Six Characters in Search of a Blogger


Author’s Comment: You’ve Got to Be Sh**ting Me.
February 3, 2009, 3:50 pm
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PLEASE put down the mic, Joe.  Seriously.  We don't want to hear it.

PLEASE put down the mic, Joe. Seriously.

Republicans are digging in their heels about the stimulus plan.  They are taking shots at the tax woes of Democratic political appointees.  They are indulging in a little political copycat strategy with the recent appointment of the first black chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele.  And they are seeking economic advice from…Joe the Plumber?

That’s right, folks.  Sam Wurzelbacher, aka “Joe the (unlicensed) Plumber,” “Joe the Gaza War Correspondent,” “Joe the Country Singer,” and “Joe the Author with a Ghostwriter” (yup, he already has a book), is in Washington this week to offer his thoughts on the economic stimulus plan to GOP Congressional aides.

Does anybody else feel like they are in the middle of a big historical punch line?



Author’s Comment: Another One Bites the Dust
February 3, 2009, 2:59 pm
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Former Senator Tom Daschle

Former Senator Tom Daschle

Former Senator Tom Daschle announced today that he was withdrawing his name from the nomination for the Secretary of Health and Human Services position, as well as stepping down from his place as “White House health care czar.”

Daschle cited a piece he read in the New York Times as part of his decision; it comes after several days’ worth of controversy about his failure to pay taxes on free chauffeur services he received from a friend over the course of several years.  There is some conjecture that his decision to withdraw his candidacy may also have been influenced by his close ties to lobbyists in the health care industry, and the damage that might have inflicted on his status and agenda in the Cabinet-level post (especially given Obama’s negative stance on lobbyists in his Administration.)

I am starting to wonder if Daschle may have finally read blogger Matt Taibbi’s diatribe against him in “The Whore Factor,” published on rollingstone.com in early December.  Here’s some classic Taibbi:  “In Washington there are whores and there are whores, and then there is Tom Daschle.”  Oh, snap.

Do I think Tom Daschle is a horrible person?  No.  Do I think he might have done a good job in the position?  Yes.  Does it bother me that he worked closely with health care lobby firms, and earned a great deal of money from these relationships?  Of course.  But I am beginning to wonder how many people in Washington–i.e., those with experience— don’t have skeletons in their closets.



Week 12: Obama’s Cabinet
February 3, 2009, 2:23 pm
Filed under: Obama's Cabinet | Tags: , , ,

600px-us-greatseal-obversesvgThis week, following our look at Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals,” we’ll take a look at six members of President Obama’s Cabinet.  It’s a fantastic time to be doing so, as we are in the flush of appointment hearings and votes–Hillary Clinton was just sworn into the office of Secretary of State yesterday;  Tom Daschle announced his withdrawal from Secretary of Health and Human Services today;  and Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH) was just announced as Obama’s pick for Commerce Secretary earlier this morning (to replace former nominee Governor Bill Richardson [D-AZ]).

Buckle your seatbelts–I think it’s going to be a bumpy ride.



11.7 The Seventh Day: Running the “Machine”
February 3, 2009, 2:09 pm
Filed under: Lincoln's Team of Rivals | Tags: , , , ,

800px-runningthemachine-lincadmin2

I love turning back and revisiting history; not necessarily for the specific lessons it teaches us, but because it reminds me that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  

Although we have almost deified Abraham Lincoln–consecrated him in marble, honored him as one of our greatest Presidents–he was, for much of his time in office, a troubled man.  He was steering the country through one of the most precarious (and costly) conflicts we have known.  He faced power struggles within his own Cabinet.  He made mistakes in his political and military appointments, hiring ineffectual leaders and generals.  And his popularity plummeted as the war raged on and the deaths of Union soldiers mounted.

The caricature above appeared in 1864, when the Civil War still engulfed the country, and gives an idea of how Lincoln was perceived–at least by a segment of the population.  He is pictured laughing (a thoughtless act in a serious time), being reminded of a joke while his Cabinet indulge in questionable war work:  claiming “great victory” for the capture of one prisoner and one gun; using ridiculous math to mount Navy attacks; arresting citizens for opposing the government; and above all, printing money.  Lots and lots of money. 

