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tv   Measuring Presidential Failure  CSPAN  May 22, 2016 10:35am-12:01pm EDT

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would really enjoy. tv, it american history gives you that perspective. >> i am a c-span fan. next on american history tv, richard norton smith talks about rankings of matters in chief and the challenges of ranking presidential failure. he looks at james buchanan, ulysses s. grant, and warren g. harding. he also discusses presidents usually regarded as successful. the free library of philadelphia posted this one hour and 15 minute event. host: i am so pleased to introduce tonight our speaker, distinguished presidential historian, richard norton smith. early in his career, he was a white house intern and then a political speech writer. he has a long record of acclaimed books on presidential men and this has brought him to
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the helm of five presidential libraries and centers across this country and throughout his career. he appears regularly, as many of you know, i'm sure, on "newshour" and is c-span's in-house historian. next month he will leave his semiannual presidents and patriots history tour. he travels through the american heartland and focuses this year on truman, eisenhower, and churchill. both in his tours and in his writing, he is able to bring history to life. "the boston globe" praises his scholarship as "compelling and provocative," and "the new york times" says his writing has
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"perception and authority and is immensely readable." we are so pleased to have him here tonight, and ladies and gentlemen, i hope you will join me in welcoming richard norton smith to the free library of philadelphia. [applause] mr. smith: thank you for that more-than-generous introduction. we may agree or disagree about what is a failed president, but this is a successful introducer, without a doubt, so thank you. [laughter] [applause] mr. smith: anyway, and thank all of you, gosh, for having come out and survived your mounting bout with democracy here on a monday after a primary that apparently drew record voter interest. and a special thanks to c-span for being here ever being part -- and being part of this event.
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i want to thank dick levinson and all of his colleagues at this marvelous institution for organizing this series on the american presidency. you could not have chosen a more timely subject. now, conventionally-minded program organizers would ask someone like me to talk about presidential successes and the criteria by which we judge presidential successes. not the free library, they wanted me to talk about presidential failures. it sounds like a very dour subject, but in fact, it is a very interesting one and one that we pay very little attention to. it was originally suggested that i might want to personalize this subject by zeroing in on three presidents who have
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traditionally brought up the rear of most historical surveys. james buchanan, ulysses s. grant, and warren harding. actually, the more i studied all three, the more i came to the question, "just how much of a failure they were?" we will get to that in a minute or two. who wants to read about residential failures, asks jean baker, the most recent of buchanan's residential -- presidential biographers. better to focus on presidential winners than its losers. having raised the question, professor baker than answers it in words that are nigh irrefutable. as americans try to fathom presidential approximate, they need to learn from failed administrations. in substantial ways, unsuccessful presidencies serve
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as an negative reference points, lessons in avoidance. critical times often summon our best presidents, and it is worth taking the measure of those presidents who, given the opportunity, failed to rise to greatness. so i hope you will not mind if, without neglecting the unholy trinity of buchanan, grant, and harding, i adopt a somewhat broader approach in the subject, examining some of the criteria we employ and some of the factors that cause later generations to reconsider such judgments. the late, great historian and lincoln scholar, david herbert donald, liked to tell in his 1962 visit to the kennedy white house, in the course of which jfk voiced unhappiness over the glib methods in journalists in rating his predecessors as below
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average or even failure. "no one has a right to rate a president," wrote kennedy, "not even the poor james buchanan, who has not sat in his chair, examined the mail and information that came across his desk and learned why he made his decisions." whoever defines history as argument without end will apply kennedy's formula to the ongoing debate over presidential performance. recent scholarship, for example, has raised our view of ulysses s. grant, the last american president for 80 years who was willing to deploy federal troops to protect black americans in their most basic rights. a smaller group of revisionists credits warren harding with pursuing naval disarmament and the first federal budget acts,
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for poor james buchanan, his mishandling of bloody kansas, is suborning of the supreme court over the dred scott case, and the construction of presidential authority at a moment when the nation's existence hung in the balance, well, revisionism has its limits. [laughter] mr. smith: i don't know whether buchanan is the worst president on record, i am likely to reserve that dubious title for andrew johnson. a man who squander the moral high ground, gained at such terrible cost in blood and treasure, who failed utterly to grasp the meaning of the civil war, or the difference between a reconstruction and what he preferred to call, "restoration." a man, not unlike buchanan, who was defined by his resentments
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and who set back the cause of racial justice in this country by 100 years until another southern president named johnson, who succeeded another assassinated president, came onto the scene. that said, buchanan managed in a single term to combine many of the basic traits we associate with executive failure, poor appointments, misplaced loyalties, stubborn inheritance -- adherence to outworn document, and most total lack of flexibility, and overall, the inability to practice the kind of crisis management that lincoln envisioned when he said, "the occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise to the occasion." if you want a single sentence by which to measure presidential performance, good or bad, you couldn't do much better than that.
