Wednesday, November 02, 2005

James Knox Polk, Unsexy Dead President


In 1844, the Democrats were split
The three nominees for the presidential candidate
Were Martin Van Buren, a former president and an abolitionist
James Buchanan, a moderate

Lewis Cass, a general and expansionist
From Nashville came a dark horse riding up
He was James K. Polk, Napoleon of the Stump

Austere, severe, he held few people dear
His oratory filled his foes with fear
The factions soon agreed
He's just the man we need
To bring about victory
Fulfill our manifest destiny
And annex the land the Mexicans command
And when the votes were cast the winner was
Mister James K. Polk, Napoleon of the Stump

In four short years he met his every goal
He seized the whole Southwest from Mexico
Made sure the tariffs fell
And made the English sell the Oregon territory
He built an independent treasury
Having done all this he sought no second term
But precious few have mourned the passing of
Mister James K. Polk, our eleventh president
Young Hickory, Napoleon of the Stump

-- They Might be Giants, "James K. Polk."

Not much you can add to this unlikely pop music assessment of the perennially obscure President Polk ("singing saw" interlude and all), except to say that the diminutive Andrew Jackson protégé, a former governor of Tennessee (1839-41) and speaker of the House (1835-39), is considered by historians in the know to have been one of the most effective presidents in U.S. history, as well as a ruthless bastard/control freak who pretty much single-handedly propelled the country into war with Mexico and increased U.S. possessions by more than 500,000 square miles. It appears that the exercise of his nerves of steel as president aged him dramatically and sapped him of his health, for within 4 months after leaving office by his own choice at the end of his single term, he was dead, probably of cholera after an exhausting Southern tour.

His name continues to crop up among students of American government as a model of dry presidential competence, and occasionally a Democrat will invoke the Polk legacy, such as in the 1988 Democratic presidential primary debates, when not one but 2 of the candidates mentioned Polk when asked which president they most admired.

Actually, young pre-vice-presidential fellow Tennessean Al Gore misnamed him as "James K. Knox," leaving Bruce Babbitt the opportunity to show him up, College Quiz Bowl-style, bobbing head and all. It was, perhaps, a harbinger of things to come in the general election: the Democrats ultimately selected the superficially Polkean Mike Dukakis as their nominee, a Massachusetts politician as unlike Massachusetts' legendary charismatic favorite son, John Kennedy, as one could imagine, and whose inability to paddle jauntily through a sea of TV cameras doomed him to defeat.

Such homage to Polk is a bit puzzling, for there is little to be said for his vision of the U.S. and much to be said simply about his getting things done. It is like a neighbor might say: "I got up Saturday morning with a list of things to do, so I mowed the lawn and trimmed the hedges and cleaned the gutters out and annexed Alta California, and then I sat down in my hammock and enjoyed some lemonade." A sexy presidency it maketh not, and it is no coincidence that "one-term president" is a derisive epithet in these parts.

"[Polk] has no wit, no literature, no point of argument, no gracefulness of delivery, no elegance of language, no philosophy, no pathos, no felicitous impromptus; nothing that can constitute an orator, but confidence, fluency, and labor." -- John Quincy Adams, 1834.

See also Minor Tweaks - Dead Celebrity iTunes Playlists: James K. Polk.

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