On the morning of August 10, 1974, the 38th President of the United States, Gerald R. Ford, woke up and prepared for his first full day as the most powerful person in the world. Thanks to two major scandals reaching into the highest levels of the Executive branch of government, the 60-year-old Ford, who had spent nearly a quarter-century in the U.S. House of Representatives rocketed into power. In a span of just over 250 days, Ford went from House Minority Leader to Vice President of the United States and, as of the previous day, President. For the first time in history, the occupant of the White House had never been on a ballot in a national election.
Actually, Ford didn’t quite occupy the White House yet. In December 1973, when Ford was nominated to replace Vice President Spiro Agnew who resigned in disgrace after an investigation into charges of bribery, extortion, and tax evasion, a mansion at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. was being remodeled to serve as the official residence of the Vice President. The work was not yet finished when Congress confirmed Ford as the 40th Vice President. Fortunately, Ford’s long Congressional career had led him and his wife, Betty, to purchase a modest home in Alexandria, Virginia. With the Naval Observatory still being fixed up, the Fords remained in Alexandria. Security was beefed up in the neighborhood by the Secret Service and gaggles of reporters seemed to always be close by, but Ford saw no reason to change his familiar habits — the new Vice President was frequently photographed stepping outside in his bathrobe each morning to retrieve his newspaper.
During Ford’s brief Vice Presidency, the Watergate scandal raged out of control and engulfed President Richard Nixon. As the summer of 1974 approached, it was clear that President Nixon’s days were numbered, but no one knew for sure if he would stand and fight until impeached and removed from office, or if he would recognize the futility of such a battle and resign. When Nixon finally made the decision to resign and hand the Presidency over to Ford, it happened suddenly. It was the White House Chief of Staff, Alexander Haig, who called Ford at home in Alexandria and told him that he should be prepared to assume the Presidency at a moment’s notice. After speaking to Haig, Ford turned to his wife and told her, “Betty, I don’t think we’re ever going to live at the Vice President’s house.”
On August 8, 1974, Nixon officially announced that he was resigning and that Ford would become President at noon the following day. Before Ford took the oath of office in the East Room of the White House, he and Betty accompanied President and Mrs. Nixon to a helicopter which transported the Nixons into exile in Southern California. But the resignation and departure had happened so quickly there was not enough time for movers to clear the Nixon family’s possessions from the White House Residence. So, after one of the most dramatic and historically significant days in the life of the United States, the new President and First Lady headed back to their familiar home in Alexandria. For a short time, President Ford, like millions of other Americans, commuted each morning from the suburbs to his office. Ford’s office just happened to be the Oval Office.
After a few weeks, the Fords finally made the move to the White House. In preparation for the move, the President and First Lady helped with the packing at their Alexandria home. Going through one box, President Ford found some old clothing of his and nonchalantly suggested to Betty, “Well, I guess we should send these to the Goodwill.”
Betty looked in the box, shook her head with a smile on her face, and told her husband, “Jerry, I think some of this stuff may be a little important now. We’d better keep them.”
The President of the United States had almost donated the Navy uniforms that he wore while serving on the USS Monterey in the South Pacific during World War II.
Those uniforms eventually found a good home. Instead of ending up on a discount rack at a Goodwill store, those uniforms are now on display at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Bill Clinton is famously, and sometimes mockingly, remembered for biting his lip before he prepared to say something. At times, it seemed corny or even smarmy, and on Saturday Night Live, it became a staple of the great Phil Hartman’s impression of Clinton during the Clinton Administration. The mannerism was usually followed with a comment like, “I feel your pain.”
However, in Michael Takiff’s awesome oral history of Bill Clinton, A Complicated Man, it is revealed that there was much more to Clinton’s lip biting than a goofy quirk. In fact, it was a calculated action — a speed bump for the lightning quick thoughts of one of the most intellectually powerful and supremely gifted politicians in American history. Clinton’s longtime aide and one of the driving forces of his 1992 Presidential campaign, Paul Begala, says that Clinton was trained to do the lip biting because Clinton answered questions so quickly that it almost seemed unnatural.
