San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

February 18th, 2008
Presidents Day

COMMENTARY
By BILL PETERSON

Monday, we celebrated Presidents Day, which is supposed to save us from burning two days observing the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12) and George Washington (Feb. 22). The History Channel regaled us with a nifty little set of documentaries entitled “The Presidents.”

The History Channel didn’t show the entire series, apparently, knocking off for a show about the special effects on “Star Wars” for prime time. But we saw the lackluster, forgotten presidents of the 19th century, which reminded us that the presidency is as much about accidental fortune as individual heroism.

One of the more delicious circumstances occurred in 1881, which we might call The Year of Three Presidents. The story really begins with the administration of Union war hero U.S. Grant, who lost credit because his cronies scandalized his administration.

In 1876, the presidency turned to Rutherford Birchard Hayes from Fremont, OH. Hayes won a brokered election, losing the popular vote to New York’s Samuel B. Tilden by 250,000 votes. However, the electoral votes from four states were in question until Republicans in Congress made a deal with Southern Democrats. In exchange for Hayes taking the presidency, he would appoint one Southerner to his cabinet and pull Northern troops from the South.

So, Hayes took over and pursued civil service reform, a hot issue in light of Grant’s Administration. Hayes went so far as to challenge New York Senator Roscoe Conkling by firing the chief collector at the New York customs house, a fellow named Chet Arthur.

But the end of Reconstruction didn’t go well from the Republican standpoint, so the party refused Hayes another nomination and gave it to Ohio Republican James A. Garfield, who took the oath on March 4, 1881. The new president was a uniquely qualified man – a college president, minister and Major General in the Union Army. But Garfield didn’t last very long. He died on Sept. 2, 1881 after being shot by a whackjob named Charles Giteau, who wanted a patronage job.

Into the presidency stepped Garfield’s vice president, none other than Chester Alan Arthur. And Arthur, of all people, a creation of political cronyism, now is regarded by historians as a champion of civil service reform for passing the Pendleton Civil Service Act. Arthur avoided his old allies, especially Conkling, and remade himself as president.

Few presidents have taken office so distrusted. When Arthur became president, many feared civil service reform was dead. Instead, somehow, Arthur summoned the credibility to complete the job. Even Mark Twain went so far as to say, “It would be hard indeed to better President Arthur’s administration.” And no one ever grew crazier sideburns, by the way.

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