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Author Discusses Book On President Harrison

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Robert Siegel talks to Gail Collins about her new book about William Henry Harrison. Though some view William Henry Harrison as notable only for his non-achievements — his presidency was the shortest in American history, he never appointed a federal judge, his wife never even saw the White House — Collins reveals a man whose victorious election campaign rewrote the rules for candidates seeking America's highest office. Today, he is a curiosity in American history, but, as Collins shows in this entertaining and revelatory biography, he and his career are worth a closer look.


William Henry Harrison won the presidential election of 1840. When he was sworn in, the old Indian fighter was 68 years old. One month later, he died. Legend has it he became ill when he chose to give a two-hour inaugural address to disprove claims that he wasn't, in the words of one opposition newspaper, superannuated and pitiable.

Harrison was the first president who represented the Whig Party. He was the first U.S. president whose campaign made much of the log cabin that he supposedly lived in--he actually didn't--and he was the first president to die in office, having spent by far the shortest tenure of any chief executive. In the Times book series of short biographies of the American presidents, you might think that Harrison's story would be the short straw of presidential lives.

But New York Times columnist Gail Collins, who joins us now from New York, says she volunteered for the task.

Welcome to the program. And why? Why did you want to write about William Henry Harrison?

GAIL COLLINS: Well, many good reasons, one of which is you know, there's not going to be any discussion of monetary policy whatsoever.


COLLINS: It's such a definite plus. And the other was personal actually. He's from Cincinnati, which is where I'm from. And I was in Cincinnati years ago doing a tour for another book I'd done, in which he briefly was mentioned, and I was telling my parents about how everybody, during the campaigns, said he was from a log cabin but he really wasn't, and he had this really good house and my father sitting there and said, yes, that was a good house.


COLLINS: And so I said, how do you know? And he said, I tore it down.


SIEGEL: This was for the utility. He was...

COLLINS: Yeah, he worked for the power company, and it was on the power company. It was actually the - one of the other houses that the family had lived in. But anyway, my father was said to tear it down so they could landmark it. And I thought, well, I owe William Henry Harrison something after all.


SIEGEL: You owe him something. And the log cabin business, this is a man who grew up actually in a landed rich family in Virginia, who...

COLLINS: His father signed the Declaration of Independence, for lord's sake.


SIEGEL: And somehow he managed to be reinvented as this roughhewn man from the frontier.

COLLINS: Yeah. Well, he made his career in Ohio, which was definitely the far West at that time. And then when the campaign started, he was totally unknown. He'd been the clerk of ports at the time that he was nominated. So the opposition started making fun of him as this old (unintelligible), you know, the guy didn't know anything, sitting around in a log cabin drinking hard cider.

And it was supposed to be a joke against him, but the Whigs picked up on it and then turned it into this huge campaign, in which there was nothing but log cabins and hard cider.

The important thing about all that was at that time, the people, especially the people in the West lived very simple lives with no fun attached to them whatsoever. And suddenly, you had these campaigns coming in with raising of poles and rolling of large balls down the road for miles and miles and miles and drinking and all that stuff. And people loved it. This is the dumbest campaign in American history.


COLLINS: And you had the highest turnout ever. More than 80 percent of the eligible voters went out to vote in this campaign.

SIEGEL: By the way, rolling large balls down the road, this is where the expression of keep the ball rolling comes from.

COLLINS: I think you're right.

SIEGEL: Now, 1840 is during this - I find fascinating period of American history after the country is independent and independence is confirmed by the War of 1812. But the country hasn't yet come to grips with slavery, which will be addressed in the Civil War.

Harrison, so far as I can tell, if you ask where did he stand on slavery, there's no clear answer.

COLLINS: Hopped around quite a bit.

SIEGEL: Hopped around.


COLLINS: Well, he came from a slave-owning family. And he clearly had great emotional connection to Southern slave-owning families. And he kept saying some things along the line of it was good enough for the Madison and Jefferson, it was good enough for me. But he was nominated because he jumped around a lot.

He was not a distinguished politician. And that was perfect because the other Whig candidates were all strongly identified with the one side or the other. And this was the guy who didn't drive anybody crazy on that critical subject. That's basically why there aren't really any good presidents for about 50 years here.

It's - there's a very long - between Jackson and Abraham Lincoln - a kind of a drought going on.

SIEGEL: I, by the way, found it very interesting that when Harrison was in the White House very briefly, he went out to buy a Bible because he found there was none in the White House.

COLLINS: Yeah. He was going out a lot. That was sort of a fascinating thing. And this was, by the status of the day, an old guy. He was 68. And it was terrible weather, but he was having a wonderful time. He was so happy. This is basically a guy, all he wanted was a job.


COLLINS: And then suddenly, he had this great job, and he's so happy. And he's sort of bounding about doing all this. And meanwhile, 10 billion people are trying to get jobs out of him. And I think after he got exhausted, then he went out and made the longest inaugural speech in the history of inaugural speeches. And he, you know, finishes that and catches pneumonia. And then the doctors, of course, came in and did the doctory things they did back then.

You know, they bled him, and they blistered him, and they gave him all kinds of terrible potions. And then he died.

SIEGEL: That's Gail Collins who's new book in the Times books series of the American presidents is a biography of William Henry Harrison. Gail Collins, thanks for talking with us.

COLLINS: A pleasure.

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