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The progressive president that time forgot

Editor's note: This is the twenty-third entry in the writer's year-long project to read one book about each of the U.S. Presidents in the year prior to Election Day 2016. You can also follow Marcus' progress at the @44in52 Twitter account and with this 44 in 52 Spreadsheet.

When an editor asked me how best to describe the next president in the series, Benjamin Harrison, the best I could muster was this: "A cold, austere asshole. Like Andrew Johnson except without the virulent racism, the obstinance, and he actually accomplished stuff. So really, not like Andrew Johnson at all."

That's what I gleamed from Homer Socolofsky and Allan Spetter's incredibly arid book The Presidency of Benjamin Harrison. If you're looking for the man that Harrison was, his personality and quirks, keep looking. But if you're into a just-the-facts account of his four years in office, Socolofsky and Spetter have you covered.

But Harrison was more than a Republican intermission between Democratic President Grover Cleveland's two non-consecutive terms. His cold, dry personality betrayed an effective chief executive, one who may have been more fondly remembered — or simply remembered at all — were he as warm or cordial as, say, any of his predecessors. 

President Harrison 2.0, the grandson of President William Henry Harrison, did so much more than his 30-days-a-President grandpa. He passed legislation that not only had an impact during his term, but set the stage for presidents to come. 

For one, his administration passed the landmark Sherman Antitrust Act, aimed at giving the federal government control over monopolies. 

Harrison would only see one case decided under the Sherman Act during his term. But its passage laid the foundation for similar, more vigorous action by Teddy Roosevelt's administration. 

Like Roosevelt (who Harrison appointed to head the Civil Service Commission), Harrison was in favor of conservation, enacting the Land Revision Act that set aside public lands and protected them from acquisitions. 

Harrison was also quite progressive when it came to Civil Rights. He backed legislation (the Federal Elections Bill) that would have given African-Americans the right to vote. That's no mean feat considering that it came at the beginning of the Jim Crow "separate but equal" era.

Giving further proof to the productive, if humdrum, nature of his term, Harrison found time to admit six new states to the union, the most admitted under any president: Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Washington, and Wyoming. 

Harrison's presidency is cast in particularly sharp contrast to the the politics of today, when a fake-tanned real estate mogul-turned-reality-TV star is the best the Republicans can muster. 

Not that Trump is by any means the only example of celebrity power; presidential elections have long been about the cult of personality. Even during the Gilded Age, presidents like Garfield, Cleveland, and McKinley were colorful, warm figures, regardless of scandal or background. They only began to look like nonentities in the shadow of Teddy Roosevelt.

Harrison didn't have the charm of any of these men. More often than not, it was his brusque attitude that made more enemies than his policies. 

It's appropriate that it was a just-as-dry subject — tariff reform — that ultimately unseated him in favor of Garfield in the election of 1892. 

Just to give you an idea of how dry he is, this silly 30-second clip has more personality than Harrison showed at any point in the book. 

Of course, if any presidential candidate were to run the above video as an ad in support of their campaign, he or she would probably do pretty well, but that's another debate.

We've always been a nation that bemoans the choice of "style over substance" when it comes to politics. Yet time and again, we have made the choice in favor of style. (Often times substance is entirely missing from either side of the equation). 

That the pickings in Harrison bios are slim is a disappointment. Even now, as he fades in the rearview mirror of his project, he sticks with me — a president who seems to have done fairly well considering the circumstances of his presidency, and yet lost in the glare of more flashy leaders.

I'd say there's something to venerate about a competent president who was on the right side of history. But sadly, history seems to disagree. 

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