Back in my White House staffer days, I used to give friends tours of the East and West Wings. It was one of my favorite perks of my job. As we strolled through the Green Room and passed the portrait of President William Henry Harrison, I would always pause and say “Here is President William Henry Harrison. He gave the longest Inaugural Address in history–two hours in the pouring rain. He died of pneumonia 30 days later . . .”
Then I would pause for dramatic effect, point to the next portrait over, and say “His grandson, Benjamin Harrison, served as president a few decades later. Learning from his grandfather’s mistakes, he gave the shortest Inaugural Address in history.” My guests would be wowed at this random historical fact. The rest of the tour they’d assume I was this awesome database of fascinating historical knowledge.
It turns out, though, that whomever I got my original information was totally wrong. Yes, William Henry Harrison’s address was the longest in history. And yes, it was given in a chilly downpour which resulted in poor President Harrison’s death just 30 days later. But his grandson’s inaugural address was far from the shortest (that honor went instead to George Washington’s Second Inaugural). Too bad. It sure made for an interesting story.
Though Benjamin Harrison, our president of the week, was known as a good, honest man, and a great public speaker, his presidency was considered lackluster at best. He’s probably best known for being the president sandwiched in between the two Grover Cleveland terms.
He was also our nation’s “centennial president”–elected exactly 100 years after George Washington’s first inaugural. Officials at the time made a big deal over it. They even had Benjamin Harrison reenact George Washington’s first swearing-in ceremony and held a parade for him in New York City.
Some historians are baffled that in only 100 years our nation went from the ever revered General George Washington to a lackluster somebody like Benjamin Harrison.
Was he as bad as historians say? I’ll let you decide.