Historian Explains How 6 Presidents Fought Swamp

The American people occasionally elect a champion to fight the Washington swamp.

Historian Larry Schweikart joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss his new book “Dragonslayers: Six Presidents and Their War With the Swamp.”

The six presidents Schweikart profiles include Abraham Lincoln, Grover Cleveland and Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. Although they came from different backgrounds and political parties, each had their own unique struggles with the swamp during their tenures in office.

The president’s historian explains the almost cyclical nature American voters for swamp fighters.

“I think also we see a pattern where these guys kind of knock the swamp back a little bit, and then it crawls back to life, like some horrible monster and 10, 15, 20 years later, somebody else has to step up and fight it again,” Schweikart says.

Schweikart is a historian of American political history and has written numerous books, including the best-selling “A Patriot’s History of the United States.”

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Listen to the podcast below, or read the lightly edited transcript.

Fred Lucas: We are very lucky to have with us today Larry Schweikart, who is a noted historian and author of the brand new book “Dragonslayers: Six Presidents and Their War With the Swamp.” Thanks for joining us.

Larry SchweikartIt is my pleasure.

Lucas:One question: You look at six presidents. A lot of people might look at these six guys and think that they’re very different in a lot of ways, but they have this very common thread—four Republicans, two Democrats. Tell us why these four presidents were important to you in terms of their mission.

Schweikart:Well, I was wrong. I thought I had six topics related to six different swamps when I started this site.

So I was looking at [Abraham]Lincoln with a slave swamp; Grover Cleveland with the spoils bog; Teddy Roosevelt with a trust swamp. [John F. Kennedy]With a CIA swamp [Ronald]Reagan in a bureaucracy swamp. [Donald]Trump in the deep state swamp

As I began to research the six became more closely linked, the more I looked at them. I could have added James Garfield, who was killed in the attack on the swamp, or Chester Arthur, who could only serve one term due to his disease. They were also swamp fighters.

These six men represented six people who were trying to not only reform Washington, a word I hate but also make fundamental changes in American life.

Lincoln was also assassinated. Teddy Roosevelt was assassinated. JFK was shot to death. Reagan was the victim of an assassination plot. And I don’t know if you recall this, but a guy scaled the stage in Ohio to attack Trump. You could argue that five of them were killed or attacked in their efforts to overturn the swamp.

Jarrett Stepman : Larry, this Jarrett Stepman. I think it’s really interesting, especially highlighting these presidents. It almost seems that they appear at regular intervals, in terms of presidents who have to step in and drain out the swamp. Is there something to this? Is there something to the fact that every once in a while things get calcified in Washington, D.C., as a part of our system, that it’s really necessary to have a president who’s willing to take that on? Is this a sign of a republican system or a symptom?

Schweikart: Yeah, I think there is a great deal to that, but you’ve got to also remember that Lincoln’s war against the slaves swamp really involved the spoils swamp, only he needed the spoils system, he needed his people in office to help deal with the slave swamp. We later learn that JFK required the CIA to control his activities in Vietnam, Laos and Cuba.

While there are some good points, I believe we also see a pattern. These guys knock the swamp back a bit, then it crawls back to existence like some horrible monster, and then, 10, 15, or 20 years later, someone else has to take its place and find it again.

Lucas: Larry, this Fred. I wanted to ask you about Lincoln, and the conspiracy against slave power. Although nothing is perfect, it does not reach the moral level of slavery. However, the majority of that was about increasing the number of seats and states in Congress. And today we’re seeing efforts by Democrats to change the districting system, adding states, trying to expand their majorities. Do you think there’s some similarities to what the motives were then and now?

Schweikart: Yes, it is. Again, I want you to know that the spoils swamp was established by Martin Van Buren well before Lincoln. It was created for one purpose, and only one purpose, about 30 years prior to Lincoln. I talked about this in another of my books, “7 Events That Made America America.”

People need to remember that the Democratic Party was created to preserve, preserve, expand slavery.

And so, yeah, there’s a lot of those efforts today going on, they’re kind of typical political efforts to expand your base. And if you want to get into modern politics, I think that they’re dramatically and horribly overreaching and they’re going to pay a serious price for it.