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instead, in the final years of his life, buchanan asked for our sympathy. in his words, "i shall carry to my grave a consciousness that i at least meant well for my country." stirring words, those. [laughter] mr. smith: let us concede buchanan's good intentions, no american president sets out to fail. some are victims of unexpected events or changes in the culture to which they cannot adapt. some, like franklin pierce or warren harding, are weak men simply overwhelmed by the job itself. their experience, should, by the way, put us on guard, i think, against the short-term expedience of the dark horse candidate, usually a second rater chosen by delegates who are less impressive than the
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front runners. history will demonstrate -- excuse me -- that hope is -- for every james polk a , quietly effective administrator of u.s. territory, we can expect that pierce -- of pierce who fumbled his way into civil war in kansas, or harding, whose cabinet included both glittering nobility and jail bound lowlifes. also beware of presidents who -- in harding's case, he was not to be the best president, but the best-loved president. buchanan reportedly, incredibly, expressed he hoped to be the best president since george washington, needless to say, neither man came close to realizing his ambition. on this, we can all agree -- there is no better place to
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ponder the mysteries of presidential performance than this city, which is the true mother of presidents. for it was here that the american presidency was invented. no subject so vexed explanation -- the nation builders who convene here to build the constitution in that miraculous summer of 1787. in effect, it was our first political convention, some and not to choose a candidate or create a platform in the modern sense, but to create a republic and to define an executive office that would be at once unifying and yet limited in power. upon this generation, it was defined by its resistance to centralized authority. authority remote from the governed and often deaf to popular opinion. have they felt otherwise independence hall today might , still be known as the pennsylvania state house.
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for weeks, the delegates debated the structure, powers, and accountability of this executive in embryo. should he be a they, not one individual, but several, thereby diluting authority by dispersing it more widely. should he be chosen by delegates or chosen by the states? eligible for reelection or term limited. benjamin franklin thought the key to the executive officer should be to serve without pay, an idea that hasn't been heard since. [laughter] mr. smith: unlike george mason's all too relevant alarm over the president's proposed war powers, which he considered far too broad. before they were done, the founders had established the first set of criteria by which to judge presidential success or failure. they didn't make it easy.
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even george washington, an equestrian of legendary skill, found it challenging to ride two horses at the same time. one marked head of state, the other marked head of government. the former would be above politics, while the latter must be something of a political animal, one would defer to the people's representatives in congress, the other would defy them as the national interest required. such tensions built into the office make it all but impossible to develop a unified field theory of presidential performance. for example, deference is not a trait we ordinarily associate with strong leadership. and contemporary popularity is no guarantee of historical approval. consider the fluctuating fortunes of andrew jackson. for most of our history, ranked among the most influential of presidents, a working-class hero
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who made war on the banks of the united states with the same ferocity he had once reserved for the british front line at new orleans. the original populist, jackson moved boldly to set the national agenda, even while liquidating the national debt. for a long time, the jacksonian democracy was praised for its contrast with the well bred and well read who would presume to govern the early republic. indeed, jackson himself is the only president to have his own age named after him. his influence in the 19th century was as pervasive of that as franklin roosevelt or ronald reagan in more recent times. ironically, the more truly democratic we became, the more inclusive we became of women, african-americans, and other
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minorities long confined to the margins of society's. as we rewrote our laws, so we revised our views of jackson and his legacy. today, old hickory is termed as a slave owner, an indian killer, and an economic illiterate. his expansiveness agenda reached its apogee under james polk. those men would suffer under the fate of manifest destiny, once a glorious rallying cry for american nationalists, more recently a synonym for imperial conquest. at that, polk has fared better than jackson, who is about to be forced from the $20 bill. the same fate originally intended for our example -- house and her hamilton until the runaway success of a a broadway musical with a hip-hop soundtrack has made alexander
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hamilton as favorable as jackson is out of favor. it doesn't end there. apparently the treasury department has been reading box office receipts. noting "hamilton's" popularity over an earlier broadway show, "bloody, bloody andrew jackson," suggests how americans regard the swashbuckling tennessean of south carolina no buyers set of presidents -- a precedent for lincoln's breathtaking assertion of presidential powers one generation later. what all of this points to is what might be labeled the amount -- mount rushmore rule of presidential assessment, that is, while some presidents are literally carved in stone, most are subject to endless revisionism. it is a good thing, too, because jackson's countrymen have long emulated his impetuous habits, and that includes a rush to pass judgments on past presidents,
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some still in office. "if ever a man was debauched, if ever a nation was debauched by a man, the american nation has been debauched by washington. let his conduct then be an example to future ages. let the history of the federal government instruct mankind that the mask of patriotism may be worn to conceal the foulest design against the liberties of the people." so claims "the philadelphia aurora," the "washington post" of its day. harsh as its assessment may strike modern ears "the aurora" , had nothing on the distinguished "london times" in the autumn of 1864. mr. lincoln will go down in posterity as "the man who could not read the signs of the time,"
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asserted the editors "who , plunged his country into a great war without a plan, who failed without excuse, and who fell without a friend." the last time democrats met in philadelphia was in 1948. their task, accepted without much enthusiasm at the time was to renominate president harry truman, dismissed by opinion leaders as the little man from missouri, a failed man whom it was said "to err is truman." [laughter] mr. smith: forget nato and the marshall plan, the containment of korea and the desegregated armed forces, when he left office in 1953, truman took with him some of the lowest popularity ratings ever recorded. for a while, he languished in near obscurity, only to be rediscovered and reassessed in
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vietnam and the betrayal of watergate. it wasn't so much the new facts that had emerged as a newfound appreciation for truman's candor and character. in an age of focus group convictions, truman came to be seen as a real deal. witness his observation, "i wonder how far moses would have gone if he had taken a poll of egypt." [laughter] mr. smith: if journalists write the first draft of history, it may help to explain why proximity to a president increases the harshness of our criticism. in recent years, we have experienced clinton fatigue, bush fatigue, and no doubt in some quarters, obama fatigue. but that is to confuse failure with the overexposure of a punishing and often superficial 24/7 news cycle.
