When the first Space Shuttle orbiter was completed in 1976, NASA planned to unveil it to Americans on Constitution Day, September 17th, and because it was the year the nation was celebrating its bicentennial, intended to name the Space Shuttle Constitution.
Before the Space Shuttle was revealed, however, letters began pouring into the White House. They were from science fiction lovers and fans of the hit TV show, Star Trek, which had aired from 1966-1969, but still had a following that only continued to grow in the years afterward. The letters that the White House received begged President Gerald R. Ford and NASA to name the Space Shuttle after Captain Kirk’s Starship Enterprise.
There had been no poll or vote that included alternate names for the new Space Shuttle, but on September 2, 1976, President Ford called NASA Administrator James Fletcher and told him, “I’m a little partial to the name Enterprise.” Ford never mentioned the Star Trek connection, and he pointed out to Fletcher that during World War II he served on a ship in the Pacific Ocean that worked in connection with the aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise. Whatever the reason was, Star Trek nerds rejoiced and NASA’s first Space Shuttle orbiter was christened Enterprise when it was unveiled on September 17, 1976 in Palmdale, California. Among the spectators in the crowd that day were Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and members of the television show’s original cast.
The Space Shuttle Enterprise never actually flew in space, however. It was used in test flights in which the orbiter was released from a carrier plane and guided down by astronauts to simulate landing after reentry following an orbital mission. After originally residing at the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington, D.C., Enterprise is now on display at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City. The Space Shuttle Discovery took the place of Enterprise at the Smithsonian in 2012 following the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle fleet.
Two American Presidents woke up in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963. Neither of them were the two men who actually served as President on that tragic day — John F. Kennedy or Lyndon B. Johnson.
The 37th President of the United States, 50-year-old Richard Nixon, had arrived in Dallas on November 20th for a conference of the American Bottlers of Carbonated Beverages on behalf of Pepsi-Cola, a company that his New York law firm was representing. On November 21st, Nixon sat down with reporters in his room at the Baker Hotel, where he criticized many of the policies of President Kennedy, his 1960 opponent, who would be arriving in Dallas the next day. That night, Nixon and Pepsi executives including actress Joan Crawford, who had been married to Pepsi’s chairman, Alfred Steele, until his death in 1959, were entertained at the Statler Hilton.
In the early morning of November 22nd, a car dropped Nixon off, alone, at Love Field, the Dallas airport that would host President and Mrs. Kennedy, Vice President Johnson and Mrs. Johnson, and Texas Governor John Connally and his wife in just a few hours. Nixon later remembered the flags and signs displayed along the motorcade route that Kennedy would soon follow. Nixon approached the American Airlines ticket counter to check-in for his flight to New York City and told the attendant, “It looks like you’re going to have a big day today.”
Nixon landed several hours later in New York at an airport that would be renamed after John F. Kennedy a month later. He described what happened next in his 1978 autobiography, RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon:
Arriving in New York, I hailed a cab home. We drove through Queens toward the 59th Street Bridge, and as we stopped at a traffic light, a man rushed over from the curb and started talking to the driver. I heard him say, “Do you have a radio in your cab? I just heard that Kennedy was shot.” We had no radio, and as we continued into Manhattan a hundred thoughts rushed through my mind. The man could have been crazy or a macabre prankster. He could have been mistaken about what he had heard; or perhaps a gunman might have shot at Kennedy but missed or only wounded him. I refused to believe that he could have been killed.
As the cab drew up in front of my building, the doorman ran out. Tears were streaming down his cheeks. “Oh, Mr. Nixon, have you heard, sir?” he asked. “It’s just terrible. They’ve killed President Kennedy.”
The close 1960 Presidential election changed the relationship between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, but they had once been very close. When they first entered Congress together in 1947, they considered each other personal friends, and when Nixon ran for the Senate from California in 1950, JFK stopped into Nixon’s office and dropped off a financial contribution to Nixon’s campaign from Kennedy’s father. Nixon would later write that he felt as bad on the night of Kennedy’s assassination as he had when he lost two brothers to tuberculosis when he was very young. That night, he wrote an emotional letter to Jacqueline Kennedy:
In this tragic hour Pat and I want you to know that our thoughts and prayers are with you.
While the hand of fate made Jack and me political opponents I always cherished the fact that we were personal friends from the time we came to the Congress together in 1947. That friendship evidenced itself in many ways including the invitation we received to attend your wedding.
Nothing I could say now could add to the splendid tributes which have come from throughout the world to him.
But I want you to know that the nation will also be forever grateful for your service as First Lady. You brought to the White House charm, beauty and elegance as the official hostess of America, and the mystique of the young in heart which was uniquely yours made an indelible impression on the American consciousness.
If in the days ahead we could be helpful in any way we shall be honored to be at your command.
On the morning of November 22, 1963, the 41st President of the United States also woke up in Dallas, Texas. George Herbert Walker Bush was the 39-year-old president of the Zapata Off-Shore Drilling Company and chairman of the Harris County, Texas Republican Party, and had stayed the night of November 21st at the Dallas Sheraton alongside his wife, Barbara. Bush was planning a bid for the U.S. Senate in 1964 and making the rounds to line up support amongst many Texans who considered him far too moderate. One of the groups that was strongest in opposition to Bush was the ultra-right wing John Birch Society, which had recently been lodging vehement protests against President Kennedy’s upcoming visit to Dallas.
Conspiracy theorists claim that there were far more sinister motives for George Bush being in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Some claim that Bush was a secret CIA operative involved in planning or even carrying out the assassination of President Kennedy. Some even argue that a grainy photograph of a man resembling Bush taken shortly after the assassination proves that Bush was actually in Dealey Plaza at the time of Kennedy’s shooting.
He wasn’t. He wasn’t even in Dallas. We know where George Herbert Walker Bush was at the time of JFK’s assassination — we have plenty of eyewitnesses who can confirm it. While Lee Harvey Oswald was shooting President Kennedy, George Bush was about 100 miles away from Dallas, in Tyler, Texas, speaking at a Kiwanis Club luncheon. Like Nixon, Bush and his wife, Barbara, had also boarded a plane that morning in Dallas — a private plane that transported them to Tyler for the Kiwanis Club event. While Bush was speaking, word of the President’s assassination reached the luncheon and the local club president, Wendell Cherry, leaned over and gave the news to Bush. Bush quickly notified the crowd, and said, “In view of the President’s death, I consider it inappropriate to continue with a political speech at this time.” He ended his speech and sat down while the luncheon broke up in stunned silence.
Bush’s wife, Barbara, wasn’t at the Kiwanis Club luncheon. While her husband was speaking, Barbara Bush went to a beauty parlor in Tyler to get her hair styled. As her hair was being done, Barbara began writing a letter to family and heard the news over the radio that JFK had been shot and then that the President had died. In her 1994 memoir, Barbara included the letter, part of which said:
I am writing this at the Beauty Parlor, and the radio says that the President has been shot. Oh Texas — my Texas — my God — let’s hope it’s not true. I am sick at heart as we all are. Yes, the story is true and the Governor also. How hateful some people are.
Since, the beauty parlor, the President has died. We are once again on a plane. This time a commercial plane. Poppy (George H.W. Bush’s family nickname) picked me up at the beauty parlor — we went right to the airport, flew to Ft. Worth and dropped Mr. Zeppo off (we were on his plane) and flew back to Dallas. We had to circle the field while the second Presidential plane took off. Immediately, Pop got tickets back to Houston, and here we are flying home. We are sick at heart. The tales the radio reporters tell of Jackie Kennedy are the bravest. We are hoping that it is not some far-right nut, but a “commie” nut. You understand that we know they are both nuts, but just hope that it is not a Texan and not an American at all.
