White House irks historian
By Paul Grondahl - The Times Union
There is an Albany flavor to an ornament that hangs on this year's official White House Christmas tree.
But at least one hometown booster thinks it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
Peter Hess, president of Albany Rural Cemetery, where President Chester A. Arthur is buried, is upset with the negative depiction of Arthur in a biographical sketch that accompanies the 2006 White House Christmas ornament.
The ornament commemorates Arthur's administration and hangs on the official White House tree, an 18-foot Douglas fir grown in Pennsylvania that stands in the Blue Room.
But Hess wrote to the White House Historical Association, which produced the ornament, calling the group's description of Arthur ``an absolute disgrace.''
Said Hess in a strongly worded e-mail: ``The positives are all but eliminated while the negatives are exaggerated to the point of outright lies.''
Hess was outraged by several statements in the historical sketch accompanying the ornament. Namely, he objected to a focus on charges of political corruption against Arthur and this summary assessment: ``Arthur's notable achievements as president were few.''
The 3-inch filigreed golden collectible ornament sells for $16.95. It is part of a series of White House ornaments designed since 1981 for presidential administrations.
This year's White House tree features crystals and iridescent glass ornaments in keeping with a decorating theme set by First Lady Laura Bush, ``Deck the Halls and Welcome All.''
The 2006 ornament does not mention Arthur by name, but the bauble's ornate design highlights the lavish tastes Arthur brought to the White House as the 21st president, from 1881 to 1885.
Arthur commissioned famed American artist and decorator Louis Comfort Tiffany to create a large screen of red, white and blue glass that stood in the Entrance Hall of the White House. He made other expensive upgrades to the presidential residence.
That Arthur gilded the lily on Pennsylvania Avenue is not in dispute. Neither is the notion that he hosted extravagant dinners and rode about Washington in a luxurious horse-drawn landau with a liveried driver and footman.
In political cartoons of the period, Arthur was, after all, lampooned as ``The Dude President.''
What irks Hess most is the attention given in the ornament's brochure to Arthur's lax work schedule and his association with cronyism and a tolerance ``for an astonishing level of corruption.''
Hess fumed in his e-mail: ``With `honors' like you give, no one would be in need of a character assassin.''
``We'd consider President Arthur ostentatious by today's standards,'' said William Bushong, historian of the White House Historical Association. It's a private, nonprofit organization that raises money for preservation projects at the White House.
``President Arthur spent elaborately during his time in the White House and demanded furnishings that were considered state-of-the- art,'' Bushong said.
Bushong called Arthur ``a lesser president,'' which makes his task of composing a biographical summary that much tougher compared to chronicling presidential giants.
``It's actually more fun to write about a president people don't know much about,'' he said.
Although the Vermont-born Arthur is lightly regarded among presidential historians, he cut a dashing figure while a student at Union College. An exhibit on the college's famous alumnus last fall showed Arthur in all his over-the- top accouterments.
``Chester Alan Arthur: The Elegant President'' was the show's title and it displayed some of his vast wardrobe (he was said to own 80 pairs of trousers), the extravagant muttonchops and Arthur's large appetites as a gourmand.
``We had a large turnout for the exhibit, but we did get some comments saying we didn't give a full view of the man,'' said Rachel Seligman, curator of the Arthur exhibit at Union.
``I wasn't trying to be critical, but you can never show the whole picture with limited space,'' she said.
Seligman called the 2006 White House Christmas ornament on Arthur ``a nice gesture and a beautiful design.''
Seligman felt the Arthur biography that comes with the ornament ``does brush the surface lightly, but there's pitiful little out there about Arthur and his accomplishü ments.''
Hess, a self-taught historian who has read biographies on Arthur, e-mailed what he felt were overlooked highlights to the White House Historical Association.
In particular, Hess said that Arthur took unpopular stands as a civil rights attorney and represented slaves in lawsuits as part of his strong abolitionist stance.
Hess said the biographical sketch ``demonstrates an alarming lack of good judgment.''
Despite the Christmas ornament brouhaha, the Chester Arthur grave site remains the most visited spot in Albany Rural Cemetery.
``Tourists come from all over to see Arthur's grave,'' said Joseph Germaine, the cemetery's general manager.
Two of Arthur's great-great nieces, Jessie Cogswell and Elizabeth McCahill, live in the Albany area. Cogswell is a longtime cemetery board member.
``We promote President Arthur's grave site in our brochure, but we still get people who ask us, `Chester who?'é'' Germaine said.
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