Martin Van Buren: The American Presidents Series by Ted Widmer:
But if our culture is amnesiac, forgetting crucial dates and places as soon as they are taught, it also spits people up when we least expect them. America continues to regurgitate Van Buren in the most unlikely places. In the debates over the League of Nations, an arch-Republican, Henry Cabot Lodge, quoted Van Buren when he argued that we should go to war only after a “sober second thought.” When Pauline Esther Friedman wanted to write an advice column for the San Francisco Chronicle in 1956, she adopted the name “Abigail Van Buren” because she thought it sounded prestigious, and soon “Dear Abby” was a national institution. How Van Buren would have loved the irony that his poor name—so maligned by the grandees of the Hudson Valley—suggest the whiff of grandeur to a young social climber! In the 1988 campaign, Garry Trudeau drew a series of Doonesbury cartoons ridiculing George H. W. Bush (seeking to become the first vice president elected since 1836) and Yale’s Skull and Bones Society as would-be grave robbers of Van Buren’s tomb. Rumors persist that Van Buren’s skull is, in fact, incarcerated there, along with those of Geronimo and Pancho Villa. If so, he is in good company, for to men of a certain privileged class, the architect of Democracy was as fearsome an opponent as any warrior on the battlefield.
Despite these blips on the radar screen, Van Buren will remain one of our lesser-known presidents, for reasons that he would understand. His presidency produced no lasting monument of social legislation, sustained several disastrous reverses, and ended with ignominious defeat after one short term. There will never be an animatronic Van Buren entertaining children at Disneyland alongside Abraham Lincoln. But still, he lives wherever people find gated communities shut to them. He lives particularly in the places far from the presidential stage where democracy does its best work—in the back rooms of union halls, fire stations, immigrant social clubs, granges, and taverns like the one he grew up in. Or even far from American shores, where courageous men and women are risking their lives every day to form opposition parties against the wishes of their governments.
He does not need fame, or pity, but Martin Van Buren is worthy of a sober second thought. Quite simply, it’s antidemocratic to expect all of our leaders to be great, or to pretend that they are once they are in office and using the trappings of the presidency for theatrical effect. It goes without saying that we need our Lincolns and Washingtons—the United States would not exist without them. But we need our Van Burens, too—the schemers and sharps working to defend people from all backgrounds against their natural predators. For democracy to stay realistic, we need to remain realistic about our leaders and what they can and cannot do. In other words, we need books about the not-quite-heroic. Van Buren is history, and this book has reached its terminus, but, as Kafka tell us, the work is never done.