I am amazed by the rapid-fire thinking and planning that has already been done. LBJ has been the President for some time now — two hours at least and it is only 4:30.
My dearest love to you all,
As Barbara Bush noted in her letter, the Bushes did not stay another night at the Dallas Sheraton on November 22nd, as they had originally planned. They returned to Dallas on the private jet that had transported them to Tyler earlier in the day, and caught a commercial flight home to Houston. The “second Presidential plane” that took off while Bush’s plane circled Love Field was the plane that had transported Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson to Dallas earlier that day, Air Force Two. Johnson was already heading back to Washington, now on Air Force One, with the casket of John F. Kennedy.
The 37th President of the United States and the 41st President of the United States woke up in Dallas, Texas on the morning of November 22, 1963. The 31st President, 89-year-old Herbert Hoover, was in failing health in the elegant suite he called home at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria. Within the next few weeks, he would be visited by the new President, Lyndon Johnson, and President Kennedy’s grieving widow, Jackie, and the President’s brother, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy. The 33rd President, 79-year-old Harry Truman, learned of JFK’s death in Missouri, while the 34th President, 73-year-old Dwight D. Eisenhower, heard of the assassination while attending a meeting at the United Nations in New York. Truman and Eisenhower would squash a long, bitter personal feud that weekend while attending Kennedy’s funeral in Washington. The 38th President, 50-year-old Michigan Congressman Gerald Ford, was driving home with his wife Betty after attending a parent conference with their son Jack’s teacher when they heard the news on the radio in their car. Two days later, President Johnson would call on Ford to serve on the Warren Commission investigating the assassination.
The 39th President, Jimmy Carter was 39 years old and had just gotten off a tractor near the warehouse of his Plains, Georgia peanut farm when a group of farmers informed him of the news of the shooting. Carter found a quiet area, kneeled down in prayer, and when he heard that Kennedy had died, cried for the first time since his father had died ten years earlier. Ronald Reagan, the 40th President, was 52 years old and preparing for a run as Governor of California. A little more than 17 years later, the now-President Reagan would also be shot by a lone gunman in the middle of the day. While Reagan would survive the attempt on his life, it was very nearly fatal and reminded his wife, Nancy, of November 22, 1963. As she was transported to George Washington Hospital following Reagan’s shooting, Nancy would later note, “As my mind raced, I flashed to scenes of Parkland Memorial Hospital in Texas, and the day President Kennedy was shot. I had been driving down San Vicente Boulevard in Los Angeles when a bulletin came over the car radio. Now, more than seventeen years later, I prayed that history would not be repeated, that Washington would not become another Dallas. That my husband would live.”
The 41st President, Bill Clinton, and the 43rd President, George W. Bush, were both 17 years old and in school — Bush at the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and Clinton at Hot Springs High School in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Clinton was in his fourth period calculus class when his teacher was called out of the room and returned to announce that President Kennedy had been killed. Four months earlier, Clinton had traveled to Washington with the Boys Nation program and, during a ceremony in the Rose Garden of the White House, pushed his way to the front of the line and shook President Kennedy’s hand. The 44th President, Barack Obama, was a 2-year-old living in Hawaii.
The 35th President, 46-year-old John F. Kennedy, would die in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Lyndon B. Johnson, 55, would become the 36th President in Dallas that day. But they woke up that morning in Fort Worth at the Texas Hotel. Kennedy had slept the last night of his life in suite 850 on the eighth floor, now the Presidential suite. LBJ had slept the last night of his Vice Presidency in the much more expensive and elegant Will Rogers Suite on the thirteenth floor. The Secret Service had vetoed the Will Rogers Suite for the President because it was more difficult to secure. It was raining in Fort Worth as they woke up, but the skies had cleared by the time they landed in Dallas. Before breakfast, President Kennedy, Vice President Johnson, and Texas Governor John Connally headed outside and briefly addressed a crowd that had gathered long before the sun had come up in hopes of seeing JFK. Jacqueline Kennedy didn’t accompany them outside and President Kennedy joked to the crowd, “Mrs. Kennedy is organizing herself. It takes her a little longer but, of course, she looks better than we do when she does it.”
Afterward, they headed inside for breakfast in the Texas Hotel’s Grand Ballroom with several hundred guests. The President sent for Mrs. Kennedy to join them, and her late arrival to the breakfast excited the guests in the ballroom. When the President spoke to the group, he joked again, “Two years ago I introduced myself in Paris as the man who had accompanied Mrs. Kennedy to Paris. I’m getting somewhat that same sensation as I travel around Texas.” Then he noted, “Nobody wonders what Lyndon and I wear.”
When the breakfast ended, the Kennedys headed upstairs and had an hour or so to wait before heading to the airport for the short flight to Dallas. It was during this time that Jackie Kennedy saw a hateful ad placed in that morning’s Dallas Morning News accusing President Kennedy of collusion with Communists and treasnous activity. Trying to calm Jackie down, the President joked, “Oh, we’re heading into nut country today.” But a few minutes later, Jackie overheard Kennedy telling his aide, Ken O’Donnell, “It would not be a very difficult job to shoot the President of the United States. All you’d have to do is get up in a high building with a high-powered rifle with a telescopic sight, and there’s nothing anybody can do.”
Even though the trip from Fort Worth’s Carswell Air Force Base to Dallas’s Love Field would only take thirteen minutes by air, the trip to Texas was first-and-foremost a political trip — a kickoff of sorts to JFK’s 1964 re-election campaign — and a grand entrance was needed. So, JFK and Jackie boarded the plane usually used as Air Force One, LBJ and Lady Bird Johnson boarded the plane usually used by the Vice President, Air Force Two, and the huge Presidential party took to the skies, covering thirty miles in thirteen minutes, in order to get the big Dallas welcome that they were hoping for. They landed in Dallas at 11:40 AM, and President Kennedy looked out the window of his plane, saw a big, happy crowd, and told Ken O’Donnell, “This trip is turning out to be terrific. Here we are in Dallas, and it looks like everything in Texas is going to be fine for us.”
At 2:47 PM — just three hours and seven minutes later — everyone was back on Air Force One as the plane climbed off of the Love Field runway and into the Dallas sky. John F. Kennedy, the 35th President, was in a casket wedged into a space in the rear of Air Force One where two rows of seats had been removed so that it would be fit. Lyndon B. Johnson had officially been sworn in as the 36th President about ten minutes earlier on the plane by federal judge Sarah T. Hughes. On one side of Johnson while he took the oath was his wife, Lady Bird, and on the other side, the widowed former First Lady, Jackie Kennedy, still wearing a pink dress splattered with her husband’s blood and brain matter.
Two American Presidents woke up in Dallas on November 22, 1963 — Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush — but they weren’t in town when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, no matter how many ways conspiracy theorists try to twist the story. The President who died in Dallas that day, John F. Kennedy, and the man who became President in Dallas that day, Lyndon B. Johnson, woke up in Fort Worth on the morning of November 22, 1963. But they’ll be forever linked with Dallas — and the world that woke up the next morning would never be the same again.
