Number Five

Finally! A good biography of the fifth U.S. president, James Monroe!! When I started reading presidential biographies, in order, I figured there might be some patches where no decent and recent biography would be available, but I certainly wasn’t expecting a hard stop at number five. Tim McGrath to the rescue–with his 586-page doorstop, James Monroe: A Life. After I read what turned out to be a strong, well-written biography, my appetite wasn’t sated. After reading Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life, David McCullough’s John Adams, John B. Boles’ recent Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty (which I reviewed in 2017), Lynne Cheney’s James Madison: A Life Reconsidered, along with books about John Marshall, also reviewed here, Hamilton, and others,  I realized how little I knew about a man who was very much a part of the founding story, but then disappeared–Aaron Burr. Fortunately, I found a very good (used) book, Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr by Nancy Isenberg. Now, the pieces of the puzzle fit together in a way that makes more sense to me. I have much more to learn, but Burr was a missing piece for me–and I’ll thank multiple viewings of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical for piquing my curiosity.

Let’s start with Burr, the man who might have been our fourth, or perhaps, our fifth U.S. president. In fact, Burr was very much in “the room where it happened” throughout much of his political career–a mover and shaker who managed to pull himself up from tragedy, as Hamilton did. Both men were serious political operators, very appealing, with active sexual lives–Burr kept a diary of his sex life, apparently not unusual at the time. Burr was born entitled. His father was the first president of what became Princeton University, and when he died, Aaron Jr.’s grandfather (his mother Esther’s father), the preacher Jonathan Edwards, took the job. Shortly after, young Aaron nearly died but somehow survived. Months later, his mother Esther and her father Jonathan were gone, followed by Esther’s mother, Sarah. The story begins, as it does with Alexander Hamilton, with our hero as an orphan. And, as with his real-life rival Hamilton, Burr becomes a distinguished attorney, supports a Revolutionary War general (though Hamilton’s prestigious connection with Washington outshines Burr’s with Stirling), and becomes deeply involved in New York State politics, and the national scene. Eventually, Burr becomes the nation’s third Vice President–to Jefferson–but there’s a problem. Jefferson does not wish to see Hamilton as the nation’s fourth President; instead, he prefers his friend and neighbor, James Madison. This complicated storyline eventually places James Monroe–who was closely allied with both Jefferson and Madison, as Number Five. Along the way, all of these dudes made incredibly stupid decisions in their personal lives but figured out how to build and grow a new nation. Over more than two centuries, mythology overwhelmed the Burr story, and Professor Isenberg gets a lot of credit for weeding out the nonsense and trying to set the story straight.

Burr didn’t think much of Monroe–“he called the last President in the Virginia Dynasty ‘naturally dull & stupid–extremely illiterate,’ ‘indecisive…pusillanimous & of course hypocritical,” and “observing that he never ‘commanded a platoon or was every fit to command one.” And… “as a lawyer, Monroe was ‘far below Mediocrity…” His ‘character exactly suited… the View of the Virginia Junto,’ which “maintained itself on sycophancy instead of recruiting men of “Talent and Independence.” Jumping from the book about Burr to the book about Monroe, Burr’s criticism was bombastic and colorful, but it contains a fair amount of truth.

The problem with Monroe is that he was more of an ordinary man than a legendary character–and he was our first president with that particular characteristic. Author McGrath makes the best of that situation and tells a good story about an essentially good man’s life in the midst of revolutionary change and a new nation.

For example…18-year old Lieutenant Monroe crossed the Delaware River with General Washington. Interesting story: in December 1776, while leading his men, as quietly as possible, from the landing site down into Trenton, a dog barked, and the dog’s owner, John Riker, came out to see what was happening. When he heard the men’s Virginia accents, he welcomed them as revolutionaries, offered them food, and insisted on joining them in Trenton. Lt. Monroe did his best to dissuade Dr. Riker because he was losing valuable time and did not want to show up late for the sneak attack on the Hessian mercenaries in Trenton. Riker came anyway. Monroe was wounded by a cannonball; it opened his chest. Dr. Riker saved his life.

Monroe’s family was prosperous and well-connected, but his parents died while he was still a teenager. He had some land, an interest in speculating in more land, rather poor financial management instincts, an interest in law, and a knack for politics. By 1787, he was a member of the Virginia state assembly, and by 1790, he was a U.S. Senator. Politically, he stood with Madison and Jefferson (his former law instructor), against the forces of Adams and Hamilton. Three years later, he was the U.S. Minister to France, skillful in rebuilding and managing relationships in Paris, but often overwhelmed because he was often excluded from policy discussions, and never quite figured out how to work his way back into the conversation–and anything he did try to accomplish created problems with the Federalists. When Adams became president, Monroe was recalled, and shortly after, became Virginia’s governor.

