Veritas: The Truth of the Jesus-Wife Hoax and a Divinity School in Crisis

I thought I knew all there was to know about the Jesus-Wife forgery, but I was wrong. Veritas is an extended piece of Ariel Sabar’s investigative journalism published four years ago, a must-read for hoax gurus, and for any New Testament and non-canonical specialists. It shows the depths to which professionals sink in willful naivete and the boundless guile of the forger. It’s an exciting read, but also at times surreal, or at least for me, when familiar online acquaintances and Facebook friends make an appearance in the narrative. I now know Mike Grondin’s daily and nightly routines, thanks to Sabar. But I’m wiser than ever before about what drives forgers to bamboozle the academy, and why certain scholars get easily played.

Da Vinci Affinities

The book starts with Karen King, and fleshes out her upbringing as a child in Montana, her undergraduate years at the University of Montana, her PhD work at Brown University, and her teaching position at Occidental College, and finally, against the odds (given the competition), her appointment as professor at Harvard Divinity in 1997. She became well known in November 2003, when her book on the Gospel of Mary was published at the height of The Da Vinci Code craze. The timing was probably coincidence, but King exploited it.

Her book, to be sure, didn’t mention The Da Vinci Code (published months before in March), for it hardly served as a feminist manifesto by 21st century standards. As Sabar puts it, the ideological flaw in The Da Vinci Code for King was the inverse of the ancient gnostics’. In gnostic belief, the feminine is valued at the expense of her sexuality. In Dan Brown’s thriller, it’s the opposite: Mary Magdalene is Jesus’ fertile wife — “her uterus the ‘Holy Grail’ for his seed” — but at the expense of her spiritual leadership. “Put crudely,” says Sabar, “the Code’s Mary was a womb without a brain, while the Gospel of Mary’s Mary was a brain without a womb. (p 280).” [One reason King would become snared by the Jesus-Wife fragment eight years later is that it marries the best of both worlds, portraying a Mary who has sex with Jesus (“my wife…”) and who also talks and learns (“she is able to be my disciple…”). The hoax was practically designed for someone like Karen King.]

Nevertheless, King praised Dan Brown in the media for raising “important questions” about early Christianity. Of the scholars interviewed about The Da Vinci Code, she was the least critical of the novel’s blend of fact and wild fiction. While she always had enough sense to insist that there is no historical evidence of a married Jesus, she found a common cause with Dan Brown. In The Da Vinci Code the early church fathers demonized Mary Magdalene for her marriage to Jesus; for King, in her 2003 book, they demonized her for her spiritual leadership:

“For King, the Da Vinci effect helped turn a scholar whose intellectual passions had been confined to classrooms, academic tracts, and the occasional church into a bestselling author with live audiences and hundreds and a television viewership of millions. Yet it put King in a curious bind: On the one hand, The Da Vinci Code was just the latest of more than fifteen hundred years of fictions about Mary Magdalene — and fictions about Mary Magdalene were precisely what King had devoted her life to dispelling [italics mine]. On the other hand, this particular fiction — of Magdalene as Jesus’s wife — had given King a platform bigger than any she had ever known.” (p 65)

This platform, however, would be nothing like what she got almost a decade later, when she obtained the mysterious Jesus-Wife fragment from a “collector of antiquities”.

Assessing the Fragment: An Implied “Criterion of Embarrassment”?

The papyrologist meeting at Roger Bagnall’s home in New York (on October 24, 2011) is where the whole business should have died, and apparently almost did. As Sabar tells it (pp 28-31), Bagnall (a classics scholar) hosted the meeting to discuss the photos of the Jesus-Wife fragment sent to him by King, who was a close colleague and friend. AnneMarie Luijendijk (King’s protégé) was present along with eight other young papyrologists. All were initially skeptical — the handwriting alone suggested a forger rather than a scribe of antiquity — but they soon strangely reversed themselves, becoming convinced that the forgery tells could be marks of authenticity.

The logic reminds me of the increasingly discredited criterion of embarrassment in historical-Jesus studies: if what Jesus says or does in the gospels would have created “embarrassment” to the gospel writers, the less likely they would have invented it. (Most famously: Jesus’s baptism by John appears to portray the sinless savior in need of having sins washed away.) The logic being that if you want to invent something about your savior, you invent something that aligns cleanly with what you believe, and not something that creates difficulty or contradiction (“embarrassment”).

In Sabar’s account of the Bagnall meeting, a variant of this criterion seems to have been invoked. “Surely no one would forge something that looked obviously this fake.” “A forger would have tried harder”. A forger, in other words, surely wouldn’t produce such an embarrassing product. Really.

Dating the Fragment

Five months later (in March 2012), King met with Bagnall and Luijendijk and other scholars in New York, where she showed them the Jesus-Wife fragment. Sabar tells (pp 31-33, 37-38) how Bagnall dated it to the 4th century AD, and speculated that a fragment this important could fetch a six-figure price.

Months later in July, King felt confident dating the fragment to the 2nd century AD when she spoke to the press. One might wonder how she felt this confident, when Bagnall had (in their March pow-wow) dated the Coptic handwriting to the fourth century — and that Coptic in any case didn’t emerge as a written language until the third century. For King a fourth-century fragment wasn’t good enough, because it looked too reactionary against the settled orthodox portrait of a celibate Jesus. Something from the second century would make a more formidable weapon against the orthodox, as it would imply early debates among Christians over marriage and sexuality.

She argued for an early date of the fragment on the same basis that she had assigned the (unconvincing) early date for the Gospel of Mary — by assuming that the Coptic was a translation of an earlier Greek original, and that the original text was “in conversation” with a competing theological view, rather than reactionary against an established orthodox view. If there is no evidence that Jesus was married, King insisted that there is also no evidence that he wasn’t, and the Jesus-Wife fragment should now lead scholars to re-evaluate the Christian doctrine of sexuality and marriage.

Naming the Fragment

When TV producer Hannah Veale and her boss Andy Webb, got unrestricted access to a Harvard scholar that summer — before the Jesus-Wife fragment was even peer reviewed — fate was writ. Veale and Webb asked her if she had given the fragment a name, and she told them she was thinking of calling it the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife”. Sabar cites Webb as follows:

“Webb had interviewed enough scholars over the years to expect the usual impenetrable nomenclature. This, he never expected. ‘If Karen had decided to call it Artifact 957/A, then that would have been fine,’ he said. ‘So to be given, as it were, the license to call this little tiny fragment “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” … it sort of put the headline on the story that even as a journalist and filmmaker I would have never dared to apply myself.” (p 69)

To be fair — and as before, during the Da Vinci craze a decade earlier — King was careful to emphasize that there is no historical evidence that Jesus was married, and that the Jesus-Wife fragment did not offer proof of such. It only meant, she said, that some Christians living over a century after Jesus’s death believed that he was married, probably to affirm a theology that legitimated wives and mothers as disciples, and to sanctify sexuality. King insisted that part of her scholarly job was to “throw water on sensationalism”. But then why, asks Sabar, had she picked a title for the fragment that guaranteed sensationalism?

Bombshell in Rome

King officially announced her discovery in Rome on September 18, 2012, in a room filled with Coptologists. The announcement would summon a media storm, but the Coptic specialists weren’t impressed and raised all sort of objections. For example, Einar Thomassen pointed out the phrase ta-hime (“my wife”) appears in the fragment, but it’s a phrase that can’t be found in any surviving Coptic document. Even the word hime alone was rarely used in Coptic. Shime was the generic word for “woman” that could also mean “wife”, and much more frequently used. But ta-hime is completely unheard of. When ancient scribes wrote “my wife”, they used ta-shime in every known instance that survives. Sabar elaborates on Thomassen’s objection:

“Whether some rule of syntax treated hime differently from shime is unknown; ancient Copts didn’t leave behind grammar books. What is clear is that ta-hime appears in exactly one known Coptic text: the tiny fragment that a stranger had given Karen King. The papyrus would thus be noteworthy not just for its content but for its singular use of language. Had an ancient scribe used ta-shime instead of ta-hime, no scholar would have translated, ‘Jesus said to them, “My wife”…’ differently. No one would think that Jesus, in referring to ‘my woman’, was speaking of, say, a girlfriend. But ta-hime took no chances. It doubled down. It was an unprecedented, belt-and-suspenders locution.” (pp 93-94)

Other objections were raised, but King evidently felt secure enough with the “authority” of Bagnall behind her. Three days after the conference, Francis Watson published a paper showing that the Jesus-Wife fragment is a collage of passages from the Coptic Gospel of Thomas (an unlikely way for an ancient author to compose a text, but likely enough from a modern forger with limited Coptic skills). Three weeks after the conference, Andrew Bernhard showed the fragment to be a completely obvious fake… but more on that later.

“Peer Review” by Friends

Here’s the real shocker. King submitted her article on the Jesus-Wife fragment to The Harvard Theological Review (on August 10, 2012), and on the same day the journal’s editors (Kevin Madigan and Jon Levenson) asked Roger Bagnall to peer review King’s article.

Roger Bagnall was the classics scholar who had already worked with King to date the fragment to the 4th century; whom King had cited in her article; and who was a good friend of Bagnall. “Asking Bagnall to anonymously peer-review King’s article,” says Sabar, “was like asking an athletic team’s co-captain to referee his own game, and in disguise.” On top of this, Bagnall even admitted upfront that he lacked expertise in non-canonical early Christian literature. He was a papyrologist, yes, but a classics scholar. The Harvard editors wanted him anyway.

The other two peer reviews of King’s article were negative in the extreme, and came from two leading Coptologists, Bentley Layton and Stephen Emmel. Layton told the Harvard editors point blank that publishing the fragment “would be very embarrassing for The Harvard Theological Review.” Emmel identified the papyrus as a clear fake and fingered just about every forgery tell that would emerge over the next four years.

Then a greater shock. At this point — after the negative peer review — King’s article should have been rejected, but the Harvard editors ignored the advice of the two lead Coptologists and allowed King to gather her own team to make a case for the fragment’s authenticity. The team consisted of the following experts:

  1. Noreen Tuross, Pofessor of Scientific Archaeology, Harvard Univeristy
  2. Gregory Hodgins, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, University of Arizona
  3. Timothy Swager, Professor of Chemistry, MIT
  4. James Yardley, Professor of Electrical Engineering, Columbia University

The choices of Tuross and Hodgins were fair enough, and their radiocarbon tests actually overturned King’s claims the Coptic fragments dated to the 2nd century, and for that matter Bagnall’s more cautious claims that they dated to the 4th. The papyri in fact dated to the 8th. (Naturally, this didn’t stop King from claiming that the contents of the papyri dated much earlier, even if copied onto an 8th-century payrus.)

The choices of Swager and Yardley, on the other hand, made little sense and were unethical. Timothy Swager, an expert in explosives detection (not ancient papyri) is unknown in the community of archaeological science. He was chosen because his father was a close friend of Karen King’s father. (Back home in Montana they were hunting partners.) As for James Yardley, he runs the Ancient Ink Laboratory at Columbia, but has no actual experience with ancient objects or ink identification. He has spent most of his career as a research administrator, and founded the lab because Roger Bagnall is his brother-in-law. Obviously, neither Swager nor Yardley were inclined to damage the academic reputations of their friends/relatives King and Bagnall, and on the strength of that nepotism, the Coptic fragments were given a murky pass on the ink and material tests.

The final shock is that The Harvard Theological Review didn’t bother peer-reviewing these lab results. The radiocarbon dating and ink/material analyses went unchecked. King published her article (on April 10, 2014), robustly confident that the specter of forgery had been put to rest.