According to Begala:
“He was so smart about so many things but also could connect. The whole thing about his biting his lip — that was coached. Because he would answer so fast. We’d say, ‘Take a beat. Pretend you’re thinking about it. Pretend you haven’t already got an answer.’ It was a studied thing to give himself a second to force himself to slow down.”
According to their official story, the Curtiss Candy Company named the “Baby Ruth” candy bar after Grover Cleveland’s oldest daughter, Ruth Cleveland — not after the famous baseball player Babe Ruth.
While it’s hard to dispute a company’s “official” explanation, it’s also difficult to believe them. When the “Kandy Kake” bar, as it was originally called, was renamed “Baby Ruth” in 1922, Babe Ruth was the most famous baseball player in the United States. As for Ruth Cleveland — popularly nicknamed “Baby Ruth” by the press during her father’s Presidency which had ended a quarter of a century earlier — well, she had been dead since 1904. President Cleveland himself had been dead for 14 years when the “Baby Ruth” was released.
What’s the real story? Did the Curtiss Candy Company pay tribute to a former President’s daughter who just happened to die almost twenty years before the candy bar came out? Probably not. It’s likely this simple: Curtiss named their candy bar after the most famous athlete in America and didn’t want to pay the Bambino any royalties, so they brilliantly claimed the candy bar was an homage to Cleveland’s daughter.
During her short lifetime, Ruth Cleveland was a nationwide sensation. Born in 1891, during the interregnum between Cleveland’s non-consecutive Presidential terms, Ruth became a press darling when Cleveland returned to the White House in 1893. That year, Ruth’s sister Esther became the only child of a President to be born in the White House itself. Sadly, Ruth was a sickly child. Her father doted on her, but she died of diptheria at the age of 12 in 1904. Some say that Grover Cleveland never recovered from the heartbreaking loss of his “Baby Ruth” and his health rapidly failed, dying four years later.
As for Babe Ruth, he is still a legend and he had other interactions with Presidents. When he met Ruth, Calvin Coolidge greeted the slugger, “Hello, Mr. Ruth.” The Babe, sweating on a hot day, looked at the President, wiped the perspiration from his forehead and said, “Hot as hell, ain’t it, Prez?”. During the Presidency of Coolidge’s successor, a reporter mentioned to the Babe that some people thought it was unfair that Ruth pulled in a larger salary than the President of the United States, Herbert Hoover. Babe agreed, “I know,” before adding, “but I had a better year than Hoover.”
Lincoln and Kennedy are more iconic figures because Lincoln led the country through the Civil War and was murdered just days after Lee surrendered to Grant and Kennedy and his young family truly felt like a page in American history had been turned and the country was moving forward with the first President born in the 20th Century. There was also a bigger shock with the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations. Lincoln was the first President to be assassinated, many people saw him as almost the symbolic final casualty of the Civil War, and his funeral was a national event with stops in over a dozen American cities over twenty days. JFK was shot to death in front of many people (including his wife), in the middle of the day, in a major American city, and the man charged with his assassination was himself murdered just two days later live on national television.
Garfield and McKinley weren’t quite as charismatic as Lincoln or Kennedy, and they hadn’t made as much of an impact on daily American life as Lincoln and Kennedy. Garfield had only been President for a couple of months and McKinley was a low-key figure — an able, popular President, but not as beloved by as many people as Lincoln or Kennedy. But it is important to note that, at the time of their assassinations, Garfield and McKinley were widely mourned by the American people, much like Lincoln and Kennedy were. Their deaths just didn’t have as lasting of an impact.
