Extreme Presidential Makeover

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

Lancaster, Pennsylvania—Rather than lop off the heads of our failed leaders and shun their names, Americans have an endearing tendency to celebrate their misadventures with schools, highways, cities, and quarries upon quarries worth of marble monuments. And that’s what’s brought us to Lancaster, and the sprawling estate of our fifteenth president. How do you spin the legacy of a man universally regarded as one of America’s worst presidents? If you’re Patrick Clarke, director of James Buchanan’s Wheatland Estate in Lancaster City, it’s simple, really: Talk about his prior work experience. Although Clarke says he doesn’t avoid the presidency altogether, they make an effort to place his disastrous one term in the context of a lifetime of public service. It’s a bit like a music snob saying, “yeah, I liked their old stuff better.” But there’s some truth to it: While Buchanan was a terrible president, he was involved (if still terribly) in nearly every major bit of foreign policy during the nation’s age of expansion. Plus, Clarke notes, if Buchanan were a little less putrid, no one would have been clamoring for Abraham Lincoln.

Buchanan is noteworthy not just for his innovative style of crisis management, but for the theory that he might have also been our first gay president. Clarke says more than a few tourists have stopped by specifically to pop the is-he-or-isn’t-he question: “Some of the tour guides are incensed at the question,” Clarke says, “but I tell them, if you want to conclude that James Buchanan was heterosexual, that’s fine; if you want to believe that James Buchanan was homosexual, that’s fine too.” If Clarke has an inclination one way or the other, he doesn’t say. “We just don’t know,” he says. And barring the discovery of, say, the Presidents’ Book of Secrets, that’s how things will stay. “That’s one of the great things about history,” he says. “You can just keep on arguing forever.” That, and it’s full of second chances.


Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend