A Heartbeat Away

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The advent of Andrew Johnson after Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 opened the Pandora’s box of Reconstruction. It does no good to speculate about what would have happened had Lincoln lived. If a case can be made, however, that he was the beneficiary of historical luck in being assassinated before having to face postwar problems, then Johnson was a child of historical misfortune. He was unfit by reason of temperament, upbringing, or political circumstances to wrestle successfully with the task of knitting the nation together again; his administration was doomed from the start. Indeed, as Lincoln lay dying no one except ex-Governor Farwell of Wisconsin had thought of informing Johnson I That Johnson was impeached and almost removed from office is not of itself an adverse judgment on his administration. But his numbness to many of the subtleties of the race question and to the needs of growing industry, to say nothing of his political blunders, stands in the way of a favorable verdict on his performance.

The accession of Chester A. Arthur when James A. Garfield was shot in 1881 replaced one spoilsman in the White House with another. Arthur, however, almost immediately had the advantage of a public sentiment in favor of civil service reform (hitherto frequently scorned as “snivel service reform”); it was as if the people wanted to expiate the misdeed of Garfield’s assassin, a disappointed office seeker. Arthur, regarded merely as a party hack from the moment he took office, turned aside from his old connections and performed, if not brilliantly, at least better than adequately. There is no reason to guess that Garfield would have kept a steadier head and hand.

If there had arisen a certain tendency on the part of accidental Presidents to become mere caretakers, Theodore Roosevelt abruptly reversed it. He burst upon the scene and spluttered like a firecracker thereafter. He regarded the Presidency as a challenge to develop creative programs as stirring to the nation as war and the diplomacy of imperialism had proved to be. McKinley could never have matched such exuberance and restlessness even in his younger years.

The public always kept in sight the startling contrast between the martyred Ohioan and the irrepressible Rough Rider. It was but a pale reflection, however, of what intimates saw and heard in private. William Alien White reveals in his autobiography that on the night after McKinley’s funeral T. R. was wondering what he would do after leaving the White House seven years hence, scarcely fifty years old and still in the high tide of his physical and mental powers. “I don’t want to be the old cannon loose on the deck in the storm,” he said.

But before the problem arose—and it proved to be as besetting as T. R. feared it would be—there transpired a memorable Presidency. It is not too much to say that it remains to the present day the outstanding accidental Presidency we have had: it revealed new uses for such words and phrases as reform, world power, the office of the Presidency, the control of big business, and the conservation of natural resources. The Republican party understood his worth: Roosevelt was the first Vice President-become-President to win nomination and election in his own right. Historians agree: they rank Roosevelt’s administration with the near-great ones in our history, only a cut below Washington’s and Lincoln’s.

At the time that fate bestowed the Presidency on Calvin Coolidge in 1923, he wrote later, he felt he was prepared to handle it. With admirable candor he added: “It is a great advantage to a President, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man.” Despite such disarming modesty, the question of whether he was an adequate Chief Executive remains open. Coolidge, called by his biographer “a Puritan in Babylon,” outshone President Harding in personal incorruptibility (if not in physical activity), and thereby—though he provided a lackluster regime—he may have saved the Republican party from the obloquy into which the revelations of the Harding scandals could have hurled it. But he was unable to do more; he could not transcend the limitations of his intellect and outlook.

The elevation of Harry Truman to the White House —the seventh Vice President to reach it by happenstance—seemed at first to have provided in a new postwar era merely a Coolidge with eyeglasses. Startled and shaken by his sudden transfer from political impotence to the seat of authority, Truman told newspapermen on his first full day in office: “Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don’t know whether you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on me.”

It was soon apparent that Truman, though untutored for the Presidency by F. D. R., with whom he had had only a few conversations before the fateful changeover of power, was taking charge. It may still be too early to judge him and his administration soundly. Possibly the magnitude of the problems in the postwar world have dwarfed all Presidents or made notably smaller the difference between the great and the average. Truman, however, showed political valor, climaxed by his surprise victory in 1948. And his forthrightness in international affairs—beginning with the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan and including his defiance of the Communists in Berlin and in Korea—entitles him to a choice niche in the history of the Presidency.