The Last Founding Father vs. Donald Trump

It seems to be another hectic week for our President – Donald Trump. A government shut down never looks good for the leader of the government. I heard this news from my Dad who was quite upset – not at Donald Trump – but at Democrats. See, my Dad is not an anomaly. Whenever our views are attacked, our elephant instincts kick in. We “react” first and “rationalize” later – usually, that rationalization is far from sensical. My Dad and I like to bump chests politically, but in the end, we always just sit on the couch and watch sports. However, our discussions about politics are not zero-sum gains. Trying to understand another person’s views takes time, patience, and empathy. My Dad and I have learned a lot from each other and our conversations keep getting more civil – our tandem elephants are becoming more docile.

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As an extension of last week’s post about James Madison, I am going to further question what it means to be “presidential.” Time will tell how Trump does over the next years but how can we truly judge his performance? We need to know how other Presidents have done in the past so we can have rationale conversations into the future. To achieve this goal, I am reading every US President’s biography and writing about them for your enjoyment – here is a list of all the previous posts: George Washington, John Adams (coming next week), Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Herbert Hoover. This week I read about America’s fifth president – James Monroe – The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness by Harlow Giles Unger.

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James Monroe was the last founding father to be President and was actually born shortly before the American Revolution in 1758. Monroe was raised in Virginia, but unlike Washington, Jefferson, or Madison he did not own substantial plantation property. He fought in the Revolutionary War and was actually with Washington in the Battle of Trenton when the famous crossing of the Deleware River occurred; he was wounded in the battle but eventually recovered. The military at the time had a glut of officers, so Monroe was never able to receive a position of command. Upon National Independence, he took up law to begin supporting himself and his wife, Elizabeth Monroe.

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Throughout this time, Monroe was mentored by a fellow Virginian – Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson pushed Monroe to join him in politics and Monroe initially split his time between law and the Virginian House of Delegates. He would go on to serve in the Congress of the Confederation and help ratify Virginia’s Constitution. His political career took off when he became Ambassador to France during the French Revolution, Ambassador to Britain and Minister to Spain – negotiating the Louisiana Purchase, land treaties, and peace negotiations while overseas. He would go on to be the Governor of Virgina for four terms, US Secretary of State, and US Secretary of War. While Secretary of War, he virtually ran the government because Madison was inept during that period of conflict. He would go on to be the most popular President since George Washington.

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Monroe committed over 40 years of his life to public service and served in more public posts than any American in history. While President, he pushed for Western expansion and acquired more land from the Spanish in modern-day Florida. He protected American interests at a time in history when European powers could quickly take advantage of the young country. The Monroe Doctrine was a masterpiece of diplomacy for the Western Hemisphere and allowed independence for myriad nations in Central and South America. Monroe was described by friends and foes alike as having plain and gentle manners. He was a bold and robust leader in times of war and peace and fought for the Bill of Rights and against secrecy rules in Congress – opening the halls of Government for the first time in history.

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Monroe established the first state-supported public schools and pushed the development of public roads and canals to further commerce. Monroe was secretly an excellent President who accomplished more than I had ever thought. He transformed a fragile nation into a glorious empire – by making the United States impregnable to attack and rich in natural resources. He allowed Americans to expand westward and gain a democratic vote through the ownership of land; his Presidency saw the largest redistribution of wealth in the annals of history. Monroe was so popular that there were no political parties during his presidency; he was able to bring people together and put his country first. James Monroe indeed achieved “presidential” status during his Presidency – unfortunately, Trump is nowhere close to his level at this point…but I’m hoping he will pull through.

Guaranteed Happiness in 3 Steps

“The thankful receiver bears a plentiful harvest.”

-English poet William Blake

Are you a bubbly unicorn or a grumpy cat? I find it interesting how some people are just naturally “happier” than others. There is a reason for this phenomenon. We are all born with an emotional set point that affects our everyday mood and outlook on the world. My set point is a slightly uncomfortable 62 degrees while Ashley, my effervescent coworker, has a toasty set-point of 78 degrees. How do I raise my good-feelings thermostat? Why are we obsessed with happiness? Is there any hope for us folks who seem to always be sitting on a cactus? In search of these answers, I recently read Spontaneous Happiness by Dr. Andrew Weil. Dr. Weil is a hippy who got his MD from Harvard and spent most of his career researching techniques to cultivate happiness.

Before we address how to become happier, we need to first look at some unrealistic expectations. America is obsessed with being happy. Every time we greet each other there is an automatic response of “good” “great” or even “absolutely fantastic.” This drives me crazy because I am usually feeling mediocre or just average. Whenever I respond with a “mediocre” the person who just asked me contorts their face in a matter that says, “do you need the suicide hotline number?” America is obsessed with happiness because of many cultural reasons: constant products being sold to increase happiness, the belief that happy people are more productive, America’s preeminence as being the best in every thing – including positive emotions. Happiness is an unrealistic emotion to have at all times. Think of our emotions as a seesaw, they pivot up and down on a fixed set point. This set point is not happiness but best described with the words: contentment, serenity, comfort, balance, and resilience. The Swedish term for this is known as Lagom and means “just right” or “exactly enough.” So our goal is to increase our frequency of Lagom which provides two things: greater emotional balance and the ability to reach spontaneous happiness more often.

