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Lynn Hummel column: Long speeches on cold days

Why do so many folks like John McCain? There are plenty of good reasons. You can start with his extraordinary and heroic war record. He was held prisoner in Vietnam for five years, gutting out torture -- physical and mental abuse. His campaign demonstrates face-to-face charm and people love his independence. His position on the issues has not pleased all Republicans: he has been a reformer on campaign finance on ethics, he wants to regulate greenhouse gases, he opposes drilling for oil in the Arctic, he voted to fund stem-cell research and he remains committed to providing a path to citizenship for most illegal aliens in the United States. He even opposes torture. But they do like his support for our military posture in Iraq. McCain is a maverick and voters even enjoy his superstitions -- he carries a good luck penny in his pocket at all times and wears a rubber band around his left wrist for the same reason. On top of that, folks enjoy his repetition for having a bit of a temper. But many in the right wing of his party would like to change him to make him more like Ronald Reagan.

All this reminds me of the election of 1841. William Henry Harrison was a Whig. The Whigs were the forerunners of the Republican Party. Harrison was a war hero. As commander of the Indiana Territorial forces in 1911, his outnumbered troops defeated the Shawnee Indians in the Battle of Tippecanoe. He was 68 years old and was known to be blunt spoken and independent. He had marginal ability as a speaker. Party leaders wanted him to say as little as possible about his ideals and principles. Other Whig party members like Henry Clay and Daniel Webster did much of Harrison's campaigning for him.

Harrison was elected -- the first Whig president. At 68 he was the oldest man ever elected to the office (until Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 at the age of 69). Once elected, the Whigs intended to take over and reduce Harrison to a figurehead. Daniel Webster, the greatest orator in American history, assumed he would write Harrison's inaugural address. Harrison informed Webster he had already written his own, thank you. Harrison said he intended to appoint Edward Curtis collector of the Port of New York. Henry Clay insisted that Curtis was unworthy of the appointment. "Mr. Clay" retorted Harrison, "you forget that I am president." Curtis was appointed.

Another time, Harrison indicated to his cabinet that he had told Colonel John Chambers of Kentucky, his former aide-de-camp, he would appoint him territorial governor of Iowa. Secretary of State Daniel Webster favored one of his own supporters, General James Wilson of New Hampshire. Wilson took the matter up with the other members of the Harrison cabinet who all agreed that Wilson would be a better choice than Chambers. They presented their preference to Harrison. Harrison said "Ah! that is the decision then is it?" Harrison rose to his feet and exclaimed in a loud voice "William Henry Harrison, President of the United States, tell you gentlemen, that by God, John Chambers shall be Governor of Iowa." And that ended that matter.

President Harrison delivered his self-written inaugural address bareheaded on a cold rainy day in March, a speech that rambled on for an hour and a half, and he caught a cold. Then, later that month, to relieve the pressures of the office, he went out shopping for vegetables and suffered a severe chill. The cold he caught during his over-long speech developed into pneumonia and Harrison died just 12½ hours short of 31 days in office. He was the first president to die in office.

The moral of the story is this: If you're elected president because you were a war hero, a maverick and an independent thinker, but you're also the oldest man ever elected, stay true to yourself, resist those who would push you aside or make you over, but if a great speech writer offers to write a short speech for you, accept the offer then deliver it under a canopy or umbrella if it's raining and cold on inauguration day.