This is all bad, but to me, frankly, the biggest shock of all is that this lab work proceeded despite Andrew Bernhard’s proof (published on October 11, 2012) that the Jesus-Wife fragment was without doubt a hoax. King basically ignored Bernhard’s findings because he’s a non-specialist.

David & Goliath

In his podcast review Mark Goodacre calls Veritas a “David & Goliath” story, in which the amateur Andrew Bernhard takes down the Harvard-giant Karen King. It’s true: Sabar gives Bernhard (who does not have a PhD in biblical studies) a lead role in the narrative, and this is fair, since Bernhard did more than anyone to drive a nail in the hoax. His discovery was stunning as it was hilarious: if the Jesus-Wife fragment were truly the product of an ancient scribe, that scribe had somehow time-traveled into the age of the internet, and obtained access to Mike Grondin’s interlinear — an online pdf created in 2002, that contained a typographical error which the forger unwittingly copied. (That typo-versioned interlinear is still available here, which Grondin is preserving for historical purposes regarding the whole controversy.)

Mark notes in his podcast review that he and Francis Watson don’t get much coverage in Sabar’s book, despite both having been heavily involved in critiquing the Jesus-Wife fragment (see here and here for Goodacre, for example, and here especially for Watson), though Mark is probably right that underscoring professional contributions might have spoiled Sabar’s David & Goliath story.

Similarly, I thought it curious that in discussing the Secret Mark hoax (pp 33-37), Sabar mentions Peter Jeffrey’s debunking but not Stephen Carlson’s, even though Carlson struck first. They are equally compelling treatments, but Jeffery is a biblical-studies amateur (a musicologist by profession), and again Sabar probably wants the amateurs to shine. (Carlson would have actually shined fine in this light, since he was a patent attorney when working on Gospel Hoax; he enrolled in a biblical-studies graduate program only after debunking Secret Mark.)

On the other hand, Dr. Christian Askeland gets his proper due, as the one who exposed the Coptic John fragment to be a fake. This fragment was in the same collection with the Jesus-Wife fragment, and — only two weeks after King’s article was published — Askeland realized something just as stunning and hilarious as the typo spotted by Bernhard. If the Coptic John fragment was the product of an ancient scribe, the scribe had once again projected his psyche centuries into the future, and copied from an available online pdf, and then got careless in covering his tracks. This time he replicated a modern typesetting feature from Herbert Thompson’s 1924 edition of the Qau Codex (the earliest Coptic copy of John). See here for an illustration.

So, just as the Jesus-Wife fragment reproduced typos from a modern interlinear of Thomas (which Bernhard spotted in October 2012), the Coptic John fragment displayed a typesetting format from a modern translation of John (which Askeland saw in April 2014). Sabar notes that Askeland took his ground-breaking find not to a newspaper, but to the Evangelical Textual Criticism Blog, and then promptly got himself into hot water for having the blog run his article entitled, “Jesus Had an Ugly Sister-in-Law”. The use of an ugly woman as a metaphor for a sloppily forged text was evidently too much for some people who cried foul, sexism, or even outright misogyny (all horseshit accusations, in my opinion, and a pathetic deflection from the issue at hand). Askeland is also in bed with the Hobby Lobby crowd, who are no friends of mine, but tribalism is the worst trap to fall into. Sabar observes that “Askeland’s job with the Green Scholars Initiative made him an easy target for King’s supporters, who sought to discount his findings as evangelically driven. But King, it turned out, had also taken money from affluent culture warriors (p 297).” Forgeries are forgeries no matter what tribe you belong to. The fact is that Askeland’s findings spoke for themselves and were unshakable.

But then so were Andrew Bernhard’s back in October 2012. King found Bernhard easy to ignore though, since he was a non-specialist who published his findings on blogs and personal websites. In the long run this hurt King all the more. By ignoring the amateur Bernhard, assembling an unethical team of experts to test the fragment, and finally publish her “prestigious” article — only to be hit two weeks later with Askeland’s discovery confirming Bernard’s — the liabilities were piling up. As Sabar says, “Truths hounded in basements might take long to find their way into the ivory tower, but they get there eventually (p 144).” And the longer the delay, the harder those accumulated truths hit.

Unveiling Walter Fritz

Everyone and their mother has known since the publication of Sabar’s article in The Atlantic Monthly (June 15, 2016) that Walter Fritz is the forger of the Jesus-Wife fragment. But there’s a hell of a lot more of his background presented in Veritas than in the Atlantic article. Years of investigative work on Sabar’s part yield a biography of the man that goes well beyond adjectives like “colorful”.

The highlights of Fritz’s life, as chronicled by Sabar (much of it out of sequence) can be summarized linearly as follows: He was allegedly (and quite plausibly) sodomized by a Catholic priest at the age of nine (1974). He enrolled in an Egyptology program at the Free University of Berlin (1988), where he disdained fellow students as inferiors. He published a scholarly article (1991) in a prestigious German-language journal, in which he argued that the Pharaohs Akhenaten and his father Amenhotep III had ruled in succession, and not jointly as the prevailing theory would have it. The article pissed off his instructor Jurgen Osing, who considered it a plagiarism of his own ideas — ideas that Fritz simply heard in Osing’s history class. Soon after the article’s publication, Fritz vanished from campus, and never earned his degree. Later that year he was hired as the director of the Stasi Museum in East Berlin, and was soon castigated by the board of directors for poor management and missing items suspected to be stolen. He resigned (1992), and soon after hooked up with a low-IQ mule, Hans-Ulrich Laukamp, whom he eventually manipulated into allowing him joint directorship of a metalworking company (1995) that he expanded into Florida and eventually became the sole director of (2001) before it went bankrupt (2002). It is this Hans-Ulrich Laukamp who would become Fritiz’s fall guy (he died in 2002) — the supposed “original owner” of the Coptic fragments that Fritz would peddle onto Karen King.

Walter Fritz drank theology that cut against the Catholic church, and actualized his unorthodoxy in sex and pornography. Only a month after the publication of The Da Vinci Code (2003) he launched pornographic websites that showed his wife (an American woman he recently married) having sex with shitloads of other men, sometimes with multiple men at the same time. (In Dan Brown’s novel a clandestine society engages in group ritualized sex in which the woman is dominant, and the sex act symbolizes the union of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.) On a fetish blog his wife proudly announced that she “fucks as many men as possible” (2005), as a liberation from traditional gender norms. Fritz unreservedly supported his wife’s libertinism, stating that while he likes “being dominant and using women”, he also enjoys being used by them in turn so that he can know the other side — the submissive side, “where true strength lies”.

On her many websites, Fritz’s wife praised sluthood as nothing less than the key to the kingdom of God. She wrote poems to sluthood and aligned them with Jesus’s teachings according to the ancient gnostics: “If we were able to find out the nature of our own reality (the part that exists and is immortal), we may have a chance of finding the reality of the world as well. That’s why Jesus says, ‘The kingdom of God is within you!’ It means: find your own reality within, then you will know it all.” Applied to orgiastic sex, the Fritzes had found salvation through slutty gang bangs.

Things got bad for Fritz and his wife during the Great Recession, causing Fritz to put his home on the market for sale (2009). He wrote nasty letters to the editor, demanding that city employees be laid off or take drastic salary reductions. His financial woes seem to have been the trigger for launching his hoax at Harvard… but of course things are never quite that simple.

Fritz’s Motive(s) in Forging the Jesus-Wife Fragment

Here’s how Sabar describes Fritz. He was

“a sycophant with a salesman’s silver tongue. He traveled to Egypt, had access to ink-making ingredients and a large papyrus collection, and was clever enough to decipher a damaged hieroglyphic text for a scholarly journal. Yet for all his talent and ambition, he was stymied by a language — Coptic — and a professor — Osing — and he quit before earning the most basic of degrees. Such a background could well explain the ‘combination of bumbling and sophistication’ that Karen King had deemed ‘extremely unlikely’ in a forger… But if Fritz did do it, what was his motive? Greed — or simply financial need — inspires many forgers, and by 2010 Fritz’s assets and income appeared to have taken a beating. But the facts didn’t entirely square with this theory. The owner of the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife may have wanted to get rich, but he didn’t seem to be in a hurry. He had agreed to loan the Wife papyrus to Harvard for a decade, even after the university rejected his proposed deal — that the school buy his other papyri in exchange for his donation of the Wife papyrus… Other motivations seemed just as viable. By all accounts, Fritz had seen his Egyptology dreams thwarted. He might well have nursed a grudge against the elite scholars who had failed to appreciate his intellectual gifts — who had told him he was mediocre at Coptic and short on original ideas. Not a few forgers have been driven by an impulse to show up the experts. A yearning to settle scores might have intensified at a time when Fritz — beset by joblessness, corporate bankrupticies and an unsellable house — found his life in free fall.” (p 187)

Walter Fritz, then, would represent a cross between Konrad Kujau and Morton Smith, a forger who (a) commits fraud for money and (b) orchestrates a hoax to make scholars look like fools. But there could also have been a third motive in play. As described later in the book, Fritz claims to have been raped by a priest when he was nine years old, and Sabar’s detective work on this front shows that claim to be very plausible. The Jesus-Wife hoax could have been — at least in part — a “Fuck You” to a church that deeply wronged him, and to which he reacted against (with his slut-proud hotwife) in “master and servant” sex acts.

I was drawn at this point in Sabar’s book to compare Walter Fritz very strongly to Morton Smith. Obviously Smith was a brilliant scholar (unlike the wannabe Fritz), but like Fritz he had the rare combination of skills to forge what he needed to forge, and similar motives. Secret Mark was created at a time in Smith’s career when he was denied tenure at Brown, and few appreciated his talents, even though he was (again, unlike Fritz) a brilliant scholar. Smith was a priest-turned-atheist, and he developed theories way ahead of his time. (Biblical studies in the ’50s was still largely confessionally driven, and hadn’t become the sophisticated and interdisciplinary field we know today.) Smith’s anger at the homophobia of the ’50s, his resentment of the academy, and his nasty sense of humor all combined in one of the most successful literary hoaxes of all time. In his profile of Smith, Peter Jeffery notes how motives can reinforce one another even as they undermine, and be more effective for it:

“One of the slippery things about the whole Mar Saba venture — both the ‘original’ document and Smith’s various publications on it — is that there seem to be three messages, which shift in and out of focus depending on how one looks at it, and which tend to undermine each other. First of all, Smith clearly wanted us to believe he had discovered major new evidence that Jesus approved of homosexuality — even engaged in it, even imbued it with religious significance… But how could we take Smith’s proposal seriously when, on closer scrutiny, it keeps dissolving into dirty jokes?… But then, just as we are about to dismiss the whole thing as a prank — lewd, crude, and facetious — the humor fades into hostility. All the experts and eminences whose endorsements Smith claimed to have obtained, and all the other scholars who became convinced that he had discovered a genuine ancient writing, will have good reason to feel abused, more than amused, by the whole sordid mess — arguably the most grandiose and reticulated ‘Fuck You’ ever perpetuated in the long and vituperative history of scholarship. Were all three messages equally intended? Did Smith fully realize what he was doing?” (The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled, p 242)

We can likewise ask: Did Fritz fully realize what he was doing on July 9, 2010, when he contacted Karen King for the first time? It was only a day after his furious letter to the editor, in which he ranted about economic hardships; it was only months after his letters to Pope Benedict describing his rape by a priest when he was a kid, with still no reply from Rome; it was years after dropping out of the university and being derided as a plagiarist with no original ideas — but there’s really no expiration date on that sort of thing when it makes you a loser for life, and you have the superiority complex of Walter Fritz. I suspect all three of these motives — financial need, hatred of the Catholic church, and the thrill of making fools of tools like Karen King — drove Fritz to do what he did.

