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Suddenly, our most controversial president is — James K. Polk?

At a town hall last month, Jeb Bush cited the 11th president, who served from 1845 to 1849, as one of the commanders in chief he most admired. By Bush’s account, Polk set out to resolve a tariff controversy in Washington and territorial disputes in the West, achieved both goals, and then left office after a single term. Bush’s remarks resurfaced this weekend in Politico, where historian Josh Zeitz argued that Polk’s war with Mexico made the Civil War all but inevitable. John Nichols of The Nation went further, calling Polk “a horrible president whose actions inspired fierce opposition from foes of slavery.”


Most presidents have been mere creatures of their times, and hindsight doesn’t always treat them well. Polk has become obscure because much of what he was good at — you know, imperial expansionism — is hard to defend today. Still, give Jeb Bush credit for seeking inspiration outside the obvious places. As a GOP candidate for president, he could have just praised Ronald Reagan.

Dante Ramos can be reached at dante.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @danteramos.