President Buchanan is due higher status than he gets

The Argument

'Unblessed are the peacemakers, for they shall not inherit statues.'

December 31, 2000|By Theo Lippman Jr. | By Theo Lippman Jr.,Special to the Sun

I became a James Buchanan fan 25 years ago. So I was depressed at how 2000 treated him. He was rated the worst president in the nation's history -- three times. C-Span polled a group of 58 experts and, separately, 1,145 viewers to coincide with Presidents Day in February. The Wall Street Journal and the Federalist Society polled 78 experts for articles that appeared after Election Day in November. In all three exercises, Buchanan was looking up to Franklin Pierce, Ulysses S. Grant, Warren Harding and Richard Nixon, presidents he had ranked above in earlier polls.

And in August he got a ripping assessment in "To the Best of My Ability," edited by James M. McPherson on behalf of the Society of American Historians (Dorling Kindersley, 480 pages, $29.95).

In two senses that was the unkindest cut of all. (1) One writer's opinion, if it's the right writer, is usually more reliable than consensus opinions. Polls of large numbers of respondents always include many who know only this or that era, specialists on the Founding Fathers, say, or the 20th century. Yet they get to vote on every president, some of whose life and times they know little about. (2) This book is as gracefully written and illustrated as it is coffee-table handsome, and so may attract a bigger audience than its otherwise expert analysis would normally reach.

The Buchanan chapter in "To the Best of My Ability" was written by Jean Harvey Baker. She teaches an American history course at Goucher that covers the years 1850-1876. She has written extensively about the period, including her 1983 book "Affairs of Party: Northern Democrats in the Mid-Nineteenth Century."

Buchanan, of course, was a Northern Democrat who served in the White House 1857-1861.

She doesn't say he was the worst or make any comparisons in her new essay. But you can read between the lines. She says things like, "The Civil War was not of his making . . . [but] Buchanan's administration made it more probable." And, "Buchanan's presidency demonstrated the harm that can result when great talent and experience are shackled to a personality ill suited to the pressures of the office."

She charges that he was too partial to Southern Democrats and slave-owners and too harsh toward Abolitionists to get true compromise and lasting peace.

And so on. It was a pretty damning indictment, concise and convincing, and one that most who have studied Buchanan and his era with diligence and expertise would probably agree with. But not all. Some who know the era believe Buchanan's compromising kept the Union intact for a long four years.

One such exceptional verdict provided about the only 2000 silver lining in the perpetual black clouds raining on the 15th president's grave outside Lancaster, Pa.

John Updike's 1974 sympathetic book "Buchanan Dying: A Play" was republished last August (Stackpole Books, 262 pages, $21.95). Updike is primarily a novelist, and "Buchanan Dying: A Play" is really a novel. It is thoroughly researched and fact-bottomed. In addition to the original afterword of 79 pages of nonfiction argument and citations, the edition includes a new foreword.

In that he speaks of his "enduring interest " in and "affection" for his subject.

So deeply did Updike immerse himself in Buchanan and 18th century Pennsylvania and America that one novel was not enough for him to express himself. He produced "Memories of the Ford Administration" in 1992. The principal character in that is an academic working on a biography of Buchanan in the middle 1970s.

The character says of his subject, "Buchanan's mind, people complained, he couldn't make it up, and I liked that. There is a civilized heroism to indecision -- 'the best lack all conviction,' etc. He and his niece Harriet Lane ran the spiffiest White House since Dolley Madison's, and I liked that, too. I felt lighter when I thought about him. The old gent was so gallant there in the trembling shade of the Civil War."

Surely that academic was an Updike clone.

In the foreword in the new edition of "Buchanan Dying," Updike reminds readers that in the early 1970s, when he was writing it, the national mood was definitely against presidents who make war. A peacemaker like Buchanan, even if for the worst reason -- a desire to protect slavery, which he did not in fact nourish, though he clearly thought his duty required it -- looked pretty good viewed against the backdrop of Vietnam.

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