FROM PUBLISHERS WEEKLY | JUNE 21, 2004
Chet Arthur? President of the United States? Good God!"" is a refrain that punctuates this new biography of the 21st president, the latest in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.'s American Presidents series. Readers today may confess bewilderment rather than surprise--Chester who?--but this brief but masterful portrait of Arthur's life and times deserves an attentive audience. Karabell (The Last Campaign; Parting the Desert), freely admits his mission impossible: to rescue his subject from the dustbin of history occupied by obscure late 19th-century presidents, more famous for their facial hair than their tenures in office. Despite limited archival materials (Arthur's papers were destroyed after his death), Karabell tackles this task with considerable literary aplomb. Charting a career that catapulted Arthur to the presidency after James Garfield's assassination, Karabell investigates whether Arthur was an active reformer or a mere""placeholder."" To frame this challenge, he explores the post-Civil War era's simmering politics, which hinged on the""spoils system,"" a long-entrenched formula whereby victorious politicians distributed federal and state jobs to supporters and cronies, later mining their appointees' pockets for future campaign""contributions."" When calls for reform peaked, Arthur spurned the system that spawned him and signed the landmark Pendleton Civil Service Act, which launched the professionalization of the federal bureaucracy, replacing patronage with merit-based examinations. But Arthur was not a true reformist; in the end, Karabell says, he simply""conducted himself with honor when politics was venal and petty."" Karabell also salutes the wealthy gourmand as a White House style-maker in a league with Jacqueline Kennedy. Arthur spruced up the dour mansion, in part by hiring the then-unknown decorator Louis Comfort Tiffany. By exploring the Gilded Age's parallels with our own divisive political scene, Karabell does an excellent job of cementing the volume's relevance for contemporary readers.