Martin Van Buren, as I did here Saturday...


January 08, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

SPEAKING OF Martin Van Buren, as I did here Saturday, happy birthday, Millard Fillmore! Yesterday was the 13th president's 192nd birthday.

As usual, the Society to Promote Respect and Recognition for Millard Fillmore honored his memory here, this time with a mock exhumation performed by Evening Sun columnist Dan Rodricks. Also, the society's Rae Rossen used the occasion to call upon President Bush to mention Fillmore while in Japan, a visit Bush might not have been able to make but for Millard.

Fillmore would be a good role model for Bush. He knew how to deal with the Japanese. The Far East was not hospitable to American exports. Fillmore sent Commodore Matthew C. Perry with four warships to Japan. He forced the Japanese to open a port and make other concessions to the U.S.

Contrast that to George Bush, leaving the military at home and taking the heads of GM, Ford and Chrysler. And he wonders why people call him a wimp.

Why did speaking of Martin Van Buren remind me of Millard Fillmore? Well, of course, for one thing, both were vice presidents before they became presidents. But that's not it. I was reminded of Millard because he and Marty once ran into each other in Paris, after both had become ex-presidents. While there, they heard that New York editor Horace Greeley was in jail for a debt. They sprung him.

Now there's a jolly good fellow. How many politicians do you know who would bail an editorial writer out of jail? Especially a critic. Greeley once said of Fillmore, "Fillmore lacks pluck, he wants backbone." A wimp, in other words.

Bush is less a political descendant of Fillmore than is Pat Buchanan. Buchanan's presidential campaign has, so far, been based on "putting America first." He's anti-immigration, especially by blacks and Hispanics, and he is critical of Jews because he suspects some are more loyal to their religion -- thus Israel -- than their nation.

In the 1850s, after Fillmore had left the White House, the American Party, also known as the Know-Nothing Party, came to be a force in American politics. Its tenets included opposition to, in the words of one historian, "the rising flood of Irish Catholics," who were suspected of being more loyal to their religion than to the good old U.S.A. The party favored limiting office-holding to native Americans, and I don't mean Indians.

This was a secret political party. Its members were required to answer all questions about it by saying, "I know nothing about it." Despite this (maybe because of it), the party won several state offices and nominated its own candidate for president in 1856 -- Millard Fillmore. Many of its supporters were, like Millard, former Whigs (and former anti-Masons).

His presidential campaign was a joke. He got only 22 percent of the vote in a three-candidate race. He carried only one state, Maryland.

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