I can’t understand why Democrats are so tied up in knots about what to name their big dinner. It’s obvious what it should be called.
But first, let’s review, starting with Messrs. Jackson and Jefferson. Okay, Andrew Jackson, that’s an easy one. Genocide, Indian Removal Act, Trail of Tears, an ardor for slavery that was formidable even by the standards of the day. Nasty piece of work. True, he was a president, and he did beat the Brits in New Orleans, so sure, give him some kind of statue somewhere. But take him off the double sawbuck, and for God’s sakes get his name off the annual dinner of the party that gets the lion’s share of non-white people’s votes.
As for Jefferson, I think that one is a lot more complicated. Yes, he was a slave owner. No one’s defending that. But he was a genius and a Renaissance Man and the philosophical author of many of our best traditions, separation of church and state for starters. Also the rather crucial idea that there must be no test for citizenship save fealty to the Constitution. I would say that there’s a lot more in the plus column than in the minus. But I understand that that particular minus looms large, as it should. There are many other ways to honor the upsides, so I guess if he has to go, he has to go.
All right then. So now we’ve gone from the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, referred to euphoniously by the initiated as the J-J Dinner, to the _____-______ Dinner. Everybody seems intent in dumping the two old namesakes, but I don’t see many people reaching much consensus on a new name. In Connecticut, they dumped the two J’s but put off agreeing on a new name until this fall. Georgia Democrats appear to have done the same.
What’s so hard about this? The pool of potential options is ridiculously finite. I mean, it kind of has to be a president. So let’s have a look at them, starting with the earliest post Jefferson-Jackson Democratic chief executives.
1. Martin Van Buren. Right. That would be like the Yankees naming their annual dinner after Joe Pepitone.
2. James K. Polk. It turns out that Polk gets pretty solid ratings from historians, often finishing in the Top 10. But he is fatally flawed according to the standards by which we’re judging Jefferson and Jackson: He opposed the Wilmot Proviso, which sought to ban slavery in any of the territories “acquired” from Mexico
3. Franklin Pierce. Disaster. The whole Kansas situation. However, I do read here that he lived to watch all three of his children die, including the third one’s near-decapitation in a railway accident while Pierce was president-elect. Youch. That’s hideous stuff, but it doesn’t get you a dinner named after you.
4. James Buchanan. Worse than Pierce, without the family tragedy (but an odd personal life, at once austere and rococo). No chance.
5. Andrew Johnson. Unfairly impeached, but nothing to write home about. And yet another Tennessean. What was up with that?
6. Grover Cleveland. Hmmm, okay. He was for his day a rather courageous anti-imperialist, one of the few early presidents who didn’t thirst to kill loads of high-melanin people. Very good on the Hawaii question. So that’s something. More of a mixed bag domestically. Not bad as U.S. presidents go, but not dinner-worthy.
7. Woodrow Wilson. Are you kidding? The presidency’s biggest mega-racist. He makes Jefferson look like Joe Rauh. Next.
8. Franklin Roosevelt. Ah. Now you’re talking.
Okay, I have an idea at this point. Now that we’re into familiar territory, let’s drop the chronology and the quick dismissals, because everyone from here on out has to be treated with some degree of seriousness. So let’s sort through them.
We start with Jimmy Carter. Well, we wish him all the best in his fight with cancer. And we applaud so much of what he has done in more recent years. Do you know for example that the Carter Center is almost singlehandedly responsible for worldwide near-eradication of Guinea Worm Disease, an extremely painful condition that afflicted the world’s poorest people? For that alone, Carter ought to be honored by 100,000 dinners.
But not, alas, the Democratic Party’s annual dinner. The obvious reasons: One term, inflation, the hostage crisis. I bet you don’t know that Carter was a world-class job creator, seriously. But it just wouldn’t pass the laugh test, alas. History will be kind to him in a number of ways, but you can’t call his a smashing presidency by any means.
LBJ. Sigh. Such greatness domestically. But Vietnam. I believe that I have noticed this trend. Fifteen or so years ago, if you asked your average liberal to put a “domestic achievements” weight on one side of the LBJ scale and a “Vietnam” weight on the other side, s/he would have gone about 30-70. I sense that now this liberal would go maybe 45-55. So he’s getting there, but he’s not ready for dinner time.
Jack. Jack’s reputation has gone down, hasn’t it? The women, the pills (albeit for a really painful back). Where Johnson has gone up in the historical revisionism sweepstakes, Kennedy has taken a bit of a tumble. Still, the Camelot thing retains a certain talismanic power for Democrats. So, JFK is a contender.
Harry Truman. There’s a lot to like here. No one should have many issues with his domestic agenda, which was robustly populist. And I’m a fan of his foreign policy and wrote about a jillion columns over the last decade explaining why the neocons had misappropriated him. He never would have done something like invade Iraq. Okay, there’s Fat Man and Little Boy to think about, but I would say that he was looking at maybe another full year of war and deaths of how many American soldiers before Japan finally surrendered. Just about anyone sitting in the Oval Office would have dropped them.
Anyway, we can’t go combing through the details of these people’s records looking for excuses to exclude them. That’s just historically unfair. Basically, Truman represents decent Democratic and American values. I also like the fact, and maybe this is just me, that he came from humble roots and was such a voracious autodidact.
The Bill Clinton case is muddied not by Monica or any of that nonsense but by the fact that it’s too early, especially given the possibility that his wife might be president for the next four or eight years. That would just be tacky, a President Clinton presiding over Clinton Day dinners. Actually something worse than tacky. But he was a fine president in many of the most important ways, and maybe someday it’ll make sense, especially if Hillary also becomes POTUS.
If it’s too early for Clinton, it’s definitely too early for Barack Obama. Although…the idea of the Truman-Obama Dinner does have something going for it. That would take some stones. It’d make Republicans crazy. And it would connect older Democratic traditions (the days when the Democrats were unequivocally the party of “the working man”) with the newer ones. It isn’t nuts.
But ultimately, and I guess predictably, I vote for the FDR Dinner. First of all, you don’t need two people. The Republicans have a Lincoln Day Dinner. One person is fine. And come on—he’s Franklin Roosevelt. Depression. Fascism. I mean, look at this. In survey after survey after survey, the top three presidents are Washington, Lincoln, and Frank. This is just as no-brainer as a no-brainer gets. Yes, he played ball with the Dixiecrats, and yes, there was the Japanese internment. But if Democrats insist on naming their dinner after someone who never did anything unsavory, they’re going to have to go for Gandhi or Jesus.
This should need all of five minutes’ debate at state Democratic committees. But watch, this’ll drag out three years in some places. What I bet a lot of them will do is leave it up to each state to choose some local hero. In my home state, I doubt they’d be able to avoid calling it the Robert Byrd Dinner. That should be fun!