John Seigenthaler
John Seigenthaler
James K. Polk
ISBN: 0805069429
James K. Polk
—from the publisher's website

The story of a pivotal president who watched over our westward expansion and solidified the dream of Jacksonian democracy

James K. Polk was a shrewd and decisive commander in chief, the youngest president elected to guide the still-young nation, who served as Speaker of the House and governor of Tennessee before taking office in 1845. Considered a natural successor to Andrew Jackson, “Young Hickory” miraculously revived his floundering political career by riding a wave of public sentiment in favor of annexing the Republic of Texas to the Union.

Shortly after his inauguration, he settled the disputed Oregon boundary and by 1846 had declared war on Mexico in hopes of annexing California. The considerably smaller American army never lost a battle. At home, however, Polk suffered a political firestorm of antiwar attacks from many fronts. Despite his tremendous accomplishments, he left office an extremely unpopular man, on whom stress had taken such a physical toll that he died within three months of departing Washington. Fellow Tennessean John Seigenthaler traces the life of this president who, as Truman noted, “said what he intended to do and did it.”

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TRANSCRIPT
James K. Polk
Program Air Date: January 18, 2004

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: John Seigenthaler, author of "James K. Polk," how`d they talk you into doing a biography on this president?
JOHN SEIGENTHALER, AUTHOR, "JAMES K. POLK": Arthur Schlesinger called me on the phone and said, You`re a Tennessean. James K. Polk was a Tennessean. Why don`t you write a biography for this series that Times Books is doing on the presidents? And I said, Arthur, I don`t have time. I`m retired. He said, I want you to do one thing. He said, Alan Nevins (ph) has done a paperback that excerpts his diary, his presidential diary. Just take the weekend and read it and tell me no. And I read the excerpts from the diary, and I couldn`t say no. I was fascinated by the man.
LAMB:Did you know much about him before you started on this?
SEIGENTHALER: You know, I knew he was a Tennessean. I`m a Tennessean. I knew that his grave is behind the capitol. There is no marker in Nashville, except a plaque on the side of a dirty motel wall. His old home place in Columbia is preserved, and I`d been there many times and have been there since. But I knew virtually nothing about him and almost nothing that was good. I mean, his reputation as a result of what was done to him during his presidency over the Mexican-American War left him a bad reputation, a reputation as a warmonger. And the attacks on him in Congress in the latter days of his administration reminded me a great deal of the attacks on Lyndon Johnson at the end of his administration over the Vietnam war. Similarities there.
LAMB:James K. Polk was president when? And tell us the four things that he promised to do. We`ll go back and go over the details. But what were the four things he promised to do?
SEIGENTHALER: Well, he was president from 1844, a one-year president by his choice. He said I will not run for reelection. And he would not accept any suggestion -- and many Democrats pushed him to run again. On the -- about the week of his inaugural, he told his friend, George Bancroft (ph), who was to be his secretary of Navy -- a great historian, by the way. He said, Bancroft, there are four things I want to do that will be my great measures. One, we will lower the tariff. Controversial issue. Two, we will create an independent treasury. We`ll take all the government`s money out of these corrupt private banks, which pay us no interest, and we`ll put those funds in private vaults to pay the bills, meet the payroll. Three, we will take California and we`ll take Oregon. That will make us from sea to shining sea. He said he would do it, and he did it.
LAMB:What right did we have to take either Texas or California or Oregon?
SEIGENTHALER: Well, the Oregon territory, which was Washington and Oregon, belonged to us jointly with Great Britain, and he considered it part of the natural right of the American nation to take that contiguous territory. And he threatened to go to war with the British over it. He bluffed them and said he was prepared to go to war over it. And at the last moment, the British capitulated.

California he had hoped that he would be able to purchase. Both Henry Clay, when he was secretary of state under John Quincy Adams, and John Tyler, who was president immediately before Polk was president -- both had tried to buy California. The Mexicans were insulted by both offers and rejected blandishments by Polk to give them the territory for money. And so he went to war with them and took it.
LAMB:One of the things I noticed is that there`s some similarities to today.
SEIGENTHALER: Very. Very sharp similarities.
LAMB:The House of Representatives, 108-107 with 24 independents. When was that? Was that when he was speaker or when he was president?
SEIGENTHALER: That was when he was speaker. He presided over the closest House that time until history. And he had a terrible time as speaker. He`s the only speaker who became president of the United States. Nobody else has been able to make that springboard. As we speak, Richard Gephardt is trying but -- to be another leader of the House who went all the way. But Polk did it.

He was -- he presided over a hostile House. Members of that House constantly were trying to bait him into duels. A man named Henry Wise (ph) from Virginia, called a dead shot, and a man named Bailey Payton (ph) from Tennessee, both despised him and both constantly harassed him from the floor and insulted him from the floor. At one point, they met him at the door, and Wise said, You were very insulting to me today on the floor, and I mean it, and put -- and pocket it, he said.

