From Publishers Weekly
"Chet Arthur? President of the United States? Good God!" is a refrain that punctuates this new biography of the 21st president, the latest in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.s American Presidents series. Readers today may confess bewilderment rather than surprise-Chester who?-but this brief but masterful portrait of Arthurs life and times deserves an attentive audience. Karabell (The Last Campaign; Parting the Desert), freely admits his mission impossible: to rescue his subject from the dustbin of history occupied by obscure late 19th-century presidents, more famous for their facial hair than their tenures in office. Despite limited archival materials (Arthurs papers were destroyed after his death), Karabell tackles this task with considerable literary aplomb. Charting a career that catapulted Arthur to the presidency after James Garfields assassination, Karabell investigates whether Arthur was an active reformer or a mere "placeholder." To frame this challenge, he explores the post-Civil War eras simmering politics, which hinged on the "spoils system," a long-entrenched formula whereby victorious politicians distributed federal and state jobs to supporters and cronies, later mining their appointees pockets for future campaign "contributions." When calls for reform peaked, Arthur spurned the system that spawned him and signed the landmark Pendleton Civil Service Act, which launched the professionalization of the federal bureaucracy, replacing patronage with merit-based examinations. But Arthur was not a true reformist; in the end, Karabell says, he simply "conducted himself with honor when politics was venal and petty." Karabell also salutes the wealthy gourmand as a White House style-maker in a league with Jacqueline Kennedy. Arthur spruced up the dour mansion, in part by hiring the then-unknown decorator Louis Comfort Tiffany. By exploring the Gilded Ages parallels with our own divisive political scene, Karabell does an excellent job of cementing the volumes relevance for contemporary readers.
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Presidents come no more obscure than Arthur; in this American Presidents series volume, Karabell shows why. Arthur's papers were destroyed shortly after his death, which makes guesswork out of ascertaining his thoughts about his administration. More important to his least-known status is the fact that he didn't want or expect to be president. A consummate Republican Party hack, he obtained the then enormously important position of U.S. customs collector in New York via the then-legal political spoils system. Asked to be Garfield's 1880 running mate, he dutifully obliged. Inaugurated in March 1881, Garfield was shot in July and died in September: Arthur was president. He rose to the occasion, angering Republican bosses, but didn't sacrifice the short working day to which he was accustomed. His light management style was okay for an era in which presidential politics mattered far less, his reform of the still-new civil service was a crucial early step toward "big government" in the twentieth century, and most important, Karabell suggests, he was a gentleman among knaves. Ray Olson
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