tv QA CSPAN December 19, 2016 5:58am-7:01am EST
fundamental to american democracy. >> representative elect, thank you very much for talking to c-span. >> thank you so much. it's a pleasure. [captioning performed by national captioning institute] [captions copyright national able satellite corp. 2016] watch c-span's "washington journal" live beginning at 7:00 a.m. eastern this morning.
brian: robert strauss, author of "worst. president. ever." i will ask you about that in a moment. i want to read your dedication. to my father, samuel who may be -- made me read every historical marker we ever passed, thus assuring me of a lifetime of winning trivia contests and my mother for teaching me how to laugh, especially at myself. explain the father connection. mr. strauss: well, my dad, he saw when i was little, i would pick up a sports page and read every little statistic on it,
and so he bought me this book called "facts about the presidents." it is still my favorite book in a certain way. it was like money call for moneyball for presidents. it would have every last line, however long they lived to the day after their inauguration, how long their mother's list, where they came from. anyway, it came this sort of thing for me, i was the "moneyball" kid for presidents as a little kid and they would show me off at parties. but then my father, wherever we would drive would be these historical markers, right? we would have to stop and read it, whatever it was. sometimes he would make me read it aloud and of course i plagued my kids the same way. so, that of course gets you to jeopardy level thin but long at the top. brian: what about mom teaching you how to laugh? mr. strauss: that is really
important because i do not think you can really be successful unless you can laugh at yourself. my thought is, especially writing a book like this, you have to sort of take the opposite view. you have to take the contrarian view. say, not everybody was an amazing success, not everybody -- every biography has to be about washington and lincoln. the reason why i chose to do this, not why i chose buchanan but why i chose to do this, i do think you can learn from failure. i think if the next president wants to aspire to be like somebody, they would probably want to aspire to be like washington or lincoln. you cannot re-create the country and you cannot have the civil war, so what do you do next, aspire to be james monroe? i do not know. what you can do is aspire not to be james buchanan. brian: what number was he?
mr. strauss: he was the 15th. brian: before we go any further, where were you born? mr. strauss: philadelphia. he was in lancaster. about 60 miles away. brian: when was the first time he went to his grave or his home? mr. strauss: i did a story for the "philadelphia inquirer" for what you can do in lancaster if you went there for the weekend, and it is also part of the amish country. i took my daughter who was in high school, not that long ago, really. she is a senior in college now, so maybe 5 years ago. brian: you give a lot of credit to a guy named patrick clark. there is a great quote in here about what he said about james buchanan. who is he? mr. strauss: patrick clark is the keeper of the goods. he is the guy that runs buchanan's home he bought when he was middle-aged and lived in the rest of his life. it is a beautiful home.
if you like historic homes, period furniture it is great, too. he was very helpful to me. he knew i was not writing the most favorable biography of buchanan, and what is funny about it is he sort of acknowledges that buchanan is not the greatest president of the world, but he said, you can learn from anything. brian: what does he do, what is his job? mr. strauss: he runs the estate and buchanan's legacy. brian: who supports it? mr. strauss: i believe it is a private foundation but it is lancaster history. it is all tied there. thaddeus stevens also came from lancaster and there are other historic monuments around there. brian: i want to have you tell a story of somebody. this is a non sequitur but the story was so unusual. enough pickles -- daniel fic
kles. mr. strauss: that is a great story. what is great about history, of course you interviewed many historians, is we forget it. even people were relatively interested in high school or college know that washington founded the country, jefferson the declaration of independence, lincoln freed the slaves. we forget there is years and years past and things happen, daniel fickles was a congressman from new york but when buchanan was ambassador to england, he was his right-hand man. just before they left, he was in his early 30's, married a 15-year-old woman in washington and got her pregnant and then left to england. going to england, he took a prostitute with them, a famous prostitute. i do not know how famous prostitutes were, but he even introduced her to the court. anyway, time passes and he comes back.
he has gotten various jobs in the government here, and he gets a letter from somebody saying that his wife is having an affair with philip key. that was francis scott key's son. everybody is related when there are only 23 million people in this country. anyway, he is also said to be handsomest widower in washington. well, anyway, at some point he sees philip key in the park where he lives. it was another park nearby, but he runs to lafayette park and he shoots him, kills him. right there in front of everybody, however many people were there. he runs to the house of the attorney general and surrenders.
