I wrote this posting before the tragic, horrendous events which took place at the Boston Marathon today. My thoughts and prayers go to the families of those who were killed and to all who were injured and to their families.The day of the Boston Marathon is a holiday in Boston and throughout Massachusetts and a day full of activity and celebration. What a terrible tragedy.
I know that today, April 15, is “tax day” But, in Massachusetts, today, the 3rd Monday in April is Patriots Day, celebrated as the anniversary of the battles of Concord and Lexington at the beginning of the Revolutionary War. Patriots Day is marked by two major events in the Boston area, the running of the Boston Marathon and the annual Patriots Day Red Sox game at Fenway Park which begins each year at 11 a.m. The reason for the early starting time is that back several decades ago, there was a doubleheader played on this day and the idea was that people would leave Fenway Park after the first game, walk a couple of blocks to Kenmore Square, watch the lead runners in the Marathon as they approached the finish line and then go back to the 2nd game. But everything changes over time. The marathon times keep getting faster and baseball games take longer. So no one can get out to see the marathon runners (unless the game is a rout). And yet, the 11 a.m. starting time stays. Such is the value of tradition.
When you grow up in Boston, you have to at least have a passing interest in American History and I have found that my interest in the subject has grown over the last years especially as a result of a hobby I picked up. I have always been interested in the Presidents and decided I would try to read a book about each of the Presidents and learn a lot of history in the process. I’m actually making good progress through my list although I have a long way to go.
I loved David McCullough’s biographies John Adams and Harry Truman and found Robert Caro’s volume on LBJ’s presidency: The Passage of Power to be fascinating. I’ve read books about the alleged fraudulent election of Rutherford Hayes, the attempts to hide the illness of Grover Cleveland, the assassination of William McKinley and others. It’s been a great project and I’m glad I took it on.
But, one of the reasons why I wanted to do this is because I am fascinated by some of those men who have held the office of President who are less well known to try to understand more about these somewhat “footnote” characters in our history.
It was with this in mind that I recently read a short biography of Chester Alan Arthur, the 21st president, written by Zachary Karabell. Arthur was the surprise “compromise” choice for vice President to run with James Garfield, one of the most unexpected of all Presidential nominees in the election of 1880. The Garfield/Arthur ticket won and Arthur became President when Garfield was assassinated. He is perhaps best known for the comment made about him by one of his allies from New York who upon hearing that Arthur had become president said: “Chet Arthur, President of the United States? Good God.”
But, in his biography, Karabell presents a sympathetic and appreciative portrait of this man who never wanted to be President, was derided by friends and rivals alike, faced severe issues of loneliness and depression in the White House and battled an illness that grew worse as his presidency went along. The author notes that Arthur made significant decisions on which legislation to support and which to veto and was able to rise above the issues of party loyalty to conduct an honest administration.
I was particularly moved by the final sentences of the book. Karabell writes; “For those who want presidents to be heroes, and, failing that, villains, for those who expect them to be larger than life figures, Arthur’s tenure in office isn’t satisfying…And yet, in spite of what Shakespeare wrote, some men are neither born great, nor achieve greatness, nor have it thrust upon them. Some people just do the best they can in a difficult situation, and sometimes that turns out just fine.”
Think about that quotation. While we honor the heroes of our history as Americans, we also recognize that many many people have played their part in the story of our great nation who are not as well known. Arthur, at least, is “on a list” and his name will not be forgotten. But, there are so many others who are not on any list but who have done the best they can in a difficult situation and they deserve our praise and respect. That final quotation in Karabell’s book has stuck with me since I read it and I think will stay with me for a long time.
Happy Patriots Day!