Sunday, June 03, 2012

We So Didn't Start the Fire

now finished: Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester Alan Arthur by Thomas C. Reeves
current audio book listen: The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy by David E. Hoffman

Did you know the first "birther" "controversy" wasn't about Barack Obama at all? It was over Chester A. Arthur, U.S. president #21. They tried to claim he was born over the line, in Canada, instead of in northern Vermont. His father was a preacher and the family moved all over New England, living in one town for a year, then moving on to preach elsewhere. Sort of like a military brat, without the weapons and stuff. Sometimes the parents and some of the kids lived in Canada, but not the year Chester A. Arthur was born. So, why'd the anti-Arthur folk say it? Because he was their political enemy, of course!

Those were some particularly nasty Republican politics at that time, due in large part to one Roscoe Conkling, about whom I am going to write a mini-series. When Chester A. Arthur got the nomination to be the Vice President to James A. Garfield's President, enemies of Conkling were pissed. There were so many corrupt back room deals at that time that you know everybody was involved in a political favor for someone or other, but Arthur really hated reporters for badmouthing, spreading false tales in order to further their favorites' cause, etc. At one big gathering, he said:
"I don't think we had better go into the minute secrets of the campaign...reporters [are present]..and while I don't mean to say anything about my birthplace, whether it was in Canada or elsewhere, still, if I should get going about the secrets of the campaign, there is no saying what I might say to make trouble between now and the 4th of March..." - p. 215 of Reeves' Gentleman Boss

He was being sarcastic and angry, but it kind of backfired for seeming like he had something to hide. But really, Arthur was actually quite a gentleman in the face of all the madness. After reading his bio, I feel that he didn't really mean to do any harm. He wasn't a malicious person, but he was more like any of us: he got along with some powerful people, did his job, advanced, gained some money and power, was looked out for by friends, and looked out for some other friends. If you take it out of the realm of politics you realize that you are not all that different. Think of it more like the workplace favorite intern, the Starbucks runs on company time, the little things you do in the course of your life and feel justified in doing because you're smart/you always get your work done/you deserve it. It was like that, with Arthur.  

I've basically been reading about these events from the perspective of several people: #19 Rutherford B. Hayes (my boy!), #20 James A. Garfield (he's got issues) and now #21, Arthur. Besides further inspiration for my mini-series, I took other things away from this book. Once again, as has happened in a few of the recent prez bios, I read a bit about how the Panama Canal almost went across Nicaragua instead. I read about the U.S. getting all up in an exploratory business endeavor in the heart of Africa, prompting James Blaine (enemy of Conkling) to say:

"How can we maintain the Monroe Doctrine when we take part in conferences on the internal affairs of other continents? We shall either be told some day to mind our own business or else be forced to admit governments to participation in the questions affecting America."  - p. 403 of Gentleman Boss 

How interesting it would be to see what these guys would have to say, today. I think these Republicans of the 1870s and 1880s may not have gone oil hunting under the sands of every country in Asia, lying willy-nilly to the American public as Dubya, Cheney, Rumsfeld and the like have done. I think these Republicans would have found it shameful that the big business bosses of the U.S. couldn't come up with awesome companies, oil or otherwise, on their own without the government launching a few invasions on their behalf, killing thousands and tramping all over liberty and justice for all.  Arthur liked to act classy. Dubya might have given him a heart attack.

Unfortunately, Arthur was sick (kidney stuff) during his time in office, and he had no plans to run for another term after being thrust into office against his desires in the first place when Garfield was assassinated. Although Arthur redeemed himself nicely during his time in the White House, going from being seen as part of the corrupter-than-corrupt New York Conkling scene to being a man who actually told his friends "No!" in order to maintain the dignity and honor of the presidency, he soon left the political stage and died shortly thereafter.

All in all, he was an interesting man, and one of the few in my last run of bios who actually wanted to get out of the Civil War instead of continuing in its madness and violence. Another reason I don't think he would go a-slaughterin' for oil and lies, were he alive today.

Finally, in yet another the-more-things-change example, let's see what those Gilded Age Republicans had to say about the Democrats of their day:

"The defeat reopened a serious split among Democrats and reinforced the conviction of Republicans that their opponents were unfit for national authority. 'There is something the matter with the Democratic side,' thought Theodore Lyman. 'There are some able and very many honest men over there, but they have no unity of action, nor ruling ideas.'"  - p. 382 of Reeves (Lyman quoted in Morgan's From Hayes to McKinley)

It's been a long string of Republican leaders, with only Andrew Johnson (who gets a really bad rap) to break up the monotony since James Buchanan. Now, it's time to see what Grover Cleveland will do with this opportunity.  Hint: he's the president famous for serving two non-consecutive terms. Guess there's more contesting and dissatisfaction coming up!

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