The Magazine

Less Is More

In the presidency, obscurity is not the same as unimportance.

Oct 21, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 07 • By MICHAEL ROSEN
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The tenures of subsequent forgotten presidents are variations on the theme. Chester Alan Arthur (1881-85), another accidental one-termer and “Stalwart” Republican, burned his personal papers and has no presidential library to his name—but he enacted major civil service reform. Benjamin Harrison (1889-93) presided over passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act and invigorated the president’s appointment power, but was otherwise undistinguished. And Grover Cleveland (1885-89, 1893-97), whom Gerhardt fittingly describes in two splendid chapters, evolved from his first to his second discontinuous term into an avowed exponent of executive power, expanding our reach to the Hawaiian Islands and deploying federal troops to disrupt a rail strike, declaring “in this hour of danger and public distress, discussion may well give way to active efforts .  .  . to restore obedience to law and to protect life and property.”

While Gerhardt’s tour of the 19th century supports his main thesis, his examination of the lesser lights of the 20th century is less even, but no less fascinating. The presidencies of William Howard Taft (1909-13), Calvin Coolidge (1923-29), and Jimmy Carter (1977-81) have been recounted many times over, but Gerhardt unearths interesting and pertinent nuggets about each. (Taft, who appointed six Supreme Court justices in his single term and later became chief justice himself, was the only president to work full-time as a law professor after his presidency concluded.) But ultimately, “the most important lesson of the forgotten presidents [is that] the Constitution genuinely matters,” writes Gerhardt. Our founding document has both outlasted and been shaped by our Founders, from the memorable giants down to the single-termers.

Michael Rosen is a lawyer in San Diego.