The Washington Post's Alexandra Petri

"Proud to S him"

People often ask me an impossible question: Who’s your favorite president?" Favorite for what? Policies? Effectiveness? Lasting good? Even with specific criteria, I still struggle with “favorite.” I don’t pick someone to study because I have an affinity or hatred of him or her. Books take years to write, and we only have so many; spending a handful working on a hagiography or takedown seems like a terrible use of time. That’s not to say I don’t feel things for the presidents I don’t spend years researching. I respect the hell out of Jimmy Carter. Young Nixon was super hot. I can’t see Grover Cleveland’s name without thinking about how, at 49, he married Frances Folson, 21, who had been his legal ward for a decade. 

Eventually I realized this far too detailed answer was invariably met with a quick “I can see that” from the questioner before they moved onto their actual objective: To tell me who their favorite president was — almost always Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Delano Roosevelt, with a boomer sometimes naming John F. Kennedy. 

But Benjamin Harrison? The 23rd president hardly comes up among historians! William Henry Harrison, his grandfather, the 9th president, fares even worse: He’s best known for dying 31 days into his first term, as anyone who has gone to a pub’s trivia night knows. So imagine my surprise when I met The Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri last summer in the Booksmith’s virtual waiting room, minutes before an event to celebrate her latest book, Nothing is Wrong and Here’s Why, and she introduced herself as “being really into Benjamin Harrison.” There aren’t many books about the forgotten presidents of a forgotten political dynasty — in a relatively young country, a grandfather and grandson a dynasty makes — and from what she told me, it seems as if she’s plowed through them all. 

When I launched this newsletter, I knew Alexandra, one of America’s best satirists and indisputably my favorite, had to be the first to play Study Marry Kill.

The rules are pretty simple. I provided Alexandra with three presidents. She didn’t receive the names in advance. She was then asked whom to study, whom to marry, and whom to kill. As always, no dead people were harmed in the making of this newsletter.

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Alexis Coe: Let’s get right to it: William Henry Harrison, Benjamin Harrison, and Ulysses S. Grant.

Alexandra Petri: I would whack William Henry Harrison, marry Ulysses S. Grant, and study Benjamin Harrison. I got very scared for a second because I thought the last one was F instead of K and my enthusiasm for Benjamin Harrison does not extend that far! 

Alexis: It’s a professional relationship! Boundaries are important. And given the options, Grant is daddy. (I’ve downloaded TikTok.) 

Alexandra: I like a guy who sees the best in people to the point of being surrounded by overwhelming corruption for the duration of his presidency! And he wrote a good memoir I think, although to be completely honest I haven’t finished reading it yet. It is supposed to be a banger, as far as presidential memoirs go. 

Alexis: It’s excellent. And he wrote it to support his family; if you’re his wife, he wrote it for you. Okay, William Henry Harrison is dead again. He will go undiscussed, as usual. I’ll admit that I saw this coming. You’re very well-read on Benjamin Harrison, and that’s just not something I hear everyday.

Alexandra: No, it isn’t, because… he is a one-term president from the late-19th century whose major achievement was… presiding over the admission of several new states, expanding the Navy, and two big acts with Sherman in their name (Sherman Antitrust, which didn’t help with Ben’s reelection, and Sherman Silver Purchase)? But here are some facts about him. First, he was not a sociable or fun guy. 

Alexis: But he did have an essential skill for a politician. 

Alexandra: He was good at giving speeches, for what I think is an extremely specific late-19th-century value of what Giving A Good Speech sounds like. Sort of like, “Ah yes, we have an afternoon to kill because we are all fully caught up on Les Miserables, and we want you to kill it completely dead by talking to us for a very long time using stirring rhetorical tropes.” That is my impression of someone going to hear a 19th-century speech and what their expectations were, although I have no idea if the facts bear this out. 

Alexis: It tracks. In the absence of radio, television, or really any entertainment at all, a political speech in the town square was not a spectacle to be missed. 

Alexandra: But then afterwards he would manage to alienate the crowds that his orations had so thrilled by just simply going up and talking to them. One of my favorite anecdotes is that one time he was talking to his friend John C. New who said, “I know you’ll capture them with your speech, but for God’s sake be a human being down there. Mix around a little with the boys after the meeting.” Harrison came back afterwards and was like, “John, I tried it, but I failed. I’ll never try again. I must be myself.” Benjamin Harrison: Not a Human Being! Just Himself! 

