A Presidents Day Celebration (PART 2): The Good, The Over-matched, And Then There’s Abe

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The Presidents between #7, Jackson, and #16, Lincoln, are almost entirely unknown to most of the public: not one in a hundred can name them all, and of those almost none can name them in order. Eight one-term Presidents, all trying to stave off the civil war in various ways, and all failing that mission.

I will never understand why learning the Presidents in order isn’t a standard requirement in the public schools. It’s not hard; it is a useful tool in placing events in American history, and it prevents embarrassments like the Cornell law grad I once worked with who couldn’t place the Civil War in the right century. Besides, we’re Americans, damn it. The least we owe the 43 patriots who have tried to do this job, some at the cost of their lives, many their health, and many more their popularity, is their place in our history and their names.

On with hailing the Chiefs with some of my favorite facts about them:

James K. Polk

“Hail to the Chief,” which had been sporadically in use since Madison’s day, became the official anthem of the office during the Polk Administration. Polk was a small, unimpressive man, and it was said that he needed the musical announcement when he entered a room or no one would notice him. Looks can be deceiving. James K. Polk was as wily, tough and as ruthless as they come. One reason may be that he was another Presidential survivor of an ordeal that would kill most people: as a teenager, he underwent a bloody frontier operation for gallstones with no anesthesia, tied to a table, biting on a rag.

Zachary Taylor

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General Taylor, who was pursued by both the Whigs and the Democrats who both wanted to nominate him for President, was a great experiment  He was not a member of any political party, had never held public office prior  to becoming President, and had never even voted before becoming Chief Executive. He was also nearly illiterate. We often long for an apolitical President, a true, rather than a pretend, “outsider.” Taylor would have been an interesting test case, though the pre-Civil War political and social chaos was hardly the most promising period to try out the theory. Unfortunately he died of cholera less than half-way into his administration.

And he wasn’t even elected in a year ending in a zero! Continue reading

A Presidents Day Celebration (PART 1): I Love These Guys, I Really Do. Yes, Every One Of Them.

Hall of the Presidents

I have a lifetime love affair with the Presidents of the United States.

I love these guys, every one of them. The best of them are among the most skilled and courageous leaders in world history; the least of them took more risks and sacrificed more for their country than any of us ever can or will, including me. Every one of our Presidents, whatever their blunders, flaws and bad choices, was a remarkable and an accomplished human being, and exemplified the people he led in important ways. Every one of them accepted not only the burden of leadership, but the almost unbearable burden of leading the most dynamic, ambitious, confusing, cantankerous and often unappreciative nation that has ever existed. I respect that and honor it.

I have been a President junkie since I was eight years old. It’s Robert Ripley’s fault. My father bought an old, dog-eared paperback in the “Believe it or Not!” series and gave it to me. It was published in 1948. One of Ripley’s entries was about the “Presidents Curse”: every U.S. President elected in a year ending with a zero since 1840 (William Henry Harrison) had died in office, and only one President who had dies in office, Zachary Taylor, hadn’t been elected in such a year. The cartoon featured a creep chart—I still have it—listing the names of the dead Presidents, the years they were elected, and the year 1960 with ???? next to it. When Jack Kennedy, the youngest President ever elected, won the office in 1960, my Dad, who by that time was sick of me reminding him of the uncanny pattern, said, “Well, son, so much for Ripley’s curse!”

You know what happened. (John Hinckley almost kept the curse going, but Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980, finally broke it.) That year I became obsessed with Presidential history, devising a lecture that gave an overview of the men and their significance in order. My teacher allowed me to inflict it on my classmates.  Much later, Presidential leadership and character was the topic of my honors thesis in college. When I finally got a chance to go to Disneyland, the first place I went was the Hall of Presidents. When the recorded announcer said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Presidents of the United States!” and the red curtain parted to show the audio-animatrons of all of them together, it was one of the biggest thrills of my life.

Today I will honor our past Presidents with some of my favorite facts about each of them, trying hard not to get carried away. Is it ethics? It’s leadership, which has always been the dominant sub-topic here, but yes, it’s ethics.  I know I’m hard on our Presidents, as I think we all should be: supportive, loyal, but demanding and critical. I am also, however, cognizant of how much they give to the country and their shared determination to do what they think, rightly or wrongly, is in the country’s best long-term interests. File this post under respect, fairness, gratitude, and especially citizenship. And now…

“Ladies and Gentlemen, the Presidents of the United States!

Continue reading

Groupon Celebrates National Incompetence and Ignorance With A Presidents Day Double KABOOM!

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The Ethics Alarms KABOOM!—a special designation for ethics-related stories that make my head explode—has a new variation, thanks to Groupon: the repeating KABOOM!, triggered by two related KABOOMs in the same episode. My head has been exploding repeatedly since I learned about this late last night.

Hold on to your craniums, for here is a Groupon press release sent out earlier this week, the first of the KABOOM! twins:

Groupon Celebrates

Presidents Day

by Honoring

Alexander Hamilton!

Commemorate a man historically powerful enough to be on money with $10 towards $40 on a local purchase while they last!

