Ten-Cent Jimmy

It’s Presidents’ Day, and I have another chance to write about my favorite President, the much-maligned James Buchanan.  History treats him unkindly, but that is more to the credit of the rival newspapers of his day than it is the fault of Buchanan.  In this article, however, I will acknowledge some of the mistakes that James Buchanan actually did make, but I will also try to give his side of those stories.

Back in 1856, many newspapers were like the PACs of today.  They were arms of the political parties that supported them.  The newspapers of the South were Democratically controlled and those in the Northeast United States were mostly Republican controlled, and like FOX news today, they spread the word, not the truth.

There was a kernel of truth, however, in the pejorative nickname they gave to James Buchanan in the campaign of 1856.  They called him Ten-Cent Jimmy.  Times were different back then, and, as hard as it may be to believe today, the newly-formed Republican party of that day was trying to establish itself in the North by showing support for the working man.  They campaigned for wage increases.

Buchanan employed a staff to maintain his household at Wheatland, here in Lancaster, and he was known for paying low wages.  It would be politically incorrect to blame this on his Scotch heritage, but that might have been part of the problem.  This is one reason why his household staff often quit to seek more lucrative employment, and why he so rarely got a cook, who was actually a good cook.

During the campaign, when it was brought up, that laborers in the Northeast were working for only 10 cents a day Buchanan didn’t take umbrage.  He didn’t fight for wage increases.  The Republican newspapers were quick to pounce upon this wealthy man’s inability to sympathize with the plight of the low-paid laborers.  They nicknamed him “Ten-Cent Jimmy” and it stuck.

There was little else to criticize about the man, though, and James Buchanan became the 15th President of the United States, despite the continued onslaught of negative press from the new Republicans.

The Press also hounded him for interfering in the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott Decision, and they blamed him for what history records as one of the worst Supreme Court decisions ever.  The Supreme Court is known for making some awful decisions, so you know that to be the worst, it must have been really bad.

Actually, the Supreme Court didn’t make a decision in the case.  A Decision by them would have been bad, but they made it even worse by deciding to throw out the case entirely because they determined that the plaintiff, Dred Scott, being black, had no legal right to even present a case to the Court.  They leaked their intentions to throw out the case to the incoming President, James Buchanan.

There were 5 Southerners and 4 Northerners on the Court and the racially charged outcome was going to be determined by a vote of 5 to 4.  You can guess who was sympathetic to the black man’s case, and who was not.  Buchanan knew the effect the decision would have on the country, and he also knew that the country was already headed for a North-South Civil War.  He did not want the Supreme Court to make a decision that the public would see as a strictly North/South thing.  He could not get any of the Southern Judges to change their mind, so, to try to pour oil on troubled waters, he persuaded one of the Northern judges from Pennsylvania to change his vote.  James Buchanan was deathly afraid that a 5-4 strictly South/North split would upset the already fragile situation in the already North/South split country.  In his Inaugural Address, he pleaded with the country to calmly accept whatever decision the Supreme Court handed down in the case, and let that be the end of all the North/South bickering about the slavery question.  Two days later when the Supreme Court made public their 6-3 decision not to decide, the country exploded, and instead of putting the slavery question to rest, it divided the country even more.  By getting involved, Buchanan has taken the historical blame for what was really the Supreme Court’s bad decision.

Critics try to make it sound like the Court was leaning in favor of Dred Scott and a pro-slavery Buchanan swayed them otherwise.  That was never the case.  Buchanan was only trying to ease North/South tension by making a bad decision not look like such an obvious North/South decision.  He has been paying for that intervention for the past 160 years.  As Oscar Wilde said, “No good deed goes unpunished.”

The Supreme Court decision also cast Buchanan as Pro-Slavery, which he was definitely not.  In fact, he had purchased many slaves in Washington D.C. where slavery was legal, brought them to the Free State of Pennsylvania and given them their freedom.  He offered many of the freed slaves jobs in his household, but when they heard how little he paid his staff, most just thanked him for freeing them and went on their merry way.

Buchanan is also blamed for splitting the Democratic Party by not running for re-election in 1860.  Again, this was another negative that could be blamed upon his Inaugural Address where he made a promise to the American people to spend all his efforts on trying to heal the country and none on seeking re-election.  The soon-to-be 67-year-old President was still recovering from a bad case of National Flu at the time, so he was also admitting that he would be too old and sickly to run for re-election in 1860.  Instead of being given credit for his integrity, he made himself an instant lame duck, and the fighting began for the control of the Democratic Party.

The last point I would like to make is that he was vilified for not turning over control of the Party to Stephen A. Douglas, the powerful Senator from Illinois.  First of all, Buchanan personally detested Stephen A. Douglas.  When the unctuous Douglas gave him a $20,000 check for his 1856 Presidential campaign, Buchanan cashed the check, but he wrote the thank you note to Stephen “D.” Douglas.