In The Federalist No. 72, “Publius” — Alexander Hamilton — worried about the role of retired Presidents after leaving office, asking “Would it promote the peace of the community, or the stability of the government, to have half a dozen men who had had credit enough to be raised in the seat of the supreme magistracy wandering among the people like discontented ghosts and sighing for a place which they were destined never more to possess?”
Ever since George Washington set the precedent of returning to civilian life at the end of two terms, the question has remained: What do we do with our ex-Presidents? The Presidents themselves have had to face another question: What can I do with the rest of my life? Since the ratification of the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution in 1947 set a two-term limit for the President (right after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s unprecedented four terms), some retiring Presidents have found themselves confronting the same problem experienced by Presidents who lost their bids at re-election. They were still relatively young, still healthy, still ready-to-serve, still focused on helping their country become a better place and, yet, Constitutionally barred from the highest office in the land.
For the first question, about what we should do with our former Presidents, Grover Cleveland had a suggestion in a letter he wrote in April 1889, “And still the question, ‘What shall be done with our ex-Presidents?’ is not laid at rest; and I sometimes think Watterson’s solution of it, ‘Take them out and shoot them,’ is worth of attention.” It’s a good thing for Cleveland that nobody took his advice seriously. When he wrote the letter in 1889, he had just turned over the keys to the White House to Benjamin Harrison, but four years later Cleveland was President again after winning the 1892 election. Oddly enough, Cleveland was actually a former President twice.
The second question is probably tougher to answer. Not only was Franklin Pierce not re-elected after the end of his term in 1856, but he was the first incumbent President to be denied renomination by his own political party. Pierce’s post-Presidency plans were not quite as admirable or idealistic as some of his colleagues in the Presidential fraternity. “After the White House what is there to do but drink?” said Pierce, and he didn’t hesitate to get started. When he died in 1869, it was years of heavy drinking which had led his health to deteriorate. Fortunately, Pierce’s retirement was the exception, not the rule.
The men who have become President of the United States are a rare breed. Undeniably ambitious and determined, after being the leader of the free world and the most powerful person on the planet it must be exceptionally difficult to be forced to retire either because of term limits or the will of the electorate. Very few one-term Presidents attempt to run for the office again and only one — Cleveland — was successful. Compounding the difficulty of a forced retirement is the fact that some former Presidents are still relatively young upon leaving office. While Ronald Reagan was a few weeks shy of his 78th birthday and content with retiring home to California, Bill Clinton was just 54 years old after his eight years in office. Theodore Roosevelt was only 50. Some Presidents are satisfied with the change-of-pace and the chance to relax after the chaos of the White House, but most still need an outlet — at the very least, they want to keep busy, but the majority of recent ex-Presidents have needed to continue to feel like they can still make a difference in the lives of people around the world. In the case of William Howard Taft, he made a difference in a different branch of government, serving as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court from 1921-1930.
The establishment of a Presidential Library and Museum has become a tradition for American Presidents upon leaving office and every President since Herbert Hoover, the 31st President of the United States, has built a library that houses the papers, records, and artifacts of their respective administrations. Hoover dedicated his library in West Branch, Iowa on his 88th birthday in 1962, but the first Presidential library was actually built by Harry Truman in Independence, Missouri. Truman’s library opened in 1957 and gave the energetic Missourian something to do in retirement, as he kept an office in the library and would often give tours to schoolchildren or answer the questions of museum-goers as they passed through. From time-to-time, Truman — an early-riser — would get to the library before his staff and answer phones, giving directions and surprising callers when he identified himself as the former President.
More recently, former Presidents have turned to humanitarian work, attempting to use their influence to help people in the United States and around the world. For the most part, former Presidents follow an unwritten code to not criticize or undermine the actual President. This protocol is not done solely out of respect for the office-holder, but out of respect for the office itself. Each former President knows how difficult it is to sit in that seat of power in the Oval Office and they understand how damaging it can be to be second-guessed or criticized by their predecessors. A civil relationship between President and former Presidents is essential, as a former President can be an indispensable source of advice for the current President, one of just 43 people in the history of the world who understand the current President’s position and responsibilities. The incumbent President also can call on former Presidents for their assistance with important initiatives, usually for humanitarian efforts or disaster relief.
The power of the Presidency is tremendous and it resonates around the world. Even former Presidents still have an aura of strength and influence that lasts throughout the remainder of their lives. When they die, our country stops and pays tribute to them, their funerals are national events, and their legacy continues to be debated on cable news television and in the pages of history books. That legacy can be shaped and crafted, enhanced and improved during the years of their retirement. Richard Nixon left office in 1974 after resigning in disgrace. Pardoned by President Ford a month later, it seemed as if Nixon was destined to live the rest of his life in exile at his secluded beach home in San Clemente, California. As years passed and opinions softened, Nixon emerged from San Clemente, began speaking to audiences, and traveled. Nixon’s long career had given him the opportunity to build relationships and establish connections with leaders around the world. By the time Nixon died at the age of 81 in 1994, he had become an elder statesman of sorts, dispensing advice to leading politicians about his area of expertise — foreign policy.
Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have spent their post-Presidency years focused on humanitarian work with their respective non-profit organizations, the Carter Center and the Clinton Foundation. Among the many things he’s accomplished since leaving office in 1981, Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for promoting international peace and human rights, has helped build homes through Habitat For Humanity, and has worked actively to nearly eradicate the guinea worm parasitic disease in Africa. The Clinton Foundation has focused on the global battle against HIV/AIDS, poverty in Africa, and childhood obesity in the United States. In 2004, President George W. Bush asked Clinton and his father, former President George H. W. Bush, to lead disaster relief efforts for victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. In 2010, President Obama asked Clinton and the younger Bush to lead relief efforts following a massive Haitian earthquake.
Still, within every politician is that itch to hit the campaign trail and run in one more campaign. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton — barred from running for the Presidency again because of term limits — both said that they would have sought a third term as President if not for the 22nd Amendment. Only James K. Polk, James Buchanan, and Rutherford B. Hayes decided not to seek re-election after only four years in office. Former Presidents are often big fundraisers and much-sought-after for speaking engagements and endorsements by political candidates, particularly those running for Congress. Yet there is no political position that can replicate the Presidency of the United States to the men who have held that office, and in the 221 years since George Washington was inaugurated, only two former Presidents have held another elective office.
In 1828, President John Quincy Adams lost his bid for re-election against the popular Andrew Jackson. The 1828 election was a particularly vicious contest and a bitter Adams refused to attend the inauguration of his successor, deciding instead to return home to Massachusetts after a brief stay outside of Washington. The life of a retired Massachusetts farmer did not suit John Quincy Adams, however. In 1830, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives and headed back to Washington, D.C. Adams spent the rest of his life in Congress, the only former President elected to the House. For 17 years, Adams was a loud voice (often in the Whig minority) in opposition to Jackson, the Democrats, the annexation of Texas, the Mexican-American War, and, most of all, slavery. Adams was one of the strongest advocates for slavery’s abolition and famously won freedom from the Supreme Court for the mutinous slaves who took over the Spanish slave ship Amistad. A political animal until the very end, the man nicknamed “Old Man Eloquent” during his post-Presidential Congressional career was at his desk in the House Chamber and had just cast a vote when he suffered a debilitating stroke. When Adams died two days later, it was in the Speaker’s Room of the U.S. Capitol Building and his funeral was, fittingly, held in the House of Representatives.