so, they locked him up. he is sort of freer than many people, and he gets to meet with dignitaries in the wardens lounge. one of the dignitaries is the sitting president, james buchanan. who can imagine the president going to see somebody in jail like that, but he did. anyway, he secures as his defense attorney edward stanton, who eventually becomes secretary of war under lincoln. he tries a new kind of defense called the insanity defense. he gets him off. he gets taken from the courtroom on the shoulders of his friends. he reconciles with his wife, becomes a general at gettysburg, ambassador of france and has a distinguished career. brian: he gets the medal of
honor? in the civil war. mr. strauss: right. brian: he originally went to great britain as an aid to james buchanan? at what point was he the ambassador, the minister to great britain? mr. strauss: here is the thing about buchanan. he is the most common in a certain sense, qualified man to ever run for president. he was a state legislator in pennsylvania and that he was in the u.s. house, the u.s. senate, ambassador to britain an prior was ambassador under polk. he had a long career in government service. pretty unusual, and so he was ambassador to britain and not a particularly crucial time, but he was that. brian: what have you done in your life? what was your career? mr. strauss: i went to a small
school in minnesota and studied philosophy, which was great preparation to become a sports writer, which is what i worked in. i worked in magazines and television. at some point i decided to freelance about 20 years ago and teach writing, nonfiction writing at penn, as an adjunct, not a full-time staffer. it worked out pretty well. brian: you were teaching when you discovered a president had gone to the university of pennsylvania. who was that? mr. strauss: william henry harrison. i was teaching his class and i said, well, you guys are not like harvard, yale. there are no presidents from penn. this girl pipes up, we have a president from penn. i said, what you talking about? she said, harrison. i said, really? we looked it up.
his father had been in philadelphia a lot, even though he was originally from virginia. william henry harrison became a soldier but his father said, no, you are not, you are going to study medicine with my friend, benjamin rush up in pennsylvania. he started studying. a month or two into that his father dies. he says goodbye to benjamin rush and becomes a soldier. small case. brian: you say, and you just went through this list in the beginning of what james buchanan has done in his life, that he ran for president how many times? mr. strauss: he was a serious candidate for president three
times prior to becoming the actual candidate in 1856. he was always at the top echelons but the cliche of "always the bridesmaid, never the bride." there was always someone had the ear of the bureaucracy that runs the party. eventually in 1856, he is the last one left standing and the 16th ballot in cincinnati, he becomes the democratic nominee and what i would say is about -- the recent elections hold no candle to the 1856 election. transformational in a way. brian: why? mr. strauss: in 1853, we had a president from the whig party, fillmore. he succeeded on the death of zachary taylor. party.re still the whig
by 1854, it had broken apart. they lost in the 1854 election to franklin pierce and they just broke apart. they essentially became two other parties. the know nothing party, and to think we had an election that the people that were in it called themselves the know nothing party sort of says a lot. and the republican party, the name taken from the democratic republicans of the jefferson's time. the know nothings, their big platform was anti-immigration, which of course sounds familiar today, except they were anti-catholic immigration. they thought the pope was going to come over here and, i do not know, take up a seat on capitol street, but they were against irish and german's taking our jobs. they did not quite have a candidate, but they found one in
millard fillmore who wanted badly back into the white house. he never learned a thing about being anti-immigration, anti-catholic or anything but he wanted to be in the white house so he took up their cause, so to speak. the republican party was supposed to be northerners, was entirely northerners who do not necessarily believe slavery should be abolished but that it should not expand into the territories. as you know, during the years preceding, we tripled the size of our country. they were looking around for a candidate. the obvious one was william seward, who was a senator from new york but he says, well, this is a new party. i do not know. i will wait my time. this is not really going to work out this year. so they picked a celebrity, john fremont. he was sort of nothing more than a celebrity. he had been a military governor in california for a little bit.
basically, he was called the pathfinder. they mapped out the west. they had for -- four or five expeditions. he had married a 17-year-old belle of washington, the daughter of the longest standing senator at that point, thomas benton, democrat from missouri. she is sort of the kris kardashian to his bruce jenner. she sees something in him. she is going to make him something. she gets this journal, take some -- takes him around to all of his father's friends in washington and becomes what would be today a bestseller. he is suddenly a celebrity, and republicans say, we could do all ride with this guy, and so he is the man to run for president for the republican party.
