Historian Explains How 6 Presidents Fought Swamp

Historian Explains How 6 Presidents Fought Swamp


From time to time, the American people elect a champion to take on 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 are Abraham Lincoln, Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Donald Trump. They came from different backgrounds and different political parties, but all had their own unique tussles with the swamp during their time in office.

The presidential historian lays out the almost cyclical nature of Americans electing 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.”

We also cover these stories:

  • President Joe Biden on Monday called Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal, and said evidence should be gathered in order to put him on trial.
  • Biden says he is ending a COVID-19-era immigration-control policy. Title 42 was originally implemented by then-President Donald Trump. Three Republican state attorneys general are suing to block the Biden move.
  • A filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission revealed that billionaire Elon Musk had purchased a 9.2% stake in Twitter Inc., making him the tech titan’s single-biggest shareholder.

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 Schweikart: My pleasure.

Lucas: So, I guess, one question, you look at six presidents here. 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 you looked at these four presidents in terms of their mission and take on the Washington swamp.

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

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

But as I got into the research, the more I looked at it, the more intertwined the six were. And I could have possibly added James Garfield, who was killed for his attack on the swamp, and Chester Arthur, who could only serve one term because of his disease. They clearly were also swamp fighters.

These guys represented six people who were making an effort to not just reform, a word I hate, reform things in Washington, but actually make a fundamental change in American life.

And of course, Lincoln was killed. And Teddy Roosevelt had an assassination attempt on his life. JFK was killed. Reagan had an assassination attempt on his life. And I don’t know if you recall this, but a guy scaled the stage in Ohio to attack Trump. And so you could argue that five of the six were either killed or attacked for their attempts to overturn the swamp.

Jarrett Stepman: Larry, this is Jarrett Stepman. I think it’s really interesting, especially highlighting these presidents. It almost seems like they come in regular intervals, as far as presidents that have to step in and drain the swamp. Is there something to that? 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 just a symptom of having a republican system?

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. And later we see that JFK needed the CIA to affect his activities in both Cuba and Laos and Vietnam.

So while there is some of that, 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 find it again.

Lucas: Larry, this is Fred. I did want to ask you about Lincoln and taking on the slave power conspiracy. And I want to preface this by saying, nothing quite reaches the immoral level of slavery, but at the same time, much of that was about expanding the number of seats in Congress and so forth, adding states and so forth. 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: Oh yeah, sure. And again, I want to reiterate this point that the spoils swamp was created by Martin Van Buren long before Lincoln. It was created about 30 years before Lincoln, for one purpose and one purpose only. I talked about this in another of my books, “7 Events That Made America America.”

And people need to remember the Democratic Party was founded for one reason, to protect, preserve, and 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 that, especially in relation to President Donald Trump, who I think did have some issues with the intelligence services?

Schweikart: Sure, absolutely. Let me clarify this, after Kennedy or during [Lyndon B.] Johnson and [Richard] Nixon, the swamp made a significant change, and that was that Congress more or less abdicated any authority over the swamp, or what Steve Bannon likes to call 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 fast forward to Donald Trump and the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency and the FBI and all these groups and nobody wants to take 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.”

And this is not somebody you normally think of as 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?

I mean, it seems like a lot of the effective swamp fighters were able to work with Congress to push their agenda. How does the interplay with these presidents, especially the six you mentioned here, how did they effectively get Congress essentially to get on board with what they were doing? Or did they not get that going? Or was it something that they did more independently?

Schweikart: No, you’re right. Look at Lincoln. Lincoln never had a majority of abolitionists, but he did have a majority of Republicans and they were able to pull along enough of what we would today call moderates to get anti-slavery legislation, the 13th Amendment, and other things passed.

When you look at Grover Cleveland, he was able to work with Congress to get the Pendleton Civil Service Act passed, which was very important because it limited the number of direct appointees a president had. Let me quickly explain this.

Prior to Pendleton, a president appointed virtually all of the federal appointees. 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. So they had to fix this.

The Pendleton Act took about 10% of those appointees out of the hands of the president, put them in the hands of a civil service exam.

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.

So, the victories over the swamp, except for slavery, the victories over the swamp are not really long-lived. As I say, it keeps changing and evolving into different beasts that have to be put down at different times.

Lucas: Swamp creature keeps on morphing 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 talk about that a little bit?

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.

And one of the things I found was correspondence from his Cabinet level and 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.”

So you made a really good point that Reagan came in with three main goals: to defeat the Soviet Union, to rebuild the American economy, and to control government. 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. That seems like a big part of this, is that simply to reduce the swamp, it takes almost multiple presidency.

Schweikart: Right. And Steve Bannon has a very good suggestion.

I think there are two really good ways to cut down the swamp. The first is what Trump started to do while he was in office. And that was to move offices out of Washington, D.C., put them in Nebraska, put them in New Mexico, put them in Idaho, get them out of D.C. So you eliminate that swamp mentality of the cocktail circuit, you start working on it from that angle.