Forty years after Andrew Jackson’s victory over John Quincy Adams, the beloved House of Representatives that Adams “retired to” impeached President Andrew Johnson for violating the Tenure of Office Act. In the Senate trial which ensued, Johnson narrowly escaped removal by office when he was acquitted with just one vote to spare. When Johnson handed over the Presidency to Ulysses S. Grant the next year, he did his best John Quincy Adams imitation and refused to attend his successor’s inauguration. Exhausted and disgusted with Washington’s politics, Johnson headed home to Greeneville, Tennessee. Much like Adams, though, Andrew Johnson was a politician through-and-through and he could not remain sidelined for long. Johnson stayed active within the Democratic Party, stumping for local candidates and speaking out in support of President Grant’s opponent in the 1872 election, Horace Greeley. Johnson was not as immediately successful as Adams. After failed attempts at the Senate in 1871 and the House of Representatives in 1872, Johnson was elected to the United States Senate in 1875 by the Tennessee state legislature. In March 1875, Johnson returned to the same legislative body that had nearly removed him from the White House just six years earlier. Johnson’s Senate career was short — he made one floor speech denouncing President Grant’s policy of Reconstruction and died after suffering a stroke during a trip home to Tennessee in July 1875.
Finding something to do in retirement is probably difficult for most people, but it must be especially difficult for former Presidents to transition from being in control of the most powerful nation on the planet to playing golf every day like Dwight Eisenhower or cattle ranching like Lyndon Johnson. LBJ’s friends feared what retirement would do to him, worrying that a man with so much energy and drive would die of boredom. Most historians believe that that is indirectly what happened with LBJ. When he retired to Texas in 1969, he started drinking again, started smoking cigarettes again, grew his hair long, and stopped watching his diet. He died of a heart attack less than four years later. While LBJ’s decision to let loose and Franklin Pierce’s descent into alcoholism weren’t great retirement plans, perhaps no post-Presidential choice was as bad for a President’s legacy as John Tyler’s. In 1861, Tyler urged his home state of Virginia to secede from the Union and served in the Provisional Confederate Congress. Tyler was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives in November 1861 but died before taking his seat, and his funeral in Richmond, Virginia took place after his body had lay in state at the Confederate Congress. For years after his death, Tyler was considered a traitor amongst Northerners and Tyler’s death was the only Presidential passing not acknowledged by the White House. As for his legacy, it wasn’t until 1915 — fifty years after the Civil War ended — that the U.S. Congress erected a monument near Tyler’s grave paying tribute to the fact that he was a former President.
Unlike many of his fellow Presidents of the tumultuous mid-19th Century, Martin Van Buren lived a relatively long life and enjoyed a lengthy retirement, although it was an involuntary early retirement forced upon him by William Henry Harrison and the American electorate in 1840. Nicknamed the “Little Magician” and the “Red Fox of Kinderhook” because he was the quintessential political operator, President Van Buren remained active even after he left the White House in 1841. He was very nearly renominated by the Democrats in 1844 before being upset by the dark horse candidacy of James K. Polk, and abolitionists who split from the Democratic and Whig Parties in 1848 formed the “Free Soil Party” and nominated Van Buren for the Presidency. When his third party candidacy in 1848 garnered less than 11% of the popular vote, no Electoral votes, and was only successful in drawing enough votes to ensure Zachary Taylor’s victory over Democrat Lewis Cass, Van Buren stepped out of the spotlight and retired to his estate, Lindenwald, in Kinderhook, New York where he died at the age of 79 on July 24, 1862.
The nearly 22 years of Van Buren’s post-Presidency were an incredibly chaotic time in the United States and the American Presidency, however. Before he died, Van Buren saw himself succeeded by EIGHT different Presidents representing eight different states! Although it was a relatively short amount of time (by the time Barack Obama leaves office in 2017, we will have seen just three Presidents in a 24-year span), deaths in office and unsuccessful one-termers turned the White House into a turnstile.
Between the day he left office on March 4, 1841 and his death in 1862, Van Buren saw the following Presidents take office — all of whom represented different states:
•William Henry Harrison (Ohio): March 4, 1841-April 4, 1841 [Died in office]
•John Tyler (Virginia): April 4, 1841-March 4, 1845
•James K. Polk (Tennessee): March 4, 1845-March 4, 1849
•Zachary Taylor (Louisiana): March 4, 1849-July 9, 1850 [Died in office]
•Millard Fillmore (New York): July 9, 1850-March 4, 1853
•Franklin Pierce (New Hampshire): March 4, 1853-March 4, 1857
•James Buchanan (Pennsylvania): March 4, 1857-March 4, 1861
•Abraham Lincoln (Illinois): March 4, 1861-April 15, 1865 [Van Buren died during Lincoln’s first term]
Van Buren actually saw a ninth American President (representing yet another different state) take office before he died — Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, who was inaugurated as the President of the Confederate States of America in February 1861.
As Election Day 1916 approached, former New York Governor and Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes appeared to be heavily favored to defeat incumbent President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson was so certain of his impending defeat that he decided that he would resign after Hughes won the election.
President Wilson — who held a doctorate in government — felt that the transition period from Election Day (in November) until Inauguration Day (in March) was too long to have a lame duck President, particularly while World War I was getting underway in Europe. In what would have been an unprecedented act, Wilson had decided that, in the event of a Hughes victory, he would appoint Hughes as Secretary of State. Then Wilson would resign the Presidency and Vice President Thomas R. Marshall would also resign so that Hughes could immediately assume the Presidency.
On Election night, it appeared that was exactly what would happen. Early returns showed a solid lead for Hughes and some outlets called the election for the man Theodore Roosevelt called “the bearded iceberg”. By midnight, Hughes had won 254 Electoral votes and was 12 short from clinching the Presidency. By winning California, where the votes were still being counted, Hughes would lock up 13 more Electoral votes and be the President-elect of the United States.
Confident that the undecided results would play out in his favor, Hughes went to sleep. The country was 32 years — eight Presidential campaigns — away from the Chicago Tribune’s infamous “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN” blunder, but the latest editions of newspapers on November 7, 1916 also jumped the gun. The New York Times and New York World were among many newspapers which either strongly suggested that Hughes was heading towards victory or outright declared him the winner, some of which ran photos of the Republican candidate’s bearded face alongside headlines blaring “THE PRESIDENT-ELECT: CHARLES EVANS HUGHES”.
As the night dragged on into morning, though, it became clear that California would go for President Wilson. When a reporter called the New York City hotel to speak to Charles Evans Hughes, who had gone to sleep confident of a victory, one of Hughes’s still-jubilant aides told the reporter, “The President is sleeping.” The reporter responded, “When he wakes up, tell him he is no longer President.”
By the next morning, Wilson had won re-election with a narrow victory in the popular vote and the Electoral College. The surprising overnight turnaround in President Wilson’s political fortunes resulted in his extraordinary and unprecedented plan for an expedited succession to prevent a lame duck President being relegated to the what-could-have-been pile.
Charles Evans Hughes must have been stunned by his loss. It took him 15 days to send President Wilson a letter congratulating him on his victory and conceding the election. Hughes was approached several more times by the Republican Party to run for President, but he declined. In 1921, he was appointed Secretary of State by President Warren G. Harding and continued on at the State Department under President Coolidge. In 1930, Hughes returned to the Supreme Court, accepting President Hoover’s nomination and serving as Chief Justice until 1941.