The Fate of Harvard Divinity: The Crisis of 2009-2011

One thing kept eating at me through Veritas. Why did Karen King ignore Walter Fritz for so long before finally taking his bait? He first emailed her on July 9, 2010, describing the Coptic fragments he wanted to sell. She didn’t reply until almost a year later, on June 25, 2011, and that was to tell him she wasn’t interested. Then, four months after that, on October 15, she suddenly had a change of heart. Why fifteen whole months before she bit?

I was beginning to think this would remain an unanswered question until I got well into the final act of the book. Sabar describes a crisis on Harvard Divinity — a long wave of complaints starting in 2009 about the blurred lines between serious scholarship and pastoral ministry at Harvard, causing many professors to leave and seek positions at other (“more serious”) universities. By late 2011, Harvard President Drew Faust planned to bring in outside scholars to assess the study of religion at Harvard. Theology and religious studies might split into separate departments, as at other universities. The strongest resisters of this, ironically, came from the feminist faculty, whose fusion of liberal politics/theology and academic scholarship had found the perfect platform at Harvard Divinity.

Karen King would have been in this camp advocating the status quo. She wasn’t a fan of fact-driven scholarship — or “fact fundamentalism”, as she often put it — to the extent that in an almost-surreal dispute with a colleague (Hal Taussig) over the Diary of Perpetua, “Taussig the pastor insisted on historical defensibility, while King, the historian, was treating dates as adjustable furniture” (p 320). (The Diary of Perpetua was a favorite text of King’s, and she was trying to get a committee of scholars to include it in a “New New Testament” they were putting together, but it didn’t fit the committee’s criterion of pre-175 AD date boundary; King wanted an exception made for this text that she liked so much.)

According to Sabar, on October 13, 2011, President Faust sent an email to the faculty, informing everyone that she was bringing in outside scholars to assess the study of religion at Harvard. There was a strong reaction from those who favored the status quo. Two days later, on October 15, Karen King — after fifteen whole months of showing no interest in Fritz’s sales pitches — contacted Fritz and told him that she had reconsidered his offer, and wanted the Jesus-Wife fragment after all. Sabar interprets this remarkable change of heart:

“The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, I came to believe, was King’s boldest intervention, a daring play for survival in a time of uncertainty. King had earned her degrees in traditional departments of religious studies, at the University of Montana and Brown; they were the sorts that Faust’s panel had held up as models for a secular institution as eminent as Harvard. But for King, Harvard Divinity School had become a more congenial home. The school was a kind of Ivy-fringed Jesus Seminar, peopled by no small number of scholars for whom reason and faith were mutually reinforcing.” (p 318)

King had been strongly influenced by Bob Funk — creator of the liberal Jesus Seminar, and inflamed with the same degree of religious zeal as the evangelicals he despised — so I can readily buy this.

And so we have it. What opened the door to the whole fiasco was a divinity school in crisis. If Harvard was on the brink of creating a secular religious studies department, then the divinity department (and King’s status) was in jeopardy. The Jesus-Wife fragment must have seemed a godsend for keeping progressive liberal theology married to academic scholarship.


Sabar’s book is well written and plotted, but keeping track of the chronology of events is a challenge because his tale is non-linear. I’ve created a timeline for convenience, and so readers can see, in some cases, how one seemingly unrelated event leads into another and explains it.


Date Event
Walter Fritz, at nine years old, is allegedly raped and sodomized by a priest in the town of Bad Wurzach.
Fritz enrolls in an Egyptology program at the Free University of Berlin.
Fritz publishes a scholarly article in a prestigious German-language journal, in which he argues that the Pharaoh Akhenaton and his father had ruled in succession, and not jointly as the prevailing theory would have it. The article angers Jurgen Osing, who considers it a plagiarism of his own ideas — ideas that Fritz simply heard in Osing’s Egyptian history class. Soon after the article’s publication, Fritz vanishes from campus forever, without finishing his degree.
November 1991
Fritz is hired as the director of the Stasi Museum in East Berlin.
March 1992
The Stasi Museum’s board members question Fritz on missing valuables in the museum. Soon after, in the spring, Fritz resigns from the museum, possibly due to being threatened by a museum volunteer named Wolfgang Veith. (Fritz may have stumbled on Veith’s stash of child pornography that eventually sent Veith to prison in 1995.)
Spring 1992
Sometime after leaving the museum, Fritz meets Hans-Ulrich Laukamp in a steam room, and strikes up a friendship with him. (Laukamp will eventually become Fritz’s fall guy as the “original owner” of the Jesus-Wife fragment.)
Fritz comes to Florida.
Hans-Ulrich Laukamp and his friend Axel Herzsprung found ACMB Metallbearbeitung GmbH (ACMB Metalworking), and become overnight wealthy.
Laukamp buys a holiday house in Venice, Florida.
December 23, 1999
At the instigation of Fritz, ACMB incorporates an American branch in Florida, with no ostensible clients. ACMB now stands for American Corporation for Milling and Boreworks, and Fritz is a director along with Laukamp and Herzsprung.
January 8, 2001 Fritz signs a government form striking Laukamp and Herzsprung from their directorships of the Florida ACMB. On the same day Fritz acquires a three-acre piece of property in North Port (30 minutes away from Venice).
March 2001
Fritz builds a home on his property in North Port and marries an American woman, who becomes his hotwife glorifying sluthood.
August 2002 ACMB files for bankruptcy.
January 2003 Death of Hans-Ulrich Laukamp, from lung cancer.
April 2003 A month after the publication of The Da Vinci Code, Fritz launches a series of pornographic websites, showing his wife having sex with many other men. (In Dan Brown’s novel a clandestine society engages in group ritualized sex in which the woman is dominant, and the sex act symbolizes the union of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.)
2005 On a fetish blog, Jenny Seemore (the hotwife name for Fritz’s wife) says she “fucks as many men as possible” as a liberation from traditional gender norms. Fritz, for his part, states that he enjoys “being dominant and using women”, but also being used in turn by women and knowing the other side — the submissive side, “where true strength lies”.
Spring 2009
In the midst of the Great Recession, Fritz puts his house in North Port on the market.
August 31, 2009
On one of her blogs, Fritz’s wife advertises pendants for the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus, accompanied by small papyri fragments of Christian writings in Coptic. She “guarantees” the papyri date to the second century. (Coptic emerged as a written language in the third century). By this point, she and Fritz are clearly contemplating the peddling of fake papyri for profit.
January 2010
The legacy of Catholic clergy abuse erupts in Germany, with many Jesuit students reporting that they were molested by priests in the ’70s and ’80s. Pope Benedict comes under fire in the media for his history of shielding pedophiles in the clergy.
April 29, 2010
Fritz writes a letter to Pope Benedict describing how he was raped and sodomized by a priest when he was nine.
July 8, 2010
Fritz’s house remains unsold after over a year. His furious letter to the editor is published in the North Port Sun, in which he demands layoffs at North Port City Hall, and drastic salary reductions for other city employees.
July 9, 2010
A day after Fritz’s nasty letter to the editor is published, he sends his first email to Karen King, saying that he has a set of Coptic fragments that he is willing to sell. (This is also 10 weeks after reporting his alleged rape in 1974 to Pope Benedict, but still without any reply from the Vatican.)
Later July, 2010
Attending a conference in Berlin, King receives a second email from Fritz. She responds to him for the first time, saying that she’s busy, but asks him where he obtained the Coptic fragments. He replies, saying that he purchased them from a German American [Hans Ulrich Laukamp] in the ’90s.
June 25, 2011 After ignoring Fritz for almost a year, Karen King contacts him and writes that she’s not interested in his collection of Coptic fragments.
June 26, 2011
Fritz, desperate, replies to King, telling her that a European manuscript dealer has “right now” offered him a sum “almost too good to be true”. If she doesn’t move fast, his papyrus might move into a private collection for good, and never be seen by anyone. King continues to ignore him (until October 15).
October 13, 2011
Harvard President Drew Faust sends an email to the faculty, informing everyone that she is bringing in outside scholars to assess the study of religion at Harvard. Her decision comes after a long wave of complaints about the blurred lines between serious scholarship and pastoral ministry at Harvard, which has caused many professors to leave and seek positions at other (“more serious”) universities. Faust is entertaining the splitting of theology and religious studies into separate departments (as at other universities) and the strongest resisters of this, ironically, come from the feminist faculty, whose fusion of liberal politics/theology and academic scholarship had found the perfect platform at Harvard Divinity. Karen King is in this camp for maintaining the status quo. She is not a fan of fact-driven scholarship (or “fact fundamentalism”, as she puts it), and if a secular religious studies were to be created at Harvard, the divinity school’s prestige (and hers) would be greatly diminished.
October 15, 2011 Two days after Drew Faust announces an outside investigation that threatens the future of the Harvard Divinity School, King contacts Fritz and tells him that she has reconsidered his offer after all. She tells Fritz that she will make arrangements to date the fragment so that she can publish the discovery. [She agrees to preserve his anonymity. No one will learn that Fritz is her source until Ariel Sabar uncovers Fritz in his investigation in late 2015.]
October 24, 2011
In his New York apartment, Roger Bagnall hosts a meeting to discuss the photos of the Jesus-Wife fragment sent to him by his colleague and friend Karen King. AnneMarie Luijendijk (King’s protégé) is present along with eight papyrologists. All are initially skeptical, but then strangely reverse themselves, seeing the forgery tells as marks of authenticity. (They seem to have used a variant of the criterion of embarrassment: “surely no one would forge something that looked this obviously fake”; “a forger would have surely tried harder”; etc.)
December 14, 2011 Fritz comes to Harvard and gives Karen King the Coptic fragments, with the sales contracts showing Hans Ulrich Laukamp as the previous owner.
March 12, 2012 King, Bagnall, and Luijendijk meet in New York with other scholars to examine the physical fragment mentioning Jesus’s wife. Bagnall dates it to the 4th century AD, and speculates that a fragment this important could fetch a six-figure price.
July 25, 2012 King speaks to the press at Harvard, saying that she believes the fragment mentioning Jesus’s wife can be dated to the 2nd century AD.
August 10, 2012 King submits her article on the Jesus-Wife fragment to The Harvard Theological Review, and also sends a copy of the article to the Smithsonian Channel. On the same day, the editors of The Harvard Theological Review ask Roger Bagnall to peer review King’s article. The journalist Ariel Sabar, who is covering the story, asks King if he might interview the collector who gave her the fragment, but she protects Fritz’s anonymity. [Who Fritz is, where he lives, and what he does will remain a mystery until late 2015.]
August 26, 2012 Fritz registers the domain name “”.
August 29, 2012 In a journal entry, Fritz’s wife writes, “Knowledge as you know, is what brings forth the fortune. For all the Bibles and all the churches in the entire world, cannot give you what you can give to yourself.” [This entry will appear among many others in her self-published book of “universal truths” in 2015. In the book, Fritz’s wife will claim that God and the arch-angel Michael speak directly through her. The dates of the book’s entries align with Fritz’s overtures to Karen King throughout 2010-2012. The 8/29/12 entry is the next-to-last, mere weeks before King’s announcement in Rome.]
September 18, 2012
King announces the discovery of the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife papyrus in Rome. A media furor erupts the next day.
September 21, 2012
Francis Watson wastes no time demonstrating that the Jesus-Wife fragment is a collage of texts from the Coptic Gospel of Thomas.
September 25, 2012
Fritz begins changing the street addresses to which his porn sites are registered.
October 11, 2012 Andrew Bernard shows that the Jesus-Wife fragment was copied from Mike Grondin’s interlinear, which has been available online. The interlinear has contained a typo since 2002, and the Jesus-Wife fragment has the same typo.
April 10, 2014
After over a year of silence — and despite the glaring forgery tells, especially those flagged by Andrew Bernhard — The Harvard Theological Review publishes Karen King’s article, which argues that scientific tests have “proven” the JW fragment to be authentic. (In fact the radiocarbon tests have dated the papyrus itself to only the 8th century medieval period, not the ancient period; and the ink and material tests are inconclusive.) The journal also publishes a scathing rebuttal of King’s article by Leo Depuydt, an Egyptologist at Brown University.
April 24, 2014
Two weeks after King’s article is published, Christian Askeland shows that a papyrus in the same collection with the Jesus-Wife fragment (a Coptic version of the Gospel of John) has the same handwriting of the Jesus-Wife fragment, and replicates a modern typesetting feature from Herbert Thompson’s 1924 edition of the Qau Codex (the earliest surviving Coptic translation of John), which is accessible online.
August 28, 2015
Soon after King makes Fritz’s interlinear available online — the interlinear that he gave her along with the forged fragments years ago — Andrew Bernhard shows that the transcription is undeniably a reiteration of Mike Grondin’s interlinear.
November 2015
Journalist Ariel Sabar contacts Fritz for the first time. Fritz denies that he is the owner of the JW fragment.
December 2015
As scrutiny of the Jesus-Wife fragment revs up again, all of Fritz’s porn websites go dark.
January 2016 Sabar finds the first hard evidence linking Fritz to the Jesus-Wife fragment (his registering the domain name “” back in 2012) and The Atlantic sends him to Germany for more research.
March 2016
Sabar calls Fritz after finishing his research in Germany. Fritz still denies being the owner, or having forged, the Jesus-Wife fragment, but speaks in quasi-confessional roundabout ways.
March 21, 2016
Fritz admits to Sabar that he is the owner of the Jesus-Wife fragment, sating that “neither I, nor any third parties have forged, altered, or manipulated the fragment and/or its inscription in any way since it was acquired by me”; and that “the previous owner gave no indications that the fragment was tampered with either”.
April 9, 2016
Sabar and Fritz meet face to face.
June 15, 2016
The Atlantic Monthly publishes Ariel Sabar’s article which unveils Walter Fritz as the forger of the Jesus-Wife fragment.
June 16, 2016
King concedes that Ariel Sabar’s article “tips the balance towards forgery”.
August 11, 2020 Doubleday publishes Ariel Sabar’s book Veritas, reviewed in this blogpost.


