Monday, October 2, 2023

the last book I ever read (President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier by C. W. Goodyear, excerpt eight)

from President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier by C. W. Goodyear:

Secretly, in another part of Chicago, one of them considered doing so anyway. Despite what millions of Americans thought (for much mud had been thrown on his name by the White House’s current tenant) there was decency hidden under Chester Arthur’s swooping whiskers and oval frame. It had always been there, albeit buried beneath more evident traits: an affection for high living, a yearning for camaraderie, and a moral spine just pliable enough to yield to both. A friend recalled that, as a child in Vermont, Arthur was good at directing other boys as they built miniature dams out of mud, only standing just far enough away to keep his own hands clean.

A career that began in civil rights law and military service in New York had tapered off into the cozy confines of Conkling’s postwar power structure. Arthur rose through the Stalwart ranks quickly, putting his cut of the spoils to use along the way. Starting his days in fine, fuzzy tweed, he liked to throw on darker attire in the afternoons; by dusk the “Gentleman Boss” would typically change into a tuxedo that kept his folds hugged tight. He did not stay nearly as attentive (or close) to his wife, the socialite Ellen “Nell” Arthur. The customhouse collector instead spent his nights tinkering with machine business over brandy until the early morning.

In the second half of the Hayes administration, Arthur’s good fortune fell apart: the president finally managed to oust him from his prized customhouse role in 1878. Then, in January 1880, came a more rattling blow: Nell caught a fatal case of pneumonia while Arthur was again away on business. He would forever regret how he lived before Nell’s passing, and he did not know how to do so after. “Honors to me now are not what they once were,” Arthur told a friend.

Except, it seems, the vice presidency. Arthur was shocked to be offered the job by the Ohioans. His expertise lay in rigging elections as a boss, not winning them as a candidate—he had never even run for office before. Meanwhile, other Republicans were already hailing Garfield’s nomination as a Waterloo for the Stalwarts. “My mind enjoys inexpressible peace at the breaking up of the machine,” one reformer soon expounded to a journalist in New York.

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