Sunday, December 27, 1998

Ohio, mother of 3rd-rate presidents?

Some historians say Buckeyes got a bad rap

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The final chapter in William Jefferson Clinton's presidency has yet to be written; he can only hope that history will treat him more kindly than it has most of the presidents from Ohio.

        Ohio has a long, though not recent, history of electing its favorite sons to the presidency. Seven were native Ohioans — Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, William Howard Taft and Warren G. Harding.

        An eighth, William Henry Harrison, the ninth president, has been argued over for generations by Ohio and Virginia — Virginia, because that was where the war hero was born; Ohio, because it was the state he was elected from in 1840, when he was clerk of Hamilton County courts.

        Historians routinely rank most of the Ohio presidents on the bottom rungs of the presidential ladder, far below the group whose faces are carved on Mount Rushmore.

        Two of them are rarely even ranked at all because their presidencies were so brief that they had no time to have much im pact. William Henry Harrison caught pneumonia at his inauguration and died a month later; Garfield had been president less than four months when he was shot by a crazed office-seeker and died two months later.

        Another pair of Ohioans — Grant and Harding — are consistently ranked among the three or four worst presidents, mainly because of scandals that touched their administrations.

        Last year, author Nathan Miller published a book called Star-Spangled Men: America's Ten Worst Presidents. Mr. Miller made it clear the rankings were purely based on his personal judgments, but the “bottom 10” list included four Ohioans: Taft (ninth worst), Benjamin Harrison (eighth), Grant (sixth) and Harding (second only to Richard Nixon).

        But some students of the American presidency give the Ohioans more credit, saying their accomplishments have been overlooked and that they were, without exception, a group of honorable men who tried, and sometimes failed, to do what was best for the nation.

        One of these analysts is James B. Cash, a Kettering, Ohio, business consultant and amateur historian who recently published a book called Unsung Heroes, with the subtitle “Ohioans in the White House — a Modern Appraisal.”

Ohio's sons "unsung'
        Mr. Cash writes that he calls the Ohioans “unsung” because “they don't command much attention today in our celebrity-obsessed culture.” He calls them “heroes” because “all of them took some kind of heroic action during their lives.”

        The last half of the 19th century was the “golden age” of Ohio presidents; five of the eight presidents who served between Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt were Ohioans.

        Mr. Cash argues that history has been most unfair to Hayes, a Delaware, Ohio, native and onetime Cincinnati lawyer who led an Ohio regiment in the Civil War. He served one term in the White House, from 1877 to 1881.

        Hayes, Mr. Cash wrote, was a “well-educated, decent, honest and intelligent man” who showed political courage for his advocacy of human rights for the poor and black Americans.

        “Anytime we get a president this good, we should feel lucky,” Mr. Cash wrote.

        Harding, a Marion, Ohio, newspaper publisher who was elected in 1920 and who died in office in 1923, had his presidency tarnished in the eyes of historians because of two scandals.

        The man Harding put in charge of the veterans bureau bilked the government for large amounts of money in a black market scheme. Harding's interior secretary, Albert Fall, was embroiled in the Teapot Dome scandal, after leasing oil reserve lands to companies and taking kickbacks.

        Both scandals broke after Harding's death, but his reputation in history was damaged, even though most historians don't think he had any personal involvement.

        Harding's great-nephew, Warren G. Harding III, is a Cincinnati orthopedist and an ardent defender of the 29th president's reputation.

        “He was a good man who was ambitious and who had a great deal of talent,” Dr. Harding said. “Ultimately, his reputation suffered because he had misjudged two bad people.”

        Harding's problem, his great-nephew said, was that after his death he had no sympathetic biographers to tell the positive side of the story.

        “He wasn't like Kennedy, who had people like Bobby Kennedy and (presidential historian) Arthur Schlesinger Jr. to tell his story,” his great-nephew said.

        Grant, the 18th president, was born in Point Pleasant and raised in Georgetown. He wrote a best-selling book of memoirs in which he barely mentioned his presidency; instead he wrote vividly of how, as general of the Union armies, he brought the Civil War to an end.

        Grant's presidency, too, was wracked with scandal; Mr. Cash wrote that his greatest failure as president was “not having the follow-through he showed in the Civil War, not following his own instincts and listening to the wrong people.”

        Stan Purdy, a Georgetown lawyer who heads the Grant Homestead Association, said the 19th president is not given credit by historians for “being the first president to have a world vision, for thinking of the United States as a player on the world stage.”

Tough act to follow
        Cincinnatian William Howard Taft, president from 1909 to 1913, ran an administration that was not tainted by scandal, but one that was not remarkable for its accomplishments.

        But Mr. Cash gives Mr. Taft credit for his “Dollar Diplomacy,” which said the United States should influence other countries not by military might but by investing in their economies. And Taft, Mr. Cash noted, pursued antitrust cases more vigorously than his predecessor Theodore Roosevelt, who had a reputation as a “trust buster.”

        Kurt Topham, superintendent of the Taft Birthplace in Cincinnati, said Mr. Taft's reputation might have suffered in history because he followed the aggressive, high-profile Roosevelt.

        “Teddy Roosevelt believed that if the Constitution didn't say you couldn't do something, that meant you could do it,” Mr. Topham said. “Taft believed if it wasn't in the Constitution, you couldn't do it. Taft was more cautious.”


What a year it was
Round and round, and slightly forward
1998 in the Tristate
HDTV foreshadows quality to come
Big-name flops trim hits list
Good will to men not evident among council, Dems
Gallatin Co. grapples with 3 teen suicides
Can you top 21 holiday parties?
Ice age comes to life
Bargains lure shoppers away from the sofa
Dayton kicks off 150th birthday celebration
Dean's other life's on the football field
Legal aid program boosted by grant
More school cafeterias looking like restaurants
New Boone leader wants everyone happy
- Ohio, mother of 3rd-rate presidents?
Parents think girl was coaxed
Pederasts preying via Internet
Stress can trigger abuse
Two churches burned, but spirit endures