He was against dueling, would not accept the duels, would not challenge in return for an insult. And Jackson, the great dueler, who wouldn`t take any insult -- he was Jackson`s protege, and everyone said that Jackson would be critical of him because he took those insults, but on the contrary, Jackson said he admired his pacific attitude and courage in accepting leadership and not responding, as many did in that day.
LAMB:If he were here today, where would he fit?
SEIGENTHALER: Well, he was -- we would call him today a "yellow dog" Democrat. He was, I think, perhaps the most partisan president in history. Harry Truman, another very partisan president, once listed his eight great presidents, and Polk was one of those. He lists them in alphabetical order -- Jackson, Jefferson, Lincoln, Polk -- but he does not list them as he rates them. But clearly, Polk`s one of the top eight.

I think that Truman admired him. Truman said he knew exactly what he wanted to do, he said what he was going to do and he did it. And that made great hay with Truman. He also was very critical of his generals, as Truman was of Douglas MacArthur. And so there`s that similarity, too.

But Polk would have -- well, Polk would have been right at home in today`s acidic Washington environment, political environment. I think that he would have been up to the needles and the digs and the knives that are wielded, and I think he would have waded right into that environment and been right at home.

He was a man for his time. There`s very little you can say that he left. His administration was sandwiched between the only two Whig administrations in our history, and both of those administrations -- the Harrison administration and Tyler administration -- were, of course, interrupted by the deaths of those two presidents. And so those two Whig administrations did very little. And his administration is sandwiched between those, and he did a great deal.

So it`s surprising to me that only historians recognize him. They -- they -- every 10 years there`s a poll, and he winds up somewhere between 7th or 8th or 12th. He`s never finished in those polls lower than 12th of the presidents …great presidents.
LAMB:I kept writing down words you use to describe him, and I`ll read a couple of them here. "Perfectionist," "micromanager," "workaholic," "a brooder," "humorless," "angry," "arrogant," "unforgiving," called himself "the hardest-working man in the country," "strait-laced," "a little prig from Tennessee."
SEIGENTHALER: A little prig from Tennessee. (CROSSTALK)
SEIGENTHALER: All of those -- you know, the truth of the matter is, Brian, when I got through with this, I was not in love with him. I admired him for what he did. He was a tough-minded president, and you know, he gave us a continental nation, and a dozen states exist because he took us westward. But he`s not the sort of fellow I think you and I would have enjoyed having lunch with, and certainly not dinner with. You wouldn`t want to go around the world on a tandem bike with him or even around the block, probably. But nonetheless, I did come away with great respect for him, and while not affection, admiration, because he did great things.

He -- his effort to finish the bank war that Jackson had started -- Jackson, his role model, his hero, his mentor, the man who really made him president. He really tried to model himself after Jackson, and yet there were attributes of Jackson`s character that turned him off. And so I didn`t come away really in love with him. I would have to say that I don`t like him very much. I don`t think he was a very likable man.

And among other reasons, he just was duplicitous. He was -- he -- two or three times a week, they`d open up the White House and -- to everybody. His worst enemies would come down from the Hill. He and Sarah, this lovely, congenial woman, would welcome them, his worst enemies. He`d make them feel like they were king for a day. And that night, he`d go upstairs, and congeniality and collegiality went out the window, and he would sit down with his diary and just rip them to shreds.

He used that diary almost as a purgative. And obviously, it hooked me. It was the bait that led me to do this biography. It`s fascinating reading.
LAMB:How much of it did you read?
SEIGENTHALER: I read all of it. It`s four volumes. I read -- after I read Nevins`s brief paperback, I then got the four volumes and pored over them, and I read them all.
LAMB:How much copy? I mean, how big were the four volumes?
SEIGENTHALER: Well, each one`s about 400 pages, but there is -- you know, there`s some indexes in there and -- but each one`s between 300 and 400 pages. It`s a long read. But it`s conversational. And he was a good writer. He knew how to write a simple declarative sentence, and that`s what the diary is. And his -- that line you quoted, "I think I`m the -- I know I`m the hardest-working man in America" -- I mean, that sort of reflects the egomaniacal instinct that occasionally emerged. He said in another occasion in the diary, You know, I haven`t had the cabinet here for six weeks. I`ve learned I can run every department of the government without their help. And then he says, "I`m the hardest-working man in America."

The truth is, he probably was. He was a workaholic, around the clock, early morning, late at night, and very, very sickly during much of his administration.
LAMB:You graphically describe this -- when he was 17 years old, the operation he had.
SEIGENTHALER: Oh, my God.
LAMB:Now, where did you get that?
SEIGENTHALER: The story of that operation has been somewhat in question. Some of the earlier historians said that it was for gallstones. I ran across an important piece in a 1980s Tennessee historical quarterly by a medical doctor named Robert Icard (ph). Bob Icard wrote this piece, and he points out that we didn`t have a gallstone operation for 54 years in this country after Polk had his. And he concluded it was for urinary stones.

