Simply one of the best columns to be found in today’s newspapers. History placed in this context always works as a column maker. Here is a snippet.
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.