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The Republican president who alienated Republicans

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APART FROM history buffs and aficionados of presidential beards, few Americans today have ever heard of Benjamin Harrison. Yet on this Presidents Day weekend, there is a lesson to be learned from the experience of our obscure 23rd president.

When he entered the White House in 1889, it was with a pedigree unmatched in American presidential history.

He was the son of John Scott Harrison, an Ohio farmer and two-term member of Congress. He was the grandson of William Henry Harrison, a war hero and the ninth president of the United States. He was the great-grandson of Benjamin Harrison V, a Founding Father who served in the Continental Congress, signed the Declaration of Independence, and was both a Virginia governor and speaker of the elected House of Delegates. And he was the great-great-great-grandson of Benjamin Harrison III, a gifted 17th-century Virginia politician, who became the colony’s attorney general when he was just 24, then went on to become speaker of the House of Burgesses and Virginia’s treasurer before his untimely death at 36.

But while politics was in the family line, Harrison was anything but a normal politician.

On paper, he fit the part. A fledgling lawyer in Indianapolis, where he and his wife moved after getting married, he made a name for himself as a gifted speaker and rose steadily in Republican Party circles. He won election to the post of Indiana Supreme Court reporter, narrowly lost a race for governor, and in 1880 was named to the US Senate.

Yet his demeanor with political people was nearly always chilly and standoffish. He was described as a “refrigerator” by the GOP’s national chairman, and as “the human iceberg” by the most powerful Republican in Congress, House Speaker Thomas Reed. The very opposite of a glad-handing back-slapper, Harrison didn’t like to shake hands (and always wore gloves when doing so).

But he did have a knack for addressing crowds that kept him in great demand as a Republican........

© Boston Globe