Portrait: Chester Alan Arthur’s inauguration, 1881

Of all the presidential inauguration scenes of the late 1800s, my personal favorite is this one, a full-page cover from Leslie’s Illustrated showing Chester Alan Arthur taking the oath in the living room of his New York City townhouse. It took place at about 2:15 am on Tuesday morning, September 20, 1881, just hours after word reached Arthur by telegraph that President James A. Garfield had died, making Arthur a thoroughly accidental and reluctant chief executive. Arthur’s aides had to scour the neighborhood to find a judge — John R. Brady of the New York Supreme Court — to administer the oath.

The whole nation had been on a tense death-watch for Garfield ever since early July when Garfield had been shot in the back by a psychopath named Charles Guiteau at the Washington, D.C. train station. Garfield could have survived the gun shot, but his doctors had infected him by probing the wound with dirty fingers. During his struggle for life that summer, Garfield had become beloved in America, while Arthur was distrusted and feared.

Arthur never aspired to be President. His selection as candidate for vice president on Garfield’s 1881 ticket had been a political fluke — the product of a stalemated nominating convention. ”A greater honor than I ever dreamed of attaining,” he called it. Known as Gentleman Boss for his role managing New York’s statewide Republican political machine, Arthur as vice president had openly opposed Garfield in the bitter argument over patronage and intra-party factions that had set the stage for Guiteau’s attack. As Guiteau was being arrested minutes after shooting the president, he announced: “I did it! I am a Stalwart, and Arthur will be President!”

These words by the assassin, coupled with Arthur’s role in the patronage fight, led many Americans to believe Arthur in fact was involved in the shooting. Arthur himself, a mild-mannered, dapper man, was horrified at the thought and dreaded the reaction if he took office. When told of Garfield’s death, Arthur broke down in tears. Look at Arthur’s eyes in the image above, (click to make it full size) and notice how the artist sought to capture the mix of fear, sadness, and determination.
If fact, once sworn in, Chester Alan Arthur became admirably independent. He surprised friends by signing the Pendleton Civil Service Act of 1883, the most important and successful government reform of the era. When old cronies came asking favors, he turned them away — often after bitter arguments. Said one: “He isn’t ‘Chet’ Arthur anymore; he’s the President.” Arthur guarded his privacy, telling one nosy temperance lady hectoring him about alcohol in the White House: “Madam, I may be President of the United States, but my private life is nobody’s dan business!”

Arthur’s admirable record won him no friends. His party refused to nominate him for re-election in 1884. That same year, he was diagnosed with Bright’s disease, a painful, then-uncurable kidney ailment that would kill him in late 1886.
Today, a century later, Chester Alan Arthur is largely forgotten. His name is the punchline to a dozen jokes about obscure dead presidents. I think this is shameful. Arthur, for all his faults, was also one of the most human and compelling presidents we’ve had, a flawed person who found integrity and grace in the most difficult circumstance.

Portraits: James A. Garfield’s inaugural ball, March 1881

Here’s a snapshot I took recently of a rarely seen two-page spread from the Leslie’s Illustrated of March 19, 1881. It took a team of artists to sketch and then carve it by hand onto wooden block for printing. It shows the grand inaugural ball for PresidentJames A. Garfield, held in the Smithsonian Building that year. Garfield, a popular and moderate Ohio Republican, was doomed to serve only four months in office before a psychopathic hanger-on named Charles Guiteau shot him in the back as Garfield was entering the Washington, D.C. train station on a Saturday morning that July. Garfield would die from infection (yes, the doctors killed him by failing to wash their hands) a few months later on September 19, 1881. His assassination would shock the nation and make Garfield widely popular for a generation. There is hardly a town or city in America with a Garfield Street or two.
Click on the photo to blow it up and marvel at the detail. So accurate is the sketch that you can make out literally dozens of prominent faces in the crowd: Garfield, his wife Lucretia, Senators Roscoe Conkling, John Sherman, and Carl Schurz, plus incoming Vice President Chester Alan Arthur, incoming Secretary of State James G. Blaine, and a bevy of foreign diplomats. Look at the women’s gowns, the bunting on the walls, the guarded conversations. The band that night played tunes from the latest Gilbert and Sullivan operetta H.M.S. Pinafore — Garfield’s favorite. — that had premiered in London just two years earlier.
It’s a group portrait of a vanishing generation of politicians taken at a moment of graceful indulgence. Could any photograph or video have captured the moment so well?

My secret views about the Presidential campaign

So it came as quite a shock to me when I learned recently that there is a small group of people in this world who actually read this Blog.   Some even print off copies of my postings and pass them around. Please understand, I welcome you. But it did strike me as alarming. If people are reading what I write, then I actually need to be coherent and smart, and have something useful to say, like: Be good. Don’t do evil. Eat fiber.  Call your mother. So on.

So I’ve divided that, as a special treat for those intrepid few eyeballs that actually venture into this rarified cranny of the Web, today I will begin to reveal my secret, private thoughts about the current 2008 Presidential election campaign. Up till now, I’ve kept them secret. But inquiring minds want to know. And the demand has reached a crescendo, impossible to ignore.

So here goes:

First, I reject the view that George W. Bush is the single worst president in American history. It’s not that he hasn’t tried.  The problem for Bush is the competition. James Buchanan (1857-1861) and Andrew Johnson (1865-1869) were both so abysmal, so incompetent, so malicious, that even a president as bad as Bush falls short. With Buchanan, his mis-management of the 1860 secession crisis set the stage for oceans of blood to be in Civil War.  With Andrew Johnson, his naked racism undermined any chance for positive post-War reconstruction and improving the lot of freed African-American slaves for the next hundred years. It’s taken until Barack Obama (but more on that later…).

So I nominate George W. Bush as no better than third worst.  He has fewer redeeming virtures than Richard M. Nixon, a mean streak never shared by Warren G. Harding, and more destructive in his hard-headedness than Herbert Hoover.

Now, as for the active, serious candidates still standing for 2008: Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and Barack O’Bama (I prefer the Irish spelling). I like them all in different ways, and think the country would be better of with any of them in the top job. Perhaps best would be something like this: Obama as president, Hillary as WH chief of staff, and McCain as Secretary of War. (I think he’d enjoy using the traditional name).

I can’t imagine any of these three settling for Vice President.  Each probably would agree with John Nance Garner’s description of the job as “not worth a bucket of warm piss.” None, I think, would side with Chester Alan Arthur (VP to James A. Garfield who became president when Garfield was assassinated in 1881), who described the VP job truthfully as “a greater honor than I ever dreamed of attaining.”

In my ideal outcome, there might even be roles for the also-rans: say, Mike Huckabee as ambassador to the Vatican, John Edwards as Solicitor General, Dennis Kucinich as commander of Area 51, and Ralph Nader as Miss Congeniality.

So with that, I’m ready to sit down with a glass of wine and watch the Oscars. I had my coffee this morning. Thanks for reading this, you few, you strong, you intrepid souls. I hope your eyeballs prosper.

Till then, all the best. –KenA