Monthly Archives: July 2014

The Senate and the President

American Presidents To Present

My Beloved Husband and I have a penchant for contests in which we quiz each other on trivia.  We have exhausted the state capitals, made moderate headway on the country capitals, and I got my butt kicked by my BH on the international radio code (alpha, bravo, Charlie, etc.).  We also enjoy space esoterica such as naming the lunar landing sites of the Apollo missions or the naming the wives of the “New Nine” astronauts.  A few months ago, we ate at a diner where the placemats featured pictures of all of the American Presidents, and we immediately seized on a new contest.

My history and political reading of the past year and a half gave me a distinct advantage, but both of us floundered between Andrew Jackson, whose winning slogan was, “John Quincy Adams can write, but I can fight!” and approximately Woodrow Wilson.  It’s a vast wasteland in the middle with only Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt as familiar faces.  Even trying to regroup the Presidents by other characteristics such as the “cartoon” presidents: Millard (Mallard) Fillmore, (James) Garfield, and Grover (Cleveland) didn’t help much in reproducing the sequence.  (As I was writing that passage, I called in my BH to consult, and when he tried for “President Deputy Dog,” I knew that he was not going to be a big help.)  So why is this string of Presidents so unmemorable?  The answer is found in the balance of power between the President and the Senate

When our modern government was formed and George Washington was unanimously named as the first President, the players all rather gingerly explored their roles.  Laws originated largely from Congress, and predominantly from the House.  The first six Presidents used their veto power sparingly and then only in cases in which they felt that the new law violated the young Constitution.  George Washington however, submitting a slate of candidates for approval by the Senate for a variety of government positions, learned the hard way that the Senate did not see their role of “advise and consent” to mean automatic acceptance of Washington’s recommendations. One nomination was blocked by a senator who had a personal quarrel with the nominee, prompting Washington to appear before the Senate to question what the problem was.  Much as they respected this man who had been elected unanimously, the Senate felt no obligation to explain their actions.  Thus Washington learned to consult with the Senate before he submitted nominations, and he proceeded to conduct all of his subsequent business with Congress through written correspondence rather than by addressing the group on their own turf.  Both practices remain in place today.

The 1820’s began what came to be known as the Golden Age of the Senate.  It began following the term of Andrew Jackson, (President #7), who forcefully imposed his strong views about the primacy of the President upon Congress.  Thus after his term Congress pushed back hard to re-establish their own power.  The Senate in particular, flexed its authority by no longer deferring to the House to introduce legislation and began to originate its own bills.

As Alexis de Tocqueville described the Senate in 1835, “Scarcely an individual is to be seen in it who has not had an active and illustrious career: the Senate is composed of eloquent advocates, distinguished generals, wise magistrates, and statesmen of note, whose arguments would do honor to the most remarkable parliamentary debates of Europe.” The great triumvirate of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun were but three of the senators whose fiery and passionate debates hammered out acts such as the Missouri Compromise of 1850, which for a time preserved the Union and delayed the Civil War for decades.

Because the Senate contained a considerable portion of the best political talent, and because of the tensions between North and South making it impossible for the best known candidates to be nominated, the Golden Age of the Senate from the 1820’s through the 1850’s accompanied great weakness in the Presidency.  Men like Zachary Taylor or James Polk were political compromises who did their best to stay out of the legislature’s way and did not make a significant impression upon history.  At least ten of the 62 senators who served in the 1849-1850 Congress had greater impact upon the country than did the Presidents of that era. They included Clay, Webster, and Calhoun, but also William Seward of New York, Salmon Chase of Ohio, and Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania, who later became part of President Lincoln’s team of rivals cabinet as Secretaries of state, treasury, and war respectively.

It was Abraham Lincoln who temporarily shifted more power to the Presidency and away from the Senate.  For example, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued entirely without consulting Congress, who were less than pleased at being left out of the loop.  This power shift was transitory since Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln after his assassination, holds the dubious honor of the first President to be impeached by the House.  On my visit to the National Archives last year, I saw the piece of paper with the hand-written resolution for impeachment; it was carried around for days by a representative who was looking for an opportunity to use it.  Although Johnson narrowly avoided conviction by the Senate, he left the Presidency again greatly weakened.