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the modern media thrives on conflict, real or imagined, and in that sense, little has changed in the 100 years since william randolph hearst, famously instructed a reporter in cuba, "you supply the pictures, i'll supply the war." historians, at least by contrast, like to think, that they are in the perspective business, history without perspective is so many bricks without straw. time provides the straw, time for polarized emotions to cool, for papers to be opened, for old memories to be unlocked. above all, time for successive presidencies to confront many of the same issues that may have stamped a predecessor with the taint of failure. despite the most obvious case, a
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dozen of american presidents have grappled with the tangle that is the middle east, some more successfully than others. the cold war tested the mettle of every chief executive from harry truman to the first george bush. looking ahead, we cannot know how many future occupants of the oval office will find their priorities held hostage to terrorists who confuse murder with martyrdom. but as andrew jackson's fate makes clear, it is the history yet to be written that may cause seemingly fixed presidential reputations to bounce around like corn in a popper. the older i get, the more suspicious i become of that academic game called ranking the presidents, if only because it presumes in the words of one scholar, "to measure the immeasurable." as the presidency involves, so
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-- involves -- evolves, so do our measurements of successes and failures. talk about apples and oranges, the 19th century presidency is a totally different office than the 20th century, entirely different, much closer, it could be argued, to what the founders intended. someone would have their chief function carrying out the legislature's wishes, someone who at the same time would have a predominant role in determining american foreign-policy, but certainly not someone who, for example, would be regarded as responsible, good or bad, for the state of the nation's economy. james monroe was reelected in 1820 with all but one electorate voting for him, and this, in the midst of an economic panic. as they were called before the 20th century.
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martin van buren suffered through the worst depression in american history until herbert hoover 90 years later. none of martin van buren's contemporaries look to washington to address what was regarded as an economic act of god, unlike, obviously, hoover's contemporaries. even great presidents overreach, is a universal trait, think of franklin roosevelt, a master politician, who nevertheless stumbled so badly in trying to pack the supreme court with justices friendly to his new deal, or harry truman, a very strong president who took himself to seize the nation's goals with -- steel mills during the course
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of the korean war only to have the supreme court overruled his actions. one of the most assertive of presidents, theodore roosevelt, had his own system for ranking presidents. he thought they should be divided into two categories, the lincoln type and the buchanan type. modern political scientists use different words to say much of the same things when they speak of transformative and transitional leaders, bold visionaries. versus caretakers. if this sounds self-serving, as it should, it also turns out to be prophetic, because in sharp contrast to the 19th century, the 20th century wood the long the roosevelt activists who ushered america onto the world stage, who entrusted a private economy to public planners, and who belatedly committed uncle sam to the fight for democracy
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and indeed, equality at home as well as abroad. what began with the first roosevelt was greatly reinforced by the second. first the great depression then , world war ii, and in the cold war had the effect of centralizing power in washington and personalizing that power in the presidency. the process reached its height, arguably, in the 1960's, when television brought us closer to han ever to the man of the oval office, even to magnify the reach of the influence of his the pulpit. think of dwight d. eisenhower sending troops to little rock and coming back to newport to speak to the nation on television from the present's house, he said from the office of roosevelt and lincoln. think of jfk one day in june, 1962, he turned on the tv and he
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saw george wallace standing in a school has door. and kennedy up to that time tried to avoid becoming ensnared in the political cycle of civil rights. he sent word to the television networks that he wanted a half hour of time that evening. when he went on, he had a speech that wasn't finished to introduce a bill that had been written, but he had committed himself. he had grasped the fact that ultimately, there is a moral component to the presidency that cannot be served, not if you -- cannot be shirked, not if you want history's approval. no one better captured the heroic presidency at the height of his powers then clinton rossiter, the premier political scientist of his age. this is how he put it in 1951. "the president is not a gulliver, immobilized by 10,000
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tiny cords or even a prometheus chained to a rock of frustration. he is, rather, a kind of magnificent lion who can roam widely and do great deeds, so long as he does not try to break loose from his broad reservation." rossiter wrote that sweeping tribute to executive power under the spell of both roosevelts, wilson, and harry truman. think of the presidency of stewardship under roosevelt, namely that a president is free , to do anything not explicitly prescribed in the u.s. constitution. the lion in professor rossiter's domain dominate their times. they dictate to congress, they monopolize the media. over time, what might be properly called the arthur schlesinger model of presidential leadership came to
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be seen as the ideal in a modern superpower with global response abilities. more to the point, it came to be seen as irreversible. yet the white jacket of one generation became the straitjacket of the next. of the roosevelt model, however well adapted to crisis management, is not the only path to a successful presidency. only recently have we come to appreciate the hidden hand of dwight eisenhower. said the chief job in the modern presidency under -- modern president is persuasion. ike agreed, but he had very little patience for tr's bully pulpit and he had a very healthy , sense of skepticism about how much a president's words alone could move the nation.