brian: the word that popped out to me that you described james buchanan was obliviousness. what were you getting at? mr. strauss: you have to start somewhere when you're researching something, so i started at the library of congress to research this. you know, you mess around the internet and you find a page that comes out, and letter from the candidate to lincoln, presumably the only letter she wrote to lincoln. whether it is the only one, will have to be because i love the goofiness of history. it is a letter written in october of 1861 after lincoln had been in office and the civil war had started, a lot of fighting in northern virginia, on the particular day that the letter gets written, so maybe buchanan did not know this, one of lincoln's good friends in illinois, a senator from oregon dies in battle. the only sitting congressman to die in battle. mrs. lincoln was always prone to
blue periods, probably was at this point, but even if she was not, would be ill prepared for this. a war is going on. but this letter says that he forgot a few books in the white house, could he get somebody to return them? i was thinking, oh, my god, he is not even thinking. to abraham lincoln. this is the first thing lincoln should be worried about? brian: you talk about a party that buchanan had when he was being considered for the supreme court? mr. strauss: yes, he was always waffled. waffled about everything. he was waffling about the supreme court decision but he is known as the best partier in washington.
he had a great party with a celebrity chef for everybody to come over and he keeps giving little parties to to supplement it. at the end, he decides he does not want to be on the supreme court, so in a certain sense he has done all of this for nothing. brian: where did he get the money to put on parties? mr. strauss: he was a good lawyer. he was a star student at dickens college. he was always a top student. he was always very sure of himself. he goes to lancaster because it was then the capital of pennsylvania, the largest city -- inland city in america was 6000 people. he becomes the best lawyer there and even when he moves to harrisburg, he decides to stay in lancaster. he defends a lot of people and makes a good buck. brian: he was generous with his niece and nephews. did he ever marry? mr. strauss: he never married.
there was speculation of whether he was gay or not. this is an amazing story too and how do we not know this? he gets engaged to his friend's wife's cousin, anne coleman, her father was one of the richest men in america. he was an older man and this was his youngest daughter, next youngest daughter, but he was -- he looked after her very well. did not sort of approve of this relationship with james buchanan, but he let it go. at some point, buchanan comes up from philadelphia to visit his friend. his friend's wife's cousin is there, and beautiful woman. he goes up toward lancaster.
anne coleman accuses him of, who knows what he is accused of, breaks off the engagement, sends a note, breaks up the engagement. he says, if i let it go for a couple of weeks, it will all blow over. in that time, she goes off with her younger sister to see her older sister in philadelphia. they get to philadelphia. she does not feel well and the other two go out to the theater. by the time they come back, she was in convulsions and dies. presumably suicide. that is the speculation that she killed herself over this relationship not working out. whether she killed herself or not, the idea that a guy that eventually runs for president has his fiancee dying when he is young, that is a big story somewhere. brian: the cover of the book shows us, why did you name this book "worst. president. ever."
mr. strauss: of course, i have to bow to my editor who is the one that thought of the title. it is sort of the way young people punctuate themselves now, to have these great pauses in the way they talk. if you said, worst president ever, somehow it does not have the residents of "the worst" or emphatic. i wanted to make a point about how we rate things in general in our discourse. brian: how do we? mr. strauss: polling has become ubiquitous. people poll about everything. you did not have to watch the election to know that there was going to be a new poll out. that became the topic of the day, who was ahead, how many
points, this day, that state. there are basketball polls, football polls. i point out each week on monday morning, there comes out two college basketball polls and people move up and down depending on how the teams do, win or lose, but at the end of the season there is a 68 team tournament that decides everything. they do not need the polls because in the end you are not -- going to get the champion. graduating from davidson college, so they are on the fringe, the bottom, making up 24 points in one day. i will email my wife and my kids. we are just insane about ratings. presidents are no different. brian: let's pick five, you pick five presidents you could put on the bottom besides buchanan. mr. strauss: ok. in the book i do try to make a
case for buchanan against these people. my next to worse, and i assure you i'm not going to write a book about him, his predecessor, franklin pierce who did virtually every stupid thing that buchanan did. i should not say stupid, but bad decisions, except the civil war did not start on his watch. he was able to forestall that. just for that one thing, he rates ahead. a lot of people will pick herbert hoover, the great depression started under. hoover made great attempts to ameliorate it. but here not successful, had ideas and he was trying to do something. buchanan's great fault was he stepped back. at a time when he should have been stepping forward, he was stepping back. hoover tried to do things. he brought good people into the government.