Stepman: Yeah. I think one thing I’ve noticed, too, is with a lot of the successful efforts to kind of contain the swamp, a lot of times the swamp fights back. And as you said, it sometimes grows and sometimes, in some cases, it’s actually necessary.

You talk about JFK’s fight against the CIA. It seems like today in America, there’s maybe an additional problem, especially with a lot of intelligence agencies that have maybe gone off their original mission, which is what they were originally created for, they’ve kind of gone beyond that.

Can you talk about this, especially in regard to President Donald Trump? I think he had issues with the intelligence service.

Schweikart: Sure, absolutely. Let me clarify: after Kennedy or during [Lyndon B.]Johnson and [Richard]Nixon, the swamp made a significant shift, and that was that Congress abdicated any authority over it, or what Steve Bannon likes calling the administrative state, all these bureaucracies.

… The presidents had long since lost control after Kennedy, but after Congress gave up control, it fell to the courts to control these agencies. And the courts tended to say, “Well, they’re established, Congress established them, therefore they get to kind of define their own mission and scope.” Which, of course, is outrageous.

So, we quickly move on to Donald Trump and his CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency and FBI and all these other groups. Nobody wants these guys on.

I was speaking with a very high-ranking House member and I said, “Do you think that the whole FBI is corrupt?” And he said, “Absolutely.” He said, “But before we can take it out, we’ve got to figure out a way to replace it because there are functions that need to be done by a federal cop agency.” But he says, “The whole thing is corrupt right now.”

This is not someone you would normally consider a flamethrower. So the next guy who comes in better come in with a flamethrower at these agencies, because if we don’t stop now, we’ll never get control of them.

Stepman: That’s a very good point. And maybe to follow up on that, I think what’s interesting, especially highlighting these presidents, is what role will Congress have in that as well?

It seems like many of the swamp fighters were able cooperate with Congress to advance their agenda. How did these presidents interact with each other, particularly the six you mention here? How did they get Congress to actually support what they were doing. Or did they not achieve that? Or did they do it more independently?

Schweikart: No, you’re right. Look at Lincoln. Lincoln didn’t have a majority, but he did possess a majority, which allowed him to attract enough moderates to get antislavery legislation, such as the 13th Amendment, passed.

Grover Cleveland can be seen as someone who was able to work together with Congress to pass Pendleton Civil Service Act. It was very important because it restricted the number direct appointees that a president could have. Let me quickly clarify.

Prior to Pendleton, virtually all federal appointees had been appointed by presidents. And this meant that Lincoln, while he’s in the middle of fighting a war, had lines of job-seekers down the street, literally coming inside the White House, bugging him for jobs. And of course, you know that Garfield was killed by one of these people who didn’t get a job. They had to fix it.

The Pendleton Act took approximately 10% of these appointees from the hands the president and placed them in civil service exams.

So I look at Cleveland as being partially successful in his battle with the swamp, but not entirely because what happened after you got the Pendleton Civil Service Act that took all of the appointment powers out of the hands of a president was that instead of appointing just a few people to get elected—by few I mean a few thousand—now presidents had to campaign to lobbying groups and special-interest groups in terms of tens and then hundreds of thousands of members. And in our day, millions of members when you’re talking about unions.

The victories over swamp, except for slavery are not very long-lasting. It evolves into new beasts every day, which must be destroyed at different times.

Lucas: The swamp creature continues to transform into something else. Yeah, I’m glad you had actually addressed that because I was going to bring up the spoils system versus the civil service system, which in some ways was an improvement, but in some ways led to this massive beast of an administrative state that we have now.

Schweikart: Yes.

Lucas: One question I did want to ask about Reagan, who was an enormously successful president in terms of winning the Cold War and bringing economic prosperity, but of course, he could win the Cold War, defeat the Soviet Union, but he couldn’t really beat the bureaucracy. Could you please talk a bit about that?

Schweikart: Yeah. I mean, that’s exactly right. I had a previous book about two years ago called “Reagan: The American President.” And I spent an extraordinary amount of time in the Reagan archives and the Reagan papers.

One of the things I found was correspondence at his Cabinet level as well as from the bureaucracy. And basically what happened was even people who were put in to “control” government, to reduce the size of government, even those people found themselves captives of it within a year.