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he once said that if words were the ultimate test of presidential leadership, the american people should elect ernest hemingway. [laughter] he also said the job is to persuade, not publicize. stop and think, dwight eisenhower, by the time he became president of the united states, it was almost a demotion. i mean, this was a man who didn't need to see his name in the paper or his picture on tv. there is a wonderful story that his brother milton, who was president of the university of pennsylvania, and they got ike to agree and come do the commencement address one year and the weather was threatening , and rather ominous. and they were making small talk before the ceremony, and milton eisenhower said, "gosh, do you think the rain will hold off?" and ike said, "milton, i haven't worried about the weather since
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june 6, 1944." [laughter] enough said. the idea that a strong president, like eisenhower, could promote a smaller government, seemed contradictory at best. until ronald reagan undertook his own counterreformation to the washington-centric policies of his boyhood hero, fdr. if there is one constant in our national experience, one word that might be said to constitute both our common core and our civic religion, i would submit, it is freedom. indeed, it may be the one thing we can all agree on, even if we can't agree on what exactly it means. so forget lincoln types and buchanan types. some presidents think fdr, lbj,
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and yes, barack obama, promised freedom through government. and others, thomas jefferson comes to mind as does will ronald reagan and calvin coolidge, promised freedom from government. neither model is perfect, neither is permanent, but the history of the last century demonstrates is that the dynamism of an office that evolves with the challenges it confronts. wartime leadership demands qualities that may be ill-suited to the tasks of postwar reconstruction, the high and holy work of abolition, the crusading vision of a league of nations, the audacious vow to end poverty or pursue foreign terrorists into their remote caves. these great historical milestones imply a different mindset from what it takes to build an interstate highway system, pursue regulatory
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reform, or bring about debt reduction. one school of thought disregards limits on government, the other surestes them as the safeguards of our liberties. think of wartime presidents. lincoln is the quintessential wartime president. traditionally, people have frowned upon james madison. until the last, maybe decade or so, when renewed questions of liberties in wartime have invited us to reconsider what we thought we knew about james madison. the fact of the matter is, to his admirers, to libertarians everywhere, james madison is a supremely constitutional president. only fitting, since he helped write it. nobody went to jail for
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criticizing the madison administration's ineptitude, frankly, in conducting the war of 1812. that may have been a bigger victory than gettysburg. the plain truth is that most presidencies, like most lives, combine elements of success and failure. their contradictions are magnified by the conflicting demands we make on this ceremonial, operational figurehead turned crisis manager. traditionally, along with economic management, the conduct of foreign policy and public persuasion and the ability to get his program through congress, we judge presidents as party leaders. well, john adams blew up his federalist party and what we today judge to be a heroic, self-sacrificing effort in to avert a disastrous war with france.
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as a party leader, adams failed spectacularly, but unlike woodrow wilson a century later, john adams really did keep us out of war, an accomplishment that looms larger than ever to americans grown weary if little more secure after 15 years of a war on terror. something about the adamses. they are too good for politics. john quincy adams, a hero of mine, a remarkable man, spoke seven languages. he wrote latin with his right hand and greek with his left. there is a wonderful, new biography by the way out if you get a chance to look. there was one last year called "american visionary." that adamst being
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was a visionary leader, he was a visionary leader. in his first address to congress, he proposed a program 100 years ahead of its time. he suggested that in fact, there was a role for the government, the federal government in economic management. he wanted to create a naval academy, he wanted to fund scientific expeditions, he even wanted to build a national observatory, what he called a lighthouse of the sky. brilliant ideas. only in politics is it a crime to be ahead of your time. fdr once said, "it is a terrible thing to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead and find no one there." [laughter] that is basically what john quincy adams did in 1826. do we admire adams the visionary? of course. do we claim that he was a successful president? i don't think so. but you invited me to address the topic of presidential
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failure, not to take solace in some buchanan like voice. so in conclusion, let me suggest four categories that should put us all on our guard. the first group is what i call the hybrids. those presidents whose failures are as spectacular as their successes. how would you label woodrow wilson, whose first term saw the creation of the federal reserve? terror reform? antitrust measures? tarifrace reform -- reform, antitrust measures? who laid down the groundwork, in many ways, for the new deal, who gave us the first jewish member of the supreme court? how do you measure that against the second term in which a war was won, to be sure, the war that he supposedly kept us out of in the first term, but was
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attacks on mass civil liberties and a profound disillusionment of the nation in regarding what we had been promised would be the results of this war to end wars? now you can point to wilson's health, which is obviously a factor over which he had no control, but how do you decide whether wilson is a success or a failure? lyndon johnson made good on that intervening century lost because of injured johnson, gave us the civil rights act of 1964, the voting rights act of 1965, who undertook to eradicate poverty in america, and yet lyndon
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johnson who was also less than , truthful to the american people about what we were doing in vietnam, who gave birth to the credibility gap that i would argue is, in some ways, with us to this day, who planted poison fruit, unintentionally. is he a great president? is he a failed president? richard nixon, remarkable domestic record. 18-year-olds get the vote. a balanced federal budget, the creation of the environmental protection agency, and of course, balanced by the systematic abuse of powers under the umbrella title of watergate. is he the president who opened china or is he the president who
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bred a degree of cynicism in the american public that was unprecedented? there is a second, more predictive category, what i call the politically-challenged. william howard taft and herbert hoover were extraordinarily successful in everything they ever did in their lives, except the presidency. [laughter] and there is a simple reason for that. they both hated politics. they were very upfront about it. they dreaded it. taft perhaps even more than hoover. but it is the most political office in the world, and if you don't have the political temperament, you probably shouldn't run. the third class involves presidencies racks to buy -- racked by scandal, sexual, political, or both. three things ruin a man, said harry truman, power, money, and
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women. [laughter] i never wanted power, i never had any money, and the only woman in my life is up in a the house now. warren harding's claim to the bottom rung of the presidential latter rests not on the recently-confirmed child born out of wedlock to one of his multiple mistresses, but to the thievery practiced by his appointees who debased the interior department, the department of justice, and veterans affairs. i mentioned earlier that grant has enjoyed an ongoing reappraisal. one in danger of going too far if it concentrates on his good intentions regarding race, the native americans, and a foreign policy built around arbitration as a peaceful means of settling old scores.
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for none of this should blind us to the ranked favoritism, the dubious appointments, or the political naviete which spurred his reputation at the time, and limits now the posterity of feeling. we know much more now about jfk's womanizing and remarkably, it does not seem to have affected either the public esteem in which he is held or his place among presidential scholars. as for bill clinton, there is a sense of disappointment on the part of many over what might have been accomplished. for example, president clinton was seriously looking at entitlement reform in his second term. had he been able to tackle that, had he been able to bring a reluctant democratic party along, it would have, i think,
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significantly enhanced his historical stature, but it became impossible because when he needed their votes for political survival, the people whose votes he relied upon most were those who were least willing to consider entitlement reform. anyway, that brings us to the final four, what you might call the dark side of mount rushmore. [laughter] judgment is more important than charisma. every president makes mistakes. these presidents failed to learn from them. they mistook stubbornness for courage. they left the office notably diminished. they failed to hold their party together and ultimately by far the greatest of crimes, they
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contributed to the breakup of the nation or missed historic opportunities to foster national unity. i have mentioned franklin pierce, james buchanan, and andrew johnson. i am tempted to say they are probably the only three abject failures in presidential history, but if we need a fourth, you can decide for yourselves. you could throw harding to the wolves or you could go back to the picture of grant. let me suggest a dark horse of my own, john tyler. was cynically put on the ticket to balance the ticket with william henry harrison. no one bothered to ask john tyler whether he agreed with anything at all on the platform or anything else that the party that nominated him aspired to
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accomplish, because nobody thought that william henry harrison was going to die. they were wrong, and tyler for many years has gotten a great deal of credit, just as andrew johnson got credit from a whole generation of historians for heroically withstanding and overreaching congress, so fixed was the notion among historians of presidential superiority that even a woefully inferior president like andrew johnson was seen as a victim of those radical republicans who set out to remove him from office. we now know they did the right thing for the wrong reason. american history would have been very different had andrew johnson disappeared. i once said, and it got me in
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trouble, and here i am, i'm going to get in trouble again for repeating it the greatest , tragedy of the 19th century was the success of john wilkes booth's conspiracy against lincoln. the second greatest tragedy was the failure of his conspiracy against andrew johnson. [laughter] so much for andrew johnson. [laughter] the point is, johnson, for a long time, was seen by historians who were themselves sympathetic to the south, who for years told us about the carpetbaggers and the like. well, now you have john tyler, who likewise benefited for a long time for his decisiveness or the leadership he showed upon learning the first president to so learn that the president was dead.
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tyler wasted no time in asserting his belief that he was not acting president, he was not caretaker president, he was president of the united states, and he let harrison's cabinet know, and he basically bullied his way through. and ever since, historians have recognized him and by and large, admired him for this show of force, if you will. that, however does not excuse , him from the fact that from then on, it was all downhill. 19th-century presidents, to be sure, were judged more as administrators than advocates. but it still matters. a major function, even of the modern presidency, is to make government work. that means internally, within your administration, picking the
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right people. it means being able to work at least at a minimal level, we with thel level congress and outside groups to foster and advance your program. john tyler was the first american president to experience an impeachment panel. he was the only american president ever to be formerly expelled by his political party, the whigs. he was known as his accidency, -- [laughter] and that was a compliment. [laughter] he had for -- this is a man who was president for less than four years, he had four cabinet officers rejected by the senate, including one unfortunate who would be secretary of the treasury who was rejected three times in one day. [laughter] he had four supreme court nominees rejected by the same body.
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john tyler brought to the office, on the one hand the , decisiveness that enabled him in his first hours as president to put his stamp upon the office, and in effect, to fill in a gap in the constitution. but john tyler also brought to office ofto his rigidity -- a rigidity and inability to adapt to changing circumstances. a narrow sympathy for southern slaveholders. a passionate, unyielding belief in state's rights. -- states' rights. a final factor in defining presidential failure, and it is a very contemporary one, and it has much less to do with the strengths or weaknesses of the men and women who have run for and are running, for that matter, for the nation's highest
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office, and it has much more to do with us. i worry that another factor, potential factor, of presidential failure is being created unwittingly, even as we meet, even as we watch unfold one of the more bizarre presidential campaigns, even as we treat it as we treat so much of our public life as entertainment. the fact of the matter is, whoever we elect in november, is likely to take office so bruised, so battered, so diminished by the process, not the process of debating issues
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or even avoiding insults, but the process where in league with a media that is all about eyeballs and profit centers and debates that have very little to do with debating, it is all about how we cover and ultimately conduct our presidential campaign. we may unwittingly be contributing to a situation in which no -- in which next january 20, the president begins not with the universal hope of success, but with a mass shrug of the shoulders, a throwing up forbid, aand heaven
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desire to start the process all over again. thank you very much. [applause] thank you. thank you, thank you, you are very kind. i know we have got some time, and we have people with microphones here. so if you have comments, questions, preferably questions -- yeah? yeah, send a mic back. >> in the newspapers was an issue of free magazine. there was a nice little article about irregularities about electoral commissions in every state [indiscernible] before presidents were elected not by popular [indiscernible]
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15 years ago but fight the -- but by the electoral commission [indiscernible] richard norton smith: the fact is that going back to the convention, the constitutional convention, it certainly is fair to say that the founders did not intend a direct democracy. they did not intend either for the legislature or the executive to be chosen directly by the people, and indeed, it seems to me, i have always argued the ultimate miracle of philadelphia was the fact that 55 white men who were not particularly representative even of that stratified society created a system, wrote a document that could, over time, evolve into something genuinely democratic and inclusive. and if you are an optimist about
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american history as i am, you look upon that process and presidential elections, and presidents have advanced that process or not. and i would go further and suggest that if you look at the monuments to the presidents on the mall in washington, and i would expand the mall to include fdr and tr over on roosevelt island, but you look at washington, jefferson, lincoln and the two roosevelt's, they all have in common, in their own way, in their own time, they established as they broadened the democratic franchise, if you will. they pushed this country in the direction of a more genuine democratic culture. that is one reason why they are looked up to. one reason why they are regarded as model leaders.
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we don't build memorials to andrew johnson or james buchanan. actually, there is a buchanan memorial. believe it or not, his niece left money in her will because no one else would memorialize buchanan, but there is. in any event -- so, to be sure in the early days of the republic, each state had its own system. each state had its own methodology for choosing electors. some involved popular vote. some, south carolina for example, went out of the way not to involve popular vote. but the glory of american history, and i think that is not too strong a word, is that over time, we moved away from that exclusive or exclusionary
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process of choosing our leaders. certainly as early as andrew jackson. one reason why jackson is seen icon, hecratic small believed he is president was the only official elected by all the people. and that gave him a particular stewardship responsibility indeed, a particular moral , authority that mere members of congress representing provincial viewpoints did not have. teddy roosevelt, 70 years later , built upon that in rather breathtaking fashion. and in many ways, the story of the 20th century, as i've said, is the growth of presidential power, hand in glove with the increased democratization of our culture.
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what is fascinating is we turn the corner, and the 21st century, and clearly clinton rossiter's presidency, the will, presidency, if you no longer quite fit with the situation in which we find ourselves. the media, classic example. 40 years ago, an american president could have a staff or call three men, three networks in new york and have, that evening, 70 million people tune in to hear whatever he had to say and he could move the , numbers. richard nixon in 1970 at a time peak wariness over vietnam was able to move the numbers 12, 13 points in his direction with a single speech on television.
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today, the networks don't carry the speech. cable will carry it, but before the president's finished the first paragraph, there are millions of instant analysts tweeting their interpretation of whatever it is he has to say. so one of the real challenges that confronts whoever occupies the presidency in this time is how to use the media tools that are still available. to him. how to use the web, how to use social media in place of the old oval office speech, which would then be the subject of watercooler conversation the next day in a million workplaces. it is harder. yeah?
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>> i may be wrong in this measurement, but, so what would you describe [indiscernible] that makes it harder for presidents to sacrifice [indiscernible] richard norton smith: yeah, that is an interesting question. i will tell you a parallel. for a long time, in fact, harry truman died in december 1972, quite by accident. that month, his daughter's biography appeared, became a bestseller. it was really the first book in the 20+ years since mr. truman left office that purported to tell about truman the man. there are presidencies that do experience this kind of
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intellectual drought, but i guarantee you somewhere tonight, there is an aspiring assistant professor thinking about tenure and the road to revision has a , distinctly positive curve to it. besides, jimmy carter has had a pretty good press since leaving office. better than some of his contemporaries. yeah, what have you got? >> i guess my question is, in the context of today's social media and the presidential office dealing with all the social media tools, i wanted to
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gather your thoughts on your , priority on whether rating or, i guess this ranking of presidents, on whether within their power or action through their time in terms of the context and what issues they were dealing with, or if, i guess their ability to envision a better future for the country. and if that is the case, is that the framework that we are working with, do you think the the choices between a failed president and a successful president is too binary? richard norton smith: i leave you with nothing else is perhaps the obvious assertion that most presidents are either hybrids, mixtures of success and failure. and the truly successful presidents are the ones who learn from their failure.
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i'm not sure about the first question, the social media? oh, again the problem with , visionaries, nelson rockefeller, a subject of my most recent book "would be president." i have spent 14 years trying to understand them man. nelson rockefeller was an assertive governor of new york, he used to say you don't want a visionary in an executive position. the danger, and i think you learn this, by the way, from franklin roosevelt's footsteps. the danger is visionaries get so far out in front that he loses track of the vast majority of people whom he is trying to help. what you want is someone who appreciates visionaries, who can tap into the skills that they bring, but who is more pragmatic approach to addressing problems.
