The Best Politician in History (and what I can learn from him)

Imagine this: a woman escapes from you. You try to kidnap her away from her children, and bring her back to your house so she can spend the rest of her life as your slave.

Yesterday in the US was President’s Day. I’m fascinated by the story of Ona Judge. For one thing I love anyone named Ona.

But more importantly, she was a slave under George Washington, escaped to New Hampshire, while he obsessively tried to track her down and kidnap her back.

Until he died, he never stopped trying to figure out how to kidnap her back. She remained a fugitive until she died.

What a Shame!

It’s easy to take shots at people. Many love George Washington.

And others might say, “It was a different time.” Yes, yes. It was a different time. But still…? Do people get a free pass? What morals do I have now that 200 years from now people will forgive me and say, “well it was a different time?”

Give me the name of any President and I can name at least five things that I find horrifying about them. Which is why I hate politics. Which is why in 2013 Claudia was able to convince me not to run for Congress in 2014.

There’s just no good examples.

And then this morning I found one.

Why this morning? Because I want there to be a Vice-Presidents Day. To celebrate the men and women (well, no women yet) who have silently been the #2 most powerful men in the world without having any actual responsibilities.

If Presidents acted more like Vice-Presidents I think all the worlds problems would be solved.

Most Presidents fail on two levels: they try to DO something. And doing anything usually messes things up further. Or, many Presidents are simply corrupt.

It’s about 50–50.

But Vice-Presidents can’t do anything. And they have so little power it’s hard for them to be corrupt.

So we should celebrate a Vice-Presidents Day. For men who gave up all ambition to do absolutely nothing for four years even though they were so close to the smell of power they had to shower three times a day to remove the stench.

And then I found the best Vice-President ever. Raise your hand if you know him.

William Wheeler.

Vice-President under one of the worst Presidents ever, Rutherford B. Hayes. The centennial President — 1876–1880.

Hayes actually lost the popular and electoral vote but used the usual techniques of corruption and bribing to get into his office. There were so many riots they had to do his inauguration indoors and under heavy protection.

Wheeler was a simple Congressman in NY who became the VP candidate under Hayes when basically the five people in front of him deadlocked and they couldn’t find a better choice.

- When Hayes found out who his Vice-President would be he said, “Wheeler who?” That’s how little Wheeler stood out.

- When Wheeler got nominated he said in his speech, “I did not seek this, and I say in all frankness I did not desire it. So long as I remain in my public service my preference was to remain in the House of Representatives.”

In other words, where he felt he could do things that would matter without ambition getting in the way.

- When congress voted a raise for all congressmen (a nice way to vote your salary if you can get it), Wheeler was so against it he would return the extra money every month.

- When all the Presidential candidates were deadlocked, one tried to convince Wheeler to throw New York’s delegates to him.

The candidate, Conkling, said to Wheeler, (paraphrased), “I will give New York whatever gift it wants.”

Wheeler responded. “Mr. Conkling, there is nothing in the gift of the State of New York which will compensate me for the forfeiture of my self-respect.

- On the Presidential campaign in 1876, Wheeler refused to make any speeches saying, basically, he was too tired.

- President Hayes ultimately had to concede Wheeler’s goodness.

He wrote in his diary once when Wheeler said the Secretary of State was a bit shady: “Mr Wheeler is right. Prompt and square talk is in the long run safest and is just to the parties concerned. I must also bear this in mind.”

This is advice that I try to follow every day.

- One congressman once said about Wheeler that while most other politicians tried to use their influence for monetary gain, “the thought never occurred to [Wheeler] that his influence could being riches, and not the shadow of stain rests on his name.”

Meanwhile, as recently as five years ago, congressmen as a group were regularly making 20% per year more from the stock market then the rest of the US (inside information was legal among congressmen until recently).

- When he was in charge of a committee, he appointed other committee members regardless of their political party — something unheard of right now. Maybe even impossible.

He said, “the trust confided in us was neither for majorities nor minority, but for all alike as citizens of a common state.”

He dropped out of college (yay!). Then he tried to become a lawyer but was forced to quit that because he had trouble with his throat. He basically had trouble speaking.

Which made him a listener. When you listen, you can’t help but observe and learn and become introspective about what your values really are.

Why did I write this? What else can be said?

I wanted to do this exercise (try it. It’s fun): what is a holiday that I could actually respect as opposed to the overly commercial and demi-godish holidays we tend to celebrate.

And what person related to that holiday could I actually learn from and model myself after.

And then finally, what story could I tell to begin my day where I might learn a little history and learn a little something about myself.

In the grand scheme of things: nobody will be remembered. But an obscure man from upstate New York who was the second most powerful man in the world for awhile got there by being honest, a straight talker, not greedy, and a good listener.

Today, the day after President’s Day, I will think of him and try to follow his model.

For some reason, I’ve turned myself inside out and all my guts have spilled onto my blog. One day I’ll run out of stuff but not yet.

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