I don’t keep secrets from Jock. As a rule I tell him everything. Of course, I don’t really have a choice in the matter. According to him, my face telegraphs all my emotions “in neon.” So with trepidation, I outlined to him my interview with President Tyler and my impending haunting by Presidents Polk, Johnson and Wilson. After initially assuming this was a joke, he settled into skeptical acceptance (probably tinged with questions about phoning Mark Basquill to discuss signing commitment papers for me). He announced his intention of accompanying me the following evening, and I found myself cringing while trying to decline this gallant offer without hurting his feelings.
“OK, if you won’t let me go, at least take Hilda with you,” Jock suggested. “Nothing better to sniff out good or bad intentions of ghosts than a dog.”
In a last-ditch effort, when I was getting Hilda’s leash out, he pointed that none of these supposed ghosts are even buried in the Wilmington National Cemetery, let alone this state.
“Look I didn’t make the rules …”
“OK, OK.” He held up a hand. “Just be safe.”
Kneeling down to scratch Hilda’s ears, he added, “Miss Hilda, you are in charge of bringing Gwenyfar back safe, you understand?”
We elected to hang out by Inglis Fletcher’s grave. Hilda was beside herself with delight at all the sniffs and the hooting of the owls who nest nearby. Just when I was starting to doubt my sanity (why start now?), a deep male voice addressed me.
I swear I jumped three feet in the air.
“Forgive me, I didn’t mean to frighten you. James K. Polk at your service.” He gave a small bow and indicated that we should walk. Hilda looked at him and me. She seemed completely unfazed by it al. “A pleasant stroll in the evening breeze is so refreshing, don’t you think?” he asked. I nodded my head dumbly in reply.
“This is a particularly interesting election you have this year,” he tried again.
“Yes, sir, Mr. President,” I managed to get out.
Was I hallucinating or was I really—willingly—wandering through a graveyard with my dog and the ghost of a dead president?
“Your Mrs. Clinton always reminded me a lot of my Sarah—very similar temperaments for first ladies. I couldn’t have done it without Sarah. I sometimes thought she was really the more competent of the two of us.”
“So you are not surprised to see a woman running for president?”
“My dear young lady, I am simply shocked! In my day, woman didn’t vote—they certainly wouldn’t have made such a spectacle of themselves. But then, in my day, we would never have had a man like Mr. Obama in office either,” he shrugged. “Keep in mind I died over 165 years ago. How sad to imagine the country would never have advanced beyond my lifetime. That’s not really leadership or vision, is it? No, I am glad to see America trying to keep up with the rest of the world.”
I suppressed a smile and couldn’t resist needling him a bit. “Keeping up? Are we not the leaders of the free world?”
He regarded me for a long minute. “I do believe you are testing me. Does it mean so much to you to hear a ‘dead white man,’ as you refer to me, point out to you that plenty of other nations have elected female heads of government already and manage to extend legal recognition to their citizenry?” He shook his head. “Yes, I am pleased the country has grown and adapted.”
“Forgive me, sir, but it is pretty strange to hear you, a president who bought slaves while in office, talking about extending legal recognition to their citizenry.”
“I did stipulate the slaves were all to be freed upon Sarah’s death; it is in my will. How come Jefferson gets credit for that, but I don’t?” He gave me a hard look. “I think you are confusing the difference between the realities of my time and appreciating what the country has accomplished since my death. Was I a slaveholder? Yes. But so was nearly every successful man in my circle at the time. My plantations gave me the ability to pursue political office. I would not have deprived my wife of one of the most valuable assets I had to leave her, but I did provide for my slaves’ freedom upon her death.”
He took a deep shuttering breath (if a ghost can take a deep breath). “Look, in my day, it would have been impossible for Mr. Obama to hold any office, let alone the highest in the land. Yet, for the last eight years, he has fulfilled promises the Constitution has grown to afford people. Need I remind you that you were not allowed to vote when the Constitution was written?”
“No, sir—you do not.”
“I find modern debates about the ‘Founding Fathers’ and framers rather limited and myopic at times.” He shook his head. “That is one aspect of modern politics I don’t comprehend.”
“You and me both,” I smiled. “May I ask you a question?”
“Certainly, my dear lady, that is part of what we are here for.”
“You vetoed the Rivers and Harbors Bill and according to historians you cite federal over-reach as the reason why.”
He nodded, so I continued. “What you predicted, legislators loading favors for their constituents into bills, has come to pass. It is pretty much how the country runs and functions. I mean, for us getting the money for beach nourishment has been essential year after year, and that’s just one tiny example.”
He nodded again. “What is your question?”
“What can we do about it? Is there any way to change that or is it the natural progression of the system?”
“My dear lady I was a prophet, not a doctor.”
“I warned you and you didn’t heed my warning, so shall you reap.”
“Ah. But the people who think that electing an outsider will change the system … what do you say to that?”
“First, the executive and legislative branches are separate animals. They must work together but not too closely. I of course came up through the legislative, and am therefore partial to others with that background.”
“Oh! That’s right—you are the only president to also serve as Speaker of the House!”
“Guilty as charged,” he grinned. “But I think having a strong understanding of how the legislative functions and an ability to work with rather than to alienate is important. Mr. Johnson, who you will meet tomorrow, might be the person to talk to about alienating Congress.”
He gave me a knowing look.
“Ah, understood. Yes, sir.”
He took out a pocket watch and examined it. “Well, we are about out of time, Sarah will be expecting me.” He gave me an appraising stare. “We haven’t discussed Mexico.”
“Not yet, sir.” I took a deep breath and braced myself. “Of course the Mexican- American War is probably the centerpoint of your administration.”
“You do have a candidate this time who seems quite preoccupied by Mexico.”
I nodded cautiously in response.
“Obviously, it was a different time; we were much more interested in growing the United States than shrinking it. I am proud that we admitted three states to the union during my administration, and we finalized the partition of the Oregon Territory.”
He paused again, searching for words.
“Do they still teach the axiom in your schools that those who forget history are condemned to repeat it?”
“I certainly learned it, sir, but I tend to find that people only apply that when it behooves them, not necessarily when they should heed its caution.”
“Fair enough. Well, perhaps, instead of grandstanding about border control, the candidate—and the electorate, frankly—might want to read up on my war. We got California and Texas from it, but I think there are other lessons that could be applied here.”
He paused. “Do they even remember my war?”
“From the ‘Zorro’ movies? That might be the closest association people have with it,” I ventured.
He sighed. “For all the damn talk about Jefferson and Adams, it wouldn’t hurt people to spend some time reading about the events between the Revolution and the War Between the States! They talk about ‘flyover country,’ but what about ‘flyover eras’?”
“I agree with you, Mr. President, but I don’t know what to do about it.”
“Neither do I—and it is more than we can solve in one evening. I must go. Sarah is waiting for me at her Alma mater, Salem Academy. They have a very nice graveyard. Thank you for your time, Gwenyfar.”
“Thank you, sir.”
I realized we had completed a circuit of the graveyard and were back at the tree. He walked behind it and disappeared.