Early in 1881, before entering the White House, James Garfield recorded a peculiar dream about the Vice-President-elect, who would end up succeeding him before the summer was over. In “Destiny of the Republic” (2011), a surprise best-seller about Garfield’s assassination, Candice Millard explains that it was a dream
in which Chester Arthur drowned. [Garfield] and a close friend, General David Swaim, had escaped a sinking ship, only to watch Arthur, who was lying on a couch, very pale and obviously ill, disappear under the surface of the water. “I started to plunge into the water to save Arthur,” Garfield wrote, “but Swaim held me, and said he cannot be saved.”
Most nineteenth-century Vice-Presidents were too insignificant to get on a President’s calendar, let alone into his subconscious, but Garfield’s dream betrayed an anxiety about the political hack who had been chosen to balance the Republican ticket he headed. After Arthur’s unexpected ascent to the White House, it became, according to one American diplomat, “a common saying . . . among those who knew him best, ‘ “Chet” Arthur president of the United States! Good God!’ ”
A familiar question then arose, as to whether Arthur could somehow—to use latter-day political parlance—pivot, shed his crookedness, and begin to act “Presidential.” Eight months into Donald Trump’s Administration—already longer than Garfield’s—speculation about whether he might rise to the occasion has long since been discontinued. But for Arthur, another New York baron whose suspect character and surprising elevation spurred much public outcry, the story is different—a political fairy tale, contrary to Garfield’s dream, of partial but astonishing redemption.