For example, I saw a memo from one department head, David Stockman, said, “What’s going on? Why aren’t you reducing your department?” And he said, “Well, we’ve already spent this year’s budget and part of next year’s.”

You have made a good point that Reagan came into office with three main goals: defeat the Soviet Union and rebuild the American economic system. And what he found was that there’s only so much time and so much political capital that any president has and achieving two of those was monumental. There just wasn’t enough time, energy, or political capital to cut down government when that was over.

Stepman: Yeah. It seems that this is a large part of the problem. To reduce the swamp it takes almost multiple presidents.

Schweikart: Right. Steve Bannon has a very smart suggestion.

There are two great ways to reduce the swamp. The first is the one Trump did while he was still in office. The first was to move offices from Washington, D.C., and put them into Nebraska, New Mexico, Idaho, and get them out of D.C. You eliminate the swamp mentality of the cocktail scene and you work from this angle.

The second thing, which was Bannon’s suggestion, is you buy these people out. You can start an early retirement program. It’ll cost some money, but pay these people to retire, then eliminate the job once the people are gone.

And Bannon’s reasoning is very good. It’s incredibly hard to eliminate positions when people are still in them, but it’s not too hard to get rid of a position that nobody’s holding at the time. So I think that’s going to be a good start.

The third thing is Trump’s initiative to create judges to oversee the administrative.

I was also told that this was the reason behind the incident. [Justices Neil] Gorsuch, [Brett]Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett. It wasn’t necessarily that they were social libertarians. It was especially based on their view on Exxon that it was believed these three would work together to reduce the bureaucracy’s size. And we’ve yet to see cases come before them in that vein. This was the feeling behind their selection.

Stepman: Yeah. Very interesting. It seems like there’s a lot of work ahead. It’s a president’s legacy that goes beyond his presidency itself. I mean, I think that’s really interesting and especially laying down those judgeships and how much that’s going to change our system, not just now, but many, many years from now. I think that’s an important aspect of this.

One thing I’d like to ask, especially because you highlighted six, I think, very different men and very different presidents, is there a personality type? Is there an ideal person who would like to take on Washington’s swamp? Is this a type of character? Are these just different men seeing the same problem? How can you explain men from different backgrounds and eras who took on the swamp in their own way?

Schweikart: Yeah, that’s a very good question. I think you’re right. These guys are more active than I thought. They’re much more, if you want to say male. They aren’t bureaucrats. They aren’t managers.

They see themselves as leaders, not somebody, for example, it’s why I didn’t include Calvin Coolidge, who’s one of my favorite presidents, but he very much was more of an administrator. The shift’s going in the right direction, “I’m just going to keep my hands off the wheel” kind of guy.

T.R. … and why I disagree with many of his policy positions, he was a very activist guy. He was an activist man, who valued action over management.

And one important point I wanted to make about T.R.—and it showed you how you can think you’re making inroads against the swamp in one area, and you’re ignoring something else—T.R. In his antitrust work, he saw corporations not as intrinsically evil. But he saw them in a position that was encouraging discontent, especially with the media, and especially the newspapers.

Roosevelt himself said on many occasions, in essence, I’m not quoting, I’m paraphrasing, he said on many occasions, “I’ve got to control these corporations or there will be a grassroots rebellion across the country that will get rid of all businesses, all capitalism.”

Ironically, he viewed himself as a champion for capitalism, kinda the way [Franklin D. Roosevelt]It saved it from its own destruction. T.R. T.R. This is one of the biggest swamp creatures we have today.

Lucas: Well, that’s probably a decent point. Yeah.

I’m going to probably stir up maybe a little trouble here. Jarrett’s a big fan of Andrew Jackson, one guy who’s not mentioned in this. He is often blamed with the spoils system.

But when you think of presidency, he was probably the first president in terms of sheer personality that said, “I’m going to take on this Washington machine,” when he first ran in 1824 and then again in 1828. Washington is rife with corruption. That is the reason why many people compare Trump to Andrew Jackson. I wanted to ask you why he wasn’t part of what you included here.