Rating America’s Presidents

There’s a new book coming out, and it’s quite a treat: Rating America’s Presidents. The author, Robert Spencer, wrote the magisterial History of Jihad and many other books on Islam. A ranking of the U.S. presidents is outside his usual area, but he does a very good job where most others fail. Of the countless president rankings flooding the market, there has been only one that I find useful: Recarving Rushmore by Ivan Eland. Spencer’s book is now a second helpful remedy to the established mainstream views of which presidents were good and bad and somewhere in-between.

Mainstream historians tend to favor presidents who were (a) charismatics, (b) goal-oriented “managers”, (c) foreign interventionists, (d) big-government statists, and (e) globalists. Call these biases the (a) charisma bias, the (b) effectiveness bias, and the (c-d-e) activist biases. I’ve said this many times before: Just because a leader is charismatic and can move you with speeches, doesn’t say anything about his policies and how good he was for the American people. That he accomplished his goals says nothing about how good those goals were. (James Polk and Lyndon Johnson were the two most effective presidents in history; they were also bad ones.) That he intervened militarily abroad, economically at home, and meddled in worldly affairs are just as likely bad signs as good ones, and usually more bad; it’s precisely when presidents “do too much”, instead of showing executive restraint, that America (and other nations) end up suffering for it.

Seriously: On the basis of charisma, effectiveness, and activism, some of the worst leaders in history would have to be pronounced great, not least Adolf Hitler. These are lousy criteria to judge our chief executives, and yet most everyone uses them, consciously or not. Human beings are suckers for charisma; we feel the pull of magnetically persuasive leaders like FDR, JFK, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama (charismatics are usually Democrats, for whatever reason). We also like to focus on a president’s effectiveness (in achieving his goals, no matter what those goals are), because it allows us the illusion of neutrality, and to abstain from judgment and keep our politics private; but we can’t be apolitical in evaluating politicians. We have to get our hands dirty for the exercise to mean anything. Spencer’s cards, refreshingly, are all on the table. In his introduction he writes:

New criteria are needed—or more precisely, old criteria. In fact, what is needed is the oldest criterion of all for judging the success and failure of various presidents: were they good for America and Americans, or were they not?… What makes a great president is one who preserved, protected, and defended the Constitution of the United States. Or to put it even more simply, a great president is one who put America first.

The idea that all responsible leaders have an obligation to serve their own citizens primarily, rather than those of the world at large, has been out of fashion since World War II, and in many ways since World War I. It has been mislabeled, derided, and dismissed as ‘isolationism,’ a fear or unwillingness to engage with the wider world, even as it is becoming increasingly interconnected and interdependent. But it does not necessarily mean that America will withdraw from the world; it only means that in dealing with the world, American presidents will be looking out primarily for the good of Americans.

The term America First has also been associated, quite unfairly, with racism and anti-Semitism. The founding principles of the republic, notably the proposition that, as the Declaration of Independence puts it, ‘all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,’ shows that putting America First has nothing to do with such petty and irrational hatreds.

That will therefore be the principal criterion of the evaluations of the presidents in this book: Did he put America first? Was he good for Americans? Or did he leave us in a worse, poorer, more precarious, or more dangerous position than we were in before he assumed office?

Indeed, an “America First” criteria would seem so obvious, and I tend to frame that issue in the way Ivan Eland does in Recarving Rushmore. Presidents should be judged by what they did for the American causes of peace (foreign policy), prosperity (domestic policy), and liberty (freedom). After all, those are what most Americans want from life: to live in peace, to prosper, and to enjoy freedom. Though Spencer doesn’t spell out his criteria this way, they emerge implicitly in his assessments.

His grading scale is as follows. (There are no presidents who get a ‘3’ rating, so I’m not sure what that descriptor would be.)

10 – Great for America
9 — Very good for America
8 — Very good for America
7 — Good for America, but also did some harm
6 — Did good things for America, but also significant damage
5 — Did little good for America, but not much damage
4 — Harmful for America, but did some good
3 — ?
2 — Very damaging for America
1 — Disastrous for America
0 — Disastrous for America

To compare Spencer’s ratings with mine: In my blog series I graded the presidents on a scale of 0-60, but here I translate those scores into Spencer’s 0-10 scale. In most cases (26 presidents), our scores differ by 2 or less, usually boiling down to minor quibbles. For the other 14 presidents, our scores differ by 3 or more, but of those 14, only 6 represent dramatic disagreements: Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Rutherford Hayes, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump. Spencer scores Jackson, Lincoln, and Trump very high, where I score them quite low. Spencer scores Hayes, Carter, and Clinton very low, where I score them high. So on whole, Spencer and I agree quite a bit about what makes a good and bad president.

Here’s how it breaks down. I provide commentary for all the presidents where our scores differ by 3 or more, and also in a few cases where we closely agree, starting with Washington.

George Washington

Spencer — 10
Rosson — 9

— Everyone loves Washington, but often for superficial reasons, or just because he was the first president. As Spencer says, “the histories of the nations of the world are full of first chief executives who were not and never could be the political and moral exemplars of what the occupants of their office should be”. Washington did many good things — not least recommending the Bill of Rights — but his most important act often goes overlooked. Spencer highlights it:

“The importance of Washington’s voluntarily leaving office cannot be overstated. It was a sign of a certain degeneration of the American body politic that what had been a virtue and a hallmark of honest republican government, a voluntary safeguard against dynasties and demagogues, became a legal requirement, an element of morality that had to be legislated. Today, when the nation’s wealthiest areas are concentrated around Washington, DC, and congressmen and senators cling to power for decades if they can, often becoming millionaires in the process and creating their own private fiefdoms, the nation could benefit greatly from a few public servants who actually lived up to that term, and emulated Washington in relinquishing power instead of staying in office as long as they possibly can, more for their own benefit than anyone else’s.”

In other words, George Washington refused to become a king — something he could have easily done. Relinquishing the presidency is, I believe, one of the most important things a president has ever done in his capacity as president. For voluntarily establishing this precedent we owe Washington a great debt.

John Adams

Spencer — 4
Rosson — 3

Thomas Jefferson

Spencer — 7
Rosson — 7

— Jefferson has been a tough one for me to crack. Judged by most of his first term, he deserves a high 9. Judged by his second term he earns about a 4. Of course, his pre-presidential legacy — the Declaration of Independence — makes him one of the most important founding fathers. But a ranking of the presidents should be based exclusively on what the man did as president; the Declaration of Independence is really irrelevant here.

Indeed, according to Spencer, “without his illustrious pre-presidential record, Jefferson might have been compared unfavorably to other occupants of the White House” and never been carved on Mount Rushmore. I think Jefferson is a class-A example of the Peter Principle — that people who are promoted for their accomplishments at lower-level jobs fall short at higher level ones. Still, Jefferson’s first term was pretty solid; he began as a glowing model of executive restraint. He turned around a political system that under John Adams had deviated so massively from the promises of the founding fathers, especially in suppressing free speech. He avoided wars except a defensive one that was necessary, reversing Adams’ policy of paying tribute to Islamic jihadists who were terrorizing Americans for no good reason. Jefferson’s smashing of the Barbary pirates resulted in the first triumphant American victory over unprovoked jihad terror. He reduced the federal debt from 80 to 57 million. All very good.

But as Spencer notes, Jefferson then

“effaced his good work and threw a wrench into the American economy in 1807 with the Embargo Act. He vastly overestimated the importance of American products to Britain and France, and thereby did damage to the American economy that took years to repair. Even worse, in enforcing the Act, Jefferson abandoned his long-held principle of a limited federal government, becoming instead a strong advocate of centralization”.

Jefferson failed to hold true to his republican philosophy of limited government. He violated civil liberties under the Embargo Act, using oppressive measures to stop food smugglers who defied the embargo. Without warrants, his searches, seizures, and arrests were the acts of a police state, not a republic. Jefferson had been the hero who had ended the Alien and Sedition Acts and the persecution of free speech under John Adams — freeing those who had been imprisoned for speaking their minds — but now he was the executive villain flouting the Fourth Amendment. The American people starved thanks to the embargo. Farmers couldn’t export their crops. Urban industrial workers, sailors and artisans lost their jobs. Jefferson also assaulted the judiciary system, by trying to get judges impeached for purely political reasons. All very bad.

“All in all,” says Spencer, “the strict constructionist Jefferson became one of the most activist of presidents” — and this is why I wasn’t sure how to rate him. In the end, I scored him 42/60, which translates into Spencer’s own 7/10, because I think the good eclipses the bad. He also made the Louisiana Purchase, which allowed America to become a great power. So I think Spencer gets Jefferson right.