Another possible reason for the differences in the assassinations might be the immediate impact. The Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations were sudden and their deaths were immediately shocking. Lincoln was shot late in the evening of April 14, 1865, there was no hope of recovery, and he died early the next morning. Kennedy was basically killed instantly. He was still breathing when he reached the hospital, but there wasn’t a single person who expected him to survive the massive head wound that he suffered.
With Garfield and McKinley, neither President died instantly. In fact, at some point following their respective shootings it was believed that Garfield and McKinley both might survive their wounds. Garfield was shot on July 2, 1881 and survived until September 19th. In reality, President Garfield didn’t die directly from his gunshot wounds — he died from infections introduced into his body by doctors who probed his wounds with their dirty fingers and unsterilized instruments. McKinley didn’t survive his shooting nearly as long as Garfield did, but he lingered for 8 days after being shot on September 6, 1901, dying on September 14th. Garfield and McKinley rallied enough while fighting for their lives that it raised hopes that they might survive. Indeed, they would have survived with better medical care. When Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981, his wounds were far more serious than those which killed Garfield and McKinley.
So, while the nation was still stunned and devastated by the deaths of Garfield and McKinley, they didn’t have the same immediate impact as the deaths of Lincoln and Kennedy. With Garfield and McKinley, the American people had a little bit of time to prepare for the worst. That didn’t necessarily make it easier to accept, but I think it possibly softened the blow.
Another possibility is that the assassins of Garfield and McKinley were both captured, brought to trial, convicted, and executed. John Wilkes Booth very nearly made his way to the Deep South and possible escape after shooting Lincoln but he was cornered and killed rather than being arrested and tried. And, of course, Lee Harvey Oswald was murdered while in police custody which helped perpetuate conspiracy theories about the JFK assassination that a majority of Americans believe are true.
Plus, as I wrote in my ranking of Wilson in 2012:
"I think it’s important for people to realize the type of leader he was — stubborn, paranoid, uncompromising, and, in the last 18 months of his Presidency, a crippled, gravely-ill, mentally-handicapped man who clinged to the Presidency with the help of his wife, a few doctors, and several aides. Is that a good President? I don’t think so."
In an answer to another reader’s question a while back, I expanded on my thoughts about Wilson (and included some previous things that I have written about him — opinions that I still strongly support):
"Woodrow Wilson was a lot of things, but he certainly wasn’t a good man. I disagree with your teacher regarding the First World War not concerning the United States. We played an important role in the war and it really expanded and solidified the U.S.’s position as a superpower. One of the problems with Wilson (and it’s just one of MANY problems with Wilson) is that he probably waited too long to get the U.S. involved in the war. Wilson probably should have gotten the American military ready much sooner.
I definitely agree with your teacher that Wilson’s intentions were not exactly pure. To get deeper into the subject, I’ll just copy and paste some past comments I’ve made about Wilson and his “idealism”, which was largely an effort to remake the world in the manner that he genuinely thought God put him on Earth and in the Presidency to see fit. I’ve written before that Wilson’s idealism is similar to George W. Bush’s:
I can’t speak for you, but there are many reasons I dislike Wilson. First of all, he was a virulent racist and vicious about it. Some Presidents had antiquated racial views, but Wilson just flat-out didn’t like people who weren’t white Christians. So, as a person, Wilson was garbage.
Then, politically, his “idealism” was no different than George W. Bush’s idealism. In fact, I’ve said it many times before: I think that Wilson and Bush were VERY similar Presidents. Here are two past things that I’ve written about my dislike for Wilson:
Woodrow Wilson governed in the same manner as George W. Bush. Wilson’s beliefs were so intractable that not only was he convinced that he was always correct, but he was determined to prove that anyone who didn’t agree with him was worse than wrong. Wilson felt that all of his opponents were enemies who stood on the wrong side of history, providence, and national survival. Throughout his life and career, Woodrow Wilson believed that God ordained his success, placed him in a position of power, and intended for Wilson to zealously and tirelessly pursue his policies, ignore his supporters and colleagues, and stubbornly force his views on everyone else.
and, this, from when I was asked if Wilson would have approved of the Iraq War:
Woodrow Wilson is partly responsible for the Iraq War.