And there were documents that were left by -- from McDowell (ph), the Danville (ph), Kentucky, specialist, one of the great surgeons in the history of this country. He left papers, and those papers Icard relied on to demonstrate that this was really a urinary stone operation. And it was -- it was a brutal operation. Here`s a 17-year-old young man, constantly, almost chronically ill with lower-abdomen pains. Finally, his father, who`s wealthy, decides the best man in the country is Dr. Philip Sing Physic (ph) in Philadelphia. And they put him in a covered wagon with a bed. And this ambulance, horse-drawn, heads north to Pennsylvania. Gets up around the Green River in Kentucky, and he has violent attacks, and they rush him to Danville, where this other surgeon, Ephraim (ph) McDowell, operates.

Now, the operation I said was brutal. No antiseptic. And they only could give him brandy. They didn`t have any antisepsis to stop the poison. They held him down. His uncle was with him. They put him up on his shoulders. They used what was called a gorget (ph). And if you look at the gorget, I mean, it looks like it sounds, a vicious knife. And they went between the scrotum and the anus, right through the prostate. How he ever survived is remarkable. But he did.
LAMB:How much of that went on back then? Did you check it out?
SEIGENTHALER: Well, yes. The historical records, the medical records are somewhat sketchy, but with regard to James K. Polk, they`re there. And I think that -- after he became speaker of the House, he corresponded with the doctor and -- there were just a couple of physicians who were capable of doing this. I mean, Sam Polk, his father, really made a search before he decided he wanted Physic to do this. And McDowell had been on his agenda. It was just fortunate, I think, that McDowell was as close to him as he was when they got him there.

The -- there`s no doubt in my mind, and this is why I think the operation was important -- no doubt in my mind that he and Sarah were childless as a result of this operation. I take it -- I take my conclusions on that one step beyond where Bob Icard, left it, although I know he agrees with that. And I created a panel of about nine doctors, whose names are acknowledged in the book, some specialists, some general practitioners. All thought it was very risky, but all concluded after they looked at it that not much doubt that he was either left sterile or impotent or both. And so it was a childless marriage.
LAMB:You talk about him being sick, and then you, of course, point out that he was how long out of office after only one term that he died?
SEIGENTHALER: He died 90 days after he left the presidency. He went home to die. He left the presidency worn and sickly. Probably contracted cholera, either on the way home or after he arrived. It was a long trip. He went all the way south to New Orleans and came up the river, up the Mississippi, and then down the Cumberland -- across the Ohio and down the Cumberland River, arrived home and was welcomed by Tennesseans. His old friend from Congress, Aaron Brown (ph), was now governor. And they welcomed him home, and he had 90 days of bad health and died.
LAMB:Fifty-three years old.
SEIGENTHALER: Fifty-three years old. He at the time was the youngest president in history and died younger than any president in history.
LAMB:This series -- you mentioned Arthur Schlesinger. You mentioned Times Books. Are they doing all 42 men?
SEIGENTHALER: As of now, Brian, there`s 22, I think, listed. I hope they do them all. I know that I had some conversations with my editor, Robin Dennis (ph), who`s a terrific editor, and during the course of the writing and the research, I got into the issues involving his secretary of state, James Buchanan, who became president, of course. And in discussing it with the editor, she said, Well, I probably let -- had better let the author of the Buchanan book know where you`re going with this because we`ll see where he comes out. And I never followed up on that, so I just don`t -- I just don`t know where that`s going to go or how that`s going to come out.
LAMB:When did you start it?
SEIGENTHALER: Two years. It took two years to do.
LAMB:And to what lengths did you go to make sure you had the right stuff? Where did you go?
SEIGENTHALER: I went everywhere I could possibly find sources. The best stuff is in the diary and in his papers. At the University of Tennessee, there is a historian, Dr. Wayne Cutler (ph), who is the curator of the Polk papers. And he has -- by the time he`s through, it`ll be 14, 15 volumes. But he`s spent decades just developing these really huge volumes of Polk`s correspondence. And between the diary and the correspondence, you get a real sense of who the man is. There were three excellent biographies, one by John Jenkins (ph), which was done maybe 40, 50 years after his death, another by Eugene McCormack (ph), which came in the `30s. And then Charles Sellers (ph) had a two-volume biography but stopped before he got to the presidency. I`m so sorry he didn`t do the third volume because...
LAMB:Sellers.
SEIGENTHALER: ... Sellers -- because I relied on it very heavily. At times, came to different conclusions than all three. But I found -- I found that in the research, it was a chance to know a lot about people I never had looked at very closely, people who made our country what it is. And it was necessary to read biographies of Tyler and Van Buren and Buchanan and others in order to fill in the foundation on which the biography had to stand. I mean, you couldn`t very well write a biography about Polk, who had almost routine conflicts with his secretary of state, without finding out something about that secretary of state. The same is true...
LAMB:James Buchanan.
SEIGENTHALER: James Buchanan.
LAMB:Were you -- well, what was your reaction when you saw how much they fought? Could you do that today?
SEIGENTHALER: I cannot for the life of me imagine why Polk put up with it, except that, as he said to his friend, Cave Johnson (ph), shortly after he won the election, I intend myself to be president. You know, I talked to Wayne Cutler about this conflict, Cutler, who`s been looking at James K. Polk for all these years now. And I said, I cannot for the life of me figure out why Polk kept Buchanan as secretary of state. They were constantly at war. And Cutler said, You know, he was the secretary of state himself, and he could control Buchanan. Well, he could control him, but he couldn`t keep him from popping off or telling him he was wrong or even lecturing him.
LAMB:What did they fight about?
SEIGENTHALER: They fought about foreign policy. They fought -- I mean, a good example. He`s getting ready to -- he`s getting -- the British and the French are constantly meddling in U.S. affairs. They`ve got interests in the middle of this country. And then there is Mexico having this ongoing conflict with Texas, with the Republic of Texas. And so there was a good deal there to formulate policy on.