he forestalled any hostilities. i realize that mussolini and hitler were moving along. see away through peace. another person that people pick would be jimmy carter. i could never put him at the bottom of the list. first of all, he negotiated the almighty middle east peace settlement that exists between israel and egypt. he brought consciousness to environmental situations. people laughed at him wearing sweaters. at least there was some sort of consciousness. he had a bad economy and screwed up on iran but he had a marvelous post presidency. so, i couldn't pick him. richard nixon, it depends on what you think. if you think that having to resign in disgrace is worse than
starting the civil war, i cannot argue with you. also nixon did a number of things that lasted. opening china, starting the epa. he has his good qualities, too. if i have already done five, the sixth president would be warren harding. one of the things about warren harding is he came to the presidency wanting to continue the business the good business , cycle that had started and he was able to do it. in his administration, he had in -- an illegitimate child and died in office, but still, he did what he said he was going to do which is at least something. brian: how did you decide to write this book on the worst president in your mind? mr. strauss: thinking about
presidents, i play early morning basketball in philadelphia. i parked at 5:36 in the morning on a certain street corner and it is a notorious street corner in philadelphia. i will not get into why but it is. but on the corner there is a historical society were many of buchanan's papers are. i thought, james buchanan. i have not thought all that much about him, but then i went and sort of studied the papers. he made this decision and that decision. they were all bad decisions. who said so? of course, me. they were decisions that started the civil war, in a sense. there was a passageway -- they were sort of non-decisions in some ways. many of his papers were there.
>> as you said, he was very kind to this nieces and nephews and his family took charge of his papers. brian: had he written stories before? mr. strauss: as a journalist, i have written a lot of stories, but i wrote one book before, and it was a memoir about being a dad of a girl athlete, but it was not like my kids were the greatest. it was sort of funny and sentimental. a totally different kind of thing than this. brian: you say james buchanan did not profit financially? mr. strauss: well, because he was in his mind independently wealthy. he was not the wealthiest man in the america but his desire was to give parties. there is always a positive aspect to every negative guy, and he was -- two things about
him. one, in all of his papers, he never says anything bad about anybody, publicly. at least in the papers, i do not know what he said in verbal terms, but even people he did not like politically, he never said anything bad about them personally. like i said, he loved giving parties. the inaugural ball of 1857 was the greatest party in 19th century america. brian: how did you find that? mr. strauss: ok. here is the problem. after van buren, the next several presidents had non partying aspects to them. there was still an elite party scene. dolly madison was certainly invited to every party. after van buren, harrison dies after a month in office, the
successor john tyler, his wife dies while in office. not a lot of partying. polk comes and his wife is a presbyterian, no drinking or dancing in the white house. next president, zachary taylor dies in office. fillmore comes into office, his wife is sickly, dying soon after his term is over. there is no first lady partying going on. the most tragic of all is franklin pierce. he was said to be the half president. he was sort of the john kennedy of his time. his wife does not want him to leave new hampshire, yet he runs and wins. he has two sons who die young and then he has a third son and he is sort of taking his victory lap after winning on the train,
in massachusetts and his son dies in front of him and his wife. the third son dies. his wife wears black the whole time during the presidency and barely appears in public. we have a long time of no parties in washington. suddenly the great party of james buchanan as the president gives this fantastic inaugural ball, putting up a huge tent on lafayette square. 6000 people come. in a country that only has 23 million. it is star-spangled, big orchestra. you can imagine oysters like that. harriet lane, his niece is the first lady. she is the jackie kennedy of her time. everything she wears, all of the young women want to wear. they have trading cards for her.
