Rating the Presidents

I recently had the chance to particitate in C-SPAN’s new poll of historians to rate the Presidents, the “2009 Historians Survey of Presidential Leadership.” The overall group’s results will be released around Presidents Day 2009.

Here’s the list I submitted, with my cumulative raw score for each. (Ratings were based on ten elements: economic management, crisis leadership, vision, international relations, so on.) It’s certainly full of my own prejudice and bias, with many arguable points. George W. Bush appears only as 41st out of 43. I ranked two as worse: Andrew Johnson and James Buchanan. I gave the top spot to George Washington, narrowly edging out Abe Lincoln (downgraded for treatment of wartime dissent and choosing a lousy successor) and FDR (some of whose New Deal programs didn’t work very well).

Free free to disagree or haggle with any of it. All the best. –KenA

1. George Washington 90
2. Abraham Lincoln 88
3. F.D. Roosevelt 87
4. T. Roosevelt 76
5. Thomas Jefferson 70

6. Andrew Jackson 66
7. Dwight Eisenhower 63
8. James Monroe 62
9. Harry Truman 62
10. Gerald Ford 61

11. Ronald Reagan 61
12. George H.W. Bush 60
13. Bill Clinton 60
14. James Polk 60
15. Wm. McKinley 59

16. Woordow Wilson 59
17. J.F. Kennedy 58
18. James Garfield 57
19. Lyndon B. Johnson 56
20. Calvin Coolidge 56

21. James Madison 55
22/23. Grover Cleveland 53
24. Chester A. Arthur 53
25. John Quincy Adams 53

26. Benjamin Harrison 53
27. Ulysses Grant 52
28. Jimmy Carter 50
29. Zachary Taylor 51
30. Wm. Henry Harrison 51

31. John Adams 50
32. Rutherford Hayes 49
33. John Tyler 48
34. Wm.Howard Taft 48
35. Herbert Hoover 46

36. Martin Van Buren 45
37. Richard M. Nixon 44
38. Millard Fillmore 43
39. Warren G. Harding 42
40. Franklin Pierce 42

41. George W. Bush 40
42. James Buchanan 40
43. Andrew Johnson 36

LA Times Book Fair

Yes, in case you thought you saw me in the crowd, I was out in California last weekend for the LA Times book festival, and it was a treat. I spoke on a panel titled “Biography: Infamous Lives,” where I delivered one of my typical spell-binding, clever, insightful orations about young J. Edgar Hoover for a packed room of 300+ people. Joining me on the panel were Nancy Isenberg (Aaron Burr) and Michael Neufeld (Werner Von Braun), and moderator Scott Berg.  Any of you lucky enough to watch C-SPAN BookTV that day saw it live.

It was a fun trip. The LA Times festival draws a huge crowd to the UCLA campus, with plenty of atmosphere, dozens of interesting, esoteric booths, and a taste of Hollywood. While there, I also did an interview with Blogger Paul Huebl (“Crime, Guns, and Videotape”) which he posted on Google Video.  Check it out below.  Enjoy.


Boss Tweed’s Birthday.

By the way, in case you missed it, this past Wednesday (April 3) was the 185th birthday of my own favorite icon of American civic virtue, Wm. Magear Tweed, The Boss, who presided over New York’s Tammany Hall as grafter in chief from the Civil War until late 1872. By then, Tweed and friends has stolen as estimated $45 to $200 million from the city and county treasuries — a sum worth billions in modern money. Along the way, they also did more good, did more to build the City, help the poor and immigrants get a foothold in society, and give government a friendly human face than just about anyone else of their generation.

Here the link to an interview I did on the occasion for NPR’s Bryant Street Project:

In honor of the occasion, I give you my two favorite pictures of The Boss. First, here is Thomas Nast’s classic “Twas Him,” from the Harper’s Weekly of August 19, 1871. The caption reads “Who stole the peoples’ money?” Tweed is the chubby man holding his hat:
Then, there is this cover drawing from the January 6, 1871 Evening Telegram showing Tweed leading the dancers at Tammany’s New Year’s celebration at the NY Academy of Music:
So Happy Birthday, Boss. They don’t make politians like you any more and, frankly, we are all poorer as a result. –KenA

Gasp! Where are the leaders?