When it comes time for war with Mexico, Buchanan says in a cabinet meeting, You know, I really need to let the French and British know that in this war with Mexico, we don`t have aims on California. Well, of course, Polk had aims on California. It was contrary to everything his administration was going to be about. And he says, Do not do that. I don`t want to -- I do not want you to tell them that. He said, Well, if you don`t do that, you may have war with both of them. He said, I`ll go to war with them and fight to the last man before I`ll say that we have no designs on California. And so he was silent, Buchanan was silent on the subject.

But Buchanan was -- Buchanan was not very consistent as a secretary of state. For example, when it came time to take Oregon territory away from the British, Buchanan -- the issue was where -- at what parallel would we get the territory, if we got it? And if we went to war, we would get the 54th parallel, which is "54-40 or fight. That was the cry in Congress. The Tyler administration left him with a proposal to the British to draw the line at the 49th parallel. And the British turned that flatly down, and it infuriated him. And he told Buchanan, You go back and tell them we want it all. I`m paraphrasing here, but that`s just what he said.
LAMB:Would the "all" be all the way up...
SEIGENTHALER: All the way up...
LAMB:... to the Canadian boarder?
SEIGENTHALER: All the way up. In other words...
LAMB:Washington and Oregon?
SEIGENTHALER: ... you go beyond Washington, up to the 54th. So Buchanan says, You know, this will mean war. And he said, I don`t care. You tell them the offer`s off the table. We want the 54th parallel. We want as much as we can get. And he says -- as always, Buchanan had a fall-back position. Buchanan says, Mr. President, you know, we`re about to have trouble with Mexico. Why don`t we put this off. No. Tell them now. And he says, But we -- you know, we`ve got -- we`re very close to war with two countries here. He said, We`ll do our duty by Mexico and Great Britain. We must look John Bull in the eye, he says.

And reluctantly, Buchanan goes over and delivers the message and then comes back the next cabinet meeting and said, I did it. It was the wrong thing, but I did it. I mean, just right in the president`s face. You know, You did the wrong thing, making me go over there and say that. And believe it or not, Polk comes right back and said, We did the right thing. It was right, and leaves it at that. It was a constant fight. It was a constant war.

And then -- I question why, in my own mind, even after talking to Cutler, even after knowing that he was controlling him, why he didn`t dump him. And then you run across this effort by Buchanan to confront the president and say, Do you really want me? And there`s a vacancy on the United States Supreme Court, and Buchanan goes over and says, You know, I`d like that. Polk has a chance to get rid of him then, and he doesn`t take it. I mean, he almost -- he almost cajoles him back into the office.

And then -- and then Buchanan says, You know, there`s a wonderful lawyer up there, John Mr. Reed (ph). He was for you. He was for me. He`d be a wonderful Justice of the Supreme Court. And he leaves there thinking that he`s made the case for his friend Reed. And Polk, without saying anything to him -- I`m sure -- I`m sure Buchanan went out and told all his friends in Congress, told Reed, probably, you know, he`s going to be the next Supreme Court Justice. Polk gives it to a state judge named George Woodward (ph).

And Buchanan comes over there almost weeping, said, You cut me to the heart. Why didn`t you tell me you were going to do this? It`s none of your business. I don`t have to ask my cabinet for permission. And then he says, You know, I found out that this man was a Federalist for 12 years, and I have never -- now, this is how partisan he was. I have never found a Federalist older than 30 who ever changes his mind on his politics. Now, that`s pretty partisan, you know.

And he used Federalist and Whig interchangeably. I mean, if you were a Whig, you were a Federalist. And Buchanan went ahead, licking his wounds and weeping, but was there at the very end.

