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Chester Alan Arthur: The American Presidents Series: The 21st President, 1881-1885 Hardcover – June 21, 2004
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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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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It was assumed that he would unquestionably implement the agenda of the Republican Stalwarts, led by Sen Roscoe Conkling, especially in regards to patronage. But Arthur had more dignity and backbone than first thought. It was under his administration that the Pendleton Act passed which was a start to a meritocratic civil service system. He was not reluctant to exercise his veto power.
Arthur brought a certain amount of class to the presidency. He was used to entertaining NYC’s elite at his New York apartment. He renovated the White House and made the White House a must place to go for Washington’s movers and shakers. Unfortunately, his socialite wife died a year before he became President.
Arthur himself died only a year after leaving office due to an incurable kidney disease that had been an aggravation during his presidency.
While not considered to be a great president, the author makes the case that Arthur accomplished quite a bit more than expected and did as a gentleman.
As Karabell points out at the beginning of his book, Chester Arthur is not the most appealing subject upon which a historian writes a book. Yet, by focusing on Arthur's character and the impact of his policies, Karabell brings to light an image of Arthur that repudiates his reputation as an inconsequential president. It wasn't the easiest path or subject about which Karabell wrote. But thanks to an accomplished approach, Karabell not only succeeds in making Arthur relevant to today's reader, he also moves Arthur's reputation from insignificant to overlooked.