- - Wednesday, October 25, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

UNEXPECTED PRESIDENT: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF CHESTER A. ARTHUR

By Scott S. Greenberger

DaCapo, $28, 304 pages

Just when we thought there is something new under the sun, consider this: A New York plutocrat, who won fame for greed, wheeler-dealing and extravagance without ever holding elective office, becomes president of the United States. Now reconsider: It happened in 1881.

Chester A. Arthur succeeded James A. Garfield as our 21st chief, “the unexpected president” as Scott S. Greenberger titles this informative volume that itself is rich in surprises. For one, who’d have thought “the life” of this forgotten president could make an engaging book. One secret to that surprise lies in Mr. Greenberger’s skill in animating the second part of his hackneyed subtitle, “the times” of Arthur’s life, “the Gilded Age” in Mark Twain’s phrase.

He evokes the era’s social ecology and political mores, its gritty squalor and silken excesses. Old New York boasted 1 million people and 600 brothels, some so celebrated that guidebooks listed them. Half the residents were foreign-born. Half the children died before age six, while thousands who survived lived in the streets, as ladies wearing thousand-dollar scarves dined at Delmonico’s on partridges stuffed with truffles. Dapper Arthur sported custom-made Prince Alberts with contrasting vests and one year spent $2,600 on hats.

Arthur was one of our nine accidental presidents, veeps whose predecessors died in office: four from natural causes, four from assassins’ bullets, and the singleton who quit. When he succeeded the murdered Garfield, he was the least prepared to date.

Born in 1829, son of a hell-raising abolitionist preacher, he left home, read law and became a pioneering attorney. In 1854 he represented a black schoolteacher and church organist who was thrown off a streetcar, Rosa Parks a century early. Arthur sued the transit company for her, set a legal precedent and won a $225 judgment.

Come the Civil War, he joined the army, became inspector general, and earned esteem for exposing corrupt suppliers. Back in custom-tailored mufti again, he became one of the slickest operators in a slippery age, the bewhiskered protege of the scurrilous dandy Sen. Roscoe Conkling, boss of New York.

Bosses “controlled nearly all of the elected and appointed offices within their states,” Mr. Greenberger writes. They hired and fired at will; they made their hirelings give time and money to their machine, the benefactor.

Employment exams were rigged; merit didn’t count. The nation’s biggest federal office, the New York Custom House, oversaw the country’s richest port. So — no surprise — Conkling’s henchman assumed the rewarding position of collector, “the most lucrative job in the entire federal government.”

Taking a salary and a cut of the fees levied by his minions, crooked Arthur grossed $50,000 a year. Not content, he sat on a transit commission and cut stock deals with the transit companies. When “Republicans desperately needed cash,” he placed a crony in an office near the Custom House to skim specified percentages from every federal worker’s pay.

In 1880, Republicans split between “Stalwarts” and reformers. They needed a vice presidential candidate to deliver New York for standard-bearer Garfield, a reformer. Arthur stepped up and carried the ticket. Then, in a stroke of apt irony, a frustrated supporter shot Garfield at the railroad station where the National Gallery stands now. Then in one of history’s anti-ironic strokes, Arthur ascended to the presidency and became an honest man.

His turnabout resulted partly from his grief over the recent death of his wife, Nell, and his guilt at neglecting her for workaholic/playaholic pursuits. He also recognized an obligation to honor the dead president’s promised policies. Thus, President Arthur became the champion of good government and, in a political coup, reformed the civil service. In short, the fox built a better chicken coop.

Richly researched, sourced and annotated, Mr. Greenberger’s book principally reveals a neglected president’s varied career, while many joys of this historical epic lie in its curious tangents and lesser characters: Nell Arthur’s father, heroic captain of a paddle-wheel steamer caught in a hurricane, loses his ship with its cargo of 30,000 pounds of California gold, which causes bank failures and a financial panic. Julia Sand, an invalided maiden lady, becomes the president’s secret pen pal and conscience. Conkling emerges as a historical precursor and fascinatingly pathological egomaniac.

He cuckolds a fellow senator and struts. Reading proofs of an article about his scandalous deeds, he warns the editor convincingly, “I will kill you” if it appears. Intensely vain and peacock-proud, cultivating a curl in the middle of his forehead, he avenges every slight, resigns his Senate seat in a ploy that flops, and becomes one of the more vainglorious Supreme Court justices.

As for President Arthur’s come-to-Jesus moment, Mr. Greenberger says that he tells Congress in his first Annual Message: “‘No man should be the incumbent of an office the duties of which he is for any cause unfit to perform: who is lacking in the ability, fidelity, or integrity which a proper administration of such office demands.’ These basic principles, he wrote, ‘are doubtless shared by all intelligent and patriotic citizens, however divergent in their opinions. ‘ ” Would that such principles, once new under the sun, were perpetual and present.

Philip Kopper, publisher of Posterity Press in Bethesda, writes about American culture, and history.

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