James Madison

Spencer — 5
Rosson — 5

— To me, Madison is like Jefferson, another example of the Peter Principle. His blueprint of the Constitution makes him one of the most important founding fathers, but as a president he wasn’t so towering. He took the new and weak nation into an avoidable war with Britain, and because of this, the American homeland was invaded for the only time in history, aside from 9/11. Washington DC was burned, and when the War of 1812 was over, little had been solved. Madison basically failed as commander in chief. But Spencer is right that he did some good things too, which scores him 5.

James Monroe

Spencer — 7
Rosson — 8

John Quincy Adams

Spencer — 5
Rosson — 7

Andrew Jackson

Spencer — 8
Rosson — 3

— Jackson represents our first real point of disagreement, and a wide one at that. Spencer mounts an interesting defense of the spoils system, noting that while the term is today synonymous with government corruption, “Jackson began it as a blow against corruption, preventing the establishment of an entrenched bureaucracy that would oppose the president”, and indeed that “the administration of Donald Trump has made it clear that such a bureaucracy determined to thwart the president at every turn is a genuine concern; it is time for a reconsideration of the spoils system”. I believe, however, that it is hard to overstate the cost to Jackson’s dismantling of elitist networks. The price was amateurism in civil service, and a system of patronage bestowing entirely unearned privileges.

I rank Jackson low for many reasons, one of them being that he was the first active pro-slavery president. There were presidents before him who happened to own slaves, of course, as was standard, and some of them not even liking the practice. Jackson was the first president to crusade for the actual cause of slavery. When abolitionists started sending anti-slavery mailings into the south in early 1835, Jackson’s postmaster general, Amos Kendall, allowed them to be burned. When Jackson learned of the anti-slavery mailings, he wanted the abolitionists blacklisted — their names recorded in newspapers — and attacked free speech and the press by recommending that Congress pass an act prohibiting abolitionist papers in the south. Then he rammed through the House a gag rule that made bringing any anti-slavery petitions illegal.

Then of course were the Indians. Spencer acknowledges the downside of Jackson’s Indian policy:

“In May 1830, Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act that made this recommendation the law of the land. This is today considered to be one of the black marks on his presidency and a shameful period in the history of the United States. This is a reasonable judgment, as this policy amounted to penalizing all Indians for the misdeeds of Indian warriors, and it led to untold suffering.”

But I docked Jackson much more for his treatments of the Native Americans, as they were extremely severe. Also, Jackson’s defiance of the Supreme Court’s decision in Cherokee Nation v Georgia was an impeachable offense. Like Spencer, I’m not big on impeachment (presidential impeachment attempts have often been groundless), but defying a Supreme Court decision is unquestionably an impeachable offense.

Spencer applauds Jackson for using force against South Carolina in the nullification crisis, as it made the point that “the United States was one nation, not a compact of many, and the central government had the right and the authority to pass laws and enforce them.” I agree that Jackson had the Constitutional right to use force against South Carolina, but he was a hypocrite for doing so, because he had always in the past sympathized with states rights to nullify. For example (to use the Cherokee incident again), the state of Georgia had years before nullified the federal treaty with the Cherokees and passed legislation to abolish Cherokee laws and government. Jackson was perfectly fine with Georgia’s nullification in this case, though he shouldn’t have been. Even on the assumption that nullification is a valid principle (which it isn’t), a state can only nullify what applies to its sphere of control. It cannot nullify Indian laws, because the Indians had been granted sovereignty by federal treaties, and the U.S. has the right to enter into treaties with Indians.

In other words, Jackson gave the finger to the Supreme Court — the highest authority in the land — in order to uphold a state’s right to nullify Indian treaties, which is plainly wrong. And yet when confronted by a rebellious South Carolina, he was making sweeping claims that nullification was wrong, period. His stated reason was that “nullification amounts to an assault on the foundations of democratic government”. That’s actually right, but Jackson never believed that in the past, and he almost certainly didn’t have a real change of heart now. He was only using force against South Carolina out of personal hatred for his vice president John Calhoun, whom he despised for perceived disloyalty.

I agree with Spencer that Jackson must be given serious credit for killing the national bank. Spencer writes: “Jackson’s opposition to the Bank destroyed the power of a moneyed elite that was manipulating politicians for its own ends. His example is salutary and instructive in an age when people of modest means get elected to Congress and walk away millionaires a few years later.” However, as with the nullification crisis in South Carolina, Jackson opposed the bank for the wrong reasons — to settle personal scores, in this case with his arch-enemy Henry Clay. Jackson had actually supported the national bank when he was Senator from Tennessee in 1823-1825, and only started turning against it when its branches in Kentucky (Henry Clay’s state) and Louisiana funneled funds to John Quincy Adams in the 1828 election campaign. But the end result is what matters most, regardless of his bad motives, and so I do give Jackson significant credit for vetoing the bank.

However, the way Jackson went about killing the bank was awful, and contributed to the Panic of 1837 — the worst depression in American history until the Great Depression of the 1930s.  Basically Jackson removed all federal funds from the bank and redistributed them to various state banks that were loyal to him. By flooding the economy with a massive surplus, he caused runaway inflation. The amount of paper money in circulation increased dramatically. Jackson then tried to dam the effect by putting through some hard money policies over the next two years, but they were counter-productive: by requiring that all government land sales needed to be done with gold or silver (in 1836), the market soon crashed.

On another plus side, Jackson did wipe out the national debt, and Spencer is right that this “set an example of fiscal responsibility that has been forgotten in our enlightened age”, and so Jackson deserves credit for that. But for me, Jackson’s bad policies (the spoils system, Indian removal, pro-slavery activism, dispersing funds to pet banks and flooding the economy with federal surplus) far outweigh his good ones.

Martin Van Buren

Spencer — 6
Rosson — 4

William Henry Harrison

Spencer — [not rated]
Rosson — [not rated; served less than a 2-year term]

John Tyler

Spencer — 8
Rosson — 9

— Since John Tyler is my #1 president, I was glad to see Spencer rate him highly. Tyler’s two vetoes of bills that would have rechartered the Bank of the United States “saved America from the tyranny of an unelected elite class with the power to manipulate the political process”. Tyler’s support of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty “was statesmanlike, for it helped calm the relationship between the former colonies and their mother country and set the two nations on the path to a lasting alliance. The ban on the transatlantic slave trade was far-seeing coming from a slave-owning Southerner.” His humane policy toward the Indians was also exceptional for a president during these times. And in the treaty with China, says Spencer, “Tyler was operating on the principle of America First, opening up new trade possibilities without committing the nation to what could have proved to be a costly political alliance.” For these reasons and many more, I believe John Tyler was the best American president.

James Polk

Spencer — 4
Rosson — 4

Zachary Taylor

Spencer — 5
Rosson — [not rated; served less than a 2-year term]

Millard Fillmore

Spencer — 5
Rosson — 7

Franklin Pierce

Spencer — 1
Rosson — 4

— I agree with the reasons Spencer grades Pierce so low. He was a doughface (a northerner who sympathized with the southern cause) who signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, accommodated pro-slavery forces who made that territory a battleground — and the real ignition of the Civil War: “Bleeding Kansas was appalling enough in itself, as was Pierce’s inability to bring the violence to a halt. But for abolitionists, presidential perfidy compounded presidential impotence. There are two kinds of failed presidents: those who were effective in imposing unwise and destructive policies upon the country, and those who failed to deal adequately with a crisis, thus making it even worse. Pierce managed to be both.”

Quite right, but I had to upgrade Pierce considerably for his fiscal prudence. He paid down the national debt by a whopping 83%. That’s not a trivial point; Spencer gave Andrew Jackson loads of credit for the same thing, so scoring Pierce a rock-bottom rating seems inconsistent. Also, Pierce got rid of tariffs on products traded between America and Canada, which I take as a good thing. (Spencer favors tariffs, which is a point of difference between us).

James Buchanan

Spencer — 0
Rosson — 1

Abraham Lincoln

Spencer — 10
Rosson — 3

Andrew Johnson

Spencer — 2
Rosson — 5

Ulysses Grant

Spencer — 8
Rosson — 5

Rutherford Hayes

Spencer — 2
Rosson — 9

— My most dramatic disagreement with Spencer lies in the run of presidents between Lincoln and Hayes, and the question of the Civil War and the Reconstruction.

First Lincoln: Many take-downs of him are the products of southern/Confederate revisionism, and I have no use for that nonsense, but there are very good reasons to criticize Lincoln, not least because the Civil War was unnecessary.

(1) If Lincoln had wanted to preserve the union above all (which he did, as Spencer rightly notes, being a pragmatist), he could have offered southern slave owners compensation for a gradual emancipation of slaves. Many other countries had already ended slavery by these measures, and Lincoln himself had made such proposals earlier in his career. The cost of this kind of emancipation would have been far less than the financial costs of the Civil War, not to mention the obscene cost of human lives, which by the end of the Civil War totaled 600,000 Americans, 38,000 of whom were African Americans.

(2) Alternatively, Lincoln could have simply let the southern states go, and gotten Congress to repeal the Fugitive Slave Act, which prosecuted those who did not return escaped slaves to their owners. Abolitionists had already made this proposal anyway and it would have easily passed, making the northern states a haven for escaped slaves, in time emptying the South of slaves. This option would have honored the spirit of the Declaration of Independence for the South, which is based on free government and self-determination, while also choking off slavery. This alternative wouldn’t have preserved the union, but it would have been a better solution, in my view, than the Civil War.

Either option (the first being the better one) would have ended slavery without producing the backlash of Jim Crow laws and terrorist organizations like the KKK. After the war and the Reconstruction efforts, African Americans were subject to a discrimination that was almost as bad as in the slave times, and it would be an entire century before the Civil Rights Act came in remedy. This is what admirers of Lincoln and Grant curiously ignore. The North’s war tactics and post-war reconstruction policies produced exactly what happens anywhere else we try nation-building strategies (“building democracy”), like in Vietnam and Iraq. When outside powers attempt to change culture through military occupation, the results are never good. I’m a bit surprised at Spencer’s defense of Grant and censure of Hayes in this light, because in his many writings (his books, on Jihad Watch, etc., and also in this book on the presidents), he rightly criticizes nation-building strategies as vain and counterproductive; that’s what the Reconstruction was.

I endorse warfare and military action when it is necessary (like Thomas Jefferson’s smashing of the Barbary jihadists, Harry Truman’s dropping the atomic bomb on Japan, and Donald Trump’s strike against Soleimani), but not when it can be avoided, and the Civil War could have been easily avoided. Slavery was doomed and Lincoln knew it. The British Empire had eliminated it in the 1833-38 period, even backwater Mexico had ended the practice in 1829, and other parts of the world too — without resorting to warfare.

Lincoln showed his contempt for the First Amendment by arresting journalists, newspaper publishers, and critics of the war, and throwing them into prison. He closed the mail to publications which opposed his war policies, and he deported an opposing congressman. (The only two other presidents with this level of contempt for free speech were John Adams and Woodrow Wilson.) Lincoln also suspended habeas corpus. (The only other president who ever did that was George W. Bush.)

Spencer defends Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus as follows:

“Lincoln ordered the suspension of habeas corpus in the areas of Maryland where the fervor to join the Confederacy was strongest. The Constitution gave Congress the authority to suspend habeas corpus ‘in cases of Rebellion or Invasion,’ but Congress was not in session at the time. Lincoln justified his action by arguing that time was of the essence, and only the president could act quickly, in his role as commander in chief of the armed forces, to preserve the Union in this time of large-scale insurrection.