My chief reaction to Hillary Clinton’s stunning wins in Texas and Ohio, which have now extended her epic race with Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination for at least six more weeks (not unlike the groundhog seeing his shadow) until the Pennsylvania primary on April 22, was this: Fear.

Will so much more of this increasingly ugly campaign help Democrats ultimately defeat John McCain in November to re-take the White House? Or is this turn of events now setting up Democrats to lose all the marbles once again in what otherwise should be a sure-win year?

No, I am not suggesting that Clintin should drop out. She has won her right to compete fair and square by her clean primary wins last week. That’s not the point. The issue is quality.

No, Barack Obama does not deserve a free ride to the nomination. He has a duty to answer questions about the Tony Rezko trial, his views on NAFTA and Israel, his recent staff gaffes, and all the rest — just as Hillary Clinton has a duty to disclosure her tax returns, funding sources for the Clintin library, presidential papers, and explain the basis of her 3 am phone calls. Yes, a tough campaign can make them both tougher fighters in the end, and help clear the air on thorny issues. And yes, this ongoing contest has worked wonderfully so far to build interest, enthusiasm, and turnout.

But all these positives are fragile. And lately, the trend is ominous. We Democrats have a history of bloodying ourselves in internal battles producing weakened, losing candidates. Think Jimmy Carter 1980 or Hubert Humphrey 1968 (and for the historians in the room, Al Smith 1928, James Cox 1920, or even Stephen Douglas 1860).

What bothers me about the Hillary Clinton campaign today is that it seeems to smell blood and has chosen to base its strategy on simply tearing down its opponent. Turning loose dogs of war is always brings risks of the unknown. (See Iraq.) The more she attacks, the more Obama will need to attack back. And if she loses the contest and Obama becomes her collateral damage, losing to McCain in November, this seems to bother her circle less than losing the nomination itself.

And that galls the hell out of me. Because priority number one in 2008 is to win back the White House. Otherwise, this whole terrific primary contest has all been one big banal waste of time.

So now is the time for the Democratic leaders — Al Gore, Nancy Polosi, Joe Biden, so on — to act like leaders. They should step in and restore order. I’d like to see them call a big summit meeting, bring Clinton and Obama together, make them sit side by side, and read them the Riot Act. The message should be simple: Campaign your hearts out, but keep this civil. Strike a deal: Whoever has the most elected delegates once the primaries are over (with whatever special arrangement is made for Florida and Michigan) should be deemed the winner, and the loser should promise to concede then and there.

The Party should refuse to support either one of them who conducts himself or herself in a way to undermine a victory in November.

Personally, I happen to like both of our semi-finalists and think either one would make a terrific candidate. Maybe I’m just over-reacting, being in a grumpy mood from having a skin cancer removed this week. (How about that. I buried the lead. Don’t worry, by the way. It went fine.)

In any event, that’s my rant for this pretty Sunday morning here in Washington. Tonight I fly to Minneapolis (11 degrees and snow) to visit a very likeable client in the very likeable Midwest.

Hope things are well. I’m off for more coffee. –KenA

Dinner on Capitol Hill

So tonight I had a wonderful wiener schnitzel for dinner at the Cafe Berlin, a terrific German restaurant on Capitol Hill in Washinton, D.C., while trading gossip with a friend about the latest back-room maneuverings over the Farm Bill while sipping a very dry riesling from Alsace. Talk has it that the Farm Bill, a fascinatingly-complex legislative behemoth spending billions of dollars over ten years that has been stuck for months in House-Senate negotiations, is now likely to pass some time in March.

I just thought you might like to know. All the best. –KenA

My secret views about the Presidential campaign

So it came as quite a shock to me when I learned recently that there is a small group of people in this world who actually read this Blog.   Some even print off copies of my postings and pass them around. Please understand, I welcome you. But it did strike me as alarming. If people are reading what I write, then I actually need to be coherent and smart, and have something useful to say, like: Be good. Don’t do evil. Eat fiber.  Call your mother. So on.

So I’ve divided that, as a special treat for those intrepid few eyeballs that actually venture into this rarified cranny of the Web, today I will begin to reveal my secret, private thoughts about the current 2008 Presidential election campaign. Up till now, I’ve kept them secret. But inquiring minds want to know. And the demand has reached a crescendo, impossible to ignore.

