Today is Presidents’ Day. It is a TWE tradition on Presidents’ Day to recognize the forty-five men—and they have all been men—who have been president with the following essay, which has been revised periodically over the years. If you are lucky enough to have today off, enjoy it.
American kids often say they want to be president when they grow up. You have to wonder why. True, a few presidents have loved the job. Teddy Roosevelt said, “No president has ever enjoyed himself as much as I have enjoyed myself.”
Most presidents, though, have found the job demanding, perhaps too demanding. James K. Polk pretty much worked himself to exhaustion; he died less than four months after completing his single term in office. Zachary Taylor, the hero of the Mexican-American War, found being president harder than taking men into battle. Dwight D. Eisenhower had a heart attack from the stress of leading the Free World.
Plenty of presidents found life in the White House stifling. Harry S. Truman called it “the great white jail.” Bill Clinton described it as “the crown jewel of the federal penitentiary system.” Barack Obama likened it to living in “a bubble.”
And many presidents expressed relief once they could be called “former president.” This trend started early. John Adams told his wife Abigail that George Washington looked too happy watching him take the oath of office. “Me–thought I heard him say, ‘Ay, I am fairly out and you fairly in! See which of us will be happiest!’”
Andrew Johnson, who was impeached by the House but acquitted by the Senate, returned to Capitol Hill as a senator from Tennessee six years after leaving the White House. When an acquaintance mentioned that his new accommodations were smaller than his old ones at the White House, he replied: “But they are more comfortable.” Rutherford B. Hayes longed to escape what he called a “life of bondage, responsibility, and toil.”
The only part of the job that Chester A. Arthur liked was giving parties. He apparently did that quite well. His nickname was the “prince of hospitality.” Grover Cleveland claimed there was “no happier man in the United States” when he lost his reelection bid in 1888. Time away from the White House apparently changed his mind. He ran again in 1892 and won, making him the only president (so far) to hold two non-consecutive terms.
Being president certainly doesn’t spare one from great loss. John Tyler, Benjamin Harrison, and Woodrow Wilson all saw their wives die while they were in office. In Harrison’s case, his wife Caroline died of tuberculosis two weeks before he lost his bid for reelection to Grover Cleveland, the man he had defeated four years earlier. John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Calvin Coolidge, and John F. Kennedy all lost children during their presidencies. Franklin Pierce’s son and last surviving child was killed in a train accident on the way to his inauguration.
Donald Trump, like many modern presidents, blamed the media—or “Fake News” as he liked to call it—for making his job harder than it should have been. But complaints about journalists are as old as the Republic. Thomas Jefferson suggested that newspaper editors divide their papers “into four chapters, heading the 1st, Truths. 2d, Probabilities. 3d, Possibilities. 4th, Lies.”
The Inaugural Address
Any elected president’s first official act is to deliver an inaugural address. The expectations and stakes are high. So high in fact that many presidents-elect channel their inner undergraduate and labor late into the night wordsmithing their remarks. James Garfield didn’t finish his speech until 2:30 a.m. on Inauguration Day. Bill Clinton did him two hours better, fiddling with his speech until 4:30 a.m.
Some presidents rise to the occasion on Inauguration Day with soaring rhetoric that rings through the ages. Franklin D. Roosevelt gave us: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” John F. Kennedy gave us: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
Alas, most inaugural addresses are forgettable. James Buchanan used his to complain that the country was so consumed debating slavery that it was ignoring more important issues. That address tells us a lot about why Buchanan tops virtually every list of the worst presidents in American history. Ulysses S. Grant, a far better general than president, used his inaugural address to complain that his critics were treating him unfairly. Most presidents share this sentiment, but they find better venues to share it.
Richard M. Nixon gave us the memorable line: “The American dream does not come to those who fall asleep.” Uh, okay.
Some presidents get right to the point in their inaugural address. George Washington’s second inaugural address totaled only 135 words—or about the length of two recitations of the Lord’s Prayer.
William Henry Harrison, the hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe, went to the other extreme. He took nearly two hours to deliver an 8,000-word speech. Despite the bitterly cold and wet weather, the sixty-eight-year-old Harrison gave his address outdoors without a coat or hat. It was long thought that he caught a cold while speaking, which turned into pneumonia, killing him just a month after taking office. The cause of his death, however, may have been enteric (typhoid) fever that he contracted by drinking contaminated water; the White House at the time drew its water supply just downstream from a sewage dump. Either way, he was the first president to die in office. (His death also made John Tyler the first vice president to finish out a president’s term. For his trouble, Tyler got stuck with the nickname, “His Accidency.”)
