September 15th, 2008

As a coda to my post on Sarah Palin’s succession odds, spare a moment to contemplate the ominous parallel with the campaign and 30-day presidency of William Harrison. Harrison ran on the Whig ticket in 1840, enticing the unimpressive John Tyler from Virginia to switch sides from the Democrats as his running mate. Their campaign relied heavily on playing up Harrison’s military record in the Shawnee and 1812 Wars, while appealing to Southern slaveowners through Tyler: hence the famous slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler too”. They also smeared the incumbent Martin van Buren as an élitist – sound familiar? (They also blamed van Buren for an economic crisis, which isn’t open to the GOP this time).

Harrison insisted on reading his inaugural address for two hours in the rain, fell ill, and died of pneumonia. He thus set the record for shortest presidency, and handed the office to the incompetent and divisive Tyler.

The turncoat soon revealed his true colours, was expelled from the Whig party, and just escaped impeachment. “Tyler’s death [in 1861] was the only one in presidential history not to be officially mourned in Washington, because of his allegiance to the Confederacy.”

The analogy isn’t exact. Tyler was an experienced former governor and Senator, though that didn’t help him. Tippecanoe wasn’t Waterloo, but it was a real battle and Harrison was the general who won it. Maybe the Obama campaign should revive Wesley Clark’s perfectly accurate calling of John McCain’s bogus claim that bravery in combat or as a POW equates to experience of military command. The two are really quite different. Davy Crockett, Sergeant York and Audie Murphy didn’t run for President. Ike was commander in an entire theatre. The side of generalship that is relevant to political leadership is in fact not fighting but management. In 1945 they got it right: the Army’s General Lucius Clay, a brilliant administrator, was installed as proconsul in devastated Germany, while the great warrior and politically clueless George Patton was hurried home. Just imagine what the world might be like if it had been the other way round.


A small correction: Patton returned to the USA following a car crash, but he had previously been relieved of operational command by Eisenhower after publicly describing the Nazis as members of an ordinary political party, “like being a Democrat in the States.” Let’s not remember him for that but for this.

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