I bring this up because as we head into this week’s analysis of Obama’s Cabinet, it is critical that we remember that even our greatest Presidents have made mistakes.  And that large swaths of money have been made and spent, again and again–Americans have always been critical of such expenditures.  Now some would argue that if we are to forgive Obama for his mistakes and his stimulus package spending, then certainly George W. Bush might deserve the same regard.  After all, he made mistakes.  And he was a spendthrift (look at the Iraq War.)  

But I would suggest that the very real difference between Bush and Obama (and even Lincoln)–aside from their relative eloquence–is intent.  President Bush promised compassionate conservatism, and instead supplied us with something quite different–divisive elitism.  President Obama is promising change through bipartisanism and ethics reform, but we are far too early into his administration to see where those promises might lead.

One thing is certain:  no matter how he runs the machine, as it has been for every President before him, history will be his judge. 



11.6 “Andy Ain’t a Drunkard”: Vice President Andrew Johnson

 

Lincoln's Second Vice President, Andrew Johnson

Lincoln's Second Vice President, Andrew Johnson

Let’s face it, our 17th President, Andrew Johnson, was a bit of a train wreck.

We might have seen hints of it coming during the Lincoln Administration; as Lincoln’s second Vice President, Johnson was a politically clever choice–well, he would have been, had Lincoln had remained alive.

Johnson was a Tennessee Democrat, and was the only Southern Senator to remain in Congress after the Confederate states had seceded.  As such, he gained tremendous political clout among Union politicians as the war came to a close, and became an appealing symbol of unity and bipartisanship when he was put on the ticket with Lincoln in 1864.  He increased his popularity among Republicans with his professed vitriol towards the Confederates, stating  “Treason must be made odious… traitors must be punished and impoverished … their social power must be destroyed.”

However, trouble began to brew shortly after the election.  First, Johnson asked Lincoln if he actually had to attend the inaugural ceremonies.  (Lincoln’s response to the question?  “That Johnson is a queer man.”)  On Inauguration Day, he arrived drunk at his own swearing in, and proceeded to launch into a rather strange speech:  “I am a-goin’ for to tell you here to-day; yes, I’m a-goin for to tell you all, that I’m a plebian! I glory in it; I am a plebian! ”   Johnson’s excuse was that he needed the (more than 5 glasses of) whiskey he consumed as a pain reliever from the lingering symptoms of typhoid he had suffered earlier in life.  Lincoln tried to defend him by stating “I have known Andy for many years…he made a bad slip the other day, but you need not be scared. Andy ain’t a drunkard.”

As a member of a different party (the National Union Party/”War Democrat”), and kept separate from Lincoln’s Cabinet and the decision-making processes of State, Johnson was likely never intended for the Presidency.  Like his Vice Presidential predecessor (Hannibal Hamlin), Johnson was not privy to Lincoln’s inner circle, and as such, was remote from policy making.

Thus, when he took over the Presidency after Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, he lacked both Executive experience, as well as a working knowledge of Lincoln’s Cabinet (which he inherited.)  Although he had professed hatred toward the Confederate cause, he was ultimately quite lenient towards his “plebian” Southern brethren in setting Reconstruction policy.  This ultimately cost him the support of Congress and his Cabinet (notably the leader of the anti-South sentiment, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton), as well as earned him two impeachment trials.  More importantly, Johnson’s political decisions left indelible scars on this country that can still be felt to this day.

Which leads me to this observation:  beware the politician with the folksy accent who always talks about the common people.  We had eight years of it, and look what that did for us.  And now, before the confetti from Election Day has finished being cleared from the streets, there’s another folksy outsider on the rise, “rearin’ her head” at the Alfalfa Club dinner in Washington, setting up her own PAC, and getting ready for a run in 2012.

Oh, God, Andy, I’m with you.  Pass the whiskey.



11.5 The Man Who Would Be Chief Justice: Attorney General Edward Bates

 

Lincoln's Attorney General, Edward Bates

Lincoln's Attorney General, Edward Bates

Edward Bates, Lincoln’s Attorney General, was also one of Lincoln’s opponents for the Republican Presidential nomination in 1860.  An ardent Whig and former supporter of the Know Nothing Party (a fiercely “nativist” party that defined themselves as anti-immigration and anti-naturalization), Bates was controversial in his position on slavery:  although he opposed it, he also supported the deportation of freed blacks from the country.

Unlike his peers on the Cabinet, Bates did not jockey for superior positions or try to rival Lincoln in any way.  He respected the President as his leader, although he wondered if Lincoln had the political gumption to maintain order over the rest of the Cabinet (especially when contending with strong personalities such as Seward, Chase, and Stanton.)

