Obama: First Pacific President?

Barack Obama's irresistible, or at least unresisted, propensity for self-aggrandizement bubbled up yet again during his recent trip to the Far East when he proclaimed himself "America's first Pacific president." Hearing this, Asians may have muttered about inscrutable Occidentals. Obama's exercise in rhetorical grandiosity, while hardly his first, was exquisitely meaningless.

Yes, Obama lived for 14 years in Hawaii, which is in the Pacific. But two presidents (Ronald Reagan, and before him Richard Nixon, who in 1972 ended the freeze in U.S.-China relations that began in 1949) came from California, which is on the Pacific. So, is the world-historic difference in the preposition?

Yes, Obama lived four years, until the age of 10, in Indonesia. But two young men who were to become America's 35th and 41st presidents also had formative experiences in the Pacific: John Kennedy's PT-109 was sunk beneath him, and George Herbert Walker Bush, a future envoy to China, had his Grumman Avenger shot down. And before becoming America's 27th president, William Howard Taft governed the Philippines for about as many years as child Obama lived in Indonesia.

In May 1900, America's 25th president, William McKinley, sent U.S. troops to China to help put down the Boxer Rebellion. America's 33rd president, Harry Truman, waged serious war in Asia—in Korea, where Americans suffered 157,530 casualties, including 54,246 fatalities. Dwight Eisenhower vowed, during the 1952 campaign, "I shall go to Korea," which Americans correctly heard as a vow to end the war one way or another. In December of that year the president-elect did something no serving president had ever done: He set foot on the far side of the Pacific. America's 38th president, Gerald Ford, was the first to visit Japan while in office. (President Ulysses S. Grant visited Japan after leaving office, and is said to have been the first person to shake the emperor's hand. America's First Pacific President bowed.)

President Taft's predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, sort of earned—imagine that—his Nobel Peace Prize for helping to mediate the end of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. (The mediation occurred in Portsmouth, N.H.; TR did not attend.) In October 1908, the "Great White Fleet" that TR sent around the world as an act of national exuberance arrived in Japan, where U.S. officers were housed in the emperor's palace.

In order to encourage Japan, then an almost hermetically sealed society, to play nicely with others, in March 1852 America's 13th president, Millard Fillmore, ordered Commodore Matthew Perry to go to Tokyo with the U.S. Navy's East India Squadron, which had first been dispatched across the Pacific in 1835 by America's seventh president, Andrew Jackson. Perry's 1853 visit to Tokyo Bay was not persuasive, so he returned in 1854—by then his commander in chief was America's 14th president, Franklin Pierce—with a larger fleet. The spectacle of what the Japanese called the "black ships" moved them to sign a treaty of "permanent" friendship, which became impermanent at 7:49 a.m., Dec. 7, 1941.

The first U.S. treaty with China was signed in 1844 under the 10th president, John Tyler. Pacific waves have lapped the republic's shores since California attained statehood in September 1850. The 11th president, James Polk, had wrested California from Mexico, and the 12th president, Zachary Taylor, died before statehood came under Fillmore.

All this—indeed, all of the human story—was but prologue to today's culmination in a president who, in his 10th month in office, flew across the Pacific for seven days in Asia, thereby becoming "America's first Pacific president." Such rhetorical inflation devalues the currency of words with which we think. Not everywhere, though. Listeners to Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion know that one of the businesses in Lake Wobegon, Minn., is Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery. ("If you can't get it at Ralph's, you can probably get along without it.") In an age of pandemic hyperbole, the store's name is a refreshing zephyr of modesty.

Come 2012, America's First Pacific President—self-proclaimed "citizen of the world," whose advent marked, he said, "the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal"—will be seeking reelection. Someone running against him might find that this resonates with a public suffering greatness fatigue: "Vote for me and get a pretty good president."