George W. Bush’s belief that it is America’s role to spread democracy and fight tyranny around the world is rooted in Wilsonian thinking. Bush was emulating Wilson. He felt that Iraq was a place where democracy could take hold if Saddam Hussein were out of the picture. Bush would argue that the Iraq War was not imperialistic, and I believe Woodrow Wilson would support that viewpoint.
Wilsonian idealism consisted of many things, but one of the main points was this belief that what is good for us in the United States is just as good for the rest of the world. Wilson felt that we basically knew what was best for everyone else and if you’re looking for someone who mirrored that thinking, you’d find him in President Bush.
Bush and Wilson came from different places and different parties and their wars were waged for different reasons. Our entry into World War I was for a very good reason while the Iraq War was despicable. The goal of both Wilson and Bush, however, was to export American-style democracy — either to ensure peace or to create a system where American leadership and military might was required to sustain a growing capitalist society.
I could get a lot of heat for comparing Wilson and Bush, but people need to dig deeper and really understand that they thought the same way, they acted the same way, and they were both stubborn Presidents who wanted things done a certain way (THEIR way) or else they were fine with seeing everything crumble.
Wilson wouldn’t frown because the Iraq War was imperialistic. He would have frowned because he didn’t think of it before Bush did.”
Two years before the hopelessly crazy Richard Lawrence infamously attempted to shoot President Andrew Jackson and miraculously misfired with two different pistols before Jackson attacked him with his cane, Jackson was assaulted in an incident that has fallen through the cracks of history.
On May 6, 1833, Jackson and some of his Cabinet took a steamboat trip down the Potomac River to lay the cornerstone for a monument being erected to honor George Washington’s mother. Jackson was 66 years old, in poor health, and weary from the 1832 re-election campaign and his troubles with a hostile Congress led by his former Vice President John C. Calhoun. Still, Jackson was, as always, feisty.
In Alexandria, Virginia, the steamboat was tied up at shore and Jackson read a newspaper as he sat at a table in a cabin. Suddenly, the President was interrupted by a former Navy lieutenant, Robert Randolph, whose firing Jackson had ordered when Randolph was accused of theft. Randolph said nothing. Instead, he quickly approached Jackson and punched the President directly in the face.
Jackson was trapped in his chair behind the table as Randolph was quickly held back by some of Jackson’s associates and some of Randolph’s own friends who had boarded the steamboat with Randolph. Jackson angrily yelled, “What, Sir! What, Sir!”, as he scrambled to get out of his seat and lunged for his cane.
Randolph was quickly thrown off the boat and arrested. Jackson was not seriously hurt but he was furious and embarrassed, storming around the cabin and swearing about the attack. Later, Old Hickory would say, “Had I been apprised that Randolph stood before me, I should have been prepared for him, and I could have defended myself. No villain has ever escaped me before; and he would not, had it not been for my confined situation.”
By the time Randolph went to trial for attacking Jackson, Old Hickory had retired to Tennessee. In a letter to the new President Martin Van Buren, Jackson said, “I have to this old age complied with my mother’s advice to ‘indict no man for assault and battery or sue him for slander’, and to fine or imprison Randolph would be no gratification.” Jackson asked President Van Buren to pardon Randolph if his assailant was found guilty for the attack. Randolph’s attack on Jackson was the first attempted assault of any sitting President.
The attack on Jackson was startling, but people around him said that it “put his blood in motion” and excited the old warrior. Later, when Lawrence made the mistake of attempting to assassinate Jackson he found that Old Hickory was still tough and pugnacious, particularly when he was free to defend himself and had his trusty cane nearby to do so.