Secondly, Buchanan correctly predicted that Douglas was only popular in states that were going to vote Republican anyway.  In the 1860 election, Douglas didn’t even win his home state of Illinois, a state that is now famous for being “the Land of Lincoln,” not the home of Stephen A. Douglas.  Douglas only carried one and a half states in that election.  He won in Missouri and split the electoral votes in New Jersey.  As Buchanan predicted, he came in second in all the states that the Republicans carried, and as Hillary Clinton and so many others have recently learned, you only win an election if you get the electoral votes, not the popular vote.

I could go on and on about the many ways that history has short-changed “Ten-Cent Jimmy,” but I’ll save them for another day.  I’ll just close by wishing everyone a Happy Presidents’ Day and give a special shout out to the wonderful folks who work so hard to preserve the home and history of James Buchanan at Wheatland, especially all the volunteers, who don’t even get ten cents a day for all they do.

Peace & Love, and all of the above,


St. Vivian the Baptist

This week we celebrate President’s Day and my Mom’s birthday, so let me tell you a story about my Mom and a few Presidents.

Mom always gave her age as 21 plus.  In a way Vivian was both hiding and revealing her real age, as she was born in ’21, February 23rd, 1921.  So, doing the math…that would make her…21 plus.

Since George Washington was born on February 22nd, my Dad once joked that Mom was one day younger than Washington.  He only ever made that mistake once.  He was a tank commander in World War II, and fearlessly fought Nazis in Germany, but he quickly learned not to pick a fight with my mother. She would never surrender.

Mom grew up in Flood City — Johnstown, Pennsylvania — a town which has spent much of its time under water, lots of water.  There were two things to do in Johnstown back in the day, learn to swim or get out.  She got out.

She went to Nursing School in Brooklyn, where she was famous for two things.  One made the school proud, and one made them angry.  Nurse Vivian (as my brother Kevin refers to her in his Chronicle articles) was the first nurse to get 100% correct on the Nursing exam, and that made everyone proud.  Then she made them all mad.

Mom wrote a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt, proudly noting her achievement and inviting the First Lady to attend her Graduation from Nursing School.  To the shock of everyone but my mother, Mrs. Roosevelt accepted.  Rather than feeling honored, the school executives were very upset because they knew that they would have to spend their every waking moment in the weeks ahead, preparing and polishing every inch of the school to get ready for the distinguished visitor.

FDR wasn’t the only President involved in my mother’s life story.  She previously had a run in with Abe Lincoln, too.

The country was in the middle of World War II and needed to sell War bonds to finance the operation.  Somebody got the idea of promoting the cause by having the nurses sing a song at the Lincoln Memorial.  The statue was undergoing some work and there was scaffolding everywhere, but that was no problem.  They were not going to be on TV.  This was the age of radio.

When the nurses gathered at the statue, everyone quickly found out that Mom’s remarkable intelligence was not accompanied by a beautiful singing voice.  They told her to stand way in the back and just move her lips, and not to sing under any circumstances.  Since she was not going to get to sing on the radio, she decided that there was another way to enjoy the field trip to the Lincoln Memorial.  She climbed the scaffolding and sat on Lincoln’s lap.  It was the age of radio.  You could do those things back then.

Besides nursing, Mom was also famous in South Ozone Park for the Halloween costumes she would make.  Mostly they were for her sons, but occasionally she got into the act, too.  Here she is as Groucho Marx.  “Say the secret word and the duck comes down.”

Groucho had a secret word, but Mom had a real secret.  I’m only revealing it now for the first time, because of all the flap about the Arizona priest who for decades baptized babies using the wrong words.  The Catholic Church ruled that all the Baptisms he performed were invalid.

That never would have been a problem if Mom had lived in his parish.  She was a devout Catholic and a nurse in the maternity ward.  No child was going to be put at risk of dying unbaptized and being denied Heaven while she was on duty.  As an insurance policy, she secretly baptized every child in the hospital who was born to a Catholic mom.  She might have secretly spritzed a few Jewish babies, too, but that has never been confirmed. Nobody was going to Limbo on her watch, and you can be 100% sure that she got all the words right.

Happy 21 plus Birthday, Mom.


Your 73-year-old son.

Peace & Love, and all of the above,


The Next Elvis

I play a game online with some friends and we have to come up with a song with the day’s word in it.  Today, my Brother X brought up the Edwin Hawkins singers, and it reminded me of one of my favorite true stories.

Settle back, because I’m going to tell the long version.

As a child, I was diagnosed with Asthma and encouraged to play a wind instrument.  I picked one of the lightest, the clarinet.  As I grew older, I wanted to be cooler, so I switched to the saxophone.