At the very end -- there`s another terrible dispute right at the end. I mean, there`s a new president elected Zachary Taylor, and Buchanan comes to cabinet meeting, said, Shouldn`t this cabinet go over and say hello to the new president, welcome him and -- Polk says, I would consider it a betrayal if you did that. He needs to come call on me. Then you may do what you seek to do.
LAMB:You point out in your book that there were 2.5 million votes in the 1844 election, all white men.
SEIGENTHALER: All white men.
LAMB:No women?
SEIGENTHALER: No women.
LAMB:No blacks.
SEIGENTHALER: No blacks.
LAMB:And you point out that the difference in the vote was between Henry Clay and James Buchanan, 1.4 percent.
SEIGENTHALER: 1.4 percent.
LAMB:Thirty-eight thousand...
SEIGENTHALER: Thirty-eight thousand votes. And now, the electoral college -- 36 votes in New York really gave it to Polk. Had New York gone for Clay, Clay would have been the president. Interestingly, when you say there are echoes from this time to our time, James K. Polk failed to carry his home state of Tennessee, which reminds us that in 2000, if Al Gore had carried his own state of Tennessee, he would have been the president. Everything that goes around comes around, I guess, Brian.
LAMB:A quick question on the diaries. Where do they keep them now, the actual diaries?
SEIGENTHALER: The actual diaries are in the Library of Congress. The copies that Cutler (ph) has and all of those documents that are in Cutler`s (ph) domain are copies, both the correspondence and the diaries.
LAMB:Can you read the diaries online?
SEIGENTHALER: You can read the diaries online, and that made my work much, much easier. You can read the diaries online and you can -- I say you can read them online. You can -- you can get a CD, and that`s what I did. And got it from the University of Tennessee. And to be able to do that, to sit at home and just sit in front of the computer and make notes, split the screen and make notes beside it as you go through, excerpt what you want, makes writing -- made writing for me a new experience.
LAMB:How much of a Tennesseean are you?
SEIGENTHALER: Born and bred.
LAMB:Where?
SEIGENTHALER: All my life has been -- born in Nashville, Tennessee, and my whole life had been spent there. But you know, it says something about our education that I have not found a Tennesseean who knows I have written this book who knows very much about James K. Polk. I mean, if you ask what president, nobody knows he`s the 11th president, nobody knows he served one term, nobody knows he expanded the country from just west of the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. We know he fought a war, and that`s about -- and that`s pretty much it.

I was really -- I was really excited as I went through it, because I learned so much about my own state, about the leaders in the early days who established that state. And I had read all of Robert Rooney`s (ph) books on Jackson and before that Parton on Jackson, which is the early classic work, but putting -- putting Jackson in context, while writing about Polk, really gave me new insights to Andrew Jackson, about whom I knew a great deal.

