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Art Callaham: More on presidents, from Johnson to Cleveland

August 25, 2013|By ART CALLAHAM

Earlier this year, I wrote a couple of columns about U.S. presidents. In those columns, I went from Washington to Lincoln. So, here’s a new edition spanning the administrations of Andrew Johnson through Grover Cleveland. That’s eight administrations, but only seven presidents (that apparent discrepancy is a story in itself). 

As I mentioned in earlier columns, many of my facts, quotes and opinions come from a wonderful book titled “Secret Lives of the U.S. Presidents” by Cormac O’Brien.  

Andrew Johnson, sometimes call “King Andy” or “Sir Veto” because of his penchant for directing government — with or without congressional approval — was never “elected” president. He became president upon the death of Abraham Lincoln.  

Johnson was the first president to be “impeached” by the U.S. House of Representatives and tried by the U.S. Senate.  Saved by a margin of one vote, Johnson would have been convicted and removed from office. His “crime” was that he violated a federal law (Tenure of Office Act) when he fired his Secretary of War who had been approved by the Senate.

Johnson was a tailor by trade, had no formal education and was taught to read and write by his wife. Yet, he was elected to Congress, became president and later became the only former president to serve in the U.S. Senate.

Johnson was followed by Ulysses S. Grant, the famous (or infamous) Union Civil War general. Grant became the first president to be elected and complete two full terms since Andrew Jackson 10 administrations earlier.

Grant’s “presidency has become something of a conundrum for historians who can’t seem to decide whether it was a flawed success or an abject failure,” O’Brien wrote. Somewhere in the middle is probably the correct placement.  

Although his administration was fraught with civil service corruption, Grant’s commitment to empowering freed blacks and making peace with the Plains Indians makes him stand out as a courageous national leader. Most historians also give him high marks in foreign affairs because he patched up relations with Great Britain after the Civil War.

The 19th president was Rutherford B. Hayes, another “one-termer” Republican and most noted because he lost the popular vote to Samuel Tilden. Yet, a congressional committee of 15 appointed to “sort out the election mess” split on party lines, eight Republicans for Hayes and seven Democrats for Tilden.

A teetotaler and religious zealot, Hayes banned alcohol from the White House and spent every night singing religious hymns. Not much else to say about his administration, so on to James A. Garfield.

Garfield, a Republican, holds the distinction of serving one of the least amounts of time as an elected president. Sadly, Garfield was shot and died less than a year after being elected.  

While we’ll never know, some historians believe Garfield might well have been one of the best equipped (based upon experience and education) men to hold the office of president of the United States. He was the first left-handed president and the last born in a log cabin. 

Chester A. Arthur, although he has a great last name, was not elected. He became president upon Garfield’s death. He did not run for election after his term of service. A quintessential machine politician, Arthur was generally known as dapper, congenial, sweet-talking and a schmoozer.  

After four Republican presidents and 16 years of Republican rule, along came Grover Cleveland, the first Democratic president since Andrew Johnson. Cleveland’s two administrations, nonconsecutive, solve the discrepancy of one fewer president than administrations. 

Between Cleveland’s two terms is another Republican, Benjamin Harrison. Harrison was a president who also did not win the popular vote but was elected by winning the Electoral College. Many historians consider his one term “a dud.”

There is a lot to write about Cleveland’s terms in office, but I want to relate one fact that should establish a credo for all elected officials.  During his campaign for president, it was factually reported that Cleveland, a bachelor at the time, had fathered a child. When asked how to “spin” this fact in hopes of not losing the election, Cleveland was quoted as saying, “Tell them the truth.” Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all candidates followed that creed today? 

Art Callaham is a community activist and president of the Washington County Free Library Board of Trustees.

 

 

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