Harrison holds two other distinctions. He was the last American president born as an English subject. And he was the first, and so far only, president to have his grandson become president. Benjamin Harrison, please take a bow.
When George Washington first took the oath of office in New York City on April 30, 1789, only people within the sound of his voice could hear what he had to say. Every president afterward until Woodrow Wilson also spoke without the benefit of amplification. Which prompts the question: How many of the people who spent two hours listening to William Henry Harrison drone on in the bitter cold actually heard him?
Warren G. Harding was the first president to deliver his inaugural address into a microphone. Calvin Coolidge was the first president to deliver his inaugural address over the radio. Harry Truman was the first to deliver his on television. Bill Clinton was the first to do so over the internet.
Presidents typically take the oath of office while laying their hand on a Bible. Joe Biden took his oath of office on a Bible that had been in his family since 1893. Barack Obama used Abraham Lincoln’s bible. It is sometimes said that Franklin Pierce declined to use a Bible. But in fact, he did. Pierce’s inauguration is, however, unique in one respect. When presidents take the inaugural oath, which is set forth in the Constitution, they begin it by uttering the words, “I solemnly swear.” Pierce is the one exception. He chose to begin the oath by saying, “I solemnly affirm.” That is an option the Constitution allows. Whatever reasons led Pierce to opt for “affirm” over “swear” have been lost to time.
Changes in technology have been matched by changes in fashion. Today we expect that the president will wear a suitcoat with matching pants. However, the first five presidents—George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe—all wore knee britches. John Quincy Adams was the first to wear long pants, so he was a fashionista of a sort.
COVID-19 forced a break with many inaugural traditions in 2021. One victim was the gala balls on the evening of Inauguration Day. Presidents and their First Ladies would go from Washington hotel to Washington hotel, dancing briefly and inspiring their supporters. In the early nineteenth century, festivities were more intimate and boisterous. Andrew Jackson once threw a party for his well-wishers at the White House. Things got out of hand, however, in an Animal House kind of way. The White House was saved only when tubs of ice cream and liquor were carried out onto the lawn to lure people out of the mansion. While Joe Biden didn’t get to go to any galas or throw a party for his supporters, he did get to watch an awesome fireworks display that exploded some 35,000 shells.
Landing on Mount Rushmore
All presidents on Inauguration Day imagine that their presidency will be a great one. A poll released last February found that Americans think that Barack Obama tops the list of best presidents, followed by Abraham Lincoln and Donald Trump. A poll run by the same outfit in 2020 also had Barack Obama at number one, but with Donald Trump second and Abraham Lincoln third. A decade ago, Americans said that Ronald Reagan was the greatest president, followed by Abraham Lincoln and Bill Clinton.
Historians and political scientists scoff at these rankings. They obviously favor recent presidents. The professionals instead typically name George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and FDR as the three best presidents, though not necessarily in that order.
Alas, far too many presidents fail to impress either the public or the professionals. The saddest case may be Millard Fillmore. He didn’t even impress his own father, who said that he belonged at home in Buffalo and not in Washington.
The poster child for presidential failure, however, is Herbert Hoover. He was a golden boy before becoming president. Born in West Branch, Iowa, to humble origins, he was orphaned at a young age. He eventually became a member of the first class to enter Stanford University, where among other accomplishments he badgered former president Benjamin Harrison to pay the twenty-five cents he owed for admission to a Stanford baseball game. He graduated with a degree in geology, became a mining engineer, lived in Australia and China (where he learned Mandarin Chinese), survived the Boxer Rebellion, and became a wealthy man. During World War I, he entered public service and distinguished himself with his management of the European relief effort after the war ended. A young FDR marveled that Hoover “is certainly a wonder, and I wish we could make him President of the United States. There couldn’t be a better one.” The irony of that statement, of course, is that FDR ended up running against and defeating Hoover. FDR won because Hoover presided over the worst economic collapse in American history. The Great Depression may not have been Hoover’s fault, but he got the blame.
So what does it take for a president to succeed? One key is to be attuned to public opinion. It is perhaps wise, though, not to be as attuned to public opinion as William McKinley, of whom it was said kept his ear so close to the ground that it was full of grasshoppers.
A president also needs to know how to work with Congress. That was one skill that escaped Jimmy Carter, even though his fellow Democrats controlled both the House and Senate. “Carter,” said one lawmaker, “couldn’t get the Pledge of Allegiance through Congress.”