they name a coast guard cutter after her. the uss harriet lane. when she fires the first shot of the civil war from the union side, it gets captured by the confederates. they don't rename it. she is too popular. so these two together are just looked upon -- he starts out in such a favorable way. all the dignitaries calm. -- come. the stories in the new york times and other papers are just wonderful. they are wonderfully written stories about the pomp and everything in washington. but then the dred scott decision comes down. brian: before we get there, why is harriet lane known as the first first lady? mr. strauss: they sort of called dolly madison that, the first lady, because she was so prominent in society both while
she was first lady -- while she was the president's wife and afterwards, after madison's death, she was the go to person. every party, dolly had to be at. but then harriet lane is the hostess in the white house, so what are you going to call her? not the president's wife, the president's niece, so they called her the first lady. brian: he was a state representative for pennsylvania? he goes on to be a congressman to the u.s. congress from pennsylvania. he becomes a senator from there. he becomes the minister to russia, the minister to great britain. mr. strauss: and secretary of state. brian: and then becomes president. is he at that point the most qualified person? mr. strauss: if that is what you
go by, yes. if you go by the number of years at major posts, he definitely is. but here is something about him -- he never proposed any significant legislation -- or never got any significant legislation passed. he was a conciliatory man. that is why he was probably -- he was extremely good in russia. andrew jackson sent him to russia and is said to have said on his deathbed that he would have sent him further if he could. he did not particularly like james buchanan, but he was sort of the don corleone of presidents, he micromanaged everybody. he comes to office with a long resume. he was sort of boring, he was 65 when he was elected. nobody until reagan was that old after him.
the democrats have had quite a streak in the white house with the first two federalists and won 10 of the next 13 elections. brian: he was a democrat. mr. strauss: he was a democrat. pretty good, 10 of 13, if your football team is 10 of 13 you are pretty happy. he comes to office at a crucial time, but it does not seem any more crucial than pierce's term or fillmore's term. slavery is the overhanging problem. brian: the first day that he is president, what does he do? mr. strauss: he becomes president in march, as they did then, instead of january, in 1857. he sees as his mandate to solve the slavery question. it is not get rid of slavery, it is solve the question. he was a southern leaning northerner, but he lived in washington. washington was a southern city.
he was a bachelor. he went back to pennsylvania, but most of the time he is in washington. his friends are southerners. more southerners than northerners took up residence in washington. the railroads got the northerners back a lot easier. so he is predisposed to think like his friends. he wants to solve the slavery problem to keep the union together. he sees this court case going around, called the dred scott case. dred scott was a slave to a military man in missouri who for a time when to minnesota, then came back to missouri. dred scott said, i was free in minnesota, i should be free. the case goes around. it comes up that it could be on the supreme court's docket, but
the chief justice -- who like buchanan went to dickinson college, they had some sort of bond -- brian: you say he did not own slaves? mr. strauss: the justice did. brian: many? mr. strauss: i don't know how many, but enough. he had slaves his whole life. he was from maryland. he was francis scott key's brother-in-law, so that everybody is sort of connected. you have this discussion before buchanan takes office and say you cannot just have a decision that is split between southerners and northerners. the court was split five southerners and four northerners. so buchanan takes it upon himself to find a northern justice that will go along with
this. he finds a guy named roberts, who coincidentally enough went to dickinson college. they have this bond once again. robert says, i will go along with whatever tony does. another northerner from new york says he will write a concurring opinion so it is essentially 7-2. now you can have a decision that might mean something, northerners going along with southerners. the decision comes out two days after inauguration. it is said that on the inaugural platform before the oath that they discussed something. buchanan had distributed a souvenir transcript of his inaugural address. there are a few lines that were not in it and a few lines allude to the decision that everyone would be happy about it. but the dred scott decision is generally thought of as the worst decision the supreme court has ever made. there are contenders for that, too, but in any case it essentially says that every state is a slave state. dred scott cannot sue in court,
he is not a free man, he cannot sue, in fact he is still a slave and in fact, slavery cannot be outlawed by individual states. it re-institutes the most heinous parts of the fugitive slave law and negates the compromises from before, all the ones we remember from high school. missouri compromise, compromise of 1850 -- and essentially makes the united states slave country. brian: you say there was something called the panic of 1857? mr. strauss: we have had a 20 year expansion, things going great. the country is opening up. we had a purchase of the oregon territories, texas, other lands. the american dream is going on. you don't make it in pennsylvania, go up to ohio, illinois, missouri. you can make it. railroads finance this. people speculate on different railroads. but suddenly this decision comes out, and let's say you have got
a factory in cincinnati that is doing pretty well. maybe i will open one in dayton. oh, maybe this guy is going to come up from kentucky with his slaves and be my competitor if i -- so i don't do anything. i stopped expanding. the country immediately stops expanding. people who have speculated on railroads, railroads are not doing so well immediately. they go bankrupt, take a ride on the redding like in monopoly. other businesses fail. within months, we are in a tremendous economic panic. all the banks in new york close for a day. they decide not to take scrip. in the south, it does not affect them as much. they are an agricultural
society, you can feed and clothe society, you can feed and clothe your family at the very least. you can probably sell your cotton and lima beans. but in the north, where manufacturing is big, it is really precipitous. that divides the country evermore. brian: how did it compare with our problem in this country in 2007? mr. strauss: because it was so -- the moneyed class was so much smaller and were affected so greatly, so quickly. our most recent recession -- i am not belittling it -- was not like this. it was not a dive off of a cliff, it was a slower -- things happened in a manner of course as opposed to precipitously. i will give you one example. i like to tell stories that have something to do with me. i am out looking for a 25th
anniversary present for my wife. i'm trying to think of goofy things, so i go to a coin store. i will get a quarter. 25th. you now. -- you know. i will get a silver dollar from when we were married. i'm waiting for my turn and i look in the case, and people who look at coins know that coins were yeay big in the 19 century. suddenly in 1857, coins are like a dime. i asked the guy. panic of 1857, that was buchanan's great idea, make the coins smaller. that is about his idea. the rest of his ideas were, heck with you, you speculated, you deserve it. why don't you be like the people in the south who work with their hands? he does nothing to ameliorate it. he figures it is going to play itself out. sure enough it does because eventually we have a lot of munitions to make in 1961.
