Talk of the Town - Three cheers for Rutherfraud September 09 2004

(But only one term)

The Republican candidate for president, he lost the popular vote but gained office through quasi-judicial feats of prestidigitation involving Supreme Court justices, bitter partisan bickering, and a disputed electoral vote.

I write, of course, about Rutherford B. Hayes (also known as “Rutherfraud” or “His Fraudulency”) and the election of 1876. Rivulets of ink compare this chicanery-laden contest with the no less odiferous 2000 election that snuck G.W. Bush into the White House.

Most commentary barely gets past a first mention of Hayes, or pays but passing notice of him as a massively bearded nonentity. He’s from an age — the long dry spell between Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt — when most American leaders were inept, weak, hirsute or a fine varietal blend of all three, with subsequent obscurity only relieved by occasional service as the “U.S. Presidents for $500” answer on “Jeopardy.”

But in this season of political hubris, I am nostalgic for old Hayes. He did something no one does today. Use a privy? Well, yes. But there’s something else, too.

Hayes promised to only serve one term. And he kept his word. He didn’t run for re-election. Can you imagine any extant American politician doing the same?

This happened at a time when the country was virtually polarized — sound familiar? — between North and South (we call it Red States vs. Blue now) in the wake of that difference of opinion known as the Civil War.

The hot conflict might have ceased by ‘76, the nation’s centennial year, but battle for control of American government — and the attendant patronage that went with it, raged across the barely reunited land.

It was the wide-open era known as the Gilded Age, an era begun, really, during the easy economic pickings to be had up North during the war. An era summed up by the story of a Cabinet member said to be so corrupt that, in the memorable words of Pennsylvania Rep. Thad Stevens, “the only thing he wouldn’t steal is a red-hot stove.”

When the inevitable demand for an apology came from the aggrieved magnifico, a retraction was issued. On second thought, Stevens said, the Cabinet secretary would steal a red-hot stove.

Amid this economic grab bag, enter the George Baileyish figure of Hayes, wanting to be “an executive under no temptation to use the patronage of his office to promote his own re-election” and who stated that his “inflexible purpose” was “not to be a candidate for re-election to a second term.”

What modesty! What moral introspection! What’s more, on gaining the White House, Hayes behaved as a man acutely aware that as many Americans voted against him as for him.

And I think of that, of him, with a little wonder amid the convention gasconading of his Republican heirs. Listening to today’s GOP, you’d be hard pressed to know they gained power with no mandate at all. An anti-mandate if you’re churlish enough — and I am nothing if not churlish — to count the 539,947 popular votes their ticket lost by in 2000.

Ever since, Bush has governed like he was FDR in ‘36 or LBJ in ‘64, as if there was some groundswell of public opinion backing him up. And with the next election upon us, nothing has changed. Except that the traditional arrogance of power is now accompanied by an even more profound deafness — and a corresponding desire to get Ralph Nader on the ballot in as many states as possible.

But it’s part of a depressingly long and less-than-noble history. American politicians, the few R.B. Hayes types excepted, never go gentle into that good night.

That’s why I like the Brits. Yes, I know, we blew off the whole king thing during the Revolution. But you have to admit that their politicians are a lot better than ours when it comes to giving up office.

If a British politician’s integrity is in disrepute, if their mandate is in question, if a public officeholder is found face down in a pool of Guinness Stout after a long pub crawl, out they go. They leave office. No one has to tell them, or force them. They have a natural, innate understanding of when it’s time to take a powder.

It’s called introspection. And a sense of shame. Neither of which are to be found in the “Jeopardy” category “Qualities Associated with U.S Politicians.” For any amount of money.

I don’t have George W. Bush’s inaugural address in front of me, but I’m pretty damn sure that at no time did he say, “I am acutely aware that a plurality of you, my fellow citizens, did not elect me with your votes. And I will serve as your president, as president of all the people, mindful of that fact.”

Meantime, lock up the red-hot stoves.

Glen Slattery of Alpharetta will not seek a second column.