So here goes:

First, I reject the view that George W. Bush is the single worst president in American history. It’s not that he hasn’t tried.  The problem for Bush is the competition. James Buchanan (1857-1861) and Andrew Johnson (1865-1869) were both so abysmal, so incompetent, so malicious, that even a president as bad as Bush falls short. With Buchanan, his mis-management of the 1860 secession crisis set the stage for oceans of blood to be in Civil War.  With Andrew Johnson, his naked racism undermined any chance for positive post-War reconstruction and improving the lot of freed African-American slaves for the next hundred years. It’s taken until Barack Obama (but more on that later…).

So I nominate George W. Bush as no better than third worst.  He has fewer redeeming virtures than Richard M. Nixon, a mean streak never shared by Warren G. Harding, and more destructive in his hard-headedness than Herbert Hoover.

Now, as for the active, serious candidates still standing for 2008: Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and Barack O’Bama (I prefer the Irish spelling). I like them all in different ways, and think the country would be better of with any of them in the top job. Perhaps best would be something like this: Obama as president, Hillary as WH chief of staff, and McCain as Secretary of War. (I think he’d enjoy using the traditional name).

I can’t imagine any of these three settling for Vice President.  Each probably would agree with John Nance Garner’s description of the job as “not worth a bucket of warm piss.” None, I think, would side with Chester Alan Arthur (VP to James A. Garfield who became president when Garfield was assassinated in 1881), who described the VP job truthfully as “a greater honor than I ever dreamed of attaining.”

In my ideal outcome, there might even be roles for the also-rans: say, Mike Huckabee as ambassador to the Vatican, John Edwards as Solicitor General, Dennis Kucinich as commander of Area 51, and Ralph Nader as Miss Congeniality.

So with that, I’m ready to sit down with a glass of wine and watch the Oscars. I had my coffee this morning. Thanks for reading this, you few, you strong, you intrepid souls. I hope your eyeballs prosper.

Till then, all the best. –KenA


Gasp!!! It’s been five months now since I last posted anything on this Blog. Is that pathetic, or what? Well, if you thought I was gone, you were wrong. I have not dropped off the face of the earth. You are not rid of me. I have decided to come back.

The truth be know, I have largely shelved my writing-historian life the past five months and happily returned to my first profession, practicing law. Yes, by day, I am a registered, card-carrying Washington lawyer-lobbyist. You can look it up. Here’s a link to my latest public report at OpenSecrets.Org: http://www.opensecrets.org/lobbyists/lobbyist.asp?txtname=Ackerman%2C+Kenneth&year=a&txttype=l ) The work has been interesting and productive and — no apologies here — it’s been lucrative too. Writers have to eat and pay bills, and I like to eat well. And a few months of hourly billings certainly helps.

But so much water has run under the bridge these past few months: Hillary, Obama, McCain, easily the most exciting Presidential sweepstakes in memory, not to mention the ongoing drama between George Bush’s last gasp White House and Nancy Pelosi’s stumbling Congress, and now the economy bumbling over, of all things, subprime mortgages. And that’s not even counting the New York Giants. What woeful, thrilling times we live in. How can a historian be silent?

Yet here I am, sitting silently all these months, a mere spectator. No, I haven’t given up being a fervid political junkie. I continue to read my three newspapers each day (the Washington Post, NY Times, and Roll Call). I listen to POTUS 08 on XM radio, check the DrudgeReport and other internet sites, and tune in pundits for hours on end. No excuses. I like it, and wouldn’t have it any other way. But every time I sit down to try and write a Blog post or an article, about politics, history, or anything else, I get distracted. Words dry up. I find other things needing attention. Writer’s block? Perhaps. But these blocks don’t come out of thin air.

Since my last book was published in May 2007 (Young J. Edgar: Hoover the Red Scare, and the Assault on Civil Liberties, 1919-1920), I admit that I’ve researched at least half a dozen good ideas for next topics, including possible narratives about figures as diverse as Emma Goldman, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, American socialist founder Eugene V. Debs, long-time autocratic House Speaker Joe Cannon, feminist pioneer Victoria Woodhull, John Adams and the Boston Tea Party, and even the adventures of a once-famous British ocean deep-sea diver from the 1880s named Alexander Lambert. All these ideas have great promise, real keepers. But here too, the writers block sets in. I find problem at every turn, and no path out of the forest.