Lincoln was called a dictator and a tyrant for this. Yet he had not seized powers that were not in the Constitution; he had assumed, in a time of crisis, powers that the Constitution delegated to Congress. Congress later ratified his actions. That he had no intention of becoming the dictator and tyrant that his detractors accused him of being was clear from the many things he did not do that characterized the behavior of real dictators: he did not suspend habeas corpus indefinitely or universally; he did not profit personally from his actions; he did not issue a sweeping decree abolishing slavery in the Union, but instead asked Congress for a constitutional amendment that would phase slavery out extremely gradually, ending with the institution’s extinction in 1900.”

But Chief Justice Robert Taney ruled that it was in fact only congress, not the president, who had the authority to suspend habeas corpus during wartime. Lincoln ignored the highest authority in the land and did as he pleased (in this sense Lincoln was like Andrew Jackson). For that matter, Lincoln created military tribunals to try civilians who had discouraged people from enlisting in union armies. The Constitution guarantees a jury trial for civilians, and these civilians were simply exercising their free speech rights.

After the Civil War was over in 1866, the Supreme Court rejected Lincoln’s argument that as commander in chief he held emergency powers during wartime that were outside the law or the Constitution. “Time being of the essence” is simply no warrant for the chief executive suspending a basic civil right. The point is larger in any case: habeas corpus shouldn’t have been suspended at all, whether by congress or the president. The writ of habeas corpus gives people the right to challenge their detention when they are jailed, and that is a fundamental right in a republic.

In sum, while it’s true that Lincoln had the Constitutional right to suppress the South (against what southern revisionists today claim), I don’t believe he should have exercised this right with the better options available.

For Johnson and Grant: They each get a scoring of 5 from me, for different reasons, but the best thing about them was what they did for economic growth and fighting inflation. (Along with James Monroe and Warren Harding, they comprise the “Fiscal Mount Rushmore”, in the opinion of some conservative analysts.) And yes to Spencer’s point about Johnson’s impeachment, which was outrageous and precedent setting. I also agree with Spencer that Johnson was reprehensible in his view of African Americans, and that Grant’s heart was more in the right place. But in evaluating the presidents, it is results that matter more than intentions.

The Republicans were right that a northern presence was needed in the South — someone had to make sure that African Americans were integrated properly and their voting rights established, and Johnson was no help there. Johnson opposed slavery but didn’t care a whit about improving things for the blacks in any meaningful way. But Johnson was right (as Lincoln had been) that a military presence (i.e. nation-building) was a terrible idea. “Building democracy” at gunpoint always fails; it’s why the South won the peace.

What was needed was something between Lincoln and Johnson’s excessively benevolent attitude to the South, and the severity of Republican Reconstructionism, a moderate course that could have brought gradual change in the South without backlash (KKK, Jim Crow) against African Americans.

Finally, Rutherford Hayes, whom I judge an excellent president: I believe he was correct to end Reconstruction in the South, in the same way that Donald Trump was right to end the Bush-Obama quagmires and nation-building strategies in the Middle East. In Spencer’s chapter on Hayes, he says that the chronology doesn’t bear out the claim that Reconstruction gave rise to the KKK, because the KKK was founded in December of 1865. But the Klan began on that Christmas Eve in 1865 as a social club. It was only after the harsh military occupation began in 1867 that the organization evolved into something else. From 1868-72 it became the band of terrorists we think of today, precisely in backlash against northern militancy.

So obviously this segment of presidential history, from Lincoln to Hayes, is where Spencer and I disagree most.

James Garfield

Spencer — 5
Rosson — [not rated; served less than a 2-year term]

Chester Arthur

Spencer — 8
Rosson — 9

Grover Cleveland

Spencer — 6
Rosson — 5

Benjamin Harrison

Spencer — 5
Rosson — 6

William McKinley

Spencer — 4
Rosson — 4

Theodore Roosevelt

Spencer — 4
Rosson — 3

William Howard Taft

Spencer — 5
Rosson — 6

Woodrow Wilson

Spencer — 0
Rosson — 0

— Worth noting is that I believe Woodrow Wilson was the absolute worst president ever. He’s the only one I give a rating of zero. Spencer dishes out quite a few zeroes (Buchanan, Wilson, Hoover, Carter, Clinton, Obama), but I’m glad he slices down Wilson with an especially nasty razor. He concludes: “Wilson was president of the world more than he was president of the United States. Consequently, his presidency was an unmitigated disaster for the country he had been elected to govern.” Indeed, there was no president more catastrophically interventionist, domestically pernicious, and having such utter contempt for African Americans, free speech, and liberty in general than Woodrow Wilson.

Warren Harding

Spencer — 9
Rosson — 9

— Warren Harding is my #2 president, but like John Tyler has been incredibly maligned in mainstream opinion. Spencer gets him right: “About the only things that Americans today remember about Harding, if they remember anything at all, are that he had a mistress, his presidency was engulfed in scandal, and he was out of his depth as president, winning the election only because he was handsome and women had just been given the right to vote.” But moral rectitude isn’t a constitutional duty, and the Teapot Dome scandal has been way overblown.

In fact Harding had a near perfect policy record. He reversed nearly all of Woodrow Wilson’s toxic policies. He rejected the League of Nations and brought the nation under a consistently applied military restraint. He got the economy booming, with policies that ushered in the Roaring Twenties — a time of immense prosperity. He campaigned in the south for African Americans, gave them jobs in federal government (and high positions), urged the passage of anti-lynching legislation, appointing liberty-conscious Supreme Court justices, and pardoned hundreds of political prisoners who had been unjustly criminalized by Wilson for speaking against World War I.

Honestly, what was not good about Harding? As Spencer says, “The country was much better off with the simple and humble Harding in the White House than it was when the renowned intellectual and crusader for civilization (Woodrow Wilson) was there. Harding’s presidency deserves an honest reassessment, but that is unlikely to happen given the fact that most historians today share Wilson’s messianic globalism and visions of massive state control.”

To be fair, there are some mainstream historians who do Harding justice, like James Robenalt, who, writing for the Washington Post, says that our obsession with Harding’s sex life and corrupt underlings have obscured the plain truth: that the man was a damn good president. But historians like Robenalt are few and far between. It is time, as I said in my piece on Harding, to let the real Warren Harding take his place among the nation’s greatest presidents, and Spencer does just that.

Calvin Coolidge

Spencer — 10
Rosson — 8

— Again, as with the above two, we agree closely, but it’s worth some commentary give that Coolidge is one of the four presidents Spencer puts on Mount Rushmore. Like Harding, Coolidge was a model president —

“– a lifelong opponent of the now-fashionable idea that it is the government’s responsibility to ensure not just equality of access to services and opportunities, but equality of outcomes despite difference in individual interests, abilities, and aptitudes. Said Coolidge: ‘Don’t expect to build up the weak by pulling down the strong.’ Indeed. The history of totalitarian regimes throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries shows Coolidge to have been correct: state-enforced egalitarianism is not actually good for everybody, or anybody; it only makes everyone poor, with the exception of the elites that hold political power, and creates a gargantuan government that oppresses its own people.”

Quite true. And also like Harding, Coolidge wisely rejected the League of Nations, not because he was an “isolationist”, but simply to protect American sovereignty and to avoid being involved in ongoing warfare. Like Harding again, he was fiscally prudent, and kept the economy booming and the Roaring Twenties roaring along.

I dock Coolidge a couple of points, however, because for all his fiscal prudence he did expand the money supply, which contributed to the stock market crash on Black Tuesday. However, it is incorrect to say — as many historians insist on saying — that Coolidge “caused” the Great Depression. Coolidge helped, rather, to cause the initial economic downturn of 1929-31, which was just a typical recession, and indeed much less severe than the recession Woodrow Wilson dumped in Warren Harding’s lap back in ’21. The recession of ’29-’31 devolved into the Great Depression — and lasted all the way through the ’30s and up to World War II — not because of anything Coolidge did or didn’t do, but because his successors Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt didn’t allow market forces to naturally restore equilibrium. It was these two presidents who deepened, exacerbated, and prolonged the situation, and created the Great Depression.

It’s an important point, because Roosevelt is lionized as a near saint (he was anything but), and is often given credit for pulling America out of the Depression (he did the opposite), with all the blame being transferred to Coolidge. That’s a gross misreading of history. Spencer reads the history right.

Herbert Hoover

Spencer — 0
Rosson — 5

— Sort of like with Pierce, I agree with most of the reasons why Spencer rates him low, but on foreign policy he was as non-interventionist as his predecessors Harding and Coolidge. So while Hoover was bad overall, I think a bottom-of-the-barrel score is too harsh.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Spencer — 1
Rosson — 3

— We agree closely here, but FDR deserves comment, given that most historians rank him as one of the greatest of the greats. He was in fact one of the worst. The great myth is that FDR led America into a great war for noble cause, pulled America out of the Great Depression, and championed civil rights. In fact, FDR lied and sneaked America into war, for less than noble reasons, antagonized a foreign power which got American citizens killed, exacerbated and prolonged the Great Depression with most of his New Deal policies, and committed some of the worst crimes against human rights and civil rights of any American president. Spencer crucifies FDR as he deserves.

Harry Truman

Spencer — 6
Rosson — 8

— Interestingly, Truman is the highest ranking Democrat (in the 20th-21st centuries) for both of us. No modern Democrat scores higher than 6 for Spencer, nor higher than 8 for me.

Dwight Eisenhower

Spencer — 6
Rosson — 8

John F. Kennedy

Spencer — 5
Rosson — 6

Lyndon Johnson

Spencer — 1
Rosson — 3

— For me, the Civil Rights Bill keeps LBJ out of the lowest cellar.

Richard Nixon

Spencer — 2
Rosson — 4

Gerald Ford

Spencer — 5
Rosson — 6

Jimmy Carter

Spencer — 0
Rosson — 7

— A wide chasm here. I agree with most of Spencer’s critique of Carter’s foreign policy, but in other ways Carter shined. I believe he was the last good president.

Ronald Reagan

Spencer — 9
Rosson — 6

— For Reagan, I agree with much of Spencer’s critique: Reagan escalated the drug war; in Afghanistan and Pakistan he funded jihadists to fight the invading Soviets; he cut taxes without cutting federal spending. On the last point in particular, Reagan aspired to be like Coolidge (and Harding) but came up a bit short. But since Spencer agrees that these are Reagan’s faults, his rating of “9” seems way too generous.

Our major disagreement has to do with who gets credit for ending the Cold War, to which I say no one person. I don’t think Reagan deserves any more credit for this than Gorbachev or the pope, because the Soviet Union collapsed from overextending itself and its bad economy. The handwriting was on the wall as early as the ’60s, and by the ’80s the nation was practically a Third-World status. Communism is an inherently dysfunctional system because it gives no one any incentive to produce anything of value. The Soviet empire was bound to fail, no matter who was in charge, with or without an arms race like the one Reagan conducted, and this was something Eisenhower understood — that possessions, not weapons, would win the Cold War. Communism made people poor and kept them poor forever, eating its own tail. Capitalism is bound to triumph without resorting to huge amounts of military spending in order to “contain” communism. (Excessive military spending, in any case, undermines investment in the civilian economy which is critical to a healthy republic.) Also revealing are the statements of Reagan’s former budget director, David Stockman: “The idea that the Reagan defense buildup somehow spent the Soviets into collapse is a legend of remarkable untruth. The now-open Soviet archives also prove there never was a Soviet-defense spending offensive.” The Soviets collapsed because they kept over-extending themselves into other countries.