-- 1861. brian: you say americans have a lots of americans have vitriol toward their presidents. mr. strauss: they probably don't hate their mayor or congressman. they might not agree with them. but especially as the last election shows, and i think we can only go by polls how much the two main candidates were disliked as opposed to liked. i don't think that is any different from times in the past. we tend to have -- it is because they are the top person. whether it is jealousy or we feel they have the ultimate say over us and we can't possibly agree with everything they say, and somehow we really have, like you say, vitriol. brian: if you had to say the four or five most interesting
presidents that you have studied over the years, who would they be? interesting, not successful. mr. strauss: it is funny. i did write a story for "the new york times" once on visiting sites of lesser-known presidents. i knew the buchanan book was coming, so i put him in the top of the story. but i found as i look at the lesser-known presidents, i was more interested in them. coolidge was an interesting character. he was the whole silent cal thing. one of the things in my statistical book was that he had three hobbies -- pitching hay, riding a mechanical course, and -- horse, and throwing indian clubs. who knew? they are like bowling pins.
i always found these sorts of people interesting. i badgered my wife to stop at presidential sites. we live in new jersey and we would drive up to her mother's house in michigan and on the ohio turnpike, we would pass this sign constantly for rutherford b. hayes' house. saying one day i am going to go there. finally, we are driving out this year and i say, can we please go there? she says, 90 minutes. i've got 90 minutes to cover rutherford b. hayes. we get to his house. it is a beautiful old house, 30 some rooms. his father died and his uncle was rich and built this house for his mom and him. anyway, we are going through it and there are only two other people on the tour. presidential history is fine, but most people stick with monticello and mount vernon. at the end of the tour, the woman says, would you like to see hayes' bellows driven harpsichord?
i say, of course. she brings it out. as you might imagine, it is driven by the bellows at the bottom. she says, would you like to play it? well, yeah, and mozart's violin, too. for me, that is wonderful. i pump this thing at the bottom and play take me out to the ballgame. i am just imagining rutherford b. hayes sitting there saying let's go. brian: what other presidents would you put on the list to visit? mr. strauss: of course the great ones. i don't care how different their politics are than yours. george bush has the same birthday as me, the younger george bush. i'm waiting for him to invite me to his birthday party. brian: same age? mr. strauss: he is five years older than me.
herb griffin also had the same birthday. -- merv griffin also had the same birthday. he is not around, but if he were we could play jeopardy together. , i would like to meet all of them. i went to a story with david eisenhower, ike's grandson, who is writing books about his grandfather's time. he was a pulitzer finalist for one of them. penn alumni magazine -- he teaches at penn, david -- he calls me up and says, will you write a story? i'm thinking like, eisenhower, he is not all that well thought of in the scheme of presidents, so he starts telling me stories about him. once he starts telling me stories i say -- and david's father was ike's chief of staff and they eventually retired to gettysburg. david was a teenager or less than a teenager and ike would come to his little league games. can you imagine that?
