Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy actually never met each other, although Reagan campaigned strongly on behalf of Richard Nixon in 1960. In 1967, however, then-Governor Reagan debated the Vietnam War with Senator Robert F. Kennedy on television and beat him so badly that, as soon as the debate ended, RFK turned to an aide and said, “Who the fuck got me into that?” There’s a short clip of the debate here and a transcript here.
Carter and Ford were unlikely friends, but none of Carter’s successors got along with him. A lot of them thought that he was out of line and freelancing in international matters as an ex-President. Carter reportedly isn’t the easiest guy to get along with, either. Clinton had problems with Carter dating to Clinton’s time as Governor of Arkansas. Reagan and Carter slugged it out pretty viciously during the 1980 campaign and Reagan didn’t think much of Carter. Bush 41 was very bothered by Carter saying that Bush 43 was the worst President of his lifetime. Bush 41 believed that former Presidents shouldn’t criticize incumbents, and he really took that personally, as did Bush 43.
Reagan also wasn’t close with very many of his fellow Presidents, but Reagan wasn’t close to anybody but his wife. He even had distant relationships with his children, and had almost no real friends. He was friendly and people liked him personally, but he never, ever let anybody get close to him (except Nancy). Plus, once Reagan left office, he began to decline pretty quickly as his Alzheimer’s disease progressed, so his public life ended when he announced his illness and nobody really saw him, even privately, besides his family during the final ten years of his life.
Nope. There was an 1880’s group of Birthers who targeted Chester Arthur just as they did with Barack Obama except there wasn’t any obvious underlying racism with Arthur as there was with Obama. Maybe they just didn’t like Arthur’s sweet beard and sideburns. Anyway, it was just as ridiculous then as it is today.
And Arthur didn’t have to provide any sort of birth certificate — long-form, short-form, or electronic (that would have been difficult) — he just said, “I may be President of the United States, but my private life is nobody’s damned business.”
Well, I wouldn’t say that Wallace had the Presidency stolen from him. There was no way that he was going to win a national election for the Presidency on his own, and his own party was sufficiently worried about him that they didn’t even want him to be in the Cabinet, let alone nominated (again) as Vice President in 1944, so he wouldn’t have ever gotten close to the Democratic Presidential nomination in the first place. When he did run for President — in 1948 — it was as the Progressive Party’s nominee. In that election, a third party candidate did win some Electoral votes, but it was Strom Thurmond, the States’ Rights or “Dixiecrat” Party nominee. The fact that the Dixiecrat candidate for President won 39 Electoral votes while the Progressive Party candidate, Wallace, won a grand total on 0 Electoral votes is an indication of how he was perceived nationally. That’s why the Democrats never would have nominated him and it required FDR threatening to quit the 1940 Presidential campaign unless the Dems nominated Wallace as his running mate that year.
Henry Wallace was a loyal soldier during most of FDR’s Administration and was undoubtedly the greatest Secretary of Agriculture in American history, but he was politically capricious and leaders in both political leaders simply didn’t trust him. His only shot at being President would have been if he had been renominated as FDR’s running mate in 1944, inaugurated alongside Roosevelt as FDR’s fourth term begin, and happened to be Vice President when Roosevelt died 82 days later. But by 1944, even Roosevelt had soured on him and didn’t hesitate for a second to dump him from the ticket in favor of someone else — eventually Harry Truman. Wallace was capable, but Roosevelt clearly understand that he was dying as he sought he sought re-election in 1944 and that he would not survive his fourth term. There’s a major difference between being a capable Cabinet officer (or Vice President — a job which still about 20 years away from being even equal to that of a Cabinet Secretary when Wallace was VPOTUS), and being President of the United States and Commander-in-Chief of the United States military in the midst of the deadliest war in the history of the world.
Yes, it’s October 5, 1829.