The second thing, which was Bannon’s suggestion, is you buy these people out. You begin to start an early retirement system. 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 that has to happen is what Trump began to do, which is to put in place judges who will begin to control the administrative.

And I was told that this in fact was the rationale behind [Justices Neil] Gorsuch, [Brett] Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett. It was not necessarily that they were social liberals. It was based, especially, on their take on the Exxon case that it was thought these three would really work to control the size of the bureaucracy. And we’ve yet to see cases come before them in that vein. But that was the feeling behind why those were chosen.

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 a kind of person who is liable to want to take on the swamp in Washington? Is this a character type? Is this just simply different men seeing a problem as it was? How do you explain these men who came from different parties, different backgrounds, and different eras and their kind of role in how they took on the swamp in their own time?

Schweikart: Yeah, that’s a very good question. I think you’re right. I think these guys are much more activists. 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.

Whereas you look at T.R. … and why I disagree with many of his policy positions, he was a very activist guy. Just as a man he was somebody who favored action over just 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. and his antitrust work saw the corporations not as inherently evil, but he saw them as in a position where they were fostering such discontent, especially with the media, especially the newspapers of the day.

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.”

And he saw himself, ironically, as kind of a champion of capitalism, kind of the way [Franklin D. Roosevelt] did in terms of saving it from itself. And what T.R. missed was that the one industry that he left out of this was journalism. This is one of the big swamp creatures we have to deal with 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 for the spoils system, of course.

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. The corruption all around Washington. Which is sort of the sense of a lot of 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 of all, his mentor and the guy who put him in the presidency was Martin Van Buren, who creates the swamp. He creates the spoils system under which Jackson acts.

Second of all, Jackson did not do a single thing to cut the size of government. 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. And you know if you work out, negative reps are just as important as positive reps.

So no, I’m not a Jackson fan and I don’t think in any way he really attacked the swamp. The only swamp he attacked was a private sector bank, that he then in a very Biden-esque way turned around and handed all that money off to the pet banks.

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 does make me think of some of the battles, especially on the right. You talk about the rise of Big Tech in America that has grown to enormous amount of power in this country, when you look at not just the social media, Facebook and Twitter, but just across the board, especially how they warred with President Donald Trump. And then after his presidency, literally almost uniformly, basically disappeared him from their platforms.

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

Do you see some similarities between how Trump and T.R. took on Big Tech and maybe some future battles that are looming in that regard?

Schweikart: Yeah, sure. Let me point out with T.R. and one reason I give him a little bit of slack in some of his antitrust work is of all the things T.R. did.

Remember, this is a guy who made himself into a physical presence. He did something almost nobody in Washington would do today. When a war started, he left a cushy job in Washington as assistant secretary of the Navy and formed a combat regimen of cavalry. Nobody would do that today.

But his one weakness was that in his entire life he never actually ran a business. People say, “Well, his cattle ranch.” T.R. did not run that ranch. He handed it off to a manager. He never met a payroll. He never had to worry about employees or about government regulations. He just went off and hunted and 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. And so from that perspective, you have to say that today antitrust is failing monstrously because there is no competition whatsoever with some of the big techs, with Google, with Yahoo, with Twitter, with Facebook, any of these things. 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. I guess if you could talk a little bit more about him and why, in a lot of ways, it seemed like maybe his problem with the intelligence agencies was closest to what Trump had.

Schweikart: Right. And that is an interesting point, isn’t he an insider? In some ways, yes. In some ways, no. 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, committed to destabilizing Cuba, and then he took it 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.”

And later, of course, they pay $85,000 to the CIA to give to these generals to eliminate [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 does seem a particular challenge when dealing with the intelligent services in particular, because of course, they do provide a significant function to the country, to the republic, especially in foreign policy, but at the same time, where does their role kind of 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 that kind of the way this is dealt with? 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.

There is a story out today of this guy, John Seifer, who was bragging. He said he was extremely proud of his work in keeping the Hunter Biden laptop out of the public debate in the election and that he helped swing 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 time I see that guy, I just want to slap him, sort of do a Will Smith episode on 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. But later it came to his attention that the swamp was really much deeper and much worse than just a bunch of lobbyists.

So it is going to take a dedicated president with a cadre, maybe 30 or 40 key people, who have this one goal of reducing the size and influence of government on our elections and on our daily lives.

Lucas: If I would throw in there, Jarrett had an excellent piece on the Hunter Biden situations just a couple days ago on The Daily Signal.

Stepman: Yeah. Thanks Fred.

Lucas: If I could follow up on what you just said, though, is this going to take sort of a modern-day Pendleton Act that would address all the shortcomings of the other Civil Service Act in 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. Well, Larry, thank you so much for joining 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. Thank you, Larry.

Lucas: Thanks for joining us.

Schweikart: Thank you guys. I appreciate it.

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About the Author

Tony Beasley
Tony Beasley writes for the Local News, US and the World Section of ANH.