Major Russel Harrison, Benjamin Harrison’s son, with his children, who took turns on the goat cart in front of the White House. (circa 1890 via Library of Congress)

Alexis: Strikes out with humans, but good with animals?  

Alexandra: He had a lot of White House pets! Truly cartoonish numbers of pets. He had two opossums named Mr. Reciprocity and Mr. Protection. (He was big on trade protectionism! He thought it would help the working man.) He had a goat named Old Whiskers, who was not connected to trade protectionism as far as we can tell. 

Alexis: Harrison was on the right side of history for quite a few things.

Alexandra: The funny thing is I think his biggest right-side-of-history moments are not all in the White House. For instance, he fought on the right side of the Civil War. He seemed to get positive reviews for the job he did; his men called him “Little Ben,” I think affectionately. He would carry things for his soldiers if he were on horseback and they were walking. He preferred to be referred to as “The General'' even after he’d been president. He really felt what he’d done in the Civil War was up there as his most important legacy. 

He also — unsuccessfully, unfortunately — attempted to pass some legislation protecting voting rights for Black voters, given the huge post-Reconstruction attack on the franchise that was happening in the South. His first message to Congress asked, “When and under what conditions is the black man to have a free ballot? When is he in fact to have those full civil rights which have so long been his in law?” He made Frederick Douglass a minister (we’d say ambassador now) to Haiti. And under his watch 13 million new acres of public lands were set aside to be protected. Henry Adams (a judgy weirdo) said he was “perhaps the best president the Republican Party had put forward since Lincoln’s death.” The Sherman Antitrust Act also was during Harrison! Oh! And once he apprehended a burglar in the White House! 

Cartoon published in The Washington Post in 1876 with the caption, "Now we're married let's go to keeping house." Benjamin Harrison is depicted alongside his second wife, Mary Scott (Lord) Dimmock, in front of White House. (1876 via Library of Congress.)

Alexis: Yes! Harrison and his guards restrained him. We’ve lauded him quite a bit, but no president is without scandal, real or imagined. You know where I’m going with this: Tell us about his second wife. 

Alexandra: Yes. So. There might be nothing there! BUT! After his wife died, Harrison did marry his wife’s niece semi-scandalously. “Mrs. Dimmick is a dainty little home body of domestic tastes,” is what The New York Times said in its wedding coverage. “She is no beauty but bright and piquant, and gifted with plenty of tact.” BUT THEN THE DRAMA hits the fan in a paragraph that I really cannot do anything but quote in full because it has EVERYTHING. 

The ex-president and his bride are all right and minding their own business, but there is trouble, nevertheless, and it comes from the usual source — the relatives. Apparently there has been a pretty tussle waged between Mrs. Dimmick and Mrs. McKee [Ed note: Mary Scott McKee, Harrison's daughter, had been playing the role of First Lady, moving her whole family into the White House], with Mr. Harrison playing the part of Patroclus, the bone of contention.

What edition of the Iliad was The New York Times of Sunday, March 29, 1896, reading? 

Not all the complaints come from the McKees, however; there are others, old friends of the family, who hint that “you know who” and “a certain person” is an adept in the art of setting a cap. [Ed note: “Setting a cap” means to court and usually indicates the woman was in pursuit.] Mrs. Dimmick was a protege long ago of the late Mrs. Harrison. Her first husband lived but two years after his marriage. Mrs. Dimmick was, after his death, again much with the Harrisons. She nursed Mrs. Harrison through her last illness, indeed; but there are those who hint that Mrs. Harrison was not well pleased with the presence of the younger woman, although she bore with it to save the pain and scandal of an open rupture. 

THERE ARE THOSE WHO HINT, ARE THERE!

  It would be difficult to prove this, and not worth while even if it were easy. 

Ah, good, cover your bases there, NYT

Perhaps the whole trouble arose from a misunderstanding on the relatives’ part of Mrs. Dimmick’s faculty for management. A lady visiting a Senator’s family in Washington when Mr. Harrison was President, was once walking in the White House grounds with Baby McKee [Ed note: the press’s nickname for Harrison’s grandson and namesake], when Mrs. Dimmick ran up to the President, who was walking with his wife, grasped his arm, and cried, “Oh, come away!” The action was impulsive, and meant, to one who knew the actor, nothing but the ease due to long acquaintance; but it was perhaps calculated to cause surprise. 