A surprising number of sources list the year of Chester Arthur’s birth incorrectly as 1830. Even a lot of normally reputable or reliable sources — whether they are books or online — are confused about Arthur’s birthdate. The confusion seems to stem from the fact that as Arthur got older, he subtracted a year from his age and started listing the year of his birth as 1830 instead of 1829. We know that Arthur was born in 1829 because his family’s Bible — the place where such events were usually recorded for posterity by families — lists the births of his siblings (seven of which lived to maturity) and Arthur’s is recorded as October 5, 1829. In addition to that, Arthur is listed in the 1830 Census and his birthdate is recorded as October 5, 1829. Since Arthur was born in October, if he had been born in 1830, he wouldn’t have been counted in the Census if he hadn’t yet been born while it was being taken (it was likely finished before the end of the summer in 1830), especially in a time of such dangerous infant mortality percentages.
Interestingly, it’s not just books or internet websites that get Chester Arthur’s birthday wrong — even his grave at Albany Rural Cemetery in Albany, New York lists his birthdate as October 5, 1830. But it is definitely October 5, 1829.
There absolutely is — Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream: The Most Revealing Portrait of a President and Presidential Power Ever Written — which focuses on exactly those things: LBJ’s oversized personality, deep insecurities, and remarkable rise to power. Robert Caro’s four volumes (and counting) has done this, too, but DKG’s book covers in about 400 pages what it’s taken Caro 4,000 pages and nearly 35 years to write (so far).
Plus, a young Doris Kearns (she didn’t marry Richard Goodwin until 1975) served as a White House Fellow during the Johnson Administration and not only danced with LBJ upon her first time actually meeting him at a White House event, but took the opportunity to criticize the President for the Vietnam War. When LBJ left office and retired to Texas to write his memoir, he asked Kearns to come along and help him put the book together as a researcher and ghostwriter. Like everyone who ever knew LBJ, she found him extremely fascinating and extraordinarily frustrating. As he told her his story in interviews and writing sessions while they built the book, Kearns thought they had one of the most remarkable Presidential biographies ever written because of LBJ’s colorful personality and earthy manner of speaking and explaining things. However, LBJ insisted that his language and prose be cleaned up so that he came across as Presidential. Kearns was disappointed because what we got with The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency, 1963-1969 wasn’t any different from the normal, cautious, formal Presidential memoirs we’ve almost always gotten from former Presidents. Fortunately, she used what she learned and experienced while working closely with LBJ to write Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream.
Doris Kearns Goodwin is best-known for Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II, and The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga — and rightly so. All of those books are classics. But Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream is always overlooked, and it is one of the best books ever written about a President as a person. It’s exactly what you are curious about in your question.
In terms of quantity, it would have to be Theodore Roosevelt, but I think Abraham Lincoln was undoubtedly the best pure writer of any of the Presidents, no matter if we’re talking about public papers or private communication, especially when you consider the extent of his education and the era in which he lived. Stylistically, much of the writing (official and personal) of our 18th, 19th, and even early 20th Century Presidents has a formality that can make it a chore to read. There’s certainly an art and a beauty to some of that writing, as well, but it rarely feels natural. Nearly all of the early Inaugural Addresses read more like royal proclamations than the initial public speech by the democratically-elected leader of a free republic.
Lincoln’s writing always felt natural — whether we’re talking about public messages or private correspondence. I always get the sense that Lincoln wrote with the people hanging out at the post office in Sangamon County, Illinois, or the bars in Chicago in mind rather than Ivy Leaguers or the editors of newspapers in New York and Boston. Lincoln seemed to write with the thought that everything he released would be read out loud. I think that came from his love of the theater, and the fact that his reading tastes ranged from Shakespeare to Artemus Ward. Lincoln’s reading lists weren’t wholly dominated by Locke, Hobbes, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and he was one of the first American Presidents to realize that the vast majority of the rest of the country — including the voters — had similar tastes and experiences. That’s not to say that Lincoln ever dumbed himself down to the American public as some Presidents have (I’ve previously written about the long history of anti-intellectualism in Presidential politics). Instead, he was one of the first Presidents who actually knew how to talk to people. Quite frankly, he’s still one of the few Presidents who had that ability.