As the nation’s most visible and powerful leader, the President of the United States receives approximately 60,000-80,000 letters per week. This is in addition to the 100,000 e-mails and thousands of phone calls received each day. Every piece of correspondence sent to the President is processed and the White House Correspondence Office does its best to respond appropriately to all communication. The Secret Service is often involved in the process as Presidents are frequently threatened and threats must be investigated in order to monitor credible dangers to the President or his family. George W. Bush received approximately 4,000 threats against his life annually; President Obama receives about four times as many threats.
Because of the sheer amount of mail sent to the White House, it is difficult for the President to get personal mail. A letter sent to the White House by a personal friend or family member of the President would go through all necessary screenings before possibly being passed on to staff who, at best, might pass the letter on to a Presidential secretary. It is unlikely that the President would ever see a letter sent through those channels.
However, President’s do have personal friends, they do have family members who want to send Christmas cards, they have bill collectors, and they have a need for mail from outside of the bubble of the White House. As I previously wrote about in “The Blue Goose (and other Presidential Perks)”, the U.S. Postal Service establishes a secret personal ZIP code for the use of the President. The President’s personal ZIP code is given to people who he would like to receive mail from during his time in the White House — sort of a VIP list for letters. The President’s ZIP code is unique from any other location and given to people of the President’s choosing. If the secret ZIP code is somehow leaked, the Postal Services issues a new one. Each President has a new personal ZIP code created for him upon taking office.
Like every piece of mail or package that enters the White House, the letters to the President’s ZIP code are first examined for nuclear, biological or chemical contamination at a military facility near Washington, D.C. Once they are screened, however, they are delivered directly to the President’s desk — a great feeling of (relatively) unfettered access for the mail sender and a breath of fresh air to Presidents wanting news or information unfiltered by the White House bubble.
April 24, 1865, Union Square, New York City, New York.
As a funeral cortege carries the body of slain President Abraham Lincoln through the streets of New York City, the small heads of two young boys are visible as they watch the procession from the second-story window of their grandfather’s home.
Forty years later, one of those boys would think back to that day as he wore a ring which contained a lock of Lincoln’s hair, placed his hand in the air and said, “I, Theodore Roosevelt, do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
The other little boy was Theodore’s younger brother, Elliott, the father of future First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt.
And you wonder why I find this stuff so fascinating.
The first meeting in what would become a lengthy, lucrative, and often complicated relationship between the United States of America and Saudi Arabia took place on February 14, 1945, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with King Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud aboard the USS Quincy in the waters of Egypt’s Great Bitter Lake during a transit of the Suez Canal.
Roosevelt was returning home to the United States following the Yalta Conference in the Crimea where FDR had met with fellow Allied leaders Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin to discuss plans for peace as World War II was finally drawing to a close. The conference and the lengthy travel required to get to the summit and arrive back home safely had taken its toll on the already-exhausted Roosevelt, who had been sworn in for his unprecedented fourth term as President less than a month earlier. Although FDR was tired and ailing — in fact, the President was dying; the 63-year-old had less than two months to live — he and King Ibn Saud instantly liked each other and enjoyed their discussions, which were translated by a remarkably fascinating man named Bill Eddy. Eddy, fluent in Arabic, was a Marine Colonel who was serving as the U.S. Minister to Saudi Arabia and would later help build and shape the CIA. Ibn Saud, who had never left Saudi Arabia in his life, was close to Colonel Eddy and personally requested that Eddy serve as the interpreter during the summit with the President.
The meeting between Roosevelt and Ibn Saud was very successful and it helped set a tone which would be continued by their successors for decades to come in which personal relationships between the Presidents of the United States and the Kings of Saudi Arabia (all of whom, including current King Abdullah, have been sons of Ibn Saud, who fathered at least 68 children) would help solidify diplomatic ties between their two very different countries. Perhaps more critically to the interests of the United States, the meeting helped to forge an advantageous economic partnership with the oil-rich desert kingdom.