So I’ve made a decision. To start writing again, I need to write. And be published. That’s the only way to beat writers block. And in this modern world of cyberspace, the way you do it is through a Blog. So here I am Blogging — and in this initial effort, I am Blogging in the worst stereotypical way: with a self-absorbed, nascissistic, whiney, inconclusive essay about nothing but myself. But I guess that’s how you start. It doesn’t become literature overnight.

So expect to see me posting more often on this space. What I’ll write about, what shape it will take, ony time will tell. But plan to spent time having Coffee with Ken. I am going into writer’s training. Any encouragement would be appreciated.

So that’s it from the home front. Hope you’ll put up with me in the meantime.

Thanks, and all the best. –KenA

How an anti-war Senator should act.

George W. Norris, circa 1918

Greeting, all, from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, where my wife Karen and I are enjoying our annual summer beach getaway.

My beach reading this summer included an oldie but goodie, Profiles in Courage by then-senator and future president John F. Kennedy. And among the great stories in it, one particularly caught my eye this year, the one about George W. Norris, the Progressive Republican Senator from Nebraska, who, among other things, dared to defy mob hysteria in 1917 by taking a lonely stand against American entry into what he considered a pointless, terrible war … in his case, World War I.

With all the debate today, in 2007, about how Democrats in Congress under Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi should wage their fight against George W. Bush’s fiasco in Iraq — and at what point principle must stand before politics — Senator Norris and his 1917 stand lays down a good marker.

In January 1917, just two months after having won reelection to the White House on the slogan “he kept us out of war,” President Woodrow Wilson already was pushing the country to intervene in the stalemated European contest that already had cost millions of lives since 1914. War fever swept the country, fanned by the recently-released Zimmerman telegram (in which a German diplomat allegedly promised Mexico return of Texas and California in return for its helping it launch attacks against the US) and German submarine warfare on the high seas. President Wilson that month tried to turn the heat up another notch by insisting that Congress pass the Armed Ship Bill, authorizing him to arm American merchant vessels carrying armaments to England, and the House passed it within days on a vote of 403 to 13. Anyone who opposed this measure was labelled a coward, a traitor, or unAmerican.

But Norris smelled a rat. Norris in 1917 was a freshman Senator, one-time school teacher and small-town lawyer old enough to have lost an older brother in the Civil War. To Norris, armed American ships meant provoking the Germans into an incident that could spark war without any sober debate, and he bristled at the broad grants of Presidential authority in the Bill’s small print. Behind it, Norris suspected the hand of American financiers and munitions makers who had banked heavily on the Allied side in the war and now saw their investments at risk. And Norris was not willing to shed American blood to bail out corporations.

So Norris and a small band of like-minded Senators, including Wisconsin’s Progressive Robert LaFollette, launched a filibuster to kill the Armed Ship Bill. Their strategy was to use the Senate calendar and stall a final vote until noon on March 4, 1917 — Inauguration Day — when the Senate would adjourn sine die.

Norris won. The filibuster worked. But there was bloody hell to pay for it. The country screamed treason, stupidity, and arrogance. President Wilson — who would prove himself no friend of free speech during the War — led the verbal assaults. The fact is, most Nebraskans, most Americans, even most Progressives disagreed stridently with Norris. Even JKF, writing his book decades leter, felt the need to distance himself from Norris’s position: “It is not now important whether Norris was right or wrong,” he wrote. “What is now important is the courage he displayed in support of his convictions.”

Norris, stunned by the outcry, felt compelled to ask the Governor to a call a special recall election to allow Nebraskans the chance to vote him out of office. At the same time, he went home and called a town hall meeting in Omaha to confront critics. Over three thousand people came and Norris could not find a single friend to share the stage with him. Alone, he stood in front of the mob and said simply “I have come to speak the truth.” Then he went on: “Even though you say I am wrong…, has the time come when we can’t express our opinions in the Senate, where we were sent to debate such questions, without being branded by the moneyed interests as traitors?”

