“My God,” an acquaintance of our nation’s 21st president once said, “Chet Arthur in the White House.”
Before he took over the presidency after the assassination of James Garfield, Vice President Chester Arthur was the collector of the Port of New York. The Port Authority doesn’t look like a great springboard to office now, does it? Ask President Chris Christie.
But Chet Arthur is being honored today with a federal holiday, along with George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Pierce, and Warren G. Harding. All of them, even the ones for whom you didn’t vote, didn’t like, or thought an idiot.
Sometimes, presidents have reflected the times and mood of the nation they served. Dwight Eisenhower was the embodiment of the sock hop stolidity of the 1950s. John F. Kennedy was the Elvis/Beatles political wake-up call in the 1960s.
In other times, the president was the stylistic antithesis of their era; it’s hard to think of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon as the flower-children epoch leaders. But sometimes that’s how it works too: president as cultural counterbalance.
Jerry Ford’s quiet steadiness and Jimmy Carter’s stern morality meshed well with a post-Watergate climate. When Americans got tired of conserving, retreating, and wearing cardigans, they turned to Hollywood’s Ronald Reagan, who combined the oozy charm of the radio era and the let ’er rip ethos of Cowboy America, even though he was from Illinois.
We experienced the Branding Era of the presidency with the Bushes and Bill Clinton. Barack Obama mirrors the new American polyethnic culture. Who the next president will be remains unclear, but brand extension is always important, as the son of Ron Paul, the brother and son of Presidents 43 and 41, and the wife of President 42 will be more than happy to tell you.
The American presidency started off as a demi-king with many systemic checks. Then world wars morphed it into an all-powerful institution, capable of extinguishing all life on Earth in a half an hour, give or take.
More recently, it has also taken on the trappings of national talk show host. The founders never could have envisioned the power of nuclear weapons or television, but they managed to add a cranky Congress to make sure the president never got out of line.
In his interview in The New Yorker, President Obama lamented that he was surprised by how little power he actually had to change the country. Sometimes, presidents change things by just sitting there, and sometimes they move armies to make history.
On this Presidents Day, let’s be grateful that we get to choose them. Even Chet Arthur, although voters only elected him vice president.