Buchanan Redux

Buchanan Dying: A Play

by John Updike
Knopf, 262 pp., $6.95

James Buchanan
James Buchanan; drawing by David Levine

Even an expert playwright would be daunted by the task of wringing a coherent drama from the story of James Buchanan. After dogging the tracks of the presidency for twenty-five years, Buchanan at last secured the prey when both he and it had lost their glamour. He entered the White House in his sixty-fifth year with an acute case of dysentery, and he met the most savage constitutional crisis the nation has ever endured.

Buchanan’s great accomplishment as president was to relieve Lincoln of the burden of provoking the Civil War. He preserved the union just long enough for it to dissolve the month after Lincoln’s inauguration, but he never discovered policies that would inch the government away from a bestial trial by fury. At a moment when this country wanted the most exalted leadership, Buchanan offered a reasoned submission to the will of Congress, a pious adherence to the Constitution (strictly interpreted), and a determination to shoulder as little blame as possible for the violence about to erupt. He never grew up into the fatherly pilot that an anxious people desire. He remained fixed in the role of servant or partner of the legislative branch; and when he faulted Congress for disregarding the omens, he only confessed that he misunderstood a president’s responsibilities.

Buchanan came from a Scotch-Irish immigrant family who settled among their own kind in southern Pennsylvania as the Revolutionary War was ending. His parents worked tirelessly; did well, and had many children, of whom James was the eldest survivor. He learned as a boy to welcome grinding hard labor and to worship a streamlined Calvinist godhead. After a few years as a brilliant but rebellious undergraduate with an immense capacity for alcohol, he took his degree and went into the law. Thanks to his intellectual agility, his cultivated skill as a debater, and the meticulous presentation of his arguments, he won a remarkable number of difficult cases.

Entering state politics, Buchanan quickly learned to harness his opinions to the requirements of a party. He discovered how to screen ambition with a display of indifference, to attract supporters without committing himself to their warfare, and to hedge his backing for any policy until it proved itself effective. He attained a power of rationalizing his self-interest that was remarkable even for a politician. When Buchanan was Secretary of State—the post that suited his talents best—he negotiated the Oregon Treaty, finessed President Polk into accepting it, and then worked noiselessly for its approval in the Senate. But as soon as he knew the treaty would pass, he openly reproached Polk for giving in to the British. Most Americans had come to think of the forty-ninth parallel as a weak compromise, and Buchanan did not wish to answer for it.

He was tall and fair, with an attentive tilt of the head and neck that derived from a pair of ill-matched…

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