On December 31, 1963, Lyndon Johnson had been President of the United States for just over a month. Forty days earlier, John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas, Texas and LBJ was now entering 1964 — a Presidential election year — as the incumbent President, albeit an accidental one.
After several somber, tense, and exhausting weeks, LBJ was spending the Holidays at the LBJ Ranch in the Texas Hill Country. On that New Year’s Eve, many members of President Johnson’s staff gathered at the Forty Acres Club in Austin, Texas to celebrate a birthday party for LBJ aide Horace Busby. President Johnson wanted to join the festivities, but a tired Lady Bird wasn’t interested in going out, so LBJ gathered his secretaries at the LBJ Ranch and boarded a helicopter for the short flight into Austin.
Austin and its main businesses in the early 1960s were no different than any other city in the Segregated South. Although the party for Busby was being held at the Forty Acres Club on the campus of the University of Texas, the hangout’s strict code of segregation had previously led to controversy. In 1962, an African-American official from President Kennedy’s newly-formed Peace Corps was denied service at the Forty Acres Club, which led to a minor boycott and the resignations of several University of Texas staff members who had held club memberships. Still, segregation was strictly enforced, just as it was in restaurants, bars, hotels, bus stations, playgrounds, cemeteries, and basically anywhere that one group of people might come into contact with another group of people throughout the South.
When President Johnson and the secretaries that he had brought along with him to the party arrived at the Forty Acres Club, the simple fact that the President of the United States was about to attend a gathering at a segregated business could have caused a major national controversy. It was still early in LBJ’s Presidency and the fact that Johnson was from the South had worried civil rights leaders when JFK tapped Johnson as his running mate in 1960. Up to that point, LBJ had not yet done anything as President to neutralize the fears of liberal Democrats who mourned President Kennedy’s assassination as the loss of potential civil rights legislation.
Everyone inside the Forty Acres Club recognized that the President was about to arrive when Secret Service agents entered the building and began scanning the guests and taking up positions. Music was playing, cocktails were being served, conversations were cascading throughout the room, but there was also a sense of dread amongst those on LBJ’s staff who realized that the President’s decision to frequent a segregated nightclub in Austin would likely require some major explaining when the news got out.
And then, when Lyndon Johnson walked into the Forty Acres Club, it became clear that he might not be the President that some worried he may be. As he entered the strictly segregated club, the President of the United States was arm-in-arm with one of his secretaries — Gerri Whittington. One of the guests, Ernie Goldstein turned to LBJ aide Bill Moyers and asked, “Does the President know what he’s doing?” Moyers didn’t hesitate. He responded, “He always knows what he’s doing.” Whittington asked Johnson a similar question. “Mr. President,” she asked as they headed inside the club, “do you know what you are doing?” Johnson didn’t hesitate. “I sure do. Half of them are going to think you’re my wife, and that’s just fine with me.”
Gerri Whittington was an African-American woman and in the final hours of 1963, the President of the United States had taken it upon himself to integrate the Forty Acres Club in Austin.
Nobody had suggested it. Nobody had demanded it. Nobody had expected it. There were no focus groups convened and no polling data was consulted. Political calculations had nothing to do with it. It was as simple as Lyndon Johnson wanting to celebrate New Year’s Eve with his staff — a staff which included an African-American woman. On the last night of 1963, Lyndon Johnson brought a black friend to what had been a strictly segregated, all-white club because he wanted to, but he also did it because he realized that he was now the most powerful man in the world and it was something that he could do. As LBJ said in other situations, “Well, what the hell is the Presidency for?” On that last night of 1963, LBJ showed that the Presidency was for breaking down barriers and beginning the journey that made a big, brash Texan from the Hill Country the man who did more for Civil Rights than any other President besides (maybe) Lincoln.
Gerri Whittington, who had been asked to join LBJ’s secretarial staff in the White House shortly after President Kennedy was assassinated, continued to work in the White House for President Johnson until the day he left office and flew home to retirement in Texas. She was the White House’s first black executive secretary and one of her fondest memories wasn’t desegregating the Forty Acres Club with LBJ, but the day in June 1967 when President Johnson steppped out of the Oval Office with Thurgood Marshall and shared the news that he was appointing Marshall as the first black Supreme Court Justice. Other than the President and Marshall, Whittington was the first person to know of the historic nomination.
As for the Forty Acres Club, the rigid segregationist policy that had previously been the rule literally disappeared overnight. The very next day, January 1, 1964, a curious party-goer from the night before called the club to see if it might have been an aberration or a one-time concession to the power of the Presidency. When he asked if black guests were now allowed at the Forty Acres Club, he was told, “Yes, sir. The President of the United States integrated us on New Year’s Eve.”
In response to this request from a reader, here is a look at some information connecting Presidential history and Papal history. Since George Washington was inaugurated as the first President of the United States in New York City on April 30, 1789, there have been 17 Popes leading the Catholic Church from the Vatican.
We’re going to go through each American President (including Confederate President Jefferson Davis) and see who the Pope happened to be at the time of their birth and the time of their death as well as which Papacy (or Papacies in a few cases) coincided with their Presidential terms. Unsurprisingly, the two Popes whose names seemed to appear most frequently were Pope Pius IX and his immediate successor Pope Leo XIII who have the first- and third-longest pontificates in history, respectively.
b. Feb. 22, 1732 (Pope Clement XII)
d. Dec. 14, 1799 (Sede Vacante: At the time of Washington’s death, the Papacy had been vacant since Pius VI’s death on August 29, 1799. It remained vacant until the election of Pius VII on March 14, 1800.)