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i think, to refer to john quincy adams, that is a great example. adams is a hugely admirable human being, and his vision of america in many ways turned out to be precedent. but we don't recognize or reelect presidents for their vision. woodrow wilson would have had a third term. or more precisely, lyndon johnson had a great vision of eradicating poverty in america, and he did a lot to realize it. he was probably the closest thing to someone who combines the visionary impulse with the practical, programmatic response. the debate over the war on poverty goes on, and probably
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will for a long time to come. certainly, johnson is among the most important presidents. >> yes i would like to ask you , how you rate the two bush's? [laughter] richard norton smith: this is where i this is where i take , refuge in buchanan-like evasion. [laughter] if you notice buried in my , remarks was the danger of applying labels to either people in office or quite frankly, i think we are too close to bill clinton's presidency. we won't know, for example, it is not just whether hillary is elected or not, but does the democratic party, 20 years from now, hew to a basically middle-of-the-road position?
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which is where clinton moved it. or is it bernie sanders' party? that will go a long way to determining how we assess bill clinton's long-term impact. i will say, i tell people it is pretty clear, i think the clinton presidency, at this point, is more consequential perhaps then it seemed at the time. and yet, much that president clinton accomplished is being called into question not in the republican race for president, but in his own party's context. so george h.w. bush is, i think, one of the fortunate presidents who has lived long enough to see his presidency assessed not as
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an interregnum between reagan and clinton, but in fact as an opportunity for a man with a fairly unique set of skills. it is as if he had a historical mission. the cold war did not have to end the way it did. germany certainly did not have to be united peacefully. and the fact of the matter is, george h w bush, with the passing of time is increasingly , appreciated for the diplomatic skills that he brought to the office. and i will tie you another thing. leadership in presidents is sometimes surprising. sometimes it is what a president doesn't do. in the case of bush, the first bush, when the wall came down in berlin, everyone in the white house wanted him to get on the plane and go to berlin and get
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the photo op of the century. why not? and to bush's, i think, lasting credit, he refrained from doing so. he did not need the ego gratification or a few points in the gallup poll. and by not going, by not rubbing mikhail gorbachev's face of the -- in the failure of the soviet system, among other things, he made it easier to work with example infor , repelling saddam's invasion of kuwait and the peaceful reunification of germany. bush's modestyy, worked to his historical advantage. i will tell you one thing about george w. bush.
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we don't know -- we certainly, undoubtedly, many of us have an opinion about the middle east and the consequences of the war in iraq. but we won't know for some time to come what the ultimate result is. but here is one thing that i guarantee you of the second bush does not get credit for and in a curious way deserves credit. and by the way, that he should share with barack obama. sometimes, by discarding their most profoundly-held ideological convictions, presidents serve the national interest. the classic case is thomas jefferson, buying louisiana. he said later on, i stretched the constitution so far it cracked. it ran absolutely counter to
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everything jefferson believed about small government and the limited executive authority. ok, fast forward a couple hundred years to the financial collapse of 2008. george w. bush convinced free markets here, said to someone if there is going to be , another depression, i am going to be roosevelt and not hoover. and faithful to that declaration, he embraced something called tarp, which may be the single most unpopular/successful government venture in certainly recent history. if you went out on the street and took a poll today, 90% of people would say they think it is a terrible idea, and it
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certainly runs against our deeply-held convictions about what government should or should not be doing, who it should or should not be rescuing. but the fact of the matter is, most economists will tell you in t avoided a second great depression. and the great irony is -- and barack obama, who bought on for three months after the election in 2008. america had a 1.5 president. unlike hoover and roosevelt who could not stand each other and certainly could not work together at a time when it was desperately called for, the bush administration and the incoming obama administration, for the oro industry, for example, tarp, worked in a way that kept largely hidden from the general public.
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and it is the job of historians to ferret that out. but the fact is, working together avoiding the abyss gets credit. if we had gone over the brink, if we had had a second great depression, and then the new president would be called upon to do his best fdr imitation , presumably, or whatever the equivalent was the 20th century americans. but the fact of the matter is, they avoided the worst. now to me, that is a signal of accomplishment. but it is not how most presidents get assessed. we judge presidents by how they manage crises, not by how they avoid crises. one more? one more. oh gosh, i don't know. back there?
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we will get you too, so two more. [laughter] and i'm not even running for office. [laughter] >> thank you. a recent large survey of the last 13 presidents put harry truman very low down if not last on the list. he faced so many crises in a difficult time. what does this say about the american people's perception of the president? richard norton smith: it depends on who is doing the voting. it is as simple as that. for a long time, i talked about the arthur slashing her -- arthur slashing their -- arthur schlesinger school of presidents. a small group of almost exclusively 1%er academics
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tended to comprise the polls. nger poll, thei first poll showed dwight eisenhower ranked behind chester a arthur. and in 1966, his papers were opened, and a great journalist wrote a seminal essay called "the underestimation of dwight d. eisenhower." and ever since, we have been discovering that a man who scrambled his syntax as you gave the impression of an amiable duffer playing golf was in fact -- playing golf while rome earned -- burned was in fact a much more skillful, behind the scenes, hands-on administrator and indeed political strategist. so it is bipartisan. harry truman's reputation rose dramatically over time, and so
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has dwight eisenhower's. and what you may be referring to, i am not familiar with the survey you are mentioning, it may be the reaction. remember, this is a cyclical process. so we have revisionism, and then it is as if the bubble reaches too high, then comes back to earth again. there are waves of scholarly consensus. so ronald reagan left office at denure of his reputation but within 10 years was talking on was knocking on the doors of the top 10 presidents. so this factors into the electorate during the judging, the odds are he does better than that. one, the last -- yeah.
