John's Reviews > Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester Alan Arthur

Gentleman Boss by Thomas C. Reeves
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's review
Nov 09, 09

bookshelves: 2009, history-reference, potus, dc, nyc
Read in November, 2009

I selected this book to read for a class in which we were asked to read the biography of a "leader". The instructor, by way of example, gave the names of a few of the more famous US presidents. I know a lot of people who are really into biographies of famous presidents, but I've never really liked the idea of reading about John Adams or Washington or Lincoln with the intent of distilling some sort of lesson from their lives. Not only was the world a different place back then, but these were people who - as extraordinary as they might have been - had to face pretty clear-cut challenges, and while overthrowing your colonial overlord, creating a radically new form of government from scratch, and fighting a war to keep your nation together are not exactly walks in the park, these were such extraordinary problems that I doubt there are any practical lessons to be taken from the lives of the people who faced them, though that doesn't keep people from trying. As brilliant as I believe myself to be, I probably will never encounter the challenge the meeting of which will make me into the next Jefferson.

Much better, I thought, to look to a more modest figure, someone who had some talent, perhaps someone whose character is not one of unalloyed courage and discipline, someone whose achievements are a little uncertain. Someone with a little dirt on him.

And hence Chester Arthur. I knew only what Wikipedia told me about him, and of the more obscure presidents his life looked like a relatively interesting one. And this well-written and well-researched biography manages to infuse a happy amount of tension, suspense, and balance into the life of this obscure figure to make it into a story well worth reading for the pleasure of it. In telling the story of Arthur's rise from charismatic New York City lawyer to spoilsman for the local republican machine to vice president and, ultimately, upon James Garfield's assassination, president, Reeves also gives a good flavor of the political and social climate of New York during the Guilded Age. The struggle for civil service reform, one of the central dramas of the book (and of the age) turns out to be quite a riveting saga, one that ultimately pits Arthur the president against all the cronies that Arthur the spoilsman looked to as clients. This was a far better book, and a far more relevant story than my initial cynicism allowed me to anticipate.

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