And just for example, Jackson`s greatest problem during his presidency, I think, had to do with his inability to get along with the vice president, John C. Calhoun, and the Calhounites that were part of his cabinet. And the marriage of John Eaton, member of the cabinet, his good friend, to Margaret O`Neal (ph) was a major scandal, and ultimately Jackson wipes out the whole cabinet. And Polk is over there in Congress looking at that.
LAMB:Over this marriage? Over this….?
SEIGENTHALER: Over this marriage. I mean, Flora Ada (ph) Calhoun will not have anything to do with Margaret O`Neal (ph), the wife of the vice president, and other cabinet officers follow her along. Van Buren, not married, is very nice to them. And...
LAMB:What was he then?
SEIGENTHALER: He was vice president -- no, he was secretary of state. And Jackson wrapped his arm around Van Buren and named him vice president -- really ordained him for the vice presidency in the second term, because he was nice to Eaton and Mrs. Eaton. So the whole cabinet is wiped out, Eaton resigns and others are forced to resign. Polk comes into office, and I think one of the reasons he didn`t dump Buchanan was because he didn`t want that same sort of image that had haunted Jackson. He didn`t want anybody to leave the cabinet over a controversy. He led George Bancroft, his secretary of the Navy, incidentally a great historian, become minister to Great Britain, but he kept that cabinet as much intact as he could, even though he was constantly at war with Buchanan in the cabinet meetings.
LAMB:You have all these names in your book, back in those years, Martin Van Buren goes on, later, after he`s president, to run again.
SEIGENTHALER: He …. Well, you know, his -- Polk`s election was more than remarkable, it`s astounding. It`s Richard Nixon. James K. Polk served as speaker of the House, and while he`s in speaker of the House, Jackson`s support at home in Tennessee begins to wane.
LAMB:The years that he was speaker?
SEIGENTHALER: I mean, we`re talking -- he became speaker in -- in 1833 and served three terms. He ran in 1833 and lost to his fellow Tennesseean John Bell, he beat Bell the following year and then was reelected
LAMB:As speaker.
SEIGENTHALER: Speaker. So he was reelected for two terms. Now -- now, he`s watching from the Hill, while he`s in Congress, and this debacle occurs over this scandal in the Jackson cabinet. And I think he looks at that and says, the country was almost paralyzed, the government was not functional during that period, and President Jackson was old and couldn`t function. He really loved Andrew Jackson, admired Andrew Jackson, but he didn`t make the same mistakes that Jackson had made. For example, when he becomes president, Jackson has two requests of him. Keep Francis Blair (ph) as the editor of our party newspaper.
LAMB:Called? What was it called? The paper?
SEIGENTHALER: The paper was "The Union." Keep Francis Blair (ph) in. And he fires him. Jackson says, keep my old friend who was actually a resident at the White House while Jackson was there -- keep him in the Treasury Department. He was almost a sinecure that Jackson had -- had given to his old friend from the White House, whose name at this moment has fled but it will be back. But he says to Polk, keep him. The man had never been kind to Polk. He had been rude to Polk. And Polk dumped him. I mean, Jackson had kept him there during the Van Buren administration, even in the Whig administration of Tyler. And...
LAMB:Let me just highlight a point you made about "The Union."
SEIGENTHALER: Right.
LAMB:What business was it of the president, of either Andrew Jackson or of James Polk to name the editor of "The Union?"
SEIGENTHALER: Well, in those days a newspaper was an arm of the party, an arm of the wing of the party -- I mean, "The Madison" was a newspaper that was created not for a party but for a cause. Really, designed to -- to promote an economic policy. And Francis Blair (ph) headed the party paper, and when Polk dumped him, he brought in Thomas Richey (ph) from Richmond, another editor, and put Richey (ph) in, and in charge of the party newspaper.
LAMB:When I was reading it, again, I was thinking about today where the Democrats are trying to start this network -- this -- you know...
SEIGENTHALER: Right.
LAMB:... to get somebody to challenge...
SEIGENTHALER: Exactly.
LAMB:... Rush Limbaugh.
SEIGENTHALER: To have somebody challenge the conservative talk show hosts.
LAMB:How do you -- you were -- how long were you at "The National Tennesseean"?
SEIGENTHALER: Well, I was there off and on for 43 years. I joined the Kennedy administration for a couple of years, but I was there for 43 years and I was editor and publisher for 30.
LAMB:And you were editorial director of the "USA Today." For how long?
SEIGENTHALER: I was director of "USA Today" for 10 years. Yeah.
LAMB:But you -- how long did you work for Bobby Kennedy?
SEIGENTHALER: Two years.
LAMB:But this whole, I mean, reading back in those days and just thinking about today, the number of people that have been in politics and are now in the media, is there any real change after all these years?
SEIGENTHALER: Yeah.
LAMB:What`s the change?
SEIGENTHALER: I mean, that ability of the party to control the news media simply doesn`t exist, and I -- you know, I think that there are some people who watch television today and see echoes of one party or another in some of the formats, and there is some niche marketing in television news, I think, particularly in the cable area. I think most people identify Fox in that -- in that way as sort of an echo of the presidency, but the way I look at it, and the independence is there, the independence and -- I mean, the idea that the administration could control Fox or CNBC or CNN, I think, is out of the question.
LAMB:You have got your own television star in your family.
SEIGENTHALER: I do have.
LAMB:What`s your relationship to John Seigenthaler of NBC?
SEIGENTHALER: I am the father of John -- of the John Seigenthaler. I say, I used to be the John Seigenthaler. And I am very proud of him.
LAMB:Who is the Jack Seigenthaler?
SEIGENTHALER: Jack Seigenthaler is his -- is his son, 6-year-old Jack Seigenthaler is a John Seigenthaler.
LAMB:You dedicate your book to him.
SEIGENTHALER: I dedicate my book to Jack Seigenthaler. In the midst of the writing, one day I was right on deadline, and he comes in and says, "grand, can I use the computer?" I said, "Jack, I`m really working for the next half hour on the Polk book," and I turned back to the computer. And on my desk behind me now were the 12 volumes of Polk`s correspondence and the four volumes of his diary and the four biographies I mentioned -- the four volumes of the biography by Jenkins (ph), McCormick (ph), and Salley (ph), and I hear him say, he reads, "Polk, this is Polk, that`s Polk. Grand, do we really need another book on Polk?"
LAMB:What did you say?
SEIGENTHALER: So I said, "I hope so, Jack. We`ll find out."
LAMB:Does he know the book is dedicated to him?
SEIGENTHALER: He does know the book is dedicated to him, he`s proud of it and he took a copy of it to school with him. And so he`s -- it`s interesting to me that 6-year-old children, one, are interested in removing their grandparents from the computer so that they can get at it, and beyond that, are able to read and comprehend. The last time I was there, I read a little Polk to him before he went to bed, and he asked an awful lot of questions, because there are words there that are beyond, obviously, a 6-year-old.
LAMB:Go back to the war. The Mexican War started when?
SEIGENTHALER: The Mexican War starts in 1846. He sends Zachary Taylor down to -- the conflict was started over the Mexican border. Eight years -- eight years earlier, we had the Alamo and Goliad (ph), and then Sam Houston, Tennesseean, friend of Polk, then Sam Houston defeats Santa Ana, and they get Santa Ana to agree that the line between the two countries, between the Independent Republic of Texas and Mexico, he agrees that that will be the line, the Rio will be the line.