Presidency: Apr. 30, 1789-Mar. 4, 1797 (Pope Pius VI)
b. Oct. 30, 1735 (Pope Clement XII)
d. July 4, 1826 (Pope Leo XII)
Presidency: Mar. 4, 1797-Mar. 4, 1801 (Pope Pius VI/Pope Pius VII)
b. Apr. 13, 1743 (Pope Benedict XIV)
d. July 4, 1826 (Pope Leo XII)
Presidency: Mar. 4, 1801-Mar. 4, 1809 (Pope Pius VII)
b. Mar. 16, 1751 (Pope Benedict XIV)
d. June 28, 1836 (Pope Gregory XVI)
Presidency: Mar. 4, 1809-Mar. 4, 1817 (Pope Pius VII)
b. Apr. 28, 1758 (Pope Benedict XIV)
d. July 4, 1831 (Pope Gregory XVI)
Presidency: Mar. 4, 1817-Mar. 4, 1825 (Pope Pius VII/Pope Leo XII)
John Quincy Adams
b. July 11, 1767 (Pope Clement XIII)
d. Feb. 23, 1848 (Pope Pius IX)
Presidency: Mar. 4, 1825-Mar. 4, 1829 (Pope Leo XII/Sede Vacante from February 10, 1829 until the end of JQA’s term)
b. Mar. 15, 1767 (Pope Clement XII)
d. June 8, 1845 (Pope Gregory XVI)
Presidency: Mar. 4, 1829-Mar. 4, 1837 (Sede Vacante for the first 27 days of Jackson’s term/Pope Pius VIII)
Martin Van Buren
b. Dec. 5, 1782 (Pope Pius VI)
d. July 24, 1862 (Pope Pius IX)
Presidency: Mar. 4, 1837-Mar. 4, 1841 (Pope Gregory XVI)
William Henry Harrison
b. Feb. 9, 1773 (Pope Clement XIV)
d. Apr. 4, 1841 (Pope Gregory XVI)
Presidency: Mar. 4, 1841-Apr. 4, 1841 (Pope Gregory XVI)
b. Mar. 29, 1790 (Pope Pius VI)
d. Jan. 18, 1862 (Pope Pius IX)
Presidency: Apr. 4, 1841-Mar. 4, 1845 (Pope Gregory XVI)
James K. Polk
b. Nov. 2, 1795 (Pope Pius VI)
d. June 15, 1849 (Pope Pius IX)
Presidency: Mar. 4, 1845-Mar. 4, 1849 (Pope Gregory XVI/Pope Pius IX)
b. Nov. 24, 1784 (Pope Pius VI)
d. July 9, 1850 (Pope Pius IX)
Presidency: Mar. 4, 1849-July 9, 1850 (Pope Pius IX)
b. Jan. 7, 1800 (Sede Vacante: Fillmore was born during the vacancy between the death of Pope Pius VI and the election of Pope Pius VII)
d. Mar. 8, 1874 (Pope Pius IX)
Presidency: July 9, 1850-Mar. 4, 1853 (Pope Pius IX)
b. Nov. 23, 1804 (Pope Pius VII)
d. Oct. 8, 1869 (Pope Pius IX)
Presidency: Mar. 4, 1853-Mar. 4, 1857 (Pope Pius IX)
b. Apr. 23, 1791 (Pope Pius VI)
d. June 1, 1868 (Pope Pius IX)
Presidency: Mar. 4, 1857-Mar. 4, 1861 (Pope Pius IX)
b. Feb. 12, 1809 (Pope Pius VII)
d. Apr. 15, 1865 (Pope Pius IX)
Presidency: Mar. 4, 1861-Apr. 15, 1865 (Pope Pius IX)
b. Dec. 29, 1808 (Pope Pius VII)
d. July 31, 1875 (Pope Pius IX)
Presidency: Apr. 15, 1865-Mar. 4, 1869 (Pope Pius IX)
Ulysses S. Grant
b. Apr. 27, 1822 (Pope Pius VII)
d. July 23, 1885 (Pope Leo XIII)
Presidency: Mar. 4, 1869-Mar. 4, 1877 (Pope Pius IX)
Rutherford B. Hayes
b. Oct. 4, 1822 (Pope Pius VII)
d. Jan. 17, 1893 (Pope Leo XIII)
Presidency: Mar. 4, 1877-Mar. 4, 1881 (Pope Pius IX/Pope Leo XIII)
James A. Garfield
b. Nov. 19, 1831 (Pope Gregory XVI)
d. Sept. 19, 1881 (Pope Leo XIII)
Presidency: Mar. 4, 1881-Sept. 19, 1881 (Pope Leo XIII)
Chester A. Arthur
b. Oct. 5, 1829 (Pope Pius VIII)
d. Nov. 18, 1886 (Pope Leo XIII)
Presidency: Sept. 19, 1881-Mar. 4, 1885 (Pope Leo XIII)
b. Mar. 18, 1837 (Pope Gregory XVI)
d. June 24, 1908 (Pope Pius X)
Presidencies: Mar. 4, 1885-Mar. 4, 1889 (Pope Leo XIII); Mar. 4, 1893-Mar. 4, 1897 (Pope Leo XIII)
b. Aug. 20, 1833 (Pope Gregory XVI)
d. Mar. 13, 1901 (Pope Leo XIII)
Presidency: Mar. 4, 1889-Mar. 4, 1893 (Pope Leo XIII)
b. Jan. 29, 1843 (Pope Gregory XVI)
d. Sept. 14, 1901 (Pope Leo XIII)
Presidency: Mar. 4, 1897-Sept. 14, 1901 (Pope Leo XIII)
b. Oct. 27, 1858 (Pope Pius IX)
d. Jan. 6, 1919 (Pope Benedict XV)
Presidency: Sept. 14, 1901-Mar. 4, 1909 (Pope Leo XIII/Pope Pius X)
William Howard Taft
b. Sept. 15, 1857 (Pope Pius IX)
d. Mar. 8, 1930 (Pope Pius XI)
Presidency: Mar. 4, 1909-Mar. 4, 1913 (Pope Pius X)
b. Dec. 29, 1856 (Pope Pius IX)
d. Feb. 3, 1924 (Pope Pius XI)
Presidency: Mar. 4, 1913-Mar. 4, 1921 (Pope Pius X/Pope Benedict XV)
Warren G. Harding
b. Nov. 2, 1865 (Pope Pius IX)
d. Aug. 2, 1923 (Pope Pius XI)
Presidency: Mar. 4, 1921-Aug. 2, 1923 (Pope Benedict XV/Pope Pius XI)
b. July 4, 1872 (Pope Pius IX)
d. Jan. 5, 1933 (Pope Pius XI)
Presidency: Aug. 2, 1923-Mar. 4, 1929 (Pope Pius XI)
b. Aug. 10, 1874 (Pope Pius IX)
d. Oct. 20, 1964 (Pope Paul VI)
Presidency: Mar. 4, 1929-Mar. 4, 1933 (Pope Pius XI)
Franklin D. Roosevelt
b. Jan. 30, 1882 (Pope Leo XIII)
d. Apr. 12, 1945 (Pope Pius XII)
Presidency: Mar. 4, 1933-Apr. 12, 1945 (Pope Pius XI/Pope Pius XII)
Harry S. Truman
b. May 10, 1884 (Pope Leo XIII)
d. Dec. 26, 1972 (Pope Paul VI)
Presidency: Apr. 12, 1945-Jan. 20, 1953 (Pope Pius XII)
Dwight D. Eisenhower
b. Oct. 14, 1890 (Pope Leo XIII)
d. Mar. 28, 1969 (Pope Paul VI)
Presidency: Jan. 20, 1953-Jan. 20, 1961 (Pope Pius XII/Pope John XXIII)
John F. Kennedy
b. May 29, 1917 (Pope Benedict XV)
d. Nov. 22, 1963 (Pope Paul VI)
Presidency: Jan. 20, 1961-Nov. 22, 1963 (Pope John XXIII/Pope Paul VI)
Lyndon B. Johnson
b. Aug. 27, 1908 (Pope Pius X)
d. Jan. 22, 1973 (Pope Paul VI)
Presidency: Nov. 22, 1963-Jan. 20, 1969 (Pope Paul VI)
b. Jan. 9, 1913 (Pope Pius X)
d. Apr. 22, 1994 (Pope John Paul II)
Presidency: Jan. 20, 1969-Aug. 9, 1974 (Pope Paul VI)
b. July 14, 1913 (Pope Pius X)
d. Dec. 26, 2006 (Pope Benedict XVI)
Presidency: Aug. 9, 1974-Jan. 20, 1977 (Pope Paul VI)
b. Oct. 1, 1924 (Pope Pius X)
Presidency: Jan. 20, 1977-Jan. 20, 1981 (Pope Paul VI/Pope John Paul I/Pope John Paul II)
b. Feb. 6, 1911 (Pope Pius X)
d. June 5, 2004 (Pope John Paul II)
Presidency: Jan. 20, 1981-Jan. 20, 1989 (Pope John Paul II)
George Herbert Walker Bush
b. June 12, 1924 (Pope Pius XI)
Presidency: Jan. 20, 1989-Jan. 20, 1993 (Pope John Paul II)
b. Aug. 19, 1946 (Pope Pius XII)
Presidency: Jan. 20, 1993-Jan. 20, 2001 (Pope John Paul II)
George W. Bush
b. July 6, 1946 (Pope Pius XII)
Presidency: Jan. 20, 2001-Jan. 20, 2009 (Pope John Paul II/Pope Benedict XVI)
b. Aug. 4, 1961 (Pope John XXIII)
Presidency: Jan. 20, 2009- (Pope Benedict XVI/Pope Francis)
Jefferson Davis (Confederate President)
b. June 3, 1808 (Pope Pius VII)
d. Dec. 6, 1889 (Pope Leo XIII)
Presidency: Feb. 18, 1861-May 10, 1865 (Pope Pius IX)
•The Papacies of Pope Pius VII (Mar. 14, 1800-July 20, 1823) and Pope Pius IX (June 16, 1846-Feb. 7, 1878) gave birth to the most Presidents with six each. Five were born during the reign of Pope Pius VI (Feb. 15, 1775-Aug. 29, 1799) and four during Gregory XVI’s time as Pope (Feb. 2, 1831-June 1, 1846).