Thus began a second sequence of Presidents whose names are barely memorable.  Following Ulysses Grant, who was adept at winning a war, but had no idea how to run a country, were men such as Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, and Chester Arthur.  It was not until Vice President Teddy Roosevelt became President upon the assassination of William McKinley that Congress acquired another worthy opponent in the White House and the inexorable progression toward a strong President would begin.

Having learned this bit of history, I felt that my lack of knowledge of these Presidents was perfectly justified.  Besides, although my English BH knows a greater than average amount about American Presidents, I still knew enough to beat him at the game.


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The Senate and Elections

In Miss Gonser’s eighth grade social studies class, we had to learn the purpose of each amendment to the Constitution.  The 17th amendment provides for the direct election of senators, and I remember at the time thinking that this was a pretty trivial and uninteresting amendment.  I have lately learned more about the history of this amendment, which turns out to be far more interesting than I had thought.

Our founders spent quite a bit of time contemplating the Senate and how it should work.  The story is told that Thomas Jefferson was Ambassador to France at the time and thus was absent for most of the negotiations.  When he returned, he talked to George Washington and asked why on earth the Senate had been created.  In reply, Washington pointed out that Jefferson had just poured some of his tea out of his cup and into the saucer.  Washington asked why, and Jefferson replied, “To cool it off.”  Washington said, “That’s why we created the Senate.”  The upper chamber was designed to cool the fiery passions expected in the House of Representatives.

We are all familiar with the decision that senators would be elected for six year terms, and that one third of the senators would be up for election every two years to prevent rapid swings in the composition of the body, but I hadn’t realized that originally, senators were elected by the state legislatures rather than by popular vote.  Although the intent was that the senators would stay above the political fray, the country rapidly fell into the partisan politics that has so often characterized the government.  For example, in Virginia, Patrick Henry who controlled the state legislature, not only blocked the election of James Madison to the Senate, and instead substituted his own political allies for the spots, but he also attempted to interfere with Madison’s election to the House.  Since Madison helped to shape the Constitution, he was arguably actually the most qualified man in Virginia to serve in the new federal government.

A senator had considerable political influence in his home state because of the Senate’s role in approving nominations to federal appointments.  Through the spoils system, named for “to the victor go the spoils,” a successful candidate rewarded his supporters with federal posts and the accompanying salaries, thus buying votes in the state legislatures.  The political parties reinforced this system as party bosses arranged for themselves or their designated candidates to be elected to the Senate. In the 1880’s, a British historian commented on the number of very rich men in the U.S. Senate, saying, “Some are senators because they are rich; a few are rich because they are senators.”

As early as 1826, a bill was introduced in the House to allow for “direct” election of senators, meaning that the population of a state would get to vote for their senators, just as they voted for their representatives.  Needless to say, that bill went nowhere in the Senate.  It took another 88 years before a Constitutional amendment was ratified by the required three-quarters of the states and in 1913 became the 17th amendment.   No longer would deadlocked legislatures result in long term vacancies in the Senate, and the influence of the party bosses began to wane

The change in election format was accompanied by complaints from political analysts that the Senate had become much more like the House- swayed by popular opinion and populated by a less exalted character of man, both in stark contrast to the intent of the framers of the Constitution.  Certainly there were a considerable number of retirements resulting from the change, since seats that had formerly been secured by influencing a few score state representatives became far less reliable in general elections.

As I was learning about this history, I was particularly struck by the role of money in the process.  The framers of the Constitution had considered and rejected the idea that senators should own a certain amount of land or have a certain amount of wealth, but the influence of money in the election of senators from the state legislatures still became significant.  Although we have been electing senators by popular vote for the past century, personal wealth still plays a significant role since changes in campaign finance rules make it easier for a wealthy individual to finance his or her own election run.  Thus wealth often trumps individuals with a genuine skill or passion for government.  Plus ça change plus c’est la même chose.  (The more things change, the more they stay the same.)


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“Upstairs at the White House”

The South Portico with the Truman Balcony

The South Portico with the Truman Balcony

Amazon has apparently recognized that some of my reading tastes have slanted toward history and politics, so when Upstairs at the White House came up as a recommendation, I decided to give it a try.

Written by J.D. West, who spent 28 years as an usher and then the chief usher of the White House, it is a charming collection of stories and observations of the First Ladies who occupied the President’s House during West’s tenure.  With so many biographies relishing revelations of scandal, I appreciated that West was able to emphasize the strengths and talents of each of the First Ladies and respect the differences among them without ever describing them negatively.