One of Bates’ major accomplishments during his term in office was the establishment of a precedent for jurisdictions in military arrests.  Because the country had not entered into a conflict with the scope of the Civil War, this precedent had never been determined–who would try civilians arrested during the war?  Should it be the state/civilian courts?  Or would this task fall to the military?  Critically, Bates chose the latter option, as civilian conduct during war would fall under military codes of law.  Technically, in most cases, they would not be in violation of civilian statutes.

Although Bates had no ambition to grow himself towards the Presidency, there was one role he coveted greatly:  that of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  He as much as asked Lincoln for the role following the death of Chief Justice Roger Taney in October 1864.  He regarded the position as a capstone to his career, stating,  “I could not desire to close my public life more honorably, than by a brief term of service in that eminent position.”  He even went so far as to suggest he would only hold the position for 2 or 3 years, and resign after that time, allowing Lincoln to appoint a successor before he ended his second Presidential term.

However, it was not to be;  Lincoln instead appointed Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase, a less logical but more politically expedient choice.  Bates resigned in November of 1864, before Chase assumed his new role on the Supreme Court.



11.4 Mars Attacks? Secretary of War Edwin Stanton

 

Edwin Stanton, Lincoln's Secretary of War

Edwin Stanton, Lincoln's Secretary of War

If Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles was Lincoln’s “Neptune,” then Edwin Stanton was certainly Lincoln’s “Mars”; his god of war.  Lincoln referred to him fondly in this way throughout the Civil War, and depended on the administratively skilled Democrat to manage the War Department after the disastrous leadership of his predecessor, Lincoln’s initial appointee, Simon Cameron.

Stanton initially took the post with some reluctance.  He had been a respected member of (although a late addition to) President Buchanan’s Cabinet, serving as Attorney General from 1860-1861.  It has been suggested that during his brief role under Buchanan, he convinced the President to move away from his policy of leniency towards the secession of Southern states, and declare such acts as unconstitutional.

Stanton was to maintain his strong antagonism towards the South throughout his political career.  He was ruthless to Union officers and officials who expressed sympathy for the Southern cause.  He also appointed Lafayette Baker as head of the National Detective Police (NDP)–essentially the secret police/spy service for the Union; although quite efficient at his job, Baker was later known for dirty tactics, and according to some sources engaged in the torture of Confederate spies such as Belle Boyd.

Stanton’s one great tactical mistake during his management of the War came when he closed recruitment offices in 1862, under the false assumption that the Civil War would be ending soon thereafter.  This stem in the flow of new recruits likely hastened the addition of black soldiers to the war effort; 1863 marked the year when the first black regiments, such as the famous Massachusetts 54th, began to form.

Like many of his colleagues on the Cabinet, Stanton went from a great skeptic of Lincoln to being a great supporter.  Like the god he was named for, he had a quick and fiery temper, which he often launched and Lincoln or his subordinates.  Despite his many disagreements with the President, it was ultimately he who gave us one of the most lasting remarks about Lincoln:  “Now he belongs to the ages.”

Following Lincoln’s assassination, Stanton oversaw the capture and arrest of John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators.  Subsequently, Stanton remained on President Andrew Johnson’s Cabinet, where he argued fiercely against what he perceived as Johnson’s gentle treatment of the South during Reconstruction.  Stanton’s antagonism was actually at the root of Johnson’s later impeachment trials; the President tried to have Stanton removed from office without the knowledge or approval of the Senate, and thus earned their enmity.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing suggestions about Stanton was that he may have been behind the Lincoln assassination.  Although it is a rather far-fetched conspiracy theory, it was put forward by Stanton’s “superspy” Lafayette Baker, who was demoted when he was found to have tapped Stanton’s office telegraph line from Washington to Nashville after the war had ended.  Recalled after Lincoln’s assassination, Baker contributed to the capture of John Wilkes Booth and subsequently presented Stanton with Booth’s diary.  Later, when it was discovered that the diary was missing 18 pages, Baker suggested that Stanton had removed them to cover up his connection to the crime.  Baker died in 1868, under mysterious circumstances that were labeled “meningitis.”  More recent tests on his remains have suggested that he died of arsenic poisoning.

And so we are left to wonder:  did Mars attack?