The U.S. presidential campaign, with the dazzling candidacy of Donald Trump, impressed us with its lack of class, leaving us a feeling of reaching the end of the line. The democratic system was left for dead regardless of winning or losing.
To send the power of America to an early grave is a task that many have attempted with eager anticipation. But let’s not dwell on what the future may bring. Instead, let’s simply remember some curious facts from a political past that does not always jibe with the vision of a winning and unbreakable national narrative.
The past of the American presidency is full of racist overtures, dirty talk, various illegalities, terminal incompetence, death by duel, and even plain old bad luck. The latter is symbolized by William Henry Harrison, who took office on March 4, 1841, with the longest speech in presidential history. Because of Washington’s winter chill, he caught pneumonia and died 31 days later.
Warren Harding is always listed among the worst American presidents, as much for what he did as for what he allowed to be done. His followers earned the nickname the “Ohio Gang,” and some were arrested for robbing the public coffers, including making concessions friendly to oil exploration.
Like Anthony Weiner, the virtual-sex-addicted husband of Hillary Clinton’s top aide, Harding also had an alter ego, a name he used in his sexual hijinks. Weiner fell headlong into “sexting” with the name Carlos Danger. Harding wrote to his lover — letters served as text messages back in those days — as Jerry. The code name also stood for a certain part of his anatomy. Weiner would know very well which. “And Jerry came and will not go, says he loves you,” he teased. “He is so utterly devoted that he only exists to give you all.” Oh, yes, Harding’s lover was the wife of a friend.
Apart from the double entendre, Harding also said that he considered himself completely unqualified to be president. Many historians consider this attribute equally appropriate for Andrew Johnson.
In Johnson’s favor, consider the fact that no president has entered the White House under such dramatic conditions: at the end of a civil war with 600,000 dead — the greatest crisis in American history — and literally over the dead body of Abraham Lincoln, the assassinated president for whom he had been vice president. On the other hand, he had greater liabilities. He condescended to the restrictions imposed by the slave states recently defeated in the Civil War, and he boycotted the 14th constitutional amendment, which gave citizenship to the newly liberated slaves. He survived the impeachment process by one vote.
His most famous name-sharer, Andrew Jackson, adolescent war hero of 1812 and seventh American president, killed his rival in a duel because of a fight involving horses and honor. It was one of the many duels in which he defended — by the codes of the time — the honor of a woman who had not yet divorced her first husband when she married him.
In another of the best-known duels in American history, in 1804, Vice President Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton, one of the visionaries who founded the United States, a.k.a. the Founding Fathers.
These geniuses created the model of a country that seemingly has resulted in a great degree of senselessness, equally on the part of the governors and of the governed. In the first of 85 articles written by Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison in defense of the new constitution — assembled under the title “The Federalist” and the pseudonym Publius — the following question is posed:
“It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”
It is a formidable and an unending discussion, especially for any country that reflects on its foundations. It’s good that we have history to provide us with some shelter in hours like these. And for those who find themselves feeling dragged down by cases of abuse, dalliance, and even possible sex crimes that have come to light for Trump, Wiener, and Bill Clinton, the historical perspective also helps.
Set aside Warren Harding, who, just like Bill, made creative use of certain corners of the White House. There was also the out-of-wedlock son that Grover Cleveland took on, unsure whether he really was his own, and who eventually became central to the 1884 campaign. Lyndon Johnson, whose vocabulary was that of a closed-channel comedian in today’s world, competed in sexual voracity with John Kennedy until after the assassination of the president he replaced. “I’ve had more women by accident than Kennedy had on purpose,” he once said. The fancy George Bush, Sr., and Ronald Reagan, the revered former actor, were accused of rape.
Apparently, the United States managed to survive.
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