Norris didn’t change any minds about the War, but he won the crowd’s respect. Te Governor felt no need for a recall election, and Norris went on to serve many more years in the US Senate. Despite Norris’s victory against the Armed Ship Bill, President Wilson quickly asserted executive power to arm US vessels without Congress’s permission, and within a few months the country had entered a European bloodbath whose merits even today remain a matter of debate. Wilson called it a struggle “to make the world safe for democracy,” but World War I’s more immediate fruits were 16 million dead, millions more wounded or displaced, a peace treaty rejected in the US, and the planting of seeds for even more bloodshed 20 years later in World War II.

Now, fast forward to today, September 2007, as Washington, D.C. braces for what promises to be a grueling showdown over the future of America’s role in Iraq — with President Bush showing every sign of intending to stick to his surge-based war plan at least long enough to pass it off to a next president in 2009, and Congressional Democrats in apparent disarray over how to confront him. Where is the George Norris of 2007? Can anyone on Capitol Hill claim to be living up to the standard of courage, skill, and integrity he set in fighting Woodrow Wilson’s war plans in 1917? I don’t ask this as a rhetorical question. The threat to our country today is as great as it was in 1917, the issues as complex, and the need to cut through double talk on all sides just as urgent.

I hope the roster will be long. JFK published his original edition of Profiles in Courage fifty years ago, in 1955. Perhaps a next edition will include a few names of current members of Congress with the vision and tenacity to lead in confronting today’s morass, waiting to make their marks in during the struggles over the next few weeks.

That, at least, is my hope, sitting here at Cape Hatteras on this sunny Labor Day weekend, sipping my cup of coffee, looking out over the sand dunes toward the beach beyond.

Thanks for your patience in reading through this long post. All the best. –KenA

Who on Earth let this happen?

In case anyone missed it, this past weekend, our United States Congress — led by Democrats, no less — caved in to pressure from the Bush White House and passed a bill essentially allowing Alberto Gonzalez, the most discredited Attorney General in our lifetimes, almost unilaterally to suspend the Bill of Right’s Fourth Amendment and allow warrantless surveillance of Americans by the NSA up to six months at a time, so long as a “significant purpose” of the intrusion involves obtaining foreign intelligence and the AG, Gonzalez, makes a finding that “reasonable procedures [are] in place” to determine that the intrusion involves “persons reasonably believed to be located outside the United States.”

Make no mistake. This bill — already signed into law by President Bush as I write this on Sunday night — allows Bush to continue the worst abuses of the NSA secret surveillance program, continue to ignore oversight by any tribunal of law, and do it now under cover of a mealy-mouthed statute. Think I’m exaggerating? Here’s a link to the text of the bill, S. 1927, titled the Protect America Act of 2007: http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/D?c110:2:./temp/~c1105W4v7x:: Don’t take my word for it!! Read it yourselves!!

How did this happen? After all the talk and promises about protecting civil liberties? In the Senate, only 28 Democrats voted No on the proposal. That means all the rest caved in and went along for the ride — apparently intimidated by threats from the Bushites of being called unpatriotic or terrorist lovers so some such. And worst of all was the fact that the Democratic leadership agreed to bring up the bill at all — knowing they would lose the vote — in the final hours before leaving Washington on a month long August recess, rather than refusing and forcing the Bush White House to negotiate seriously for a responsible compromise that protects the country without sacrificing civil libeties — even if it meant that Senators and Congressmen might lose a few days at the beach, on a foreign trip, or back home. They had allowed the Bushites to out maneuver them, force them into a corner.

I hate to throw stones, but someone fell down on the job here.

For more details, here a link to the New York Times article on the story, posted by the Dandelion Salad blog. http://dandelionsalad.wordpress.com/2007/08/05/house-passes-changes-in-eavesdropping-program-by-carl-hulse-and-edmund-l-andrews/
And here’s another link to an excellent speech on the subject by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tx), posted by the Fold/Spindle/Mutilate 2.0 blog: http://freddevan.com/wordpress/2007/08/05/rep-sheila-jackson-lee-d-tx-says-it-all-it%E2%80%99s-official-george-bush-and-alberto-gonzales-now-have-the-legal-authority-to-spy-on-you-and-i-without-a-warrant-at-any-time/
And here’s still another from the LeftWord blog (that mentions my book Young J. Edgar: http://leftword.blogdig.net/archives/articles/August2007/04/SENATE_DEMOCRATS_BEND_OVER__HAND_BUSH_THE_K_Y_AND_VOTE_FOR_WARRANTLESS_WIRETAPS_FOR_NO_REASON_OTHER_THAN_CRAVEN_COWARDICE.html

Please let me know if you think I’m overreacting or being unfair. I don’t think so.
Grumble grumble grumble. I need more cofffee.

