The Mid-Atlantic Blog

February 18, 2006

The Many Charms Of Chester Alan Arthur

The American attitude towards their Presidents is fascinating: a combination of opprobrium for political opponents (US politics have never been a gentle business) and reverence from supporters, with a degree of sanctification once the person involved has vanished into history.

The men involved are without exception (even the boring bearded ones from the 19th Century) fascinating, and provide a wonderful path through US history. Watching the complicated relationships between them allows us to watch the intertwining conceptions of the role of the US, of the role of the government, of the importance of individuals and their rights, and to experience the importance of the personal in the development of the political.

The combination of Washington, Adams, Jefferson (and peripherally Franklin, one of the greatest non-Presidents, and equal parts genius and frustrating phony) provide insight into the founding generation, while watching Van Buren, Jackson, Polk , Harrison and Tyler, for example, allow us to watch the development of a rapidly growing and democratising country, while being aware of the horror of the Civil War which will arrive in short order. Similarly, today we have the sequence Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush (and possibly, heaven help us Clinton) addressing and then reshaping the results of the New Deal and Great Society.

A wonderful way to learn about these men, and to get some sense of the broad sweep of US history, is to visit their birth-places, homes or libraries. This also has the advantage that many of them are in fly-over land - the bits of Red-State America that so few from outside understand or visit, and that are so often demonised (in my view unfairly) by the mainstream media in the US and hence by the rest of the world. Of course, these are the parts of the country that elect Presidents, so understanding them is pretty important... They also, I have to say, tend to make the best pies, which is a pretty good recommendation in my book.

A strong suggestion: some time in the next 12 months get yourself on a plane, and try some Dead President tourism. A starting point can be found in this article from the WaPo, but there are plenty of other options. If and when you do (or if you happen to live near one now), let me know, and email me a review / photo etc.

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