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Our Gift to You, With Apologies

July 30, 2017

New York State has been the home state of seven presidents, more than any other state. In fairness, three of New York’s presidents were elected vice president on tickets topped by presidents with shorter life expectancies than presidential terms: Millard Fillmore became president upon Zachary Taylor’s death from a digestive illness caused by eating bad fruit at a fundraising event for the Washington Monument; Chester Arthur and Theodore Roosevelt succeeded to the presidency upon the assassinations of James Garfield and William McKinley.

In further fairness, two presidents who called New York home were born elsewhere: Arthur was born in Vermont and Grover Cleveland was born in New Jersey. By state of birth, Virginia tops the list, with eight presidents to Ohio’s seven; New York comes in third at five.

But we’re going by home state, pre-presidency, and New York leads that list, ahead of Ohio with six and Virginia with five. By comparison to Virginia’s presidents, who are bunched up at the nation’s beginning, New York’s are more evenly scattered through American history. The Republic managed through 48 years before its first New York president, Martin Van Buren. It was the longest stretch of New York-less presidencies the country endured until Franklin Roosevelt died in 1945 – after which we suffered a 72-year drought that ended with the unexpected election of Donald Trump.

New York presidents have a mixed record. Van Buren, Fillmore and Arthur usually appear toward the bottom of  “best president” lists, and it seems likely that Trump will join these basement-dwellers. Cleveland generally appears in the middle of these lists, just barely in the top half. Both Roosevelts reliably rank among the best presidents.

What Trump’s base celebrates as free-thinking defiance of convention, historians will likely regard as recklessness and inexperience. Trump’s striking confession that he was surprised to find that being president is hard work will loom large in historical narrations of his presidency.

We judge the past from the point of view of the present; future historians will assess Trump’s presidency from their point of view. We can’t fully know what the future will look like, but there are some things we do know about our future, and we know how Trump is dealing with them. So, for instance, Trump will be remembered as the president who capitulated to climate change, bequeathing its devastating consequences to the future that will judge him.

Within three or four decades, Americans of European descent will number less than half of the American population, and future history will judge Trump by the standards of the new majority. Therefore Trump will be remembered as the last stand of white supremacy, the man who shoveled sand against the multi-cultural tide.

Given the range of disasters he is courting – from climate change to North Korean nuclear attack – Trump has the potential to be remembered as the worst of all of our presidents – worse than Andrew Johnson, worse than James Buchanan, worse than Franklin Pierce, worse than Warren Harding.

So we New Yorkers apologize for Donald Trump. Still, you can’t entirely blame New York. We offered you another New Yorker, Hillary Clinton – not a native New Yorker, to be sure, but an adoptive New Yorker. But you chose Trump – not by a popular plurality, much less a majority, but by an Electoral College majority nonetheless. We New Yorkers opted for Clinton by more than 23 percent of our votes. Trump thus became only the second New York president to win without his home state. (Grover Cleveland took New York in his first election, in 1884, but lost New York both in his 1888 loss and in his 1892 comeback win.)

Of course, everyone knows that Trump would have won New York if it wasn’t for all those illegal immigrants we let into our voting booths.

 

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