White House

Sorry, President Trump. You're No Chester A. Arthur.

Rich New York Republican? Check. Real-estate wheeler-dealer? Yup. Mocked by elites? Absolutely. But there's more.

Photograph: National Archives.

Here's an author setting the scene for his interesting new book, "The Unexpected President":

In the United States, amazing new technologies are creating vast fortunes—but only for a select few; the gap between rich and poor has grown.

Large corporations and the super-rich are exerting tremendous influence on the political process, using money and lobbyists to bend government policy to their benefit. Reformers believe that the money sloshing around in politics is a threat to American democracy.

The new president, a Republican, is a wealthy New Yorker who made a chunk of his fortune in shady real estate deals. The elites in the big cities are especially horrified. They mock the new president as unfit for the Oval Office. They say he’s corrupt, a criminal who belongs in jail, not the White House. Even some of the people around the new president fear that he is mentally unbalanced, and that he may be on the verge of an emotional collapse. The New York Times calls him “about the last man who would be considered eligible” for the presidency."

No, the book isn't about President Donald Trump. It's a biography of Chester A. Arthur, the 21st U.S. president and one of the most obscure. Arthur, who ascended to the Oval Office in 1881 after the assassination of President James A. Garfield, overcame a checkered background and became a pretty good, reform-minded president.

Greenberger, who gave a reading at a Washington, D.C., bookstore last week, uses the example of Arthur to raise a large, enduring question: Does the presidency change the basic character of those who hold the office? In Arthur's case, Greenberger's answer is yes. Arthur's story, as he tells it, is about a political hack who transcended his limitations, brushed aside the bosses and pushed important civil service reform.

That's a different conclusion from the one reached by Barack Obama, who observed last year: "The presidency doesn't change you. It magnifies who you are."

I think Obama is closer to the mark. Consider Trump, whose character, revealed daily, is consistent with everything we've known about him for decades. The presidency just focuses more attention on his well-established narcissism and malice.

All 10 of the presidents I've covered have displayed the same traits and values in office that were evident beforehand. George H.W. Bush had the same resolve, decency and political awkwardness. Lyndon Johnson showed both the compassion and the insecurity of his formative years, before he joined the U.S. Senate in 1949. Insecurity was also the devil that ruined Richard Nixon's presidency.

Arthur, Greenberger writes, was the son of an abolitionist preacher and a good-government guy before succumbing to the temptations of power offered by his state's patronage-wielding Republican political boss, Senator Roscoe Conkling. Like Johnson on civil rights, Arthur used the presidency to act on youthful idealistic impulses he'd forsaken for the sake of political advancement. In this he was encouraged by a remarkable exchange of letters with a young, wealthy invalid named Julia Sand, who implored the president to heed his better angels.  

Which he did. That's an example Trump can't follow.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

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