Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Failures of the Presidents: From the Whiskey Rebellion and the War of 1812 to the Bay of Pigs and the War in Iraq

Provided free from Amazon Vine

Though written in a textbook format with sub-headings and sidebars, this reads more like a "light" history. I categorize light history as anything where the writers compile information from secondary sources and organize it into an easy-to-read format with a theme and no citations. In this book the author(s) (I'm not quite sure who did what here as there are several co-authors listed in the acknowledgments who aren't listed on the cover) review what they consider to be the greatest failures of certain--not all--of the presidents from George Washington to George W. Bush. (Interestingly, Bush the Father doesn't have a separate chapter but was included in the Iran-Contra chapter). There are no footnotes and no bibliography, only "additional reading" for each chapter, which, I assume, comprises their source material unless these authors knew it all of the top of their heads.

As someone who prefers her histories a little less broad and a lot deeper, on occasion a sampling of this type can provide a good review of things I haven't studied since high school, like the Whiskey Rebellion, and those parts of history we like to gloss over like the occupation of the Philippines and attempts to annex Santo Domingo.

Of course, anything of this sort will be extremely subjective, however, in this case, I was at a loss to determine the authors' method of choice. In the introduction it is noted that the Monica Lewinsky scandal and Clinton's impeachment are not included because the co-authors "...could not agree definitively that the ...scandals...actually inflicted damage on the United States at the time." In fact, there is no chapter on Clinton, implying, I suppose, that he had no major failures. However, (and I'm a Democrat), if Carter's botched attempt at rescuing the Iranian hostages was included, why not the Battle of Mogadishu (Black Hawk Down)? Conspicuous in their absence are some of the best-known scandals like Teapot Dome.

There are also some inclusions I question. For example, what has become known as "The Trail of Tears," the relocation of the Cherokee under Andrew Jackson. A qualifier here. I am a huge advocate for American Indian rights and know more about America's treatment of the Indians than most professional historians. However, I can't say I see how it falls under the rubric noted above. While it was certainly a moral shame, I don't see how it could be seen as "inflicting damage on the US at the time." The US, as opposed to the Cherokee, wasn't damaged at all.

I would also question the inclusion of the Energy Crisis under Jimmy Carter as a presidential failure. Too bad if it caused some economic woes at the time. In retrospect we'd have done better to stick with gas rationing and lowering our thermostats.

I did appreciate the inclusion of Iran-Contra, the now all but forgotten illegal dealings of the Reagan administration which are far too complicated to outline here. At a time when both Republicans and Democrats feel the need to pay lip service to the late president, it's good to remember what that administration got away with and how it began the line of thinking that the president is above the law and all things are allowable as commander-in-chief. However, I would have liked to see other inclusions under Reagan, like the firing of the Air Traffic Controllers and the banking deregulation that led to the Keating scandal (of which John McCain was a part).

Then again, you can't include everything or it would be a tome. All-in-all a good read, especially for those who avoid history because they think it is too boring. This is an easy read, covers a lot of important history, and, at its best, may entice people to read more about these events.