Books

four takes

The not-so-good presidents’ club

President Chester A. Arthur.
President Chester A. Arthur.

He is still with us. One long year later, the boy who would be king remains president, cheering a shrinking cadre of the faithful and frustrating others.

At first, even the bitterest foes summoned hope that Donald Trump might rise to the occasion, but amid the Twitter firestorms and other provocations even the most optimistic among the opposition have thrown up their hands.

Meanwhile his remaining supporters, pointing to regulation rollbacks, judicial appointments, and the railroaded tax revisions, are doing just fine, thank you.

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Where the 45th president will ultimately land in historians’ rankings has not yet been fully determined, but it could prove instructive to trace the paths of former residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue considered less than raging success stories.

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Viewed as irredeemably corrupt, Chester A. Arthur became president in 1881 after James Garfield was assassinated. At the time, Arthur’s ascent inspired widespread alarm. But, revisiting the story in a recent biography, “The Unexpected President — The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur” (DaCapo), Scott S. Greenberger convincingly presents a machine politician transformed by the responsibility of high office.

Despite having served as a glorified GOP bagman (and doing handsomely for himself in the process), Arthur crossed over to his party’s reformist faction. Under his leadership, a corrupt federal patronage system was dismantled, making way for today’s professionalized civil service. Poor health prevented the 21st president from seeking election to a full term. But for being much less sleazy than expected, he largely won history’s forbearance.

In contrast, Warren G. Harding has been blamed for doing worse than he actually did. That, at least, is the judgment of John W. Dean, former counsel to President Nixon and no stranger to tarnished administrations. In 2004, Dean’s slim biography, “Warren G. Harding’’ (Times), was published as part of “The American Presidents” series.

Dean might appear an iffy choice for the job. As it happens though, he and Harding are both sons of Marion, Ohio. Dean took an early interest in the 29th president, listening skeptically to the gossip he heard growing up.

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Harding, Dean concedes, is “best known as America’s worst president.” Most notoriously, he was tarred with the Teapot Dome bribery scandal, which came to light shortly after his untimely death of a heart attack in 1923 (replaced by Vice President Calvin Coolidge of Northampton). Dean emphasizes that despite numerous investigations, Harding was never directly implicated in the affair, which involved improper leases of public oil fields approved byInterior Secretary Albert Fall. Yet, perhaps because Harding’s papers were opened to the public belatedly, in 1964, he remains guilty by association with “the bad apples in his administration.”

Dean’s Harding is a popular, self-effacing chief executive who acted to make federal spending more accountable. Yet H.L. Mencken wrote at Harding’s death, “. . . he leaves behind him a career so horribly bare of achievement, and also so bare of intelligible effort, that the historians will have to labor, indeed, to make him more than a name.”

Dean has not scoured the record to emerge with a full-dress revisionist portrait. But for another writer, the time may be ripe.

Robert W. Merry might be the man now that he has completed his project on William McKinley. In an exhaustive new biography, he argues that the 25th president was unfairly overshadowed by his flamboyant successor, Theodore Roosevelt. “President McKinley: Architect of the American Century” (Simon and Schuster) makes the case for a seminal figure whose expansionist foreign policy created the global power we know today. (If you thought you were living in Oprah’s world, think again.) Under McKinley, the United States prevailed in the Spanish-American war and extended its influence to Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippines.

An Ohio Republican like Harding, the affable McKinley was more methodical than visionary. In 1900, he was overwhelmingly elected to a second term, only to be assassinated the next year. His detractors insist that he was less a big man than a forgettable one.

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The opposite must be said of Herbert Hoover. A gifted leader, he is remembered mainly for mishandling the Great Depression. Hoover’s outstanding humanitarian work, pursued before and after his single term in office, is generally considered insufficient to right the balance. As Kenneth Whyte reminds us in “Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times” (Knopf), a quarter of Americans were unemployed in 1933 when Franklin Delano Roosevelt crushed Hoover’s reelection hopes.

Whyte’s thorough, gracefully written work presents an aloof, even cold figure whose managerial genius guided several successful relief efforts, beginning with food aid to occupied Belgium during World War I. After World War II, Hoover coordinated aid to Europe. Whyte estimates that in total, his public service saved as many as 100 million lives.

Like Trump, Hoover lacked the political skills to keep Congress singing his tune. Also like Trump, he wasted little time on self-reflection. But people who worked with Hoover felt themselves in the presence of a remarkable human being. The signals coming from Trump insiders are decidedly different. To be fair, the definitive accounts of this tumultuous time are years away. And things change — sometimes.

M.J. Andersen is an author and journalist who writes frequently on the arts.