CHICAGO, Feb 14, 2014 (BUSINESS WIRE) — Starting tomorrow, Groupon ( http://www.groupon.com ) (NASDAQ: GRPN) will be kicking off Presidents Day weekend by giving customers 10 dollars off 40 dollars when they purchase a deal for any local business. The $10 bill, as everyone knows, features President Alexander Hamiltonundeniably one of our greatest presidents and most widely recognized for establishing the country’s financial system.

Beginning Saturday, Feb. 15 at 9 am CST, shoppers will be able to redeem this offer by using the promo code “10OFF40LOCAL”, which isn’t very catchy, but neither was President Hamilton’s famous saying, “Nobody expects to trust his body overmuch after the age of fifty.”

President Hamilton is best known for the fiscal sensibilities that led him to author economic policies, establish a national bank and control taxes. Customers can honor our money-minded commander-in-chief and find deals by searching Groupon.com for local deals all through President’s Day weekend. Promo codes are limited, and more information can be found at: https://www.groupon.com/faq#faqs:content-269

The emphasis is mine, and I’m paying for every bit of it, let me tell you. My head is doing a terrific Dante’s Peak impression as I type this.

But that’s not all: here comes Groupon’s KABOOM! #2. Is the company embarassed? Chagrined? Are heads rolling? Oh, noooo! For when an enterprising American, one of the few who received a competent fourth grade education, was kind enough to alert Groupon to its unforgivable gaffe, this is what he received in return:

GOUPON IDIOTIt would all be hilarious if it were not so ominous….and unethical. Continue reading

Ethics Alarms Recap: A Long Weekend of Ethics

If the long Presidents Day weekend took you hither and yon and away from ethical dilemmas and controversies, welcome back! Here is what went on here in a lively three days:

The Most Ethical President

When I am asked who I think was the most ethical President of the United States, my answer is the man whose birthday President’s Day preempts: George Washington. He was not our most brilliant or eloquent President, and it often took him a while to find his way to the right thing to do, slavery being the most important example. Still, the United States was extraordinarily fortunate to have such a principled and instinctively wise leader as its first. He created the template that, though weakened by time and inferior successors, continues to exert a powerful influence over our choice of Presidents. He was honest. He was civil. He was dignified and insisted on respect, but never worship: his simple decision that America’s Chief Executive be called, humbly, “Mr. President” had immense consequences for the nation’s attitudes toward executive leadership. Perhaps most important of all, Washington was a gifted leader but a reluctant one. He believed that a citizen should heed the nation’s call when needed, but he was a reluctant public servant, and condemned those who sought power for its own sake.

I am always amazed, when I return to Washington’s writings and speeches, how sure, persuasive and perceptive his statements remain, so long after they were made.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from our most ethical President.

Happy Birthday, approximately, General Washington. Continue reading

Unethical Website of the Month: “Make Presidents’ Day Super”

The degradation of America’s values continues in seductive and incremental ways.

Take the online petition “Make Presidents’ Day Super,” described as…

“A plan to move Presidents’ Day to the Monday after the Super Bowl. For football. For hangovers. For America.”

The proposal is unethical in many ways, beginning with its dishonest presentation.  “We the people, in order to form a more perfect holiday, seek to take what should be one of our most patriotic holidays and actually give it more meaning, make it more American,” the argument begins. Make it “more American”? How, exactly, does moving a holiday that already minimizes the national recognition of the birthday of George Washington by making it a floating annual date to manufacture a three-day weekend make that holiday “more American”? Continue reading

Presidents Day Ethics: The Presidents of the United States on Ethics and Leadership

In commemoration of President’s Day, Ethics Alarms presents the ethics wisdom of the remarkable men who have served their country in the most challenging, difficult, and ethically complicated of all jobs, the U.S. Presidency.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Presidents of the United States:

George Washington: “I hope I shall possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man.” Continue reading

Of Presidents Day, Atticus, a Congressman’s Dilemma and Serial Moms

Short Alarms:

  • With increasing numbers of young Americans knowing embarrassingly little about our nation’s past, the wrong-headedness of President’s Day rankles worse than ever. Rather then designate the February birthdays of our two greatest presidents—Washington, the “indispensable man” who made the United States a reality, and Lincoln, the brilliant leader/philosopher who kept it from tearing apart—as yearly commemorations of their remarkable lives and our debt to them, Congress lumped them into a generic “Presidents Day,” thereby demonstrating that it deemed a three-day weekend and consumer merchandise sales more important than our heritage. Worst of all for ethics fans, George, who “wouldn’t tell a lie,” and Honest Abe are the only U.S. Presidents remembered for their truthfulness. Yet here they are, forced to share their “day” with the likes of Woodrow Wilson, Harding, J.F.K, L.B.J., Tricky Dick and Bill Clinton. The right thing to do would be to go back to celebrating February 12 and 22. Washington and Lincoln deserve it, and so do the values they stood for.
  • Speaking of ethics icons, one of my wife’s favorites,”To Kill A Mockingbird’s” Atticus Finch, has been under attack in some quarters for being passively acquiescent in the Jim Crow morality that convicts his black client despite overwhelming evidence that he is innocent. Continue reading