Each First Lady had a distinctive managerial style.  Eleanor Roosevelt traveled extensively, met with people and entertained a large group nightly and needed to manage all of those logistics.  Bess Truman was part of the closely knit trio of Harry, Bess, and their daughter, Margaret, and managed with the thriftiness of a Midwestern housewife.  Maisie Eisenhower, as the wife of a general, was accustomed to handling a large complex household, so she had a regular morning meeting with the staff, which she handled while sitting in her pink bed.  Jackie Kennedy was highly organized but more informal, so instructions from her tended to come on the fly.  She was soft-spoken so you had to listen closely to her, but ultimately the staff learned that, “Do you think it would be possible…” from Mrs. Kennedy carried the same weight as, “I want you to do this now” from Mrs. Eisenhower.  Lady Bird Johnson prioritized herself far behind her family, particularly her Texan husband who strode around the halls and shouted through the rooms as though he was still occupying the wide expanses of his home state.  With each new First Lady, the White House staff adjusted to her and she adjusted to them.  The key to continuity for the staff was loyalty to the White House rather than to a particular family.

Perhaps because I knew little of the Trumans, I was particularly intrigued by some of their stories.  When the Trumans arrived after the death of FDR, the idea that the President and First Lady actually shared the same bedroom created quite a stir among the staff.  That the Trumans enjoyed a close relationship was certainly obvious when a rather embarrassed Mrs. Truman had to ask to have the President’s bed fixed after two slats broke in the middle of the night.

The Trumans and Margaret liked to take meals under the south portico facing the Washington Monument.  The area was shaded by awnings, which regularly needed to be cleaned, so President Truman proposed a new balcony on the second floor that would provide an excellent view while also eliminating the need for the awnings.  In spite of his growing disfavor with Congress, who held the purse strings, Truman managed to push the project through.  After the balcony was completed, however, the Trumans realized that the space was extremely public and visible to the growing number of tourists who passed by for a picture.  Thus other than using the balcony to watch the odd baseball game played on the Ellipse, the Trumans went back to their first floor dining habits.

Sometime after the balcony was completed, Mrs. Truman was entertaining the DAR in the large oval Blue Room, which is in the center of the second floor.  She suddenly heard the tinkle of glass, and she realized that the large chandelier overhead was swaying, clinking the crystals together.  She sent for Mr. West, who investigated, and discovered that the source of the vibration had been the large head butler merely walking across the floor of the room overhead to fetch a book for the President who was taking a bath.  Further investigation revealed that the whole White House interior was structurally unsound, and the President had been fortunate that the ceiling didn’t give way and drop him and his bathtub into the laps of the DAR ladies below.

While the Trumans were away on their successful campaign for re-election, a thorough study of the White House was carried out, and it showed that the interior walls were built on soft clay footings rather than solid rock, that doors built into interior walls had further weakened the structure, and then three sets of plumbing, multiple revisions to the electrical wiring, and even large mounds of sawdust left in the walls during construction had turned the structure into a fire trap.  The bathtub did indeed start to sink through the floor, as did one leg of Margaret’s piano.  The only part of the house that seemed to be structurally sound was the new balcony!

The Trumans thus moved into Blair House across the street for the duration of the necessary renovations, and during that time they had one close call with a pair of assassins who tried to shoot their way into the White House to kill the President.  Had the gunmen arrived a mere half an hour later, President Truman would have been coming down the front stairs in full view of the front door.  It was this incident that marked the beginning of significantly increased security around the President.

In West’s 28 year career, there were only five transitions among Presidents.  He started when FDR was President, and he left a mere six weeks after the Nixons arrived.  Because both Roosevelt and Kennedy died in office, there were only three times that West experienced the tightly choreographed transition between families that occurs on Inauguration Day.  The belongings of the new First Family are not allowed to enter the White House until the incoming President takes the oath of office at noon, and then it is a highly orchestrated maneuver to arrange and unpack all of the possessions in the two hours before the family arrives to take up residence.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, in part because having been to the White House, I could envision many of the rooms that they discussed, and I could imagine the changes described, such as the addition of a stage to the East Room for performances under the Eisenhowers.  A good read with delightful stories and (almost) no snark.



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