Sunday, April 23, 2006

April 23

Carrying on along the path worn down by her father, my daughter has resolved not to distinguish herself from the pack. Joining the 95 percent of babies who miss their due dates, she opted to hang on to her familiar life -- a life which, for all its evident drawbacks, is spent warm, naked, and nourished through a tube -- for at least one more oblivious day. And who among us, presented with a fair ledger of the pros and cons of birth, would choose differently?

William Shakespeare, who seemed to understand something about making due with rotten alternatives, was born on this date in 1564. By most accounts this was a good decision. James Buchanan, however -- arguably one of the two or three worst presidents in American history, a man whose incompetent bungling assured the nation of a civil war upon his departure from office -- might have done well to spend a few more days in utero, pondering the enormity of what he was about to do. In his inaugural address in 1857, Buchanan more or less conceded in advance the failure of his presidency by promising not to run for a second term. The Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas, who aimed to take Buchanan's place as the Democratic inhabitant of the White House in 1860, found those aspirations thwarted as Buchanan presided over the destruction of their party. Douglas and Buchanan, the bitterest of political enemies, happened to celebrate the same birthday -- a fact that could only have caused them even greater mutual loathing.

On the day before Buchanan's death on 1 June 1868, he remarked that "history will vindicate my memory," a sentiment doubtless shared by all failed inhabitants of the White House, past and present.