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Political second acts come with the territory

July 21, 2013|By TIM ROWLAND

He was without a doubt the most interesting man in the world. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna began his career fighting for the Spanish against Indian uprisings in Mexico, but switched sides in 1821 when it became apparent that, in terms of last mass, Spain had bitten off more than it could police.

Committed (as Santa Anna understood the word) now to the cause of liberty, he supported whichever liberator appeared to be winning at the time. Active in numerous coups, he became a national hero when he repulsed one last Spanish invasion at Tampico.

Declaring himself “the Napoleon of the West,” he attained the presidency of Mexico in 1833, a mere footnote in his career, since he would win the office and be run out of it no fewer than 11 times, by some accounts. He for a time championed liberal reforms, eliminating mandatory tithing to the Catholic church, dissolving military rule and ending church seizure of private property.

Until this course became unpopular among conservatives, at which point he named himself dictator, and installed the Mexican army between himself and his critics. This new iron-fist approach annoyed the Mexican state of Texas, which rebelled. Thinking that one or two massacres ought to do the trick, Santa Anna captured the Alamo in 1836, and three weeks later slaughtered nearly 350 Texas prisoners at Goliad.

The next month, Sam Houston and Co., got revenge, defeating the Mexicans at the Battle of San Jacinto and capturing their leader, after the Napoleon of the West was discovered disguised as a military private, cowering in a swamp.

Exiled to the United States, Santa Anna sweet-talked President Andrew Jackson into returning him to Veracruz in 1837, where he remained a private citizen until a French pastry chef doing business in Mexico City complained to King Louis-Philippe that rebellious Mexican troops had smashed his ovens a decade prior. So the French, in a possible overreaction, sent its Navy to shell the Mexican coast.

At Veracruz, hero-in-residence Santa Anna was called out of retirement to engage the French, where he lost not only the war, but one of his legs, which he had buried with full military honors, prompting a PR campaign that propelled him back to the presidency, for the fifth time, but who’s counting?

Santa Anna’s customary hobbies of extortion, embezzlement and land giveways soon became customarily tiresome and he was deposed to Cuba, where he was residing on the eve of the Mexican-American War. A busy letter writer, he secretly contacted Mexico City, saying he had no more designs on the presidency, but he would once again lead the army if duty called. At the same time, he was corresponding with Washington, promising that if U.S. ships would grant him safe travel through the American blockade to Mexican soil, he would broker a deal that would cede disputed territory to the states for a song.

For some reason, President Polk believed Santa Anna and offered safe harbor, effectively delivering him to the head of the troops that he would use to do battle with the U.S.

In fairness to Polk, Santa Anna double-crossed Mexican President Farias as well, and immediately had himself named president.

Bested by Gen. Winfield Scott in the Mexican-American War, Santa Anna was captured by U.S. soldiers who released the man but kept his cork leg as a souvenir (it’s currently on display in Illinois; Mexico still wants it back). The disgraced general was eventually exiled to Jamaica, but was back two years later at the behest of a band of rebels who successfully overthrew the legitimate government. It took Santa Anna one corrupt year to wear out his welcome for the last time,

By 1869 he was living in New York City, plotting another Mexican invasion and trying his hand at capitalism. From Mexico, he imported a ton of a rubbery substance called “chicle,” hoping it would  be an effective substitute for carriage tires, which it wasn’t, but Santa Anna’s assistant thought to lace a dollop of the chicle with a little peppermint and pop it in his mouth, and the Chiclet was born — and the chewing gum revelation along with it.

So when you hear about disgraced politicians such as Eliot Spitzer or Anthony Weiner making  a comeback, or you figure that scandal-rocked Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell will disappear for a while but will one day be back and you think they have no shame … don’t despair. Second (and 11th) acts are as old as politics itself.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is timr@schurz.com

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