Unexpected President book cover
Da Capo Press

“The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur” by Scott S. Greenberger, Da Capo Press, 304 pages, $28

Nebraskans waiting with breathless anticipation for an updated biography of President Chester A. Arthur will be pleased to learn of Scott Greenberger’s new book, “The Unexpected President”. Since Arthur and Millard Fillmore scored about equally on this reviewer’s presidential bland-o-meter list, the book’s main attraction was its title which seemed to have sprung from today’s headlines.

Fortunately, Greenberger uncovered a redemptive tale of a decent man able to burnish a decidedly mediocre political career by rising to the call of our nation’s highest office. Arthur was chosen for the vice presidency by the Republican convention in 1880 primarily to solidify New York’s critical electoral votes in the upcoming general election. Prior to his surprise nomination he was best known for apportioning and overseeing the spoils system of New York’s powerful and corrupt political bosses.

Abruptly thrust into the presidency by the assassination of President James Garfield, Arthur was initially overwhelmed by a job for which he had neither campaigned nor desired. Contemporary detractors predicted he was unworthy to be our chief executive.

The book portrays him as a man who ultimately followed his own moral compass and ignored the blandishments of his lifetime cronies. This is not a bad lesson for those who follow modern politics to heed.

An interesting sidelight in the book is a trove of long-ignored letters which Arthur kept despite destroying most of his other lifetime personal correspondence. He obviously thought the unsolicited advice of an unknown, invalid spinster to a new president was worth preserving for posterity. Basically, Julia Sand had written to remind him to follow the “better angels of his nature” which Abraham Lincoln had famously espoused in his first inaugural address. When Arthur assumed his duties as chief of state this was, for the most part, exactly what he did.

A final suggestion to readers who wish to truly appreciate this book is to first read Candice Millard’s “Destiny of the Republic,” which serves as a compelling introduction to Arthur’s presidency.

J. Kemper Campbell, M.D., is a retired Lincoln ophthalmologist who has a new appreciation for our 21st president.

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