23. Benjamin Harrison

Harrison Birthplace (June 1, 2013)

It takes a big man to admit his mistakes, and I made one in 2006. I was doing a stand-up gig in Cincinnati, my brother Dave came to visit me, and we went 20 minutes west to see William Henry Harrison's tomb.

No, we haven't gotten to the mistake yet.

After bumming around in Indiana territory for a few years, W.H. Harrison backed up a state and bought a farm in North Bend, Ohio. He was elected to Congress while living there, and when he ran for president his campaign touted his rustic log cabin living along the Ohio River. It was a total scam, since Harrison replaced the initial log cabin with a mansion (he was a rich dude). But why argue with success?

These days, Harrison's tomb is arguably the most interesting thing in North Bend, which has a population of about 900. It has a very nice monolith, it's on the side of a hill, and it overlooks the river. I've seen worse presidential graves. We checked it out, took some silly photos and went back to Cincy to do something else that was probably equally cool. It's how we roll.

The mistake was, we forgot about Benjamin. The Harrison family was in North Bend for a while, and William's grandson was born there in 1833. The Ohio historical mafia put up a very nice sign to commemorate the blessed event, and we didn't even think to look for it. Every time I stared at my presidential "to do" list over the next seven years, that was the dagger in my heart. So close, yet so very far.

That's why I vaulted out of bed at my moderately cheap hotel on June 1, 2013. The night before, I had driven until 1 a.m. to get to the Cincinnati region. That Saturday, it was like waking up at 4 a.m. on Christmas morning, only I wasn't a kid, and my family wasn't there, and there was no promise of making memories that anyone would want to share, and instead of a nice breakfast casserole I had a Rice Krispie treat that I bought at a gas station the day before.

The Benjamin Harrison marker is easy to find; it's at the intersection of Washington and Symmes (the maiden name of Benji's grandmom) in a residential neighborhood, where it quietly drives up the property values ALL DAY LONG. No one was on the street that morning, so no one saw the single tear roll down my cheek as I stood there and contemplated the career of Benjamin Harrison in all its glory.

Once I had composed myself, I decided to revisit William's tomb; they put in a new parking area since 2006, which made this visit all the more special. Other than that, no real changes to report. He's still dead.

Harrison Home (August 23, 2005)

Rags-to-riches stories are just fine, but what about riches-to-richer? What about the chumps who have to live up to generations of ridiculous standards? Benjamin Harrison's great grandfather signed the Declaration of Independence, his grandfather was a war hero and U.S. president, and his dad was a U.S. Representative. And you think you feel pressure to take over the plumbing supply business from your dad.

But Harrison did alright for himself. He was born in North Bend, Ohio, went to Miami University and became a lawyer. And not just any lawyer -- in the professional sense, he's sometimes ranked as the best lawyer among U.S. Presidents (he argued a case before the Supreme Court after leaving office, in fact). When war broke out, he channeled grandpa and recruited 1,000 troops to form the 70th Indiana, because that's what you did back then. Even if you had a great job or a happy family, you just dropped everything and signed up for the army. And you grew a beard. It was the law.

Before the war was over he was a brigadier general, and after the war he went back to lawyering. He was chosen for the Senate in 1881, and in 1888 he was a compromise candidate for the Republicans. And then he did nothing all that interesting, lost his bid for a second term and went back to being a lawyer.

It's all very impressive. It's also very boring on paper, and that's why he'll mostly be remembered as the creamy Republican filling of the Grover Cleveland era. But if you're in Indianapolis, swing on by the house. It's a pretty snazzy tour -- they have costumed docents armed with funny trivia and a lot of original decorations and memorabilia. Visit, and think long and hard about how there's a little Benjamin Harrison in all of us. There's not really, but if you're in Indianapolis, you'll probably be looking for ways to kill time.

  • He had two marriages. After his first wife died, he married his neice on his wife's side, who was also 30 years his junior. Big ups to my friend John for pointing on the tour to a picture of BH with a 5-year-old girl on his knee, and asking, "Is that his third wife?"
  • Harrison lost the popular vote to Grover Cleveland in 1888 but won the Electoral College. Harrison used vicious attack ads ridiculing Cleveland, who foolishly tried to take credit for inventing the telegraph.
  • The last sitting president to have a full beard. Also the last sitting president to have a "Born to Do It" tattoo on his right bicep.
  • BH was a great public speaker and did all of his campaigning through speeches on the front porch of his house. His stump speech famously promised to "get people the hell off of my lawn." But today, if you stand on Harrison's front porch and yell at passing cars, you don't really get the same respect. Things ain't what they used to be.
  • His entire family lived at the White House with him, and he bought his grandson a pet goat named Old Whiskers. Supposedly the goat escaped one day and Harrison chased it down Pennsylvania Ave. with his grandkids. But if you chase a goat down Pennsylvania Avenue today, you don't really get the same respect. Things ain't what they used to be.
  • He owned a freeweight set that included wooden dumbells of, oh, maybe 10 ounces. Seriously. I picked one up. He wasn't quite Soloflex-commercial material.
  • He really liked oysters after eating them in the Civil War. Big ups to me for pointing to fake oysters on the dining room table and asking, "Are those from the 1880s?"
  • He had electricity in his home but no running water. The next time you find yourself forced to use a dirty men's room in a Denny's at 3 a.m., grit your teeth and remember: you have it better than the 23rd president of the United States.

Dead Publicists (3/26/08)

Indianapolis, like most major American cities, has its fair share of dead people, and the creme de la dead people are in Crown Hill cemetery. So of course, that's where Harrison is buried:

You'll note that "president" doesn't get top billing on his marker. Instead, that honor goes to "lawyer and publicist." Yes, publicist. Look for time-traveling Benjamin Harrison on the next season of "Entourage." (That's how desperate they are to tweak the ratings.) Not pictured: the line "Statesman, yet friend to truth." Apparently, the statesmen of the 1890s needed better publicists.

One man's quest to be the humblest person alive
Copyright 2013, Chris White