This story has everything! Unidentified anonymous ladies walking with Baby McKee hearing Mrs. Dimmick shout “Oh, come away!” Patroclus! Setting one’s cap! A certain person! Anyway, that’s pretty much a good summary of the talk that surrounded the remarriage, and I love that it featured so prominently in the Times’ wedding coverage. 

Alexis: When did you get into Harrison? And how deep are you now? Have you visited any of the related historic sites? 

Alexandra: I am still working on reading the requisite Jared Kushner 25 Books That Make You An Expert On A Given Subject. I have definitely made my pilgrimage to the Harrison presidential site in Indianapolis. I have read a couple of biographies (Ray E. Boomhower’s Mr. President, although it’s for younger audiences, is great and full of awesome pictures and interesting facts) and also a lot of contemporary news coverage. I got to go to the Library of Congress and check out Mrs. Harrison’s plans for an elaborate room [in the White House] full of palms and statues. I have a bad tendency as a history nerd; I will read like two biographies and then a strange and esoteric selection of primary source materials. So I will only learn years later that James G. Blaine was Harrison’s vice president, but I will know a very specific joke from The Harvard Lampoon about Harrison knocking over his grandson Baby McKee’s block tower and Baby McKee saying, “So much for protecting infant industries!” This feels like the opposite order that you should learn those pieces of information in. 

Alexis: What’s the best thing you’ve read or seen about him for those who are now Harrison curious? 

Alexandra: One really neat thing if you are Harrison curious is that the Library of Congress has digitized its Harrison materials, and you can check them out online. And there’s a great documentary calledPresident at the Crossroads.

Alexis: John Adams enthusiasts want an Adams Memorial in Washington. Is there something you want for Harrison? A good publicist? 

Alexandra: The Benjamin Harrison presidential site does a great job with him. I am not just saying this because they have been so nice to me every time I try to be a talking head about him. Thanks to them, you can 3D print a plastic Benjamin Harrison online! Who wouldn’t want one?

Alexis: Last question. What do you call him? For example, whenever I see a reference to Martin Van Buren, which is unfortunately not very often, I think, “Hey, Marty Van B! Nice mutton chops!” 

Alexandra: I should call him Little Ben, but what springs to mind is this double-dactyl that runs, “Higgledy piggledy Benjamin Harrison / Twenty-third president was, and as such / Served between Clevelands and save for this trivia l/ Idiosyncrasy, didn’t do much.” That is always the first place my mind goes, even though he did do some things! A good one-termer! Proud to S him! 

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity. 

On a related note:

At Whittier College, young Richard Nixon played tackle for the Whittier Poets. According to Coach Wallace Newman, “he wasn’t that good,” but “no one had more moxie.” Nixon was almost always on the bench during football games, and the rest of the time, “he was practice bait. I don’t know if I could have taken the beating he took. Dick liked the battle, though, and the smell of the sweat.” (1932 via the Richard Nixon Presidential Library)

At 68, William Henry Harrison,was the oldest candidate to be elected president. He managed to combat rumors that he was too feeble to serve by leaning heavily on his reputation as a war hero. “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” — the slogan he used as the Whig party candidate, which paired him with his running mate, John Tyler — invoked the 1811 battle where Harrison, then Governor of the Indiana territory, successfully defeated the Shawnee nation, a confederacy established to fight European-American settlement on the frontier. His men burned Prophetstown, the Shawnee headquarters, to the ground. He may have been trying to confirm that reputation when, on the cold, rainy, snowy day he was inaugurated, he refused to ride in a closed carriage to the ceremony; his address, which took two hours, was the longest in history, and he refused to wear an overcoat. He then rode on horseback in the inaugural parade and kept the party going well into the night. He developed a chest cold, but that didn’t stop him from, two weeks later, taking a long walk during a rainstorm. His physician, working off 19th-century medical knowledge, bled and purged him, which definitely didn’t help. He died of what was likely pneumonia on April 4, 1841. (1841 via Library of Congress). 

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See you next week! Until then, tell everyone you know to subscribe to this newsletter, follow me on Twitter, Instagram, and find my books at your friendly (virtual) bookstore and Amazon.