief Justice, the author says, Taft’s greatest accomplishment was to solidify the federal judiciary as a coequal branch of government.

Here are some additional facts about William Howard Taft:

  • He was one of many presidents to hail from Ohio. Others included Hayes, Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, McKinley and Harding.
  • His wife, Helen, who went by “Nellie,” suffered a stroke when he was President.
  • As mentioned, Taft was heavy. He gained and lost weight over the years. According to the book, he was at his heaviest — and his unhappiest — during his presidency.
  • His heroes were George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and John Marshall (fourth Chief Justice of the United States).
  • President Taft appointed six justices to the Supreme Court, the most of any president except George Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt! He would later serve alongside some of the justices he had appointed.

In addition to being responsible for the construction of the United States Supreme Court Building, Taft was also president of the Lincoln Memorial Commission and presided over the monument’s dedication in 1922. Taft also had the first Oval Office built in the West Wing of the White House. And we can also thank Taft for the cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C., as first lady Nellie Taft planted the very first cherry blossom trees, which were a gift from Japan.

cherry blossoms in Washington DC
Cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C., USDA photo by Scott Bauer – United States Department of Agriculture, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44873

Theodore Roosevelt’s South American adventure

Before moving on to Taft, here’s another book about Teddy. This one is about his perilous journey with a group of explorers down an unmapped river in Brazil. “River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey” takes place in 1913, a year after the bespectacled former president had lost his insurgent third-party run for what would have been an unprecedented third term.

Fred Michmershuizen

 

Roosevelt teamed up with a number of naturalists and explorers for a trip that lasted several months, through an unknown section of the Brazilian rainforest. Roosevelt’s second oldest son, Kermit, was part of the expedition. Along the way, there were many hardships. It took the men more than a month just to get to the river, and once they got started downstream in their canoes they were not exactly sure where they were going. They were hoping to eventually reach the Amazon. Once on the River of Doubt — that was the name of the river, but it was later renamed after Roosevelt himself — there were dangerous fish and snakes. Food was scarce, and the mosquitoes, ants and termites made everyone miserable. When rapids or waterfalls made navigating the river impossible, they had to portage all their supplies around the obstacles, causing excruciating delays that often took many extra days.

At one point before a difficult portage one of the men was swept down the river to his death, in an incident that was Kermit’s fault. Later another of the men committed murder by shooting one of his compatriots, then vanishing into the forest. Roosevelt himself came close to death after succumbing to an infection resulting from cutting his leg on a rock.

The co-leader of the expedition was a legendary native Brazilian explorer named Colonel Candido Rondon, who had dedicated his life to mapping the Amazon and who was a fierce defender of the native Indians. He had famously instructed his men who might encounter the Indians, “Die if you must, but never kill.”

This book is by Candice Millard, who is also author of a similarly gripping book called “Destiny of the Republic,” about the assassination of President James Garfield. “River of Doubt” is skimpy on maps but has plenty of helpful pictures. For me, the most interesting sections were Millard’s descriptions of the animal and plant life of the Amazon rain forests. She describes how South America was formed over millions of years and how living things evolved by carving out specialized niches. She also describes the various native Indian tribes, who were largely unseen. They could have killed the intruders at any time but chose not to.

Theodore Roosevelt pointing towards the area explored during the Roosevelt-Rondon expedition. (Credit: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)