The Mexican parliament doesn`t accept that, but of course Texans do. And so that land between the New Eches (ph) river and the Rio, about 150 miles, represents what Texas considers the new border, and what Polk considers the new border. And there comes a time when Mexico declares war on the United States, because it is going to annex Texas. And -- and -- and Polk is coming into office, and Polk really wants Congress to get annexation of Texas started before he takes over, and he works with Congress to get that done. Then the Mexicans react angrily, and there comes a time when the cabinet suggests that he send Zachary Taylor, General Zachary Taylor.
LAMB:Soon to be president.
SEIGENTHALER: The famous Whig president, the next Whig president. He sends Zachary Taylor down, and he says, "if they come across, if they come across and attack, consider it an attack on the country, and go into Mexico and take as much as you can." And so that is what happened. A small party of Mexicans ambush a small party of U.S. soldiers, and Taylor goes in, takes Palo Alto, takes Versaca de Palma (ph), captures then, and the war is on.
LAMB:Just a second, because in context of today, you`ve got Winfield Scott, who`s down there as a general, working for James Polk, the president. Zachary Taylor is down there -- Zachary Taylor was on to be president in, what, `48?
SEIGENTHALER: Yeah, Taylor becomes president in 1848, and...
LAMB:And Scott?
SEIGENTHALER: Winfield Scott two terms later is the Republican nominee.
LAMB:OK. What year then, is it, that Abraham Lincoln stands up on the floor of the House and says, "I`m against this war"?
SEIGENTHALER: Abraham Lincoln stood up on the floor of the House in 1848, as Polk is about to go -- is about to go out. Had a great conversation with Doris Kearns Goodwin, who is doing, I think, a similar book on Lincoln about this. And the question is whether Lincoln lost -- he was a freshman congressman, and he stood up on the floor and virtually called James K. Polk a liar, and he said -- and he considers, and the Whigs considered that land between the New Eches (ph) and the Rio as disputed land, and Lincoln wants to be sure where the first drop of blood was spilled, and demands, literally issues an interrogatory for the president to respond to, which he doesn`t.

He makes the case that the Rio was our line and we were attacked on this side, the American side, the U.S. side of the Rio, and that -- and that -- it`s really sort of a -- I mean, it echoes a little bit of today, President Bush`s concept of preemptive defense. I mean, they`re at war with us, and if they -- if they -- if they attack us, we`re going in.

Now, so Taylor is down there and goes -- at the same time Polk is having a terrible time with Winfield Scott. Scott doesn`t want to go to Mexico. Zachary Taylor is on his way. Scott says, "I`ll go down in September," which was three, four months off. And Polk calls in the secretary of war -- Secretary Marcy, and says, get him out of here and get him on the way. And Scott writes a letter in which he says, I don`t want to be shot at in the front by the Mexicans and in the rear in Washington, and Polk at that point grounds him, takes his command away from him.

Finally, Scott gets it back by proposing a plan in which we attack Mexico across the Gulf, and Scott`s attack comes across the Gulf and he goes through to Mexico City, while Zachary Taylor is going north, and at the same time General Kearney (ph) is going to California to take California, and so it was really a three-pronged attack. Polk despised Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott. They did nothing but win battles, and against great odds, and every night in the diary he gets news of another great victory and says, "they`re both incompetent, they`re unqualified for command," and it was purely partisan.
LAMB:You mentioned William Marcy. He was secretary of war?
SEIGENTHALER: He was secretary of war.
LAMB:And you say his famous saying that still lives today?
SEIGENTHALER: That`s right, to the victors go the spoils.
LAMB:It seems like in this little book, all this stuff, you`ve got James Polk at the center, and you`ve got Abraham Lincoln on the floor, he becomes president, Winfield Scott is the candidate for the Whigs in `52, Zachary Taylor is a candidate for the Whigs and wins in `48.
SEIGENTHALER: John C. Fremont (ph), the pathfinder, goes out to California, gets involved in a big dispute between Commodore Stockton (ph) of the Navy and General Kearney (ph). He chooses the wrong way. His father-in-law is Thomas Hart Benton back in Washington, the powerful friend of Polk.
LAMB:The senator.
SEIGENTHALER: The senator.
LAMB:Not the artist, the senator.
SEIGENTHALER: And -- and -- and -- and Fremont (ph) thinks, you know, I am going to get into this thing on Stockton`s (ph) side, ….will take care of me back home, my father-in-law, but it doesn`t happen. I mean, Fremont (ph) is court-martialed, and Polk -- is charged with mutiny and disobedience. Polk dismisses the mutiny charge, but upholds the second.
LAMB:By the way, the story about Thomas Hart Benton and the shooting of Andrew Jackson. How did that happen?
SEIGENTHALER: That goes way back to the time Jackson was in -- in Tennessee, and Thomas Hart Benton and his brother Jesse were in Tennessee at that time. It was before the Bentons went to Missouri, and Jesse Benton -- there was a duel, and Jesse Benton really offended Jackson by sort of serving as a second in that duel, and they -- and they attacked Jackson one day in a building on the street in Nashville, and they run him through.
LAMB:Hit him.
SEIGENTHALER: And almost kill him, shoot him and run him through -- almost kill him. And the Bentons shortly thereafter left for Missouri, where Benton, Thomas Hart Benton was -- became a senator, goes to Washington and then befriends Andrew Jackson. They become close friends. Jesse Benton never, never made it up with Jackson, but Benton was a friend of Jackson in Washington and became a friend of Polk.
LAMB:You have another story in there about Sam Houston and the congressman and when there was a caning outside of the House.
SEIGENTHALER: That`s right.
LAMB:Very violent.
SEIGENTHALER: At that time, Houston was living with the Indians, and Houston was accused by this member of Congress of using it for financial gain. And Houston tries to attack him on the floor. He`s a former member of Congress. But then waits for him with a -- what else? A hickory cane, and canes him, almost kills him, and he is tried before the House. James K. Polk defends Sam Houston and they give him a slap on the wrist. I`ll tell you, everybody -- anybody who was anybody in history intersects with the life of James K. Polk.
LAMB:Let me do this quickly, because we are running out of time. Go back to North Carolina. Did you go to Mecklenburg County?
SEIGENTHALER: I did not.
LAMB:You did not.
SEIGENTHALER: I did not.
LAMB:But just go quickly through James K. Polk`s life, up to the time he became president so we can get it on the record.
SEIGENTHALER: He was born in Mecklenburg County.
LAMB:Near Charlotte?
SEIGENTHALER: Yeah. A little sugar creek. He had a very agrarian upbringing. He went to -- he went to sort of seasonal schools. When he was 8, his grandfather has moved to Middleton, Tennessee and founded really, a paradise (ph), and so Sam, his father, and Sarah, his mother, go over the mountains and settle in Middleton, Tennessee, and there he goes up. Again, very sickly child. So sickly that he`s not able to do all the work in the fields that other children are expected to do. At one point, his father wants to make him a merchant, young boy, puts him in a store. It doesn`t work.

