Bret Stephens: Gail, your last column reminded me that we share a peculiar obsession with obscure presidents: Franklin Pierce, Benjamin Harrison, his grandfather William Henry. I was a little disappointed that you had nothing to say about Chester Arthur. Was he too obscure to make the obscure list?
Gail Collins: Bret, this is why I love conversing with you. Breakfast followed by Chester Arthur.
Bret: Our readers can barely contain their excitement.
Gail: So here’s Chester’s story. There’s a Republican National Convention in 1880. Very bitter, 36 ballots. Roscoe Conkling, the New York party boss, wants to bring back Ulysses Grant for a third term but finally James Garfield gets the nod. To make peace, the Garfield folks offered the vice presidency to Levi Morton, an accomplished businessman.
Bret: Conkling sounds like a name that belongs in a dirty limerick.
Gail: But — stay with me, I’m almost done — Boss Conkling is still sulking over Grant and tells Morton to turn it down. Then the Garfield people — still looking for a New Yorker — turn to Arthur, who almost faints with joy.
The Garfield-Arthur ticket is elected, Garfield is assassinated and Arthur, who everybody thought of as a party hack, turned out to be a better president than expected.
Now tell me, whence comes the Chester Arthur interest? Was he a long-ago term paper topic?
Bret: My father turned me on to the joys of the historical footnote, literal and figurative. The biggest thing Arthur did as president was sign the Pendleton Act, which was the first step in professionalizing the Civil Service and eliminating the spoils system. Approximately 138 years later, Donald Trump tried partially to reverse the Pendleton Act through an executive order, which is only the 138th worst thing he did as president. But fortunately Joe Biden reversed Trump’s reversal, so the Arthur legacy lives on.
Speaking of legacies, I was also struck by your comparison of Biden with John Quincy Adams. Care to elaborate?
Gail: Bret, I’m sure many Americans are amazed by how much our current president resembles John Quincy Adams. One of the great post-pandemic barroom conversation topics, hehehehe.
Bret: Yeah, I was in an Uber the other day and my driver spent the whole ride ranting that James Monroe gets all the credit for the Monroe Doctrine, when it was really John Quincy’s doing. We got to my destination just as the driver was getting rolling on the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819, because far too few Americans realize that J.Q. also got Florida for the U.S.
Gail: And really, it’s time for Biden to start being compared to somebody.
John Quincy beat the ever-irrepressible Andrew Jackson in a complicated race that Jackson claimed he really won. As president, J.Q.’s big priority was, as I mentioned last week — ta-da! — infrastructure.
At this point I hope the Biden-Adams stories diverge because John Quincy just didn’t do all that well in the job, and he lost re-election to Jackson, whose supporters showed their, um, spunk by crashing a White House party, spilling punch all over the floor and ruining the furniture.
Bret: Maybe they thought they were making America great again?
Gail: But then Adams proved there really are third acts in American history. He went back home and won a seat in Congress, where he devoted much of his time to fighting against slavery. Died on the job, in the Capitol.
OK, your turn — which president would you compare Biden to?
Bret: I’d argue that a better comparison for Biden is George H.W. Bush. Both were two-term vice presidents who served transformational figures; both were quintessential establishment types and instinctive centrists; both believed in the power of personal diplomacy; both were amusingly gaffe-prone, and both came from the “kinder, gentler” school of politics.
I remember how much liberals used to love to hate Bush Sr. A lot of proto-Trumpians, like Pat Buchanan, hated him, too. But I bet most Americans would love to have a president who could rally global support to win a war in the Middle East and quickly bring the troops home, help reunite Germany and bring the Cold War to a peaceful end, sign the Americans With Disabilities Act, support immigration reform and free trade, and work across the aisle on taxes and deficits.
Bush the Elder was probably our best one-term president. Unless you want to make the case for James K. Polk ….
Gail: I’ve been witness to a lot of very intense political debates about James Polk. Amazingly, all involving people who were totally sober.