Another President whom I believe was a great pure, natural writer might surprise some of my readers — Ronald Reagan. It’s always difficult to discern which words belong to modern Presidents because we live in an era where every politician has a staff of speechwriters and even their autobiographies are generally the work of ghostwriters. Reagan had one of the great Presidential speechwriters of all-time in Peggy Noonan, and his delivery of important speeches was usually so on-point that he deservedly earned the nickname of “the Great Communicator”. But with President Reagan, we have two paths of insight that illuminate the fact that he was not simply a Great Communicator of other people’s words, but that he was a wonderful writer himself. First of all, Reagan kept a diary as President that was released after he died — edited to one volume by the great historian Douglas Brinkley and available unabridged, as well. Reagan’s diary is mostly short daily recaps of what happened each day while he was in the White House, but from time-to-time, there are surprisingly candid reflections about his family life — no earth-shattering revelations, but an almost stunning candor from a genial man who also happened to be completely opaque to everybody he every knew except for his wife, Nancy. Clark Clifford once referred to Reagan as an “amiable dunce”, but his diaries make it clear that he was anything but. Ronald Reagan may have been an actor — a professional at reading other people’s lines — but he was also a thinker and, right or wrong, an idealist with ideas of his own.
But the diary that Reagan kept during his Presidential years isn’t the best example of his talent as a writer — it’s his personal correspondence. Now, again, most Presidents have secretaries, speechwriters, and interns in charge of their correspondence — in fact, there is literally an “Office of Presidential Correspondence” in the White House. President Obama (another very good pure writer as displayed in his first book, Dreams From My Father) reads a number of letters from the American public every week, but other Presidents have done something similar in an attempt to sample the pulse of life outside of the White House bubble. Reagan was no different and, as I wrote in "Ronald Reagan’s Private Correspondence With America", not only read letters from the American people, but he personally responded. His instantly-recognizable handwriting and simple style set Ronald Reagan apart from the usual form letters and cautious responses of normal Presidential correspondence — much to the chagrin of his political advisers, and especially his wife when he would send a personal check to a family in need that had asked for his help.
The 2004 book, Reagan: A Life in Letters, is a solid sample of Reagan’s skill as a writer and includes public and private correspondence from before and after he embarked upon a political career. In every instance, Reagan’s writing style is genuine — the mark of any good writer. I gained a whole different level of respect for Ronald Reagan once I began reading his personal writing, and the book that really reinforced that was actually published by Nancy Reagan — I Love You, Ronnie: The Letters of Ronald Reagan to Nancy Reagan. What really sets that book apart, again, is the candor. There’s nothing contrived about the letters in that book. They are love letters, pure and simple. I saw some of them on display at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, and was astonished at the beauty and simplicity of the writing. Reagan had no expectations that the letters would ever be read by anybody but the love of his life, and I think that is what makes them so powerful. It’s difficult to fake humanity and love and determination, and that’s what makes Lincoln and Reagan such great writers.
Fittingly, the last act of Ronald Reagan’s public life was the release of a letter — handwritten, simple, memorable, and beautifully heartbreaking — in which he announced that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, closing the letter with, “I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.” Even in such tragic circumstances, Reagan included a dose of optimism, something that Lincoln also often instilled in his speeches, messages, or correspondence. And maybe that’s what made these two men the best writers to ever serve as President. Somehow, their writing was never about them — even when it was.
