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Book review: "The Forgotten Presidents: Their Untold Constitutional Legacy" by Michael J. Gerhardt

Oxford University Press

This is a surprisingly singular study of the U.S. Presidents who somehow didn't make it into the common history of our nation. Michael Gerhardt's objective seems to be to prove that they are an essential part of our constitutional history, even if they are not remembered by most of us.

But "forgotten'' is a relative term here. There are plenty of us alive who voted for — or against — one of Professor Gerhardt's unlucky 13. That would be Jimmy Carter, who has in some ways distinguished himself more in the 33 years since his presidency than he did in office. Gerhardt seems to be speculating that Carter's presidency will soon be forgotten. But his detailed analysis of Carter's strengths versus his fatal "constitutional incoherence," makes you doubt that.

Other than Carter, you can't much argue with Gerhardt's selection: Martin Van Buren; William H Harrison; John Tyler; Zachary Taylor; Millard Fillmore (who is arguably best remembered for being completely forgotten); Franklin Pierce; Chester Arthur; Grover Cleveland; Benjamin Harrison; William H Taft and Calvin Coolidge. Ring any bells?  I thought not. Cleveland's face shows up on the $1,000 bill, but how long since you saw one of those? Even Ronald Reagan's personal shilling for Calvin Coolidge couldn't make Silent Cal  a jot more famous. The first Harrison is known chiefly for dying in office weeks after he made the longest (8,000 words) inaugural speech in US history. The second for being the first Harrison's grandson. And so it goes.

 A legal historian, Gerhardt  doesn't say exactly  what most of these men had in common, but it comes through anyway. With no more than one or two exceptions, they were career mediocrities. But when you are president,  history happens to you whether you are a mediocrity or not. Gerhardt stresses the constitutional issues confronting each president. This leaves huge holes in some of their stories--in Taft's, the foreign policy for which he is best known is entirely omitted--but on the whole, it provides a fair measure of how some presidents in this batch--not many--rose above their mediocrity, while the remainder sank beneath it.

Some sank very far indeed. Particularly, it would appear, those mediocrities who used the Constitution as an inflexible "strict constructionist" rule book. Thus the presidential mediocrities in the worst case scenarios used the Constitution as an excuse to do nothing. In the case of Pierce and (his here-unmentioned successor) James Buchanan, the direct result was the Civil War. In the case of Reagan's vaunted do-nothing hero Coolidge, the direct result was the Great Depression. 

It is probably a contradiction in terms to define historically someone who has transcended his limitations in office as a mediocrity. So maybe we'd best call Chester Arthur a former mediocrity who ascended to competence. He rates a place in history mostly for his rising above his origins as a prominent pig at the Republican Party patronage trough to become the president who created the Civil Service after President James Garfield was assassinated by a disgruntled office seeker. He was also, unbelievably to modern Americans, criticized for accumulating too much money in the national treasury. Wise beyond his time, he also vetoed the Chinese Exclusion Act (though he let it pass another time), and tried to get Congress to pass a Civil Rights Act 81 years before it finally did so in 1964. Thus, he alienated both the Democrats and his own Republican party by the end of his term; his failing health was also a factor in his failure to get nominated in 1884. He died just two years later.  

If most of the "Forgotten Presidents" were too bad to be reelected, you might say that Chester Arthur was the only one who was too good to win a second term. This makes him uniquely worth remembering.  But the all of the rest of Professor Gerhardt's  subjects make fascinating reading.