Schweikart: OK. A, I’m not a Jackson fan. If you’ve read “A Patriot’s History of the United States,” you’ll know that. We see Jackson first and foremost as Martin Van Buren who is his mentor, who created the swamp. He is the one who creates the spoils system that Jackson uses.

Second, Jackson did nothing to reduce government size. If you look at either employment of government, employment per population, it doesn’t grow, but it certainly doesn’t shrink under Jackson. People point to the war on the Bank of the United States, well, folks, the Bank of the United States … four-fifths private.

And most bankers in the country—this was the focus of my doctoral dissertation, all of my early work was on Jacksonian banking and pre-Civil War banking—the bankers around the country, the little banks, the guys who didn’t have much money, they all loved the Bank of the United States.

And so Jackson, if anything, grew the size of the presidency, if by no other means than the fact that he flexed the presidency’s muscles all over the place, even in a negative way. You know that negative reps are just the same as positive reps if you train.

So no, I’m not a Jackson fan and I don’t think in any way he really attacked the swamp. He only attacked a private bank in the swamp, which he then turned around and gave all that money to his pet banks in a Biden-esque manner.

Stepman: Kind of bringing things a little bit back to the modern day, to a certain extent, especially, I thought it was interesting you mentioned T.R., Roosevelt’s kind of war on big business, so to speak. That he wasn’t doing so out of a hatred of business, but more of a, first of all, worry that maybe things like socialism would become common to this country and that business itself had moved into an improper place in America.

It makes me think about some of the battles, especially the right. When you think about the rise in power of Big Tech in America, not just Facebook and Twitter but all social media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, you can see how they fought with President Donald Trump. After his presidency, almost all of them basically removed him from their platforms.

It does seem like we’re kind of having this same kind of battle and debate. And I think we have similar fault lines. I mean, there are many on the right who think that no, it’s not good to regulate Big Tech. There are many. [who] say, “No, we need to do that.”

Do you see similarities between Trump’s actions and T.R. Are there any similarities between how Trump and T.R.

Schweikart: Yeah, sure. Let me make a point with T.R. T.R. did.

This is a man who transformed himself into a physical presence. He did something that virtually no Washingtonian would do today. He quit his job as assistant secretary to the Navy in Washington and formed a combat regiment of cavalry when war broke out. He would have done that today.

His only weakness was that he never owned a business during his entire life. People say, “Well, his cattle ranch.” T.R. He did not manage that ranch. He gave it to a manager. He never received a payroll. He didn’t have any concerns about employees or government regulations. He just went out and hunted, fished, right?

So I think had he ever filled in that one hole in his resume and actually run a business, which he would’ve done very well, I think his approach to antitrust would’ve been a little bit different.

Now, I’m not of antitrust, but the very purpose of antitrust is to allow competition to take place. From that perspective, it is clear that antitrust is failing massively today because there is absolutely no competition with the big techs. They’ve all got 70%, 80% market share, which, under normal circumstances, if you were doing that with gasoline or food or anything else, you’d face antitrust suits.

Lucas: I thought it was interesting, when you think about establishment Washington, it was, in some ways, surprising that JFK is part of this list because … his father was part of the Roosevelt administration and so forth. If you could talk more about him and his problems with the intelligence agencies, it would seem like he was most similar to Trump’s.

Schweikart: Right. And that is an interesting point, isn’t he an insider? In some ways, yes. In other ways, yes. He’s a Catholic, so he’s not blending in with a lot of established Washington. His dad was something of a rogue and a renegade who, although he was in Roosevelt’s administration, still had a lot of that kind of old, corrupt Boston taint around him.

JFK’s problem was that when he came into office, he was already, through [Dwight D.]Eisenhower was committed to Cuban destabilization and then he went further. And we have plenty of records of him and Bobby basically telling CIA, “Get rid of [Fidel] Castro, kill him, do whatever you need to do.”

They pay $85,000 to CIA for these generals’ elimination. [Ngo Dinh] Diem in Vietnam. So when you had the CIA doing work like that, it’s hard to turn around and say, “Man, these guys are crap. We need to get rid of them.”

Stepman: Yeah. It seems to be a particularly difficult task when dealing with the intelligence services in particular. Because they provide a significant service to the country, to republic, especially in the area of foreign policy, but at what point does their role end?