•The historically lengthy pontificates of Pius IX and Pope Leo XIII (Feb. 20, 1878-July 20, 1903) saw the most Presidential deaths with ten and seven respectively. Five Presidents died during the relatively recent reign of Pope Paul VI (June 21, 1963-Aug. 6, 1978).
•The three longest-recorded pontificates in the nearly 2,000-year-old history of the Catholic Church all took place within the last 160 years and also coincided with the most American Presidencies. The longest-serving Pope, Pius IX, witnessed 10 American Presidents during his reign. The second-longest Papacy, that of Pope John Paul II (Oct. 16, 1978-Apr. 2, 2005), coincided with the terms of five Presidents and the Pope actually met all five of those Presidents. Pope Leo XIII had the third-longest pontificate and there were seven American Presidents who served during that time.
•President Jimmy Carter (Jan. 20, 1977-Jan. 20, 1981) only served one term in the White House, but three different Popes lived in the Vatican during his Administration — more than any other President. This was due to the fact that Pope John Paul I, elected to succeed Pope Paul VI, died just 33 days later. That paved the way for the election of Pope John Paul II and made 1978 the “Year of Three Popes”.
It is a question that many ask me; a question I often ask myself — why have I spent so much of my life and devoted so much of my time to studying the Presidents of the United States and the Presidency itself? With all of the figures and events throughout all of the eras of history, what is it that always brings me back to this one political office that is a relatively new creation in the grand scheme of things? Why is it that I always move past the Kings, Queens, and Emperors; Pharaohs, Popes, and Prophets; Saints, Sinners, and great Soldiers, and end up focusing on the same 43 Americans?
Perhaps it is the fact that when we are children, Americans are led to believe that any of us can grow up to be President. It’s an inspirational tale, and one that seems to fade as we get older and more cynical. We see that the political system is not the open path that we were promised when we were in grade school. We see that money seems to drive political success and that the opportunity to become President is a reality only to those with famous names, famous fathers, and famously full bank accounts. As children, the Presidency is attainable to any of us, but the cynicism that comes along with maturity forces us to close those doors on ourselves and treat that promise as a myth like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.
Yet, the magic returns if we look more closely at history. If the Presidency was only open to those who were rich or those who had golden names the White House would feature more busts of Rockefellers, Astors, or Vanderbilts. We think of dynasties like the Kennedys or the Bushes and tend to paint their portraits with the tint of nepotism. Then we look closely and see that John F. Kennedy fought and nearly died for his country in World War II, but had to convince many Americans that he was loyal to the Constitution instead of the Pope simply because no other President had gone to the same church as his family. We see that George W. Bush — often portrayed as an intellectually incurious playboy who never earned anything on his own — earned degrees from Harvard and Yale and transformed himself from the restive black sheep of his family to a strictly disciplined machine who never lost an election for an executive office.
Even if you do argue that the Kennedys or the Bushes had an advantage due to their wealth or place in society, take a look at the other Presidents of the past half-century: Lyndon Johnson came from a dirt-poor family on the dusty banks of the Pedernales River in Texas and taught school at a one-room schoolhouse in a poverty-stricken town of Mexican-Americans; Richard Nixon’s family was ravaged by tuberculosis on their failing lemon farm in Southern California; Gerald Ford’s biological father was so abusive that his mother left him just two weeks after the future President’s birth; Jimmy Carter grew up on a peanut farm in rural Georgia; Ronald Reagan was born to an alcoholic shoe salesman in a rented apartment above a small-town Illinois bakery; Bill Clinton’s father died before he was born and he grew up in a household with an abusive stepfather; and Barack Obama was born in Hawaii to a white mother and a Kenyan father who he only met a handful of times. Cynicism blinds us to the truth: anyone really can grow up to be President.
See, the Presidency isn’t solely about ideals or politics — it’s about people. It’s about Americans. A President cannot succeed if he is only the President of his party; he must be the President of all the people, or else he fails. Once he repeats the 35 words in the Oath of Office, he becomes not only a head of state or a head of government — he becomes a symbol, both in his time and in history. The President isn’t referred to as the most powerful person in the world because it sounds cool; the President has the ability to immediately change the world not only by what he says, but by how he says it. No one has ever had that much power or influence because the President of the United States has developed into the most powerful individual on the planet at the same time that it has become easier to instantly communicate throughout the world.
And despite all of that, what really makes the President fascinating is the simple fact that it is just one person. Since George Washington was first inaugurated on April 30, 1789, there have only been 43 Americans who have experienced the immensity of the Presidency and faced it with only the same skills and tools that every other human uses for their jobs each day. These men are not superheroes, nor are they villains. They are responsible for great achievements and momentous accomplishments, but more often than not, they falter. Sometimes, they fail us because the challenges are too difficult to overcome. Sometimes, they make honest mistakes. Sometimes, they make dishonest choices. They make us proud and they disappoint us.
We often make the mistake of downplaying the ability of humanity. We excuse ourselves or defend our failures by noting that we “are only human” — as if our status as the most advanced being to ever live is somehow not enough; as if we succeed by accident in spite of ourselves rather than because of our unique capabilities. I do not see humanity as a fragility, yet I believe we frequently overlook the fact that our Presidents are, first and foremost, people. They have families and weaknesses to balance out and sometimes overtake their strengths. They are fathers and sons and husbands and brothers and friends. They are placed at the helm of a living, breathing, untamed nation and we want them to guide us through whatever storms we may face. We want them to help make our lives easier, but we tend to forget that they are living their lives, as well. They are people. People charged with a great task that only their fellow Presidents — the fellow members of what Bob Greene calls “the most exclusive fraternity in the history of the world” — can truly fathom.
We look at our Presidents — and all of our political leaders, really — and we see people who we put in office to work miracles. They know what they are getting into when they run for President, but their sacrifices are often overlooked. When they do not triumph, we are merciless in our condemnation. They understand this and they accept this, but we don’t thank them nearly enough. We expect so much out of them because we have placed them in such a high position. Yes, it is a position that they asked to be entrusted with, but we often have unrealistic expectations and require immediate satisfaction.
As Robert Ardrey famously wrote in African Genesis, “We were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides. And so what shall we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles, and our irreconcilable regiments? Or our treaties whatever they may be worth; our symphonies however seldom they may be played; our peaceful acres, however frequently they may be converted into battlefields; our dreams however rarely they may be accomplished. The miracle of man is not how far he has sunk but how magnificently he has risen. We are known among the stars by our poems, not our corpses.”
