Reprinted from The Nation
It is no secret that Jeb Bush faces a challenge when the subject is presidents named "Bush." Of course the former governor of Florida has regard for his father and his brother. But he has faced frequent questioning about whether he would wage wars, neglect the economy, or otherwise manage things as did Bush 41 and Bush 43.
So, as he bids to become Bush 45, Jeb talks up another president.
"One of the presidents that I really admire," he says, "is James K. Polk."
At a July town hall meeting in Sioux City, Iowa, the son of one president and brother of another displayed a reasonably detailed awareness of Polk, which certainly distinguishes Bush from most Americans. Bush hailed the 11th president (who served from 1845 to 1849) for a number of policy initiatives -- including an approach to tariffs that the contender for the 2016 Republican presidential seems to believe was "pretty extraordinary."
But, as on so many issues of consequence, this Bush got this ex-president question wrong.
Polk was a horrible president whose actions inspired fierce opposition from foes of slavery who -- in the words of the presidential scholars at the University of Virginia's Miller Center -- believed that Polk's reckless expansionism represented "a transparent attempt to extend slavery into new territories that would become new slave states, thus ensuring that the South would control Congress and the presidency into the foreseeable future."
Polk was censured by the U.S. House of Representatives and condemned by the Massachusetts state legislature for engaging in unconstitutional military interventions with the "triple object of extending slavery, of strengthening the slave power and of obtaining the control of the free states."
Every presidency leaves a mixed legacy. Able historians can, and do, pump up presidents who were thought to be failures -- just as they can, and do, take presidents who were thought to be failures down a peg or two. But when the great issues of human bondage and war are a part of any president's legacy, the measures of men are clarified.