Bernanke, Coolidge, and Buchanan: On Timing Your Departure

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In American history, there have been two Presidents who have been perceived as time-servers who knew that a crisis was coming: James Buchanan and Calvin Coolidge. Buchanan did not get out in time. Coolidge did.

Buchanan is generally rated by American historians as among the worst Presidents in American history. This has been true ever since 1948.

Credit, or blame, for the first scholarly ranking of the presidents usually goes to Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr., who conducted a poll for Life magazine in 1948. He asked 55 specialists in American history to rate the presidents as great, near great, average, below average, or failure. Abraham Lincoln topped the list, followed by George Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Claiming the cellar of that list were Warren G. Harding and, in ascending order, Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Calvin Coolidge, John Tyler, Benjamin Harrison, and Herbert Hoover.

U.S. News updated this in 2010. The bottom: Andrew Johnson. The next-to-last: Buchanan.

Polling of conservative and liberal historians produced the same result for the best: Lincoln. So, the two worst were the men who preceded and followed Lincoln.

My conclusion: do not send your child to major in American history in college. I speak as someone with a Ph.D. in the field.

Lincoln made a decision to bring the South back in because, as he said in his first inaugural address, he wanted to make certain that the union could collect tariffs.

In doing this there needs to be no bloodshed or violence, and there shall be none unless it be forced upon the national authority. The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the Government and to collect the duties and imposts; but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion, no using of force against or among the people anywhere.

It was not this phrase that made him the supreme master of rhetoric, but it surely identified him as a faithful Republican Party office-holder in 1861.

He fought the war for tariffs, and yet he is regarded as the greatest President of American history. The historians make this assessment by means of a 150-year strategy: they never mention why he fought the war. He said why, but they refuse to cite his first inaugural address. They elevate his second inaugural to holy writ: “with malice toward none, with charity to all” — and high tariffs. It cost about 750,000 lives, but he surely was able to secure those tariffs.

Buchanan attempted to avoid Civil War. Johnson attempted to heal the country after the Civil War, and the Republicans in Congress kept him from doing this. They impeached him in the House, and almost convicted him in the Senate. He was not in charge of his office.

Why blame Buchanan? It is typical of liberal historians that they give him low marks. They blame him because he was unable to settle the issues that were facing the country with regards to secession. It was under Buchanan that the John Brown raid took place in 1859. After that, there was no possibility that the Republican Party could come into power and not produce secession. Everybody knew it in late 1860. Buchanan knew it. He did his best to keep the lid on, but it was obvious by 1859 that the election of 1860 would probably lead to the breakup of the United States.

People forget how important the John Brown raid was. It was the central event of 19th-century America. Brown believed that he could create the momentum for a slave uprising. This was the number-one fear of slave-owners in the South. They took them seriously. Even more important, they took seriously the wave of pro-Brown editorials in the big-city Northern press. They really believed that the North was fomenting revolution in the South. Brown created that belief. It was by far the most important single act of political terrorism in the history United States.

Buchanan was glad to get out. By the time he left, the South had seceded. He was the President of a country that had broken apart. The country no longer existed as it had in the previous November. What was Buchanan to do? He was at the end of his term. Was he the man to invade the South? Why would he do that? Lincoln had the responsibility, not Buchanan. Lincoln was the reason why the South had seceded. What was Buchanan going to do to persuade the South not to secede, since it was the election of Lincoln that had persuaded them to secede?

Then there was Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge was the last president of the United States whose presidency was not assumed to have been the main cause of the events of his presidency. There were two presidents in the 20th century who attained that position: William Howard Taft and Coolidge. Nobody associates Taft’s name with the Taft era. There was no Taft era. There was the era of four years, in which a man who had never previously been elected to political office served as President of the United States. He served in between two radicals: Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. He is not known for having done anything.

We think of the 1920s as the roaring 20s, but nobody blames Coolidge. He is assumed to have served as a figurehead President, which is exactly the kind of President he wanted to be. He believed in a limited presidency. Under him, the economy boomed. Under him, there were no major scandals. There was no war. He left office just in time to avoid the Great Depression, and it seems quite likely in retrospect that he knew it was coming. He privately referred to Hoover as “the wonder boy.” He had no use for him. The economy came crashing down on Hoover’s head instead of Coolidge’s.

Ben Bernanke impresses me as a man who may yet become Buchanan. He may not get out with his reputation intact. At best, he will achieve a kind of Coolidge legacy, but only by tripling the monetary base, 2008-today. He was the wonder boy. He is trying to get out as fast as he can. Under him, the country suffered the worst economic setback since the Great Depression. He used the printing press to bail out some large banks and a few over-leveraged investment firms. He served as Hank Paulson’s silent potted plant. He addicted the American economy to what amounts to hyperinflation of the monetary base. The commercial banks are not lending. The recovery is barely functioning. The economy has sustained its worst performance since the Great Depression. He has been in charge the entire time.

He is trying to get out with his reputation intact. He is likely to make it, and whoever follows him will likely not make it.

For the most part, Greenspan escaped. He is no longer regarded as the Maestro, but Bernanke is the man who presided over the policies that led to the crisis of 2008. It was really Greenspan’s fault, but he was out of office long enough so that the roof caved in on Bernanke. It will be interesting to see how long the roof is maintained after Bernanke’s departure.

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