Of months ago I described Franklin Pierce as...

A COUPLE

November 23, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

A COUPLE of months ago I described Franklin Pierce as being "the obscure New Hampshire senator" who was nominated for president in 1852 after all the leading contenders refused to concede to each other.

I got a letter from his great-great-great-grandnephew, Winston Wood of Berryville, Va. I saved it till today, Pierce's 188th birthday.

"While it's true Frank Pierce was one of the darkest of political horses [Wood wrote], he was hardly obscure. He served in both the House and Senate, was offered the post of attorney general in the Polk administration but rejected it to enlist as a private in the Mexican War, rising to brigadier. In that capacity he served under Winfield Scott."

Whig Scott was Democrat Pierce's opponent in the 1852 race, won, of course, by Pierce.

Speaking of Polk, the Democratic campaign slogan in 1852 was "We Polked You in 1844, We Shall Pierce You in 1852!" Because of that alone, I personally date the modern political campaign to 1852, not 1840 as most historians do.

1852 was also the year of the beginning of another tradition in presidential politics. The syrupy campaign biography by a professional writer. Pierce's was written by his good friend and former Bowdoin College classmate, Nathaniel Hawthorne. And before any of you smart alecks familiar with my own contributions to the campaign bio genre writes in to say, "and it's been downhill ever since," let me just tell you, that as good as Hawthorne was as a novelist, he was that bad as a political biographer.

The Whig press ridiculed the book, "The Life of Franklin Pierce," as "Mr. Hawthorne's latest romance." Typical excerpt:

"It remains for the citizens of this great country to decide within the next few weeks whether they will retard the steps of human progress [by voting for Winfield Scott] or whether they will put their trust in a new man, whom a life of energy and various activity has tested but not worn out, and advance with him into the auspicious epoch upon which we are about to enter."

How about this: "When [Andrew] Jackson was on his death bed the old hero spoke with energy of Franklin Pierce's ability and patriotism, and remarked, as if with prophetic foresight of his young friend's destiny, that 'the interests of the country would be safe in such hands.' "

President Pierce thought the biography helped him win, and he named Hawthorne consul to Liverpool, the highest paying patronage job available and the highest paying job Hawthorne ever held.

Alas, Uncle Frank was no great shakes as a president, and his party refused to nominate him four years later. But he had his pluses. He'd probably do well in the television politics of today. "He was the best looking president the White House ever had," according to Harry Truman.

And, Winston Wood was too modest to mention this, Pierce was born in a log cabin.

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