Tuesday, May 24, 2016

five presidents down

The American presidents continue to march through my library and bedroom.

Six weeks ago, I updated you, in bumping off the presidents, on my project to read a biography of each of the American presidents before I shuffle off to The Final Campaign. At that point, I had just finished reading the biography of James Buchanan -- arguably the worst of the forty-three men who have occupied the office.

Since then, I have dropped several more presidents in the "read" file: Andrew Johnson, the man who nearly undid everything Lincoln had tried to accomplish through the Civil War; Rutherford B. Hayes, who made it to the White House with an election far more controversial than the 2000 Bush-Gore kerfuffle; Chester Arthur, who was elevated to the presidency when a disgruntled office seeker cut short President Garfield's life, and platform to bring the country back together; Grover Cleveland, the only man to serve two non-consecutive terms in the office; and Benjamin Harrison, the grandson of a president, and the guy who gave Cleveland his unique place in history.

Finding good biographies of this line of presidents was difficult. Even though I have been very unhappy with the quality of "The American President Series" (badly edited by Arthur Schlesinger), I resorted to them for several of these presidents. There simply are not a lot of good biographies out there on late nineteenth century politicians.

There were two exceptions, both recently released. The first was The Forgotten Conservative: Rediscovering Grover Cleveland by John Pafford, a professor of history and philosophy. Dr. Pafford, as you can see by the book's title, has a certain point of view. He contends Grover Cleveland was one of the few conservative (at least, in the way we use the term currently) presidents following the Civil War.

I am always a bit leery of such arguments. They tend to reduce the subject matter to the historical heresy of presentism by clogging the prose with a series of anachronisms. For that reason, I almost did not buy the book.

I am glad I did. Dr. Pafford clearly explains the two big issues that dominated post-Civil War politics (currency and tariffs) and why both issues summed up two opposing views of what America should be. Cleveland stood with for the gold standard (which put him at odds with the populist wing of his party) and low tariffs (to protect consumers from high prices).

He may not have been the most imaginative of presidents, but he was the first to put the brakes on William Jennings Bryan. And that may be good enough.

The second biography is of a far different man. Cleveland may have been the paragon of conservatism and morality, but Chester Arthur was a man who believed that politics was the art of governing through filling pockets -- often his own -- with gold. Thomas Reeves perfectly captures the contradictions that drove the twenty-first president in Gentleman Boss.

Chester Arthur was part of the Conkling machine in New York. Before civil service reform was enacted, most government positions were divvied up under the spoils system -- pioneered by Andrew Jackson. Ability to do a job (or any expectation that the officeholder would actually perform his duties) was not a hiring consideration.

Arthur captured one of the plum jobs under the spoils system -- collector of the New York Customs House. He was well on his way to becoming wealthy from the job when his fellow Republican, President Hayes, tried unsuccessfully to remove him from the job.

To our twenty-first century way of thinking, the next step in Arthur's career is almost unimaginable. In an attempt to bind the factions of the party together, the Republican nominee for president, James Garfield, selected Arthur to be his running mate. That seems about as likely as Bill Clinton choosing Ken Starr to run with him.

Because God has a great sense of humor, Garfield was assassinated early in his term. And not just by anyone. His assassin shot Garfield out of spite for not receiving the patronage job he thought he was promised. Oh, yeah. He also shouted "Arthur will be president" while shooting Garfield.

It was not an auspicious start for the Arthur presidency. He already was known as a corrupt machine politician. Now he could add "assassin" to his résumé.

But the opponent of civil service reform turned into the advocate for the reform. Reeves does not hide the fact that Arthur's conversion may have been more out of the sense of political survival instead of a change of heart. Whatever the reason was, he helped push civil service reform on its way -- badly damaging his former machine in New York.

The price was his inability to receive the Republican nomination to serve as president in his own right. Instead, another New Yorker became president -- Grover Cleveland.

Arthur is now ranked amongst the worst of American presidents. Reeves disagrees with that assessment.

Given Arthur's political background, the traumatic and unprecedented circumstances of his elevation to the White House, his fractured party, the divided and slothful Congresses he faced, the severe restraints upon the presidency at the time, and the burden of his poor health, his record as Chief Executive is both responsible and admirable. He was a good president at a period in our history when the American people neither expected or sought great presidents.
It is an apt summary of Arthur's presidency. And there may be a lesson there. Maybe we should be satisfied with presidents who are simply good, rather than presidents who seek to be great.

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