To succeed, a president needs to know when to compromise. The example to follow here isn’t Woodrow Wilson. He once said, “I am sorry for those who disagree with me, because I know they are wrong.” Wilson’s reluctance to compromise led to the demise of his great project, the Treaty of Versailles.
Successful presidents need to know how to say one thing and do another. Republicans today hail Ronald Reagan as a tax-cutting, deficit-busting, champion of smaller government. His actual record was different. He signed eleven tax increases into law, saw the national debt more than double on his watch, and left America with a larger federal workforce than the one he inherited from Jimmy Carter. But what people remember him doing matters more than what he actually did.
Presidents should also know how to deal with temperamental cabinet secretaries. Few have faced a harder time than James Monroe. He once had to use a pair of fireplace tongs to fend off his cane-wielding secretary of the Treasury. Monroe also used his sword once to break up a fight at a White House dinner between the French and British ambassadors.
All presidents should be prepared to hit some bumps along the road. As a political science professor once told me, the people love you on the way in, they love you on the way out, and they grumble in between. The difference between the highs and lows can be breathtaking, as George W. Bush discovered. He set the record for both the highest public approval ratings and the lowest.
The inherent difficulties of being president and the consequences of failing are no doubt why Joe Biden said of his new job shortly after being sworn in that “I hope to God I live up to it.”
The Men Who Held the Office
With public popularity a fleeting thing, Harry Truman may have gotten it right when he laid down the cardinal rule of Washington political life: If you want a friend, get a dog. Most presidents have lived by that maxim. At least half of them had dogs. Their dogs’ names have included Sweetlips (Washington), Satan (John Adams), Fido (Lincoln), Grim (Hayes), Veto (Garfield), Stubby (Wilson), Oh Boy (Harding), Fala (FDR), and J. Edgar (LBJ). Donald Trump was the first sitting president since fellow Republican William McKinley not to have a dog. Joe Biden has a German shepherd, Commander. The Bidens recently added a cat, Willow, to the family. She joins about a dozen other first felines.
Some presidents dare to be different when it comes to companion animals. Andrew Jackson had a parrot named Pol that he taught to swear. Martin Van Buren briefly had two tiger cubs. Benjamin Harrison had opossums named Mr. Reciprocity and Mr. Protection. William McKinley had a parrot named Washington Post. Theodore Roosevelt had his own menagerie, including a garter snake named Emily Spinach, a rat named Jonathan, a macaw named Eli Yale, and a badger named Josiah. Calvin Coolidge apparently wanted to start his own zoo. His pets included a donkey, a black bear, a pygmy hippo, a wallaby, lion cubs, an antelope, raccoons, and a bobcat.
Everyone knows that John F. Kennedy was the first Roman Catholic president and that Barack Obama was the first African American president. But neither was the tallest president. Abraham Lincoln holds that distinction at 6’ 4”, with Lyndon B. Johnson just a half inch behind. If you want to win a bet, ask a Republican friend: Who was taller, Ronald Reagan or George H.W. Bush? No, it wasn’t the Gipper.
A fair share of presidents would have strained their necks looking up at Abraham Lincoln. James Madison, the father of the Constitution, is the shortest president. He was 5’ 4”. Martin Van Buren and Benjamin Harrison stand just behind him (above him?) at 5’ 6”. James K. Polk was called “the Napoleon of the stump” and “a short man with a long program.”
The distinction for being the heaviest president goes to William Howard Taft. He weighed between 300 and 350 pounds. He was so heavy that the White House had to install a special bathtub to accommodate his girth. Taft was also the last president to sport facial hair, in his case a handlebar mustache. Being a former president seems to have done wonders for Taft; he lost 80 pounds the year after he left the White House. The weight loss undoubtedly prolonged Taft’s life. It also allowed him to enjoy his favorite job—Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He remains the only person ever to have been both president and chief justice. That means he both took the oath of office as president and administered it to a president, in his case to both Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover.
Readers who have read this essay closely know that I have mentioned every president but one: Gerald Ford. He holds a unique distinction among the forty-five presidents: He was not elected either president or vice president. He is also the only president to have graduated from a Big Ten university. In his case, he attended the University of Michigan, where he played on two national championship football teams and was named the Most Valuable Player his senior year. That alone makes him TWE’s official favorite president. Hail to the Victors!
A bibliographic note. Many of the stories in this post come from Paul F. Boller Jr.’s wonderful book, Presidential Anecdotes. It is a great read. His other equally engaging books include: Presidential Campaigns: From George Washington to George W. Bush and Congressional Anecdotes. I highly recommend all three books.
Margaret Gach assisted in the preparation of this post.