Dead Presidents

Historical facts, thoughts, ramblings and collections on the Presidency and about the Presidents of the United States.

By Anthony Bergen


The history of America’s First Couples is full of remarkable relationships ranging from touching love stories (Ronnie and Nancy) to political partnerships (Franklin and Eleanor) to troubles (Abraham and Mary Todd) and tragedies (Franklin and Jane Pierce).  

In many cases, first names are all that are needed in order to identify the First Couple and remind us of the unique strengths of their bond.  The devotion and commitment of George and Martha leading the way for their successors.  The intellectual power and forward-thinking of John and Abigail, preserved forever through their loving and thoughtful correspondence.  The simplicity and honesty of Harry and Bess.  The strength and positivity of Dwight and Mamie.  The elegance and beauty of Jack and Jackie.  The passion and pure energy of Lyndon and Lady Bird.  Bill and Hillary’s political powerhouse.  Barack and Michelle blazing trails and breaking through glass ceilings.

Then there are lesser-known First Couples no less devoted to one another and filled with just as much love as any others.  James K. Polk was a workaholic with no hobbies, no friends, and no interests besides his closest adviser, constant companion, best friend, and true love, Sarah.  The pious “Lemonade” Lucy Hayes kept White House events empty of liquor, but her husband Rutherford full of affection.  She died before Rutherford did and he lived his life from that moment forward thinking only of the day he would see Lucy again.  In a time when such things were usually hidden, William McKinley nonchalantly and sweetly calmed his epileptic wife Ida when she had a seizure in public.  Not having her at his side wasn’t an option.  When he was shot by an assassin, he instantly worried not of his health, but of how Ida would take the news.  From the moment that they first met, Calvin and Grace Coolidge discovered the true secret of love: sharing laughter together.    

Incredibly, the two longest marriages in Presidential history are still going strong today.  George and Barbara Bush have been married for 68 years while Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter recently enjoyed their 67th wedding anniversary.  

At just 18 years old, George Herbert Walker Bush was the youngest pilot in the Navy when he earned his wings early in World War II.  It was on a short leave that he met Barbara Pierce and fell madly in love with her, naming his bomber plane “Barbara”, and filling almost every letter home to his parents with his plans to marry Barbara when he returned.  The feeling was mutual.  George was the first boy that Barbara had ever kissed and they were secretly engaged while he was fighting overseas in the Pacific.  When George was shot down over the Pacific Ocean and nearly killed, George and Barbara decided to marry as soon as possible.  George was 20 years old and Barbara was 19 when they were married at the First Presbyterian Church in Rye, New York on January 6, 1945.  Their first child, George Walker Bush, who would also later become President of the United States, was born on July 6, 1946.

On July 7, 1946, one day after George and Barbara Bush welcomed a future President as their first child, 21-year-old Navy Ensign Jimmy Carter married 18-year-old Rosalynn Smith at the Methodist Church in their hometown of Plains, Georgia.  Jimmy and Rosalynn had lived in the same small town all of their lives and Rosalynn was best friends with Jimmy’s younger sister, Ruth.  Jimmy had big plans and wanted to get away from Plains, earning a spot at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.  On leave from Annapolis in 1945, Jimmy asked Ruth to set up a date between him and Rosalynn.  One date later they were making plans to marry and did so after Jimmy’s graduation from the Naval Academy.  Rosalynn was also excited to leave Plains and explore the world and was heartbroken when Jimmy insisted that they move back home to take over Jimmy’s family’s peanut farm following his father’s death in 1953.  Eventually, the Carters did leave Plains and when Jimmy was President, Rosalynn became one of the most politically active First Ladies in history, attending staff meetings and advising the President when he requested her opinion.  Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter came full circle, however, and 67 years after their wedding, they still call little Plains, Georgia home when they aren’t traveling the world to eradicate diseases in Africa or build homes for the needy.

Incidentally, the third-longest marriage in Presidential history is that of the other couple pictured in the photograph above — Gerald and Betty Ford.  The Fords were married 58 years and 72 days at the time of President Ford’s death in December 2006. Betty Ford was one of the most influential and inspirational First Ladies in American history.  Her candid and honest public discussions about her battles with alcoholism, drug addiction, and breast cancer undoubtedly saved lives and removed a stigma which prevented thousands of people from seeking the help they desperately needed.  Betty was so popular that when her husband was running for President in 1976, buttons were seen across the country which read, “Re-elect Betty First Lady!”.  The Fords lived active lifestyles well into their late-80s and both Jerry and Betty, who passed away in 2011, died at the age of 93.

The three couples in the photo above (Lady Bird Johnson is also in the photo, but her husband died in 1973) combined for 193 years of marriage — and the Bushes and Carters are still counting! 

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    MY TOP FAVES, IN ORDER: ER, HRC, Abigail, Betty, Michelle, Rosalynn, Lady Bird, Edith Wilson, Seancin’ Mary Todd, and...
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