Do candidates recall zero-year curse?

Presidency: For going on 160 years, men -- so far they've been men -- elected as president have died in office, one way or another.

August 18, 1999|By Theo Lippman Jr. | Theo Lippman Jr.,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Talk about a Y2K bug! Talk about a fatal attraction! Candidates who want to be elected president in 2000 are flirting with death.

Consider this: Picking presidents became a more or less democratic process in the 1820s and 1830s. In 1824 the trend of choosing presidential electors by popular vote became pronounced. (Maryland's electors were popularly chosen from the start of the Republic).

And, in the 1830s, parties began to select presidential nominees at national conventions. (The first was held in Baltimore.) Thereafter, with one exception, every winner in a presidential election year ending in zero (which occurs every 20 years) has been killed or died of natural causes while in office. The one exception came within an inch of death -- literally.

In 1840, voters chose the first of only two Whig presidents. That was William Henry Harrison of Ohio. Harrison was a tired 68 years old when he delivered his inaugural address on March 4, 1841, without an overcoat in a cold and windy drizzle. He spoke for an hour and 40 minutes, became ill and died of pneumonia exactly one month later. John Tyler, a maverick Democrat from Virginia, was selected as his running mate to gain Southern votes, which he did.

(Zachary Taylor, the Whig president elected in 1848, died in office. He was the only president who did not live out his tenure in office who was not elected in a year ending in zero.)

In 1860, Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, a former Whig but by then a Republican, was elected that party's first president. He was re-elected in 1864, and, as every schoolchild knows, was, while attending a play at Ford's Theater in Washington, shot in the head fatally, by John Wilkes Booth. A Maryland-born former Virginia militia volunteer, Booth was still fighting the recently ended Civil War. He shouted the motto of Virginia after he shot Lincoln: Sic semper tyrannis!

Lincoln, shot on April 14, 1865, five days after the Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to the Union's Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, died on April 15. He was succeeded by his second vice president, Andrew Johnson, a pro-Union Tennessee Democrat.

Booth was tracked down on a Virginia farm by Union soldiers and fatally shot (by himself or by a soldier) on April 16. He was buried in Baltimore. Four others implicated in the assassination plot one way or another were subsequently hanged.

In 1880, Republican James A. Garfield of Ohio won one of the closest elections in history. He defeated Democrat Winfield S. Hancock by only 0.02 percent of the popular vote. Four months after his inauguration, he was shot in the back in a Washington railroad station waiting room, while walking with his secretary of state.

The assassin was Charles Guiteau, who had supported Garfield and expected a federal job in return. When he didn't get one, he set out to kill the president. Garfield was shot on July 2, 1881. He died on September 19. Guiteau was convicted and hanged on June 30, 1882.

Guiteau was a member of the Stalwart wing of the Republican Party, as was Vice President Chester A. Arthur, a New Yorker, who succeeded Garfield. There were contemporary rumors that Stalwart boss Roscoe Conkling or a sympathizer or even Arthur paid Guiteau.

Arthur was so concerned about the rumors that he refused to stay in Washington for the death watch, lest he appear impatient.

In 1900, Republican William McKinley was re-elected to a second term. His first vice president, Garret A. Hobart, had died in office. Republicans had nominated Theodore Roosevelt of New York to run with McKinley in 1900, to balance the ticket. McKinley was a conservative from Ohio, Roosevelt a progressive from New York.

On Sept. 6, 1901, a day after a speech at an exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., the president shook hands with visitors to the exposition. Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist, was one of the visitors. He shot McKinley twice. The president was fatally wounded, dying on Sept. 14. Czolgosz said he had shot him because it was his duty.

He was tried on Sept. 23. The jury convicted him after less than an hour of deliberation, and he was electrocuted on Oct. 29.

American anarchists had a tradition of non-violence. After the McKinley assassination, Congress forbade immigration by foreign anarchists and ordered alien anarchists deported.

In 1920, Warren G. Harding of Ohio was nominated by Republicans. Perhaps having noted that two of his predecessors as president who were from Ohio and had chosen New Yorkers as running mates, had been murdered, Harding chose Massachusetts Gov. Calvin Coolidge. However, Harding died in office on Aug. 2, 1923, of an illness that was variously described, which precipitated rumors of foul play then and later (his wife was a suspect, unfairly).

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