How We Remember Heads Of State That Die In Office

William Henry Harrison

It is interesting to note how quickly the tone in the media changed when it was announced that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had coronavirus. For a man who has received more brickbats than bouquets from the British and American media – both for his handling of the virus and before that – , the suddenly sympathetic coverage he has obtained might seem a little surprising. Indeed, an editorial for the New York Times just two days ago was titled, “Boris Johnson is not cut out for this crisis (1).” After it was announced that he had tested positive, the New York Times and indeed most of the British media have limited themselves strictly to reporting on the factual information regarding not only his condition, but him personally. Moreover, the “goodwill” expressed by Johnson’s main adversaries, Jeremy Corbyn (Labour) and Ian Blackford (Scottish National), have come together to form a significantly more positive – or at least less hostile – image of Boris Johnson in the press and, in consequence, the public eye. Indeed, Bloomberg News reported that,  “ [polls] found personal ratings for Boris Johnson — himself now diagnosed with coronavirus — that have not been seen for a British Prime Minister since the early days of Tony Blair’s premiership in 1997. (2)”

Looking at the history of heads of state who have fallen ill, or died, can give us a better understanding of the current situation in Britain, which is certain to repeat itself elsewhere. Furthermore, it can even give an insight into how Boris Johnson will be remembered in the future. As with most things, this varies by county, so we can examine both what can be expected of the U.S, and Britain itself. 

The United States has had quite a few examples of presidents who have died in office, William Henry Harrison most famously catching either a cold or cholera and dying within 30 days of taking office. Historical analysis of his presidency is, however, obviously limited. More important examples are those of John F. Kennedy and James Garfield. In particular, Garfield, who served as president from March to September 1881, dying from an infection caused by a bullet-wound, bears some resemblance to Boris Johnson. Running on a campaign of moderate economic reform and radical changes to the bureaucracy, neither of which he lived long enough to see passed. Nevertheless, much like Kennedy would later be credited with the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, Garfield was praised by historians for his stance as a far-sighted reformer and largely credited with later changes, in spite of how little he was able to accomplish during the time he was actually in office. Furthermore, those American presidents who died in office after leading extremely controversial administrations, namely James Polk and William McKinlley, have been held in either beningin obscurity by historians, or had only the most positive effects of their tenure emphasized. 

Assasination Of James Garfield

The United Kingdom has had a different experience with its own Prime Ministers dying in office. This is largely due to the fact that only Spencer Percival, who was assassinated, ever held the distinction of having done so His reputation was much enhanced by his death, given the mass discontent caused by his total-war style measures against Napoleonic France. Indeed, for a long time he was hailed as a sort of martyr against foreign radicalism, before being largely forgotten, which in any case resulted in him having a far better reputation than he would have had otherwise. This being said, there was one other Prime Minister who effectively died in office, being forced to resign due to ill health and dying of a heart attack a week later. Henry Campbell-Bannerman, much like Boris, came to power through a series of byzantine maneuvers in Parliament, and after leading a minority government to the greatest victory of any party in a generation, laid out a plan for massive reform of the British economy and foreign relations. Unlike James Garfield, however, few historians ever mention Campbell-Bannerman. His Liberal Party opponents were much more effective at taking credit for his reforms, and his importance was further obscured by the outbreak of a period of mass instability and violence from 1914 to 1945, only six years after his death.

Postcard Of Campbell-Bannerman, Shortly After His Death

In the end, we can extrapolate from this analysis two conclusions: Firstly, there is an inherent quality to sickness in heads of government or state, and a possibility of incapacity to continue in office which that implies, that makes positive re-evaluation of politicians more desirable to contemporary commentators and historians alike. Secondly, the legacy of Boris Johnson, as Prime Minister who could be forced out of office due to incapacity by disease, will depend on events that occur after he leaves office. If the incoming global recession does result in a period of instability comparable to that of 1914-45, then Boris runs the risk of becoming a new and unfairly forgotten,  Campbell-Bannerman. If indeed the economic consequences of the coronavirus are mild, then he is likely to be more akin to James Garfield. Either way, Boris Johnson can, for now, take some relief in the more positive press that he is getting. 

Bibliography

1. Russell, Jenni. “Boris Johnson Is Not Cut Out for This Crisis.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 26 Mar. 2020.

2. Singh, Matt. “One Battle Boris Johnson Is Clearly Winning.” Bloomberg.com, Bloomberg, 28 Mar. 2020

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