Author, Lecturer, Ethicist

Buchanan and Trump: What's Past Is Prologue

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One of the spookiest aspects of what’s going on in modern media is that major news stories and sidebars - which could and should be of historic importance - come and go in the blink of an eye, while pieces which are really no more than spicy gossip hang around for weeks and months on end. As but one example: a week ago, Federal District Judge Amit P. Mehta’s handed down a decision, which gave the president a stinging defeat in his bid to block a House subpoena of his financial records. Less than a week later, the case, DONALD J. TRUMP, et al. Plaintiffs v. COMMITTEE ON OVERSIGHT AND REFORM OF THE U.S. HOUSE OF ) REPRESENTATIVES, et al. Defendants (Case No. 19-cv-01136 (APM) has already faded into oblivion. At the same time, the doctored YouTube video of a “drunken” Speaker Nancy Pelosi has already attained legendary internet status. And, to make things worse, hardly any major media coverage included a key element in Judge Mehta’s decision: a section dealing with the nation’s 15th president, James Buchanan.

In what may well be the greatest irony of the century, the White House’s appeal of Judge Mehta’s decision will now be heard by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, whose current chief judge is none other than Merrick Garland, whom President Obama nominated to the Supreme Court in 2016 after the untimely death of Justice Antonin Scalia. (For those who may not recall, within minutes of President Obama making Judge Garland’s nomination public, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell proclaimed it DOA . . . a first in American history. And what makes Judge Mehta’s decision even more ironic is that all ‘45 said about it was something to the effect that “What do you expect? The judge was appointed by Obama!”)

Very few news sources mentioned that Judge Mehta opened his decision by quoting President James Buchanan protesting against a congressional investigation nearly 160 years ago, in which he claimed that said congressional investigation was a means of “furnishing material for harassing [the President], degrading him in the eyes of the country.”

I do, therefore, . . . solemnly protest against these proceedings of the House of Representatives, because they are in violation of the rights of the coordinate executive branch of the Government, and subversive of its constitutional independence; because they are calculated to foster a band of interested parasites and informers, ever ready, for their own advantage, to swear before ex parte committees to pretended private conversations between the President and themselves, incapable, from their nature, of being disproved; thus furnishing material for harassing him, degrading him in the eyes of the country . . . – President James Buchanan

In this statement, the feckless Buchanan (who served as the nation’s 15th POTUS from 1857-1861) was objecting to the House of Representative’s decision to investigate whether his administration had sought to improperly influence the actions of Congress. Sound familiar? Buchanan argued that Congress had no general powers to investigate him, outside of formal impeachment proceedings. If Congress were allowed to investigate his conduct outside of impeachment, he warned, it “would establish a precedent dangerous and embarrassing to all my successors, to whatever political party they might be attached.” Again: sound familiar?

“Some 160 years later,” wrote Judge Mehta in his introductory paragraph, “President Donald J. Trump has taken up the fight of his predecessor.”

At this point, two truisms come to mind: the first from Winston Churchill (who was likely misquoting philosopher George Santayana) and the second from Shakespeare:

  • Churchill: “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and

  • Shakespeare (from The Tempest): “What’s past is prologue.”

In light of our current political imbroglio, the apothegms of Churchill and Shakespeare are most prophetic. From what we know about ‘45 and a majority of his advisers and followers, they aren’t what one would call “students of history.” Lacking knowledge of - let alone curiosity about - American political history - they could easily cause history to repeat itself . . . which might not be such a bad thing.

Certainly, there are profound differences between James Buchanan and Donald Trump. For one, Buchanan (1791-1868) was our only bachelor president, while ‘45, of course, has been twice divorced and thrice married. And while Trump is the only president who never held elective office and one of the few who never served in the military, Buchanan was perhaps the most “prepared” public servant to ever be elected to the presidency. For prior to his election in 1857, he had:

  • Served as an enlisted infantry man during the British invasion of Baltimore (1814);

  • Was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives (1814-16); the United States House of Representatives (1821-31) and the United States Senate (1834-45);

  • Served as chair of the House Judiciary Committee (1829-31), Minister (Ambassador) to Russia (1832-33); U.S. Secretary of State under President James K. Polk (1845-49); and as Minister to England (1853-56).

And yet, besides being our only bachelor president, he is best remembered - if at all - for such historically disastrous episodes as “Bleeding Kansas,” the “Dred Scott Case” and the “Panic (financial collapse) of 1857.” And oh yes, at a time when the nation was terribly divided between pro- and anti-slavery factions, he was a a divider . . . a “Peace Democrat,” soon to be known as “Copperhead.” Much of what Buchanan accomplished (or rather, failed to accomplish) made the Civil War inevitable. Many historians and political scientists considered him “an invertebrate” when it came to making difficult decisions.

There are, to be sure, quite a few similarities between Buchanan and Trump:

  • In his run for the White House, Buchanan carried five northern states while sweeping the South, accumulating 45 percent of the vote. Trump would take six northern states, almost sweeping the South, and capturing 46 percent of the vote.

  • Both men were educated in Pennsylvania. Both were northerners and nominated to the presidency in Ohio cities.

  • Our 15th and 45th presidents came into office extremely wealthy. Both were old for their era when elected: Buchanan, 65, and Trump, 70. Popularity greatly mattered to both. Their views on states rights paralleled one another to a considerable degree.

  • Quarrels with Mexico and border protection dominated a great deal of their attention during their time in office.

  • White males were primarily responsible for both of their elections (of course, in 1857, neither women nor few non-whites could vote). Investigations also dominated both presidencies, with Buchanan dismissing his investigation as an “inquisition” while Trump branded his a “witch hunt.”

And oh yes, for the past many decades, presidential historians and political scientists have ranked Buchanan - along with Andrew Johnson, William Henry Harrison and Warren G. Harding - as America’s worst presidents. For the past two years, Donald Trump has ranked dead last . . . even worse than Buchanan.

Where ‘45 has to contend with the likes of House Committee Chairs Adam Schiff, (Intelligence) Jerry Nadler (Judiciary), Richard Neal (Ways and Means), Elijah Cummings (Oversight and Reform) and Maxine Waters (Financial Services), Buchanan’s single bugbear was Pennsylvania Representative John Covode, a former blacksmith who rose to become chair of the The Select Committee to Investigate Alleged Corruptions in Government. In 1860, Covode (1808-1871) and his committee (known to history as ‘The Covode Committee’) was mandated to conduct an investigation of the Buchanan administration to see if there was sufficient corruption and mismanagement to warrant impeachment. Despite the fact that they never did find sufficient grounds to impeach, it doomed the president; Buchanan was largely responsible for the dismemberment of his political party (then known as “Democrats,” caused the creation of a new party (“the Republicans”) and aided greatly in the election of Abraham Lincoln, the Founding Father of that party. For his efforts - or lack thereof - Buchanan went down in history as the worst (or second worst) President in American history.

Without question, Judge Mehta knows his political history. Otherwise, why would he quote Buchanan at the beginning of his legal decision? Churchill/Santayana/Shakespeare were right: ‘45 will not only challenge Buchanan for last place in the ranking of worst presidents; he could also be responsible for the dismemberment of an entire political party.

If only he, his advisers, staff and family had paid attention to the lessons of history, ‘45’s legacy might look more hopeful today. But do remember: Abraham Lincoln, the man who succeeded the heretofore last-place Buchanan, is unanimously considered the best POTUS in our history. (With the single exception of the preeminent presidential historian Jon Voight . . . who claims ‘45 is even greater than the Great Emancipator.)

Shakespeare’s Antonio was correct: “What’s past is prologue.”

530 days until the next election.

Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone