Karabell - Chester Alan Arthur

August 02, 2004

Zachary Karabell
Chester Alan Arthur
New York : Times Books, 2004.
ISBN 0805069518

This is part of the American Presidents series - a collection of short, readable, meaningful books about the Presidents.

When you mention Chester Arthur, the usual response is either "who dat?" or "civil service reform." Or for those like me who know a little more, we comment that here was a longtime political spoilsman who became president by accident after Garfield was murdered and who presided over the dismantling of the system that had brought him fame and fortune.

Karabell digs into the mechanics of late 19th-century machine politics, where a dedicated political class ran for office, distributed government jobs to their friends, dunned their friends for campaign contributions, and spent that money to try to win the next election. He argues that Arthur was a reasonable honest very successful practioner of the system, a man who spent most of his career as a follower and facilitator rather than as a principle, and a man who had mastered the art of doing nothing and succeeding thereby.

Karabell argues that civil service reform was a result of Garfield's murder and the midterm elections following, as Republicans dashed through a lame-duck bill so that they could take credit for a subject that had surprisingly become popular among voters. It was not an Arthur policy - he just signed the bill. On the other hand, despite Chester Arthur's lackadasical work habits, lack of policy initiatives, and general caretaker approach to the presidency, his four years were also four years of prosperity, economic growth, and labor peace - a marked contrast to the periods before and afterwards. He does not explain how, but he suggests that Arthur had the knack of keeping things running smoothly, and that this is an under-estimated knack. We never learn if Arthur was lucky or good, we simply learn that every office he prsided over ran quietly and efficiently while Arthur came in late and took long lunches.

Posted by Red Ted at August 2, 2004 12:37 PM | TrackBack
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