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>> it seems to me that the problem with judging presidents is you are dealing with people who have relatively short times, for years or eight years at most. they areccidents and not counting for a great deal. most historians would have to deal with european monarchs have the advantage of governing people who have many, many more years to finally get judged on a reasonable length of time. how worthwhile is it really to try to judge people on some uch short terms? richard norton smith: i would say presidents have powers that compensate for what monarchs, who are basically ceremonial figures, at least in our own time.
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you know, and a lot happens in four years. more happens then used to. than used to. there is more paper in the presidential library covering a -- there is more paper in the gerald ford presidential library covering a presidency of 895 days then there is in the franklin roosevelt library. which if nothing else is a tribute to the government that fdr gave us. [laughter] your point is well taken. as i said i have my own reasons , for questioning the validity of trying to rank offices in many ways fundamentally different over time. it is less the amount of time they served, because well, these four eventful, these
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have been eight eventful years, the bush presidency likewise. if anything, it often feels time has sped up. and certainly over the 20th century, as america became a world power, as america became a complex industrial society, as america grappled with the injustices that have been -- had been unaddressed earlier in the history, all of these factors came together, came into play to put the presidency at the center of events and arguably to write a script that was much more crowded than its 19th century counterpart. it seems you can make a judgment that ranking the presidents, if you are going to rank the presidents, it makes a lot more sense to do it in the 20th century, given the incredible variety of expectations that the office now carries than in the
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19th century when it was much simpler, much smaller, much more purely administrated. thank you very much, thank you for coming. [applause] [captions copyright national cable satellite corp. 2016] [captioning performed by the national captioning institute, which is responsible for its caption content and accuracy. visit] announcer: you are watching "american history tv" all weekend every weekend on c-span3. like us on facebook at c-span history. video withis a compliments to your c-span viewing. most of the government programs like the house, senate, and
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hattiesburg, mississippi. home to the university of mississippi. the school was found in 1910 as a teachers training school called mississippi normal college. tour staffties recently visited. learn more on "american history tv." hattiesburg,e in mississippi at st. paul united methodist church, which is a historically integrated church. it is important because very -- we were very active during the civil rights days, and it was home of freedom school during 1964. we are going downstairs into our fellowship hall. and this is where we were -- we were all here, and our teachers
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-- we were spread out into small groups around the room. you will notice here is a class here where one of our teachers was working with us. that is me with my head turned. 20ould say on any given day, to 30 children were here at this location. there were six locations in 1964 of the freedom school. here at st. paul's, some of the original chairs that we sat in as students. normally for us for church, , during the summer we would have vacation bible school, but this was different. we were not focusing on just church related activities, so it was a lot different. freedom school lasted in the summer of 1964. it was a plan to get african-americans to register to vote. part of the previous -- freedom summer component was to establish a school where children would be involved in
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this initiative as well. that is how freedom school evolved. hattiesburg, mississippi in 1964 was a time of change and excitement. there were students here, particularly white students from the north who were sure to help the residents register to vote. there were meetings held throughout the city in various churches, preparing the residence and informing them -- residents and informing them of their political rights and getting ready to register to vote. there was also a time where the students and children were recruited in this. for the first time, children were interacting with white, young people, who had attended all-black schools prior to this time, and didn't have the opportunity to interact with other races. i really did not know what to expect. my mother at the time who was a
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, domestic, was very adamant that i was going to attend this school. and i really did not know what to expect, but once i was in the school, i really, really enjoyed it. it was a time where we were exposed to subjects, not just the spacex, but reading, writing and math. we were taught black history. we were shown books where we were in the books. we had never -- in our schools, we didn't have books. probably we had a book with george washington carver, we had books that taught us black history. we were exposed to literature and poetry and music from another standpoint, not just choral music, but music where we are taught to play the guitar. taught freedom songs from the time. we got choirs. for me, probably the most significant thing was being exposed to the oratorical
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content. students from other churches were brought here. we would have oratorical contest. we were taught the skills of debate and speech. and that was a first. it opened our eyes to a world beyond hattiesburg, mississippi and what we were just getting at school and exposed us to other things. there was also a time during freedom school they were taught there is a danger that you could be exposed to during this time. we were taught what to say and do if you were approached by other people. how to react what to say if , someone comes to your house. we knew there was a danger element in this time as well. that was the summer of 1964. most of the volunteers left, but the ideas and the subjects and the activities that we were involved in gave us the desire
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to become community-involved and to make sure that their ideas lived on in the future. for me, it shaped my future and how i thought about mississippi, the nation and the world as a whole and us as african-american people. our rights in this country. >> our cities tour staff recently traveled to hattiesburg, mississippi to learn about its rich history. learn more about hattiesburg and other stops on the tour at you're watching "american history tv." all weekend, every weekend on c-span3.
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announcer: here on "american history tv" on c-span 3, on lectures in history, university of georgia professor stephen berry teaches a class about coroners in the 19th century south. he discusses them as an agent of the state and talks about records created from their inquest. he argues that coroners can shed light on the patterns of death in society, and spot threats to public health, like disease or a lack of industrial safety. his class is about one hour and 10 minutes. stephen: good afternoon, everybody. i'm glad to see we are all alive and well. you have all survived seven weeks of american history, death and dying and u.s. history. we have reached week seven. i am stephen berry, your host for all things morbid. mer than anyny grim other day in this class.


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