Presidential History Lesson on the Value of Building Consensus
The president whom George W. Bush may resemble most is not his biological father, George H.W. Bush, or even Ronald Reagan, who often seems his ideological father, but James K. Polk, a dynamic and willful leader few discuss anymore.
Polk, when elected president as a Democrat in 1844, had more political experience than Bush (Polk had spent 20 years in elective office, compared with Bush's six). But like Bush (who was 54 in 2000), Polk was young (49) and extremely self-confident when he took office.
Polk may be the only predecessor who matched Bush's determination to drive massive change on a minute margin of victory. Polk won by fewer than 38,000 votes of 2.7 million cast. Over four tumultuous years, he pursued an ambitious, highly partisan agenda that offered little to those who had voted against him. Sound familiar?
Strong on vision but weak on building consensus, Polk advanced his goals more than seemed possible in a closely divided country. But Polk's tactics deepened the nation's divisions and fanned the flames that later exploded into the Civil War.
I admit that I don't know that much about President Polk, but I suspect he'll become the subject of my research in coming weeks. I find it fascinating that the author of this article (Ronald Brownstein) chooses to use history's lesson to advance his view of the Bush presidency and of his leadership. That's fair. But is he rewriting history again?
Brownstein goes on to talk about consensus building:
It's worth considering Polk's record not because Americans will take up arms against each other anytime soon — although you might never know that from listening to talk radio — but because it suggests that a president who slights the need to build national consensus can seed long-term problems that aren't immediately apparent amid short-term successes.
Polk was inarguably a visionary: He saw the United States as a continental nation stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. And he was determined to advance that vision over any obstacle.
Okay, so Polk was wrong? His vision, determination, and fortitude helped build this great nation, but his methods were so objectionable that Brownstein suggests this it is his fault the country ended up in civil war? And why does he draw this conclusion?
It is true the land deals in the west were contributing factors, but they were only one of the many grievances listed by the State of Texas in it's Declaration of the Causes which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union and these treaties were not listed by the other states. The land deals were hardly the reason for the civil war. The issues of State's rights, taxes, treaties, but especially slavery were core reasons for the civil war. The Nebraska-Kansas Act which basically negated the Missouri Compromise was much more pivitol as a reason for the war between the states than Polk's land deals and expansionism. But in fairness, the author does not say it is the reason, but he implies President Polk's actions were the cause of it. He goes on to make the point that Bush's war on terrorism is the "same" as Polk's war for a land grab.
Polk failed to understand the cost to his presidency, and to the nation, of governing in a manner that was increasingly seen as championing the priorities of one interest, Southern slaveholders. The charge wasn't entirely fair, but the impatient Polk never recognized the value of concessions that could broaden consensus. When Polk stepped down, Silbey writes, he left behind "ominous cracks" in the political and social institutions that had encouraged national unity.
Much separates Polk's war with Mexico from Bush's with Iraq. But obvious echoes reverberate. Much like Polk with continental expansion, Bush has focused his presidency on a single goal: fighting Islamic terrorism, largely by encouraging the spread of democracy. In pursuit of that vision, Bush, like Polk, launched a war whose initial justification has spawned bitter dispute. And, like Polk, Bush has seen that war become more grueling and divisive than he had expected.
He goes on to cite President Lincoln as the example of the type of leader Dubya should be.
Polk's unwavering, impermeable conviction defines one approach for organizing a presidency in such circumstances. But Polk's early critic — Lincoln — offers Bush a better model for leadership during a difficult war. In the Civil War, Lincoln was nothing if not resolute. But as Goodwin notes, he also calibrated his decisions — from key personnel appointments to the timing of emancipation — to hold together all shades of opinion committed to the Union.
Part of Lincoln's genius, as one close advisor wrote, was his understanding that in the pursuit of national unity, it was the task of the president "to mollify and moderate" the country's fractious interests and diverse viewpoints. That's one reason Lincoln is revered and Polk, for all his ferocious accomplishments, is barely remembered.
Is Brownstein rewriting history to suit his view of the world today? Is he, like so many on the left, changing history's lessons to something that validates their world view and doesn't contradict the current "political correctness" that is infiltrating the classrooms of children and students of all ages, or does he really see it this way? Read his article in full, and let me know what you think. We must learn the lessons history teaches us or we'll be condemned to repeat the same mistakes. But what is the real lesson of history in this case?
Your thoughts please.