It is easy — too easy — to denounce our Presidents, especially if the little letter next to their name identifies them as belonging to a political party that is opposite to ours. I am guilty of it. You are guilty of it. That will never change. And on this day — Presidents Day — it is easy to recognize the Presidents who are the reason behind Presidents Day being observed in February, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. What we should try to do on this day, however, is to appreciate all of our Presidents. All 43 men who made the ultimate sacrifice that comes from putting your entire life through the trial that is a Presidential campaign. No President has ever sworn to uphold the Constitution and entered into office with bad intentions. Not a single Commander-in-Chief moves into the White House so that he could leave the United States worse off than when he assumed office. Their service may not please everybody. Their service may not please anybody. But it is service. It is the fulfillment of a duty entrusted to few Americans and rarely appreciated by enough Americans.
In America and Americans, John Steinbeck described the unusual dynamic between the President and the American people in one of the most perfect paragraphs ever written on the subject:
"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 often 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."
We can — and WILL — focus on the failures of our Presidents every other day. It is one of the beautiful aspects of our nation — the freedom to be ugly towards others. I don’t write that facetiously and I don’t mean to come across as overly righteous. I am as guilty, if not more, as any other critic or cynical historian. But it is Presidents Day and while I am constantly reading and writing about the Presidents, I rarely take the opportunity to offer my gratitude and appreciation for their service, whether they are Democrats, Republicans, Federalists, or Whigs.
So, today I say thank you to a Virginian with regal bearing who led his nation through a risky rebellion against the world’s most powerful empire and turned down the title of King in favor of simply becoming “Citizen”. I thank a portly and stubborn man from Massachusetts whose integrity set a standard for honesty in government. I thank the dreamer in Monticello whose words gave beauty to the the normally bloody work of revolution. I thank the diminutive thinker from Virginia whose small stature belied the fact that his Constitution gave his country a foundation, a backbone. I thank his Tidewater neighbor who nearly died fighting for independence and set forth the doctrine which forever established the United States as a global power.
I thank John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson — political enemies, but Americans who entered into the service of their country as teenagers and died while still providing guidance as old men. I thank Martin Van Buren for ensuring that there was an art to American politics. I thank William Henry Harrison whose brief Presidency overshadowed decades of military service on the frontier. I thank John Tyler for his decisive succession upon Harrison’s death, which created a blueprint to answer an otherwise murky Constitutional question. I thank James K. Polk for honesty and an unparalleled work ethic. I thank Zachary Taylor for selflessly attempting to block the evils of slavery before his untimely death. I thank Millard Fillmore for his advocacy of literacy and his work to calm the sectional storms. I thank Franklin Pierce for his attention to duty in the face of horrific personal tragedy. I thank James Buchanan for fifty years of service to his country, often overseas.
Appreciation for Abraham Lincoln is not hard to find, and I’m not going out on a limb for thanking him for preserving the Union that I live in today. I thank Andrew Johnson for his unmatched loyalty — the only Southern Senator to remain committed to the Union. I thank General Grant for the tenacity and fearlessness in fighting the Civil War. I thank Rutherford B. Hayes for an honest Presidency and a decorated military career. I thank James Garfield for his energy and grieve for what might have been if not for an assassin’s bullet. I thank Chester Arthur for transforming himself into a reformer. I thank Grover Cleveland for never giving up. I thank Benjamin Harrison for proudly representing his country and his family of patriots. I thank William McKinley for his generosity and kindness. I thank Theodore Roosevelt for being an inspiration in so many ways.
On this Presidents Day, I thank William Howard Taft for his sense of justice. I thank Woodrow Wilson for his patience. I thank Warren G. Harding for his eloquence and openness. I thank Calvin Coolidge for his conservatism. I thank Herbert Hoover for his ingenuity and enterprise. I thank Franklin D. Roosevelt for helping to save the world from genuine evil. I thank Harry Truman for his straightforward leadership. I thank General Eisenhower for making sure our grandfathers were given everything they needed. I thank John F. Kennedy for opening the New Frontier.
I thank Lyndon B. Johnson for freeing Americans from bondage — not just African-Americans, but ALL Americans. I thank Richard Nixon for a full life of service that didn’t begin and end with Watergate. I thank Gerald Ford for helping us heal. I thank Jimmy Carter for his humanitarianism. I thank Ronald Reagan for communicating in a way that made us feel safe. I thank George H.W. Bush for over 50 years of honest, underrated service. I thank Bill Clinton for stability and growth. I thank George W. Bush for the moment with the bullhorn on the rubble. I thank Barack Obama for once again giving me hope and making me believe.
Yes, I thank all of the Presidents. Good and bad, effective and ineffective, legendary and unknown, Democrat and Republican and Federalist and Whig. In the future they will make us proud and they will disappoint us, but I’ll continue stocking my shelves with books that they write and which are written about them. I’ll continue hoping for the perfect President to appear. I’ll continue writing about them, complaining about them, supporting them, and trying to understand them. And through it all, I hope there are days like Presidents Day where I stop myself and try to remember to appreciate them. I hope that I don’t just wait until those sad days when we gather as a nation to bury them. If I can do anything with my writings, I hope it will be to do more than simply educate readers on what these Presidents did or did not accomplish. I hope that I can somehow illuminate who they were as people because that is where the true greatness is in our leaders. And, really, when push comes to shove, that is the appeal of any history. Once you sift through the bold-faced names, italicized quotes, romantic locations, important dates, and memorable events you find — at the heart of all history — stories about people.
Happy Presidents Day.
Honestly, I don’t know of any mnemonic devices or helpful tips for memorizing the Presidents in order. To be completely truthful, I don’t think there’s a whole lot of use for simply remembering them in order. I’d rather have students understand the office of the Presidency and recognize important Presidents and what they did or why they matter. I mean, I love reading about the guy, but there’s not much you need to know about Franklin Pierce other than he sucked and helped drive the country closer to Civil War. John Quincy Adams was a mesmerizing character and his life is full of interesting stories, but for the four years he was President, he didn’t give us much.
I am fortunate enough to have a really good memory for dates, so I probably memorized the Presidents by matching them to the dates they were in office and just establishing it in my brain that way. I’m sure that there are some helpful hints out there somewhere, but I learned them the old-fashioned way — by obsessing over them for years.
(By the way, just to brag, I can do the Vice Presidents in order now, too. I had been trying to memorize them for years, but always had trouble with — unsurprisingly — the Gilded Age Vice Presidents, particularly the stretch of Wilson-Wheeler-Arthur-Hendricks-Morton-Stevenson. For me, the trick was finally learning Cleveland’s two Vice Presidents and that helped everything else fall into place. Nobody is still reading this, are they?)
I think it’s important but not imperative. I would hope that my President studies his predecessors and understands how they used and abused the Presidency. Presidential power is a very strange thing. It’s definition and capacity evolves constantly, so I believe that the first step towards an effective Administration is understanding the office.
I know that Obama has an interest in Presidential history, and Bill Clinton had a huge interest in it. I think, to an extent, Bush 43 did, as well. Nixon was well-versed in Presidential history, as was Johnson and Kennedy.
I’m studying this from the outside. I can’t even imagine what it must be like for a President to study Presidential history or individuals that were his predecessors and think, “Holy crap, that’s the job I have.”