Being president of the United States is a hard job. So permit me to tip my cap in honor of the forty-three men—and they have all been men—who have been president.
A few presidents have loved the job. Teddy Roosevelt said “No president has ever enjoyed himself as much as I have enjoyed myself.”
Most other presidents, though, have found the job demanding, perhaps too demanding. James K. Polk pretty much worked himself to exhaustion. Zachary Taylor, the hero of the Mexican-American War, found being president harder than leading men into battle. Dwight Eisenhower had a heart attack from the stress of leading the Free World.
Many presidents express relief once they can 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 six years after leaving the White House as senator from Tennessee. 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 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 to hold two non-consecutive terms.
Many modern presidents blame the media for making their lives miserable. But the complaint is as old as the Republic. Thomas Jefferson suggested that newspaper editors should 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. James Garfield didn’t finish his speech until 2:30 am on Inauguration Day. Bill Clinton did him two hours better, fiddling with his speech until 4:30 am.
Some presidents rise to the occasion on Inaugural Day with soaring rhetoric that rings through the ages. Franklin Delano 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 in debating slavery that it was ignoring other, more important issues. That address tells us a lot about why Buchanan tops every list of the worst presidents in American history.
Ulysses S. Grant, a far better general than a 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 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. 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 two hours to deliver an 8,000-word speech. It was a bitterly cold day, but the 68-year-old Harrison spoke without a coat or hat. He caught a cold, which turned into pneumonia, and he died a month later. That made him the first president to die in office. (It also made John Tyler the first vice president to finish out a president’s term.)
Harrison holds two other distinctions. First, he was the last American president born as an English subject. Second, 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 afterwards until Woodrow Wilson also spoke without the benefit of amplification. Which prompts the question: Did the people who spent two hours listening to William Henry Harrison drone on in the bitter cold actually hear him?
Warren 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.
Any president today who took the oath of office without laying his hand on a Bible would become an instantaneous political pariah. But apparently that was not always the case. Franklin Pierce declined to use a Bible during his swearing in. Barack Obama used Lincoln’s Bible.
Changes in technology have been matched by changes in fashion. Today we take it for granted 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 we can consider him a fashionista of a sort.
Tradition today calls for a bunch of gala balls on the evening of Inauguration Day. Presidents go from Washington hotel to Washington hotel, dancing briefly and inspiring their supporters. In the good old days, however, festivities were more intimate and boisterous. Andrew Jackson 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 presidential servants carried tubs of ice cream and liquor onto the lawn to lure people out of the mansion.
Landing on Mount Rushmore
All presidents on Inauguration Day imagine that their presidency will be a great one. In the mind of the American public, Ronald Reagan tops the current list of best presidents, followed by Abraham Lincoln, Bill Clinton, John Kennedy, and George Washington. Professional historians and political scientists scoff at the public’s ranking because it is so obviously biased in favor of recent presidents. The professionals instead typically name George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and FDR as the three best presidents.
Alas, far too many presidents fail to impress either the public or the professionals. The saddest case may be Millard Fillmore. He couldn’t impress even 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 that he 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 member of Congress, “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 must 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 federal budget deficit balloon during his presidency, and left America with a larger government than the one he inherited from Jimmy Carter. But what people remember matters more than what he did.
Presidents must 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 visiting French and British ambassadors.
All presidents must 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 President George W. Bush discovered. He set the record for both the highest public approval ratings and the lowest.
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 Truman’s maxim. At least half them had dogs. Their dogs’ names included Sweetlips (Washington), Satan (John Adams), Fido (Lincoln), Grim (Hayes), Veto (Garfield), Stubby (Wilson), Oh Boy (Harding), Fala (FDR), and J. Edgar (LBJ).
Some presidents dared to be different when it came to companion animals. Andrew Jackson had a parrot named Pol that he taught to swear as well as fighting cocks. Martin van Buren briefly had two tiger cubs. Benjamin Harrison had opossums named Mr. Reciprocity and Mr. Protection. 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 (and so far only) Roman Catholic president and that Barack Obama is the first African American president. But neither is our tallest president. Abraham Lincoln holds that distinction at 6’ 4”, with Lyndon Baines 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 our presidents would have strained their necks looking up at Lincoln. James Madison, the father of the Constitution, is our 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.”
Obama is among our thinnest presidents. The distinction for the heaviest president goes to William Howard Taft, who 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 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 a Supreme Court justice.
Readers who have paid close attention know that I have mentioned every president but one: Gerald Ford. That’s because he, unlike the other forty-two men to be presidents, was elected neither president nor vice president. He was, however, the only president wise enough to attend the University of Michigan, which 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. Among his other equally engaging books are: Presidential Campaigns: From George Washington to George W. Bush and Congressional Anecdotes. I highly recommend all three books.