EDITORIAL: Be thankful for Chet Arthur and all presidents

The Fresno BeeFebruary 15, 2014 

A portrait of George Washington, our nation's first president.


On this Presidents Day, let's be grateful that we get to choose them.

"My God," an acquaintance of our nation's 21st president once said, "Chet Arthur in the White House."

Before he took over the presidency after the assassination of James Garfield, Vice President Chester Arthur was the collector of the Port of New York. The Port Authority doesn't look like a great springboard to office now, does it?

Just ask New Jersey Gov. and Republican presidential contender Chris Christie.

But Chet Arthur is being honored today with a federal holiday, along with George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Pierce and Warren G. Harding.

We are honoring all of them — even the ones for whom you didn't vote, didn't like, or thought an idiot.

Sometimes, presidents have reflected the times and mood of the nation they served.

Dwight Eisenhower was the embodiment of the sock hop stolidity of the 1950s. John F. Kennedy was the Elvis/Beatles political wake-up call in the 1960s.

In other times, the president was the stylistic antithesis of their era; it's hard to think of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon as the flower-children epoch leaders. But sometimes that's how it works, too: president as cultural counterbalance.

Jerry Ford's quiet steadiness and Jimmy Carter's stern morality meshed well with a post-Watergate climate.

When Americans got tired of conserving, retreating, compromising and wearing cardigans, they turned to Hollywood's Ronald Reagan. He combined the oozy charm of the radio era and the let 'er rip ethos of Cowboy America, even though he originally was from Illinois.

We experienced the Branding Era of the presidency with the Bushes and Bill Clinton. Barack Obama mirrors the new American polyethnic culture.

Who the next president will be remains unclear, but brand extension is always important, as the son of Ron Paul, the brother and son of Presidents 43 and 41, and the wife of President 42 will be more than happy to tell you.

For those of you keeping score at home, they would be Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who also once was U. S. senator from New York. All would like to take over when Obama terms out.

The American presidency started off as a demi-king with many systemic checks against the office. Then world wars morphed it into an all-powerful institution, capable of extinguishing all life on Earth in a half an hour, give or take.

More recently, it also has taken on the trappings of national talk show host. The founders never could have envisioned the power of nuclear weapons or television, but they managed to add a cranky Congress to make sure the president never got too far out of line.

In his interview in The New Yorker, President Obama lamented that he was surprised by how little power he had to change the country. Sometimes, presidents change things by just sitting there, and sometimes they move armies to make history.

On this Presidents Day, let's be grateful that we get to choose them.

Even Chester Arthur, although voters only elected him to be vice president.


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