As President Roosevelt and the King prepared to part ways, they exchanged gifts. The King gave the President a solid gold dagger along with four luxurious, traditional Arab robes. Roosevelt gave the King a gold medal and informed Ibn Saud that the biggest part of his gift would be awaiting him upon his return to Saudi Arabia. FDR had arranged for Ibn Saud to receive a customized Douglas DC-3 airplane which was stocked with American crew members and featured a throne on board that was capable of swiveling in any direction in order to permit the King to face Mecca during prayers, as all Muslims are required to do. When Saudi Arabian Airlines was formed in September 1946, the aircraft that the King had been given by the President became its flagship plane.
This is the very best thing ever written about the Presidents or Presidency. It says everything that I would want to say about why I write about and study the subject and subjects. From John Steinbeck’s American and Americans:
"In reviewing our blessings we must pay heed to our leadership. It is said of us that we demand second-rate candidates and first-rate Presidents. Not all our Presidents have been great, but when the need has been great we have found men of greatness. We have not always appreciate them; usually we have denounced and belabored them living, and only honored them dead. Strangely, it is our mediocre Presidents we honor during their lives.
The relationship of Americans to their President is a matter of amazement to foreigners. Of course we respect the office and admire the man who can fill it, but at the same time we inherently fear and suspect power. We are proud of the President, and we blame him for things he did not do. We are related to the President in a close and almost family sense; we inspect his every move and mood with suspicion. We insist that the President be cautious in speech, guarded in action, immaculate in his public and private life; and in spite of these imposed pressures we are avidly curious about the man hidden behind the formal public image we have created. We have made a tough but unwritten code of conduct for him, and the slightest deviation brings forth a torrent of accusation and abuse.
The President must be greater than anyone else, but not better than anyone else. We subject him and his family to close and constant scrutiny and denounce them for things that we ourselves do every day. A Presidential slip of the tongue, a slight error in judgment — social, political, or ethical — can raise a storm of protest. We give the President more work than a man can do, more responsibility than a man should take, more pressure than a man can bear. We abuse him and rarely praise him. We wear him out, use him up, eat him up. And with all this, Americans have a love for the President that goes beyond loyalty or party nationality; he is ours, and we exercise the right to destroy him.
To all the other rewards of this greatest office in the gift of the people, we add that of assassination. Attempts have been made on the lives of many of our Presidents; four have been murdered. It would be comparatively easy to protect the lives of our Presidents against attacks by foreigners; it is next to impossible to shield them from the Americans. And then the sadness — the terrible sense of family loss. It is said that when Lincoln died African drums carried the news to the center of the Dark Continent that a savior had been murdered. In our lifetime two events on being mentioned will bring out the vivid memory of what everyone present was doing when he or she heard the news; those two events are Pearl Harbor and the death of John F. Kennedy. I do not know anyone who does not feel a little guilty that out of our soil the warped thing grew that could kill him.
It is said that the Presidency of the United States is the most powerful office in the world. What is not said or even generally understood is that the power of the chief executive is hard to achieve, balky to manage, and incredibly difficult to exercise. It is not raw, corrosive power, nor can it be used willfully. Many new Presidents, attempting to exert executive power, have felt it slip from their fingers and have faced a rebellious Congress and an adamant civil service, a respectfully half-obedient military, a suspicious Supreme Court, a derisive press, and a sullen electorate. It is apparent that the President must have exact and sensitive knowledge not only of his own office but of all the other branches of government if his program is to progress at all. The power of the President is great if he can use it; but it is a moral power, a power activated by persuasion and discussion, by the manipulation of the alignments of many small but aggressive groups, each one weak in itself but protected in combination against usurpation of its rights by the executive; and even if the national government should swing into line behind Presidential exercise of power, there remain the rights, prejudices, and customs of states, counties, and townships, management of private production, labor unions, churches, professional organizations of doctors, lawyers, the guilds and leagues and organizations. All these can give a President trouble; and if, reacting even to the suspicion of overuse or misuse of power, they stand together, a President finds himself hamstrung, straitjacketed, and helpless.”