the president coming to little league games. wouldn't you want to sit with ike and talk baseball? i said, that must be a lot of pressure. he said no, my grandfather loved to play golf. that was the one time he would allow the press to come take pictures on the tee when he would invite some general or diplomat. often there would only be two other guys, so he would say, david, come out and play. that is pressure. all the nation's eyes are on me, a 14-year-old trying to make a good drive. the more you know about these people, you know that they were substantial people. i have always admonished people who say how dumb george bush was or something. wait a second, this is a guy who went to yale and harvard business school. you might not agree with his politics, but he is not dumb.
i looked at dinner with any of them. brian: what could our new president learn by studying pat -- but james buchanan? mr. strauss: i think the differentiation of good presidents and bad presidents -- washington, lincoln, fdr are always at the top of the surveys that historians take. they were decisive men. you cannot come to the top of the ladder and not be decisive. buchanan was a waffler. james polk hated him for being a waffler as secretary of state. he always went back and forth. you are my advisor. you have to tell me what to do. that is how he was as president. i could go down the list of things that make him the worst president, and all of them have to do with not making a decision when he had to. that is what the next president, whether it is this president or succeeding presidents, should learn. at some point, you have got to
say, this is the way it is going to be. people who did not like reagan don't understand the reason why people like him -- because he made decisions. whatever they were. brian: go through a couple of decisions he did not make that led to the civil war. mr. strauss: the next upcoming state is going to be kansas. kansas has a problem -- is it going to be free or slave? the slave contingent comes over from missouri, gins up a constitution that allows slavery. so non-slave people who come to topeka, they have a similar constitutional convention -- just the opposite, of course. there were six slaves in all of kansas at the time. but the south needed another slave state, they needed somebody on their side, so they
are supporting it, especially missouri. something has got to happen. buchanan has got to say something. he has got to choose one or the other. he's got to say -- there is got to be election, something that is going to resolve this for -- before it becomes a problem. but he does not. he makes no decision. he sends several people to be governors of kansas, does not listen to any of them saying this very thing. there are not that many soldiers in united states -- about 12,000 troops. one of the things that happens in this maelstrom is people start firing at each other. john brown, who becomes more famous later, he is said to have murdered several slaveowners and their families. now it is called bloody kansas, but still buchanan makes no decision. brown sort of gets away. it is not like he was doing things in secret.
he needs with harriet tubman and frederick douglass and other anti-slavery people, and they eventually go to harpers ferry in 1859. if you go there now, it looks like a bucolic setting, the appalachian trail goes through. it looks like a disney version of a 19th-century village, but back then, it was a big munitions maker. it was 40 miles down the road from washington. brown comes their not so foolish. if you can get some of these munitions, gather people under his cause, maybe he can have the slave rebellion that he wants. for two days, buchanan does nothing. he says, let them handle it in virginia. it was part of virginia then. until this prominent scion, robert e. lee, comes home from his post in texas arlington. he goes to buchanan and says, i think we ought to do something.
he says all right, take some troops. of course, lee does capture brown. they have sort of a show trial, he eventually gets hanged. by this time, he is a martyr. victor hugo is writing about him, ralph waldo emerson, walt whitman. of course, that angers both sides, exacerbating any problem because of his inaction. brian: when the kirkland art gallery shut down in washington, they had to get rid of a lot of paintings. you say the national gallery of art refused to take the buchanan paintings. mr. strauss: here's the problem. one of the great things about harriet lane is that into her dotage she was the go to woman for every party in washington.
when two of her sons died she , endowed johns hopkins children's lab -- children's research lab, which is still in her name. she has this art collection, some of which is buchanan art. she gives it to start a national gallery of art. she essentially started the national gallery of art. one of her favorite paintings was the portrait of her uncle. ironically enough, when they dispersed the art, this particular portrait of the founder's uncle who is president does not make the cut. brian: do you have any idea why? mr. strauss: probably was not a very good painting. it went into the portrait section of a lesser gallery. brian: you dedicate the book to your father and mother. for your father, for making a -- you read all the roadside historical signs.
is your father alive? mr. strauss: no. brian: when you think back to your dad in the early days, how old were you in the early days when you first started fooling around with history, and what do you remember, an incident or two with your father? mr. strauss: i was about five or six, but we did not travel much. he was a local lawyer in camden, new jersey. but he was still fascinated with history. i have books and books and books -- president polk's letters are all these sort of things, so they were always around. we did take one trip to the south when i was 10, 1961. we started going to civil war sites, because it was the start of the centennial. we made it to stanton, virginia, woodrow wilson's birthplace, and we would come up to the door and there was a sign it was closed. my father walked around, and it was the day that the second mrs. wilson died. how unlucky could we be? brian: the anniversary of mrs.