Thanks to The Democratic Daily, June 24

Are you still being followed by the teenage FBI?

Posted by SteveAudio
June 24th, 2007 @ 2:31 am

Howie Klein of Blue America sent me this book:

So Angie’s back on the Blue America list and I hope you’ll join me in donating some money to her campaign. We’re not going to find a better candidate, not anywhere, to help us reclaim our country. Avalon Books sent us a box of the just-released YOUNG J. EDGAR: HOOVER, THE RED SCARE, AND THE ASSAULT ON CIVIL LIBERTIES. Each book has been autographed by author Ken Ackerman and it sells in stores for $28.95. Every Angie donation for $30 or more gets a Blue America thank you with a book (until the box is empty.) Add a cent to your donation if you don’t want the book. One more thing, Jacquie is already planning out an aggressive paid-media strategy for CO-04 in ‘08, so if you want to stick some dough in the Blue America PAC, please don’t be shy.

I’ve read the first chapter, and it’s already got me hooked. Why would a book about J. Edgar be fascinating all these years later? Here’s a quote from the book:

But back in 1919, just four years earlier, it had all made perfect sense-the Red Scare, the Raids, the fear. Most thinking, informed Americans agreed. World War I had ended, but the country was still fighting, against anarchists and communists at home just as surely as it had fought the Kaiser’s Germany in Europe the year before. American soldiers still faced bullets on Russian soil in 1919, and Bolshevism was sweeping the world. Anarchists had exploded bombs in American streets, and people had been killed. Radicals had infiltrated labor unions and threatened to topple major industries. The country demanded safety and someone had to act.
A. Mitchell Palmer and his team had taken responsibility. Had there been excesses? Certainly. But that didn’t change the fact. The principal fact was the bombs, and the danger of more bombs, and the duty to protect Americans. Everything else took a back seat.

The parallels to today’s Global War on Whatever We Define As Terror are pretty obvious. Americans, in an understandable yet selfishly shallow way, excuse many sorts of bad behavior when they feel threatened, and the Right today does all it can to give a megaphone to threats real and imagined.
The book’s author, Kenneth Ackerman, said this in an editorial in my hometown LATimes:

Yet when Hoover showed up for his first day of work at the Department of Justice in June 1917, he was a bright 22-year-old, just out of law school. He still had boyish good looks and was cocky and driven. The country had just entered World War I, and Hoover had avoided the wartime draft. Instead, he was ready to help win the war at home, to save the country from spies and subversives.
What changed this young eager beaver into the crass, cynical tyrant of later years?
The fact is, Hoover learned his attitudes and worldview from teachers at the Justice Department during his early years there, when the country was going through a period much like today’s war on terror.

Indeed. Here’s Kenneth Ackerman’s website: https://www.kennethackerman.com

2 Responses to “Are you still being followed by the teenage FBI?”

  1. Pamela Leavey Says:
    June 24th, 2007 at 11:06 am Steve
    I just got an email the other day about reviewing this and I’m waiting for a copy to arrive. I’m reading David Talbot’s “Brothers” which includes a lot of stuff about Hoover, the FBI and the CIA. There’s a lot of similarites between then and now in “Brothers” as well. History is said to repeat itself. Sadly.
  2. Darrell Prows Says:
    June 24th, 2007 at 2:58 pm The human race is afflicted with a particularly virulent form of the authoritarian gene. It expresses itself in an overriding need to push other people around. My shorthand for the syndrome is “Military Mentality”. Not everyone who has the jobs (military, police, prisons) has the gene, but pretty much everyone with the gene has one of the jobs.
    The Founders were insightful enough to try to neutraize this by putting civilians in charge of the military. As for the rest, what we really need to do to protect ourselves is to not criminalize anything unless there is a real strong reason for doing so. Instead, we have a set of rules and regulations in our society so gargantuan that each of is almost guaranteed to violate something almost every day.
    From that is where people like J. Edgar get their power.