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Consider these six outsider presidents, including a good one

With the prospect of having a president who’s never been elected to anything looming menacingly over the land, we can take the slightest bit of comfort in knowing it’s happened before — six times — and one of the six even turned out to be a good president. The rest varied from not so good to terrible.

The most successful outsider was one of three who became president by winning wars. Republican Dwight Eisenhower hadn’t even voted in many presidential elections and had been courted by Democratic leaders, including Connecticut’s John Bailey, before the 1948 election. His eight years in office during the prosperous, postwar 1950s were mostly successful, from his role in ending the Korean War to building the interstate highway system and promoting moderation in the McCarthy and early Cold War eras.

To his great credit, Eisenhower stressed the folly of intervening in wars in Asia and the Middle East and urged the nation to strike a balance between military force and diplomacy. In his memorable farewell address in 1961, he warned the nation about the growing influence of what he termed the military-industrial complex and its lobbying for defense spending. 

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Things went awry for the other two generals turned president. Zachary Taylor, the victor in the Mexican War, ate some tainted cherries and cold milk at a July Fourth fundraiser at the site of the Washington Monument and died four days later, a year and a half after his inauguration.

Ulysses Grant, the Civil War hero, was the only outsider other than Eisenhower to be elected twice, but his presidency was marred by scandals, including one that led to the 1873 depression. “It was my misfortune,” Grant told Congress in his farewell address, “to be called to the office of chief executive without any previous political training. Under such circumstances, it is reasonable to suppose that errors of judgment must have occurred.” 

Unlike the current outsider seeking the presidency, all five came to the office with some public service behind them. The least prepared was Chester Arthur, a behind-the-scenes New York pol who had been in the lucrative, but undemanding, patronage job of collector of the Port of New York before being selected as James Garfield’s running mate. Garfield’s brief presidency was ended at the hands of a disappointed job seeker, and the untested Arthur became president with three years remaining in Garfield’s term. He turned out to be better than expected. 

In three years as president, he introduced civil service reform, broke with the party by lowering the high protective tariffs of the day and introduced the first federal immigration statute that excluded “paupers, criminals and lunatics,” but also provided for a temporary ban on Chinese that became permanent. He was not renominated.

The other vice president, William Howard Taft, wanted nothing more than to be a Supreme Court judge, a goal he reached after his presidency, but his ambitious wife wanted more for him and her. He became president with the enthusiastic sponsorship of his predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, only to disappoint Teddy and his liberal Republican followers. They formed a third party and lost the presidency for Taft and Roosevelt in a memorable three-way race with Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats.

That leaves the unfortunate Herbert Hoover, who came to the presidency as perhaps the best-prepared outsider. He’d been a mining engineer, a self-made millionaire, the brilliant director of a massive humanitarian effort to save Europe’s hungry during the World War and secretary of commerce under Presidents Harding and Coolidge. Hoover became president as a surging economy outgrew all sense of direction. Plunged into the greatest depression in history, his conservative instincts prevented him from considering the kind of “radical” moves adopted by his successor to save capitalism.

It is perhaps significant that all of these outsiders were Republicans, with the exception of Taylor, a Whig before they became Republicans. The party has in fact shown an enthusiasm for outsiders and even insiders who enjoy ranting against Washington, D.C., their sought-after landing place. In addition to the looming Trump, we have had many species of this brand, from Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson this time to Herman Cain and Pat Robertson in the past.

In this review, I have omitted the best outsider who never became president, Wendell Willkie, whose many Connecticut connections add special interest. Maybe next week if something really awful doesn’t happen. And these days, it’s always possible.

Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at dahles@hotmail.com.