Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Dead And The More Dead

Some of our past presidents are less dead than others. Lincoln, for example, is still a growth industry. There have been 16,000 books about him; which averages better than two a week since his demise.

We have some about Lincoln’s love of Shakespeare, about Lincoln and Darwin (same birthday), how he built the log cabin he was born in.(that’s a joke, son) Books have popped up about Abe and the photographers who posed him, interviews with attendees that fateful night at the Ford Theater and an account of his Gettysburg Address from a young boy seated in the front row.

It could be said that Lincoln’s genius is he arrived at a time when he could become fully himself. Consider some of the lesser occupants of the White House who didn’t get the ink of a Lincoln possibly because they served at the wrong time; some who presided over a Depression or banking crisis. Here are a few names which will never be short-listed for Mt. Rushmore.

There was Benjamin Harrison, notable for being our last bearded president and the man who interrupted Grover Cleveland’s two terms. He was actually not a bad sort. Under his administration the Sherman Anti-Trust Act was enacted even though Teddy Roosevelt gets the credit. Harrison also pushed unsuccessfully for Civil Rights legislation. Electricity was installed in the White House for the Harrisons but they were so afraid of electrocution they often slept with the lights on.

Harrison’s grandfather, William Henry, held the office for a wink. He paid a heavy price for delivering a two hour inaugural speech in the rain to demonstrate that he wasn’t as old as he looked. Alas, he was and died a month later. His campaign motto, Tippicanoe and Tyler Too, claims a sentence in our history books but it was he who tipped over and Tyler took his seat.

When Martin van Buren was out of office in 1842 he traveled into the wilds of Illinois. One night the ex-president was welcomed at a farmhouse and for entertainment the hosts thought to summon a local man who could entertain their guest spinning more than a few yarns. The man was Abraham Lincoln and the two of them stayed up all night exchanging their tall tales. Someone might write yet another book about Lincoln as a stand-up comic.

James Garfield held office for about two hundred days, eighty of them near death. Shortly after assuming the presidency he drove his coach with a small party, including Lincoln’s son, Robert, to the railroad station which is now the National Gallery. They were on their way to his alma mater in Baltimore. He had no security team to protect him when he met his assassin. The highpoint of Garfield’s tenure was not anything he did but rather what was done to him.

Two dozen doctors were summoned to his bedside that summer of 1881 and they each reached inside his wound looking for the bullet. He lost 140 of his 250 pounds. When he died it could be said that half the prominent doctors in the old guard had a hand in it. Such was the state of establishment medicine in spite of the fact that Lister had already delivered his paper on antisepsis.

Martin Van Buren’s legacy is much more than the word OK., signifying Old Kinderhook, his hometown in the Hudson Valley. That word is used about two billion times a day around the world. Though I suspect, No Problem, is catching up.

For Van Buren, English was a second language. His family spoke Dutch; in fact for two hundred years they inter-married with the other five extended families in that Dutch town. He was instrumental in founding both the Democratic Party and, two decades later, the Republican Party. Most notably, he ushered us away froma rural society into an urban one.But the panic of 1837 denied him a second term and virtually erased his name from the chronicle.

We are an amnesiac nation. Each of the un-remembered is part of our lineage. Their place in the passing parade gives us clues into some of the fundamental issues still unresolved. We dismiss them at our risk with a hole in the tapestry as a consequence.


  1. Two books a week since he died would only be 15,080 books and not 16,000. I've told you a hundred million times not to exaggerate!