Talk of the Town - Absolute Power Corrupts July 15 2004
And It's Fun Too!
Publicity surrounding publication of Bill Clinton's life story has overshadowed another dubious development in the field of presidential memoir.
Historians had long puzzled over the obscure case of Osgood P. Huckster, president of the United States for 51 hours in April 1841. Recently however, a collection of his personal papers, including a rare first edition of "Leeches for Fun and Profit," was discovered. Now published by Hyphenated University Press, these documents shed much light on the workings of 19th-century American government.
Background is as follows: Barely a month in office, President William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia after delivering — in a cold rain — what still ranks as the longest inaugural address in American history. Proving that talk is not only cheap, it can be fatal.
Before Vice President John Tyler could be brought to Washington, D.C., and sworn in, someone had to preserve continuity of leadership. Presidential stenographer Osgood P. Huckster was chosen, primarily because he knew where the furniture was and would not bump into it at night.
History has not been kind to Huckster. Professor Sidney Petulant from the Meddling Institute of Politics and Soup du Jour calls the ninth-and-a-half president "a moral gnat," while it was Huckster who caused Lord Acton to memorably remark: "Absolute power corrupts absolutely. But this guy was meshuggeneh."
Annotated selections from Huckster's voluminous correspondence follow:
It has been suggested that I fill in for President Tyler until he reaches the Capital City. I am not sure about this. The head of Uruguay is supposed to arrive for a state visit, but I do not know where his country is. I will find a road map. That might help.
Your loving boy,
Dear Cousin Molly:
News probably has not reached you, but I am president for awhile. I thought it might not work out when the Uruguayan leader stopped by, but an interpreter kept the conversation going. Did you know "albondiga" is Spanish for "meatball?" That is what the ambassador called me. I think nicknames are a good sign for diplomatic relations.
Dear Uncle Horace:
I have been in charge at the White House for a few hours and it is not bad. There is a rumor that Mr. Tyler's coach overturned in a wagon rut. I hope he is alive, but would not mind sleeping in the Blue Room tonight. The bed is quite comfortable.
A critical turning point is reached here. After hesitant beginnings, Huckster became what political scientists would term an "activist" president. This became dramatically evident in the padding of his expense account.
You best beau has made good. I am commander-in-chief, and it is said Tyler may have perished in a swamp near Norfolk. I never liked him much. Come see me soon. We can snuggle in the Rose Garden and I will get you a cushy Post Office job.
Dear Cousin Molly:
Old Tyler still hasn't shown. Maybe he drank himself to death. They say around town he had a thing for banana daiquiris. I am fine and tonight held a state dinner for the President of Ecuador. We discussed meatballs extensively.
Dr. Morton Egregious, who chronicles the Hucksterian presidency in the acclaimed psychobiography, Can I Stay Till Thursday? sees the afternoon of April 5 as a flashpoint of crisis.
During a lunch meeting for which he refused to pick up the check, Huckster alienated leading economists by suggesting that conch shells become the new American currency. "It works in Polynesia," he exhorted a committee of stunned bankers. "And you can hear the sea in them. Try that with a 10-dollar gold piece!"
Today has not been very good at all. Somebody saw Tyler asking for directions at a feed store in Maryland. And Congressman Busby took a swing at me after I had his girlfriend pop out of a big cake and sit on his lap during a state dinner for the president of Venezuela.
Dear Supreme Court:
Since Tyler has not shown up and I have been doing such a great job, please declare him legally dead so "Hail to the Chief" can be played when I go into a room. There is some money in this if you guys can swing it.
You had better forget about visiting. At a reception last night in the Chilean Embassy, I met the ambassador's daughter, Tierra Del Fuego. She's really a knockout and we rumbaed till dawn.
Have a nice life,
Osgood P. Huckster's administration ended abruptly on the early morning of April 6, 1841. Accompanied by a group of irate congressmen and Supreme Court justices, the newly arrived President Tyler broke down the White House front door, surprising Huckster as he received language lessons on a divan from Miss Del Fuego.
As for Tyler, his term was uneventful, his leadership mediocre. Disappointed Latin American leaders spoke longingly for the great days of El Albondiga.
Glen Slattery believes that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it in summer school.