Chester Arthur He Would Rather Have Been Fishing


The bad press over the weekend has not allowed Trump to “enjoy” the White House as he feels he deserves, according to one person who has spoken with him. 

—Associated Press, January 25, 2017

Trump “was furious,” [one person with knowledge of the situation] said. “He doesn’t like this shit.”

—Politico, Feb 10, 2017

“I’d rather be golfing” makes a decent bumper sticker, but as a national motto it’s a tad disconcerting. Trump desperately wanted to become president. It’s less clear that he wants to be president. At least not as much as he wants to be at Mar-a-Lago.

Chester Arthur would rather have been fishing. No man in the history of the office has ever wanted—or enjoyed—the presidency less.

Chet Arthur? President of the United States? Good God! an anonymous friend (probably apocryphal)

Arthur was a boss, a machine pol—terms most people associate with outlandish corruption but not with the fact that they describe standard operating procedure virtually everywhere in the late 19th century.

Bear with me while I try to explain how this bizarre (to us) political system worked. “Boss” is a helpful modifier. Individuals didn’t make their own decisions about their political leanings; they rented their conscience out to the political organization to which they belonged. These organizations ran like any large business, with a boss of bosses, a CEO, on top; a handful of sub-bosses—COO, senior vice president, regional manager, what have you—in the middle; and workers at the bottom to do the actual labor (voting early and often). Orders coming down from headquarters cascaded to the worker bees through the middle managers. Arthur served as the Chief Operating Officer of an organization known as the Stalwarts, reporting up to a flamboyant CEO named Roscoe Conkling.

Roscoe Conkling, the Stalwart boss, was a weirdo, right down to his strenuous weightlifting routine. One of his friends said that "Conkling seemed to consider all men who differed with him as enemies of the human race." One of his enemies called him "a singular compound of a very brilliant man and an exceedingly petulant spoiled child."

The “machine” metaphor is also apt. You put something into a machine, it processes that thing somehow, and out comes something else altogether. In go quarters, out comes a Coke. In goes your weak, off-key voice, out come sweet karaoke jams. For their part, the Stalwarts converted civil service jobs into votes (and back into civil service jobs, in an endless loop).

Here’s how: If you were an ordinary citizen of New York and Chester Arthur gave you a job, you were happy to get your friends and relations to vote for whomever Chester Arthur said (based on a decision made by Roscoe Conkling). When the person you voted for became, say, governor, he had thousands of state jobs at his disposal. Since Chester Arthur (and Roscoe Conkling) had gotten the governor elected in the first place, the governor let them do the hiring. Repeat.

Most machines, including the Stalwarts, added a few bells and whistles, including:

  • “assessments,” aka “the lug”: charging the people they put to work a percentage of their salary to fund the machine’s activities
  • “soap,” aka “walking-around money”: cash paid to vagrants on election day to buy their votes
  • “graft,” aka “boodle”: using access and power to make a fortune, sometimes legally, sometimes not

Machines didn’t think; they were agnostic on what we call “the issues.” When your only job is to vote as you’re told or get other people to vote as you tell them, you’re equally qualified whether you want to build a wall or a sanctuary city. As one historian described it, the “true character of the machine is its political indifferentism…. It exists for itself.”

The production value isn't exactly high, but this isn't bad if you want to spend 12 minutes trying to understand machine politics. It's so cool that people do this. Hooray Internet!

Officially, Arthur served as collector of the New York Customs House, a job to which he was appointed by President Grant as a favor to Conkling, who had delivered New York’s electoral votes to Candidate Grant. Unofficially, though, Arthur’s role with the Stalwarts was logistics; during the Civil War, he’d been a quartermaster, the guy who makes sure every company has the right-size shoes, the right ratio of fifes to drums, and the right tonnage of hardtack—all at the right time and in the right place. In an era of fountain pens and slide rules, this required administrative brilliance, and that’s what Arthur had to offer in place of strong convictions. When the job stopped being about deploying muskets and started being about raising money and spreading it around to win elections, he made an easy transition.

Arthur, raised in a strict evangelical household, developed an appreciation for refinement as he rose through the ranks; his manners and his taste, like his magnificent, sideburn-forward facial hair, were impeccable. Known for stumbling into to work at around 1 pm, he put most of his energy into what we call networking and what he called smoking cigars and drinking whiskey with bearded guys into the small hours. His salary, $10,000, wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t enough to keep him in fine China and 5,000-calorie, Gilded-Age dinners to put on it. Luckily, the salary was almost beside the point. There were plenty of perfectly legal ways for him to divert some of the $100 million-plus in annual customs duties he collected (kind of like writing off $1 billion of somebody else’s money you lost so that you don’t have to pay any income tax for 20 years). Arthur “earned” about $50,000 a year on top of his salary from a variety of means.

This culture of quid pro quo got him elected James Garfield’s vice president in 1880. He didn’t ask for the nomination and didn’t expect it. In fact, he’d never held an elective office in his life. But Garfield needed the Stalwarts to get out the vote, somebody floated the idea, and Arthur didn’t say no.

This cartoon from late 1879 or early 1880 depicts Conkling trying to figure out whom he should make president in 1880. Ironically, neither Garfield nor Arthur was a gleam in the cartoonist's eye, and Conkling's career went straight to hell basically as soon as this cartoon appeared.

