Sunday, September 28, 2008

Review: Failures of the Presidents

Thomas J. Craughwell (with M. William Phelps), Failures of the Presidents: From the Whiskey Rebellion and War of 1812 to the Bay of Pis and War in Iraq.

Every president has his failures and successes (well, maybe not Andrew Johnson) and Thomas J. Craughwell has presented some interesting Presidential decisions in the interest of showing the former. He starts out explaining how Washington's reaction to the Whiskey Rebellion and Adams' acceptance of the Alien and Sedition Acts were major contributing factors to the fall of the Federalists and the rise of Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans. Jefferson also comes under criticism (the Embargo Act) as do many others up through George W. Bush (Iraq). Interestingly, Presidents Nixon (the bombing of Cambodia and Watergate) and Carter (Iran hostages and Energy Crisis/"Malaise") earn the dubious distinction of having two major failures addressed by Craughwell.

Craughwell does a good job of laying the historical context for the layman on the way to explaining why each of his examples were, indeed, failure. However, sometimes he pushes too hard in one direction. Did the Whiskey tax, the impetus for the Rebellion, and the Alien and Sedition Acts contribute to the end of the Federalist Party? Yes. But so did the propaganda and hysteria fomented by Jefferson and his D/Rs. Craughwell does mention this, but the emphasis is clearly on the actions of the then-current Presidents (Washington and Adams), not on the actions of the one who sought that office (Jefferson) and his supporters.

However, in other instances he's spot on, such as when he takes Andrew Jackson to task for the Trail of Tears, FDR for the Japanese internment and Jimmy Carter for the Iranian hostage crisis. He also presents a few obscure decisions as historical turning points, thus enabling a new perspective on an old issue. One such example is his account of President Grant's attempt to annex Santo Domingo. Grant's idea was to relieve the pressure between newly freed slaves and whites in the newly-conquered South by allowing the emigration of freed blacks to Santo Domingo. Craughwell's explanation--that this sent the signal that Grant himself believed that there would never be a reconciliation between the races in the South--is intriguing and warrants deeper analysis.

Craughwell begins his book explaining that "weighing the successes and failures of a presidency takes time." Nonetheless, he still attempts to analyze the "failure" of more contemporary events such as those by Nixon, Carter, Iran-Contra and the War in Iraq. (He also explains in the Forward that he, his co-author and editors couldn't agree as to whether the Clinton sex scandals did serious harm to the nation).

There are no citations or bibliography, but a review of the "Suggested Reading" list offers clues as to Craughwell's source material and may help explain the tone and nature of his conclusions for a couple of these later chapters. For instance, the reading list he suggests for the topic of George W. Bush and Iraq consists of these 9 items:

Paul Berman's, Terror and Liberalism
Rajiv Chandrasekaran's, Imperial Life in the Emerald City
Andrew Cockbrun's, Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall, and Catastrophic Legacy
Karen DeYoung's, Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell
Robert W. Drapers, Dead Certain
David Hare's anti-war play, Stuff Happens
Michael Isikoff and David Corn's, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal and Selling of the Iraq War
Bob Woodward's, State of Denial
Valerie Plame Wilson's, Fair Game

An informed reader will recognize that this is not exactly a reading list where one would find an unbiased--much less a sympathetic--account of the Iraq War. Perhaps Craughwell should have followed his own advice, resisted temptation and left more for a sequel?

In fact, a sequel would be welcome. Setting aside the more contemporary accounts, Craughwell offers an interesting presentation and analysis of many events. There are many more that are deserving analysis. Would he be so bold as to argue that dropping the Bomb on Hiroshima was a failure? Or what about the War with Mexico?

Obviously, there is room to argue over every "failure" presented, and that's what is so fun about the book. It would be a great conversation-starter in history courses for older high school or undergraduate students and, for the non-scholar, it makes for thoughtful and entertaining reading.

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