Reagan does deserve more credit than I ever gave him back in the ’80s, and Spencer is right that he should be commended (instead of excoriated) for being willing to call the Soviet Union what it was: an evil empire that enslaved its people in a system of poverty and despair. In my college years (’87-’91) saying that communism was an evil or dysfunctional system was like saying today that Islam is a religion of violence; both statements should be non-controversial. And while Reagan did engage in needless military excursions (like Libya and Grenada) he didn’t engage in Wilsonian attempts to police the globe with lasting military presences on the ground (like H.W. Bush, W. Bush, and Obama). Compared to most of his successors, Reagan was surprisingly moderate interventionist; he kept us from being bogged down in an equivalent of the Southeast Asian fiascos of the late ’60s and early ’70s, and the Middle-East fiascos of the two Bushes and Obama, that drained the American economy and got vast numbers of peoples killed for no good reason.

George H.W. Bush

Spencer — 2
Rosson — 5

— Spencer and I agree that the Elder Bush’s foreign policy ventures were disastrous (Iraq, Panama), and that Bush resurrected Wilsonian interventionism for sake of making America the world police. By planting permanent troops in the Middle-East (for no good reason; Saddam posed no threat to the U.S., and as Spencer notes, Bush seemed more interested in serving the United Nations rather than the United States), he initiated a chain of events that we’re still reaping the consequences of today.

But I believe that Bush’s tax-raising strategies, against the wishes of his own constituency, speak for rather against him, in the same way that (1) John Tyler’s killing the bank angered his own Whig party, (2) Chester Arthur’s civil service reform angered his own Stalwart Republican base, and (3) Jimmy Carter’s fighting inflation over unemployment made the Democrats turn on him. In all these cases, the chief executives did what was best for the country rather than cater to their constituencies, and it cost them each a second term. Doing the right thing entails a price. And the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act went a way toward deficit reduction, which had ballooned under Reagan, so this is also a plus for Bush in my view. Then too, he was a free trade advocate (unlike Reagan and the Younger Bush, who supported tariffs), which I also applaud, but Spencer does not.

Where I believe that Bush failed domestically was in his bank bailout. Instead of taking the free market approach of allowing the savings and loan banks to go broke (as Harding and Coolidge would have done), he approved the largest federal bailout in all of American history — the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989 — costing the government $300 billion over ten years.

Spencer and I also agree about Bush’s escalation of the drug war (bad) and his appointment of Justice Clarence Thomas (good).

Bill Clinton

Spencer — 0
Rosson — 7

— I was surprised by Spencer’s goose-egg.  It’s true that Clinton left much to be desired foreign-policy wise. He backed the worst side in the Serbian War (Kosovo), which he shouldn’t have gotten involved with in any case, on any side. Somalia was unnecessary. Etc., etc.

But he deserves immense credit for the ’90s prosperity. He reigned in government spending and became a budget hawk in the mold of Harding, Coolidge, Eisenhower, and kept the Federal Reserve on tight money policies. He slashed federal spending and turned a huge deficit from the Reagan and Bush eras into surplus. If this trend of budget surpluses had continued, all national debt would have been liquidated by 2013. (The Younger Bush and Obama would kill this streak with nation-building wars and fiscally toxic bailout/stimulus packages.)

Also like Harding, Coolidge, and Eisenhower, Clinton was the fourth (and last) president of the 20th-21st centuries who reduced federal spending as a portion of GDP. He worked with Republicans to curb welfare and converted a permanent underclass into temporary aid recipients who had to work while getting assistance. He also encouraged the lower classes to work, by expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, which lowered taxes for those just above poverty line, thus encouraging them to keep working instead of going on welfare. The result of his welfare reforms was low unemployment (the lowest in thirty years), sinking poverty rates, and contracting welfare rolls. He may have initially opposed some of these efforts, as Spencer says, but he supported others, and the bills that the Republican congress passed he signed.

Much as I dislike the Clinton dynasty, I have to give Bill loads of credit for the ’90s prosperity.

George W. Bush

Spencer — 1
Rosson — 1

Barack Obama

Spencer — 0
Rosson — 3

— Not much to dispute here; I agree with almost everything Spencer says in blasting Obama. But I do give Obama points for some positive environmental achievements; unlike Bush, Obama never suspended habeas corpus; he stopped torture overseas and made a couple of moves for gay rights. But aside from that, he was essentially George W the Second.

Donald Trump [from January 2017- February 2020]

Spencer — 10
Rosson — 2

— A huge chasm here. Spencer’s chapter on Trump will probably draw the most attention, as it puts Trump on Mount Rushmore (along with Washington, Lincoln, and Coolidge, the other presidents whom Spencer scores a rating of 10). [Note: The following analysis covers Trump’s policy record up through February 2020, since that’s when Spencer’s book was submitted to the press.]

I give Donald Trump due credit: He kept America out of war and put an end to the vain, costly, and counterproductive nation-building strategies of Bush and Obama, which had made things worse in the Mid-East and indeed for the world. He knew when to strike appropriately (against Soleimani), and he commendably withdrew from the Iran Nuclear Deal. He appointed Neil Gorsuch, currently the best Supreme Court justice (no points for Kavanagh though), and since the Supreme Court is a big issue for me, that’s a huge score. He did other things that I applaud, which have been wrongly decried by the left. As Spencer notes, he rightly upheld the law passed by Congress in 1995, which stated that Jerusalem should be recognized as the capital of the state of Israel. Every other country has their capital of choice recognized, and Israel should be treated no differently. They’ve controlled the city of Jerusalem since ’67, and if they want to make that their capital (which they did in 1980), no one can properly gainsay them. I also applaud Trump’s removal of the individual mandate in Obamacare provision that forced people to buy health insurance and fined them if they didn’t.

Trump’s tax cuts, however, were a mixed bag — not as bad as some have claimed, at least in principle, but again (as per Reagan), tax cuts mean nothing without cuts in federal spending. Trump has deficit spent to kingdom come. It’s puzzling to me when self-avowed fiscal conservatives (like Spencer) make tax-cutting a priority, but then overlook unobtrusive tax increases and massive federal spending. Trump was known as the King of Debt during his business career, and he’s even less an old-school Republican than Reagan was. Eisenhower was the last really good Republican in the mold of Harding and Coolidge. After him, no Republican president has cut federal spending as a portion of U.S. economic output (though the Democrat Bill Clinton did, and yet Spencer scores him a 0).

Like Reagan’s tax cuts, Trump’s could have been a very good thing — if he had cut federal spending significantly and if he had substantially paid down the the trillions of dollars of national debt. Only four presidents in the 20th-21st centuries did this when they cut taxes: Harding, Coolidge, Eisenhower, and (the surprising Democrat) Clinton.

Spencer and I disagree about tariffs and free trade, and so naturally I think Trump fails on this point for the reasons Spencer applauds him. Trump called the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) the worst trade deal ever made, where I think it was one of the best. Tariffs put American businesses first, rather than America first. They protect businessmen but are ultimately bad for free trade, as tariffs (a) increase the prices of imports to consumers and decrease their buying power, and (b) also cause U.S. exports to decline as other countries retaliate with tariffs of their own.

And we disagree on other things. While I do consider the Muslim travel suspensions Constitutional (and rightly upheld by the Supreme Court), I also thought they were needless and toothless, since Saudi Arabia wasn’t included in the blacklist. Other bad policies include the wall along the Mexican border, and withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement. Trump has been no friend of the Native Indians, nor a friend of something so basic as clean water. He fired the Pandemic Response Team. He has undermined institutions by appointing leaders whose agendas oppose their mandate — the Department of Education, the Department of Energy, the Department of Labor, the EPA, etc.  

Spencer’s claim that Trump’s presidency shows the need to resurrect Andrew Jackson’s spoils system as a means of civil service reform will surely be his most controversial one. I acknowledge that a president should have the right to fire or dismiss cabinet members (or anyone that he appoints) at will if he feels he can’t trust them for any reason, but I don’t think that right should extend to firing just any officers or career civil servants or special prosecutors, etc. The civil service reform under Chester Arthur (the Pendleton Act of 1883) is one of the most important landmarks in U.S. history. Frankly I never dreamed that I’d read an argument that it should be overthrown in favor of Jacksonian spoils. Spencer advocates the spoils system particularly on account of the “deep state” opposition to Trump:

“Trump encountered an entrenched coterie of bureaucrats at all levels who were determined to thwart his every move. While the media dismissed talk of a ‘deep state’ as a conspiracy theory, the New York Times admitted its existence on September 5, 2018, when it published an anonymous op-ed that proclaimed: ‘I work for the president but like-minded colleagues and I have vowed to thwart parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.’ The Times elaborated on these foes of Trump within his own administration in October 2019: ‘President Trump is right: The deep state is alive and well. But it is not the sinister, antidemocratic cabal of his fever dreams. It is, rather, a collection of patriotic public servants — career diplomats, scientists, intelligence officers and others — who, from within the bowels of this corrupt and corrupting administration, have somehow remembered that their duty is to protect the interests, not of a particular leader, but of the American people.’

Obama’s CIA director John Brennan also all but admitted its existence in October 2019, when he tweeted: ‘As in previous times of national peril, we rely on our military, diplomats, intelligence officials, law enforcement officers, & other courageous patriots to protect our liberties, freedom, & democracy.’ In this case, however, the diplomats, intelligence officials, and law enforcement officers in question were not protecting the nation from foreign enemies, but from what they considered to be the misguided policies of the man whom they were supposed to be serving, the president of the United States.

While this sounded high-minded, there is no doubt whatsoever that the New York Times and Brennan would have taken the opposite position if the federal bureaucracy had dared interfere with the Obama agenda.”

Spencer also dismisses Russiagate (Russia hacked the election US election; Trump and Russia colluded to defeat the Democrats) as a political farce:

“The apex of the deep state coup was the Democrats’ attempt to make Trump appear guilty of various misdeeds, which would lead to his impeachment. Before he was inaugurated, he began to be charged with being a tool of Russian president Vladimir Putin and colluding with Russia to fix the 2016 election. Trump agreed to appoint a special counsel, former FBI director Robert Mueller, to investigate this.

After a two-year investigation, Mueller found nothing for which Trump could be impeached. The Democrat-controlled House didn’t give up, however; it then fastened on a phone call Trump had in the summer of 2019 with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, claiming that Trump had threatened to withhold U.S. aid to Ukraine until Zelensky agreed to investigate Joe Biden, a front-runner for the 2020 Democratic nomination. The transcript of the call showed this was not the case, Zelensky denied it, and Ukraine received the aid. But the Democrats charged ahead anyway, impeaching Trump on two counts, one of abuse of power for the Ukraine matter and one of obstruction of Congress, which wasn’t a crime in any code of law, for not cooperating with the sham investigation.”

It’s not only conservatives who find no evidence for collusion with Russia. Leftist Trump-haters like Aaron Mate find it baseless as well.

Regardless of the truth of Russiagate, the idea of resurrecting the spoils system is cause for alarm. The point of the Pendleton Act of 1883 is that civil servants should be serving society rather than parties. Whether they do a good job of that or not during a particular presidency doesn’t affect the necessity for such a system. But despite my disagreement with Spencer, I respect his reasoning. His defense of Trump isn’t the usual alt-right emptiness; it’s a compelling read, whether or not it persuades you.

