By Gail Collins
New York Times
When Hillary Clinton thinks about running for president, do you think she contemplates the fact that no Democrat has been elected to succeed another Democrat since James Buchanan in 1856?
We bring you this factoid in honor of the beginning of the 2016 election season. (Only 55 weeks until the New Hampshire primary!) We've got so much time. It's the perfect moment for random irrelevant trivia about presidential elections of the past. Which, to be honest, is my favorite part.
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Consider that succession information for a minute. We have had Democratic vice presidents step into office when the Democratic president died. But the voters haven't gone to the polls and elected one Democrat to follow another since before the Civil War.
What do you think this means? Actually, there weren't all that many Republicans who were elected to succeed Republicans either. Particularly if you acknowledge that Rutherford B. Hayes stole the election from Samuel Tilden. James Garfield did it, but then he was assassinated. William Howard Taft followed Theodore Roosevelt, and then Roosevelt came to hate Taft so much that he ran as a third-party candidate in 1912, throwing the election to Woodrow Wilson. Herbert Hoover succeeded Calvin Coolidge, and we know how well that one worked out. Finally, George H.W. Bush was elected after Ronald Reagan.
Wow, think about that. The only president elected to follow a member of his own party without creating some sort of cosmic disaster was George H.W. Bush. No wonder he always looks so cheerful.
These factoids refer only to elections between Republicans and Democrats. Even with nearly two years to go (but seven months until the Iowa straw poll!), we don't have enough time to deal with the Whigs. Our two current parties began duking it out in — yes! — 1856, when Buchanan ran against the first Republican presidential candidate, John Charles FrÃ©mont. FrÃ©mont was an explorer whose political enemies claimed had resorted to cannibalism during one unfortunate Western expedition. I am just telling you this to make it clear how interesting U.S. history can be.
Anyhow, Buchanan won and went on triumphantly to become possibly the worst president ever. Almost every chief executive in American history has his defenders. I had a very nice time last year talking with people who feel Warren Harding hasn't been given his due. But you very seldom run into fans of Buchanan, the man who cozied up to slaveholders and failed to stop Southern secession.
"He was terrible," said Jean Baker, a professor of history at Goucher College and Buchanan biographer. This despite arriving in office with one of the best resumes in the history of presidential candidates: Buchanan had been a congressman, envoy to Russia, senator, secretary of state and minister to Britain. "He was sitting around waiting and waiting with the best CV of any president we've ever had. That's what's so ironic," Baker said.
Did I mention that Buchanan was also the last former secretary of state elected president?
I don't think Clinton-Buchanan commonalities are likely to be a big concern. Liberals worry that Hillary might be overly aggressive when it comes to foreign policy; I don't think anybody thinks she'd sit on her hands and let any states secede. (Only 58 weeks until the South Carolina primary!)
Still, it never hurts to push a little random presidential history into the mix, if only to liven things up for the next year or so. Any suggestions? I am in the market for some comparisons between Ted Cruz and Millard Fillmore.
But about James Buchanan: Baker thinks his unwillingness to stand up to the South was because, at least partly, of his close friendships with Southern politicians. (He described the abolition movement as "weak, powerless and soon to be forgotten" and referred to white men from the South as "the chivalrous race.") Buchanan roomed with William King of Alabama during their Senate days, and the pair were so close that people referred to them as "Siamese twins." King went on to become the only bachelor vice president, under Franklin Pierce. Buchanan, you may recall, was our only bachelor president.
Baker said that when she was writing her book on Buchanan, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., her editor, demanded that she "take a position on whether he was gay or not." She demurred. Buchanan never said, and he spent a great deal of time pretending to be courting various widows, none of whom managed to get him anywhere near the altar. Baker wishes she could have said for sure: "It would have been one of the few things I could present as positive about James Buchanan."
Well, he was kind to his nephews and nieces. He had two pet bald eagles, which sounds sort of interesting. And he was the only president who hailed from Pennsylvania. Perhaps I should point out that Joe Biden was born in Scranton.