Bret: Did I mention this other Uber driver who had strong feelings about our 11th president’s diplomacy in establishing the 49th parallel as our northwestern border?
Gail: Pro-Polk argument was that he made five or so campaign promises — big things, like annexing Texas — and kept them all. Anti-Polk was: He annexed Texas for slavery!
Bret: I was always anti-Polk. As a kid in Mexico we were taught to venerate the “Niños Héroes,” the Mexican cadets who fought to the death against the American invaders at the Battle of Chapultepec. At some point, my dad had me read Abraham Lincoln’s “Spot Resolution,” in which Lincoln, who was then serving a single term in Congress, called out Polk on the flimsy pretext he used to declare war on Mexico. Basically, the declaration was the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of its day. America would have been better off if Henry Clay had defeated Polk in the extremely close election of 1844.
Gail: Have to admit when it comes to Polk my first thought is the story that, at age 17 he suffered from a bladder stone attack and had to have it removed without anesthetic.
Gail: And I’m interested in your Bush theory. But first, can I put in a little plug for Warren Harding?
Bret: That he was an underrated golfer?
Gail: Harding regularly ranks in the bottom 10 of best and worst presidents, mainly because of political corruption during his administration. And in our recent, more frolicsome period of historical studies, we’ve heard quite a bit about extracurricular sex.
One of my favorite stories was that during the presidential campaign, Harding was having a then-popular front porch candidacy in which he just sat in front of his house and chatted with visitors. At some point a neighbor woman walked by — one with whom Harding had some history — and Mrs. Harding ran out waving a broom at her.
Bret: And then there was that White House closet that Harding, er, graced with his presence. Though, when it comes to frolicking in high places, nothing beats Nelson Rockefeller’s final moments, when the former vice president — I need to put this delicately — was on his way to one kind of heaven when he arrived unexpectedly in another. Sorry, back to Warren …
Gail: Lately, Harding’s gotten a lot of fans who’ve pointed out that he was, for his time, a big champion of civil rights and oversaw the first world arms limitation treaty.
Bret: International disarmament turned out to be a big mistake, since, as Walter Lippmann put it in 1943, it was “tragically successful in disarming the nations that believed in disarmament.”
But Harding supported an anti-lynching bill, decried the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and had generally a much better record on civil rights than Woodrow Wilson, his over-lauded predecessor who really should be ranked closer to the bottom of the ranking of presidents than near the top.
Gail: Totally agree about W.W. Maybe we could start an anti-Woodrow fan club.
Bret: Speaking of presidents near the bottom, we haven’t mentioned Herbert Hoover or Richard Nixon. They were always treated badly by historians, but time has a way of changing judgments. Hoover had a much better record of public service outside of his presidency than during his four ill-starred years in office; he was one of the greatest humanitarians of the 20th century.
Gail: The work he and his wife did in China, trying to help the victims in the Boxer Rebellion, was stupendous. Best prepresident ever, maybe.
Bret: Nixon started the Environmental Protection Agency and led the opening to China, though 50 years later it’s at least worth wondering whether the China policy was a mistake.
Gail: OK, going on record as saying that was a good plan. Also Nixon’s outreach to Moscow. Also, ahem, wage and price controls. He was actually a pretty good president on some fronts not having to do with covering up illegal activities in his administration.
Bret: Bet your younger self would have been surprised that you’d ever write those lines. Shame about that burglary.
Gail: It’s been so long now, most of the country has forgotten his awful red-baiting or that very weird Checkers speech. Which was, I guess, the most important American political reference to a cocker spaniel.
Bret: So here’s the $6.40 question: In 20 or 30 years time, do you think historians might be any kinder to Trump than they are now?
Gail: Nah. Worse, maybe. James Buchanan did fail to hold off the Civil War, but at least everybody thought he was a pleasant person.
Bret: Agreed. And in case it wasn’t obvious, I made up the bits about the Uber drivers. Historical trivia is more fun when you can pretend that everyone is as into it as we are.