In 2003, Edmund Morris, who wrote a brilliant trilogy of biographies on Theodore Roosevelt and a must-read, albeit controversial, authorized biography of Ronald Reagan (Dutch), penned an article for The Washington Post about Reagan’s writing style. Of the personal letters that Reagan wrote during his life — in and out of politics — Morris said:
It’s important to understand that Reagan, unconscious of being anthologized one day (lack of ego, again), addressed almost all these letters to individual people whose reactions were important to him. In that sense, each is a campaign document, even if he had no public office in mind at the time of writing. His weapons are honesty, modesty, and an epistolary style that, while free of literary flourishes or anything resembling an original thought, seems (deceptively) to focus on the recipient. I’ve interviewed many of the owners of these letters, and can testify that they cherish every cliché.”
What really set Lincoln and Reagan apart from other Presidents when it comes to their writing is that it was always meaningful — to them and the reader — but the simplicity and modesty of the writing made its importance also seem effortless. And that’s what makes it feel genuine.
With that said, I want to be clear that President Bush wasn’t disrespecting the military, either, when he returned a salute with a dog in his hands. Ideally, the President would always return the salute crisply and properly when they exit Marine One or Air For One, but we need to remember that Presidents are people. They make mistakes. They have jobs that are 24/7, and in the public eye every second of that time. They make mistakes.
As John Steinbeck wrote in America and Americans:
"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."
Steinbeck wrote that in 1966, and it is even more true today.
No, I don’t think anybody could have beaten Richard Nixon in 1972. The man won 49 out of 50 states. LBJ removed himself (as much as LBJ could ever removed himself) from the political process after leaving the Presidency. He would have needed a really good reason for jumping back into Presidential politics so quickly after getting out of politics — on a personal level and politically — and I don’t know that he would have had one. And while I think Johnson would have beaten Nixon if they had faced each other in 1968, I think Nixon would have beaten Johnson if the tables were turned in 1972 because incumbency is such a powerful weapon in Presidential politics. LBJ would have done better than George McGovern had done and Nixon wouldn’t have won 49 states, but I still think he would have lost.
Of course, it’s all a moot point anyway because LBJ was dying in 1972. Even if he had run and had been elected in November 1972, he’d have died in office. As it was, LBJ died two days after Inauguration Day 1973 — Nixon was sworn in for his second term on January 20th and LBJ died on January 22nd.
Here’s something strange: the spouse of the President is not included in the White House’s order of precedence. The widow of a former President is on the list, but not the spouse for some reason. Despite that, the First Lady (or First Gentleman when it happens) is usually given a place of prominence next to the President.
Former Presidents are lower on the order of precedence list than you might expect. This is how the top of the precedence list looks:
1. President of the United States
2. Monarchs, Foreign heads of state or heads of government
3. Vice President of the United States
4. Governor (when an event is held in a specific state)
5. Mayor (when an event is held in a specific city)
6. Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives
7. Chief Justice of the United States
8. Former Presidents in order of their term (so, right now, it would be President Carter > President Bush 41 > President Clinton > President Bush 43)
If Hillary Clinton is elected and Bill Clinton becomes First Gentleman, the order of precedence would likely be this: President Clinton 45 (Hillary) and then President Clinton 42 (Bill). It’s not official, but that’s probably how it would go.
14%. That’s the percentage of American Presidents who have been shot after being elected. Four of those Presidents died, one almost died (Reagan), and another was shot and seriously wounded after leaving office but while campaigning for another term (Theodore Roosevelt).
Want some scarier statistics? Since the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt, there have been thirteen Presidents: FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama. Of those thirteen Presidents, nine of them— FDR, Truman, JFK, Nixon, Ford (on two occasions), Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton, and Bush 43 — were either the victim of an actual assassination attempt (or, in Kennedy’s case, was actually assassinated) or were targets of serious attempts or plots that resulted in someone being charged with attempting to assassinate the President. That’s roughly 70% of the Presidents since the Great Depression who have either been victims or targets of assassination plots.
