BY day they're ordinary, hardworking political types.
By night, they're sages.
Welcome to the Chester Alan Arthur Society, a group of Labor Party officials, lawyers, and fellow travelers who share a fascination with American political trivia. At one of their dinners recently, various members of the group of 30 stood up and tossed into each others' steel-trap minds the following tidbits:
"Who was the last military person to be running mate on a third-party ticket?"
"Curtis Le May."
"Who were FDR's vice presidents?"
"Garner, Wallace, and Truman."
"Who was the last Republican candidate for president to win the election but lose California?"
Long silence.... "James A. Garfield!"
Murmurs of approval. "Good question!"
Now it's not as strange as it may seem to have Australians so interested in American political history. They have been raised on American popular culture. Many have worked, studied, or traveled in the United States. And like many Americans, they know exactly where they were when President Kennedy was shot.
The idea for the group came from Bob Carr, leader of the Labor opposition in New South Wales, who has been fascinated with US political history since 1968, "when the American system produced its most dramatic election campaign in history." In 1982, he and some friends celebrated the centenary of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Chester Alan Arthur Society formed in 1986.
These guys (as most of them are) are not your average Australians. When they come to the US, do they go to Disneyland? The Grand Canyon? The Golden Gate Bridge? Noooooo. They visit presidential home sites ... and get misty.
The command of detail of these aficionados is daunting. They can tell you the last president sworn in by lantern light (Calvin Coolidge), the oldest presidential running mate (81-year-old Henry Davis, who ran with Alton B. Parker in 1904), and the new "first animal" (Socks, the Clintons' cat).
Scoring is simple: 3 points for correct answers, 2 for partially correct, and 1 for totally wrong, so long as it was a witty answer.
Members have an Australian gusto for amorous gossip. Michael Sexton, a barrister, stands to solemnly announce "an important scholarly breakthrough on Chester A. Arthur." He has dredged up an obscure reference in a biography to an impulsively delivered proposal of marriage to Vita Sackville-West's mother.
The members, even Mr. Sexton, poo-poo this. "Knowing what we know about him, the idea of him launching himself at a British woman.... We know he studied things very thoroughly," he says.
While the emphasis is on smart retorts, this mob can be as ripping as members of Parliament when someone offends. John McCarthy (a queen's counsel, or rarified breed of barrister) tried to offer up trivia questions about British politics, only to be shouted down. "This is heresy!" "He's a subversive!" "Boo!"
Scorekeeper Catherine Harding pursed her lips and deducted points for the faux pas from his heretofore winning score.
Mr. McCarthy, flummoxed, sat down.
Why, you may ask, did they pick Chester Alan Arthur, 21st president of the United States?
"He was the most obscure president we could find," says Mary Easson, a Labor candidate for a district seat. "He was a party hack; he only got the vice-presidency because he was a machine person. But when Garfield was assassinated, Arthur rose to the occasion. People thought he'd repay favors, but he became quite principled. We like to think that we, who are in the party machine here, if given the chance, would act as well."
"The other reason," Mrs. Easson says, "is that he gave great parties."