wilson's death? mr. strauss: no, it was the day she died. he rams it up and decides, we are going to go to charlottesville. we don't go to monticello first or where james monro lived. we go to the library at the university of virginia. he storms up the stairs. my mother waits in the lobby because she is already rolling her eyes, but i go up with him. he's got a camera and he goes up to the librarian. i don't think there is anybody there. he says, i am from new jersey and i'm friends with judge -- he makes up a name -- in virginia. i need to photograph thomas jefferson's will. the guy is saying no, no. my father is berating this guy, mentioning this judge in virginia, who i'm sure is apocryphal. he finally gets the guy to bring
out the pages of jefferson's will and he photographs them. he frames them in three frames, and i noticed three because i have them in my office. i have this framed jeffersonian will in my office. that is what i want to tell, fun stories of history. brian: you go back to the rutherford b. hayes home and your wife says 90 minutes. you have been married how long? mr. strauss: 1989, 27 years. brian: what has her attitude being about your obsession with presidents? mr. strauss: she is sort of does not mind it, because she had a fellowship at stanford and we drove across the country. there is a hoover institution at stanford and he went there. on the way, we go through iowa.
we go through west branch, iowa. we stopped at herbert hoover's childhood farm. we run to the chicken coop and look at the cats. she finds her side enjoyments in my bizarre nature of looking at history. we have two kids, one is 25 and one is 21, both went to davidson. there is a historical marker when you go there -- woodrow wilson attended davidson for one year. brian: what do your kids think of this history stuff? mr. strauss: they pretend not to be like me, but i know that the younger one especially loves the nuances of history and almost studied history, although mostly indian history. brian: about out of time, but what are the chances i could get you to write a book on hamilton?
-- dan fickles? who is your favorite character? mr. strauss: i think it has got to be harriet lane. the nice of the president i never knew about who was -- the niece of the president who is one of the most popular women in washington for half a century. she would make a good musical. brian: robert strauss is our guest. the book is called "worst. president. ever.: james buchanan, the potus rating game, and the legacy of the least of the lesser presidents." james buchanan on the cover there. thank you very much for joining us. mr. strauss: thanks for having me. [captions copyright national cable satellite corp. 2016] [captioning performed by the national captioning institute, which is responsible for its caption content and accuracy. visit ncicap.org] ♪
announcer: for free transcripts or to give us comments about this program, visit us at q&a.org. programs are also available as c-span podcasts. announcer: if you enjoyed this week's interview, here are some other programs you might like. a scott berg on his biography of president woodrow wilson. evan thomas talks about his book "being nixon, a man divided" and thomas miller on his investigation into the assassination of president william mckinley. watch these any time or search our entire video library at c-span.org. >> next your calls and comments live on "washington journal."
the members of the electoral college need today and vote by ballot for president and vice president beginning at 11:00 a.m. eastern we have coverage from illinois, michigan, and virginia. >> tonight on the communicators. >> if we have to strike to regulations, which can be done, we would have a much more effective and efficient agency and more opportunities for providers to serve consumers. >> michael o'rielly, fcc commissioner, talks about how it may change under the trunk administration. >> there is a lot of concern about cyber security right now. there has been for a while. there has been attention right now with what happened during
the campaign. does the fcc have a role in that? >> i think that is an important issue. congress has been aggressive on trying to find the right solution. doingk our agencies are so. the fcc is limited by the statute that governs us that goes back to 1934. i believe the government has a role to monitor and provide additional fixes in this space, they are authorized by the law for us to do. >> watch the communicators tonight on c-span two. this morning, john faso kozel, founder of the national popular vote, and attorney james hume on calls for changes to the electoral college process. a plan to replace the welfare state, which suggests the government should dismantle social security, medicare, and all forms of welfare and give
every adult american tetanus yearrs a year -- $10,000 a for life. host: and stay houses, the electoral college will meet to cast a vote for president and vice president. c-span will take you to illinois, michigan and virginia to give you the chance to comment on today's vote. that cover to start at 11:00 this morning. go to c-span.org. as the electors meet, how many might cast a vote against president-elect donald trump. there were calls to eliminate the electoral college or make changes. in our first 45 minutes, we want to hear from