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PBS Online - Thirteen/WNET

"The American President"
Companion essays for PBS Web site, 
3 of 41 presented below

by Paul Bacon

Jimmy Carter: 1977-1981
Balance Betrayed

As a Naval Academy plebe, Jimmy Carter was repeatedly hazed by upperclassmen, beaten about the buttocks with serving spoons for failing to wipe the toothy grin off his face. The disarmingly earnest, deeply religious Georgia peanut farmer counted among his greatest assets a profound inner peace, a quality well suited to his presidential campaign, but overly indulged upon reaching the high office. 

“The ambiguities that could tear another person apart are held together in Jimmy Carter,” said one historian, pinpointing the kernel of Carter’s unique strengths as a peacemaker. Raised in a small, predominately African-American town, Carter was destined to fuse the virtues of polar extremes. As a young man, he was both an avid outdoorsman and a voracious reader, a son of the South and a Northern-educated nuclear engineer. 

His balancing act folded shortly after inauguration. While Carter forged an historic peace between Israel and Egypt, his internal compass could not move his cliquish party comrades. Left all but alone to juggle an energy crisis, spiraling inflation and the fate of 52 American hostages in Iran, Carter went down as one of the modern era’s most ineffectual presidents. In retirement, he continues his tireless pursuit of world peace as a noted dignitary, philosopher and humanitarian. 

Zachary Taylor: 1849-1850
The Brunt of Reluctance

The dark lines carved into Zachary Taylor’s scowl told of one military man’s tragic crossover into the executive branch. Crusty, stubborn and elusive, Taylor knew he was ill-suited for the presidency from the outset. “My opinion has always been against the elevating of a military chief to that position,” he once said.

An unkempt, bullet-chewing tree trunk of a man raised in a Kentucky log cabin, Taylor earned the nickname “Old Rough and Ready” after leading the U.S. Army to victory in a bloody Seminole War battle. He later became a national hero in the Mexican War and was largely credited with garnering the vast Western territories. Wooed by three different political parties, he signed on with the Whigs--marking the beginning of the end of that faction.

As befitting an inveterate general, Taylor was steadfast in supporting the Union against secession, but unbefitting a politician, he offered no compromise to defend it. He alienated Washington, then his Southern homeland by taking a soft stance on slavery. While the nation celebrated its seventy-fourth Independence Day, a bemused and exhausted Taylor, already a vision of the walking dead, fell upon a dose of tainted food and perished from gastroenteritis a week later.



Martin Van Buren: 1837-1841

Son of a Bartender

Political cartoonists drew Martin Van Buren as a menagerie of wily creatures, including a fox, a monkey and a hairless opossum sporting a belly pouch full of cronies. While intended as unflattering portraits, they handily serve in celebration of Van Buren’s greatest strengths--the deftness and close-knit camaraderie that earned him the reputation as the father of American party politics.

Raised in a Dutch-speaking home, the president had strong ties to the nation that spawned America’s dynamic commercial culture. And, as a the son of a New York tavern keeper catering to thirsty politicians, his character blossomed in an atmosphere charged by the demands of powerful men at their frankest moments.

Upon his first election to the Senate, the prodigal politician made what he called his "debut in the art and business of President-making." He eventually reached the high office after serving as an astoundingly loyal vice president to Andrew Jackson, who conferred on him a rare and coveted trust. Throughout his career, Van Buren’s critics blasted his slippery businesslike approach as unbefitting a statesman, but its practicality attracted a new kind of party loyalty. Despite his hand in three dismal economic downturns, posterity emphasizes Van Buren’s role as a brilliant political architect. 

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