Swellboy on… the greatest US president

Who was the greatest US president of them all?

Image: Brijesh Patel

In order to bewilder my American friends, I am having to look for a new president to champion. For many years I would always say that Nixon was by far my favourite; this could usually be guaranteed to irritate and perplex in equal measure. But time moves on and now the restorative tide of history has washed over the reputation of the 37th president, smoothing some of the hard edges, and thus I find that I have had to look to the 19th century, where most people alight on Abraham Lincoln.

Abe was of course arguably the greatest president that our former colony ever had; he took the nation to war with itself, abolished slavery, proved himself a fine orator and won a second term before posterity bestowed the ultimate sign of greatness on him, when his career was cut short by an assassin’s bullet (he was apparently wearing a Brooks Brothers coat at the time).

While I appreciate the towering achievement of Lincoln, he is of course too obvious a choice, so instead I have opted for James Polk. Polk was a remarkable man who, vowing to hold the office of president for a single term, embarked on a highly intensive landgrab, of a scale and audacity that would appal anyone today. He annexed Texas, went to war with Mexico, taking half of the land of the enchilada (most of what is now the south-west of America), boosting the size of the US by a third, and at one time he clashed with Her Majesty’s Foreign Secretary Lord Aberdeen when it looked as though he was prepared to go to war with Britain over what was known as the Oregon Territory, but later settled amicably enough to split the land both ways at the 49th parallel.

All in all, he treated North America as a huge game of supermarket sweep, the only difference being that it was called Manifest Destiny and instead of rushing round a supermarket shovelling groceries into his trolley he was busy adding hundreds of thousands of square miles of territory and putting more stars on the flag. But, blatant though this rush for Lebensraum was, Polk represented a moderate middle-of-the-road approach. There were those who wanted to annexe all of Mexico and the entirety of the disputed Oregon Territory up the 54-40 line bordering Alaska; their slogan was, “54-40 or fight”.

I find this a useful holding argument when any American upbraids me, contrasting the simple homely democracy of America with imperial Britain’s less than spotless record as conquerors of other people’s parts of the planet. But there is also a stylistic reason for my selection of Polk. He would appear to be unique among occupants of the oval office in espousing the mullet hairstyle. Although it was popular in classical antiquity, it is commonly thought that the mullet fell into disuse until revived by David Bowie in the early 1970s and elevated to immortality by Limahl of Kajagoogoo. But look at photos of Polk and there it is.


In fact I wondered if Limahl had been influenced at all by the Polk administration and I cannot help but think that the lyrics of Melting the Ice Away are the musical articulation and explanation of why Polk defied the “54-40 or fight” brigade and decided instead to split the Oregon Territory along the 49th parallel:

The frozen north sits high above the west

Nobody lives there, only the polar bear

The bleak terrain is no place to rest.

A slightly cryptic political message, but one, I am sure that you will agree, that is both more subtle and in slightly better taste than the presidentially-inspired nomenclature of the band whose 1980 hit was called Holiday In Cambodia: the Dead Kennedys.


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