When Madison finished his second term, Monroe was ideally positioned to become the fifth president. By that time, the U.S. and Britain were again at war, and there was no guarantee that the United States would remain viable as a unified nation. Author McGrath describes some astonishing scenes of “Washington City” in ruins as a result of successful British attacks–and Monroe’s attempts to keep government and family together, and safe. As the war fades from view, Monroe and his Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, and a somewhat out-of-control general Andrew Jackson push the Spanish away from Florida and consolidate power while building relationships with newly independent South American nations. Seeing opportunity and potential political salvation, Aaron Burr’s meanderings weave in and out of the story, more so in Isenberg than in McGrath, another reason to read both books together.

In short, the Monroe book is a well-told story of a transition–the era of the founders is fading, and Monroe represents their last huzzah, and the era of U.S. expansion is beginning in earnest, as the U.S. begins to become, if not a world power, than a controlling influence on its hemisphere. And that helps to explain how and why Monroe was able to issue a doctrine to stop the Europeans from messing around in our part of the world. Think of his doctrine more as a capstone, less of a disruption. The world was moving on.

A post-script: The University of Virginia’s Miller Center offers a fine biography of James Monroe, in several sections, on its website. In fact, the work on Monroe is a small part of a massive biographical, historical and contextual series of essays about every U.S. president: Life in Brief, Life Before the Presidency, Campaigns and Elections, Domestic Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Death of the President, Family Life, The American Franchise, and Impact and Legacy.



President, Inc.

So here’s something that hasn’t happened before, at least not at this scale. The new President is a businessman, and his personal name is one of his business’s most valuable assets. He lives in Trump Tower, alongside “public figures, athletes, celebrities and other affluent sophisticates” in “one of New York’s most visited attractions.” The organization’s website publicizes 24 domestic properties including a Trump Plaza, a Trump Palace, a Trump Parc, and so on. There are 9 more international properties, and 5 more commercial properties. That’s about 40 current properties, and 32 bear his name. These properties are gorgeous–the Trump portfolio includes some of the finest real estate properties on the planet. Taking a dark view, each of these could become a target because the wealthy capitalist U.S. President’s name is on so many of them, and Federal authorities began to address this issue by adding security to the Trump Tower on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue today.

For this article, my concern is elsewhere.

On the one hand, we require public figures to cease involvement in private business activities, and with good reason: decisions should be made on behalf of the public good, not for private gain. This seems wise, but the bright line becomes very fuzzy because the name Trump will identify a very public asset on January 20: the President of the United States. If I want to name my company Jefferson Bank or John Kennedy Ford, could I name my new store Trump Fine Jewelry because the President’s name is now public property?

On the other hand, we’ve just elected a President whose personal name is also a very valuable brand name. If The Trump Organization is required to change its name, or, at least, remove the new President’s name from the company’s real estate properties, that would be unfair to the company’s employees, partners and shareholders. And under normal circumstances, the Trump Organization would probably prevent me from using Trump Fine Jewelry. Maybe now the rules are different.

Some of Trump’s properties are outside the U.S. What is our national comfort level with the name of our new President on a magnificent building in Panama or Turkey?

Okay, deep breath, this about to become more complicated.

How do we feel about the President’s name on more than a dozen fancy golf courses? Again, they are spectacular, and part of their alure is the Trump brand name. Remove that name and the business suffers. Keep the brand name and we’ve got a U.S. President endorsing private businesses–very upscale businesses that are inaccessible to most people because these golf courses charge high prices and serve privileged clientele. And yet, it’s not fair to penalize those businesses, those investors, those partners, those customers. Trump also manages “both of Central Park’s public skating rinks” which seems like less of a problem, and maybe the six luxurious restaurants are also of little concern (except when a tourist says, “I want to visit one of the President’s restaurants”).

President-Elect Trump has also been successful in the entertainment business. This, from his website: “Additionally, Donald J. Trump is the co-owner and Executive Producer of the “Miss Universe Pageant,” “Miss USA Pageant”, and “Miss Teen USA Pageant” in partnership with NBC.  Trump Productions recently Executive Produced the hit reality series “Pageant Place” on MTV.  Additionally, Trump Productions premiered a brand new series on MTV in 2009 based on the #1 hit UK show “Ladette to Lady.”

And there’s the President-Elect’s successful management company for fashion models: “Trump Model Management is an expression of exquisite beauty and contemporary style…With a name that symbolizes success, the agency has risen to the top of the fashion market, producing models that appear on the pages of magazines such as Vogue, on designer runways, in advertising campaigns and blockbuster movies. We take pride in scouting and developing our own talent in the stars of today and tomorrow, as well as maintaining outstanding client relations. With unsurpassed management and direction, our diverse group of managers and scouts continue to impress the world with their taste and style.”

For professors of brand marketing and Presidential law, all of this presents a fascinating puzzle. Do we just leave things alone, and allow the name of the U.S. President to become a marketing tool for Miss Universe or a few dozen real estate holdings? Do we demand that the President-elect remove his name from some or all of these properties for the run of his term, and potentially destroy businesses that employ (I’m guessing) thousands of workers? Do we make some exceptions? Or do we do as little as possible and just allow the marketplace to do as it will?

