Ian Randal Strock

Through Five Administrations, and today?

From the department of “The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same… and Sometimes Not So Much”:

Gray Rabbit Publications has just published a new edition William H. Crook’s memoir from a century ago, Through Five Administrations (with an introduction by me). Crook worked in the White House for half a century, and in this book, he reminisces about the administrations of Presidents Lincoln, Johnson, Grant, Hayes, Garfield, and Arthur. Many of his comments and thoughts seemed oddly prescient, especially in light of the current election season, and our present view of the government in general.

From a road trip Crook took with Abraham Lincoln toward the end of the Civil War: “Correspondence had been held for Mr. Lincoln’s attention during the seventeen days of absence.” Sure sounds like what we’d do today, right?

But consider that, in 1865, after three-quarters of a century of Presidents, “Andrew Johnson was a hard-working and businesslike man. Except for an hour or so in the afternoon and at meal-times, he rarely left his desk until midnight. He immediately went to work to organize an executive office, which had never been done before. This was imperative, because of the mass of details caused by the end of the war.” And “for the first time in the history of the White House, records of the office were kept. There had never been anything before but lists of appointments.”

“Mr. Johnson had an unfortunate propensity for coining phrases which could be used to ridicule him.” That sort of thing would never happen today, would it?

Talking about the disagreements over Reconstruction after the Civil War: “There was one difficulty, growing out of the division between the President and Congress, which I believe no other chief executive has ever had to contend against. It was virtually impossible for Mr. Johnson to have his appointments to office confirmed, unless the men happened to be in high favor with Congress.” Need I say more?

Never before have the two leading candidates for the Presidency had such high negative poll numbers. But that doesn’t mean we were always wildly in favor of the people we elected. For instance, Crook was there for “the election of 1872, in which General Grant won rather by the weakness of his adversary than by his own strength.”

Following the election of 1880, Crook writes “There was nothing of the tragedy of disappointed hopes that sometimes makes the departure of a President hard to contemplate. For General Hayes did not believe in second terms, had not coveted one for himself, and was only too glad to retire into private life. The welcome given General and Mrs. Garfield by the retiring White House family was more than the conventional, decent exercise of courtesy. It was marked by real warmth, for the Garfield and the Hayes families were friends.” How often do we see that happening in modern times?

Talking about the appointed staff in the White House, Crook notes of the Garfield administration: “with one exception, there were no changes in the executive office. In fact, even when the spoils system has held unquestioned sway over other Government offices, Civil-Service Reform has usually been observed in the personnel of the President’s own office. And that in itself is an interesting point, since the chief appointing power has realized that efficiency can be obtained only where appointments and removals have been separated from party strife.” Sure sounds like today, doesn’t it?