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  • Glenn Sonnenberg

Musings from the Bunker 10/27/20

“In my letter to you, I took all my fears and doubts …. All the hard things that if found out… All that I found true … I sent it in my letter to you.”  --Bruce Springsteen Good morning! WISDOM FROM AGE—SPRINGSTEEN’S PERSPECTIVE With two presidential candidates and a Speaker of the House in their seventies, it seems only appropriate that Bruce Springsteen weighs in. The Boss is now 71 and has released one of his most upbeat albums—Letter to You—which resonates with meditations about age, loss, wisdom, and growing old. David Brooks does a wonderful piece about this song and the concept of age in our society today (spoiler alert: Brooks does say that 73 is the new 53…): Brooks quotes Springsteen on Joe Biden, age 77: “Joe Biden is like one of the fathers in the neighborhood I grew up with as a kid. They were firemen and policemen, and there was an innate decency to most of them that he carries naturally with him. It’s very American.” As to the lyric quoted above, Ben VandeBunt interpreted it with some of the most beautiful words I’ve read in a while: “Not sure what he intended, but I took it that by giving we can find happiness/salvation/joy….” Amen to both of these sentiments. PRESIDENTIAL BIOGRAPHIES Our nation has had the good fortune of some great presidents, some great men who were decent presidents, and some previously unimpressive men who rose to the occasion. Libraries are replete with books of their challenges and accomplishments. But there also have been presidencies that generally are considered failures and there have been presidents that were bad people who represented bad ideas. We don’t study them as much, but should. Their stories are stories of their times, compromises that didn’t pan out, ideals that crashed on the shoals of events. Here is the first of two installments on books on some presidencies that are pretty well acknowledged as the worst, together with my subjective view of their presidency and their character:

  • Andrew Jackson. Successful presidency; bad guy. Many great biographies about this first “popular” president and the first president from the west. John Meacham’s American Lion, and H.W. Brands’s Andrew Jackson; His Life and Times, both offer good, readable, perspectives. If you’re a glutton for punishment, there are the multiple volumes by Robert Remini. Brands also wrote The First American, about Benjamin Franklin, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Biography, and The Age of Gold.

  • Franklin Pierce. Failed presidency; decent guy. He was a compromise candidate in the convention, the youngest man elected to date, pro-party and pro-union. The Democratic Party descended to minority status under him and the Union nearly split apart under his presidency and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. He was the first president to seek nomination to a second term and to be denied. Franklin Pierce, by Michael F. Holt, of the American Presidents series, notes that the preeminence of the Democratic Party and weakness of the loyal opposition could have contributed to his undoing.

  • James Buchanan. Failed presidency; not a good guy. For the story of this utter disaster of a president—who came to office well prepared and left in total disgrace—I’d focus on a history of the era. I’m not sure I’d devote much time to a full-blown biography. For a short 150 page explanation of his disastrous presidency, I recommend James Buchanan, by Jean H. Baker, one of the American Presidents series. The only good news—his feeble attempts to mollify the South led to the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Kenneth M. Stamp wrote the definitive book on his administration, America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink. Even his biographer says he was one of the worst presidents, perhaps only outdone by Andrew Johnson.

  • Andrew Johnson. Failed presidency; Bad guy. For a biography of Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s compromise running-mate tapped to show his brought attempts to bind the nation together by choosing a Southerner, go with Andrew Johnson, by Annette Gordon-Reed. It is one volume of the American Presidents series, clocking in at less than 150 pages. How can you not love a biography dedicated “To Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., and to the memory of Mary Belle Jordan, for standing against everything Andrew Johnson stood for”?!  Gordon-Reed won the Pulitzer Prize in History for The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. As Frederick Douglass sad, “Whatever Andrew Johnson may be, he is no friend of our race.” No reason to waste time on any greater analysis of this racist accidental president than the brief analysis of Gordon-Reed. To learn more about the Era of Reconstruction, its hope and its ultimate failure, through the Gilded Age, read something great on that era. A solid volume is The Republic For Which It Stands, by Richard White. It is part of the Oxford History of the United States.

I have no doubt that Mr. Trump’s presidency will go down in history as one of the worst. His divisive tenure, marked by failures domestically and abroad, coupled with his deeply flawed character and his pitting of American against American—will be the subject of many books. The rogues gallery of his cabinet and supporting team, those that empower him, similarly will be the subject of considerable research and questioning. How did it happen? Who was this dangerous man and those who empowered him? How did we come to elect him and come to accept his ineptitude? His place among Buchanan, Johnson, Pierce and Nixon is secure. Only one week until the election and, to paraphrase Gerald R. Ford, as good a man as there ever was to hold the office, “our long national nightmare will be over.” USC REAL ESTATE LAW AND BUSINESS FORUM This event, which I co-chair, is virtual this year. Great panels forecasting the economy and likely changes in the tax code, homelessness, the future of retail, bankruptcy/workouts, and changes in how we live and work, post-COVID. Earn Continuing Education Credit and it’s only $225. A highlight will be Zev Yaroslavsky breaking down the national and local elections and ballot initiatives. I’ll be there moderating the opening panel… MICHIGAN/MINNESOTA AND WHITMER/WALZ Thanks Adam Torson and Howard Sunkin for noting that I mixed up that the State Governor who would fill Amy Klobuchar’s seat if she would join the administration. It is, of course, Tim Walz of Minnesota (home of the Mighty Golden Gophers). Warm regards, Glenn

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