As a teenager, I got into a Rock N Roll Band with John Karolefski and some friends from high school.  They weren’t impressed with my saxophone playing, so I only got to play two songs, Summertime (and the living is easy) and Tequila.  The rest of the time I banged a tambourine and sang lead.

Years later, when I went to boot camp in Great Lakes, they were looking for musicians for the boot camp band.  I auditioned and wound up in a company that was made up of musicians, drill team, and other assorted entertainers.  Seven of us played the saxophone and only a couple were ever needed, so I never once played with the band.

But I used it as an excuse.  Whenever my company was scheduled for the obstacle course or some other disagreeable duty, I told the company commander that I had band practice.  Then I would go to the band hall and goof off for an hour or two.  In nine weeks of boot camp, I never once set foot on the obstacle course.

About a year later, I wound up in Adak, Alaska with nothing to do when I wasn’t on duty.  So, I joined a band, a band so horrible that they let me play saxophone and be lead singer.  We rarely played anyplace, but we practiced frequently.

Fast forward to another year later, and I was stationed in Todendorf, a small town in northern Germany.  I was too busy having fun to form a band there, but I often spoke highly of my musical experience.  Rock band as a teenager.  Navy band in Boot Camp.  Rock band in Alaska.  Since Elvis had just finished his tour of duty in Germany, I was sarcastically referred to as his replacement, The Next Elvis.

There wasn’t a whole lot to do in the sleepy town of Todendorf, except drink and chase German girls, but that kept me busy.  Occasionally, though, we would go on a road trip.  We were only about a half hour away from the bustling city of Kiel on the North Sea, and there were plenty of discoes there.

The largest of the discoes was The Star Palast, which had a number of floors and held thousands.  We knew that this would be the place to be during “Fleet Week” when numerous American ships would be docked there.  So, when Fleet Week arrived, we put on our civvies and got to the Star Palast early.  There were numerous bars in the place, but we all went to the main bar near the stage and dance floor, where the owner tended the bar.  We took up all the seats at that bar.

My supervisor, Dave Johnston, a New York boy, was at the other end of the bar talking to the owner, and they kept looking over at me.  I ignored them, and paid more attention to the hundreds of German girls dancing with about a thousand American sailors.

The sailors were spending money like drunken sailors, and everyone was having a good time.  At the height of the evening, there were probably almost two thousand happy drunken people dancing to the beat.  It was the party to top all parties, but then something happened.

The owner walked away from Dave and approached me.  “He told me who you are,” he said to me.  “Who did he say I was?” I responded.  “He said you were the next Elvis.”  I looked at Dave and he was practically falling off his barstool laughing.  The guys around him, who were in on the joke, were laughing their asses off, too.

The owner pointed to the thousand sailors overrunning the place and asked me if I would do him the great honor of going on stage and singing one of my songs for the crowd.

Looking at all my friends, who were laughing hysterically, I tried to back out gracefully.  “I would love to sing one of my songs, but I don’t have my band here.  So, I can’t.”

He apologized for not thinking about that, but then said, “But since you are such a big Rock N Roll star in America, would you just go on stage and say Hello to all the Americans.  I’m sure that they would all appreciate that.”

He had backed me into a corner, and all my laughing friends knew it, but I came up with an out.  “Since my band’s not here, would it be okay if I got a few of these sailors to join me in a song?”

“Of course.  Anything you want.  Thank you.  Thank you.”

I climbed onto the stage, grabbed the mike, and said that I would like to sing a song to all the Americans in the crowd, if I could just get a few of them up on stage to sing with me.

About a hundred drunken sailors climbed up, filling the massive stage.  I sang a spiritual song that was currently one of the top Rock N Roll songs, Oh Happy Day.  I didn’t even know the words, but I just kept singing “Oh Happy Day” and the drunken hoard behind me kept echoing the words.  The place went wild.

Nobody knew me, but a thousand drunken sailors cheered on a hundred of their drunken shipmates, who were on stage in a foreign land singing “Oh Happy Day” at the top of their lungs.  Before long everyone in the place was singing “Oh Happy Day” and having a great time.

Picture this, but instead of a choir, it’s a bunch of drunken sailors, singing to an even bigger bunch of drunken shipmates.

When the song was over, I said, “Thank you,” and invented the “Mike drop.”  I leaped off the stage, put a big smile on my face, and went back to my barstool and my buddies.  The owner scooped up all our bar tabs off the bar, and ceremoniously tore them in half.  “Thank you,” he said.  “You really are the next Elvis, and you and your friends will never ever have to pay for a drink in my club.”

My ruse worked, but that was the last time I ever went to the Star Palast.  When you catch lightning in a bottle, you enjoy the moment, but you know better than to ever expect to be able to catch it twice.

Peace & Love, and all of the above,