Flash! Zachary Taylor remains dead

On Politics Today

June 28, 1991|By Jack W. Germon and Jules Witcover

IT WAS with no little trepidation that we read the word "Bulletin" on our computerized news wire the other day. That is the warning in newspaperese that some monumental event has just occurred, as in:"Bulletin: Japanese warplanes bombed Pearl Harbor this morning" or " Bulletin Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak was snapped at 56 straight games tonight in Cleveland."

So it was with apprhension that we read: "Bulletin: Louisville, Ky., (Reuter) -- An autopsy on the remains of President Zachary Taylor showed he was not poisoned by arsenic 141 years ago, ending the debate about whether he or Abraham Lincoln was the first president to be assassinated, Kentucky Medical Examiner Dr. George Nichols announced Wednesday."

The bulletin, and the ensuing longer story, retold how "Old Rough and Ready" was exhumed, examined and how, along with his body, the speculation was put to rest that somebody spiked his strawberries -- or was it cherries? -- and cold milk on that sweltering July day in 1850. What a relief!

The story was a sure sign that the summer doldrums are with us once again, when lack of more titillating news, such as Kitty Kelley's implication of hanky-panky in the White House between Nancy Reagan and Frank Sinatra, leaves a vacuum into which all manner of nonsense is guaranteed to rush in.

Clearly, justice could not have been served even if it had been proven that Taylor was poisoned, the statute of limitations, not to mention life itself, having run out on any vile perpetrator. There are those, nevertheless, who will argue that history demanded the digging up of the Mexican War hero, on grounds that the Civil War might have been avoided or delayed had Taylor lived. He was a Virginia native whose views on slavery -- he was against extending it outside the south -- might have kept the lid on longer.

But what of the ramifications today had it been established that Zachhad been offed? For one thing, loyal Friends of Millard Fillmore clubs across the land would suddenly have had to re-examine their claims to legitimacy. Poor Millard himself has been abused enough as among the more obscure vice presidents to succeed to the presidency -- though not as abused, it must be admitted, as Spiro Agnew was when he was forced to resign in 1974 for taking payoffs in brown paper bags, or as Dan Quayle is today, for making a misstatement here and there.

It is said now that it can no longer be challenged that Abraham Lincoln was the first American president to be assassinated. Wasn't it Lincoln himself who said, after having been defeated for Congress, that he felt like the man who was ridden out of town on a rail? If it hadn't been for the honor of it, he said, he'd have rather walked.

The American obsession for establishing firsts is well documented, as is our countrymen's fondness for conspiracy theories, especially as they involve political figures, preferably presidents. A new movie is due soon, amid much argument, concerning the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which for those of you who keep records of such things, was the fourth such event in American history. This statistic, however, requires an asterisk for the unsuccessful attempts on the lives of Presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan and then President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt.

On the same news wire that bore the bulletin about Zach Taylor, there was a report that some folks were also thinking about exhuming thebody of the presumed assassin of Huey Long, the fiery governor of Louisiana. The possibilities are limitless, and not only to disprove conspiracies. Sightings of Elvis could be settled given new credence by a dignified dig at his alleged and hallowed gravesite at Graceland.

Meanwhile, we who write about politics seem destined to go through the dull summer deliberating not whether this or that political figure should be dug up but whether it is premature to bury the Democratic Party. Mark Twain once wired his editor from London that "reports of my death are greatly exaggerated." The Democrats would be hard-pressed to make that claim right now.

In the meantime, though, we probably can't go wrong speculating on the political demise of John Sununu, the White House chief of staff who can't seem to stay home nights. Everybody else, after all, is doing it, and it's a lot easier doing a political autopsy on him than going into the grave digging business.

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