What he really wants is an education. And after the operation, his father finally sends him to a formal education. First, a little seminary school near where they lived in Columbia, Tennessee, then to Murfesboro (ph), where there was an academy, and finally the University of North Carolina, where he entered as a sophomore and finished -- graduated first in his class.
LAMB:Spoke at the graduation.
SEIGENTHALER: And spoke at the graduation. And he was political -- he was political from the outset. He was fortunate in that he fell into the arms of the great Tennessee lawyer, Felix Grundy (ph), later attorney general of the United States, United States senator, and Grundy (ph) mentored him at law. You know, in those days, lawyers trained in the chambers of a distinguished lawyer or a lawyer.
LAMB:How many times was he elected to office? To any office?
SEIGENTHALER: Well, he was elected once to the Tennessee legislature, seven times to Congress, once as governor, and once as president.
LAMB:Before we run out of time, you did a show like this for how many years?
SEIGENTHALER: Thirty-two years, now.
LAMB:Are you still doing it?
SEIGENTHALER: And I have had you on that show, and it`s been great to have you there and it`s been great to be here.
LAMB:Are you still doing that show?
SEIGENTHALER: I am still doing that show.
LAMB:And where do you do it?
SEIGENTHALER: I -- it -- it appears in Nashville on Sunday morning, and I do an interview with authors.
LAMB:How many shows a year?
SEIGENTHALER: During the annual Southern (ph) Book Festival, I do 15, which is a week-long show, and I do about 40 shows a year.
LAMB:Why do you do it?
SEIGENTHALER: I do it because I love books, and I love to read, and I love people who write.
LAMB:How many books have you written?
SEIGENTHALER: Well, I have -- I have had published a couple of books of columns, or articles, that I wrote. And I have had chapters in books, but I would have to say this is my first real experience as an author.
LAMB:What did you think of it now that you are on the other side?
SEIGENTHALER: Now, I am now in the process of writing another book. I`m going to write a book on a woman named Alice Paul (ph), who is an unknown heroine of the suffragist movement. Everything she did for the suffragists, civil rights, demonstrators (ph), went through 1915 to 1950s. So, 35 years later...
LAMB:On that little note, before we just really run out of time, he was a slaveholder, James K. Polk. How many slaves did he own and what happened at the end?
SEIGENTHALER: Well, he owned -- he owned more than 40, and he owned them on his Mississippi plantation and his property in Tennessee. He, his will, in his will, he left all his slaves to his wife for her lifetime, then they were to be freed. She lived until she was 80 years old, and so Lincoln had freed the slaves long before Sarah died. But Polk -- he said it was a common evil. You would think, as a one-term president, he was not planning to run for election, he might have taken some step later in life to provide some leadership. You understand why he didn`t during the political campaign, because you couldn`t take that position and be elected.
LAMB:We`re out of time. Do you still go to the office every day?
SEIGENTHALER: I go to the office every day.
LAMB:First Amendment Center?
SEIGENTHALER: Vanderbilt University. Great to be with you, Brian.
LAMB:Our author has been John Seigenthaler, and the title of the book is "James K. Polk: The Times Books Series on Presidents." Thank you very much.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 2004. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.