In the case, I think more recently thinking, that they actually step into American electoral politics, I think becomes very much concerning for the American people, especially agencies, where, look, I think by their very nature there isn’t a lot of public accountability.

Is this why it takes a president who’s very hands-on with these agencies? Is this the best way to deal with these issues? Or is there some other manner in which presidents can actually keep them on their job as it’s supposed to be and not into other things?

Schweikart: No, it’s going to fall to a president to be uber-hands-on, and he’s going to have to appoint an FBI director and a CIA director who aren’t afraid to clean house.

John Seifer bragging about his accomplishments is the subject of a current story. He claimed that he was proud of his work in keeping Hunter Biden’s laptop out of public debate during the election, and that it helped swing the election.

I mean, stuff like this should have people behind bars, but you’ve got this smarmy guy, [Christopher] Wray, in charge of the FBI. I mean, every single time I see him, I just want slap him. It’s like Will Smith doing an episode about this guy. And you’ve got people in charge of the CIA who have no intention whatsoever of controlling these agencies.

And like I said before, when you’ve got major congressional figures saying, “No, the whole FBI is corrupt. The whole FBI.” It’s not one or two guys. … It’s not just [James] Comey. It’s not just [Andrew]McCabe, or McCabre as I call them. It’s not just these guys. It’s all the way down the line or somebody as a whistleblower would’ve stepped up a long time ago and said, “This is wrong. Here’s what’s going on here, folk.” Not a peep out of these guys.

In fact, my congressional source is that when they are talking with just kind of run-of-the-mill lower-level FBI officers, that their attitude is one of sheer arrogance, that they don’t need to report to Congress, they don’t need to give any account of themselves.

And so I think that actually draining the swamp, to use that term—and by the way, let me say this. Trump did not mean going after the CIA and FBI when he used the term “drain the swamp” in 2015 and early ’16, he meant get rid of K Street and the lobbyists. Later, Trump realized that the swamp was much deeper than just a few lobbyists.

It will take a dedicated president and a cadre of 30-40 key people who share the same goal of reducing the size of government in our elections and our daily lives.

Lucas: Jarrett wrote an excellent piece about Hunter Biden’s situation just a few days ago on The Daily Signal.

Stepman: Yeah. Fred, thanks.

Lucas: You said that this would be a Pendleton Act, which would fix all the problems of the Civil Service Act of the past. I mean, basically a civil service reform that’s really going to address the bureaucracy, the unaccountability, and the bureaucracy?

Schweikart: Well, you know as well as I do every time we “reform” something in Washington, it gets worse. So I would say to stay away from more acts and let’s just get people in who will enforce the laws we have.

I mean, Reagan was always fond of saying, “We don’t need more laws. We just need to enforce the laws we have.” And I think that’s very much the case here. It can be done by dedicated and patriotic people, but I think we’re really short of that in D.C. today.

Stepman: And that seems to be part of the problem that we have, is that there’s a kind of class that’s been built up, a kind of managerial class that exists in not just Washington, but through the elites in American society that have one purpose, one goal, and it’s very different from the American people.

I think that seems to be the case, that a lot of these men that you’ve highlighted understood the problems that existed in Washington, D.C., especially if there was an elite class that was calcified, but understood really the heart of the American people and really kind of brought that in their efforts to contain this, as you call it, the swamp that never quite goes away, but it changes forms every once in a while.

But it’s something that we’re always going to have to deal with and always have to have presidents, patriotic presidents, willing to step in a breach on behalf of the American people.

Schweikart: Well, it’s funny that just prior to the Pendleton Act, one of the authors I read said, a contemporary, somebody from the 1870s said, “This is the time when an administration changes from one party to another.” And he would say, “You would see all the hotels empty out and all these people would go back home. The trains would be full and the incoming trains would be full of different people coming in to take over the administration.”

Stepman: That’s a great story. Larry, thank you so very much for being on the show. We really appreciate this and we absolutely encourage the listeners to pick up the book, which is called “Dragonslayers: Six Presidents and Their War With the Swamp.” Excellent stuff. Larry, thank you.

Lucas: Thank you for being a part of our community.

Schweikart: Thank you guys. I appreciate it.

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