Through the long telescope of history, then, the ground between Reagan and Johnson appears vast, the distance between two opposite visions from two opposite moments in time. And it is the distance, as well, between two opposite types of men. It is hard to think of two Presidents in modern history, after all, who approached the office more differently than Reagan and Johnson. Johnson was among the most hyperactive executives the White House had ever seen, always seeking to put his fingerprints on every last scrap of administration business no matter how large or small…
…That would never be Reagan — an actor learns early the benefits of a good night’s sleep. From his earliest days in politics, Reagan was supremely confident in his own abilities as an executive. He had come to prominence in a career in which he constantly had to give up control — to producers and directors and studio bosses, to makeup designers and camera operators and press agents, to critics and millions of anonymous strangers who would form consequential opinions of him as they watched on distant screens. When he began his political career in the mid-1960s, he took to the disaggregated life of a political candidate quickly. Most first-time candidates struggle to adapt to the existence in which they must surrender control of their lives to other people. Reagan had been doing it for years. He understood an important distinction that Johnson never grasped: being in control and being successful aren’t always the same thing…
Each was a gifted performer and raconteur who could captivate an audience. But they excelled in different settings. Johnson was best in person. He was overwhelming, always, and his conversations hummed with transactional momentum. He told involved and engaging Texas tall tales, but he usually told them in order to drive home a pertinent point. He made use of his large girth and six-foot-three-inch frame. All the clichéd metaphors of politics — glad-handing, buttonholing, back stroking, arm twisting — were things Johnson actually, physically did in order to get his way. His greatest asset was his intuitive sensitivity to human emotion, his unmatched ability to spot people’s highest ambitions and their darkest fears. Even Alabama Governor George Wallace, one of the twentieth century’s most notorious racial demagogues, found himself mesmerized by an impassioned Oval Office conference with Johnson in the midst of a tense 1965 standoff over racial protests in Wallace’s home state. “Hell,” said Wallace afterward, “if I’d stayed in there much longer, he’d have had me coming out for civil rights.”
A conversation with Reagan, on the other hand, was usually pleasant and entirely superficial. In his early days as a politician, supporters would often walk away from first encounters with candidate Reagan disappointed. He’d told funny jokes, they’d laughed heartily, they’d had a ball. But they couldn’t remember much if any substance to what he’d said. The problem wasn’t that Reagan was an empty suit; rather, he struggled to connect with people when they came too close. Even his own children encountered a fog in their father’s eyes when they greeted him in a room. He was friendly, but he gave the impression that he was meeting them for the first time.
He was better with an audience watching him. Better still if they were watching him on a television screen from the comfort of their own homes. In these moments, he was great. He launched his 1966 campaign for governor with a thirty-minute television advertisement in which he pensively strolled around a comfortable living room. It was all so wonderfully familiar and authentic. There were pictures on the wall and a fire in the fireplace; Reagan’s sharp, pithy summation of California’s and the nation’s problems seemed to come to him spontaneously, a kindly father figure opining on issues of the day. None of it was real — the sentences were scripted and the living room was a studio set. But Californians didn’t mind; they were starting to expect their politicians to be great performers on TV.
Television was taking over politics in the midsixties. Anyone who’d lived through the Kennedy years could see that. Johnson could see that, and he worked tirelessly to adapt, but never with much success. As President, he obsessed over his televised press conferences, bringing in a shifting cast of experts for coaching on his diction, his posture, his eyewear. But his problem was fundamental: performing for a TV camera, he could never do what he did in person, he couldn’t see his audience and adapt his personality accordingly. And that introduced a terrifying possibility: that the people watching would see him as himself.
Johnson and Reagan, then, were both stars, but stars of different eras. It is difficult to fit them inside a single picture — when the mind focuses on one of them, the other becomes a blur. Even in the lore of practical politics, where both names have assumed vaunted status in recent years, they inhabit separate realms. Reagan is the President that politicians from both parties publicly say they admire — principled, noble, and strong. But Johnson is the President they secretly long to be — ruthless, effective, a man who got big things done.