Extreme Presidential Makeover

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.