Monday, February 17, 2020

Flashback 2006: So much presidential trivia, so little time to shop

    The grim morning after Donald Trump was elected in 2016, I had a thought that is at the same time strange and entirely understandable: "Now he's always going to be on presidential placemats." Meaning the range of comforting, familiar faces will be joined by a man vastly below them, a weird and loathsome figure. Will Donald Trump ruin presidential trivia? Will history soften his stark reality? Maybe that depends on whether Trump is a sui generis exception—an outlier, the lone liar, bully and fraud boosted into office by a big push by his Russian pals. Or just the beginning of worse to come. 
     Back in 2006, before we knew what lay ahead, good and bad, I had fun splashing around in presidential history. Back then, my column was an entire page, ending with a joke, and I've kept that format. 

Happy polidays!

     Today is Presidents Day. Another political holiday (dare we call it a "poliday"?) where people grab the day off but shun the spirit: in this case, to honor the 42 men—alas, only men, so far—who have been president of the United States.
     If you are sharp-eyed, you may have puzzled at the "42" in the paragraph above. Is that right? Isn't George W. Bush the 43rd president? How can he be the 43rd president if we've only had 42 presidents?
     The answer (I apologize to those who already know) is that Grover Cleveland was both the 22nd and the 24th president. He was elected in 1884, served a term, lost to Benjamin Harrison, then regained the White House.
     That odd fact notwithstanding, Cleveland is your average, ordinary, send-one-up-from-Central-Casting president. Not great, like Lincoln or FDR, not lousy, like Grant or Harding. Just so-so. But even Cleveland is worth celebrating this Presidents Day, his career offering valuable insights into our own prudish, prying time.
     Cleveland ran for his first term on a platform emphasizing his honesty and integrity. The summer before the election, a Buffalo newspaper accused Cleveland of fathering an illegitimate child, which indeed he had.
     The Republicans, naturally, had a field day; "Ma, ma, where's my pa?" was their memorable chant. But Cleveland, in a move that should be taught in every public relations class, instructed his handlers "Tell the truth," fessed up to the baby, and won the election anyway.
     Does anyone believe that could happen today? Look how John Kerry was battered and brutalized for the crime of serving his country in the Vietnam War.
     The second noteworthy thing about Cleveland (one of two bachelors elected to the White House) was his wedding. Cleveland was 49; his bride, Frances Folsom, was 21, barely; her birthday was the day of the wedding. He had known her since she was an infant—she was the daughter of his late law partner—and was the executor of her father's estate. Practically her uncle. The public was informed of the engagement five days before the wedding.
     Just close your eyes, and imagine the inferno of controversy, the orgy of media attention, the endless speculation and analysis, outrage and ridicule, that the above fact pattern would unleash today. We'd explode.
     We think of the Victorians as moralistic and straight-laced. What we don't realize is that we are far worse.


     The other bachelor was James Buchanan. I add that because readers will ask. There's something addictive about presidential trivia. For example, I can't tell the Cleveland story without pointing out he was neither the first nor the last president to get married in office; the first was John Tyler, the last was Woodrow Wilson, both widowers. There was even a bigger gap between Tyler and his bride: he was 53, she was 23. And Tyler was even more secretive—the public wasn't notified until after the ceremony.
     Some trivia is more trivial than other trivia. The mark of good trivia is the surprise factor. For example: "Richard Nixon was a Quaker" is far better than, say, "Calvin Coolidge was the only president born on the Fourth of July" because the image we have of Quakerism (oatmeal, homespun, plain speaking) is at such odds with the oily image we have of Nixon (shifty eyes, rumpled suit, lies). The date of Coolidge's birth doesn't really tell us anything, except perhaps to introduce the neat fact of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both dying on the same day: July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years after the birth of the country.


     Four out of our 42 presidents were assassinated; nearly 10 percent. You probably can name them: Kennedy, Lincoln, McKinley and . . . always takes a moment to get that last one . . . Garfield.
     Assassins came close to taking the lives of five more presidents. Ronald Reagan, of course, and Gerald Ford, twice. Truman was attacked by gun-wielding Puerto Rican nationalists. An anarchist fired at president-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt and hit Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak instead.
     One president was shot after he left office: Teddy Roosevelt, campaigning outside the Hotel Gilpatrick in Milwaukee in 1912.
     "Any man looking for a third term ought to be shot," said his assailant, John Schrank. Roosevelt, slightly wounded, went ahead and gave his speech anyway.


     Perhaps inspired by the Winter Olympic medal counts, I thought to tally up which party is more successful at getting presidents into the Oval Office. The Republicans lead, 18 to 15.
     Republicans are also far better at running streaks of presidents. Twice they had a string of three presidents in a row, once four in a row. In 1989, when George Bush took over after Reagan left office, the Republicans accomplished something the Democrats haven't done since 1857: replace a president with somebody else from their own party without the first one dying in office.


     I only got a chance to meet one president, personally, and talk with him at length and that president—lucky me—was Jimmy Carter. He had been out of office a few years, was flogging a book, and a magazine sent me to Los Angeles to meet him.
     We spoke about half an hour and, frankly, I didn't like Carter. He was sour and grumpy and he did something that really annoyed me. His wife, Rosalynn, his supposed co-author, was there too, but whenever she tried to say anything, Carter would talk right over her, and while, yes, he had been president, it was still rude.
     Carter only brightened once. The interview was over, and the magazine photographer was setting him up for a portrait. I had run through my questions, but wanted to make use of the time, and was searching for something to say that wasn't, "I always thought you were driven insane by the hostage crisis." Suddenly I remembered that the great New Yorker writer, John McPhee, had once included Carter in one of his finely crafted articles.
     "You went canoeing with John McPhee!" I blurted out. "What's he like?"
     Carter broke into his big, famous smile.
     "Yes, that's riiiight!" he said, beaming, either because it was a happy memory, or he was amused at the awestruck tone of the question.


     Today's topic seems to call for something presidential.
     One of my favorites involves Calvin Coolidge. "Silent Cal" was the butt of much ridicule for his close-mouthedness.
     Informed that Coolidge was dead, Dorothy Parker supposedly quipped: "How can they tell?"

              —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Feb. 20, 2006


  1. One of my favorite POTUS stories is the often-told tale about the young woman who was seated next to "Silent Cal" Coolidge at a dinner party.

    According to the First Lady, Grace Coolidge, the woman said: "Mr. President, I've made a bet that I can get you to have a conversation of at least three words."

    Coolidge quietly responded: “You lose.”

  2. Love all the info in this blog — did not read it back in 06. I found the comment about presidents on placemats funny and ironic. Recently I was setting the table for guests. Looking through my placemats I came across a couple of them with photos and names of our 44 presidents, the last one shown being Obama. Bought the mats for my grandsons when they eat over so they could learn about the presidents. I thought at the time that I was so glad Trump was not among them — hadn’t been voted in yet. I did not want Trump at my table!

  3. He was way before my time and considered among our worst presidents but we could sure use a man like Silent Cal today.


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