Whodunit, Mr. President?

This seems to me just the day to hear about Messrs. Polk and Harding, to listen to the words of Franklin Pierce and Chester Alan Arthur. During the late 1940s and early ‘50s, they were all brought back to life via that great spiritual medium, the wireless. For little less than half an hour at a time, they wafted right into the American home, which, a decade earlier, had been accustomed to so-called Fireside chats from an above determined to come across as being among.

The announcer promised “little known stories of the men who’ve lived in the White House. Dramatic, exciting events in their lives that you and I so rarely hear. True human stories of Mr. President.” The voice channeling those departed leaders belonged to Edward Arnold, whose services were duly acknowledged. Withheld, however, was the name of the titular character he portrayed, so that the public was called upon to guess the identity of each week’s Presidential candidate.

Who, for instance, uttered the promise “If I am elected to this office, which I do not seek, I will not be a party president. I will be a president of all of the people”? Perhaps, it has been uttered rather too often since to make it obvious that the speaker was meant to be Zachary Taylor. “Men will die,” another phantom president exclaimed, “but the fabrics of our free institutions remain unshaken.” Another familiar rallying cry, commonly uttered during times of war or the preparation thereof. It is a line that rings hollow in an age in which war is being waged on terror, at the expense of the freedoms it is ostensibly designed to protect.

Who stated, rather mixed metaphorically, “In the newspapers I can read the handwriting on the wall. I am a complete failure as President of the United States”? Welcome words of contrition and humility we don’t often get to hear from our elected officials, especially those resolute ones who insist on staying the course. And who declared “I am not responsible to the Senate and I am unwilling to submit my actions to them for judgment”?

In concept, at least, Mr. President (1947-53) has all the appeal of a mystery program, even though its producers did not go so far as to call their stories whodunits.

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