But the worst danger of the Trump presidency goes unmentioned by Spencer: his unbridled authoritarianism. He has played the boorish king since his presidential campaign, and in the past year has defended his monarchical attitude with startling appeals to the constitution itself. In July 2019, he said that “Article II (of the U.S. Constitution) gives me the right to do whatever I want.” The article in question establishes the powers of the executive branch, as well as the powers of Congress to oversee the presidency. Obviously it doesn’t make the president a king.

More recently, in April 2020 (I realize this happened after Spencer finished writing his book), Trump reaffirmed that “the authority of the U.S. President is total”, in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. He believes that he can decide when to lift quarantines and shutdown restrictions imposed by local officials. In fact, it is those same local officials — governors, mayors, and school district heads — who have the power to decide when to lift their own restrictions. There is no legislation that gives the president the power to override states’ public health measures. Trump can order federal employees to return to their offices, and to reopen national parks and other federal property, but he cannot order state, city, and district employees in the way that he imagines.

Trump’s declarations of executive supremacy actually aren’t terribly surprising to those who know American history. Other presidents have believed as Trump does and acted as if they were kings. Teddy Roosevelt — who is undeservedly enshrined on Mount Rushmore — openly flouted the Constitution, and was railroaded by congressmen for having no more use for the Constitution “than a tomcat has use for a marriage license”. The Democrat Woodrow Wilson maintained that it was actually his Constitutional job to do as he damn well pleased — that a president should behave more like a British prime minister, or even a king, than a leader constrained by the American system of checks and balances. Most presidents who have feelings of executive supremacy follow the Wilsonian tactic rather than Roosevelt’s. They at least try to preserve the illusion that they are doing their Constitutional duty, as they really expand their power that the document does not bestow on them. The Teddy Roosevelts and Donald Trumps are just more honest about it.


Spencer has written another terrific book, and a very unexpected one given his usual subject matter. Even if I disagree with some of his presidential evaluations (and six in particular), that’s not the important point. Let’s face it, none of us will ever agree 100% with each other in a ranking of all the U.S. presidents. What really matters are the criteria being used to make those evaluations, and this is where mainstream historians have failed us. When Tyler and Harding are always at rock bottom, and FDR always at the pinnacle, there’s a problem. When Arthur and Coolidge are widely dismissed, and Wilson and LBJ are intoned as progressive visionaries, that’s another epic failure in judgment. Spencer exposes these problems acutely. Rating America’s Presidents is a solid guide to get people thinking about how our chief executives should be assessed, and I hope it will be widely read.


Here I list Spencer’s rankings, followed by my own, and then also Ivan Eland’s from Recarving Rushmore, for comparative purposes. Interestingly, I have six major disagreements with both Spencer and Eland, but on completely different presidents. Spencer and I disagree on Jackson, Lincoln, Hayes, Carter, Clinton, and Trump. Eland and I disagree on Monroe, Van Buren, Cleveland, Truman, Kennedy, and Reagan. Which means that Spencer and Eland disagree on all those twelve.

All three of us agree on what matters most: the dangers of entangling alliances, the superiority of capitalism and fiscal conservatism, and the importance of American liberty.

Spencer (Mount Rushmore: Washington, Lincoln, Coolidge, Trump)

10 – Washington, Lincoln, Coolidge, Trump
9 — Harding, Reagan
8 — Jackson, Tyler, Grant, Arthur
7 — Jefferson, Monroe
6 — Van Buren, Cleveland, Truman, Eisenhower,

5 — Madison, Quincy-Adams, Taylor, Fillmore, Garfield, Harrison, Taft, Kennedy, Ford
4 — Adams, Polk, McKinley, T. Roosevelt
3 — [none]
2 — A. Johnson, Hayes, Nixon, H.W. Bush
1 — Pierce, F.D. Roosevelt, L. Johnson, W. Bush
0 — Buchanan, Wilson, Hoover, Carter, Clinton, Obama

Rosson (Mount Rushmore: Washington, Tyler, Hayes, Harding)

9 — Tyler, Harding, Washington, Hayes
8 ½ — Arthur, Monroe
8 — Truman, Eisenhower, Coolidge
7 ½ — Carter, Quincy-Adams,
7 — Fillmore
6 ½ — Jefferson, Clinton, Ford, Kennedy
6 — Reagan, Taft, Harrison
5 ½ — Madison

5 — Hoover, H.W. Bush, A. Johnson, Grant, Cleveland
4 ½ — Nixon, Van Buren
4 — McKinley, Pierce
3 ½ — Polk
3 — T. Roosevelt, Obama, L. Johnson
2 ½ — Adams, F.D. Roosevelt, Lincoln, Jackson, Trump
2 — [none]
1 ½ — [none]
1 — Buchanan
½ — W. Bush
0 — Wilson

Eland (Mount Rushmore: Van Buren, Tyler, Hayes, Cleveland)

10 — Tyler
9 ½ — Cleveland
9 — Van Buren, Hayes
8 ½ — Arthur
8 — Harding, Washington
7 ½ — Carter, Eisenhower, Coolidge
7 — Clinton
6 ½ — Quincy-Adams, Fillmore
6 — Harrison
5 ½ — Ford, A. Johnson, Hoover

5 — Grant, Taft, T. Roosevelt
4 ½ — Adams, Buchanan
4 — Pierce
3 ½ — Monroe, Jefferson, Jackson
3 — Madison, Lincoln
2 ½ — Nixon, F.D. Roosevelt
2 — L. Johnson, H.W. Bush, Obama
1 ½ — Reagan, Kennedy
1 — W. Bush, Polk
½ — McKinley, Truman
0 — Wilson

The Flashing Swords Controversy (Robert Price)

Robert Price has stirred another shitstorm. For those who don’t know, Price is the atheist who has argued that Jesus never existed, worships Donald Trump, knows everything to know about the Cthulhu myths and Lovecratian scholarship, and has a life-long passion for the great pulp fantasies that PC culture so desperately wants to cancel. (In other words, he has serious pros and cons to say the least.) Recently he revived the Flashing Swords anthology series from the ’70s that had published sword-and-sorcery stories from giants like Leiber, Vance, and Moorcock. For this revived volume (#6) Price wrote a story and got other authors to contribute. Then he wrote a foreward to the volume — an unexpected political screed — of which the other authors were wholly unaware, and were livid when they found out; many of them demanded that their stories be withdrawn. The book has now been delisted.

Personally I think the offended authors were overreacting, and it’s their loss. Who cares what Price’s political opinions are? He’s the one who wrote the foreward, not them. I happen to agree with some of Price’s screed anyway — or at least his condemnation of the the feminist hatred for pornography — but even if I didn’t, if I were a contributing author, I would have given the foreward my blessing. Price’s politics have no bearing on any sword-and-sorcery story that I might write, and I’m not so insecure that I worry about being associated with those with whom I disagree. If we were talking about something like an academic work it could be different. There are cases where a foreward can indeed “speak for” the views, or at least the common ground, of a book’s contributing authors. This plainly isn’t one of them. If readers assume that it is, then that’s their problem, not the authors’.

This is a segment of Price’s foreward:

I think Price was more stupid than anything else to write this kind of a preface, instead of something more directly on-topic. As I said, if I’d been one of the authors, I would have gone along with it fine. But the fact is that many authors, especially these days, are not on board with the expression of political views that are guaranteed to call down censure.

Price’s story is called Immortals of Lemuria. Other tales that were included in the book are The Tower in the Crimson Mist, by Adrian Cole; The Lion of Valentia, by Steve Dilks; The Island of Shadows, by Paul McNamee; A Twisted Branch of Yggdrasil, by Dave Ritzlin; Blood Games in the Temple of the Toad, by Frank Schildiner; and Godkiller, by Cliff Biggers. I hope these stories will see publication at some point. Pulp fantasy is practically a dead genre, and I always appreciate revivals like the one Price attempted here.

For more details on the controversy:

Authors Ask That Their Work Be Removed From Flashing Swords #6
Publisher Delists Flashing Swords #6 After Authors Object to Foreword



Fact-Checking Reality

Some people are taken in by satire and fake news, but then there’s the opposite problem. I see satirical gags all the time when I’m reading accurate reporting. Our age of absurdity is getting worse by the year, and here’s just a handful of highlights from the last two:

  •  An Islamic doctor described her therapeutic suppositories that curb homosexual urges: “The sexual urge develops when a person is sexually attacked and afterwards it persists, because there is an anal worm that feeds on semen. What I did was to produce suppositories, which cures homosexual urges by exterminating the worm that feeds on sperm.” (4/24/19)
  •  A New York university promoted an academic paper comparing cow insemination to rape, and milking cows to sexual abuse. (8/15/19)
  •  A Quebec author and his publisher were charged by the Canadian government with producing and distributing “child pornography”, because of a paragraph in one of the author’s novels describing a father who sexually assaults his daughter. (The novel is an adult retelling of Hansel and Gretel and contains no pornographic photos.) (1/3/20)
  •  The president of the United States recommended bleach injections as a way to cure Covid-19. (4/24/20)
  •  A large movement of D&D players have objected to the game’s depiction of orcs as “racist”. (4/27/20)
  •  A physician (who worked as a pediatrician in Louisiana, is licensed in Texas, Louisiana and Kentucky, and is now practicing in Texas) believes such things as, (a) gynecological problems are caused by dreaming of having sex with demons, (b) alien DNA is being used in medical treatments, (c) the US government is run by lizards, and countless other lunacies. (7/28/20)

In each of these cases, I checked Snopes and/or other websites to be sure these reports weren’t false or at least blown out of proportion.

I mean, surely the woke culture of academia hasn’t devolved to the point where scholars are arguing that cow insemination/milking is the equivalent of rape and sexual abuse.

And surely an enlightened nation like Canada would never arrest an author for writing things which published novelists write about all the time. I’m of course aware that Canada doesn’t have a First Amendment equivalent, and that a Canadian citizen can be thrown in jail for arguing a crank theory like “the Holocaust never happened”. That’s bad enough: crank theorists should have every right to espouse and publish their views without fear of governmental obstruction. But for writing a story about sexual assault, on a minor or otherwise? That’s a level of absurdity I couldn’t wrap my head around. On this logic you’d have to arrest Stephen King, George R.R. Martin, Raymond Feist, and thousands of other published writers — and then mass purge every library and book store of a lot of mainstream fiction. Child pornography consists of photos or videos, that those are rightfully illegal — not because they are “too offensive”, but because it involves exploitation of real-world children. Narrative descriptions are (or should be) unambiguously legal. Jesus Christ. Good novelists write about offensive things. The best fiction is often precisely that which explores the taboo and disturbing.

And even granting Donald Trump’s countless idiocies, I found his “bleach cure” advice too off the scales — I couldn’t, wouldn’t, believe it until I checked Snopes.

And while I’m acutely aware of how anal D&D players can be, surely they haven’t become so pathetic as to be triggered by the concept of genetically evil fantasy races like orcs and drow. They’ve made me actually nostalgic for the ’80s, when D&D was decried as Satanic by the religious right. I always expected it from the right. Today the moral panic comes from the left, who should know better; they used to be the intelligent ones. Honestly, if you’re offended by a fantasy race for not having human tendencies, then you’re in the wrong game. It’s one of the reasons why D&D has other races — to make things different and more interesting.

And so on down the line. Just a handful of absurdities I couldn’t believe until I fact-checked them; there have been many more. I suppose it’s good to err on the side of being skeptical than hoodwinked by falsity… but it’s dispiriting when reality itself has become this satirical.