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A Golden Opportunity to Celebrate Ineptitude

Anyone who has recently hesitated turning on the radio or TV can't be blamed for wanting to tune out the current rash of political advertising. As with many contentious midterm elections, the charged atmosphere of mud slinging is deep. If much of the information in these messages is even partially true, the amount of corruption in government is staggering and frightening.

As any historian knows, this is hardly new. Dial the clock back 100 or more years, and the proclivity for both dishonesty and even apathy makes what we have today seem tame — even in Illinois where indictments and convictions have been a contemporary staple.

One of the more prominent practitioners was James Buchanan, who held the office of president from 1857 until 1861. Predecessor to Abe Lincoln, Buchanan's administration is still recognized as one of the most corrupt in our political history. While in office, he and his cohorts offered voters up to $30,000 to vote the way he wanted. There are also accounts of plenty of kickbacks from government contracts and diversion of funds to his Democratic supporters. At one point, corruption tied to Buchanan was so prolific that Congress refused to approve a plan to give Buchanan funds to purchase Cuba; they fearing he and his cabinet would steal the money.

Ironically, Buchanan was no stranger to wealth having made a bundle as a lawyer. That being said, he was notorious for being stingy. One of his nicknames was "Ten-Cent Jimmy," which stemmed from his eyeing every penny. For instance, on one occasion, he rejected a bill for $15,000 because the tally was off by a dime.

Buchanan does hold one unique distinction — he remains the only U.S. president who was a lifelong bachelor. Although briefly engaged, he never tied the knot. The one he almost committed to was Anne Coleman, the daughter of a very wealthy Pennsylvania couple. He didn't make much of an impression on Anne's parents; they felt she was going to marry beneath her status.

Perhaps, being single led Buchanan to also be remembered as the consummate party host. It's been said that gaudy parties at the White House were almost continual, including plenty of liquor of which he was known to imbibe in great amounts. On his way to church on Sundays, Buchanan would stop by Jacob Baer's distillery to purchase 10-gallon barrels of whisky.

It's not that there weren't issues of the day that Buchanan needed to address. Although personally against slavery, he was either apathetic or oblivious to its divisiveness. In fact, after the Dred Scott decision, which effectively said Congress could not outlaw slavery, Buchanan assumed that settled the controversy. Quite the contrary, the strong Republican anti-slavery sentiment and massive Southern pro-slavery commitment were ready to boil over into secession and, in short time, civil war. Part of his inaction on slavery was from ignorance in that he believed secession was unconstitutional, so he just shrugged it off.

Of course, being in the shadow of Abe Lincoln wouldn't help anyone's reputation no matter what they did or didn't do. But to say he was happy to hand over the reigns is a gross understatement. Upon leaving office, he communicated to Lincoln, "My dear sir, if you are as happy on entering the White House as I on leaving it, you are a very happy man indeed."

His lackluster performance and attitude would normally not qualify such a man to be immortalized on a U.S. coin. But he was the 15th person to hold the office, and he now appears on the most recent issuance in the U.S. Presidential Golden Dollar series. Recently released, the coins should soon be appearing in cash registers and banks.

The new coin features a portrait of a rather innocent-looking Buchanan along with his name, "In God We Trust" and "15th President 1857-1861." The coins can be purchased in rolls or bags from the U.S. Mint online at www.usmint.gov or by calling 800-872-6468. Also, the Mint recently released a first-day-of-issue envelope with special cancellation and the attached dollar coin. It can be purchased on the Web or by phone.

Upon leaving and being reminded of his dreary reputation and performance, Buchanan remained convinced that history and posterity would vindicate his term. Well, it took 140 years. And while far from vindicated, Buchanan might be pleased to finally have made it onto a coin. You be the judge.

Editor's Note: A visual of the new James Buchanan golden dollar coin has been sent with this column.

To find out more about Peter Rexford and to read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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