He didn’t aspire to the vice presidency, particularly. The logic of machine politics was to tend to the machine; if you could leverage more jobs and money out of the government, you did it. Arthur didn’t think about himself as “a heartbeat away.” He wasn’t laying the groundwork for a presidential run in 1888. He wasn’t scheming for his own policy portfolio. These are modern conceptions of the vice presidency. Arthur understood that he would be the Stalwarts’ man inside the White House, and his job was to squeeze it like a piece of fruit for his friends back in New York.

He made news only once, with a winking victory speech at Delmonico’s, the fanciest restaurant in New York. He said that winning required “perfect organization and a great deal of”—he paused, then continued—“I see the reporters here, and therefore I will simply say that everybody showed a great deal of interest in the occasion.”

Then, someone went and ruined everything by shooting President Garfield. “The most frightful responsibility which ever devolved upon anyone,” Arthur said while Garfield was dying slowly, “would be the casting of the Presidency upon me….” Frightful though it may have been, it was unavoidable (because Garfield’s doctors kept infecting him by poking their fingers in his wounds).

As president, Arthur continued his lifelong habit of showing up late for work. He took to carrying around a satchel full of official-looking papers that he wasn’t working on to project the appearance of busyness. During his first year in office, the only project he seemed to take joy in was redecorating the White House with the help of Louis Comfort Tiffany, the glass artist and his friend from the men’s club scene in New York. He entertained as much as possible, including a state dinner featuring 21 courses and a four-foot long floral centerpiece called “The Swinging Garden of Babylon.”

This was what the White House looked like when Arthur and Tiffany were done with it. Aesthetically inclined folks say it was splendid, but Teddy Roosevelt preferred severed animal heads, so he tore this whole thing down just 20 years later.

In the summer of 1883, he took a solid six weeks off to ride through Yellowstone National Park on horseback. It wasn’t as rugged as it sounds. The president’s party was accompanied by 75 cavalrymen, just in case. It took a pack train of 175 animals to carry their stuff. Along the way, Arthur took in a mock battle staged for his entertainment by Shoshones and Arapahoes.

That's Arthur sitting in the middle. Don't they look like actors in a play about the 1880s? Every single one is ridiculous in his own way.

And yet. Despite his appreciation of the finer things at the expense of the finer details of executive governance, he ended up treating the presidency with a dignity no one saw coming. Most notably, he refused to favor the Stalwarts in his appointments. “I tell you,” said one old friend, “it is pretty hard to see Murphy, who made Arthur, going around without a cent in his pocket, and Arthur running the whole United States, and too timorous to reward Murphy with any position whatsoever.” Another said: “He isn’t ‘Chet’ Arthur anymore. He’s the president.” He even signed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, designed to destroy political machines. Once or twice, he took a stand on a policy issue, for instance vetoing a bill that would have blocked Chinese immigration on the grounds that it stained “the honor of the country” (though he eventually signed a softened ban).

This issue of Puck asked what everybody wanted to know. Was Arthur a real president or a boss? He sided with the fellow in the toga.

By the end of his term, Arthur, who spent his life making friends, had none. The Democrats couldn’t forgive him because he was a Republican. The Republican reformers who raged against the machine couldn’t forgive him because he was a Stalwart. The Stalwarts couldn’t forgive him because he didn’t do what they told him. Two years later, he died of Bright’s Disease. One of his last acts was to burn his papers, so that no one could pick over the carcass of his career.

Donald Trump is another rich New Yorker with weird hair who doesn’t want to be president and spends his time decorating and vacationing instead. But the differences between the two men are more instructive. Chester Arthur didn’t want to become president. He was only doing his duty as he understood it. But when, by terrible accident, he had to be president, he took it (a little bit) seriously. He believed that this one job called for more nobility than the others off of which he’d cheerfully grown fat. Nobility wasn’t his strong suit, but he tried.

Trump, on the other hand, advanced on the presidency as if it were a woman resisting the advance. And now that he has it, he’s treating it like the Miss USA pageant or the set of The Apprentice. Chester Arthur is a tragic figure. Trump is a humiliation.

On the one hand, there just isn’t a lot out there about Chester Arthur. On the other, what’s out there is pretty good. The American Presidents Series entry is by Zachary Karabell, who’s entertaining and good. Then there’s a full-scale biography, The Gentleman Boss, by Thomas C. Reeves. It starts on a bad note, with an overly aggressive justification of the book’s existence that sounds like a grad student trying to take down a junior professor at a conference: “Polemicists of the Progressive Era and the Great Depression, amplifying the shrill condemnations and oversimplifications” of reformers, have left us bereft of “competent, up-to-date” biographies of “scores of major political figures.” Take that, polemicists of the Progressive Era and the Great Depression! But after he calms down, Reeves does what biographers are supposed to do: bring a place and time alive by putting one exemplary representative under a microscope. If you want to understand the politics of late 19th century New York, this is a decent place to start. You might also consider one of the biographies of Roscoe Conkling, the Stalwart boss of bosses and therefore of Arthur, at least until 1882. (I didn’t read any, but it looks like there are two or three worth a try.) Finally, do yourself a favor and check out Plunkitt of Tammany Hall: A Series of Very Plain Talks on Very Practical Politics, Delivered by Ex-senator George Washington Plunkitt, the Tammany Philosopher, from His Rostrum—the New York County Court House Bootblack Stand. Published in 1905 by the reporter William Riordan, who conducted the interviews contained inside, it’s as close as you can get to a primary source from a boss.

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