Monday, February 15, 2010

Remembering James K. Polk

Speaking of Presidents Day:

Both Peggy Noonan and Robert W. Merry took note in the last few days of this statement by President Obama in an interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer:

“I’d rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president.”

In his NYT op-ed piece, Merry reminds us that the United States has had one decidedly successful one-term president:

... That president is James K. Polk, who announced upon getting his party’s nomination in 1844 that, if elected, he would serve only one term. He did this in part because, as a small-government man, he possessed a philosophical aversion to entrenched power. But his vow was pragmatic, not just idealistic: he felt the powerful figures of his party would be more likely to unite behind him in the general election if they thought they would have their own shot at the presidency in four years.

Polk was in many ways a smaller-than-life figure — sanctimonious, suspicious by nature, uncomfortable in social settings. But he harbored larger-than-life ambitions. Upon getting elected, he embraced four big goals: reduce tariffs; create an independent treasury; establish American control of California and most of the Oregon Territory. None of this was easy. Tariff rates generated intense political emotions in those days, rather like tax cuts today. And the independent treasury raised the ire of Americans still angry about Andrew Jackson’s destruction of the Second Bank of the United States a decade earlier.

But his foreign policy goals generated the most friction. Polk nearly stumbled into war with Britain over the Oregon Territory before a diplomatic breakthrough fostered a peaceful carving-up of that vast expanse. And he did force his country into a war with Mexico to fulfill his ambition of taking over not just California but what is now the American Southwest. The war, popular initially with the American people, dragged on for two years, generating intense civic discontent and sapping the president’s political standing.

In the end, he succeeded in all four goals and annexed Texas along the way, thus expanding the United States by a third and creating a transcontinental nation positioned to dominate two oceans. In doing all that, he accomplished what the American people wanted him to do and won the respect of future historians. ...

And not only historians. President Polk, the 11th POTUS, has even been memorialized by They Might Be Giants.

I first heard the band's tribute to Polk during one of my State House races when my friend Katie included it on mixed tape she created for me called "The Final Push."

Here is this fun (and informative) tune:


Waldie said...

ah, yes. not the best rendition of the song i've ever heard. but good times, none-the-less.

Paul said...

I know. I couldn't find a higher quality version of it on YouTube.

Thanks for introducing me to it! :-)