JAMES K. POLK
by Ben Loory
James K. Polk used to keep bonsai trees up on the roof of the white house. Not a lot of people know that about him, but it’s an important fact. In 1845, James K. Polk had over two hundred trees. Most of them were under three inches tall. One was so small, people couldn’t see it.
Are you sure it’s there? people would say.
Oh, it’s there! James K. Polk would say.
And the people would look at him.
How’s the country? they’d say.
The country? he’d say. It’s okay.
At night, James K. Polk would lie in his bed and think about his tiniest tree. It wasn’t just that it was so incredibly small; it was perfectly formed in every way.
What’s wrong with these people? James K. Polk would say. Why don’t they appreciate my art? I’ve grown the best bonsai tree of all time, and they act like I’m doing something wrong!
Then one night James K. Polk had a dream, and in his dream he went to Japan. And for some reason, everyone there had giant eyes.
I bet they could see my tree, he said.
So in the morning, James K. Polk started making plans. He went to see the secretary of the navy.
I’m gonna need a boat, he said, that can make it to Japan. And a few of your very best men.
You can’t go to Japan! the naval secretary said. There are big issues to be dealt with here!
Big issues aren’t always the most important, Polk said, and he put his trees in the boat and set sail.
The voyage to Japan was long and arduous, and by the time they got there, most of the crew was dead. A lot of the trees had been eaten for food, and the rest had been thrown overboard.
The only bonsai tree James K. Polk had left was his almost-invisible one, which he’d secreted away in an inside vest pocket.
It was still in perfect condition.
When he set foot on the shore, James K. Polk knelt down and kissed the rocky ground. Then he looked up and saw the Japanese welcoming party coming.
They all had normal-sized eyes.
It turned out that people in Japan couldn’t see his tree better than anyone else. Nevertheless, they were very nice to him, and treated him with all due respect.
So James K. Polk stayed. He loved life in Japan. For the first time ever, he felt at home. He took a course in calligraphy and wrote some haikus. He studied Zen. The monks said he showed promise.
But back in America, trouble was brewing.
The Japanese, people said. They’ve stolen our President!
And they built an armada, and mustered an army, and sailed across the sea to get him.
The Japanese lookouts saw the ships coming.
Don’t worry, they said, we won’t let them take you.
They loaded their guns and lined up on the shore.
Polk saw that a great war was imminent.
All right, Polk said, and he held up a hand. Let’s not make a big thing about this.
And he said his good-byes and put his tree in a suitcase, and walked up the plank into the ship.
All the way back, people lectured Polk about the issues and problems of the day—about how he had to take things seriously, undertake big projects, be a leader of men. So when he got back home, Polk did a lot. He took the Oregon Territory from the British, and California and Texas away from Mexico—even fought a little war over it. One of the last things he did was one of the biggest—he broke ground on the Washington Monument. Everyone thought this was absolutely wonderful (it earned him the title “least known consequential President”).
And at the end of four years, Polk calmly stepped down.
I won’t be running for a second term, he said.
What? people cried. But you’re a great leader!
I’ve done everything I set out to do, Polk said.
Of course people argued, but Polk stood his ground. He stood his ground, and he walked away.
He still had his little invisible tree.
And he didn’t leave it to the Smithsonian for display.
Ben Loory’s fables and tales have appeared in The New Yorker, READ Magazine, and The Antioch Review, as well as on NPR’s This American Life, and live at Selected Shorts. His book Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day was published by Penguin in 2011. Read the next story, ZACHARY TAYLOR, here.
* thanks to Amber Sparks and Brian Carr for their editorial work on this project.