Will some of the people who now operate the Trump Organization operate the nation? Will they be allowed to continue to work with both the private company and the U.S. Government? Or must they decide, as public officials have decided for a century or more, to cease their involvement with private concerns while serving in public office? For most politicians, these questions require several meetings with lawyers and accountants. In this situation, maybe it’s that simple.

I don’t know the answers, but I hope somebody does. And if something needs to happen, I guess there’s a short deadline: ten weeks and two days from today, it’s the Trump White House.







Trump 59M, Clinton 59M, Johnson 4M…Nobody 178M

In spite of the abundance of statistics delivered by the news media last night, this information didn’t get much attention.

  • About 325 million people live in the U.S., and about 25 million of us are under 18 years old, so 300 million people are old enough to vote.
  • Adding the Clinton (59 million) and Trump (59 million) totals, that’s 118 million.
  • So: less than 120 million people in the U.S. voted for the two mainstream candidates.
    • 60 percent of people 18+ DID NOT VOTE for either of these two candidates.
  • Add-in the not-much-mentioned Johnson (4 million) and Stein (1 million), and the total vote is up to 125 million.
  • So: the new President of the U.S. was voted into office by less than 20 percent of U.S. citizens 18+ years old.

According to The New York Times, 200 million U.S. citizens were registered to vote in the 2016 election (that is: 1 in 3 Americans are not registered). And, apparently, 75 million people who were registered decided not to vote. Hence, 178M U.S. adult citizens were the majority group in this Presidential election.

Sometimes, I wonder whether adults are more effective voters than children–most children spend their days learning, and some of what they learn is about choosing a leader. If we add 25 million children, then over 200 million U.S. citizens (out of 325 million U.S. citizens) did not vote in this election.


Debates Are Ridiculous; Let’s Move On

Associated Press/Pool-Win McNamee – Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama answer a question during the third presidential debate at Lynn University, Monday, Oct. 22, 2012, in Boca Raton, Fla. (AP Photo/Pool-Win McNamee)

A half century ago, the idea of televising a debate between two Presidential candidates was breakthrough thinking. Beginning in 2016, I think we can use our new and emerging media to do a better job, and, presumably, to choose our new leader with greater insight, wisdom, and knowledge.

Let’s begin with some pre-reading materials. During the primary process, each candidate for president should be required to complete and submit a job application. The application should require work history, evidence of compliance with laws (for example, age and place of birth), and so on. Prior to each party’s national convention, each candidate should be required to clearly present his or her platform, in detail, by category, complete with data and factual references (given the dynamic nature of our economy and such, each candidate may revise this document at pre-appointed intervals). Then, each candidate should be required to present the platform by speaking directly to the American public, on television, without interruption. If we’re clever, I’m sure we can come up with a web-based extension of the written and televised presentation. With this mechanism in place, I can easily research where each candidate stands on, say, Syria, or health care. Of course, the people ought to have some digital means of asking questions, and the candidates should provide some reasonable means of answering their questions.

Next up, let’s change our rules regarding the use of television advertising. Whether by law or by policy, candidates should be required to use their commercial airtime to explain their own views, and not to criticize or attack the other candidate (this higher standard should be applied to all elections, at least on television commercials where stations often set policies with regard to acceptable material).

With all of that in place, let’s rethink the debate. Running a grudge match is a waste of everybody’s time, and so is allowing candidates to drift from the questions to their own message points. Candidates are welcome to speechify, but that’s not the purpose of the debates. Instead, I would either eliminate the debates and replace them with one-on-one conversations with everyday people and vetted journalists, or reformat them entirely. Last night’s Bob Schieffer format stopped the candidates from moving around and nearly slugging one another. That’s a start. A quiet, reasoned conversation; mostly, closeups of each candidate so we can study their faces; a journalist who asks the questions and is not overwhelmed by the power of candidates to disobey the rules–this format provides a better opportunity to study the candidates and their presentations. And let’s not call it a debate, or think of it as debate, because we should discourage the unseemly role modeling by potential leaders of the free world. There should be no winner or loser. Instead, the debate ought to be a skillfully moderated conversation by people, each of who believes that he or she can successfully lead the nation and play a very significant role on the world stage. That’s enough for me.

But there’s a piece missing: verification of facts. I’m not very interested in what the network’s commentators have to say about who “won” because the debate should not be reduced to such simple-minded thinking. Instead, immediately following the debate, I’d like to see an intelligent, compelling presentation of what each candidate said, and whether it was factually correct, kinda hazy, or utter nonsense. If the candidates understood that they would be immediately followed by an independent fact-check seen on TV, they would be more likely to curb their fanciful interpretations of fact.

Do we need to see two presidential candidates “go at it” as if they were wrestlers? I think we can do a lot better, and I know we possess the tools and the need to approach the whole intersection between presidential candidates and media. But do we possess the will to shift the entire election process into the 21st century?

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