So what is spontaneous happiness? Let me give an example. Say I am reading a book under a comfortable blanket and I feel content and at peace. I am not necessarily “happy” but rather in an emotional equilibrium. As I am reading, the doorbell rings and to my surprise it is a free pizza gifted by a fan of my blog ;). This provides me with a rush of happiness and tilts my emotional seesaw upwards. That is spontaneous happiness. How can we cultivate that spontaneous happiness and increase the set point of our contentment?

  1. Go out in nature: We are designed to be outdoors. When we get more sunlight, fresh air, and exercise we feel better and have a greater ability to avoid negative thoughts.
  2. Spend time with people who bring you happiness: This one seems like a no brainer but we tend to isolate ourselves and spend a lot of time with our faces on our screens. Happiness is best fostered with people who regularly laugh, joke, and view the world in an optimistic light. Avoid interactions with conspiracy theorists or people who regularly write book reports on Herbert Hoover.
  3. Foster gratitude: Gratitude is the single greatest tool that can raise your Lagom set point and hurdle you into happiness. It takes practice but start focusing on three things that you are grateful for each night before going to bed. Gratitude and nature also go hand in hand. Walk outside in the cold and when you get home you will be ecstatic to have a warm cup of coffee and blanket to snuggle under.

We don’t need to be happy all the time. The view that we must feel like a unicorn running through a field of ice-cream cones has in part led us to seek antidepressants at a record number – the rate of depression has increased ten-fold since WWII. Depression is complex but it is many times influenced by our expectations that happiness is the norm and our lack of understanding of how to live a content existence. We need a seesaw of emotions so we can appreciate both the highs and lows. If your “thermostat” runs a little cooler than others don’t feel inferior – it is perfectly normal. If you would like to warm up a little bit just practice those techniques – wrapping yourself in a blanket of Lagom and spontaneous happiness.

Herbert Hoover-Give the Guy a Break

Mellon pulled the whistle,
Hoover rang the bell,
Wall Street gave the signal,
And the country went to hell.

I went to the library last week and picked up a bunch of exciting books; one of the most riveting in my selection was Herbert Hoover in the White House: the Ordeal of the Presidency by Charles Rappleye. I didn’t know much about Herbert Hoover besides the Hoover Dam being named after him and Christina knew even less – asking whether he was the Hoover vacuum guy. I think the average citizen would be on par with my wife and maybe the rare few would remember he was a crappy president during the start of the Great Depression. To my surprise, Hoover was a very complex man who tried his best – with the tools he had – to fight a perfect storm of economic collapse.

This election year has a few similarities with the election of Hoover in 1928. Hoover was a political outsider who had never been elected to an office (that’s where the similarity ends). After eight years of the roaring twenties, the country was ready to sober up and elect a non-conventional candidate who had avoided political scandals in the past and could keep the economy humming along. Hoover gained his popularity through his effective work as a humanitarian in Europe during WWI and his domestic relief programs after natural disasters. He was so popular in 1920 that both parties brought his name up as a nominee for president. When he did get nominated on the Republican ticket in 1928, he barely campaigned and won by a landslide over his democratic opponent.

All was going well for Hoover in the first few months of his presidency until the greatest stock market crash in history, Black Tuesday, sent the country into an economic-downward spiral. The interesting thing about the Great Depression is that during the first year after the crash, a large majority of people didn’t think the economy was in that bad of shape. Hoover downplayed the hardships of the people because he wanted to reverse any pessimistic attitudes about the economy – which could cause even more panic. Added to this, Hoover lacked empathy for the downtrodden because he was a poor orphan who lived in complete poverty as a child; with this background he compared his upward mobility with the potential of all men.

As the country came to grips with its economic situation, Hoover began to enlist the help of private institutions like the Red Cross to provide aid. Hoover, like most presidents before him, believed the government should not dole out money for things like hunger or poverty; those services were historically always covered by private institutions. This mentality framed his strategy for lifting up the American citizen by limiting direct welfare subsistence and instead using government funds to help lift up the major pillars of the economy – businesses and banks. The Great Depression saw a record number of bank closures which strapped credit, froze assets, and dramatically slowed business growth. To reverse these developments, Hoover created government loans to get the banks back on their feet (similar, but much smaller, to the bailouts in 2008). This made sense economically but it was a PR nightmare for Hoover because it looked like he cared only for the rich.

Added to this image was the fact that Hoover hated the press and in turn he isolated himself from the public. He appeared cold, stern, unsympathetic, and harsh to the average American during a time when a charismatic leader was needed to reassure the suffering public. His policies were extremely conservative and his vice grip on the gold standard helped to prolong the Great Depression. Hoover was in the crosshairs of an old and new government – one in the past that had limited influence, due to the size of the population and economy, now needed to step in and fill the holes that private institutions could no longer fill. Hoover did his best with the tools that he had. He had the work ethic but could only get so far with a wooden hammer when he really needed a jack hammer. Yes, his style of isolated-cold leadership was not helpful in the crises. But I don’t believe any man at that time in history could have done much better with the economy. I see Hoover as a president who came into office either 4 years too early or 4 years too late. Hoover was too conservative and too detached of a leader but he was never a president who didn’t try or didn’t care about the greater good of the people or the country as a whole.